Gladwell's Trumpian Disregard for Facts

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Editor's Note: I am taking the next couple of days off from blogging. Happy Thanksgiving, and I'll see you Monday.

Dollars and Crosses recently pointed out a 2009 review, by Steven Pinker, of Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw -- and Other Adventures. The whole review is thought-provoking, but I'll make do here with an excerpt of an excerpt:

Image of pop culture "igon" via Wikipedia
An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of "homology," "sagittal plane" and "power law" and quotes an expert speaking about an "igon value" (that's eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer's education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong. [bold added by Dollars and Crosses]
Given that anyone, including Gladwell, could simply look these terms up (excepting "igon value", a term Gladwell, a mathematician's son, grossly misspells), this is more than jarring to me. In fact, it reminds me of the following quote about Donald Trump, by Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute:
On cable news, it's now a regular feature for reporters like CNN's Anderson Cooper to catalog Trump's latest lies. But to call them lies misses the point.

A liar retains some respect for the truth: he tries to conceal his lies, weave a web of deception and make it difficult for his victims to discover the facts. Trump does none of this.
Having a terminal degree, I have had my share of experiences hearing people holding out on things in my field that I can instantly see they know nothing about. But at least in many such cases, it would take more than a quick internet search or peek in a dictionary or checking back with an expert to correct the problem -- unlike, say, finding a definition of some term. On top of that, Gladwell was writing a book. Pinker goes on to note that a "common thread in Gladwell's writing is a kind of populism," and I must agree. I guess I now have an answer to an old question I raised here some time back, regarding another unflattering review:
Being less-than-familiar with Gladwell's work, I can see his reaction as either one of annoyance at an unjust attack by an "expert" who disagrees with him -- or a sneer aimed for his lay audience to deflect valid criticism.
Pinker concedes that there can be value in Gladwell's writings, but cautions against his longer-form writing. I suppose so, but would say that my advice goes double in that situation: "[O]ne should never take just one person's word, however glib or authoritative, for anything."

I suspect that many of the same cultural factors that make Gladwell a popular writer are also responsible for the rises of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, each of whom shows disdain for easily-discoverable truths in his own way.

-- CAV

Draining a Swamp? Or Bailing a Sinking Ship?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Hill reports the following good news, among other things, regarding Scott Pruitt's terms so far at the EPA:

Image of RMS Titanic, famous for its deck chairs, via Wikipedia.
Consider Pruitt's recent directive prohibiting scientists from serving on one of the agency's three main advisory panels while they are receiving EPA grant funding. It applies to the three main advisory boards at the EPA: The Science Advisory Board, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), and the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC).

Pruitt made the case that the directive is necessary to ensure the agency's research programs are informed by independent experts with no financial ties to the programs. As he noted, advisory board members have received $77 million in grant money over the past three years -- half of the total amount allotted. "When we have members of those committees that received tens of millions of dollars in grants at the same time that they are advising this agency on rulemaking, that is not good," Pruitt said. His directive is prudent, and it is the type of common-sense safeguard that citizens expect in a self-governed republic. [links omitted]
Part of me wants to jump for joy: It's about time someone did something about the obvious conflict of interest between receiving research funding from the same powerful government agency whose regulatory activities one is shaping.

But the fourth word of the above passage stops me short: This remains a directive from the head of an agency that should not exist. Furthermore, there is no larger push to abolish it, because there is no political momentum to bring government back to within its proper scope. We are, in this case, living in a land of men, and not laws. This state of affairs must eventually change or Pruitt's actions -- however well-intended and beneficial in the short term -- will be fragile and likely short-lived.

-- CAV

Well. That Didn't Take Long.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Andrea Peyser hits the nail on the head regarding the rapid deterioration of the #MeToo social media campaign from "a necessary mass-rejection of sexual harassment and assault [to] absurdity and irrelevance." Peyser notes the inappropriateness of classifying actual sexual assault with less-serious behavior, as well as how continuing to do so will harm the credibility of actual victims in the future.

Image via Wikipedia.
[A] chorus of critics is urging [Al] Franken to resign from his seat. But in a preachy New York Times op-ed urging him to step aside, Michelle Goldberg revealed her underlying bias in the third paragraph: "Sure, Franken made plenty of sexist jokes when he was with Saturday Night Live," she wrote, "but I thought he was one of the good guys. (I thought there were good guys.)"

No good guys? Come on! And so, the war on sexual offenses has been revealed to be part of a wider feminist War on Men. [links omitted, minor format edits, bold added]
The same modern technology that is making it easier to publicize the likes of a Harvey Weinstein is also making it easier to see how the left operates: Find a legitimate (in this case) or legitimate-sounding cause, and take advantage of sloppy thinking on the part of many in the general public to co-opt it.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, November 17, 2017

Notable Commentary

"[T]the word 'business' embodies the word 'busy,' but the great practitioners of business, historically, didn't achieve what they did or succeed financially for so many decades by a mere frenzy of senseless, haphazard activity, by working too quickly or myopically, as fly-by-night operators." -- Richard Salsman, in "Why Donald Trump Is No Big Deal (Maker)" (PDF) at RealClear Markets.

"The state should have no role in promoting or decrying any particular set of ideas." -- Bob Stubblefield, in "Letter: School Vouchers Have Benefit Outside of Religion" at The Aiken Standard.

"A core problem is that our intellectual and political leaders push aside the need for a serious moral assessment of the Palestinian movement's nature and goals." -- Elan Journo, in "Let's Stop Normalizing the Palestinian Movement" at The Hill.

"Trump's interpretation of 'America first' is shaped by the collectivist notion of economic nationalism." -- Peter Schwartz, in "'America First:' Rethinking the Meaning of Self-Interest" at The Hill.

Good News in the Fight for Freedom of Speech

The following, from the response of a Harvard student to a recent ARI-sponsored event, is very encouraging:

Image via Wikipedia.
The fact that I don't agree with much of what the panelists said or stood for was why I got so much out of the event. Sitting down with people we disagree with is one of the bravest and most productive things we can do. I believe in hearing all sides of an argument and critically thinking about them before reaching any conclusions. I am saddened by the fact that recently, these beliefs and my progressive ones have often seemed incongruous. The fact that a 'free speech' rally in Boston drew a crowd of thousands of progressives protesting white nationalism is indicative either that the alt-right has successfully co-opted free speech, or the left has erroneously chosen to reject it. Likely both are true, and equally problematic. [bold added, link omitted]
The student, Eve Driver, is nowhere near embracing Objectivism. But this event has caused her to see the value of freely and openly debating ideas, and the folly of preventing the same from happening. [bold added, link omitted]

-- CAV

So Many Ways to Say, "Shut Up!"

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Or: Unintentionally Good Advice from Lifehacker

Recently, Lifehacker posted a "guide" on how to tell if you're "mansplaining." Being in a perverse mood, I took a look at it and found it to be even more ridiculous than I expected. Having two young children, I found the following to be not only the most amusing passage, but also the most illuminating:

Facial reactions in the person you are speaking to are a huge sign: [body language expert Tonya] Reiman said to look for things such as a clenched jaw, shifting the jaw to the side, or flaring the nostrils, which can be a sign of holding in anger. She calls moves like this "non-verbal sarcasm" because they're a way of letting your body say you're listening while your brain is in disbelief at what is being said to you.

Non-verbal sarcasm in the listener can quickly shift to actual shame. If the person you're talking to shifts their gaze downward or covers their neck with their hands, that's a sign you're not only mansplaining, but have the person you're talking to has also basically given up on the conversation.

"They feel shame," Reiman said. "That person is either feeling something emotional or they're feeling like they've just been hit."
It is a good idea to practice being aware of signs that someone is becoming defensive and asking oneself whether it might be due to problems in one's communication style. But, given the insulting term and its source from the "microagression crowd, it is hard to take this advice as anything other than, "Walk on eggshells or shut up." I can't help but imagine myself talking to a kid in a contrary mood when I read the above -- and being expected to concede to their demands every time I see so much as a pout. (But shame? Really? If someone feels embarrassed when confronted with a differing opinion, it's on them to examine why: That's a completely different feeling than the justifiable anger about being treated badly.)

Having said the above, the article is "right" by accident about one thing: If you are scrupulous about etiquette, and about how you communicate with others, and find yourself facing someone about to melt down, anyway, it probably is time to end the conversation. But this is because you are likely wasting your time.

-- CAV

P.S. I am old enough to remember when "woman driving" was, as this piece puts it of "mansplaining", "a thing." Even if women then were more likely to be poor drivers or, as this article indicates, men are more likely to rudely express uninformed opinions, both terms are inherently insulting and have no place in polite conversation.

Roy Moore as a Cultural Symptom

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

After correctly noting that the media's objections to Roy Moore, Alabama's Republican candidate for Senator, "are the weakest reasons to reject Moore's candidacy," Scott Holleran delves into those reasons -- the ideas that motivate him to act lawlessly regarding separation of religion and state. His piece is worth a full read, and ends as follows:

Hopefully, a Premature Tombstone for American Liberty. (Image via Wikipedia.)
Any serious candidate who would leave doubt as to whether he seeks to enact laws to put adults to death for having consensual sex is a monster deserving total and absolute scorn and the most emphatic denunciation from statesmen, intellectuals and every moral American. Insinuating that he thinks gays deserve to die and stating clearly and explicitly that he aims to enact a religious government disqualify Moore from political office. Whatever moral transgressions he's made in his sexual past, including his alleged assault and proclivity for sex with children, Roy Moore's election to the Senate on December 12, 2017, would mark a black day in U.S. history. If Moore wins, his election will be a victory for religious statism and another chilling step toward dictatorship.
At the same time, there is something to be gleaned from allegations about Moore's taste for teen-aged girls. This is because they lead directly back to his religiously-based morality, as detailed by the Los Angeles Times:
Prominent conservative Reformed theologian Doug Wilson has a documented history of mishandling sexual abuse cases within his congregation. Nevertheless, he continues to be promoted by evangelical leaders such as John Piper, whose Desiring God site still publishes Wilson's work. When a 13-year-old girl in Wilson's congregation was sexually abused, Wilson argued that she and her abuser were in a parent-sanctioned courtship, and that this was a mitigating factor.

There's no shortage of such stories. A Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA, pastor attempted to discipline a woman who warned home-school parents of the convicted sex offender in his congregation. (The sex offender had gone online to solicit a 14-year-old girl for sex.) Another PCA church allowed that same convicted sex offender to give the invocation at a home-school graduation ceremony. He wasn't perceived as an attempted child rapist, and he was "repentant."

Growing up, I witnessed an influential religious right leader flirting with some of my teenage friends and receiving neck and shoulder massages from one of them. I've been expecting a scandal to break with him for years, but in the meantime, this man has put significant time into campaigning for anti-trans bathroom bills while deeming trans people "predators."

The allegations against Roy Moore are merely a symptom of a larger problem. It's not a Southern problem or an Alabama problem. It's a Christian fundamentalist problem... [links omitted, bold added]
Many non-fundamentalists and even non-religious people are sympathetic to the idea that Christian morality is a beneficial cultural influence and foundational to American law. If you are one of them, and yet have a healthy distaste for treating children this way, I ask that you question this assumption. I recommend doing so (1) starting with "which sect of Christianity," and (2) ideally continuing to the point of asking what morality is for and further asking yourself why you should take any answer as to the nature of morality on faith. The first step is to remind yourself of a fact many religious people at American's founding were well aware of: Political power in the hands of a rival sect was a dangerous and potentially deadly proposition. (The solution, separation of church and state, mimicked, but did not imply understanding of a more general principle: Religion wielding political power is inimical to liberty.) The second is an opportunity to do something these poor child brides aren't permitted and too few people avail themselves of: A chance to consider the proposition that taking other people's word about big questions is a practice that stunts one's ability to live a fulfilling life.

-- CAV

A Century of a Million Deaths Per Year

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I'm a bit late to this party, but let me recommend one last look at Communism on its centenary, this one by Robert Tracinski of The Federalist. Here are the closing paragraphs:

A few victims of a political ideology that has become fashionable in America. (Image via Wikipedia)
The only person who fully grasped these lessons was the Russian émigré Ayn Rand. She escaped the Soviet Union and set out to revive individualism and build a philosophy that redefined the meaning and moral status of individual self-interest. She would later explain: "Stalin did not corrupt a noble ideal ... . If service and self-sacrifice are a moral ideal, and if the 'selfishness' of human nature prevents men from leaping into sacrificial furnaces, there is no reason ... why a dictator should not push them in at the point of bayonets -- for their own good, or the good of humanity, or the good of posterity, or the good of the latest bureaucrat's latest five-year plan. There is no reason that they can name to oppose any atrocity. The value of a man's life? His right to exist? His right to pursue his own happiness? These are concepts that belong to individualism and capitalism."

If Communism represents the full implementation of a commonly accepted view of morality, we can understand the compulsion to make excuses for it, to claim it's never really been tried, to forget its disasters and atrocities, to allow only a gauzy airbrushed version of its history, and to desperately wish that if we just tried it one more time and really did it right, we would finally reach the promised paradise.

We've done that for a full century, and even longer. After all, Communism was tried on a small scale, in voluntary utopian communities, for more than a century before it failed upward and took over entire countries. It's time to start grasping the moral lessons before we're forced to live once more through the nightmare of chasing the Communist dream. [bold added]
Read the whole thing, particularly if you or someone you know is fond of saying that Communism "doesn't work."

-- CAV

P.S. One more. I'll pass along word of a lecture I plan to listen to, "Socialism's Legacy," by Alan Kors, which was delivered at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. It's an hour and a half, but I am confident based on the source of the recommendation that it will be worthwhile. Kors, by the way, wrote the following, as quoted by Glenn Reynolds:
No cause, ever, in the history of all mankind, has produced more cold-blooded tyrants, more slaughtered innocents, and more orphans than socialism with power. It surpassed, exponentially, all other systems of production in turning out the dead. The bodies are all around us. And here is the problem: No one talks about them. No one honors them. No one does penance for them. No one has committed suicide for having been an apologist for those who did this to them. No one pays for them. No one is hunted down to account for them. It is exactly what Solzhenitsyn foresaw in The Gulag Archipelago: "No, no one would have to answer. No one would be looked into." [italics in original, bold added]
None of this will occur until knowledge of a proper ethical alternative to altruism becomes better known and respected.