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.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Why Don't More Faculty Speak Out About Sexual Assault?

This is a (slightly modified for public consumption—links added, some personal bits and references to other conference speakers’ remarks removed) draft of remarks that I’ve prepared for a panel entitled “The Impact of Speaking Out: Graduate Students and the Role of Faculty”, as part of a conference at UBC on conversations around sexual violence.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Platforms, Free Speech, and the Boundaries of the Pale: A Methodological Remark

Sometimes people say things in public, and other people think those are terrible things to say, and so they complain, or protest, or distance themselves, or decline to invite that speaker for something else, or apologize on their behalves. And then, as we all know, sometimes yet other people get real offended by those first other people for a perceived threat to the free expression of ideas.

This is a super common pattern. (A pretty substantial amount of public hand-wringing about Millenials falls into this category.) Philosophers will recognize a recent high-profile controversy of this form.

The argument against step two above—the argument that says you shouldn't protest or apologize or whatever—goes like this: free speech is important, even when (especially when!) it is uncomfortable and challenges your preconceptions. It would be both unjust and intellectually foolhardy to censor the expression of some ideas just because some people find them distasteful or threatening.

The argument on the other side goes like this: words matter, and the expression of some ideas is actively harmful; we shouldn't encourage or enable people to harm others, especially when those harmed are members of already-marginalized groups. No one is entitled to these particular platforms, and by the way protest speech is free speech too.

In most actual instances of the schema I come across, my sympathies are largely with the protesters. But there's something a bit funny about the level of generality at which the argument tends to take place. The details of the objectionable presented content make a pretty big difference.

For example, the principles often articulated against protesting, if taken literally, would generalize to defences of views that I think most of us would recognize as clearly beyond the pale. Like, if the keynote address at the American Society for Conservative Philosophers (a name I just made up but maybe it's real, it doesn't matter, it's a fictional case) were given by a white supremacist calling explicitly for, say, stripping the voting rights of Americans of colour, everybody would be making a tremendous fuss about it and they'd obviously be right. Maybe a few individuals would crawl out of the woodwork and say "we must be willing to encounter ideas that challenge our preconceptions" or "these ideas about racial purity have been around a long time don't you think there might be something to them?" or "are conservatives not allowed to talk about social and political questions about race?", but I think most of the people who say the parallel things about real-life cases wouldn't be much impressed. This example shows that the principles cited are not at all plausible in full generality.

I think something similar is also true of the other side. Suppose a local farmer is invited to give a commencement speech at a high school in their community, and students protest and demand that they be un-invited, on the grounds that such farming amounts to a morally indefensible program of animal suffering. I would have a certain amount of sympathy with these students. (I think most animal farming does amount to morally indefensible animal suffering.) But I think I'd ultimately be persuaded by the line that this isn't very good grounds for protesting the speech, even if the students make the case that the speech itself would cause harm.

One might try to locate the difference between these cases in the moral seriousness of the harm, or the amount of offence caused, but I'm inclined to look to more contingent social matters. Really blatant white supremacy is, in North American academic circles, rare enough and marginalized enough, not merely to offend, but to shock. It's not one of society's live options. It is beyond the pale. This isn't an intrinsic feature of the content of the view—it's a relational status to society more broadly. By contrast, the idea that it's fine to cause massive suffering in non-human animals for small human benefits is widely accepted. If one merely levelled the horrified stare (the moral cousin of the less incendiary incredulous stare) at everyone who thought it was OK to raise animals for food, one would only serve to alienate oneself from society at large. People who think farming is fine need to be convinced; people who think America is only for white people should be shunned.

The lines move over time, as some questions become settled. At the margins, there will be controversy, even among people who agree that a stance is morally objectionable, about whether it is beyond the pale. I think that many questions about the moral status of homosexuality are at present right around the margins. The idea that homosexuality constitutes a defect of some kind is rightly and rapidly becoming much more of a fringe position, but it is still widely enough held, by powerful enough people, such that many people will still be inclined to treat it as a view worthy of respectful disagreement, rather than the horrified stare.

The debates that ensue tend to frame the issue as one about free speech versus harmful attitudes towards marginalized groups. That's partly right, but I think that quite a lot of what's going on is best conceptualized as a fight about where to set the boundaries. It's a border skirmish in the culture war. If the progressives keep winning, this will all look very different in retrospect. Hopefully in twenty years we will look back with some shock at the idea that people were arguing in 2016 about whether it's OK to descibe homosexuality as a kind of disability. Maybe by 2036 the argument will be about whether we need to take seriously the idea that animal farming is morally permissible.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Presumption of Innocence

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has it that "everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence." This is a kind of legal protection against criminal conviction—you cannot be declared by the state to be guilty of a crime, or punished for it, unless your guilt has been proven.

The presumption of innocence is rightly considered a pillar of civilised society. But people have a tendency to over-apply it in irrelevant cases. The presumption of your innocence means that the state can't punish you for a crime unless it proves that you committed it. That's it. It has nothing to do with how one individual should treat or think about another, or whether an organisation should develop or continue a relationship with an accused individual. The presumption of innocence doesn't protect you from being unfriended on facebook, or shunned at conferences, or widely thought by other people to be a criminal. It just protects from being criminally convicted.

The weird world of academic philosophy this week is digesting an article that includes serious allegations of sexual harassment by Yale professor Thomas Pogge against philosophy students. While most of the people whose reactions I'm reading are expressing disgust at Pogge's behaviour and gratitude for Fernanda Lopez Aguilar, the woman who has come forward with the story, there are some (including Pogge himself, as well as some of the People who Leave Comments on Blogs) who caution the broader world from jumping to conclusions, on grounds related to the presumption of innocence. Pogge's statement discusses "trial by internet"—but since "the internet" is not contemplating the use of state power against his liberty, whatever metaphorical sense in which he is undergoing a "trial" is not one where he enjoys the presumption of innocence.

The admonition not to pass judgement about the allegations is simply the admonition to ignore them. "Don't believe anything unless it's been proven in a court of law." But this is just a ludicrous epistemic standard. Do you care whether powerful men in academic philosophy are using their stature to coerce students into compromising sexual situations? Then you should be interested in credible testimony to the effect that this one has been. Don't be tempted by the fallacious inference from it hasn't been proven in court to you have no way to tell whether it's true. (This, incidentally, is also why it makes sense for universities to have sexual assault policies.)

Moreover, it's not in general "jumping to conclusions" to accept someone's word. We learn from other people about what happened to them all the time. Talk of courtroom standards of evidence can make us forget the fact, but in general, we can get knowledge from other people. There's a temptation to think "it's just a he-said–she-said situation, so there's no way to know what really happened". While there are of course some cases that are like that, it's not in general true that any time testimony is disputed it can't be known to be true. Sometimes someone tells me something, and I thereby come to know it, even though someone else denies it. This is especially likely when the thing told is generally plausible, and fits well with other things I know, when there's no plausible explanation about why the testifier would say it if it weren't true, and the denial is both weak and self-serving. All these features seem to me to be present in the current case (and in many similar cases).

I believe Aguilar's allegations. They are serious and credible. They cohere with other stories many of us have heard about Pogge. The asinine hypothesis that she'd make them up out of spite, or for some kind of personal benefit, is the risible product of a preposterously misogynistic imagination. I think it'd be an epistemic error not to believe them—and a moral error too. It would be derelict for us as a community to ignore that which it's reasonable for us to believe—indeed, what which I think we know.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What is proof beyond a reasonable doubt?

As I finish up a few long-standing projects on knowledge (check out my draft monograph!) I'm hoping to start exploring a few new-for-me areas. In recent years my philosophical discussions on this blog have been relatively esoteric, trying out a new objection to so-and-so's third paper on such-and-such; when I was in grad school I used it as an early thinking-out-loud forum about more basic stuff. If I can swallow my pride enough, I may return to that form over the next several months. One area I'm quite ignorant and naive—but also curious—about is law. In particular, I'm curious about how legal concepts like evidence and testimony interact with epistemological concepts like evidence and testimony. I'm a complete novice in this field, so if I'm overlooking things that seem totally obvious to any readers, I'd be grateful to have it pointed out, especially if it comes along with reading advice.

One of my entry-points into the literature here is my UBC colleague John Woods's book Is Legal Reasoning Rational: An Introduction to the Epistemology of Law. (I'm maybe 40% of the way through a first read of it now.) Here's one thing I've found interesting so far. Woods writes, on p. 103:
Spike cannot be convicted unless a jury unanimously finds that his guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Certainty beyond a reasonable doubt is sometimes said to be moral certainty. Under either name, as Gifis writes, it is a conviction based on persuasive reasons and excluding doubts that a contrary conclusion can exist. This is much too strong a formulation. There is plenty of case law that allows for conviction even in the face of a perfectly reasonable case to the contrary, recognized as such by the jury. On an alternative formulation of the standard. A juror is said to be morally certain of a fact when he or she would act in reliance upon its truth in matters of greatest importance to himself or herself. Although better, this appears to omit the essential requirement of criminal proof that this readiness to act, this moral certainty, be grounded in the juror's belief that the burden of criminal proof has been met. In other words, it seems not to be sufficient for criminal conviction that a juror be in a state of moral certainty of the accused's guilt. It also matters how he came to be in that state. 
So we have these notions:

  • Proof beyond a reasonable doubt
  • Certainty beyond a reasonable doubt
  • A juror's being in a state of moral certainty
Woods slides between the first two without comment. Maybe the thought is that there is this tight relationship: proofs establish certainty. (In logic or mathematics, this seems plausible—if I have a proof of something, then it is certain for me.) But as Woods points out, it's another matter whether my psychology reflects this certainty. I might have a proof but doubt anyway; or I might be irrationally certain, even absent a proof.

I wish Woods had explained further what he had in mind when he discusses appropriate conviction in the face of 'a perfectly reasonable case to the contrary'. (I am not sure who Gifis is—I don't see a citation.) Can there be 'perfectly reasonable' cases that have been proven not to be the case? If 'provability beyond a reasonable doubt' is closed under deduction, then it seems like there must be. (If it's been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Jones committed the crime, then it's provable beyond a reasonable doubt that Jones wasn't framed.)

The alternative formulation mentioned seems to target the psychological state of being in a state of moral certainty. This feels at least analogous, maybe more, to the epistemological notion of belief or commitment. Some epistemologists, like Jennifer Nagel and Brian Weatherson, have emphasized that whether one is in this state depends (causally or constitutively, respectively) on the practical situation—when the stakes are high, one is less likely to believe. Maybe moral certainty is something like, being such that one would count as believing even in very high stakes cases. And although this state isn't, as Woods points out, sufficient for appropriate conviction, a normative connection seems plausible: one should only be in this state if one has a proof of corresponding strength. Don't be sure unless it's proven.

It's hard for me not to think in terms of knowledge. One contextualist way of mapping these thoughts would have it that, given a high standard for knowledge, all and only that which is proven beyond a reasonable doubt is 'known', and jurors should vote to convict if and only if they know the defendant guilty. I think this could make sense of these issues—although it'll probably be too simple in other respects, such as the restriction of admissible evidence. (Some things jurors know, they're not supposed to consider. (Or maybe a weird standard could count them as unknown? Something to think about.))

Anyway, I know I'm being really naive here, but I'd be interested in digging in a little bit, if anyone has ideas or reading suggestions.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Stifling Academic Freedom: Who Knows?

Carrie Jenkins and I have written a short piece on academic freedom. Its focus is on a current governance scandal at UBC, but I think it may be of broader interest about universities, academic freedom, and standpoint epistemology. An excerpt:

Like many of our colleagues at UBC, we’re concerned about academic freedom. UBC’s governance crisis has contributed to a culture of fear. This week, Philip Steenkamp, UBC’s Vice President of External Affairs, asserted that we’re wrong to be concerned. “Categorically,” he told the CBC, “there is no such culture”. ... 
But how would a Vice President of External Affairs know whether faculty members feel stifled? ... 
As is well-known to theorists of knowledge, one’s position in a power structure can affect one’s ability to know what’s going on. Just think of the sexist office culture of the 1960s. That sexism, undeniable in retrospect, was obscure to the men in charge. Don Draper couldn’t see what was obvious to Peggy Olson. This kind of ignorance is often recalcitrant: the privileged are motivated not to see certain things. As philosopher Charles Mills put it: “imagine an ignorance that fights back.”

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Basing Actions on Knowledge at the Supreme Court

People sometimes complain about philosophy for its reliance on esoteric thought experiments. "Suppose someone wants to kill someone else, but falsely believes that she's allergic to a certain medicine that will actually help her, but he was ignoring certain defeaters his belief, but he wouldn't have been doing so if he had been raised by better epistemic role models, etc." No doubt there is a grain of truth behind the stereotype, and the criticism of it. But weird cases do matter—both because we're sometimes after necessary truths which should cover all cases, and because the world is a big and weird case, and sometimes weird cases are actual.

If you don't know it already, I am pleased to present to you the absolutely bizarre case of Heffernan v. City of Paterson, currently before the Supreme Court of the United States. If an undergrad had made it up as a counterexample to some principle in a philosophy course, I'd've raised my eyebrows and chuckled quietly at its cleverness.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A few more thoughts on university sexual assault policies

This post is part of a virtual teach-in in commemoration of UBC Sexual Assault Awareness month. See the #UBCSAAM hastag on twitter.

I suggested last week that often there will be grounds for institutional action in response to allegations of sexual assault, even if no criminal charges are filed or a criminal conviction cannot be reached.

One common response is that a policy that permits action in response to an assault that can't be proven in court is unfair to the alleged perpetrator. (I received several thoughts along these lines from members of the public at large in response to my op-ed.) I think this is a mistake—one that may be motivated by a failure to take seriously my suggestion that we sometimes have genuine knowledge, even when we can't prove something in court. I do not advocate institutional action in the absence of evidence or knowledge; I don't think, for example, that universities should expel students merely because they suspect them of being rapists. My proposal is that we should act on our knowledge. If the university knows that someone is attacking other students, it should take action to protect them. People sometimes forget that it's possible to have such knowledge without criminal trials, but it is obviously true. (I know that I walked my dog yesterday morning, even though I'd probably have a pretty difficult time proving it in court.) This was the core thought behind my Vancouver Sun op-ed—just because something is a criminal offence doesn't mean that law enforcement is the only entity that can or should be involved.

I think it's helpful to compare other criminal actions—sexual assault activates some weird patterns of intuitions. Suppose a student, Shen, has a habit of punching other students in the face. I'm assigning my students to work together in small groups on an assignment, and Paksima expresses a desire not to work with Shen, because she's afraid that he'll punch her in the face again. I've never seen Shen punch anybody in the face—and when I ask him about Paksima's broken nose, he says he doesn't know how she got it, but speculates that maybe she broke her own nose to get him into trouble.

Depending on the details of the case, I think I might, under these circumstances, be able to know what has happened. While it is literally a case of 'he said–she said', there are possible such cases where one can know who is being honest and who is lying. But let's suppose for the purpose of argument that we're looking at a version of the case where I can't have genuine knowledge about how Paksima's nose ended up broken. Maybe for some reason the possibility that it's an elaborate and costly framing job is really live. I still face the question, what should I do about this situation? Paksima is asking not to be required to work with Shen, and she's citing grounds of her own personal safety.

I don't think anyone would take very seriously the idea that this should be my response: "Paksima, punching people in the face is a criminal matter, not an academic one. You should take your concerns to the RCMP; if and when Shen is convicted of criminal assault, I'll take the allegation into consideration, but unless and until that happens, I'm going to assume that nothing improper has happened. To do otherwise wouldn't be fair to Shen."

This hypothetical response is ludicrously callous; but it is exactly analogous to a widespread idea about what universities should do about sexual assault. If you think I shouldn't ignore unproven allegations about getting punched in the face, then it's hard for me to see why you shouldn't think the same about unproven allegations about sexual assault.

None of this is to deny that there are difficult questions to ask about what procedures should govern just what steps should be taken, given particular bodies of evidence. Returning to the case of sexual assault, I do think that if a university knows that a student is sexually assaulting other students, he should be expelled. But I don't think it's at all a trivial matter to put institutional frameworks in place to investigate allegations and establish appropriate responses. That is to say, I don't think it's an easy matter to figure out what appropriate sexual assault policies are.

I also want to emphasize that punitive actions are only one part of what should be covered in a sexual assault policy. A sexual assault policy that focuses only on what standards of proof would justify what kind of punishment does so at the neglect of the victims it is meant to protect. Victims of assault may need many things other than a procedure that might eventually punish their attackers. And many of the things universities can do to support alleged victims are non-punitive, and so do not require at all a high standard of proof. (I don't punish Shen by letting Paksima work in a different group, or referring her to medical services, based only on her allegation.) So another part of a university sexual assault policy—one even further disconnected from questions about law enforcement—should set out such non-punitive guidelines for how to care for alleged victims. A few such policies that come to mind are flexibility about classroom assignments, an ability to make changes to living arrangements, and access to counselling. No doubt there are many more things to add to this list.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Degrading Material at the UBC Bookstore (1982 edition)

The struggle is slow and hard, and progress can't always be seen as it occurs. But sometimes history provides helpful context. I have been reading this week about a controversy in the 1980s about whether the UBC Bookstore should continue to sell pornography. To my contemporary sensibilities, that there should ever have been controversy about whether the UBC Bookstore should sell pornography is barely imaginable.

Lance Read, an Education student at UBC in 1982, wrote this letter to UBC's student newspaper, the Ubyssey:
I would like to see our bookstore, an official arm of the university, discontinue the sale of printed matter that is socially offensive, degrading and unnecessary in an enlightened world. To my knowledge there are only two publications for sale in the UBC bookstore which concentrate on such degradation. Penthouse and Playboy magazines publish photographs which focus on posing women in submissive and degrading positions. Those of us who recognize the natural and valuable relationship that women and men share as equals struggling to retain respect for all social groups, will no longer condone through silence, such degradation. I therefore ask our bookstore to stop the sale of Penthouse and Playboy. I feel that this is justifiable censorship. I suggest as an alternative that the bookstore purchase reprints of socially inoffensive articles from both publications and make them available for resale.
You can find this letter printed on p. 10 of the Nov 19, 1982 edition here. I am amazed that the UBC bookstore was ever selling pornographic magazines in the 1980s—Read's position seems incredibly obvious in retrospect. But even more astounding is the response that one John Hedgecock, UBC Bookstore Manager, seems to have offered to Mr. Read. (I have been unable to locate this response in the online archives, but Lance Read has sent me his own copy.)
As a general rule the UBC bookstore has a non-censorship policy, especially in regards to material ordinarily available in public stores in Canada. The two magazines in question meet this criteria. Other perhaps more controversial material is handled on a case by case basis.
I would suggest that points made in Mr. Read's letter are more a matter of personal opinion. To paraphrase Shakespeare's 'Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye'—lets us say—art is in the eye of the beholder. Nude photographic art is art.
As a note of interest, I know personally that there are usually a few copies of these magazines available in the locker room of the Thunderbird rugby team on which Mr. Read plays.
(My emphasis.) The dismissive sneer comes through loud and clear in the prose. As if the idea of this material's being inappropriate was completely beyond the pale.

Although I didn't find this letter online, I did find clear corroboration that Hedgecock was unsympathetic to Read's request—which echoed a call that Education instructor Josephine Evans had been making for some time—see e.g. p. 1 of the October 10 1982 Ubessey. I am not sure what happened to this controversy in the end. The latest reference I found was a March 1983 discussion of a petition to the UBC board of governors to ban pornographic material from the UBC bookstore (p. 1 here). I don't know whether the ban was put in place, but I can report that I have never seen any pornography in the UBC bookstore.

So, progress!

Which isn't to say there's not still work to be done. Here's a photo Carrie Jenkins took at the UBC bookstore last fall (used with her permission).
That's How to Be a Man: A Handbook of Advice, Inspiration, and Occasional Drinking, and Red Green's Beginner's Guide to Women: For Men Who Don't Read Instructions. So yes, we've got the activity of manhood and women as objects, at the UBC bookstore, in 2015. See also this classy item, photographed by Moira Wyton‎ at the UBC bookstore, also in 2015 (used with permission):

Among its many objectionable qualities is a hilarious lighthearted threat of sexual assault.

So I guess maybe they haven't quite stopped selling "printed matter that is socially offensive, degrading and unnecessary in an enlightened world", but at least the bar seems to be moving in the right direction.

Maybe in 2050 the UBC community will look back and shake their heads, marvelling at the idea that anybody ever thought this was appropriate material for a university bookstore. A guy can dream.

Friday, January 22, 2016

No more free labour by me for Synthese

Like most philosophers who are active on social media, I was amazed and horrified this week to learn from Feminist Philosophers about an article by Jean-Yves Beziau, nominally on logical pluralism, published in Synthese and containing irrelevant and incoherent sexist and homophobic ramblings. (See also the Daily Nous coverage/discussion here.) The article represents an extremely serious editorial failure; in my opinion, its publication is inconsistent with Synthese's status as a high-prestige philosophical journal. The editors need to apologize (really apologize) and retract the article. Unless and until that happens, I plan to exercise the little bit of personal power that I have in this matter, and refrain from contributing any more of my labour to a journal that has so dramatically failed to live up to its responsibilities.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Knowing about Sexual Assault, Having Enough Evidence, and the Contextualist Fallacy

Last week I wrote an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun about university sexual assault policies. One of the things I tried to do there was to draw a connection between some of the questions in that area and my own research into knowledge and contextualism. I tried to make the case that a kind of contextualist fallacy lies behind some attitudes about university sexual assault policies. I still think that's plausible and interesting, although there are certainly competing possible explanations. But a tweet I received in response definitely commits the contextualist fallacy.
The contextualist fallacy is the failure to attend to the context-sensitivity of language, allowing for the construction of a superficially apparently-valid argument that is in fact fallacious. For example, the word 'now' is context-sensitive. Sometimes when it is used, it refers to 9:47 am Monday, Jan 18. (In fact, that's the time that word refers to when I utter it right now.) Here is a true sentence:
1. It is before 10:00 Monday right now.
Actually, although it is before 10:00, it's not very far before 10:00, when I have to teach. So I'd better come back and finish this post later.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hypocrisy, Self-Defeat, and other Ad Hominem Arguments

You learn in intro-level critical thinking to distinguish criticizing a position from criticizing a person holding a position. Doing the latter is an ad hominem argument. (The latin literally means 'to the person'.) In this dialogue, Frank makes an ad hominem argument:
Jill: The minimum wage should be higher. It is important that employees be able to make a living wage, and economic studies indicate that raising the minimum wage will probably not significantly reduce employment.
Frank: Jill often keeps her library books past the due date. Don't listen to her, the minimum wage is fine as it is.
This is a really blatant ad hominem; Frank is ignoring Jill's argument, and instead saying something about Jill herself—in this case, something completely irrelevant. But one can have ad hominems without this kind of irrelevance, as in this version of the case:
Jill: The minimum wage should be higher. It is important that employees be able to make a living wage, and economic studies indicate that raising the minimum wage will probably not significantly reduce employment.
Frank: Jill works a minimum-wage job, so her motives aren't pure. The minimum wage is fine as it is.
This version is less off-the-wall—one can actually imagine Frank arguing in this way—but it's also pretty clearly an ad hominem. Frank has ignored the argument Jill made, and is instead focusing on Jill herself.

Argumentum ad hominem is typically recognized as an argumentative fallacy. Perhaps sometimes it's appropriate to argue about the person—perhaps, for example, in some electoral cases, one of the main questions we're interested in is what kind of a person is this?. But establishing something bad about a person making an argument is not to be confused with arguing against the conclusion. So much is, I think, pretty much obvious, once it's spelled out. But there are at least two kinds of cases where ad hominem arguments can be misleadingly tempting.

Consider arguments involving hypocrisy. Someone is hypocritical when one condemns behaviour of which one is oneself guilty. When Newt Gingrich got all high-and-mighty about Bill Clinton's marital infidelity while at the very same time carrying on with a secret affair, that was hypocrisy. When people are guilty of hypocrisy, it can feel pretty satisfying to call them out for it—it's a strong rhetorical move. But it's also argumentum ad hominem. It says something about the person making the argument, rather than about the argument or conclusion itself.
Jill: The minimum wage should be higher. It is important that employees be able to make a living wage, and economic studies indicate that raising the minimum wage will probably not significantly reduce employment.
Frank: Jill doesn't really care about people making a living wage—her company profits tremendously from underpaying its employees.
Frank may succeed in getting people not to listen to Jill with this argument, but he does so in a way that totally ignores the content of what she actually said. Her argument is about what employees need and the relationship between minimum wages and unemployment. Frank has totally ignored that argument, and focused on Jill instead. That's the definition of ad hominem. If you don't care about Jill and only want to know what to think about the minimum wage, Frank's argument is just a distraction. Accusing people of hypocrisy is ad hominem.

The same goes, I think, for at least some self-defeat arguments. In my introductory epistemology course this week, we're discussing radical skepticism—the view that nobody knows or has any reason to believe pretty much anything. (Think about all the possible ways any of your beliefs could be wrong—you could even be a brain in a vat!) One charge people often level against this view is that it is self-defeating in the following sense: no skeptic can coherently claim to know, or have reason to believe, that skepticism is true. One imagines winning an argument with a skeptic, perhaps along lines like these:
Jill: Nobody knows anything. After all, it's possible to be deceived about any possible belief.
Frank: Jill can't possibly know what she's talking about, because if she did, then that would be some knowledge someone has.
Frank's argument is clever, and he might even convince people not to listen to Jill. But his argument is ad hominem. He says that Jill is being inconsistent in a certain kind of way, not that the content of her view is. Jill has given an argument having to do with the possibility of error—the argument does not depend on there being any individual who can coherently endorse it. Frank has ignored Jill's argument, and attacked Jill herself. That's the definition of an ad hominem argument.

One difference between this last kind of ad hominem and more prototypical cases is that it doesn't depend on particular contingencies of Jill's—there's a kind of argument template that one could use against any skeptic. But that's just to say that one is prepared to give an ad hominem argument against anyone who thinks radical skepticism is true. But this isn't an argument against radical skepticism itself.

Here is a coherent hypothesis: nobody knows anything. Arguing that nobody could know it is a very different thing from arguing that it's false. The self-defeat argument only does the former; it is ad hominem.

Friday, January 08, 2016

On leaving sexual assault to the RCMP

This week many of my colleagues and I published an open letter concerning sexual assault policies at UBC. In the letter we write that it's clear to us that in at least some recent cases UBC has failed to do enough to protect its students.

One response I hear pretty often to this kind of discussion is that it shouldn't be a university's place to deal with sexual assault at all. The thought is that criminal matters are best left to law enforcement. I have never had any sympathy for this idea, but it seems to enjoy wide currency, so I thought I'd say just a couple of things about it.

While it's important for criminal charges to be pressed against perpetrators of sexual assault, there are many reasons it's often difficult for victims to do so. For one thing, it is very difficult to protect one's own privacy when making a criminal complaint, and not all victims of sexual assault may want their attackers to go to jail for it. For another, there is often insufficient physical evidence to proceed to criminal charges or convictions. But this doesn't mean that in such cases there's not sufficient evidence to be very confident that misconduct has occurred. I think people manage to confuse themselves into this argument: you shouldn't take any action unless you know that some wrongdoing has occurred; the only possible way to know that some possible wrongdoing has occurred is for this to be proven in a court of law; therefore, you shouldn't take any action unless wrongdoing has been proven in a court of law. Once that argument is written down it's clearly unsound: universities know lots of things that couldn't be proven in a court of law.

What does it even mean to accuse universities of 'handling criminal matters'? Is the idea that universities are handling the role of law enforcement? They're clearly not; universities don't send rapists to prison, for instance. Is it that universities treat as relevant whether certain criminal actions such as rape have occurred? I take it to be obvious that the aims of a university are at odds with having serial rapists as students. I doubt I need to spell out that reasoning; so of course the university should respond to some criminal actions, like rape. "Just leave it to the RCMP" means the same thing as "ignore wrongdoing that you know about unless it's been proven in a court of law." This is inconsistent with our responsibilities of care.

I think this Title IX page contains some good thoughts and resources—obviously things aren't exactly the same in Canada, but some of the same considerations apply.

It's also worth pointing out that universities face many decisions other than whether to expel students. There are lots of questions about how to respond to allegations of sexual assault that come in at earlier levels. Should a professor move a student into a different discussion section in response to unproven allegations of assault? Can different dorm accommodations be found? Not all the things that should be covered in university policy are or should be punitive. Universities are communities, and we have a responsibility to protect our students. "Just leave it to law enforcement" doesn't cut it.