Friday, May 30, 2014

The Rarity of "Common Sense"

When I comment on bad laws, and point out flaws by the approach of reductio ad absurdum, the usual response is that we must implement laws using "common sense". Now, this argument is faulty for a number of reasons, most notably that once a principle is allowed in law, it will run to its logical conclusion1, but for the moment let us limit ourselves to "common sense", as it is a topic I have written on several times2.

The problems with common sense are several, but all boil down to a very simple description, that being that if it were truly "common sense" we would not need to point it out or mention it. In other words, being "common" sense, we should all implement it already, without question. If we must debate it, if you must point out "common sense limits" and so on, then it is not "common", it is the position of some subset of humanity. And, if it is not universal, then how do we distinguish "common sense" from the bias, whim, prejudice or just personal values of the speaker? If I say common sense says there should be a minimum wage, how can you tell whether it is "common sense" or my own view?

And the problem is, you can't. There is no such thing as "common sense". If there were, as I said above, we would not need to mention it. Things that are common and automatic, as the assumed definition of "common sense" implies, we do not need to discuss. I don't have to remind you to breathe or eat or drink or use the bathroom. You need to do so, so do I, we do it without discussion or reminders. Common sense, if it truly existed, should be like that. As it is not, then what someone calls "common sense" is inevitably just something he sees as obvious, given his set of values and beliefs, but since neither of those is universal, is nothing like true "common sense" would be.

And, of course, that is assuming the speaker is being honest. Many times, "common sense" is not even what appears obvious to a speaker, but rather an expression of his wishes or biases, something he would like to have happen, but which he is aware is contentious even among those sharing his views and values.

I wrote this because I came across a perfect example of "common sense" diverging. In the US, we assume that people will generally eat something less than a perfect diet. And so, to avoid that problem, our government not only allows vitamins supplementation in food, but encourages it. Even mandates it in the case of folate. And for most people, this would probably be a matter of "common sense", if the foods we eat are likely to leave us vitamin deficient, then we should supplement them. And, if a few citiziens eat a more balanced diet, well almost all vitamins we supplement are water soluble, only a few could cause an overdose, and it is quite unlikely that would happen, so "better safe than sorry"3.

However, Denmark has actually done precisely the opposite, it has enacted laws mandating the opposite. Assuming its citizens receive sufficient vitamin intake from foods, they worry about overdose and ban foods with vitamin supplements4. If a few people might not get sufficient vitamins in their food, they can use supplements, but even the remote risk of overdose is worrisome, so "better safe than sorry".

As you can see, both approach a problem that can be argued either way. Granted, Danes and Americans eat differently, but the truth is, the risks involved are all somewhat small. As our wealth has increased, even "eating junk"5, our nutrition has improved incredibly over our ancestors. Yes, some less common nutrients, such as folic acid, may be somewhat deficient and supplements can have a benefit for some, but without supplements or with, true deficiency, as opposed to low levels with long term negative side effects, would be relatively uncommon. On the other hand, the risk of vitamin overdose from fortified foods is equally remote. Most vitamins which are fortified are water soluble, and those which are not take relatively large amounts to produce any sort of negative effect. (As with deficits, some may argue for long term effects of moderately elevated levels, but there is not a lot of evidence to back this up.)  So, the "common sense" on both sides amounts to assessing one remote risk against another. However, US common sense and Danish completely disagree.

I grant, they are looking at different circumstances, but it is not as broad a difference as many think. US diets have, in general, improved greatly during the 20th and 21st centuries. For all the talk of "over processed"6 food and the like, we have a more diverse and more balanced diet than was common for the same social stratum 100 years ago. It is silly primitivism to imagine that city workers in the 19th century, or even farm hands, ate a better, more healthy diet than we do today7.But, regardless of the quality of the general US diet, there are many in the nation who eat a balanced diet, and have as great a risk of overdose as Danes do. Likewise, there are certainly Danes who eat poorly and would benefit from supplements, so both risks exist in both nations, making the divergence of "common sense" answers more striking.

Of course, the reason for this divergence is obvious. There is no "common sense" answer, as "common sense" is a fiction. Both nations enacted laws based on their own presumptions and biases, which they saw as "common sense", as every one of us tends to assume his beliefs are the standard of truth, the baseline against which other beliefs should be measured8. However, in truth, the decisions were no more "common sense" than all the decisions you made in the preceding week, or those I made. All decisions are the product of a personal values, and no set of personal values is so impeccable as to be deemed "common sense".

And thus, to claim we must use common sense to pass laws, or to limit some bad principle is to say we must cure one ill with another, we must base all future laws on some arbitrary set of values lest we go too far with a bad law9. And that seems a pretty bad way to create government policy.

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1. The reason is obvious. As I have written in "Inescapable Logic", "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention" and "The Cycle of Compassion", the most consistent argument wins, and once a principle is allowed, the one which applies it most broadly is most consistent. So, even if the majority believes a principle should be taken only "so far", someone usually stands to benefit from a little wider application, and, being more consistent, will inevitably win their argument. Of course, someone else likely stands to benefit from an even wider implementation, and so takes it a bit farther still, and so on, and so on. And, in the end, we have Griswold allowing married couples to use condoms being mutated into Roe and arguments for unlimited access to publicly funded abortion. (Or to be less contentious, we have the commerce clause changing from  a power to strike down interstate tariffs to Munn v Illinois which claims commerce exclusively within a state can be regulated because it "effects" interstate commerce.)

2. See "The Lunacy of "Common Sense"", ""Seems About Right", Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revisited, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws" and "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact".

3. I have refuted "better safe than sorry" thinking in my essay ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe".

4. I also read a second theory, that foods with vitamin supplementation were mostly "junk foods" and so the Danes banned them to encourage "healthy eating". but as the articles I found were mostly about banning Marmite, Vegemite and the like, which are hardly traditional junk foods, that seems unlikely, though some may have based their decision on that assumption.

5. Considering the amount of starch eaten by our ancestors, claiming we eat a diet high in "empty calories" and "excessive carbohydrates" is absurd. When your main foodstuff is bread or porridge or grits, sometimes supplemented with some bacon grease, or maybe a bit of salt pork, with vegetables rare and fruits even more so, changing to the modern diet would seem a positive godsend, not to mention a health boon.

6. See "The High Cost of Not Wasting Food" and "In Defense of White Bread". Also "GMO? So What?", "A Misleading "Right to Know"", "Organic Absurdities" and "Irrational Environmentalism".

7. There were many in the 18th and early 19th century who noted the citizens of the US ate to excess, wolfed down huge amounts of mostly starches, and were regular users of patent remedies for gas and constipation. Vegetables were rare in many diets, as were fruits. So, it is a laugh to imagine our diet is somehow inferior to that of our ancestors. And comparing our middle class or lower class diet to a single example from say, Thomas Jefferson's diaries or some other uncommon individual of the upper classes is hardly a valid way to establish a decline in quality of food. See also "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age"and "Peaceful Matriarchies, Noble Savages and the Industrial Revolution". For my objections to primitivism in general, see "Primitivist Delusions",   "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy", "The Dishonesty of Avatar", "Happiness", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "A Western Evil?", "A Great Quote", "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 11, 2012)", "Contradictory Positions", "Deceiving Themselves?", "Stupid Quote of the Day (December 28, 2011)", "A Beast's Life" and "The Hunter-Gatherer Mistake".

8. Often this is a wholly unconscious practice. We are so familiar with our own beliefs and prejudices, we find them so self-evident, that we forget there are those who do not follow them. See "The "Liberal Bubble" Becomes Universal" and ""Nobody I Know Voted For Nixon"".

9. This is less clear than I had hoped. Basically, I am trying to combine the arguments of "The Consequences of Bad Laws" and "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", if that makes sense.

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POSTSCRIPT

For those who would ask "which do you favor?" I would answer "neither". The state should just stay out of the matter, and allow buyers and sellers to decide whether or not to supplement foodstuffs. If the supplements are in enough demand, then they will be sold. And, if they prove dangerous, well buyers will begin to avoid them, maybe even sue if the danger is a result of some actionable deed (such as supplementing to a toxic level in a single serving), and sellers will remove or change the level of fortification.

Allow me a small personal digression. Due to my ailments, I tend to avoid sunlight for the most part, and I am also not a milk drinker. As a result, I have a chronic vitamin D deficiency. Yet, unlike most of those "sick celebrities" who contract a disease and suddenly become advocates (and overnight experts), this does not make my clamor for supplements of D in ever substance known to man. Instead, I simply take it upon myself to take supplements and have my blood checked periodically. Problem solved. And all without massive government intrusion.

And, in the long run, I believe most people will resolve these problems in similar ways. Some will rely on fortified foods to get vitamins, some will eat a varied diet (with or without fortified foods), some will avoid "over processed' foods, some won't, some will take vitamin supplements, some won't, but in the end, all of us will do what we think best in terms of nutrition, and most of us will probably do pretty well. A few won't, but no law is going to save everyone, so to hold the free market to a standard of perfection is pretty absurd. (See "Third Best Economy" and "Government Quackery".)

Deceiving Themselves?

NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.

I was reading about the "two spirits", as they are now called, individuals in Indian tribes (also found in Greco-Roman history) who adopted the clothing and social roles of the opposite sex. The wikipedia article is filled with absurdly politically correct language, including the absurd designation "biological sex male, gender female", which seems to indicate "sex male, behavior female". I know, I know, sociologists, being the preeminent champions of PC word bending use "gender" to describe roles, but it still sounds absolutely bizarre to refer to an individual with a Y-chromosome as "gender female".

Anyway, the interesting part in the article is the handling of those tribes which either did not have, or even rejected these individuals. First there is a bit of skepticism about the Apache rejection of two spirits. The author arguing that it most likely represents an acceptance of "European homophobia/transphobia". 

But it truly becomes absurd when they deal with the mesoamerican cultures. Confronted with the Florentine manuscript, written in nahuatl by natives, they have to invent meddling monks who forced the natives to misrepresent their own beliefs, but only about homosexuality. 

That is just bizarre. As it was in the interest of Spaniards to make the natives appear as backwards and blasphemous as possible, why would they give them laws they saw as virtuous if no such laws existed? Second, why would the Spaniard suppress evidence that the practice was accepted in mesoamerica, but not in the more northerly tribes? Is it not much easier to believe that some tribes accepted them and some did not? Just as it appears some European cultures, mostly Mediterranean, had priestly individuals who adopted feminine garb and manners, while other European cultures did not?

It is, once again, the silly belief in the "noble savage" rearing its ugly head. Just as the belief continues to resurface of the peaceful matriarchies of primordial Europe who were laid low by evil patriarchies, the myth of the enlightened natives of the Americas will not die. Of course, in this case it is a doubly whammy. If there were natives who banned the adoption of non-conforming sexual roles, then not only does it dispel the myth of noble savages, but it also destroys the myth that "homophobia" is some peculiarly European evil.

When will people learn that man is pretty much the same the world over, and, more than that, is just as prone to brutality, ignorance, and mistakes regardless of his skin color, location or level of advancement? The only exception being, oddly enough, the one group they seem to despise, those white European males who developed the one culture which spoke out for the rights of every individual and a government based on respect for those rights? 

It is ironic that they despise the only culture that actually did even a small bit to stem the tide of brutality which is most of human history. And worse still, they despise it so much that they are willing to falsify all of history to prove their hatred is correct.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/07/05.

Contradictory Positions


NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.

I know there is nothing surprising about a conservative site arguing that feminist thought is internally contradictory, but sometimes I start thinking about this topic, and the degree of that contradiction is too much for me to let pass without some sort of comment. Unfortunately, tonight I am working late, so I have little time to write a complete essay, instead I will simply raise a few issues, and address them in their entirety in another essay.

One problem, perhaps the problem of feminism, is that they don't really know what they think about women. We hear that women are the equal of men, that they are the same as men, and should be treated equally. On the other hand, we also hear men and women "think differently", that women must be protected against hostile environments, we see that violence against men is fine in fiction, but not against women, we hear that women must be protected against "exploitation", in other words denied the ability to make their own choices (the same way "patronizing men" supposedly did throughout history, except now it is to be directed by "empowering women" instead.)

And that last bit points out the other problem, the absolute dominance of an attitude I have argued many times is the foundation of liberalism, arrogance. ("Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "The Essence of Liberalism", "Our View of Our Fellow Citizens", "Appealing to Arrogance") Feminism basically argues that not only have men exploited women, but most women are too stupid, or cowed, to recognize it, and so must be told what to do by enlightened women. And what should they do? What the enlightened women would do in their place. In other words, once again we have a belief system that argues the "right choice" is whatever choice the current theorist would make herself. ("The Right Way") In other words, like all liberal theories, feminism would impose the values of one, or a few, individuals upon all others "for their own good".

Feminism is hardly unique in this regard. Many minorities have self appointed representatives who declare what members of the group must do to be "authentic", who decide what assimilation is allowable and what is betraying the race or culture or religion. In all these cases, a small group, or even one person, has decided their values are the embodiment of the race or culture and must be obeyed by all. It is absurd, and certain to make miserable the vast majority of the group, and yet, sadly, thanks to our culture's tendency toward insecurity ("The Great "What If?" - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism") we see far too many ready and willing to substitute another's values for their own, out of fear of being seen as inauthentic or traitorous.

Which reminds me of one more related topic about which I intended to write soon. That is the supposed importance of "preserving cultures". It sounds fine until one asks what it means in practice. why does a culture disappear? Because the people living under the rules of that culture find it poorly suited to their desires and imagine another might be superior. As I argued before "cultural imperialism" is a total lie. ("Stupid Quote of the Day (January 11, 2012)", "Eurocentric Snobbery") Cultures win, not because of some sort of coercion, but because they provide better than the existing cultures for the desires of those who adopt them.

And that brings us to the question of what it really means to "preserve a culture". As this is usually done by government fiat, especially in EU countries which seem to have an absolute mania for preserving everything imaginable, "preserving a culture" often amounts to making individuals, in one way or another, accept a culture they do not want. Sometimes this is done by banning the artifacts of any other culture, that is depriving individuals of the right to make choices for themselves. In other cases, it amount to taking money from the citizens at large and paying off others to make choices they do not desire, in order to preserve a culture they do not want.

I grant, preserving cultures is probably good for tourism, and pleases antiquarians and academics, and those who delight in archiving all sorts of pointless trivia on Wikipedia ("The Taxonomy of Trivia":) However, it is offensive in a number of ways. First, because it treats individuals either as objects, to be directed around by the needs of the tourist dollar, or, at best, treats them as idiots, unable to see the value of their existing culture, and needing their betters to force them to do what us best for them. This is especially true of "primitive" cultures, whose "purity" is often "preserved" by those who seek to prevent them from having extensive contact with the modern world,. It is an attitude that reminds me of rich liberals, who, having achieved great wealth, see no reason anyone else needs to do so. In this case, the inhabitants of developed, rich nations, having achieved the level of culture they find pleasing, wish to keep others in primitive conditions. Of course, they argue it is for their own good, and some may even believe it ("Rousseau's Foolish Legacy", "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact" and "Deceiving Themselves?"), but whether from good motives or bad, it is troubling and offensive.

As should be obvious, I think this has gone from one essay to several, but as should also be obvious, they are quite closely related. Perhaps, as I write this, I will finally force myself to finish my series "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", as that too is quite closely related. If so, it would be quite a triumph, as I have been trying to finish that for well over a year. But, whether I finish that series or not, I am sure for the next few days, this topic will be the focus of quite a few essays.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2012/07/29.

A Western Evil?


NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.

I have to laugh every time I hear the champions of multiculturalism go on about the horrors of western society. Whether they are trying to whitewash any native opposition to homosexuality, explain why blacks can't be racist, or tell me that all social ills come from western culture, they show a remarkable lack of understanding of other cultures. Which, come to think of it, is the most ironic feature of multiculturalism, its absolute lack of interest in the reality of other cultures. Rather than understanding the reality of foreign cultures, as did many of those evil dead white men of the 19th century, most modern multiculturalists are much more interested in parroting idealized caricatures of foreign cultures.

For example, their claims that racist and xenophobia are particularly western institution is just bizarre. Let us ignore for a moment the fact that western culture, ever since that first tourist Herodotus, has had an obsessive interest in foreign culture, and let us also ignore the xenophobia endemic to almost all non-western cultures until very recently, have these people even looked at the cultures they are describing? Have they never heard of how Japan treated foreign visitors between the original Portugese contact until the forced opening by Perry? Or, to turn to more modern times, have they never heard an Indian use the term ABCD or a black American use the term "trick baby"*? It appears that fear and hatred of non-members is hardly a distinguishing trait of white Europeans.

I see a similar pattern in all the "Goddess" worship and all the "neo-pagan" religions. They take what was a complicated and relatively mature set of beliefs, covering both the good and bad of the world, the light and dark, bleach out all the darkness and turn it into new age treacle. Our pagan ancestors may have been primitive, but they were still adult humans, and their religion was complex and involved. It did not boil down to "be nice to people" and "do unto others", there was much more to it than that. But these neo-pagan types have decided that complexity and any admission of evil is just not right, so they turn everything to sweetness and light and deny any complexity in the thinking of primitive peoples.

As with the multiculturalists, while pretending to honor an ancient tradition, these people are more interested in a caricature which fits their preconceptions than anything approaching the reality.

And that is my real problem, that for multiculturalists the message is more improtant than the reality, and the crux of that message is to drag down anything wetsern, caucasian, Juedo-Christian or male. (And recently, heterosexual, though that is a much more modern addition.)

The irony is that those "imperialist white males" they so decry, the anthropologists, archaeologists and philologists of the 19th and early twentieth century, not to mention scholars and antiquarians going all the way back to the Emperor Claudius and his Etruscan grammar, were much more respectful of other cultures than these multiculturalists ever were. By making them simply tools with which to carry out their cultural denigration of the west, multiculturalists have distorted and obscured the reality of all those cultures they supposedly respect.

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* I refer here to the use of "trick baby" as a derogatory designation for all babies with one black and one non-black parent, rather than the more accurate usage to describe the illegitimate child of a prostitute. (I would have used the technically correct term, but TH filters prevent me from doing so. Which means, unless I did it in French, I could not write the name used by William the Conquerer prior to 1066. Ah, well, not the first time the filters have caused headaches. They wouldn't me write "er*ction of trade barriers" either. Is it me, or do they seem a bit overly broad? B*stard is not just an insult, but a very precise technical term. Oh, well, such is the fate of those trying to write on the internet, enforced civility sometimes makes us use less precise language. Funny that the PC-ness of filters on a conservative site would force imprecision on us. I thought that was the territory of the left, not right.)

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POSTSCRIPT
I know some multiculturalists are not interested in denigrating the west and are driven by a real fascination with foreign cultures, but, thanks to the current atmosphere, many are still reduced to serving the ends of the multiculturalists. They still set out looking only for the good and end up as "isn't it neat" tourists, finding only admirable traits in foreign lands, completely ignoring anything negative in these foreign lands. Either that, or they end up admitting faults in foreign lands, but they then feel the need to point out an even bigger flaw in western society to "justify" it. It seems that recently it is just impossible to get an honest examination of a non-European culture, politics simply invades every academic discipline, even among the amateurs.

And it si not just in the social sciences, or humanities, a similar blindness occurs in legal circles, when they point to foreign law to defend judgments. They may bring in European law to strike down death penalty cases, but can you imagine the Supreme Court using British law, with its very stringent official secrets act, to uphold administration efforts to suppress press revelations? The court only seems to find in European laws those features fitting with its preconceptions, anything that cuts against their position is simply invisible to them.

ADDENDUM


It is surprising, but I think I have never written on the absurd claim that blacks can't be racist. As I have been arguing vehemently against that absurd claim since I first heard it in college, I would expect it to be soemthing I would address aearly on, but apparently not. So expect an essay in the near future debunking this most absurd claim.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/07/12.

Opinion Masquerading as Fact


NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.

I haven't written about my problems with Wikipedia in some time, so I suppose I am about due for an essay. This time it is the interesting insertion of opinion as fact. Worse still it is an opinion relating to an area where the science simply is far too unsettled. From an article on a specific mesolithic culture:
More significant is evidence of cannibalism at Dyrholmen, Jutland, and Møllegabet on Ærø. There human bones were broken open to obtain the marrow. As cannibalism is not practiced to obtain food, the next most likely explanation is that the warlike Ertebølle population ritually devoured its enemies in order to ingest their powers.
The problem here is twofold. 

First, even if we grant that cannibalism is not normally practiced as a regular part of the diet, that says nothing about these bones. If a future anthropologist found the bones of the Donner party, would he be justified in thinking that pioneers practiced ritual consumption to gain the powers of others? Is it not possible in these specific finds that people were, for some reason, unable to obtain food and practiced cannibalism out of necessity? 

Second, the statement itself is nowhere near as certain as the presentation would suggest. I recall back in my college days there were those who tried to argue that cannibalism simply did not exist as a cultural practice. Apparently the sheer weight of evidence has finally ended that effort. Still, the statement above, sounding quite a lot like a recitation of a dogmatic belief, that cannibalism is always a ritual  practice and never for food, is simply not supported by evidence.

Look at the animal kingdom, many animals use cannibalism to supplement their diets. Why would primitive man be any different? If he could not capture a deer or horse to eat, but he did kill a rival, why would he not eat his rival? Why does any consumption of  a fellow  human have to be based on some ritual?

It seems to me this is the "there are no cannibals" argument tarted up in a new guise. Now it is "well, there is cannibalism, but it is always a ritual". Again, the effort, as in the denial of any cannibalism, seems to be to be to elevate primitive man, reduce his more barbaric practices.It is not coincidental that those who once pushed the "no cannibalism" line were also those most likely to denigrate modern society and elevate the primitives. This effort to downplay the barbarism of early and primitive man is just one aspect of the glorification of the "noble savage".

But I want to write about that Rousseau-inspired idiocy at greater length in another essay, so enough of that. My point here is quite different.

This is yet another perfect example of the weakness of Wikipedia. Someone less familiar with the debates over cannibalism, or less diligent about checking what is sourced and not sourced, could easily read that line and absorb the "fact" that cannibalism is always a ritual practice. Rather than thinking they have read the biased statement of one person, the "authority" of wikipedia makes them think it is a fact.

Not that no opinion or errors ever made it into traditional encyclopedias, but at least there the author's name was known, and if he made an unsupported statement his fellows called him on it and the encyclopedia generally modified their next edition. It was impossible to slip  anonymous statements into a work. Wikipedia, being both anonymous and infinitely malleable makes it far too easy for every opinionated individual to slip their pet beliefs into a supposedly authoritative essay.

POSTSCRIPT

I have written before at greater length about wikipedia. You can read my earlier thoughts in the following essays:

Stop Confusing Me With The Facts!
Mystery Quotes
Wikipedia?
The Failure of Wikipedia

Eventually I will consolidate all of these into one comprehensive essay enumerating all my complaints, but for now the list is short enough that it doesn't seem to be worth the effort.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/06/12.

The Dishonesty of Avatar


NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.

I have been reading reviews of Avatar, and have decided I am not going to see it. Now, I know that sounds political, but really it isn't. There are any number of films I love whose politics differ radically from my own. The reason I have decided to eschew this film until it comes on cable and I am very bored is that, quite simply, the plot sounds resoundingly trite. And that, more than explicit politics, is a deal breaker for me. I can watch a raving left wing paranoia fest, so long as it is interesting. Why Dr Strangelove is one of my favorites, yet the explicit politics are 180 degrees off from my own. For that matter, much of Sam Peckinpah's explicit philosophy is abhorrent to me, and so is at least part of Alejandro Jodorowsky's, but I adore the films of both. And, while I think I would agree more with Andrei Tarkovsky, I still don't think we would see eye to eye, yet his films appeal to me as well. But, unlike the reviews I have read of Avatar, those directors made interesting films. And, in the end, that is the biggest reason to see a film, to keep you interested, and Avatar sounds simply dull.

However, there is one reason I am writing about this, and it is a political reason. That is that Avatar points out one of the biggest cheats in modern film. Or rather, in modern pro-environmental films. And that is, that the "eco-utopia" always has to include some magic or magical technology, or else the whole argument falls apart*.

In Avatar we get aliens who can talk to animals, commune with trees, endowed with magically good health and lacking disease, with no problem from lack of resources and apparently no population pressures.

Sounds great. And that sort of mystical nonsense is the only way to make the "noble savage" seem preferable to the "evil technological man".

The reality is, in these sort of stories, the "noble savage" would live to, maybe, 35, if lucky. Long before that he would have lost most of his teeth. Odds are good he would also lack at least some digits, if not a limb. He would probably have frostbite if he lived in temperate climes, and certainly would have serious scarring. He would be malnourished in the winter season, or the dry season in more tropical climes. He would often be blind from parasites, and would often have diarrhea. Malaria or similar diseases would result in weeks or months of incapacity, often resulting in starvation.

Then there are the other realities. For example, climate changes would often result in changing food supplies, so even if he was fortunate enough to live in a food-rich environment, he may regularly need to move to other regions as food supplies shift. This would likely displace those already there, resulting in brutal, genocidal conflicts, sparing neither women nor children. In addition, as population grew, provided food supply allowed it, the surplus population would be too much for local supplies, leading to either the practice of exposing unwanted (often read as "female") children, or the routine expulsion of surplus population, as well as the need for additional conflict with neighbors.

I could go on, but I think my point should be clear. Without the magical solutions of these films, either in terms of outright magic or super technology, the reality of "ecotopia" is nowhere near as appealing as even the most filthy and polluting technological society. And that only makes sense. There is a reason that agrarian societies adopted dirty coal burning technologies, why farmers fled "bucolic paradises" for 18 hour work days and "unlivable wages". Because "bucolic paradises" only existed in georgic poems and the fantaies of gentlemen farmers. The reality of primitive existence is not pretty, even relatively recent farms were far from ideal. No matter how ugly cities were, in the 19th century they were better than most farms were for the laborers. 

But that reality goes against too many ecological dogmas, so they invent magic to wish it away. Better to keep the fantasy alive than to admit that technology, the physical manifestation of man's intellect, is our best hope for improving life on this planet.

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* To be fair, the patron saint of the libertarians, Ayn Rand is just as guilty in her own way, creating the mystical free energy engine to power Galt's Gulch. If you really thought it through, not only would Galt and his friends have left a foot print big enough to draw the attention of every statist on earth, but by recruiting only the best and brightest, the top-heavy resultant society would collapse from lack of those willing to do scutwork.I admire her aim, but the economics of Galt's Gulch do not work. Either the best and brightest would be reduced to doing menial labor, leaving no time to use their real talents (essentially reverting to subsistence labor) or else needing to import huge numbers of laborers to support the massive intellectual superstructure, which would make them immediately obvious, unless they used force to keep what would amount to a slave workforce, as doubtless some laborer  would eventually become dissatisfied with the elite's utopia and ask to leave, threatening to ruin whatever concealment they had. But that may be the topic for another post. (It would be fun to poke holes in Atlas Shrugged, as it is so cherished by some, but I worry that my wish to do so may be a sign of a bit of immaturity on my part. Still, immature or not, I probably will write it some day.)

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POSTSCRIPT

It is not precisely relevant, but I am always amused at "enlightened" intellectuals praising the primitive. Yet they rankle at the "theocracy" of the right. Do they not realize primitive societies are always the most repressive and hidebound? Do they think their cherished primitives would be open to their iconoclastic ways? They would be the first on the pyre. Yet in their delusional belief in the "noble savage" they imagine that somehow primitives are bohemians in war paint and loin clouts. Just absurd. (For a bit more on this see "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy", "Happiness", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "A Western Evil?", "In Defense of Standards" and "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"".)

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/12/21.

Irrational Environmentalism


NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.

I was reminded today of one of the more bizarre aspects of environmentalism. My mother had gone shopping and was telling me what groceries she had found. One item she mentioned was "fruit drink". After saying that she laughed and said "Well, it's not real..." I smiled and replied "You mean it's imaginary fruit drink?" of course, what she meant was not that it was imaginary, but that it was not really made directly from fruit, but was flavored "artificially". But her first description, of the food being "fake" reminded me of the most bizarre, and most openly mystical, terms in all of the environmental lexicon, "natural".

The problem here is that the term "natural" simply has no definition. The most obvious meaning "coming from nature" is obviously meaningless, as all items everywhere come from nature, as there is nowhere else from which items can originate. Unless they fall to Earth from space, or appear magically from another world, they must come from "nature" in some form. The second most probable definition, "being taken from nature without processing" is equally untenable, as the term is applied to soaps, cooked foodstuffs, clothing and many other items which do not occur in nature in that form. Which leaves one wondering, what exactly does "natural" mean?

The confusion over the term can be shown with a few examples. Let us take an example where it would seem "natural" does not apply, pesticides. Let us say I make pesticides by taking several pyrethrin chemicals, combine them, and sell them. Most would call that "unnatural". However, if I dry chrysanethemums, powder them, and sell the pyrethrin containing dust to use as a pesticide, it is "natural". Even more bizarre, if I were to take that powder and use some method to distill the pyrethrins, it could still be called "natural". On the other hand, in my first example, even if the chemicals used came from chrysanthemums at some point, it is no longer "natural". Why? Who can say?

And the same applies to a host of other similar examples. Ammonia which is sold as such, is an "unnatural" fertilizer, ammonia from animal urine, even if distilled to concentrate the ammonia, is "natural".  Cross pollinating plants to change their genetic structure and enhance certain attributes is natural, doing so by genetic manipulation -- even if the results are indistinguishable -- is not. Food which is irradiated to remove germs is "unnatural", even if no test can distinguish it from other "natural" food. And so on.

Basically, I think the definition is this: Natural means that it has only undergone processing that can be done by your average hippie in his back yard, otherwise it is "unnatural". Or, to be more accurate, the more efficient the process, the less likely it is "natural".

Now, what makes this particularly silly is that many supposedly scientific environmentalists hold to this absurd "natural" paradigm, which is essentially a mystical definition. No one can distinguish ammonia distilled form urine from ammonia distilled from inorganic sources. And in many cases there is no way to distinguish "organic" from "non-organic" food. And even "genetically engineered" foods are impossible to identify, or at least it is impossible to tell whether a plant was produced by selective breeding or engineering in most cases. The whole "natural" term is a meaningless, mystical term, meaning nothing more than "I don't like it" or "it is good". (See "GMO? So What?", "Organic Absurdities", "Certainty and Pop Science" and "A Misleading "Right to Know"", for some specific examples in my earlier writing.)

Of course, many environmentalists recognize this, and do not involve themselves in this issue,s ticking to the more scientific seeming issues such as AGW, but the fact that many environmentalists do believe in this issue, and worse, the government has legislated based on this absurd distinction, should make anyone who values reason doubt the validity of many pronouncements on environmental issues.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/08/17.

Organic Absurdities


NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.

I happened to be thinking about so-called organic farming today when I was struck, as I usually am, by the absurdity of it all.

Rather than go on at great length, let me give you just one example. If I spray a pyrtethrin around my fields to control insects, it is clearly not organic farming. However, if I find a plant which contains "natural" pyrethrins in it, I can grind it up and spray the dust around to control bugs and still call my farm "organic". Why?

Now some are going to say the synthetic chemical is more dangerous than the one found in plants. However, even if I spray EXACTLY THE SAME CHEMICAL as found in the plant, it is still not considered "organic", only if i use the plant instead of a synthetic chemical.

The problem here is that organic advocates engage in magical thinking. They think even if it is the same molecule, if it comes form plants or animals it is "good" and if it is synthesized it is "bad". Ammonia from urine is good, ammonia from synthesis is bad. Yet, to the plants, to the land, to everything on earth except the thought processes of organic advocates, they are identical."Natural" and "synthetic" are not attributes of the chemicals, you cannot look at ammonia and tell its origin. 

Of course, this is just one problem, there are many more. From the reduced yields to the reappearance of plant diseases once thought conquered to the shorter shelf life due to spoilage, there are many reasons to oppose the silly organic movement, but time and space are short here. Perhaps later I will return to the topic, but for now, I will simply refer you to my post "The Lie of Environmentalism",because, with its emphasis on primitive methods and the outcome of reduced yields, organic farming is part and parcel of the anti-technology and ultimately anti-man environmental movement. And just like that movement it has, sadly, found wide spread acceptance. It is time we took a second look.

POSTSCRIPT

I know some buy into the belief that organic produce is healthier without buying into the alrger anti-technology and anti-man agenda, however by believing the small lie they inadvertently support the larger one. We did not get to a population of 6 billion by ignoring technology. Once we agree to give up technology, the maximum population we can support goes down drastically. So even if you just demand "organic, non-GMO" food because you want to avoid any risk, you are actually giving tacit support to the population reduction movement among environmentalists, whether you believe you are doing so or not.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/08/23.

Questions of Law and Questions of Fact


NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.

A topic that comes up from time to time is arbitrariness in the law. In my series of posts on pragmatism and common sense1, I argued that such approaches tend to create arbitrary laws which cause chaos and make planning impossible. Similarly, I have argued2 that most systems which are not based on simple negative rights3, that is the rights of life, liberty and property, tend to include ill-defined terminology which results in arbitrary and unpredictable laws. It is not always the case, but the more laws deviate from simple protection of rights, the more they tend to become arbitrary. And, as I hope should be obvious4, unpredictable laws tend to produce detrimental results, so much so that I have argued that consistent laws, even bad ones, are preferable to the most benevolent, but arbitrary, ruler5.

However, when I have brought this up in the past, the inevitable response has been that all law is arbitrary, that law is always a judgment call6. Those making such objections even bring forth examples such as the seemingly nebulous terms "reasonable doubt" or "proximate cause" to bolster their arguments. However, what their arguments fail to understand is that there is a difference, and quite a large one, between an imperfect finder of fact, or less than precise standards of evidence, and ambiguity in the definition of the law itself. That is, they fail to take into account the differences between uncertainty in questions of fact and questions of law.

The easiest way to understand this is to look at a hypothetical set of murder laws. The first defines murder as the killing of another without a justification, and then proceeds to define those justifications. In this case, you will always know whether or not you are guilty of murder. Let us suppose, it then says, that at trial, you will be found guilty if evidence against you is given by a nuk-nuk. In this case, you might not know whether or not you will be found guilty, but you always know whether you actually committed the crime, and so can avoid acting so as to have to stand trial. Granted, if you stand trial, you have no idea if you will be convicted, but that is easy to avoid,a s you know clearly how to avoid standing trial.

Let us imagine a second law which defines murder as either killing a person or performing a nuk-nuk. Once again, we see an unfamiliar term, but here the consequence is quite different. Not knowing what nuk-nuk means, we have no idea whether or not we are committing a crime. We cannot avoid trial, as we don't know what is against the law. If we take the law seriously, we are likely afraid to undertake any action, for fear that it might involve performing a nuk-nuk.

Hopefully this will illustrate why I argue that vague laws, that is laws which are so defined that we cannot tell if we have committed a crime or not, are dangerous, while the inevitable uncertainty in any finding of fact, including that performed at trial, while regrettable, is in no way similar. Yes, I admit juries may sometimes hand down incomprehensible verdicts, obviously guilty men may be acquitted, a few innocents may be convicted7, but, in the long run, ambiguity in questions of law is in an entirely different league of problems. 

There really is little more to be said. I was reading some of my old posts recently and saw this argument come up again and again and decided I had never formally answered it in an essay to which I could point, so I decided to write out the answer once and for all so that in the future I could direct here any of those who tried to equate the uncertainty of juries with poorly crafted laws.

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1. "The Lunacy of "Common Sense"", ""Seems About Right", Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revistied, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists"

2. "Bureaucracy and Arbitrary Power", "The Right People, The Wrong People and "Just Plain Folks"", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 3, 2012)"

3. "Negative and Positive Rights"

4. "The Nature of Evil", "Life Without Villains", "Enemies Into Villains", "Rethinking My Earlier Position", "The Right People, The Wrong People and "Just Plain Folks"", "With Good Intentions", "Paved With Good Intentions",  "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention",  "The Cycle of Compassion", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause", "Tyranny Without Tyrants".

5. "Shoplifting, Redlining and Kleptocrats"

6. "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Exaggeration and the Law", "A Look at Common Sense"

7. Some would also argue that because law enforcement or prosecutors can misuse the law to arrest those who are clearly innocent it is another sign that all law is arbitrary. However, there is a huge difference between abusing existing laws, using them in ways contrary to their wording, and laws which are so crafted that they can be enforced in entirely arbitrary ways.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2012/09/17.