Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jonathan Chait's recent cri de coeur on the resurgence of "political correctness" is a bit muddled about its subject, alternating between complaints that it's too extreme, that it's too identity-based, and that it's too repressive of others' free speech rights.  Needless to say, he's being pilloried from both the left and the right, the former for his treason and the latter for his hypocrisy (he's allegedly committed at least some of the crimes of which he accuses the "PC police"). 

And some of those criticisms are quite valid.  For example, complaining that "political correctness" is dangerous because it's too extreme, or otherwise wrong and terrible, is a red herring.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion regarding what is extreme or wrong or terrible, whether they are to Chait's left, to his right, or in perfect alignment with him.  I happen to agree with Chait that the ideas he's ridiculing are ridiculous, and when people who adhere to them decide to admonish me for ridiculing them, I typically laugh them off as fools, rather than warn darkly of the danger they pose.

In particular, racial, ethnic or gender essentialism--the idea that an argument's merit depends on those innate properties of the arguer--is certainly most worthy of criticism.  In many cases, it's tantamount to outright bigotry.  (See my comments on white privilege, for instance.)  But it's also pretty transparently stupid, and reasonable people shun such arguments, including Chait, myself and many others.  Lumping the purveyors of such crackpot ideas together as a dangerous movement seems a tad overwrought.

The point at which these ideas really do become dangerous, though, is the point at which they sneak their way into official or de facto policies applied by organizations with real power.  It's here that Chait's misunderstanding of the history of "political correctness" sends him badly off-course.  In Chait's telling, "political correctness" enjoyed a bit of a heyday during the 1990s on college campuses, then disappeared for a while, only to reappear lately both on campus and on Internet social fora.  In fact, the political correctness campaign of the 1990s was a coordinated effort by campus radicals and liberal college administrators to effectively purge or silence all political conservatives on most major college campuses.  The purge having largely succeeded, the campaign died down, only to heat up recently, with the same campus radicals (or their successors) attempting this time to ally with newer, more left-leaning college administrators to purge moderate or centrist liberals.  It's this new purge which has Chait, a fairly middle-of-the-road liberal despite his sometimes-incendiary rhetoric, so up-in-arms.

Some non-academic circles, particularly the journalism and entertainment industries, have also mirrored this same sequence of purges.  As Chait himself tells it, his colleagues are now loath to express opinions that might run afoul of his own circle's equivalent of campus radicals, for fear not only of rebuke, but of real loss of stature in the rather close-knit community of "mainstream" opinion journalism (overwhelmingly dominated, of course, by liberals).  And cases such as Brandon Eich's and Maria Conchita Alonso's show that enforcement of politically correct orthodoxy is not confined to college campuses alone.

The problem, therefore, is not actually "political correctness"--neither the opinions themselves nor their aggressive advocates--but rather the institutions that have been captured by those advocates and purged of opponents.  More precisely, it's that several important social institutions have repeatedly proven themselves vulnerable to such capture and subsequent purging.  Unsurprisingly, those institutions also enjoy a cartel-like non-competitive position that allows them to be co-opted without losing their social influence. 

The solution in each case, then, is not to attempt to counteract the influence of politically correct infiltrators--let alone to purge them--but rather to remove the institution's protected status, and subject it to the kind of competition that makes internal enforcement of a repressive political orthodoxy untenable.  When accredited universities and cable-carried news channels are no longer dominated by a single political outlook, and students and viewers are free to choose options they're comfortable with, then the iron grip of political correctness will inevitably fall away.  As for Chait's own field--well, perhaps he's working for the wrong type of magazine...

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Two interesting developments in on-campus politics reinforce points I've made previously about bias in the modern university:

1.  A political science professor at Marquette University has been suspended for a blog posting criticizing a fellow instructor for allegedly restricting in-class debate on gay marriage.  An obvious parallel can be drawn with the Salaita affair, in which the University of Illinois administration vetoed a job offer to a Native American studies professor based on the virulently anti-Zionist content of his Twitter feed.  Yet a web search for pages containing the names of both professors turns up remarkably few hits, most of them explaining why the cases are actually completely different.  (One distinction offered is that criticizing a fellow professor is far more egregious a breach of civility than, say, preaching hate for all the citizens of an entire country.  I'll leave it to the reader to infer the implications of that argument.)

What this juxtaposition demonstrates is that although academics remain adamant about imposing their political preferences on academia to the greatest extent possible, they're equally adamant in refusing to admit that that is in fact what they intend to do.  Arguments about "civility", consistently mustered against only certain points of view in any political debate, are transparent pretexts for the imposition of political limits on that debate. 

And those limits would be eminently defensible--if only those imposing them were willing to fess up and concede their intentions.  Marquette University, for instance, is officially a private Jesuit institution, and could at one time have been understandably expected to impose a Catholic-friendly atmosphere on its students, even at the expense of stifling "debate" about, say, the empirical falsehood of this or that tenet of Catholic dogma.  If it is instead now a bastion of liberal dogma, then why shouldn't it proudly so declare itself, and impose its moral principles accordingly?

The question answers itself, of course:  if it did so, then many (though certainly not all, and maybe not even most) students would refuse to fork over its hefty tuition, being more interested in a rigorous education undistorted by those particular doctrinal restrictions.  So instead it lies, and pretends that it is a non-partisan champion of free and open intellectual inquiry, taking no position on where it may lead.  In this respect, Marquette is no different from virtually every other university in America--as William F. Buckley Jr. pointed out more than fifty years ago.

Unfortunately, this pretense not only criminally defrauds the students who pay enormous sums to receive what they imagine to be a non-partisan education; it's also responsible for both originating and exacerbating the problem it's designed to cover up.  A university with a clearly stated mission has at least the foundation of a defense against being co-opted by a faction with a conflicting agenda, but a university embracing empty neutrality is defenseless:  between a leadership hamstrung by its obligation to at least appear to make all its decisions impartially, and a group of partisans ready to advance their cause by any means at their disposal, there's simply no doubt which side will win every political or bureaucratic battle.  Indeed, that's no doubt how the erstwhile Jesuits of Marquette University came to be completely dominated by partisan leftists in the first place. 

2.  A recent research paper has taken the highly unusual step of arguing that (per its title), "Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science".  It claims that the uniformity of political opinion in the field of social psychology introduces biases into its research, and that the solution is to increase the diversity of political opinion among researchers in the field.

The obvious question to ask is why they stop at the political biases of social psychology researchers, omitting, say, the research assistants who collate survey results, the subjects on whom the research studies are performed, the employees of the printer companies whose products print the surveys used in the studies, and so on.  Mightn't their political biases affect research results as well?

Of course, if your research methodology allows the political bias of your RAs, subjects or printer manufacturing workers to bias your research results, then there's a serious problem with your research methodology, and the solution is to fix that problem, not attempt to root out imperfect balances in political opinion wherever they might conceivably interact with your research.  But couldn't the same thing be said of the researchers themselves?  If the quality of their research depends on their collective political balance, then how can they ever even conceivably do good research, given that they will inevitably be collectively biased in some direction or other (say, in the direction of increasing government grants for social psychology research, perhaps)?  And if the research is subject to political bias, then what other kinds of bias might also be seeping into research results?  Racial bias?  Gender bias?  Religious or cultural bias?

The problem of bias--political and otherwise--in experimental results is hardly a new one, and it's actually rather shocking that social psychologists are only now beginning to discuss grappling with it.  And the fact that introducing political diversity into the field is considered a plausible and reasonable approach to the problem is a demonstration of just how pitifully na├»ve and confused the social sciences are in dealing with it.  Generating unbiased experimental results--or even getting a reasonable handle on the possible biases in one's experimental results--is extraordinarily hard, and that's one reason why scientists (supposedly) undergo such extensive and rigorous training, and why their work is (supposedly) subjected to such intensive peer scrutiny before being published.

In practice, of course, those standards have long disappeared, and much published research--even in the hard sciences, as my co-blogger is fond of pointing out--is actually transparently shoddy.  So when a social psychologist advocates increasing political diversity in the field as a way of reducing experimental bias, he should be understood to be saying, not "here's a previously-undetected source of subtle bias in our research, and here's a clever way to reduce it", but rather, "we all know that our work is shot through with bias of all kinds, which we frankly can't be bothered to try to mitigate significantly, but this particular type of bias is likely to be both obvious and annoying to the non-scientists who pay our salaries, so perhaps we should at least make some pretense of trying to address it."

Thursday, January 08, 2015

In the wake of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, numerous conservative press critics are condemning the "cowardice" of media outlets that are censoring the Charlie Hebdo's controversial Islam-ridiculing cartoons.  These critics are giving journalists far too little credit for courage:  they routinely face mortal danger all over the world, yet continue to report on far-flung places where their comrades have only recently fallen.  Pursuing the story even in the face of violence is a core journalistic value.   

But while it's clearly not cowardice that's triggering the censorship, neither is it principled reluctance to offend religious groups, as the news outlets themselves typically claim.  There are in fact many examples of newsworthy images offensive to religions other than Islam that have been given wide, generally uncensored coverage in the media, from the famous artworks "Piss Christ" and "The Holy Virgin Mary" made of elephant dung, to this New York Daily News photo of a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, which includes a carefully censored caricature of a Muslim, and a completely uncensored anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew.

Rather, journalists selectively resist or appease threats of violence the same way academics do:  based on political sympathy.  No Western journalist (or academic) would ever dream of kowtowing to threats of violence from right-wing terrorists, but threats from more politically sympatico sources--say, Hamas or the Obama White House--receive considerably more cooperation.  And while Al Qaeda-trained French Islamist terrorists may not exactly be in perfect political harmony with most Western journalists, Muslims in general--even radical ones--are definitely considered part of the broad coalition of "the left", and their sometimes-overly-rambunctious-when-aroused sensibilities are therefore more often accommodated, to avoid accusations of "Islamophobia".

Saturday, January 03, 2015

2014 was a year of understatement and overstatement for my annual predictions post, as you'll see.  Here's the recap:
  • The US economy will strengthen moderately in 2014.  The stock market will decline slightly from its current heady heights, but interest rates and inflation will rise slightly (although not enough to divert the Fed from its current oh-so-accommodative course).  Oil  and other commodity prices will decline, but real estate will continue its recovery.  The EuroZone will recover as well, but far more sluggishly, with continuing unrest (but no major upheaval) over the severely distressed PIIGS economies.
Hit-and-miss--as usual, my stock market prediction was off, along with my call on interest rates and inflation.  I was right on GDP in the US and EU, though, as well as on oil and commodity prices.  My oil price prediction might be considered so understated as to be inaccurate, but since I've made the exact same prediction for several years running, only to be proven too early in my optimism, I figure I deserve full credit this time.
  • Barack Obama's approval ratings will continue to decline, weighed down primarily by Obamacare, which will continue to accumulate angry "losers" (people whose health insurance has become narrower, more expensive or both).  Numerous other minor "scandals" will pop up over the course of the year, but none will gain significant traction with the press, and the November elections will see only small shifts in Congress, with the Republicans gaining a mere handful of House seats, and the Democrats (just barely) retaining control of the Senate.  Until then, the Republicans will content themselves by blocking various White House legislative initiatives, the administration will respond by doubling down on various expansions of executive power, and the Republicans will counter by initiating various legal actions (mostly unsuccessful) against them.
I missed badly on the final Senate tally, but I'm not too embarrassed about that--after all, so did most pollsters.  Otherwise, I think this one holds up pretty well.  The bit about Obama "doubling down on various expansions of executive power" seems like a bit of an understatement, though...
  • At least one Supreme Court justice will resign or die, and Senate Democrats will abolish the filibuster completely to prevent Republican obstruction of the resulting nominee's confirmation.
I guess I overstated the current senior liberal justice's spirit of partisan self-sacrifice...
  • The Israelis and Palestinians will sign a "framework agreement" modeled after the Iranian-American accord.  Like its predecessor, it will say absolutely nothing concrete and definitive, and will be interpreted by all sides as perfectly aligned with their own official position on every issue.  It will therefore accomplish absolutely nothing, apart from allowing both sides to maintain the status quo while asserting at the same time that they've made progress toward their strategic goals.  Meanwhile, redoubts of anti-Israel animus--academia, the press, Europe--will respond to the process by doubling down on their anti-Israel campaigns, including more American Studies Association-style boycotts.  However, violence will be confined to sporadic incidents, and Israel's economy and trade will continue their stellar trajectory.
This was probably my worst prediction--not only because it was wildly wrong, but because the actual turn of events (Hamas provoking a major violent flare-up in its ongoing war with Israel) seems quite predictable in retrospect.  The establishment of a staunchly anti-Hamas regime in Egypt, together with the preoccupation of Hamas' usual backers with the ongoing Sunni-Shia religious war taking place across the region, had left Hamas in perilous straits, requiring a major offensive on its own part in order to stay relevant and reclaim support both domestically and internationally. 
  • Elsewhere in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria will drag on with no end in sight.  The related unrest in Lebanon will increase substantially, led by relatively new radical Sunni elements rebelling against Hezbollah's dominance.  Muslim Brotherhood violence in Egypt will continue at a low level, but the military will tighten its overall grip on power.  Sectarian violence in Iraq will escalate, and the Erdogan regime in Turkey will shed all pretense of democratic rule, formally instituting structural changes that will in effect establish an AKP dictatorship, with a bit of democratic window dressing.
A very solid prediction--but again, "sectarian violence in Iraq will escalate" seems like a bit of an understatement...

  • Legalization or quasi-legalization of marijuana will spread to additional states beyond Colorado and Washington, and the next big trend in snobbish consumption will be "gourmet weed".

  • The first part, at least, seems to have panned out...

    And now for 2015's understatements overstatements predictions...
    • The US economy will continue to be robust, leading towards a new recession in the 2016-2018 timeframe.  The fed will back off on its easing, keeping inflation in check, and interest rates will climb slightly in response.  Oil prices will bounce off their lows, but still remain well below their $100-ish average of the last few years.  The US market will rise modestly from its current already-frothy highs, setting the stage for a major correction post-2015, leading into the aforementioned next recession.  Real estate will also continue to climb moderately.
    • The EU will face another year of turmoil, with massive bailouts to Greece and possibly Spain looking necessary to save the Euro.  Eventually the currency will break up--as Herb Stein famously said, "if something cannot go on indefinitely, it will eventually stop"--but it probably has a couple of more years of stagnation, bailouts and general economic misery left in it before it finally gives up the ghost.
    • President Obama's recent modest approval ratings increase (near, though not above, 50 percent) will generally hold up through 2015 following the Republican takeover of the Senate, much as Bill Clinton's did once he became the sole bulwark against the GOP-dominated Congress in 1994.  This will enable him to continue implementing his executive amnesty for illegal immigrants, defend Obamacare against legislative attacks, and support local anti-police initiatives.  The effects of these policies will be as intended:  increased illegal immigration, rising crime, and erosion of affordable employer-provided health care.  Republicans in Congress will launch legislative measures to counteract all of these, as well as various tax reform and pro-business proposals, but they will all fail, some due to internal GOP squabbles and the rest after being vetoed by the president.
    • By the end of the year, the frontrunners in the Democratic and Republican presidential candidate races will be Hillary Clinton and (out-of-the-box call, here) Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.
    • The Israeli elections will produce an inconclusive result followed by weeks of complex political wrangling, out of which Bibi Netanyahu will once again emerge as the prime minister.  He will lead a center-right coalition little different from the current one, although possibly including more ultra-Orthodox representation.  Israel's policies will therefore remain largely unchanged.  Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority will continue its current strategy of war-by-legal/diplomatic-means, while quietly continuing its security cooperation with Israel.  The EU will similarly make a grand show of supporting this international campaign, while quietly undermining it at exactly the moments when it threatens to cause concrete harm to Israel (as in the case of the recent UN Security Council vote).  Hamas and its Gaza-based partners will continue to launch terrorist attacks on Israel, with public encouragement from the PA, but those will gradually decline in frequency and effectiveness as Israel's counterterrorist forces--assisted by the PA's internal security agencies, happy to betray their Hamas rivals--get a better handle on combatting them.
    • The Islamic State will weaken considerably in the face of stiff resistance from the Kurds, the US, and internal elements tired of their incompetence, corruption and indiscriminate brutality (with emphasis on the "indiscriminate" part).  Its foreign supporters will respond by shifting their generosity towards new candidate Sunni radical forces in Syria and Iraq, who will be little better in their behavior but less enamored of the kind of grand international gestures that bring on Western countermeasures, and more willing to take on the Iranian proxy governments in Syria and Iraq directly.  The result will be continued slaughter in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
    • Nuclear talks between the US and Iran will continue to be extended without resolution, as Iran continues to refuse to denuclearize.  US sanctions will remain mostly in place--they were enacted by legislation, not by executive choice--but their effect will be eroded by increasing international disregard for them.  Fortunately, the global fall in oil prices will have roughly the same economic effect, limiting Iran's economic resources--although not enough to block its continued heavy involvement in its proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, of course.
    • Elsewhere, the decline in oil prices will weaken Vladimir Putin's Russia, forcing him to pare back his aggressive moves against European neighbors as he deals with his domestic economic crisis.  China, on the other hand, will get an economic shot in the arm from cheaper oil prices and more robust exports to the US.  
    • The recent Sony-North Korea-"The Interview" incident will turn out to be the harbinger of a trend, with more hackers making "hacktivist"-style outrageous behavioral demands of their corporate victims, and more studios milking horrible films for quick pay-per-view profits by finding a way to link them to some major current-affairs controversy.
    • This year, for the first time, someone reading this list will finally have the courage to post a prediction of their own in the comments. 
    You saw that last one--why not give it a try?  You can hardly do worse than me...

    Sunday, December 21, 2014

    One of the most effective ways to analyze the motivations of political activists is to identify discrepancies between their declared intentions and their actions.  It's well-known, for example, that supposedly "pro-Palestinian" activists are completely uninterested in publicizing or alleviating Palestinian suffering not caused by Israel, such as the starvation at the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, the Apartheid-like legal restrictions imposed on them in Lebanon, or most recently, the evictions and house demolitions along the Gaza-Egypt border.  The scant attention paid to these atrocities compared with, say individual protestors injured during violent clashes on the West Bank, demonstrates clearly that those calling attention to the latter are more concerned with demonizing Israel than actually helping Palestinians.

    A similar analysis can be applied to the "rape culture" activists currently advocating for various legal and procedural measures in response to an alleged "epidemic of rape" on US college campuses.  These measures focus on making sure that accusations of sexual assault on campus are "taken seriously"--or, more specifically, that those accused are less able to exonerate themselves.  The problem with this focus, though, is that recent statistics show that (1) rape incidence on US college campuses is low and declining; (2) sexual assault risk for college-age women is considerably higher off-campus than on; and (3) sexual assaults occurring on campus are far more frequently unreported (to the police) than those occurring off-campus.

    Given these statistics, a reasonable course of action for an activist concerned about sexual assault victimizing college-age women might be (1) to avoid raising undue alarm about a declining problem; (2) to avoid focusing specifically on college campuses, where the risk is lower than elsewhere, except perhaps in order (3) to emphasize encouraging the reporting of on-campus sexual assaults to the police, to bring them into line with off-campus reporting rates.  Of course, the activists do no such thing.  Instead, the measures they support have the exact opposite effects:  doing nothing about off-campus sexual assault, and actually discouraging the reporting of on-campus assaults to the police, by establishing or strengthening alternative processes.

    As it turns out, those processes grant enormous power to university administrators, allowing them wide discretion to impose draconian academic punishments on students based on minimal evidence.  Perhaps that's why the anti-rape activists on campus have met with so little resistance from university administrators...        

    Wednesday, December 10, 2014

    Thursday, October 23, 2014

    ''I think the existence of fake classes and automatic grades - you might say an athlete track, where essentially you might as well not have the university at all - I think that's pretty extreme. I hope it's pretty extreme,'' said Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education who studies cheating.  He was referring to the UNC Chapel Hill scandal, in which it was discovered that some 1500 student athletes were allowed to take fake courses for which they were assigned high grades based only on an essay that was briefly skimmed by a non-faculty administrator.  An investigation has been completed, resulting in several firings, and the NCAA is still considering its next steps.

    Of course, this sort of skirting of academic standards to accommodate student athletes is hardly unheard-of, and one could even call this a dog-bites-man story, unworthy of much attention--except for one widely ignored detail:  nearly half the 3100 students given credit for the bogus courses were athletes. In other words, more than half the students given credit for the bogus courses weren't athletes at all.

    Some obvious questions that will probably never receive an answer:

    1) How did non-athletes hear about and register for these courses?

    2) Was every student who asked to register for these courses accepted, and if not, what criteria were used to accept some and reject others?

    3)  If benefiting the UNC athletic program and its athletes was the internal rationale for offering these bogus courses to athletes, then what other internal rationale justified offering them to non-athletes?

    4) Why does the press insist on treating this scandal as a matter of excessive indulgence of student athletes, when over half the beneficiaries were non-athletes?

    5) If UNC could show this sort of rampant disregard for academic standards irrespective of campus athletics, then why shouldn't we expect it to be endemic in the American university system as a whole, also irrespective of campus athletics?

    Tuesday, October 21, 2014

    A while back, I noted the strikingly different cinematic treatment accorded two types of illicit romance:  the gay extramarital affair in Brokeback Mountain and the dalliance between a tennis pro and his best friend's fiancee in Match Point.  Now, a real-life episode raises a similar issue:  the rabbi at a major Washington D.C. synagogue has apparently discovered himself to be gay, and has taken the rather unusual step of publicly declaring the end of his marriage on those grounds, to a generally celebratory reception from the press.

    Now, let us put aside the halachic question--we will assume that the rabbi in question has determined his "coming out" to be in accord with Jewish law as he understands it.  (And as a Conservative rabbi, he would most likely have plenty of company within his denomination.)  More interesting to me is his public declaration that his recent self-discovery has made it necessary to end his marriage of twenty years.  Although he never explicitly gives a reason for this decision, we are left to assume that, having realized that he can no longer pretend to be romantically attracted to his wife, he has no choice but to end the charade and live life as a (presumably non-celibate) gay man. 

    Which leads me to wonder:  what if, instead of discovering that he is attracted exclusively to men, he had in fact discovered himself to be attracted to some other group that does not include his wife--say, younger, prettier women?  Would an announcement that he has chosen to be honest with himself and the world, and live life as a straight man attracted to twenty-something hotties, have been greeted with such warmth and understanding?  And if not, why not?

    The issue of social acceptance of gay and lesbian pairings is often treated as a matter of simple equality:  people who happen to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex shouldn't be treated differently from people who happen to be attracted to members of the opposite sex.  At other times, it's treated as a matter of personal freedom--everyone should be allowed the freedom to follow his or her sexual desires wherever they may lead, as long as all participants are consenting adults.  But if a middle-aged rabbi's attraction to men is different from his hypothetical attraction to younger (adult) women--if one is publicly celebrated, while the other never would be--then neither freedom nor equality quite captures the principle being demonstrated here.

    A more consistent interpretation would be that we are in the process of establishing an entirely new set of sexual mores, quite different from traditional ones, but not necessarily any less prescriptive.  (In another early blog post, I referred to it as the "college consensus"--that is, the set of beliefs and standards of behavior that the college-age cohort estimates will maximize their social attractiveness and desirability among their peers.)  Like the more traditional set, this new set of standards will have winners and losers--the already-fortunate being disproportionately winners, as always, and the relatively unfortunate disproportionately losers--and will evolve as times and circumstances change.  (In yet another earlier post, I suggested that economic and technological progress were the trigger for the widespread abandonment of "traditional values" in the sexual arena.)

    And, just as with the pre-1960s set of conventions, adherents of the new conventions will act as though their conformist moral judgments are a matter of basic common sense and decency, and never think to consider the contradictions and contingencies embedded in their worldview.      

    Thursday, October 16, 2014

    Next:  "football".  (Followed by, "Republican"...)

    Sunday, July 27, 2014

    A few random comments on the current events in the Gaza Strip...
    • I told you so...
    • On the other hand, I probably jumped the gun a bit on this one--witness this recent tweet from the Guardian's Gaza correspondent, in which he echoes Hamas' sentiment that a life-saving ceasefire is worthless unless it preserves Hamas' capacity to invade Israel and murder civilians via its tunnel infrastructure.  (Then again, it's the Guardian, which was also happy to publish this recent op-ed...)  Certainly, the polarization process I outlined eleven years ago--and thought had already peaked--has in fact continued unabated since then, to the point where the two sides now effectively view each other as satanically evil.  It will be interesting to see whether it can go any further, or whether the nakedly pro-terrorist (and by now routinely anti-Semitic) positions adopted by the anti-Israel side these days have reached a level of extremism that will begin to drive away supporters en masse
    • I expect that as soon as Israel is done with its current cleanup operation, it will redirect its efforts towards the massive project of finding and eliminating the no doubt horrifyingly large number of Hezbollah-dug tunnels lurking under the soil of Israel's northern border with Lebanon.
    • The Gaza Strip isn't the only territory ruled by adherents of an insane radical ideology that has left its destitute subjects dependent on foreign aid for their survival, while compelling them to wage an endless (and hopeless) campaign of failed conquest against its wealthier, freer American-allied neighbor, replete with tunnel-digging, senseless acts of brutal violence, and propaganda composed of almost comically absurd flourishes of over-the-top invective.  Why, then, is one leadership an object of endless ridicule in Western pop culture (the odd washed-up basketballer notwithstanding), while the other typically gets respectful or even fawning coverage?  

    Thursday, June 12, 2014

    I find it strange that Google's self-driving car project appears to be focused on small passenger vehicles, because the technology appears to me to have much more near-term potential in the long-haul trucking market.  Self-driving passenger cars, after all, offer buyers the relatively minor convenience of not having to pay attention to the road while riding between urban locations.  They also likely improve safety slightly--city driving not being all that dangerous to begin with--at some cost in speed (due to a less aggressive driving style). 

    Self-driving semis, on the other hand, offer substantial cost savings by eliminating the driver altogether.  They likely also improve safety significantly--especially at night, when infrared sensors would surely do much better than sleep-deprived humans--as well as saving considerable time by eliminating rest and meal stops.  (For really long trips, truck stops would no doubt be happy to offer filling service for driverless trucks at a tiny fraction of the cost of a full-time driver.) 

    One can easily imagine companies converting their entire fleet of trucks to driverless models, eliminating their driving staff entirely, and replacing their team of dispatchers with a few driverless truck programmers.  Putting aside the technological hurdles--which exist in both markets--it's hard to believe that the commercial trucking market wouldn't be far easier to sell on this concept than even the geekiest first-adopter consumers. 

    Sunday, May 18, 2014

    Controversy over the concept of "privilege" is apparently sweeping college campuses.  The latest round of debate began when a Princeton student, Tal Fortgang, published an essay on the subject, complaining that despite his immigrant Jewish heritage, he was routinely identified as benefiting from "white privilege", and even told to "check [his] privilege" when expressing unpopular opinions, as if he'd been the beneficiary of generations of upper-class status.  His argument has since been discussed in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and numerous other outlets, particularly in the partisan blogosphere.  But none, I think, have given a full explanation of the concept and its purpose.

    To begin with, the very concept of "privilege", defined as a benefit ascribed to those who are claimed not to suffer from racial or ethnic discrimination, is completely redundant.  We already have the much clearer concept of discrimination itself, and even the somewhat-more-vague concept of pervasive or systemic discrimination.  Turning these around and ascribing "privilege" to those who are not victims of discrimination does nothing to make our understanding of the phenomenon clearer. 

    On the contrary, it clouds understanding by implicitly recasting a quantitative phenomenon as a qualitative one.  Even its proponents admit that as defined, everyone has some degree of "privilege".  (Black people, for instance, would appear to benefit from the "privilege" of not being the victims of anti-Hispanic discrimination, and vice versa.)  But nobody ever asks a speaker to "check how much privilege you have compared to some other people".  Both its definition and its common use encourage its misguided interpretation as an all-or-nothing property. 

    Even worse, this qualitative property is then attributed purely based on racial or gender category.  Thus all white people are lumped together as benefiting from "white privilege", irrespective of their personal or family attributes and experiences.  "White privilege", then, is best described as a property attributed uniformly to all members of a particular racial group.  There's a word for such attributions:  they're called racial stereotypes.

    Defenders of the term argue that "white privilege" is  nevertheless different from pernicious stereotypes such as "black criminality" or "Jewish greed" in that all white people really do derive some net benefit from systemic discrimination against non-white people--that is, from "privilege".  There's a subtle sleight-of-hand in this argument:  the absence of a particular disadvantage is used to imply the presence of a benefit.  It's probably true, after all, that all white people are less negatively affected by discrimination against blacks than blacks themselves are.  But that does not imply that all whites derive a net benefit from discrimination against blacks.  On the contrary, since (as defenders of the concept of "privilege"--again--concede) discrimination is generally negative-sum, hurting non-victims as well as victims, it's likely that a great many--perhaps even most--whites suffer net harm from discrimination against blacks, rather than a net benefit, compared with a world without such discrimination.  Widespread discrimination against blacks in hiring, for instance, would have broad negative economic effects that would for most whites dwarf any hiring advantage gained as a result--particularly, say, in the case of a long-term unemployed white person, for whom an unrealized hypothetical hiring advantage has yielded precious little benefit, but whose employment problems may well have been exacerbated by the economic side effects of discrimination. 

    This simple observation renders the entire concept of "privilege" completely nonsensical.  It would be absurd, for instance, to claim that Americans "benefited" from "privilege" as a result of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, even though they obviously suffered less, on average, than the direct victims did.  Likewise, given that racial or ethnic discrimination against minority groups is bad for society in general, it makes no sense to claim that all whites "benefit" from it simply because they are generally hurt less than minority group members.  Hence "white privilege" is no more accurate than "black criminality" or "Jewish greed"--they're all false and unfair generalizations based on race or ethnicity. 

    There is, however, one real and significant difference:  "white privilege" wasn't generated spontaneously by a bigoted culture, but instead was deliberately invented in the American academic community and then vigorously promoted to both students and the public at large.  Why would anyone--let alone American academics, who typically declare themselves passionately devoted to racial equality--do something so perverse?

    The answer is actually quite obvious:  to justify their own brand of racial discrimination.  "Affirmative action"--that is, legally sanctioned discrimination against certain racial and ethnic groups in academic and vocational contexts--is under fire in the political sphere, since it is hugely unpopular, violates important, deeply held American values and has largely failed to close the achievement gaps it was meant to address.  Its supporters needed a rationalizing justification for its continuation, and turned to the tried-and-true method of racists throughout history:  the negative racial stereotype.  Thus do the parallels between "affirmative action" and the racist discrimination it was supposedly enacted to redress continue to grow ever closer and more compelling.

    Friday, March 21, 2014

    This is easily the most compelling explanation I've seen so far for the strange behavior of missing Malaysia Airlines airliner flight 370.  Note that the suggested path flies very close to Iran, which suggests in turn that perhaps the two Iranian "smugglers" on the passenger list deserve some additional attention.  The remaining question, of course, is what (or more likely who) on the plane was so amazingly valuable as to be worth grabbing in such an elaborate and risky operation...

    (UPDATE March 25, 2014:  The company that operates the satellite-based tracking system that received automated signals from the aircraft's engines during its flight has apparently performed a sophisticated analysis on those signals, and concluded that it actually flew south towards the Indian Ocean, rather than north towards Central Asia.  We are thus pointedly reminded--once again--that human behavior doesn't always have the most compelling explanation.)

    Wednesday, January 22, 2014

    An anonymous resignation letter from a Swiss graduate student has made a bit of a splash on the Internet lately, with many noting the uncanny accuracy of his unflattering portrayal of modern academic research.  I recommend a full reading, but the gist of his description is that academic researchers today have no interest in producing what an external observer would describe as "good research"--that is, research that significantly increases human knowledge and benefits humankind.  Instead, they devote their efforts to advancing their own petty academic-political interests: producing a large volume of narrow, conformist, incremental publications that improve their publication statistics and citation numbers; playing political games to advance their standing in the "research community"; and exploiting their graduate students for the benefit of their own careers, at the expense of the students'--and the field's--best interests.

    It's easy to compare today's research world unfavorably with its counterpart of fifty years ago or more, since what remains of the latter by this point is little beyond its legendary successes, and certainly not its day-to-day workings.  But the truth is that academic research has always had more than its share of mediocrity drenched in politics, obscurantism and conformity.  Consider, for example, this little memoir, written in 1988 by the late great Middle East scholar Elie Kedourie (and recently pointed out by his fellow Mideast scholar Martin Kramer).  It turns out that Kedourie, as well, abandoned his doctoral studies, and for reasons not at all dissimilar to those of the Swiss graduate student.  But Kedourie was not a modern Swiss scientific researcher, but rather a history student at Oxford in 1953.

    Unfortunately, the problems that have plagued researchers from Kedourie in 1953 to many young scientific researchers today are in fact fundamental weaknesses in the basic structure of academic research.  Researchers have always formed their own tiny expert communities, and thereafter demanded to be evaluated solely on the basis of peer review--that is, on the assessment of that tiny community, with no outsider being considered sufficiently expert to pass judgment on their work.  Academic newcomers are then forbidden entry until they first complete a multi-year program whose primary requirements are slavish conformity to the methods and practices of their graduate advisors' community, and voluminous difficult work exercising those methods and practices to the exacting standards of the graduate advisor and a small, hand-picked selection of his or her community peers.  And tenure has always guaranteed that these mini-communities will continue their hair-splitting line of research long after the last shred of value to outsiders has been painfully squeezed out of it.  It's hardly surprising, then, that academic research has historically been dominated by stifling conformity, petty politics and small-minded obscurantism.

    If today's community is different from those of, say, a hundred years ago, the difference is primarily that research today is a "day job" in a way that it wasn't back then.  In the era when virtually every professor was a poorly-but-steadily-paid college teacher indulging his scientific, literary or historical obsessions in the gaps between classes and perhaps publishing the odd fusty monograph every few years for an audience numbered in the dozens, it scarcely mattered whether those academic obsessions were with the great unsolved problems in science or, say, the mating habits of a particular unremarkable species of butterfly.  Today, on the other hand, the average professor is fairly well-paid, with a light teaching load, either full tenure or a near-term expectation of it, and the promise of a multi-thousand-dollar research budget to spend on conference travel, graduate student assistants and other perks--if only he or she can generate the requisite volume of peer-blessed publications. 

    What was once an eccentric but harmless academic idiosyncrasy--the practice of publishing technical expositions of one's own research that at most only a tiny audience of peers will ever read--has thus become an enormously expensive and wasteful boondoggle.  Abilities such as "selling" one's papers (writing them in a way that impresses one's peers), forming and leading networks of mutually logrolling researchers (much like the "alliances" in the reality TV show, "Survivor"), and crafting CVs and proposals that coax grants out of funding agencies, are now core academic skills much more important to career success than, say, deep scientific insight or vast erudition, much less teaching ability.  The resulting research bears all the signs of this change:  most of it is shallow and irrelevant, much is sloppy and error-ridden, and very little of it has a shelf life longer than the few months it takes to get it published and tacked onto a personal publications list.

    It's not clear how to solve this problem, but a few obvious (though sadly unrealistic) mitigations come to mind.  First of all, since 99 percent of all research is worthless, we should start by vastly shrinking the pool of researchers.  The rule that virtually all full-time college professors must generate research as part of their employment is an absurd result of tiny colleges trying to increase their stature by emulating the top universities.  It ends up not only generating a flood of pointless, abysmally low-quality "research", but also undermining the higher-quality research communities, forcing them to compete with the mediocre majority for funds, recognition and adherents

    Second, abolishing tenure certainly won't solve the entire problem--after all, most of the worst research is produced by workaholic untenured researchers, frantically churning out publications with which to establish their case for tenure.  But the protections of tenure certainly contribute to the insularity with which academic researchers indulge their worst instincts without fear of adverse consequences.  And given that academic training and peer review are guaranteed to squeeze every drop of non-conformist independent-mindedness from the peer-obsessed researcher, the likelihood of a researcher using the grant of tenure to break free from the constraints of conformity and rebel against the herd are negligible.  Tenure has thus failed in its only justifying purpose, and never comes close to paying back its enormous costs.

    Third--and most importantly--the evaluation of academic research needs to be opened up to a much wider range of assessors.  As long as researchers can rely on log-rolling among peers to protect them from external accountability, they will continue to ignore any measures of the value of their research other than their own.  The only way to force them to take into account criteria such as economic value, societal impact and the public's priorities, is to make them accountable to commercial, political and popular representatives, not just fellow academics.  The howls of outraged disgust that invariably greet such suggestions reflect not only the academic dogma that asserts that anyone outside the holy circle of researchers is an ignorant yahoo incapable of grasping even the basics of evaluating scholarship, but also the rather baser fear that external evaluators might not be quite so indulgent towards researchers as they are toward themselves and each other.  It's high time that dogma were dispensed with, and that fear realized.