Archive for the ‘communication’ Category

λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια;

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Years ago, National Lampoon had a monthly column that they entitled True Facts. The title was a joke, not because the contents weren’t true (they were an assembly of extraödinary news reports), but because facts cannot be untrue; something untrue is not a fact. Yet many people in various contexts were using terms such as actual fact, real fact, and true fact, almost as if it were possible for some facts to be false, imaginary, unreal. People still do, perhaps even more often. One can find lots of instances of people using imaginary fact; sometimes they do so ironically, but more often they are quite serious. By imaginary fact they mean a proposition that may be untrue, is likely to be untrue, or simply is untrue. In this retasking of the word fact, they’ve lost the use of the word to talk about facts, unless they add a word such as true. But, with that change in meaning, it not only becomes possible to use a term such as alternative fact to refer to a rival claim, but it becomes harder to see that untrue rival claims don’t have equal standing with true rival claims, as they are all supposedly facts.

We aren’t at all helped here that a great many people don’t understand the words true and truth. That’s not simply a problem of vocabulary. Truth is a hard concept, because it entails a meta-propositional act of mapping from a proposition back to itself. That is to say that, in most cases when we apply the word true or equivalent and certainly in the case of true facts, we are explicitly or implicitly making a proposition about a proposition. When we say It’s true that I went to the store, that actual referent of the grammatic subject is not I, but the proposition that I went to the store, yet the upshot of this sentence is merely what would be conveyed in saying I went to the store. We perhaps don’t need this device of recasting a proposition (I went to the store) as a meta-proposition (It is true that I went to the store), but it is useful because we are not omniscient, and must entertain propositions that are uncertain or discovered to be false; the concept of truth complements the conditions of falsehood and of uncertainty. Yet it is very hard to see that function, exactly because we use the concept to discuss itself. Truth is more easily named than described, if indeed a description is possible.

The difficulty in understanding the nature of truth makes it psychologically easier to embrace such notions as that all aspects of of past, present, and future are simply artefacts of individual belief or of group belief (expressed with formulæ such as truth is a social construct) or that what one wants or ought to want is to be treated a true. The word fact may then be used for components of narratives; embracing one narrative is seen as licensing one to accept propositions as fact that are alternative to components of rival narratives, and to reject propositions for no better reason than that they participate in rival narratives. Evolution of narratives is seen as licensing one to change the status of a proposition from fact to falsehood, or vice versa, even when discussing history. And we may even observe those socially identified as fact-checkers testing claims against narratives which are themselves never fact-checked, because the checkers implictly treat their favored narratives as the ultimate determinant of fact.

When Pilate asked What is truth?, perhaps he was truly curious as to the nature of truth, but he may merely have been asking why he should give a damn about it. Our political leaders have become ever more disdainful of truth. They have long offered us alternative facts, and their followers in each of our major political tribes and in most of the smaller groups as well have decided that, for them, these are the facts. Now we have an Administration that does so more baldly and less artfully. One might hope that this practice will explode on them; but, even if that explosion should happen, their opponents are likely to see an expansion of the envelope within which they may disregard the facts.

Deal-Breakers

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Elsewhere, Pierre Lemieux asked In two sentences, what do you think of the Monty Hall paradox? Unless I construct sentences loaded with conjunctions (which would seem to violate the spirit of the request), an answer in just two sentences will be unsatisfactory (though I provided one). Here in my 'blog, I’ll write at greater length.


The first appearance in print of what’s called the Monty Hall Problem seems to have been in a letter by Steve Selvin to The American Statistician v29 (1975) #1. The problem resembles those with which Monty Hall used to present contestants on Let’s Make a Deal, though Hall has asserted that no problem quite like it were presented on that show. The most popular statement of the Monty Hall Problem came in a letter by Craig Whitaker to the Ask Marilyn column of Parade:

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, Do you want to pick door No. 2? Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

(Before we continue, take car and goat to stand, respectively, for something that you want and something that you don’t want, regardless of your actual feelings about cars and about goats.)

There has been considerable controversy about the proper answer, but the text-book answer is that, indeed, one should switch choices. The argument is that, initially, one has a 1/3 probability that the chosen Door has the car, and a 2/3 probability that the car is behind one of the other two Doors. When the host opens one of the other two Doors, the probability remains that the car is behind one of the unchosen Doors, but has gone to 0 for the opened Door, which is to say that the probability is now 2/3 that the car is behind the unchosen, unopened Door.


My first issue with the text-book answer is with its assignment of initial, quantified probabilities. I cannot even see a basis for qualitative probabilities here; which is to say that I don’t see a proper reason for thinking either that the probability of the car being behind a given Door is equal to that for any other Door or that the probability of the car being behind some one Door is greater than that of any other Door. As far as I’m concerned, there is no ordering at all.

The belief that there must be an ordering usually follows upon the even bolder presumption that there must be a quantification. Because quantification has proven to be extremely successful in a great many applications, some people make the inference that it can be successfully applied to any and every question. Others, a bit less rash, take the position that it can be applied everywhere except where it is clearly shown not to be applicable. But even the less rash dogma violates Ockham’s razor. Some believe that they have a direct apprehension of such quantification. However, for most of human history, if people thought that they had such literal intuitions then they were silent about it; a quantified notion of probability did not begin to take hold until the second half of the Seventeenth Century. And appeals to the authority of one’s intuition should carry little if any weight.

Various thinkers have adopted what is sometimes called the principle of indifference or the principle of insufficient reason to argue that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, each of n collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive possibilities must be assigned equal likelihood. But our division of possibilities into n cases, rather than some other number of cases, is an artefact of taxonomy. Perhaps one or more of the Doors is red and the remainder blue; our first division could then be between two possibilities, so that (under the principle of indifference) one Door would have an initial probability of 1/2 and each of the other two would have a probability of 1/4.

Other persons will propose that we have watched the game played many times, and observed that a car has with very nearly equal frequency appeared behind each of the three Doors. But, while that information might be helpful were we to play many times, I’m not aware of any real justification for treating frequencies as decision-theoretic weights in application to isolated events. You won’t be on Monty’s show to-morrow.

Indeed, if a guest player truly thought that the Doors initially represented equal expectations, then that player would be unable to choose amongst them, or even to delegate the choice (as the delegation has an expectation equal to that of each Door); indifference is a strange, limiting case. However, indecision — the aforementioned lack of ordering — allows the guest player to delegate the decision. So, either the Door was picked for the guest player (rather than by the guest player), or the guest player associated the chosen Door with a greater probability than either unchosen Door. That point might seem a mere quibble, but declaring that the guest player picked the Door is part of a rhetorical structure that surreptitiously and fallaciously commits the guest player to a positive judgment of prior probability. If there is no case for such commitment, then the paradox collapses.


Well, okay now, let’s just beg the question, and say not only that you were assigned Door Number 1, but that for some mysterious reason you know that there is an equal probability of the car being behind each of the Doors. The host then opens Door Number 3, and there’s a goat. The problem as stated does not explain why the host opened Door Number 3. The classical statement of the problem does not tell the reader what rule is being used by the host; the presentation tells us that the host knows what’s behind the doors, but says nothing about whether or how he uses that knowledge. Hypothetically, he might always open a Door with a goat, or he might use some other rule, so that there were a possibility that he would open the Door with a car, leaving the guest player to select between two concealed goats.

Nowhere in the statement of the problem are we told that you are the sole guest player. Something seems to go very wrong with the text-book answer if you are not. Imagine that there are many guest players, and that outcomes are duplicated in cases in which more than one guest player selects or is otherwise assigned the same Door. The host opens Door Number 3, and each of the guest players who were assigned that Door trudges away with a goat. As with the scenario in which only one guest player is imagined, more than one rule may govern this choice made by the host. Now, each guest player who was assigned Door Number 1 is permitted to change his or her assignment to Door Number 2, and each guest player who was assigned Door Number 2 is allowed to change his or her assignment to Door Number 1. (Some of you might recall that I proposed a scenario essentially of this sort in a 'blog entry for 1 April 2009.) Their situations appear to be symmetrical, such that if one set of guest players should switch then so should the other; yet if one Door is the better choice for one group then it seems that it ought also to be the better for the other group.

The resolution is in understanding that the text-book solution silently assumed that the host were following a particular rule of selection, and that this rule were known to the guest player, whose up-dating of probabilities thus could be informed by that knowledge. But, in order for the text-book solution to be correct, all players must be targeted in the same manner by the response of the host. When there is only one guest player, it is possible for the host to observe rules that respond to all guest players in ways that are not not possible when there are multiple guest players, unless they are somehow all assigned the same Door. It isn’t even possible to do this for two sets of players each assigned different Doors.


Given the typical presentation of the problem, the typical statement of ostensible solution is wrong; it doesn’t solve the problem that was given, and doesn’t identify the problem that was actually solved.


[No goats were harmed in the writing of this entry.]

Holiday Wishes

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Buon Natale! Possa il nuovo anno essere meraviglioso per voi.

On the Economists' use of Rent*

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Ordinary language typically uses rent to mean a recurring payment for the use of some good or service, especially for the use of land. The word has various other meanings in ordinary language; but, in economics, rent is used to mean something given in exchange, above and beyond what would have been the minimum necessary to effect the exchange in the absence of some restraint of trade. Usually, this concept is applied to pecuniary payment for a good or service above and beyond the minimum necessary to get that good or service, but one should see that exchanges without money might still involve such increased payment of one good or service for another, and that the same basic idea could be applied to cases in which someone were compelled to deliver more of a good or service than the minimum otherwise necessary to secure some amount of money.


It’s mostly because of David Ricardo (18 April 1772 – 11 September 1823), an influential economist, that rent has this meaning. Ricardo used the word rent to refer to payment for the indestructible powers of land. That is to say that rent meant payment for the use of those properties of land that were not diminished by use; payment for harvesting things such as preëxisting plants and minerals would not, strictly speaking, be rent. Perhaps the only thing that could literally meet this criterion would be specific area, but Ricardo favored simplified models, so one might consider highly durable or naturally renewed properties as indestructible.

In Ricardo’s mind, if someone renting land were given a right to cut down trees already on the land, or to quarry marble from it, then this right were essentially of the same sort as the right of someone buying lumber or stone at a mill; we certainly don’t label the prices of such commodities as rent. Ricardo wanted to identify what were distinctive and essential in what we called rent, and to reserve the word rent just for those components of payments.

Ricardo imagined land as of different qualities, even when viewed only in terms of indestructible properties, but imagined the existing quantities of lands of each quality as not something ever increased by human action. And, in the context of his models, he concluded that rent were not determined by its cost of manufacture nor otherwise by some minimum below which the land-owner could not afford to produce it; rent, according to Ricardo, were purely an artefact of monopoly in the provision of land.

So long as this belief prevailed, it was natural for economists to extend the use of the word rent to other payments which they regarded as perfectly analogous. The word rent came to stand for any payment above and beyond the minimum necessary to effect an exchange were there a non-monopolistic market. And, even when most economists moved away from Ricardo’s theory, as classical economics yielded to more thorough-going marginalism, they held onto this extended use of the term rent.


Because this use of rent can certainly be confusing, both when economists are interacting with lay-persons and when economists are attempting to discuss markets in which commodities are leased, sometimes instead of the bald word rent, they use the term economic rent. (This solution is imperfect, as that term can in ordinary language refer to a leasing payment which is in some sense reasonable for a lessee or potential lessee to bear.)


Economic rent, and the pursuit of rent — called rent-seeking — are considered quite important by most economists.

Rent-seeking, perhaps often unconscious but certainly almost never acknowledged, is wide-spread, and explains a very great deal of the political process.

Rents cannot be paid unless they are paid by someone; often, those paying them do not even realize that they are bearing these costs, or mistake their sources. Worse, rents typically transfer wealth inefficiently, with more lost by whoever is made to pay the rent than would be lost by some other transfer mechanism. Still worse, rent-seeking imposes costs even when it is unsuccessful.


Within a neo-classical framework, rent (or economic rent) might be alternately be defined as something given in exchange, above and beyond the opportunity cost of producing that for which it is exchanged. When the frequent assumptions of complete preferences, continuous divisibility of goods and of services, and ignorability of small costs hold, this new definition is equivalent to the original definition. But, exactly because one ought not to over-commit to those assumptions, it is best not to adopt the alternate definition as such.

I have encountered professors of economics asserting things to be rents that certainly were not. For example, one simply declared that the salary of a specific basketball player were a rent, but the professor had lost himself in a taxonomy which imagined the player simply as playing basketball or as idling. In fact, the player could have played for teams other than the one that hired him, and could have applied his abilities to something other than playing in professional basketball. If there were a rent in his salary, it may not even have been the major portion.


* This entry is primarily infrastructural. I want to be able to refer to rent and to rent-seeking in later entries, without there defining the associated terms.

Humpty Dumpty, Prescriptivism, and Linguistic Evolution

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

In Chapter 6 of Through the Looking Glass by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (writing as Lewis Carroll), a famous and rather popular position on language is taken:

When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

If Mr Dumpty’s words simply mean whatever he intends them to mean, then the rest of us are not in a position to understand them. If he provides us with verbal definitions, we must know what the defining words mean. He could not even declare in a manner intelligible to us that he meant most words in the same sense as do you or I. We might attempt to tease-out meanings by looking for correlations, but then we would be finding meanings as correlations, which assumes properties (such as stability) that represent more than pure choice on the part of Mr Dumpty. Having been made perfectly private, his vocabulary as such would have no practical value except for internal dialogue. There is a paradox here, which Dodgson surely saw, yet which so very many people don’t: If Mr Dumpty’s apparent declaration were true, then it could not be understood by us. He might actually just be making some claim about breakfast. We might take (or mistake) his claim for a true proposition (that his vocabulary were purely idiosyncratic), but any co-incidence between his intention and our interpretation would be a result of chance. We could not actually recognize it for whatever proposition it actually expressed.

In order to communicate thoughts with language to other persons, we must have shared presumptions not only about definitions of individual words, but also about grammar. The more that such presumptions are shared, the more that we may communicate; the more fine-grained the presumptions, the more precise the communication possible. In the context of such presumptions, there are right ways of using language in attempt to communicate — though any one of these ways may not be uniquely right or even uniquely best — and there are ways that are wrong.

Those who believe that there are right ways and wrong ways to use language are often called prescriptivist, and generally by those who wish to treat prescriptism as wrong-headed or as simply a position in no way superior to the alternatives. Yet, while one could find or imagine specific cases where the beliefs concerning what is right or wrong in language-use were indeed wrong-headed, forms of prescriptivism follows logically from a belief that it is desirable for people to communicate, and especially from a belief that communication is, typically speaking, something rather a lot of which is desirable. As a practical matter, altogether rejecting prescriptivism is thoughtless.

To the extent that the same presumptions of meaning are shared across persons, the meanings of words are independent of the intentions of any one person. Meanings may be treated as adhering to the words themselves. Should Mr Dumpty take a great fall, from which recovery were not possible, still his words would mean exactly what they meant when he uttered them. A very weak prescriptivism would settle there, with the meaning of expressions simply being whatever were common intention in the relevant population. This prescriptivism is so weak as not often to be recognized as prescriptivism at all; but even it says that there is a right and wrong within the use of language.

Those more widely recognized as prescriptivists want something rather different from rude democracy. In the eyes of their detractors, these prescriptivists are dogmatic traditionalists or seeking to creäte or to maintain artificial elites; such prescriptivists have existed and do exist. But, more typically, prescriptivism is founded on the belief that language should be a powerful tool for communication as such. When a typical prescriptivist encounters and considers a linguistic pattern, his or her response is conditioned by concern for how it may be expected to affect the ability to communicate, and not merely in the moment, but how its acceptance or rejection will affect our ability to understand what has been said in the past and what will be said in the future. (Such effects are not confined to the repetition of specific pattern; other specific patterns may arise from analogy; which is to say that general patterns may be repeated.) Being understood is not considered as licensing patterns that will cause future misunderstandings.

In opposing the replacement of can with the negative can’t in can hardly, the typical prescriptivist isn’t fighting dogmatically nor to oppress the downtrodden, nor merely concerned to protect our ability to refer to the odd-ball cases to which can’t hardly with its original sense applies; rather, the prescriptivist is trying to ward-off a more general chaos in which we can hardly distinguish negation from affirmation. (Likewise for the positive could care less standing where the negative couldn’t care less would be proper.) When the prescriptivist objects to using podium to refer to a lectern, it’s so that we continue to understand prior use and so that we don’t lose a word for the exact meaning that podium has had. We already have a word for lecterns, and we can coin new words if there is a felt need for more.

The usual attempt to rebut prescriptivism of all sorts notes that language evolves. Indeed it does, but prescriptivisms themselves — of all sorts — play rôles in that evolution. When a prescriptivist objects to can’t hardly being used where can hardly would be proper, he or she isn’t fighting evolution itself but participating in an evolutionary struggle. Sometimes traditional forms are successfully defended; sometimes old forms are resurrected; sometimes deliberate innovations (as opposed to spontaneous innovations) are widely adopted. Sometimes the results have benefitted our ability to communicate; sometimes they have not; but all these cases are part of the dynamic of real-world linguistic evolution.

The Evolution Card is not a good one to play in any event. Linguistic evolution may be inevitable, but it doesn’t always represent progress. It will not even tend to progress without an appropriate context. Indeed, sometimes linguistic evolution reverses course. For example: English arose from Germanic languages, in which some words were formed by compounding. But English largely abandoned this characteristic for a time, only to have it reïntroduced by scholarly contact with Classical Greek and Latin. (That’s largely why our compounds are so often built of Greek or Latin roots, whereäs those of Modern German are more likely to be constructed with Germanic roots.) It was evolution when compounding was abandoned, and evolution when it was reädopted. If compounding were good, then evolution were wrong to abandon it; if compounding were bad, then evolution were wrong to reëstablish it. And one cannot logically leap from the insight that evolution is both inevitable and neither necessarily good nor necessarily bad to the conclusion that any aspect of linguistic practice is a matter of indifference, that nothing of linguistic practice is good or bad. One should especially not attempt to apply such an inference peculiarly to views on practice that one dislikes.

Social Consequences of Speciation

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sometimes, I don’t know how to write about important matters. Please bear with me, because this subject is far more important than it might initially seem.

When most people encounter the word species, it is either in the context of a biological discussion, or the word is used as a metaphorical borrowing from discussion of that sort. It actually has more general meanings, the broadest simply being class of things of shared characteristics. But what concerns me here is indeed its biological sense.

Most people who have any notion at all of the word derive their understanding of the biological signification from a combination of observed use and whatever was told to them by middle- and high-school texts of alleged science. Many of them know that organisms are categorized hierarchically, and that species is a finer category than genus. But, if asked to describe the classification of animals as different, say, as are cats and dogs, far more people would descibe them as of different species than as of different family or as of different genus. There is an inferred sense that difference in species is rather fundamental.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the biological sense thus:

A taxonomic grouping ranking next below genus and subgenus, which contains organisms that are uniquely distinguished from others by certain shared characteristics and usu. by an inability to interbreed with members of other such groupings; such a grouping as denoted by a Latin binomial, and freq. subdivided into subspecies, races, varieties, etc.; the organisms of such a grouping.

That bit about inability to interbreed is a bit loose; for example, most biologists would classify horses and donkeys as of different species, though they can produce offspring. However, a striking characteristic of those offspring is that they cannot themselves produce further offspring. The infertility of those offspring is usually cited towards explaining the speciation.

In any case, The SOED hedged with that usu. because some biologists categorize animals as of different species though they can interbreed down through indefinitely many generations, as in the case of coyotes (C. latrans) with wolves (C. lupus).

Over some decades, anthropologists disagreed over whether to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, H. neanderthalensis, or as a sub-species of H. sapiens. As there was no way to observe potential interbreeding, early disagreement turned on issues of overt morphology — the shapes of skulls, dentition, &c. But then interbreeding became, in a sense, potentially observable as it became possible to extract and analyze DNA from remains of Neanderthalers. Initial results (quite surprising to me) suggested no interbreeding, and it became more commonly accepted that they should be considered a distinct species. However, when later genetic evidence began to show the presence of Neanderthaler genes in some modern populations of H. sapiens, the practice of treating them as a distinct species was not universally abandoned. It is still common to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, though this implicitly means that species is not being used with the usu. signification. And when, far more recently, a similar archaïc population, the Denisovans, were distinguished, it became fairly common also to categorize them as a distinct species, though their genes are likewise found in some modern populations of H. sapiens.

But, again, when most lay-people hear or read the word species, they are imagining a quite significant distinction. And when they hear and read of Neanderthalers or of Denisovans as distinct species, they infer that these people were not human. Here are three example articles that I quickly found of journalists doing just that in the case of Neanderthalers or in that of Denisovans:

As these archaïc populations are extinct, there may not seem to be any more of a social issue here than there typically is with misunderstood science. But a problem is coming right at us. And it’s associated with the point that the genes of archaïc populations are found in modern populations — in different distributions. Take, for example, this article:

The author or authors blithely refer to the Neanderthalers, to the Denisovans, and to an additional, hypothesized archaïc population as distinct species without explaining whatever is there meant by the term. A large share of readers will regard the archaïc populations as not fully human, and infer that different ethnic groups have more or less genetic material that is not fully human. It will be inappropriately inferred that some ethnic groups are thus less human or more human than are others.

Anthropologists and biologists who talk with lay-persons, and especially with journalists and with other informal educators, need to emphasize the arbitrariness in use of the word species, and these scientists need to impress upon their audiences that the word should be avoided or explained in all popular-science journalism that touches upon our relationships with archaïc populations.

A Matter of Interest

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Eugen Ritter von Böhm-Bawerk, an important economist of the second generation of the Austrian School, produced a theory of interest rates based upon the interplay of time-preference with the significance of time in production. (Previous theories had either looked towards just the one or towards just the other, or sought explanation in terms of social power.) This theory was adopted by Knut Wicksell and by Irving Fisher. Fisher translated most of the theory into neo-classical, mathematical terms. Hans Mayer provided one important element that Fisher had missed. I was exposed to this neo-classical translation by J[ames] Huston McCulloch in an undergraduate course on money and banking.

Years later, towards creäting a fuller explanation, I played with relaxing some of the assumptions. And some time after that, I wrote a paper for a graduate class in which I extended Fisher’s two-period model to handle continuous time (by way of a space of ℵ1 dimensions). I’ve occasionally thought to write-up that aforementioned fuller explanation, but mostly been put-off by the task of generating the involved graphs to my satisfaction.

Recently, I was sufficiently moved to begin that project. I wasn’t imagining doing anything much other than fleshing-out a translation previously effected by others, so I was considering publishing the exposition as a webpage, or as a .pdf.

But, as I’ve labored it, trying to be clear and correct and reasonably complete, I’ve seen how to talk about some old disagreements amongst economists that I don’t know were ever properly settled — perhaps these quarrels were not even properly understood by any of the major disputants, who each may have been talking past the others. So I may steer towards producing something that I can submit to an academic journal. (The unhappy part of doing that would be identifying and reviewing the literature of the conflict, with which I currently have only second-hand familiarity.)

Perhaps I’ll produce both something along the lines that I’d originally intended, and a paper for a journal.

On the Meaning of Racism

Monday, 3 October 2016

The original definition of racism, and the one still found in standard dictionaries, is a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race

However, a few decades ago, some social theorists began insisting upon a new definition of racism, under which one could not be called a racist unless one not only were prejudiced against some racial group, but had social power. Devotees of this new definition variously baldly restate it, as if the restatement makes it so, or cite the theorists, as if such citation makes it so.

Those who make a special study of a subject sometimes take a term in popular use, and give it a peculiar, somewhat new definition. (For examp!e, we see that in physics, with the uses of energy, force, and work; and we see that in economics, with the definition of unemployment.) But what usually characterizes these redefinitions is that somewhat loose notions are replaced with more explicit, more precise, and otherwise more workable definitions. (For example, when an economist uses unemployment, she usually excludes people who have quit one job for another, but have not yet started that next job, because joblessness of this transitory sort is not typically considered to be a social ill.)

Alarms really ought to go-off about the redefinition of racism. The original concept was quite coherent and useful; if it were not coherent, then the redefinition (which essentially adds a condition) would inherit the incoherence. Racism on the part of people with little social power still has significant social consequences; any legitimate use of the new concept is far more sharply limited than that of the original concept.

Let's imagine that someone prejudiced against those outside his own major racial group makes a solo walking tour of Los Angeles. As he travels from one neighborhood to another, he gains or loses social power as the ethnic compositions of those neighborhoods vary. His beliefs about the relation between race and merit needn't change (and should not be expected to do so much if at all). Yet by the mere act of travel through a large city in which ethnic groups are not uniformly distributed, under the redefinition he would repeatedly go from being a racist, to not being a racist, to again being a racist. It would be extraordinary and dangerous to make a solo walking tour of all of Los Angeles, but a great many people regularly move across communities of different ethnic composition. Application of the proposed redefinition of racism would routinely become unworkable, under circumstance in which the standard definition remains quite workable.

There are certainly legitimate applications of the concept of socially empowered racism, but in those applications we can call it socially empowered racism or something similar.

When a concept loses its associated symbol, it becomes harder to discuss or even to think about that concept. Further, the response to symbols is largely emotive. Whether people learn by reason that something is good or that it is bad, or they are simply led to accept some valuation by imitation of those in their society, people come to associate positive or negative feelings with the words used for those things. Old concepts given new words don't provoke the same response; old symbols given new meanings carry with them some or all of the old feelings. Those who have adopted a new redefinition of racism can thus escape the recognition of racism, and the felt need to condemn some instances of racism, by allowing themselves to believe that some people simply cannot be racists, by virtue of their social standing.

We are simply dealing with an attempted hijacking of language, for purposes of subverting clear thought and discussion. That is most plain when the word racism has been introduced into some discourse with its standard definition, and in response it is insisted that something conforming to that original definition is not racism because it does not conform to the proposed redefinition. But any non-standard use that is not flagged as such is still a subversion of rationality. Those who have participated in the attempted hijacking are knaves or fools or both.

Accuracy, Exactitude, and Precision

Monday, 5 September 2016

Dictionaries and thesauri often treat accuracy and precision as synonymous, or as nearly so. But the words accuracy and precision and their coördinates[1] are each most strongly associated with a distinct and important notion. The word exactitude (often treated as synonymous with the previous two) and coördinates are most strongly associated with something rather like the combined sense of those other two, but with a notable difference.

When we say that a specification is precise, we do not necessarily mean that it were correct when judged against the underlying objectives. We may merely mean that it were given with considerable explicit or implicit detail. If I tell you that a musical show will begin at 8:15:03 PM, then I am being precise (indeed, surprisingly so). But the show may begin at some other time; in fact, it may never have been planned to begin at that stated time; I can be both precise and wrong.

If your friend tells you that the show will begin shortly after 9 PM, then she may be accurate, though she was far less precise than I.[2] The word accuracy and coördinates are associated with closeness to the truth; and, in everyday discourse, she might be said to be more accurate were she to be more precise while remaining within the range implied by shortly after 9 PM. But the word is also associated with encompassing the truth; if the precision seemed to narrow the range of possibilities in a way that excluded what proved to be the truth, then she might be regarded a having become less accurate. (If one is told that the show is to begin at 9:15 PM, but it begins at 9:05 PM, then one might feel more misled than had one been less precisely told shortly after 9 PM.)

(Note that it would be seen as self-contradiction to say that someone were accurately wrong, though we sometimes encounter the phrase precisely wrong. The latter carries with it the sense — usually hyperbolic — that the someone had managed to be so wrong that even the slightest deviation from what he or she had said or done would be an improvement.)

Although some people might jocularly, eristically, or sophistically pretend that one truth were somehow truer than another, any meaningful proposition is either simply true or simply false (though which may be unknown and there are degrees of plausibility). If Tom and Dick each go to the store, then it is true that one of them has gone to the store. It is not closer to the truth that two of them have gone to the store. It might be said that it were more accurate that two of them have gone to the store, but this seems to imply that it is truer that two went than that one went, and this implication is false. Fortunately, we have a word and coördinates that can carry with them a particular sense of accuracy and precision, with exclusion. These words are exact, exactly, and exactitude.[3] It is true that one person has gone to the store, but it is not true that exactly one person has gone to the store.[4]

(The expression exactly wrong is usually in hyperbolic contrast with exactly right, but is sometimes applied elliptically, when there is believed to be exactly one way in which to have been wrong.)

Even if one is not greatly concerned with rigor, these distinctions can be important. Asking members of an audience to be more accurate when one wants them to be more precise may inadvertently suggest to the audience that one thinks them to have been untruthful! Typically, risking that inference brings no benefit. It would then be better to ask them to be more precise or more exact.[5] The latter may work best with the passive-aggressive or with the autistic, who might otherwise be more precise while less accurate.


[1] The coördinates of a word are simply the other parts of speech built of the same root and carrying the same general sense adapted to a different grammatical rôle. For example, the adjective accurate and the adverb accurately are coördinate with the abstract noun accuracy.

[2] In discussions of computer science, the everyday distinction between accuracy and precision is made more emphatic, because the mathematics of computing is discrete, and limitations in detail have important implications. For example, ordinary floating-point encoding imperfectly represents numbers such as 1/10. That’s why calculators and computers so often seem to add or to subtract tiny fractions to or from the ends of numbers. Number-crunching scientist who do not themselves recognize this issue have generated spurious results by proceeding as if computers have unlimited precision, and thus by mistaking artefacts of limited precision for something meaningful within the data. I strongly suspect that a major reason that so many reported econometric results were not subsequently found by other researchers poring over the very same data was that the original researchers (or, sometimes, the later researchers!) were not taking into account the implications of limited precision.

[3] The words just and only can carry the same meaning, but often bring normative implications.

[4] In mathematics, x translates to for some x, while ∃!x translates to for exactly one x.

[5] Asking a person to be more just or more only would almost surely provoke bafflement.

Styling Programs

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Just as in a natural language there are issues of style on top of those of grammar, of orthography, and of syntax, there are issues of style in computer languages.

For example, in some languages, var = 3 sets var to 3, while var == 3 tests whether var is (already) equal to 3. Omit an = in a test, and the test accidentally becomes an assignment; many programs silently fail as a result of such an omission. But adopt the style of always putting any constant on the left side of the test (eg, 3 == var) and the error (eg, 3 = var, which attempts to set 3 to something) is noticed as soon as the compiler or interpetter reaches it. (There are compilers, interpretters, and separate utilities that will spot possible instances of errors of this sort. It’s good to use tools with these features, but best not to be dependent upon them; and one doesn’t want the notice of a genuine error to be lost in a sea of largely spurious warnings.)

The specifications of some computer languages, especially of those that are older, significantly limit the lengths of names and of labels; but it’s otherwise stylistically best to chose names and labels that clearly identify the nature of whatever is named or labelled. Transparent names and labels then function as integrated documentation. One identifies a lazy or thoughtless programmer by the needless use of opaque names and labels. In Java, the stylistic convention is to name things in ways that clearly identify them; and the convention is to camel-case the names of variables, methods, and classes (eg, countOfBadBits); other languages also allow names to be clearly identifying, but the convention is to separate naming words with underscores (eg, count_of_bad_bits). One uses the naming convention that prevails amongst programmers of that language, so as not to throw-off other programmers who have to deal with the code; it is literally uncivil[1] to use the convention prevailing amongst programmers of one language when writing code in a language where a different convention prevails. (Had it been up to me, then we’d use a different naming style in Java; but it wasn’t up to me and I abide by the prevailing convention.)

Many languages end statements with ;. When I helped other students debug SAS programs, I found that the error that they most often made was to omit that semicolon. Sometimes the program wouldn’t compile, but sometimes it would compile and silently do something unintended. So I told them to put a space just before the semicolon. The program would still compile just fine if otherwise properly done; but, with all the semicolons visually floating instead of being up against something else, an omission would more easily be spotted. I don’t myself use this style for every language in which it would work, but I adopt it for languages in which I notice myself or others omitting the semicolon.

(I was reminded of the general issue of coding style when working on some code written in Python, and wondering whether to put a space before each semicolon.)


[1] Civility is not conterminous with pleasantry; but, rather, a matter of behaving to avoid and to resolve conflict in interaction with other persons.