Saturday, July 08, 2017

Sturgeon's law

Theodore Sturgeon famously noted that "ninety percent of everything is crap."

I repeat Sturgeon's Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms. [emphasis added]

The Wikipedia article observes that philosopher Daniel Dennett has reintroduced the observation as an important tool for critical thinking.

Hence I am usually unimpressed by people offering anecdotes about any group doing stupid stuff. Stupidity is interesting, and I appreciate a good laugh at some doofus doing or saying something stupid, but such anecdotes are, as Sturgeon notes, "ultimately uninformative." Thus too with free speech issues on college campuses.

I would add, however, to Sturgeon's law that 90 percent is a lower bound; some topics reach 100 percent crap.

It is not enough to to draw conclusions about a broad topic to dredge up any number of examples of egregiously stupid shit. Sturgeon's law guarantees that there will be no shortage of such examples. We should really try to analyze the best 10 percent.

Furthermore, I think there we can usefully analyze even the stupid stuff. Individual analysis always useful: if so-and-so (<cough> Sam Harris) says something stupid, it's an intellectual virtue to point out that that specific said that specific stupid, and to show how it's stupid. Additionally, not all crap is the same. The ordinary kind of crap is just lazy: the author has simply not thought their position through. In contrast, in some topics, the crap is egregiously lying, completely contrary to actual facts. Generally, when I see a huge percentage of flat-out lies in the crap of some topic, I feel like I can draw conclusions about the topic.

We can also look at the general moral stance of the crap. If most of the crap seems generally morally reprehensible, I'm going to draw the conclusion that even the good stuff is contributing to the moral failure seen in the crap.

While I usually like Fredrik deBoer, his recent essay, "There’s no pro-campus censorship theory for me to debate", is a little frustrating. deBoer offers anecdotes, unsourced, of people failing to make good arguments on consistent principles for campus actions that seem to (maybe) impinge on free speech. I assume they're accurate (deBoer seems scrupulously honest), but veracity isn't the important thing here; I want to know whether deBoer is just plumbing the depths of the 90 percent of crap. And the anecdotes that deBoer offers just show ordinary laziness that is not facially reprehensible. So, while I take his point that academics should construct good arguments for whom they do and do not invite to campus, that he has given us examples of bad arguments doesn't tell us anything new.

I think a good principled argument is actually relatively easy to construct. deBoer complains, "Why do these controversies so often fall along predictable partisan lines?" Well, why shouldn't they? If the struggle is actually partisan, then of course these

I'm neither a liberal nor a conservative, but liberals consider conservatives to be not mistaken but actually evil; likewise, conservatives consider liberals to be evil.* I think both positions are, in a sense, "legitimate," in that they might be wrong, but they're not incoherent. If you think some group is actually evil, you have to fight them, and it's impossible to insist on absolute moral purity for everyone opposing them. Hence the liberal students are fighting against conservatism, and so what that people like the Clinton's are not morally pure; at least they're on the right side... or at least not obviously on the wrong side. In a struggle you fight, and as long as the person next to you is aiming in the correct direction, you don't need to ask too many questions. The campus "free speech" issues deBoer points out might not be not a debate on universal values, but rather what it appears to be: a partisan struggle. I think that's a position coherent and principled enough to be worth debating. but an actual partisan fight.

*My personal opinion is that conservatives are indeed completely evil (or completely deluded), and liberals slightly less evil; they mean well, but they're mostly... not exactly stupid, but they're missing too many important points.

Supposing that it is a partisan fight, I don't think deBoer's substantive criticism holds water. deBoer writes,
[Pro-censorship leftist]: What, you want to give “mainstream conservatives” a place to speak on campus? Any conservative contributes to racism, war, and poverty!

Me: Considering we’ve been arguing for decades against the perception that campus is a left-wing indoctrination center, and that the GOP has used that perception to massively defund public universities, this seems like a suicidal stance.

First, of course, I think his labeling of advocates he disagrees with as "pro-censorship" — an obviously value-laden term — poisons the well; he employs the term to label the position, not the argument. I think it might be possible to argue the position that actions such as protesting the invitation of speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, or Condoleeza Rice constitutes "censorship," but it's not so obvious that deBoer can simply assume it.

More importantly, no matter what campus liberals do, as long as educated people and people in academia struggle in any way against conservatives, the GOP will itself create the perception that "campus is a left-wing indoctrination center." This whole line started, as best I can tell, when students started protesting the Vietnam war. Furthermore, the conservative war against academia has little to do with students protesting conservatives; the conservatives are struggling against the professional-managerial class, and academia is the foundation of their legitimacy. Even if students passively accept whatever speakers their administrators deem acceptable, conservatives will not rest until academia is either destroyed or brought completely under the control of the "free market."

deBoer continues, "But anyway — you think the average Democrat doesn’t contribute to racism, war, and poverty?" I completely understand his frustration here, and I feel much the same. Still, commies like deBoer and I are completely marginal in the actual struggle against conservatism. The Bolsheviks welcomed the Kadets in the struggle against the Tsar, so too could we communists at least not complain too loudly and too generally at the struggles of those who do not share our proletarian purity.

I'm not on the side of the liberals or the professional-managerial class. However, the only universal value I see at stake here is that even a completely socialist government should not imprison Yiannopoulos, Spencer, or Rice just for their views. Other than that, fuck them. I don't care who does it, if the pressure of public opinion can stuff these assholes under the rocks they crawled out of, I'm not going to waste my breath defending them.

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