Rules for clear thinking

Inspired by a recent self-serving David Brooks column, Jon Chait comes up with a great set of rules for opinion columnists.  I’ve actually been trying to work up a set of principles I want my students to learn before they graduate (i.e., correlation is not causation; beware selection bias, etc.– I’ll share them with you soon), but when reading Chait’s suggestions for writing an Opinion column, this actually struck me as a really good start.  Here they are:

1. Be intellectually consistent. It’s fine — good, even — to change your mind. But you need to acknowledge it to yourself and publicly when you do so. Otherwise, you’ll end up tethering your ideological beliefs to questions that have nothing to do with them, and wind up, for instance, decrying recess appointments as the most vile abuse of presidential power since Mussolini until your own party controls the presidency, at which point you start calling for more recess appointments.

A simple mental exercise to help with this is to reverse your argument whenever possible. Are you angry that the Senate filibustered a bill you like? You have to ask whether you dislike the filibuster, or just like that particular bill. If it’s the filibuster you dislike, you need to imagine yourself defending its abolition even if it means passing a bill you hate. And then you need to really do that.

2. Don’t debate straw men. If you’re arguing against an idea, you need to accurately describe the people who hold them. If at all possible, link to them and quote their argument. This is a discipline that forces opinion writers to prove that they’re debating an idea somebody actually holds. And quoting the subject forces them to show that somebody influential holds it — if the best example of the opposing view is a random blog comment, then you’re exposing the fact that you’re arguing against an idea nobody of any stature shares. This ought to be an easy and universal guideline, but in reality, it’s mostly flouted.

3. Guard against more than one kind of bias. This is my general, omnibus intellectual advice for everybody on how to think about the world, and I’ve been preparing it to offer anybody who asks me, except that nobody has ever asked. Some questions are black and white. Others are shades of gray. The whole trick is to be able to recognize both. Reflexive black-and-white moralism is one kind of bias. Reflexive equivocation is another.

Pretty good rules for anybody trying to make persuasive intellectual arguments.  I actually went in and added the first two to my list (I’m not sure the third is quite as general, though definitely applies to opinion writers).

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Abortion as sex selection

There’s a genuine problem with women using abortion for sex selection in many parts of the world (primarily to avoid having daughters), but I’m not aware of any evidence that this is a problem in the United States.  Far be it from the NC Republican legislature to step in to confront a problem that doesn’t actually exist:

RALEIGH, N.C. — A bill that would make doctors liable for performing abortions in which gender plays a role is headed for the House floor after approval by the House Judiciary A Committee Wednesday.

House Bill 716 would allow the parents, guardians or current or former doctors of a woman who seeks an abortion to sue the doctor who provided it if they believe the doctor had “knowledge, or an objective reason to know, that a significant factor in the pregnant woman seeking the abortion is related to the sex of the unborn child.”

“There’s been lots of evidence that it happens around the world,” said sponsor Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg. “We’ve done bills that show we believe there is sex discrimination in education, there is sex discrimination in employment. Why wouldn’t we believe there would be sex discrimination in abortion?”

Why wouldn’t we?  Because there’s no evidence for starters?  Because the cultures of India and China, where this is most prominent to my knowledge, are dramatically different than the culture of the United States.

And I’m no pro-choice absolutist, but the point is Roe v. Wade holds that a woman can have an abortion in the first trimester because she wants to have an abortion.  Now, she may have good reasons and she may have bad ones, but that doesn’t strike me as something we want the government being the judge of for a legal medical procedure.  I’m sure pro-lifers would very much want to go down the road where every woman seeking an abortion has to prove that her reasons are “good enough,” but I’m not sure most Americans would want us to go down that road and I’m pretty sure that runs into the right to privacy.

But, don’t worry, this is actually about protecting and empowering women:

Tami Fitzgerald with the North Carolina Values Coalition said the bill would send the message that “discrimination based on sex is not acceptable in this state.”

“This is the real war on women,” Fitzgerald said. “Killing girls because they are girls is not acceptable in any civilized society.”

Call me crazy, but I’d suggest at least 100 better ways to send a message that sex discimination is not acceptable in NC.  And I’d also bet that Tami Fitzgerald is not in support of most of them.

Photo of the day

From a Big Picture gallery on the dying fishing port of Whitby, England:

Seagulls scavenge for fish off the coast of Whitby (seen from aboard the Whitby Rose in the North Sea, northern England), February 28, 2013. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Taking sibling rivalry to a new level

Very cool story in the Post today about how Sand Tiger sharks compete (and kill each other) in the womb:

It’s a tough world from the moment of conception for a sand tiger shark. When a female gets pregnant, it’s usually with multiple offspring of several different male sharks. As soon as the fetuses are old enough, they begin a cannibalistic battle for primacy in utero, with only one surviving.

Now scientists have concluded that this is not just a response to crowded conditions but represents an evolutionary strategy that allows the most aggressive male sharks to father the successful baby and thereby outcompete sexual rivals.

“For most species, we think of sexual selection as ending when males fertilize eggs, because once the male’s fertilized eggs he’s won, there will be some genetic representation in the next generation,” said Stony Brook University marine biology professor Demian Chapman, lead author ofthe study published online Wednesday in Biology Letters. “This is demonstrating that embryonic cannibalism is actually whittling down the number of males producing offspring.”

It’s still unclear whether the evolutionary strategy works because the most-aggressive fathers get their offspring growing in utero before others, thus giving them a developmental advantage in the cannibalistic battles to come, or if they produce offspring that gestate more quickly.

Female sand tiger sharks have two uteri and carry hundreds of eggs. During their fertile periods, they can mate with many male sand tiger sharks. But each time they give birth after a 12-month pregnancy, they produce just two offspring — one from each uterus.

Wow.  I’ll leave final comments to Cosmo Kramer:

The night is dark and full of terrors

So, you probably don’t watch HBO’s Game of Thrones, but you should.  The series (based on a series of novels, which I have not read because they are too long), is basically an alternate Medieval Europe, but with some magical/mystical elements thrown-in– primarily zombie-esque White Walkers and the classic fire-breathing dragons.  I’d actually prefer the show without these elements, but I’m fine enough with them in there as long as they don’t take the focus away from the realism of the human characters.  The show also has its own religious firmament of which most characters clearly believe in “the gods” who don’t seem to do much but be used in stock phrases, but there’s a small minority who believe in “The Lord of Light,” who’s catchphrase is the title of this post.

Okay, all well and good.  Thing is, last season, the Lord of Light seemed to show some pretty special power to directly interact in human affairs through a character who is a sort of priestess.  Not a fan of that.  Too magical and too easy.  Alright, not that big a problem, though.  In this week’s episode, though, the Lord of Light clearly demonstrated extreme supernatural interference into human affairs.  Alright, fair enough.  But the thing is the Lord of Light seems to be worshiped by just a fringe sect.  Yet he can have amazing supernatural influence (don’t want to spoil it, actually) in human affairs.  Meanwhile, the other gods are little more than “may the gods watch over you on your journey” phrases and that’s about it.  Now, this fails the test of realism.  If there was one god with totally awesome supernatural powers who actually used them and a bunch of other gods– real or not– who never seemed to do much of anything directly for his/her followers, those gods would get completely dominated in a real-world competition between religions.  Everybody in Westeros should be worshiping the Lord of Light– he actually does stuff.

Short version: either the Lord of Light should be the same essentially meaningless figurehead as the other gods or who should be the dominant god in Westeros; that he should be the only god to show genuine power yet be the object of worship of just a small fringe movement make no logical sense.  I don’t know whether to blame the show or George RR Martin, but either way I don’t like it.

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