More Heat Than Light

Little did I know when I made a passing reference to the Beard vs Taleb spat on Twitter in my previous post (the one before that actually) that it would turn into a full international incident. Nassim Nicholas Taleb holding-up Mary Beard – and her baying mob of PC-supporters – as all that is wrong with British academia in contrast to the US. (Links below.)

Hard facts or not, no discourse ever got anywhere without respect for the person, and on that I’ve said my bit. And it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve mentioned here that Taleb’s “abrasive” style can be daunting, even if you’re trying to agree with him. The difference between making a mistake and BS is a fine line if you can’t keep up with Taleb’s machine-gun pace on Twitter, or you’d just like to clarify your understanding. Once the rhetorical knives are out there is no hope for progress. Pointing out subtleties is branded as backtracking – simply more BS.

Taleb caused offense – it’s his style to do so when calling-out what he sees as BS – but Beard, for some baffling reason, responded by calling his credentials into question and it has been all downhill since, particularly as Taleb basks in his fuck-you stance.

Evidence comes in many forms, some of it highly objective in it’s own right (gene surveys, O2 isotope readings, archaeological finds, you name it), but even when not merely anecdotal, historical narrative requires knowledgeable interpretation, and balancing of the applicability of each evidence type. I’m skeptical that either scientific evidence source proves what is claimed on either side, reality is more subtle, but is there anyone more on top of statistical uncertainty than Taleb? One of the PC responses was against the ubiquitous argument from genetics trumping all others these days (sigh!), but here again, Taleb is probably as expert on Mediterranean and Mid-East genetic (and memetic language) evolution as anyone.

For what it’s worth, the ethnically diverse cartoon depiction of Roman Britain is almost certainly disproportionate and not actually representative or typical – almost certainly a PC portrayal. And whilst “Romans” did include sub-Saharan Africans as well as Mid-Easterners and North-Africans – anyone, trader or slave, could become a Roman citizen – I’m no expert on the timings and scales of various waves of adoption relative to Roman occupation of the UK and Northern Europe. (Even Beard’s own piece confirms not really representative – “at least some diversity” is as far as she goes.)

Taleb does have a point about “western” political correctness – it’s core to my agenda here – but he overstates the UK vs US rift just as much as Beard and her supporters have overdone the demonisation of the rude “Mr” Taleb. His fuck-you style is a no-nonsense US stance contrasted with the archetypal understated UK diplomacy, but he’s right that it’s PC to turn that difference of style into the substance of actual disagreement.

Taleb getting his retaliation in first on Friday.

Beard in the Grauniad on Sunday.

A pox on both their houses until they pick-up again the statistics of ethnicity of Roman Britain.

And, in case you were interested here is Taleb on his pet topic, anthropology of his middle-east, also this weekend. Forthright style intact, but something where my own knowledge confirms he’s right, unless of course the critique of the whole narrative thing is simply a strawman 😉 If I know, I’m sure any expert does.

Oh, and how did I miss it, Nick Cohen has already steamed-in earlier today on Mary’s behalf. At least he conceded there’s fault on both sides here:

“just as sinister,
is what the alt-right and politically correct left
are doing to public life”


Post Notes later the same day!:

And now Cambridge Uni itself has stepped-into the battle.

And Massimo Pigliucci has written a piece for IAI News.

At least Pigliucci is New York based, so maybe UK vs US angle is defused 😉 And, presumably the philosophical BS technicality is a reference to Prof Frankfurter’s infamous work.

And Taleb has responded in 5 parts (so far)

So, firstly so far as I can tell, I actually agree with each of Taleb’s responses, points I’ve already made or agreed with, which doesn’t mean Pigliucci doesn’t also make valid points, see later

The problem is not the “overwhelming evidence of diversity” in the Romans in Britain, it’s about which ethnic mix of diversity. That implied by the cartoon not being a “representative heuristic” of that ethnic mix. The gender and “colour” being a more typical PC representation than factually representative. This would be a minor – pedantic – technicality for simplicity of cartoonish representation (in the context of its children’s educational point) if it weren’t that the earlier responses – some from Beard, some from her defenders – ignored the actual point and chose to question Taleb’s credentials (and “loutish” manners). The number of people who have stepped in to defend Beard since is mind-boggling. Quite a few I have a lot of respect for, like Pigliucci. Get a grip folks.

So, back to Pigliucci’s piece. In the same way I agree with Taleb on the PC-ness of the original Cambridge Classics / BBC angle being an endemic problem – one that gives rise to BS – Pigliucci is right about the arrogance of modern scientism. Whether Taleb is particularly guilty of that in this exchange is moot, but Pigliucci also treats both combatants as “high calibre academics” and he does find “BBC just slightly too informed by modern sensibilities” (ie PC) in the childish cartoon. The battle was well underway before Taleb chimed-in as we can see, and the scientism is the assumption that evidence that looks scientific and claims objectivity (eg in genes) must automatically take priority over any other historical perspective. Here I agree with Pigliucci (and others) and disagree with Taleb. It’s useful additional evidence that no “high calibre academic” would ignore, but it doesn’t automatically make any existing view BS without wider and subtler questions of applicability to the point being made. And of course respect for each other also matters alongside facts if actual progress is to be made.

Fate doesn’t hang on a wrong or right choice.
Fortune depends on the tone of your voice.

Neil Hannon / Divine Comedy, “Songs of Love”

This whole storm in a teacup is about darkness of skin being an all too easy metaphor for ethnicity, for us north-European whiteys that is. Ethnic diversity = “token” black man. Come on. That’s inaccurate and offensive to many long before our not-so-friendly Lebanese-American scholar threw in the “Bullshit” and “PC” jibes that offended our modern British sensibilities. Like I said, get a grip.

And … enough for now …

Ref, my very first tweet on this topic from 2nd August …


Later Post Notes:

21 Sept 2017 – I see the war rumbles on (threads):

Also published on Medium.

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