Tuesday, May 25, 2010

IPPL is now accepting applications for 2-week Visiting Fellowships!

Applications for 2010-2011 Visiting Fellowships at the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life are now being accepted.
The deadline for applications is July 1, 2010.
The Institute for Philosophy in Public Life is dedicated to two project: cultivating philosophy amongst the general public and bridging popular philosophy with academic research. This includes not only providing resources and opportunities for those interested in engaging with general audiences but also providing a venue for the presentation of their work. IPPL hopes to advance public philosophy by advocating the position that such work ought to count towards tenure and promotion. 

IPPL Fellowships are both invited by the director and chosen via open competition. Any interested party is encouraged to apply, and prospective applicants are welcome to contact the director informally to ask for advice or to "test the waters" for their suitability and competitiveness.

An IPPL Visiting Fellowship is intended for philosophical professionals who seek an intensive short-term period to work on a specific project free from the intrusions of daily work and family responsibilities, and who wish to translate that same project into language easily understood by general audiences. Visiting fellows are in residence at the institute for two weeks. They receive travel, meal, housing allowances, a $1,000 stipend, access to the University of North Dakota library and all relevant university resources, a $500 grant to purchase research materials to be housed within the UND Chester Fritz Library, and an office within which to work. In exchange, visiting fellows are expected to make at least two public presentations suitable to lay audiences and write a ten to fifteen page article for publication either online or in the North Dakota Humanities Council magazine On Second Thought. Normally, IPPL grants three - four visiting fellowships per year.

Regional applicants are encouraged to apply, but are not exempt from the two-week residence requirement.

International applicants may only have a portion of their airfare paid, but are eligible to receive all other benefits. 

Click here for application information

For more information, contact ippl@und.edu.

Is “it just makes sense” evidence for an argument?

Political races in Alabama appear to be heating up, emphasizing issues related to immigration and otherness, evolution, and thugs in government. (Thanks to The Faculty Lounge, for calling attention to these ads.) Perhaps one of the strongest attacks comes from gubernatorial candidate Tim James who decries the fact that Alabama driver’s licenses are given in twelve languages:

What concerns me is not any alleged xenophobia or whether English should be a state’s official language, although these are important issues and need to be discussed. Instead, PQED readers may want to ask about the nature of his argument itself. Is there an argument at all? Here is the text:

“I’m Tim James. Why do our politicians make us give driver’s license exams in 12 languages? This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it. We’re only giving that test in English if I’m governor. Maybe it’s the businessman in me, but we’ll save money, and it makes sense. Does it to you?”

The subordinate argument is that giving tests in only one language saves money. Fair enough. That sounds like it could be true, although how much money would be saved is probably minimal, especially compared with the court costs of prosecuting those who drive without licenses because they cannot read the test. The major argument, however, is encapsulated in the phrase “and it makes sense.” This is a classic rhetorical move that sounds like it is saying something but really isn’t. Is there an argument there? I don't think so.

The thing about appeals to intuition is that they attach themselves to possible rather than actual arguments. In other words, whatever the audience intuits the argument to be is the argument that justifies the conclusion. Yet, there is no reason to think that James’s reason for opposing multi-lingual testing is the same as someone else’s.

What could those arguments be? Will English-only testing stop foreign-language speakers from driving? Probably not. Will it force them to go “home” to their country of origin because there they can drive? Probably not. Will it inspire them to learn English faster so they could drive legally? I suppose one might claim so, but I would have to see significant evidence for that position. In fact, what a law like this would do is, as indicated above, promote driving without licenses and increase the poverty and suffering of those who need cars to work, shop, and be good citizens. It would also punish them for not speaking English, and that, in the end, is what James's argument appeals to – the desire to hurt those who are different. Why? because the punishment will likely have no other consequences than the punishment. The suffering is all that there is. Punishment without purpose is retribution; it is not rehabilitation.

Appeals to intuition are inherently conservative – and I don’t mean this in the political sense of Republican vs. Democrat. I mean, instead, that they preserve the status quo. It is my daughter’s intuition that some “new” food is yucky before she tries it, it was the slave-owner’s intuition that slaves were not full human beings long before any of them experienced an equal playing field, and it is most everybody’s intuition that the familiar is more comfortable than the different. Most people who enjoy newness and difference enjoy the adventure, excitement, and intellectual challenges of the new experience. (Unless the familiar is so unpleasant that any change would be better.) Familiarity is easy. As Edmund Burke tells us, change causes tremendous disruption, and thus, there must be a compelling reason for anyone to want to endure it.

I would argue, therefore that James makes no argument, and in the end, he piles on another fallacy, the appeal to the bandwagon. It makes sense to him, “Does it to you?” And herein lies the problem: the audience is not forced to ask why they believe what they believe or whether what they believe is right. Instead, they are only faced with the question of whether his appeal to emotion is enough to motivate them to vote for James. In short, there are a lot of non-arguments here, but very few reasons to support James's position that multilingual driving tests ought to be prohibited. Or am I wrong? Are there arguments in the ad that I have missed? Does James, in fact, make sense to you? I'd like to know.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What are taxes for?

Today’s Grand Forks Herald (PDEQ’s local newspaper) has a story about the city council approving community gardens. The city itself has a notoriously bad track-record for approving new projects – it took us five years to get a dog park – but after some controversy, and by a narrow vote, the gardens were approved. The article reports that some residents opposed the gardens for two different reasons. The first is their claim that it would be “unsightly and bring strangers into the neighborhood.” I lived near community gardens in Boston for close to four years. They were beautiful, and more importantly, the attentive and caring gardeners made the area more safe, not less. There were always people around, people who had a sense of ownership and affection for the area. It was, indeed, a safe haven. And, of course, this underscores the important realization that strangers are not bad. Most newcomers are assets to communities – variety is, after all, the spice of life.

It is however the second reason that is the occasion for this post: a comment made by Ms. Sherri Brossart, a local resident. She is quoted as saying, “This is my neighborhood. I did not pay takes to have that community area.” And here is where the philosophical issue is most explicit. She claims she does not pay taxes to support a community and I would contend just the opposite, that this is precisely why she paid them in the first place.

In the last few decades, Americans have come to believe two false things about taxes. The first and less dangerous notion is that one can pick and choose what their money contributes to. The government does not work like this and it shouldn’t. Large-scale projects are only possible when citizens pool their wealth to create large amounts of capital. If we could select what we funded, there would be inadequate funding for the military, drug enforcement, schools, or highway repair. Everyone would support only their pet projects and few of them would have enough to succeed. But the more dangerous attitude about taxes is that we pay the money for ourselves. People regularly claim “I pay taxes so my streets will be safe,” or “I pay taxes so my child can go to school.” But this is not what taxes are for and this is where Ms. Borssart makes her mistake. We pay taxes so that everyone’s streets will be safe, and we do so to let other people’s children go to school, not just our own. That is what makes us a community, a society of interwoven individuals with a common national project. It is what allows John Rawls to claim that a just society is one where people acknowledge that they all share the same fate.

If Ms. Brossart wants to say that her taxes cannot go to someone else’s community garden – and by the way, I have a backyard and have no interest in participating in the garden; this is not a self-serving blog post – than theirs (and mine) shouldn’t go to her street lamps. If she can’t support a community endeavor like the garden, then I don’t want my money going to the police that protect her and the fire fighters that hose down her house. Those things don’t help me, so why should my money serve her interests. It’s my money after all, not hers.

But, of course, I do want her to have those protections. I want her to be safe, secure, and happy in her home, just as I want that of every American. And this is why I pay taxes to the community and not to a given project. Ms. Brossart just doesn’t understand want it means to live under common governance, and it is unfortunate that our civic education has let this attitude prevail.

Adam Smith told us that one of the necessary roles of government is to provide people with things to do. This helps educate the citizenry, keep people from being self-destructive, curb factionalism, and create public space for community cohesion. The community garden is precisely an example of a cohesive activity. This is also why Smith thought taxation was permissible and not theft, as some falsely claim. The question now is whether he was right, whether I am in my interpretation. Are taxes for services to our selves or are they to assist the community? Answering this philosophical question will go a long way to solving some of the most divisive issues in our country today.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How do we evaluate evidence and belief?

Dave Barry was interviewed in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. In the process, he described his pet peeve:

“One thing that is not in my fridge is ketchup and mustard. You know why? Because you don’t have to put them in the fridge! Too many Americans are putting cold ketchup on nice, hot hamburgers. And I ask those Americans, When you go to the diner, where is the ketchup? Sitting out on the table.”

Now, this made my wife and I laugh because it’s true: we have our condiments in the refrigerator and it never occurred to either of us not to. Yet, Barry is right. We never see ketchup anywhere but on the table at restaurants. We joked about it for a bit, clearly resolved to take them out of the fridge, and then Kim got the bright idea to look at the labels. Lo and behold, each has very explicit instructions to refrigerate after opening.

I would be hesitant to suggest that we were committing the appeal to authority. We weren’t persuaded by the fact that it was Dave Barry who told us to move our ketchup and mustard; we were persuaded by the evidence. His argument is irrefutable. Every day in restaurants millions of people eat ketchup and mustard from the table and they don’t get sick. How can that be wrong? One might argue that restaurant condiments get used much quicker than those at home, and that over the long term it's best to refrigerate them, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. The issue is, it seems like you don’t have to keep them cool at all.

So, there is a philosophical problem here. Not only who do we believe, but how to we evaluate the argument? First, we can’t believe Dave Barry just because he is Dave Barry; that would be appeal to authority. But, we can’t believe the ketchup and mustard people just because they are the ketchup and mustard people. That would be appeal to authority as well. But the ketchup and mustard people presumably have some expertise that makes them more reliable than Dave Barry, so maybe believing them is not the appeal to authority after all. Then again, the evidence that we have – years and years, case after case – verifies that Barry is right. Refrigeration is unnecessary. How do we determine who to believe?

There must be some standard of objectivity to evaluate the evidence, and presumably, that evidence has to be larger than our experience. Is it enough that millions of restaurants continue the practice, or do the tests have to be conducted in a laboratory? And if the latter is true, does this discredit the experience that we each rely on day-to-day?

Obviously, the most basic question is where we should keep our condiments, but the deeper one is how we evaluate the evidence of arguments. What counts as enough to regard a proposition as true? Dave Barry, you opened a Pandora’s box, and I’m not making this up.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

How much does truth matter to political opinions?

This morning, a friend of mine sent me a link to this article documenting Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about the water quality in Prince William Sound. Discussing oil spills, he claimed that the pristine water quality of the Sound is proof that we need not worry about cleaning water after such accidents. Nature, he asserted, cleans itself. Unfortunately, according to experts, "one of the most stunning revelations of Trustee Council-funded monitoring over the last 10 years is that Exxon Valdez oil persists in the environment and in places, is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill." So, Limbaugh was just wrong. (I remain agnostic on whether he was lying or just mistaken since I have no interest in either attacking or defending Limbaugh.)

Coincidentally, I just finished writing an article in which I reference last year’s debate about the morality of death panels, emphasizing that health care legislation never created death panels and that no one suggested they should. Add to these, the persistently false claims that President Obama never showed his birth certificate or that the one he showed was a forgery and countless other examples, and I am forced to ask whether truth is relevant to political opinion anymore. There are plenty of good reasons to be conservative, there are plenty of good reasons to be moderate or liberal, yet as a philosopher, I am always baffled by those who seek to win arguments through fabrication. If the goal of politics is simply to gain power, then what does that say about the role of honesty, character, and truth in modern democracies? (Perhaps, we should all read Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War together and consider his view on the role of power and the fickle public in Athenian democracy.) If one wins an argument by persuading people of falsehood, then I am Socratic enough to think that everyone involved lost and no one won anything.

There are plenty of psychological reasons why people make mistakes about judgment; many of them have to do with the human desire to preserve their own beliefs. A phenomenon called confirmation bias explains how people selectively register evidence for their point of view rather than notice facts that contradict their opinion. Simply put, if someone is of the political opinion that all Muslims are terrorists or that all terrorists are Muslim, then he or she will neither notice nor remember the new stories about non-Muslims engaging in terrorist acts. If someone is suspicious that his (heterosexual) wife is cheating on him, then he will be hyper-sensitive every time he sees her talking to a man but not register the many instances of when she is talking to a woman, even if she talks to women significantly more often than men.

However, confirmation bias is about people’s experience and not about news reports that must be vetted by groups. The news reports I cited above are all the products of tremendously complex processes involving reporters, writers, producers, and others, all of whom acquiesce to the false claims in the story. Granted, maybe Limbaugh specifically acted without consultation, but if so, he is likely unique in doing so. In other words, I am arguing that to maintain such falsehood the media must do so intentionally – I claim that they know they are lying and that they are okay with it. It is neither new nor noteworthy for me to observe that many news services preach to their respective choirs: there are conservative, moderate, and liberal news outlets and they attract conservative, moderate, and liberal audiences respectively, although certain media labeled as conservative or liberal may not necessarily be so. (I’m thinking here of NPR specifically but also of the New York Times.)

The question I am now asking is whether truth has any relevance to political beliefs – at least as far as the media is concerned – and I ask you what would it take for you to change news channels or even political allegiances. Does knowing that there were never proposed death panels or that Obama’s birth certificate has been viewed and confirmed make a difference to those who don’t like Obama? If it doesn’t make a difference why doesn’t it, and if you refuse to believe these facts, then why do you reject them? They’re true. Several years ago there was a widely believed e-mail documenting findings that George W. Bush had the lowest IQ of all American presidents and that Republican presidents in general had lower IQs that Democratic ones. Many people I know reveled in it even though the email was a hoax and no such study ever existed. Did knowing it was a hoax change their perception that Bush is stupid? No. So what, if anything, could change their mind about that?

In the end, I’m asking not just about human political-psychology, but also about the role of truth in itself. Perhaps I’m becoming a crotchety old man (I can hear my wife in the background respond with “perhaps?!?!?!”), but I’m wondering if truth holds any place in public discourse or if, in the end, all anyone wants is to win or be believe that they are right. If so, is there anything we can do about it?