Equally True, Equally False

Note: I am not entirely satisfied with the phrasing in this post and would be happy to hear alternate articulations.

I have noticed that many unproductive conversations involve two people arguing about a phenomenon at two different levels of analysis.

Trivial example: You tell your children to “hold still” for a photo. One of them, inevitably, responds that “it is impossible to hold still because they are above absolute zero.”

“I’m holding still,” and “I am not holding still (because I am above absolute zero),” are equally true statements in different contexts. In the context of a photograph, you are only supposed to be as still as you can be. This is understood from context; no one feels it necessary to explain that you don’t need to stop the rotation of the Earth (which carries us along at a fast clip,) the beating of your heart, or the vibration of your atoms every time a picture is desired.

In the context of grains of pollen suspended in “still” liquid, the unstoppable motion of individual atoms does need to be noted and explained, as Einstein did in 1905.

The claim that Brownian Motion prevents you from holding still for a photograph is wrong, but the claim that it prevents grains of pollen from holding still in liquid is correct. Likewise, the claim that you are holding still for a photo is correct–and the claim that the pollen is still because you are holding the water still is wrong.

The weather is hard to predict, but I can predict with great certainty that July in the northern hemisphere will be hot, and next January will be cold–and vice versa for the southern hemisphere. These are different levels.

I recently read a well-written essay that I can’t find now but would like to link to if someone has it on the difficulties of discussing pretty much anything with certain types of people.

The discussion went like this:

Ordinary person: The sky is blue.

Academic: Excuse me? Do you have a source for that claim?

Ordinary person: What? The sky is blue. Everyone knows that.

Academic: For starters, there’s no such thing as “the sky.” The solid blue dome that ancient people thought surrounded the Earth is just an illusion created by the scattering of light. If you went up there, you’d discover that there is no “sky” to bump into. You’d just keep going straight into space.

Ordinary person: You know perfectly well that the term “sky” just refers to that expanse of blue we see over us.

Academic: Do you even know about Rayleigh scattering? The “blue” color is just an illusion due to the scattering of light. At night, when there’s not enough light for Rayleigh scattering, the sky is black. Man, you need to get out more.

These two people are both correct, but they are arguing at different levels. In normal, everyday conversation, the sky is, indeed, blue. People understand you perfectly well if you say so, and people also don’t call the sky blue while stargazing or watching a beautiful sunset.

People who are studying the way air molecules scatter light, by contrast, need to talk about the color of the sky in more technical detail in order to do their jobs.

Thankfully, no one actually gets into fights over the color of the sky because most people (even small children) understand the social context of communication. The point of speech is not to Say True Things, but to be understood by another person. If the other person understands me, then my words have done their job. If the other person does not understand me, then I need to rephrase. If I insist on speaking about something at a different level from what the other person is talking about, then I am being an ass who contributes nothing of worth to the conversation. (Note that we consider a consistent pattern of such conversational dysfunction, without inability to correct it, a symptom of mental disability.)

This normally understood conversational feature breaks down under three circumstances:

1 Confusion. Sometimes when we learn something new, like “color is an illusion,” it takes us a while to reconcile the new and old pieces of information in our minds.

Science, and thus our ability to learn technical information about the world, is a very recent invention on the scale of human history. A hundred years ago, people didn’t know why the sky is blue; two hundred years ago, they didn’t know what stars are made of. They didn’t have technical answers; they only had he lower-level explanations.

So it is understandable that people, especially students, sometimes take a while to integrate new information into a coherent view of the world, and in the meanwhile respond at incorrect levels in conversation. (Nerds do this a lot.)

2 Cognitive dissonance. This is similar to confusion, but happens because people have some reason–usually political bias–for wanting a particular answer. People may be genuinely confused about colors, but no one experiences cognitive dissonance about it. People experience cognitive dissonance about questions like, “Are men and women the same?” or “Do gun restrictions save lives?”

It is much easier to invoke confused logic to support your points when you want a particular outcome for political reasons.

3 Deception. This is confusion on purpose.

There is an old story that when Denis Diderot was in Russia, visiting the court of Catherine the Great, he managed to annoy her majesty via his arguments in favor of atheism. Catherine called upon the great mathematician Leonard Euler to defend God. Euler proclaimed, “(a+b^n)/n = x, therefore God exists,” and the great but mathematically uninclined philosopher left in confusion.

The story is probably not true, but it illustrates the principle: sufficiently complicated arguments can confuse non-experts even when they are totally irrelevant. (Related: SSC post on Eulering.) Switching levels on someone is a fast and easy way to confuse them, especially if you have studied the subject more than they have.

People do this when they want a particular outcome, usually political. For example, people who want to promote trans rights will recount an array of technical, medical intersex conditions in order to claim that the biological categories of “male” and “female” don’t exist. Of course, the biological categories of “male” and “female” do exist, as do people with rare genetic disorders; the one does not disprove the other, and neither tells you what to do about anything trans-related.

I feel like there needs to be some efficient (and recognized) way of saying, “Yes, this is true, but on a different level from the one I am addressing. At the level I am addressing, this is false.”

Trying to be Smart: on bringing up extremely rare exceptions to prove forests don’t exist, only trees

When my kids don’t want to do their work (typically word problems in math,) they start coming up with all kinds of crazy scenarios to try to evade the question. “What if Susan cloned herself?” “What if Joe is actually the one driving the car, and he only saw the car pass by because he was looking at himself in a mirror?” “What if John used a wormhole to travel backwards in time and so all of the people at the table were actually Joe and so I only need to divide by one?” “What if Susan is actually a boy but her parents accidentally gave him the wrong name?” “What if ALIENS?”

After banging my head on the wall, I started asking, “Which is more likely: Sally and Susan are two different people, or Sally cloned herself, something no human has ever done before in the 300,000 years of homo Sapiens’ existence?” And sometimes they will, grudgingly, admit that their scenarios are slightly less likely than the assumptions the book is making.*

I forgive my kids, because they’re children. When adults do the same thing, I am much less sympathetic.

Folks on all sides of the political spectrum are probably guilty of this, but my inclinations/bubble lead me to encounter certain ones more often. Sex/gender is a huge one (even I have been led astray by sophistry on this subject, for which I apologize.)

Over in biology, sex is simply defined: Females produce large gametes. Males produce small gametes. It doesn’t matter how gametes are produced. It doesn’t matter what determines male or femaleness. All that matters is gamete size. There is no such thing (at least in humans) as a sex “spectrum”: reproduction requires one small gamete and one large gamete. Medium-sized gametes are not part of the process.

About 99.9% of people fit into the biological categories of “male” and “female.” An extremely small minority (<1%) have rare biological issues that interfere with gamete formation–people with Klinefelter’s, for example, are genetically XXY instead of XX or XY. People with Klinefelter’s are also infertile–unlike large gametes and small gametes, XXY isn’t part of a biological reproduction strategy. Like trisomy 21, it’s just an unfortunate accident in cell division.

In a mysterious twist, the vast majority of people have a “gender” identity that matches their biological sex. Even female athletes–women who excel at a stereotypically and highly masculine field–tend to identify as “women,” not men. Even male fashion designers tend to self-identify as men. There are a few people who identify as transgender, but in my personal experience, most of them are actually intersex in some way (eg, a woman who has autism, a condition characterized as “extreme male brain,” may legitimately feel like she thinks more like a guy than a girl.) Again, this is an extremely small percent of the population. For 99% of people you meet, normal gender assumptions apply.

So jumping into a conversation about “men” and “women” with “Well actually, ‘men’ and ‘women’ are just social constructs and gender is actually a spectrum and there are many different valid gender expressions–” is a great big NO.

Jumping into a discussion of women’s issues (like childbirth) with “Actually, men can give birth, too,” or the Women’s March with “Pussyhats are transphobic because some women have penises; vaginas don’t define what it means to be female,” is an even bigger NO, and I’m not even a fan of pussyhats.

Only biological females can give birth. That’s how the species works. When it comes to biology, leave things that you admit aren’t biology at the door. If a transgender man with a uterus gives birth to a child, he is still a biological female and we don’t need to confuse things by implying that someone gestated a fetus in his testicles. Over the millennia that humans have existed, a handful of people with some form of biological chimerism (basically, an internalized conjoined twin who never fully developed but ended up contributing an organ or two) who thought of themselves as male may have nonetheless given birth. These cases are so rare that you will probably never meet someone with them in your entire life.

Having lost a leg due to an accident (or 4 legs, due to being a pair of conjoined twins,) does not make “number of legs in humans” a spectrum ranging from 0-4. Humans have 2 legs; a few people have unfortunate accidents. Saying so doesn’t imply that people with 0 legs are somehow less human. They just had an accident.

In a conversation I read recently, Person A asserted that if two blue-eyed parents had a brown-eyed baby, the mother would be suspected of infidelity. A whole bunch of people immediately jumped on Person A, claiming he was scientifically ignorant and hadn’t paid attention in school–sadly, these overconfident people are actually the ones who don’t understand genetics, because blue eyes are recessive and thus two blue eyed people can’t make a brown-eyed biological child.  A few people, however, asserted that Person A was scientifically illiterate because there is an extremely rare brown-eyed gene that two blue-eyed people can carry, resulting in a brown-eyed child.

But this is not scientific illiteracy. The recessive brown-eyed gene is extremely rare, and both parents would have to have it. Infidelity, by contrast, is much more common. It’s not that common, but it’s more common than two parent both having recessive brown-eyed genes. Insisting that Person A is scientifically illiterate because of an extremely rare exception to the rule is ignoring statistics–statistically, the child is more likely to be not biological than to have an extremely rare variant. Statistically, men and women are far more likely to match in gender and sex than to not.

Let’s look at immigration, another topic near and dear to everyone’s hearts. After Trump’s comments about Haiti came out (and let’s be honest, Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, is one of the world’s largest cities without a functioning sewer system, so “shithole” is actually true,) people began popping up with statements like “I’d rather a Ugandan immigrant who believes in American values than a socialist Norwegian.”

I, too, would rather a Ugandan with American values than a socialist Norwegian. However, what percentage of Ugandans actually have American values? Just a wild guess, but I suspect most Ugandans have Ugandan values. Most Ugandans probably think Ugandan culture is pretty nice and that Ugandan norms and values are the right ones to have, otherwise they wouldn’t have different values and we’d call those Ugandan values.

Updated values chart!

While we’re at it, I suspect most Chinese people have Chinese values, most Australians have Australian values, most Brazilians hold Brazilian values, and most people from Vatican City have Catholic values.

I don’t support blindly taking people from any country, because some people are violent criminals just trying to escape conviction. But some countries are clearly closer to each other, culturally, than others, and thus have a larger pool of people who hold each other’s values.

(Even when people hold very different values, some values conflict more than others.)

To be clear: I’ve been picking on one side, but I’m sure both sides do this.

What’s the point? None of this is very complicated. Most people can figure out if a person they have just met is male or female instantly and without fail. It takes a very smart person to get confused by a few extremely rare exceptions into thinking that the broad categories don’t functionally exist.

Sometimes this obfuscation is compulsive–the person just wants to show how smart they are, or maybe everyone around them is saying it so they start repeating it–but since most people seem capable of understanding probabilities in everyday life (“Sometimes the stoplight is glitched but usually it isn’t, so I’ll assume the stoplight is functioning properly and obey it,”) if someone suddenly seems incapable of distinguishing between extremely rare and extremely common events in the political realm, then they are doing so on purpose or suffering severe cognitive dissonance.

 

*Oddly, I solved the problem by giving the kids harder problems. It appears that when their brains are actively engaged with trying to solve the problem, they don’t have time/energy left to come up with alternatives. When the material is too easy (or, perhaps, way too hard) they start trying to get creative to make things more interesting.

 

The Inverse Motte and Bailey

The Motte and Bailey technique of argumentation basically involves defining a term or concept in a positive way intended to inspire agreement, and then actually using the term in a much less agreed-upon way. A commonly given example is, “Feminism is the belief that men and women are equal,” a statement that probably most Americans (and Westerners) agree with, while actual feminist argue for a great many things that are not covered in the original supposition, like, “Abortion should be legal and easily available for all women, at all points in pregnancy.” Since the vast majority of men don’t even have wombs, abortion legality isn’t exactly something that can fall under the doctrine of “full equality” (whether you like it or not.)

In the Inverse Motte and Bailey, instead of defining the term as something good that everyone likes, you define it as something bad, and then very carefully note that the thing that you are doing does not technically count as this bad thing. Racism is a good example of the Inverse M & B. No one wants to be called a racist–racism is generally regarded as extremely evil, and therefore anything that is racist is extremely evil. So when someone says, “Hey, you’re being really racist,” the general response is, “No, look, see, racism is clearly defined as XYZ, and this thing I am doing is clearly not XYZ, and therefore not racism.”

In the regular motte, the more-difficult to defend position, (say, abortion,) is effectively shielded from some amount of criticism by the easily defended position (“femism = equality”). In the Inverse Motte, the person has to argue that their position doesn’t fall under the easily defeated position.

An argument along these lines that comes up frequently is, “Is hating Islam (or Muslims) racist?”

One side argues that racism is the irrational hatred of races of people based on belief in inherited, racial characteristics, and that Islam is not a race or an inherited characteristic, but just a bunch of beliefs that people freely choose to believe and act on. There is no biological reason compelling Muslim women to wear headscarves–it’s just something people believe they should do. And things people believe are completely up for criticism, just as we criticize people who believe in UFO abductions or like books we think are dumb.

The other side argues that this is all just rationalization, because obviously most humans on earth do not freely choose their religious beliefs (otherwise religions would be randomly distributed and few people would practice the same religion as their parents,) not to mention that apostasy is illegal in many Muslim countries. Religion is an important part of most peoples’ cultural/ethnic identity, so attacking their religion may have the same effect as any other form of attacking peoples’ ethnic identities.

Ah, says the first side, but many anti-Muslim people are themselves ex-Muslims who love Muslim people but hate the religion.

Yes, says side two, but you are not one of these people. You are a white guy from America, so I think you are racist.

In short, Side Two wants to define racism broadly, in order to cover, “That thing you are saying.” Side One wants wants to define racism narrowly, in order to say, “This thing I am saying is definitely not racism.”

Of course, in reality, people are extremely bad at advocating their own positions, so what you actually get is “You’re racist!” “No i’m not, i hate all religions equally!” “Muslims Americans face all kinds of discrimination and it’s horrible!” “Yeah, well, ISIS kills tons of Muslims, don’t you care about all of the Muslims being murdered by other Muslims? I THOUGHT NOT. Clearly you are just posturing and don’t actually care about the evils being perpetrated against Muslims.” “Israel is a Nazi state committing genocide against Palestine and the UN should nuke it!”

Anyway, I feel like I still need a conclusion, but I’m getting really tired and can’t really think of one.
Supply your own!