Wednesday, January 24, 2007

small samples

If you've been living under a rock for the past two weeks, the most important news story in the world is that someone in England is a racist. I have my doubts that Jade would have made the comments she did if Shilpa didn't "talk funny", so it might not be racism as such, but I agree that her behaviour was bigoted.

Predictably there is great outrage and many people believe that Jades prejudice is proof that England is a seething cauldron of racism and have demanded apologies from the government.

What I want to know is why one person making dodgy comments is proof for some of the sickness of English society, but the same people fall over backwards to explain that Islam has nothing to do with the suicide bombings of muslims? If a racist person is evidence that her society is racist why isn't an individual terrorist evidence that his society is generally "terroristic"?

I think this is mainly a quirk of the liberal media (i.e. most of it) but libertarian blogger Arnold Kling has a similar attitude. In an article about the supposed moral development of humanity he offers this as a counterargument:
Clearly, the abuse of civilians by terrorists is not a sign of moral improvement.
Apparently Mr Kling thinks that we won't have improved morally until all murder has been eliminated.

Here's the New York Times on Celebrity Big Brother.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

bias against animals

Here's a post about "firsts" bias from Overcomming Bias. If we read a news story about oldest sculptures, when life first appeared on earth or whatever, it is almost always to explain that the date is earlier than we thought and how surprising this is. Part of the answer has to do with physical evidence, finding a younger fossil is unremarkable. But there is a difference between the oldest known fossil and the best estimate of when the animal first appeared; theories are not just collections of facts. This suggests the estimates are biased because if they weren't we should be changing our estimates in both directions.

I haven't done a massive survey or anything but I think the same bias is involved with animals. I can't remember reading an article explaining that animals are dumber than we previously thought. Descartes thought that animals had no sensation at all. For the last 300 years what we know about animals has only been moving in one direction, which suggests systematic bias.

Of course the opposite bias also exists; some animals really are very stupid but a few people are quite prepared to get hot under the collar about people being mean to them.


Apologies for the unannounced disappearance of posts the past few weeks. I should be posting regularly again.