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April 14, 2005

Hilarious Bayesian advertising

Advertising links, or more specifically, the way they are picked to appear on my screen on various Web pages, have really been cracking me up today. CNN's story "Dragnet grabs 10,000 fugitives" served up four text ads, all soliciting for legal services. None of them asked me if I'd been subject to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, but that's probably because they can't help me then. Also, Tech Central Station had another global "variation" article which contained ironic sidebars like "Global warming -- it's happening", from Greenpeace no less. If it were any other publication I'd question their advertising strategy. But since they're already hired guns for Exxon I don't think it would help.

Not related, but troubling: why does anybody care about pregnant Britney?

Posted by The Greatness at 12:37 PM | Comments (0)

April 11, 2005

The Nature of Justification

I promised everybody some thoughts on the nature of justification and how it related to politics. I don't know if anybody cared to see me make good on that promise, but in any event, I'm not sure it matters. Pointless spewing of a blogger's thoughts simply because they are his is, deep down, the raison d'etre of most of the blogosphere. So let's get started!

The best known account of knowledge is "justified true belief" theory, which stipulates that in order to know something (call it P -- all philosophers do),

  1. One must have (good?) reason(s) to believe P,
  2. One must believe P, and
  3. P must be true.

There are some technical problems with this theory as a coherent, exhaustive definition of knowledge that have to do with justification (google 'Gettier' for some examples), but it's close enough for our purposes. We don't have knowledge if we have an unjustified true belief, a justified false belief, justified true unbelief, or some combination of failings like unjustified and false.

For someone to attack a knowledge claim, it is necessary to sever one of these three legs of knowledge. Imagine I assert P: "the sky is red." You know the sky is blue. If you wanted to change my mind, you have a few choices:

Note that the rhetorical strategy for convincing someone that something is false if they believe it to be true doesn't differ in any way for any P. I could just as easily have argued against your sapphire worldview using the same methods. The exasperation of someone forced to use the third option is an indication of two things: how hard it can be to change someone's mind when it is made up, and how futile the argumentation can become, full of impotent sound and fury. No matter what I think of such a person, I cannot convince him that P by hurling invective at his belief or his justification.

My example P of a red sky is a bit simplistic on more than one count, of course. Anyone who asserts P can expect to reap a blue whirlwind, and we'd say he deserved it. How could anyone think the sky is anything but blue? Totally unjustified, irrational, nay immoral, that anyone would believe that P! On the other hand, even if there were such a person, we wouldn't waste our time arguing the point; believing such a thing is weird but not necessarily dangerous. Also, a binary notion of belief isn't realistic. I know that we all believe a great many things, each to a different degree and based on varying quantities of Pure Uncompromising ReasonTM, life experiences, intuition, what somebody told me, etc. Some examples on my current continuum of belief:

Along this continuum of belief that forms my unique noetic system, there are countless propositions, some consciously placed, others unconsciously sorted. It is in this messy world -- the real one -- that the above rhetorical strategy is usually employed, but to no better effect. Take P to be "speed limits save lives." We can find people who assert P and others who assert ~P in this case. It is an issue that has social value much beyond that of the red/blue sky debate, for persuasion of most people to ~P if P is true will, by extension, cost lives. And most people don't believe P or ~P nearly as strongly as they believe the sky is blue. This is an important issue where reasonable people differ but could be persuaded to change sides if presented with strong evidence for or against. Do we see any consensus emerging from the speed limit question? Far from it! Surf the Net and you'll find "speed kills" zealots who blame the speed-hungry auto industry and the Feds for lack of oversight, as well as unrepentant (and paranoid) speeders who say limits are a front for greedy actuaries and municipalities. Each group has its own favored studies and reasons for why the other studies are wrong, even suspect. Motives of the opposition figure prominently. At times it seems people are more interested in arguing the intrinsic worth (or lack thereof) of speed limits than attempting to chart their consequences.

We hope that when we consider maximally important P's that we will be able to persuade a solid democratic majority and not perish. But isn't that hope as vain in the real world as it was in my red/blue one? Maybe using the standard rhetorical strategy, but not in general, I think. I'm convinced there are effective means of persuasion that do not rely principally on destroying someone's justification or questioning his motives. Methods of persuasion which instead patiently present the evidence and ask: what do you think of P now that you've seen all sides? And count on the other person to be open minded.

No doubt there are things I believe which are false and things which I disbelieve which are true; I hold this meta-belief unswervingly. But which ones? Living a life consistent with truth requires that I regularly expunge false positives and negatives. Alas, a life unbesmirched by falsehood is impossible. I therefore live my life hoping that in dialoging about "big issues" I will fix the major defects on my propositional list, and that in the process some smaller bugs will get squashed. I don't always feel right, but I do feel justified.

Posted by The Greatness at 05:35 PM | Comments (0)

April 04, 2005

malloc madness and Jim Crow

I have serious coding issues today that are really cramping my time. But I felt like making a blog entry anyway, if only to point out something interesting I learned today (which is, of course, the raison d'etre of this blog).

In history class we were taught about Plessy v. Ferguson -- and Jim Crow in general -- as if it were the ineluctable legal consequence of monolithic American racism, where business, government, and majority society were lockstep in support of "separate but equal." We don't tend to doubt this picture because it is held as nearly axiomatic that businesses were run by white men and white men were racist. Change "were" to "are" and you have the substance of every argument against repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But have you ever heard the whole story?

Posted by The Greatness at 01:24 PM | Comments (0)