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catallaxy in technical exile

Archive for March 2006

Open forum

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I know it’s not quite the weekend yet but I’m going to reintroduce the open forum for the weekend. What is more I’m going to set a certain Birdman free so he can argue whatever he wants with whomever wants to argue with him (caveat emptor!) on this forum. Though the reintroduction of the open forum isn’t motivated by that consideration alone (I believe reader Sukrit Sabhlok also liked the forum) it does ahem … help kill two birds with one stone.

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March 31, 2006 at 4:11 pm

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Economics is to sociology as Hume is to Aristotle?

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On Andrew’s post about the leading light of the Hairshirt Left I made a half-serious crack about sociologists:

Bad’ Peter Saunders is a sociologist. Sociologists can never really be liberals. You can take the sociologist out of university but you can’t take the sociologist out of the man;-)

to which Don Arthur responded:

Jason – why do you say that, as a sociologist, ‘bad’ Peter Saunders can’t be a liberal?

As I explained on the thread and thought I’d highlight and develop here, I think there are a number of related reasons why people trained in sociology are more likely to have reservations about liberalism:

1) Liberalism is most compatible with (though not necessarily completely dependent on) the normative methodological approach that we should take preferences as given (even if we know that in reality they are endogenous). This approach is less likely to be seen as controversial by economists than sociologists.
2) Part of the reason for this is that, at least until recently, sociologists have been more concerned with the study of preference formation than economists and therefore one would expect this to spillover into their normative treatent of whether/how individual preferences should be satisfied.

More fundamentally this could be generalised to say that sociologists are more inclined to an Aristotleian view of humanity which in turn would lead to greater tolerance for social engineering:
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March 31, 2006 at 12:55 pm

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V for Vendetta

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Steve Sailer gives V for Vendetta the thumbs down in his inimitable style (I’m still going to see it, though):

“V for Vendetta” started out in the 1980s as a “graphic novel” (an expensive, pretentious comic book) by Alan Moore (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) about how Margaret Thatcher would turn England into a totalitarian dystopia by 1997. Well, that didn’t exactly happen, so now the Wachowskis have rewritten it as a post-9/11 fable implying that President Chimpy McHitlerBushton will crush all dissent Real Soon Now. Personally, I’d rather endure a Bush press conference than see this movie again …

In “V for Vendetta,” the Big Brother tyrant ranting about unity and security from a vast video screen is played by John Hurt (“Alien”). An ambitious, deeply religious Conservative politician, he had imposed martial law in the wake of a terrorist virus attack, putting society under the thumb of fanatical Church of England bishops. (According to Google, the phrase “fanatical Church of England bishops” has never been seen before.) The government dispatched all Muslims and homosexuals to concentration camps (although the film forgets to mention how these two victimized minorities got along on the inside).

I have to admit, I don’t recall being that impressed by the comic book, partly because, as Sailer notes, it is very dated and too tied to the politics of the time while the perennial themes in it aren’t really tackled in a particularly groundbreaking way. The Watchmen, on the other hand, …

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March 30, 2006 at 11:49 pm

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Is Clive Hamilton a FCUKing hypocrite?

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Catallaxy readers will no doubt have noticed the ubiquitous FCUK clothing brand – their latest T-shirt efforts including “no fcukin worries” and “too busy to fcuk”. Clive Hamilton has noticed too, and he doesn’t like it:

The use of offensive words in public is a sign of the coarsening of the culture, a trend that the advertising industry is in large measure responsible for. The FCUK “joke” has gone beyond the name itself, what the company calls an anagram of a “cheeky word”. Of course, cheeky is a euphemism for offensive. Saying “f—” in public is not cheeky, it is unacceptable, which is why newspapers still use hyphens.

Now Clive does not come to this issue with entirely clean hands (or a clean mouth). This morning someone sent me a remark he made on a 1999 broadcast of 4 Corners about the Democrats and the GST. Hamilton had been advising the Democrats:

Dr. Clive Hamilton, Executive Director, Australia Institute:
We showed him, or John came into the room and the Democrats there showed him the list of demands that they were going to take into negotiations the next morning and he looked at it and the mood changed. He was very sceptical about some of the demands. We didn’t understand why. One of them he picked out and he said to me, “Well Treasury won’t wear this.” And I said, “Well fuck Treasury,” and he was really taken aback and he said, “Excuse me?” And I said, “Well fuck Treasury, nobody elected them and I mean, you’re the negotiators.”

It’s not quite clear whether John Cherry, the Democrats’ then economics adviser, was taken aback by the ‘fuck’ or by the idea of rejecting Treasury’s views. But by his own standards, Hamilton had used ‘unacceptable’ language not just in the original conversation but in then repeating it on national TV.

Hamilton may be a hypocrite, but does he have a point? I can’t say I am a fan of ‘FCUK’ clothes myself – the clothes may not be worn-out, but the joke is. But they are only popular because ‘fuck’ has already lost much of its force as an intrinsically offensive word. As Ruth Wajnryb points out in her book Language Most Foul ‘as an intensifier it no longer intensifies…nowadays it takes more FUCKS to achieve what one lone FUCK would have achieved ten years ago’. This is due partly to its versatility – verb, noun, adverb, adjective, exclamation, command and conjunction. The first Macquarie Dictionary back in 1981 offered 9 fuck-related headwords and 18 additional definitions. By the most recent 2005 edition, the list had grown to 17 headwords and 37 additional definitions.

These days the vulgarity or offensiveness of fuck-words comes mostly from their context. ‘No fucking worries’ wouldn’t usually be intended to offend, especially in all-male company. ‘Youse’ or the superfluous use of ‘like’ grate on me more. ‘Fuck’ in its original verb sense can be used almost neutrally. ‘Fuckwit’, however, strikes me as almost always meant to offend, and I haven’t seen any fcukwit T-shirts. FCUK ‘s ‘too busy to fcuk’ T-shirt shouldn’t be worn less because ‘fuck’ to describe sex is offensive than because it is tacky to announce one’s sex life (or lack thereof) to strangers. ‘Too busy to have sex’ would be just as bad.

The FCUK brand will further diminish ‘fuck’ as a word, bringing it closer to words like ‘bloody’ that upset British TV regulators but not too many other people. We are running out of words that offend in themselves, rather than in the ways they are put together. Only the c-word really retains its power – and being stuck as a noun its potential for taboo-diminishing overuse seems limited.

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March 30, 2006 at 8:47 pm

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Culture and cognition: The case of the Piraha

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Noam Chomsky’s greatest contribution to the sum of human knowledge has not been his countless political screeds but his role in undermining the ‘blank slate’ view of humanity with his theory of universal grammar, and related to that, his critique of Behaviourism, summarised here:

It has been claimed that Chomsky’s critique of Skinner’s methodology and basic assumptions paved the way for the “cognitive revolution,” the shift in American psychology between the 1950s through the 1970s from being primarily behavioral to being primarily cognitive. In his 1966 Cartesian Linguistics and subsequent works, Chomsky laid out an explanation of human language faculties that has become the model for investigation in some areas of psychology. Much of the present conception of how the mind works draws directly from ideas that found their first persuasive author of modern times in Chomsky.

There are three key ideas. First is that the mind is “cognitive,” or that the mind actually contains mental states, beliefs, doubts, and so on. Second, he argued that most of the important properties of language and mind are innate. The acquisition and development of a language is a result of the unfolding of innate propensitites triggered by the experiential input of the external environment. Subsequent psychologists have extended this general “nativist” thesis beyond language. Lastly, Chomsky made the concept of “modularity” a critical feature of the mind’s cognitive architecture. The mind is composed of an array of interacting, specialized subsystems with limited flows of inter-communication.

It is important to emphasise that this in turn helped lay the groundwork for evolutionary psychology. Chomsky is effectively one of the intellectual godfathers of this field. For this, I believe, we should forgive him for his silly political screeds.

However, the story of the Piraha is throwing a spanner in the works (subscription required but I reproduce some extracts below). It’s such a tantalising story that I’ll draw it to people’s attention even though it undermines one of my favourite Grand Theories:
Read the rest of this entry »

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March 30, 2006 at 7:12 pm

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The Cultural Constructionist Left war on Science

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Yes, I realise that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as ‘The Republican War on Science‘, which is the name of a new book out by Chris Mooney as well as the name of the Crooked Timber blog seminar which discusses the book (link via LP).

But it does exist and it’s in evidence in the seminar itself in the contribution by sociologist Steve Fuller who disdainfully titles his piece ‘if there’s a war please direct me to the battlefield’.

Who is Steve Fuller? Well he’s the utter dill who actually stood up in a US court and said that Intelligent Design needed ‘Affirmative Action’ for it to overcome the ‘neo-Darwinian’ monolith by being taught in high schools, as he freely admits here (in the same comment he claims that ‘ID is not nearly so well evidenced as Neo-Darwinism, but I think it’s still best classified as science’). Yes folks, the State should step in and correct a market failure resulting in ‘neo-Darwinism’ monopolising biology. Next we should be taking a look at breaking up the Pasteur germ theory monopoly too – it’s almost as insidous as Windows.

Now, while Fuller may be full of himself, he does know his rhetorical tricks. One of which was to refer to the established theory of evolution throughout his piece and in comments as ‘neo-Darwinism’. This is the classical ploy to get the literary luvvies huffing and puffing about those ‘evil men’ like EO Wilson and Richard Dawkins who ‘justify patriarchy and selfishness’ (some random misreading picked up secondhand from one of those glitzy coffee table magazines). Sensible pro-science lefty PZ Myers debunks this rhetorical ploy here:

Yeah, there are growing extensions to neo-Darwinism (not alternatives, please—neo-Darwinism is a theory that describes a phenomenon, descent with modification, that is as solidly established as the idea that masses are attracted to one another, and only fools argue with the substance of it anymore), and what they are doing is enriching and further substantiating the core ideas.

Intelligent Design isn’t part of that growing body of work. It isn’t even in the conversation. To even use ID as an example immediately discredits the essayist.

For more pontificating on the run note this comment where our representative of the Cultural Constructionist Left join hands with Philip Johnson who not coincidentally has also made sympathetic noises about post-modernism :

I believe that much of what Philip Johnson has said about Neo-Darwinism’s ideological hold over academic science is correct – and he’s also right that it can be understood better as a strategy in a larger culture war than something compelled strictly on the basis of empirical developments in biology (i.e. there is much more scope for taking the commonly understood history of biology in different directions than is currently being encouraged). Johnson makes it plain he doesn’t like this state-of-affairs, he recognizes it as a political problem, and he is trying to take political means to rectify it. Full marks to him for all this. Johnson’s opponents are not so forthcoming about their ends, hiding behind an apolitical pseudo-monolithic authority of ‘science’ that simply does not exist

So he implies in his contribution that a war against science doesn’t exist, but there is a cultural war, waged by science?

Let it be noted – the current Republican administration has an irrationalist strand. But irrationalism isn’t a monopoly of the religious right. And at least we know where they stand. The cultural constructionist left is a far more insidious enemy, hiding behind high faluting phrases.

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March 30, 2006 at 8:20 am

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The 'No Regulations' Telco Market

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An interesting article in Communications Day on Tuesday (28Mar06), on the worlds most regulation free telecommunications market. According to columnist Geoff Long, the most laissez faire telco market is – Somalia.

“When there was a government, Somali had about 17,000 fixed lines. By 2004 under an “anything goes” regime, it had 112,000 fixed lines and 50,000 mobile subscribers, prompting Abdigani Jama, the secretary-general of the Dubai-based and ITU-backed Somali Telecom Association, to suggest that the lack of government red tape was responsible.

Without a government, there’s nobody to say who can or cannot setup a phone company, and there’s nobody to demand which technology they can or cannot use. It apparently takes only three days to get a phone line, compared with months and even years in neighbouring countries, Internet cafes are sprouting up everywhere and as the CIA acknowledges, it has the lowest call costs in all of Africa. ”.

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March 29, 2006 at 5:21 pm

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