Monday, November 28, 2005

Sexism in Language -- I

Yesterday, a daughter of the Ohio State University Marching Band director, who lived in New York City and was an aspiring dancer, was stabbed to death in her apartment. She was described as beautiful young woman who was in "a new off-Broadway show called The Privilege," as the Columbus Dispatch reports. I have no free URL to direct you too. This came as I was struggling with my next blog which started off with the sentence "In my opinion, many -- maybe a majority of -- men genuinely don't respect women." In support of this claim, which some might see as controversial, I simply noted that men abuse women and girls both physically (including to the point of killing them) and sexually (which sometimes leads to murder as well.)

Of course a majority of men don't physically or sexually abuse women but in my 67 years of experience, a majority of men seek to dominate women and value women not for their wit and intelligence but on physical grounds -- how pretty and shapely they are. The movie, "When Harry met Sally," took the position that a man couldn't be with a woman without wanting to sleep with her even when their relationship was officially a friendship. I believe a majority of men seek also to dominate the women in their lives but I would be hard pressed to defend that claim (though I doubt that women readers would need a defense to be convinced.)

One of the really interesting concepts to me is that of "date rape." Why is there any need for this concept? A rape is a rape whether it is perpetrated by a date, who might use either force or a drug to gain compliance, or a stranger who uses force or the threat of violence to gain compliance. I think this notion was created by men to put a pretty face on certain types of rapes by way of suggesting that the female might have done something to encourage the rape such as invite the male up to her apartment.

The question arises as to where does this violence against women come from? Do mothers and fathers teach their boys that dominating women is the right of a male and that women should be valued primarily as sexual beings? I don't think so though boys might learn from how fathers treat their mothers that violence toward women is okay. They may also learn a disrespect for women from their male friends who will typically be interested in "how far" a guy got on his last date rather than in "how interesting" she was.

We see in these two types of violence against women two basic themes -- a theme of male dominance over women and a theme that women are commodities -- are vehicles for male sexual pleasure. The fact that men may love their wives and daughters doesn't mean that they value women generally for "good reasons." Everyone knows racists and ethnocentric people who make exceptions for certain persons of the despised group. I suspect this is what goes on in the case of many happily married men.

My question is where are these concepts of "male dominance" and "the female as commodity" learned. Do fathers tell their boys that it is okay to exert your will over your girlfriend or wife even if it requires violence? Perhaps I am naive but this seems to me to be somewhat implausible. These are behaviors that people are more likely to keep silent about. So where do boys learn this stuff?

In my opinion both language and how we use it play a role in conditioning boys and young men not to respect women, which is the first step toward using force on them to gain compliance, including sexual compliance. To demonstrate how this might happen, we need, first, to define "sexism." I shall define it in terms of what a sexist action is:
A sexist action is one which is predicated on an assumption of a difference between men and women which is not biologically justified and which is harmful to the interests of specific women (or men) or women (or men) generally.
So according to this distinction, men too can be the victims of sexism though I suspect it is relatively rare. The next distinction I will make is between sexist language and a sexist use of language.
Sexist language is language that is inherently sexist in that it is encoded in the language itself and often cannot be avoided.

A sexist use of language is the use of language that is sexist which is avoidable.
Pronoun reference provides a classic instance of sexist language. Consider sentences like
(1) a. Any person who passes the final will get a passing grade, won't he?
b. If a person hits you, you have a right to hit him back.
c. Any person who speaks his mind about religion could get in trouble.
Here we see the ubiquitous presence of he, him, and his as the default resumptive pronouns (a resumptive pronoun that has the same referent as an earlier noun phrase (in these cases any person and a person. Use of he, him, and his has historically been dictated by those who enforce the canons of Standard English. What is of interest to us in this context, is that use of these pronouns makes women invisible.

Interestingly, large numbers of people have come to use officially ungrammatical plural pronouns like they, their, and them to avoid this problem.
(2) a. Any person who passes the final will get a passing grade, won't they?
b. Any person who gets hit by another person should hit them back
c. Any person who gives some of their money to the poor should receive
some sort of commendation.
I suspect cases like (2) arise in part out of a desire to be politically correct by avoiding use the masculine form and in part in an effort to simplify their speech by avoiding the cumbersome locutions he or she, him or her and his or her. Anyone who writes for publication faces this problem. I adopted two different solutions - one was to use the cumbersome compound phrases and the other was to use masculine and feminine pronouns in some sort of random order. Neither is satisfactory. The correct solution in my opinion is to go with the man on the street's solution and use they and their despite how old school grammarians may feel about it.

I wonder how many of you noticed my use of the man in the last sentence of the last paragraph? I suspect that many of you will not have even though use of sexist masculine pronouns was the topic of discussion. In using this phrase, I too spoke as if women didn't exist. The invisibility of women is also fostered by words like mankind and chairman and fireman, such other terms that refer to humans generally with words with male referents. Those hoping to be PC might say the person on the street's solution or humankind, or chairperson or firefighter . In using these male oriented terms we not only treat females as invisible we also see males as being the normative sex.

Many of our terms for vocations establish males as the normative sex. Many of us use doctor when referring to male doctors and woman doctor when referring to female doctors. In other cases, the fact that males are the norm is shown by the existence of separate terms for males and females, the latter always being longer thanks to the addition of a suffix. So we have actor and actress, prince and princess, Jew and and Jewess, lion and lioness, etc. Interestingly, it is said on a Wikipedia entry that
"Jewess" was sometimes used for Jewish women. This word, like "Negress" is now at best an archaism, and is generally taken as an insult. However, some modern Jewish women have reclaimed the term Jewess and use it proudly
If you listen carefully to how female actors talk, many insist on referring to themselves as actors, not actresses because they know that actress has less status associated with it because it is restricted in its reference to women and in this society, in general, women have less status than men. So, even when women are not made invisible by our general terms for referring to people, they are frequently referred to using lower status forms.

There are numerous other ways in which male dominance is codified in the language. Letters are addressed to Mr and Mrs Jones but never (or almost never) to Mrs and Mr Jones. A locution that establishes not just male dominance but the subservience of women to men occurs in the old fashioned but still used phrase I pronounce you man and wife.This is both a bizarre expression -- how do you go about pronouncing someone to be a man? -- and establishes the woman in the subservient role of wife. There is an easy way to improve the language of wedding vows. One may simply use husband and wife. Notice though how odd sounding I pronounce you wife and husband is. The man must always come first.

There are various instances in which linguistic distinctions tend to mask the marital status of men but not women. The most obvious is the distinction between Mr, which is used for married and single men, vs. Mrs, which is used only for women who are married (or were married, as with widows), and Miss, which is used for women who are unmarried. The women's liberation movement tried to establish Ms as the equivalent to Mr but that has failed Another way in which males are treated differently from women is that bachelor refers to males who are single and who may or may not be divorced. We have divorcee for single women who were previously married and no one word term for single women who have never been married. The contrast between bachelor and the highly pejorative term spinster, used to refer to persons who have never married, makes clear that a woman who has not been married, i. e., the object of serious male attention, is a lesser being than a male who "chooses" not to be married.
(To be continued.)

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Feeling of Understanding

In several preceding blogs, I have noted that the view being expressed was highly influenced by a Rice professor, Trent Wann, I took a seminar from one year. I should acknowledge that the substance of the previous blog is also owed to him in the sense that I came to his class as a philosophical "realist" and left as a skeptic. We battled and battled and battled and he won I am happy to say.

There is another contribution he made to my thinking and that is the thesis that what people believe is what gives them a feeling of understanding. A person's feelings of understanding reflect his or her intellectual history (the propositions they are taught to believe or acquire through independent reasoning), as well as their experiences, the enviornments in which they grew up, and hosts of other things. Persons of different ages will have different intellectual histories, of course, and different experiences. Inevitably people of different races, genders, sexual orientations, religious backgrounds, ethnicities, financial interests, etc. won't have had the same intellectual histories and will inevitably disagree. And nothing is going to change this though people who do not have frozen brains may be vulnerable to rational argumentation.

I'm quite sure that those who wish to hold on to the Biblical claims about the origins of the universe and of humans will have taken comfort from my arguments that sciences are inevitably limited both in their scope and susceptability to being proved correct. They shouldn't. Those who advocate Biblical theories of the origin of humans, for instance, are in vastly worse shape than are those who advocate Darwinian theories since their evidence is extremely limited, consisting primarily of ancient texts subject to multiple interpretations. Meanwhile Darwinians, however problematic their theory is (and will be, possibly forever), have human bones older than the Bible seems to say humans have been on earth (my Bible reading days ended 45 years or so ago so I might get some things wrong). Since Creationists make no empirical claims that could be tested by digging up the ground somewhere to find who knows what or doing anything else that would resemble empirical evidence independent of these texts (someone's having had a vision or seen something they believe to have been a miracle would not be empirical evidence), they could, of course, say that God planted these bones in the ground and gave them the properties they would need to have to seem much older than they really are given our means of dating such things. But why in hell would he do that?

Naturally, Creationists will normally have had a different intellectual history from the typical Darwinian. A Creationist might have learned the tenets of this belief system at home as well as in church while a Darwinian might have learned these tenets at church but be taught at home not to take the Bible literally. This is why Creationists are so desperate to get Creationsim (Intelligent Design) taught to the young as a viable theory before the children being indoctrinated have developed sufficient critical abilities to defend against it. Creationism (Intelligent Design) isn't a theory at all as scientists use the term. It is a belief system. Nothing more; nothing less. There is nothing wrong with belief systems so long as one does not confuse them with the truth.

Separation of church and state is a good thing. It protects religions as much as and possibly even more than it protects the state. History abounds with instances of religous groups suppressing other religions once they grab a political foothold. Jews, Christians, Muslims, members of the Bahá'í faith, and others have all been persecuted at one time or another with the implicit or explicit approval of the state. And in the case of China and the former Soviet Union and other communist states, all religons were suppressed. It is too bad that militant Creationsts don't understand this simple fact.

In any event, we are all inevitably going to disagree with others on one thing or another whether the issue is the origin of humans or which flavor of ice cream is best. There is nothing to be done about this state of affairs. The only "remedies" occur in totalitarian states.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Why Sciences Cannot Provide the Whole Truth

In comments to my blog on the theory of evolution and religion, it was suggested that this theory is seriously flawed but that advocates of the theory of evolution nevertheless have "faith" in it. The notion that the theory of evolution is seriously flawed gets a "Duh!" response. Of course it is. All historically grounded theories are flawed by a lack of critical data and this would be especially true of a theory that covers millions of years. Moreover every scientific theory is flawed to a point that having "faith" in any such theory in the sense Christians use the word "faith" when they speak of having faith in the truth of the Bible would be an unwarranted position to take.

There is a faith scientists typically have that research done along certain lines within the framework of some theory will result in valuable insights but that is not the same as having faith that that theory is true. And scientists and engineers and others routinely rely on results in physics in various applications, which is not the same as believing that these results are true beyond any doubt. At a web site on Celestial Mechanics it is said of a particular definition of Newton's Second Law that "... the definition is logically faulty, but can be realized with great accuracy in practice."

There are good reasons not to place too much faith in any scientific theory. Anyone who has engaged in scientific research has experienced pet hypotheses proving to be false. That alone should lead to a certain amount of skepticism. But their are deeper reasons not to place a great deal of faith in the capital "T" Truth of any scientific theory. (I now will survey some fields in which, in most cases, I have limited or even almost nonexistent expertise so please point out any critical flaws. I apologize also for the length of this blog.)

Uncertainties Associated with Measurement and Experimentation

Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty provides a certain insight into the limitations of empirical sciences, according to which, using the language of his 1927 paper
The more precisely the position [of a subatomic particle] is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.
In fact, his principle extends to other phenomena -- to any "canonically conjugate" variables. In the case of a moving electron, these pairs of variables are momentum and position, and energy and time.

There seems always to be a certain uncertainty that arises when any event or thing is measured. If one measures the distance between points A and B representing the width of a wall and then measures a board one intends to cut to span that distance there will be an inevitable uncertainty in the accuracy of each measurement. I have done this many times and have never gotten my measurements exactly right. Fortunately, in most cases, the variation in lengths doesn't tend to be greater than a millimeter or so. But there is always going to be an error of this sort. The same appears to be true of the measurement of anything no matter how precise one's measuring instruments are.

Another difficulty with measurement is the problem that the instrument used to measure a phenomenon will normally interfere with it. A simple case of this is the use of a probe inserted from the outside of a container into that container to measure the temperature of what is in the container. I used to try to measure the temperature of coffee beans during roasting them. Inevitably the ambient temperature of the environment the roaster is in will have an effect on the temperature of the beans in the roaster because of the connection of the probe to the area outside the roaster. One can always devise better and better instruments and the conditions under which the beans are roasting to reduce the error but there will always be some error. Fortunately, it is unlikely to affect the flavor of the beans.

Many years ago, I read a number of papers on "the social psychology of the psychological experiment." One such paper exists on the web that quotes the psychologist A. H. Pierce concerning the "compliance" of subjects of psychological experiments as follows:
It is to the highest degree probable that the subject['s] . . . general attitude of mind is that of ready complacency and cheerful willingness to assist the investigator in every possible way by reporting to him those very things which he is most eager to find, and that the very questions of the experimenter . . . suggest the shade of reply expected .... Indeed . . . it seems too often as if the subject were now regarded as a stupid automaton
In fact, it is widely known that experiments on rats are so subject to experimenter bias that it is necessary to do "double blind" experiments in which the person running the experiment does not know the purpose of the experiment -- what it is testing. Double blind experiments are the norm in medical studies, as when a placebo is included along with one or more other drugs, and the person dispensing the drugs does not know which subject of the experiment is getting which kind of pill.

Uncertainties that Result from How We Slice up the Universe to do Science

How scientists slice up the world to study it will have an inevitable effect on the results. The world does not come in what we might call easily identifiable natural units. We are all taught, for instance, that plants and animals are fundamentally different yet they have some important similarities. Plants are like us in that they breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide just as we do, and for the same reason, as is explained in In fact, " just like animals, plant cells must "burn" sugar for energy and to do that they need oxygen." This latter site goes on to say
glucose becomes the basic building block for a bunch of other carbohydrates, such as sucrose, lactose, ribose, cellulose and starch ...[and] in both plants and animals they can be used to make fats, oils, amino acids, and proteins.
Once we make a sharp distinction between plants and animals then we are saddled with the difficulty explaining how it is that both of these very different types of entities should be alike in so fundamental a way (check out this interesting site on respiration across various species of plants and animals. This is the basic conundrum that faces us when we chop up the world into studyable research areas for the purpose of doing science -- we must now explain similarities among things that we are treating as belonging different. Over the years we have chopped up the world in one way to do physics, in another way to do chemistry, and in still another way to do biology. This forced sciences to create bridges between them. The result was physical chemistry, biophysics, and biochemistry. Thus in addition to journals in chemistry, physics, and biology, we also have the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

For a fairly long time, as I noted in my blog on What is Linguistics?, linguists sharply distinguished the separate subdisciplines of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Immediately this resulted in a need for such bridging fields as morphophonology ("The combinatory phonic modifications of morphemes which happen when they are combined")and morphosyntax ("The part of morphology that covers the relationship between syntax and morphology"). Closer to my own research, we find the division between the study of conventional meaning (semantics) and of how linguistic forms are interpreted in context (pragmatics) not to be as sharp as initially thought.

Uncertainties in Mathematics

I always had believed that mathematics was firmly grounded if only because it was not an empirical science. But, of course, there are proofs of theorems that are later proved to be defective. And there are theorems that have never been proved to be true. A cousin of mine doing graduate work in mathematics was, along with his classmates, given ten problems to work on over a weekend. My cousin and his wife decided to have a picnic on Sunday despite the fact that he had solved none of the problems. He ran into a fellow student at the park and found out that he had solved two problems. It turns out that these ten problems were official "unsolved problems" in mathematics. It seems that one does better work when one doesn't know how difficult a problem is.

Though I had to struggle with it as a philosophy graduate student taking a course on the foundations of mathematics many years ago, I was blown away by a proof by Kurt Godel that efforts of mathematicians and logicians to provide a solid foundation for calculus by "reducing' it to set theory will inevitably fall short because no axiomatization of set theory that can be proved to be consistent can also be proved to be complete and that the converse is true as well. I would imagine that efforts to "reduce" any science to a set of basic hypotheses would be subject to the same problem as one tries to make them ever more explicit and precise.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

George Uses a Big Word

George Bush must have a word for the day calendar in the Oval Office for he has elected to use a word that is both larger and more sophisticated than his usual fare. The word is "revisionist" and he used it the other day to lambaste war critics for engaging in revisionist history. He seems to have had in mind attacking members of Congress, cowardly dummies that they were, who approved it and now oppose it. Bush said, "It is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began."

Of course, the genuinely irresponsible revisionist is Bushilla himself. Why did we go to war? George and/or his minions (usually Cheney or Powell, who must be extremely embarrassed at himself) said that (1) Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that (2) Saddam was negotiating with Niger for nuclear materials and that (3) Saddam had close ties to Al Queda and that (4) Saddam had mobile chemical labs built into truck trailers so he could hide his dirty deeds from the eyes of UN inspectors and that (5) Saddam is a danger to his neighbors. That's just off the top of my head.

Item 1. We have learned that Saddam had absolutely no weapons of mass destruction. Now, we knew he once had chemical weapons because we gave them to him and Saddam's mandatory account to the UN did not provide chapter and verse about how those not used on Iran and the Kurds in his own country were destroyed so there was credible evidence that Saddam still had chemical weapons. The problem is that chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction, if we take nuclear weapons as the paradigm case of a weapon of mass destruction. Chemical weapons are best used locally. I have so far learned of no biological weapons that have the capacity to wipe out thousands of people at a time though I suppose that is possible. But Saddam didn't have any anyway. Nor did he have nuclear weapons. So the kindest thing one can say about Bushilla is that he engaged in massive hyperbole in regard to the charge that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

Item 2. We know that Saddam did not negotiate with Niger for nuclear materials. Bush knew that for the CIA told him -- or Powell or Rumsfield -- this but that didn't stop Bush from making the claim. He knows no shame.

Item 3. Saddam enjoyed no relationship to al Queda of any concern to us. Recall that al Queda is engaged in a holy war against us. Saddam was an agnostic or atheist or lapsed Muslim for his regime was secular. Indeed, we were safer with him in power than with the Shiite theocracy that is almost certain to come about in what is left of Iraq after the Kurds, for all intents and purposes, secede. But in a display of the sort of deception that has marked Bushilla's regime, when he is not engaged in overt lying, Bush and Cheney (especially) hinted around enough about a possible involvement of Saddam's regime in the 9/11 disaster to get some 40% of Americans to believe it was true at one time. (I am going by memory on that percentage.) This Mr. Bush is "deeply irresponsible," to use his language.

Item 4. Saddam did not have mobile truck trailers with chemical weapons labs in them. That was a total fabrication by Bushilla's Administration and Colin Powell will live in infamy for making the representation that he did have them before the UN.

Item 5. Saddam was not a danger to anyone but the people in his own country and those in the north and south were in little danger because of the two "no fly" zones. His military was wrecked by Desert Storm and it was not rebuilt. None of this information was top secret. You all should have known it.

None of Bush's original arguments for going to war in Iraq have held true. That makes Bush himself the Great Revisionist as he puts forth "new and improved" reasons for going to war. There were other reasons for going to war in Iraq but these went unmentioned. Perhaps the most important Wolfowitz's utopian fantasy (cf. Brent Scowcroft's remarks on this) that if we created a democracy in Iraq it would trickle sideways into neighboring countries making Israel, the US, and Iraq's neighbors all safer. Bush and his minions did not make this argument though I knew about it, as did many others. Why? We just cant go around the world invading countries to replace their regimes with democratic ones. We don't have the power and we would become even greater pariahs in the world that Bushilla has already caused us to become. That is also why Bushilla didn't push the "Saddam is evil" card because we cannot go around invading countries because we don't like their leaders. I think Bush may have hinted once that God told him to go to war in Iraq but he didn't push that reason.

Thanks to the fact that Bush didn't prepare for the post-war situation (meaning the war against Saddam's army) because everyone in the Administration was operating as if "the best case scenario" for Iraq would obtain, Wolfowitz's utopian fantasy was made difficult if not impossible to attain. The Kurds are going to be a part of Iraq in name only and they will use their significant military assets and trained soldiers to keep the angry Sunnis at bay. They don't live particularly close to the Shiites so there may not be hosilities between Kurds and Shiites unless one or the other develops a lust for oil. Second, the Sunnis will never quit fighting the Shiites so long as they fear a Shiite-dominated government. The Sunnis had been in power a very long time (including before Saddam came to power, of course) and they did a lot of bad things to Sunnis (and Kurds, of course). They know that they will become second class citizens at best. The current combined forces of the US, UK, and Iraq are, at best, in a stalemate with the insurgents. My guess is that they will be able to fight as long as they want to.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Christian Nonsense about Evolution and the Bible

It seems that flaws in the specific details of the theory of evolution drive Christian fundamentalists into a frenzy of denials. The idiocy of this approach to a science that is still in its infancy will be apparent to anyone who knows anything about the development of science -- every science has flaws and every science will always have flaws. The fact is that evolutionary biology is a science that covers a enormous time span in which only bits and pieces of the past are preserved in the fossil record.

In recent years, DNA research has given biologists a tool to work with that allows them to test for similarities in the genetic codes of extant species allowing for inferences from properties of contemporary species to hypotheses of common origins. This puts them in much the same position that historical linguists are in. We have the languages spoken today and a fossil record (i. e., extant writings which are sometimes extensive in nature and sometimes consisting of just bits of writing) and it is possible to infer from similarities among sets of extant spoken languages to the possibility of a common origin and sometimes it is even possible to infer splits, as in the case of IndoEuropean ultimately splitting into the Romance family, the Germanic family, the Slavic family, etc. These hypotheses can be checked against the linguistic "fossil" record. BUT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO PROVE THE CORRECTNESS OF THE DETAILS OF ACCOUNTS OF THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGES BEYOND ALL REASONABLE DOUBT BECAUSE WE ARE DEALING WITH INSUFFICIENT DATA TO SUPPORT SUCH ACCOUNTS. THE SAME IS TRUE OF THE THEORY OR THEORIES OF EVOLUTION.

I think that nonscientists or even scientists with some sort of religious agenda hold sciences to standards of proof that that are considerably higher than any historical science can meet. Meanwhile they provide ABSOLUTELY NO PROOF OF THE ACCOUNTS OF THE BIBLE which Christians purport provides a historical record. Sorry boys and girls, that game is not on. You must hold Biblical accounts of the origin of the universe and of humans to the same high standards you hold historical sciences too. You won't do that because you know you have virtually no independent evidence in support of your views. If there were a God and if it were important to Him that we believe that he exists and is all powerful, then why the hell doesn't he just put on a demonstration for us that constitutes an unmistakable miracle? The demonstration I keep waiting for is an overnight movement of Ohio Stadium, where the Ohio State Buckeyes play football, from the side of the Olentangy River it is currently on to the other side, including a rerouting if necessary of the Olentangy River and the Olentangy River Road. This should be an easy thing for a God capable of creating a universe to do but we never see demonstrations like this. From which I infer that if there is a God, He doesn't give a damn whether we believe in Him or not.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Intelligent Design, Stupid People

Ah, the Great State of Kansas is at it again. Advocates of "intelligent design," a nontheory as to the origin of the universe and of human beings, have forced inclusion of statements to the effect that the theory of evolution has been "challenged" into science curriculums:

The new standards contend that several aspects of evolution that most scientists believe are settled fact, such as the concept that all living things are biologically related, have been "challenged." They also redefine science to allow for other than natural explanations of events. [See the Title link.]
This provides a back door for the introduction of "intelligent design" in the curriculum of those counties/cities in Kansas that want to do so since if there ever was a theory that cannot meet the empirical standards scientists burden their theories with it is the nontheory of "intelligent design." We have an extraordinary irony here: the empirical falures of evolutionary biology are taken as a sign of a defect but the fact that the theory of "intelligent design" has NO empirical consequences is considered as okay. This is a sign of incredibly ignorant and possibly very stupid people at work.

The reason that advocates of "intelligent design" want to allow for nonnatural explanations of events is simple: they know that the nontheory of "intelligent design" has no testable empirical consequences. In every scientific domain the standard of "goodness" of a theory is its capacity to provide testable empirical consequences and then to pass these tests. Advocates of the theory of "intelligent design" know that they cannot provide empirical tests proving the existence of an intelligent designer who created the universe and swooped down and posited adults full grown in the Garden of Eden. Being unable to provide such empirical tests, advocates of "intelligent design" want a free pass.

The claim of the Kansas school board that the theory of evolution has been "challenged" would be funny if it weren't for the fact that it will have implications for how children will be taught. What it really deserves is a resounding, "Duh!!" Of course the theory of evolution has been challenged. There is scarcely a scientific theory in existence that hasn't been challenged. Newtonian mechanics was challenged. I suspect that advocates of "intelligent design," were there any at the time, would have pointed out failures in Newtonian mechanics as evidence that, to use the Big Argument of advocates of "intelligent design" that the universe is too complex not to have had a designer, who, of course, would be intelligent (though you wouldn't know it from some of the human creations he gets credit for). Should I capitalize "Intelligent Designer" to pay proper respect to God? I notice that advocates of an "intelligent designer" don't because that would give away that this is just a religious theory masquerading as science.

Newtonian mechanics was replaced. Relativity theory emerged and physics went forward. But even now contemporary theories of physics are being challenged. In my blog on Incomprehensible Language I described my experience reading a dissertation in astrophysics at Ohio State and serving as an outside observer/examiner. I didn't understand a damn thing. Should I have taken my ignorance as evidence that the physical world is too complex for there not to have been an "Intelligent Designer." It was sure as hell too complex for my wee brain. Afterward I asked the advisor of the Ph. D. candidate if he expected further revolutions in physics and he said, "Yes," and went on to say that the hypothesized phenomena of dark matter and dark energy, once understood, could very well lead to a new model in physics. So, clearly, the universe is too complex, perhaps, for him to fully understand it.

Meanwhile our busy "intelligent design" advocates seem to be hard at work exploiting the current ignorance of physicists by claiming

The majority of dark matter, however, is the cold dark matter which might be the spirit matter.
Finally, at long last, the Holy Spirit has found some work to do. The question I ask now is that given that we know what the Holy Spirit is and where it is (scattered all over the universe), can we now ask where Heaven is? And, for that matter, where Hell is. I don't need the full directions -- just point to them. Actually, I can tell you where Hell is: it is in the United States where we have to cope not just with real problems like the deficit, a stupid war in Iraq, terrorists who want to blow our heads off, racial and ethnic inequities, rising energy costs, etc., but we also have to deal with the nitwits who think that Human Ignorance is Proof of the Existence of God (Intelligent Designer), for certainly it is human ignorance that leads to our inability to provide unassailable scientific theories. In the case at hand, the human ignorance in question is that of evolutionary biologists who have not yet come up with an unassailable theory. News Flash to Creationists: The theory of evolution will never be unassailable. It is of the nature of science that it will fail to provide complete accounts of the phenomena being studied and that is true not just of the theories of evolutionary biologists, but also theories of linguists, physicists, and the rest. I will explain why science is this way in the next blog, assuming my blog is not blown up by angry Creationists.

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Language and Persuasion and Bush's War

Some of the commentors on my recent blogs have begun addressing the phenomenon of persuasive speech. I thought I would jump in with two feet since an interest in that was what led me to look at the language of television advertising. I focused on TV advertising because I was ahead of the curve in owning a video recorder and felt that I could be talking about things that others were not. Some questioned using TV as the primary source of data on the grounds that it is a visual medium, where language is of secondary importance, but to say that would be as wrong as saying that dramatic plays or movies are visual phenomea in which what is said is of secondary importance. In fact, TV advertising is doubly linguistic in nature because we have to deal with dual visual inputs -- pictures and language in the form of writing -- as well as dual audio imputs, speaking and music, which can include singing. Right now I can't think of an ad that has written language, speaking, and singing all at the same time but it has surely happened. So we get language in both channels, visual and auditory. Obviously, advertisers exploit this to the hilt, or, at least, they did back in the days I did my research by overloading us in the hopes we wouldn't notice the small print. Not much has changed.

Persuasive speech or writing consists of communication with the intent of reinforcing beliefs, changing beliefs, or adding new beliefs. Ads for specific deodorants are surely designed to cause users of that deodorant to stick with it, as well as getting some to change from another brand to the one being promoted. But there was a time before people started using them that such ads were intended to convince nonusers that if they didn't use them they would stink and therefore drive their friends away. Deeply implanted in my brain is a pair of sentences I got from ads for Dial soap, a deodorant soap, "Aren't you glad you use Dial? Don't you wish everyone did?" As a site for the Dial Corporation notes, in 1953 Dial became the leading anti-bacterial soap partially because of this line. This ad pissed me off back then which is probably why I remember it. Coincidentally, when I last ran out of bar soap, I looked in our cabinent and found a bar of Dial going unused (probably for years) and I am using it now. I smell as sweet as a spring flower. In a nutshell we can say that the purpose of persuasive communication is to affect belief formation whether or not what is communicated is true.

Purely informative communication can have these same three effects but that is not the intent of the informer. A professor says what he or she says in an effort to provide truthful information to students and the effect of that can be to reinforce some student beliefs, to change some student beliefs, and to cause some students to acquire some new beliefs. Advertisers will tell you that their intent is to inform but don't believe it for a minute. Their intent is to get you to purchase the products and services provided and that will often be inconsistent with telling the truth. I am not naive enough to think that professors don't sometimes engage in persuasive communications as well but I would hope that they did stick to saying truthful things.

While we are on the subject of being truthful, which, of course, was the topic of the last blog, let me note that a professor is obligated not just to provide truthful information but in fact to provide all of the relevant truthful information students are in a position to understand. I mean this to cause you to think of the courtoom oath that the person being sworn in promises to provde "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." We can be absolutely sure that advertisers would never tell us the whole truth, assuming that they tell us the truth at all, were they not forced to.

The manufacturers of Listerine once claimed that it killed the "dandruff germ." The Listerine people weren't the only ones that believed in a dandruff germ. Check out Newbro's Herpicide. Listerine moved on to be our first line of defense against cold germs. "Wet Feet? LOOK OUT FOR A COLD--Gargle with LISTERINE QUICK," a print bit which I got from a 1943 study. It took years for the FTC to force the company making this nasty tasting stuff to cease and desist and to run corrective ads. What they did was use this disclaimer, "While Listerine will not help prevent colds or sore thrats or lessen their severity, Listerine's strong formula keeps your breath clean for hours--it kills the germs that can cause bad breath." The problem with this is that they make no admission that they had lied for decades about killing cold germs. They moved on to the germs that can cause bad breath and have added the germs that cause gingivitis. Based on their labels, they seem finally to have a winner after their long trek though a fantasy world full of dred germs. What we can be sure of is that this company wasn't telling the whole truth, assuming they were telling any part of it during the dandruff germ and cold germ days.

Now, let us move on to George Bush and his administration. We know that one member of his administration has been indicted for lying to the FBI and to a federal Grand Jury and the prosecutor isn't done with them -- Karl Rove seems to be "Offical A" and he is still on the hot seat. But I am concerned about worse lies than outing a CIA agent, bad as that is, and that is the Administration's failing to the tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" about such issues as Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's alleged dealings with Niger to acquire nuclear materials, and alleged intimate connections between Iraq and Al Queda (one of the fruits, I fear, of the use of torture). Read this drawn from this morning's Columbus Dispatch, which originated asa NY Times column by Douglas Jehl.

A high al-Qaida official in U.S. custody was identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained al-Qaida members to use biological and chemical weapons, according to newly declassified portions of a Defense Intelligence Agency document.

The document, an intelligence report from February 2002, said it was probable that the prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, "was intentionally misleading the debriefers" in making claims about Iraqi support for al-Qaida’s work with illicit weapons.

There are others credited with helping out the Bush war machine by such fabrications including a source called, quite appropriately, "Curveball."

Among others, an Iraqi exile whose code name was Curveball was the primary source for what proved to be false information about Iraq and mobile biological-weapons labs. And U.S. military officials cultivated ties with Ahmad Chalabi — the head of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group — who has been accused of feeding the Pentagon misleading information in urging war.
Did the Bush administration lie to the American people by citing such sources as "credible" or was it just guilty of failing to tell the American people the whole truth?

There is no question that the Bush Administration, including Bush, Cheney, Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Rumsfield, and Wolfowitz deliberately deceived the American people -- only the most partisan brain dead Bush supporters could believe otherwise. I, for one, believe that anyone failing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to the American people to get them to support a war that has led to the death of over 2,000 American citizens and to injuries to many thousands ofAmerican troops and to the deaths and injuries inflicted on the many thousands of noncombatant Iraqis who got in the way of our weapons, is guilty of a war crime and should be prosecuted and that includes not just overt lying but also failing to tell the whole trugh which would have included informaiton available to the Administration from CIA reports questioning some of the "intelligence" they were relying on, Wilson's report on Niger, and dealing with arguments any college student could have constructed regarding what might go wrong when a predominently Christian and Jewish nation invades a Muslim one. We are now struggling with the aftermath of the initial hostilities, which is largely due to the fact that the Bush administration chose a rosy "best case" scenario for the aftermath of the war rather than the totally predictable, looting, the need to prepare to rehabilitate an infrastructure that was destroyed by Saddam's neglect and the war, and a totally predictable insurgency predicated on the fact that many Muslims would see us as engaged in a religiously motivated war, by the fact that the Sunnis who benefited from Saddam's rule had no alternative but to fight. These Sunnis had to know that they were the odd Iraqis out in a "new Iraq." I didn't actually claim above that Bush is guilty of a war crime but I hope I have caused you to think about the question. Which is to say that this was an effort to use language to persuade.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Perjury, False Statements, Obstruction

It is interesting how the Justice Department "keeps score" in criminal investigations. I read the indictment of Scooter Libby this morning and discovered that saying essentially the same things can result in a number of different crimes. Lying to the FBI can get you an indictment for making false statements. You can refuse to answer questions asked of you by the FBI thanks to the Fifth Amendment, but if you do choose to answer such questions you better tell the truth. If you get called to testify before a grand jury, you must swear to tell the truth, but as in the case of being interrogated by agents of the FBI, you can choose not to answer questions that might tend to incriminate you, but if you do answer them, you must tell the truth.

Scooter Libby was basically forced by his boss, George Bush, to answer any questions the FBI chose to ask him and to answer questions asked by the prosecutor or jurors when he testified before the grand jury. He didn't have the option of being a Fifth Amendment Crook. As a result, he got himself indicted and if you read the indictment, you will agree with me, I believe, that he stands a 99% chance of being convicted because his statements deviated from the truth by a very large margin.

What interests me here is the fact that making essentially the same false claims can get you indicted for "making false statements," "perjury," and "obstruction of justice." Since he is charged with two counts of making false statements and perjury and the different counts involve the same lies, we could argue that that the prosecutor managed, if I may be permitted a baseball analogy, to get three outs (types of charges) with just two pitches (two different lies). There is something about this that strikes me as unfair.

The fact is that it matters in how we go about using language who we are talking to. We tend to use more formal speech when talking to our bosses than our underlings and use more formal speech (by, say, banishing slang) with strangers than close friends. We can also use less polite speech forms (omitting "please" from requests, for instance) with our inferiors or our close friends than our bosses or strangers without giving offense. And, if we control more than one dialect (as many educated African Americans do), we tend to use the dialect we learned early in life with family, friends, and others in the community we grew up in, and more standard forms in our business dealings with the wider community. So, clearly, who we are talking to matters a great deal in our deciding how to say what we say. However, the idea that we can choose to tell the truth to certain people but not others is not widely approved even though we do tell so-called "white lies" to avoid revealing uncomfortable truths. Few young women will tell their grandmothers they are not virgins if asked even if they aren't. This would normally be an acceptable lie. Nevertheless, with the exception of contexts in which telling "white lies" is an acceptable practice, we do not normally think that it is okay to, say, lie to our bosses or strangers and reserve the truth for underlings and friends.

As the philosopher David Lewis noted in his book Convention there exists a convention of truthfulness we are all expected to abide by for if we routinely flouted it language would cease to be useful and surely cease to exist. Without this convention, there would be little point to communication. Imagine an army company that sends out scouts to find concentrations of enemy forces who come back and tell the truth about what they have seen only half the time. None of us would want to be in that company.

Cal Thomas, who, it seems to me, may be brain dead has columnized (if I may be permitted to compose a new word for your consideration) today that the prosecutor in the Libby case is politically motivated and that Libby shouldn't be prosecuted for lapses of memory. Interestingly, in today's Columbus Dispatch, the editor placed a column by NY Times reporter, Nicholas Kristof, under Mr. Thomas's column in which it is noted that the nature of the discrepancies between what Libby says happened in conversations with reporters and what they say happened are much too great to be mere memory lapses. I agree with Kristof as will you, I think, if you read the indictment. Either three journalists are lying or Libby lied. There are no two ways about it.

I have already convicted Libby of this crime and hope he rots in prison, for outing a CIA operative is a very bad thing. As a result, I wouldn't be a good jury member. Unfortunately, the prosecutor can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Libby deliberately outed this agent so he is forced to move on to things he can prove, namely that Libby lied. However, I am a bit troubled that telling exactly the same lie to FBI agents and to a federal grand jury should be different crimes. It is true that if I rob two houses that are right next to each other I will be charged with two crimes. But note, in such a case, I didn't steal the same exact things. I would have stolen different things. This is why I am a bit disturbed by the Libby indictment. If he were being charged with one set of lies to the FBI and a wholly different set of lies to the grand jury, I could see two different charges.

And now we come to the obstruction of justice charge. What's up with that? You got it -- it was telling these same lies, the argument of the prosecutor being that Libby was engaged in a "corrupt endeavor" to

influence, obstruct and impede the due administration of justice, namely proceedings before Grand Jury 03-3, by misleading and deceiving the grand jury as to when, and the manner and means by which, LIBBY acquired and subsequentlydisclosed to the media information concerning the employment of Valerie Wilson by the CIA.
Of course, Libby was trying to impede the prosecutor's effort to nail his butt to the wall quite deliberately. No one could tell whoppers like Libby did by accident. But all of that was done in defense of his personal butt, not, say, the butt of his boss, the Veep. Now, lying about what he and the Veep may have said to each other in regard to the outing of Plame would be an entirely different thing. But you know that will never be charged because you can be sure that he and the Veep got their stories straight and since they would have been the only parties to their conversations, no lying about them could ever be proved. I don't know that the Veep directed or encouraged Libby to tell these lies but I wasn't born yesterday.

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