Here you find me, sitting in my study, surrounded by the same collection of Waterstones Smart Thinking books that Dominic Cummings uses to run the country, trying desperately to self-isolate for my wife’s benefit, because I swear to God, if the virus doesn’t kill her, I will. And then I look at the calendar and I see that we are only 10 days into a lockdown that promises to outlive the cockroach. It’s all very depressing.
So what can one do to alleviate the anxiety and boredom, and save my wife from an undeserved fate? I could walk the dog within the grand expanse of my local forest, allowing Mother Nature to sooth the fevered brow, were it not for the local police turning everyone back onto the streets, to trudge forlornly around my cul-de-sac as if in some grim scene from Midnight Express. The mental health counsellors say that these are times when you need to pamper yourself and seek pleasure in the simple things, but life has already taught me that there is only so much that can be achieved by masturbation. Within minutes you will be back to flicking fruitlessly through the television channels, skipping past the over-leveraged ‘classics’, vainly seeking out something that isn’t already so familiar that you can lip-sync to the dialogue. So, what to do?
Of course, one can’t just pop darn t’pub to meet your mates anymore (not that I ever did). However, visiting your local, friendly blog does serve as a safe substitute. And if you choose to comment, or even write an article, one can practise using words, just to prove to yourself that not every social skill has withered under the draconian aegis of social distancing.
To a certain extent, it is also useful to visit your local, unfriendly blog. This is also a safe substitute, provided that you resist the temptation to join in with the virus-distracting revelry – it takes very little time for your denialist credentials to be recognised and for the antibodies to organise the required fevered defence. Even so, judiciously covert reconnaissance can still prove very entertaining; as was the case recently when I took a peek at Ken Rice’s ATTP to witness a rather enlightening discussion resulting from Willard’s latest posting, Richard’s Decoupling.
The post was simple enough in its purpose. Willard had noted a tweet from Richard Dawkins that read:
“It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.”
Willard accused Dawkins of engaging in what some philosophers have referred to as ‘decoupling’, which is to say, ‘By X, I don’t mean Y, even though I appreciate that the two are commonly coupled’. There’s nothing much too wrong in that, you might think, but Willard clearly felt that Dawkins was being disingenuous in his decoupling and was merely ‘dog-whistling’. He was appearing to deplore eugenics whilst encouraging its support.
Thus ensued an increasingly acrimonious discussion in which Willard’s frustration with the lack of agreement for his article’s central thesis became ever more evident. Having haughtily insulted all of his erstwhile compatriots, he finally bewailed, ‘I don’t fear anything or anyone here, including Humpty Dumpty’. An image of Willard clinging to the top of the Empire State Building, angrily swatting away pesky biplanes, was difficult to avoid. Anyway, not long after that, the thread fell silent. Whether this was due to everyone taking pity on Willard, or simply the result of him resorting to his usual tactic of deleting comments once it had occurred to him that he alone understood how he had already won the argument, I don’t know – and I don’t care.
I wanted to join in the debate on ATTP, but the futility of engaging over there has long-since been made all too apparent to me. Fortunately, however, I can still have my say here. Willard has made it clear before now that it is below his dignity to engage with the cognitively challenged crew of the good ship CliScep, so I do not anticipate any feedback from him. That said, he is more than welcome to try – unlike him, I have a very tolerant moderation policy.
Rather than trying to dissect Dawkins’ tweet, I prefer instead to point out that he would not be the first, and will not be the last, to stand falsely accused of using scientific ‘truths’ to promote an ideological position. I take as my example an epidemiologist called Allen Wilcox, who had attempted to illuminate a particular paradox the had been troubling statisticians for many years. The paradox is exemplified by the fact that babies with low birth weights are more likely to die prematurely, but not if their mothers are smokers. This seemed to suggest that maternal smoking was in some way protective, but surely that was nonsense. The paradox cannot be resolved using conventional statistical reasoning, but it does find resolution in causal inference’s concept of ‘collider bias’. In causal models that include colliders (see A Brief Primer on Causation) the paradox is an illusion brought about by conditioning the analysis on the collider whilst failing to understand that the collider is not the only causation of the supposedly paradoxical outcome. Wilcox was completely right in his analysis, but his problem lay in the fact that he wasn’t actually studying the paradox in the context of cigarette smoking mums – he was seeing it in black mums, i.e. the underweight babies of black mums fared better than underweight babies of white mums. It’s the same paradox with the same explanation, but it is also something that is difficult to discuss scientifically without being accused of indulging in, or encouraging, racism. And that is exactly what happened to Wilcox. Evidence the following response from Richard David of Cook County Hospital, Chicago:
“In the pursuit of ‘pure science’ a well-meaning investigator may be perceived as – and may be – aiding and abetting a social order he abhors.”
Judea Pearl, the father of causal analysis, had this to say in reply:
“This harsh accusation, conceived out of the noblest of motivations, is surely not the first instance in which a scientist has been reprimanded for elucidating truths that might have adverse social consequences. The Vatican’s objections to Galileo’s ideas surely arose out of genuine concerns for the social order of the time. The same can be said about Charles Darwin’s evolution and Francis Galton’s eugenics. However, the cultural shocks that emanate from new scientific findings are eventually settled by cultural realignments that accommodate those findings – not by concealment. A prerequisite for this realignment is that we sort out the science from the culture before opinions become inflamed.”
And that, of course, was all that Dawkins was saying: The biological feasibility of eugenics is one thing, the cultural acceptability quite another. Many tried to point this out to Willard but he was already too far ahead of them in his understanding of Dawkins’ hidden motives, and far too superior in his understanding of the philosophical issues involved. You see, you don’t need social distancing when you are already operating on a different intellectual plane.
Well, I have had my say now and I await Willard’s withering response. I’m desperate for a Covid-19 distraction, so come on Willard, please don’t let me down. Don’t make me have to go upstairs and have another… oh hello darling, I was just thinking of you.