On Bullshit

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I read Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” shortly after it was published some eleven years ago. I’ve thought now and then about how I might incorporate it into one of my philosophy courses, but I’ve never found an acceptably seamless way of fitting it in (given everything else I wanted to discuss). Although it does not demonstrate Frankfurt’s meticulous analytic method, this video might be a second-best choice for getting discussion going next time a student wonders aloud whether philosophy itself is bullshit. My answer is: no, it’s not; some philosophers do bullshit, but one of the main purposes of contemporary philosophy is to not let them get away with it for very long.

BULLSHIT! from Think Nice on Vimeo.

Resentment and Statistics

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In last Sunday’s Oshkosh Northwestern, Andrew Austin, an associate professor and chair of the Democracy and Justice Studies department at UW Green Bay, wrote a spot-on commentary concerning Governor Scott Walker’s misleading use of statistics as he continues to demean the state’s university system-

His office shared with the media that UW-Green Bay full professors (the highest teaching rank attainable in higher education and a small proportion of the faculty) averaged $70,700 in salaries in the 2013-14 academic year, a figure he contrasts with the average annual pay for all workers in Brown County, which was, according to Walker, $44,894 in 2014 (roughly a third of the governor’s salary).

Walker is cherry-picking the highest rank of professor — full professor — and comparing it to the average for all workers, professional and non-professional, regardless of rank, an average that includes workers at McDonald’s, Walmart, and Family Dollar (who, I hasten to add, are underpaid).

Comparing apples to apples, that is professionals to professionals, the median salary for full-time tenured and tenured-track faculty at UW-Green Bay in 2015-16 (most of whom hold a doctorate) was $57,259. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2014 median earnings for workers in Brown County who have a graduate or professional degree is $61,092.

Has Walker complained about the salaries of other professionals? Has he railed against physicians (who make a good deal more than professors)? What is it about teachers that riles the governor?

In addition to noting Walker’s cherry-picking of the data, Austin astutely battles averages with medians, since averages are highly unreliable indicators of general trends. Consider 10 people in a bar, each making $50,000 a year. In walks Donald Trump, whose annual income in a good year has been estimated to be around $362,000,000. Now, if you wanted to know in general how most people in the bar were doing, financially speaking, it would be far less misleading to say that they tend to be earning $50,000, the median, than to say that they tend to be earning a whopping $32,954,545, the average. A few highly paid academic “stars” can similarly skew average salary data. But Walker’s office clearly isn’t concerned with misleading the citizenry.

Bernie Supporters: Beware What You Wish For

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Hillary & Bernie 2

It’s nail-biting time for liberals and progressives as the primary season slogs on and neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders have the Democratic Party nomination totally nailed down. Things got ugly this week in Nevada, when Bernie supporters became – justifiably or not – “unruly” after a series of iffy moves on the convention floor by Hillary supporters. Now the prospect looms large of there being boisterous and – if we take “Bernie or Bust” literally – perhaps violent demonstrations at the Philadelphia convention. And beyond that looms the even more horrifying prospect of a divided opposition that would allow Trump (let alone Trumpism) to prevail.

Like many on the left side of the political spectrum, I had a hard time choosing between Bernie and Hillary this year. I can’t write off the difficulty of my choice to a battle between heart and mind; neither of these candidates appeal to my heart. Rather, living in Wisconsin, I’ve seen what can happen when Republicans are ineffectively opposed and as a result come to control all the power centers of government; such one-party rule here hasn’t been pretty (to put it mildly). Bernie impressed me with his clear-headedness and sheer energy at his age (I’m more than 10 years younger and I doubt I could handle his schedule), and I found his positions on the most important issues – getting Big Money out of politics, working seriously to lessen income inequality, and getting rid of “too big to fail” financial institutions – more coherent than Hillary’s. On the other hand, I found Hillary’s position on college affordability and her incrementalism on Obamacare more realistic than Bernie’s more progressive approaches. But I was bothered by her refusal to release her Goldman Sachs speeches; it played right into the Republican conspiracy theories about her and Bill, and would surely weaken her in the general election. Finally, after talking to some more ardent Bernie supporters, I also came to believe that although nearly all Hillary supporters would support Bernie if he became the nominee, a significant number of Bernie supporters would not support Hillary. Whether she could make up the difference with “moderate centrists” was – and remains – an open question, but with Trump (or at that time Cruz) as the most likely alternatives, the openness of that question became decisive for me. So I ended up voting for Bernie, as did most Wisconsinites in the primary (he got 567,936 total votes, more than either Hillary, Cruz or Trump).

Now, as it seems clear that Hillary will become the Democratic nominee, I’m hoping that Bernie hasn’t let his newly developed national popularity go to his head. I’m hoping that he hasn’t deluded himself into thinking that it’s a sign that the country is ready for a “political revolution”; demonstrating that would require that his young supporters actually show up to vote in midterm elections to help elect a new Senate and House. I’m also hoping that his increasingly “dug-in” positions on process and policy are bargaining chips to make Hillary as progressive as he can make her, and not non-negotiable items that will cause a split in the party. Spurred on by Bernie’s remarks about closed primaries, many of his supporters are pressing for all Democratic primaries to be “open”, so that non-Party members can participate. That is a very dangerous idea, since open primaries allow Republicans to cast the decisive votes (see this article, or this one). It would be far better for Bernie to urge all of his independent supporters to become Democrats, and take over the party from within. Now that would be a political revolution!

The Wisdom of Marley

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…Marley Dias, that is, possibly the most precocious 11-year-old on the planet, and apparently one of the best-parented.

Marley 1

Marley recently started a book drive using the hashtag #1000BlackGirlBooks, because she was tired of having to read books “about white boys and their dogs” in school. Given how hard it can be to convince my college students to read their assignments, I’m all for any movement that seeks to make reading more relevant and enjoyable for children, so they can form the habit before it’s too late. Here are some nuggets from her recent interview on Charlie Rose:

[After Rose remarks that she seems remarkably comfortable being on television]
MARLEY: “It’s easier to be yourself than to be something you’re not.”

ROSE: “Is she [your mother] your hero?”
MARLEY: “Yeah-”
ROSE: “One of them-”
MARLEY: “No, I like attributes of people instead of specific people because everyone messes up.”

ROSE: What do you like most about yourself?”
MARLEY: “That I like myself.”

Even if these are just lines that she’s had drilled into her by her mentors (which I doubt), she delivers them with more panache than should be be legally allowable for someone so young. To see what I mean, check out her interview at around 44:00, unless you want to sit through a long segment on the battle between Apple and the FBI over unlocking the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone. Unfortunately it’s a Hulu video, so you have to sit through a 30-second ad before you can skip forward.

Let’s hope that growing up doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm.

And Now For A Little Americana…

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Sarah Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan sing a John Hiatt tune, with three-part harmonies to lift the souls of angels…

Baby’s gone and I don’t know why
She let out this morning
Like a rusty shot in a hollow sky
She left me without warning

Sooner than the dogs could bark
Faster than the sun rose
Down to the banks on an old mule car
She took a flatboat ‘cross the shallow

Left me in my tears to drown
She left a baby daughter
Now the river’s wide and deep and brown
She’s crossing muddy waters

Tobacco standing in the fields
Be rotten, come November
And a bitter heart will not reveal
A spring that love remembers

When that sweet brown girl of mine
Hair, black eyes are raven
We broke the bread and drank the wine
From a jug that she’d been saving

Left me in my tears to drown
She left a baby daughter
Now the river’s wide and deep and brown
And she’s crossing muddy waters

Baby’s crying and the daylight’s gone
That big oak tree is groaning
In a rush of wind and a river of song
I can hear my true love moaning

Crying for her baby child
Or crying for her husband
Crying for that rivers wild
To take her from her loved ones

Left me in my tears to drown
She left a baby daughter
Now the river’s wide and deep and brown
And she’s crossing muddy waters

Now the river’s wide and deep and brown
And she’s crossing muddy waters

Freedom, Courage, Love, and Truth

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Two films currently in the running for the Academy’s “Best Picture” award are standouts for me. What they have in common is that, at their cores, they extol some very primal virtues. The first, Room, explores the value of freedom (which we too often take for granted); it’s ultimate price, courage; and the love that can motivate the needed courage: in this case, the mutual love of a very young child and his mother. This is a story that pushes some very emotional buttons, for all the best reasons. Here’s the official trailer, but if you haven’t read the novel, I recommend that you do not watch it prior to seeing the film, because it ruins the suspense of the plot (even if it doesn’t entirely neutralize its emotional wallop)-

The second film, Spotlight, is stylistically quite different. It’s a journalistic procedural, much in the spirit of 1976’s All The President’s Men, about how a dedicated group of reporters uncovered the depth and breadth of the “pedophile priest” problem in the Catholic Church. Being a (non-postmodernist) philosopher by trade, I’ve always been a sucker for stories about the pursuit and exposure of truth, especially when it’s intentionally been hidden, and when arriving at it comes at the cost of unexpectedly implicating apparent innocents in some moral morass. That’s where this film excels: when the head reporter (played by Michael Keaton) finally figures out who prevented the story from coming to light years earlier, it’s an enlightening surprise. Here’s the trailer (which, unlike the Room trailer, I can certify as “safe to watch”)-

Time Is A Tool To Grow

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Binoche

At the end of a recent PBS NewsHour interview, Jeffrey Brown asked actress Juliette Binoche how she felt about the sorts of roles she can expect to be offered, now that she is older than 50. She gave one of the most positive responses about aging that I’ve ever heard. Here it is, rendered as verse-

I mean, I’ve aged, you know,
I have experience.
And so it’s not as if
I’m not facing it…
but it’s not a fear.
‘Cause time is a tool to grow!
If you don’t have that tool,
how can you grow?
How can you transform?
So, you have to believe that
time is your best friend!
Imagine if you had to die
when you’re young,
you’d feel like, wow!
You know, what I’ve learned
with time
is amazing!

Here is the whole (6 minute) interview. The verse above occurs at about 5 min. 30 sec.-

No, Senator Rubio: Welders Do Not Make More Than Philosophers

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An ongoing meme among Republican politicians is that a university education is over-rated, particularly if one is interested in majoring in anything other than a STEM field. I’ve heard Art History dismissed, as well as Anthropology and a number of other social sciences and humanities programs. Florida Senator Marco Rubio was the latest politician to dismiss a non-STEM and non-vocational major, one that is especially dear to my heart: philosophy. Here is what he said, along with the debunking by Politifact:

“For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational training,” Rubio said. “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

It was a big moment in the debate for Rubio, but was he correct? Philosophically and statistically speaking, no.

Both government and private sector research show philosophy majors make more money than welders, and with much more room to significantly increase pay throughout their careers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for welders, cutters, solderers and brazers is $37,420 — about $18 an hour. According to Payscale, a company that collects salary information, philosophy majors make an average first-year salary of $42,200. The average mid-career pay for philosophy majors is even better: $85,000 per year. We rated Rubio’s statement False.

Politifact was not the only outfit that immediately recognized that Rubio’s statement was false. The first debunking I found came only minutes after Rubio said it, at the Associated Press. This was followed shortly thereafter by the Washington Post.

What is sad is not just the increasing tendency of Republican presidential hopefuls to spout falsehoods, pandering to their anti-intellectual base in order to win the primary. It is also the general cultural background that allows such remarks to initially sound plausible to a surprising number of people, with the result that public universities become the lowest priority in state budgets.

UPDATE: Senator Rubio’s penchant for speaking without thinking seems to be continuing: after the ISIS attack on Paris, he described the West’s fight with that terrorist group as “a clash of civilizations”. But,of course, there’s nothing civilized about ISIS. The only current civilization to which they are even distantly related is the Islamic world of over a billion people, and if Rubio wishes to characterize the fight against ISIS and similar groups as a clash between liberal civilization and that civilization, he is doing both civilizations a grave disservice.