26 July 2018

On pulling my socks up -- A letter to Ms. Gadsby

Photo: Michael Baumann (2017)

I recently watched a very moving piece by stand-up com├ędienne Hannah Gadsby(1). In it Ms. Gadsby tells the story of her life and makes some excellent observations, including this: "[T]ension is what not-normals carry inside of them ALL of the time. Because it is dangerous to be different."

She then concludes: "To the men ... To the men in the room, I speak to you now. Particularly the white men, especially the straight white men ... PULL YOUR FUCKING SOCKS UP!! ... How humiliating. ... Fashion advice from a lesbian. That is your last joke."

The first question that came to mind was: How did I deserve this??(2)

I am with you, Ms. Gadsby, all the way, but then I get thrown into the class of "straight white man" -- the same class as Donald Trump, and Benito Mussolini, and possibly Tom Cruise. On the outside we may all look the same, but on the inside, you know, there is variability.

To be sure, I come from a country where failure to speak up for fellow citizens has led to unspeakable tragedy. Consequently, early in my life I decided that whenever I run into injustice, corruption, stupidity, or mere indifference, I shall speak up. And so I did, and so I do(3).

What difference have I made?

Absolutely none, Ms. Gadsby. Except that in my life I have been punished more often and more harshly for speaking up than the despots, and crooks, and blockheads I have criticized(4). But that is all right, because along the way I have learned a few things.

For one, within the human species unjustness, corruption, and stupidity seem to be distributed quite independently and with no regard for sex, colour, or sexual orientation(5). For another, good ideas and noble thoughts are not a prerogative of minorities, visible or not. And for another, making this world a better, a more civil place cannot be an obligation for straight white men only.

That said, it is true, the world is a nasty place, and straight white men are running much of it. But they are in a minority to all those straight white men that are NOT running the world. Consequently, I believe that not sex is our greatest divider, nor colour, nor sexual orientation. Our greatest divider is power, and the ideas and actions required to get it and keep it.

In the end I believe you are right, Ms. Gadsby.

We may be just a year away from a time when 165 million women will lose their right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. The decision on this right will be made by nine people, mostly men. And it will be orchestrated by one man who is orange. If anybody thinks that the erosion of women's rights is a problem only "of the people, by the people, for the people" of the United States, think again.

It truly is time for all of us to "pull our fucking socks up".


(1) Hannah Gadsby (2018), Nanette (Netflix Original).
(2) The second question was: Am I really that thin-skinned? Consider that I like to taunt vegetarians by pointing out that Hitler too was a vegetarian.
(3) In my professional life I have tried to expose the injustice in the academic hiring process, the corruption in the practice of science, and follies of our education system. Examples? Michael Baumann (1996), https://www.nature.com/articles/381108a0.pdf (Accessed: 26 Jul 2018); Michael Baumann (2000), Science as a churning device. Vancouver Sun 18 Oct 2000: A19; Michael Baumann (2003) Open letter to the president of the University of British Columbia. 15 Jan 2003; Michael Baumann (2007), Why education has lost its mind. Vancouver Sun 13 Sep 2007; Michael Baumann (2017), http://citizenbaumann.blogspot.com/2017/08/university-presidency-draft-manifesto.html (Accessed: 26 Jul 2018); Michael Baumann (2017), https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/need-seriously-rethink-concept-final-exams/ (Accessed: 26 Jul 2018).
(4) No doubt I have made my fair share of poor judgements along the way, some accidental, some circumstantial, and some by choice. And I am not complaining; you just cannot challenge an old battleship to a fist fight and expect to survive without a severe beating.
(5) Complacency and cowardice may be overrepresented in the "straight white men" class but that may be a sampling error on my side. Note however that most of "us" do not protest when called to pay for the crimes and misdemeanours of our classmates.


19 July 2018

Would you have dinner with Hitler?

Would you have dinner with Hitler? ... How about lunch? ... How about tea?

How about, not Hitler, but some other psychopath(1)?

Image: Hare (1993)

Would you have dinner with a compulsive liar? A hypocrite? An idiot? How about a racist? How about somebody who would say about women: "And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. ... Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything."(2)

How about someone who has excelled in one field but exhibited terrible taste in another -- Pablo Picasso's misogyny, Mother Teresa's cruelty, Bill Clinton's womanizing. Would you have dinner with one of them?

Of course, there are those who believe that dialogue is always better than isolation. But where are the limits? And do you think you could have changed Hitler's mind? And if so, how?

In my life I have learned three things about people: First, people do not like to stick to facts, they like to stick to whatever it is they believe. Second, people judge and choose even if they know nothing or only parts of the story. And last, people have two standards, one which they apply to themselves, family, and friends, and another that they apply to everybody else.

So, should you have dinner with Hitler? Should you have dinner with somebody who would have dinner with Hitler? Should you have dinner with somebody who would have dinner with somebody who would have dinner with Hitler(3)?

But why am I asking? It is complicated; I will answer in my next article.


(1) Robert D. Hare (1993), Without Conscience: p. 34
(2) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/donald-trump-tape-transcript.html (Accessed: 19 Jul 2018)
(3) If you are rigorous about acceptable behaviour, your friends will be few.


05 July 2018

When 2 + 2 = 5

Imagine you have to score student performance in a Grade 10 algebra test(1). Looking at one student's step-by-step calculations you discover that at one step she calculated that 2 + 2 = 5. Obviously, for a Grade 10 student this is a very basic arithmetic mistake.

Now, because this is a very basic mistake, would you dock more or fewer points for it than for an advanced mistake? Why? Why not? Would you dock more points if the algebra problem were framed in terms of serious consequences(2)? Would you dock "a good student" the same number of points as you would "a bad student"? Would you dock a female student the same number as a male student, a white student the same number as a black student?

How about a mediocre male student who protests every self-perceived act of injustice inflicted upon him? Would you deduct the same number of points from his test as from a mediocre meek female?

Making performance judgements on math problems is relatively easy(3). Consider judgements on more important things. All other things being equal: In an election, do you interpret dishonesty or stupidity in "your candidate" with the same gravity as you do for a rival candidate? In a job competition, do you judge experiences and accomplishments of a local candidate with the same rigour as those of an outside candidate. In court, do call for the same sentence for an offender born in Switzerland as you do for an offender born in Nigeria?

It is hard work to develop and stick by good rules of judgment. And it is easy to dress up prejudice in a mantle of objectivity(4).

My favourite example comes from an Israeli parole board where cases were randomly assigned to judges, and yet the proportion of decisions in favour of the prisoners declined in the course of the sessions and reached a minimum just before the scheduled breaks(5).

Image: Danzinger et al. (2011)

Of course, the first step towards improved judgement is a correct judgement of our judgement apparatus. Unfortunately, we aren't good at that either. Consequently, as a family member, as a good friend, as a professional, as a citizen, what are your obligations to alert someone to their faulty judgement?


(1) For example: Solve the following equation for x: -2 (x + 2) + 2 (-x + 2) + 2 (2 + 2) = 0
(2) Say: "Determine the amount x (in millilitres) of midazolam that can be safely administered in preoperative sedation." "Calculate the number of battalions required to secure the border."
(3) Given these axioms and these rules and these particulars, these results must follow.
(4) "My decision sexist? Oh god, far from it. His publication record just wasn't as impressive." "My decision racist? It couldn't be further from the truth. She just wasn't a good team-fit." "My decision age-ist? Oh my god, never. His coding skills just weren't up to par."
(5) Danzinger et al. (2011), Extraneous factors in judicial decisions: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1018033108 (Accessed: 5 Jul 2018)