Category Archives: Academics

I strongly assert

I was recently at a conference.  I attended one paper where the presenter kept using the expression, "I strongly assert…" as a means of premise-introduction.  Once, it was used in the context of disagreement.  And so:  "Some say not-p, but I strongly assert p."  I found this locution and its use jarring.  It seems exceedingly dogmatic, and moreover, what exactly does 'strongly' mean, anyhow?  Confidently, loudly, as though in ALLCAPS? 

A question for the NS readership: What is the most charitable reading of this locution?

Here's my shot.  In the event of a conference paper, you can't give an argument for every premise or every case where there's a disagreement.  Conference papers require tight focus, and so the point is to argue where it is most important, and everything else is left to either bald assertion or apologetic bracketing.  That's the art of academic essays.  And so 'I strongly assert' stands as a proof-surrogate in these contexts.  Now, I think it's a pretty awkward proof surrogate (as one can just as well, and less contentiously, say 'let's assume p, here'), but it at least isn't a major breach of argumentative practice.

That reading is my most charitable, but it still doesn't sit well with me.  Any help from those more familiar with this phrase?

The group of non group members

The other day we were treated to the poorly reasoned opinions of culture warrior and disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Christian Legal Society versus Martinez.  Today there is a much more thoughtful discussion (by law professor Jonathan Turley), though one which reaches the same basic conclusion as Gingrich.  A reminder again of the main issue:

The case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, has the potential to resolve a long-standing conflict between two of the most cherished American traditions: equality and nondiscrimination on one hand and the free exercise of religion on the other. The United States has taken great strides in recent years to protect people from discrimination — including hate speech, unfair hiring practices and unequal treatment under the law. But to some, such gains in equality have come at a price. Religious groups that discriminate — confining their membership to the faithful and those who share their views — say they are being penalized.

This specific controversy began at Hastings, part of the University of California, when CLS members asked to become a registered student organization. With that designation, the group could apply for certain funding, send mass e-mails to the student body and participate in an activities fair, among other perks. Hastings said no. The school concluded that because the CLS bylaws barred non-Christians, gays and non-celibate students from serving as officers or voting members, the group violated the school's ban on discrimination "on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation." The CLS could still meet on campus but could not be a registered club unless it opened its membership to all, even those who didn't subscribe to its beliefs. The group challenged the school, and lower courts supported the Hastings policy as a neutral rule applying equally to all groups.

Members of the American Philosophical Association recently debated whether it ought to post job announcements without comment for schools (usually conservative Christian ones) that violate the APA's policies on discrimination against homosexuals (and others) in hiring.  As the debate was among philosophers, hilarity ensued.  See that discussion here.

Turley's argument is ultimately a pragmatic one–the state's interest in fostering association ought to override its concerns about discrimination in particular cases of associating.  This is not an unreasonable position, but I still think it's weak.  He writes:

CLS v. Martinez is a close and difficult case. The court has to weigh fostering diversity of views vs. combating discrimination. The nation benefits when citizens form groups and advance their ideas. Tax-exempt status is even given to groups to encourage association and free speech — important pillars of our society. We cannot pick and choose between groups if we are to allow for pluralism.

The same is true with college groups. A campus offers a cradle of free speech where students can form organizations that foster the exchange of ideas and values. Supporting such groups should not be viewed as endorsing their beliefs but rather as encouraging associations. And as the court stated in Roberts v. United States Jaycees in 1984, "Freedom of association . . . plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate."

While there are strong arguments for upholding the Hastings policy, the CLS was effectively denied recognition because of its religious views — a troubling practice that could easily extend to other groups. For example, some Muslims following Wahabi principles insist that women must be covered and sit separately from men. Likewise, some Orthodox groups such as Hasidic Jews mandate areas divided by gender and require strict dress codes. To insist that Wahabi or Hasidic groups allow anyone to join, including gay and non-conforming members, would create an obvious problem.

Schools can still adopt a nondiscriminatory policy by funding either all or no student groups. That was the choice the Supreme Court gave the University of Virginia in its Rosenberger decision in 1995, after the school refused to pay for publications for religious organizations on campus: Fund all or none.

The question in the current case is where to draw the line. Schools such as Hastings are legitimately barred from discrimination in hiring and promotions. However, barring student organizations based on their religious views puts the state in the position of bestowing favored and unfavored status on groups.

We need to accept that certain forms of government support are meant to foster associations generally and should not turn on the insular views of any particular group. For example, tax exemption should aim to encourage citizens to participate in our society through groups that deepen public debate. These associations not only help individuals define their own values, they also protect the pluralism that defines our nation.

Such neutrality does not mean discrimination is a protected religious right, allowing the faith-based Ku Klux Klan, for example, to engage in public acts of racial hatred. Groups can still be punished for criminal threats, and laws still prohibit discrimination based on race, gender and national origin.

I think we end with a red herring here: no one has suggested CLS has criminal intentions, and we can suppose that the usual criminal laws apply.

The question is another one: does the university have to fund religious groups that discriminate on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation, gender and so forth?  That's what CLS wants to do.  And therefore an affirmative response for CLS means that discrimination is a protected religious right.

 If CLS wins, then they can engage in "public acts of discrimination" on the basis of sexual orientation (would that be "public acts of sexual orientation hatred"?): imagine the group email on the law school listserve: "come and join CLS as we pray away the gay–no gays or fornicators allowed."

I admire those who are wrong

The other day the Washington Post published a piece by a professor of politics at the University of Virginia (Gerard Alexander) called "Why are liberals so condescending?" (we discussed it here).  It remains today a few days later one of the most emailed articles on the Post's website, so it's worth looking at it in more detail.  To be fair to this juvenile piece, however, would be a labor of many days, so I'd just like to point out a few quick items. 

First off, the title has the ring of a complex question: that is two questions, one unfairly assumed to get to the other.  What the author ought to establish is whether liberals are more condescending than conservatives (in similar circumstances), or whether liberals are particularly condescending.  Once he established this, then he can ask the follow up question: why are they this way to such a degree (as we have established)?  His failure to understand this elementary logical notion makes me look down on him.

Second, the author is silly.  Not to be an even-hander here, but I think liberals are no less "condescending" than conservatives.  I'd suggest, in fact, that such labels and broad generalizations are really meaningless.  Turns out, in fact, that such equivocal terms were used to great effect by this author.  You see, liberals are one solid group, each one guilty of the sins of the other, while conservatives were always able to avoid group guilt.  Here's an example:

This liberal vision emphasizes the dissemination of ideologically driven views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel. For example, Chris Mooney's book "The Republican War on Science" argues that policy debates in the scientific arena are distorted by conservatives who disregard evidence and reflect the biases of industry-backed Republican politicians or of evangelicals aimlessly shielding the world from modernity. In this interpretation, conservative arguments are invariably false and deployed only cynically. Evidence of the costs of cap-and-trade carbon rationing is waved away as corporate propaganda; arguments against health-care reform are written off as hype orchestrated by insurance companies.

Before I comment on what I wanted to comment on, here and throughout the piece the author doesn't bother to counter the claims against "conservatives."  Perhaps he takes it as self-evident that what Mooney said (in his well-documented–I didn't say "true"–book) is false.  I can think of a couple of Republicans, for instance, whose ignorance of science is concerning.  Here's Republican Senator Jim DeMint on the snowstorm this past week in Washington:

It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries "uncle"

I find myself looking down on Jim DeMint, an extremely wealthy, powerful, and capable man for the idiotic thing he said.  It's obvious that he doesn't know jack about the science behind global warming.  This same claim of many other prominent "conservative" and "Republican" leaders and intellectuals. 

Back to what I think I was going to comment on (it's now several hours from when I wrote that line above, so I don't really remember what I was going to say)–Alexander's characterization of Mooney's book disregards its content in order to criticize its form.  This, I think, is a hopelessly dumb and unproductive way of interacting with people with whom you disagree.  Not only does Mooney have an argument, but, judging by the numbskull policies of the last eight years, he might even have a good one.  But you can't really tell that, of course, until you actually look at the argument.  Alexander maintains, of course, that you don't need to look at the argument, because he knows what it says.  That, I think, is just what Mooney was complaining about.

No doubt, as I've said many times before, many liberals condescend to conservatives.  Many conservatives condescend to liberals.  The narrative, however, is that liberals are intellectual snobs, when conservatives are not.  I think that's hardly the case as a matter of fact.  It's also almost a matter of logic (I said "almost") that when you say someone's view is wrong, you're bound to appear snobby to them.  Especially when that person, such as is the case with Alexander here, doesn't seem to know what makes a view right or what makes it wrong.

Dialogue more valuable than ever

Here's another article about how liberals condescend to conservatives.  It begins:

It's an odd time for liberals to feel smug. But even with Democratic fortunes on the wane, leading liberals insist that they have almost nothing to learn from conservatives. Many Democrats describe their troubles simply as a PR challenge, a combination of conservative misinformation — as when Obama charges that critics of health-care reform are peddling fake fears of a "Bolshevik plot" — and the country's failure to grasp great liberal accomplishments. "We were so busy just getting stuff done . . . that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are," the president told ABC's George Stephanopoulos in a recent interview. The benighted public is either uncomprehending or deliberately misinformed (by conservatives).

This condescension is part of a liberal tradition that for generations has impoverished American debates over the economy, society and the functions of government — and threatens to do so again today, when dialogue would be more valuable than ever.

Perhaps this guy is joking.  Or he is just very seriously misinformed, because it has been a mainstay of conservative opposition to any Obama initiative to call it "socialist" or worse (Liberal fascism anyone).  I'm not going to bother linking to anything because just googling the combination of "Obama" and "Socialist" nearly crashed the Google server. 

It's not, in other words, condescension.  It is a plain and to my mind surprisingly charitable interpretation of an opposition many of whose key members and leaders have excluded themselves from minimally reasonable discussion.  That's just true, whether or not many liberals are condescending a–wholes. 

As he wraps up this factless and meme-driven piece, the author goes for a little balance:

Of course, plenty of conservatives are hardly above feeling superior. But the closest they come to portraying liberals as systematically mistaken in their worldview is when they try to identify ideological dogmatism in a narrow slice of the left (say, among Ivy League faculty members), in a particular moment (during the health-care debate, for instance) or in specific individuals (such as Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom some conservatives accuse of being stealth ideologues). A few conservative voices may say that all liberals are always wrong, but these tend to be relatively marginal figures or media gadflies such as Glenn Beck.

Really.  Again, I'd say this is plainly false.  No bother.  This guy doesn't even try to produce evidence (here's an assignment, google "liberals" and see what comes up–it's entertaining.  Then google "liberals" and the name of any leading conservative, you won't find George Will making fine-grained distinctions).  Perhaps, however, as a conservative, he doesn't know that claims about reality stand or fall on the basis of the evidence offered.  "Just trust me phrases" in an advocacy piece don't count.

There once was a union maid

Driving to work at my unionized (no contract at the moment however) government job, I heard a story on NPR about "Cadillac" health care plans and higher wages.  Some unions, you see, have negotiated for themselves some pretty good health benefits.  They did this even though it meant sacrificing higher wages.  They must have done some math somewheres, and figured it's better to have better benefits than higher wages.  One would suppose, in any case, that they did this.  Not NPR, however.  Here is how they framed the story:


The fate of Congresss health care overhaul is unclear after this weeks election of Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts to the U.S. Senate. One of the major issues thats been holding up the health care bill is how to pay for it. The Senate wants to impose a Cadillac tax. That is a tax on the most expensive health care plans. Executives with gold-plated plans don't like it and neither do labor unions, whose workers have generous plans. But many economists say it could help everyone in the long run. Here are Planet Moneys Chana Joffe-Walt and David Kestenbaum.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Economists on this issue feel lonely, sad and very misunderstood.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Well, yeah, because economists use math and charts to make their arguments. Labor unions use emotion and advertisements featuring sympathetic characters with asthma.

Something tells me there is a chart somewhere in the union argument.  Nonetheless, the interchange that follows is hilarious.  It is a discussion between a union worker and a professor of economics, one who holds an endowed chair.  He, the professor, argues that if AT&T were forced (by the Cadillac tax) to abandon "expensive" health benefits, they would increase wages.  The union maid argued there was no evidence of that particular entailment.  Unable to provide any, the professor changed tactics. 

JOFFE-WALT: And to Valerie, the idea that she should be taxed in the first place is just insulting to her. She has given up wages over the years to get better benefits, great benefits she says she needs.

KESTENBAUM: Steve pauses, and says well, maybe not.

Prof. STEARN: When was the last time you had a medical emergency?

Ms. STANLEY: I went to the ER seven years ago when I broke my arm.

Prof. STEARN: It sounds like you dont need the health benefit plan that you have. On the whole, my guess is youre losing money on your health insurance. You would benefit from having a worse health benefit plan and taking that extra money and getting higher wages.

The sheer dumbness of that argument boggles the mind.  But the amazing thing is that the professor seems not to understand that someone must have done some math and figured generous benefits were better for the workers–even if they weren't necessarily going to have a medical emergency.  Indeed, if one knows anything about family medical costs, incrementally higher wages mean nothing–nothing–in comparison to the costs of one serious (and eventually likely) medical episode.

I can’t change my mind

Speaking of one of the weirdest op-eds I've ever seen, Bob Somerby (aka the Daily Howler) asks:

For years, we have asked why the professors don’t help us with our floundering discourse. When our journalists fail to serve, who don’t the professors step forward to help? Where are all the professors of logic, with their vast clarification skills? Why don’t the professors step in to straighten our broken logic?

The question is obviously rhetorical, but he continues to ask it, so here's an answer.  John Holbo, at Crooked Timber, is a professor of philosophy, and he has stepped up to the plate (as have many others).  Holbo recently addressed the very kind of argument Somerby was complaining about (here and here).  We talked about that here the other day.  But, just for fun, and because Bob wonders where the professors of logic are, and I'm one of those, let's have a look see at what he was talking about.  

The op-ed in question is by Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Study (I'm not kidding).  She writes:

His administration now agrees with the analysts who argue that only by ensuring that no one games the system can reform be made to work. The mandate serves to ensure that individuals do not buy insurance only when they are ill. Other elements of the reform similarly serve to ensure that neither insurance companies nor employers will game the system. As Paul Krugman has argued in the New York Times, each of these strategies to prevent gaming is necessary to make the whole thing work. The point, though, is that the push for implementation has turned Obama's policies into something other than what he promised.

This change in Obama's position goes a long way toward explaining the objections to the new reforms that are being raised vociferously through grass-roots action by citizens on the right. The issue here is not that these citizens consider Obama untrustworthy — though they do. The issue, rather, is that they recognize that the stated goals and structure of a policy may not fully capture its full range of outcomes in practice. This is why these citizens, including professionally briefed participants such as Sarah Palin, can continue to maintain, in the face of a barrage of insistences to the contrary, that the reforms will (1) result in rationing and (2) establish "death panels."

Gee professor, as others have pointed out (here and here for examples), every one is justified in making the most outlandish slippery slope arguments since it is a fact of nature that the "stated goals and structure of a policy may not fully capture its full range of outcomes in practice."  And no, for the love of Mike, a change in a proposal does not open the door to that inference, as she suggests.  While perhaps not a fact of nature qua nature, I think moderate (or even extreme) changes in the positions one advocates are a normal reaction to the facts on the ground.

Think about this for a second.  Given the professor's argument, no policy maker (or person) can change a position without having her real motives stretched to include the most extreme and unlikely consequence.  So, take heed, policy people, if you change your mind ever so little then Danielle Allen will wonder whether you really want to turn old people into Soylent Green.

Profits good

I'm sure Stephen L. Carter is a smart guy, but his opinion piece in the Washington Post today is unquestionably silly.  Here's how it begins:

A specter is haunting America: the specter of profit. We have become fearful that somewhere, somehow, an evil corporation has found a way to make lots of money.

Ok–who can see the problem?  Is it profits simpliciter (I used the Latin phrase since we're talking about a Yale law professor's thoughts here)?  High profits?  Or, perhaps, are we talking about disproportionately high profits earned when people don't make disproportionately large amounts of money?  I'm confused.  But let's continue.

Flash back three years. In 2006, Exxon Mobil announced the highest profit in the history of American corporate enterprise. Politicians and pundits stumbled over each other to call for an investigation and for some sort of confiscatory tax on the money the company earned. Profit, it seemed, was an evil, but large profit was even worse.

Again, I wonder, was it the simple fact of their making a profit, or was it there making a certain kind of profit.  Those, I think, are different propositions.  And indeed, when one considers the amount of public treasure (US military) spent on making Exxon's private wealth secure, one wonders whether it's fair for Exxon to reap rewards incommensurate with their contribution to the res publica, the public thing (Latin again).

Today, the debate on the overhaul of the health-care system sparks a shiver of deja vu. The leitmotif of the conversation about the coming shape of health insurance is that the villain is the system of private insurance. "For-profit" firms come under constant attack from activists and members of Congress.

Thus, a recent news release from the AFL-CIO began with this evidently alarming fact: "Profits at 10 of the country's largest publicly traded health insurance companies rose 428 percent from 2000 to 2007." Even had the figures been correct — they weren't — we are seeing the same circus. Profit is the enemy. America could be made pure, if only profit could be purged.

This attitude was wrong in 2006. It is wrong now. High profits are excellent news. When corporate earnings reach record levels, we should be celebrating. The only way a firm can make money is to sell people what they want at a price they are willing to pay. If a firm makes lots of money, lots of people are getting what they want.

Again–profits, high profits, disproportionate profits, and now profits illegitimately gained.  The problem with the high profits of the insurance companies is that they depend on their not paying claims–on their denying people the insurance that they have paid for (or charging a lot for very little).  Further, it's wrong to talk of "price their willing to pay" when it comes to insurance–one typically has little to no choice in the amount one has to pay or to whom one pays it.

This argument is already so bad that it's not worth continuing to criticize it–the rest goes on to argue that profit is good (including price gouging during natural disasters!).  But no one, save for a few college socialists (and really not even them) denies that profit simpliciter is a positive thing.  They just hold that profits of certain types and quantities are not necessarily a good thing–case in point, health insurance.  The confusion at the beginning makes this argument a case of equivocation, but the fact that the argument sets up a non-existent opponent makes it a very nice case of a hollow man (with a bit of weak man and classic straw man).  In other words, awesome take down, professor Carter, of an argument no one has seriously made.

Passive objectors

Vermont's legislature–a kind of democratic body–has passed a law legalizing gay marriage.  Good for them I say.  Here is the puzzling reaction of Mathew D. Staver, the Dean of the Liberty University School of Law:

“It is a sad day in America when elected officials are clueless about the definition of marriage. If they cannot understand this basic human relationship between a man and a woman, then they are not competent for public office. Marriage laws regulate a social institution upon which society has been built and the future of society rests. By redefining marriage, the Vermont legislature removed the cornerstone of society and the foundation of government. “The consequences will rest on their shoulders and upon those passive objectors who know what to do but who lack the political courage to do what is right for the common good of the people.”

I thought the foundation of government was the consent of the people, but I've been wrong before.  I wonder then if Staver means to suggest that Vermont no longer has a legitimate government.

This was an episode of the Simpsons

No seriously, this happened (via Steve Benen):

Every winter, David DeWitt takes his biology class to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, but for a purpose far different from that of other professors.

DeWitt brings his Advanced Creation Studies class (CRST 390, Origins) up from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., hoping to strengthen his students' belief in a biblical view of natural history, even in the lion's den of evolution.

His yearly visit to the Smithsonian is part of a wider movement by creationists to confront Darwinism in some of its most redoubtable secular strongholds. As scientists celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, his doubters are taking themselves on Genesis-based tours of natural history museums, aquariums, geologic sites and even dinosaur parks.

"There's nothing balanced here. It's completely, 100 percent evolution-based," said DeWitt, a professor of biology. "We come every year, because I don't hold anything back from the students."

In the Simpsons episode, when the religious types demanded alternatives to Darwinian evolution be taught in school, Principal Skinner proposed Lamarkian evolution.

In other matters, the Post has published an op-ed by an former Harvard endocrinologist on the virtue of science.  He says it's wrong.  The only serious examples he gives are examples of irresponsible science reporting–that's different.  Here's a piece:

When a group of British academic researchers reported last spring that women fond of eating breakfast cereal were more likely to give birth to boys, the story was lapped up by journalists the world over. "Skip breakfast for a daughter, eat up your cereals for a son," advised the Economist, just one of many publications to seize on the report.

The problem with this fascinating study? It appears to be wrong. An analysis led by Stan Young of the National Institute for Statistical Sciences found that the original conclusion was based on poor statistics and is probably the result of chance.

So far, Young's rebuttal, published in January, has received little notice. That it is ignored by many of the media outlets that lavished attention on the original report isn't surprising; in fact, the most remarkable thing is how ordinary that lack of attention may be. A lot of science, it turns out, can't withstand serious scrutiny. Thoughtful analysis by John Ioannidis suggests that more than half of published scientific research findings can't be replicated by other researchers.

Can the results of that one study about the falsity of scientific research be replicated?  The author doesn't bother to find out.  In any case, that is seriously the only evidence for this startling claim offered in the entire piece.  The rest is anecdotal school sucks kind of stuff.  It does, of course, suck.  And science is mostly wrong, that's the point.  I thought.  Or so I learned in school.  But maybe they were wrong about that.

Godwin’s Lawyer

This op-ed in the Washington Post by Walter Reich, of George Washington University, has to be one of the more baffling things I've read in a while–and I'm in the middle of grading papers.  The argument, in a nutshell, seems to go like this: While some anti-Semites used to deny the reality of the Holocaust, some of them now admit it, only now they use it to describe either (1) what ought to happen to the State of Israel; or (2) what the State of Israel is perpetrating upon the Palestinians.  While perhaps hyperbolic, (2) is not necessarily anti-Semitic, as it is motivated perhaps by genuine concern and frustration over the plight of the Palestinian civilians.  Here's what he says:

Are all those who have accused Israel of being a Nazi state anti-Semites? Hardly. There's genuine anger in the Muslim world, as well as in Europe and elsewhere, about Israel's actions in Gaza. The suffering is terrible. So are the images of devastation Israel left behind. And there are also plenty of people who are angry at Israel because it stands for the reviled United States.

But the reality is that much of the vitriol directed at Israel has indeed been spouted by anti-Semites. Not only have they hurled the Nazi canard at Israel, they've expressed clear anti-Semitism — some of it openly violent or even eliminationist. The pro-Israel but reliable Middle East Media and Research Institute has been documenting anti-Semitism on Palestinian television for years, including calls for the murder of Jews. It reports that, the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, one Egyptian cleric admitted on an Islamist TV channel that the Holocaust had happened — and added that he hoped that one day Muslims would do to the Jews what the Germans had done to them. To demonstrate what he had in mind, according to the institute, he showed footage of heaps of Jewish corpses being bulldozed into pits.

So the real issue is not the Holocaust denial or hyperbolic invocation, it's the violent eliminationist anti-Semitism, which uses the Holocaust, among other things, as an example of what to do.  Yet, while admitting that such comparisons are not anti-Semitic or even wrong, Reich still insists:

In designating an International Holocaust Remembrance Day back in 2005, the U.N. General Assembly acted with noble intentions, even if parts of the world body still aim to delegitimize Israel. Such commemorations help the world understand that the goal of the Holocaust was the annihilation of an entire people — and help them appreciate the vast differences between that event and, for example, the war in Gaza. But even as the Holocaust has been increasingly acknowledged and explained, it also has been increasingly used as a cudgel to beat Jews and the Jewish state. 

If Reich had wanted to make that last point–that the Holocaust is some kind of illegitimate cudgel, to crazy or hyperbolic to be anything but anti-Semitism–then he'd have to make an entirely different argument.  His beef here is with eliminationist anti-Semites, not Godwin's law breakers