Ordinary Words Will Do

Izabella Laba, a noted mathematician at the University of British Columbia, recently posted some tweets that used me as a bad, cautionary example for how “STEM faculty should be less contemptuous of social sciences.”  Here was the offending comment of mine, from the epic Walter Lewin thread last fall:

[W]hy not dispense with the empirically-empty notion of “privilege,” and just talk directly about the actual well-being of actual people, or groups of people?  If men are doing horrific things to women—for example, lashing them for driving cars, like in Saudi Arabia—then surely we can just say so in plain language.  Stipulating that the torturers are “exercising their male privilege” with every lash adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of the evil.  It’s bad writing.  More broadly, it seems to me that the entire apparatus of “privilege,” “delegitimation,” etc. etc. can simply be tossed overboard, to rust on the ocean floor alongside dialectical materialism and other theoretical superstructures that were once pompously insisted upon as preconditions of enlightened social discourse.  This isn’t quantum field theory.  Ordinary words will do.

Prof. Laba derisively commented:

Might as well ask you to explain calculus without using fancy words like “derivative” or “continuous.”  Simple number arithmetic will do.

Prof. Laba’s tweets were favorited by Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician who wrote the excellent popular book How Not to Be Wrong.  (Ellenberg had also criticized me last year for my strange, naïve idea that human relations can be thought about using logic.)

Given my respect for the critics, I guess I’m honor-bound to respond.

For the record, I tend not to think about the social sciences—or for that matter, the natural sciences—as monolithic entities at all.  I admire any honest attempt to discover the truth about anything.  And not being a postmodern relativist, I believe there are deep truths worth discovering in history, psychology, economics, linguistics, possibly even sociology.  Reading the books of Steven Pinker underscored for me how much is actually understood nowadays about human nature—much of it only figured out within the last half-century.  Likewise, reading the voluminous profundities of Scott Alexander taught me that even in psychiatry, there are truths (and even a few definite cures) to be had for those who seek.

I also believe that the social sciences are harder—way harder—than math or physics or CS.  They’re harder because of the tenuousness of the correlations, because of the complexity of each individual human brain (let alone 7 billion of them on the same planet), but most of all, because politics and ideology and the scientist’s own biases place such powerful thumbs on the scale.  This makes it all the more impressive when a social scientist, like (say) Stanley Milgram or Judith Rich Harris or Napoleon Chagnon, teaches the world something important and new.

I will confess to contempt for anything that I regard as pompous obscurantism—for self-referential systems of jargon whose main purposes are to bar outsiders, to mask a lack of actual understanding, and to confer power on certain favored groups.  And I regard the need to be alert to such systems, to nip them in the bud before they grow into Lysenkoism, as in some sense the problem of intellectual life.  Which brings me to the most fundamental asymmetry between the hard and soft sciences.  Namely, the very fact that it’s so much harder to nurture new truths to maturity in the social sciences than it is in math or physics, means that in the former, the jargon-weeds have an easier time filling the void—and we know they’ve done it again and again, even in the post-Enlightenment West.

Time for a thought experiment.  Suppose you showed up at a university anytime between, let’s say, 1910 and 1970, and went from department to department asking (in so many words): what are you excited about this century?  Where are your new continents, what’s the future of your field?  Who should I read to learn about that future?

In physics, the consensus answer would’ve been something like: Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Dirac.

In psychology, it would’ve been: Freud and Jung (with another faction for B. F. Skinner).

In politics and social sciences, over an enormous swath of academia (including in the West), it would’ve been: Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin.

With hindsight, we now know that the physics advice would’ve been absolute perfection, the psychology and politics advice an unmitigated disaster.  Yes, physicists today know more than Einstein, can even correct him on some points, but the continents he revealed to us actually existed—indeed, have only become more important since Einstein’s time.

But Marx and Freud?  You would’ve done better to leave the campus, and ask a random person on the street what she or he thought about economics and psychology.  In high school, I remember cringing through a unit on the 1920s, when we learned about how “two European professors upset a war-weary civilization’s established certainties—with Einstein overturning received wisdom about space and time, and Freud doing just the same for the world of the mind.”  It was never thought important to add that Einstein’s theories turned out to be true while Freud’s turned out to be false.  Still, at least Freud’s ideas led “only” to decades of bad psychology and hundreds of innocent people sent to jail because of testimony procured through hypnosis, rather than to tens of millions of dead, as with the other social-scientific theory that reigned supreme among 20th-century academics.

Marx and Freud built impressive intellectual edifices—sufficiently impressive for a large fraction of intellectuals to have accepted those men as gurus on par with Darwin and Einstein for almost a century.  Yet on nearly every topic they wrote about, we now know that Marx and Freud couldn’t have been any more catastrophically wrong.  Moreover, their wrongness was knowable at the time—and was known to many, though the ones who knew were typically the ones who the intellectual leaders sneered at, as deluded reactionaries.

Which raises a question: suppose that, in the 1920s, I’d taken the social experts’ advice to study Marx and Freud, didn’t understand much of what they said (and found nonsensical much of what I did understand), and eventually rejected them as pretentious charlatans.  Then why wouldn’t I have been just like Prof. Laba’s ignorant rube, who dismisses calculus because he doesn’t understand technical terms like “continuous” and “derivative”?

On reflection, I don’t think that the two cases are comparable at all.

The hard sciences need technical vocabularies for a simple reason: because they’re about things that normal people don’t spend their hours obsessively worrying about.  Yes, I’d have a hard time understanding organic chemists or differential geometers, but largely for the same reasons I’d have a hard time understanding football fans or pirates.  It’s not just that I don’t understand the arguments; it’s that the arguments are about a world that’s alien to me (and that, to be honest, I don’t care about as much as I do my world).

Suppose, by contrast, that you’re writing about the topics everyone spends their time obsessively worrying about: politics, society, the human mind, the relations between the races and sexes.  In other words, suppose you’re writing about precisely the topics for which the ordinary English language has been honed over centuries—for which Shakespeare and Twain and Dr. King and so many others deployed the language to such spectacular effect.  In that case, what excuse could you possibly have to write in academese, to pepper your prose with undefined in-group neologisms?

Well, let’s be charitable; maybe you have a reason.  For example, maybe you’re doing a complicated meta-analysis of psychology papers, so you need to talk about r-values and kurtosis and heteroskedasticity.  Or maybe you’re putting people in an fMRI machine while you ask them questions, so you need to talk about the temporal resolution in the anterior cingulate cortex.  Or maybe you’re analyzing sibling rivalries using game theory, so you need Nash equilibria.  Or you’re picking apart sentences using Chomskyan formal grammar.  In all these cases, armchair language doesn’t suffice because you’re not just sitting in your armchair: you’re using a new tool to examine the everyday from a different perspective.  For present purposes, you might as well be doing algebraic geometry.

The Freudians and Marxists would, of course, claim that they’re doing the exact same thing.  Yes, they’d say, you thought you had the words to discuss your own mind or the power structure of society, but really you didn’t, because you lacked the revolutionary theoretical framework that we now possess.  (Trotsky’s writings  are suffused with this brand of arrogance in nearly every sentence: for example, when he ridicules the bourgeoisie liberals who whine about “human rights violations” in the early USSR, yet who are too dense to phrase their objections within the framework of dialectical materialism.)

I submit that, even without the hindsight of 2015, there would’ve been excellent reasons to be skeptical of these claims.  Has it ever happened, you might ask yourself, that someone sat in their study and mused about the same human questions that occupied Plato and Shakespeare and Hume, in the same human way they did, and then came up with a new, scientific conclusion that was as rigorous and secure as relativity or evolution?

Let me know if I missed something, but I can’t think of a single example.  Sure, it seems to me, there have been geniuses of human nature, who enlarged our vision without any recourse to the quantitative methods of science.  But even those geniuses “only” contributed melodies for other geniuses to answer in counterpoint, rather than stones for everyone who came later to build upon.  Also, the geniuses usually wrote well.

Am I claiming that progress is impossible in the social realm?  Not at all.  The emancipation of slaves, the end of dueling and blasphemy laws and the divine right of kings, women’s suffrage and participation in the workforce, gay marriage—all these strike me as crystal-clear examples of moral progress, as advances that will still be considered progress a thousand years from now, if there’s anyone around then to discuss such things.  Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, reciprocal altruism, and countless other developments likewise strike me as intellectual progress within the sciences of human nature.  But none of these advances needed recondite language!  Ordinary words sufficed for Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass and John Stuart Mill, as they sufficed for Robert Axelrod and for Kahneman and Tversky.  So forgive me for thinking that whatever is true and important in the social world today, should likewise be defensible to every smart person in ordinary words, and that this represents a genuine difference between the social sciences and physics.

Which brings us to the central point that Prof. Laba disputed in that comment of mine.  I believe there are countless moral heroes in our time, as well as social scientists who struggle heroically to get the right answers.  But as far as I can tell, the people who build complex intellectual edifices around words like “privilege” and “delegitimation” and “entitlement” and “marginalized” are very much the same sort of people who, a few generations ago, built similar edifices around “bourgeoisie” and “dialectical” and “false consciousness.”  In both cases, there’s an impressive body of theory that’s held up as the equivalent in its domain of relativity, quantum mechanics, and Darwinism, with any skeptics denounced as science-deniers.  In both cases, enlightened liberals are tempted to side with the theorists, since the theorists believe in so many of the same causes that the enlightened liberals believe in, and hate so many of the same people who the enlightened liberals hate.  But in both cases, the theorists’ language seems to alternate between incomprehensible word-salad and fervid, often profanity-laced denunciations, skipping entirely over calm clarity.  And in both cases, the only thing that the impressive theoretical edifice ever seems to get used for, is to prove over and over that certain favored groups should get more power while disfavored ones should get less.

So I’m led to the view that, if you want to rouse people’s anger about injustice or their pity about preventable suffering, or end arbitrary discrimination codified into law, or give individuals more freedom to pursue their own happiness, or come up with a new insight about human nature, or simply describe the human realities that you see around you—for all these purposes, the words that sufficed for every previous generation’s great humanists will also suffice for you.

On the other hand, to restrict freedom and invent new forms of discrimination—and to do it in the name of equality and justice—that takes theory.  You’ll need a sophisticated framework, for example, to prove that even if two adults both insist they’re consenting to a relationship, really they might not be, because of power structures in the wider society that your superior insight lets you see.  You’ll need advanced discourse to assure you that, even though your gut reaction might be horror at (say) someone who misspoke once and then had their life gleefully destroyed on social media, your gut is not to be trusted, because it’s poisoned by the same imperialist, patriarchal biases as everything else—and because what looks like a cruel lynching needs to be understood in a broader social context (did the victim belong to a dominant group, or to a marginalized one?).  Finally, you’ll need oodles of theory (bring out the Marcuse) to explain why the neoliberal fanaticism about “free speech” and “tolerance” and “due process” and “the presumption of innocence” is too abstract and simplistic—for those concepts, too, fail to distinguish between a marginalized group that deserves society’s protection and a dominant group that doesn’t.

So I concede to Prof. Laba that the complicated discourse of privilege, hegemony, etc. serves a definite purpose for the people who wield it, just as much as the complicated discourse of quantum field theory serves a purpose for physicists.  It’s just that the purposes of the privilege-warriors aren’t my purposes.  For my purposes—which include fighting injustice, advancing every social and natural science as quickly as possible, and helping all well-meaning women and men see each other’s common humanity—I said last year and I say again that ordinary words will do.

Update (Oct. 26): Izabella Laba has written a response to this post, for which I’m extremely grateful. Her reply reveals that she and I have a great deal of common ground, and also a few clear areas of disagreement (e.g., what’s wrong with Steven Pinker?). But my most important objection is simply that, the first time I loaded her blog, the text went directly over the rock image in the background, making it impossible to read without highlighting it.

243 Responses to “Ordinary Words Will Do”

  1. amy Says:

    A couple of thoughts before I get all the way into your post:

    1. The obscurantism in social sciences is, unfortunately, a direct result of the rise of the physical sciences in the middle of the last century, a phenomenon even less fortunately a result of the big win for the team on August 6, 1945. Less fortunately then because of the obvious; less fortunately now because memories run less than a lifespan, and now we have many thousands of young scientists educated for a world that cheered (and funded) science much more enthusiastically than this one does. Anyway. If you read history and literary criticism from before the war, you might have to tangle with dead languages, but the books and articles are, by and large, readable. Postwar scientism not only damaged the writing but left room for marxism, which was for badgemaking purposes only, and theory wars, at which point goodnight. Try Northrop Frye sometime — he might’ve been granddaddy to the problem in English lit studies, but he had a very fine ear and a rather delightful prose style.

    2. You wake up one day and find the relativism in your breakfast cereal whether you remember putting it there or not.

    Okay, off to read the rest.

  2. amy Says:

    And response #2, which is I think you had an interesting musing that veered into paranoia. (Also that Marx made some perfectly valid critique; as a landlord, for instance, I certainly am a parasite, and I know that’s so every time I cash a rent check for which I’ve done exactly no work; I will shortly own property free and clear solely because some people had less than I did.)

    Here’s the thing. In all academic fields, you are relying on people who are *not very good at language* to invent language for the things they’re thinking and talking about. I run into this daily in chemistry, where the cumulative effect of a few hundred years’ not being very good at naming things is that it’s like people are typing with their elbows. It’s terrible. The incidence of people throwing language around with no clear idea of what it means — certainly no commonly-held idea of what it means — is tremendous, which means you get areas of research coming to a standstill while people shout at each other about misunderstandings. It’s also verboten, as far as they’re concerned, to speak English when they can, because then they don’t sound scientific enough — they don’t sound like real scientists, not in the club.

    Social scientists are also, on the whole, dreadful writers. (That wasn’t always true.) Of course their own language is dreadful. They don’t know how to do anything else, and because they have trouble being taken seriously, they learn to dress up in language suits with piping and fringe from the time they’re freshmen, and get punished if they speak clearly. Because otherwise they don’t sound like real academics, not in the club, and won’t be taken seriously.

    It takes rather a lot of courage and seniority for academics on either side to write plainly at this point. I just had a big tussle with a well-funded, scientifically quite successful full professor about his being intelligible *just to other scientists in nearby fields* in a major journal. I won that round but it cost, and the bruises to the relationship, though minor, won’t really be healed till word starts trickling in about who’s read the paper and the reactions.

    Anyway. No, I don’t think the obscurantism was purpose-built for whittling away at freedoms. Ordinary incompetence and fear explain it well enough, I think.

    I like the set-up, though.

  3. Jeffrey Shallit Says:

    If you want a real laugh, read Marx’s mathematical works. Anybody who can get through them and not conclude that he was a phony posturing fool, is in denial.

  4. Scott Says:

    Jeffrey #3: Thanks for the tip! Maybe I’ll muster the willpower to do that. 🙂

    According to John Allen Paulos, Freud had mathematical crank aspects as well, assigning mystical importance for years to the numbers 23 and 28 (which, following Wilhelm Fliess, he thought were somehow connected to male and female cycles), and being deeply impressed by the fact that any integer can be written as an integer combination of those two.

  5. Serge Says:

    On a psychotherapy, as long as the patient keeps using but sophisticated words to describe their feelings, the analyst might deduce they’re trying to hide the real problems. Only once they’ve started using basic, everyday words, will effective work possibly begin.

  6. Phil Miller Says:

    Re amy, in http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2494#comment-868566

    We didn’t need Marx to tell us that landlords are parasitic – Adam Smith covered that perfectly well in The Wealth of Nations, in quite accessible language, centuries earlier.

  7. Ross Says:

    A few thoughts:

    1.) Marx, Engels, Freud, Skinner weren’t wrong. Or at least, you could say Newton was wrong too. Compare to the era before them, not the one after.

    2.) One can easily understand the ‘failure’ of ‘leftism’ as a result of the generations long program of political warfare that blanketed the world while a realist power struggle between two empires reigned (looking very much like dialectic materialism). The most outrageous examples of failures of left states being non-democratic states (this is like taking Saudi Arabia to be a posterboy example of Capitalism) *during wartime* (and not just any war).

    3.) Vocabulary in these cases can serve to obscure, but that doesn’t mean that they are exclusively used to obscure. [I understand fighting the use of language to obscure – that’s a noble fight.] But you’re trying to argue that it’s exclusively used for obscurity; your argument (a theory not unlike the very ones you spend time criticizing) that the power dynamics and situations labeled either a.) don’t actually exist or b.) don’t require the shorthand misses the case where vocabulary IS used as a shorthand or describes something that actually exists. Are there not disenfranchised people? (Is there a better, less obfuscatory, word that you’d suggest using to describe people with low standards of living and no social mobility due to complex interactions of geophysical, social, legal, and financial circumstances that people should use for shorthand?)

  8. Scott Says:

    Ross #7: I get off your train already at point 1). I tend to regard Marx, Engels, and Freud not as wrong in details (as Newton was), but as regrettable steps backwards, from which our world still hasn’t completely recovered. William James strikes me as clearer and more insightful about the mind before Freud—with Freud’s convoluted Oedipal fantasies out of the picture, who knows how much faster cognitive science could have developed? As for Marxism, it seems to me that 1700s Enlightenment liberalism—i.e., the body of social thought that Marxists spent a century ridiculing as “bourgeoisie”—has held up about Ackermann(500) times better than the Marxism that came a century later.

  9. John Sidles Says:

    Two recent PUBMED articles that can be jointly read as a Rosetta Stone uniting the “greek” of Pinker-style cognitive rationality with the “hieroglyphs” of Foucault-style narrative deconstruction are Thomas et al. The psychology of coordination and common knowledge (2014) and Moises Enghelberg Towards a medical aesthetic and its performative nature (2014).

    Stephen Pinker’s coauthorship of the former article will reassure dyed-in-the-wool Shtetl Optimized rationalists; moreover the Pinker coauthored article reads naturally (for me anyway) as a rational elaboration of the empathic and humanitarian themes that Enghelberg’s article surveys (albeit in very different language from Pinker’s).

    Inspired by this Rosetta-esque pair of articles, and inspired too by Scott Alexander’s recent radically humanist fable (the way I read it) “It Was You Who Made My Blue Eyes Blue” (of October 15, 2015), I’ve been elaborating and extending the humanist elements of Scott Alexander’s “Blue Eyes” fable in a sequel-fable embodying the complexity-theory venue of the Balanced Advantage Newcomb Game.

    Needless to say, Gil Kalai’s small-“s” skeptical quantum postulates make an appearance, as the theoretical midpoint of the exact STEM-sequence utterance → elaboration → proof → theory → simulation → healing.

    That the natural end of this 21st century STEM-sequence is medical transformation in service of regenerative healing, accessible to all, by means understood by all, also is needless to say.
    Conclusion?   There is no conclusion, in that my fable “Free Will’s Blue Elaboration ” (its working title) is a work in-progress, whose elaboration turns out to be satisfyingly intricate mathematically, scientifically, morally, and medically.

  10. Jay Gischer Says:

    I don’t know, Scott. I think “privilege” has a pretty well-defined technical meaning. I don’t find the word all that useful for common speech, but that’s because it’s become so judgementally charged. Which is one of the problems with a lot of the other Marxist terminology.

    Of course, there are other problems. For instance, “false consciousness” is a sort of wild card that lets the speaker decide what anybody is “really feeling”. It’s use is a hallmark of an unequal power relationship: “I’ll tell you what you are really feeling”.

    The concept of privilege is valuable, and I find it a valuable lens/filter with which to look at the world – kind of like a spectroscopic analysis. I use it very rarely though.

    So I kind of think you’re out on a limb here. I’d be with you if you just said “the word is too charged politically and it comes off as really judgemental”. If you were trying to translate a technical idea in to simpler words, I’d back you there, too. But you claimed it was empirically empty. It isn’t.

    Full disclosure. I’m kind of friendly with Izabella. We are both avowed members of the Golden Horde (led by the Great Khan Ta-Nehisi Coates). I follow her on Google Plus, and she regularly posts photographs of the region of the Pacific NW where I grow up. So I don’t know that I want to have to choose between you.

  11. Douglas Knight Says:

    Lysenkoism grew out of pompous obscurantism?

  12. Sandro Says:

    I agree with pretty much this entire post. I have never seen a single sentence appealing to “privilege” where a comparably simple sentence wasn’t just as clear, and more accessible to boot.

    When conversing with lay people, I’ve seen “check your privilege” immediately followed by an explanation why that person is privileged and why that privilege is wrong. In which case it should be evident that the sentence invoking privilege is completely redundant and only obfuscates the message.

    I can see the need for new words in concept-poor languages, but English’s vocabulary now consists of over 1,000,000 words. Concept-poor, it is not.

    English is (or was) concept-poor when it came to mathematics and physics though, which is why new words were justified in those cases. As Scott has said, I don’t see any concepts so alien in the social sciences that such jargon is justified here.

    Finally, virtually every intellectual edifice is wrong, no matter the science under discussion (even physics!). It’s only a question of how wrong it is, which I think is a sentiment Scott will mostly agree with.

    So if every such edifice is almost certainly wrong, unnecessarily barring that edifice’s windows with impenetrable jargon means that any actually useful concepts discovered will be invisible to those outside, and ultimately forgotten when the edifice inevitably comes tumbling down.

  13. Scott Says:

    Jay #10: Well, you’re allowed to like both me and Izabella, while still deciding for yourself what you think about the questions at hand! 🙂

    My contention would be that, when it comes to Marxism and privilege-theory—which, after all, are about which sets of people should be given less power and which more—it’s obvious and inevitable that any “technical term” you try to introduce, will become emotively charged faster than a free hydrogen finds something to bond with.

    E.g., did you know that “imbecile,” “moron,” and “retard” all started their lives as descriptive technical terms in psychology, supposedly with no judgmental connotations attached to them? How long did that last? And why does anyone imagine that a term like “privileged, entitled cismale” would function differently?

    My remedy, again, is just to use the ordinary resources of the English language to describe one’s lived experience, eschewing the sociological abstraction for the telling detail. (Unless one is actually doing sociology, in which case one ought to speak yet a third language, that of data and statistics.) History shows, I think, that the “lived experience” approach works every bit as well for women, gays, and minorities as it does for straight white males—and indeed, if the goal is to widen others’ circles of empathy, it works better than anything else outside fiction.

  14. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    > Ordinary words sufficed for Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass and John Stuart Mill, as they sufficed for Robert Axelrod and for Kahneman and Tversky

    Really? “Utilitarian”, “framing effect,” “cognitive dissonance,” “availability heuristic” all seem less than ordinary, or at least about as unordinary than privilege or continuous. Pain and Douglas do seem to fit your statement however.

    As for Jordan’s remark, I think you are missing the point of what Jordan Ellenberg is saying (although I think that this is uncharacteristically poorly explained by him in this context). The issue isn’t that one can’t use logic per se, but rather that there are natural intuitive ideas which are at tension. We’d like to reason in perfect moral axiomatic systems, but we this will quickly lead to contradictions.

    For example, we value personal autonomy but we also value utilitarian benefit for all. If one takes only one of those values and let’s it become the overriding virtue one leads to extreme views (anarchism and libertarianism on one end, and various forms of fascism on the other). Most moral and ethical situations have completely reasonable sounding statements that when one takes them and runs with them quickly lead to problems. Now, one might say that the solution is to make one’s base statements less absolute, but that’s something humans have a lot of trouble doing.

    When one is working on understanding something in math, and one gets an absurd result, one’s first step is to see if one has made a mistake in one’s reasoning. Too often, people (such as Dworkin) don’t check their moral conclusions against basic moral intuitions. I think this is what Ellenberg is getting at; hopefully he can clarify here what he meant if I’m wrong.)

    And all of that said, I do agree with the general thrust of this post.

  15. Sandro Says:

    @Jay Gischer #10, I don’t think Scott’s beef is with vaguely defined jargon, it’s actually with needing jargon to describe these concepts at all. We need jargon to describe concepts with which one has no natural experience, eg. differentials, lambda calculus, and so on.

    Privilege and other such jargon are already concepts with which nearly every person is familiar just by growing up in a human society. Everyone has encountered people that didn’t have to suffer your hardships and so were ignorant of your difficulties, or that suffered more hardships of which you were ignorant, and which then caused friction due to mismatched viewpoints.

    Extending this concept to a class of people doesn’t require jargon.

  16. luca turin Says:

    Magnificent essay, every idea deeply felt, clearly formulated, and eloquently put. Thank you Scott!

  17. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Sandro #15,

    But there is a real problem with using pre-existing terms which have connotations that aren’t necessarily part of the definition, or are different depending on who one is talking to. Maybe then, groups aren’t going *far enough* when they use terms like privilege but should rather define completely new words so there’s no danger of bringing in too much varied intuition to discussions?

  18. Scott Says:

    Douglas #11:

      Lysenkoism grew out of pompous obscurantism?

    Yes. If nothing else, it grew out of the fertile soil of Marxism, because of Lysenko’s talent for denouncing mainstream genetics as “bourgeois,” “reactionary,” “Mendelist-Morganist,” and other pompously content-free boo-words. (As Richard Dawkins once pointed out, one hears echoes of those terms in modern bogey-words like “reductive,” “scientistic,” and “genetic determinist.”)

  19. Joe Says:

    Forty-three of the forty-four US presidents have been white and all have been male. Based on this fact alone, social scientists would be totally remiss to NOT assert white males are a privileged demographic. Moreover, the language of this assertion could not be simpler. That this assertion makes some uncomfortable is besides the point.

  20. Scott Says:

    Joshua #14:

      “Utilitarian”, “framing effect,” “cognitive dissonance,” “availability heuristic” all seem less than ordinary, or at least about as unordinary than privilege or continuous.

    I actually agree with you, insofar as I thought Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow book was way too filled with ungainly jargon for my taste. (System 1 and System 2? Blech!) Probably that’s directly related to why I liked Kahneman and Tversky’s original papers from the 1970s a lot more.

      As for Jordan’s remark, I think you are missing the point of what Jordan Ellenberg is saying (although I think that this is uncharacteristically poorly explained by him in this context). The issue isn’t that one can’t use logic per se, but rather that there are natural intuitive ideas which are at tension…

    Of course I understand perfectly well that true ideas can superficially look like they contradict with each other, and that probing those tensions is what intellectual inquiry largely consists of! But I felt like Jordan didn’t engage my point, which is that in social-justice debates, people are regularly shamed and denounced just for trying to probe the tensions, to clarify them or to carve out explicit exceptions. But if you have the sort of mind that demands clarity, but you know you’re going to be shamed for seeking clarity, then what is there to do except “stay on the safe side,” by adopting the most self-abnegating philosophy you can possibly find? Indeed I’d go further, and suggest that to someone with an Aspbergery cast of mind, the entire setup might feel rigged, as though its purpose must be to reward the socially-adept people who don’t care if they hold mutually-inconsistent ideas in their heads, and to punish the socially maladroit people who do care.

  21. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Joe @19,

    Actually, that shows if anything how bad a term a privileged is. What does it mean to be privileged in that context? Does that mean they have an advantage? Had an advantage? What sort of advantage? And this is even before we get to the all the other leaps that apparently come from “privilege” where people then decide that somehow a group or part of a group being privileged somehow makes people in that category have opinions that are worth less listening to, in a way that’s very similar to how the opinion of the bourgeoisie are dismissed in Marxist settings.

    Incidentally, why is white male the relevant category? Why not something smaller, like Christian white males? Or why not something larger like males in general (where one gets then no expcetions!). Why not see it as being Christian white males over the age of 35, part of which is now actually forced by law!

    If you think that the problem here is simply the “privileged” feeling uncomfortable, then I’m not sure you are listening to what people are actually saying.

  22. ugrad Says:

    Small typo – I believe it’s Milgram, not Milgrom.

  23. Scott Says:

    Joe #19: That assertion, which you claim “could not be simpler,” is filled with complexities that you’ve simply chosen not to examine. The vast majority of Americans will never meet their president, or their governor, or probably even their mayor. Are you willing to walk up to some schmoe living a miserable life, and tell him that he’s “privileged” because he shares superficial characteristics with distant authority figures who he’ll never meet?

    Of course, I already know the answer to this. The answer is: “ah, but it’s an elementary misunderstanding of privilege-theory to say it means all men are better off than all women, or all whites are better off than all blacks, etc. Privilege-theory is concerned with structural inequities, not individual experiences.”

    The problem here is precisely the motte and bailey trick, which the other Scott A. explained so eloquently. Namely, I know from experience that as soon as they’re no longer being challenged about it, the privilege-warriors will go right back to shaming the schmoe over “patriarchal privilege” that has nothing to do with the realities of his life. Then they’ll get criticized for it and retreat from that meaning of the word (“look, we weren’t talking about you as an individual, only about what you represent“), then they’ll sneak back when no one’s looking, etc. In so doing, the warriors are ironically likely to hurt the causes they care about, by alienating potential allies.

    As I explained in comment #13, I see this as an inherent problem with words like “privilege” that are claimed to be purely technical and descriptive, but which actually signal who the speaker thinks are the good guys and who the bad guys in the world’s morality play. Any such words will be abused to tar the innocent: it’s as unstoppable as the laws of physics, and the only recourse I know of is to pick words that don’t do double-duty in this mischief-causing way.

  24. Scott Says:

    ugrad #22: Thanks! Fixed.

  25. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

    Can there be a Thing Explainer for the social sciences?

  26. amy Says:

    Phil #6: yep.

    Or you could ask tenants.

  27. amy Says:

    Scott #20:

    But I felt like Jordan didn’t engage my point, which is that in social-justice debates, people are regularly shamed and denounced just for trying to probe the tensions, to clarify them or to carve out explicit exceptions. But if you have the sort of mind that demands clarity, but you know you’re going to be shamed for seeking clarity, then what is there to do except “stay on the safe side,” by adopting the most self-abnegating philosophy you can possibly find? Indeed I’d go further, and suggest that to someone with an Aspbergery cast of mind, the entire setup might feel rigged, as though its purpose must be to reward the socially-adept people who don’t care if they hold mutually-inconsistent ideas in their heads, and to punish the socially maladroit people who do care.

    Which would indeed be aspergerish, but also probably as wide of the mark as my deciding that chemists had rigged their world to discriminate against those with poor spatial imaginations. (I’d actually thought mine was quite good; turns out that’s true only if I’m mentally rotating objects that have meaning to me, like, say, a table. Geometric abstractions full of sameness, like molecules I don’t know well: nope.)

    At this point we could have an NT/AS conversation (another locution I dislike) about how an honest AS attempt at probing reads to an NT mind (I am not claiming that I believe a dichotomy exists) like a deliberate attack, simply because of its blithe clumsiness.

    But I think it’s probably more useful to keep in mind that — thanks to Behemoth Science — we live in an age of model-making in both social sciences and humanities, even though it’s dumb for them, so you really do have to invent new language for the things you’re talking about. You can’t go around like Adam Smith, or William James, or even like Galbraith, simply describing real things in ordinary literary language. The disciplines won’t allow it.

    And I think that’s actually at the heart of the problem. The disciplines are no longer essayistic, descriptive; they’re about models, which are necessarily poor descriptions of how things actually are. A good model would, I imagine, manage to abstract something essential about life as a human being, and name it well and carefully, but then it’d be let loose amongst hundreds of thousands of tin-ear scholars and social scientists who all have to bring their little pebbles to the mountain.

    Another problem: how scholarship works. In physical sciences you have to actually show a real thing that other people can also find; then you get to name it. Soc sci and humanities have a whole lot more leeway, and there’s career reward for inventing a hot topic. So if you’ve already got three carts of baloney soc-sci model-making language, who’s gonna argue about another new terms? I mean look what’s happened to “anthropocene” in the last six months — the humanities have fallen all over it like the famished.

    In other words, you’re looking for good novels where they ain’t none.

  28. amy Says:

    *or (in physical sciences) you have to find a thing that might be real and seems really, really compelling to you and others, like it has to exist and someone will eventually find it.

  29. Mark C. Wilson Says:

    Thanks for saying so clearly what I am sure many others believe but do not have the courage, time or skills to state publicly. Asking for clarity of thought does not make one a defender of the status quo. I am very aware of major barriers to full democracy in many areas of life including the academic profession, and want to see the removed. I don’t think that means that I ought to have to wade through obscure jargon. Superstition and woolly thinking are still bad even if practised by well-meaning people.

  30. Sandro Says:

    Joshua #17, I agree term overloading is sometimes a problem in discourse, so why not simply resist the urge to name everything? Humans are decent at contextual understanding, so simply establish the context as needed. As I’ve outlined in my other posts, the use of a name, like privilege, is often paired with the context anyway, so the name ends up being redundant in most discourse.

    Describing the context will always reveal any asymmetries of opportunity characteristic of privilege, but simply declaring the existence of privilege illuminates nothing.

  31. Sandro Says:

    Scott #23:

    Are you willing to walk up to some schmoe living a miserable life, and tell him that he’s “privileged” because he shares superficial characteristics with distant authority figures who he’ll never meet?

    Their response will probably be more along the lines of, “imagine how much worse off you’d be if you were in your situation, but either black, a woman, or both”. While possibly true, it’s still immensely unhelpful.

  32. Jay Says:

    Did you ear about this sociologist, who wanted to learn some physics? When the teacher started his lecture with Newton, the sociologist immediatly raised his eyebrows.

    “What?? The same Newton that did occult studies? Predicted the end of the world? Published many literal interpretations of the christian Bible? How could you just ignore how wrong this kind of religious extremists have been? Do you even have an idea how many executions he conducted personnally?”

    Then the sociologist left, and he’d never read Newton.

    This is my feeling each time you mention Marx, Freud, Nietzsche or Kuhn.

  33. anon Says:

    Marx catastrophically wrong? What are you saying? Maybe soviet union was a failure, but this does not imply that Marx was wrong, whatever “wrong” may mean in the case of social “sciences”. Huge parts of his thinking are still holding and we see it every day. Maybe not from the nice point of view of Cambridge, MA.

  34. tas Says:

    Thanks for this. The problem you highlight is very real. Communist theory is an excellent example.

    I refer to such use of meaningless jargon as pseudoscience. They see the respect that is given to science and try to imitate it by introducing a technical vocabulary. However, they lack the rigor that is the true defining feature of science.

  35. S. Thanksh Says:

    “STEM faculty should be less contemptuous of social sciences.”

    Rereading the title gave me an ironic sense that the entire game here is to win an argument by shifting the perspective — by identifying the real conflict as occurring at a certain group level, with the groups carefully selected to favor the particular circumstances of the disagreement at hand.
    In this specific case, the disagreement has been reframed not as a particular statement made by one Scott Aaranson that one Izabella Laba took issue with, but as a larger (seemingly much more important!) issue pitting all (or just most?) STEM faculty members against social science faculty members.

    By the rules of this game, the groups are fluid and may be changed to suit the moment. Framing the conversation in terms of individuals would simply not allow the game to be played properly, as the goal of the player is not the same as yours.

  36. Scott Says:

    Jay #32: Sorry, I think that analogy fails.

    Newton’s religious beliefs might rightly strike us as loony, but they were, if anything, less so than the prevailing religious doctrines of his time! Essentially, Newton took the infallibility of the Bible as an axiom (as just about everyone around him did), and then worked harder than you can possibly imagine to resolve the inconsistencies that such a starting point lands you in. Most famously, this involved his coming to the secret conclusion that the Doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere to be found in the Bible (and, therefore, rejecting it). Sure enough, modern scholarship dates the creation of the Trinity doctrine to 170-325AD; it was only codified at the Council of Nicaea.

    Also, in Newton’s time, it was far from an obviously dumb idea to do alchemy experiments; indeed, alchemy was basically just proto-chemistry. Of course Newton’s alchemy experiments led nowhere, but they were consistent with his fanatical devotion to trying everything himself and taking no one else’s word for anything, a quality hard to separate from his successes.

    As Master of the Mint, Newton was zealous and meticulous; I believe he left no doubt that the people he sent to their deaths were indeed guilty of counterfeiting. 🙂 (You could disagree that counterfeiting merits the death penalty, but that would be an ethical disagreement, not a factual one, and presumably most of 18th-century England would be on Newton’s side.)

    Finally, even in Newton’s most private, mystical scrawlings, he would never have said anything so transparently dumb as that 23 and 28 are special because every integer is an integer combination of them.

    Of course, we haven’t even entered yet into the core of the matter, which is that in Newton’s case, it’s obvious and indisputable that underneath all the mystical stuff were titanic advances in understanding the natural world, as well as in pure math. In Freud and Marx’s case, by contrast, it’s at the very least disputable how much of value remains, after you take away everything that we now know to be garbage.

    Often, I find, people discussing that question grade on a super-easy curve, saying things like: “sure, Marx may have been catastrophically wrong about history, economics, and human nature, but at least he cared about the working class.” Or: “Sure, there was hardly a single true thing that Freud said, but at least he made it respectable to talk about the subconscious.” By that sort of standard, no thinker who succeeds in having a big impact on the world could ever be judged to be “wrong”—no matter how many errors were at the core of the thinker’s system, or how terrible were those errors’ effects.

  37. Scott Says:

    anon #33: Yes, I am saying that Marx was catastrophically wrong, at least insofar as history can ever render such a judgment about anything.

    I completely reject the popular idea that the horrors of the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Kim Jong’s North Korea, and essentially every other place where communism was seriously tried, can be separated from the core ideology. The ideology tells an elite that, if they just violently overthrow the capitalists, they can then change human nature itself in such a way that collective ownership will become a stable equilibrium—and that there are ironclad, deterministic laws of history that ensure this will happen, and that license the elite to ignore any evidence on the ground that it’s not happening. Worse yet, Marx had no interest in the obvious question of who checks the elite’s power—the question that had already obsessed the founders of the United States a century before. He was a game-theoretic ignoramus.

    Given that, I would say that the failures were entirely predictable, and indeed the smartest social observers of the 1920s, including liberal ones like Bertrand Russell, did predict them.

    The clincher is that, all over the world and throughout the last century, communist countries have “succeeded” almost exactly to the extent that they’ve become capitalist in practice, retaining Marx only in a ceremonial role. (Examples: China, the USSR’s short-lived New Economic Policy of the 1920s.)

    Nor do I think Marx can take any credit for the relative successes of democratic socialism, since throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Marxists were a faction that bitterly opposed democratic socialism (“the worst enemy of the revolutionary is the reformer”), finding support for that in Marx’s wrong theory of history.

    tl;dr: Marx was wrong.

  38. Sniffnoy Says:

    I have to agree with Josh, I think you’re a little off-base here. Saying that these things can be done in ordinary language strikes me as similar to saying that one can do these things with common sense. But of course that’s not the case; the naïve version of psychology people normally use to predict each other is not, in fact, correct. You need different concepts to understand how people actually think rather than how they think they think. And if you’re figuring out the fundamentals of psychology, at some point you’re going to have to reduce the ordinary familiar concepts to unfamiliar ones.

    I mean, unsurprisingly I agree with your claim that these people are using words badly, that there is a real asymmetry here. But I think it’s harder to make that call than you portray it as, and the asymmetry isn’t what you claim it is.

    So let me defend them for a moment before I go tearing them down again. Introducing new concepts, often ones at a higher level of abstraction, really can matter. You use the example of football as a domain that’s foreign to you; the terms are therefore foreign to you because the domain is. I’m going to go with Chess instead because I figure people here will be more familiar with that; I’m not really a Chess player myself so hopefully I don’t screw anything up too bad. Anyway, there are plenty of people who know the rules of Chess and can play a game but don’t play it competitively. They might never have heard of such terms as a “fork” or a “pin” or “pawn structure” or “initiative”. And learning about such notions might well help them play better. Not everyone who thinks about something thinks about it seriously; there are plenty of people for whom the domain of Chess isn’t so foreign, and yet the notions they need to get better at it are. Saying we can do without such technical vocabulary in the social sciences seems like saying, well, plenty of people discuss games of Chess without such complicated notions, why can’t we experts?

    So, anyway. As to what the actual asymmetry is… well, there’s a way to use words well, and it’s not what most people do. I don’t think it’s necessary here to detail everything on the topic (though of course Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “A Human’s Guide to Words is a good start), but it’s easy to list red flags:
    *. Do they seem to be equivocating?
    *. Do they seem to be trying to sneak in connotations?
    …OK, maybe I should just refer to “A Human’s Guide to Words” rather than rewriting the whole thing. But I’d also like to add some criteria regarding the question — can they explain their usage of words? Do they actually understand their own terminology? For instance:
    *. Can they say whether a given term is defined intensionally or extensionally?
    *. Do all their intensional definitions bottom out in extensional definitions or mathematics, rather than going in loops?
    *. Do they notice when a term that they use includes a contestable claim in the definition?
    *. Do they make the mistake of continuing to use the term even when said claim is exactly what’s under dispute? (I.e., begging the question. This should maybe go in the first list.)
    And just general good habits of argumentation as applied to the domain of words:
    *. If a term includes a contestable claim in the definition, and they’re not prepared to argue for said claim, do they openly admit this fact and ask you to spot them it for now, rather than implicitly accepting it as given?

    And so forth. I could probably go on but you get the point.

    (It’s also good to not only make sure that you’re understood, but that you can’t be misunderstood — avoiding making terms that other people will be tempted to attach connotations to or conflate with their existing concepts, etc. But that’s not something you can always require of people, and it’s damned hard to stop people from attaching connotations to things or conflating things.)

    Finally, I have to kind of disagree with the following part, though I think it is getting at something good:

    You’ll need advanced discourse to assure you that, even though your gut reaction might be horror at (say) someone who misspoke once and then had their life gleefully destroyed on social media, your gut is not to be trusted, because it’s poisoned by the same imperialist, patriarchal biases as everything else—and because what looks like a cruel lynching needs to be understood in a broader social context (did the victim belong to a dominant group, or to a marginalized one?).

    Problem is, our guts really are untrustworthy. Obviously we shouldn’t trust the people trying to direct us in this particular fashion, but your reasoning here seems too broad; this just seems like a defense of common sense as opposed to reason. Someone could equally well write “You’ll need advanced discourse to assure that, even though your gut reaction might be horror at people of the same sex marrying, your gut is not to be trusted, because…” I mean, seems to me a lot of people do have a gut reaction of horror to that, but we have a good reason why they’re wrong. The cases are different, but that’s not why.

    But yeah — the trap you mention in comment #20 is a nasty one. You fall in with the wrong sort of people and soon you’ll be afraid to do anything, worried that complicated logic you can’t understand makes things you do wrong for reasons you can’t understand. Before long you feel like you’re just not qualified to judge right and wrong. It’s a nasty state.

    I don’t know any solution for it but to say that ultimately you have to make moral decisions yourself; nobody else gets to decide for you what you think is right and wrong. If you can’t understand the logic, you’re not obligated to follow it. If you can understand the logic, you’re still not obligated to follow it. If you want to deliberately offload such decisions to someone else, that is OK, but if you feel uneasy with this, the right is always yours to reclaim. Doesn’t mean you have to trust your gut rather than reason. But if someone’s trying to make it seem like you don’t have the right to decide, you tell them to go take a hike.

  39. pierre menard Says:

    It is frustrating to read this “exchange,” if it even might be called that. Scott’s views are articulated in detail, here but also within his original comment; whereas his critic(s) are sniping from twitter, mercifully liberated by the 140 character limit from offering anything that resembles a counter-argument.

    Indeed, whether privilege is necessary to talk of injustice just as the concept of derivative is necessary to the teaching calculus is precisely what Scott argued *against* in his original comment. And when I say argued, I mean: gave arguments. He did not simply assert it in 140 characters without giving any further justification.

    I long for the old days of yore when life was simpler and people interacted on “blogs” (are those still around?) which allowed you to enter as many symbols as you wanted into the little box before pressing “post.”

  40. Sniffnoy Says:

    Also probably worth noting as a red flag is the sort of thing that’s so common with the sort of example (the “privilege” one) you started out with: Acting as if reducing their terms would somehow obscure what’s going on rather than clarify it. Which could maybe be generalized to a failure to understand the basic point of reductionism — that descriptions at different levels are just different maps of the same territory; there’s not one of them that’s what’s “really” going on, they’re all what’s really going on, and seeing it at multiple levels will clarify things.

  41. jonathan Says:

    I agree that sometimes overly complicated terminology is used to flaunt one’s knowledge and perhaps also to obscure. I also agree that creating a huge edifice of theory without testing it in practice can be dangerous. People can get so carried away by the intrinsic appeal of a big theory that they forget it may not be true. Despite these pitfalls, I think new terminology can definitely be useful in the social sciences. It helps us put a name to an idea, thus making it more solid in our minds and enabling us to more easily refer to it. To use an example mentioned by another poster, the concept of cognitive dissonance is a useful concept since it illuminates a common human experience. It certainly illuminated my understanding of myself and of others in several occasions.

    You write: “Has it ever happened, you might ask yourself, that someone sat in their study and mused about the same human questions that occupied Plato and Shakespeare and Hume, in the same human way they did, and then come up with a new, scientific conclusion that was as rigorous and secure as relativity or evolution?”

    First of all, it’s impossible to require the same standard of rigor for these “human” questions as for math or physics, but we can still carry inquiries into human questions with the scientific spirit of analyzing cause and effect or of careful description or cataloguing.

    Secondly, if Plato and Shakespeare and Hume produced original thoughts, why should the originality stop with them?

    Third, I’m sure Shakespeare depicts several occasions in which a character experiences cognitive dissonance. So the idea is not new. But coining the term “cognitive dissonance” enables us to more easily talk about it (rather than saying, “remember that scene in Hamlet? Where he believes one thing but is then confronted with new information that goes against his belief? That’s how I feel right now”). Moreover, we can build upon the concept of cognitive dissonance by asking questions about it, such as: “when someone experiences cognitive dissonance, what steps do they typically take to resolve it?” New terminology facilitates new thoughts and questions, just as the careful description of the concepts of integration and differentiation facilitate new questions about their properties (even as integration was already understood in some earlier form by Archimedes).

    As for the specific example of privilege, I think it is a useful concept if stripped of its baggage. It is unfortunate that it’s used in certain forums as a quick way to condemn people or Dem their points of view irrelevant.

  42. B. Says:

    Scott #37: You seem to make the popular amalgam between Marx’ work and the (self-designated) marxist politics. I cannot see anything else than obscurantism when you pretend that Marx was globally wrong! It would be really astonishing in such a case that Marx’ ideas are still taught in every economics (or political science) curriculum nowadays. And do you consider Piketty’s work as globally wrong? He himself bases his work on Marx’ (and others’ of course!). Marx proposed an analysis of the society that is not more wrong that the analysis of physical phenomena of Newton. It is in no sense perfect, but neither is it plain wrong!

  43. jemand Says:

    I would like to distinguish the politician Karl Marx (and his regrettable psychological profile) from the (economical) scientist Karl Marx. I think he provided some insights with his “Mehrwerttheorie”: Before him it was as saying a car moves because you fill the tank, while he pointed out, that it is because the car has an engine.

  44. Arko Says:

    I will submit that many a time I find jargon obscuring meaning as well, but I think judging jargon to be a vehicle of obscurantism, as far as the soft sciences are concerned, would be wrong.

    Just like language standardizes communication, jargon standardizes that subset of a language that is used to convey ideas in a certain field of study.

    In most natural languages, such as English, which are not context free, the risk of ambiguity is higher if everyday words are exclusively used to convey ideas that are expected to be empirically testable. How do you tell the noise from the signal, if you steer clear of all standardized terminology? How do you tell if two closely related concepts are not really one and the same?

    Debates on semantics will tend to be much longer if everyday words are used, whereas once parties agree to the standard meanings of jargon used, debates are bound to be crispier and clearer.

    As an example, people all over the world spend a lot of time thinking and obsessing over “work”, and yet, in physics, it means something very strict. So, when talking about a physical concept, it is probably better to specify – “jargonize”, if you will – what is meant by work in physics, rather than begin a conversation in which a lot of time is spent just agreeing over what “work” really is.

    Many people do think about many things. That does not mean most people can infer logically and empirically, correlate and deconstruct ideas the way the scientific method would dictate.

  45. anon Says:

    Scott #37: thanks for sharing your view, although I do not find it convincing since I tend to separate ideas from their implementation 😉 .

  46. Yuval L Says:

    I’m not sure if this is relevant, but you might want to read up on the “Sokal affair” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

  47. Yuval L Says:

    Also, I think that scientific analysis should be a key component of the social sciences as much as possible. In particular, I believe we should look to neuroscience and physiology to better explain peoples’ behavior.

  48. Lou Scheffer Says:

    Scott, Sandro #15 defined (at least approximately) the idea of privilege in ordinary words as “people that didn’t have to suffer your hardships and so were ignorant of your difficulties, or that suffered more hardships of which you were ignorant, and which then caused friction due to mismatched viewpoints.” Whether or not this is exactly the definition you want, it’s close enough to show you need quite a few ordinary words to express it.

    This situation arises in many contexts, and if you are comparing, contrasting, and analyzing them you would want a shorter way of expressing this idea. You don’t like overloading “privilege” since it has many other connotations. What word, expression, or acronym would you suggest?

  49. John S Costello Says:

    Your objection to the term “privilege” reminds me of the objections of software engineers I know to the Haskell community’s use of terms like “Monad”, “Functor”, and so forth. “Enough jargon! Just tell us in plain words how these things work on data!” The Haskell response is, “Monad” describes a pattern. By naming the pattern we can talk abstractly about its general principles without having to iterate those principles over individual instances every time, which facilitates understanding.

    “Privilege” is a term that describes a pattern inside of overarching systems of structural inequality. Put in plain language, that pattern is:
    A group has “privilege” when behaviors exhibited by that group are considered normal, positive, or laudatory, and the same behaviors exhibited by a structurally disadvantaged group are seen as neutral, negative, suspicious, or hostile.

    “Privilege” puts a name to the underlying structural commonalities in the following situations:
    • An armed white group of tax protestors can aim rifles at federal agents with no charges filed, while a black man gets shot dead by police while carrying a toy rifle he had just purchased inside a Walmart.
    • Aggressive, confrontational behavior by men in business meetings is described as “bold” and considered signs of strong leadership; the same behavior by women is considered “abrasive” and noncollaborative/ weak leadership.
    • Christian groups wanting to build churches are seen in a positive light, Jewish or Muslim groups building temples or mosques are “invading” or “ruining the neighborhood”.
    • Straight couples in stable relationships are considered excellent prospects as adoptive parents; gay and lesbian couples with the same characteristics are viewed with hostility and suspicion.
    • Popular media featuring a majority of white men is considered “normal”, but the same stories with diverse protagonists are “message fiction”.
    • A middle-class person with a smartphone (or flat-screen TV, or even microwave oven) is unremarkable. A poor person with any of those things is living beyond their means.

    Your objection that “privilege” is a demand for some people to have more power while others have less is only true if you think treating people equitably strips power from the previously-privileged group. In general, calls to dismantle privilege are calls to treat the same behavior in the same light, no matter who does it. I would say that I consider aggressive and rude behavior in meetings negative no matter who does it, and I don’t think anyone should be able to threaten government agents with impunity. But even in these cases, the demand is for the negative standard to be universal and fair.

    When you ask for people to talk in plain language, it sounds like you are asking people not to put names to, and thereby begin to understand, structures of inequality. When you ask for “lived experience”, you exclude the kind of comparative discussion above — the treatment of white tax protestors is not the lived experience of the black man shot dead by police.

    In a reductio sort of way, then, why would we even need words like “racism”, “sexism”, “anti-semitism”, “homophobia”, or “ableism” at all then?

    (Privilege” *has* become something of a catch-all term for describing structural inequalities, in part because — for example — “being free from unconscious bias” is a privilege of being the class that people are not biased against. But unconscious bias is a different sort of structural inequality, so it’s worth giving a different name to, much like an Applicative is different from a Monad.)

  50. John S Costello Says:

    If you like precision, “privilege” describes bias in favor of the privileged group *in the face of sameness*, while “unconscious bias” is a broader term that also includes bias against the non-privileged group *on the basis of difference*. Unconscious bias is what is turned up when sociologists send around the same resume under the name “John Smith” and “Kenyatta Miller” and get wildly different responses.

  51. John S Costello Says:

    I apologize for multiple posts — of course, my intended example of “straight privilege” was unconscious bias. It’s much harder now that gay marriage is the law of the land to come up with a crisp example.

    Straight men who have lots of sex partners are generally seen in a positive light (less so nowadays than previously, but even now that kind of behavior is often mitigated with “boys will be boys”)). When women do the same thing, they are “sluts”; and when gay men do it, it is why they deserve to die of AIDS.

  52. andy everett Says:

    Darn, thought Scott would explain calculus without using fancy words like “derivative” or “continuous” which I am sure he could do a great job of.

  53. Scott Says:

    Yuval #46: I remember reading every detail about the Sokal affair when I was 15—it was one of the formative influences of my life. 🙂

  54. Peter Says:

    I sometimes like to quip “hard things are easy, easy things are hard.” Mathematics is a prime candidate for something that is hard because it is easy – mathematics is highly tractable, you can get actual proofs, you can build giant edifices layer upon layer high and they won’t fall down. So the standards of “what’s achievable” go up, the standards of rigour go up, until you have a discipline whose difficulty is matched to the skills of the people doing it.

    With the social sciences… no, even with the physical sciences, you have to cut a corner or two to get anywhere. I’m reminded of your fable of the physicist and the computer scientist and lower-bound proofs. So things, of necessity, get less rigorous, and by the time you get to the social sciences the bar has been lowered quite a long way.

    So there’s two senses of “hard” – the difficulty of getting results that are good and rigorous etc. (highly variable by field), and the difficulty of producing results that mark you out as productive member of your field (by my analysis various fields should be equal, but then there’s my observation that differences in mathematical ability tend to be more pronounced than differences in other abilities, so maybe high-level maths _is_ harder in that sense). For the “do I trust these results?” question, only the first sense of hardness matters.

    So I was really glad to see your “I also believe that the social sciences are harder—way harder—than math or physics or CS.”

  55. Susebron Says:

    The problem with the use of “privilege” is not, in fact, that it’s too jargony. The problem with it is that it’s not jargony enough. Because it’s already a word, with its own connotations and affects, it ends up being misused in popular contexts. If people who used the academic concept of “privilege” made up some other word, which was purely jargon, it wouldn’t be nearly as contentious. If someone talks about “white privilege”, this comes across as more accusatory than talking about “white sdakjfh”, where sdakjfh is the academic concept of privilege. When referring to complicated concepts which don’t already show up in the popular discourse, the vagueness of “plain language” ends up falling short of the actual concept.

  56. Scott Says:

    Lou #48:

      You don’t like overloading “privilege” since it has many other connotations. What word, expression, or acronym would you suggest?

    That’s a reasonable question, but it makes me think of a Marxist asking: “OK, fine, so you don’t like the term ‘bourgeoisie.’ Then what term should we use for the arrogant exploiters who a scientific understanding of History foretells will be violently overthrown, thereby ushering in a workers’ paradise?”

    Notwithstanding the title of this post, I don’t actually care that much about specific words—I care about the underlying ideas that the words represent. And as I see it, the main problem here is jargon that creates the impression of a dispassionate, scientific analysis of society, when really what’s going on is much more human and emotional: namely, group X is angry because it thinks group Y has been wronged by group Z (where often we have X=Y or X⊂Z, but almost never X=Z). Incidentally, if you ever read neoreactionary or “Dark Enlightenment” blogs, you’ll see that they do exactly the same thing, but from the opposite end of the political spectrum—they have their own extensive quasi-scientific lexicon that I won’t reproduce here.

    Now, in saying the above, I haven’t made any value judgments: maybe group X is right that group Y has been wronged by group Z. But even if so, I still think the use of quasi-scientific language is incredibly counterproductive here: it will fail to reach anyone not already on the X/Y side, it will make X’s and Y’s wrongly feel like anyone who doesn’t use this language must not have anything worthwhile to contribute, and ultimately, it could seduce X’s and Y’s into ignoring realities on the ground that their theory doesn’t account for (as indeed happened with Marxism).

    So what’s the alternative? I’d say that the English language provides dozens of ways to express the same basic idea, with no pretense to scientific objectivity:

    “Buddy, you’ve got no idea how bad I have it.”

    “Try walking a mile in her shoes before you judge.”

    “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?”

  57. Jay Says:

    Scott re36,

    You don’t need to defend Newton. You need to consider the possibility that *you are* the sociologist. 😉

  58. Susebron Says:

    Scott #56:

    So what’s the alternative? I’d say that the English language provides dozens of ways to express the same basic idea, with no pretense to scientific objectivity:

    “Buddy, you’ve got no idea how bad I have it.”

    “Try walking a mile in her shoes before you judge.”

    “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?”

    Sure. People can use those to convey the concept. What happens when you want to actually discuss the concept? Those generalities don’t necessarily guarantee that the concept in question is valid when referring to a specific situation, and they don’t say anything about the specifics of that situation. What do you call the concept if you don’t want to have to type an entire sentence just to refer to the main topic of discussion?

    One option is to find a preexisting word, with a similar meaning, and use it for the concept. This is where “privilege” comes from. It’s also the source of statements like “all white people are racist” and “black people cannot be racist”. Regardless of one’s feelings on the concept of privilege, it’s pretty clear that the overloading of “racism” has, at the least, caused a great deal of confusion. The benefit of this method is that it makes it easier for people to read it, and doesn’t get as jargony as it could get.

    Another option is to make up a new word. This has the drawback of requiring an explanation. On the other hand, it doesn’t get confused with existing words, and it doesn’t take on prior connotation. It does also confer a more sciencey feeling to the whole discussion, which might be a good or a bad thing depending on one’s perspective.

    The final option is never to talk about the concept at all. This is a terrible idea. Even if you disagree with the idea of privilege, or the entirety of actually-occurring academic discourse on social justice, it should be obvious that there could, potentially, be a useful discussion of this sort of topic. And if you never talk about a concept, you can’t refute it, either.

  59. Jacob Says:

    Newton invented all kinds of “jargon” for calculus. By “jargon” I mean notation. Everybody knows what a circle is, why do we need this x^2 + y^2 = r^2 business? Well because that same formalism allowed him to work with other things that would be much harder to be put into common language. Finding the area of a circle is easy, finding the area of an arbitrary function first requires defining that function, which is typically done in symbolic notation. ‘Twas not always thus, but we are so used to it we take it for granted.

    I would say if their jargon allows efficient communication to people who know it, and allows them to clearly express ideas that would otherwise be very difficult, then it’s useful. Even if it’s impenetrable to outsiders. Complex numbers in electrical engineering might be another examples; students often ask “why do we need complex numbers” and the answer is “we don’t *need* them but they are extremely useful after the initial learning curve”

    As for social sciences, I dunno. Personally I don’t think “privilege” is a useful term since it seems like people spend way more time arguing over the definition than anything else (that could just be my experience). But I don’t work in social sciences and don’t know the full lexicon, there are probably a zillion other words which are extremely useful and uncontroversial.

  60. Alexander Says:

    Are Freud and Jung really considered scientific psychologists in the U.S.?

    When I went to university in Germany, I also visited some psychology classes although that was not part of my curriculum. The lecturers pointed out on several occasions that the whole psychoanalysis branch was not considered to be part of scientific psychology.

    I should add that it was a technical university, and the psychological faculty was dominated by cognitive psychologists. But at least from their perspective, pschoanalysis seemed to be the psychological equivalent of homeopathy in medicine.

  61. jonathan Says:

    I don’t think that “privilege” is a good example of obscurantism. Rather, I think it’s an example of using a word with reasonable meaning but questionable/emotionally charged connotations.

    I think of “privilege” as an example of framing. We all acknowledge that historically, and to varying degrees currently, members of various groups have suffered from discrimination. We usually talk about a group being disadvantaged, or harmed by this.

    Of course, saying that a group is harmed by discrimination is logically equivalent to saying that all other groups benefited from the *lack* of discrimination. Using this equivalence, we can reframe the debate: instead of talking about the “discrimination” suffered by certain groups, talk about the “privilege” enjoyed by other groups, namely the privilege of not being subject to this discrimination.

    While the content is the same, this framing changes how we perceive things. Instead of thinking about how we should stop discriminating against certain groups, and how they were hurt by past discrimination, we start focusing on how advantaged groups have benefited relative to these groups, which quickly shifts to how advantaged groups have benefited *at the expense of* these groups.

  62. Scott Says:

    andy #52:

      Darn, thought Scott would explain calculus without using fancy words like “derivative” or “continuous” which I am sure he could do a great job of.

    C’mon, what’s there even to explain about calculus? 😉

    derivative = rate of change

    continuous = you can draw it without lifting the pen (or for weird edge-cases, defer to the ε-δ definition)

    I think previously I’ve told the story on this blog of how, when I was 10, I “invented” the discrete version of calculus, where you “differentiate” a sequence of numbers by taking the pairwise differences (f(x)-f(x-1)), and “integrate” it by taking the cumulative sums. I knew that these two operations were inverses of each other, and I also knew that there was an additive constant left ambiguous when you “integrate.” And I knew that if (say) you were a corporation, and you wanted to know not only your profits but the rate of change of the profits, or the rate of change of the rate of change, etc., you’d just differentiate the sequence repeatedly. I knew that doing this with a polynomial would eventually get you to the all-0 sequence.

    Of course, this is all completely trivial; it’s a helluva long way from there to Newton and Leibniz. 🙂 But still, it makes me wonder whether an effective way to teach calculus in high school might be to start with the discrete version.

  63. Scott Says:

    Alexander #60:

      Are Freud and Jung really considered scientific psychologists in the U.S.?

    I never said they are now; I said they used to be! Though, as I understand it, there were also more scientifically-minded psychologists and psychiatrists who never took Freud seriously; he was always more revered in the humanities.

    In any case, I don’t see any escaping the fact that, for much of the 20th century, Marx and Freud were almost universally considered by humanist intellectuals to be two of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. To whatever extent that’s no longer true today, I’d see that as an opportunity for reflection about which present-day social dogmas might fare badly under the harsh gaze of future generations. Incidentally, from Newton till today, I can’t think of a single example of a similarly-catastrophic failure in the hard sciences, except when science was overruled politically (like with Lysenkoism, or the Nazis’ “Aryan physics”). The closest I can think of (and in terms of failure, it maybe rates a few milliMarxes) is Wegener and continental drift.

  64. Scott Says:

    Sniffnoy #40, Arko #44, Susebron #55, #58, Jonathan #61, others: Of course this whole terminological discussion is sort of academic, since I can’t remember the last time I actually saw anyone change which words they used as a result of intellectual debate.

    FWIW, though: if social scientists needed a term for “privilege” (in their technical sense), then yes, I believe that in retrospect, it would’ve been far better for them to choose something, anything, that wasn’t so overloaded with other connotations in English, that wasn’t begging to be abused by the Twitter shaming-warriors eager for motte-and-bailey mischief.

    But I also have a broader point. The broader point is that, whenever social thinkers plaintively ask: “Well, if you don’t want us to use obscure jargon, then how should we talk in the situation that constitutes 99% of our lives—namely, the situation where we all agree with each other about the dozens of interacting parts within an all-encompassing ideological superstructure that identifies who the victims and aggressors are in our unjust, ripe-for-revolution society, and we just need a convenient shorthand for referring to those elements?”

    —in case after case of that kind, my answer would be that maybe, just maybe, the agreement that the social thinkers all feel about their ideological superstructure (i.e., the thing that necessitated the jargon in the first place) is premature. Maybe, instead of ideologues, these thinkers should strive to emulate the greatest novelists and playwrights, or Scott Alexander, all of whom switch at a dizzying pace between ideologies (today giving the best defense of libertarianism you ever read, tomorrow demolishing it). Maybe the agreement among the social thinkers is not because of some underlying reality (like the physicists agreeing about quantum field theory), but ironically, because of insufficient diversity in which kinds of people the social thinkers talk to and try to learn from. At least, the possibility merits reflection.

  65. Scott Says:

    B. #42, jemand #43, anon #45: If Karl Marx were alive today, I can imagine that he’d be just as despondent about all the popular misunderstandings of communism as I am about the misunderstandings of quantum computing.

    Just think: I spend my whole life exploring and explaining how QCs would actually work, then journalists go off and write their stories anyway about how a QC could solve NP-complete problems in an instant by trying all the answers in parallel.

    Karl Marx spent his whole life advocating violent revolution against property-owners, after which he confidently predicted that human nature itself would change so drastically as to enable a classless, private-property-less utopia. Then, when doctrinaire believers who had pored over his every utterance tried out what he said, in countries that collectively made up a large fraction of the Earth, again and again they discovered instead that…

    OK, I guess the two cases aren’t exactly analogous. 😉

  66. Alexander Says:

    Scott #65:

    FWIW, though: if social scientists needed a term for “privilege” (in their technical sense), then yes, I believe that in retrospect, it would’ve been far better for them to choose something, anything, that wasn’t so overloaded with other connotations in English, that wasn’t begging to be abused by the Twitter shaming-warriors eager for motte-and-bailey mischief.

    But then again, physicists also chose some debatable terms that already had a different meaning outside of science. Take the terms “weight” and “mass” for example: In colloquial language, the predominant meaning of “weight” is much closer to the physical meaning of “mass”. And when the word “mass” is used by a person who did not attend physics classes, then this person most likely refers to a large number of some kind of elements.

    And this is not just some example that I made up for fun. In a discussion board where I used to participate, there was a guy who seriously tried to force people in using the word “mass” instead of “weight” in colloquial language. So each time that someone wrote “the car’s weight” or something similar, he would reply and instruct the person that the correct term is “mass”.

  67. sf Says:

    Do the social sciences need to consider the error-catastrophe for memes?

    The problem with discussions of social sciences might be understandable by analogy to the “error catastrophe” for copying genes. Manfred Eigen used it in the context of the ‘origin of life’ problem; too high a copy-error level, and there’s no reliable heritability to get evolution started, but evolution is whats supposed to have improved the copy-error level. I think this is still not solved. Typically redundancy is a useful tool, protecting against harmful errors. Conceiving of the inherited property at a higher level of abstraction, or at a larger scale, can sometimes also improve robustness.

    Applied to the “memes” of social sciences, (terms that capture very complex ideas in a word or two) instead of genes, copy-errors occur when terms are reused in slightly changed contexts, where there’s some risk of it not working as in previous instances. Somehow the hard sciences manage to overcome this danger, but its not clear why – part of Wigner’s “unreasonable effectiveness” theme? In special cases things like robust scaling behavior partly explain this; molecules and billiard balls satisfy the same Newton’s laws.

    Physicists do a certain amount of implicit context handling in setting up experiments, that is taken for granted, but it works well enough for technologies to be built on. In the social sciences maybe its just that much harder to get a handle on how contexts can vary, especially since we are “inside” the context, as opposed to physics where we manage to stay above the variations of context.

    I can’t say much about whether Marx or Freud deserve to be historical heros of their fields or if Scott is fair to dismiss their work. I’m not even sure what standards should be applied to judge them, or if it can be compared to the hard sciences – probably in their time it was, but then there wasn’t any Popper type philosophy – the comparison was maybe more in the religious or spiritual sense of big ideas, as opposed to ‘getting your hands dirty’ lab work.

  68. Alexander Says:

    Scott #63:

    Incidentally, from Newton till today, I can’t think of a single example of a similarly-catastrophic failure in the hard sciences, except when science was overruled politically (like with Lysenkoism, or the Nazis’ “Aryan physics”). The closest I can think of (and in terms of failure, it maybe rates a few milliMarxes) is Wegener and continental drift.

    I guess that catastrophic failures can only arise when scientific results are applied in everyday life. When talking about “hard sciences” we would therefore have to look at the hard applied disciplines like engineering or medicine. And I am pretty sure that we can find quite some catastrophic failures there. Think about nuclear energy for example. Or ridiculous mediacal treatments. Or pharmaceutical with unexpected side effects. Or some possible potential future catastrophies that may result from genetic engineering.

  69. Scott Says:

    John #51:

      Straight men who have lots of sex partners are generally seen in a positive light (less so nowadays than previously, but even now that kind of behavior is often mitigated with “boys will be boys”)). When women do the same thing, they are “sluts”

    Yes, that’s one of the most frequently-made observations of the modern world (not that it doesn’t deserve to be). But one thing that’s fascinating is that you essentially never see the converse observation made:

    Women with few or no sex partners = Pure, innocent, desirable
    Men with few or no sex partners = Gross virgin neckbeard losers who live in their parents’ basements

    If we reflect on it, I think we have to admit that the confluence of evolutionary psychology with modern cultural expectations has created a hornet’s-nest of messed-up, often constricting ways in which the sexes are treated differently—and that this harms men who deviate from gender norms just as it harms women.

    Furthermore, in my experience, almost all the social-justice people eagerly agree with this statement! “Yes!” they say. “Patriarchy hurts men, not just women! We’re fighting for a world where no one is shamed for deviating from gender norms.”

    The problem, once again, is the motte-and-bailey fallacy. I.e., as soon as we’re no longer having the above conversation, the very language of “privilege” and “patriarchy” all but guarantees a reversion back to the crude, “battle of the sexes” Twitter formulation. In modern societies, how does the number of virgin-shamed men compare to the number of slut-shamed women? Within the Twitter distortion of privilege-theory, it wouldn’t even make sense to pose that sort of question, let alone explore what could be done to get all the “gender-nonconforming people” on the same side and improve the situation for everyone.

    Were I so inclined, I might even speculate that there’s a very patriarchal norm that ironically drives many of the privilege-warriors here: chivalry! All of us, male and female, learn from an early age that we’ll gain vastly more social status and credibility by phrasing the same problem in terms of its impact on women than in terms of its impact on men. As one example—atypical only in its unintended humor—consider Hillary Clinton’s widely-lampooned soundbite:

      Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat.

    By contrast, serious feminists have always insisted that real feminism has nothing to do with chivalry, with men (or women) jockeying for status over other men (or women) by placing women on ever-higher pedestals. Rather, the goal is to break down rigid gender roles, full stop. As should go without saying, I completely, wholeheartedly stand with feminism on this.

  70. Lou Scheffer Says:

    Susebron #60 said “One option is to find a preexisting word, with a similar meaning, and use it for the concept. This is where “privilege” comes from.”

    Physics does this so well it’s almost like they created new words, and the physics application of each word is completely divorced from any emotional component it has in everyday use. You may love or hate your work, or deplore the use of force, without any effect on the way you approach a physics problem. If a grad student says “My advisor forced me to work at computing the work from the force, but I ran out of energy before I could find the energy” it’s completely clear which meaning is meant for each word. So using an existing word, even one with strong associations such as “chaos” or “annihilation”, is not necessarily a problem.

    Crucial to making this work is a clear definition of what (for example) “work” is, so that any two people, even if one thinks hard work builds character and another thinks it’s a curse to be avoided, can agree on work in physics sense. Lacking an underlying definition is the problem with “privilege”. If someone accuses you of acting from privilege, and you think you are not privileged at all, or perhaps you are privileged but it’s not relevant to the point you are making, there is no mutually agreed upon way for you to agree on how privileged you really are.

  71. Mike Says:

    “Notwithstanding the title of this post, I don’t actually care that much about specific words—I care about the underlying ideas that the words represent. And as I see it, the main problem here is jargon that creates the impression of a dispassionate, scientific analysis of society . . .”

    ” . . . I’d see [the failure of ideologues like Freud and Marx] as an opportunity for reflection about which present-day social dogmas might fare badly under the harsh gaze of future generations. Incidentally, from Newton till today, I can’t think of a single example of a similarly-catastrophic failure in the hard sciences, except when science was overruled politically (like with Lysenkoism, or the Nazis’ “Aryan physics”).”

    These, I think, are the key points. And, they are the points which are never addressed head on by social justice warrior interlocutors.

    Too often word salad is tossed to create an misimpression of science in action when it’s really all mumbo jumbo. The Sokal affair is the perfect example of this, but it happens to a less focused extent on a variety of social topics throughout the inter- web. 😉

    Also, since the conclusions reached are so often based on such obfuscations, how could anyone genuinely hope theories arrived at via such a disconnect from rigorous thinking would stand the text of time. There is nothing even as tenuous correlation with proven theories to support the validity of such claims; only a click bait echo chamber where they were born and mostly reside provides any feed back.

    It’s worth very little as a contribution to human intellectual progress.

  72. Seth Says:

    I think things might be a little different in physics as opposed to computer science, but in physics the ability to describe complicated processes in plain language is usually considered a sign that you might actually understand what you’re talking about. I mean we are always trying to appeal to physical intuition and using overloaded but evocative words like “spin” and “entanglement” (for better or worse.) It is useful to have a more formal language for precision and brevity, but when explaining physics to a layperson I always at least try to unpack that language into English. Of course, that might be because my goal is usually explanation and not self-promotion or out and out obfuscation.

  73. Scott Says:

    Jonathan #41:

      if Plato and Shakespeare and Hume produced original thoughts, why should the originality stop with them?

    Please reread the post—I never suggested anything even remotely like that! I wish there were more people today who aspired to be our generation’s Plato or Shakespeare. But such people will probably have more success if they see themselves as contributors to a millennia-old conversation, rather than as announcers of the scientific laws that govern humankind as Newton’s laws govern the planets (the way both Marx and Freud saw themselves).

    (Admittedly, Plato himself could be pretty dogmatic about having discovered the true laws of humankind, with all the Socratic questioning just a fig-leaf for his intended conclusion! But simply because Plato and Socrates came so early, they were able to make big contributions to knowledge despite their unwarranted certainty. It seems to me that Marx and Freud lacked the same advantage.)

  74. Anonymous Says:

    #62: a while ago I’ve stumbled upon Finite Calculus: A Tutorial for Solving Nasty Sums, which feels vaguely related even if it isn’t really what you’re talking about.

  75. Alexander Says:

    When it comes to feminism and gender theory, thank god that the English language does not feature any genera anymore. If you knew how much effort is wasted in other language areas just to make all the legislative texts and every single document published by state authorities gender-neutral …

  76. Scott Says:

    Alexander #68: I agree that it’s a helluva lot easier to find “catastrophic failures” lasting decades in technology or medicine than it is in the pure hard sciences! But I don’t agree with most of your examples.

    Nuclear power remains one of our best hopes for a carbon-free future and a livable planet. New reactor designs are much safer than the ones used at Chernobyl and Fukushima—but crucially, even supposing there were 300 more Chernobyl-scale meltdowns, I’d say nuclear power would still be preferable to what we’re doing now! It would leave a much larger portion of the earth habitable.

    That so many people who call themselves environmentalists remain implacably opposed to nuclear, I regard as one of the great ironic tragedies of our world.

    Also, genetic engineering on humans has the potential to alleviate an unbelievable amount of misery—people who suffer their entire lives because of a debilitating condition that they never chose. I’d regard it as a tragedy if we became able to do it safely and reliably, but refused to because of bureaucracy and paternalism.

    Finally, even if a drug has unexpected side effects, it might be much better for it to exist than not to, if the primary effect outweighs the side effect for sufficiently many patients. On this issue, I’m a fan of giving patients as much reliable scientific information and also as much choice as possible.

  77. Arun Says:

    In a comment to Gail Collins’ OpEd in the New York Times about the US’s falling participation of women in the labor force, the commenter Luca wrote:

    “The huge scandal is that one can deduct things like a car or a computer as business expenses, yet somehow day care, which is what enables a woman to work, cannot be deducted. This is an unfairness created by a male-oriented society that had “male-type” business expenses in mind when drafting the regulations. This should be a primary goal of any feminist or egalitarian-minded movement.”

    No doubt the causes behind why day care are not deductible business expenses are complex, might we not find technical words to describe these causes?

  78. Arun Says:

    If men are lashing women in Saudi Arabia for driving cars, and we say it is because of a particular interpretation of Islamic law, and we say that in China and India, with the push for smaller families, sex-selective abortions result in more boys being born than girls and a skewed sex ratio; and we say that the role of women in the Catholic Church is restricted for reasons of Catholic theology; and that women generally earn less than men for the same jobs, same performance even here in the US; and so on, what is the common denominator that underlies all of these? It is that social custom, religion or economic arrangements favor males — and this is male privilege. Where did this privilege arise, did it always exist, is it nearly a cultural universal, how has it manifested itself, how and where has it been overthrown, do strategies that fix one of the problems also work for the other problems — how do we study that if we cannot name the phenomenon that we are studying?

  79. Jennifer Says:

    Is this at least partly about writing/speaking appropriately for the intended audience? When I’m asked what I do, I have different answers depending on who is doing the asking. Usually somewhere between `physics’ and `theoretical quantum optics’ unless I’m actually at work, but if I was talking to a younger child I might just stick at science, or `trying to figure out how the world works and how I can write it down’. In the same way, if a social scientist attempts to engage in a debate, regardless of what words they use at work, they need to talk the same language as the other people in the debate. They can’t assume knowledge of common definitions in the social sciences, and will likely be misunderstood if they do.

    I guess there’s also the associated problem that you can’t stop people from reading things that aren’t written in `their language’ (so to speak), and misunderstanding them. These misunderstandings can spread easily and cause problems, especially when it’s something that people feel is relevant to them. You can’t attach a glossary to every research paper; it’d be far too unwieldy. I’m not sure what a good solution would look like though.

  80. Scott Says:

    Arun #77: At MIT, one can charge occasional babysitting as a business expense (as long as it’s paid for from discretionary funds). One can’t deduct cars. Both a car and M-F daycare are pretty big expenses, but personally, I’d strongly support whatever child-friendly deduction policies an organization can reasonably afford. But don’t you think this would have a better chance of catching on, if it were presented as something that all the cool, future-leaning businesses are offering now to make themselves attractive to the most desirable recruits of both sexes, rather than as something that millions of people, almost all of whom never had any input into such decisions, and who might themselves welcome such a policy, should feel collective guilt about (except not, because that’s a simplistic misunderstanding of privilege theory, except—quick glance around to make sure the coast is clear—actually, yeah, they should feel guilt)?

  81. Sniffnoy Says:

    Scott #64:

    Yes a big problem in general seems to be the constant use of these superstructures with no understanding that these superstructures implicitly contain contestable claims that need to be justified, and you can’t use your superstructure to do that.

    (Tangentially, are all the commenters here trying to explain the notion of “privilege” using the same notion? It doesn’t look to me like they are…)

  82. Scott Says:

    Jennifer #79: Thanks for the comment. I think previous commenters hit on something crucial when they pointed out that there’s no risk of confusion between the technical and lay senses of “work,” “energy,” “force,” etc., simply because the senses are so far apart—they’re nearly orthogonal vectors in meaning-space. Whereas with “privilege,” etc., there’s every possibility of confusion; indeed, these words could hardly have been better-designed for mischief-making, for equivocation between the senses that impute blame and the senses that don’t.

    Maybe an anecdote will help. I once listened to someone from Skeptical Inquirer appear on the radio show of Art Bell, who’s a notorious UFO/conspiracy nut. Skeptical Inquirer had just given Bell its annual “Snuffed Candle Award,” for Bell’s contributions to irrationality and the public misunderstanding of science. Bell was having fun repeating the name “Snuffed Candle Award,” over and over. At one point, the skeptical guest said something like:

    “Please understand, Art, we don’t intend this award as a personal criticism of you…”

    “Oh, of course you don’t,” Bell replied sarcastically.

    Even though I was 300% on the skeptic’s side about every ground-level issue, it was obvious that Bell had had the better of this exchange. The skeptic wanted to call Bell an ignorant jackass who made the world darker every day (which, of course, he was), but then didn’t want to own it.

    So I guess my advice would be something like: if you really don’t think someone’s an asshole, personally at fault for whatever you’re complaining about—if you’re honestly trying to find common ground with the person—then don’t describe the person (or any group to which they belong) using indirect terms that would lead a reasonable observer to conclude you did think this. I hope I’ve followed this advice myself, but to whatever extent I haven’t, I’ll try harder.

  83. Haelfix Says:

    I’m picking up shades of the 90s science war here.

    As I recall one of the big debates was over the word ‘relativity’ which of course has a very specific technical meaning in physics, but was nevertheless utilized in social sciences/philosophy in ways that when taken to the extreme meant the exact opposite of the physics definition.

    Now, as an example the whole ‘check your priviledge’ meme that lead to so many silly twitter/facebook posts has some of the same problems. Namely a word/concept that was defined in a technical sense somewhere in academia, is now being used in unintended ways by people from different backgrounds.

    Part of the frustration I think is that in the former case, physicists violently and publicly called out the offending culprits (the Lacan’s of the world) for misappropriating their terminology and for drawing hasty conclusions, whereas there seems to be a curious silence coming from the ‘power structure’ academics.

  84. wolfgang Says:

    I am no expert but I think you may be too hard on Sigmund.
    Take a look at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigmund_Freud#Science

    There we read that Nobel laureate Eric Kandel argues that “psychoanalysis still represents the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind.”

  85. Shmi Nux Says:

    Wanted to mention the apparent Scott-vergence: your SJ writings and those of Scott Alexander are more similar than before, and another Scott A worth reading, Dilbert’s author Scott Adams (when he takes a break from talking about Trump), has several SJ posts in a similar, though somewhat more acerbic, style (when he takes a break from talking about Trump). Apparently he even had a hand in the California’s recent right-to-die law. Not sure if there are other Scott A’s around occasionally writing about social justice, or you 3 is all there is.

    I can’t tell if this is good or bad: on the one hand you guys might be convergent to something truth-like, on the other, the author of The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine suggests that similarities have less intrinsic value than differences (I am paraphrasing his impenetrable writing style for you).

  86. Sandro Says:

    Lou #48

    Whether or not this is exactly the definition you want, it’s close enough to show you need quite a few ordinary words to express it.

    Note that I also said that the specific advantages and disadvantages of any given scenario are always discussed anyway, in which case a term like “privilege” just ends up being redundant noise. Can you provide a specific scenario where using the term itself is essential to discourse?

    That said, “privilege” could be defined in fewer words as “systematic advantages”, which I think is perfectly concise and sufficiently descriptive not to warrant its own term, particularly when paired with the specific scenarios that are inevitably discussed.

  87. Scott Says:

    wolfgang #84: I have no idea about Kandel, who might have gleaned genuine insights from Freud. But in other cases, when hard scientists have praised a charlatan like Freud (or Derrida, Deleuze, etc.), I’ve sometimes found it hard to avoid the suspicion that they’re mostly just trying to signal how they’re broad polymaths who love the arts and humanities, rather than literal-minded Aspie nerds. E.g., that “psychoanalysis” is functioning simply as a stand-in for “well, there’s something about the mind that’s not yet satisfactorily captured by neurobiology as it exists today, and I’m wise enough to realize that.”

    For me, though, genuine respect for the social sciences and humanities doesn’t have anything to do with that sort of patronizing noblesse oblige. It means holding humanists to the same standard of caring about the truth that you’d hold your hard-science colleagues to, because you know full well that there are tens of thousands of historians and archaeologists and cognitive scientists and economists and linguists and analytic philosophers who can meet that standard.

  88. anon Says:

    @scott, #87:
    Actually, I believe Kandel got into neuro because he wanted to become a psychoanalyst. I recall him saying that his original research proposal in medical school was to research the neural basis of the id, ego, and super ego.
    (For details, see here: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMbkrev56892
    Just search Grundfest and read the surrounding paragraphs if you don’t want to read the whole thing.)

  89. wolfgang Says:

    @Scott #87

    >> arts and humanities

    One should keep in mind that Freud started out as a doctor who wanted to help patients with debilitating mental disorders and he did actually help in several cases.

    How well (and if) his theories derived from those cases hold up under scrutiny is still debated as far as I understand.

  90. Susebron Says:

    Scott #64: Well, sure. People are generally too sure about their political views. But that’s not a problem with their terms, it’s a problem with their ideas. And it’s a lot easier to refute an idea if it has a simple name that crystallizes the concept than if it’s just taken for granted to the point that it isn’t named.

    Lou #70: The problem with the social sciences is not that they fail to define their terms. The problem is that they are far, far more political than physics, both in the sense that they talk about politics and that they are used politically. It’s fairly common for existing terms to be used for concepts which are similar to the original meaning but have some key differences.
    When the differences are political, they tend to get elided in favor of bashing the other side (“You’re white, therefore you’re racist!” “You think all white people are racist, so you’re the real racist!”). When someone talks about the force on an object, nobody objects that the use of force is morally wrong, because physics isn’t political. When someone talks about privilege, it gets confused with the other concepts.

  91. John Sidles Says:

    Scott’s question  “Suppose that you’re writing about the topics everyone spends their time obsessively worrying about: politics, society, the human mind, the relations between the races and sexes […] in that case, what excuse could you possibly have to write in academese?”

    Shtetl Optimized readers are invited to verify for themselves that Steven Pinker’s recent (excellent) article “The psychology of coordination and common knowledge” (2014) — and indeed every single one of the works that Pinker has selected for inclusion in his recent (outstanding) opus “Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles” (2013) — never use the words “empathy” or “affection” (not even once) … as far as a Google Book text-search can tell, anyway.

    Is there a research opportunity here?   An article or essay upon the theme “Why Steven Pinker’s works sedulously avoid discussions of ’empathy’ and ‘affection'” would be read with interest by many folks (including me) … especially if the author were Steven Pinker!

  92. Avi Says:

    Scott #20:

    in social-justice debates, people are regularly shamed and denounced just for trying to probe the tensions, to clarify them or to carve out explicit exceptions. But if you have the sort of mind that demands clarity, but you know you’re going to be shamed for seeking clarity, then what is there to do except “stay on the safe side,” by adopting the most self-abnegating philosophy you can possibly find?

    I relate to this very much, but can you explain what you mean by, “the most self-abnegating philosophy you can find”? For me, the potential for shaming and criticism for merely exploring the idea critically definitely has the effect of just staying away from the discussion in the first place.

  93. Scott Says:

    Avi #92: Sorry, I thought it would be clear enough from the mega-discussion we had last year, but it means extreme risk-minimization. E.g., if no one ever told you any situations in which you’d realistically find yourself where it would be socially acceptable to apply for a job—and if, moreover, they regarded any questions attempting to clarify the subject with open hostility—then obviously the only option left open to you would be to remain unemployed. Well, either that, or else decide that the people who regard you with such contempt because your mind works differently from theirs and you need clarity, will probably feel the same way about you whether you apply for jobs or you don’t … so you might as well apply! 🙂 Incidentally, I strongly recommend the latter approach, for any clarity-seeking person who faces this sort of scrupulosity problem in any part of their life.

  94. James Cross Says:

    “pompous obscurantism…self-referential systems…”

    Sort of like String Theory?

    I was an undergraduate in the social sciences in the late sixties and the influence of Freud and Marx was not all that great. It was probably different in the early 20th century but by the sixties at least not so much.

    Freud had two main contributions in my view.

    1- His discovery that most of the psyche is unconscious. This has been pretty well demonstrated as correct. You might want to take a look at some of Sohm’s work.


    2- His contribution to psychotherapy and psychiatry. Of course, a bunch of modalities of therapy have evolved but until the discovery of psychotropic drugs this was about all medicine had to offer for mental illnesses.

    Regarding human nature and the social sciences. The main problem of the social science is there really is no human nature. Of course, there is a biological substrate that imposes limits on human behavior but even that may have undergone significant evolution in last thousand of so years. The results of many psychology experiments cannot be extrapolated much beyond the undergraduate students that are their subjects.

    Marxism may have been right that human nature could be changed but it was never going to be changed for the better at any rate in the agrarian societies where it took root. But it is being changed as we live. An Aztec would have had no conception of human rights and women’s rights or LGBT rights were almost unthinkable a century ago. These rights have no objective existence in the world but only exist in that malleable human nature we (or some of us) agree to create.

  95. sf Says:

    John Sidles #91 :

    This might be part of the answer?


    There are some good, but rather subtle criticisms of his viewpoint in one of the comments that follow the essay; if I remember, roughly, what one biologist calls cheating or free-riding, may actually evolve into a symbiotic relation, so its the choice of definitions – of goals- rather than the reality on the ground that underlies the conclusion in favor of the selfish gene approach. This debate is still going strong in biology, with no end in sight.

  96. Sam Says:

    How is “privilege” not a plain English word? (And the whole family of white, male, etc privileges are equally plain language.)

    Even something like a “microaggression” is pretty self-evident – it’s a really small aggression.

    I’m sure that social science journals are filled to the brim with unintelligible language but the good news is that nobody reads them anyway – insofar as these ideas filter into the broader public consciousness they don’t seem to be doing so in terms which are particular difficult to understand. But maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong people.

  97. Scott Says:

    Sam #96: This was addressed many times in earlier comments. The issue is that words like “privilege” have both a technical social-science meaning and a colloquial meaning, and those two meanings are not the same! And being able to move between the two meanings—e.g., “privilege” as macro description of society whenever challenged about it, but as “you suck, you privileged asshat” when unchallenged—has given the Twitter and Facebook warriors incredible scope to shame and bully anyone they dislike, while arrogating to themselves the veneer of academic objectivity.

  98. John Sidles Says:

    sf commends (#95)  “[Steven Pinker’s Edge essay]
    The False Allure of Group Selection

    Sf, thank you very much for that outstanding reference … Pinker’s arguments and the arguments of his critics alike have plenty of force (as it seems to me), and certainly Pinker’s essay goes far to explain discussions of ’empathy’ and ‘affection’ are sedulously absent from Pinker’s published articles.

    In contrast, the study of empathy and affection is a primary theme of the anthropological literature, and in this regard an illuminating counterweight to Pinker’s worldview is David H. Price’s ambiguously titled Threatening anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists (2005).

    Price’s research establishes that it was not Communist Party membership or Marxist beliefs that attracted the most intense scrutiny from the FBI and congressional committees, but rather social activism, particularly for racial justice:

    “When practiced properly, anthropology is a threatening science. Its dictums of equality and its distant view of stratification threaten claims of legitimacy and dominance.”

    Conclusion  Twenty-first century quantum science is comparably threatening, and comparably enlightening too, to the twentieth century anthropological sciences, both in quantum science’s transformative medical implications and in its evolving mathematical “yoga”.

    As Shtetl Optimized commenter sf sagely notes (#95), there is “no end in sight” to the ensuing turbulent discourse … either in anthropology or in quantum science.

  99. luca turin Says:

    James Cross #94:

    “I was an undergraduate in the social sciences in the late sixties and the influence of Freud and Marx was not all that great.”

    Which planet was this on?

  100. John Sidles Says:

    Luca Turin wonders  “Which planet was this on? [where ‘in the late sixties, the influence of Freud and Marx was not all that great’]”

    Plausibly it was a planet of scholars who engaged with Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic (1963), with its then-radical praxis of a left culture that was not Marxist

    Conclusion  For the past fifty years and more, anti-Marxism has served the contemporary Counter Enlightenment chiefly as a (strategically irrelevant) political Maginot Line and an (intellectually outdated) common-knowledge shibboleth.

  101. Scott Says:

    John Sidles #91, #98: According to Amazon Search Inside, Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature has 91 occurrences of the word “empathy,” 10 of “affection.”

    How the Mind Works: 2 empathy, 6 affection.

    The Blank Slate: 7 empathy, 6 affection.

    You are banned from this blog for three months.

    The charge: throwing out easily-checkable claims (intended to prove that Steven Pinker is somehow empathy- or affection-challenged) with reckless disregard for their truth or falsehood.

  102. Lewikee Says:

    Scott #101:

    When will you next have an “ask Scott questions” post? I am really curious about who John Sidles is, why he posts so much on this blog, why he always over-formats his posts, and why he keeps posting despite almost everyone ignoring his posts.

  103. domotorp Says:

    It seems that a significant portion of your readers are Marxists – we don’t mind whatever you write about quantum complexity, but spare our beloved Marxism!

  104. David Friedman Says:

    I think it is at least arguable that David Ricardo demonstrated something new that pretty much everyone in the field still accepts two hundred years later–the Principle of Comparative Advantage. Malthus probably qualifies with the Ricardian Theory of Rent (not, of course, invented by Ricardo), and Ricardo arguably with the idea of Marshallian quasi-rents (not, of course, invented by Marshall).

    To be fair, Ricardo did it without any math beyond arithmetic–but he was a genius, and it would probably have been easier if he and his readers had at least known algebra.

  105. Bram Cohen Says:

    When I was in high school I read some Freud out of curiosity and was shocked at how utterly obvious it was that much of it was thinly veiled references to his own prediliction for sticking things up his butt. If people can’t peg that guy as a perverted prissy twit, their critical reading skills are hopeless.

    Marx I read much more recently and was disappointed with how simply out of date it was. There’s some political rabble rousing in there and some debunking of german philosibabble, but mostly it’s out of date economic theorizing which is debunked in first year economics courses by talking about things like pareto efficiency.

    Lenin I’ve only read bits of but his writings seem devoid of theoretical structure. He uses the word ‘bourgoisie’ seemingly as a term for bookeymen, a catch-all term for everybody he doesn’t like to lump them all into a single monolithic entity without any need for political nuance.

    That said, given what’s happened in Russia in the last ten years I’m a bit more charitable towards the russian revolution than I used to. It appears that Russia is a country whose culture is so steeped in dictatorship and corruption that it needs to fix its cultural issues before it can truly thrive, and the russian revolution at least gave it a period where it paid lip service to the idea that government should be run for the good of the people, albeit still in a dictatorial and corrupt manner. That of course doesn’t excuse Stalin’s purges, which were horrific tragedies, or mean that north korea, cuba, and east germany, which clearly had the potential to go the other way, weren’t disasters, or excuse the ussr invasions of eastern europe after WWII, or mean that China wouldn’t have been better over opening up markets decades earlier… actually this is a very long list, but my point is that the idea that government should be run for the good of the people is probably good everywhere, and the suppression of free markets, while a bad thing, has possibly survived better in cultures which aren’t well set up for supporting free markets in the first place.

  106. F. Cat Says:

    You claim to critique the language chosen by academics: why not just use plain language in academic writing? The academic you picked to critique replied in kind: why not just use plain language in your physics articles? So you spend a few hundred words kvetching.

    It wasn’t until I read all the way down to “… [this particular language] has given the Twitter and Facebook warriors incredible scope to shame and bully anyone they dislike, …” that I saw just what you were carefully not saying before.

    Finally we see some of your conflation between disliking, say, a contemporary academic work struggling with an unfortunate heritage of Marxist writing (as others already pointed out, every field has its unfortunate heritage of bad names and poor notation, e.g., the half-arsed hodgepodge of Newton and Lagrange notations in calculus) versus disliking the co-option of that language by some other group of people whom you also disagree with.

    In plain language, while you may feel better when you claim to help all the unfortunates who don’t share your privilege, and to support intellectual clarity and force when you decry the empty intellectualist posturing of others… in plain language, you are doing a disservice to people trying to actually help, and manufacturing “Shetl-seal-of-approval” derailments. What you have written will only ever be used when it is co-opted to derail actual discussion and debate.

    Good luck with the Twitter and Facebook warriors, and may your own army prevail on teh intertubes. No doubt your victory in this argument shall bring real change and succor to the world.

  107. Scott Says:

    Lewikee #102: John Sidles is a professor of orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Washington and co-director of its Quantum Systems Engineering Lab. I don’t know the answers to any of your other questions.

  108. Scott Says:

    F. Cat #106: Umm … what?

  109. QBees Says:

    @Scott 18:

    You are more than a little wrong about the history of Lysenkoism and it’s relation with Marxism. I mean, I would press you on details that it was born from that fertile soil, but your other claims in regards to the “bad sciences” or “pseudosciences” are confused and vague enough that I don’t think you have the historical chops. Suffice it to say, it is important to note that the Russian academy post-WWII did frame much of the debate over genetics in terms of the Nazi mass murder of Poles, Jews, and anyone else deemed inferior by Western Eugenics in connection with Genetics (which by the way, did not fade so quickly from view in the postwar era, see the late name change to the American Eugenics Society). Dawkins probably should be the last person you cite in your attempt to show the history of these subjects: see how often he appears in epigraphs for *Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science* (2015). You know there are actual historians who study these topics, right?

    But in general, the problems here are that you really have no idea what the history is behind these various disparate intellectual and cultural topics, and (maybe more importantly) you have forgone serious consideration about the relationship between ideas and action. I mean, these are the biggest of big questions in philosophical and social scholarship. So when you’ve insisted that this work can only be done through “data and statistics,” well… that’s a tough place to put yourself.

  110. Bram Cohen Says:

    Scott, if I may be so presumptuous as to speculate as to what you’re actually thinking of when you talk about the term ‘privilege’ in the abstract, what you seem to be thinking of is the debate about whether making little boys feel personally responsible for the plight of women throughout the ages is child abuse. Both of us would respond to this with ‘That happened to me personally, and yes, it’s child abuse.’ A simple statement which results in some truly unglued responses which claim to be intellectual but seem to amount to ‘Fuck you. You don’t know what abuse is.’

  111. Kevin S. Van Horn Says:

    Joe # 19 Says:

    “Forty-three of the forty-four US presidents have been white and all have been male. Based on this fact alone, social scientists would be totally remiss to NOT assert white males are a privileged demographic.”

    There have been perhaps 200 million white males who have lived in America. 43 of these, or only about 1 in every 5 million, have been US presidents — making your factoid utterly irrelevant to describing the status of the average white male in America.

  112. Raoul Ohio Says:


    Thanks for a clear articulation of some points that I have never been able to put into words.

  113. Raoul Ohio Says:


    I do not ignore John Sidles’s posts. I think they are great. I often do not know enough to to assess their merit, but they seem reasonable and are presented in excellent traditional learned style.

  114. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Scott #8:

    Ackermann(500) might be an overestimation.

    For a wide ranging topic like this, it also might be considered an inside joke. I am all for inside jokes in discussions for the insiders. For example, I have long estimated that all of Knuth’s books average over one inside joke or funny way to say something per page. Like, the “terminal function”.

  115. Tim May Says:

    Someone commented that most of the commenters are Marxist, leftist, social justice warriors, feminists, etc. Perhaps so, because they favor the battle.

    Myself, I’ve been reading this blog for a bunch of years, at least a few before Democritus himself. (A joke.)

    I’m rather strongly libertarian, have been since around 1967. A youthful mix of Heinlein, Rand, then seeing the world develop as Silicon Valley grew. (I joined Intel with a physics degree in 1975.)

    Of this blog’s readers, I know Bram Cohen and David Friedman. I of course do not claim that their views parallel my own.

    I read with interest, and some dismay, Scott’s very long and very self-tortured (tortuous?) blogs earlier this year. I want to say I felt embarrassed for him, but I won’t. (But I just did.)

    My view is that most SJWs are wrong-headed and should just be routed around. Arguing this would take a Scott-Length essay.

    BTW, I was at the Mark van Raamsdonk public lecture at Stanford a week ago. Very interesting. Scott’s name came up, as having had to leave just a few hours earlier.

    I read Scott’s blog not because I am either an expert in quantum computing or because of his debates with Amy.

    I read it because my mind remains blown about why L2 is so important. There is something really important there.

    And ER = EPR, in various forms, seems related in various ways.

    Scott, I read even your long debates with SJWs and the usual lefties, but the real issue is the nature of space-time. The longer I study it (was a poor student under Jim Harlle as a junior at UCSB in 1973) the more interesting the connections between GR and QM seem.

    This is why I so closely follow your blog, but comment rarely.

  116. Scott Says:

    QBees #109: That was a pretty pompous and content-free comment. Instead of speculating about my “historical chops,” why don’t you refute something I actually said? Do you think Lysenkoism, which of course started before WWII and the Nazi mass murders (but was also involved in the deaths of millions of people from starvation), was a good idea, or preferable to “Mendelist-Morganist” genetics (i.e. genetics)?

  117. Scott Says:

    Tim May #115: I’m glad you like my posts involving ER=EPR and the L2 norm, and I’m sorry you felt embarrassed for me. There’s no need to. For someone who thousands of people tried to destroy less than a year ago, as an impediment to their crusade for justice, I’m doing remarkably well. The nightmares involving Arthur Chu and Amanda Marcotte have decreased in frequency. And I still have my career, my friends, and my family. Indeed, after remonstrating online for days with SJWs, trying anything and everything to establish common ground with them, it would sometimes be jarring to re-enter the real world and realize how little anyone who I cared about cared—given that I didn’t hurt anyone, intend to hurt anyone, wish anyone ill, etc., and that all I had done was to share something truthful about my life, as a sort of radical experiment in empathy.

    (As for Amy, who started it all, I’m happy to say that I now consider her a friend. While she does have SJW tendencies, she’s way too intelligent, and goes off-script way too often, to be a reliable foot-soldier in their or anyone’s war.)

    As the comment 171 affair blew up last year, one of my female colleagues in quantum computing remarked to me that the real issue had nothing to do with gender politics; it was really just about the commitment to truth regardless of the social costs—a quality that many of the people attacking me (who were overwhelmingly from outside the hard sciences) had perhaps never encountered before in their lives. That remark cheered me more than anything else at the time, outside of a brief note of support from the great novelist Rebecca Goldstein.

    I understand the wisdom of “routing around” controversial topics, especially when you’re vastly outnumbered by people who will interpret even the mildest disagreement as a declaration of war—but for whatever reason, “routing around” has never been my nature. I won’t martyr myself, but if I can say something both true and helpful to someone, and live to tell about it the next day and the next year, I probably will.

    (Incidentally, one tiny silver lining of being a center of controversy, is that you get to write in a way that would otherwise sound melodramatic, and just have it straightforwardly correspond to the reality of your life. 🙂 )

  118. Scott Says:

    Bram #110: That’s eloquently put. While it’s a different issue than the one I was discussing in the post, I think a lot of well-meaning people fail to understand that, if you set out to make little boys feel personally responsible for the plight of women (or other oppressed groups) throughout the ages, there’s a significant minority for whom you’ll actually succeed, and that minority is exactly the one for which “success” was the least necessary and the most counterproductive. Ironically, I suspect that the lack of sensitivity to this problem comes from an insufficient appreciation for diversity—in this case, neuro-diversity.

  119. James Cross Says:

    luca #99

    What planet were you on in the late 60’s? Psychology was overrun by behaviorists. The other social sciences may have had people interested in looking at class and power to explain behavior (and they may have considered themselves Marxist) but few were admirers of Lenin or Stalin. Of course, you can find exceptions.

    If you are thinking of students, on the other hand, that is different issue. There were plenty of students in their youth that might have thought themselves Marxists and some of them became stock brokers.


    I think I am getting a picture of where this somewhat misguided rant is coming from and to a large extent I think I agree with the main point (that is if I am really following). But this argument has taken so many detours into the weeds that is hard to see the main argument.

    If you are criticizing the sort of politically correct, double-think that goes on sometimes with the Left, I could not agree more. Your link to Marcuse’s Repressive Tolerance shows us a prime example. As a Progressive, I myself cringe at some of these excesses and confused thinking. We shouldn’t be shouting down anyone who disagrees with us or concocting convoluted rationales to justify our own intolerance.

    On the other hand, blaming this on Marx and Freud and their influence on the social sciences is pretty off-base as is the argument that the social sciences do not need specialized language and terminology.

    There is a big difference between the language used in open political discourse that might involve historians, philosophers, social scientists, and even non-academics and the language, for example, that might be used in the American Journal of Anthropology. I am all for plain language in the former.

  120. jfr Says:

    I’m reminded of the following article I read long back:


    In particular, these fragments:

    (i) ”She certainly enjoys celebrity status in our profession,” Michael Rosenthal, a colleague of Ms. Spivak’s in Columbia’s English department, said in an interview. ”But I don’t think I am alone sometimes in finding it difficult to understand what exactly she is saying.”

    (ii) Ms. Spivak also bristles at criticism of her writing. ”When academics say I’m difficult to understand, I don’t pay attention because I think they are saying, ‘This does not deserve to be understood,’ ” she said. ”No student ever complained at the end of a course.”

    It would be almost impossible for me to think of someone in the CS community who would respond to criticisms that way.

  121. Scott Says:

    James #119: The place where this “rant” is coming from is extremely simple, and is exactly what I said it was—namely, to reply to Izabella Laba. If it were feasible to do so, I’d write a separate long blog post answering each and every person who ever said anything bad about me online, or who used me as their example for some wider phenomenon that they deplore—even if it were in a tweet or 1-sentence comment on a Facebook post that only two other people had seen. It doesn’t matter: I would engage and debate every single such person for as long as it took until we understood each other.

    I’m not saying this is especially praiseworthy, just that it’s a true statement about my personality.

  122. wolfgang Says:

    @Bram Cohen #105

    Your psychoanalysis of Freud is quite interesting.

  123. James Cross Says:


    Agree Wolfgang. Although I was always thought the oral end was more significant since all Freud’s pictures show him with a cigar. 🙂

    I can’t let this go by either.

    “Still, at least Freud’s ideas led “only” to decades of bad psychology and hundreds of innocent people sent to jail because of testimony procured through hypnosis”


    Freud dabbled with hypnosis very early in his career and abandoned it. And if anything most conservatives have blamed Freud for getting guilty people off not sending innocents to jail.

  124. QBees Says:

    @Scott #116:

    In terms of content-free, you’re objectively wrong: I provided evidence one should be careful citing evidence for history of science from Dawkins. The comment might be pompous, but it wasn’t content free. In contrast to you, who’ve made a mess of over a century of scientific and intellectual history out what as best can be described as a teenage prejudice brought on overdose of Sokalism (#53). But even Sokal attempted to guard his flank with appeals to being a scientific leftist (starts sounding a lot like Marx).

    Lysenkoism became party policy in August of 1948. In the 1930s, Lysenko face a community where his work had been ignored because Soviet genticists thought he was wrong but harmless. During the heated postwar period when Lysenkoism gained a ground in Russia, Nazi war crimes under the authority of western eugenics were well known. This is why proponents of Lysenko could make a contextually strong case against genetics: genetics had been used as a tool of class oppression. So, if anything it’s not so much Marxism that made the ground fertile, but instead western genetics implicated in mass murder in eastern Europe. Other note, the mass starvation had already started because of Stalin’s collectivization of farms and rapid industrialization. I think it would be misleading to say the starvation that was already underway was Lysenko’s fault.

    I never made a claim about the preferably of Lysenkoism over western genetics. The refurbishing of American population science in the postwar period certainly shows that now genetics is preferable over Lysenkoism (and who knows, maybe this is because the new directions were a third choice between Lysenkoism’s mass starvation and eugenics mass murders). But the fact is, if you want to talk about these things, you’ve got to know enough the historical facts to talk about these things—that is, you’re the one who’s being contentless here. So as to the rest, it’s so much work to refute that which is poorly composed. These are platitudes, not positions for facts you’ve made above: a few hundred word rant linking Marx to Freud to every bad thing Aaronson doesn’t like cuz it’s not math-CS-physics (poor bedfellows for mathematicians). It looks bad because it is bad when “scientists” naively dump on the social sciences and humanities. (Thanks Sokal!)

  125. Serge Says:

    Scott, sometimes I wonder if you’re not undergoing a huge psychoanalysis with this blog – or at least some sort of psychotherapy. Maybe the analytic aspects were started by your famous comment #171 in reply to Amy. So she might be called your analyst in chief, with the rest of us as her medical assistants. 😉

    Anyway I think you’re being unfair to Freud’s legacy. Even though he was wrong to interpret every single thought of ours as a sexual desire in disguise, he was right in many other respects. He invented the modern form of psychotherapy and he can’t be made responsible for the misuse of hypnosis in US courts. For this matter, he’d himself gave up hypnosis completely by the time he discovered the power of psychoanalysis.

    I don’t think it’s very fair either to associate systematically the name of Freud with that of Marx. Or maybe you’d like the perspective of your name being only cited in the future together with that of, say Stephen Hawking – with all due respect to his genius and to yours. Suppose future historians are going to say “Yes, Aaronson and Hawking were great but their conceptions must be revised now”. Or “The problem with Aaronson and Hawking is that they were unaware of…” Actually, Freud and Marx were very different from each other – almost opposite. Freud had an individualist’s mind – he’d never have come up with anything like Jung’s collective subconscious, for example. By implicitly associating the name of Freud with Stalin’s purges, you’re somehow throwing away the baby with the water bath.

  126. luca turin Says:

    James Cross #119

    Actually, you are right. I _was_ on a different planet: France and the rest of continental Europe, where behaviorism was considered a moronic aberration, and Freud, Marx & co. reigned unopposed via their heirs Althusser, Lacan and other assorted frauds. Curiously the opposite seems to be happening today.

  127. Scott Says:

    QBees #124: Your every sentence unmasks you as someone who judges ideas not by whether they’re true or false, but by whether they’re politically useful to the left.

    Alan Sokal, for example, had absolutely no need to “guard his flank” by being a far leftist himself. He does happen to be a far leftist, but his parody and critique of the postmodern science-abusers would’ve been just as hilarious and incisive had he been to the right of Rush Limbaugh. (In practice, though, it was probably Sokal’s leftist politics that caused him to become aware of the existence of these particular charlatans in the first place—a less politically-engaged scientist simply wouldn’t have cared enough.)

    It’s a very weak argument to point out that I credited one analogy I used to Richard Dawkins, but Dawkins was criticized for other things in an obscure book that looks from its description like it’s packed with tendentious and disputable claims of its own.

    My understanding is that Lysenko played a direct role in the continuation of the 1930s famine, by falsely promising Stalin that he could solve the famine with his amazing winter wheat.

    Most importantly, I find it absurd to lay the Holocaust at the feet of “Western genetics,” rather than widespread European hatred of Jews and the other groups targeted by the Nazis. Even supposing that you agreed with all the (pseudo)scientific beliefs of the 1930s American eugenicists—which I’m not recommending you do!—it would still be an enormous leap from there to concluding it would be a good idea to perpetrate a genocide against a tiny population that had just recently produced Einstein, von Neumann, Ulam, Wigner, Erdös, and Tarski. That gap needs to be bridged by a very particular kind of hatred, one that’s able to justify extermination in spite of the Einsteins or even because of the Einsteins.

    In general, I find that I have almost unlimited patience to argue with people as long as I feel like they too care about the truth, and just see it differently than I do. But when they’ve all but told me that they care more about the political uses to which statements are put than about their truth or falsehood, I pretty quickly lose interest. So I regret that this exchange is now over. Good talking to you.

  128. Susebron Says:

    Scott #97:

    This was addressed many times in earlier comments. The issue is that words like “privilege” have both a technical social-science meaning and a colloquial meaning, and those two meanings are not the same!

    It seems to me that the problem you describe is not that plain language isn’t used, but that it is used when it shouldn’t be. Which, as far as I can tell, is the opposite of the problem you describe in the original post. If plain language should serve, then what would you name the concept of “privilege” if not “privilege”? If the problem is that the concept of “privilege” gets conflated with the connotations of the plain word privilege, then why should people not come up with jargon which is disconnected from prior connotations?

  129. Scott Says:

    Serge #125: I listed in the post what I saw as the similarities between Marx and Freud—and particularly in the way later academics canonized them. But yes, I completely agree with you that they were also very different from each other. And if I had to pick which of the two was “less bad,” or which one I’d rather have coffee with, I’d go with Freud in a heartbeat.

  130. Scott Says:

    Raoul #114: If anyone is reading this blog and doesn’t know what the Ackermann function is, then let them be inspired by my inside jokes to go and learn.

  131. Lou Scheffer Says:

    I think “privilege” is exactly the right word, precisely because it is emotionally loaded, so it makes the problem harder to ignore. It’s better to think about a problem, even if it degenerates into name-calling, than to never consider it at all. And you might, just might, think about how lucky you have been through no action of your own, and acquire some sympathy for those with less luck. (And I think that anyone posting here is pretty damn lucky in the grand scheme of things – your kids will likely survive to adulthood, you’re unlikely to starve, you’ve got a place to live, there are no global wars, you inherited some talents you were free to pursue, and so on. Most people in history have had nowhere this degree of luck.)

  132. jonathan Says:

    Lou: If the subjects referred to by “privilege” are important, you should be able to argue that on the merits, without resorting to emotionally charged rhetoric and imputation.

    Moreover, by using less emotionally charged language, you may actually make *more* progress, both because a dispassionate analysis may be more accurate, and because using emotionally loaded terms makes others defensive.

    I guess there’s a difference here between politics and science. In politics, you sometimes want exaggerated emotionally charged rhetoric to fire up the base and draw attention to your cause from partisans, even if this harms the truth and repels people on the other side of the debate (or just neutral parties). If you’re concerned with objectively analyzing reality, as in science, you want to avoid such rhetoric for precisely these reasons.

    I also suggest that a policy of tolerating false or misleading rhetoric in the name of political expediency has a terrible historical track record.

  133. James Cross Says:

    #126 luca

    Doh! Forgot about Europe!

    #130 Scott

    Can’t resist borrowing this from NeinQuarterly.

    Marx, Aaronson, and Freud walk into a bar. Bartender: Aren’t you the Three Wise Men? Aaronson: Yes, I am.

  134. Gil Kalai Says:

    As a friend of both Scott and John Sidles, I am saddened by #101. It seems that #91 was not meant as a criticism of Pinker but as a subtle (if unsuccessful) addition to the issue of using technical rather than common terms. (Indeed, the specific point John tried to make is vastly weakened by further “search inside” that Scott made.)

    On the issue. I certainly see the value of discussing matters with ordinary words and try to do it as much as possible. It is also important to understand the way terms are used academically, and to be aware also of tensions between the academic technical usage and the common one. I am not sure why Marx and Freud were singled out. For example, the term “rational” has a technical meaning in economics (maximizing one’s utility) which is in tension with the common use of “rational.” This tension is part of the great success of rationality as a technical term, but it leads at times to abuses. It is part of economics theory to consider critically both the notion itself and the tension with common use of the word. There are very many such examples.

    I also share the view that the term “privilege” seems good. I suppose that different “privilege-worriers” (referred to at the end of the post) may have different purposes that we can discuss even in ordinary language.

  135. Max Says:

    Hi Scott,

    could you clarify something for me: Do I understand it correctly that your main substantive point is much less about the use of “jargon”, but more on the relevance (or reality) of the studied concepts.

    So, by saying: “Ordinary language suffices for the type of research you do.” are you actually saying: “Those complex constructs that you claim to study, like patriarchy or privilege are not relevant or do not exist. What is relevant or does exist are simple observations about the power disparities in social groups and these can be talked about in ordinary language”.

    Because if that is what you are saying then I find your argument rather unpersuasive, since the reference to Marx and Freud could simply be dismissed as red herrings. Even given that Marx and Freud were more “catastrophically wrong” than Lamarck, for instance, how could the neutral observer tell the difference?

  136. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Off topic: are we going to get a blog post about your paper with Daniel Brod?

  137. Scott Says:

    Joshua #136: I wasn’t sure whether that paper needed its own post! I figured maybe I’d include it in a bigger BosonSampling post when there was something else to share. But if you have questions about it, by all means.

  138. fred Says:


    “Am I claiming that progress is impossible in the social realm? Not at all. The emancipation of slaves, the end of dueling and blasphemy laws and the divine right of kings, women’s suffrage and participation in the workforce, gay marriage—all these strike me as crystal-clear examples of moral progress”

    It seems to me that your examples of advances in the social realms are more akin to advances in engineering.
    I.e. the invention of the home computer, the internet, the mobile phone, etc and all the revolutions they triggered weren’t driven by theoretical physicists, but by entrepreneurs/engineers.

  139. Bram Cohen Says:

    Scott #117: Yes the saddest thing about the small number of actual SJWs is that they discredit feminism by giving the much larger number of MRAs something to point to. A person who claims that they’re full of rage because of Anita Sarkeesian is obviously off their meds. A person who claims to be full of rage because of Amanda Marcotte or *shudder* Shanley Kane has a plausible stalking horse.

  140. quax Says:

    As the saying goes, a fish will never notice the water surrounding it.

    As a white dude growing up in a country where pretty much everybody was white, and the last major minority had been thoroughly exterminated, I really did not feel particular privileged.

    But boy do I notice that privilege here in Canada, and even more so in the US. If you are white and male you belong to a club, extra bonus for suite and suitable middle age.

  141. Douglas Knight Says:

    Scott 37:

    I would say that the failures were entirely predictable, and indeed the smartest social observers of the 1920s, including liberal ones like Bertrand Russell, did predict them.

    I think you are applying an awful lot of hindsight and the problem is a lot harder than that. Russell was enthusiastic about the Soviet Union until he met Lenin. He was also just about the unique leftist to predict bad things about it in the 20s; more liberals did, but very few.

    Also, different people predicted different problems. These are different predictions and they aren’t verified simply by the existence of some problems. Your concern is different from Russell’s (if you doubt that, why did Russell care about Lenin’s personal qualities?); and both are very different from von Mises’s. Yet others predicted failure because of God’s wrath for atheism. I doubt you consider that a confirmed prediction, but then you must apply the same standard to Russell and von Mises: did their mechanisms cause the problems? Maybe both were correct, but then neither predicted the whole story.

  142. Scott Says:

    quax #140: Yeah, everyone always repeats that “a fish will never notice the water surrounding it.” But it always struck me that the fundamental explanation for that fact is not that the water surrounds the fish; rather, it’s that fish are pretty dumb. I mean, after all these years, they still fall for the old “bait on a hook” trick! And certainly humans do notice the air that surrounds them, even though it’s so much sparser than water.

    But in the saying’s terms, I think the real issue is that a flounder and a tuna might spend their entire lives in the same water, with the flounder firmly convinced that the water itself is systemically biased in favor of tuna and against flounder, and the tuna equally convinced of the opposite bias—simply because each one only remembers the examples that support its chosen narrative. Then the humans come along with their trawling nets, and fry the flounder, and grind the tuna up and mix it with mayo and celery, and yet their action still leaves the original flounder/tuna debate unresolved.

    In this analogy, I guess the humans (not inappropriately) represent global warming.

    Can anyone tell that I’m getting slightly bored with this topic? 😉 I have a few more responses to offer, but then I’ll start wrapping things up. So please get in any other thoughts you’d like to share within the next day or two.

  143. Jochen Says:

    OK, trying to get in some (maybe) other thoughts:

    Scott, I was right there with you at the beginning, but unfortunately, I think you ended up making Prof. Laba’s case for her.

    Now, I usually make it a point to read the entire previous exchange before commenting, since I’m (barely) not arrogant enough to believe that my words will inspire any changes of mind and introduce any great novelties after 90+ other comments, but I haven’t the time right now, and the whole thing is just going to get even more unmanageable. So where I merely repeat what has been said already, maybe consider it just additional data points—after all, more data is always better.

    The first point is that while to you, the works of Freud and Marx ought to be condemned to the nether of great mistakes of intellectual history, this very much isn’t the case in social science departments. Case in point: Slavoj Žižek, who’s both a Marxist and Freudian-by-way-of-Lacan, and isn’t generally denounced by most of his colleagues (although of course he is a somewhat controversial figure).

    And while I’m in no way educated enough in the respective fields of either defending or condemning the ideas of Marx and Freud, I’ll note that both are responsible for original and fruitful traditions that resound all the way into today. In the case of Freud, he ushered in a revolution of our self-understanding: whenever you think about somebody’s real reasons to do or say something, whenever you’re wondering why other people really behave the way they do, apart from their stated motives, you’re basically being a Freudian. This might seem trivial from a present viewpoint, but so does displacing the Earth from the center of the universe; and claiming that Freud had done ‘no more’ than introducing the unconscious is just like claiming Kepler has done ‘no more’ than so displacing the Earth.

    With Marx, although I’m even less qualified there, in addition to his insights about capital and the economy, the whole critical tradition of modern philosophy can arguably be traced back to him—that is, the tradition that views philosophy’s aim as not merely engaging in analysis and discourse, but in criticizing and lobbying for changes in the society which it engages with. Many modern movements working for social change owe a great debt to this development.

    So I think that, in choosing your examples, you emphasize, rather than effectively combat, the notion that the STEM-scientist’s view of the social sciences is quite distorted, and has little connection to their actual workings.

  144. asdf Says:

    I remember reading Minsky describing Freud as the world’s first computer scientist. Emily Hoechst’s political science dissertation (comparing Freudian interpretations of political theory) was way outside my field but interesting: http://gradworks.umi.com/33/39/3339928.html

    And I always liked this quote:

    1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson, _Nature_

    Every surmise and vaticination of the mind is entitled to a certain respect, and we learn to prefer imperfect theories, and sentences which contain glimpses of truth, to digested systems which have no one valuable suggestion.

  145. Jochen Says:

    Regardless, your point regarding obscurantism is a good one—it’s indeed a bane on modern intellectual discourse. But I think there’s two traps here you fail to steer clear of:

    1) What seems obscurantist to you may be perfectly transparent to somebody educated in the respective field, and
    2) what seems perfectly transparent to you may seem obscure to somebody not educated in your field.

    First, any field generates technical vocabulary—for both good and bad reasons. The good reasons are, for instance, to facilitate speedy communication about experts sharing a common background, and to avert the threat of what I call ‘specious familiarity’—the usage of words that seem to indicate some commonsensical meaning, but which are actually used in a technical sense that may be far removed from their everyday usage. The bad reasons are to indicate belonging to some in-group (talking the talk in order to prove that you’re walking the walk), differentiation from the uneducated rubes, and to make your arguments seem more educated by using the relevant lingo (cargo-cult science, if you will).

    This isn’t limited to the social sciences, of course: I can’t be the only one reading ultra-condensed PRLs, thinking that they would’ve greatly benefited from actually doing the calculations they allege are somewhere burrowed in badly-written supplementary material, or asking myself whether it really was necessary to supply all their definitions in their full n-dimensional glory when they actually only ever talk about qubits, and the like. (Well, or maybe I’m just dense.) It’s just less obvious if you’ve enjoyed an education in the field.

    Take, for instance, the sentence ‘an electron may be in two places at once’. Now, anybody without a background in quantum theory will balk at such a thing, and rightly so, because it’s not a good sentence, but for all the wrong reasons: basically, their concepts of ‘electron’, ‘place’, ‘at once’, and even ‘to be’ just aren’t the ones used in the sentence. That makes this sentence a bad one, but one that can usefully transfer information between experts, where it’s understood, or at least silently presupposed, that the other party knows what they’re talking about, simply because of the understanding we attribute to them. Thus, there is a sentence in technical language that can be made sense of, and that can loosely be phrased in the above terms, even though, on strict interpretation, that sentence is rubbish.

  146. Jochen Says:

    Apologies for the multi-comments, but I’m having some bizarre troubles with posting… The above was originally one post that I thought failed to show up perhaps because of length restrictions, but now there’s a remaining part that’s shorter than the other two that doesn’t want to post, either.

    Anyway, the gist of it is that in contrast with the earlier example, in most cases, one is in a situation of unequal expertise: only one of the parties is an expert in some field, or professes to be one. The question is, how does one rationally deal with such a situation? Clearly, both blindly following and blithely disregarding the other parties pronouncements are out. I suggest a principle of the presumption of competence, or a ‘maybe not everyone else is a moron’-heuristic: consider it possible that maybe the problem isn’t with them, but with you.

    Take modern art as an example: it’s all just paint drippings to many people, but that’s due to their assumptions of what art ought to be; that is, they really fail to engage the art on its own terms, substituting their own frame of reference and holding it to be absolute instead. Because that’s what our ‘gut feelings’ and the like do: they cocoon us in a false sense of understanding, of knowing how things should be.

  147. Scott Says:

    Jochen #146: But a lot of modern art really is just paint drippings. 😉 If one was trying to get me to change my mind about jargon-filled humanities papers, that’s just about the worst analogy one could possibly use.

    Seriously, I grant you there are countless more sophisticated questions one could ask about a modern artwork, but an initial question—which is sort of a prerequisite to any of the others—is, does the work differ in any important respect from the paint-smeared pieces of construction paper that my 2-year-old daughter Lily brings home every day from her preschool? Because if it doesn’t—if the work fails the “preschool Turing Test”—then the question arises, why not remove it from the MoMA and put Lily’s works there instead? (I’ll be happy to upload some samples, if the merit of her works is a relevant question.)

  148. Jochen Says:

    See, the assumption you’re using here is that art is in the artefact—i.e. that it’s in some way the object that decides whether something is art. This is a stance that’s known as physicalism in the philosophy of art, which doesn’t have much to do with physicalism as a metaphysical position, but merely asserts that you can decide what’s art and what’s not by looking at the object itself. But that’s not really a stance anybody still holds about art.

    One reason for this is that even the well-respected classical sort of art—your Mona Lisas, your Nightwatches, and so on—are irreducibly contextual: without the context of human experience, they’re meaningless. Adrift in free space, found by an alien race that shares no context with us, it might just as well be random paint drippings—it may be art to us, but it’s not art to them.

    Hence, all art is contextual; that is, whether something is art or not is not decided by things such as your ‘preschool Turing Test’, but rather, by the relationship between the artwork and the society in which it is produced. What makes something art is how it is received, the impact it causes, things like that. There’s no objective property of artfulness that inheres in objects.

    Or take music. As far as art goes, it’s completely abstract—a capella music, at least. It’s ultimately just a bunch of noises, arranged in various ways so as to sound pleasing to the human ear—where those ways simply depend on our neural wiring. It’s not much different from paint drippings in that regard, safe that its appreciation is more universal—which probably has to do with the fact that we can perform fourier transforms on auditory stimuli, but not on visual ones, and thus, have an easier time categorizing the signals.

    Some harmonies sound good, just because they do—i.e. just because our brains are wired up that way. Similarly, some sets of paint drippings look good just because they do—even the most hardened modern art skeptic, who’d just thumb his nose at a Rothko, generally can appreciate the beauty of a sunset, but ultimately, that’s also just a certain way of arranging simple colors, not representative of anything.

    So that modern art is ‘really’ just paint drippings is simply not something you can validly claim—all you can say is that it’s just paint drippings to you. Which is just because you lack the context in which it’s not. You’re making a statement about yourself, not about art.

    I mean, it’s of course completely fair game to say that modern art doesn’t do anything for you. It’s likewise fair to say that social sciences don’t interest you. But claiming that hence there’s nothing to modern art, or that the social sciences are just so much empty verbiage, simply goes beyond what you are licensed to conclude from an outside view—it mistakes your particular and necessarily limited perspective on the world for its absolute horizon.

  149. Buck Says:

    somewhat related -in the aftermath of the Internet exploding over your comment back in Dec, you mentioned Laurie Penny and yourself might share a joint advice for nerds post. Is that still a possibility? Did I miss it somehow?

  150. anon Says:

    @scott #146: Can you actually upload some of Lily’s masterpieces? I feel like there are lots of us who’d enjoy it. 🙂

    @buck #149: see comment 8 at http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2458 from last AMA.
    Scott, I too would be very interested in seeing this post (I figure perhaps knowing that people are actually looking forward to reading it will help motivate you).

  151. Michael Gogins Says:

    I think the views expressed in these comments and implied by Scott are too simple.

    Obviously if you are not a human being and do not have the appropriate context, then a physical art object cannot have any artistic meaning or content. However, over time, history shows that those provided with the context will converge on their evaluation of specific objects. Analysis of those often enough reveals things that are objectively there. To some extent, these objective contents of art objects are structural (chord progressions, patterns of proportionality, narratives). To a larger extent they are harder to define. But to the extent they are structural, they have some of the same qualities as mathematical objects. Whatever objective reality mathematical objects have, then, can also be ascribed to art objects.

    The narrative contents of art objects have, in addition, a moral or ethical purport. To the extent that what is right has any kind of objective reality, the same can be said of the narrative content of art objects.

    Ultimately the question about any objective reality or content of art objects depends, therefore, on the questions whether what is right has any objectivity and whether mathematical objects have any objectivity, in the sense of “being there in the world to be discovered” as opposed to “not existing until constructed in human discourse.”

  152. quax Says:

    Scott #142, “… fish are pretty dumb.”

    This is very insensitive towards fish, it smacks of air-breatherism.

    Fortunately, psychology graduated from Freud to a data driven science these days, so it’s not just my gut feel that informs me that being white and male has its advantages (which BTW I unashamedly use to the fullest, while hoping the others will eventually catch up).

    Just a random sample of recent studies I came across.

    Discussing this without data makes it indeed a very boring subject, but I think good studies like that are quite interesting, and point to a way to improve the human condition without pulling anybody down. So, no I will not check my privileges at the door but rather ask them to be kindly extended to everybody.

  153. Another Max Says:

    It doesn’t take effort to fire off snide tweets. It’s much harder to calmly lay out a rebuttal to the thinking behind such comments, and to do so amidst the possibility of more public shaming. Thanks for another lucid post, Scott.

    Btw, I think Arthur Chu features in many people’s nightmares. Here’s a 30-second interview clip where his narcissism is on display:


    He mentions the possibility of lecturing on quantum physics, so perhaps there is common ground between you two!

  154. anonymous Says:

    @ quax, comment 152

    Studies that confirm racism still exists? Cool!

    But I must have missed the part where Scott denies the existence of racism…these studies certainly don’t address the thesis that jargon like “privilege” does more harm than good to discussions on racism, sexism, etc.

    But while we’re off topic again, can we talk more about lego sets and furnaces?

  155. JMD Says:

    I agree with your POV Scott 100%, however it strikes me that there is a test for whether words are empty jargon or… useful jargon and that is whether the science in question successfully builds on those words. In the case of “male privilege” a follow-up could be “so what?”. Assuming the root cause of this behavior is male privilege what course of action would that moniker imply? And would that same course of action be what you’d choose in EVERY instance where you’d also classify the behavior as being due to “male privilege”?

    My guess, FWIW, in regards to “male privilege” is “no”. The “male privilege” that leads to men beating women drivers in Arab/Islamic nations is different from the “male privilege” that “enabled” Professor Lewin. Different enough that different words ought to apply. it’s not a technical term that adds to precision it actually hinders precision.

    To drive the point home… when people kill other people we have at least 3 different words for this, “war”, “murder” and “genocide”. To remove “war” and “genocide” from our vocabulary and call them all “murder” is literally like saying the eradication of an entire race is no more heinous than the killing of a single individual.

  156. Jochen Says:

    Michael Gogins #151: Yes, many objects of art show certain mathematical regularities and other characteristics; however, the thing is that it’s not those regularities that are responsible for them being art. There’s no fundamental reason, nothing woven in the tapestry of the universe that decrees that, say, some particular rational relation is more beautiful than another—that’s just due to contingencies of the human auditory system. So it’s not the mathematical regularity that makes the piece of art, it’s that some things we judge as being pieces of art exhibit mathematical regularities.

    Even this, by the way, is not nearly a universal human judgement: Indian or Chinese scales use different harmonies than Western ones, to the extent that music from one cultural tradition can be grating to those raised within another.

    In all cases, thus, one has to include the recipient and her context in answering the question of whether something’s art. Pointing to the mathematical regularities and similar things just doesn’t cut it, and hence, the question of their objectivity has no bearing on the question of aesthetics.

    But really, this art discussion is a bit of a sidetrack. My point really was that one should always allow for the possibility—indeed, the fact—that one’s own assumptions, one’s context, doesn’t run the gamut of all possibilities, and that just because something seems to have no value to you, that doesn’t mean it has no value simpliciter, although of course that’s a very tempting assumption to make—after all, none of us can be an expert in every field; hence, a priori excluding large swaths of human endeavour as being without value leaves us with a slice of the world we can at least delude ourselves into believing to be manageable.

    But I think that’s a grave mistake, since it—implicitly at least—ends up writing off the works, and indeed lives, of a great number of people as being, in some sense, not worth the effort. By simply not making such a judgement, not only does one avoid building some spurious pedestal for whatever little endeavours one is engaged in oneself, at the expense of denigrating all others, but one also leaves open a great many roads of intellectual (or otherwise—maybe even gustatory, if one decides to become an oenophile) pursuit to perhaps follow in the future. But still, it seems very hard for most people to consider the possibility that maybe that stuff I don’t understand anything about and that seems honestly a bit weird and obscure and pointless is, in the end, just as much worth doing as what I’m doing. Hence, ‘science wars’ and all the attendant silliness.

  157. fred Says:

    Scott #147

    “But most modern art really is just paint drippings”

    Well, without any context, we can reduce anything to lumps of atoms!
    What’s important about modern art is how we got there.
    Medieval art looks like drawings from people who didn’t understand proper perspective.
    Once artists understood perspective, it opened new possibilities.
    Then at some point, there was a revolution in the representation of light, with the impressionists. Their stuff was controversial at the time.
    Then cubism abstracted the subject, etc etc.
    Eventually we reached a point where art became a critique of itself, and it all becomes so meta, and the value is purely based on context and hype.
    Each “revolution” can look trivial out of context. Most modern artists have a classical training and are totally capable of producing “picture perfect” 19th century style paintings, they just move on because its’ been explored to death and it doesn’t reflect the time they live in. True art is about saying something about the current times, otherwise it’s pointless mimicry of the past or a pure exercise in skills.
    Also, abstract art doesn’t mean that it’s random (even it can sometimes look this way), there are often subtle trade-offs of textures, composition, contrasts, colors, etc. Or it’s about energy, spontaneity…
    Btw, wouldn’t you agree that some child paintings are more appealing to you than others? (even if they all look childish)
    So it’s also about finding beauty in things, without over-analyzing how they got created.

  158. Consumatopia Says:

    “Maybe, instead of ideologues, these thinkers should strive to emulate the greatest novelists and playwrights, or Scott Alexander, all of whom switch at a dizzying pace between ideologies (today giving the best defense of libertarianism you ever read, tomorrow demolishing it).”

    That is indeed admirable, but keeping yourself fluent in multiple, overlapping kinds of theoretical jargon is very different from either forgoing the use of theory completely, or pretending that you can talk about morally significant things in morally neutral way.

    Privilege discourse is often misapplied, all too often to enhance or conceal power. But there is still a vital idea buried down in there: that one can benefit from forms of power and advantage while keeping yourself blissfully ignorant of them. It’s not the word “privilege” that makes this topic contentious, it’s that people with unjust advantages don’t want to discuss those advantages, or that people disagree about which kinds of power and advantage are more important to discuss in a given situation.

  159. Scott Says:

    Jochen #148:

      See, the assumption you’re using here is that art is in the artefact—i.e. that it’s in some way the object that decides whether something is art. This is a stance that’s known as physicalism in the philosophy of art, which doesn’t have much to do with physicalism as a metaphysical position, but merely asserts that you can decide what’s art and what’s not by looking at the object itself. But that’s not really a stance anybody still holds about art … all art is contextual; that is, whether something is art or not is not decided by things such as your ‘preschool Turing Test’, but rather, by the relationship between the artwork and the society in which it is produced. What makes something art is how it is received, the impact it causes, things like that. There’s no objective property of artfulness that inheres in objects.

    I sometimes wish I were shameless enough to think up crap like that myself!

    In some sense, all you’re saying is that yes, there is a difference between Lily’s paint-smearings and those of the acclaimed Jacques Pompousifé, but the difference doesn’t inhere in the works themselves, but rather in the fact that Lily’s pile up around my desk while Pompousifé’s sell for $5 million apiece. And that, if only Lily were capable of a sales patter like Pompousifé’s, she too could have a MoMA exhibition.

    But maybe I shouldn’t give up so easily? Suppose I became Lily’s “interpreter” and got her works exhibited at MoMA, by reminding the curators that physicalism isn’t really a stance anybody still holds about art. Would you then concede to me that Lily’s smearings had gained an artistic merit they’d previously lacked?

    You might reply that the modern artists are of course perfectly well-aware of the smug absurdity of all this, and that their work is meant as an ironic, sly, meta, self-referential, and indeed brain-exploding commentary on the absurdity itself—on the very fact that there are no standards for anything beyond those of a high-school popularity contest.

    If so, then I can’t improve on the answer Richard Dawkins gave in his review of Sokal and Bricmont’s book—he was talking about postmodernism, but the basic insight applies equally well to ironic art.

      But don’t the postmodernists claim only to be ‘playing games’? Isn’t the whole point of their philosophy that anything goes, there is no absolute truth, anything written has the same status as anything else, and no point of view is privileged? Given their own standards of relative truth, isn’t it rather unfair to take them to task for fooling around with word games, and playing little jokes on readers? Perhaps, but one is then left wondering why their writings are so stupefyingly boring. Shouldn’t games at least be entertaining, not po-faced, solemn and pretentious? More tellingly, if they are only joking, why do they react with such shrieks of dismay when somebody plays a joke at their expense?

    I.e., once you’ve admitted that the “value” of X can’t be defended by reference to anything in X itself, but only by reference to the status-signalling games that caused popular people to praise X, you then lose the right to complain if someone like me decides to join your fun game, by calling the popular people fraudulent windbags. You can’t even hold me to account (as you tried to) for “making a statement only about myself, and not about X,” because you haven’t said anything about X either.

    Incidentally, I’m in Austria right now, where I gave a talk yesterday at the wonderful new research institute IST. But I’m flying back to Boston tomorrow, and once I’m able (and by the request of anon #150), I might upload some of Lily’s masterpieces, so that everyone can see for themselves that in that case, the value of X really does inhere in the work.

  160. Scott Says:

    fred #157:

      What’s important about modern art is how we got there … Eventually we reached a point where art became a critique of itself, and it all becomes so meta, and the value is purely based on context and hype.

    If that was meant as a “rebuttal” to what I said, then I don’t need anyone to “agree” with me! (“Your honor, you claim my client is lying. The truth, however, is that he has a complex backstory, having gone through many other phases before he became the lying slimebucket you see today…”)

    I guess I’m more of an art-lover than the other participants in this discussion (with the possible exception of Michael Gogins), since I believe that there is still art produced in the last few decades that’s capable of inspiring straightforward awe, as the museums in Rome inspire awe. Some of that art, I believe, can be found in Pixar movies, Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda, cartoons like The Simpsons and Futurama, and other products whose basic motivations are to bring in the crowds and make a buck (i.e., the same motivations Shakespeare and Mozart had).

  161. Scott Says:

    Another Max #153:

      Here’s a 30-second interview clip where [Arthur Chu’s] narcissism is on display…

    And now I think I’m going to have more nightmares. 🙂

  162. Scott Says:

    Buck #149:

      you mentioned Laurie Penny and yourself might share a joint advice for nerds post. Is that still a possibility? Did I miss it somehow?

    It’s a-comin’! Maybe for the one-year “anniversary” of my comment. Sorry for the delay.

  163. FC Says:

    @quax – “But boy do I notice that privilege here in Canada, and even more so in the US. If you are white and male you belong to a club, extra bonus for suite and suitable middle age.”

    Really? I lived in Ontario for a year and a half, and Vancouver for three. Can’t say I ever was notified of my club membership. Then again, I was dirt poor, living hand to mouth, barely able to keep myself fed while working under the table as an illegal immigrant, none of which my skin-tone spared me of.

    If you want to claim privilege exists, fine. What are the units of measurement? What are the components? None of this naming a handful of cherry-picked phenomena in isolation. None of this binary privileged/disadvantaged nonsense. None of this determining privilege by group status. If you want to say that *I* am privileged, you need to compare *the life I have actually lived* to the society-wide average. Treating me as a spherical white man in a vacuum is entirely insufficient.

    Frankly, I’m pretty sure even getting a society-wide average is a pipe dream. The entire Social Justice project is built around the assumption that the infinite complexities of human life break down into neat, easily defined and quantifiable categories. It’s a pipe dream, and I think not many people are in the mood to play along.

  164. Steve Says:

    If you want to see an example of good social science debunking jargon-filled SJWs check out this paper from the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences

    Women in STEM have the wind at their booties!

  165. Scott Says:

    Addendum to #159: It occurs to me that the position Jochen is defending, is basically just “might makes right” as applied to art (in this case: “elite approval makes a paint smear a masterpiece”). This seems hugely ironic, given the overlap between modern art lovers and SJWs, and the fact that if there’s anything SJWs should be against, it’s anything even vaguely similar to “might makes right.”

  166. Aaron Says:

    You are such a good writer and logical thinker. It’s a shame you’ve chosen to apply those Jedi powers to computational complexity, where the class separation questions defining the field might never be answered, just as Newton’s alchemy must have carried a huge opportunity cost for society.

  167. Haelfix Says:

    There should be a privilege computer who’s task is to go through each individuals life and to selectively decompile each decision or sets of decisions given the context they are in (which obviously depends on everything else as well). Yes, you might have successfully gotten that job, but you did so only b/c your interviewer had a subconscious bias for tall attractive auburn haired men between the age of 20-35, so we subtract a few points from your life score b/c of that random privilege.

    Perhaps, if we believe in central planning, we can then instruct an algorithm to then reallocate funds/placements/material possessions to more fully fit a certain fairness algorithm that takes in all humans and their experiences as inputs, and then performs a global optimization fit.

    What could go wrong?

  168. quax Says:

    FC #163, there are many white, male homeless people in the GTA, obviously their club membership has been put on hold until appearances can be restored. It is of course all about appearances and class.

    If you are stuck at the bottom of the economic pile your life will suck regardless, but tell me in all honesty, everything being equal, will a first-nation guy be treated the same way that you are?

    Ironically, I find after moving up here, that while Canada avoided the genocidal push into the West that made the Eastern US native American free, that 1st nation people seem to face much more prejudice than any other minority.

  169. quax Says:

    anon #154

    “But while we’re off topic again, can we talk more about lego sets and furnaces?”

    Sure buddy, stop by my house any time and I’ll show you my furnace.

  170. quax Says:

    FC #163 missed that on the first pass, what in the world does a white dude do as an illegal immigrant in Canada? I mean until recently before the oil price collapsed, if you could hold a hammer there would have been a job for you with a temp work permit in the oil patch.

  171. Gil Kalai Says:

    Personally, I find modern art very exciting and moving; one of (my) life’s greatest pleasures. So image-google of “paintings in moma” or “art in moma,” or “modern art” bring many precious images and memories.

  172. Josh F Says:

    I’m sympathetic to your point on art but feel like you’re overselling it. Art, almost always, is inherently contextual and needs to be viewed in the lense of the period it’s in. This doesn’t apply only or especially to post-modern art. Swift’s eating irish children would be far less lauded or interesting if it wasn’t for anti-irish prejudice existing. Orwell’s fiction is far more interesting given the historical context than it would be otherwise. “Ice Ice Baby” is a substantially worse song because of the existence of under pressure. Art being valuable is at least, and honestly probably more, context dependent than a scientific advance being important. (Terry Tao’s recent work on bounded prime gaps is less important than Zhang’s even though it gets better results). I’m not sure if you disagree with any of this but it seems very silly to expect us to analyze art ignoring all relevant context.

  173. Jochen Says:

    Scott #148: That’s a perfect example of the intellectual arrogance I’m talking about. Not only do you claim for yourself the necessary insight to call what I’ve said crap—which it of course well might be—, no, you hold yourself to be so high above any modern art lover, artist and critic that you alone are able to see through their (self?-)deception, and point out that it’s really all just some meta-ironic, self-absorbed sham.

    That’s particularly depressing coming from a self-avowed rationalist such as you. Just recently, you’ve bemoaned the lack of ‘Aumannian conversations’ in the real world—yet when faced with ideas going against your core beliefs, do you engage them? Do you consider their value, weighing it against your own convictions? No, you just double down and resort to cheap rhetoric, calling your opponent ‘shameless’ for even holding such views.

    I’ve given you simple examples to attempt to build some kind of bridge between our viewpoints, and degrees of expertise—I’ve pointed out how music, despite being just as abstract as sets of paint drippings, nevertheless enjoys near universal appeal due to the contingencies of human neural wiring, and given an example of how we can see beauty in what is in effect just a simple arrangement of colors, i.e. a sunset.

    But you race right past that, swatting it all away to try and tar me with views that nobody could reasonably infer from what I wrote. It’s not that some art manages to sell for high sums that makes it great art, anymore than the fact that a bank CEO gets a huge bonus makes him a great CEO. It’s also not the fact that it gets into MoMA (although of course that—like almost everything else—may play a part in the context: just think of Duchamp’s found art, for instance—it’s the act of removing some ordinary thing, like a urinal, from its usual context and imbuing it with a novel one that creates the artwork; indeed, it’s art precisely because it highlights art’s contextuality).

  174. Jochen Says:

    Art is at least as objective as, say, the value of money, or other social constructions. There’s no fact in the world that makes that particular bit of paper ‘worth’ some quantity of milk, or some other good or service. But within the context of our society, you can indeed use certain papers as a means of exchange of goods and services. So here’s an X whose value can’t be defined in reference to anything within X, but which we still continue to successfully treat as valuable.

    Most valuations are ultimately of this kind. They’re judgments, one way or another, not facts of the universe. That men are sexually aroused by breasts, for instance, is not due to the simple inherent sexiness of breasts, but due to the hormonal reactions caused by the stimulus. Thinking otherwise betrays a certain naive essentialism.

  175. Jochen Says:

    (Again, sorry for the multi-comments. Is there some length restriction or something? Some formatting I’m getting wrong? Spam-filter I’m flagging? I’ve got no clue why some of this posts without problems, and the rest just doesn’t appear…)

  176. Jochen Says:

    Would you really claim that, say, if you liked celery and somebody else didn’t, there’s an objective fact of the matter as to who’s right? That there’s an objective ‘tastiness’ inherent in the thing, that you either detect or fail to (or convince yourself to detect even though it’s not really there)?

    There’s additional, biological determinants of our aesthetical judgements. Paintings in the most subtle arrangements of ultraviolet hues won’t do anything for us. But of course, things go beyond that: Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight presents a fascinating analysis of how expressionism, particularly in its depictions of the human form, plays into biases in perception ultimately dictated by our neuronal wiring (and with a heaping helping of Freud, too!). You could do a lot worse than checking it out.

    So I’m nowhere near advocating that ‘might makes right’. Nor am I saying anything about the allegedly postmodern self-awareness of art, and whatnot (although it’s always entertaining to see Dawkins railing against things he doesn’t understand and that frighten and confuse him and make him angry). I am saying that art is a judgement, that it doesn’t inhere in the object; but as I hope is somewhat more clear now, that sort of situation isn’t limited to art, but rather pretty much ubiquitous, and in particular, it doesn’t imply fraudulence of the art world at large.

    It’s just that some people genuinely get something out of looking at those canvasses full of paint drippings, in the same way some people get something out of listening to sequences of sounds. That this doesn’t seem to work for you (but, have you ever tried? Ever been to a gallery, and look at a Pollock or a Rothko in all its details?) doesn’t mean they’re all just deluded, or lying, or snobby elitists trying to scam the public.

    You consider yourself more of an art-lover than any other participants in this discussion; I say that whenever one thinks ‘apparently, I’m the only one who gets it right’, that’s the first indication that one doesn’t. You might be convinced that the left side of the street is the wrong one to drive on even in Great Britain, but you’d be quickly disabused of the notion; likewise, you might be convinced that you and only you can decide on which facets of human endeavour are worthwhile and which aren’t—but sometimes, it’s not everybody else, it’s you who’s wrong.

  177. sf Says:

    Here’s an interesting reminder, just out, of how theory meets reality in concrete situations, – “not for the squeamish”, it warns.


  178. Scott Says:

    Josh #172: “Context-dependence” is one of those “insights” from the modern art world that I could never have come up with myself—not because it’s too mind-blowingly deep, but because it’s too trivial. To someone with a scientific temperament, it doesn’t need to be explained that a visitor from Planet Zorkulon would need some context to appreciate Shakespeare (hell, even most humans today need context). It’s interesting to speculate about whether humans have produced any visual art or music that the Zorkulonian wouldn’t need special context to appreciate as we do—whether, for example, convergent evolution would’ve made it and us respond in similar ways to the same abstract patterns. But that’s ultimately an empirical question, and of course it’s possible that the answer is no.

    Likewise, you can hardly ever judge the value of a scientific paper without being steeped in the context of all the related papers—as someone who reviews at least a hundred papers a year, believe me that I know that! But even then, the reviewer still faces the question: given the context, what does this paper itself do that’s new, interesting, non-obvious, and correct? what is in here a random freshman couldn’t have done, or would never have thought to do? And one always tries to evaluate the paper in a way that’s completely independent of the author’s identity and reputation—if the author’s identity does play a role, the reviewer is never proud of that fact.

    in science, in other words, the only acceptable responses to “my 2-year-old could do that” are

    (a) “no she couldn’t, you moron,”
    (b) “I hereby withdraw my work in embarrassment,” or
    (c) “that’s the most impressive 2-year-old in the history of the world—can I offer her a postdoc in my group?”

    One wouldn’t even think to reply with

    (d) “oh, you didn’t get the memo? physicalism is not really a stance anybody still holds about science.”

  179. Scott Says:

    Jochen #176: You whine about how I straw-manned your position by saying it reduces art to a popularity contest, yet you then once again revert to popularity to criticize me (“whenever one thinks ‘apparently, I’m the only one who gets it right’, that’s the first indication that one doesn’t … sometimes, it’s not everybody else, it’s you who’s wrong.”) You even compare appreciating modern art to valuing paper money, or driving on the left or right side of the road (and to you, that’s a positive for modern art!). Why can’t I just get with the social convention, and claim to see value in things because all these other people claim to see it?

    But here’s the real irony: if popularity is the criterion, then there are way more people who like Pixar movies and Nintendo games than who like Mark Rothko. Yes, I do “set myself above” certain people, but only those who construct their entire identities around otherwise-empty status-signaling games meant to set themselves above everyone else.

    Yes, one person liking celery and another not is just taste, or in this case, “taste for lack of taste” (in the case of brussels sprouts, we even know the exact alleles involved in some people, like me, loving them, while others hate them). On the other hand, if, hypothetically, there were a huge, pretentious community that claimed to detect subtle “undertones” and “essences” in fermented grape juice that mere mortals like me were completely oblivious to—and yet, in blind tastings, the members of that community often couldn’t even tell white wine from red, or a $10 bottle from a $1000 one—then yes, words like “fraudulent” and “status-signaling” would start to seem as appropriate as they are in the cases of postmodern writing and modern art.

    My Aumannian reference class consists of every other person, everywhere on earth, who’s done something to show that they care about rationality and truth, rather than only about the status-signalling games that consume so much of the world. Understanding some nontrivial math and science, or doing them, are some of the harder-to-fake signs of a commitment to truth, though not the only ones possible. There are some easy tells of a know-nothing status-signaler: for example, the instant someone describes Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker using words like “childish” or “simplistic,” I no longer care about reaching Aumannian agreement with that person.

  180. Jochen Says:

    “Context-dependence” is one of those “insights” from the modern art world that I could never have come up with myself—not because it’s too mind-blowingly deep, but because it’s too trivial.

    And yet, you still purport to be able to settle questions about what is and what isn’t art in the absolute, and claim the authority to declare somebody like Gil Kalai above, or myself, to be just wrong when we say that we appreciate, even love, modern art. But consider the analogy to scientific paper reviewing you made: of course, first of all, art isn’t science, and shouldn’t be judged in the same way. But, setting that aside, you’re an expert in the field in which you do the reviewing; you’re able to survey the context, and draw conclusions based on that.

    However, you’re not an expert when it comes to art. There, an art critic does much the same thing you do when reviewing papers, because he knows the context, history etc. well enough to survey it. Consider now the art critic faced with the task of reviewing your stack of papers. Do you think he’d have any hope in hell of separating the wheat from the chaff?

    Yet you claim for yourself to be not merely as good as, but actually better than the art critic at his job: after all, he’s just deluded into thinking that some paint splatters on canvas might actually be a valuable work, while you see straight through to the heart of the matter and expose it as the fraud that it is. And you didn’t even have to go through the years of study the critic underwent! You think a two year old making the MoMA exhibition would be impressive, but I think this is a far greater achievement.

    Of course, the ‘my kid could paint that’ argument is at this point very well rehearsed and tired. No art critic could ever come up with it, not because it’s such a great criterion, but because it’s trivially wrong.

    For instance, it relies on the assumptions that what you see in a modern artwork is all there is to see, such that you can make a faithful comparison with your daughter’s artwork. That’s generally not the case: the rules of color and composition are not immediately evident to most people. So just because you think ‘my kid could paint that’ doesn’t mean it’s so—again, you’re like the art critic judging science papers, being unable to tell a valid calculation from some random jumble of symbols obtained from finitely many monkeys typing a short time. But that’s not because there’s no difference—it’s merely his lack of expertise that makes him think so.

    Additionally, there’s an assumption that everything a two-year-old could come up with is simple, and that simple things can’t be great art. That’s also not the case. Consider a simple, but delicious recipe—something that, well, maybe not a two year old, but a five year old might prepare. Does its simplicity in any way preclude its deliciousness? No, of course not. If it tastes good, it simply tastes good. The only thing you’d accomplish by revealing to your guests that, a-ha, actually your daughter cooked their meal, would be their bemused bewilderment; but it wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) cause any sudden changes in their judgment of whether they enjoyed it or not. Nobody’s going to jump up, throw down their napkin in disgust, exclaiming ‘Well, then I suppose it didn’t taste good after all!’. But for some reason, that’s just what you expect should happen after you announce ‘my kid could paint that’.

  181. Jochen Says:

    But here’s the real irony: if popularity is the criterion, then there are way more people who like Pixar movies and Nintendo games than who like Mark Rothko.

    And there are also many more people that don’t give a rat’s ass about complexity theory than those who do.

    I’m not advocating a popularity contest: I’m merely saying that whether or not something is art is a judgment (in every case, even in the ‘uncontroversial’ ones of the Mona Lisa etc.), i.e. not something you could absolutely decree. I had hoped to have mad it clear that I consider judgments of people who have actually spent some time studying their subject matter, but apparently, I didn’t.

    Anyway, this whole thing is pointless: anybody who is only interested in Aumannian conversations with people who share a predefined set of preconceived judgments with them, isn’t interested in Aumannian conversations at all. It’s all good, as long as it converges to a viewpoint you already held anyway.

    You go on railing against postmodernism and modern art; me, I go on going to the art museums on weekends. All in all, I don’t really care that you consider my appreciation of this art to be ‘wrong’. I had hoped for a bit more open-mindedness in somebody so vocal about impartial, rational debate, but well, I guess the signpost rarely goes the way he points.

  182. Scott Says:

    Aaron #166:

      You are such a good writer and logical thinker. It’s a shame you’ve chosen to apply those Jedi powers to computational complexity, where the class separation questions defining the field might never be answered, just as Newton’s alchemy must have carried a huge opportunity cost for society.

    Thank you very much for that, but it’s a misconception to imagine that theoretical computer science research just hangs in the air, waiting for an eventual proof of P≠NP to make what we do worthwhile. (More controversially, but equally truly: quantum computing theory doesn’t hang in the air, waiting for scalable QCs to be built to validate the field’s intellectual worth.)

    Sure, a proof of P=NP would make a significant fraction of what we do (not all of it) superfluous, but a proof of P≠NP would just be a crowning achievement for a field that had achieved countless other great things in the meanwhile. (Like, I dunno, the invention of public-key cryptography?)

    On the other hand, if all the time I’ve spent on complexity theory is a complete waste, then that certainly makes me feel better about the time I spend arguing in blog threads like this one! 😉

    Incidentally, I don’t know if it’s true that Newton spending so much time on alchemy imposed a huge opportunity cost on the world. What he did do was enough, as it turned out, to get modern science started, and in such a robust way that whatever problems he left open, just gave all the more opportunity for other enterprising people to make their names. I wish more that, for the sake of Newton’s own happiness, he’d devoted some of his alchemy hours to learning how to interact romantically (unless you believe the speculation that he had a secret homosexual life, in which case good for him for not getting caught!).

  183. Scott Says:

    Gil #171: You and I disagree about so many things that if you had disliked modern art, that would’ve made me worried that maybe I was wrong to dislike a lot of it too!

  184. Ben Bevan Says:

    xkcd says it best:

  185. Jochen Says:

    And to put my argument in some more respectable empiricist clothing, some data points indicating that no, your kid couldn’t paint that:

    1. When people are presented with abstract art and superficially similar works produced by children, chimps, or elephants, they prefer the work by an accredited artist a significant fraction of the time (67%). This holds for both trained and untrained groups of observers (art vs. psychology students in this particular case). If the works of art were labeled, as ‘artist’, ‘child’, ‘monkey’, or ‘elephant’, even if these labels were switched around, the art students still preferred the original paintings. Link to study.

    2. In fact, the differentiation appears to be made because people (subconsciously—there’s that Freud bugger again!) see more than they think they see in the original artworks. In this study, untrained observers were able to tell original art from fakes, and furthermore, accorded the original paintings significantly higher scores along certain criteria (such as intentionality and structure) than to the fake ones—despite not even being aware of the fact that some of the pictures were genuine, while others weren’t. Thus, it might be the case that it’s those criteria which showed a significant difference between genuine/fake paintings (not all of them did) that underlie aesthetic value judgments.

    3. In fact, apart from the explicit task of identifying artist’s pictures, it’s also apparently the case that when measuring criteria like gaze fixation and pupil dilation in response to questions about quality of and preference for some putative work of art, the original artworks score higher than the fakes. Study here.

    4. Now for something your kid can do: tell the difference between genuine abstract art, and fakes. Intriguingly, however, children apparently tend to prefer art from other children/from animals! Still, however, this indicates that there’s a difference there that’s even appreciable at an early age (4-7 years for the younger age group). For some reason, however, aesthetic preferences seem to change with maturity—perhaps not that great a surprise, though. Study here.

    That’s of course just a very small sampling, and on the whole, I’d say that more research still is necessary. Also, one should be somewhat weary of assessing art under laboratory testing condition: after all, art isn’t typically viewed on a small LCD monitor in an office environment, but in the carefully designed spaces of museums and galleries. (Context matters.) And there’s a huge difference between seeing one of Pollock’s giant canvasses in person, and on a computer screen. But still, if anything, that only makes these results more impressive.

  186. Vadim Says:

    Scott, I have nothing of value to add to this discussion, but since people are likelier to post when they disagree than when they agree, I just want to counter some of the disagreement by saying that I profoundly agree with your post. I see the kind of clique behavior in some (but thankfully not a majority of) “social justice activists” I know: always-changing verbiage, an air of exclusivity, and a tendency to get defensive and downright belligerent when outsiders try to – in good faith – ask questions. While I suspect that for some of them the cliqueness is the whole point, I think others get dragged along as a result of boredom with the sometimes uneven, often glacial pace of social progress. I bet creating these psuedo-intellectual structures and changing them from time to time almost feels like moving forward. Empty calories for the mind.

  187. Consumatopia Says:


    Yes, you might have successfully gotten that job, but you did so only b/c your interviewer had a subconscious bias for tall attractive auburn haired men between the age of 20-35, so we subtract a few points from your life score b/c of that random privilege.

    You have unwittingly pointed to exactly why privilege is an utterly necessary concept. Because without it, we’ll assume that successful people deserve their success, and therefore unsuccessful people deserve their failure. As long as we talk about things like “merit”, “earned”, or “deserved”, we also have to talk about “privilege”. You can’t take credit for the good without being responsible for the bad.

    “Privilege” mostly just means “unearned advantage”. I don’t want to live in a society in which we assume that all existing advantages have been justly earned.

  188. Scott Says:

    Does everyone else see what Jochen just did? Initially, he rejected the “preschool Turing Test” as completely irrelevant and wrongheaded, rooted in the discredited dogma of “physicalism” (i.e., that if something is good, it should be because of some actual qualities that it has). Now, turning around, he implicitly accepts the test after all, giving empirical data to show that people (albeit not children) prefer “real” modern art over the paint-smearings of children, chimps, and elephants as often as two-thirds of the time! Two-thirds: the modern art world should feel proud of such a strong showing against the pachyderms, and can hold its head high against Michaelangelo on that basis.

    But, OK, since I’m once again getting bored of this topic, and feeling generous, and my flight is about to take off, let me bend over backwards as far as I honestly can. Yes, I’ve been dragged to plenty of modern art museums (hours I’ll never get back, though wisecracking about each piece does help pass the time). And while a lot of the stuff DOES fail the preschool Turing test (and I stand by everything I said about the pomposity of such “work,” and anti-stand-by everything Jochen said defending it), other stuff took obvious technical skill to build and is sometimes even striking and interesting. Even if such art is not to my personal taste, I would never begrudge someone else for liking it. So, I will grant Jochen that the enjoyment he derives from visiting modern art galleries on the weekends sounds genuine (just please don’t take me with! 🙂 ). I’m guessing, though I could be wrong, that that enjoyment derives more from the works that took actual technical skill than from the ones that didn’t.

  189. Scott Says:

    Incidentally, Jochen: it’s true that far more people like (claim to like?) modern art, than will ever give a rat’s ass about theoretical computer science. But the difference is, I would never dream of trying to defend a trivial TCS paper because of who its author was, or “how it was received, that sort of thing.” (Again, I might be subconsciously influenced by these factors, but I’d certainly never be proud of it.) I.e., I’d be clear from the beginning that the paper DOES have an intrinsic value or lack of value relative to the papers that came before it, and that the views of experts are relevant insofar as they help us ascertain that value.

  190. Michael Gogins Says:

    Jochen 185, Scott 188:

    Scott, you are correct about Jochen’s equivocation. But if you grant any kind of “physicalism” or as I would prefer “objectivity” to artistic quality, two things follow.

    First if one art object can have higher objective quality than another, then discovering what is art and what is good art is, trivially, not completely context-dependent and not completely subjective.

    From which it follows that I suspect you are just missing the boat, haven’t given yourself a chance, to appreciate abstract painting. Just as with mathematics, the objective content is not necessarily easy or trivial, and I think that’s particularly true with abstract art.

    In my own life and in biographies of artists and critics, it’s clear that it can take some learning to “get” works or styles of art. In my case, although I listened to Mozart for years, I didn’t enjoy a note of it until I had seriously tried to play some. Then I “got” it and have been enjoying it ever since.

  191. Douglas Knight Says:

    Scott, why do you call them SJWs if not to claim that they hold might makes right?

    Scott, surely you do not take a purely populist approach to art? Surely, as with morality, you take an eigenvalue approach? That is, while art critics are frauds, the people at Pixar and Nintendo who create popular art have something to tell you about art. But I have no idea about their taste. (Hey! This is what google finds searching for “art” on your blog.)

    Have you seen the documentaries My Kid Could Paint That and Exit Through the Gift Shop?

  192. Jay Says:

    At the risk of oversampling those who disagree, let me say my global discomfort with the way you engage these kinds of discussions. My problem is not with what you aim at -specifically, I agree social sciences are in need to fix some of their practices. The problem is that, unless one already share your positions and prior knowledge almost exactly, the argumentation hardly looks as from a truth seeker. More often that I’d be comfortable with, it looks as uninformed comment from someone who would refuse to modify his perspective irrespective of novel information.

    Two specifics examples for “sounds uninformed”:

    -Freud’s ideas led “only” to (…) hundreds of innocent people sent to jail because of testimony procured through hypnosis

    One of the reason Freud advocates psychoanalysis (see for example his most famous book “Introduction to psychanalysis”) is because he thought that *hypnosis was not reliable*. We can discuss and I’d agree that Freud had some bad influence on the scientifical practices in psychology (although more in France than in USA, the only country where false memories turned epidemics in courts), but to charge him for bad use of hypnosis… do you realise how complete non sense this sounds to anyone who actually read some of his writings?

    -Karl Marx spent his whole life advocating violent revolution

    Again we can agree that Marx had a very bad influence -to say the least- on many of those who tried to apply his political ideas. But that’s not enough to make this sentence true. Marx wrote maybe ten pages on politics, and about ten thousands pages on pure economic (and that’s the work for which he is still respected in economics, even as of today). That the former impacted everyone… yeah sure. But that’s not what you wrote. What you wrote is that he spent his whole life advocating revolution. This is just *wrong* and a strong indication that you are making a basic confusion between Marx the economist and Marxism the political movement.

    In a way, these exemples sounds a bit as when Sokal decided to publish first in France, likely because he didn’t know that “french theory” was american, with no root nor impact in France! Of course he had a point, but to be such ill-informed probably didn’t help for those who were both fully aware of the trivial mistakes and not already convinced there was actually a problem in need to be fixed.

    Now two specifics exemples for “sounds not from a truth seeker”:


    … to lazy to find and copy&paste from the ancient post we discussed it, but the story was that Kuhn opposed interpreting his own work as support for relativism -contrary to a popular belief, and contrary to *your* belief. But when I point the Standford encyclopedia you said that yes, you already read that information using the very same source, but it didn’t make you change your mind that Kuhn was supporting relativism. It made you *more* confident that your own opinion was the right one. Good luck interpreting that as truth seeking…

    -the instant someone [hold some belief] I no longer care at all about reaching Aumannian agreement with that person.

    Let’s go back to Aumann 1976: “people may be biased because [they] disregard information that is unpleasant or *does not conform to previously formed notions*”. Yes… holding your position is one of the very first reason discussed by Aumann as to why rationnal agreement usually fail to occur.

    I realized the whole thing might sound harsher than what I intended, so last one just to finish on a lighter tone.

    -You and I disagree about so many things that if you had disliked modern art, that would’ve made me worried that maybe I was wrong to dislike a lot of it too!

    Gil’d agree that I was not alien abducted and my mind replaced by an upload of Marx. But I swear, I’m not Marx! 🙂

  193. Anonymous85 Says:

    Scott, just to be clear, do you enjoy art that’s NOT modern art, and that your two-year-old definitely couldn’t reproduce (e.g. Van Gogh)?

    Because if you don’t, it might mean that museum-type art just isn’t to your taste, whether it’s modern or not.

    Anyway, I agree with you that the 2-year-old Turing test is an important bullshit filter. I just think that over half the stuff in MoMA passes that test easily (some stuff might have some trouble passing, so I accept that it should be thrown out).

  194. Jochen Says:

    Scott, no, that’s not what I did. I made this argument:

    [Your assertion that ‘my kid could paint that’] relies on the assumptions that what you see in a modern artwork is all there is to see, such that you can make a faithful comparison with your daughter’s artwork. That’s generally not the case: the rules of color and composition are not immediately evident to most people. So just because you think ‘my kid could paint that’ doesn’t mean it’s so…

    Then I supported the point that your kid probably couldn’t paint that with a couple of studies as cites. This doesn’t in any sense require me to implicitly agree with the ‘preschool Turing Test’.

    I also made the argument (by which I stand) that the whole ‘my kid could paint that, so it’s crap’-thing is a stupid way of gauging the value of an art piece. So in sum, I’m merely saying that even if your kid could paint that, it wouldn’t do anything to discredit a piece of art (anymore than it would ruin the taste of a good meal if your kid could cook it), even if it were true; and I further showed that it’s also not true that your kid could paint that. Two separate, but entirely mutually consistent arguments.

    I.e., I’d be clear from the beginning that the paper DOES have an intrinsic value or lack of value relative to the papers that came before it, and that the views of experts are relevant insofar as they help us ascertain that value.

    And that’s completely fine. However, in order to make that judgment, you need to have the expertise to put it in its proper context. With art, you lack that expertise, yet still consider yourself to be able to make judgments even overriding those of people who do possess it. Is this really a stance you want to hold?

  195. Jochen Says:

    And regarding the two-thirds figure: how high do you believe the success rate of random members of the public would be on arXiv vs. snarXiv, or more generally on telling apart nonsense papers and genuine physics?

  196. David Says:


    I mostly agree with most of what you say. We had this subject “Marxism” and “Scientific communism” at no less than Technical University in Prague (otherwise relatively respectable institution), back in the communist times. Even back then, without any exposure to contemporary philosophical thinking, economic science etc, I remember thinking “oh what pile of crap”. The idea of “new”, enlightened people changing their nature somehow and becoming much more altruistic, uninterested in social status, happy to work for free for the common good – and in the same time seeing the feeble attempt (by the ruling Communist Party) at the same thing in real life – made the whole thing a (bitterly) laughing matter. Don’t know much about Freud, but I have this similar skeptical gut feeling when I hear words like microagression, privilege, etc. – I always think “problems of rich bored people, who have plenty to eat and nice place to live in”. At least, whoever coined the “privilege” had probably astronomical privilege herself compared to at least 90% of global population. “Underprivileged” makes a bit more sense to me: we can maybe think who is the first to be helped. “Privileged” though, sounds like a label for people we would like to push down a little bit, or use as a stepping stone for some sophisticated way of self elevation. In any case, having spent half of my life under “communism” and its newspeak and doublespeak, and the other half under some quite fluid conditions resulting in passable market economy and democracy, I have, I believe, developed some kind of sensitive bullshit detector. And it rings quite often.
    I have a point about modern art too, but save it for later…

  197. anon Says:

    Scott #188: 2/3 of the time?
    You might want to invent a new complexity class for the algorithms running in the brains of those people 😉
    Following BPP, BPQ….what about BMA (bounded modern art?)…

  198. Lou Scheffer Says:

    Jochen #185 says “When people are presented with abstract art and superficially similar works produced by children, chimps, or elephants, they prefer the work by an accredited artist a significant fraction of the time (67%). This holds for both trained and untrained groups of observers (art vs. psychology students in this particular case). ”

    It is perhaps plausible that at least some desirability is “built in”. There are some recent experiments where blind adults are operated on, allowing them to see for the first time. It takes them months to see faces, interpret objects in 3D, connect appearance and shape, and so on, but there are a few optical illusions that work right out of the box, so to speak. So some basic processing seems to arise from the initial wiring, then experience adds on that. Similarly, though without proof, I’d not be surprised if some visual patterns are more pleasing than others, even to the naive untrained human neural hardware. Study is http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25942545

  199. amy Says:

    Hey Scott (I’ll reply to real email in a little!) — about all the Jochen stuff — he’s right, and you’re making Izabella sound good (and wandering into Dawkins-on-aesthetics territory).

    The kind of stuff he’s talking about isn’t any fun at all to read, unless you’ve got a compromised sense of fun, and a lot of it’s written by droolers who have to put out papers. Same as in any discipline. But the people who have eyes and an understanding of both what they’re looking at and the history of what they’re looking at often talk that way amongst themselves (largely because nobody else cares).

    I did a lot of my growing up at MoMA and the Whitney. A little at the Met, more at the Musee d’Art ancien in Brussels, hiding out from my course. And the Tate got a piece of me, too, with a Francis Bacon show when I’d never heard of him. I skipped classes all through school and went to galleries, sometimes to draw, sometimes to look. I know perfectly well that most people don’t see paintings well, and I don’t care. They aren’t painted for those people. I also know that it took me ten years of wandering around in these galleries to understand what I was looking at — not reading and being told what to see, just looking — and no, it isn’t a dull and elaborate joke or hoax. It’s actually art. The ideas about art that Jochen discusses up there — about its contextual existence – are important partly because of ideas that came before and were influential for a long time, about how art exists in the world, what it is, what an artist is; they’re arguments and they happen to be important in making art as well as looking at it. One of the things you discover in making art is that it’s not unlike trying to write history — whether or not you like it, your work is full of other people’s ideas, so you’d better know what they are. And that makes for a long difficult student time of being hyperaware of the influences and trying to escape them, and eventually you relax and figure it out.

    The point is, though, you don’t have to read art criticism for art critics and artists. You can read art critics for people not in the business. Some are good. Or you can skip it altogether and just look at the stuff. You don’t even have to do that.

    I have no idea why some people can see this stuff and some can’t (and I don’t really care about that, either). I do know that plenty of people get drawn to it for reasons that aren’t really about the paintings or sculptures themselves, and I know that because now and then I’ll get into some animated art conversation with someone I know to be into the stuff somehow in a pro or semi-pro way, and the person will respond to something I say like I hit them with a board. And they’ll say, “You saw that.” Until then it won’t have occurred to me that they hadn’t noticed whatever it is in some piece of art, but it turns out that whatever it is is something Bigtime Art Critics talk about, and they figured it was baloney or something only Bigtime Art Critics could see. And there’s me wandering in off the street and I say, “Yeah, of course.” And then they get really despondent, and we change the subject. Which I think is a shame, because I see no more value in seeing and understanding that stuff than I do in seeing and understanding why bratwurst are magnificent. (I don’t.) Ftr, yes, I can taste structure and complexity in wine, too, though the nicest thing I ever tasted was an old Armagnac, a 1974 Boignieres. I didn’t know what that was until I had that stuff in my mouth and then went crazy trying to find out what it was and where I could get more. Answer: I couldn’t. It’ll just haunt me forever. Anyway. If you can’t taste the stuff, then what’s so bad? You can be happy drinking cheap, terrible wine.

    (For others who can taste the stuff: Highly recommend anything coming from a Willamette Valley producer called Illahe. I was totally skeptical because it bills itself as organic and usually that means the wine is crap. But they’re beautiful wines and not hideously expensive.)

    Anyway. Art you can take or leave, usually, unless you absolutely must hang around with artists. Questions of privilege and social-science talk are much harder to take or leave, and I had a whole thing about that, but I took it out because this is already very long and I really care more about the art, in the end.

  200. Jochen Says:

    Lou (#199), yes, I think that’s an important part of the picture. In fact, it’s the point of origin for the modern programme of neuroaesthetics, which I think has provided some important insight into why we like what we like. Now, I don’t think it’s the complete picture, but that’s a discussion for another day.

    Basically, what the ‘modern art is just paint drippings’-offenderati are missing is that, by the same token, many works of art they hold dear can be described as ‘just x’. Music, for instance, is just noises—there’s nothing inherent to one set of three frequencies in some particular relationship that makes it objectively ‘pleasant’, while another set of three frequencies in a different relationship is objectively ‘unpleasant’. Had our neural wiring turned out differently, we might just as well prefer the latter to the former chord. Hence, looking for the value of art in some objective quality of the object at the very least can’t give you the whole story, because it fails to explain that the first chord sounds pleasant, but the second doesn’t, as it’s not due to any property of the actual sounds that this is the case.

    And once this simple point is appreciated, the bottom falls out of the ‘just paint drippings’-argument. To not see that is to hold a very strong idelogical commitment to the condemnation of modern art, and to deliberately ignore conflicting points.

  201. Scott Says:

    OK, I’ve made a decision: no more comments in this thread about modern art. I’ll probably have a future post about it (featuring some of Lily’s works), but I’d like to bring this thread back to the brands of pompous obscurantism that sometimes make truth-claims about the world.

    It was Jochen, not me, who first brought modern art into this discussion, and I should never have taken the bait. Not because I feel like I said anything wrong, but simply because the subject isn’t nearly as interesting to me as it is to others, so I’ll never be able to muster enough emotional energy properly to answer everyone who feels strongly about this.

    Again and again, Jochen points out that I wouldn’t tolerate an art critic dismissing theoretical computer science papers because he didn’t understand them—so why do I presume to judge modern art? The answer takes us back to my point in the original post, about the fundamental asymmetry between the hard sciences and everything else.

    In the hard sciences, we’re trying to establish objective truth or falsehood about matters that are typically far removed from everyday human experience. So of course we need specialized language and notation to do that, of course it takes a while to learn (though, yes, scientists sometimes make things even harder than they have to be, and I rail against that whenever I see it).

    By contrast, I don’t recognize that there’s a need in the world for arts and humanities that can only be appreciated by experts. Of course there can and should be a thousand genres of art for a thousand tastes. But all art, presumably, should hit emotional buttons that every normal human being has installed. It’s one thing if 99% of viewers look at your sculpture and say, “this doesn’t do it for me”; another entirely if they say, “one would have to study for decades to understand how it’s possible for this to do anything for anyone.”

    Anonymous85 #193 asks perceptively:

      just to be clear, do you enjoy art that’s NOT modern art, and that your two-year-old definitely couldn’t reproduce (e.g. Van Gogh)?

      Because if you don’t, it might mean that museum-type art just isn’t to your taste, whether it’s modern or not.

    Well, I know that I’m able to feel awe looking at the art and architecture in (say) Rome or Florence or St. Petersburg or the Louvre, and I know that I’ve essentially never felt similar awe in a modern art gallery. (The MFA in Boston had a whole floor on astronomy as “modern art,” which was awesome, but which was basically just as if a science museum had invaded an art museum … so I fear that’s a rule-proving exception.) At the end of the day, though, my appreciation for traditional art is not sufficient for my dislike of the pretentiousness of much modern art to matter much to me.

    So finally I say: if you’re moved to tears by modern art galleries full of black-and-white video loops of screaming people in their underwear, or jugs labeled “Feces,” “Semen,” etc. (with giant signs all around saying “PLEASE DON’T TOUCH THE EXHIBIT”), then go in peace and enjoy them. I have no quarrel with you, at least not until you enter the world I really care about—namely, that of sentences that actually assert something to be true or false.

  202. Jochen Says:

    Scott, I think you’re dead right regarding the difference between the (STEM-) sciences and the humanities, and maybe the softer sciences: there’s generally an objective fact of the matter in STEM questions, which we just have to work to uncover, and then, it’s all settled. Other fields generally don’t have this luxury. What facts of the matter there are may be hopelessly obscure, and indeed, there may not even be an objectively right answer to certain questions.

    So while the STEM sciences are basically a game of twenty questions, humanities rather more resemble an ongoing discourse, a dialogue in which even the background we can take as fixed, as given by the empirically accessible world in the hard sciences, is subject to shift and change. Joining this discussion in any meaningful way requires being aware of its topic, and even of its history—butting in and making fun of all involved can’t really by anybody’s idea of a constructive contribution.

    And I think the world would be a much poorer place if there were no art that one has to work a little for—and with—in order to appreciate it. No Bach, Mozart, Beethoven; but plenty of Justin Biebers and Britney Spears. Unraveling a work of art, getting to the bottom of it, engaging with it and finding out what’s behind the surface is one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. I’m not saying that everyone’s appreciation of art has to work the same way; if somebody says that he’s only interested in the immediately appreciable, well, more power to them. But the arrogance in concluding that since it’s got no value to you, it simply doesn’t have value, period, and everybody who claims it does is either deluded, a liar, or a con artist is simply a bit much to me.

  203. luca turin Says:

    Jochen #202

    What exactly did you find that eludes shallow Bieber/Spears fans after “getting to the bottom of it, engaging with it and finding out what’s behind the surface” of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven? Do tell.

  204. quax Says:

    Jochen #202 and Scott #201, there is no doubt that the humanities are more discourse driven, but there are also harder bits and pieces to it. Take for instance linguistics research that tries to capture how language develops. There’s good empirical science to be found, and the increase in digital artifacts allows for more data driven research.

    Now with regards to the concept that Scott takes issue with, i.e. privilege. Scott, how would you re-write this headline, without the short-hand use of “privilege”?

    Or do you contend that the underlying study is an example for the kind of humanities BS that you want to call out?

  205. quax Says:

    Link to the actual paper the NY Post article references.

  206. Scott Says:

    quax #204: Obviously, that headline doesn’t need to be rewritten at all, regardless of what you think about the underlying concept.

  207. jonathan Says:

    Re: the preschool Turing test:

    One important issue is who is the judge. Should any reasonably competent adult be able to distinguish the artist’s work from the preschooler’s? Or just experts in the field?

    Part of the importance of the Sokal hoax was that it fooled insiders, i.e. the very experts tasked with judging the work. (Though, as I understand it, the journal did not use peer review, so maybe it was an expose of lax publication standards rather than the inherent meaninglessness of the field! And such lax standards are hardly unique to literary criticism — given my own experience with peer review, I’m sure that are plenty of journals in technical fields that have published completely flawed work, and that might fall prey to a Sokal analog.)

    I’m not fan of modern art (at least the super abstract meta-cynical-self-commentary sort). And much such work might fail the preschool Turing test if *I* were the judge. But that doesn’t mean that it would fail such a test if a connoisseur of modern art was administering it.

    (Incidentally, most people probably wouldn’t be able to reliably distinguish a famous piece of classical 19th century art from something produced by a technically competent advanced art student.)

  208. jonathan Says:

    As an aside, as a practicing social scientist (economist), I like to think that the sort of obscurantism you complain about is not so common in the social sciences, and that most of the jargon and conceptual machinery we’ve developed is “paying its rent” by allowing us to express complicated topics more simply. That is certainly (mostly) the case in my own field, at least with the main concepts that everyone knows about.

    The sort of postmodern obscurantist BS exposed by the Sokal hoax is more properly found in the domain of the humanities. Even the “softer” social sciences, like sociology (economists’ eternal enemies), are probably not guilty of much out-and-out obscurantism, though they are certainly prone to ideological pompous verbal signaling games.

  209. Anonymous85 Says:

    Instead of just talking about the toddler Turing test in the abstract, we could all just take one and see how we do:


  210. Amy Says:

    Jonathan, I think the more important thing about the Sokal hoax was what happened afterwards at NYU, when Sokal came for a debate with humanists, and they refused to recognize his authority — science’s authority — in defining various realities, and instead posited science-as-we-know-it itself as a construct open to question. Which was not a set of ideas he’d expected. Maddeningly, the humanists are correct: science is a human endeavor, its values and methods and foci chosen and devised by humans, and these things are indeed the area of study of the humanists. So Sokal arrived to find himself and indeed science objects of inquiry.

    As I recall, the NYU crowd was not particularly friendly, which is something that maybe isn’t, or shouldn’t be, unexpected when the sciences are funded at 1000x the level of humanities. Which usually prompts some sort of response about the tangible value of science, to which I blandly respond with someting about the tangible expense of failing to have a well-framed and functional government. Very expensive not having a sense of history or political philosophy, also not having language to with which to frame laws and stir hearts.

    Anyway. It seems to me we jumped over the problem of the social sciences’ reliance on models, abstracted and pared versions of reality, and how these require their own vocabulary. Science, when not being Very Serious about its models, tends to go for whimsy in the naming, which at this point I find irritating, but that’s how they do. Science can afford some whimsy; social sciences and especially humanities, living in cardboard boxes, has to dress sharp in order to be taken seriously, so they put on the fancy language duds.

    Let me suggest something, Scott, and it’s a thing I see very often in scientific writing: in universityland, students learn to use words that name concepts before they understand the concepts. They’re just out there throwing chunks of language around, learning to sound the part. Unfortunately, many of them never notice that they don’t understand what they’re talking about; they just learn syntax. So when they go out and have arguments with people about these things, whether in or out of academia, they’re just tossing language around as a means of gesturing at some quarter-grasped notion attached to something felt or seen. They’re not any too precise. And at this point we return to aspergerishness, because this sort of thing is guaranteed to drive the susceptible up a wall. The problem is that few people who engage in these conversations are at all likely to see a need for precision and clean, deep understanding of concepts and their provenance. Most people aren’t that sharp, particularly with language, and no, that doesn’t mean you can dismiss them from political argument. It does mean that instead of demanding precision they haven’t got, you must try to understand what they do mean, in all its cloudiness, and why.

  211. Scott Says:

    Anonymous85 #209: I just tried, and got only 7 out of 16 correct! (And yes, I was trying.) I would’ve done better by inverting all my guesses.

  212. Scott Says:

    jonathan #207:

      Incidentally, most people probably wouldn’t be able to reliably distinguish a famous piece of classical 19th century art from something produced by a technically competent advanced art student.

    Nor could most people distinguish a famous 19th-century physics paper from a modern homework solution by a student, if you got rid of trivial differences in language and style. It’s characteristic of a healthy field for what’s pioneering in one generation to become routine in the next, so I don’t see this as a problem for art at all.

  213. amy Says:

    Re the test: 13/16 for me, but that’s because I’ve put in the time and been interested and have a pretty good idea what modern art actually looks like. It has a vocabulary. The brushstrokes and fingerswipes of a toddler and a 45-year-old look different, there’s intent in the adult use of color that the toddler hasn’t got, etc. And if you see a really talented child’s drawings they look really very different than your average preschooler’s.

    Putting in the time and being sensitive to and aware of the stuff — makes a difference.

  214. quax Says:

    Scott #206, then getting back to the original comment that started it all, if the term makes sense there, then when are we exactly dealing with an empirically-empty notion of “privilege”?

    Obviously I have an idea of when and how you think this term is disabused given the arc of the conversation here, but you know what they say about assumptions …

  215. Bram Cohen Says:

    Anonymous #209: I tried it, and guessed the ones with obviously more purposeful brushwork as being modern art, and got 4 out of 16. Apparently you can identify the modern art based on its technique being inferior.

  216. Sniffnoy Says:

    Amy #210:

    So, I think we have to draw a few distinctions here, depending on what our goals are. I think the short version is, you can treat people as evidence or you can treat them as fellow arguers, but you can’t do both at once… unless they let you do so, and are willing to treat themselves as evidence, which lots of people aren’t. And that’s often how you get the best evidence about them.

    Long version now. Say you have an interesting argument going and someone jumps in and starts saying things that aren’t very clear. You ask them to clarify particular points. How do they respond? Here are some possibilities:
    A.) Actually clarifying — it turns out they had a clear idea all along and just didn’t express it well
    B.) “Hm, I’m not so sure, now that you mention it. I think I intended something rougly along the following lines. […] Here are some more precise possibilities. […] Evidence for and against each one: […]” (or just some subset of this, possibly just “Honestly, now that you mention it, I don’t know!”)
    C.) Just further unclear verbiage, with no acknowledgement of inclarity
    D.) Same as (C), but now with a demand that you accept what they are saying in the form that they are saying it and cease your distortions of it

    (A), of course, is great. (B) means you’re potentially in for a lot of work, but it is helpful, it is furthering the discussion, and it’s frequently necessary and unavoidable. (C) is, well, not an improvement. (D) is terrible.

    So basically we have two ways of treating what people are saying: As arguments, to be taken as arguments and appropriately picked apart, or simply as phenomena, of evidence towards some more general pattern to be explained. Generally clear things go under the former and unclear things go under the latter. It’s OK for some things to go under both (though usually not at the same time). Maybe you make an argument, thinking it makes sense, then people point out the problems with your concepts, you realize you’re not so sure what you actually mean, and it gets filed under evidence instead. That’s fine; that’s (B) above.

    (And this is how you get a lot of the best evidence — take something unclear, point out something that doesn’t make sense, get the person who originally stated it to try to fix it, iterate heavily.)

    So you don’t have to be clear; the rule shouldn’t be “be clear or be silent”. But you should be clear on how clear you’re attempting to be (lampshading goes a long way!), and if it turns out you fell short, you should accept that and reclassify. (Unless you were really were clear, in which case you should be able to argue for that!)

    So far this is all good. The problem is those Cs and Ds — especially the Ds. There seem to be a lot of people out there who want simultaneously to 1. be unclear, 2. not to have to in any way mark this, 3. not to have to admit this, 4. not to have to argue for this, 5. not to have to in any way clarify themselves, and 6. in fact really everyone they’re talking to should just shut up and accept what they say as it is. They’re certainly not going to stand for multiple iterations of refining their concepts; they can’t admit that their concepts could possibly have any flaws in the first place.

    And hey — what these people say can certainly be useful… as evidence to be examined. But you can’t treat such a person as a fellow arguer. No way.

    So what are your options? I guess it depends on just who you care about correctness among. Some possibilities:
    1.) If you just want to get the correct answer yourself, well, you’re going to have a hard time going it alone, but you don’t need to treat anyone as a fellow arguer. There’s no group to wreck. But I think most of us want a bit more than to just personally know the answer.
    2.) If you have some tiny insulated group that has no problem with kicking out arbitrary people to maintain its borders, again, there’s no problem. If someone starts being a problem, you kick them out. But once again, does this really suffice for anyone?
    3.) If you’re like me, what you want is is for “your people” to get the right answer — where “your people” is a very large group, too large for anyone to manage, but still having the property that notionally people in this group ought to be good truth-seekers (and possibly making a claim to that effect). Unfortunately, despite such claims, what actually gets someone accepted as a group member may have little to do with this. And such groups can be subverted and turned to epistemic closure and partisan hackery if they don’t recognize the threat of people trying to pervert the norms of discouse. (Which is what the (D)s above try to do, at first subtlely, and then, once they’ve convinced you it’s OK, blatantly.) And, y’know, this happens. And you can to some extent get a new group, but it’s still a failure; you’re fleeing because the goal failed.
    4.) And if you want society in general to get the right answer… well, I have no idea how anyone would accomplish that.

    So yeah — we do need to “try to understand what they do mean, in all its cloudiness, and why.” But the best way to do that is to actually include them in their own decipherment, and for that to happen, they need to not screw things up, by for instance refusing to acknowledge when they’re unclear or objecting to any attempt to suggest that we need to interpret what they said in some alternate fashion. If you merely want (2) you can kick them out, but then you lose out on a good source of information. It would be much preferable to not have to kick them out, and frequently, it’s simply not a possibility in the first place. So how do we get them to behave?

  217. luca turin Says:

    Anonymous85 #209, Scott #211

    Fun test!

    I got 13/16 right merely by guessing whether any of the markings required more fine motor control than a toddler has. I think that an adult would find it just as hard to unlearn those skills and produce convincing toddler art.

    Ugly website, by the way: whoever produced it clearly has no visual taste…

    Reminded me of a story about the great abstract expressionist Hans Hartung: someone said to him “my toddler could do this” and he replied “Yes, but the amazing thing is I’m 85 and still doing it!”.

  218. Scott Says:

    Amy #213:

      13/16 for me … Putting in the time and being sensitive to and aware of the stuff — makes a difference.

    I don’t doubt that for a second. But the question remains: why would I want to? When I finally learn to distinguish the random-looking brushstrokes of a 40-year-old from those of a 2-year-old, what will I have gained, beyond a very specific and weird forensic skill?

    (Yes, I know I’m violating my own policy on no more abstract-art discussion. Whatever. I’ll close down this entire thread in a day or two. (Now let’s see if I keep that promise…))

  219. Amy Says:

    Ha! You guys have got me out of bed (I haven’t been to sleep yet — incidentally, The Conformist is on Netflix, and it’s ~beautiful~) and also trying to reread Germinal, which I have only in French (and never made my way all the way through in French).

    All right. Sniffnoy #218, the first thing I think on reading your comment is: theatre. You guys don’t know about theatre. Consider anything in Pinter. Or Beckett. You can’t pay attention just to the words, you need also pay attention to the vehemence, the person or character they’re coming out of. What they’re a proxy for. They aren’t going to give you a reason, they’re only going to say the things they say, over and over again. As people do, only less stylistically.

    Argument is only a form of discourse, a kind of rhetoric. How it’s sung — you know, when that dopey mess of a half-educated student is ranting at you about, I don’t know, Bernie, when he has zero context for what kind of guy Bernie actually is, you need to just shut up and watch him. The kid, I mean. The kid’s own theatre is what you get for communication. The urgency, the way he moves, where the stresses in his speech are, which bits are plainly canned and which are his own, he is telling you something. If you pay attention only to the clarity of the text’s reason you’re missing the show. I’m thinking of Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, now, too — she has all kinds of reason and very tight rhetoric but what it shows you is that she’s out of her mind, she can’t live the way she does, she’s groping around seeking in a cudgel-of-scholarly-authority way she wants badly to have work, because she’s a kid, and she’s representative.

    In other words, the kind of argumentation you’re talking about is of limited use when people are talking — one way or another — about themselves. Need theatre.

    Scott: 😀 Oh, that one’s easy. Why? Because of beauty.

    Somewhat less beamingly (sorry, is a ridiculous hour, also too much not very good wine) — if you don’t feel it then I see no reason to. I kept going back to look at abstract expressionism because it was apparent to me that I was looking at something important, something with a lot of intelligence, but mostly something with real weight. I didn’t know what it was but I trusted that if I looked long enough I’d understand. That was right. Curiously — and this is to do with Jochem’s thing about context, taken literally — I find it much easier to see and hear these things outside museums and symphony halls, when you don’t have the importance of the institutions to contend with. Either way — if it doesn’t speak to you, then it doesn’t, and I see no point in hanging around for baloney culture reasons. Unless it’s just to give it a shot now and then.

    I don’t, incidentally, much care for the academic, idea-driven stuff that started showing up in the 80s, mostly because it takes artists away from what they’re actually good at. You get some real inanity that way. (You also get some genuinely funny and well-executed things, but that’s still not where the action is in art.) But I don’t think they’re all wrong. It’s just that there are very, very few worthwhile artists at any given time.

    One I’d missed along the way growing up, btw, and a favorite at the Art Institute of Chicago: John Marin. Boy, was he good, and tremendously influential. One of the few things I like at the new and improved MFA is the Gallaudet head of Marin. It’s in a hallway somewhere. He sure looks like some asshole who knows what he’s doing to the point where you can’t even talk to him.

  220. Amy Says:

    (Scott, occurs to me you grew up in a good theatre town.)

  221. Amy Says:

    oh, and Sniffnoy, about your (3) — you and I are looking for different things, I think. I don’t have people or argue in teams, and if a win comes from something I already thought, I figure something is wrong. Like right now I’m listening to Glenn Gould playing Sweelinck, and he’s doing his humming thing, and he’s thinking of this music in some way I wouldn’t have thought of, which is why he was humming. He knows something I don’t. But then I’m also deliberately off-career-track and don’t normally have to bother with other people’s perversions of discourse if I don’t want to.

    I don’t, incidentally, believe there’s that much difference between this sort of argument/conversation in STEM and in anything else just because the STEM things are not on the me-and-you level or necessarily directly perceivable. We are in the end talking about essay. And one of the more irritating things about the social scientists who turn the lens on science is that they make the point about the instruments and questions determining what one might see.

  222. Amy Says:

    Aagh, sorry, misunderstood you, Sniffnoy. I get it. But I still don’t think of people being that susceptible to corralling — they’re people, they’re going to be political, miss points, find more diverting ends that look worth it. People are nuts, you know.

  223. Lou Scheffer Says:

    Scott 218: I can imagine it being worthwhile to try to appreciate art since I know it works with literature. The are great writers who are easy to read (say Steinbeck), those that take some effort (such as Shakespeare) but are outstanding once you do, and ones that are genuinely hard, but very much liked by folks who have put in the effort (perhaps “The Wasteland” or “Finnegan’s Wake”). Furthermore, some of the people who wrote well-appreciated complex works also wrote great accessible ones (“Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man”) so they are not completely bluffing, and you can get annotated versions that show there is a lot of structure there in what appears, to a newcomer, to look like random words. The same is definitely true for music, so why not art?

  224. Scott Says:

    Lou #223: Shakespeare is hard, but 80% of that is just how much the English language changed in 400 years (as well as which parts of the language we care about—Shakespeare is full of animal and artisan metaphors that no one in Elizabethan England would’ve needed explained). T.S. Eliot and James Joyce I confess I’ve never read (it didn’t help that my parents were both English majors who read everything, and they repeatedly assured me that reading those sorts of authors would be a waste of my time).

    I feel like I should clarify something. I come from an extremely musical family—of the four people in my immediate family, I’m the only one with zero musical talent, and only my mom and I don’t have bands—so I was surrounded by high-quality music growing up. In particular, my dad and my brother are both huge Zappa fans; either one will tell you anything Zappa-related you could possibly want to know (as well as much, much more that you didn’t want to know). And me? When I listen to Zappa, I think: “this is probably a little too complicated for my taste. But still, it obviously requires extreme skill to write and play, and I can clearly see that someone who spent more time on music than I did would derive more enjoyment from it.”

    So, how to say this? There’s a difference between Frank Zappa and John Cage. There’s a difference between art where I can say, “this takes more effort than I’m willing to put in, but there’s clear evidence even I can see that the tradeoff is worth it for other people, so more power to them,” and art where I say, “this gives every appearance of being a pure status-signaling game.”

    Maybe it’s just because of my upbringing, the years of misery that I endured because of status-signaling games that I couldn’t play and didn’t understand, but I have an extreme reaction to anything where the artist seems to be going to zero effort to assure skeptics that it’s not just a status-signaling game, seems to thumb their nose at the skeptics and revel in the status-signaling aspect, in just how much they can get away with because of who they are and how many popular friends they have.

  225. James Cross Says:

    Beethoven: Music as statement.

    Zappa: Music as satire.

    Cage: Sound as music. And statement. And satire.

    Apropos Cage quote:

    “The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”

  226. Scott Says:

    quax #214: If your subject is a study about white people rejecting claims of white privilege, then obviously you’ll use the term “white privilege” in reporting on that study, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the claims themselves (or are neutral on them). Likewise, despite my distaste for terms like “dialectical materialism,” I’d use them liberally were I writing a history of Marxist beliefs. What is this, some nursery game like Simon Says? 🙂

    As for your question, we’ve been over this ground so many times on this blog that I hesitate to tread it again. But I don’t like the way the discourse of “privilege” alienates potential allies; shifts attention away from those who are suffering and what we can do to help them and toward those who mean well and how guilty they should feel; lends an air of respectability to cruel shaming campaigns; and blinds us to all forms of injustice outside our model (as in the modern spectacle of nerds getting lectured about their racial privilege and patriarchal privilege and “technical privilege,” by people blind to the neurotypical privilege that might actually swamp everything else in the situation in question). If the goal is positive social change, then we ought to look for language that directly targets our consciences, and that tears down boundaries between people rather than building them up.

  227. Raoul Ohio Says:

    I 100% agree with Ben #184

  228. Scott Says:

    Shmi Nux #85:

      Wanted to mention the apparent Scott-vergence: your SJ writings and those of Scott Alexander are more similar than before…

    I’ll take that as one of the highest compliments I’ve ever gotten—thank you!

  229. marctmiller Says:

    thank you, scott, for this blog, and for sharing your gray matter with us so graciously.

  230. Scott Says:

    Everyone: I’m about ready to close this thread, as promised (threatened? 🙂 ). But I wanted to share some final thoughts, which I hope will answer a large number of the comments I still haven’t answered.

    Of the dozens of critical comments I received, the one that made me think the most about what I was trying to say—for which I’m genuinely grateful!—was that of Susebron #128:

      It seems to me that the problem you describe is not that plain language isn’t used, but that it is used when it shouldn’t be. Which, as far as I can tell, is the opposite of the problem you describe in the original post. If plain language should serve, then what would you name the concept of “privilege” if not “privilege”? If the problem is that the concept of “privilege” gets conflated with the connotations of the plain word privilege, then why should people not come up with jargon which is disconnected from prior connotations?

    Susebron and others are entirely right that my complaint, in this post, is not with abstruse academic jargon per se. Yes, such jargon sometimes leads to hilarious results, as in the following sentence by the famous Berkeley theorist Judith Butler, which took first place in the 1998 Bad Writing Contest:

      The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

    Yes, there are academic subcultures that stand eternally condemned for harboring sentences like that one in their midst. But to be brutally honest, if that were all there was to it, I wouldn’t care that much. I’d happily leave it to Alan Sokal to save the far left from itself, and leave it to my many friends in the social sciences and humanities to fight for clarity in their own fields. After all, in some sense, the sentence above is a model of clarity and concision: in a mere 94 words, it completely answers the question of whether anyone should spend time studying Judith Butler. So if the critical theorists were content with contentless puffery, people with scientific temperaments could respond by just “routing around” them, as Tim May #115 advocated.

    And as I acknowledged in the OP, there can even be social scientists and humanities scholars with legitimate needs for jargon: for example, those using a technical tool, like statistics or Chomskyan formal grammar.

    The problem, from my perspective, arises only when the social thinkers want to have it both ways: when they want to both (a) phrase all their arguments within a complicated, non-common-sense theoretical framework, and (b) treat those arguments as morally binding even on people outside the framework.

    To say it another way: I freely admit that I can be wrong about factual questions for abstruse theoretical reasons (indeed I often am). I also admit that I can be wrong about moral questions for simple human reasons. But I don’t acknowledge the possibility that I can be wrong about a moral question for an abstruse theoretical reason.

    If you show me that I wronged someone, I’ll take that extremely seriously, and will probably obsess to the point of OCD about how to make restitution. But whatever I did wrong must be explicable in plain language—for example, by telling me the actual stories of actual conscious beings who I harmed through malice or recklessness.

    In some cases, a full understanding of my wrongdoing might involve some complicated science, as well as consideration of probabilities and the remote future (e.g., if my sin involved releasing potent greenhouse gases). But even in those cases, you ought to be able to “black-box” the scientific parts of your case against me, and state the moral part in straightforward human terms.

    What I won’t tolerate—can’t tolerate, while remaining psychologically healthy—is someone telling me that I should feel shame and guilt over something I did, but for moral reasons that only make sense within a Marxist framework, or an SJW framework, or a fundamentalist religious framework, or any other system that takes years of study to understand. Was I racist or sexist or homophobic to someone? Then that can be explained easily, and I’ll feel terrible about it and repent. But was I simply “blind to my nerd technical privilege”? Then sorry, but I won’t repent for crimes that I couldn’t even explain to (say) Mark Twain or Bertrand Russell or Alan Turing and have them understand what I was talking about. I have too many real shortcomings to beat myself up over the fake ones.

    From this perspective, the problem with the word “privilege” is precisely that it moves so freely between the two worlds, that of social theory and that of real acts with real moral consequences. As many commenters pointed out, it’s not an especially abstruse word, but it’s a deceiver, a trickster, a word that slimes well-meaning people with moral guilt without ever needing to identify a victim or a specific crime. It would be fine as an everyday word, and also fine as a technical word; it’s only not fine as a chameleon, as a concept that creeps up and bites you, then scurries back to the theoretical realm before you can catch it and force it to explain itself. It seems to me that many other social-justice words (“entitled,” “patriarchal,” …) do double-duty in just the same way.

    Anyway, when I talk about jargon, this is the phenomenon I’m complaining about.

  231. Anonymous85 Says:

    Scott #230: good post. When I read the original blog post, it seemed to me that your object-level point about words like “privilege” and the social justice movement are much more solid than your meta point about the role of jargon in various fields. I’m convinced that the specific jargon of Marx and of SJWs is garbage, but I’m not convinced that no useful jargon can ever be developed for everyday concerns.

    Just as an example, what do you think about rationalist/LessWrong jargon? E.g. Chesterton fences, Schelling points, Funging, mind-killing, etc.

    (personally, I find it to be excessive and at times annoying, but I can’t deny that the terms in question do capture some specific useful ideas).

  232. Amy Says:

    I think maybe that stretches the point, Scott, if prettily. The other problem is that the entire point of the discussion of privilege is that it takes place on the societal, not the individual, level, even though individuals are often unwitting collaborators in making it go.

    Suppose I have a student from a poor, mostly-dead little town, the kind of place that’s not unusual 150 miles from here, and as is normal in those towns, she is responsible for looking after her grandma who’s dying; she may be in college, sure, but in those towns college is viewed with a good deal of suspsicion, and she’s a capable young woman with no family of her own to look after and no mortgage to pay, so she’s it. And because she’s a product of this town, she’s been taught since infancy not to complain or ask favors and certainly not to parade her family’s business around to strangers. And because she’s 19 years old, loves her nana, and was raised to be a good girl she has not got it in her to tell nana to use medicaid home health aides already and blow town for college.

    So she does fine the first three weeks of class and then her nana takes a turn and she disappears for two weeks. And then she’s back, and out, and although I send her an “are you okay, is there anything I can do” note, she doesn’t respond, or she does respond with baloney cheerfulness and a non-computing request for homework materials, as if this is high school. And meanwhile her grade’s going into the toilet, something that’s not a trivial matter because her scholarships are GPA-dependent.

    I’m not being mean to her — in fact I’m being nice. I’m concerned and reaching out. But the reality is that the social demands and norms of her world will not allow her to go to college as college demands. And, unwittingly, I am complicit in handing her an impossible task. In combination with all her other profs, some of whom have never emailed her and some who have — but most of whom will report a failing midterm grade — we make it difficult or impossible for her to go to college and have some hope of doing something other than taking up with Kevin and getting pregnant and married by the time she’s 21.

    That’s a structural problem. That’s people stuffed with education and money making and enforcing rules for advancement that someone — anyone — like this girl, who has got neither education nor money, can’t play by. Without the awareness that we are doing this, though, we can’t see the cruelty inherent in it, nor our own participation, and try to do anything about it. That’s where social models and their language come in, and I’ve talked twice now about these abstractions’ needing their own words.

    Way back in the winter thread I asked you to role-play a very concrete set of suppositions — a certain amount of income, apartment life far from a job, limited education, the need to keep your car working so you could get to work, etc., etc. I did that because I wanted to make privilege concrete for you — I doubted very much that you had ever lived in this manner, and I wanted to make it as real as I could. You declined the offer silently a few times. If you don’t want the news in highfalutin’ jargon, and you don’t want something imaginative that’s as close to a lived reality as you can get, then are you saying you don’t want this news at all? (The point of it, incidentally, is not to make you or anyone else feel bad. It isn’t about you (or me, which is part of why I don’t mind seeing the landscape of my own relative good fortune and how it might affect others). The point is to recognize and address inequities that harm many.)

  233. Scott Says:

    Anonymous85 #231: Yeah, that’s an excellent test case. I occasionally slip into LW jargon myself, just because it’s so common among the people I read and respect, and because I know that much (though not all) of that jargon “bottoms out” in well-defined concepts that make sense to me, from fields like game theory or evolution. However, consistent application of the principles I’ve suggested here leads to the conclusion that one should never, ever deploy this terminology when criticizing someone outside the LW-sphere as morally wrong.

  234. quax Says:

    Scott #214, thanks for summarizing your stance once more. Figured this is how you feel about the issue, but you have a way with words, and put it much more beautifully than I could.

  235. Amy Says:

    Also, Scott, I just worked my way through that miserable Butler paragraph — and it was worth doing. I actually learned something in there, even though I haven’t yet bothered looking up “Althusserian theory”. I am not a social scientist; like you, though, I pick up language relatively easily, and I spent enough time in a soc sci dept as a kid to recognize that she wasn’t just gibbering. And that stuff is beyond infelicitous but has meaning.

    Translation: It’s not unlike when I used to get pissed off at media scholars for ascribing evil righty intent to media corporations. I worked for media corporations, and what I saw was that they wanted one thing and one thing alone: money. Ain’t no red or blue, just green. As it happened, the media scholars were correct, there was an ideological agenda. She’s talking about an idea that this is just how money goes, what capital does as it does its natural thing, and its competition from an idea that says oh no, honey, this is on purpose, and it’s for the purpose of holding onto power, you watch them use that capital to punch you in the face on purpose again and again, and keep you down. And how the theorist had been over that ages ago, and then turned to a rather technocratic notion of capital is as capital does, and now are back to the use of this idea but with something else we don’t hear about in the space of a paragraph.

    Only she it says it with references to ideas that are much larger and better-articulated than anything I’ve just said. You’re seeing the technical language for those ideas, which are model-based. And when the social scientists leave that language and talk human talk, they have the same problems that physical scientists do: they have language that requires the understanding of those concepts, and while they can translate to English if they’re forced to, much is lost in translation.

    This is, incidentally, one of the biggest problems I have working with physical scientists on these things: they want to communicate what they know with as much clarity and precision as they can, but the demotic (<– see what I did?) will not allow them to do that, and they are very much afraid of giving people the wrong idea.

  236. Scott Says:

    Amy #232: When I teach my undergrad class, I find myself constantly bending over backwards to accommodate students with stories of why they disappeared and didn’t show up for the exam or turn in their problem sets or answer emails. My problem, in those matters, isn’t softening my hard heart, but rather learning how not to be a total pushover! 🙂 (On the other hand, it’s true that I rely on the students to tell me what’s going on—I know that I’m not equipped to play detective or counselor with students who aren’t forthcoming, and am glad there are others who can fill that role.)

    You’re right that I was never in poverty, that I don’t know it firsthand. On the other hand, both of my parents grew up in relative poverty, in Northeast Philadelphia (where they also faced overt antisemitism), while my grandparents and great-grandparents lived in more extreme poverty (though still glad to be in the US, rather than shot in pits in Eastern Europe like the rest of their extended families). My parents were the first generation to attend college, though they could only afford state school, and barely that. So I grew up with constant reminders—believe me! :-)—of what it’s like not to have money.

    And yet, I’m well-aware that neither of my parents would ever dream of using their modest means as an excuse for doing poorly in school, or not showing up for an exam, etc. That’s just alien to how they think. So, I don’t know, maybe I was biased by witnessing my parents’ unusual competence and having-it-togetherness; maybe that made me too much a believer in the US as land of opportunity. But given how far they got, starting from so much less than I did, I can remember thinking that I’d goddamn better succeed—not just modestly, but spectacularly—because if I don’t then I really have no excuse.

  237. Amy Says:

    …also, can’t resist pointing out before this thread closes that you’re marching with the marxists when it comes to high art. The same people also make a lot of (to me) incredibly tiresome arguments about talent and whether or not it exists or should be allowed, and they have friends in ed departments. I think their argument, though, is not with the artists and scholars, but with the cultural-edifice-makers that define culture and make a high and a low and go around anointing. You can distinguish them by their beautiful suits, and they take good care of their shoes, too. It’s people like that who are responsible for the canonization of Joyce, even though my guess is most of them never could read Joyce very well. The people who actually do read Joyce well are almost never important enough to make departmental rules and set conference agendas. They’re too busy being knocked out by Joyce.

    One of the things that becomes apparent in Ulysses, btw, is that all language wears clothing, all language comes from places and signals, trails these things along like toilet paper sticking to your heel, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

  238. Amy Says:

    Oops, missed that. Yeah, the reason I posed that hypothetical situation in the winter thread for you to imagine your way through is that it’s set up much as reality is for too many people. There’s no way for you to get by in that situation. This is how people live now. You could read The Jungle instead for a more visibly grotesque version, but the setup makes it impossible for the little family to do anything but sink unless someone comes and rescues them — an aunt dies and there’s an insurance policy, say.

    At that point it’s not about complaining or struggle or hard work. These people do work hard, do knock themselves out. But they walked into life in a time and place where there wasn’t a hell of a lot they could do about the situation — the affordable housing is way out there, the job is way over here, there’s no way to get the better job without the degree, there’s no way to eat while getting the degree.

    To be in a setup where your work can actually pay off, help you get somewhere — that’s privilege. That’s one that’s been exceptionally difficult for Boomers to see; I find their parents, when still alive, saw more readily how things were going, recognized how people were once again being trapped and just hoping their kids could do better. But they’d seen it before, whereas the Boomers’ timing was terrific. They could go to a state college and it was tough, but it also wasn’t going to kill you with debt for 20-30 years, and the degree could do something for you. But this country hasn’t made a living in 40 years, and things are different now for ordinary people starting out.

  239. Scott Says:

    Amy #238: In that case, how much is there to say except that—like many other nerds, including those of us who regularly get called elitist sexist fedora-wearing white male shitlord neckbeards, and other lovely names by the hard SJW left—I vote straight-ticket Democrat, urge everyone else to vote Democrat, and donate money to Democrats? (Indeed, the very first thing I became publicly known for was my ill-fated attempt to swing Florida from Bush to Gore, through my advocacy of Nadertrading.) And I’d love to see a substantial increase in the minimum wage (with exceptions for people who aren’t working primarily for the money), and many of the other things discussed at the Democratic debate.

    Well, I guess there’s one other thing to say: that, setting aside its cruelties and collateral damage, I don’t see that the hardcore SJW rhetoric is doing anything at all to help Democrats win elections, and thereby alleviate the serious socioeconomic problems you mention.

  240. Amy Says:

    (I should take a shower.) The thing is, it takes a really long time for institutions to be interested in the fact that the kid’s in and out of class, and is one of many, and have some meetings in which they fail to understand the nature of the problem, and then propose solutions which, chiefly, make them feel good for having been kind enough to propose solutions, etc., and then when it fails see it as ill-spent administrative capital, and retreat from the effort. It takes the right person showing up in a position of power within the institution to make anything happen, and that person will also have to argue and fight with others who feel that they’re being discriminated against by not getting “special treatment”, etc.

    A perennial example: anything to do with babies on campus. We know women have babies. We know the women are primarily the ones responsible for the children and often haven’t money for evening childcare. We still schedule required classes in the evening without offering childcare. On my campus, it took the advent of one activist woman (not a mother) at the head of the family-services unit (the product of a single-mother provost’s fight) to provide stipends for childcare for evening classes and exams. This does not, of course, fix the fact that babysitters flake, and that the young mothers’ attendance at lab would be much more reliable if lab were scheduled during normal daycare hours. Weighing against any rapid progress is the sentiment that this should not be our problem, also an unwillingness to recognize or deal with the fact that many of our students are actually grownups with children now.

    Anyway — until these things get sorted institutionally, structurally, the students rely on the kindness of professors, also the hope that each individual professor will recognize what’s going on with them, and it’s dangerous for the kids, wearing on us. Because at any time you can recognize that it’s up to you, individually, to help or not, and if the answer is, you know what, I’m pooped tonight, this kid will just have to deal — that’s a lot of power over a kid’s life.

  241. Amy Says:

    (hey, I know you want to close this thread, I’m out, anything else can go to email.)

  242. Sniffnoy Says:

    Scott #230: Now that comment I will agree with!

    Amy #222: Yeah, sorry for being unclear there. There’s a reason I disagreed with Scott’s original post and said, no, jargon is helpful. 😛 But unfortunately I don’t have the jargon for this one here.

    Really I had a particular example in mind — remember the phrase “reality-based community”? Fooled me for a long time. That’s the sort of thing I’m worried about, how this sort of mask makes easier the slide from “good place to argue” to “yet another place where everyone is afraid to question the consensus”.

    But I still don’t think of people being that susceptible to corralling — they’re people, they’re going to be political, miss points, find more diverting ends that look worth it. People are nuts, you know.

    Not sure what you’re getting at here. Only sense I can make of it, taking it as a reply to what I wrote, is that we’re doomed forever to have to exclude the people being studied from their own study, that we’re never going to be able to sit down with them and iteratively refine their concepts. (In which case, well, what’s the hope then?) But I expect I’ve misunderstood, since it doesn’t seem that related to what I wrote…

  243. Gil Kalai Says:

    There are many interesting issues in this discussion but let me pick one of them which I think is central to Scott’s point of view. (Objecting to the assumption “that the infinite complexities of human life break down into neat, easily defined and quantifiable categories.”)

    Here is a related discussion, I had with a close colleague, Avishai, in 95 at the IAS. The issue was that of systematic bias against women in academia and what should be done about it. (Of course, this is a description from memory.)

    (Below I will use the term “privilege” with its English meaning.)

    Avishai’s position was that the real problem is not bias against women but biases and injustice for many reasons. People are disadvantaged if they are little weird, if they are less socially connected, if there are more candid and less “diplomatic,” and for many other reasons unrelated to academic excellence. It is true that all these little biases, averaged out, may be more disadvantageous to women, but he argued that we need to study injustice in academic decisions as a whole, correct those biases on case-by-case basis, and not pay special attention to the division between genders.

    The difficulty Avishai saw in targeting genders separately applies to the more general situation of gender bias. If, for example, we will set a mechanism that will improve the situation of the most privileged women and harm men across the board. Is it just? desirable? or even worse, we may harm the most unprivileged among the men, and help the most privileged among women, leading to little more balance between genders and much more imbalance within the genders.

    My position was (and still is) different. I thought that, the problems regarding the representation and status of women in academia and related matters regarding relations across genders, make it necessary to deal with this issue separately. I also thought the effort to change the situation regarding genders represented in academia and the status of women there, the emerging mechanisms to make such a change, and the social change such a change may bring, will be beneficial to the other forms of academic biases and injustice, that Avishai talked about. And also here, my point of view extends for greater generality. (Putting jargon aside it may be related to some essential difference of opinions among us.)