Saturday, July 5, 2014

"By Chance or Nature's Changing Course"

In the eighth minute of today's quarter-final World Cup match between Argentina and Belgium the ball was deflected off the leg of a Belgium defender into the path of Gonzalo Higuain, an Argentinian who had been invisible in previous matches. Higuain took a sturdy swing with his right foot and rolled the ball into the far corner, away from the goalkeeper's despairing lunge. It was the only goal of the game and advanced Argentina into the semi-finals.

After the game I opened my computer and continued my interrupted surfing of my favorite websites. On the site of The Atlantic magazine I found this article:
"What If America Had Lost the Revolutionary War?
A Fourth of July thought experiment"
By Uri Friedman*
It was today's juxtaposition of football match and article which inspired me to write this blog post now rather than at some future time as I had intended.
The category of historical speculation called “Counterfactuals” has probably been around forever; one imagines Adam speculating, “What if it had been a tangerine?” (One good result that I envision is that there wouldn't be any fashionistas.) In magazines and books the counterfactuals are rife: “What if . . .
the South won the Civil War?
Kennedy had not been assassinated?
Hitler had invaded England?
The Spanish Armada was not defeated?”
Those are some perennials.
And this year on the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I an article in the New York Times wonders, “If Franz Ferdinand Had Lived.”
I must confess that I cannot take any of this seriously. To my mind, such speculation is basically a parlor game.** It certainly is not a thought experiment. The lives of nations, like our own lives, are subject to the whims of chance and accident. Supposing you do decide to assume an alternative historical happening (such as Al Gore being narrowly elected—there's at least one book on Amazon that speculates on that), how many assumptions are you allowed going forward? Based on Gore's campaigning, you might reasonably assume that he would do (or try to do) A. But after A, how certain can you be that B would follow—or C after B? To build a whole new history based on such a causal string (unaffected by chance or accident—or counterpressure from attempting to do A, B, or C) is fatuous. And a lot of the counterfactual fatuity is based on the projector's using the re-framed history to advance his own political, economic, or philosophical views.***

Friedman asked Harry Turtledove, the author of a counterfactual novel about the American Revolution, “what the world might have looked like in 2014 if Britain had won the Revolutionary War, or if the war had never been fought in the first place.”  
"If the British Empire included all of North America north of the Rio Grande as well as India, it would be incontestably the strongest state in the world," he responded. . . .
"Because the Empire was so strong, we might well have missed out on not only the Napoleonic Wars but also the World Wars. On the other hand, we would also have missed out on the kick in the pants wars give to technology and medicine. We might have had as many deaths that could have been prevented in our own world by medical advances as we've lost in our big wars."
Turtledove, it seems from Friedman's article, is just indulging Friedman and his parlor game question. Nevertheless, isn't it a bit of a reach to assume a deterministic chain of events that reaches almost two-and-a-half centuries into the future?

A slight, accidental deflection of a ball off a leg determined the outcome of today's football game. How many accidental deflections would change the presumed course of England's future as projected by a counterfactual historian imagining, say, that Elizabeth I had been deposed by Mary, Queen of Scots' conspirators or by a successful Spanish invasion? Or the fate of the colonies in the New World?

You want a parlor game? Try Charades.

**After writing this, I discovered this quote from Martin Kettle:
To EH Carr, historian of Soviet Russia, to speak of what might have happened in history, as opposed to what did happen, was just a "parlour game". To EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, such counterfactual speculation was "unhistorical shit".
(Kettle, himself, likes counterfactuals.)

***Did somebody whisper "Niall Ferguson"?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

This does not pretend to be the definitive work on denial; it would take a book-and-a-half to cover the topic. It's just a look at three different types of denial.

Deny, Deny, Deny

The famous advice given in the 1967 movie A Guide for the Married Man is the resort for all guilty persons who are afraid of being found out (in this case, of infidelity): “Deny, Deny, Deny!” It's the stonewall defense. Even with a smoking gun in your hands and a bleeding corpse at your feet--admit nothing at all costs. “What are you talking about?” “Oh this. I can explain.” And so on and so forth. The best exponent of the this ploy is Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One (Act II, Scene 4).
We two saw you four set on four and bound them, and
were masters of their wealth. Mark now, how a plain
tale shall put you down. Then did we two set on you
four; and, with a word, out-faced you from your
prize, and have it; yea, and can show it you here in
the house: and, Falstaff, you carried your guts
away as nimbly, with as quick dexterity, and roared
for mercy and still run and roared, as ever I heard
bull-calf. What a slave art thou, to hack thy sword
as thou hast done, and then say it was in fight!
What trick, what device, what starting-hole, canst
thou now find out to hide thee from this open and
apparent shame?
Come, let's hear, Jack; what trick hast thou now?
By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye.
Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the
heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince?
why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but
beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true
prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was now a
coward on instinct.
Falstaff doesn't just deflect the shame from his being branded a coward, but he turns his cowardice into a positive quality. The “coward on instinct” is the champion of “Deny, Deny, Deny!”
Deny, Deny!
It's easy to understand that the guilty (in thought and/or deed) will readily turn to the stonewall tactic. Without a confession the accusers have a lot of work to do to prove their case. But what if there is absolutely irrefutable evidence of guilt. Well, first of all, you just deny that it is absolutely irrefutable proof of guilt. Take, for example, the photograph of the teeth mark on the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini inflicted by the bite of Uruguay's Luis Suarez in a World Cup match this past week. (It should be pointed out here to those who don't already know that Suarez is now a bi-continental biter with multinational tastes, having chomped a Dutchman in Holland, a Serb in England, and now an Italian in Brazil.)
The denial project was essentially a three-step process.
First step: Denial that the proof is indeed proof. There is a simple explanation for the photograph showing teeth marks, according to Suarez's home country defenders in the media and the Uruguayan Football Association--the picture was Photoshopped!
According to newspaper reports in Uruguay and Spain, when submitting its evidence in defence of Suárez, who has now been banned by Fifa from football for four months and nine international matches for his actions, the Uruguayan FA planned to argue that digital manipulation of images has been rife and that they cannot be trusted.
The Guardian, UK
Which brings us to the second step: Did you note where the above quote came from? The whole incident is a conspiracy concocted by the British (with a little help from the offended Italians and the Brazilians, who, according to the Uruguayans, would supposedly have an easier chance of winning the tournament if Uruguay were out of it).
The Uruguayan Football Association has gone on the offensive in an effort to save Luis Suarez from a lengthy ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini, claiming he is the victim of a smear campaign by the Italians, the English media and the Brazilian hosts.
Oops, sorry, that's from the conspiratorial Guardian, again. Here's an obviously unbiased reaction—from, the website of the corporation which broadcasts Uruguayan football:
Los británicos, en la conferencia de prensa, en tres ocasiones preguntaron a Oscar Tabárez sobre la incidencia, afirmando que “Suárez mordió a Chellini”. Inclusive señalaron que la FIFA debería intervenir y expulsar a Luisito de la Copa del Mundo.
(British reporters, in the press conference, asked Óscar Tabárez [Uruguayan team manager] three times about the incident, saying that: “Suárez bit Chiellini.” Their intention was Fifa should expel Luisito.)
Sorry once more, that's a Guardian translation.
The Tenfield response segues into the third step of defense. It concludes (in translation):
It would be good if these Englishmen remember how they won the World Cup in 1966 with a ball which was not a goal.
This should be called the “Na Na Na Na Na” fallback: You benefited from something perhaps not-quite-right about half-a-century ago, so you have dirty hands and should keep your mouth shut about other people's misdeeds (metaphor like James Bond's martinis—shaken, not stirred).
Whereas Denial Type 2 is a tactic to defend  the emotional side of life, Denial Type 3 is employed in the worlds of punditry and politics, by those who purport to be engaged in serious debate on intellectual issues or legislation.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has concluded, “Human influences are having an impact on some extreme weather and climate events.” Now consider the following two statements on this issue:
1--“There is . . . no evidence for the increase in extreme weather. . . . I own a home on an island in South Carolina looking south in the direction of hurricanes, and after Katrina I was really interested when they said this is a harbinger of increased hurricane activity, which since then has plummeted."
2--“I don’t agree with the notion that some are putting out there—including scientists—that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate. I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”
The first statement, which offers an anecdote as a supposed rebuttal of scientific evidence, is a clear violation of an old Yiddish proverb (and nobody wants to violate one of those) that goes (in English, since none of us are up to snuff in Yiddish): “'For instance' is not proof.” But I guess we shouldn't expect much from the speaker of the first statement, our old friend the pundit George Will (we met him in the previous post, “Stinking to High Heaven”), who does not score high in Yiddishkeit. Will feels that he can pit his anecdote against the overwhelming scientific evidence because “Scientists are not saints in white laboratory smocks.”
The second statement is a clearer presentation of the stance that Will takes. It's by Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida. Rubio's key words are “I do not believe.” As Amanda Marcotte noted in a article,
Rubio isn’t disagreeing with the opinions [my emphasis] of scientists; he’s disagreeing with the conclusions derived from the evidence. Even if all the climate change scientists died tomorrow, the planet would still be heating up. This isn’t a matter of one person’s opinion versus another. It’s a man being presented with facts and refusing to believe them.
Perhaps what we can call people like Will and Rubio is “scientific philistines,” analogous to artistic philistines, who “know what they like.” Scientific philistines know what science (and the technology that flows from that knowledge) they like and deny the validity of the science they don't like. Thus, they can wear digital watches, use computers, fly in airplanes, take antibiotics, etc. without bothering to consider the fact that the differing sciences of metallurgy, physics, chemistry, etc. are interconnected. Decades ago, I first came across a famous scientist (I don't recall who it was, though) suggesting (tongue-in-cheekily) that people who don't believe in evolution shouldn't be allowed to fly in airplanes. Here, more recently, is William Hirstein's take on the subject:
To be consistent, extreme science skeptics such as creationists should not trust any existing technology. They should not use computers, drive modern cars, fly on airplanes, or have an MRI done, since the same science that tells us that animals evolved created these technologies. But of course these are reliable technologies. The best explanation for this fact and the fact that our cars go, our bridges do not fall down, hospital patients get better at ever-improving rates, and so on, is that the science behind these achievements correctly describes the world.
But like Rubio, other politicians will go on proposing legislation that ignores scientific findings, while gloating about their philistinism. John Becker, Republican member of the Ohio legislature, defended his bill on birth control devices thusly, “This is just a personal view. I’m not a medical doctor.” And like Will, other pundits will deny evidence when it displeases them (e.g., Charles Krauthammer, on the same television show as Will: “I'm not impressed by numbers. I'm not impressed by consensus”).

Should we call this type of denial intellectual dishonesty? Or is there another term that might be used?
I learnt a new word today: 'solipsism'
Reader “JimKent”
commenting on a Guardian article
May 24, 2012
Maybe that's it: Scientific philistines are so wrapped up in their subjectivity that no other truth can exist in their world. Some comedian (again, I heard it many years ago and can't name the person) once put down artistic philistines with the analogous retort: “I don't know much about medicine, but I know what I like.” Unfortunately, as John Becker has shown, the laughable has become reality. And reality for too many, is no longer determined by evidence.
In the Principles and the Three Dialogues [Bishop] Berkeley defends two metaphysical theses: idealism (the claim that everything that exists either is a mind or depends on a mind for its existence) and immaterialism (the claim that matter does not exist).  His contention that all physical objects are composed of ideas is encapsulated in his motto esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived).
"Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy"
In his Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell relates the following story:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."
Epistemology (by Richard Wilbur)
Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.


We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, “You are not true.”
Some Sources:

Jonathan Chait

William Hirstein,

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,”

Amanda Marcotte,
Amanda Marcotte,
Luis Roux,
And for another angle on denial (and, this time, those who believe in global warming):
Emmett Rensin,