Populism and ad populum

Rather paradoxically the phrase, “because it is majority’s view”, has no place amongst reasoning within a democratic process. Nonetheless, the phrase tends to pop up now and then in politics. Let us, therefore, recount the most important problem: to use the phrase is, basically, to grossly misinterpret what democracy is about.

Democratic process is about making best possible decisions with limited information while facing staggering uncertainty. The process, to put it as simply as should be possible, consists of public presentations of arguments for several different viewpoints, and public discussion of reasons and justifications, pros and cons, for all these views. After the arguments and viewpoints have been assessed, the democratic vote takes place deciding majority for some view. We hope, in democracy, that, although some might be wrong, it is less likely that many would be wrong, at least when they have faced and discussed a good number of well reasoned arguments.

Now, a careful reader would have noted that the process starts with viewpoints and arguments, and ends with deciding the popular view. Thus, if one of the arguments has as its sole reason that the viewpoint presented is the most popular, i.e., that it is the majority’s view, we are heading into trouble. The plow is pulling the horse: if majority is given to a view because it is majority’s view, no democratic decision making takes place. No reasons are given for the people to vote for the view above the ludicrous “vote like this, most will vote so anyway.” Instead of democracy, this would be, to use controversial language, “a tyranny of majority”.

After the decision has been reached with a democratic process, of course, we must accept that something was the majority’s view. But this acceptance is different from mere populism, and it has justification beyond the ad populum fallacy: the majority was reached through a democratic decision process. The horse has returned back in front and some plowing on the common field can now commence.

Wittgenstein’s John Doe

For some years, since I first read Wittgenstein as a 15 years old, I have been slightly annoyed by his use of N.N. as a place holder for a name. That’s because I have been ignorant of what it stands for. But then again I have not been bothered enough to go and check.

N.N. turned out to be an abbreviation of Latin phrase “nomen nescio”. Now, enlighted by wikipedia, of course, when N.N. is used, I do know that I do not know the name of the person referred to. And I am bothered no more?

Pairing fallacies with fallacies

Fallacies come in pairs sometimes.

Let’s take two twains of examples:

1. Slippery slope and runaway train. The slippery slope fallacy is committed when your argument is solely based on accusing the other side for going too far: e.g. it is a fallacy to claim that higher taxes will simply make everyone as poor as everyone else. The runaway train is committed when you actually go further than you argued for: e.g. it is a fallacy to base your argument on higher taxation solely on that no-one should have more than his neighbours.

Thus, if you are keen to mix metaphors, you may accuse someone of standing on a slippery slope only if they are already aboard a runaway train.

2. Bogus dilemma and Thatcher’s blame (latter was dubbed, as far as I know, by Madsen Pirie). The fallacy of bogus dilemma is committed when you present a dilemma when there is none: we will either have to lower our taxes, which will make the poor suffer, or we will have to raise our taxes, which will halt the economy, or, finally, we may keep the taxation as it is, and stay in the mess we are in. (Fallacy is in the over simplification of the issue of taxation.) Thatcher’s blame, on the other hand, is a failure to recognise a genuine dilemma. If there are no other options (lowering, raising, or keeping it as it is), no one can be blamed for the making of choice between the (usually bad) options, only for choosing ill amongst them.

If she has faced a genuine dilemma, she cannot be accused for facing it. If there were other options, they must be argued for; and, if there are none other than poor choices to make, that must be argued for as well. Blame is never enough, and neither is conjuring forks, tridents, bulls and crossroads out of thin air.

Further reading on fallacies: Madsen Pirie, How to Win Every Argument, the use and abuse of logic, Continuum, London, 2006. Fun, short, and acerbic introduction on the subject.

Reading about the glorious past…

I am reading S. Soames’s Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century. Not particularly deep philosophical book (it is written, on most parts, for undergraduates) . However, since I have mostly read just a seemingly random set of classics from here and there according to the need at hand, as most of us do, I do appreciate the comprehensive picture of the development of analytic philosophy presented here.

It pains me to admit that, although I have lately been working on both empiricist criterion of meaning (the problem of analyticity to be precise) and the problem of counterfactuals, I paid no attention to the connection between the two until I read about it from Soames’s book…


Time spent on grant applications, How to bring some more efficiency…

On a recent Blog on Guardian’s Occam’s corner (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/occams-corner/2013/apr/02/1) Jenny Rohn contemplates on the inefficiency of grant system: it simply takes too much time from research, especially from new faces in the game.

“But how does a younger scientist with a shorter track record, whose “excellence” might not yet be apparent, get his first grant? It must be a lot like getting your first break as a popular musician – except unlike a bloke with a guitar, scientists can’t film themselves on YouTube performing experiments in their bedroom to garner a reputation. Instead, they need grant money to produce the results that get turned into papers, which in turn prove their excellence – but without the grant, they’ll never get off the ground in the first place.” — Jenny Rohn, Occam’s Corner, Tuesday 2 April 2013

However, to me, there appears to be some simple solutions that would help the grant system to work at least a bit less bumbily:

One idea on a national level could be to have a portal for all research grants: One form for the application that can be retouched when needed and sent to all the grant handling foundations and institutes for each round of application they might have. Just tick the boxes of what your field is and what type of grant you are after, and the portal would handle the rest.

Another would be for universities and fund giving organizations to co-operate on grant applications. The universities collect all the data on research anyway. So, if, instead of filling in the same information over and over again, there was a way to convert that pre-existing university database directly into a grant application, it would be a real life saver.

Any more suggestions?

I have for years avoided reading poetry…

I recently borrowed The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (B. Morrison & A. Motion, eds. Since the book is published 30 years ago, the contemporaneousness in this case is to my parents generation.) I have found myself far from dispassioned by the poems of, for instance, Seamus Heaney, Ann Steveson, Douglas Dunn, and James Fenton (in whose A German Requiem you’ll discover this distressing pair of lines: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year, / To get together and forget the old times.”)

I have for years avoided reading poetry—and there is a hidden reason behind it. When I was 18 I wrote a set of poems which I send to a publishing house. They were well written, in good style, with strong rhythm, said the rejection letter, but completely void of content. Now I always have thought myself above taking this kind of constructed criticism as a source of devastation—and hence I have not read poetry for the last fifteen years.