Plastic Bag Bans are not Reforms

Reform is important. People have to make changes to make progress. But some ideas for change are good, and some are bad. To achieve reform, we need to sort out the good changes from the bad changes.

People can and do make mistakes frequently. To achieve reform, we have to use methods which are capable of figuring out our mistakes and improving on them. Methods which can do that are called “rational”.

If would-be reformers do not use rational methods, they will make things worse instead of better. They will implement mistaken ideas. That is destruction, not reform. So, how can we judge proposed reforms?

  • Uses reason to consider the issues.
  • Makes only true arguments.
  • Actually works as intended. Watch out for unintended consequences!
  • Makes things better, not worse. If possible it should be thoroughly better, not a mixed compromise.
  • Reforms should be cooperative, not adversarial.
  • Communicates why and how it is a reform. Aims to persuade people.
  • Most or all people agree to it voluntarily because they understand that it’s good.
  • Goes one step at a time instead of trying to remake society into a utopia tomorrow.
  • Has been considered critically.
  • Refutes all criticisms that try to say it’s a mistake.
Some cities are banning plastic bags at grocery stores. Lobbyists claim that they are reformers and their ban is a reform. It’s not.

Real reforms work as intended. Take a look and tell me if the plastic bag ban is working as intended:

How is this possible? Isn’t it illegal? Actually, where I live, the ban only applies when you visit a grocery store, but not to grocery deliveries. It has a big loophole.

Why does this happen? Because the “environmental activists” did not successfully communicate why the ban is good. Safeway isn’t persuaded that plastic bags are bad, so it still uses plastic bags in legal ways. If the activists had made better arguments, then Safeway would work with them and follow the spirit of the ban. Instead, the activists used irrational adversarial methods, instead of finding a way to cooperate with Safeway for mutual benefit.

Plastic bag bans also increase shoplifting. That is an unintended, bad consequence.

Plastic bag bans (and their arguments) have been critically considered but have not successfully addressed the criticisms, as rational reform would.

Why are plastic bags worse than other types of bags? Why should they be banned? Where is the rational analysis?

Actually this has been studied, but the activists and lobbyists chose to irrationally ignore the results. The study by the UK’s Environment Agency concluded, “The conventional HDPE [plastic] bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the lightweight bags in eight of the nine impact categories.” And that study didn’t even consider the costs of laundry or washing bags!

Environmental impact is not the best way to consider plastic bags. But it is the way the anti-bag lobbyists look at it, and they are wrong by their own standards.

The right way to look at bags is in terms of human impact. What is the impact on human lives? Does a particular policy make life better or worse for human beings? Humans should come first.

When all types of bags were available, plastic bags were chosen because they were the best for humans. Grocery stores wanted happy customers. Plastic bags are strong, light, clean and cheap. Banning them denies humans these wonderful, modern benefits of plastic bags.

The anti-plastic-bag lobby has argued that the bags use up our limited oil supplies. However, this is simply false. Real reform avoids factually false claims.

Anti-plastic-bag activists have not communicated a coherent, well-reasoned, true argument for why plastic bags should be banned. Plastic bags are good for humans and good for the environment, and complaints such as their use of oil are false.

The plastic bag ban does not meet the criteria necessary to qualify as a reform. It is actually irrational, pointless destruction, not reform.

That illustrates how to approach reform the wrong way. What is the right way? Let’s consider a concrete example.

A rational reform was the transition from transportation by horses to cars. Horses had problems such as polluting the streets with poop, getting you wet in the rain, and being slow. Changing to cars made life better for people; it reformed the old situation.

How was this reform accomplished? By voluntary action and rational argument. People were not forced to give up their horses, nor were they forced to use cars. They didn’t have to be forced because they understood that the new way was better. People wanted to make the change and happily participated, rather than working against it (like Safeway continues to use all the plastic bags they can).

Not everyone changed right away. Early cars were expensive and had some other downsides, but over time cars became clearly superior. And some people had special circumstances that made a horse better for them personally (even today some people still have horses, and that’s fine). So each person switched to a car if and when it made sense for him. Forcing someone to buy a car that isn’t right for him, or not letting someone buy a car when he decides it’s best, would both hurt people.

Even when a reform is a good idea, such as switching from horses to cars, it still has to be approached in the right way or it could hurt people. People should only switch when they are persuaded – when they think switching is best for themselves. Reforms should proceed by voluntary methods and people should make changes when their rational judgment says to.

Changes in bag use should be approached more like cars and transportation were.

This is not a new idea. People who want to be thinkers and reformers should know better. They should take responsibility for learning how to reform correctly before trying to do it. The philosophers Edmund Burke and William Godwin explained reform around 1790, for example Godwin wrote:
Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.
People make mistakes. Trying to argue your case is a great way to test if you might be making a mistake. If you persuade people, maybe you’re right, or at least no one knows better. If you don’t persuade people, maybe you’re wrong, maybe someone knows better, maybe someone can tell you something you didn’t know. So attempting persuasion is a rational win/win approach; it works out well whether you’re mistaken or not.

If your explanations fail to persuade people, it’s time to consider that you might be mistaken, or you might not have clear enough ideas. If your ideas aren’t clear enough for other people to understand why they are true, you shouldn’t be persuaded either. Your ideas aren’t good enough (yet). Reconsider or work on them more.

If you can persuade people, that is a good sign that you have a quality idea. It’s a good candidate for reform. If you cannot do that – if your idea isn’t that quality – that’s an unbelievably bad excuse for using force.

Why doesn’t the anti-plastic-bag lobby persuade everyone to stop using plastic bags? Because they can’t. It’s that simple: they would persuade everyone if they could, but they can’t.

Their arguments are not good enough. So far, they’ve failed at persuasive reasoning. And how do they react to that? Irrationally. Anti-plastic-bag lobbyists pretend that they ban plastic bags because their arguments are strong. Actually they do it because their arguments are weak.

They aim to force their bad ideas on us, rather than aiming to improve their ideas. Changing society that way is not reform, it is irrational destruction.

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Plastic Bag Ban Article

I wrote a new article for the Center for Industrial Progress. It's about a ban on plastic grocery bags:

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I Changed My Mind About David Deutsch

I have changed my mind about some things I have communicated about David Deutsch. I think the responsible thing to do is to say so.

When someone puts forward ideas in public, and persuades people, but then changes his mind, he ought to tell people. They shouldn't go by his old ideas with no chance for an update and to maybe change their minds too.

For example, if Thomas Szasz had decided he was mistaken that mental illness is a myth, then he would have been responsible for publishing a retraction and correction, and explaining why he changed his mind. Not doing so would have been immoral and irresponsible.

I do not know exactly what I have communicated about David Deutsch over the last decade, in public. This is partly an issue of memory, partly an issue of some things being communicated inexplicitly (without directly saying them, but they still come across), and partly an issue of trying to remember what was said in private or in public.

Let me clarify my relationship with David. I have known David for over a decade and had many, many discussions with him. For David's book The Beginning of Infinity, I provided over 200 pages of especially appreciated comments and edits. I made and own the website and discussion group for the book. David is a founder of Taking Children Seriously (TCS) and Autonomy Respecting Relationships (ARR). I own the dicussion groups for both of those, too.

We no longer associate closely. Things changed. I have learned a lot from David and I used to think we agreed more than I now think. I now regard David as rejecting some important good ideas. For some of these ideas, I had thought I learned them from David, but I've changed my mind about that.

Here are some things I have changed my mind about.

I believe I have communicated that David is a world class expert on TCS, ARR, and some other parts of philosophy. I thought he was. However, he has stopped talking about a lot of that stuff and has said things exposing misconceptions. So I've changed my mind.

I think have communicated that I consider David a better philosopher than myself with higher status and more knowledge. I have changed my mind.

In the past I think I basically said David is always right. I did not mean it literally but I did mean something, and I have changed my mind.

I believe I have communicated that David is super rational. That I endorse him and his ideas pretty much without exception. That I'm a big fan. I've changed my mind.

I've said that David is a fan of Ayn Rand. He made this claim to me and I accepted it. I've changed my mind.

The list of issues I now know that I disagree with David about includes qualia, mirror neurons, Edmund Burke, Thomas Szasz, Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, William Godwin's economics, deduction, hard to vary, meta discussion, justificationism, the value of school and academia, and the right approach to email discussions. Note that I have left some out to respect David's privacy.

Despite David's TCS reputation, and arguments against school, he actually has a a much more favorable opinion of university and academia than I do. His position on school is incompatible with TCS.

I believe I have communicated that David has the utmost intellectual integrity and responsibility. He does not. I thought he did; I was surprised when he acted otherwise; I've changed my mind.

People can seem more rational than they are as long as they are right frequently. This can happen when they already know a lot of things, but are not learning new things. When there are serious criticisms of their thinking then they are put to a harder test. Critical challenges can be particularly revealing about someone's character. David has done poorly on several.

I still consider The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity to be very good books. Despite some flaws, they are world class. And there are other things David has written that are good.

I made every effort to avoid this outcome. For example, I tried to help David by explaining his misconceptions and offering him new ideas.

I have learned from this. In the future I will hold people to a higher standard. Many of my comments about David were years past, and I have improved my judgment.

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Don't Take Power For Granted

I wrote a blog post for the Center for Industrial Progress.

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Thomas Szasz

Thomas Szasz died on Sept 8, 2012. He was a great and wise man, and a friend who I miss.

The article does not say how he died. I hope he controlled and chose his own death (edit: he did commit autohomicide), because that is the best way. Here is one of Szasz's many wise comments on suicide, in his last book, Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine:
We do not and must not hold a person responsible, nor must he hold himself responsible, for a natural event or human action over which he has no control. However, we must hold a person responsible, and he should hold himself responsible, for acts that he can, or ought to be able to, control. Prohibiting death control-like prohibiting birth control and other self-regarding behaviors-reduces the individual's opportunities to assume responsibility for these behaviors and makes the person dependent on external controls instead of self-control. Therein lies the most insidious danger of using prohibitions to regulate behaviors that can, in the final analysis, be effectively regulated only by internal controls. If young people believe that they cannot, need not, or must not control how they procreate-because assuming such control is sinful or because others will assume responsibility for the consequences of their behavior-then they are likely to create new life irresponsibly. Similarly, if old people believe that they cannot, need not, or must not control how they die-because assuming such control signifies that they are insane or because others will assume responsibility for the consequences of their behavior-then they are likely to die irresponsibly.
Szasz wrote extensively about psychiatric coercion, the myth of mental illness, and related topics. He covered the history of psychiatry, drugs, suicide, ethics, the medicalization of everyday life, and more.

What fewer people know is that he was a broader thinker who went beyond psychiatry. He discussed, at a world class level, philosophical and political topics such as autonomy, self-control, responsibility and freedom. He was well read and had extensive knowledge of political philosophers and economists like Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Rand and Burke. He also understood Karl Popper's writings. He applied his expertise in these matters to psychiatric issues, in addition to having insight in psychiatry itself. His breadth was crucial to the high quality and consistency of his thinking. The norm is to stray outside one's expertise and consequently make frequent mistakes, but Szasz avoided this by having incredible breadth of understanding. And because Szasz understood so much of life, his writing was much more interesting, filled with insights applicable to more than psychiatry, and compatible with the best ideas outside of psychiatry. Further, because many parts of life and fields of thought are connected, his inter-disciplinary approach allowed for insight that narrower thinkers could not achieve.

Szasz was a truly critical thinker. It's a very rare quality, but Szasz genuinely appreciated criticism. This is one of the most important metrics for judging any intellectual and Szasz deserves immense credit for it. Szasz was also a responsible man who could take responsibility for his mistakes that were criticized, even while correcting them. He was not the type of person to make excuses and rationalizations, or to lie to himself. Nor was he the type of person to admit a mistake to himself while hiding it from others to protect a public image.

Szasz was one of the best philosophers of all time, competitive with the greats like Popper, Rand, Burke and Deutsch.

To learn more, I strongly recommend Szasz's books. I think everyone interested in ideas should read a bare minimum of ten of them. I also created an informative iOS app about psychiatry.

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Zubrin Replies

I sent Robert Zubrin my earlier blog post fact-checking his book, Merchants of Despair. This is the full text of his amazing reply:
So you are fine with the deaths of millions of Irish and Indians, under the
administration of British Malthusians, the murder of millions of Jews and
Slavs by German Malthusians, and the myriad ongoing worldwide crimes of
other Malthusians ever since.
I guess they were all misquoted too.

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Bad Scholarship: Fatal Misconception by Matthew Connelly

Fatal Misconception by Matthew Connelly:

Page 2 gives a Malthus quote which it cites to a secondary source instead of a primary source. This is bad. The following footnote, also about Malthus, cites a primary source -- the same one that first quote came from. So why doesn't the first quote cite the primary source he had access to? That makes no sense; I guess he just doesn't consider giving primary source citations a priority to care about...

Moving on we've got something really bad, page 2:
The tone of unremitting gloom [of Malthus in his essay] never lifted. "Misery and the fear of misery", were, for Malthus, "the necessary and inevitable results of the laws of nature in the present stage of man's existence." [2]
The cite directs us to the exact paragraph in an online primary source which is very nice. It is:
I am sufficiently aware that the redundant millions which I have mentioned could never have existed. It is a perfectly just observation of Mr. Godwin, that "there is a principle in human society by which population is perpetually kept down to the level of the means of subsistence." The sole question is, what is this principle? Is it some obscure and occult cause? Is it some mysterious interference of Heaven, which at a certain period strikes the men with impotence, and the women with barrenness? Or is it a cause open to our researches, within our view; a cause which has constantly been observed to operate, though with varied force, in every state in which man has been placed? Is it not misery and the fear of misery, the necessary and inevitable results of the laws of nature in the present stage of man's existence, which human institutions, so far from aggravating, have tended considerably to mitigate, though they can never remove?
The quote text is accurate but the meaning for it which Connelly conveys is wrong. If you look at the rest of the sentence which Connelly cut off without elipsis, Malthus is saying something positive: that human institutions do not aggravate misery but considerably mitigate (significantly reduce) it.

The topic of the paragraph -- the context -- is discussing the issue of what keeps the population down. Malthus proposes misery and fear of misery as the answer to the question: what keeps the population level low?

Malthus is not saying life is miserable. This isn't gloom. He's saying that this is an issue which is "open to our researches" -- we can figure out what's going on and do something about it. Then he further says how human institions reduce misery. So this isn't gloom, Connelly has simply taken the quote out of context and misread it.

This is rather bad considering the full paragraph (even the full rest of the sentence Connelly cut off with no indication) is enough context to see that Connelly has it wrong.

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Bad Scholarship: Population Control by Steven W. Mosher

Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits by Steven W. Mosher, p 32
Such a fate [population catastrophe], Malthus argued, could only be avoided by stern, even pitiless, measures. [...] [Things got better in the Industrial Revolution e.g. lower death rate.] Malthus proposed to undo all this:

[blockquote] All children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to a desired level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons.... Therefore ... we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate [I.e. reject -- this is from Mosher] specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.

[Back to Mosher writing] These were strange, almost diabolical, views for a member of the Christian clergy to hold.
This is completely wrong. Details to follow:

The source it gives is a secondary source, a 1977 book. Why would you quote a secondary source for a very well known and easily available Malthus book? The full text is even free online now. This Mosher book came out in 2008 so I'm pretty sure it was already free online then too.

Quoting secondary sources, instead of primary, is bad practice for any kind of scholarly book. You should always use primary sources when they are available. Mosher wants to be a scholar; he gives lots of sources and notes for his book; but he's doing it wrong.

If you trust secondary sources some of them are going to be wrong. Like Mosher himself if someone trusted him on Malthus. Or like Zubrin or like the secondary source Mosher quoted.

Another problem with citing a secondary source is I can't tell what edition of Malthus' book he's quoting from without getting the secondary source book. Either he's quoting from an edition other than the 6th, or some words have been changed.,Ch.V

The 6th edition says "All the children born" instead of "All children born" and "keep up the population to this level" instead of "keep up the population to a desired level". Other than that it's the same.

Now on to the important part: this quote is taken out of context. The chapter title is this:

"Of the Consequences of pursuing the opposite Mode."

It is the "opposite mode" that Malthus is describing in the quote. He's not advocating it. It's the opposite of what he advocates. He's saying the consequences of not doing what he advocates (which is moral restraint) will be all these horrible things.

So basically Malthus said, "Do what I suggest (moral restraint), or all this horrible stuff is going to happen." Then Mosher quotes the horrible stuff and says Malthus wanted that horrible stuff.

By moral restraint, Malthus means people shouldn't marry and have children irresponsibily. They should have enough wealth to support a child before having that child. That's his favored solution to population problems. But Mosher claims Malthus' favored solution is plague and disease, and then calls Malthus a villain. This is just plain wrong and terrible research.

Zubrin did the same thing with almost the same quote. All of Zubrin's other Malthus quotes were wrong. And it's the same for Mosher. He provides one big out of context quote then moves on, considering the issue settled. When you're going to rely on a single quote or just a couple quotes, you need to get it right! This is so bad. People want to attack "Malthusians" in their book, so they include a section on Malthus, but they don't do any reasonable research and don't understand him at all and misquote him.

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Bad Scholarship: Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin

After reading Merchants of Despair, I decided to do some fact checking and to learn about some of the topics in more detail. I started in chapter 1 about Malthus. I found serious scholarly errors. Next I skipped to material about population control and President Lyndon Johnson. Again I found serious scholarly errors. I have not fact checked the rest of the book; I did not fact check any other part and find it was OK. Topics I already knew something about (DDT, nuclear power, Julian Simon's bet about resource prices) seemed correct when I first read them. I think the book is approximately correct in general claims and has some good philosophical ideas, but it gets a lot of details wrong. Do not trust its specifics. Educate yourself by reading further books on the topics that interest you.

Below I detail some scholarly errors I found. I only checked a small amount of material to find these. If we assume the rate of errors is representative of the rest of the book, then that's really quite bad.


Zubrin does Malthus fast and hard, and then talks about what is "Malthusian" throughout the rest of the book, relying on the early presentation of Malthus in chapter 1. In chapter 1, he provides only two Malthus quotes. After that he moves on to quoting people he identifies as Malthusians. Both Malthus quotes are misquotes. He also provides a very clear and direct paraphrase of Malthus, which he cites to two Malthus chapters. But Zubrin's story is a fantasy not backed up by his cites. This is very poor and unacceptable level of scholarly research.

First Malthus Misquote

Malthus prescribed specific policies to keep population down by raising the death rate:

[blockquote] We are bound in justice and honour to disclaim the right of the poor to support. . . . [W]e should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.[3]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 128-136). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Malthus' view as presented is despicable. But it's both misquoted and taken out of context.

The actual quote can be found here:

Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.V

Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.VIII

This is the same edition Zubrin cites, see here:

Principle of Population, Card Catalog Information

Why can it be found in two different chapters? Because Zubrin took two different Malthus quotes and combined them into one quote for his book. Then he cited it as if it was just one quote from book 4 chapter 5.

The first part of what Zubrin quotes, before the ellipsis, is actually from three chapters later. And it's edited. The bulk of the quote, starting at "[W]e should facilitate" is a correct quote in the literal sense but completely out of context and misleading. But besides being out of context, Zubrin doctored it by adding an initial sentence, from elsewhere in the book, which he also changed the wording of. This is an unacceptable distortion of the facts.

Besides moving a Malthus sentence out of context, Zubrin edited it. It actually reads (from 4.8):
As a previous step even to any considerable alteration in the present system, which would contract or stop the increase of the relief to be given, it appears to me that we are bound in justice and honour formally to disclaim the right of the poor to support.
Zubrin made the following changes:

He started mid-sentence while giving no indication of doing so.

He changed "we" to "We". This is especially misleading because immediately afterwards he uses "[W]e" to indicate the same type of change. Since he indicates it the other time, you would expect him to indicate it other times. This sort of inconsistency in quoting practices is extra misleading to the reader.

He deleted the word "formally".

He un-italicized the word "right".

These things make it a serious misquote. Plus he moved it three chapters earlier out of context. When he cited the quote, he did not cite the chapter this actually comes from, only the chapter the other part of his supposed-quote is from. This is very unscholarly.

But it gets worse. Did Malthus really want plague? No. His argument is structured like this: (I haven't read the whole book but I read enough to get the basic idea and see that Zubrin had this part wrong, you can get a lot of context from the two chapters prior to the one Zubrin quotes. 4.3 and 4.4)

What we need is moral restraint. Do not marry and have kids if you can't afford them. The poor laws are bad because they subsidize having kids you can't afford and they make promises they can't keep. What are the alternatives to moral restraint? Nothing good because of limited resources. Too big a population will lead to famine. Or if we don't want big nasty famines, then the logical consequence is we should keep people dying off regularly from plague, disease, dirtiness, crowding, malaria, etc... But Malthus is not advocating that, he's saying it's the consequences of lack of moral restraint. What he's advocating is moral restraint.

So Malthus was saying, "If we don't do what I'm suggesting, then what happens? All this bad stuff." And Zubrin has quoted that bad stuff out of context and said it's what Malthus was proposing. That's utterly wrong.

Second Malthus Misquote

In a letter to economist David Ricardo, Malthus laid out the basis for this policy: “The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.”[12]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 189-191). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
This is commonly misquoted. Maybe Zubrin didn't know any better. He cited a secondary source for this which I haven't checked. Regardless, he's guilty of bad scholarship. He should have checked a primary source whenever he could instead of relying on secondary sources. If I can find out the truth of this one just with Google, he ought to have been able to find out too using Google, book writing skills, libraries, and his swarm of interns:
I wish to acknowledge my debt to New Atlantis interns A. Barrett Bowdre, Elias Brockman, Nathaniel J. Cochran, Jonathan Coppage, Brendan Foht, and Edward A. Rubin, who put in many weeks at the Library of Congress verifying, and where necessary correcting, every fact, quote, and footnote in this book.

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 3693-3695). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Many weeks of work verifying "every fact, quote, and footnote"? Well, I believe they tried, but it was shoddy work that, sadly, overall, failed at its task.

This Malthus quote is edited, truncated, and taken out of context. This gives the false impression that Malthus wanted lots of people dead. "Swept from the soil" sounds like killed or at least gone. He didn't want them to live and exist anymore. Except that isn't what Malthus actually said or meant. The full quote, in context, is completely different and is part of a dry, economics discussion. It has nothing to do with genocide. But Zubrin falsely presents Malthus as genocidal using this fake quote (twice).

The full quote can easily be found with Google by any researcher (no doubt libraries have it too! e.g. the Library of Congress which Zubrin sent a bunch of interns to). I found it on these four webpages: one, two, three, four.

The most informative one actually explains the issue of this passage being misquoted:
An examination of the full text of this letter finds Malthus's intent to be far different that [sic] the one implied by the truncated wording commonly used by Mokyr and others. As a reading of the whole letter makes clear, in this correspondence Malthus was conveying his surprise that the Irish economy was not as bad as he had been led to expect. He commented earlier in the letter that "[t]hough the distress was certainly great, it was I think on the whole less than I expected." Referring particularly to the south, where he had toured through Tipperary, Waterford, Kerry, and Limerick, Malthus noted that "great marks of improvement were observable." It is in this context that Malthus undertook his observation on the Irish population that Mokyr cites. In this section of the letter, Malthus was reflection not on overpopulation and hunger, but rather on employment and wages. He noted that Ireland possesses "a population greatly in excess above the demand for labor." In this context, Malthus went on to make an economic argument concerning the distribution of labor "[t]he Land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the this population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns."[11] In examining the unedited quotation, it is clearer why Malthus emphasized the word Land in his letter, to very explicitly contrast it to the towns mentioned in the frequently elided ending phrase. The central issue here for Malthus was not the absolute scale of the population of Ireland, but rather its concentration in agriculture rather than industry. As this example well illustrates, the tendency to misread Malthus as a Malthusian is strong, especially in the wake of the Great Hunger.[12]
I'm not sure what he means about misreading "Malthus as a Malthusian". But in any case, Zubrin lowercased the word "Land" (I'm unsure what is italicized in the original which I don't have a copy of), Zubrin omitted the context, and Zubrin incorrectly presented the quote as ending on the word "soil" without revealing that Malthus wanted to sweep them off the Land into Towns for economic reasons, rather than wanting genocide as Zubrin falsely implies. Overall, it means one thing and Zubrin misquoted it to mean something else very different.

Malthus False Summary

In short, Malthus argued that we should do whatever we can to encourage disease, and we should condemn doctors who try to find cures. In addition, everything should be done to keep the wages of working people as low as possible.[4]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 137-138). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
And the source on that:
3 Thomas Malthus, Essay on Population, 6th ed. (London: John Murray, 1826), bk. IV, chap. 5,300–301.
4 Ibid., bk. iii, chap.7, especially 371–375; ibid., bk. iv, chap. 1.

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 3716-3718). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
So, to see if Zubrin's summary was accurate, I read those chapters (3.7 and 4.1), in the 6th edition from 1826. They are available here:

Principle of Population Bk.III Ch.VII

Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.I

One of the problems here is it's hard to tell which text the citation is intended to cover. At first I thought it was covering both sentences. But what Zubrin says here about disease and doctors isn't in the cited chapters (3.7 and 4.1). I've now figured out the disease sentence is referring to the previous misquote (in which Malthus suggests we "court the return of the plague"). Whereas the wages sentence, which looks like it goes with the disease sentence, is actually separate and refers to a different part of the book, found in the footnote.

So far this is confusing but not actually a very big deal (though bear in mind that his summary about Malthus wanting to "encourage disease" is just as completely false as the implications of out of context quote. This is a summary only of Zubrin's total misreading of his misquote). But it gets worse. Zubrin summarized Malthus, "In addition, everything should be done to keep the wages of working people as low as possible." That is absolutely not what Malthus says in the cited chapters (3.7 and 4.1), which I read through specifically to check for this.

Zubrin provides primary source citations to give the superficial appearance of having done proper research. But he hasn't; he is misleading his reader. Books should not be traps to fool their readers!

I'd like to show you this with quotes but how do I quote Malthus to demonstrate that his text lacks the statements Zubrin says it has? Click the links and search them yourself on words like "wages", "low" or "possible". I did that in addition to reading the full chapters. Zubrin's claim about keeping wages as low as possible is just not there; Zubrin made it up and then falsely represented it as a summary of Malthus.

The closest Malthus comes is some economic arguments about how you can't make the poor rich with minimum wage laws. These bear no resemblance to Zubrin's supposed summary, but maybe Zubrin (who does not understand economics and praised minimum wage laws twice in the book) confused Malthus discussing facts of economics for Malthus trying to keep wages for the poor low. That's my best guess at what happened but there is really no excuse.

I'll try to give you a sense of what Malthus actually said when he talked about wages in 3.7 (I don't know why 4.1 was cited, it doesn't even mention wages and is irrelevant):
What I have really proposed is a very different measure. It is the gradual and very gradual abolition of the poor-laws. And the reason why I have ventured to suggest a proposition of this kind for consideration is my firm conviction, that they have lowered very decidedly the wages of the labouring classes, and made their general condition essentially worse than it would have been if these laws had never existed. [...]

To remedy the effects of this competition from the country, the artificers and manufacturers in towns have been apt to combine, with a view to keep up the price of labour, and to prevent persons from working below a certain rate. But such combinations are not only illegal, but irrational and ineffectual; and if the supply of workmen in any particular branch of trade be such as would naturally lower wages, the keeping them up forcibly must have the effect of throwing so many out of employment, as to make the expense of their support fully equal to the gain acquired by the higher wages, and thus render these higher wages in reference to the whole body perfectly futile.

It may be distinctly stated to be an absolute impossibility that all the different classes of society should be both well paid and fully employed, if the supply of labour on the whole exceed the demand; and as the poor-laws tend in the most marked manner to make the supply of labour exceed the demand for it, their effect must be, either to lower universally all wages, or, if some are kept up artificially, to throw great numbers of workmen out of employment, and thus constantly to increase the poverty and distress of the labouring classes of society.
Malthus wants to very gradually abolish the poor-laws, which he says have lowered the wages of the labouring classes and made their lives worse. His plan is to improve the lives of the workers and raise their wages by this reform! Zubrin said pretty much the opposite, that Malthus wants wages to be low; actually Malthus wants to improve wages. More generally, Malthus wasn't trying to make the poor miserable or kill them, and actually he wanted to improve their lives (by explaining moral restraint and reforming bad laws. Also by understanding resource limit, population growth and crop yield issues, about which Malthus was mistaken but not evil).

Malthus further discusses minimum wage laws, which he says are illegal, irrational and ineffectual. He tries to explain why they won't help the labourers. He basically says that if you force wages above the market rate, this causes unemployment and doesn't provide more wealth to the poor people overall as a group.

Zubrin's scholarship here was very bad and he misstated what Malthus was saying.

To clear things up about Malthus a bit more, in general, he meant well, at least according to his book (first edition preface):
If he [the author, Malthus himself] should succeed in drawing the attention of more able men, to what he conceives to be the principal difficulty in the way to the improvement of society, and should, in consequence, see this difficulty removed, even in theory, he will gladly retract his present opinions and rejoice in a conviction of his error.

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi arrived in Washington in late March and met first with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who handed her a memo requiring “a massive effort to control population growth” as a condition for food aid. Then on March 28, 1966, she met privately with the president. There is no record of their conversation, but it is evident that she capitulated completely.

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2508-2510). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
False. Indira Gandhi was already in favor of population control before meeting with Lyndon Johnson. She did not "capitulate". Zubrin presents a false, anti-American picture in which the US pressures Indira Gandhi into semi-betraying her country accepting unwanted population control, in return for food aid (India was having a famine at this time).

Zubrin's anti-American story is based on his imagination, not historical facts. I learned this reading books which Zubrin himself cites, so you might expect him to have read them too. They clearly tell a different story, but Zubrin changed the story to make USA look worse and bias his book to have more of a "USA and other first world countries screw over the third world" slant (which is a theme throughout, with some truth to it, but apparently Zubrin is so committed to this cause that it matters to him more than facts do.)

Here's the real story:

The Coming Population Crash And Out Planet's Surprising Future, by Fred Pearce, p 60 (this is a book Zubrin cites and therefore ought to have read):
Johnson found an unexpected ally: the newly elected Indian prime minister, Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi. As minister of information, she had run aggressive family planning propaganda for her father. Now she wanted to do more than exhort. After the two leaders met in March 1966, Johnson reported back to Congress... [that they agreed about the population control agenda]
Since I discovered Fred Pearce is himself a poor scholar, I didn't know what to believe yet. So I checked Zubrin's source for this specific passage. It's Fatal Misconception by Matthew Connelly, p 222. Connelly backs up Pearce (and then some), while contradicting Zubrin.

Connelly says nothing about Indira Gandhi capitulating. Instead he says, p 222, "Johnson did not have to insist." Why not? Because of stuff like this, "the local USAID administrator noted that, under Gandhi and Mehta's leadership, 'more punch in very recent weeks is being added tot he Central Government's family planning program.'" Indira Gandhi was already in favor of population control without Johnson having to make her capitulate. The US didn't need to pressure her into it, she already wanted to do it to her own people.

There are more details in Connelly, p 221.
[Indira Gandhi] had wanted to donate her family's ancestral home in Allahabad so that it could become an Institute for Family Planning. As information minister, she had pressed a plan to distribute hundreds of thousands of radios across rural India to transmit family planning information. And Gandhi together with Rama Rau was also among those who had been pressuring Nayar to pay women to accept IUD insertion. [70]
After being elected, "Gandhi's interest in family planning was apparent in her first meeting with Ambassador Bowles. So too was her evident need for American help." Bowles said good relationships would require three things: 1) "peace with Pakistan" 2) "genuine and positive neutrality in the Cold War" 3) Connelly quotes his own source for this one, which says, "pragmatic economic policies ... giving high priority to agriculture, education and population planning." Connelly continues:
Gandhi replied that managing relations on this basis would be any "easy matter," promising to
"press hard on such programs as family planning." On January 25, 1966, the day after she was formally sworn into office, the Ministry of Health was renamed the Ministry of Health and Family Planning, including a separate department with its own permanent secretary and minister of state. [71]
Indira Gandhi did not implement population control measures under US pressure. She didn't capitulate. She was eager to do these things and got started right away, months prior to meeting Johnson. Zubrin misleads us in a way that contradicts his own sources.

Lyndon Johnson

Zubrin tells a story in which Johnson gets in office and then population control advocates want to get him on board with population control and have to persuade him.
To get President Johnson on board, [people showed Johnson a fraudulent study]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Location 2281). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
In passing the study on to Bundy, Komer commented: “Here’s a little flank attack that I think might just penetrate LBJ’s defenses . . . . It might score.”[9]

It did. Johnson bought the claptrap, including the phony mathematical results. Two months later, he declared to the United Nations that “five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.” Having succeeded in this policy coup, “Blowtorch” Komer was promoted...

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2287-2290). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
With the Johnson administration now backing population control, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act in 1966...

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2292-2293). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Notice the date of 1966. The thing is, Johnson was already in favor of population control before this. I learned this, again, from a book Zubrin himself cites and presumably read.

The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years by Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is a primary source book. California worked in the Johnson administration and tells about it firsthand. It says, p 154:
Previous presidents had either opposed mounting government birth-control programs, finessed the issue, or gingerly approved a little research on population control. Johnson himself had waited until he was elected in his own right to unveil his position. Then, in his January 4, 1965, State of the Union message, Johnson had said, "I will seek new ways to use our knowledge to help deal with the explosion in world population and the growing scarcity in world resources."
So who needs to trick Johnson with a "flank attack" and fraudulent study? He already agreed with their basic agenda enough to advocate it in major public speeches since since at least January 1965. Zubrin presents it as a "policy coup" to trick Johnson into believing a position he'd already been advocating. That's bad historical research, apparently including not paying much attention to Zubrin's own sources.


As we've seen, Zubrin has multiple misquotes and factual inaccuracies in the areas I checked. I fear the rest of the book may have a similar densities of serious errors. It strains credibility that I just happened to choose the only two poorly researched parts to investigate.

UPDATE: I sent this post to Robert Zubrin, author of Merchants of Despair. This is the full text of his reply:
So you are fine with the deaths of millions of Irish and Indians, under the
administration of British Malthusians, the murder of millions of Jews and
Slavs by German Malthusians, and the myriad ongoing worldwide crimes of
other Malthusians ever since.
I guess they were all misquoted too.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (13)

Bad Scholarship: The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet's Surprising Future by Fred Pearce

I found numerous serious scholarship problems in the first 3 pages.
It led him [Malthus] to oppose the English Poor Laws, which had for two hundred years offered the destitute meager protection inside workhouses.
That's not a good statement of how the English Poor Laws worked. Workhouses became a larger part of the English Poor Laws later in 1834.
Their daughter [of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft] had eloped at sixteen with the poet shelley and wrote the far-from-utopian gothic horror novel Frankenstein.
The implication here is that her book disagree with her father's, which Pearce called utopian, and Pearce offers this in the context of Godwin's life getting "off track". Godwin wrote a utopian book, his daughter wrote a far-from-utopian book, says Pearce. This picture of father and daughter in conflict is completely wrong. Well, they did have some conflict but not about this. Frankenstein is very much in line with Godwin's views and advocates a lot of his important ideas. Focussing on the setting/genre of Frankenstein is superficial and misses the point. It also ignores the mood of William Godwin's own novels, which wasn't necessarily positive. In both Caleb Williams and St. Leon, Godwin tells a pretty grim and sad story, while still advocating his principles. Frankenstein does the same and has a lot in common with her father's novels.
Just as Godwin had earlier caught the wave of revolutionary optimism [during the early days of the French Revolution], so Malthus now rode the backlash [when the French Revolution was unpopular].
This is hard to comment on because "caught the wave" is a vague metaphor. I first read it as meaning that Godwin was a revolutionary who said and believe pro-French-Revolution things and was caught up in the cause at the time. But it could merely mean that his popularity was due to other people doing that, even though he didn't. Either is false, though the second much less false. There was something that could be called French Revolutionary optimism, and while Godwin himself refused to take part, it may have helped provide a portion of Godwin's popularity. Not very much though because Godwin's book did attack the principles of the French Revolution, and he himself alienated many French Revolution supports by disagreeing with them. (During the French Revolution, people complained that Godwin wasn't favorable enough to reason and reform. Later, after many of them had changed their minds, they complained he was too favorable to that kind of thing. Godwin's position stayed constant while other people flip-flopped. Overall Godwin -- not to mention the whole world -- would have been much better off with no French Revolution, but maybe one could credit a little of Godwin's early popularity to revolutionary optimism.)
... the world-famous Norfolk revolutionary Thomas Paine had published his liberation manifesto, The Rights of Man. Freedom was in the air.
Actually Thomas Paine was an enemy of freedom and friend of violence. His book was more of a libel against Edmund Burke (who was, somewhat alone, doing his utmost to save the world from violent destruction -- and he succeeded!) than a liberation manifesto. It was irresponsible and dangerous. Worse, the statement "Freedom was in the air" implies the French Revolution itself -- which had already started and was in the air -- has a connection to freedom (other than the destruction of freedom...)

You might call this one a political disagreement rather than a scholarship issue but I don't think it does nearly enough to openly present itself as mere political opinion. If you want to advocate your politics, go ahead, but don't disguise it as factual-historical statements.

The other things I criticize in this post are worse, but I wanted to include this one too because Pearce is basically pretending to quickly catch us up on some history, but actually he's providing a heavily biased version that is more propaganda than history. He's disguising his agenda as historical summary.

Also, as far as historical summary goes, considering the book focussed so much on attacking Burke, to pretend the topic was liberation, without mentioning Burke anywhere in the discussion, is pretty wrong. And also, the way this is presented basically puts Paine and Godwin in the same category which is totally wrong. Just to take one example, Paine was very anti-Burke and Godwin very pro-Burke.

I think when I say Burke was trying to save the world from violent destruction, everyone knows I am taking sides (I think correctly and objectively, but you may disagree). But when Pearce speaks about Paine, it looks more like mere historical description, even though it isn't.
... English journalist William Godwin, who in 1793 published a popular manifesto for an anarchist utopia called Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

Malthus ... was having none of this libertarian babble.
Godwin was not a journalist. He was primarily an author of serious books.

Political Justice was not a manifesto. It was, as the title says, an enquiry into the truth.

Godwin was not a utopian.

Godwin was not a libertarian. Political Justice says a lot of things which libertarians would disagree with. We can see this just within what Pearce quotes Godwin saying, "Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all." That is not a libertarian sentiment.

Godwin is misquoted with no footnote. There is no mention of edition but 1793 is mentioned so we might assume the first edition. But the quote given does not match the first or third edition (the third is the last and most common).

Pearce quotes Godwin:
"a people of men and not children. Generation will not succeed generation. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, and no government. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all."
This is simply wrong. Godwin never wrote it. Here's what he actually wrote, first (1793) edition:
The men therefore who exist when the earth shall refuse itself to a more extended population, will cease to propagate, for they will no longer have any motive, either of error or duty, to induce them. In addition to this they will perhaps be immortal. The whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation, nor truth have in a certain degree to recommence her career at the end of every thirty years. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice as it is called, and no government. These latter articles are at no great distance; and it is not impossible that some of the present race of men may live to see them in part accomplished. But beside this, there will be no disease, no anguish, no melancholy and no resentment. Every man will seek with ineffable ardour the good of all.
That's misquoted. Now here's the third edition from 1798 which is most common.

(And I also checked my paper copy and another online version. No help for Pearce there.)
The men therefore whom we are supposing to exist, when the earth shall refuse itself to a more extended population, will probably cease to propagate. The whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation, nor truth have, in a certain degree, to recommence her career every thirty years. Other improvements may be expected to keep pace with those of health and longevity. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Beside this, there will be neither disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all.
That's still misquoted. Pearce just plain edited the text without any indication that he was changing it, and stuck it in quote marks anyway.

What is wrong with people to just doctor quotes and publish them as quotes? That's totally unacceptable.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Merchants of Despair

Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism is a book about antihumanism — philosophical ideas that are opposed to human life.

The most covered topic is eugenics and population control (still having a large impact today, and being funded by US tax dollars) and also how that relates to the Nazi Holocaust. It also covers attacks on life-giving technologies like nuclear power, DDT and genetically engineered crops. And it covers the attack on economic development and "fire" (combustion) from global warming rhetoric and the anti-human plans for dealing with global warming by destroying modern industrial progress.

The book is strong and shocking. The brutality of some of these things, and callous destruction of human life, can be hard to take. But it's stuff everyone should be informed about. This book is pretty easy to read. I think it's a good start on the topic. It's badly researched, but the better books are less appealing in other ways. I'd suggesting reading Merchants without trusting any specifics and then reading other books to learn more detail. Merchants covers a lot of ground quickly and enjoyably and can serve as a good introduction to make you aware of its topics. I think most of what Merchants says is approximately, mostly true, besides the Malthus stuff.

It's a philosophical book. The overall theme is the ideas of antihumanism, which it traces back to Malthus and Darwin ("social darwinism" is a mistake and not implied by the theory of evolution, but it was Charles Darwin's open intention), and then to the Nazis and the modern population control and green movements.

Population control is the new name for eugenics. It claims that we have limited resources and too many people. Does that remind you of today's green sustainability agenda? It's evil but it's popular. Actually people use their minds to create resources, and there's plenty of raw material to turn into resources. We're better off with more people, not fewer; human life is a good thing. But because of this nonsense, US money (and other) is going to sterilize vast numbers of people, often without consent and in unsanitary ways. It's especially affecting poor people and frequently targeting ethnic minorities around the globe. The extreme brutality of China's one child policy is only a small fraction of it.

Don't understand what I'm talking about? Don't worry. Read the book and it will explain it all in gory detail. It's pretty short and easy to read. The stakes are huge. Anyone who cares about humanitarian issues must inform themselves about these problems. Start here or elsewhere, but do start!

Read a sample about population control.

More information.

Buy the book.

EDIT: I have edited this post after finding multiple scholarship errors (e.g. misquotes, incorrect historical facts) in Merchants of Despair. For more information on the scholarship mistakes, see my blog post about it.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Autism and Murder
Sullivan described Mrs Hodgins [who murder-suicided her son and herself] as someone who 'adored her son. They were very close.'

She added that however parents with autistic children are 'very close to that line of going over the edge.'
So, all parents who consider their children autistic are near-murderers, and that excuses this murder?

Did she really adore her son? Were they close? Or is that a blatant lie to save face for the murderer?

In comments we see further defenses of the murderess (no need to skim, these are simply consecutive comments, from the start, skipping one snarky anti-US comment about gun control):
Society should stop forcing and guilt tripping women to keep disabled feotuses.
i have two beautiful autistic boys and it is hard looking after them and you can some times feel like you are on your own in this. i have also had to go on medication to cope and had crisis out to check on me as i have been so ill from looking after my boys and got to a point i could not cope.
Walk a mile in any mothers (or fathers) shoes before judging on a case like this.
I have an autistic child with moderate learning disabilities. She will never be independent. I've had to take anti-depressants to cope.
An absolute tragedy, I have two autistic sons - and life is not easy.
I can see why parents cant take it anymore.
Very sad. I wish she had gotten help.
the human suffering are just left to fend for themselves. So Sad.
The school which he attended should have provided the parents with a complete list of things that they can do to help ease their mind and try and gain some independence for their son. There are group homes that would have been available to him
This is not the only story like this.
San Diego police sources told 10News Corby [who murdered her son] was a stay-at-home mother pushed to the edge handling a difficult child with autism.
Pushed to the edge? Who did that? The police themselves are blaming the child for pushing the mother to murder him.

On this one we get comments like
This is a tragic loss of life. However, I must say that until you have an autistic child you have no idea of how difficult it is to raise an autistic child.
Either parent could have reached out to someone is all that I'm trying to say.
Definitely. There is no shame in asking for help when the meltdowns cause so much stress.
When my son was at his meltdown-iest as a young toddler, I would usually put him in a secure location (like the crib when he was younger, or in his bedroom with his toys) and walk away from the situation until he calmed down and we could start again. This way, I did not feel overwhelmed and he was able to learn self-soothing skills. It is such a shame that this mother apparently snapped and did something this drastic instead of just walking away for a little bit.
A mother strangled her severely autistic son with her coat belt before trying to take her own life, a court has heard.
The prior one also reportedly tried to kill herself after the murder ... but apparently didn't try very hard.

The article is filled with statements excusing, defending and justifying the murderess, like this:
"He was not toilet trained even by the age of 11 and still wore nappies."
But it's lacking condemnation of the murderess.
The court heard Freaney and her husband Richard, a 48-year-old former RAF officer, had been having marital problems. She had moved out of the family home and had been living in hotels for about a month before Glen was killed.
"before Glen was killed"? Before she murdered him! And what do marital problems have to do with anything?

You might expect marital problems to be used to demonstrate she was a bad person who mismanaged her interactions with other people, which fits the fact that she is a murderess. But instead the article uses it to defend her.

No comments on that article. So next (and FYI I'm not being selective here, I just googled and clicked a few and then started pasting awful quotes, which are extremely easy to find):’s-murder/
In his press conference, the stunned and shattered father, estranged from his ex-wife and son for the last two years, said he had no idea what provoked his ex-wife to kill their child. “To be honest, she was the most wonderful mother I’ve ever seen.
So, mother murders child. Father defends her as a "the most wonderful mother" to the press. The mothers in that newsroom, who he is saying are worse than murderers, failed to object enough to be noticed by the article.
Her oldest friend, Dr. Marcus Conant said, “She went to clinics all over the country looking for new treatments, grasping at straws
He consider it hopeless because the kid was just too bad. Nothing was going to work. This is excusing murder.
I [as a parent of an autistic child] suspect the whole story evokes an image we recognize at least a little: a mother utterly alone with a child she can’t save.
This blames the child.
Jordan [the murderess] made one message clear: “He was in so much pain. I had to stop it.”
This blames the child too, and even claims he was murdered for his own good. She mixes up her suffering with his own. This is common in psychiatry: parents/relatives/etc are unhappy but everyone refers to this as the child/patient suffering.
Eight is the time you stop putting your energy into fighting the autism that stole your child and start learning to enjoy the child autism has left you with.
This is excusing a murderess by reinterpreting fighting with her child as "fighting the autism", for the child's benefit, even though she made it clear how much she was willing to fight her child literally to death.
This might be what Gigi Jordan never found and what parents of newly diagnosed children should remember. Number One: Don’t go it alone. ... Number Two: ... there will be happy moments.
Shouldn't number one be "don't murder anyone" and number two be "or break any other laws"? Then number three, stop hating and blaming your child, and stop fighting him.

This story has 12 comments. The first 11 are positive -- glowing. The final comment, by an autistic child, says she should have dumped him on other people to take a break instead of murdering him, which implicitly sympathizes with the murderess.

What kind of thinking is behind all this sympathy for murderers of autistic children? Perhaps it's similar to the sympathy for murderers like Jack Kevorkian who kill unwanted persons whom many people, apparently, think ought to be dead.
When I have a RAD fit I feel MAD. I fake cry and scream. WHEN MY MOM LEAVES THE ROOM I PLAY BUT I AM SCREAMING SO SHE THINKS I'M UPSET. I hurt my Mom's feelings. I want to STOP throwing fits. They are not fun anymore.
This is disturbing because it's dehumanizing a child in the child's own voice, and it's spreading very nasty claims about the child, e.g. that he is a faker who is trying to torture his parents and who hates his own actions and wants to be stopped (implicitly: by force, anything that works to make him stop).

When you think a child is intentionally torturing her mother and plotting against her, and the child hates her actions and wants to stop, but a disease makes her unable to, doesn't that paint a picture of a child who shouldn't exist in the world? Wouldn't it be a mercy if she stopped throwing her fits because she died? Who would cry over that? She'd be glad to stop -- it's what she supposedly asked for -- and her mother would be glad not to be tortured anymore. Right?

But the commenters on his blog see it differently. They don't recognize is as the same kind of thinking behind the murders of autistic children, and the sympathy those murderesses get. They, too, are the kind of people to sympathize with murdering unwanted/disliked/deviant children. So they just say things like:
Oohh! I love naps, too!
I am so impressed
And that's all the comments so I clicked on another post at random and found:
I love that you are going to use a lot of tools today.
These sound like great tools to use today, J!
I play time4learning like you do and I have heard you are doing great on it keep up the good work.
I LIKE the pinnk suit idea! Almost as much as the grumpy black balloon idea.
Keep up the good work.
This is deeply wrong and disturbing. And it's directly connected to the murders of autistic children and the sympathy those murderesses get.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Myth of the Closed Mind, 6

The Myth of the Closed Mind is a book by Ray Scott Percival.

The fourth and final part of the book discusses immunizing strategies (ways of changing ideas to protect them against criticism to try to avoid refutation). The book says these strategies are costly. I agree.

In general, changing ideas, by adding exceptions, or any other ways, ruins the explanation. So the ideas lose their appeal and the new ones are actually really easy to criticize for lacking a good explanation, even if they're hard to criticize empirically. David Deutsch covers this in his books, especially the dialog about induction which is chapter 7 in The Fabric of Reality.

So I consider this topic already covered and not terribly interesting because it's easy to see the answer from more general principles.

Another way to look at it is that if you can easily vary an idea in the face of criticism, then your idea is easy to vary. You may hope this will protect it against criticism, but being easy to vary is itself an important criticism (as Deutsch explains at length in The Beginning of Infinity). So this kind of thing doesn't work.

I think the problem situation which is concerned that people will try to avoid criticism is wrong. What do you care what they do? People can live badly and there is nothing you can do to stop them, other than violence or persuasion. And if they don't want to be persuaded by you, they won't be, at least not directly. They don't have to listen to you at all, they don't have to read your books or arguments, they can turn off the TV or radio when you come on, etc... People have to use some of their own initiative to learn things. It's a choice.

I think the problem situation which is overly concerned with immunizing strategies, and big general principles like "is human nature rational enough that persuasion will always work?" is too concerned with proof, with formal argument, with having some sort of rules of the game under which progress can be made that people cannot resist. It's concerned that if people have free will they may use it badly. It wants guarantees for reason, progress, etc...

But I don't mind if people can make choices, even bad ones. I'm happy to tolerate diversity. I know that will include irrationality and other mistakes, but so what? I draw the line at violence but that's it. I recognize my philosophy is fallible and conflicts need to be worked out by reason, to the extent people want to, and if they would rather do something else for now that is part of freedom. There are plenty of people interested in learning things who might want to read my writing or have discussions or improve society, and that's good enough. We don't have to make every single person pursue our vision of progress or find some way to prevent them from choosing to ignore us; we shouldn't want that, it's anti-liberty.

Let people do whatever they want, don't worry about it too much. Offer them value and some people will come around because they are motivated by their problems to seek some solutions and they find value in what you have to say. Some of them will tell their friends, persuasion can happen and can spread. We don't have to worry about people shutting out our criticism because reality provides criticism too -- problems are inevitable and motivate people to try to improve. People who don't have bad lives and in the extreme it becomes obvious their lifestyles are worse when they have a thousandth the wealth we do or that kind of thing. People notice that, even bad people, and make get jealous or angry, but the point is they don't completely ignore all their problems and do care to improve, so there's nothing to worry about. I think this sort of perspective is a better problem situation than trying to figure out what to do about people who don't want our help -- the proper answer to that is to leave them alone.

Live your own life, make it awesome, cooperate on a voluntary basis with the best people you can find, offer up value with mass appeal if you want. The book tries to solve a problem that this sort of good attitude to life doesn't have. And the more you start worrying about trying to find ways to stop people living irrationally in your view, the closer you may get to intolerance, tyranny, anti-freedom.

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The Myth of the Closed Mind, 5

The Myth of the Closed Mind is a book by Ray Scott Percival.

p 81 begins chapter 2 by saying "Darwinian evolution has made us rational." A bit later:
Cognitive psychology has shown that children already have an intuitive grasp of the world.
This is an appeal to authority. Worse, it's also unsourced. The purpose of appeals to authority is to justify ideas; they are a justificationist error. They do not serve as good criticisms or explanations, which are the tools of learning.

One of the propositions it's used to support/justify is:
[Children] also have the capability of forming hypotheses
There's no reason to appeal to authority for this claim. It can be argued for in a short, Popperian way. Children learn things. We know this because if you wait a while you'll find they know a bunch of stuff they didn't know before. And how does learning work? By conjecture and refutation. So the implication is that children can conjecture (aka form hypotheses). And, by the way, they can also think of criticisms.

This argument could be evaluated by the reader instead of just irrationally accepted (how are you supposed to correct errors in the propositions you accept without knowing the reasoning for them?). I think this argument is an important part of child psychology and more generally that using epistemology is crucial to understanding how people think, but the discussion in the book has a different approach.

p 81
If a child sees a cow give birth to a live calf, the child will be surprised if told the next one will lay eggs. Children are born with a categorizing disposition that places animals into natural exclusive classes, all the members of which are assumed to have the same characteristics. This is their intuitive natural history.
This is pretty much advocacy of induction and non-general-purpose thinking (Popperian conjecture and refutation is general purpose, this is something else). It claims children observe stuff and generalize it and then are surprised if their (inductive) generalizations turn out false. And the stuff about categorizing sounds like induction too, it doesn't say anything about conjecturing what categories will solve problems and criticizing one's categories until they are useful, or other Popperian stuff.

Next, in a book about how everyone is rational, we're told about how children will "automatically assume" things which is the epitome of irrationality (since automatic assumptions is a method of thinking that doesn't involve error correction or criticism, or even any opportunity for choice or thinking).

p 85 tells us:
This approach [denial of universality of human thinking; modular approach] fits well with what psychologists have found. Our reasoning abilities are domain-specific and have their own biases and limitations.
This contradictions Popper's general purpose explanation of how we create knowledge (by conjectures and refutations). And it's an appeal to the authority of unnamed psychologists. And it's unsourced.

I get that the modular approach is required for evolutionary psychology (because different variants of genes could make the modules be built in different ways, with different biases), but this stuff is all false.

p 85
Jerry Fodor (1983) was the first to conjecture that the mind has a collection of special-purpose machines.
I have a very hard time believing no one ever thought of that idea before 1983. No argument that he was the first is provided, apparently I'm just supposed to accept it on authority.

The book does have some arguments. Like an example: people who open their eyes "can't help but see a stable three-dimensional environment". I don't think that's actually true -- sometimes I tune out and don't look at the world around me even though my eyes are open. Further, the test subjects are all adults or at least people who know how to communicate, so assuming it applies to all people is unwarranted. Nor do I think if everyone had this experience would that prove it was built into our brains -- we could all learn this approach, much like basically all Americans learn to spell "cat" the same way. Arguing something is common is not a proof that it isn't learned. I don't see anything surprising about convergence on some truths about vision and knowledge about how to see the world being widespread in our culture and reliably passed on to children, so this example fails to impress me.

Backing up, the arguments for the modular approach do not address my arguments against it. They don't address the clash with the Popperian conjectures-and-refutations approach, nor the arguments in David Deutsch's universality arguments in his book The Beginning of Infinity. And more generally, I don't think the book shows any understanding of what it would take to imply specialized brain modules as the only explanation and rule out all alternatives, so it never provides successful arguments that can actually refute all the rival ideas. Since the arguments I find compelling are not addressed, Percival fails to persuade me. Consequently I'm skipping the rest of chapter 2.

Chapter 3 (p 169) is titled "Does Emotion Cloud Our Reason?" and will presumably argue for "no", which I agree with. This sounds more interesting.

But the first sentence of the chapter treats "irrational" as being "insulated against all criticism". But irrationally is normally (perhaps always) partial. It's not all or nothing. We can be better or worse at correcting errors (more or less rational). No one is perfect. Percival also then immediately asks if emotion-based irrationality would make ideologies spread better. This topic comes from chapter 1.

p 169 says
I grant that intense emotion engendered by an ideology may impair the appreciation of critical argument, but I insist that argument is always relevant because our emotions are under the control of our theory of the world and our place in it.
I agree. Good point.

I would add William Godwin's argument: even when people are in the most emotional, passionate situations, such as in the middle of intense sex, or whatever other scenario you want to bring up -- at a moving Church service, immensely enjoying getting married, mourning at a funeral, excited by a sports game, extremely angry, etc -- they will promptly snap out of it and put the emotion aside if presented with something more important (in their own judgment) than what they are doing. Like if a terrorist shows up and points a gun at them, they will forget about the wedding or prayer or football game or whatever, and pay attention to the threat to their life. Emotions can be abruptly dismissed when people want strongly enough to focus on something else. And actually emotional states are pretty fragile which is why people having sex will seek privacy and put lots of effort into preventing anything from "ruining the mood".

Really angry people have also been observed to abruptly change to apologetic when they are told some simple fact they hadn't known before and it puts them in the wrong. This refutes the concept that we are slaves to emotion. Certainly sometimes you correct an angry person and he stays angry, but the point is people *can* resist their anger, not that they have to. They can choose to live badly. That people do both things shows that they have the choice.

p 170-171 presents an argument by Pareto which blatantly assumes justificationism as a premise and thus goes wrong. It's really a non-sequitur. And then there is an assertion that that irrational faith can only be based on feelings, which is given as the conclusion of an argument but is actually just a premise written at the end and isn't argued for in any way previously. Percival doesn't point these things out though, I don't know why.

p 179
Psychological research, on non-human animals at least, shows that the range of conditioned responses that can be established depends on the specifies of animal.
More unsourced appeal to authority. This also assumes without argument that animals have psychology, a proposition I reject on primarily philosophical grounds (so even if I were impressed by appeals to scientific authority, that would miss the point!).

This style is common throughout, e.g. p 180
Experimental research into emotion suggests that...
Worse, we're then told, p 180
Everyone agrees that...
Then, p 180
Now research seems to show that...
There is a section heading, p 180, which reads, "Evidence From Psychology". Then we are told things like "research ... suggests that [stuff]". But evidence does not suggest anything, it is used in criticism, not to establish any positive ideas. So this is non-Popperian.

Then we get, p 180
More recently, Schachter and Singer tested the theory that both cognition and physiological arousal were necessary for a genuine experience of emotion.
This is scientism. It is the purported application of scientific method to reach conclusions outside the domain of science. Supposedly they are research scientists doing scientific tests to figure stuff out. But that isn't what's going on. The meaning and proper way to think about "genuine experience of emotion" is a philosophical issue. Genuineness is not an issue open to scientific research, except perhaps after having some philosophical ideas about it, which, depending on what they say, could then be open to some kind of scientific investigation.

You also cannot establish what is necessary for emotion from a handful of examples that you test. A single example could refute that X is necessary by observing emotion in the presence of Y but no X. But how can any finite number of tests establish that X is required for genuine emotional experience? Just because you invoke emotions 500 different ways, all with X, and you try to invoke them 50,000 other ways without X and fail every time, simply does not logically imply that X is necessary to emotion. So the project is utterly incapable of reaching the conclusion it purports to reach. And it has failed -- like bad science often does -- due to philosophical issues.

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The Myth of the Closed Mind, 4

The Myth of the Closed Mind is a book by Ray Scott Percival.

p 60 talks about Bartley wanting to define criticism in terms of truth instead of justification. Meaning criticism doesn't try to show something is unjustified, it tries to show it's false. I agree. That's good.

It doesn't define what a criticism is though. So I will. A criticism is an explanatory idea about a flaw/mistake/error in another idea. A criticism both identifies some aspect of an idea and explains why it's bad. The explanation is necessary because one has to say *why* the thing is bad. The identification is necessary to point out what's being criticized (this is trivial in some cases where one criticizes an idea directly, but we can also criticzie meta-aspects of ideas and implications of ideas, in which case identifying the thing being criticized is less simple).

p 63 says:
In this chapter I will be arguing that the logic of the propagandist's situation impels him, on pain of failure to spread his ideas, to be -- among other things -- corrigible [open to correction]. In the next chapter, I will argue that Darwinian theory suggests that no person is incorrigible in their beliefs.
This is true. But I also think it misses the point a bit. It doesn't mean people will be corrigible. They might not care about spreading their ideas, or they might be mistaken about what methods will be effective. Error is everywhere and routine, and the mistakes people make can be arbitrary, and so they can easily confuse people on any point such as how to be an effective propagandist or whether they should want to spread their ideas or have discussions at all. But so what? There's also many different paths to solutions everywhere too. In practice, no one is totally closed to incoming information in all areas. So one way they can improve is by improving in the areas they like and listen some in. And those improvements can have implications for other areas.

This point that living irrationally makes one an ineffective propagandist does not contradict Popper's points discussed earlier about how people can live irrationally if they want to and basically good rational arguments cannot force anyone to do otherwise (which is not a bad thing!).

As to how being closed to correction makes one a poor propagandist, I think it's easy. We're all fallible. We make lots of mistakes. That means without error correction we'll be bad at absolutely anything, because we'll make lots of mistakes at it and never fix them. Anything includes being a propagandist.

As to Darwinian theory next chapter, that sounds like it's going to be more evolutionary psychology, which is false. One issue is: by what mechanism do the evolved genes control human pscyhology?

p 63 continues by bringing up Marxism and Freudianism as examples of ideologists that Popper and Bartley consider irrational. Percival takes this as meaning Popper thinks Marxists are beyond help, and takes issue with that. But I don't think Popper ever thought that, I think it's just a misunderstanding. Marxism is an irrational, closed system with general purpose ways to deflect criticism. But you can reach Marxists with meta-criticism. Popper's essay The Myth of the Framework is a good discussion of this sort of issue about how people who are very different and come at things from different perspectives can still always learn from each other and make progress.

So we get, p 64, "The propagandist who restricts his propagandistic efforts in the hope of evading criticsm and rival positions has to incur a number of costs:". Yes, indeed, irrational lifestyles have costs, and have ways out! This is just a special case.

p 77 points out that even if people use brain surgery to prevent creativity, they couldn't perpetuate a static society indefinitely b/c successfully dealing with all natural disasters that may come up requires some innovative thinking, without that they will one day fail. And if they allow any innovative thinking, the consequences are unforeseeable and can get out of hand. More generally I'd add (following The Beginning of Infinity) that *problems are inevitable* and *solving arbitrary problems requires creative thought*, and the consequences of creative thought cannot be arbitrary restricted (there is a nice sci-fi book touching on this issue, Quarantine by Greg Egan).

p 78
Martyrdom and other religious sacrifices are rational decisions of people trying to achieve their personally conceived ends by what they regard as effective and efficient means.
This is a misunderstanding of rationality. You cannot take someone's idea and just directly judge if it's rational. Rationality is an attribute of the methods by which one deals with ideas. To judge if ideas are held rationally, one must do things like suggest better ideas and offer criticisms, and see how the guy reacts to the possibility of change.

The standard and mistaken conception of rationality has to do with ideas being *good*, true, correct, legitimate, justified or having authority. It's about the quality of the idea, not the attitude to the idea. The point Percival is making is basically that even martyrdom and other apparently bad ideas can be good ideas from the perspective of the person doing them. That's true. And certainly such sacrifices can be done rationally, but also irrationally.

Rationality allows for unlimited mistakes, so trying to argue that something isn't or needn't be a mistake is missing the point. You don't have to argue that to point out something is or could be a rational decision. And you can't show something is rational just by showing it's correct. Maybe the person was thinking irrationally but got lucky. Maybe he relied on traditional knoweldge he never criticized but which had a lot of truth to it.

End of chapter 1 (there are only 4 long chapters, plus a prologue, for 275 pages).

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Mises on Psychiatry and Anarchism

Ludwig von Mises in Human Action:
Anarchism believes that education could make all people comprehend what their own interests require them to do; rightly instructed they would of their own accord always comply with the rules of conduct indispensable for the preservation of society. The anarchists contend that a social order in which nobody enjoys privileges at the expense of his fellow-citizens could exist without any compulsion and coercion for the prevention of action detrimental to society. Such an ideal society could do without state and government, i.e., without a police force, the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion.

The anarchists overlook the undeniable fact that some people are either too narrow-minded or too weak to adjust themselves spontaneously to the conditions of social life. Even if we admit that every sane adult is endowed with the faculty of realizing the good of social cooperation and of acting accordingly, there still remains the problem of the infants, the aged, and the insane. We may agree that he who acts antisocially should be considered mentally sick and in need of care. But as long as not all are cured, and as long as there are infants and the senile, some provision must be taken lest they jeopardize society. An anarchistic society would be exposed to the mercy of every individual. Society cannot exist if the majority is not ready to hinder, by the application or threat of violent action, minorities from destroying the social order. This power is vested in the state or government.

State or government is the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion. It has the monopoly of violent action. No individual is free to use violence or the threat of violence if the government has not accorded this right to him. The state is essentially an institution for the preservation of peaceful interhuman relations. However, for the preservation of peace it must be prepared to crush the onslaughts of peace-breakers.
As far as anarchism goes, the idea that an anarchist society would have no police, no defense of property rights, no defense against violence ... is pure straw man.

More interesting, I think, is the discussion of the mentally ill.

To agree to use force against those deemed antisocial or insane is pure tyranny and totalitarianism. It is the suppression of dissent and all radical new moral ideas (because those will deviate from current social norms). It is the opposite of a free, tolerant, liberal society (Mises is advocating liberalism in the book).

The only possible liberal attitude is to refuse to dehumanize any large groups of humans. To label someone "insane" does not make him less of a person. To dehumanize the large and vague group of "antisocial" people, and to endorse violence against them, is even more broadly destructive.

We must thoroughly renounce violence in human relations, not let psychiatry sneak it back in. Mises wants social cooperation but he apparently doesn't understand that social cooperation ought to include everyone, at least in a minimal way. The value of social cooperation must not be used as a justification for violence against those I deem insufficiently cooperative or who do not socialize in the ways I want them to.

I further object to Mises mixing up the insane and antisocial with the criminals and peace-breakers. Most people labelled mentally ill are not criminals, not violent, and do not hurt anyone. To smear all the psychiatrically-labelled deviants as criminals is awful. And completely unnecessary: the people who do break laws can be dealt with according to the law without any psychiatric claim. So the only purpose of the smear is to legitimize violence against the non-violent, non-criminal people who are, nonetheless, targeted by psychiatry.

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The Myth of the Closed Mind, 3

The Myth of the Closed Mind is a book by Ray Scott Percival.

Chapter 1 begins on p 39. It offers an analogy comparing ideas to fish, "all competing for resources and opportunities for reproduction". I think this is meant to dramatize and illustrate the connections between the logic of genes and memes. Percival adds that, "People have only so much attention and memory capacity to devote to these ideas. Because of these constraints..." These are important constraints but I don't think they are the most important ones to focus on. People reject memes they consider immoral, consider false, or have some other criticism of. That constraint is crucial to the logic of how memes work, as explained in David Deutsch's book The Beginning of Infinity. I bring this up primarily because I consider human choice a very important part of life, and I am wary of how some meme theory tries to attack that and deny us responsibility for our choices (sometimes by denying we made them at all). Which fish are successful in an ocean is an issue that doesn't involve human judgment, choice or responsibility, but which ideas are successful in a culture does involve those human factors, so that's a major difference the analogy doesn't capture. Maybe we'll get more detail on this later.

pp 40-41 talks about ideas with more content or generality that are easier to refute but would be more valuable if true, and ideas with less content, less potential value, but also less opportunity to refute them. It's the issue of more or less bold ideas. Percival gives a nice clear example:
A. All cyclists live longer than non-cyclists.
B. All non-smoking cyclists live longer than non-cyclists.
Idea A is bolder and tells us more about the world, but can be refuted more easily than B (by a smoking cyclist who dies young).

p 41 comments about how making ideas more attractive (more general purpose, meaning more content) may unintentionally make them more open to criticism. While the intended point is right (more bold ideas that say more can be refuted in more ways), I think there's an issue here. We can criticize ideas for lack of boldness! The moral of the story, as I see it, is that there is simply no way to hide from criticism. All ideas are always quite vulnerable. Similarly, vague ideas may try to avoid criticism by not providing any clear statements to be disputed, but vagueness is itself a well known and important flaw to criticize.

p 42 advocates the "modular hypothesis" that the human mind is not like a general purpose computer but has specific modules for specific tasks (it leaves open the possibility of some general-purpose thinking too). But Popper's method of conjecture and refutation is inherently general purpose (it's how we learn all types of things, it applies to every field), so what is the appeal of the modular hypothesis? If we think by conjecturing and refuting when it comes to every topic, why have different modules for different topics? This Popperian objection is not discussed and the book quickly changes topic (maybe it will come up again later?).

I skipped some pages about religion and then find, p 51
There is a similarity between being converted to a religion and being struck by the power of a scientific explanation.
I don't know about that. The vast majority of religious conversions are done with children who don't know much about critical thinking yet, while being struck by the power of scientific explanation in the usual way requires knowledge of critical thinking and scientific method as a prerequisite. Percival goes on to attribute the spread of Christianity and Islam (partly) to them having some closeness to the truth and value (monotheism is an example). I'm not so sure about that either because there are Eastern religions with vast numbers of followers which lack monotheism and other valuable attributes of Christianity.

p 57 says Popper and Bartley have "claimed that some ideologies and their proponents are impervious to criticism. I disagree." No source is given. Where did Popper say that? What I know he did say is that all frameworks can be criticized, and we can always learn from each other despite differences in perspective. That's in his essay The Myth of the Framework. Also, fallibility itself implies nothing will be completely impervious.

There are ideologies -- e.g. Freud's -- which are impervious to direct criticism because they have general purpose anti-critical methods built in. But they are still open to criticism, e.g. for their closedness to criticism itself. Whenever there is an anti-critical mechanism which is impervious to some category of criticism, we can still analyze it itself and criticize in a different way. I think Popper knew this. He himself did criticize Freud's ideology, so I don't think it makes sense to consider him to have believed it was completely impervious to all types of criticism.

p 58 quotes Popper saying:
no rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.
Percival calls this "pessimistic". But what's wrong with it? By an effort we can improve. If we don't want to, and try not to, we won't. Learning requires active thinking, taking steps to learn, in general it can't be forced on someone from without. If you tie someone to a chair and play some educational videos, hey may not pay attention. If you tell him a rational argument, he may not listen (he may literally walk away and put in ear plugs). So what?

In our society, almost all people do want to adopt rational attitudes -- at least partially and inconsistently -- because they are aware of some of the value of such an attitude. But there is nothing a priori necessary about this, and there have been cultures in which no one knew what rationality was nor wanted to be rational.

I don't see anything bad in people having some control over their lives. Consider: you might disagree with me about what is a rational attitude and which arguments are rational (or true). And you might disagree even more fundamentally about what kinds of attitudes and arguments are good (if any). That's freedom! That's important. I might be mistaken. I might have gross misconceptions about what rational arguments are, what rationality is, what is good, and so on. It's important that anyone can disagree and live life their way. This is a wonderful thing. If what I deemed a "rational argument" was guaranteed to affect you, against your will, then you would lack freedom, I would have an awful sort of power over you. That would be a sad state of affairs; the one Popper speaks of is a happy situation.

None of this is to say that I actually agree with Popper's full position on this topic. He was mistaken when he wrote "Thus a comprehensive rationalism is untenable." and "irrational faith in reason" (in OSE). But when Popper says the blockquote above or "a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective", he's right.

The mistake which he's struggling with is foundationalism and justificationism. The solution is not to justify reason itself, nor anything else, and not to base it on any foundation. Popper wrote, "[the rationalist attitude] cannot therefore be based upon argument or experience." Yes, but so what?

Rationality is about methods of thinking which allow for the correction of mistakes. It's wise because irrational attitudes, if they are mistaken, stay mistaken. Mistakes in rational attitudes can be fixed. Can someone reject the premises of my argument, or refuse to listen to it if they don't want to, or misunderstand it? Yes. And for all I know they can understand it and reject it -- maybe I'm wrong. But none of this is a problem or bad thing. Progress doesn't come from airtight arguments that force people to accept reason or anything else. It comes from voluntary action, people choosing to think and wanting to gain values by thinking, people having problems they want to improve on, people recognizing their mistakes and wanting a better life. Life presents problems which can inspire people to take some initiative in improving, we don't have to worry about forcing passive people to live the way we deem correct (and we must not do that, because we might be mistaken; a tolerant society is the only rational society).

Summary: reject justificationism (which Popper struggled with early on. He was the first person to understand this, but at first only partially) and then there is no longer any problem of justifying reason. And as to people being free to choose not to listen, that isn't a problem at all but a virtue of a free society.

Percival starts talking about how Popper must think irrationalism is psychologically viable. But I think he recognized that in our society basically no one fully embraces it. One can be interested in refuting irrationalism for other reasons, e.g. because it's an important philosophical position.

Percival misreads Popper in the discussion. Popper wrote (OSE):
That is to say, a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective, and it cannot therefore be based upon argument or experience. (And this consideration is quite independent of the question whether or not there exist any convincing rational arguments which favour the adoption of the rationalist attitude.)
Percival writes:
Popper first says that the rationalist attitude must be adopted to make criticism effective, but then immediately retracts this implicitly by saying that this is independent of whether there are any convincing arguments for adopting rationalism. Is Popper saying that a convincing argument can fail to convince?
The parenthetical was not a retraction, it's a correct logical point. And Percival mixes up the concepts of "convincing argument" and "convincing rational argument". Popper does not discuss convincing arguments, unqualified.

The point is that we must adopt a rational attitude (one capable of learning, correcting mistakes) in order to learn from any argument (or experience). Correct so far. Then, Popper adds, this point is true regardless of whether or not there is a rational argument for adopting a rational attitude. Whether or not such an argument exists has no bearing on the first statement that irrational attitudes prevent learning.

I see Popper's position on this topic in OSE as flawed, Percival's analyze of it as also confused, and I think my take on the topic resolves the issue (basically there is no issue, there only seems to be from a justificationist perspective). Next, Percival discusses Bartley on this topic (who he also thinks isn't good enough), and then I think he will present his own answers after, we'll find out next time.

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Educational Research in Practice, 5

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

Chapters 9-12 are dialogues, each with one Popperian and one other person. I found them strange to read. To begin with, there isn't enough back-and-forth. People will sometimes speak for a page or two without interruption or comment. By the time the other person speaks, many issues have been raised, most of which will never be analyzed. I thought people talked past each other a lot and glossed over some details.

Sometimes Joanna Swan would ask the same question several times. She wanted to get people to talk about what sort of concrete ideas they had about what to actually do differently. But it was hard to get much out of them. And when people speak a lot at one time, and space is limited, you can only ask the same question a few times before the dialog is over.

The way people speak is also interesting. It's full of a ton of big words and pretty vague (the non-Popperians more so). I think it takes a lot of effort to learn to speak that way. And it's one of the things which (rightly) marginalizes academic discourse. Why don't people speak more clearly and straightforwardly? Some reasons are:

  • That'd lower their prestige, make them seem less like experts visiting from ivory towers
  • Sunk cost invested in learning bad approach
  • It'd make their ideas easier to criticize by anyone
  • They have nothing important or useful to say and need to hide this
  • It's a tradition with momentum. Whoever changes first will have a hard time
  • Speaking and thinking well and clearly is a skill which has to be learned. That's hard
  • Learning to think well and clearly would involve learning lots of ideas with some general purpose use and this would actually imply abandoning positions like postmodernism or Marxism. A clear speaker advocating such bad ideas would be a contradiction because clarity of thought leads to improving one's ideas to the point they aren't Marxist/etc
  • The process of learning to speak in the obscure academic way is difficult and people have to mess up their psychology to succeed at it, and then that keeps it entrenched
This is all a bit ironic given they were talking about things like how postmodernism loves to dissent and challenge established views.

One of the things that stood out to me was how people use their allegiance to some position as part of their argument. Like, "I can't accept X because one of the premises of postmodernism is Y, and I'm a postmodernist." It was closed minded. People shouldn't just pick camps and stick to a single camp. They should try to openly improve any of their ideas in any way, piecemeal, even if that means not having a clear identity as a postmodernist or Marxist or other group member.

p 131 says, "Postmodernism simply cannot accept this, although it offers useful conceptual tools..." But shouldn't the issue be what's true? (Actually that particular thing was a straw man. The postmodernist was eager to create disagreements and found an easy way to do that: by not figuring out what Popperian ideas are about and attacking a bunch of straw men, e.g. the idea that knowledge floats around in the ether and that all people have the same values.)

Chapter 12's dialog was a big attack on Popper which I don't think was handled very well. It was very silly and involved replacing all assertions with fuzzy assertions: rewordings of claims to make them irrefutable due to added vagueness. Basically instead of saying, "X will happen" you say "X might happen". Or instead of saying, "X causes Y" you say "X might cause Y, sometimes". Or instead of, "The laws of physics say inertia is universal and applies to all objects and motion" you say, "Inertia is an idea that might happen sometimes". By avoiding all bold or even meaningful assertions, one has a ready-made way to disregard all refutation.

If we aren't going to make useful statements in the usual way, what will the replacement be? Authority. "professional assessment" (p 165, italics in original). Everything is a "might" and then the authorities get to assess how likely stuff is.

It's weird how people mix together what seems like an epistemology of skepticism -- saying we don't know anything solidly, all our ideas just "may" turn out right sometimes -- with an epistemology of authority. BUt I guess there is a sort of logic to it: if you don't get any knowledge from rational means, but you still have to life live, make decisions, etc, -- things skepticism fails to help with -- then what's left? Irrational approaches like authority.

Chapter 13 by Joanna Swann and John Pratt advocates an approach to educational research involving: purpose, rigour, imagination, care for others, and economy. All good things. One of the interesting points, I thought, is that you should pick a problem you want to solve and then figure out an appropriate research method to address your problem. Apparently some people do it the other way around: they come up with a research methodology then go looking for a problem it can address. That's a little like people who take words and then go looking for concepts to use to define them. It should be the other way: first have a clear concept, then pick a word or phrase to denote it. Whenever someone asks, "What are qualia?" or "What is consciousness?" they have things backwards -- they are starting with a word instead of a concept and trying to find the concept second.

p 203, in the glossary, discusses induction
As Hume pointed out, there is no logical reason to assume that the future will be like the past.
I don't think this is the best criticism to make. People read this as saying the future can't be proved to be like the past, but they think it still will be. Actually, the future is always like the past in some ways, but not in other ways. A large part of their mistake is selective attention: when they think the future will be like the past, or "things will continue", they have in mind some things and aren't thinking about other things that will change in the future and not continue.

It is this selective attention which lets them falsely believe that the future will be like the past in most important/relevant/notable ways, even if we can't prove it. But that's wrong. The laws of physics will be the same in the future, but our knowledge of physics will be different. Both are important.

What it comes down to is that induction tries to use a general principle -- the future is like the past -- which does not hold generally. So that's a big problem. It doesn't just go one way or the other in all cases, in goes both ways. What we have to do is come up with reasons that the future will be like the past in selective ways, explain our reasoning, and critically evaluate it. In so doing, we'll find that in many ways the future will be different than the past -- which is good, that is a requirement for progress.

Inductivists constantly forget that there is more to life than what they are parochially focussing on, and in addressing induction it's crucial to remind them of that. By simply saying there is no logical reason for their position, one isn't addressing their selectivity mistake. They are still going to see ways the future will be like the past which they have good explanations for, and they will be right not to be too concerned if those explanations are logical proofs. And as long as they aren't also noticing the ways the future won't be like the past, they will be confused and not realize that figuring out which is which is a big step instead of something to just assume.

The glossary goes on to explain several Popperian ideas about induction, but doesn't discuss this point which I think is crucial.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Educational Research in Practice, 4

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

Chapter 3 is by a postmodernist, Elizabeth Atkinson. I chose not to read it. I did take a look at the start where she states the main points of what she means by postmodernism that she advocates. Here's what it's like:

p 35 opposes and scare quotes "certainty" and presents postmodernism as a voice of dissent against too much certainty. It also says the author does work to do with "social justice".

p 36 has a list summarizing postmodernist ideas. Here is the complete list:

  • resistance towards certainty and resolution
  • rejection of fixed notions of reality, knowledge or method
  • acceptance of complexity, lack of clarity, and multiplicity
  • acknowledgement of subjectivity, contradiction and irony
  • irrevernce for traditions of philosophy or morality
  • deliberate intent to unsettle assumptions and presuppositions
  • refusal to accept boundaries or hierarchies in ways of thinking
  • disruption of binaries which define things as either/or
So if you were wondering how postmodernists see themselves, now you know.

While I appreciate the goal of criticism, I disagree with their values like: lack of clarity, not resolving issues, ambiguity ("multiplicity"), rejection of philosophy, and rejection of values (disrepect for morality). And I do not think unclear criticisms that don't resolve any issues are valuable, so I don't think that really leaves anything to like.

Chapter 4, by John Pratt, says on p 54
A Popperian approach has an important benefit for research into policy. Policy is concerned with doing things. In policy, it is important to do the right things. Policy-makers need to choose policies that are likely to be successful. Merely to experiment is dangerous, and, in this context, even immoral.
If one wishes to take a Popperian approach, first one must understand Popper's epistemology. But Pratt does not. This passage says to act on probabilistically-justified ideas rather than unjustified conjectures. It says it's dangerous to act on ideas without enough epistemic status, and that epistemic status is a matter of probability.

But Popper is the philosophy that taught us epistemic status and justification are mistakes. And that we are fallible and do not know how good our ideas are. We can't justify our ideas as true, nor as probable. And we don't need to in order to act.

The Popperian method is to act on ideas that survive criticism, not ideas that are "likely to be successful". Popper repeatedly emphasized that surviving criticism does not make ideas likely to be successful.

Lack of understanding of Popper by self-declared Popperians -- even ones who do understand a fair amount -- is common. Here's Swann, earlier on p 30
Recognize that although it might feel good to find evidence that supports an idea, the discovery of such evidence plays no direct role in learning.
One can see here an intention and attempt to be Popperian. But this statement assumes, contrary to Popper, that there is such thing as evidence that supports ideas. Popper refuted the concept of epistemic support.

Back to Pratt, he continues not to be a Popperian, e.g. p 55, immediately after quoting Popper we're told:
...we should have some grounds for believing that the outcomes of policy will be what we hope...
This is seeking "grounds" or in other words foundations or support for one's ideas. That's just the sort of thing Popper primarily criticized and rejected. E.g. Popper's comments about science being built on a swamp in LScD, with no solid ground underneath.

p 55 also arrogantly claims that "I and others ... have gone beyond Popper..." Don't you need to catch up to Popper first? Otherwise you're not going past him but simply in a different direction.

If you want to be a Popperian, that's great, but please study Popper adequately first. What's the point otherwise? Popper has valuable ideas to teach, but only if one makes the effort to learn them.

I realize that people can understand parts of Popper, and benefit from this partial understanding. Pratt learned something from Popper about a problem-centric approach to life. That's good. But people ought to pay more attention to the limits of their knowledge. Knowing about one's ignorance gives one the option to do something about it. If one wants to be a Popperian, then it's important to be self-critical about how well one understands Popper or one will never achieve his goal.

Popper's most important idea, and largest contribution, was his non-justificationist epistemology. This challenges and corrects many of the assumptions of virtually everyone. Philosophers would do well to take note.

Chapter 5 is by a Hegel quoting Marxist who thinks discussion between Marxists, neo-Marxists and postmodernists will be fruitful. No further comment.

Chapter 6 makes no mention of Popper. It is in favor of science having a role in educational research. It ends on pp 95-96 with a list of "Key points we wish to convey to new researchers":

  • Develop a solid understanding of critical meta-theoretical issues in the philosophy of science.
  • Do not adopt a radical postmodernist view of science.
  • Reject the incompatibility thesis.
  • Understand that scientific research can involve either quantitative or qualitative data (or both).
  • Learn how to develop a clearly defined research question that stems from a well-developed theoretical framework.
  • Always let the research question dictate the research methodology, not the other way round.
  • Follow Quine and Ullian's dictum that 'whatever there is to be said can, through perseverance, be said clearly
  • Avoid naive, retrograde empiricism (that is, hypotheses without theory)
  • Learn the basics of research design and statistics, even if only to understand the published research of others.
  • Realize that educational research is more than just telling stories or analyzing discourses.
Pretty basic and agreeable.

Chapter 7 starts out by saying Western ideas are biased and hinting they are bad. It talks about the Maori a bunch and doesn't mention Popper. No further comment.

Chapter 8, p 119
In place of the scientific generalization, which states what is, I have introduced the idea of a fuzzy generalization, which states what may be. With this perspective it is possible to generalize (in fuzzy terms) from a single case.
So it's like induction but with more making up whatever you want without any pattern, and even less clarity. This guy would do well to study Popper.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Educational Research in Practice, 3

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

This post finishes discussion of chapter 2.

p 28
If, for example, a team of teachers wishes to improve its teaching of literacy, it is insufficient for the teachers merely to learn more about literacy. At some stage they will have to implement change and evaluate the outcomes.
Evaluate the outcomes? How and why?

Wouldn't it make more sense for students to evaluate their own outcomes and then choose the educational help and methods they find most useful? Why should the teacher be the one deciding what goes on and evaluating what is good? Teachers should be helpers not directors.

Many outcomes shouldn't be evaluated at all. For example, it is immoral to whip children for low test scores. Suppose a school ends whippings. And finds that over the next 2 years, average test scores decrease. So what? Should they start whipping kids again? If something is immoral, stop doing it whatever the outcome.

Many school policies are immoral and should be halted without concern for whether the teachers evaluate the outcomes positively or not.

If you give kids freedom, many of them will not focus on doing the thing that get them positive evaluations from their teachers. But the purpose of freedom is not to get high teacher evaluations -- it isn't to please others. Freedom lets people please themselves.

Chapter 2 offers a lot of generality about improving education but doesn't bring up many concretes, like these:

- most children do not like school and do not want to attend. making them attend is therefore immoral and the situation is not suited for learning anything. learning works best in voluntary situations because the learner must take an active role and can't be forced to do that (if he's being forced, the forcer is taking the active role)

- most children do not like tests or homework. but teachers impose these on students anyway, disregarding the students' preferences

- many children disagree with the moral values behind the evaluations (by the people in charge) of their life outcomes -- in other words they may not wish to be what their teachers (or parents) want them to be

- teachers commonly pressure students to participate in class, such as by answering the teacher's questions in public, even if the student doesn't want to

- many children are unsafe at school, due to bullies (more broadly, due to dealing with other children in a situation that isn't based on voluntary association), and have other stuff to worry about besides education

- children are expected to show up at school on a regular schedule even if their preferences about how to spend their time don't match that schedule. even children who like school have days where they would prefer to do something else. teachers are not sympathetic.

- school authorities routinely betray children. for example they say things like, "if you have a problem (like another student being mean), tell a teacher". but most teachers aren't particularly helpful most of the time. so some children try to solve their own problems that their teachers aren't solving for them. then, sometimes, they are punished for taking initiative and self-defense.

- teachers have a great deal of arbitrary authority and sometimes use it, sometimes very badly

- initiative and confidence are valuable in life, but schools teach kids to ask permission from authority to even use the bathroom

- schools typically expect students to follow a lot of instructions (often quite exactly and rigidly) and are intolerant of people with different ideas about what to do

- there is a conflict of interest when the same person does both teaching and testing or evaluation on a subject. If I give the lectures and also write the test, then I have to try to be "fair" about how closely the test matches the lecture material. I have to hold back on how helpful my lectures are so the test isn't too easy. In a better situation, I would do my very utmost to make the test easy with my lectures, and there would be no problem because I don't know exactly what's on the test and it isn't my responsibility to look out for the interests of the test maker.

- school tests often use simplistic question types such as multiple choice. success can come from test taking technique rather than topical knowledge. but whenever teachers try to grade anything without clear objective criteria for scoring, there are severe problems with arbitrariness and, from the student's point of view, vagueness about what is being asked of them.

- teachers commonly refuse to answer student questions. there is an idea that it's bad to tell kids the answer, even if they specifically ask. teachers routinely thwart their students in even the most basic ways.

- the interests of all the students in a class are far from identical. yet they are subjected to the same activities and course material

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)