Populism, more than prejudice, is the problem with Trump

This has been a pretty bad year. What we’ve lost includes Muhammad Ali, Prince, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, George Martin, Garry Shandling, Merle Haggard, Elie Wiesel, and Micheal Cimino. (And then Leonard Cohen too…)

Oh, and, potentially, centrist politics – at least for a time. Brexit was at least in part a triumph of the political right, fueled by fears of immigrants and a nationalistic fervor, by contrast to the vision of a world united by common values and open (in both the legal and cultural senses) borders. Continue reading “Populism, more than prejudice, is the problem with Trump”

South Africa’s LGBTI folk can have rights – others, not so much

South Africa has supported “a call for the suspension of the United Nations LGBTI rights expert“, because sexual orientation and gender identity “should not be linked to existing international human rights”. [Update, 22 November: SA has reversed course, and now support the establishment of the LGBTI rights expert position.]

Say what you will about whether “gender identity” is a confused concept (here’s Rebecca Reilly-Cooper with a thoughtful article on that), the fact remains that theoretical disputes are a separate matter from the fact that LGBTI folk are subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence exactly because of those identities. Continue reading “South Africa’s LGBTI folk can have rights – others, not so much”

Brief notes on a crisis: #FeesMustFall

The University of Cape Town’s Senate met this morning. I had to leave at 12:15, but the meeting – which started at 10:00 – had up until that point merely confirmed what we all know is the case: that there are no easy answers, and very little agreement on how to proceed.

What agreement there was consisted of a general consensus that we’d like to be able to teach, and that students would like to be able to learn. Teaching and learning are obviously core business for a university, and why most of us are there, so agreement on this is no surprise. Continue reading “Brief notes on a crisis: #FeesMustFall”

Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town

The Academics Union at UCT recently organised a panel discussion on academic freedom at UCT, following the dis-invitation of Flemming Rose as the TB Davie Memoral speaker.

The text below was my opening statement at that panel discussion. There are obviously many other issues that could be addressed, and we were asked to limit our contributions to five minutes, so what follows is of necessity restricted in scope. Continue reading “Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town”

On the proposed South African sugar tax

As Africa Check reports in Daily Maverick, it’s not yet clear what the effects of the proposed sugar tax in South Africa will be. But it is clear that South Africa has a serious obesity problem – and that sugar is a clear causal factor for obesity.

A Mail&Guardian journalist recently approached me for comment on this (I’ll update this post with a link to the piece when it’s published), but because the M&G article will likely only quote snippets, here’s a fuller response to a few sugar tax issues. Continue reading “On the proposed South African sugar tax”

Caster Semenya, and fairness in sport (and life)

If we were to design athletic competition from scratch, how would we proceed? I think, given all the biases we’ve challenged or discarded since the first time athletic competition was tracked (sex, gender, race), we’d hope to find some way to match competitors in a way that created the spectacle required, and rewarded skill and effort, but did not rely on an arbitrary characteristic of humans to separate us into categories. Continue reading “Caster Semenya, and fairness in sport (and life)”

Should you vote? South African Local Government Elections 2016

Earlier today, Eusebius McKaiser was asking CapeTalk and Radio702 listeners whether they thought that they had a duty to vote, and I tweeted that

John Maytham was listening in, and that resulted in an interview with me, just concluded a few minutes ago. For those who didn’t hear it (here’s a link to the podcast), and who care about what I have to say on this topic, here is a digest of my thoughts on the matter: Continue reading “Should you vote? South African Local Government Elections 2016”

Scientism and the limitations of logic

Slate recently published an interesting piece on “scientism”, which both perpetuates a caricature of science and rationality, and also points to a genuine problem with some folk who can’t see beyond science and reason as tools for addressing our political and social dilemmas.

“Scientism” is the belief that all we need to solve the world’s problems is, you guessed it, science. People sometimes sub in the phrase rational thinking, but it amounts to the same thing. If only people would drop religion and all their other prejudices, we could use logic to fix everything.

Last week, Neil deGrasse Tyson offered up the perfect example of scientism when he proposed a country of #Rationalia, in which “all policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.”

Tyson is a very smart man, but this is a very stupid tweet, and a very stupid idea. It is even, we might say, unreasonable and without sufficient evidence. Of course imagining a society in which all actors behave logically sounds appealing. But employing logic to consider the concept reveals that there could be no such thing.

There are two very different things being described here. To base all policy on the weight of evidence is a fundamentally different thing to desiring a society in which all actors are Mr. Spocks, all logic and no emotion. In conflating them, Jeffrey Guhin sets up the caricature I mentioned at the top.

Many pro-science and rationality folks, including myself and the vast majority of scientific skeptics I’ve been hanging out with at conferences for the last decade, would agree with Tyson’s tweet while rejecting the implication that it means we need to be all logic, all the time.

The reason for this is simple, and points to Guhin’s misunderstanding of the broader – and social – context to scientific reasoning. Emotions, intuitions, aesthetic preferences and what have you are all things that make us human, and social creatures, yes – but they are also data points in themselves.

In other words, policy that is based on the “weight of evidence” does not need to be blind to these human details, and is in fact compromised if it’s not sensitive to these details. We care, for example, about compliance with the law, so it would be irrational to enact a law that caused such a negative (emotional) reaction that compliance was impossible.

We also care about happiness, meaning that it would be irrational to treat each other solely as logical agents. Doing so would make marriages and friendships unbearable, and parent-child relations dysfunctional. Our relationships admit to – and even cherish – the idiosyncrasies of our various subjective points of view.

Guhin does go on to make various good points about scientific overconfidence, reminding us that “experts often get it wrong”. But this is again to rely on a misunderstanding of science – good science knows that it’s fallible, and this is in fact one of its key virtues when compared with pseudoscience.

The fact that scientific reasoning leads to errors (he mentions scientific racism, phrenology, eugenics and other examples) is only a crippling problem for science if there’s some better alternative for resolving empirical problems. Until we have one, the point is that science is self-correcting, and that we can discover and discard our mistakes.

More critically, the scientific method is of course vulnerable to exploitation by those who want to use it for odious reasons – but isn’t dogma (for example religious fundamentalism) more so? And, to note that people use the language of science to prop up eugenics doesn’t entail that they used good scientific reasoning to do so. Instead, we can now recognise it as an abuse of the scientific method, rather than a proper application of it.

Guhin has harsh words for Tyson, for the “I f***king love science crew”, and for Dawkins, as I also previously have for all three cases. But the problem with these evangelists for science is largely a political one, rather than them being wrong on the principle of the matter. If you communicate with others in ways which make it sound like you think they are stupid (Dawkins), people aren’t going to listen. If you communicate in ways which make it sound like you are stupid, for example in dismissing the value of philosophy (Tyson), you’ll also lose part of your audience. And if you just share (sometimes incorrect) memes on a Facebook group, nobody is going to believe you actually love science at all.

Guhin is right to remind us to not appear as evangelical as those we sometimes find ourselves arguing with. I’ve been watching folks on Twitter making the tone-deaf “the evidence must decide” sort of arguments with regard to various arguments about race and economics in South Africa, and they don’t get that even if that’s true, social progress also requires not being an ass.

But to conflate “rational thinking” with “scientism”, as Guhin does, is a mistake. Rational thinking can incorporate both following the evidence, and doing so in a way that is aware of one’s own biases, and all of our emotions, needs, wants and fears.

Those are all evidence too, yes. But – crucially – one of the ways we can get along better is knowing when to point that out, versus knowing when to take off our “Mr Logic” caps, and simply relate to each other as human beings.

Democracy – the worst form of government…

… “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, as Churchill reminded us.

People are still talking about #Brexit, as one might expect given the severity of some potential consequences of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the EU. But some people – including one that I have great respect for, Prof. A.C. Grayling – are arguing that UK Parliamentarians should vote against any motion to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Article 50 would start the official clock on an EU exit, whereas what we have now is a non-binding advisory reflecting the will of the voters. As the English lawyer and respected legal commentator David Allen Green puts it:

What happens next in the event of a vote to leave is therefore a matter of politics not law. It will come down to what is politically expedient and practicable. The UK government could seek to ignore such a vote; to explain it away and characterise it in terms that it has no credibility or binding effect (low turnout may be such an excuse).

Of course, it might not be politically possible for Parliament to reject the vote, even if the majority of parliamentarians wanted to, given that doing so would be acting expressly against what the voters have asked for.

A separate question is whether the voters knew what they were doing. Another is whether the referendum was constructed appropriately, in that you might want to require a larger (perhaps 2/3) majority for a decision of this magnitude.

My concern is that you can’t like democracy only when you happen to agree with the decisions taken by an electorate. To say that voters didn’t have access to all the information they needed to make the “right” choice here is to my mind false – they had the information, but some of them perhaps didn’t access it until too late, and some of them perhaps never thought about it enough.

No amount of “buyers remorse” proves the point that the will of the people was not expressed in the #Brexit vote, whether or not you regard the people as fools or sages for making the decision they did.

So I’d disagree with Grayling here. A choice has been made, and according to the rules of democracy, Parliament would be acting without a mandate if it were to ignore the vote. Sometimes the electorate makes decisions that suit you, sometimes it doesn’t – you don’t get to change the rules when you don’t like the outcome.

If I were supreme leader, I’d want to ignore the will of the people in this case, as well as in many others. And that, in short, is why the majority vote gets to decide – because even when “they” make the wrong choice, you’re still protected from having to suffer the whims of a dictator.