Sunday, February 12, 2017

On the Very Idea of a Religious Minority

A minority group is a group that comprises less than 50% of the total population. Draw the pie chart. If your part is defined by an acute angle, your group is a minority one; if its shaped like Pac-Man, you're part of the majority.

Even holding fixed the total population, whether someone belongs to a minority group or not depends on what kinds of groups are relevant. For example, among faculty members in my department, I'm in a gender majority, because I'm male, and more than half of the faculty members in my department are male. With respect to certain natural ways of carving out dietary restrictions, I am a minority, because I'm a vegetarian, and fewer than half of the people in my department are vegetarians. This kind of 'minority-relativity' is obvious, and not something people get particularly confused about. There's no one absolute answer to the question of whether someone is part of a minority—it depends on what kind of categorization you're interested in.

But there's another kind of minority-relativity that's easier to overlook. Someone's status as part of a minority doesn't just depend on what kind of category you're talking about. It also depends on how finely you're carving up the distinct options. Suppose, for example, that you're interested in the question of whether someone is part of a religious minority, relative to their nation of origin. (Donald Trump attempted to make this a central question for many people's refugee statuses.) If you're going to give special treatment to religious minorities, then it turns out that it matters quite a lot what you count as a religion.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Labeling lies and knowing minds

I don't have super strong feelings about whether news outlets should use the word 'lies' to describe Donald Trump's lies. As long are they're super clear about how he's saying that p even though p is false, that seems to me to be the important thing. The controversy over whether to use the 'L-word' doesn't really interest me all that much.

That said, I did find it pretty interesting to read NPR's description of why they don't call Trump's lies 'lies'. The basic thought is this: in order for something to be a lie, it has to be said with an intent to deceive. So in calling something a lie, one is in part making a claim about the intentions behind it. As NPR's Mary Louise Kelly puts it: "without the ability to peer into Donald Trump's head, I can't tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn't, with facts."

This is an epistemological claim—a skeptical one. It's often tempting to say that you can never really know what someone is thinking, because all you really have to go on is how they behave. But skeptical temptations are funny things, and there's probably good reason to resist a lot of them a lot of the time. For example, notice that it's also tempting to say that you can never really know anything about the future, since it hasn't happened yet, or that you can never really know historical facts, since you weren't personally there. At an extreme, Descartes famously argued that you can never really know anything about the external world, since you might be the victim of an evil demon who is manipulating your senses in a way that doesn't correspond to reality.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Selective Sampling

I think that Donald Trump is really dangerous.

Here are some true facts.* These facts include moderately detailed descriptions of sexual assaults—skip past the bullet list if you like; the relevance of these facts will be explained below.

  • In 2008, a 54-year-old New York man named Donald Bowen traveled to Texas in order to pursue a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy he'd been grooming on the internet.
  • In 2009, another New York man, one Donald Caban, was convicted of molesting multiple teenage girls in his home over several decades.
  • Donald Darwell, of New York, is a convicted rapist. In 1978 he forcibly raped a woman at knifepoint. She was badly injured in the attack, and was unable to work for nearly a year.
  • In 2006, New Yorker Donald Valentine was convicted on two counts of sexual assault. His victim was a 16-year-old mentally disabled girl.
  • Donald Brown, a 42-year-old New York man, was apprehended in the act of the attempted rape of a 10-year-old boy whose parents had left him in his care.
  • 55-year-old Donald Glenn, of New York, convinced a reluctant acquaintance to go out on a date with him. That night, he overpowered and choked her before raping her both vaginally and anally.
  • Donald Jones struck a female stranger fist in 1993, then held her at gunpoint and attempted to rape her. When she screamed, passers-by stopped and he fled, before being caught by police and convicted of first-degree attempted rape.

([*] These are not quite facts, but they're close. In the interest of privacy, I have changed the surnames of these individuals. Importantly, I have left all of their given names unchanged. I've embellished these stories slightly, to give a bit more detail to hang on them. (I did this for vivacity, and to make the fallacy more tempting. I didn't have easy access to the actual details, or I would have used them.) I found these facts via the New York State Criminal Justice Services website.)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Facts, Alternative Facts, and Definitions

One of the courses I often teach is an introduction to epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions about knowledge and rational belief—how is it possible to know something, and why is it important, and what makes some beliefs more reasonable to have than others? I learned early on that one of the first things I have to do for my students is help them get very clear on the difference between, on the one hand, facts and truths, and, on the other, knowledge, belief, and support from the evidence. The former concern how things are in reality, whether or not we have any access to them; the latter concern how we thinkers try, and hopefully succeed, to put ourselves in touch with reality. Many students come into my course a bit fuzzy on this distinction, but getting it crystal clear is a prerequisite for thinking in a rigorous way about epistemology.

This has not been a good winter for the distinction. To cite just a couple of the many examples, when Donald Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes was asked on the Diane Rehm Show whether it's OK for Trump to post made-up lies about who won the popular vote, she explained that "there's no such thing anymore unfortunately as facts". Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" as the 2016 Word of the Year. But early indications suggest 2017 will be no better for objective truth. Yesterday my social media feed was overrun with satire, disgust, and incredulity at Kellyanne Conway's description of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's blatantly false statements about the inaugration crowd size as expressions of "alternative facts".

I don't think Hughes really thinks, or even really meant, that there are no facts. I think she meant there are, within some restricted sphere of politically interesting claims, no facts that are generally accepted and can be assumed without contest. I don't think Conway really thinks there's a kind of fact other than the true kind. I think she was just spewing some garbage language in an attempt to obfuscate. (Note that later in her interview, she retreats from this metaphysical nonsense to an epistemic claim, saying that there's no way to know the size of a crowd. This is empirically (obviously) false, but it's at least not a denial of the idea of a fact.)

Critics of the Trump administration have of course been all over this. I see that already, one can buy "Alternative facts are lies" t-shirts. Some have observed that the concept is straight out of Orwell. I think they're right, and that that's terrifying. But that's not really my point here. I want to take this in a different direction.

The thing is, some of the anti-alternative-fact rhetoric is no less philosophically confused than this post-fact nonsense. Meriam-Webster tweeted:

When I first saw this tweet, I didn't know what the hell it was trying to do. But most of the interactions with it on twitter (38K retweets as I write) interpret it as criticizing Conway's invocation of 'alternative facts'.

And it's not just Trump critics who are reading the tweet that way.

But this is a terrible definition of facts, and one that does not obviously work against the Trump rhetoric. Look, suppose I tell a lie. I tell my students that the author of "Elusive Knowledge" was Barack Obama, writing under a pen name. And I tell them this in a v. serious tone of voice, and expect them to believe me. I'll announce that I plan to put that on the exam. This lie is a piece of information presented (by me) as having objective reality. So it counts as a fact.

Maybe you think a lie doesn't count as a 'piece of information'. Only truths can be information. OK, in that case, why is M-W talking about presenting as objective reality at all? Truths don't become facts when people present them. And indeed, there are lots of facts that haven't been presented as having objective reality, because nobody knows them.

On this definition, Conway's invocation of alternative facts makes perfect sense. If a fact is just an assertion, then the crowd-size experts have one assertion, and the Trump administration has an alternative assertion. Merriam-Webster has offered something more like a definition of a purported fact. But not all purported facts are facts, just like not all alleged murderers are murderers.

This dictionary seems comfortable with the notion of 'objective reality'. It does use that phrase in its definition. Once we have a grip on that notion, we should define 'fact' much more simply. A fact is a part of objective reality. A fact is something that is true, whether or not someone presents it as true, and whether or not anyone or everyone recognizes that it is true.

This is basic stuff. Literally first-day intro-to-epistemology-and-metaphysics material. Being clear on the idea of a fact is the first step to thinking about how we should go about trying to investigate what the facts are. Attacks on that clarity, whether by demagogic governments or by well-meaning resistance tweeters, make this crucial job that much harder.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Evidence by Curated Anecdote

Suppose I have a bag with a hundred balls in it. The balls are made either of wood or iron; I don't know how many there are of each, but I know that there's at least one iron ball and at least one wooden ball. I start out with no idea whether there are more iron balls or more wooden balls.

Then I examine a ball, and see that it's iron. How should this impact my estimate of the number of iron balls? It's tempting to think it obvious that my estimate should go up—I've seen an iron ball, so that's at least some evidence in favour of there being a lot of iron balls in there.

But not so fast. It all depends on how the ball was chosen. It depends a lot on how the ball was chosen. If the ball was pulled out at random and proved to be iron, that'd be evidence for more iron in the bag. But what if it was pulled out with a magnet? Then the selection method guaranteed it was going to produce an iron ball. And I already knew there was at least one iron ball in there. So the fact that I got an iron ball gives me no new information whatsoever. My estimate of how much iron there is in the bag should change not at all, if that's how the iron ball got selected.

I think something like this situation, and its attendant tempting fallacy, applies in much more real-world cases with morally significant implications, too. In particular, I'm thinking today about estimates of the prevalence of bad behaviour among certain demographic groups. For example, there are many people who, when thinking about anti-Trump protesters, think of unruly mobs of violent people. There are also many people (mostly different ones) who, when thinking of America this month, think of people committing hate crimes against Muslims and black people.

If challenged about why one should think anti-Trump protesters tend to be violent, or that there are a lot of hate crimes in America, people tend to point to examples: news features about anti-Trump protesters attacking Trump supporters, or about threats of lynchings against black teenagers. I think that most of the time, such news stories are terrible evidence for what they're being used as evidence for. Even setting aside questions about whether the stories are true—let's assume they are—they do not actually provide any evidence at all for their general conclusion. The reason for this is that the cases are structurally analogous to the magnetic drawing method described above.

The world is a big place, full of all kinds of people. So even before we do any serious investigation at all, we know that there are some people who commit hate crimes against black people, and that there are some anti-Trump protesters who are violent. We should all agree that this is obvious. There are some people like that. We disagree about how prevalent these things are, but we all agree they exist.

We also know some things about the media. Namely, that, since lots of people are interested in reading about violent anti-Trump protesters and hate crimes, various media sources will be motivated to find and report on at least some such cases. Furthermore, the media are good enough at finding these things that it's nearly certain they'll do so.

In other words, the antecedent probability of there being some cases in question is practically 1, and the conditional probability of the media reporting on them, supposing they exist, is also practically 1. So when you read about a Trump protester being violent, that should increase your estimate of how violent Trump protesters on the whole are by practically zero. It's like the magnet pulling out the iron ball—it was going to find one, no matter how many there were, so the fact that it found one does not make it likelier that there are lots.

Things would be different if the media worked very differently—if, for example, it picked Trump protesters at random, and then reported on what they were like, no matter what they found. If that is what happened, then reading reports of violent protesters would be significant evidence. But that is very unlike the way our actual media works.

Our own anecdotal experiences actually work a bit (a bit!) better in this respect. If the anti-Trump protester you happen to be standing next to starts beating somebody up, that is evidence in favour of violence in that group. (It wouldn't be if in advance you'd somehow implemented a strategy of standing next to the person you thought likeliest to be violent.) For what it's worth, I spent several hours at anti-Trump rallies in Philadelphia last week. I observed no violence.

I haven't seen comparative numbers about the frequency of hate crimes in America over the past week. As far as data goes, that would be the gold standard. But I am pretty confident they've gone up, probably by a lot. This isn't based on the many news stories I've read about examples—the USA is a big enough place that it's not implausible to me that there are dozens of such cases every week, and that they're being reported and disseminated more now. But I have more specific, more personal experiences that are a bit more similar to random sampling. I haven't been victimized myself, but I do personally know someone who was physically attacked and racially insulted. And, at the university where I happened to be visiting last week, black students had that very day been threatened with lynchings.

This isn't super definitive data, but I think it's a lot more telling than lists of stories turned out by media outlets motivated to turn out lists of stories. The main point is, if you want to know how much something supports a given hypothesis, it makes a huge difference how you found it.

Monday, November 07, 2016

The Mikado in the 21st Century

Last week I participated as a guest of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players in a forum discussion on racism in The Mikado. After cancelling their 2015 production over concerns about racism, they've hired some new staff and brought in an advisory panel to put together a new version of the show. Because of my background as a performer and consumer of Gilbert & Sullivan productions, my own Japanese-American identity, and some things I've written (though not publicly) on the subject before, I was invited to give a keynote address as part of that forum.

I thought it was a productive conversation—I had the sense that all participants (which included some NYGASP officials with significant responsibility about the new production) were well-motivated and sincere, and had some understanding of the issues. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to take audience questions, and lots of things didn't really get addressed. But I thought the forum was an encouraging step. I have found that these conversations are extremely difficult to have. But for at least a few hours last week, we were having a real one.

For anyone interested, here are some of the things I said, along with some other things I hoped to say but didn't have time for.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Donald Trump: trial balloon or vaccine?

Let's assume that Donald Trump is about to lose the Presidential election. This seems overwhelmingly likely today, but there have been times when a President Trump looked like a real possibility.

538's polls-plus winning probability over time.

Donald Trump has run an incredibly racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic campaign; he's elevated to prominence a dark underbelly of US culture. This has been clear from the very start of his campaign. Unfortunately, this by itself didn't stop him from being a halfway viable candidate with a real chance to win. The reason this race got away from Trump is that he is a totally inept politician. He has no personal discipline or ability to stay on message. Even recordings of his bragging about sexual assault, and over a dozen women who have accused him of such actions, do not seem definitively to have shut him down as a viable candidate; among his base, there seems to be a widespread willingness to forgive and forget. A skilled politician who performed real remorse might conceivably have gotten similar favourable treatment from a decent number of middle-of-the-road Americans. People are surprisingly and depressingly fuzzy about a lot of these questions.
Numerous serious allegations of sexual assault would be damaging—perhaps fatal—to any candidate in 2016. But Trump certainly did himself no favours.

Fortunately for civilisation, Donal Trump is a disaster of a politician who will lose an election unlikely to be even close. But the Trump candidacy does raise a sobering question: what if he hadn't been such a blatantly repulsive specimen of humanity? What if he had the discipline and common sense to stay on message and employ more moderately-palatable spin against his unpopular opponent? What if someone with Trump's politics had a gentle face and a kindly voice?

I had a chance to visit the Johannesburg Aparteid Museum this past summer. One of the striking and disturbing things I saw there was footage of South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd smiling and cooing the most horribly racist sentiments behind a friendly and grandfatherly tone.

As I remarked to my friend at the museum, if Trump had looked and sounded like that, I think Clinton would have had very little chance in this election.

The thought of a modern-day Trump-like demagogue who knows how to dress up his racist, authoritarian demagoguery in pretty propaganda is a terrifying one. In the counterfactual world where we had that instead of Trump in 2016, running against the same unpopular Hillary Clinton, I am convinced that this hypothetical candidate would have won. It might have been the biggest disaster in American history.

What I'm unsure about is whether in the actual world, the prospects for such a future candidate are greater or lesser in the wake of Trump. One theory is that Trump has been a trial balloon. This was something of a test run, to determine what works and what doesn't work in a fascist, white supremacist candidate for US President. The alt-right learns its lessons from Trump, and comes back on another occasion with a candidate with similar politics, and similarly able to stoke its horrifying base, but who has never bragged on camera about sexual assault and who doesn't look and act like an impetuous 12-year-old when insulted. It's certainly a worrisome thought.

But here's the more optimistic possibility. The alt-right has learned a lot about the electorate this year—but so too has the electorate learned a lot about the alt-right. Given the resounding defeat Trump seems well on his way to receiving, it may be that his own disastrousness may tarnish the racist ideology itself. The future, more polished, version of Donald Trump may find himself much less viable than he'd otherwise be because he reminds people of Donald Trump. Rather than Trump as trial balloon, we have Trump as vaccine—after defeating the less dangerous version of this candidate, Americans are better-equipped to avoid succumbing to the sneakier one.

The latter, happier interpretation seems particularly plausible if Clinton runs up a big lead on Trump. Let there be no ambiguity about the disastrousness of this campaign. Let politicians be terrified for a generation or two of reminding people of Donald Trump. Here's hoping.