The two-way street

A standard Israeli till receipt:

The text is on the right, as Hebrew is written right-to-left. The numerals are on the left, written left-to-right, as is standard with Arabic numerals.

Wait a minute. Arabic text is also right-to-left. So why do its numbers go the other way?

Because they were not originally Arabic but Indian. The attribution is not incidentally at all controversial. The two eminent mathematicians who popularised the system in the Muslim world around 830 CE, the Persian Al-Khwarizmi (who gave his name to algorithm) and the Arab Al-Kindi, entitled their treatises respectively On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals and On the Use of the Indian Numerals: no concealed attribution there. The decimal point was the work of an earlier Iraqi Jewish scholar, Sind ibn Ali. A full treatment of zero had arrived quite late in India, in the work of Brahmagupta (628 CE).

India used and still uses a lot of different scripts. But the common ancestor of many is the Brahmi script adopted by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, reigned 268 to 232 BCE. Brahmi is left-to-right, and so are its numerals.

Brahmi script on Ashoka Pillar (circa 250 BCE), Wikipedia

The first widely used alphabet was the Phoenician, around 1200 BCE. It was right to-left. You have to ask: why would anybody have chosen this unhandy scheme? Unless you are left-handed: a small minority (around 10%) of most populations, but sometimes they get to be kings, high priests, merchant tycoons or tennis champions, in a position to get their way. But both the main earlier non-alphabetic scripts, Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, run left-to-right, so it’s an odd choice. The Archaic Greeks switched direction back at the same time as they democratised writing, including for bawdy inscriptions on winecups.

It’s controversial whether Indian alphabets had a Phoenician ancestry – some Indian scholars argue for a purely subcontinental origin – but it’s likely. At all events, early Indian scribes followed or paralleled the majoritarian Greek choice of left-to-right, and Ashoka set it in stone.

For numbers, there is no particular advantage in one direction over the other. To evaluate a positional decimal number, you have to count outwards from the decimal point in both directions. Right-to-left and left-to-right are mirror equivalents. The direction was determined by the non-numerical script it was embedded in.

Annals of weird infographics

A Norwegian consultancy comes up with a bafflingly cute one.

This chart, or whatever you want to call it, is from a report on the global energy transition by the big Norwegian consultancy DNV-GL. It’s not wrong or misleading so much as baffling. A new type of Tufte failure, perhaps. For their next effort, I suggest adding animated Teletubbies skiing down the mountaintops.

One clean beach

Why is my local beach now free of plastic litter?

No pretty photograph for this one. How can you take a snap of something that isn’t there?

Plastic litter on my local beach, that’s what.

I moved to Spain 15 years ago. My beach walks were interrupted by regular collections of litter, almost all plastic of one sort or another: drinks bottles, throwaway shopping bags, formless lumps of polystyrene, broken tangles of fishing net. It was densest along the shoreline, so jetsam (nice word: its counterpart flotsam is floating junk).

Recently I have had to leave my spandex Supergramps suit at home. There is hardly any to collect. On reflection, the change has been slow, though I’ve only just noticed it. Why has this happened?

Continue reading “One clean beach”

Is ad hominem a fallacy?

Sometimes not always. Wonkish.

I got into an interesting argument in the comments on a post I wrote on nuclear energy. Keith wrote something that draws a tangent of much wider import:

There was intense opposition to nuclear power from many activists before anyone was focused on climate change, so now there is a credibility problem for critics, i.e., “Group that always hated nuclear power on principle still hates nuclear power for new reason” isn’t persuasive to most voters.

The proposition is that nuclear opponents changed their argument, which indicates opportunism and bad faith, ergo many people see this as invalidating the argument.

I challenged the fact pattern in the comments thread there, and see no evidence of the alleged tacking. (Any reader comments on the issue please in the other post thread, not here). Still, let’s assume it’s true. So what?

At first sight this is simply an example of the ad hominem fallacy, or as the French nicely say, “procès d’intention”. The motives and character of the person making an argument are simply irrelevant to its validity. One of the routine jobs of intellectuals, public or no, is to raise the red flag on such elementary mistakes and tell their authors to cut it out.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. The case is more complex than with a straight logical fallacy like petitio principii, and several strands need to be disentangled.

Keith is undoubtedly right to think that ordinary people do weigh credibility in assessing arguments. I suspect this is part of Daniel Kahneman’s Type 1 thinking: the fast, efficient and kludgy Hare processes that allowed our distant ancestors to make quick decisions based on incomplete information. These are (though Kahneman does not make the claim) probably hard-wired into the brains of their descendants, that is us. They are in contrast with the slow and effortful Type 2 Tortoise processes of abstract reasoning. Dismissing arguments from untrustworthy sources saves time and allows us to move on.

But, says our Type 2 brain, it’s still a fallacy with a real practical downside. Dismissing tainted sources makes us miss out on some useful reasoning. This is not a remote possibility. A good example from an extremely tainted source is the Nazi opposition to smoking and cruelty to animals. As far as I can tell, this was based on sensible premises – unlike their equally correct suspicion of the austerity financial policies recommended by bankers, influenced for at least some by the belief that the banks were controlled by a cabal of sinister Jewish incubi determined to impoverish Aryan Germans (link to revolting cartoon from 1931). The term “batshit crazy” does not do justice to this evil fantasy.

Other examples are the famous Milgram and Stanford Prison https://en.wikipexperiments in psychology, which show how easy it is to get normal people to commit atrocities. As I understand it these would in their original form now be considered unethical, as the subjects are very distressed when the façade is torn down and they find out what they are capable of. The results are still valuable, and add to the obviously unrepeatable field observations of Christopher Browning on reservist SS troopers. More broadly, it is simply part of education to learn to address arguments from people you find uncongenial.

That’s one side. On the other, it is surely not required to treat tainted and reputable sources equally. Read the whole of the now famous tirade of Daniel Davies about the justifications put forward for Gulf War II:

Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. …. Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless… There is much made by people who long for the days of their fourth form debating society about the fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem”. There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world.

Fair enough. So we face a procedural dilemma. Neither full-on obedience to the ad hominem rule nor its simple rejection seem adequate. Where do we draw the line?

We do need to distinguish between claims of fact and the reasoning built on them. For facts, the legal maxim falsus in unum, falsus in omnia is a fair guide: don’t trust liars, if you must use their work, double-check every claim they make. But what about their reasoning? Can’t we evaluate this independently of the claims of fact?

If reasoning were all syllogisms or mathematical deduction, we no doubt could. The following real-life example is is a perfectly sound logical inference, albeit from unacceptable premises:

  • Socrates is a corrupter of youth.
  • The laws of Athens say that a corrupter of youth must be put to death.
  • The laws of Athens are just.
  • Therefore Socrates must die.

If we disagree with the conclusion, and we do, it’s necessary to attack one or other of the premises. But in the typical case, facts are linked by inductive not deductive chains, calling on assumptions about the laws and state of nature as well as judgments of probabilities, both scientific and psychological. Would Saddam Hussein attack Israel if he had WMDs? Would the Iraqi people welcome an invading army of liberation? These are not yes/no facts.

In these complex assessments, trustworthiness is surely relevant. We rely on experts – doctors, statisticians, rocket scientists, economists, engineers, intelligence analysts, reporters – to inform us how the world works, drawing on long study or experience we can never ourselves emulate. We have to be able to trust them. Expert judgement is fallible, but it usually beats amateurs picking with a pin or clicking on an ad in Facebook.

This even applies, I understand, in the higher reaches of pure mathematics, the temple of deductive reasoning, where a new proof can be hundreds of pages long or the printout of a computer program exhaustively searching thousands of cases. I recall (but cannot trace) a description of the social process of acceptance of a new proof by the mathematical community, based on trust in colleagues expert in the relevant sub-area who accept the proof on detailed examination.

Trustworthiness is not a binary concept but a scale. We may allow that complete untrustworthiness is binary, as with Daniel Davies’ proven liars. So the ad hominem problem for inductive reasoning as well as claims of fact becomes one of calibrating our trust discount in a particular case not involving such liars.

Keith rightly mentions the emotional investment some may have in an issue as a distorting factor. We cannot usually wish this away by only listening to neutral experts. The investment is not determined by the people but by the issue. The validity of Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem took him years of dedicated work, but there were no impassioned pro-and anti-theorem schools in the background. Colleagues found a hole in his first proof, which he calmly acknowledged, then fixed to general applause. Contrast drugs policy, abortion, and nuclear power, where passions run high on both sides. Mark Jacobson (anti-nuclear) actually sued Christopher Clack (pro-nuclear) and the National Academy of Sciences as publisher over a hostile rebuttal to his first 100% renewables scenario. Both are reputable career scientists.

In such fields, it is generally impossible to find anybody with deep expert knowledge who does not have strongly held opinions on one side or the other of the relevant policy. Controversy and conflict are integral to the scientific and democratic processes. This applies in spades to advocacy groups, formed specifically to advance one or other policy. Greenpeace is not going to give you a sympathetic in-depth analysis of coal-mining. But its scenarios of solar deployment have consistently been much more accurate than those of professionals at the IEA.

What should the common reader or blogger do in this situation? I can only offer bromides.

  • Eliminate known liars and hired propagandists completely from consideration, see above.
  • Take into account formal credentials, institutional affiliations and possible conflicts of interest, as guides not filters.
  • Check whether the author fairly represents the opposing view or sets up straw men, notes unhelpful data or brushes it under the carpet.
  • Ignore tone short of abuse. Bias can hide under a façade of judicious neutrality, passion can be combined with fairness (see the model of Mark Kleiman). (This one may be a personal preference).
  • Check your own bias and lean over backwards to be fair to the side you aren’t on. IIRC David Hume, when writing the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, wrote to theologians to be sure he was presenting the cases of Cleanthes and Demea as well as possible, assuming he was Philo himself. (Can’t confirm this, help wanted.)
  • Remember that historians deal with and correct for biased sources all the time. Perhaps there is no other kind.

We now have an unsatisfactory answer to the question posed in the title: it depends. Sometimes the ad hominem rule calls for a red card (off the pitch), at others just an orange one with a dimmer (proceed with more or less caution).

Not much help? Welcome to the real world. Trust me.

[Update 30/7/2019]: A 2006 blog post by noted Australian economist John Quiggin on very similar lines.

[Update 2, 4/08/2019]: Australian conservative pundit Andrew Bot reminds us that there is another form of ad hominem attack, one that is not only fallacious but obnoxious. He devotes an entire column in Murdoch’s Melbourne newspaper the Herald-Sun to an unhinged and scurrilous personal attack on the teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Sample:

I have never seen a girl so young and with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru.

More here. Ms Thunberg has Asperger’s syndrome and does not conceal the fact. She shares it with several other famous people, possibly including Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. I’m not sure what condition Andrew Bolt suffers from, but it probably ends in “-path”.

The third King

Balthasar is black, and it’s a good thing

Ravenna mosaic of the Magi

Today is Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the Christian feast commemorating an uncorroborated legend in one of the Gospels (Matthew 2, vv 1-9) of a visit by a group of Magi to the infant Jesus. By AD 500 the unnumbered Persian astrologers had become three kings. These mosaics from imperial Ravenna still depict them in Persian dress, but that knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages. Nobody in Western Europe in say 1100 AD had any idea what a Zoroastrian astrologer might have been like, so the shift is understandable.

What is far more puzzling is why one of the kings – usually Balthasar, sometimes Caspar – should be often painted as black. Continue reading “The third King”

Dayspring Mishandled?

A conspiracy theory on the Prague meeting.

(Explanation for the obscure title at the end)

I should not be telling you this, but I think readers have a right to know before the weekend.

The Steele dossier on Trump’s numerous shady ties to Russia includes the notorious alleged visit by Cohen to Prague in August 2016.

1. Speaking to a compatriot and friend on 19 October 2016, a Kremlin insider provided further details of reported clandestine meeting/s between Republican presidential candidate, Donald TRUMP’S lawyer Michael COHEN and Kremlin representatives in August 2016. Although the communication between them had to be cryptic for security reasons, the Kremlin insider clearly indicated to his/her friend that the reported contact/s took place in Prague, Czech Republic.

2. Continuing on this theme, the Kremlin insider highlighted the importance of the Russian parastatal organisation, Rossotrudnichestvo, in this contact between TRUMP campaign representative/s and Kremlin officials. Rossotrudnichestvo was being used as cover for this relationship and its office in Prague may well have been used to host the COHEN / Russian Presidential Administration (PA) meeting/s. It was considered a “plausibly deniable” vehicle for this, whilst remaining entirely under Kremlin control.

3. The Kremlin insider went on to identify leading pro-PUTIN Duma figure, Konstantin KOSACHEV (Head of the Foreign Relations Committee) as an important figure in the TRUMP campaign-Kremlin liaison operation. KOSACHEV, also “plausibly deniable” being part of the Russian legislature rather than executive, had facilitated the contact in Prague and by implication, may have attended the meeting/s with COHEN there in August.

Cohen – even after his plea deal – continues to maintain he has never been to Prague and was in Rome or maybe Capri at the time. However, McClatchy reporters have found circumstantial evidence (cellphone location records) that he was there after all. What will the Mueller report reveal? If the Steele dossier’s allegation is confirmed, it could be the smoking gun that ends the Trump presidency.

My own high-level source (whose identity I am sworn not to reveal) makes the following observation, couched as a speculation. Suppose you are the head of the Czech security service BIS, Michal Koudelka. He will see Putin’s machinations to weaken or destroy the NATO alliance and reestablish Russian hegemony over the former Soviet empire as a critical threat to the security of his country. Such threats justify extreme measures. The BIS will have put a major effort into checking the Steele claims of collusion with Donald Trump, the Trump organization, or the Trump campaign. They know what really happened in Prague.

Let’s suppose that these efforts have turned up a blank on the visit: Cohen did not meet Kremlin representatives in Prague, though the conspiracy was real. A professional counterespionage officer would inevitably think about an operation to “frame the guilty”. Continue reading “Dayspring Mishandled?”

Armistice Day 2018 woolgathering

Brazil’s war dead.

Since I have been harsh on the citizens of Brazil for their crass irresponsibility in electing Jair Bolsonaro, I’d like to recall a time when Brazil did the right thing. In August 1942, Brazil declared war on the Axis. 1,600 Brazilian sailors drowned in sinkings by U-boats during the conflict, and as many again in an undeclared naval war before it was made official. 948 soldiers of the 25,000-strong expeditionary force sent to Italy died in combat. (I’m not sure I am reading the Wikipedia article right on casualties, there may be some double counting. )

Brazil’s entry into the war resulted from strong American pressure, aided by the German own goal of U-boat attacks on merchant shipping when Brazil was still technically neutral. It was preceded by other Latin American countries: Cuba and the Dominican Republic (after Pearl Harbor); Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in January 1942. Colombia and Bolivia followed in 1943. Still, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, given Vargas’ quasi-fascist ideology, and Brazil’s military contribution was much the largest of any Latin America country.

The episode is remembered in Brazil, though it obviously does not loom large in the national myth. There is a rather bland but okay monument to the Brazilian war dead on Flamengo Beach in Rio.

So: Obrigado. There was a time when Brazil did the right thing, and 4,000 of its young men and women paid the price to join a very big club. If they play football (soccer) in the Elysian Fields, you can guess who wins. Continue reading “Armistice Day 2018 woolgathering”

Judge Incitatus

Caligula did not make his horse a consul, but the story fits Trump and Kavanaugh.

You all know that the crazy Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula (ruled 37-41 CE) made his horse a consul. Right? Wrong. There is no evidence whatever he did.

The main source of the story – Google tells me the only one [update correction, see comments] – is the Roman historian Dio Cassius. Roman History, Book LIX, 14.7:

One of the [chariot-racing] horses, which he named Incitatus, he used to invite to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.

So the source of the story claims that Caligula talked about making Incitatus a consul, the way Trump talked about assassinating Bashir al-Assad, but did not go through with it.

Even the watered-down version is fishy. Dio Cassius comes across as quite sober and was certainly very industrious, but he was writing 180 years later. The earlier historian Suetonius, whose gossipy Lives of the Caesars consists largely of lurid anecdotes, does not mention the incident mentions the consulship as a mere rumour. [Correction update, see comments]. Nor do the contemporary sources Seneca, Josephus, and Philo, writers of an altogether different calibre and reliability, and hostile to Caligula. So at most, Incitatus’ equine magistracy is something a mentally unfit four-year Roman Emperor may have joked about at drunken parties.

As a legend, it can still serve as an illuminating model. Fictional Caligula made his horse a consul. President Donald Trump is also clearly a work of dystopian fiction in progress, and the episode entitled “The Nomination of Brett Kavanaugh” is curiously parallel to Incitatus. Continue reading “Judge Incitatus”

Nature imitating art

It always does; never perfectly but well enough to teach us something.  At the end of The Lord of the Rings (the book, but not the movie), the evil wizard Saruman and his nasty, slinking sidekick Wormtongue Cohen arrive in the hobbits’ peaceable shire and spread ruin, fear, and mistrust. Along the way they cut down trees, destroying nature, and try to make an industrial wasteland out of it.  Eventually they are overcome, and in a final squabble resulting from Saruman disrespecting Wormtongue and betraying him to the hobbits, Wormtongue kills Saruman.

For some reason I am remembering this episode lately.

 

They’re (no longer) sending their best

New York used to send Washington, and the nation, a cavalcade of admirable, honorable, people, the pick of its élites: Hamilton, TR, FDR, Robert Wagner Sr., Robert Mueller III,..a long list. As a New Yorker, I used to be proud of this (though of course I can’t take credit for any of them).

Now, not so much; the Empire State and the Big Apple are–what’s the right word? yeah–infesting Washington with scrapings from the bottom: the Trumps, Michael Cohen, Rudy Giuliani, the Mooch,…

Well, it was a good run for a couple of centuries at least.