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How to evaluate an argument February 15, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Reason.
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  1. If the argument’s bottom line agrees with what you already believe, go to 8.
  2. Else, begin reviewing the argument in detail.
  3. If you find anything that is just too offensive or counter-intuitive to entertain, go to 8.
  4. Else, if you find anything that could be given a label known to be bad (such as “socialism” or “scientism” or “reductionism”), go to 8.
  5. Else, if you’re able to rebut a simplistic, caricatured version of the argument, go to 8.
  6. Else, conclude there must be something wrong with the argument that escapes you at the moment. (If you’re curious, google “why X is wrong”.) Go to 8.
  7. Turns out you were wrong — change your mind! Go to 9.
  8. Turns out you were right! There’s no need to change your mind.
  9. Congratulate yourself for being rational.

Ulysses and Mo February 4, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom.
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In 1921, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice issued obscenity allegations against Margaret Caroline Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of a literary magazine that had been serializing James Joyce’s Ulysses.

During the trial, the assistant district attorney announced that he would read the offending passage aloud to the court, a proposition to which one judge objected. The judge believed such indecent material “should not be read in the presence of a young woman such as Anderson”… When it was pointed out to the judge that Anderson was the publisher, he declared that he was sure “she didn’t know the significance of what she was publishing”.

NewYorkSocietyForTheSuppressionOfViceThe passage was eventually read in court; but the editors were ultimately found guilty, and the publication of Ulysses was banned in the United States for the next twelve years.

The law may have changed, but there are still those who seek to force their narrow-minded sensibilities on everyone else — and those who would preemptively censor any potential source of “offense”.

[British] Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of a t-shirt with a crudely-drawn cartoon entitled ‘Jesus and Mo’ which he describes as an “innocuous” and inoffensive.

However the image has caused fury among some members of the Islamic community who believe images of the prophet Muhammed are forbidden.

More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the Liberal Democrats to suspend Mr Nawaz. Some have even suggested a fatwa should be placed on him while others have threatened they would be “glad to cut your neck off”.

This is what Nawaz posted:

maajidtweetViewers learning about the story from Channel 4 News, however, would not have seen that image; they were shown this instead:


In response to complaints, Channel 4 News defended its decision:

As we are sure you can appreciate, this is a very sensitive subject for many viewers. Channel 4 News editorial staff gave great consideration to the issues involved and believe that they reached a fair and balanced judgement, weighing up the potential for offence to some viewers by showing the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed and the necessity of showing the cartoon in full.

The senior editorial team decided that the showing of the entire illustration, whilst likely to cause offence, was not integral to the story, and therefore took the decision to pixelate. Whilst we acknowledge your views, we believe that on balance this was the correct decision and as a rule, where we consider the likelihood of significant offence to our audience, we will attempt to mitigate against that. As to not pixelating the image of Jesus, it was not felt that the same level of offence was likely to be provoked as the image is commonly depicted in cartoon form.

You know what else some people are offended by? The sight of a woman’s uncovered hair. Or uncovered face. Will Channel 4 News also be blacking out all female faces on its programs?

And can you believe they claimed that showing the relevant cartoon in a segment entitled ‘Cartoon controversy’ was “not integral to the story”!?

Journalists should be the first to defend freedom of expression against its enemies. When we censor ourselves so as not to offend the bullies, the bullies win; and we are all less free. In their cowardly attempt to not choose a side, Channel 4 News placed themselves squarely on the wrong one. Respecting unreasonable demands doesn’t make you “fair and balanced” — it makes you part of the problem.

(via Butterflies & Wheels)

We were true believers January 25, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Politics.
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From Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984):

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.

Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!

And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!

… whether they knew or didn’t know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?

… Isn’t his “I didn’t know! I was a believer!” at the very root of his irreparable guilt?

Saving your queen January 20, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Politics, Reason.
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Photo by Andreas KontokanisIn chess, it’s generally a good idea to sacrifice a knight in order to capture an opposing rook, or to sacrifice a rook in order to capture the opponent’s queen. The pieces’ standard valuations (a queen is worth more than a rook, a rook is worth more than a knight, etc.) are useful for guiding basic strategic decisions — but there are exceptions. Sometimes, sacrificing your queen for a lesser piece is actually your best option, and will save you from defeat or even lead you to victory. In such a case, it wouldn’t make any sense for a player to insist on adhering to the principle that the queen shouldn’t be exchanged for lesser pieces, as if that were an end in itself. The relative valuation of the pieces is just a heuristic — a “rule of thumb” — providing a useful simplification that often leads to good results. But in the end, all that matters is winning the game. A smart player knows to disregard a heuristic in situations where it would not actually further the ultimate goal.

In our ongoing attempts to build and maintain a civil society, we have discovered and refined many wise principles. It’s important to remember, however, that these rules are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Principles like freedom of speech, for example, or the right to a fair trial, lead so reliably to increased individual well-being and societal health, that we’ve determined they should be protected by law, not to be abridged without a very compelling reason. They can be abridged, though — in situations where doing otherwise would, on balance, cause greater harm. For instance, we would deny freedom of speech from someone inciting murder; and we would deny the right to a trial from a terrorist if killing him is the only way to save an innocent life.

Other cases seem more prone to confusion. For instance, some people think the principle of “religious freedom” means they have the right to do anything their religion tells them, including denying lifesaving medical treatment from children and blocking other people’s access to contraception. But religious freedom is valuable only insomuch as it promotes a free and equal society, where people may live their lives as they see fit without interference — provided they do not interfere with the freedoms of others. Religious freedom is no more absolute than freedom of speech or the right to a fair trial, and it must give way the moment it causes more harm than good. (The fact that religious people in the instances above believe they aren’t causing harm is irrelevant, since there’s no rational basis for that belief.)

Another example is the idea that private-sector, free-market solutions are preferable to government regulation. As a general rule, this principle has been shown to promote societal flourishing (on balance). However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain domains, like health care, where free-market solutions don’t work, and government regulation is necessary to prevent a greater harm. Yet some people seem to have an almost mystical faith that laissez-faire capitalism can do no wrong.

Admittedly, in complex situations, it’s not always obvious which among conflicting principles should take precedence, or which alternative will cause the least harm. It’s legitimate and healthy to debate the pros and cons of different options, falling back to first principles if necessary. But we must be wary of turning useful heuristics into infallible dogmas to be followed blindly, as if they were valuable for their own sake, regardless of the actual consequences for human well-being. We must not let the pursuit of proxies overshadow what really matters. For what will it profit a man if he saves his queen, but loses the game?

We’re going after them January 11, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Economics, Law, Politics.
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In 1971, President Nixon launched “a full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse in America.” In 1982, though the battle had not yet been won, President Reagan was optimistic:

The mood toward drugs is changing in this country, and the momentum is with us. We’re making no excuses for drugs—hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them. As I’ve said before, we’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we’re going to win the war on drugs.

So, did we win yet? Let’s see…

Source: http://www.unodc.org/unodc/secured/wdr/Cocaine_Heroin_Prices.pdf

Source: unodc.org

Source: http://www.justice.gov/dea/about/history/staffing.shtml

Source: justice.gov

Well, I guess we must not yet have captured or killed enough of the enemy. I’m sure victory is near, though, and it will all have been worth it! No excuses — no surrender!

The abounding of impiety and profanity January 8, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Law, Religion.
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Thomas Aikenhead, a medical student, was indicted for blasphemy in Edinburgh, 1696:

the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra’s fables, in profane allusion to Esop’s Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Muhammad to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.

Thomas Aikenhead was hanged on January 8th, 1697. He was twenty years old.

Though Aikenhead was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy, the United Kingdom abolished the last of its blasphemy laws in England and Wales only in 2008. (And of course, some people are working hard to make “insulting religion” an international crime.)

Aikenhead had petitioned the Privy Council to repeal his sentence, but

the Privy Council ruled that they would not grant a reprieve unless the church interceded for him. The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, sitting in Edinburgh at the time, urged “vigorous execution” to curb “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”.

The gap has grown January 1, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Evolution, Science.

flat-earthImagine discovering that your neighbor, a seemingly intelligent, well-adjusted member of society, believes that the sun orbits the earth, or that diseases are caused by demons. Presumably, your first thought would not be “Let me get the relevant evidence and convince him he’s wrong about cosmology and medicine,” but rather, “How could a sane person in today’s world believe such things?” Believing ideas that were scientifically discredited long ago betrays a serious problem with one’s process for forming beliefs about the world.

There can’t be many people so out of touch with reality in our modern society, though, right?

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

As embarrassing as that is, the situation is actually even worse:

About half of those who express a belief in human evolution take the view that evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” (32% of the American public overall). But many Americans believe that God or a supreme being played a role in the process of evolution. Indeed, roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”

— which is like believing that the earth is carried around the sun on Atlas’s back, or that diseases are caused by germs controlled by aliens. So really, only a third of Americans accept scientific, non-magic evolution.

Remember that rejecting evolution is just a symptom: the underlying malady is the rejection of scientific, evidence-based reasoning. Where is that attitude coming from?

It will be no surprise that beliefs about evolution were found to differ strongly by religious affiliation (with evangelical Protestants bringing up the rear). However, there were sizable differences by political affiliation as well:

Republicans are less inclined than either Democrats or political independents to say that humans have evolved over time. Roughly two-thirds of Democrats (67%) and independents (65%) say that humans have evolved over time, compared with less than half of Republicans (43%).

The size of the gap between partisan groups has grown since 2009. Republicans are less inclined today than they were in 2009 to say that humans have evolved over time (43% today vs. 54% in 2009), while opinion among both Democrats and independents has remained about the same.

It is essential that we confront and defeat the enemies of reason — by unequivocally insisting on the value of intellectual honesty and reality-based thinking, and by showing no tolerance or respect for bad ideas. Success on that front will not only undermine disbelief in evolution; other irrational ideas will inevitably erode as well.

The Magic Dogma Ball December 25, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Humor, Reason.
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It is certainThis holiday season, take all the hard work out of finding the answers to life’s more perplexing questions: the Magic Dogma Ball™ has all the answers you’ll ever need! Ask any question, no matter how complex, and the Magic Dogma Ball™ will give you the definitive answer (according to your selected tradition). No thinking required!

The Magic Dogma Ball™ answers questions about ethics, politics, metaphysics, fashion, sex, and more. Possible answers include:

  • It is certain
  • Without a doubt
  • It is forbidden
  • Don’t even think about it

The Magic Dogma Ball™ is long-lasting and can remain in your family for generations — no tuning or adjustments necessary. Give your loved ones the gift of Certainty today!

Recommended for children and adults age 0 and up.

Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Scientology, and Aztec versions available.

Caution: Do not mix different versions of the Magic Dogma Ball™ among children in the same household, neighborhood, or school. We are not responsible for the consequences of contradictory answers provided by different traditions.

Have always and will always December 1, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Law, Religion.
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It is often argued that beliefs (especially religious beliefs) are a private matter, and that it’s wrong to criticize people’s deeply-held faith. The problem with “let everyone believe whatever they want”, however, is that our beliefs inevitably influence our actions. If, for instance, you believe that doing X is extremely important, you’ll naturally try to get others to do it. In extreme cases, you might even try to force people to do X for their own good — or for the good of their children. For example, I believe that saving children from disease and death is extremely important; so if a parent were withholding lifesaving medication from their child, I would advocate using the power of the law to override that parent and medicate the child. Most people would presumably agree that such action is reasonable — but it’s only reasonable insomuch as the underlying beliefs (e.g., regarding disease, death, and medication) are themselves reasonable.

On the other hand, consider this:

The Supreme Rabbinical Court for Appeals in Jerusalem has upheld a ruling demanding that a mother pay NIS 500 [$140] every day until she agrees to have her son circumcised…

The panel of three rabbinical judges of the Supreme Rabbinical Court said in their decision on Monday that the mother was objecting to the procedure as a way of gaining better terms in the divorce settlement and dismissed her appeal…

The mother said, however, that after looking into the matter she decided she did not want the boy to be circumcised on ethical grounds.

“I don’t have the right to cut his genitals and wound him, and the rabbinical court does not have the right to force me to,” she told Channel 2 news…

“The Jewish people have always and will always see in the brit mila [circumcision] the completion of the act of creation,” [the judges] continued.


“This matter lies within our purview because the minor’s educational experience will be defined by the decision on circumcision,” the rabbinical judges wrote in their ruling…

In Israel, rabbinical courts are entrusted with the marriage and divorce of Jewish couples. As such, they can rule on a wide range of issues when they hear a case.

The woman appealed to the Great Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem but the court refused to overturn the lower court’s ruling. “If the issue of circumcision is now left to every individual to decide, how will the rest of the world view this? It would be unthinkable to have authority in this matter stripped from the rabbinical sages of the people of Israel.”

Authority in this and all legal matters needs to be immediately stripped from rabbinical sages, priests, mullahs, and all others who value faith and adherence to tradition over reason and evidence; while the irrational belief systems that motivate them need to be treated with the same scorn those “judges” showed a mother and her son.

Frames vs. reality October 27, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Economics, Math, Reason.

Suppose your household owns two cars, which are used equally: car A gets 8 miles per gallon of fuel, while car B gets 25. You have the opportunity to either trade in car A for a newer model that gets 10 miles per gallon, or you may trade in car B for a model that gets 50 miles per gallon. Which choice would save you more on fuel costs?

This seems like a no-brainer: trading in car A improves its mileage by only 2 mpg (25%), while trading in car B improves its mileage by 25 mpg (100%)! Just for fun, let’s use our brain anyway, and do the math. If each car drives 10,000 miles a year, then upgrading car A would save 250 gallons (consuming 1000 instead of 1250), while upgrading car B would save only 200 gallons (consuming 200 instead of 400) — so choosing to trade in car A would save you 25% more money!

frameHow could our intuition have been so wrong? The cause of the error (dubbed “The MPG Illusion” by psychologists Richard Larrick and Jack Soll) is in the framing of the question. We don’t really care about optimizing the distance we can drive on a fixed amount of fuel; we want to optimize the amount of fuel we consume for the distance we drive. Consider this alternative formulation of the above choice: you can either upgrade car A from .125 to .1 gallons per mile (saving .025 gpm), or upgrade car B from .04 to .02 gallons per mile (saving .02 gpm). This formulation is mathematically equivalent to the original, but they evoke opposite intuitions — which is quite disturbing, considering the widespread assumption that consumers (and policymakers) will reliably make choices that are in their own rational interests.

When comparing differences in fuel efficiency, it’s clear that one frame (gallons per mile) is superior to another (miles per gallon). This is not always the case, however, as shown by an example due to the economist Thomas Schelling. (Both the following scenario and the previous one are discussed in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.) Say we are designing a tax code, and are thinking of including a “child credit”: families with children will get a deduction on their taxes. Would it be acceptable for the deduction to be greater for rich families than for poor families? You probably answered with a resounding No.

Now, let’s think about it a different way. Giving a tax deduction to families with children arbitrarily designates a childless family as the default case, but we could just as well rewrite the tax code such that having children is the default case, and childless families would pay a tax surcharge. In that case, would it be acceptable for the surcharge paid by the childless poor to be as great as the surcharge paid by the childless rich? Again, you probably feel strongly that it would not.

The problem is that you cannot logically reject both proposals — since a surcharge that is smaller for childless poor families than for childless rich families is the same thing as a deduction that is smaller for poor families with children than for rich families with children. For instance, a surcharge of $500 for the childless poor and $1000 for the childless rich is equivalent to a deduction of $500 for poor families with children and $1000 for rich families with children.

The lesson is not that it’s impossible to design a tax code that burdens the poor less than the rich. The disturbing fact uncovered here is that our intuitions about fairness, like our intuitions about fuel efficiency, are unreliable: they can give contradictory answers to the same question depending on how that question is framed.

Kahneman’s conclusion is stark:

You have moral intuitions about differences between the rich and the poor, but these intuitions depend on an arbitrary reference point, and they are not about the real problem… Your moral feelings are attached to frames, to descriptions of reality rather than to reality itself.

Strong intuition is never a substitute for slow, careful analysis.


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