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.

What does Trump say about us?

On June 16 of 2015, a friend and I found ourselves in a New York hotel, feeling somewhat compromised after a late night and much revelry. Thanks to our throbbing heads, the spectacle of Donald Trump’s glass elevator arrival – in order to give the first of many bombastic and often fact-free speeches in support of his Presidential ambitions – invoked many sighs and “oh my god”‘s, but not much discussion.

When we did talk of it later, and in conversations that took place in subsequent months with him and others, it was oftentimes with a tone of incredulity, in that the chances of a Trump victory – or even nomination – seemed vanishingly small, and his attempt to seek the nomination therefore a simple manifestation of an ego the size of a planet (hello Marvin!).

We all know better now, of course. By which I don’t mean that the ego stuff is false – he certainly has it, and is flaunting it like only a narcissist can. But when I arrive back in NYC on June 16 this year, Trump will have been the confirmed Republican nominee for nearly two months already, with Hillary Clinton the only remaining potential “loser” for him to defeat (once Bernie Sanders gets out of the way, that is).

And one year on, the thing I want to briefly touch on is the narrative that Trump’s ascendancy has provoked in some quarters, whereby voters are being described as “irrational” or “stupid”. Some surely are either or both of these things, but there’s no reason to think – and no plausible mechanism whereby – voters suddenly become more irrational and/or stupid, en masse, in the period since the last election, or even over a generation or two.

Describing your opponents or “enemies” via abusive terms helps us to keep “our” tribe together, and helps “them” to do the same, but it involves no attempt to explain why people might make ostensibly irrational choices, nor to help us figure out how to minimise the chances of their doing so in the future.

One part of this Trump campaign (including the behaviour of his supporters at rallies) that needs explanation is not only how you can get away with talking nonsense so much of the time, but more crucially how it can be that you can get away with blatant racism and sexism while campaigning as a Presidential candidate.

And on that aspect of things, I’d encourage you to read this piece by Thomas B. Edsall, about which a friend remarked:

Edsall here gives what I think is a crucial part of the diagnosis of Trump’s success. Decades of shaming racists, nativists, sexists, and homophobes into concealment, instead of arguing with them, has been unwise but strongly institutionalized politics and now the bill has arrived.

It’s been said before, but “call-out culture” and mob shaming on the Internet might satisfy our tribal lusts, but if you’re looking to change thinking and behaviour, you might want to consider a different tactic.

The mutual symbiosis of a “regressive left” and a “reactionary right”

It’s not insightful to say that social media are probably unrepresentative of what the common person thinks, nor that platforms like Twitter encourage hyperbole and argument.

I do however think that the hyperbole is an expression of the same lack of charity and unwillingness to find a middle ground that we see in newspaper coverage of contentious issues such as Hilary vs. Bernie, whether Trump is a fascist or not, or whether South African students need to be applauded or pilloried.

It’s possible for us to disagree with each other, but to do so in such a way that doesn’t caricature, and that doesn’t disincentivise any future attempts at debate. And, there is of course little chance of persauding someone that they are wrong, if they are no longer talking to you.

That last point is why last night, I tweeted:

Consider this example, from yesterday’s Washington Post, titled “College students run crying to Daddy Administrator“. I’m sometimes as annoyed by students as anyone could be – it’s difficult to avoid being so when you deal with 1 500 of them a year. They can be lazy, oversensitive, rude, and so forth.

But, they are also inexperienced at being a small anonymous cog in a large machine that isn’t necessarily geared for giving them personal attention, or for allowing them the time to discover, and explain, what it is that feels alienating, oppressive or offensive.

They also, quite simply, haven’t necessarily learned the conventions and language of what it is to negotiate in good faith in a civil society – why would they have, having grown up on discussion forums, Twitter and Facebook?

Colleges are supposed to be places where young adults develop the critical thinking and social skills to peacefully, productively engage with people with whom they disagree, whose ideas they may even find detestable. But today’s students — and tomorrow’s workers — are discouraged from resolving such conflicts on their own.

They are not learning to use their “logic and reason and words,” as President Obama urged in his Rutgers University commencement speech, during which he chided students for forcing Condoleezza Rice to withdraw from an earlier talk.

That (from the Washington Post piece) is all true. But I think it’s also true that calling people “babies”, or mocking them for taking offense too easily, can serve to simply validate their concerns.

Likewise, insisting that everyone who disagrees with you – no matter whether their disagreement is polite and thoughtful (even if wrong or confused, by your lights) is a member of some out-group like the “regressive left” can serve to simply confirm to them that you’re part of some “reactionary right” – and neither side is then left feeling that there is any point in talking to the other.

It is indeed a problem that people can have overly thin skins, because robust debate and disagreement is necessary to improve our arguments and our characters. But it’s also a problem when you have concerns (even if they might be trivial or unjustified concerns to others), and those you express the concerns to respond with ridicule.

Both these extremes are a problem, and there’s no reason you have to choose either of them.

Ungovernables from the subcontinent, busy in Berlin

I returned yesterday from a week in Berlin, which I can highly recommend for those of you who haven’t visited. While I don’t normally do the standard touristy stuff, there’s so much history in this city that I thought it well-worth the guided tours that our group went on.

The traveling party consisted of a bunch of folks from #Africablogging, a blogging network I joined last year, that is dedicated to supporting democratic culture and debate in Africa, and the trip was generously sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung media programme.

The highlights are too many to mention, but I’d recommend a trip to the lakeside villa where the Wannssee Conference was held in order to plan the “final solution”, the Jewish Museum, and the Stasi prison Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen.

The other highlight was that we got to attend (and I spoke, on freedom of speech in the age of social media) re:publica, a very worthwhile conference on all things Internet and digital media. There were fantastic talks on drones, surveillance, Snowden, trolls, and more.

Randall Munroe of xkcd was there, Laurie Penny was there, and around another 6 500 people were there too, so it was rather festive, given the lovely Spring weather and the German penchant for drinking beer all day.

And, the other thing I really enjoyed was spending time with my fellow #Africablogging authors, from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nairobi and elsewhere on the continent.

In marked contrast to South African conversations, for example the conversations sparked by the incident I wrote of in my last post, we spoke about race and politics openly, and honestly, without folks leaping to conclusions or forcing you to accept false dichotomies.

I haven’t figured out why South Africans seem (in general) so averse to nuance in political conversations, and so keen on identity politics being allowed to dictate those conversations, by contrast to my experience of other sub-Saharan cultures. But however it is that they got there, I hope we too can, someday.