Friday, November 09, 2018

On facts, opinions, and being allowed to hold and express what while being taken seriously

A friend of mine recently posted a piece from 2012, and written by Patrick Stokes titled, "No, you're not entitled to your opinion." It was really quite a good one that helps answer the question of why the statement, "you're entitled to your own opinion" is both true and untrue. After reading through it, I was reminded of another essay that could stand as a complement, written in 1989 by Isaac Asimov, titled, "The Relativity of Wrong."

I present them here, since I am not sure if or when they will disappear from the web.

First is "No, you're not entitled to your opinion" by Patrick Stokes (from Big Think)
Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.

Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Firstly, what’s an opinion?

Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”

Meryl Dorey is the leader of the Australian Vaccination Network, which despite the name is vehemently anti-vaccine. Ms. Dorey has no medical qualifications, but argues that if Bob Brown is allowed to comment on nuclear power despite not being a scientist, she should be allowed to comment on vaccines. But no-one assumes Dr. Brown is an authority on the physics of nuclear fission; his job is to comment on the policy responses to the science, not the science itself.

So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

On Monday, the ABC’s Mediawatch program took WIN-TV Wollongong to task for running a story on a measles outbreak which included comment from – you guessed it – Meryl Dorey. In a response to a viewer complaint, WIN said that the story was “accurate, fair and balanced and presented the views of the medical practitioners and of the choice groups.” But this implies an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise. Again, if this was about policy responses to science, this would be reasonable. But the so-called “debate” here is about the science itself, and the “choice groups” simply don’t have a claim on air time if that’s where the disagreement is supposed to lie.

Mediawatch host Jonathan Holmes was considerably more blunt: “there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust,” and it’s not part of a reporter’s job to give bulldust equal time with serious expertise.

The response from anti-vaccination voices was predictable. On the Mediawatch site, Ms. Dorey accused the ABC of “openly calling for censorship of a scientific debate.” This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.

So next time you hear someone declare they’re entitled to their opinion, ask them why they think that. Chances are, if nothing else, you’ll end up having a more enjoyable conversation that way.

Next is "The Relativity of Wrong" by Isaac Asimov (published in Skeptical Inquirer, posted at a personal website at Tufts)
I RECEIVED a letter the other day. It was handwritten in crabbed penmanship so that it was very difficult to read. Nevertheless, I tried to make it out just in case it might prove to be important. In the first sentence, the writer told me he was majoring in English literature, but felt he needed to teach me science. (I sighed a bit, for I knew very few English Lit majors who are equipped to teach me science, but I am very aware of the vast state of my ignorance and I am prepared to learn as much as I can from anyone, so I read on.)

It seemed that in one of my innumerable essays, I had expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight.

I didn't go into detail in the matter, but what I meant was that we now know the basic rules governing the universe, together with the gravitational interrelationships of its gross components, as shown in the theory of relativity worked out between 1905 and 1916. We also know the basic rules governing the subatomic particles and their interrelationships, since these are very neatly described by the quantum theory worked out between 1900 and 1930. What's more, we have found that the galaxies and clusters of galaxies are the basic units of the physical universe, as discovered between 1920 and 1930.

These are all twentieth-century discoveries, you see.

The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.
However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.

When my friend the English literature expert tells me that in every century scientists think they have worked out the universe and are always wrong, what I want to know is how wrong are they? Are they always wrong to the same degree? Let's take an example.
In the early days of civilization, the general feeling was that the earth was flat. This was not because people were stupid, or because they were intent on believing silly things. They felt it was flat on the basis of sound evidence. It was not just a matter of "That's how it looks," because the earth does not look flat. It looks chaotically bumpy, with hills, valleys, ravines, cliffs, and so on.

Of course there are plains where, over limited areas, the earth's surface does look fairly flat. One of those plains is in the Tigris-Euphrates area, where the first historical civilization (one with writing) developed, that of the Sumerians.

Perhaps it was the appearance of the plain that persuaded the clever Sumerians to accept the generalization that the earth was flat; that if you somehow evened out all the elevations and depressions, you would be left with flatness. Contributing to the notion may have been the fact that stretches of water (ponds and lakes) looked pretty flat on quiet days.

Another way of looking at it is to ask what is the "curvature" of the earth's surface Over a considerable length, how much does the surface deviate (on the average) from perfect flatness. The flat-earth theory would make it seem that the surface doesn't deviate from flatness at all, that its curvature is 0 to the mile.
Nowadays, of course, we are taught that the flat-earth theory is wrong; that it is all wrong, terribly wrong, absolutely. But it isn't. The curvature of the earth is nearly 0 per mile, so that although the flat-earth theory is wrong, it happens to be nearly right. That's why the theory lasted so long.

There were reasons, to be sure, to find the flat-earth theory unsatisfactory and, about 350 B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle summarized them. First, certain stars disappeared beyond the Southern Hemisphere as one traveled north, and beyond the Northern Hemisphere as one traveled south. Second, the earth's shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse was always the arc of a circle. Third, here on the earth itself, ships disappeared beyond the horizon hull-first in whatever direction they were traveling.
All three observations could not be reasonably explained if the earth's surface were flat, but could be explained by assuming the earth to be a sphere.

What's more, Aristotle believed that all solid matter tended to move toward a common center, and if solid matter did this, it would end up as a sphere. A given volume of matter is, on the average, closer to a common center if it is a sphere than if it is any other shape whatever.

About a century after Aristotle, the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes noted that the sun cast a shadow of different lengths at different latitudes (all the shadows would be the same length if the earth's surface were flat). From the difference in shadow length, he calculated the size of the earthly sphere and it turned out to be 25,000 miles in circumference.

The curvature of such a sphere is about 0.000126 per mile, a quantity very close to 0 per mile, as you can see, and one not easily measured by the techniques at the disposal of the ancients. The tiny difference between 0 and 0.000126 accounts for the fact that it took so long to pass from the flat earth to the spherical earth.

Mind you, even a tiny difference, such as that between 0 and 0.000126, can be extremely important. That difference mounts up. The earth cannot be mapped over large areas with any accuracy at all if the difference isn't taken into account and if the earth isn't considered a sphere rather than a flat surface. Long ocean voyages can't be undertaken with any reasonable way of locating one's own position in the ocean unless the earth is considered spherical rather than flat.

Furthermore, the flat earth presupposes the possibility of an infinite earth, or of the existence of an "end" to the surface. The spherical earth, however, postulates an earth that is both endless and yet finite, and it is the latter postulate that is consistent with all later findings.

So, although the flat-earth theory is only slightly wrong and is a credit to its inventors, all things considered, it is wrong enough to be discarded in favor of the spherical-earth theory.

And yet is the earth a sphere?

No, it is not a sphere; not in the strict mathematical sense. A sphere has certain mathematical properties - for instance, all diameters (that is, all straight lines that pass from one point on its surface, through the center, to another point on its surface) have the same length.

That, however, is not true of the earth. Various diameters of the earth differ in length.
What gave people the notion the earth wasn't a true sphere? To begin with, the sun and the moon have outlines that are perfect circles within the limits of measurement in the early days of the telescope. This is consistent with the supposition that the sun and the moon are perfectly spherical in shape.

However, when Jupiter and Saturn were observed by the first telescopic observers, it became quickly apparent that the outlines of those planets were not circles, but distinct ellipses. That meant that Jupiter and Saturn were not true spheres.

Isaac Newton, toward the end of the seventeenth century, showed that a massive body would form a sphere under the pull of gravitational forces (exactly as Aristotle had argued), but only if it were not rotating. If it were rotating, a centrifugal effect would be set up that would lift the body's substance against gravity, and this effect would be greater the closer to the equator you progressed. The effect would also be greater the more rapidly a spherical object rotated, and Jupiter and Saturn rotated very rapidly indeed.

The earth rotated much more slowly than Jupiter or Saturn so the effect should be smaller, but it should still be there. Actual measurements of the curvature of the earth were carried out in the eighteenth century and Newton was proved correct.

The earth has an equatorial bulge, in other words. It is flattened at the poles. It is an "oblate spheroid" rather than a sphere. This means that the various diameters of the earth differ in length. The longest diameters are any of those that stretch from one point on the equator to an opposite point on the equator. This "equatorial diameter" is 12,755 kilometers (7,927 miles). The shortest diameter is from the North Pole to the South Pole and this "polar diameter" is 12,711 kilometers (7,900 miles).

The difference between the longest and shortest diameters is 44 kilometers (27 miles), and that means that the "oblateness" of the earth (its departure from true sphericity) is 44/12755, or 0.0034. This amounts to l/3 of 1 percent.

To put it another way, on a flat surface, curvature is 0 per mile everywhere. On the earth's spherical surface, curvature is 0.000126 per mile everywhere (or 8 inches per mile). On the earth's oblate spheroidal surface, the curvature varies from 7.973 inches to the mile to 8.027 inches to the mile.

The correction in going from spherical to oblate spheroidal is much smaller than going from flat to spherical. Therefore, although the notion of the earth as a sphere is wrong, strictly speaking, it is not as wrong as the notion of the earth as flat.

Even the oblate-spheroidal notion of the earth is wrong, strictly speaking. In 1958, when the satellite Vanguard I was put into orbit about the earth, it was able to measure the local gravitational pull of the earth--and therefore its shape--with unprecedented precision. It turned out that the equatorial bulge south of the equator was slightly bulgier than the bulge north of the equator, and that the South Pole sea level was slightly nearer the center of the earth than the North Pole sea level was.

There seemed no other way of describing this than by saying the earth was pear-shaped, and at once many people decided that the earth was nothing like a sphere but was shaped like a Bartlett pear dangling in space. Actually, the pear-like deviation from oblate-spheroid perfect was a matter of yards rather than miles, and the adjustment of curvature was in the millionths of an inch per mile.

In short, my English Lit friend, living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after.

What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.

This can be pointed out in many cases other than just the shape of the earth. Even when a new theory seems to represent a revolution, it usually arises out of small refinements. If something more than a small refinement were needed, then the old theory would never have endured.

Copernicus switched from an earth-centered planetary system to a sun-centered one. In doing so, he switched from something that was obvious to something that was apparently ridiculous. However, it was a matter of finding better ways of calculating the motion of the planets in the sky, and eventually the geocentric theory was just left behind. It was precisely because the old theory gave results that were fairly good by the measurement standards of the time that kept it in being so long.

Again, it is because the geological formations of the earth change so slowly and the living things upon it evolve so slowly that it seemed reasonable at first to suppose that there was no change and that the earth and life always existed as they do today. If that were so, it would make no difference whether the earth and life were billions of years old or thousands. Thousands were easier to grasp.

But when careful observation showed that the earth and life were changing at a rate that was very tiny but not zero, then it became clear that the earth and life had to be very old. Modern geology came into being, and so did the notion of biological evolution.

If the rate of change were more rapid, geology and evolution would have reached their modern state in ancient times. It is only because the difference between the rate of change in a static universe and the rate of change in an evolutionary one is that between zero and very nearly zero that the creationists can continue propagating their folly.
Since the refinements in theory grow smaller and smaller, even quite ancient theories must have been sufficiently right to allow advances to be made; advances that were not wiped out by subsequent refinements.

The Greeks introduced the notion of latitude and longitude, for instance, and made reasonable maps of the Mediterranean basin even without taking sphericity into account, and we still use latitude and longitude today.

The Sumerians were probably the first to establish the principle that planetary movements in the sky exhibit regularity and can be predicted, and they proceeded to work out ways of doing so even though they assumed the earth to be the center of the universe. Their measurements have been enormously refined but the principle remains.
Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense of my English Lit correspondent, but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Yes, this actually is sexist. But is that necessarily a problem?

In the facebook comments section (yes, yes, I know) of an NPR article about the gender disparity of OB/GYNs, I read the following comment:
I have never seen a male OB GYN. I have always sought female doctors. It used to be difficult to find female providers. All of my OBs have also been mothers. I refuse to take advice regarding something as life altering as birth from someone who has no experience of their own.

As one can well imagine, there were MANY comments following that statement, and they generally fell into three different categories:

1. The most numerous were mostly from men who were making points like:

I will never take advice from a cardiologist that hasn't had a heart attack.

2. The next were almost all from women, who were making points like:
I don't have kids, but I would want someone who knows what it feels like to be pregnant and give birth. That's a perspective a male can never give, so if the woman prefers that her doctor DOES have that perspective, what's the big deal?

3. The final set (and the least numerous) were mostly from women (although there were some fathers mixed in there), who were making points like:
I have had my pain blown off by female doctors that couldn't believe my cramps were so bad. My favorite OBGYN was male. He was by far the most understanding and empathetic gyno I've seen.

But I was arrested by the following comment.

I agree with with original commenter. Ive always had female obgyns and midwives. Not all have had children of their own. It's not sexist to prefer to be seen by women. On a very basic, primal level, I did not want men around me when I gave birth. I wanted a woman each time.

Specifically, the point that stopped me was the simply stated sentence, "It's not sexist to prefer to be seen by women."

Hold on. Whut?

Change the gender or substitute race, and the bigotry of the statement becomes clear.

"It's not sexist to prefer to be seen by men."

Yeah, that's a sexist statement. If the whole basis for choosing a doctor boils down to whether the individual has a penis and testicles (or even possibly simply displays or identifies as male), then that's a sexist reason for choosing a doctor.

"It's not racist to prefer to be seen by whites."

Yeah, that's a racist statement. If the whole basis for choosing a doctor boils down to the melanin content of the individual, then - given how skin melanin content defines race in the US context (at least in terms of white vs. not-white), then that's a racist reason for choosing a doctor.

Similarly, it is definitely classist to say, "It's not classist to prefer to be seen by a doctor from a good family," and it is definitely ethnically insensitive to say, "It's not discriminatory to prefer to be seen by a Chinese doctor." So why would someone think and state unequivocally that, "It's not sexist to prefer to be seen by women"? I'm guessing because they are thinking two things:

1. "I'm not a bigot," and
2. "I feel comfortable with female doctors."

There could also be a bit of conflation between individual and societal sexism going on, but the presence of societal sexism (i.e., women being far less capable of exerting or having a societal effect that privileges women over men) doesn't mean that individual sexism (i.e., evaluating a particular individual's competence based solely or heavily on their sex) doesn't exist. This is definitely true in the case of racism, where societal racism (i.e., the greater levels of privilege held by whites vs. other races of similar backgrounds) doesn't negate the presence of individual racism (e.g., a black woman refusing to date an Asian man, because [insert racial stereotype of Asian men here]).

Okay, but is it wrong to have an individual preference?
I'd argue that it isn't necessarily wrong, per se. It's okay and perfectly natural to have preferences.
In the case above, it's perfectly okay and understandable to want to feel comfortable with any doctor you have, regardless of specialization.
What is wrong (at least to my perspective) is to have blinders on about the reasons for those preferences, especially if one's argument is based on taking the moral high ground (which the responding comment seems to try an do). In other words, to deny that one's comfort comes from inherent bias (based on sex, parental status, gender, socioeconomic background, race, or something else) is ultimately being dishonest. And if one is committing such denial in order to make a moral point about how one's choice that is inherently bigoted at the individual level isn't actually a bigoted choice, then that person's argument really should lose all merit.

In response to the comment, it is - definitionally - sexist to prefer a doctor based on the genitals they have (and the assumed life experiences they have accumulated based on what genitals they have). But if that's the factor that makes you comfortable when having someone take care of you, then you better be comfortable with that, instead of denying it up and down. What can help is to accept that the decision is made because of the sex of the individual (and the assumed life experiences based on that sex), and then to determine whether such criteria actually are merited, based on one's larger world views. Therefore, if one actually is and has no issues being a sexist, then such self-examination will mean that there is no problem; no inherent discordancy between intent and action. If, conversely, one believes themselves not to be a sexist, then such self-examination will (hopefully) mean that they will encounter a discordancy between their actions and their intentions, and that can lead to reviewing their choices.

But to deny that choices based on sex aren't sexist, because [insert rationalization here]? That just sets up a system of denialism that serves no one, including the person making the rationalizations.

And - at least to me - that speaks to larger societal contexts (and costs) of admitting that personal actions may be even the smallest bit bigoted. That cost is really high, which makes public admission of such motivations really difficult to do, which promotes denialism as well as promoting a sense of tribalistic protectionism. All of which makes any sense of progress even less likely.

Ah, well. I've said my two bits.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Chile calls uses the wrong name for berries

Chile is a major agricultural producer for international markets. However, its domestic market for fruits typically sold to the international market is still relatively new. This means that Chileans are learning about fruits and vegetables being grown for other parts of the world, and most of these foods don't have much of a strong history in Chilean culture, and so people are pretty open to learning a series of sounds that they then associate with what that item is. However, the sounds used to describe these fruits and vegetables are often inconsistent with what other parts of the Spanish speaking world refer to the same item. Not only that, the words used in Chile are either do not make distinctions that are made in other languages or they are a word that literally describes a completely different plant.

Case in point: cranberries.

Cranberries are native to wetlands of North America. However, they are grown in Chile, too. But for the longest time, the word that was used in Chile for "cranberry" was "arándano," which is the word used for blueberry. What makes matters worse is that the Spanish-language Wikipedia page that links to cranberry is.... "Arándano rojo" (red blueberry).

Also: redcurrants.

Similarly, the word "arándano" was also used to describe redcurrants. This has recently changed, and now redcurrants are "zarzaparillas." Okay, so the name has changed to make them distinct from blueberries (which are still referred to as "arándano"), but this has entered into a different problem: "zarzaparillas" are an actual fruit that has next to no relationship with redcurrants (or currants of any kind). Let me explain. "Zarzaparilla" is the common smilax, which is found around the Mediterranean. It is a monocot evergreen climber that happens to have bunches of dark-red berries. In comparison, redcurrant is a deciduous shrub that also happens to have bunches of berries, but these are bright red and somewhat translucent.

In other words, there is nothing at all similar between smilax and redcurrant, except that they happen to have red berries. Even if the berries aren't at all the same kind of red.

But just how dissimilar could two red-berry plants be? Well, smilax is a monocot and redcurrant is a eudicot, which means that their common ancestor had to have existed prior to the monocot-dicot divergence.... which took place 140-150 million years ago. So the common ancestor of these two plants was at least this long ago. To put that in perspective, this was right around the end of the Jurassic period, which means dinosaurs: the last time these plants had a common ancestor was when dinosaurs were walking around.

Apparently, the word used in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world for redcurrants is "grosellas." So why doesn't Chile just use "grosella"? Because it's already used for describing blackcurrants.

Ah well.....

Friday, January 05, 2018

Some people don't understand what a scientific definition is (or how to actually respond to points raised in a comment)

Recently, a friend posted the statement: "There are only two genders: male and female. Do you agree?"

This provoked a stream of comments. Most happened to take a position that favored the proposition. But then I noticed this statement:
This is a scientific question, based on data; it is not a philosophical one. Does the subject have "XX" chromosome or "XY" chromosome? It's very simple. It has nothing to do with judgment. One could inject hormones, do plastic surgery, alterations, makeup, etc. etc. all they wish, but the "XY" and "XX" chromosome will forever determine sex. It's a simple fact. 200,000+ years of evolution will not change due to the minority whims of certain members of a society.
*Sigh* As it was written, the position doesn't actually support it being a scientific question, but rather a position based around some science, while leaving out a bunch of other science. It also fails to equate sex with gender, which - in biology - are not always considered the same thing. So, to this I decided to reply:
As you laid it out, your comment has a few issues that need to be dealt with before you can call it an airtight argument.

First, are you defining "sex" and "gender" as the same thing? (Note: this isn't itself a scientific question - which you say your
explanation is - but a cultural and philosophical one. Science can work from whichever definition is used, but science itself doesn't say one way or the other, since determining the degree of synonymous-ness isn't a scientific question.)

Second, where do intersex individuals fall in your schema? (Intersex being individuals who are XXY or XYY or some other combination of more than two sex chromosomes.)

Third, where do XX embryos that have developed in environments with lots of androgens or XY embryos that developed in environments that blocked androgen production fall into your schema? (This refers to the many developmental studies in which high levels of androgens during development cause marked sexual behavioral changes that mimic that of the other sex.)

Fourth, there have been far more than 200,000+ years of evolution when it comes to mammalian sexual reproduction. (In other words, by restricting it to the last 200,000+ years, it seems that you are indicating that this is a particularly *human* issue, which circles back to the rationalization of the first point I listed, above. This is a scientific question, since restricting the evolutionary period to merely 200,000+ years means that the discussion is not about sexual reproduction in mammals in general, but to humans specifically.)

If you respond to these four points, then your argument could be drastically improved. However, as a scientist, I can tell you that your argument, as it currently stands, isn't really well-formulated scientific argument.
Although it's lengthy, I was pointing out that this guy needed to address four things for his argument to be more scientific:
  1.  Define "gender" in terms of its relation with the term "sex."
  2. Explain how to manage with intersex individuals within his definition.
  3. Explain how to manage with individuals who developed with heightened androgens within his definition.
  4. Explain how his limitation to 200,000+ years of evolution is sufficient to explain sex differences, the presence of intersex individuals, and the impact of androgen environments on brain development.
Seems pretty straight-forward, no? Okay, maybe it's not easy to do, but what I got back was laughably indignant:
Umlud, your total argument is false. First off, bastardization of the language. Sex and Gender are interchangeable in this case.  [Presentation of dictionary definitions as opposed to science-based definitions.]You can play with words and bastardize their definitions all you want. But words have meanings.

*There is much debate in the scientific community over the XXY chromosome (Klinefelter Syndrome - an anomaly)
These occur in 1 out of about 50,000 males. It generally does NOT make them "feel like a woman in a man's body."
Please prove that it does, you might win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Wow. It seems like this guy didn't really get past point 1, and it doesn't seem like this guy really understood what I was saying in my comment. My point was that he needed to determine how sex and gender were related, and not make a commentary on whether sex being different from gender is a bastardization - a claim that I never made. (Take heed: he will continue to make commentaries on claims I don't actually make.)

As for there being "much debate" about people with Klinefelter Syndrome... I don't know what he's talking about. As far as I know, there is no debate about the existence of Klinefelter Syndrome. And it is bloody clear that XXY is not the same as either XX or XY, which were the only two examples he was providing in his "scientific" definition. And note - for the second time in one comment - he responds to a claim that I never made ("It generally does NOT make them 'feel like a woman in a man's body'").

So, I try again:
Thanks for your response, but you have failed to harmonize point 4 with your position on point 1.

As for the response to point 2, you haven't actually incorporated it into your position, especially given how you have chosen how to respond to poi
nt 1.

I don't see your response to point 3.

As of right now, you haven't revised your initial argument, taking into account of the deficiencies I have pointed out. You have only given definitional answers to the points I raised, which is not the same thing as actually using those definitions to improve on your deficient opening argument. Even though I don't agree with your thesis, I remain more than happy to help you craft an argument with far fewer internal errors than what you have.

Let me know if you'd like that assistance or if you're happy to let your faulty argument stand as-is.
I was thinking that - maybe if I pointed exactly to the things that he should be addressing - he might actually come up with answers to the critiques I proposed. I had hoped that this would be enough. Boy was I wrong:
Nope. Your argument is off from the get go. Your definitions are crooked. No sense in arguing if someone is going to choose definitions of terms ad lib: Basic Law 101. Hey [moderator] I thought you were going to delete this post (for the litany of arguments I did post that tore Umlud's arguments to pieces and addressed what he wrote - as I predicted he would - (that FB stopped me from posting - as evidenced by the screen captures sent to you by private message.) I can’t argue fairly if FB blocks me from doing so. So I’m out.
Apparently, someone flagged his comment, which is annoying, especially when there is a nice back-and-forth going on between two people who (appear) to be happy with continuing with that back-and-forth. But what I find hilarious is this guy's continuing preference to respond to claims I never made. This time it's a return to a presumption that I am the one choosing definitions (I'm not; I was letting him choose his own definition). His moaning that his comment - where he "tore my arguments to pieces" - was lost. Oh, well, if it was so good, I'm sure that he could just write it again - maybe with an even better presentation. And then he made this statement (presumably about people who have Klinefelter Syndrome):
Jeez... There’s a reason they called anomalies...
Ooooh, boy. He makes this statement without understanding the ramifications of saying that people with Klinefelter Syndrome are anomalies...? (I am being kind and assuming that he means it in a statistical sense, and not in some normative sense.) But if he is saying that it is statistically anomalous to have Klinefelter Syndrome, how does that square with being transgender? Both are statistically anomalous, but that doesn't mean they don't exist! And if he is happy to exclude people with Klinefelter Syndrome from his definition, then why is he not willing to exclude transgender people, too?

... and he still never addressed the question about people who develop in high androgen environments! Given his position on people with Klinefelter Syndrome, and his stated position on people who are transgender, then what is his position about people who develop with major hormonal exposure?

But before I could formulate a full response (I was on my phone at the time), he shoots off two short comments, which erode the validity of his initial position:
Refer to the words “both genders.” Your initial premise is wrong.
I have reviewed the texts. No one has ever written "both genders." He is - again - responding to claims I never made.
By the way, there are people born with two heads, etc. These are called anomalies too; they are extremely rare.
Yes, they are statistical anomalies, because they are so extremely rare. This point is not helping his position, though, for the exact reasons I explained above. I did manage to compose a response to his points, though:
Please show me where your initial comment uses the phrase "both genders." It's late here and I might have missed it.

But, again, if you are going to equate sex and gender, then you still need to take care of point 4 that I explained to you initially.

That you don't want to actually address the weakness in your argument that is point 4, given your stated preference for your definition, is somewhat worrying, especially since it seems like you really do want to make a solid and valid science-based argument.

However, as I pointed out in my initial comment, your argument - as it was presented - was lacking in four specific areas. You have answered the first point, and you seem to be wanting to ignore the second point by calling it an anomaly. Of course, if you choose to call intersex an anomaly, it returns us back to the question of your definition, and whether you wish it to be universal in nature or exclusionary of anomalies. If the former (i.e., universal definition), then you must find a scientific way to include intersex while excluding transgender. If the latter (i.e., exclusionary definition), then you must find a scientific way to justify excluding intersex from the definition, but including transgender.

The same goes with point 3, and how you will choose to include or exclude them from your definition, and the scientific reasons for doing so.

I look forward to reading what you come up with.
Again, I was hoping - perhaps a faint hope - that this guy would be able to understand that - in all his off-base comments - he wasn't actually responding to things that I actually was talking about, even though he continuously thought that he was making responses to things that I was talking about. His response the next day is just too funny:
I can’t argue with you when you fail to read or comprehend what I have already posted. It is plain as day when I wrote of two genders, then fully explained why your criticism of that comment was wrong... I don’t know why any “scientist” (It’s nearly impossible for anyone to call them self a “scientist” - without a PhD - scientists nearly ALL have PhDs) and if you do have a PhD then how in the hell do you have time to argue this nonsense on FB with idiots like us? Look it up: nearly all “Scientists” need a PhD to live and eat. I seriously doubt you do...then that makes you a fibber or a bs’er (I suspect the latter hence your twisting language) if so, why bother arguing with you?
What's funny is not the part where he claims that I am almost certainly not a scientist. (Yes, that part is funny, too.) But what I found so funny is that he claims that he made a criticism of my comment. Unless he is redefining words, I didn't see any substantive criticism to any actual claim that I made. I saw plenty of retorts to claims that I never made, but to actual positions that I stated? Nothing. (Well, except for clarifying that he wants to say that sex and gender are the same.)

Then there's that strange point that he seems to be making that a scientist is the only one who can make scientific arguments. (I'm not 100% certain he is saying this, though, because his syntax is so muddled in that part of his comment.) But if he wants to make having a PhD in a scientific discipline the basis for making a scientific argument, then he cannot make a scientific argument, unless he has a PhD in a scientific discipline. I mean, if I'm the goose, then he's the gander.

Also, his desire to shift the argument from actual points of his definition to arguing about my attitude and making wild presumptions about whether I am a scientist is - unfortunately - the mark of a person who cannot figure out how to disengage from an argument he knows that he is losing: try to smear the person, and that will hopefully allow you to disengage from the argument, since it's not worth arguing against someone "bad."

It was clear that he wanted to finish, but it was clear that he wanted me to raise the white flag, and not him. So I decided to let him go, but with one final comment:
I have a PhD. From the University of Michigan. In ecology and natural resource management. So, I guess that makes me a scientist, as per your definition. Cheers? But since you brought it up, what are your qualifications for making scientific claims? Do you have a PhD in a science discipline?

As for this particular topic, I took physiology and brain development several years ago, but I also have been reading papers on the topic. Not enough to actually qualify as an expert in the field, but enough to know what's going on.

Next, to your point about me making definitions. I think you may have confused my conversation with you with someone else's points. I merely asked if you were equating sex and gender, not that they cannot be the same thing. I was then saying that - if you equate the two - then the scientific, biological implications of that action will require you to make certain adjustments to your definition, namely intersex individuals and individuals affected by androgens during fetal development. I then finished by pointing out the problem of citing 200,000+ years as your time reference, since - again, from a evolutionary biology starting point - that time frame explicitly limits the discussions to that of the evolution of modern humans, while the evolution of mammalian sexual reproduction extends far beyond your stated time frame. The science-based implication of setting such a limitation to your definition is that it would insufficiently cover the points you were trying to make, especially when you would need to incorporate individuals who are intersex and who developed under higher levels of androgens.

At no point did I say that your choice of definition was not scientific. And at no point did you actually write of two genders. Sure, you might have implied it, but definitions require the terms to be explicitly stated, or else people can infer whatever they want.

Also, I don't think I failed to understand the terms that you wrote. However, it seems that you have failed to either understand or much care about how the argument you wrote is not actually scientifically valid, given the shortcomings that I outlined. I come to this latter conclusion by your repeated statements that you refer to things that you never actually wrote, and that you infer intention and understanding on my part for things to which you don't actually have evidence, one way or another.

I will understand if you don't really wish to continue this particular conversation, even though I have been thoroughly tickled by your comments imposing motivations on me without evidence on your part. Still, if you wish to actually make a substantive response in the form of a restatement of your initial argument, which adequately takes into account the points made (by a scientist!) regarding the internal and external validity of the statement you made, I'd be happy to read it. If you prefer not to do so, though, I completely understand; scientific rigor isn't for everyone.

That was over 24 hours ago. Still no response from him.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Why understanding context when asking a question is important

In a recent forum discussion, one person asked if Chile celebrated January 1 as a holiday. It seemed to many who responded to be a rather odd question, given the historical and cultural contexts. But then someone had to bring up the point that "well some countries don't observe a national holiday on January 1."

Yes, that's true, but there are a few things that are odd about the question, and even more infuriating about that "well some countries" response.

1. This is a question that is reliably google-able. From the Wikipedia page that comes up as the first result, we get.
Public Holidays in Chile:
January 1 New Year's Day Año Nuevo Blue laws forbid opening of most services.

Looking down the list for the first Chilean (e.g., *.cl) webpage, we find, which says:
Monday, January 1 New Year's Day
And what does "Inalienable" mean? If one does a little bit of googling (this time in Spanish), one finds that it means basically everything shuts down, except emergency services, hotels, gas stations, and family-run businesses. But even without that knowledge, a contextual assessment (plus a working knowledge of English) will inform you that New Year's Day is a pretty big holiday in Chile.

So yeah. That's easy to see.

2. The "not every country celebrates New Year's Day" is one of those facts that is true, but is useless when said out of context. What do I mean?

It is true that there are countries that don't celebrate some sort of holiday on 1 January. Strangely, a quick google search didn't pull up anything, so I ended up using the holiday information from to build a world map that showed the countries that do and don't have some sort of national observance on 1 January:

Basically, blue countries are those that celebrate New Year's Day on 1 January. (They might celebrate a cultural new year at some other time during the calendar year, but on 1 January, there is a celebration of an "international" New Year's Day.) Countries in yellow celebrate something in addition to - or in place of - New Year's Day.

The nine countries in red don't have any official celebrations listed for 1 January.

Note a few things:
i) All countries in South America celebrate 1 January as a holiday.
ii) All countries in the entire New World celebrate 1 January as a holidary.
iii) All countries that used to be part of the Spanish Empire celebrate 1 January as a holiday.
iv) Most of the countries that don't celebrate 1 January as a holiday are concentrated around one part of the globe.

So there is no nation in the geographic or cultural contexts in which Chile finds itself that don't celebrate 1 January as a holiday. In fact, since most countries in the entire world do celebrate 1 January as a holiday, saying "well some countries don't celebrate it" is true, but basically useless in most contexts.

In sum, we learned that Chile does have a national holiday on 1 January. The name of that national holiday - in English - is New Year's Day. And saying "well some countries don't have a holiday on 1 January" is true, but basically useless information in many contexts.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Hurricane Irma, warm oceans, and expanding the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale

Back in 2011, I wrote about the current five-category hurricane system that the US uses (known as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale), noting that the foundational logic of the scale was based on structural engineering questions:
a former NOAA hurricane center administrator and co-inventor of the SSHS that, "there is no reason for a Category 6 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale because it is designed to measure the potential damage of a hurricane to manmade structures. If the wind speed of the hurricane is above 155 mph (249 km/h), then the damage to a building will be 'serious no matter how well it's engineered'."
The current scale tops out at a "Category 5," which is any sustained wind speed above 155 mph. However, if one uses the threshold values for Categories 1 through 5 to develop a regression equation, it is possible to extend this relationship ever outward. Specifically, a revised category scale would be something like this:
Category 1: <95mph
Category 2: 96-110mph
Category 3: 111-130mph
Category 4: 131-150mph
Category 5: 151-175mph
Category 6: 176-205mph
Category 7: 206-235mph
Back in 2011, Hurricane Camille had sustained wind speeds of 175 mph, which is what prompted me to write that post. Currently, Hurricane Irma is reported as having sustained wind speeds of 185 mph, making it the strongest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history. However, based on the current hurricane scale, both Camille and Irma are classified as Category 5, even though Irma is obviously far stronger than Camille (which was - itself - a massive hurricane).

Indeed, the current system is fundamentally limited and fundamentally limiting, since one loses any sense of comparative scale once you enter "Category 5." And what would it hurt to look at adding a "Category 6," especially if warming waters are known to lead to stronger and more sustained hurricanes? Indeed, with warming oceans, hurricanes that will reach sustained wind speeds between 175 and 205 mph will not be theoretical. Indeed, Hurricane Irma is proof-positive that such hurricanes can and will form.

But so what? Why would that matter?

Well, in the US, the SSHS is a widely known and used shorthand for hurricane strength. It's something that people latch on to when discussing preparedness measures and when making comparisons against past events. But if the maximum scale is effectively open-ended, the designation "Category 5" will be shared by a hurricane with wind speeds of 155 mph and another with winds speeds of 185 mph (like Hurricane Irma). And the simple fact is that wind speeds of 185 mph are fundamentally different than wind speeds of 155 mph, and placing both in the same open-ended category will not help with making short-hand comparisons that would be equivalent to comparing a Category 4 hurricane against a Category 3 hurricane.

The way we categorize natural phenomena is important, since it structures the way that we view and respond to the world, and if we continue to use a hurricane classification system whose comparative utility declines into a future that is expected to have stronger hurricanes, that can impact the type of public response given to future storms.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Some things to consider when thinking about political trends

I don't write so much these days on this blog, but that doesn't mean that I've stopped thinking about some of the themes that I have written about in the past. Today, I want to write a little about US national politics and trends. Specifically, I want to write a little about the US Presidential elections, and what it means for Democrats.

This urge was spurred on by an article I read at Vox ("What right-wing populism?"). Okay, the author makes some shortcuts by basically equating liberals with progressives and those with Democrats, but given the dominant duality of the US political system, that short-hand has become so commonplace that it is effectively taken as synonymous in many corners. However, he makes some good data-backed rhetorical points about the public wanting government spending even as they might say that they don't want government spending.

But this got me thinking about the "Trump Revolution" (of 2016) and the earlier "Reagan Revolution" (that happened in 1980). In both cases, the narrative was that working class/blue-collar voters moved from the Democrats to the Republicans. But in 2016, that story never rang true for me. After all, Hillary won the popular vote (and - indeed - the polls predicted the popular win quite accurately). And the increase in Republican votes between 2012 and 2016 was basically a rise of 2 million, but less than 1 million when Bush ran to his first popular vote victory in 2004. But - because the US population was lower in 2004 than 2016, this "less than 1 million than Bush in 2004" figure means that Bush actually won a greater percentage of the vote (29.06% of all voting-age Americans) than Trump (26.74% of all voting-age Americans). But let me unpack that a little bit, because those numbers seem too small.

What I wanted to do was to create an assessment of how many voting-age Americans did each party's candidate win in each POTUS election? Now, in every year, not all people vote (indeed, the average voter turnout for a POTUS election since 1940 is 56.3%). Therefore, if there is a year where the voter turnout is only 50% (like 1988), then a victory of 53.4% (which George H.W. Bush got) means that only 27.6% of voting-age Americans actually cast a vote for Papa Bush. Indeed, counted this way, most POTUS victories since 1940 were won with less than 1/3 of all voting-age Americans actually casting a ballot for the victor, save for four Presidents: FDR (1940, 34.4%), Ike (1952, 35.1%; 1956 35.0%), JFK (1964, 37.97%), and Tricky Dick (1972, 34.11%).

Okay, so what, though?

Well, if there was a major shift from Democrats to Republicans in 1980 with Reagan and 2016 with Trump, then there should have been a major shift in the share of voting-age Americans that the Republicans won in those years, and a consonant decline in Democrats compared to each previous election. With Reagan, we do see this:

Republicans: 26.24% (1976)     27.14% (1980)     +0.9%
Democrats: 27.36% (1976)     21.93% (1980)     -5.43%

But with Trump? Not so much:

Republicans: 26.37% (2012)     26.74% (2016)     +0.37%
Democrats: 28.53% (2012)     27.96% (2016)     -0.57%

So what's going on? Basically, the Republicans did gain more votes since the previous election, but 2016 was nothing like 1980. The change in Democratic vote-share in 2016 was nowhere near the enormous shift seen in 1980 moving away from Carter. And we see this in shifts in the popular vote from 2012:

Republicans: +2,050,000 votes compared to 2012
Democrats: -60,000 votes compared to 2012.

But, given the simple fact that Trump's share of voting-age Americans (26.74%) is basically the same as the average GOP vote-share since 2000 (26.78%) means that the power of Trump/Pence in the elections was not really any different from Bush/Cheney, McCain/Palin, or Romney/Ryan.

The only real difference is on the Democrats' side.

So 2016 isn't so much a story of conservative or right-wing America surging, but rather a story of liberal or left-wing American choosing to stay home. This, together with the Vox article, strongly suggest that - if liberal/progressive/Democratic Americans actually got out to vote - then there would be a dramatic across-the-board shift. Luckily for conservatives, the percentage of liberals/progressives who go and vote is lower than the percentage of voting conservatives.

(Note: All numbers are drawn from a simple set of calculations using voting statistics drawn from Wikipedia pages on presidential elections between 1940 and 2016.)