Monday, September 10, 2012

Notable Links and Linkable Notes

* Charles Camosy has a good post on the increasing obsession with 'fact-checking'. One of the things that I think egregious about this is that it gives people an illusion of critical thinking without itself being based on critical thinking, a very dangerous thing given that people already are tempted to use political set-pieces and slogans in place of serious thought. The fundamental problem with fact-checking is that the conclusion of any checking of facts has to be relativized to the method of checking. To take a really simple example. Suppose the question is whether unemployment went up or down. The answer to this can depend on the particular metric used -- are we counting only active job seekers without a job as unemployed, for instance, or are we counting everyone who does not have a job, or everyone of working age who does not have a job? And what is your method for collecting this information? Each of these will give you a different kind of answer, each of these answers will be suitable for some questions, and it may well be that on some such measurements that unemployment goes up and on others it goes down. As Mike Flynn likes to point out, 'fact' comes from the Latin word for 'something made', and while etymology is not destiny, it is nonetheless true that facts always have an element of construction, or, to put it in other words, that you cannot actually make sense of a fact without knowing how it was reached. Just as certain theorems in geometry depend on what constructions are allowed, so too what facts you can get will depend on what methods you use. Fact-checkers, however, position themselves as bias-less and as presenting 'the answer', and therefore present as critical thinking what is in fact hubris.

The first question should always be: What kind of argument and situation provides the context here? The second question that should be asked is: On what basis would someone claim this? Then we can ask: What other bases could be used, and what claims would they yield? And finally we can ask: Was their basis the best basis to use given the argument and situation? Only with the final question are we really in a position to 'fact-check'; and you will notice here that good 'fact-checking' is primarily a form of practical evaluation, not theoretical -- it's really about the most useful and relevant ways of getting answers to certain kinds of problems, and whether someone is using them.

* Wendell P. MacIntyre, Francis Bacon's Use of Ancient Myths in Novum Organum (PDF). I haven't had a chance to read it closely, but it looks interesting.

* Rebecca Stark and a number of others have started a new evangelical theology blog, Out of the Ordinary. All of those involved are quite excellent, so it should be a good blog.

* A recent study suggests that less than half of churchgoers in the U.S. are aware of the fact that they can register themselves officially as members of their church. Among Catholics that number is at about a third of churchgoers. This is quite remarkable given how much official membership rolls are used for charting numbers -- and it raises the question of how much purported declines in church membership are due to people who attend but never actually sign up. (Thinking about this, while I know very well that my parish has official rolls, I don't think I've ever actually filled out the paperwork, despite attending regularly. So it's not just ignorance that has an effect here.)

* Poul Anderson's "Uncleftish Beholding", a very famous little piece, in which Anderson presents basic atomic theory without using any words derived from Greek or Latin -- instead he uses Anglicized Germannic equivalents:

For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.

The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

* The IEP article on St. Jeanne-Francois Fremyot de Chantal, one of my favorite early modern saints; Fr. John Conley's discussion of her philosophical ideas is quite nice, considering how little her work is studied in philosophical circles. He has a book, The Suspicion of Virtue, that I haven't read, but hope to get around to at some point.

* Crispin Sartwell's SEP article on beauty is also worth reading.

* Kirsten Walsh has a post on Emilie du Chatelet's view of scientific hypotheses.

* How to make an apple swan (there's a video, but you might have to look for it at the top by scrolling through the videos).

* I've been meaning for some time to put up a link to Ray Monk's article on Wittgenstein, and I don't think I have yet. So there it is.

* The recent little kerfuffle over whether the Democratic Party platform should continue to mention support of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has led reporters to try to pin down the State Department on what Administration policy actually is on the matter. It turns out that the State Department won't be pinned down, which I thought was interesting. (The U.S. is not alone in this, of course; very few nations recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital -- only Israel, Guatemala, and El Salvador, in fact.) Actually, looking into it further, it's more complicated than that. In 1995 the U.S. Congress passed a law stating that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by no later than May of 1999. That law is still in effect. However, it had a wiggle-room clause, intended to give flexibility if something came up, which allows the President to issue a six-month waiver. And every six months since 1999 a waiver has been issued by whichever President was in office at the time. So I suppose the official position of the Unites States on whether Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is that we will some day have the official position that we have officially had the position since 1999 that it is, but that currently we officially have no official position on the matter. Sir Humphrey Appleby would be very proud.

* Randall Rauser discusses John W. Loftus's "Outsider Test". You occasionally find internet atheists trumpeting it. Technically the test is applied whenever anyone converts to Christianity, so the evidence for the notion that outsiderness contributes any special element to the discussion is pretty inconclusive at best; and even if that is set aside, then, as Rauser notes, it all turns out to boil down to 'consider the evidence and arguments fairly,' with a dubious rhetorical twist that seems deliberately rigged to underplay the extent to which serious evaluation of anything requires sympathetic understanding. The real response to people applying a double standard is to urge them to have more sympathetic understanding of other people's views, not less sympathetic understanding of their own. (It is not as if sympathetic understanding hasn't widely been recognized as essential to good critical thinking: for instance, it's one way you could put John Stuart Mill's test for higher pleasures in Utilitarianism, Chapter 2, and Mill was just adapting Plato's Socrates from the Republic. Loftus's own test requires that one start with sympathetic understanding of the outsider -- how else are you going to give an accurate assessment from the outsider's perspective; so the emphasis on the outsider's skepticism rather than sympathetic understanding of the outsider is an arbitrary choice for rhetorical purposes rather than anything substantive. The whole 'test' boils down to: 'sympathetically understand why the skeptic has the objections he does', and this, far from being the extraordinary thing Loftus claims, is just an advocacy of fair evaluation.)

* The trailer is out for the second Atlas Shrugged film:

The first one was very bland, although the aesthetic of it was pretty decent. A bit Russian, actually -- nothing on the level of quality of Tarkovsky or anything like that, but it had the sort of all-on-a-level, meandering, "we're not in a hurry to get to the point because the whole thing's the point, since, after all, why else are you bothering to watch it" feel of a great deal of decent Russian cinema. That fits Ayn Rand pretty well, since that's pretty much her novelistic style, but it doesn't exactly make for Hollywood. I thought the costuming and set design were actually quite nice; they blended 1950s corporate design elements with more contemporary elements in a way that was classy. They're investing more money in this one, and they have changed out the entire cast. It's an interesting line-up; the original was mostly young untried actors and actresses, this has a much more experienced roll-call, consistently mostly of high-quality TV actors. And then there's Samantha Mathis, who actually makes sense as a Dagny Taggart. And this movie will cover more of the more eventful part of the book. So it could be at least moderately interesting.

* The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ) keeps a massive strategic maple syrup reserve, which stockpiles massive quantities of maple syrup to prevent severe failures of the maple syrup market. It was in the news recently because it was the victim of a major heist.

We don't usually think of it as such, but real maple syrup (as opposed to the fake stuff) is a minor luxury item that is in relatively high demand, and Canada dominates about three-quarters of this large market, with Quebec dominating the market in Canada. So it gets treated as a strategic commodity, just like oil, its distribution carefully planned so as to maintain the viability of the market. Contrary to the way it has sometimes been portrayed, Canada as such does not have a designated Maple Syrup Reserve, although, honestly, given the way the Canadian government works it wouldn't be much of a surprise if they did. Rather, it is maintained by FPAQ, the world's most powerful maple syrup syndicate. The thieves hit an FPAQ warehouse, and stole millions of dollars (Canadian) in maple syrup. The warehouse had $30 million in maple syrup; it wasn't all stolen, and FPAQ is keeping mum about the exact amount, but it's certainly in the millions of dollars. It's actually rather brilliant. Genuine maple syrup is, as I said, a luxury item, so you can get an excellent price for it, but unlike many luxury items it would be easy to smuggle, easy to bootleg, and hard to trace. The thieves didn't grab the bottles; they siphoned it out of the warehouse bottles, enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool to overflowing and still have some to spare, so that anyone not looking closely might not realize that anything had been stolen at all.

* I have been shamelessly lax in using diacritical marks for French names in this post. It led me to wonder why English is so rare among modern languages in having a Roman alphabet but no diacritical marks (we use them artificially when we think it's important to indicate deviant pronunciations, or in loanwords that have not been completely anglicized). It turns out that nobody knows. The best guess I've seen is that it has to do with the interaction between English pronunciation and spelling. English has a large number of phonemes, somewhere between 35 and 50 distinct sounds, in part because it has an unusual number of vowel-sounds. (For comparison, Spanish is in the 20s; and the most generous count for French, which also has an unusual number of vowel-sounds, although still fewer than English, is somewhere around the most conservative account for English.) At the same time, spelling in English is extraordinarily irregular, so only a small handful of these phonemes are associated with a regular spelling (consider: zoo, true, shoe, dew, through, you, Hindu; or, in the other direction: loud, famous, would, you, dough, mould). Some of the irregularity is due to the fact that the English alphabet is small in comparison to the sounds it has to represent; part of it is due to the fact that written English derives from many different dialects of English; and part of it is due to the fact that English-speakers are very resistant to spelling reform. You need a fairly regular phoneme representation to make diacritical marks worthwhile. So at the end of the day it seems that English has no diacritical marks because they wouldn't be good for much.

I've noted previously that English is in practice very sloppy about its syllables. It's not the only language -- anyone who listens to Quebecois French begins to wonder if they even know what a syllable is -- but English is also very generous with how you pronounce vowels. I suspect that the two are related, and I wonder if part of it's because the sheer quantity of phonemes in English are just too many to bother keeping track of without some clear way of doing so. (Of course, it's hard to disentangle this from the effects of the fact that there are just a lot of English speakers scattered over a large portion of the world, and not much to keep them in line.)


  1. Thanks for linking to Out of the Ordinary!

  2. branemrys3:12 PM

    Glad to be sending people your way!


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