Relativism

We are awash in relativism, or post-relevance, as I like to call it, the bastard grandchild of post-modern Euro-crit.  You know what I’m talking about:  It’s all real; whatever; any possibility is as good as the next.  Or my favorite:  All opinions have an equal right to be heard.  First, corporations are people, now opinions.  Oy!

The psychological anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn once published a study of the Dineh (Navajo) people, in which he concluded that their society was fundamentally neurotic.  You can imagine the response.  Cultural relativism was a cornerstone of anthropology long before our current obsessions.  Kluckhohn’s response was that if the values of all cultures are equally valid, then his judgment of the Dineh society within the context of psychological anthropology was perfectly sound as well.

Therein lies the problem: at its root, cultural relativism is paradoxical.  One can probably be a truly disinterested observer with regard to, say, arthropod taxonomy, although even there, tempers have been know to flare.  But where human values are concerned, especially where they directly conflict, such a thing is a cherished fiction.  Because, of course, the vast majority of human cultures clearly and unequivocally believe that their values are superior to all others.  To find an example, one need look no further than the culture of anthropology itself, which presumes to be a metaculture, floating nonjudgmentally above the fray, all the while explaining how people haven’t a clue about the true meaning of their institutions.  Is it just heuristic convenience that anthropologists rarely study their cultural peers?

As bad as the situation is in academe, the slopewash in pop culture is worse.  All that is necessary for a proposition, no matter how absurd, to be taken seriously is for someone to utter it.  That this ultra-refusal to take a stand coexists with the swift condemnations typical of social media is no real surprise.  It is a paradox within a paradox.  After all, indignation is just another point of view, on equal footing with apathy, tolerance, and intolerance.  With relativism, absolutism is fine.

Whatever, dudes.

The origin of ketchup

According to Wikipedia, ketchup originated “In the 17th century, [when] the Chinese mixed a concoction of pickled fish and spices and called it (in the Amoy dialect) kôe-chiap or kê-chiap (鮭汁, Mandarin Chinese guī zhī, Cantonese gwai1 zap1) meaning the brine of pickled fish (鮭, salmon; 汁, juice) or shellfish.”

As a kid, I spent a lot of time at drugstore lunch counters.  Many of you are no doubt too young to remember those; every drugstore had one.  You could get made-to-order Coca Cola from a spout that mixed the syrup with fizzy water right in front of you (flavors, from cherry to chocolate and vanilla, were optional), various ice cream treats (malts, shakes, floats and sundaes), more or less fresh coffee and donuts,  and greasy lunches for a reasonable price.  Condiments like salt and pepper, mustard and ketchup, were lined soldier-like along the length of the counter.  It was a cheap hangout, an ersatz clubhouse, where a guy too young to hang out in a bar could go and reasonably expect to find a friend or two any time of day.  Best of all, magazines and comic books were always displayed nearby, and you could sit and read them without buying; the proprietor generally only complained a couple of times a month, when the racks got overly disorganized, as long as you were careful not to treat them so roughly that they couldn’t ultimately be sold.

A kid could get to know the routines: the shift changes, the making of the Fresh Coffee (older customers timed their arrival for this), and the refilling of the condiments.  I would sit and watch, fascinated, as the counter server went from container to container, topping off the bottles and shakers.  I never saw anyone empty and wash out a bottle of ketchup, which leads me to one inescapable conclusion.

Some small trace of that original 鮭 was no doubt still at the bottom of those ketchup bottles, and that’s why I have such a strong immune system to this day.

C

I don’t get it. C, that is. The speed of light.

I get that it’s supposed to be constant, and I get that the idea enables us to have GPS and all kinds of other wonderments, and I don’t even wonder why, since the universe gets to have any rules it wants, as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t get what it means that the speed of light is constant. Not light itself, mind you, but its speed. An attribute trumps the thing it’s attached to.

When you’re talking about speed, the first question that pops up is, relative to what? With light, it doesn’t matter, it’s the same regardless of what it’s measured against. If I’m standing still, and you’re moving, we will still get the same reading on our cosmic radar guns. As if that weren’t enough boggle for one topic, yours would arrive a little bluer or redder than mine, because, of course, the frequency, which I would have thought had some relation to speed, is not constant.

What exactly was Einstein on about when he was talking about the speed of light? Clearly, velocity, almost by definition, is what relates time to space, so I get why it should have a central place in a theory that regards space-time as a continuum. But velocity is an attribute, dammit! It has no existence outside of the thing it is a characteristic of. How can it possibly be the root phenomenon of reality as we know it?

Then again, I still don’t understand airline pricing, so maybe such things are just beyond my grasp.

How to stop stressing and believe in yourself

“Listen to me,” said the counselor, “your ideas are as good as anyone else’s.”

The young man shifted his weight and looked down at the floor.

“I guess so.”

“What do you mean, you guess so? It’s true. You need to stop comparing yourself to others. That way only results in feelings of inferiority.”

“But, maybe I am inferior. My ideas sound so vague, so simple. If you read what everyone else writes, it’s all so subtle, so well thought out.”

Silence. The ticking of the big mantle clock seemed to fill every moment with anxiety. The counselor let out a long sigh, tapped his pencil on his pad, and looked directly at his young client.

“First of all, you’re comparing yourself with published authors, people who have had time to elaborate on their ideas, and anticipate objections.”

The young man looked dubious.  “But you don’t know my work.  You don’t know if my ideas are good or not.”

“That’s not the important point here.  What’s important is that you are a unique person, and no one else has your viewpoint. If that’s not worth sharing with the world, I don’t know what is. Look inside your own heart for answers, not in some books written by people who will never know you, the real you.”

The young man looked up.

“Really? You really think my ideas are as good as anyone else’s?”

“Absolutely. You’re unique, you’re you. Don’t let others control your self respect. If your so-called friends constantly criticize your work, you need to find better friends. Surround yourself with people who lift you up, not drag you down.”

The young man stood up, took a deep breath, and extended his hand.

“All right, then! I’ll do as you say.”

“I’m so glad we could have this talk,” said the counselor, giving him a sidelong glance. “Keep your chin up. I look forward to hearing good things of you in the future.”

They shook hands, and, with a bounce in his step that was utterly lacking before the meeting, young Adolph strode out into the sunlight.

Guns, revisited

A few days ago, I received a response to my post about guns, disagreeing with my general premise that the easy availability and general plethora of guns in America was responsible for a large part of the gun violence in this country. My immediate reaction was to fire off a reply reiterating my view.  Then, a bit later, I thought I should add some statistics to bolster that view, and I found a web site that gave me exactly what I needed, challenges to the major arguments against gun control, with statistics and citations for the studies generating them. One thing nagged at me, though: the site was Mother Jones, an openly partisan site for left-leaning ideas. I decided to do a little more research, just to be on the safe side.

But a curious thing happened. The deeper I dug, the less clear things became. I don’t mean I was tempted to change my views, I mean I was having trouble finding truly convincing support for either side of the argument. Don’t get me wrong; there was no shortage of sites claiming to have the definitive facts on the subject. If I wanted a page that proved beyond a doubt that guns are the problem, it was easy to find it. The problem was that it was equally easy to find a site that proved beyond a doubt that far from being the problem, guns were the solution. There was unmitigated cherry picking on both sides. For example, one site noted that Finland, which has the fifth largest number of guns per capita in the world, also has an extremely low rate of gun crime. It neglected to point out that it also has a very rigorous system of gun registration and control. Another site repeated the often cited statistic that there have been 181 school shootings since Columbine, but seemed to have counted 120 events that either were not at schools or did not involve guns, leaving only 61. You might say that even 61 is unacceptable, and you’d be right, but this kind of misrepresentation only weakens the credibility of the source.

Even the seemingly unimpeachable was no help. Pro-gun sites often cited the statistic that in the last ten years, gun ownership has gone up, while gun crime has gone down; anti-gun sites have data that show that where gun ownership has dramatically increased in the country, so has gun crime. Which of these statistics is true?

Both, it turns out. But the problem with both is an old bugbear of statistics: correlation is not necessarily the same as causation. In the former instance, if you break down the ten year span, it is difficult to line up instances of gun ownership with lower crime in local settings. In the latter, it isn’t clear which came first, the increase in violence or the rise in gun ownership.

So, what to do? Is it even possible to find a source that is impartial? In the end, I did find one, FactCheck.org. This is a group of journalists dedicated to checking the statements of politicians for truth, and they spare no one, regardless of political affiliation. Of course, they only check the statements of politicians, but this issue is so politically charged that there was no shortage of relevant information. Their gun page is full of statements checked by researching academic studies, government statistics and news sources. After analyzing all of the statements concerning guns and gun violence, they came to a startling conclusion:

Given currently available statistics, it is impossible to determine unequivocally what, if any, effect the number of guns in America has on gun crime.

Nobody, it turns out, keeps the kind of records needed for definitive conclusions. The FBI, the most reliable source, keeps extensive records on gun violence, but dismisses justifiable incidents, which they broadly define as an incident in which the shooter felt an immediate threat. This, most obviously, rules out almost all shootings by police, but also by civilians, whether their perception was accurate or not, and whether they were telling the truth or not. George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, for instance, would not be included in this kind of statistic. Other records are incomplete, and need to be correlated with each other to make sense, often with the result that studies with vastly different levels of thoroughness, even competence, are compared.

Furthermore, there is no good database on accidental gun shootings; this must be gleaned from news sources. There is no comparison of how gun regulation affects these issues; most studies focus on simple ownership of guns. Finally, there is no clear study of how gun ownership affects the mental state of people involved with confrontations, and how often these escalate into violence.

Personally, I still lean strongly toward gun regulation; I don’t see the value of allowing just anyone to keep guns, and I don’t see why guns should not be registered, and I find it hard to ignore the case of Finland. I am also aware that, in spite of all the rhetoric about crime and safety, the biggest factor in the minds of many activist gun owners is government; that’s why there’s so much emphasis on “taking our guns away,” which has never been a serious proposal by gun control advocates.   Simply, they fear that without guns, and lots of them, the government will take away their freedom. The implication is clear. They consider armed insurrection a viable option. Forgive me if I find that chilling.

Still, some good, reliable statistical information on these issues is sorely needed.  In the end, it is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, to find a site we trust and just go with whatever they are saying. There is no site which is reliably impartial all the time, on all issues, and the data are simply not available. We, as a country, need to collect the kinds of data that can lead to better conclusions, and we need to commission better studies. The reports need to be transparent, and include a full discussion of methods and sources.

“But I can show you ten sites with exactly that kind of information!” you may be saying. I know you can. And so can the guy on the other side, who you think is an idiot.

This should be disturbing to both sides of the debate.


ADDENDUM: About statistics

When you’re looking at stats, there are two rules to keep in mind. The first is GIGO, garbage in, garbage out. The reliability of a statistic is no better than the data used to generate it. The second is the old Interrogation Rule, if you torture data enough, they will tell you what you want to hear. This second rule applies not only to conscious efforts to distort reality, but to unconscious factors like confirmation bias as well. It has long been noted that if you begin a statistical study hoping for, or even just expecting, a particular outcome, the chances of getting it are excellent.

So what to do? Do poor old lay people like ourselves just throw up our hands and despair of ever being able to evaluate statistics? Not at all, there are simple ways to do this. Unfortunately, they are not easy. One way is to read what opponents trying to debunk a study say about it. If you want a rigorous argument, your enemy is really your best friend, because they will point out the weaknesses unerringly. You also have to learn to ask questions yourself. Have any possible factors been left out? Are there gaps in the sample? If so, it doesn’t mean you have to disregard the study, but it does mean you need to find corroborating studies, preferably using a different data set, but at least one that is explicit about the nature of the data, and what kinds of statistical methods were used.

Life on the Mississippi, revisit

It’s Fathers’ Day. This is a reprise of something I posted on this blog in February of 2013.

In a dusty, fading memory of a National Geographic of my youth, among the bare-breasted African ladies and stripe-shirted Parisians, there is a sunny picture of a lad on a raft, his toes swirling the Mississippi River. His father had taken him out of school for a year of rafting on that mythic Father of Dreams, not only waters. Why could not I have a father like that, I grieved.

My own father thought peace, not adventure, was the greatest gift. He was born and grew in Latvia, in a forest of kin, as much a part of his place as the oak trees planted for the native sons. A small stone house, a well, three oaks and a horizon of fields. A burial ground nearby sheltered his ancestors on both sides; their names are gone now, weathered away like the wooden crosses that marked their graves. But he was there, where he belonged, in the embrace of family, living and dead.

When I was a boy, I would stand in front of the door of my house, looking outside, wishing and wondering. I think he was like that. Bye and bye, whatever was beyond the fields of oats and rye beckoned, and he answered. In a fit of irrational exuberance, he joined the army.

Not bad, really, at least at first. It was a free country, for that brief period between the great wars, and nothing for soldiers to do but dream of dying under foreign skies, all brave and noble. They certainly had the songs for it. He went off to Riga, to the War College. It was a blast. Bright lights, big city, no way to keep him down on the farm after that. He married a girl with an eighth grade education and a mind that was quicker than a hare chased by two foxes and an alley cat. No slouch himself, he thought she was normal. They had a couple of children. You know that feeling, in a dream, when you’ve climbed to the highest peak to look at the world, and you turn around to discover the mountain has disappeared while you weren’t paying attention?

Russians. Germans, then Russians again. The world was in one of its fits. This part of the story is a haze of half glimpsed hopes and fears, mostly projections on my part. Like one of those stunts on a magician’s stage : a loud noise, a lot of smoke, and when it all clears, everything is different. In a camp in Germany, full of shattered dreams, I was born, much to the chagrin, I’m betting, of my brothers.

The father I knew had had enough adventures, thank you. He had made some promises to God when all else had crumbled; he did his best to see that his children fulfilled them. Keep this in mind when you promise things to God: don’t involve others. Faust probably had a better deal.

These days, I live near the Mississippi, and occasionally, when I drive upriver, I see that kid on the raft in my mind. I’m almost as old as my father ever got. I hope I’ve done as well as he did.