Thursday, April 26, 2018

Native Benedictions, Secularism & Treaty Equity

An interesting development here in Canada is the emergence of First Nation benedictions and blessings on public events. For instance, public education events now usually start with a recognition of whose ancestral land the event is taking place on. Then there is usually a benediction by an Elder. In some rare cases this may involve requests for the audience to participate (say turn to each of the four cardinal directions).

It is great to see our first nations being respected and represented. Canada's reconciliation movement is making significant strides.

The incorporation of prayer into public events present some pluralistic conundrums.

Honouring, Coercion, & Voluntary Attendance

For one, state sponsorship/promotion of religion (via public institutions) is a legal no no.  Well, more technically, sponsorship of a particular religion is a no no. Here's an except of an opinion from Canada's Supreme Court (via this law review)

So is having a prayer given by a certain denomination coercion? This is highly doubtful. There is no force of action. What about peer pressure to follow a requested action, like turning to the four sacred corners? This seems to be more of a grey area. For instance, we no longer allow public prayer in schools, perhaps because of its de facto coercive nature. Are voluntarily attended public events run by government entities any different? By sake of their voluntary nature, the answer is, probably. But there is still the legal opinion that prohibits the government (or its proxies) from involvement in religious matters. Prayers are religious matters.

Teasing out Religion
However, when religion doesn't follow Western separation of culture & religion, interpretations of this can be divided. For instance, perhaps the prayer is a cultural expression of saying "hello, welcome" rather than an overtly religious act?

British / Canadian case law takes a fairly liberal view of things here. This view seems to match my (and others) necessary but not sufficient factor approach (i.e. any 6/10 of the following factors)

Thus the cultural approach may be fine, or it may not. In non distinguishable culture-religions, perhaps it depends upon the intent of the act itself? Is the act a religious ceremony? Is is asking for belief? Is it requesting audience participation? Or, is it just a "hello, welcome"?  Can you say no to the religion without also rejecting or being seen to reject the culture?

I'd suggest, at least in my treaty area, benedictions are usually intended as more of a semi-official treaty partner greeting. But, as we'll soon see, that really depends upon who such greetings are reciprocated. My feeling is that they are not reciprocated appropriately and this is why there is more tension (and head burying) than is needed around these events.

De Facto Monoculturalization

One other way to view the prayer issue is to suggest that no particular religion is favoured. All participants and participant groups have equal standing and equal representation of their religious beliefs as expressed through invitational based benediction honours. This seems to be a very Canadian approach - let each group do their thing. We'll all respect it and not feel threatened by it, but rather celebrate each other's heritage.

But what happens when benedictions become monocultural? Say only seventh day adventists start giving every single prayer at public University dinners?

The most common response I've seen to this issue is to say any steps to reconciliation are good and anything that would suggest otherwise is bad.  The issue I have with this is

  1. I think church state separation is good
  2. I worry about the backlash sticking your head in the sand causes (see Trump phenomenon), especially toward marginalized populations
  3. I think this actually infantilizes / tokenizes Native groups in some rather subtle and insidious ways
  4. I don't think it respects the treaty partnerships upon which many blessings / benediction stories are ultimately based.
In short, I think we can do pluralism better. As one person said to me, "its just not that big a deal. It helps reconciliation". Yes, that is probably true, but that argument is eerily similar to the ones Protestants and Catholics used to use when school prayers were around. After all, you didn't "have to" participate back then either....

Doing It Better

The worst thing about the sacralization of these topics is that it prevents rational conversation. When sacralization happens, intent doesn't matter. Blasphemy is insensitive to both intent and context.

With that in mind, let me propose a better solution....

I think the first big shift one needs to make is to view treaties as a two-way street. In my treaty areas, the treaties aren't simple land - benefit/right exchanges. There was an expectation of growing together. Paying for blessings is not growing together. It is, or rather can be, tokenization. Interactions between two peoples involves the exchange of stories - the sharing of moral understandings and values.

When government entities have a native benediction, what is reciprocated? Money / gifts? The conference content? I don't think that exchange is fair nor honourable. What kind of story is the other treaty partner giving back? When there are no reciprocal expectations, there is no opportunity to grow together. The story shared becomes devoid of true significance, and, I'm afraid through good intentions people might be treating the native groups as a type of curio that gives groups "woke" points.

A benediction story requires an exchange of how both sides will come together as treaty partners. This paradigm offers a chance to share what both value and the actions / promises both make. Thus, respect (having a benediction) may be a start, but it can quickly ossify into de facto state religious sponsorship and tokenization.  Instead, if you are going to ask for a benediction, what stories and treaty related unifications are going to be put forward by the asker?

Words are one step. But we can do better. Actions can do better.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Harris Klein Argument Analysis

Sam Harris (new atheist and hyper-rationalist) & Ezra Klein (Vox editor) recently sat down to hash out some simmering arguments between them.

Harris was upset that controversial science topics are becoming taboo. This prevents people from knowing how to deal with uncomfortable facts which will certainly emerge in the course of natural human scientific inquiry.  He was tarred by Vox, social progressive anthropologists, and voxsplainers as a pseudo scientific structural racist.

As you can imagine the debate didn't go well. It was a fairly big train wreck. Here's my analysis of why.

Mistake #1: Harris Never Let His Points Stand
Harris has a tendency to be very verbose. This prevented any meaningful back and forth from occurring. Harris would make a good point, does non-african Neanderthal DNA make any noticeable difference in traits? Just because there are differences that doesn't imply any moral value statement about difference.  But rather than leave things here, he would go onto pontificate for another 5 minutes.  This clouded arguments, and meant Klein never had to directly engage with major points.  Worse yet, Harris tended to end his diatribes with fairly moral based reasoning. Klein easily one-upped Harris on this front. Klein always kept the moral high ground.  It was a disaster for Harris.

Mistake #2: While Religion was Socially Ostracized, Progressivism is Certainly Not
If you lived through the new atheist movement there is more than a little schadenfreude here. Harris fell back on moral argumentation. However this time, audience and society sympathy was for his opponent rather than against him/her.  I don't think Harris may have realized how much of a difference this might make in appearances. He certainly was aware how radioactive the topic of race & inheritance is, but he probably thought the fight to disentangle morals from data rationality was worth it.

Good on him for trying. But this disentanglement is one of the major critiques of Harris' hyper-rationalist movement.  Because religious-like dynamics in social confrontations work, they are very unlikely to be forsaken. Harris seemed to view Klein's unwillingness to concede this frame as an act of ingenuineness.

Mistake #3: Treating Klein's Progressivism in Rational Terms Rather Than Religious Terms
This was one of Harris' bigger mistakes. Klein was saving people from eugenified scientism. Harris was attacking them with it & telling them these attacks were for a greater good. This is always a losing argument.

Harris just seemed unable to leverage his usual argument trains to handle the novel landscapes Progressive intersectionalized quasi-religion operates within. Klein came across as policy and people oriented rather than as a scientific denialist & sacrilist. To me, Klein's arguments were much more appealing than Harris'.

Mistake #4: Allowing the White vs. Black Frame Rather than the Asian vs. White Frame
Racial conversations are toxic. Punching down (whether intended or not) comes across as horrid. Harris could have avoided this by purposefully avoided the White Black frame as too loaded and counter-productive while still hitting every point of science he wanted by using the Asian White frame. None of Harris' arguments would have changed. But it would have prevented much of Klein's sympathetic moralizing.  Harris would have been "elevating" Asians rather than denigrating Africans.

Harris is going to learn a painful, Murray-esque, lesson here. While I do feel sorry for him - I in no way think he is a racist - it is interesting seeing Harris loaded with some of the aspersions he has cast on religiously oriented folk over the years.  While I strongly suspect he tries to avoid this, thinking he is tackling the rationality of religious positions, the dynamics he has fostered around religiosity seem very similar to the slimes he got from Klein.

Mistake #5: The Compartmentalization  Required by Hyper-Rationalism May Be Functionally Impossible.
This seemed to be Klein's main point. You can never get away from the legacy of how racial data has been used. When you bring it out into the open, you are responsible for the abuses that come from removing its well-deserved taboos.

I have long thought science need to learn to come to terms with the adaptive "irrationality" of religion. Harris and all New Atheists do not. For Harris to have the right tool set for these types of debates, he can either

  1. Humbly learn from Critical Theorists and Intersectionalists.
  2. Figure a world view that accommodates gradual declines in religious "irrationality".
  3. Magically learn how to win a no-win fight against progressivism's moral high ground.

While I didn't watch the first Jordan Peterson - Harris interview train wreck, I have been impressed by how Harris came back from the totality of that and his second interview with increased awareness of the strength of Peterson's positions. I suspect he will eat humble pie and learn from the Klein disaster. But ultimately he may have to learn how to accept the rhetorical and popular strength of moralized religious-like thinking. 

But, he certainly may not. Aspergery people are like that. He might view hyper-rationalism as a hill worth dying over. Perhaps Eric Weinstein can convince him otherwise. But it is certainly easy to see why Harris views Charles Murray's predicament as so relevant to his own hyper-rationalist quest.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Fuzzy Boundaries

Fuzzy Selection Boundaries
One critique of multi-level selection theory is the biological reality (or unreality) of groups*.  Individuals are not fully entwined with the group the way individual cells are entwined with a parent organism. Lack of dependency and coordination challenges the reality of a full biological transition to the group level. The critique is that acting as if a fuzzy transition is "real enough" is just not appropriate. While humans outside of any parent group have significantly decreased fitness, they can still survive. Many evolutionists argue selectionist tools can't be legitimately applied to fuzzily cohered groups.

Boundaries are insufficiently clear, stark, or enduring.

Fuzzy Cultural-Ancestry (i.e. "race") Boundaries
Recently, anthropologists have critiqued geneticist David Reich's recent book arguing for the statistical and hence physical reality of statistical cultural-ancestry (i.e. "race"). One of the major complaints is that "race" boundaries are too fuzzy. Variation between populations is near meaningless compared to the variation within the whole population or even within statistically aggregated sub-populations.

This is another example where the complaint is that of insufficiently clear, stark, and enduring boundaries.

Fuzzy Religion Boundaries
One complaint with my (or anyone else's) necessary but not sufficient factor approach (i.e. 6 out of these 9 factors) for defining religion is that it produces boundaries which are too fuzzy. It also risks including groups which may pass a factor test but common sense would strongly suggest might not be religious (e.g. Amway, most zealous but non ultra fanatical comic fans, etc.)

How Many Socio-Biological Boundaries are Fuzzy?
The counter point to the insufficiently clear boundary critique is that some biological boundaries in the field of evolution are just not as solid as folk intuition might otherwise suggest.

For example, Massimo Pigluicci's seminal paper on An Extended Synthesis for Evolutionary Biology lists numerous levels of selection and multiple paths for genetic inheritance (what affects gene fitness).

 It is now clear that several levels of the biological hierarchy are, at least theoretically, legitimate targets of selection, from genes to individuals, from groups of kin to populations to species (Okasha, 2006)

The current emphasis in genomics research is no longer on the effects of individual genes or of single metabolic cas- cades but rather on the system-level properties of entire networks of gene products (Cork & Purugganan 2004; Wray 2007),  
Along similar, yet independent, lines it has been proposed that there are four, not just one, systems of inheritance affecting the evolu- tion of biological organisms (Jablonka & Lamb 2005): the standard genetic one, an epigenetic component (based on the inheritance of epi- genetic markers, e.g., methylation patterns), a behavioral one (e.g., imitation in some species of animals), and a symbolic one (limited, as far as we know, to humans). This has prompted a rethinking of previously basic concepts in evo- lutionary theory, beginning with the idea of a “replicator” (Szathma ́ry 2006), as well as re- newed efforts at empirical research exploring the extent and importance of heritable epige- netic effects (Chandler & Alleman 2008).

Gene-Culture Boundaries?
The incorporation of culture into evolutionary thinking muddies biological boundaries. This is why critiques of multi-level selection theory and other dual or multi-path inheritance models should not be discarded out of hand. The value gained by dealing with fuzzy edges doesn't necessarily compensate the lack of rigour it costs. Faulty logic may indeed create insidious stumbling blocks which are hard to remove.

On the other hand, reality seems to be all about fuzzy boundaries.

Part of the issue comes from the way people understand (or misunderstand) statistics.  For instance, is anything other than a 1-to-1 match for genes to "racial" group acceptable? I doubt it.  There are issues going from population level descriptions to individual level assumptions. Geneticists know not to do this. The public and many non-mathematically educated, humanity oriented, types may not. Further than this, many activists purposefully misconstrue this boundary so as to fire up righteous resistance. After all, if objective facts can be used nefariously.  In some people's minds, better to create taboos to ensure this can never happen.

In many ways this is reminiscent of academic purity arguments around fuzzy boundary contagion....

This is not to say that "objective scientism" on topics such as "race" / ancestors can't be offensive. It certainly can be extremely offensive. My own Sami / Lap heritage was definitely subject to this (albeit with the addition of "white dis-privilege").

Definite things can still be probabilistic. Anyone who has taken a quantum course knows this. Reconstructing probabilistically determined entities is never going to be a 1-to-1 enterprise. Perhaps the statistical socio-physics literature has produced some work here. I'm not sure, and to me, engaging Luddites on this front tends to boorishness.  The two sides have different utility functions. Both are justifiable. They just represent different Haidt teloses.  Neither should be universally mandated.

While one may be more "real" than the other, they need to exist in tension. Without this, you tend to generate some rather nasty secondary effects (hyper-rationalism which increases the chance of eugenic like perspectives emerging or taboo based anti-scientism / Ludditism / socially approved "facts").  This is partly why I support learning how to live with and work with "religious" ways of knowing. Societal coherence (& survival) requires it.

Here is one physical analogy of the situation. You have an individual item you want to test (cultural/ethnic ancestry, religiousness, group level). It produces some of the same signals as the category you are to test. Let's say you notice a -1 charge. Is it an electron? What about a Tau lepton? (Both have this charge)

You test some properties. It has a half integer spin. What is it guaranteed to be?  (Both have this spin)

At this point you can't conclude. Let's assume other measures are unavailable. You might guess which one it is based upon probabilities. Electrons are more plentiful than Tau's. Has the particle's reality changed?

I think arguments boil down to a couple of scenarios:

  1. Treating the "particle" as set of probabilistically composed options (i.e. a X% chance of an e- and (1-X)% chance of a T-.
  2. Treating them an a single indistinguishable entity that has an inescapable chance of error. (i.e. its always an electron, we're just wrong X% of the time)
  3. Treating them an an indistinguishable entity that, if used, produces an inescapable chance catastrophe.
  4. Treating the system as a single entity (which has the average properties of its entities, say a mass which is the average of the e- & T-)

My own naivete tends to see the anthropological critique of "race" / statistical ancestry as an example of case 4 thinking. I suspect genetic evolutionists see things as a case 1 scenario.

I suspect another major issue with fuzzy boundaries in social science work is the issue of scale.

Scale is rather arbitrary. For example, what is the ideal scale for "race" / statistical ancestry? While it is easy to assume anthropologists are naive of quantitative methods for phylogeny, I doubt that is really the case. I suspect they mainly reject it because of error concerns, utility calculations, and the secondary effects this might have in how they and their systems value people.

And so, while regression can optimize the scale of sub-population groupings, it is always going to be somewhat arbitrary. This is because the scale of distinct lineages varies across the world. People who were genetically isolated (to varying degrees) did not produce groupings of the same size. This makes scales rather arbitrary. Are you looking for distinguishable phenotypes or distinguishable markers? Migration genetics seems to look for anything that produces distinguishable populations so as to track movement. That does not necessarily correspond to distinguishable phenotypical differences. It, of course, may, but this is of course probabilistic.

The heritability and distinctiveness of culture is, I suspect, the nail that seals the fate of anthropological interpretation. If cultural difference is not significant and is so malleable so quickly, "race" can become as trite as assuming the colour of clothes you wear one day to another says anything about who you are. Of course, many people, like Amazon, Facebook, etc. would suggest the clothes you wear on any day enable them to probabilistically say a lot about you. But if you went from a goth to a cowboy to a prep, have you really changed?  Process philosophy starts rearing its complicating head...

However, if cultural difference is significant, and long-lasting enough, then the anthropological interpretation is sealed, albeit in a different direction.  I think gene-culture work, such as the classic lactose problem illustrates the value of this interpretational frame. Similarly, I think the evolutionary synthesis represented by Pigluicci's classic paper, heightens the role of cultural factor influence on genetic phenotypes enough to severely weaken the anthropological interpretation.  However, I don't think it destroys it.

I think both positions are needed for the tension they produce. But as Reich says, the balance is definitely shifting - as painful as that may be some. It is one more thing that seems to be forcing science and society to confront fuzzy boundary issues on sensitive topics.

Here's a sample of the sacralization of the topic. This suggests rational conversation is all but impossible. A reconciliation to Haidt's two teloses seems all but inevitable.

*This is a critique most germane to the MSL1 formulation. MLS2 posits collectives reproducing collectives.