Vive La Différance, Again.

Vive La Différance – or a white swan in the hand is worth more than risking a few black feathers in the bush.

I’ve regularly used the Derridan version of difference (différance) ironically and usually when talking about gender differences. That minefield of:

  • what differences there really are between men and women (specifically archetypically, but generalising statistically, obviously);
  • what the real significance and value of those differences are (if any);
  • and how these are best handled with care, when such archetypes may be exploited as stereotypes in actively biased political agendas or in passively maintained fallacies.

Political correctness says don’t mention the difference, let’s just avoid any slippery slope to such prejudiced politics. But that’s the deferrment in Derrida’s ironic neologism. That’s the denial. Denial of difference. Différance. Very unscientific, to say the least, and some people think such logic matters, even in the arithmetic of politics.

One reason I (re)use the term ironically in that gender context is because in fact I’m already using it implicitly everywhere issues involve binary choices but where clearly the larger issue can never be reduced to that smaller difference. Actual difference is nevertheless significant.

This kind of political correctness is damaging science itself and our rationality more generally. Rhetorical tricks are an accepted, indeed an essential, part of politics but, as more people are beginning to realise, this politically-correct denial of difference is turning science and rationality into another branch of politics.

Why am I writing this today?

Ive been personally concerned for more than two decades on where rationality appears to be failing human affairs generally, despite the progress of science and technology. There are always endless issues and topics of the day that get reduced to binary arguments between seemingly extreme opposing views. Godwin’s law is so devalued that anyone who disagrees with us is barely one click away from being branded a fascist. Post-truth isn’t even the half of it.

The Spring 2017 New Humanist is a special edition on the “Age of Extremes” which is very timely. #Brexit and #Trump may be the social-media hashtags of choice, but these are merely lightning rods for a mass of issues around identities and freedoms, truths and values. “How do we make sense of a troubling time for democracy and its discontents?” asks editor Daniel Trilling in his introduction to pieces on many of those issues behind the headlines. How indeed. Have a read.

Yesterday, I had an exchange with a sci-commer and and scientist on the original topic – that minefield of male-female / left-right brain differences – and some new apparently valid scientific findings. No prizes for guessing how that conversation ended: “we’ve debated that before” and “I’ve written a book about it”. End of. Even a denial that the closing down of discussion was itself any kind of political correctness. Now, as sci-commer and scientist, I have respect for both Vanessa Heggie and Mo Costandi. The point is not to criticise them. The problem is the prevailing “uncomfortable truth” meme that says “don’t even consider the difference”.

But today specifically? It’s not yet 10am as I write this, and mainstream media and twitter has already delivered the news:

[I’m including the Tweets with their own links and threads for reference and jumping-off points – impossible to re-create as a single storified “thread” – but all the important published links are in the text discussion that follows.]

BBC science correspondent Tom Feilden (oops, autocorrect-typo in my original tweet) reporting on the “Reproducibility Crisis”

Rupert Read’s latest “White Swan” post on Medium.

Retweet by Alom Shaha of two threads shared by Petra Boynton, and an ensuing exchange of tweets with several sub-threads.

Controversy reduced to binary choices.

Firstly, as I’ve said it hardly matters which “controversy” we’re talking about. These twitter streams illustrate at least three explicitly, and the New Humanist edition above covers at least half a dozen more. The things I’m talking about include:

  • Immigration ban vs refugees welcome
  • Extreme vetting vs open borders
  • Brexit project fear vs project cheer
  • Freedom of expression vs safe spaces
  • One state vs two state middle-east
  • Climate changer vs AGW denier
  • Sharia vs Secular constitution
  • Religious freedom vs secular life
  • Race vs religious culture
  • Evidence-based vs received wisdom
  • Scientific method vs everyday life
  • Left vs right
  • Liberal vs conservative
  • New vs old
  • And, frankly, dozens more.

The point is, as political arguments they all represent sides where each would want to prevail, at least in a win-win compromise if not total win-lose, Even with the most balanced and nuanced consideration of all details of each, and the myriad of complex relationships between each question, they represent issues where it might be rationally politic to choose a side – or it might not. However, on any scientifically or objectively rational basis none is actually a binary choice, the two sides never represent simple objects of choice or where compromise is simply how much of each. But politics is politics. Science isn’t.

The politics of science, sci-somms and science funding say, are political of course. The content and conduct of science are not. Or shouldn’t be. Our best sci-commers know this. The best of them are scientists too and know which hat they’re wearing. Their audiences in mainstream and social media may not always be so discerning in practice when reacting and interacting across the whole spectrum from serious technical journals, popular science and general media. The boundaries between politics and science are blurred on many axes.

The reproducibility crisis, even if you don’t believe it really exists as a crisis in science on the scale Tom reports – “Science is like [financial services] before the 2008 crash.” – is one symptom. In the competitive clamour for attention and funds, the politics of science crowds out the quality of the content. This either dismisses important internal differences to defend the only game currently in town or turns internal detail into the main event in the quest to be the next big thing. Two extremes neither of which reflects the most likely reality that we have something that might simply help progress existing areas of work. This focus on the novel as competitive true-or-false news politicises science and squeezes any resources that might be motivated to actually address significant so-far un-reproduced findings scientifically.

In the proper analysis, the difference will often be a small aspect of the whole. It may seem fair to quietly ignore it, deny it or shout it down in the daily cut and thrust. But it’s not science. It’s not objective rationality. And, being a small aspect of the whole, what may be obscured is the massive amount of common ground. In fact, that may the rationale for ignoring it and focussing on progressing the large but flawed majority – that’s politic too. Read’s “White Swan” piece pick’s this up. In climate-change denial politics we’re talking about a massive eco-system in terms of physical and temporal scale and complexity. However many things are well established and scientifically proven, and important things are, there are a million other doubtful details and undecidable choices. Read’s White Swan is a reference to Taleb’s unforeseeable Black Swan. Political and practical real-world action should really focus on the common ground. Wasted effort debating undecidable detail blind-sides us to the unpredictable Black Swans. They don’t become decidable simply because we cast them politically as simple objects we can choose between. We are fooled by randomness into thinking it’s better to debate and decide on details of the unpredictable.

Better to let the real scientists and proper use of statistical tools focus on the myriad of details, each in their own context, work towards making more detail decidable and ensuring a proper response to undecidable risk. Political debate and choice should restrict itself to how to ride the white swan – finding the common ground we can agree to work with right now.

The Thin End of Slippery Slopes

In the gender difference example it’s politically correct to deny difference, simply to avoid the risk of persisting stereotypes and their political abuse for other agendas. Not giving ground to the thin end of a wedge or a slippery slope. Politically of course, with much momentum and many battles won in the direction of “equality” it makes perfect sense to reject calls of difference. One or two Machiavellian operators could undermine a lot of established ground. That’s why it’s literally PC. But the difference is still real and significant. Science cannot ignore differences, the exceptions, the outliers, the odd-balls.

And herein lies the problem. It’s the exceptions that make for news. Quite literally in Shannon Information Theory, only the significantly different bits represent news. We can convey everything we knew yesterday, yesterday’s weather, with a single bit, the news is all the new bits. With ubiquitous media all new bits are clamouring competitively for attention. Boundaries between proper scientific attention and valid political attention are blown away. The known and nearly-known is crowded out by the (would-be) new.

The convergence is complete if we also consider that information – significant difference – is also the fundamental source of all physical reality, energy, particles, values, the lot. This would be a digression if it weren’t that so much popular science concerns itself with the physics of everything from quanta to the cosmos. The way information is physically embodied and represented depends on many evolved levels of encoding and abstraction on every axis imaginable.

We’d better get it right, the way we understand information and handle it. A newsworthy fact for a scientist may not be the same as a truth for a political journalist, and as we’ve seen commentators fall across a whole spectrum of media contexts. Evidence is an important input to any choice. Available evidence should never be ignored but we must not fetishise the idea that evidence of one objectively scientific kind is necessary before we can make any and all political decisions. Transparency of information is another aspect that gets fetishised. Rights and freedoms, and Wikileaks and social media generally, would support the idea that any information should be available in any context. But a valid fact or bit of information in a scientific analysis may be inappropriate in a public policy debate.

It’s not that we can’t all understand everything in any context – we can’t – and therefore might misinterpret and/or misuse it – we will – it’s that the fact, truth or bit of information might not represent a meaningful object applicable to any decidable question in any and all contexts – it won’t.

There needs to be recognisable demarcations between contexts. Good fences make good neighbours. Then, and only then, can we collaborate on what we mostly actually share both sides of any fences.

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