Discrimination by private businesses

Imperial Laundry Co. "We wash for white people only"I’ve been watching this video of Rachel Maddow interviewing Rand Paul about civil rights. Paul’s argument is that private businesses should be left free to discriminate, because Liberty. I think he’s profoundly wrong, here’s why.

Firstly, the argument that discrimination is a bad business decision is plain wrong. We may want it to be true, but there are places where it would actually be an excellent business decision. Just ask Chick-Fil-A.

Secondly, Paul repeatedly claims that racial segregation was a problem mostly in public institutions. While state discrimination was especially shocking, there is no shortage of legal cases showing that some business owners do shamelessly discriminate. To this day, ask any member of any minority, and they will tell you horror stories that happened to them personally, illustrating the reality of ordinary, everyday discrimination.

Thirdly, businesses have real power over people’s lives, a power that is highly asymmetrical. They can hire or fire, promote or demote, move abroad, destroy local economies, buy politicians, and they can refuse to provide their products and services. This great power however comes with very few counter-powers and responsibilities. As we’ve seen, public outrage does not constitute a credible deterrent for bigoted behavior, because there are more than enough bigoted customers to support bigoted businesses. If anything, those businesses are rewarded by the market. Additionally, if we were to listen to the likes of Rand Paul, the business world would be totally de-regulated. In his ideal, Libertarian word, the state is trivialized or non-existent, and as a consequence, the real power lies within the corporations, unchallenged, and free to discriminate. No, thanks.

“We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Who do you think they mean?

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Cartoon history

Giordano BrunoThe Christian blogs these days seem to be erupting with outrage over a short cartoon sequence in the new Cosmos TV show. The segment in question tells the story of Giordano Bruno, and it’s… well, cartoony, both literally and figuratively. That’s not shocking on its own, the science itself in Cosmos is cartoony: biologists will cringe at inaccurate representations of a DNA molecule, astronomers will face palm when Tyson’s spaceship avoids planetoids that are in reality many orders of magnitude farther away from one another. It’s the nature of the exercise: trying to convey complex ideas to an uninitiated public in simple and entertaining images, will require simplifications, dramatization, shortcuts, and even that you’ll occasionally be plain wrong. Being a science show, maybe it was sloppier and more caricature on the history. I don’t know, I’m no historian. As long as deception is not deliberate and central to the discourse…

The blogs do claim that deception there is, however, and proceed to plead for the Church:

“it was Bruno's theological beliefs, rather than his beliefs about the universe, that were troubling to the inquisitors in Rome.”

Of course, this is missing the point by several light years. It doesn’t matter what ideas got Bruno to be burned at the stake. It matters that the Church was getting people tortured and executed for thought crimes. This is why mankind had to free itself from the oppression of religion and establish freedom of thought as a sacred value, in order to enable the explosive progress of science, literature, philosophy, education, and individual rights that it has been enjoying for centuries now.

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Something you can know with 100% certainty

A fragment of Escher's RelativityYet another supposedly gotcha question that irrational people often ask in order to unsettle their interlocutor: “can you know anything with 100% certainty?” Well, of course I can, and so can you...

I know with 100% certainty that I don’t know everything. Or that I don’t know the first names of the people who will read this blog post, in the order in which they will. I could go on.

The question is of course totally dishonest as it aims not at getting a honest answer, but at getting you to admit that because nothing is certain (which is wrong), then anything goes and all opinions are equally valid, especially of course the specific silly belief one would like to convince you of.

It tries to conflate “not 100% certain”, which applies to most empirical knowledge, with “unlikely”, or “reasonable to not believe in”. This is of course extremely silly. Asimov said it best:

"When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

The argument, however, seems to be strangely convincing, despite its obvious flaws, and too often we answer “well, no, of course not” whereas the reasonable answer is “yes, of course I can.” The more interesting and reasonable question that we should ask back is: do you proportion belief to the quantity and quality of available evidence?

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We don’t need no education

GatekeeperThe number of faux-pas and botched damage control attempts from Microsoft around Xbox One has been hard to keep up with these last few days. Microsoft has confirmed shortly before E3 that the rumors about used and loaned games were true: you won’t be able to dispose of your property without Microsoft’s authorization, and various actors are going to get a cut out of all used sales. Some additional restrictions apply.

This is important because it’s more erosion of private property by big corporations. It’s one more way in which you don’t own what you buy, but instead buy a license to use what remains the corporation’s property. In the end, you own nothing, and it’s corporations that own you.

Microsoft defends its decisions by explaining to us that we need to be “educated”, that we are reacting the way we are because we don’t understand the tremendous benefits they are offering consumers:

"This is a big change, consumers don't always love change, and there's a lot of education we have to provide to make sure that people understand."

Ars Technica further explains that according to Microsoft:

“temporary confusion and discomfort among the audience would be worth it as gamers and consumers adjust to a console world without game discs” and that in “the world of home movie viewing, […] inconvenient trips to Blockbuster Video have been replaced with Netflix streaming.”

Leaving aside the hubris and arrogance, the problem of those explanations is that they are lies. Those features are not being introduced to benefit us, the consumers.

Disk-free playing is perfectly compatible with copy protection, without all the hurdles that Microsoft is introducing with Xbox One. All you have to do is ask for the disk when a new copy of the same game appears on a new console. Microsoft is already doing that today with gamer tags: you can only use them in one place at a time, but the transition from one machine to another is almost painless and transparent. They know how to do it. It’s just that they don’t want to.

Netflix was successful because it was removing obstacles, because it was more convenient than its predecessors. The Xbox One rules on used games are undeniably less convenient, which was beautifully demonstrated by Sony with this little gem of sarcasm: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWSIFh8ICaA

The new system only benefits game publishers, and are probably just a way to secure more exclusives for the platform. Pretending that it’s all done to benefit the consumer only adds insult to injury. For me it will be a PS4, thank you very much.

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What if… small businesses could get out of the patent system?

The Monopoly patent was granted in 1935It should be pretty clear at this point that our patent system is broken. It’s been designed to foster innovation, but is nowadays stifling it. It’s supposed to protect inventors, but instead threatens innovators. Patent trolls are extorting billions of dollars from our top tech companies, and are threatening to do the same to small businesses and individuals. Meanwhile, big corporations amass enormous patent portfolios that they use as currency, with contents so vague that they can be used to attack their smaller competitors before they even start: if you want to start a small technological business today, don’t do a patent search: you are going to find patents broad enough to cover your innovation, and you may have to give up for fear of litigation that would kill you from the legal fees alone.

There is a lot of debate about fighting patent trolls. The solution is probably multiple. I may have an original idea however to protect small businesses, that are more innovative than large ones, and against which the balance is today grossly tipped.

What if companies below a certain size (that are not owned by companies above that size), could be exempt of any patent litigation at all? This would eliminate altogether the threat against small innovators and inventors.

But what about big corporations? Wouldn’t they be harmed by swarms of unfair parasites that would only be living off their innovations? That’s unlikely, as no small business can rival the firepower of larger companies. They cannot benefit from the same economies of scale, and they can’t advertise as well. To do well and survive, they will have to innovate on top of whatever invention they would have “borrowed”. They have no other choice. They will also have to move fast.

Such a model, of course, is very close to what open source businesses are already doing. The difference is that the very real threat of patent litigation would disappear. Many businesses ignore it and try to stay under the radar, or donate their intellectual property to foundations that act as legal lightning rods. They wouldn’t need to do that if such a proposal got applied.

What do you think? Is this even possible? Would it work?

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Infallible, part 2: Consistency is Insufficient

Kurt GödelMichael, on his way to establish the infallibility of the Catholic Church, makes the claim that consistency is the defining characteristic of truth:

The hallmark of truth is consistency. Error can always be shown, at the core of the argument, to be logically inconsistent and ultimately self­refuting. Ergo, consistency is contingent to any claim of truth.

This is of course an error of monumental proportions.

Consistency is necessary but not sufficient. Sagan's dragon in the garage is perfectly consistent, but still untrue. Alchemy was, as far as I can tell, logically consistent, and turned out to be false nonetheless. Galilean relativity is consistent, but it’s Einstein’s Relativity that coincides with observation.

In physics, consistency is not even achieved as a whole, but only within theories (quantum field theory is incompatible with general relativity for example, although each is self-consistent), which should tell you something about the usefulness of the concept. Second, nothing is ever accepted in physics based only on consistency. You need confrontation to reality. That is the real test. Superstrings are consistent, and even plausible and compelling, but as long as we haven't obtained solid evidence for them, they are not going to be accepted. The graveyard of physics is full of failed hypotheses that were consistent but did not pass the test of reality.

Even in mathematics, consistency is not proof. As Gödel has shown, no non-trivial formal mathematical system can prove its own consistency.

I'll also point out that mathematical truth is essentially different from physical reality, and that it is always circumscribed by the axiomatic system in which they are expressed. For example, the proposition “only one line parallel to a given line passes through a given point” can be true or false depending on whether we are expressing it for Euclidean or non-Euclidean geometries. The geometry of our universe is not determined by consistency.

Michael makes a stupendous but too common error when he says that “error can always be shown, at the core of the argument, to be logically inconsistent and ultimately self-refuting”. This is the illusion apologists are under when they attempt to prove the existence of God through “logic”. If I claim that if I use a flashlight from a train, the speed of the photons is going to be the sum of the speed of light and of the speed of the train, I am making no logical error, and there is nothing self-refuting here. Still, I am in error, because my claim can be demonstrated to be wrong by experimentation.

Consistency is wholly unimpressive, and saying so is not at all the same thing as saying math or physics are unimpressive. Those disciplines have a lot more behind them than just consistency. Catholic dogma? Not so much. I remain unimpressed, except by the unwillingness of apologists to understand the difference between necessity and sufficiency.

Next time, we’ll examine the claim that the Bible’s cosmogonic myths are unique in describing creation ex-nihilo.

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Infallible, part 1: Starting the Gish Gallop

Le papeOver the past few weeks, I had an interesting discussion on Facebook with Michael, a militant Catholic, about the Catholic Church’s claim that it is infallible. Like many arguments with believers, this has rapidly morphed from a single simple problem into a full-blown Gish Gallop. I should know better, but I bit. This series of posts is a compilation of my answers to his claims.

When the discussion started, and after trying unsuccessfully to drive home the point that consistency wasn’t sufficient to prove infallibility, I asked Michael to provide an example of a statement that qualified as infallible and that was also falsifiable: after all, it wouldn’t be very impressive to be infallible and only offer inconsequential and unverifiable claims. I offered an example of what it could look like (knowing, I must confess, that the Church had been claiming exactly that):

For example, if the Church were to claim ex-cathedra that Adam and Eve really existed and were once the only two human beings in existence. That's a factual and falsifiable claim.

I got the standard answer that I was expecting:

[…] the church has taught that Adam and Eve were real people. And science has verified Eve: look up 'mitochondrial eve'.

Mitochondrial Eve is a concept that is only describing a most recent common matrilineal ancestor, not a first ancestor or a unique member of a species. It's a useful concept in evolutionary biology, but not especially relevant in this case, especially as her male analog, Y-chromosomal Adam, was not living at the same time as her (missing her by a few dozen or hundred thousand years). We also know that there has never been less than about 1,200 members in the population we descend from. That's pretty much eliminating all possibility of anything remotely comparable to what's in Genesis, and of the Church’s claim being true.

Michael answered this with a long bullet point answer that you can read here: http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/…/Infallible_Church

In the next few posts, I’ll respond to that, and to the inevitable response to the response.

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The tyranny of liberty

Liberty BellLast night, I watched one of Glenn Beck’s shows, and it surprised me: it actually had bits of thought in it, instead of the distilled lib’ral hating I was expecting. Sure, Beck is unnervingly arrogant and assumes everyone disagreeing with him is an idiot, but, maybe under the influence of his guest Penn Jillette, he followed a coherent train of thoughts and actually was interesting. I’m disagreeing vehemently with most of what both said in the show, but I also understood something.

It seems to be a trivial observation that Libertarians would care first and foremost about liberty, but for some reason it had escaped me that it is in fact the only value that they recognize. They seem to be oblivious to any virtue that doesn’t have a simple mapping on an axis of freedom that spans from anarchy to totalitarianism, that Beck shows on his trademark blackboard at the beginning of the show. This axis, of course, exists, and the multi-dimensional complexity of reality does project on it. That’s what makes the whole worldview consistent and appealing.

Its problem is not that it’s wrong. Its problem is that it’s incomplete and simplistic. That also is, however, its greatest strength.

Penn Jillette illustrates that very well when he enumerates a bunch of complex issues and gives each a seemingly simple resolution by expressing them in exclusive terms of individual freedom, excluding any considerations of fairness, justice, or the greater good.

At 28:50, he stands with the pharmacist who would refuse to fill a doctor’s prescription that he morally objects to, and with the Catholic hospital that refuses to perform a life-saving procedure that goes against Church dogma. He also stands behind the Boy Scouts of America against gays and defends private discrimination at large. He’s “totally OK with that”.

He thus ignores the duty of the pharmacist and the hospital to his patient’s health (which is the defining virtue of the health sector), and he ignores the right of all human beings to be treated fairly, not just by the government, but by anybody who holds any kind of power, such as an employer or the holder of a monopoly.

Simplistic ideologies are dangerous because they are so seductive. They offer simple explanations to a complex world. They make everything look clear-cut and leave no place for ambiguity. By doing so, they don’t just ignore most of reality, they also exclude it from consideration, creating moral issues bigger than the few they superficially solve.

Refuse simplistic worldviews. Instead, broaden your horizons, embrace complexity and ambiguity. Consider all points of view, in every issue, before you judge. Not because they are all true, but because they all contribute to weaving the tapestry of humanity.

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Objective, Transcendent, or Absolute?

God shows something to MosesThe number one cliché I hear about atheism is that lacking an objective / transcendent / absolute morality, everything is permitted, and surely we must be eating babies for breakfast. Religious people seem to be very insistent on this point, and all but attempt to push us to be immoral, telling us that we are being inconsistent if we aren’t, and that ours is a self-defeating position.

There are quite a few parts to deconstruct in those assertions. First, can the religious point(s) of view really claim objectivity, transcendence or absoluteness? Second, are the only games in town really religion and extreme relativism?

Claims to objectivity are the most bizarre to me. Objectivity is supposed to be the quality of something that is based on facts rather than thoughts or opinions. A system based on a single old book of myths then hardly seems objective. Furthermore, philosophers are insistent that one can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”, values from facts, so how can any system of ethics be fully objective? There is of course Rand’s perverse Objectivism, but that is more rationalization for selfishness than moral system, and it’s only objective by name. That is not to say that facts can’t inform moral decisions: they have to. But they can’t on their own be their foundation.

The claim of transcendence is that morality is somehow from out of the material world. This is of course entirely unconvincing to atheists who tend to find the supernatural to be an ill-defined, if not outright impossible notion. Kant objected to the notion of transcendence that something that exceeds the limits of experience is only hypothetically knowable. Real knowledge requires a tie to objective reality, and that seems to exclude the supernatural.

Transcendence is a rather hand-wavy way out from the problem of understanding morality: proposing an unknowable origin doesn’t explain anything.

Most of all, it’s a claim that falls to the Euthyphro dilemma: by declaring morality transcendent, you take the “it’s moral because it’s God’s command” option, which makes morality arbitrary. Which god are we supposed to believe, given that they give contradictory commands, and that their followers all claim, with similar arguments, that they hold the One True Faith? As a consequence, anything goes.

Believers usually reject the dilemma by declaring that goodness is God’s essence, that He is one with goodness. Of course, that’s more hand-waving, circular reasoning, and nothing more than a deepity. Their own argument actually forces them to answer the problems of evil and hell. If there is an omnibenevolent and omnipotent being, why are there earthquakes and tornadoes that indiscriminately kill and cause suffering for innocent people?

Then there is the absolutism vs. relativism debate. The main problem with this one, I think, is one of false dichotomy. It is hard to argue that there aren't moral issues that are relative, and others that are absolute.

For example, you would have to be out of your mind to argue against the fact that all things being equal, we ought not to harm other sentient beings. That’s an absolute, and there is no need of a God for that to be true. It does require the existence of sentient beings to make sense, but that’s another matter.

Reversely, most people nowadays would consider it morally harmless for an adult person to get a tattoo. However, Judaism has a commandment against it, and they are forbidden in Sunni Islam (but ok in Shia Islam). They are virtuous in Hinduism, as well as in certain forms of Christianity.

That not everything is absolute doesn’t imply that everything is relative. Reversely, that not everything is relative doesn’t mean that everything is absolute.

It should be clear at this point that there are other choices of moral philosophy besides Divine Command and an absolute relativism leading to nihilism. There are actually many other options. If you are interested in a great exposition and discussion of modern ethics, Massimo Pigliucci has a series of articles on the topic, of which this is the conclusion: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2011/09/on-ethics-part-vii-full-picture.html

Even without understanding all this about the underpinnings of so-called objective, transcendent or absolute morality, we can empirically evaluate the initial claim, which boils down, really to “religious people are more moral than atheists”. Does it work? Well, not very well.

If morality came from God, since the US doesn’t imprison people for their religious affiliation, you would expect their prisons to be filled with atheists and almost empty of believers. You should even be able to tell which one is The One True Religion: it should be the one with the lowest crime rates. Quite the reverse is true. Atheists are dramatically under-represented in prisons, with 0.2% of the population (Denise Golumbaski, Research Analyst, Federal Bureau of Prisons, compiled from up-to-the-day figures on March 5th, 1997), against 4% in the general US population. This is often discounted as more of a correlation between level of education (with which Atheism is correlated) and delinquency, but one should see a massively opposite difference nonetheless if morality really came from God. If education was the only factor in this, you would expect to see the ratio between populations with higher education diplomas out and in prisons to be higher than the same ratio for atheists. The opposite is true.

This is just one example, the more general point being that the argument, if true, should be empirically verifiable, and it is actually verified that it’s false.

Whenever statistical data is published on a morally loaded behavior and its correlation with religious affiliation, religious people act at best the same as the nones, and at worst measurably worse. If religion is efficient at one thing, it may be in inducing guilt, but statistically not a change of behavior.

One last thing... When discussing those topics with religious people, I’ve often had the impression that they were committing a category mistake, confusing goodness with some kind of conserved quantity, like a substance. As if God created a finite quantity of moral stuff and injected that into people’s souls. This is also true of love, compassion, faith and many other things.

In the end, it does look like those arguments really are designed to de-humanize atheists, to justify a sense of moral superiority and to rationalize the adherence to a flawed system. After all, if one can really be good without God, what is God good for?

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The outlaw and the sheriff

Click the image to open in full size.The little town in a remote corner of Arizona had been living in fear since Jim Coldhands and his band of outlaws had decided to stop here on their way to nowhere. They had taken the biggest house in town at gunpoint and were robbing the bank every week, leaving the townsfolk only the bare minimum to survive. They had the guns, and according to them, it was generous on their part to let anyone live. The sheriff was just as frightened as anybody else.

So what did the people do to make their lives a little easier? Why, they elected Jim as their new sheriff.

Don’t be those guys. Go out and vote against the bully.

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