A comment on focus

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New Year’s, 2258. Your year was probably better than theirs.

Over at Facebook, famous space commander Chris Hadfield has posted a wonderful list of genuinely good news from 2016 to offset all those gloomy year end retrospectives. I think it’s a must-read even if you’re not all that gloomy, because a lot of those stories are really cool, and if you’re like me you probably missed a lot of them the first time around. However, I do take issue with Hadfield’s intended takeaway.

“If you refocus on the things that are working,” Hadfield writes, “your year will be better than the last.” In fact, many of the stories he uses to show how things are working are about people recognizing that some thing or other is not working, and then successfully doing something about it. Focusing on the things that are working is not a good way to make things work, and keeping only the good things in view means that there will eventually be fewer good things to keep in view. Focusing on the good because it makes us happy also ignores the fact that there can be bad reasons to be happy and good reasons to be unhappy; as one of my teachers used to say, there is a big difference between feeling well and being well. That’s not to say that we should wallow in gloom either. Instead of resolving to focus on the good or to focus on the bad, let’s just try to focus on what’s there.

Here’s hoping you all have good reason to be happy in 2017!

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In defence of Santa Claus

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David Livingstone Smith has written a short piece criticizing participation in the Santa Claus story (i.e. getting children to believe that Santa Claus is real); his article includes responses to three common justifications for this practice, followed by three objections to the practice. I agree with some of the points Smith raises, and in my view he decisively rebuts the excuses offered on behalf of Santa’s supporters. However, Smith’s case against Santa is not without its flaws either. Taken together, I believe that these flaws are fatal to his critique.

To begin with, Smith makes the simple observation that it is a lie to tell children that Santa Claus exists with the intention of getting them to believe that Santa Claus really does exist. As he quickly points out, some lies are excusable, and insofar as Smith is using the term “lie” in a purely descriptive sense, the claim ought to be utterly uncontroversial.

When are lies excusable? The most obvious cases involve an immediate threat of death or other bodily harm that can only be avoided by means of telling a lie. Obviously the Santa Claus story does not qualify, but there are other excuses which Smith does not mention. Practical jokes and magic shows tend to involve an element of lying as well. Both practical jokes and magic shows can be performed for malicious purposes, but they are not essentially malicious and often so morally innocuous that even calling them “excusable” seems overwrought. Practical jokes are most likely to be morally questionable when they are performed without a person’s consent, but consent to the circumstances in which lies are told cannot be a necessary condition for the lie’s permissibility; if it were, surprising someone with a magic trick would be morally wrong. Among other peculiar consequences, this would imply that most street magic acts — where the audience is gathered from passersby by the sight of apparently astonishing feats accomplished at least partly by means of deception — are morally wrong. The ease with which lies can be excused for the purpose of the deceived individual’s enjoyment establishes a defeasible presumption in favour of the Santa lie’s permissibility (although in what follows I tend to use the less loaded sounding term “story” rather than “lie”). Given this presumption, whether participating in the Santa story turns out to be permissible will depend on whether Smith’s criticisms of this practice hold water.

Smith’s first explicit complaint is that encouraging children to believe in Santa makes children’s struggle to comprehend the world around them unnecessarily difficult. Presumably the difficulty is posed by the incongruity between Santa-related phenomena such as elves and flying reindeer on the one hand and children’s knowledge of natural phenomena on the other. Not only are beliefs in these Santa-related phenomena false, but attempting to integrate such beliefs with one’s knowledge of natural phenomena in a coherent picture of the world will compromise the accuracy of children’s beliefs about those natural phenomena. For example, all flying animals use aerodynamic lift to achieve flight; reindeer, however, lack the physical structures required to generate aerodynamic lift. But according to the Santa story, some reindeer are capable of unassisted flight. To reconcile these facts and maintain consistency in their views of the world, children who believe in the Santa story will have to conclude that one cannot infer an animal’s capacity for unassisted flight from its aerodynamic characteristics. Even worse, if certain aerodynamic characteristics are not required in order for an animal to be able to fly, one may not even be justified in believing that the aerodynamic characteristics of animals that really do fly are what explains those animals’ ability to fly.

I find this criticism unconvincing, and you may already have guessed why. Very young children — children at the ages where they are most likely to believe in Santa — simply do not engage in the kind of sophisticated theorizing about the world that could be undermined by belief in Santa-related phenomena. As children’s reasoning abilities develop, they lose their Santa-related beliefs naturally. If belief in Santa posed an obstacle to the development of children’s reasoning abilities, Smith’s complaint would have more force. But I see no reason to believe this is the case. And as it stands, his complaint seems to concern the effect of belief in Santa on the content of children’s beliefs about the world, not the means by which they acquire those beliefs.

Smith’s second criticism is that the Santa story undermines children’s trust in their parents because convincing children that the story is true amounts to a form of betrayal. However, the reasoning employed here seems to be circular. The Santa story can only be a betrayal warranting a child’s withdrawal of trust in his or her parents if there is something wrong about convincing children that the Santa story is true. So this second objection carries no weight on its own; the wrong it purports to identify depends on participation in the Santa story having already been found to be wrongful on independent grounds, thereby justifying the claim that the Santa story is a form of betrayal warranting withdrawal of trust. If Smith’s other objections fail, then, this one can be dismissed automatically.

Finally, Smith implies that the Santa Claus story is a form of manipulation that undermines children’s moral development by encouraging them to base their behaviour on expectations of material reward and punishment rather than doing good for its own sake. However, reward and punishment usually play some role in the moral development of children whether or not they are raised to believe in Santa. Rather than retarding moral development, discipline of this kind plays a crucial role in bringing children’s moral capacities to fruition. Conceivably, participating in the Santa fiction could even come with certain advantages. Consider that Santa supposedly knows at all times whether any given child has been bad or good; parents and other authority figures, on the other hand, must monitor children’s behaviour more deliberately. If they believe that Santa is monitoring and evaluating their behaviour at all times, children may be encouraged to be more reflective about the moral quality of their behaviour even when they’re not being supervised by any actual person. Such reflection plausibly enhances children’s awareness and understanding of moral norms, and their ability to govern themselves accordingly. As children mature and come to appreciate the force that moral norms have independently of considerations of reward and punishment, they will surely continue to benefit from this habit of ethical self-reflection. So Smith is really setting up a false dilemma; we have reason to think that being good for the sake of staying off Santa’s “naughty” list is really just another way that people can learn to “be good for goodness’ sake.”

I conclude that in the absence of any compelling objection, it is at least permissible to encourage children’s belief in Santa. I would suggest, however, that this permission comes with a few qualifications. The first is that if adults portray Santa Claus as a moral authority, they must take care not to attribute highly questionable moral attitudes to him. Most importantly, Santa should be portrayed as being concerned with the rightness and wrongness of people’s actions and avoid characterizing children as being essentially either naughty or nice (or good or bad). In addition, elements of the Santa story that seem to promote excessive materialism and justify poverty and gross economic inequality (for example, the idea that Santa rewards children in proportion to the quality of their behaviour) should be downplayed or altered. Second, adults should ensure that their intentions are pure — that they are not treating children as objects of ridicule and mockery, for example, and that they are not simply seeking a tool with which to control children’s behaviour. Finally, adults should pay attention to children’s developing reasoning abilities and bring the Santa charade to an end when appropriate. At some point, keeping the Santa magic alive requires something very much like gaslighting. Adults ought to pull the plug on it well before that point. In the meantime, they should just make sure the chimney’s clear, pour a glass of milk, set out the cookies, and relax.

How not to argue for relativism

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Scientific American has published a blog post by Julia Shaw on “the benefits of a post-truth society”. The title make it sound provocative but it’s actually very sloppy. Here’s how the column goes. First, citing the authority of the dictionary of all things, Shaw defines facts as things that are known or proven. Then she seems to stipulate that science is the only candidate for a means by which anything could be known or proven. And then finally, she claims (with little argument) that nothing can be known or proven by scientific means. It follows that nothing is known or proven, and so there are no facts. There are many problems with this argument, any of which is sufficient to sink the whole thing. Here I’ll limit myself to explaining four of those problems.

The first problem is that the author is equivocating by defining facts as items of knowledge. The relevant sense of the term fact is “something that is the case”; something can be the case without being known. Or at least, this seems to be what’s actually at stake in all the fuss about the idea of a post-truth/post-fact world: is anything the case independently of what people know or believe, and if not, what are the appropriate standards for knowledge and belief?

The second problem is the implicit stipulation that science is the only candidate for a means by which something could be known or proven. At the very least, some mathematical claims seem to be knowable, and the method of proving such claims does not resemble science as Shaw describes it. Certain other claims are knowable by direct experience — “I am thinking”, for example. The stipulated claim is false.

The third problem is the claim that science cannot yield knowledge. Shaw says this is because science cannot prove things. Rather, science proceeds by inference from repeated observations. This can be interpreted two ways. On the first interpretation, this is simply circular, because proof is being used just to mean whatever justifies regarding some proposition as an item of knowledge. To say that science cannot prove things is just to restate the claim that science cannot yield knowledge. And on the second interpretation, the argument is badly underdeveloped, because Shaw fails to explain what the relevant standard of proof is and why it cannot be met by inference from repeated observations. What would it even mean for an inference from accurate observations to be justified if not for the inference to be appropriately regarded as true?

The fourth problem — the bottom line, really — is that this column is just a massive cheat. As proof (heh) that a post-truth/post-fact world is nothing to worry about, Shaw points out that she wrote a whole book about science without using the terms “fact” and “truth”. But as it turns out this is not so much because she has a radically revisionary conception of the relation between science and reality but rather because she can use a thesaurus. Instead of truth, fact, proof and knowledge, Shaw instead speaks of “understanding”, “insight”, “break[ing] down … illusions”, being “more right”, and “what the universe really looks like”. But the latter terms are used in such a way that they can be substituted with the former to yield what is clearly just a restatement of the truth/fact paradigm she purports to be challenging. In the end, her argument against the ordinary understanding of truth and fact actually turns out to be a reaffirmation of it.

In my view, a far more appropriate response to the realities of human fallibility and widespread disagreement about what the world is like that ostensibly motivate Shaw’s turn to relativism would be a stance that it is often confused with but in fact stands in stark opposition: simple intellectual humility. How arrogant to rush to the conclusion that our failure to bring the scientific enterprise to completion in short order is attributable to the universe’s shortcomings — its failure to contain such things as facts — and not to our own. Widespread disagreement and fallibility are exactly what would we should expect if there are such things as facts but humans are limited in time, space, and perceptual and intellectual capability. In the face of these limitations we should adopt a critical attitude to our beliefs, strive to correct biases that can steer us wrong, carefully scrutinize our observations and the inferences we make from them, respectfully consider each other’s perspectives, and reconcile ourselves to the possibility that some truths may be forever beyond our reach. If there are no facts, its difficult to see why we should be cultivate this kind of humility; it seems to be warranted precisely because there are such things as facts, by virtue of which our beliefs about what is the case can be wrong.

There are big lessons in every election

moonFrom the opening vignette of the old Open Ocean exhibit at the Royal BC Museum. “Why, we know less about [democracy] than we do about the moon!”

In an article at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum claims that there are no big lessons to be drawn from the 2016 election and that the Democrats made no big mistakes. His argument for this claim is weak, disjointed, and hypocritical. But rather than focusing on the defects of his argument for this claim, I’d like to make a few comments about why the claim must be false.

Democracy as we know it hasn’t been around for very long. If your conception of “democracy as we know it” involves an effective universal franchise, it’s arguably been around for only a few decades even in most of the oldest democracies. Because democracy is complicated and it hasn’t been around for very long, we’re still very ignorant about it; there just hasn’t been enough time for enough study and experience of democracy to really get a handle on it. During the brief lifespan of modern democracy, elections have been relatively rare events compared to other events that define democratic regimes, such as contacts between citizens and representatives, politically oriented public assemblies, and meetings of representative bodies. And although democracy isn’t just about elections, democracy is structured around elections. Given the rarity of elections — especially the rarity of elections relative to their importance to democracy —and the brief period they’ve been available for study, every election has the potential to contribute enormously to our store of knowledge about democracy. There are big lessons to learn from every election.

Perhaps what Drum means, then, is that none of the lessons there are to be learned from the election have any special significance for the Democrats. If, prior to the campaign, the Democrats had already possessed all of the general knowledge to be gained from learning those lessons, they would be no less warranted in running their campaign just the way they did without possessing this knowledge. Furthermore, if the Democrats had everything there was to learn from this election wiped from their minds prior to the next election, they would not be at any significant disadvantage. But this seems tantamount to claiming that the Democrats ran the best of all possible campaigns. If true, this would itself be a staggeringly important item of knowledge. Knowledge of how to run the best of all possible campaigns campaign — even the knowledge that there could be such a thing! — would change politics profoundly. Arguably such knowledge would seriously damage the legitimacy of democratic outcomes, as the proliferation of nearly perfect campaigns would make outcomes solely dependent on chance. So the claim that the Democrats have no big lessons to learn from 2016 can only be true if everyone has a very, very big lesson to learn in 2016. And to me, the content of this lesson is completely implausible.

A final comment. Drum opens his piece with a complaint about the number of “hot takes” on the election. I sympathize with his complaint but not his solution, which is merely to curl off another one for the pile. It seems to me that he’s caught in a bit of a professional bubble in which hot takes — not the social sciences, or professional political expertise, or the experience of activists and partisans, or the distributed practical intelligence of a democratic citizenry — provide the mode by which the lessons of political events are to be learned. Hot takes are disposable by their nature; therefore, any lessons to be learned from the election are also disposable. But the conclusion only follows from the most intellectually parochial of assumptions.

The Austrian presidential election is better news than you think

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Image: A statue of Hercules slaying the Hydra decorates the Hofburg Palace, the location of the Austrian Federal President’s official residence and offices

Today there’s been a welcome bit of good news on the electoral front for the left, with a victory over the far right in the Austrian presidential election. Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent candidate formerly of the Green Party, finally defeated Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer by an increased majority compared to the nullified first results from the election’s second round. This is even better news than you’d think from reading a lot of the press about it.

Quite a few articles (such as this one) are claiming that the office of president is largely ceremonial and thus the far right’s defeat is primarily of symbolic importance. The first part of that is mostly true, but I think the second part is false. In addition to the ceremonial functions, the Austrian president’s real powers with respect to appointing and dismissing governments and dissolving parliament are similar to those of the governor general. Also like the governor general, the president’s use of these powers is largely regulated by convention alone. But unlike the governor general, the Austrian president may openly profess allegiance to one political party and is in a position to claim an independent democratic mandate to use the powers of the presidency for political ends even where this would involve a breach of convention. In fact, following the first round of voting, Hofer made a pledge to use the office to fire or disrupt the work of the governing coalition a plank of his election platform. 

Given the context of a slow-motion political realignment in Austria which has seen the steady deterioration of the formerly dominant centre-left/centre-right partnership from grand coalition to narrow majority, and with parliamentary elections on the horizon, a far right president would have had ample incentive and opportunity to use his powers for the benefit of his own party. Thankfully, this threat has been averted for the time being.