mardi 21 février 2017

The unbearable asymmetry of bullshit

 from the department of anti-link-rot-action 

Somewhat at random it has been my custom to follow the blog of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics in my RSS reader, and occasionally I would even feel moved by the spirit of enlightenment to offer up a comment to the august minds philosophizing there. Sadly the blog now seems to be in a state of permanent technical failure, effectively removing these comments from public view. My cacheing system has worked nicely though, so I guess it's up to me to take over the hosting from here on. I was particularly pleased with this comment, which pulls together my thinking on attention, agnotology, peer review and bullshit, written in response to this article by Brian Earp:

The key problem with bullshit that enjoys a certain "truthiness" is attentional: its presence is a time-wasting distraction from the good stuff. The agnotological processes whereby e.g. the tobacco companies, or climate change denialists, skew "debates" by creating false controversy is well-studied. In theory scholarly publishing should be relatively resistant to this process by the diligent application of peer review, but this merely displaces the reader's attentional process to a consideration of the judgement of the peer reviewers, potentially also prone to the retransmission of bullshit. The detail and verbosity of scholarly refutation amplifies the attentional problem.

Whilst freedom of expression worthy of the name must surely include the freedom to bullshit, the solution surely lies in maintaining reputational systems that offer the user efficient filtering systems that enable the basic command "never show content by this author again." It would be an error to universalise such judgement, for we all have our own foibles and tolerances. For example the Facebook system assigns a single "interest score" to each post which is then used to rate each post for all users. Twitter's "follow/unfollow" mechanism, which delegates filtering to the judgement of each individual user is much closer to what is required. The Pirate Party's attempts to implement "liquid democracy," whereby rank and file members anoint experts as delegates on any particular issue is also worthy of study.
Drinking at the commenting firehose at a heavily-trafficked site can be made less overwhelming using ranking systems (see Slashdot). And so on.

Frankfurt's book is of course itself somewhat bullshitty, devoting as it does, a substantial part of its rather slender discussion to a lengthy argument establishing that bullshit is synonymous with humbug. (What is humbug?) But hey! It's a fun cite on any reference list.

Harry Frankfurt seems a most charming man. This interview is a better outline to his thought than the book. He has humbly acknowledged elsewhere his surprise that his university press wished to work up his essay into a slender book:

mercredi 8 février 2017

On Scout's pace

from the department of getting-around-easily

A friend's remark made me consider of which piece of writing I am proudest. Two things spring to mind: this thing I wrote for "The Listserv" about Scout's pace (more about the venue here):
Scout's pace means moving at a brisk pace by alternately walking and running. Baden-Powell himself recommended alternating every fifty paces, but I prefer twenties as it's easier to count. My perennial optimism about how long it takes to walk somewhere makes me do it, and I enjoy breaking records for regular trips. I like the control that comes from having a number of "gears" at my disposal--easy strolling, brisk marching, an unpressured trot, the truth of a life lived under my own steam, and feeling... fit and well.

Scout's pace is obviously only the English term: do it a bit harder and you're speaking Norwegian: a fartlek. As for what the technique's most legendary exponents--the nomads of the Kalahari--call it, I have !kno idea! It is only the blink of an evolutionary eye since we were all hunter-gatherers; and yet we have forgotten Scout's pace, with dreadful consequences. Many ills of the Western lifestyle--obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stress and depression--can be traced to our lack of exercise.

I, too lazy and too ambitious to walk all my life, have transferred this knowledge to the bicycle. I could have discussed the virtues of a 24:32 minimum development, or the necessity of mudguards, or the late 19th century campaign by cyclists for paved roads, that led, in time, to the lamentable car culture, but I wanted to stick to the basics.
And maybe the editorial I wrote for the BMJ before bike week one time, which its then editor was kind enough to describe as "a poem." (He rode a bike too). But it's hard to decide. The best paid thing I ever did had my name sawed off (thus the generous cheque). My online commenting has never earned me a thing, but the satisfaction that I might just, maybe, have changed one person's mind somewhere, just as they were ready to, is ample reward.

[ et en français ?  ]