Anna Stubblefield, a philosophy professor now on unpaid leave from Rutgers University at Newark, is set to go on trial for the sexual assault of a severely disabled man, whom she claims consented to sexual relations via the use of "facilitated communication." The trial judge has ruled that,
At her upcoming sexual assault trial, Rutgers-Newark professor Anna Stubblefield may testify about her use of a controversial technique she claims to have used to communicate with the severely mentally disabled victim.
But if her testimony references studies and takes on more of an expert's perspective, Superior Court Judge Siobhan Teare said on Thursday she will inform jurors that the technique, known as "facilitated communication," is not generally accepted in the scientific communities.
In other words, facilitated communication is "junk science," but since Stubblefield believed in it, it is highly relevant to her state of mind regarding her interactions with the alleged victim. This is a common problem in trials: evidence that is admissible for one purpose--e.g., to show someone's state of mind, as in this case--is not admissible for another (e.g., to prove that the severely disabled can really communicate with others through "facilitated communication"). If the defense is not careful in how they question Stubblefield about this issue, they run the risk of the trial judge issuing very damaging instructions to the jury (if the judge tells the jury this is "junk science" this is bound to affect the willingness of the jury to believe Stubblefield that she really thought she had received consent from the alleged victim).
Many people have commented to me over the last year or so that they feel this incident would have generated much more cyber-attention and outrage if Stubblefield had been a man and the alleged victim a woman. That is probably true, though for reasons that are understandable. Most obviously, male sexual assault is more common than female sexual assault, and so has produced more victims, and more concern.
IHE has a good account (thanks to several readers who sent this along). Having looked at one of the syllabi in question, I should note that it prohibited use of words like "The Man" and "colored people." I imagine the instructor was motivated to include those based on past experience. And an instructor is well within her legal rights to discourage use of pejorative terms like these. Students in a classroom at a public university do not enjoy unbridled First Amendment rights, just as instructors don't either: both are subject to reasonable regulation to insure a constructive educational environment. (Recall our earlier discussion of Pickeringin connection with the Salaita case.) Some of the syllabi arguably overreached, both in what language they sought to regulate and in specifying excessive punitive measures. Anyway, what's really noticeable here is that despite the right-wing crazy storm in cyberspace by the usual smear merchants, Washington State came up with a balanced response that corrected the excesses without caving in to the witch hunt.
A number of readers have written to me about one William Bradford, who has a rather sordid history in legal academia; the latest development is here and follow the links therein for more about this strange character.
...this poll out of Iowa among likely Democratic and Republican voters is very revealing. A few takeaways: (1) Sanders is closing in on Clinton even in Iowa, and Clinton's lead has been collapsing all summer; (2) the real story on the Republican side is not Trump anymore, but the rise of Ben Carson (who is now the clear #2 favorite in Iowa), an utterly lunatic religious fanatic and the sole African-American on the Republican side--and note that Carson has very low "unfavorable" ratings among Republicans compared to Trump (indeed, compared to all the others); (3) the other big story on the Republican side is the collapse of Jeb Bush's candidacy (he's trailing not only Trump and Carson, but several others, and his "unfavorable" among Republican voters in Iowa are very high)--is this due to bad memories of the last Bush or to Trump's withering mockery of Jeb? Who knows? In any case, it's good news, as Jeb is probably the most likely Republican (other than Ohio's Kasich and Fiorina) to give Democrats a run for the money in the national campaign (the national election, remember, is decided by turnout among loyalists, on the one hand, and by the so-called "independent" voters, on the other, i.e., the folks who can't tell night from day, and who gravitate precisely towards the candidate who generates less loyalist response on each side).
The fact that either Trump or Carson may come out on top in Iowa is wonderful news for the Democrats, even for the sorry Clinton candidacy, since both are guaranteed to go down in flames in the national election. The Democratic establishment desperately wants to block a Sanders candidacy, though he's on track at this point to win New Hampshire and maybe to win Iowa too. But Sanders will have a harder time once the primaries move to states with large number of African-American voters, a constituency where the Clinton brand is still generally popular. Sanders would do well to make an early announcement of his VP selection, and to make it an African-American or Hispanic female!
And that's the end of my political prognostications for awhile!
AUG 31 UPDATE: Carson has now tied Trump in the latest Iowa poll. Cruz, Fiorina have some traction, and Bush is MIA. Bear in mind that the Republican caucus in Iowa is dominated by religious fanatics--hence the past winners were Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
NY Times reports, including a link to the Science article. Haven't had time to read the article carefully; any readers care to comment on which results of interest to philosophers failed the reliability tests?
Torbjorn Tannsjo, Kristian Claëson Professor of Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University, asked me to share the following experience he recently had.
Dylan Matthews, a philosophically-minded editor at Vox.com, solicited Professor Tannsjo to write a piece for Vox on the "repugnant conclusion." More precisely, Mr. Matthews wrote:
I'm an editor for the US news site Vox.com, and we're trying to start a new series where philosophers and other thinkers argue for provocative and/or counterintuitive propositions that our readers might find intriguing.
I'm a big fan of your work from my undergraduate years — there aren't a lot of fellow hedonic utilitarians in philosophy! — and in particular found your argument for accepting the repugnant conclusion very compelling. It's a fascinating problem, and one that's fairly easy for lay readers to get into — people care about population size, and "We have a duty to make the world's population as large as possible" is a proposition that demands peoples' attention.
I'm writing to ask if you'd like to write up a popular version of your argument on this for Vox.
After inquiring about its status after a period of silence, Prof. Tannsjo received the following from Mr. Matthews:
Afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news, Torbjörn. I ran the piece by some other editors and they weren't comfortable running it; I think the concern is that people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which, while I know it's not your intent, is a real concern.
I'm sorry to waste your time; I really am a big fan of your work and appreciate your willingness to work with me.
As Prof. Tannsjo remarked to me this sorry affair illustrates "how sensitive abstract philosophical reasoning sometimes is"--and also, I might add, how difficult it is to translate it for a mass audience which apparently is more concerned with taking the "correct" view than with the reasoning.
UPDATE AUG. 26 (EVENING): This item has gotten a lot of traction, so much so that the Vox editor has responded. If I were feeling generous, I would describe the response as pathetically stupid. Prof. Tannsjo actually supports free abortion, as he told me. But what he supports or doesn't support is not the issue! If you solicit a piece from a philosopher, knowing what their work is about (as was clearly the case here), you have an obligation to publish it, subject to reasonable editing. What you can't do, if you are an even remotely serious operation (and not an echo chamber), is reject it because someone not paying attention might think the argument supports a conclusion they find icky. This rule for adult, scholarly discourse applies to the so-called "right" and to the so-called "left." Vox will be hard-pressed to get any serious scholars to write for them after this. But the same warning applies to so-called "conservative" sites (who are terrible offenders on this score too). If you really want to challenge your readers, then invite serious people with serious arguments, and don't reject them because their conclusions might be deemed offensive to casual readers. The Socratic ideal, which so many profess allegiance to, and so few act on, is to let the arguments run their course. That is what Vox failed to do.
AUGUST 27 UPDATE: I asked Prof. Tannsjo whether he cared to respond to Vox's response, and he sent me the following:
As Vox admits, they solicited a piece from me on the ”repugnant” conclusion, it went through a thorough editing procedure, and it was eventually rejected. I quoted the reasons that were given for the rejection, a concern that ”people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which ... is a real concern”. To put it mildly, Vox has wasted my time. Furthermore, it is indeed bad policy to defend a right to free abortion and to refuse to take seriously the moral problems abortion gives rise to. That’s what pissed me off. Now other reasons are given. The argument I gave is not convincing enough for us /Vox/ ”to stand behind a conclusion so sweeping and dramatic”. But I, and not Vox, would have stood behind the conclusion! Of course, the argument is, given the context, very simplified. It would not convince a fellow philosopher. That was not the intent. But those who take a real interest in the subject can read the chapter on abortion in my recent book, Taking Life. Three Theories on the Ethics of Killing (Oxford UP) upon which the short article is built and to which a reference was given. Or, they can read my ”Why We Ought to Accept the Repugnant Conclusion” in the scholarly journal Utilitas (2002). Finally, there is an entry on the repugnant conclusion in Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which I have co-authored with Gustaf Arrhenius and Jesper Ryberg.
This rather odd piece is making the rounds (thanks to reader David Zimmerman for sending it to me initially). It is titled, "5 Reasons to Be Skeptical of 'Campus Coddling' Scare Pieces," alluding to this. Oddly, though, there's only one actual reason given, since the other four points are irrelevant to whether or not these "scare pieces" are accurate. Here are the five purported reasons:
1. Most of the examples to support these pieces are purely anecdotal
True, but what in the world would data even look like in this context? And the denial that there is a problem is, of course, anecdotal too. What's clear by now is that there are a lot of anecdotes from a lot of different places; if they have anything in common that would caution against generalizing it is that they come overwhelmingly from elite colleges and universities, which probably have disproportionate numbers of coddled, spoiled narcissists in the student body.
2. Conservatives are in fact more likely to be “sensitive” and “babyish” about content, yet all the alarm is about liberalism.
Even if this were true, it would be irrelevant to the claims about the "New Infantilism" on campus. But is it true? The author offers this further non-sequitur:
A recent op-ed in the Washington Post also used facts and numbers to push back on the idea that “political correctness” was a left-wing phenomenon. Citing a survey about censorship, Catherine Rampell noted that: “In almost every category, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to endorse book bans.” Why is no one calling these censorious types squeamish babies who demand to be coddled?
Well, for one things, the attempts to ban books are not happening at colleges, typically, but at the pre-collegiate public schools, and one typically calls those trying to ban books more unpleasant names, e.g., "fascists" or "the Texas Taliban."
3. There may be real ways that millennials have a different cultural outlook, but no one is exploring the cause and effect of technology and culture on that outlook.
The question is how widespread the New Infantilism is, the question about its cause is separate, so this is irrelevant.
4. There are crises in academia, but they are not solely curricular or student-caused.
The author mentions the problems confronting adjuncts, as one example. Who could disagree? But the truth of the presence of the New Infantilism on college campuses does not depend on whether there are other more serious crises in the academy.
5. PTSD is not a being a baby.
No one called those suffering from PTSD "babies." Someone with PTSD is entitled to systematic accomodations under the Americans with Disabilites Act, and should receive them.
Given how absurdly unresponsive this piece is, one might note that another problem confronting universities is graduating nitwits who can't reason--though, as a friend on facebook quipped, for a site called "flavorwire," coming up with one feeble reason out of five alleged ones isn't bad!
The most lucrative jobs in America involve running Wall Street scams, lobbying for private interest groups, for which former members of the House, Senate, and executive branch are preferred, and producing schemes for the enrichment of think-tank donors, which, masquerading as public policy, can become law.
...but only if the Reading staff are successful in challenging the latest neoliberal mischief. As events in Wisconsin show, this ugliness may be coming to America too. It would help the cause if termination for cause were the norm, not the exception, but the ruling class would not welcome that.
...as the recent case of the dentist/hunter is the latest to show. In the United States, section 230 of the misnamed Communications Decency Act is one of the prime enablers of this disgusting behavior, but so too is the failure of law enforcement to aggressively pursue on-line threats of violence and criminality.
According to this piece, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh are high on the list, though not, as far as I can tell, in philosophy, no doubt due to language barriers and the Anglo-centric parochialism of the field in the Anglophone countries.
Another interestingly provocative e-mail from longtime reader S. Wallerstein, regarding the identity politics "left":
They've been very successful at imposing their hegemony on the left, especially in the U.S., so that they are the only "queer" people, so that they are always victims and that of course coincides with the rise of neoliberalism and the bourgeois offensive against the working class. It just suits Wall St. fine that the paradigm of oppression is no longer the guy or woman working for the minimum wage, but a disabled lesbian philosopher who didn't get tenure at an elite university. And most of us, myself included, feel very uncomfortable not being on the side of the victims, but there are victims and there are victims. I don't want to sound cynical, but if I were Wall St., I'd fund all leftwing identity politics groups to distract leftwing attention from class politics, just as the CIA during the cold war funded all groups defending "cultural freedom" behind the Iron Curtain.
Reader Jason Palma kindly sends along this link (which I may have posted before) which is relevant to the "Effective [sic] Altruism" movement we've been discussing; this may be the most honest thing any member of the ruling class ever published in The New York Times:
Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. There are plenty of statistics that tell us that inequality is continually rising. At the same time, according to the Urban Institute, the nonprofit sector has been steadily growing. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of nonprofits increased 25 percent. Their growth rate now exceeds that of both the business and government sectors. It’s a massive business, with approximately $316 billion given away in 2012 in the United States alone and more than 9.4 million employed.
Philanthropy has become the “it” vehicle to level the playing field and has generated a growing number of gatherings, workshops and affinity groups.
As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.
...and gives money to charity and now feels good about himself. How much harm is he doing by working at the hedge fund? I guess that doesn't count. How much good would he and the hedge fund managers do if they gave all their money to Bernie Sanders? Can't be measured effectively, so doesn't count.
I first began tweeting my support of Donald Trump for the Republican nomination a few days ago and now the latest poll shows that Trump has surged to the head of the Republican pack. Well done philosophers!
UPDATE: Reader Howard Berman writes: "You know of course, if Trump actually gets elected, he’ll redo the Whitehouse into the Taj Mahal financed by a regressive tax on the middle class and poor. People I know in the business class detest him, perhaps for them he's like their reflection in a funhouse mirror. I recall the late Roman Empire had her Trumps too."
ANOTHER: I was startled that some readers think the Trump Bump in the polls was due to his rude remarks about Senator McCain, rather than my endorsement. I realize the American electorate is an appalling sewer of stupidity, but, let's be real: the idea that even Republican voters would gravitate towards a draft-dodging rich kid who insults a veteran, well that's insulting. Seriously, do you think Republican voters are that base and stupid? If you do, you probably believe in the Marxian theory of false consciousness. Jeez.
I agree with most of what Pete Mills writes here (scroll to page 4); some excerpts (sorry about the font problems):
In practice...80,000 Hours has one dominant answer to the problems of the worst-off: in most cases, it turns out the right thing to do will be to embark on a high-paying career, get rich, and donate some of the proceeds to particularly efficient charities. What 80k offers is not neutrality, but a degree of certainty. It gives you a metric, a number – of lives saved – which you can use to evaluate your career choices. In fact, this method makes the ostensibly difficult ethical decision about what to do with your life rather simple. For the vast majority, the best choice proves to be what 80k calls “professional philanthropy”: a long march through the banking institutions. That is the novelty of 80k. The problem is political. 80k’s avowed neutrality serves to conceal the political logic of its practice. Professional philanthropy does not just involve making your peace with the system – it means embracing it. The unstated imperative: don’t rock the boat. As a banker, or a corporate lawyer, or a management consultant, what enriches you is your position in a set of profoundly exploitative social relations, which we might label capitalism....
The result is a toxic political quietism. As a professional philanthropist, the size of your donations depends on the size of your company’s profits. Your interests are aligned with the interests of capital. Anything that might disrupt production – from taxes on the wealthy at home to a strike of factory workers abroad – is potentially suspect. It is no accident that 80k’s professionalised account of political change is limited to lobbying within the system....
Once the assumptions which allow the precise calculation of the benefits of professional philanthropy – 2,000 lives saved – are in place, it is difficult to see how 80k’s other career suggestions can be much more than an afterthought (save, perhaps, persuading other people to do it). The dubious precision of these calculations and the rhetoric of efficiency obscure the real uncertainty that surrounds these decisions. In practice, if people follow 80k’s logic to its conclusion, only those supremely confident in their own abilities will opt for something else....
80k makes much of replaceability: “the job will exist whatever you do.” This is stronger than the claim that someone else will become a banker; rather, it states that there will always be bankers, that there will always be exploitation. Nothing can change. This is what I mean when I say professional philanthropy is dependent on perpetuating capitalism. Capitalism is not a policy programme which you are for or against but a set of social relations; taking a low-paid job, or no job at all, does not mean you somehow live outside the system. But professional philanthropy needs exploitation in order to mitigate the effects of exploitation. That is why it cannot address the causes of the world’s problems. 80k collapses the question of what is to be done into the individualist framework of career choice....
The language of probability will always fail to capture the possibility of system change. What was the expected value of the civil rights movement, or the campaign for universal suffrage, or anti-colonial struggles for independence? As we have seen most recently with the Arab Spring, every revolution is impossible, until it is inevitable.
The Babylonian calculations that constitute 80k’s careers research exclude these possibilities by design. 80k addresses its subject as a participant in exchange, a future employee – and nothing more. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy of impotence. Without any concept of society as a collective endeavour, we cannot address problems at their root but only those symptoms which are tractable on an atomised, individual level.
There are also responses from the charity crowd; readers may judge for themselves.
(Thanks to Pablo Zendejas Medina for the pointer.)
Demand for my endorsement has come earlier than usual, but since so much is at stake, I feel I should speak out now: Trump is clearly the most qualified of the Republican Presidential candidates, in terms of intelligence, good judgment, and accomplishments. I give him my unqualified support for the Republican nomination. Please join me.
ADDENDUM: You can start by joining me on Twitter to spread the word. The philosophy vote could be crucial in this primary season.
And so defenses like this are silly. Who, besides Ayn Rand, isn't in favor of improving the well-being of others? The problem has to do with the way the EA folks interpret "effective," which guarantees that it will be both ineffective and very appealing to the capitalist media, which loves moral self-congratulation that is utterly unthreatening to capitalist relations of production and the ruling class.
I want to be clear: those philosophers giving their money to charities are not acting wrongfully in my view. They are acting wrongfully, however, in pretending that this is what one ought to do, that somehow the catastrophic harms that afflict large segments of humanity are in any meaningful way addressed by their charitable contributions.
...again at Boston Review; an excerpt, but do read the whole thing, especially if you're on the verge of falling for the "effective altruism" sales pitch:
[R]andomized controlled trial (RCT) field experiments...are designed to make the complex social world as much like a scientific laboratory as possible in order to isolate the effect of a particular intervention. The focus on impact makes RCTs appealing to effective altruists. Indeed, organizations like GiveWell and Giving What We Can rely heavily on these studies as the “best available evidence” to recommend top charities.
As in medical studies, RCT researchers randomly assign subjects to treatment and control groups to ensure that the two groups are roughly identical prior to the experiment. Then they administer the intervention—mosquito bed nets, de-worming pills, curriculum interventions, eye surgeries—only to those in the treatment group. Any differences in outcomes (malaria rates, parasite infection incidence, literacy levels, vision) between the treatment and control groups are attributed to the intervention. The clean research design makes researchers confident they have correctly identified whether a program has had the intended impact....
However, this approach to assessment has a serious downside: RCTs only capture a narrow view of impact. While they are good at measuring the proximate effects of a program on its immediate target subjects, RCTs are bad at detecting any unintended effects of a program, especially those effects that fall outside the population or timeframe that the organization or researchers had in mind. For example, an RCT might determine whether a bed net distribution program lowered the incidence of malaria among its target population. But it would be less likely to capture whether the program unintentionally demobilized political pressures on the government to build a more effective malaria eradication program, one that would ultimately affect more people....
Effective altruists are committed to evidence-based selection of charities, but in interpreting RCTs as the “best available evidence” they have prioritized certainty, narrowing the scope of impact they consider in identifying top charities.
This choice has built political and institutional blind spots into the way the effective altruism movement redistributes money. All charities exist within a broader ecosystem of service providers that includes the welfare state. NGOs that distribute bed nets and provide vaccinations operate alongside an array of public health programs run by the state. NGO-run schools operate up the road from government-run schools. While these state-run programs may be performing poorly and lack resources, they are still the core provider for the majority of the poor in many developing countries....
[U]nintended institutional effects on government welfare programs are seldom incorporated into effective altruists’ calculations about worthwhile charities to fund.
Yet any scholar of the political economy of development would be skeptical of the assumption that the welfare state in poor countries would remain unaffected by a sizeable influx of resources into a parallel set of institutions....
In the worst case, the presence of NGOs induces exit from the state sector. When relatively efficient, well-functioning NGOs enter a health or education market, for example, citizens in that market who are paying attention are likely to switch from government services to NGO services. The result is a disengagement of the most mobilized, discerning poor citizens from the state. These are the citizens most likely to have played a previous role in monitoring the quality of state services and advocating for improvements. Once they exit, the pressure on the government to maintain and improve services eases, and the quality of government provision is likely to fall.
This dynamic, sometimes called skimming, has unfortunate consequences for those most in need of services.
This case from California. Unfortunately, we'll no doubt be seeing more such cases once professional jurists with some regard for process are increasingly asked to scrutinize how universities (mis)handle these matters.
Continental Philosophy Farhang Erfani, a philosopher at American University, provides a useful set of links to news, events, interviews, reviews, videos, etc. related to "Continental philosophy" (broadly construed)