Emotion trumps evidence in a post-fact world (same as it ever was)

As you’ve no doubt heard, “post-truth” has been named “word of the year” by Oxford dictionaries. But that shouldn’t lead us to think that truth or evidence has ever mattered as much as we might prefer, or that this post-truth world represents a complete break from the past.

All of us have always been susceptible to various forms of irrational thought resulting from bias in how we interpret – and even recognise – evidence, as elegantly illustrated in the work of people like Kahneman and Tversky, as well as in popular science books by Dan Ariely and others (like me and Caleb Lack (sorry not sorry)). Continue reading “Emotion trumps evidence in a post-fact world (same as it ever was)”

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”

A tale of two conspiracies from the Noakes hearings

Unfortunately, I was only able to attend half of one day of the reconvened HPCSA hearings regarding Prof. Tim Noakes and his alleged “professional misconduct”.

I missed what might have been the most interesting day, at least on a personal level, as apparently one of my tweets was read into evidence. This gave Prof. Noakes an opportunity to tell folks that I had a vendetta against him, that I “call myself” someone with philosophical expertise, and so forth. Continue reading “A tale of two conspiracies from the Noakes hearings”

Hate speech and legal overreach in South Africa

The intentions motivating the draft South African Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill are – as far as I can tell – entirely noble, but perhaps not entirely sound.

If you don’t know about the Bill, you can read Justice Minister Michael Masutha’s justification for it on Daily Maverick, in which he says that:

It will provide additional tools to investigators and prosecutors to hold the perpetrators of hate crimes accountable and provide a means to monitor efforts and trends in addressing hate crimes.

Continue reading “Hate speech and legal overreach in South Africa”

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”

Free speech versus fake news

Let’s assume that we – as a species – are not as smart as some of us think we are. I think that this is true (even if sometimes overstated), and that realising that it’s true allows us to accept that sometimes, we don’t know what’s best for us.

Recognising that we are irrational choosers doesn’t tell us how to solve the problem. My post, linked above, makes the case that we should accept that “nudges” or “benign paternalism” are acceptable. But you could object that even if we don’t know what’s best for us, we’re still better at knowing our own wants and desires than anyone else could be. Continue reading “Free speech versus fake news”

Obesity: The Post-Mortem and “gratuitous fat-shaming”

The Doctor and I recently watched “Obesity: The Post-Mortem”, a BBC3 recording of the autopsy of a 17 stone (108kg) woman. Unless you have access to BBC’s iPlayer, you’ll not be able to watch it (legally), and I imagine many of you wouldn’t want to in any event.

But even if you can’t watch it, you can nevertheless engage with the point made in her post on the show, where the Doctor says that there’s a difference between something being uncomfortable or unpleasant, and it being offensive. I agree, and want to expand on that point here. Continue reading “Obesity: The Post-Mortem and “gratuitous fat-shaming””

Gigaba should have allowed Anderson in

Our commitment to free speech is tested by speech that offends us, not by speech we agree with. This does not necessarily entail allowing all speech: it’s possible to take the pragmatic view that while we’d ideally want all speech to be permissible, it might be the case that in some contexts, the risks of violence (or other negative consequences) are too great.

I’m not going to repeat the standard arguments in favour of freedom of speech here (previous defences of the principle can be found in this column on Kuli Roberts, this one on Gareth Cliff, or this one on more general issues to do with “thoughtcrime” and hate speech).

On this pragmatic reasoning, one might ask how we most efficiently nudge ourselves into a world where all speech is allowed, even as those who utter hateful speech pay some other price (for example, widespread opprobrium) for doing so?

Continue reading “Gigaba should have allowed Anderson in”

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”