Conflicting Ideals

I have to admit that I sort of like Rand Paul. He has some good ideas, and some bad ideas, and he doesn’t always know which are which, but that’s common of all politicians; what I like about him is that he has a centeredness and honesty about his ideals. And I agree with some of his ideas, which would be great, and would probably drag me over towards libertarianism, if those ideals didn’t conflict with one another.

People have told me I should be a libertarian before. Actually, they’re told me that I am a libertarian; it’s just that I don’t really believe them. They always seemed to be making that judgment based on one view of one part of the world, and I never really found myself convinced by it.

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The Democracy of Language

PronounsAs someone who works with words for a living, I always feel a little bit traitorous when I talk about the fluidity of language. My undergraduate studies in linguistics left me with a dialectic view of how language works. The conventional view of language, though, has the same deep currents of judgment and correctness and power that lie simmering in the rest of any culture.

Should I accept those? Should I treat language as brittle and defend narrow meanings and usages from shattering change? Or should I treat language as malleable clay that can and must be sculpted to best convey any idea? My inclinations lie obviously with the latter, but I retain a fondness for the certain bedrock of the former, and an empathy for those drawn to that view. Thus I am always aware that when I advocate use of the singular “they,” for example, I am casting a vote that goes against the grain for some.

The democracy of language is my bridge. By treating language as a democratic exercise, I acknowledge both the importance of the consensus view and the option of disregarding it. If a majority of English speakers believe prepositions should never be used at the end of a sentence, I can acknowledge and respect their view as a convention. At the same time, I can look at the native grammar of English and realize that prepositions are perfectly fine things to end sentences with.

Likewise I can treat pedantry with some respect, and embrace it in the spirit of inquiry rather than the spirit of restriction it so often carries. To be corrected, to hear that consensus view, is no shame—it is just a broadening of knowledge. But by receiving it as one option among many, I can just as easily and comfortably set it aside.

Still, there are some moments when pedantry slips out of the realm of mere language and becomes a channel for cultural currents. In the hands of the righteous, pedantry can acquire the sort of disdainful viciousness only well-chosen words can really achieve.

I do advocate the use of the singular “they.” I think it is a natural, elegant, and gracious choice to give respect both to those who identify outside a gender binary, and, equally importantly, to acknowledge that gender can be incidental. I should not need to know your gender to hear your ideas, to hire you for a job, to convey a delightful anecdote about you to a friend.

And so, when I read from a colleague in higher education sweeping dismissal of the use or relevance of new pronouns, the singular “they” along with, I am annoyed. I would like to receive this pedantry as a suggestion, but I find that difficult in the face of arguments that “they are entitled to their own identity, but not to their own grammar,” (and why not, exactly?) and that faculty don’t know “how to deal with this violation of basic subject-verb agreement” (no doubt the top of the educational priority list). This is followed by some hand-waving arguments about not kowtowing to “safety” and “comfort” as if those ideas have any relationship to the inclusion of a singular and a plural in the same word.

Happily, this author didn’t provide their gender, nor do I need it to discuss their work. Gender does not matter to my opinion, which is that they are engaging in the worst sort of pedantry—that sort of pedantry that is stolid and unyielding and defensive, the sort of pedantry that is the usual province of grumpy old white men and stereotypical English teachers. So I will address such pedants directly, and this author in particular, and I will do it using what, if they had any historical view of language whatsoever, would be the bane of their existence: the pronoun “you.”

For you, Melvin the pedant, who does not know this: a piece of linguistic history. The pronoun “you,” like “they,” was once solely plural. The singular second-person pronouns were “thee” and “thou.” As levels of formality began to drop out of English, so, too, did the distinction between the singular and plural in the second person. You probably don’t realize that you are using a plural pronoun in the singular every time you address one of your students. And thus does the rest of your argument, which rests on the implicit idea that language is fixed, collapse under its own decaying weight.

Please, if you must be a pedant, be an educated pedant. Make arguments out of elegance, out of convention, out of inquiry and desire for precision. Do not make arguments out of the specious idea that your own set of language is the only set, or that it should be.

Because, for the rest of us, I maintain that language is a democratic exercise. And you are being out-voted.

A More Perfect Truth

credit: Flickr user shawncalhoun

The scientific method, at its heart, is a set of steps to keep us from fooling ourselves, and one another, and thus to arrive at our best approximation of truth. Each step in the traditional scientific method is a way we reduce bias, eliminate confusion, and further our collective knowledge. But recent high profile research has highlighted some of the ways it can break down along the way, especially in preliminary research.

The idea that preliminary research is mostly inconclusive or incorrect isn’t surprising—preliminary studies are the way a scientific community investigates new ideas. Contrary to public perception, publication in a scientific journal is not so much verification of truth as it is the beginning of a debate. Collective knowledge, in theory, builds from that point onward.

So, when I read recently that more than two-thirds of a group of psychological studies could not be replicated, I wasn’t too surprised. Whatever the media might make of a single small study, and however much they might tout it as a breakthrough (and they do, for everything), the chances are that the results are flawed somehow. Scientists, of course, are still human, and they still get pulled toward positive data. There are a number of habits, like abusing the P value (try it yourself to see how it works) or choosing what measures to focus on after the fact, that can lead to a researcher misrepresenting results, even unintentionally. And, of course, there are a few bad actors who inflate the results of their studies on purpose.

There is a secondary problem in science as well, which is that journals tend to publish positive studies, and researchers tend not to even submit negative studies, leading to publication bias. If you’re a drug company, you might abuse publication bias on purpose to make your products look more effective than they actually are. To makes things worse, journals have their own bias towards new research and often don’t want to publish negative studies or failed replications of previous research. Combined with the set of problems I mentioned above, which lead to iffy research, publication bias effectively hobbles scientific debate by letting lots of ideas in, but silencing the voices that would weed out the bad ones.

You might have noticed that the first set of problems arises from individual biases, while the second set arises from systemic biases. In the first case, researchers are accidentally or intentionally allowing bias into their studies and tainting their results. The scientific method is still subject to human error, or intentional gaming of the system. In the second case, the scientific method has few tools for eliminating systemic biases, so a slightly more developed solution is needed. The only current tool is peer review, but that has its own host of limitations and problems.

I think, however, there is a solution that would reduce problems at both levels simultaneously, and it’s one we already know works: pre-registering research.

Pre-registration of clinical trials is a tool recently employed to deal with publication bias in medicine, and especially to prevent bad actors (such as drug companies with a financial stake in the matter) from gaming the system by hiding negative research. It also eliminates researcher biases because they have to register their methodology before conducting the study, and thus cannot modify that methodology during or after the fact to generate a positive result. The effect has been a dramatic decline in false-positive results.

Some people have rightly pointed out the problems with pre-registering all research, and how difficult it would be to figure out who to register with and how to keep track. This is where the second part of the solution comes in: journals already admit that there is value in publishing negative results, so register prospective research methodologies with scientific journals, which in turn must commit to publishing the end result. Even if that commitment came with some caveats, this would simultaneously prevent researchers from modifying their methodology, thus reducing biased results, and force journals to accept research based on the methodological merits when they are still blind to the outcomes, thus reducing biased publication.

Of course this wouldn’t solve every potential problem in science, but, as I said, science is not a perfect enterprise—it is a collective endeavor to arrive at the best approximation of truth. We can always do better, and we can always learn more, and it’s time to take the next step in that direction. We know we need to eliminate our individual biases, and now we know that we need to address collective biases as well. We also know that we can—it only remains to do so.

Image credit: Flickr user shawncalhoun

In the Public Interest

Carter_and_Ford_in_a_debate,_September_23,_1976As someone who hasn’t yet watched the Republican or Democratic debates and hasn’t attended any campaign events, I rely primarily on reporting to keep abreast of the candidates and their positions. Or perhaps I should say “would rely on,” since the things reported in the media and things I want to know have essentially no overlap.

When we, the public, granted private companies the right to broadcast throughout the United States, we also asked for one thing in return: that they spend some time each day in serving the public interest. Thus was born “the news.” Yet the news, in its current incarnation, seems to have shuffled off the public interest in favor of the popular demand..

The things in the public interest to know, in my opinion, would be what positions candidates have taken, what policies they advocate, and what those policies would actually mean for the public. Are these policies feasible? Are they soundly supported by evidence? What are the upsides and downsides? Yet I am hard-pressed to find any mention of policies, let alone reporting that substantively analyzes those policies and discusses the evidence for and against them.

Hillary Clinton has been the Democratic “front-runner” (and already we fall into the horse race) for more than a year, since long before announcing her candidacy. But what do we hear about her policy choices? The media mostly describe them in broad strokes, and when they pass judgment it is out of partisan bias, not evidentiary analysis.

And what about the “leading” candidate on the Republican side, Donald Trump? Reportedly the media are so interested in interviewing him that he can make the absence of policy questions a condition of his participation. Some of his policies do hold the media’s attention, but only those that are so patently absurd (like the proposal of a giant concrete border wall) as to provide gawker value.

Even within the bounds of the horse race, the media can’t seem to base it’s reporting on evidence; instead they suffer from the worst form of confirmation bias: choosing a narrative early on in their coverage and defaulting to that narrative repeatedly, regardless of actual events.

Consider, for example, the coverage of Bernie Sanders (or lack thereof). If Hillary draws a crowd of 20,000 people, this is proof of her “front-runner” status, yet if Bernie draws a crowd of 25,000, it barely registers. Not that I think either of those should define a candidate’s viability, because position in the race has nothing whatsoever to do with value as a leader. At this stage of things, none of the general public has weighed in; the positioning in the race is mainly determined by punditry and biased polling—by candidates, of their supporters, and by media, of their viewers.

Nor is the bias skewed left or right; Donald Trump is, one would think, the undeniable “front-runner” on the Republican side, and yet the media generally treat him as an enjoyable sideshow. In their minds, he is unelectable, which is just the word used by pundits to make their personal biases sound like unassailable facts.

So what am I, a member of the public, to make of this? The things that are in my interest to know are not reported. The things that are reported are irrelevancies plagued with bias. The question of who would lead and serve this country best, and what their positions would mean for us, goes unanswered.

As a member of the public, the message I receive is that the collective governance of our country, and the democratic ideals on which it was founded, and the choice of who will define our polices—these are nothing more than sport.

That is not in the public interest.

Sleight of Words

There is an entirely worthwhile debate to be had about how we name people in challenging situations. The more controversial the situation, the important this debate becomes. Finding the right words, the words that describe groups and events accurately, dispassionately, and without bias, is rarely accomplished without such debate.

Yet most every time these debates occur, there are those who leap ahead with labels instead of arguments. These people appropriate words and use them to push their perspectives as fait accompli, sidestepping the reasoned debate that might lead to a more balanced conclusion. When we are wise, we do not allow this manipulation. When we are unwise, we fail to notice.

People are fleeing Syria at the moment, trying to the best of their ability to escape a dangerous and hostile environment that threatens their lives and the lives of their families. They are risking their lives to escape, which should tell us something about their desperation and need. And, as it often does in such times, xenophobia has reached a fevered pitch in response.

migrantCNNThe clumsy have attempted to equate these refugees with ISIS, or with terrorism (a word itself co-opted long ago). The subtle, the propagandists, did not waste time making their arguments—instead, they went forth boldly to discuss a “migrant crisis,” advancing with their label an argument untenable in logic: that all these people seeking refuge are merely vagrants.

That we were slow to critique this word, that some continue to repeat it, and that only belatedly have we arrived at debate, suggests to me that we are not sufficiently cautious about such naming. This is not the only example, and sometimes we have gone much longer ignoring the question.

More than a decade ago, the United States invaded Iraq, toppled its government, and sought, without any clear understanding of the political or religious issues involved, to create a new government out of whole cloth. We drafted some leaders, left an occupying force, and scratched our heads as peace did not descend, as many Iraqis did not feel especially liberated, and as many people continued to die.

We did these things on false pretenses, and so I was not surprised when we explained them under false pretenses as well. We labeled the Iraqis who fought us and our created government as “insurgents.” We talked about quelling an “insurgency” as though these people were attacking an established body, rather than a piece of stage dressing that had yet to win the confidence or engagement of its constituency. The truth was so much more complex, and so much more difficult, than the label. Yet there was little public criticism, and the media embraced the “insurgency” as quickly as they have embraced the “migrant crisis.”

We have used labels, too, to justify ourselves when we have no justification. Just recently the Associated Press updated their style guide to stop calling deniers of climate science “skeptics,” a change those same deniers deeply resent and which has been all too long in coming. Because, of course, the label of “skeptic” implies a person who is justifiably hesitant, who is considering critically, and who is careful about beliefs and evidence.

Climate deniers were none of these things. Perhaps, twenty years ago, the term “climate skeptic” might have been justified. Even then the science was fairly clear, but there was justifiable debate about the extent of the problem. Now, when the only controversy remaining is political, the term “climate skeptic” is a laughable pretense. I continue to refer to these people as “deniers,” because I do not see how any other word is justified. The AP has chosen to call them “doubters,” but there is no doubt about the evidence—thus, their doubt is perverse and irrational, and to oppose the conclusions of climate science appears to me, inevitably, to be denial.

There is no way around the power of these names. Those doing the naming define the baselines, the scope, and the tenor of a conversation. When we say there is a “migrant crisis,” suddenly we have introduced doubt about whether we are obliged to help these people; instead, the debate is about whether the people fleeing and dying are truly in need. Likewise when we say there is an insurgency, there is no debate about whether we, in creating a particular set of rulers, were mistaken; instead, the debate is how to preserve that government. And when we let deniers pretend to be skeptics, we allow a debate long settled to continue as though it were not intellectually dishonest.

I cannot help but wonder how often these words are chosen intentionally, and how often they are simply summoned from the zeitgeist to serve as avatars. The former is duplicitous, and thus likely, and yet I think we are duplicitous with ourselves nearly as often as we are with others. And because we fool ourselves, we must be cautious to remember that a label is not an argument, and that it is incumbent on us to question its provenance and honesty. And I think also, we must question a bit more loudly.