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The Charge Of Hyperskepticism/Hyposkepticism

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So there was a post that was critiquing the epistemological framework of Bayesianism (i.e. using probability theory and its laws as a basis for rationality) saying that it’s “just common sense”. This may seem so in rationalist communities, but in the wider world, a lot of people don’t follow such common sense. As the witty catchphrase goes, common sense isn’t all that common. And I’m beginning to doubt that it’s even all that common in rationalist communities.

This is one of the reasons why we have religious scientists. Many scientists think that the scientific method is just something you do to publish in academic journals, and not something more like a reliable framework for attaining and updating your beliefs about the world. So they might adhere to a concept like Popperian falsifiability when designing experiments but then go home and pray to Nocturnal for good luck.

Anyway, I’ve been noticing a lot of articles and such over the past few days about charges of sexual harassment. Like Philosophy Has A Sexual Harassment Problem. Or this Mr. Deity video that a friend posted on my Facebook and this response. And then there’s the sexual harassment problem at my employer, which has scheduled extra trainings for us as a result.

So the first problem I see, putting on my little rationality cogsci hat on, is that human beings think in groups. And the largest subgroup that humans can be divided into is male and female. This will of course lead to a bunch of motivated cognition, charges of hyperskepticism, and confirmation bias flying off the shelves like they’re on sale at Wal-Mart.

That’s why y’all motherfuckers need Bayes:

  1. Banish talk like “There is absolutely no evidence for that belief”. P(E | H) > P(E) if and only if P(H | E) > P(H). The fact that there are myths about Zeus is evidence that Zeus exists. Zeus’s existing would make it more likely for myths about him to arise, so the arising of myths about him must make it more likely that he exists. A related mistake I made was to be impressed by the cleverness of the aphorism “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.” There may be a helpful distinction between scientific evidence and Bayesian evidence. But anecdotal evidence is evidence, and it ought to sway my beliefs.
  2. Banish talk like “I don’t know anything about that”. See the post “I don’t know.”
  3. Banish talk of “thresholds of belief”. Probabilities go up or down, but there is no magic threshold beyond which they change qualitatively into “knowledge”. I used to make the mistake of saying things like, “I’m not absolutely certain that atheism is true, but it is my working hypothesis. I’m confident enough to act as though it’s true.” I assign a certain probability to atheism, which is less than 1.0. I ought to act as though I am just that confident, and no more. I should never just assume that I am in the possible world that I think is most likely, even if I think that that possible world is overwhelmingly likely. (However, perhaps I could be so confident that my behavior would not be practically discernible from absolute confidence.)
  4. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence. P(H | E) > P(H) if and only if P(H | ~E) < P(H). Absence of evidence may be very weak evidence of absence, but it is evidence nonetheless. (However, you may not be entitled to a particular kind of evidence.)
  5. Many bits of “common sense” rationality can be precisely stated and easily proved within the austere framework of Bayesian probability. As noted by Jaynes in Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, “[P]robability theory as extended logic reproduces many aspects of human mental activity, sometimes in surprising and even disturbing detail.” While these things might be “common knowledge”, the fact that they are readily deducible from a few simple premises is significant. Here are some examples:
    • It is possible for the opinions of different people to diverge after they rationally update on the same evidence. Jaynes discusses this phenomenon in Section 5.3 of PT:TLoS.
    • Popper’s falsification criterion, and other Popperian principles of “good explanation”, such as that good explanations should be “hard to vary”, follow from Bayes’s formula. Eliezer discusses this in An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem and A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation.
    • Occam’s razor. This can be formalized using Solomonoff induction. (However, perhaps this shouldn’t be on my list, because Solomonoff induction goes beyond just Bayes’s formula. It also has several problems.)
  6. You cannot expect that future evidence will sway you in a particular direction. “For every expectation of evidence, there is an equal and opposite expectation of counterevidence.”
  7. Abandon all the meta-epistemological intuitions about the concept of knowledge on which Gettier-style paradoxes rely. Keep track of how confident your beliefs are when you update on the evidence. Keep track of the extent to which other people’s beliefs are good evidence for what they believe. Don’t worry about whether, in addition, these beliefs qualify as “knowledge”.

If everyone is using the same framework, then charges of hyperskepticism, or hypo-skepticism ( not enough skepticism), should be more easily handled — just like my math teachers would say — by showing my work.

So if I were to apply Bayesianism to this sexual harassment boondogle, I would first establish my prior by analyzing my background knowledge. What do all of these problem areas — the atheist/skeptic community, the military, philosophy departments, the tech community — have in common? They are all heavily male-dominated. This creates a scarcity mentality and the men would behave the same way that any other human behaves in a scarcity context: Aggression, objectification (i.e. the thing that’s “scarce” being seen as “valuable“), selfishness/lack of empathy, and other deviant and competitive behavior.

More background knowledge, where are we more likely to find psychopaths: In jail or in leadership positions? You guessed it… definitely leadership positions. Jail selects for criminals, not psychopathy! Couple this with the odd relationship between psychopathy, testosterone, and social dominance, and we have a pretty dangerous combo. Mix a high likelihood for psychopathy with scarcity mentality, and I would have to put a bit higher prior on the likelihood for sexual harassment in these male-dominated areas than in the general population.

One of the critiques of Bayesianism is that prior probabilities are subjective. But probability is in the mind and is (mostly) subjective.

So what would I consider a prior for someone with some level of status in a male-dominated community (i.e. the background knowledge) engaging in some form of sexual harassment? I’d say around 5%. This means that if I were to survey the population of maybe 100 people with some level of status in a male-dominated community, I predict that around 5 of them would be unquestioningly guilty of sexual harassment. Considering that the actual population is much higher than 100, it seems about reasonable. Especially since the majority of victims are usually victimized by a minority, and of that minority the majority are repeat offenders.

Here’s where we get to the divergent assertions of hyperskepticism/hypo-skepticism.

So let’s say that C is “claim of harassment” and H is “actually sexually harassed someone”. This means that P(C | H) is the probability of there being a claim of sexual harassment given that one has actually sexually harassed someone. What we want to find out is P(H | C), the probability that someone has sexually harassed someone given a claim of sexual harassment, which is equal to P(C | H) * P(H) / [P(C | H) * P(H)] + [P(C | ~H) * P(~H)]

Now, a claim of sexual harassment is not itself definitive proof of sexual harassment. Just like testing positive for breast cancer is not itself definitive proof of breast cancer. Even if 100% of claims of sexual harassment given actual sexual harassment are true, this does not mean that someone is definitely guilty of sexual harassment if accused, as counterintuitive as that sounds. A claim of sexual harassment correlating with sexual harassment is a conditional probability; what we want is to update the prior probability of sexual harassment. What we want to find is P(H | C).

On the other hand, collecting multiple independent claims of harassment counts as evidence, and you should update your prior accordingly. The more claims that are made, the more times you update. Even if the prior’s rate of increase might start to plateau. This might not be scientific evidence, or not the type of evidence that might bring one to felony charges, but it’s Bayesian evidence nonetheless.

We then have to look at alternative hypotheses, which are represented by ~H. What is P(C | ~H), or the probability that someone would file a claim given that they weren’t sexually harassed? Maybe it was an actual misunderstanding, or the woman is being vindictive, or any other possible explanation for ~H. But I would certainly say that P(C | H) > P(C | ~H). By how much is the most important factor.

Another point of view I like to look at is from the “absence of evidence” view. If one claims that P(C | H) is 100%, this necessarily means that P(~C | H), or the probability of not having a claim of sexual harassment given that said person actually did sexually harass someone is 0%. And I’m reasonably certain that people have been sexually harassed and not filed a claim for whatever reason (fear, rape culture, etc.), so P(~C | H) is definitely greater than 0%.

So if my prior is 5%, and I think that P(C | H) > P(C | ~H), then this means that P(H | C) > P(H). And the amount that P(H | C) > P(H) is determined by how much P(C | H) > P(C | ~H). Let’s assume that P(C | H) is 90% [forcing P(~C | H) to be 10%] and P(C | ~H) is 1%. This means that P(H | C) is equal to 31%. That’s just for one claim. If there’s another claim, then (depending on the relationship between the two claims) this possibly moves my new prior of 31% to 73%. Of course this is assuming a 90% conditional probability, and I think that looking at it from the view of P(~C | H), it should be lower. Even so, with a conditional probability of 50%, it still moves my prior from 5% to 20%; add another claim and it goes to 50%.

With all of the furor brewing over false accusations, and not enough/too much skepticism about claims of sexual harassment, it seems pretty obvious that “[rationalist] common sense” is not prevailing where it should. Sure, you can assert that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” but you can only prove that by using Bayes.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Bayes, economics/sociology, rape, rationality

 

The Sovereign Defense

When certain Christians say that we can’t judge god’s actions because he is an all-powerful entity, it’s the “creator” defense, or the “sovereign” defense. It’s a pretty bad defense.

Suppose that instead of Jesus, there’s some other superpowerful entity named Susej who created the world. Susej commands that everyone rape at least one virgin. Those who fail to do so, Susej will send them to hell to burn for all eternity. As long as someone has raped a virgin, they will enter eternal life when they die no matter what else they’ve done.

Unless it’s conceded that Susej’s commands are not immoral, then you would have to acknowledge that we have the right and capacity to judge a superpowerful entity. Thus the sovereign defense is no a valid position to hold, since we have a moral compass that we can use to judge this superpowerful entity.

This is really another spin on the Euthyphro dilemma. Is something good just because god(s) decree it, or do the god(s) decree it because it’s good? If the latter, then we definitely have the right to judge superpowerful creators, because there’s a morality that exists “outside” of god(s) that god(s) is ultimately subject to. If the former, then certain acts that we intristically find vile (like the above rape scenario) would become absolutely moral… and the “right” thing to do!

And just so that the above rape scenario doesn’t seem to be pulled from thin air, here is Numbers 31:

1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.”
3 So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites and to carry out the LORD’s vengeance on them. 4 Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.” 5 So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel. 6 Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, who took with him articles from the sanctuary and the trumpets for signaling.

7 They fought against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and killed every man. 8 Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. 9 The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10 They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 12 and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.

13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

19 “All of you who have killed anyone or touched anyone who was killed must stay outside the camp seven days. On the third and seventh days you must purify yourselves and your captives. 20 Purify every garment as well as everything made of leather, goat hair or wood.”

21 Then Eleazar the priest said to the soldiers who had gone into battle, “This is the requirement of the law that the LORD gave Moses: 22 Gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead 23 and anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing. And whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through that water. 24 On the seventh day wash your clothes and you will be clean. Then you may come into the camp.”

25 The LORD said to Moses, 26 “You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads of the community are to count all the people and animals that were captured. 27 Divide the spoils between the soldiers who took part in the battle and the rest of the community. 28 From the soldiers who fought in the battle, set apart as tribute for the LORD one out of every five hundred, whether persons, cattle, donkeys, sheep or goats. 29 Take this tribute from their half share and give it to Eleazar the priest as the LORD’s part. 30 From the Israelites’ half, select one out of every fifty, whether persons, cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats or other animals. Give them to the Levites, who are responsible for the care of the LORD’s tabernacle.” 31 So Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the LORD commanded Moses.
32 The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 33 72,000 cattle, 34 61,000 donkeys 35 and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man.

36 The half share of those who fought in the battle was:
337,500 sheep, 37 of which the tribute for the LORD was 675;

38 36,000 cattle, of which the tribute for the LORD was 72;

39 30,500 donkeys, of which the tribute for the LORD was 61;

40 16,000 people, of which the tribute for the LORD was 32.

41 Moses gave the tribute to Eleazar the priest as the LORD’s part, as the LORD commanded Moses.

42 The half belonging to the Israelites, which Moses set apart from that of the fighting men- 43 the community’s half—was 337,500 sheep, 44 36,000 cattle, 45 30,500 donkeys 46 and 16,000 people. 47 From the Israelites’ half, Moses selected one out of every fifty persons and animals, as the LORD commanded him, and gave them to the Levites, who were responsible for the care of the LORD’s tabernacle.

48 Then the officers who were over the units of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—went to Moses 49 and said to him, “Your servants have counted the soldiers under our command, and not one is missing. 50 So we have brought as an offering to the LORD the gold articles each of us acquired—armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings and necklaces—to make atonement for ourselves before the LORD.”

51 Moses and Eleazar the priest accepted from them the gold—all the crafted articles. 52 All the gold from the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds that Moses and Eleazar presented as a gift to the LORD weighed 16,750 shekels. [b] 53 Each soldier had taken plunder for himself. 54 Moses and Eleazar the priest accepted the gold from the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds and brought it into the Tent of Meeting as a memorial for the Israelites before the LORD.

There it is, in its entire context. Not only were 32,000 women who had “never slept with a man” taken as war spoils (i.e. virgins – so what exactly were they kept for?), but 32 of these virgins were offered as “tribute to YHWH” along with the sheep, cattle, and donkeys. We all know that a sheep offered as tribute to YHWH meant animal sacrifice, so it only follows that these 32 poor virgin girls were also ritually sacrificed on the altar. The word used in the LXX is γυναικων gynaikon, “women”, which is where OB/GYN comes from. “Girls” would be either κοριτσια::koritsia or παρθενες::parthenes.

This is woefully immoral.

And to top it off:

Deuteronomy 22
28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered,
29 he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.

What is the punishment for raping a virgin (who isn’t pledged to be married)? Paying the father 50 shekels and marriage. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with raping a virgin, unless you consider using someone else’s toothbrush immoral. If you’ve used someone else’s toothbrush that they haven’t gotten to use yet, then you simply have to pay them the value of their now dirty toothbrush and keep the toothbrush.

While not an outright command to rape, the “punishment” is still woefully immoral. Imagine… a rape victim having to marry her rapist.

 
 
 
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