Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 91

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

There is one thing that futurists have in common: they are very, very often completely wrong in their predictions.

The metaphysics of pregnancy, and why it matters.

Understanding why the Ancient Greeks (culturally) perceived colors differently from us.

The neuroscience of why you need to pick your friends carefully.

The new aspirational class, and what they don’t get.

True altruism seen in chimpanzees, further elucidating the building blocks of human morality.

Why religious identities should not be immune to criticism.

What do we mean when we say that we are “entitled” to our opinions?

Is the world really better than ever? (Yes, but that’s kind of missing the point…)

My contribution to the Beard-Taleb “debate” on Roman history and cultural diversity. Taleb immediately labeled me “Professor of Bullshit,” because that’s how proper academic discourse ought to be conducted, of course.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Thanks!

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68 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 91

  1. ejwinner

    I’m unfamiliar with Taleb (who sounds really uncouth for an academic), but I have read texts from other scientists on the web who indicate a real dislike for history. From what I can tell, it this has to do with the fact that the stories we receive from history all tend to re-enforce our sense of agency, and because history reveals a certain necessary ethical and cultural relativism which mock the assumed premises of certain statistical research.

    If I remember correctly, these included a number of researchers in microbiology – a field that has also been infested with Intelligent Design theorists. Is there something about that field that just offers itself up to irrational biases? Or, more generally, are there certain fields of scientific research that do that, that somehow open doors to irrational biases?

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  2. saphsin

    ejwinner

    “If I remember correctly, these included a number of researchers in microbiology – a field that has also been infested with Intelligent Design theorists. Is there something about that field that just offers itself up to irrational biases? Or, more generally, are there certain fields of scientific research that do that, that somehow open doors to irrational biases?”

    The less it’s related to matters outside of science and can be abused, like religion or politics, the more it’s free from those biases. Like take the subject of egalitarian societies among hunter-gatherers. The majority of people in the field believe that hunter-gatherers are typically non-violent but there is vigorous disagreement among others, and it’s become sensitive topic among anthropologists because of how the information will likely be utilized for ideological purposes.

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  3. synred

    I’m unfamiliar with Taleb (who sounds
    really uncouth for an academic),

    Taleb is or was not an academic, but a modestly successful wall street money manger.

    I found this book
    Nine • IT IS EASIER TO BUY AND SELL THAN FRY AN EGG
    Some technical extensions of the survivorship bias. On the distribution of “coincidences” in life. It is preferable to be lucky than competent (but you can be caught). The birthday paradox. More charlatans (and more journalists). How the researcher with work ethics can find just about anything in data. On dogs not barking.

    Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Incerto) (Kindle Locations 2540-2544). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    some what interesting. I learned, e.g., not to be so scared of ‘selling short’ as dips are mostly bigger than spikes. However, I still don’t fool with market.

    We read it for the Martin Perl Book Club. He’s done a bunch of other books, but it looks to me like there mostly the same tune with slight variations.

    His tone in the book had a nasty edge, but he doesn’t name his targets.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    I don’t know why it is always deemed necessary to use the pejorative term ‘political correctness’ for a decision to have a non-white person depicted where it is customary to see a white person depicted.

    You don’t think that a decision to hypothesize a scenario that likely never occurred (a sub-Saharan African as a sufficiently senior Roman in Britain as to be in charge of building Hadrian’s Wall) has anything to do with political correctness?

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  5. Alessio Persichetti

    Hi Prof. Pigliucci,

    The article on the opinions is quite dense: the matter concerns both a theory of truth and the statute of beliefs, which in turn is divided in the issue of hinge epistemology and the problem of justified true belief.

    To understand what is happening today, it is quite useful to read again Wittgenstein’s On Certainty: inside, he made the example of a man who puts in doubt everything, including that statement “this is my hand” and also the case of another man which, beyond every single rational argument, believes that the Earth existed for 50 years. Now, Wittgenstein takes these circumstances to show how our nets of judgements are grounded on nothing more than habit and faith. As result, sometimes the only way to change the other one’s convinction is simply persuasion, through a repeated pratice, not thanks to rational dialogue between induviduals. Sad, but true.

    I think that this draws very well certain dynamics of the actual public debate — see the Trump’s average elector or the anti-vaccines movement .

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  6. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    You don’t think that a decision to hypothesize a scenario that likely never occurred (a sub-Saharan African as a sufficiently senior Roman in Britain as to be in charge of building Hadrian’s Wall) has anything to do with political correctness?

    I am never quite sure what people mean by “political correctness”. I doubt that anyone has self identified as politically correct. So, no, I doubt that the people at the Beeb said, hey, let’s be politically correct and have a dark skinned person as the senior Roman officer”.

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  7. Robin Herbert

    But what is the unlikelihood? Is it unlikely that the Romans would have had dark skinned people in their military? They had a big empire, did they manage it entirely with people born in and around Rome?

    Or is it unlikely that a dark skinned person would have been promoted to a position where they would be supervising the building of fortifications in a cold dangerous corner of the empire?

    How do we know that? It may be unlikely for all I know, but it is an interesting question to me as to how we know that.

    If the Beeb had buckled down to the right wing version of political correctness and depicted him as an Anglo Saxon, then we wouldn’t even be asking that question.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Massimo Post author

    Jbonni,

    “As far as I can tell, degreed admirers of Rush Limbaugh believe they have good reasons for liking him”

    Yes, they believe they have good arguments. But in fact they are being dragged along by way of emotional appeal. I don’t mean to say that Limbaugh himself is emotional, one doesn’t have to act emotional in order to appeal to other people’s emotions.

    Alan,

    “Taleb’s error specifically arises from abuses about statistics, and while stats certainly form the backbone of many if not most sciences, his problem here seems to be confined to methodology about stats. … but his particular error is that he employs some sort of “ill restrained statistics””

    Indeed, and I called him on both: his blanket dismissal of the humanities and of historical evidence in favor of quantitative and genetic data is a reflection of his scientism. On top of which, he got the genetics wrong, as another population geneticist pointed out more recently and more in-depth than I did: http://tinyurl.com/y7nulpe7

    Coel,

    The BBC was obviously attempting two things: (i) to teach some Roman history; and (ii) to teach some civic lessons to their audience of children. The issue is why on earth this approach should be dismissed as “politically correct,” which has come to take an entirely negative connotation.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Robin Herbert

    I have been looking through some historian’s discussion boards from a year or two ago, and they are saying that the Italians accounted for less than 1% of the Roman military by the time of Hadrian. They are suggesting that a fairly large percentage by that time would have come from Africa, Egypt and Syria.

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  10. Thomas Jones

    The Weller piece in Business Insider raises more questions in my mind than anything else.

    From the article:

    ” ‘The more we study engagement, we see time and again that just being next to certain people actually aligns your brain with them,’ based on their mannerisms, the smell of the room, the noise level, and many other factors, Cerf said. ‘This means the people you hang out with actually have an impact on your engagement with reality beyond what you can explain. And one of the effects is you become alike.’ . . . From those two premises, Cerf’s conclusion is that if people want to maximize happiness and minimize stress, they should build a life that requires fewer decisions by surrounding themselves with people who embody the traits they prefer. Over time, they’ll naturally pick up those desirable attitudes and behaviors. At the same time, they can avoid the mentally taxing low-level decisions that sap the energy needed for higher-stakes decisions.”

    The last sentence above needs neurological study? Or is it not subsumed in the folk expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”?

    More intriguing is the relationship of mob mentality in Cerf’s recipe for “to maximize happiness and minimize stress” as I watch the demonstrations in Charlottesville on TV today.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. saphsin

    Coel

    I think being overly triggered by a Sub-Saharan African in a BBC program for kids is something in line with the character of being politically correct. The derogatory insult people on the alt-right use against those on the Left (or those who they perceive on the left at least, because they’re so far to the right) “snowflake” can really be directed back at them.

    Apparently even the slightest culture signals offends their feelings so much that it merits such outrage, so very sensitive. (and no, I don’t think they care about historical accuracy enough to notice the slight nuance Coel mentioned, which honestly isn’t much of a distortion, that’s not where the outrage is coming from. It’s a kid’s program, so they have to distort the presentation in the background in other ways to a large extent anyways)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. brodix

    The piece on opinions offers up a fairly straightforward, but still facile argument, somewhat similar to the tolerance for religion article

    We are both nature and nurture and it seems his examples of self centered opinion are taught, as much or more than instinctive. Think helicopter parents, participation awards and multiculturalism until the more questionable and less suburban friendly aspects of other cultures enter the picture.

    Both having a strong personal character and being able to be part of a group are inherent aspects of humanity, that can either be put to good use, or bad. Which gets around to the point that good and bad are not universal and absolute, whether argued by a preacher or professor, but are the biological binary. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken. Different cultures are going to have different compasses.

    It is those with a strong character who can resist when the herd is heading in the wrong direction. Even when it is the New York Times and NPR riding the herd. It isn’t all climate change and vaccination. Sometimes it’s WMD’s in Iraq, or the Russkies are coming, the Russkies are coming!

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  13. synred

    The derogatory insult people on the alt-right use against

    In 1972 we used ‘political correct’ as a joke aimed at those among who were to anal about being leftish. E.g., Our friend and neighbor who was president of NOW and was so uptight she couldn’t laugh at a Bogart movie, e.g., the Petrified Forest.

    The right stole PC and took it seriously.

    https://goo.gl/zaJbNS

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Coel

    Socratic,

    Nobody said Sub-Saharan African. Mary Beard didn’t. Massimo didn’t. I didn’t.

    But Taleb et al did. Another case of people talking passed each other. Taleb et al saw the video as depicting a senior Roman of subSaharan origin; Beard et al responded by saying that plenty of North Africans were senior Romans (which is entirely true, given that the Roman Empire had North African provinces). But pointing to Algerians, Syrians or Egyptians is not a rebuttal of Taleb! If you want to rebut Taleb, at least note what he was actually saying.

    The point is, of course, that North Africans are pretty different on the whole from sub-Saharan Africans. (If you think that the term “Causcasian” has any validity, then North Africans are Caucasians.)

    Was Taleb right to see the senior Roman as sub-Saharan? Well, people will have their opinions on that, and it’s likely over-interpreting the video, but for comparison: Here is an image of senior Syrians. Here is one for Egypt. And here is a link for Algeria.

    Robin,

    Is it unlikely that the Romans would have had dark skinned people in their military?

    There were indeed some (we know that from historical records). But it’s unlikely they attained the senior ranks. A rank-and-file soldier could work their way up to the middle ranks, but not more than that. The Roman system was not fully meritocratic, it was strongly aristocratic. That means that the high ranks went to sons of established and wealthy families of high social standing. That means that to be of the rank depicted in the video would require being born into a high-social-standing family in one of the Roman provinces (and again, that does indeed include Algeria, Syria, etc).

    To summarise: do I think it very unlikely that someone from sub-Saharan Africa would be a senior Roman commander in Britain? Yes, though not impossible. Given that, yes I do think that the depiction of such by the BBC was political correctness. (Note that even Massimo felt that the video was “slightly too informed by modern sensibilities”.)

    Anyhow, my main reason for commenting on this piece was owing to the attack on “scientism”, so I’ll leave commenting on the video itself there.

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  15. richardwein

    Thanks for some very interesting links, Massimo.

    “Understanding why the Ancient Greeks (culturally) perceived colors differently from us.” I particularly liked this one. I don’t know nearly enhough about Ancient Greek literature to judge the veracity of the conclusions, but they seemed quite plausible and explanatory based on more general knowledge (about language and perception).

    “Why religious identities should not be immune to criticism.” Well argued, though I have reservations about the author’s claim that “religious identities are primarily, if not wholly, ideological in character”.

    “The metaphysics of pregnancy, and why it matters.” Oh dear. An excellent example of careful thinking that is nevertheless wholly misguided from start to finish. (I’m tempted to say “chmess”, but I think that term promotes the idea that philosophy is a matter of deduction from axioms, and that a paper like that one goes wrong because it has started from the wrong axioms. I entirely reject that view of philosophy. The paper–and metaphysics in general—goes wrong because it uses language in a deeply misguided way: depriving language of the context that gives it meaning, and consequently asking meaningless questions.)

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Massimo Post author

    Markk,

    “Russian has two words for blue – goluboi for light blue and siny for dark – and they can distinguish between dark and light blue faster than English speakers”

    That’s fascinating. Are you suggesting that’s a biological difference (highly unlikely)? If not, what about Russian culture may explain it?

    Coel,

    “Another case of people talking passed each other. Taleb et al saw the video as depicting a senior Roman of sub-Saharan origin”

    But why? Nowhere in the video is the provenance of the child mentioned. It’s not an case of talking past each other, it’s a case of Taleb shouting for no particular reason other than stroking his ego.

    “pointing to Algerians, Syrians or Egyptians is not a rebuttal of Taleb!”

    It very obviously is, since the only issue at play was whether was it possible for someone with a dark skin to be part of the Roman entourage in Britain. The historical record is very clear: the answer is yes.

    “for comparison: Here is an image of senior Syrians. Here is one for Egypt. And here is a link for Algeria”

    Seriously? You pick single individuals from an area and imply they are not only typical, but the only possibility? You want me to pick two Sicilians, one with dark skin and black hair and the other blonde and blue eyed? Because it can be easily done.

    “it’s unlikely they attained the senior ranks”

    Except for the Berber (North African, unknown shade of skin) who was actually governor of Roman Britain at the time. Governor: http://tinyurl.com/ydyrse66

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  17. synred

    >The point is, of course, that North Africans are pretty different on the whole from sub-Saharan Africans. (If you think that the term “Causcasian” has any validity, then North Africans are Caucasians.)

    Causcasians from the Caucuses can be pretty dark.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. ejwinner

    Actually, the people of Nubia (in modern Sudan) were known for their very dark complexion, and they both warred and traded with the Egyptians and Romans over centuries. By Nero’s day, it would have been highly unlikely to find no people of dark skin in even in Rome itself (since the Romans always took slaves during warfare; but slaves could buy their freedom and indeed engage in business afterward).

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  19. Daniel Kaufman

    This strikes me as a very strong point in Massimo’s piece from IAI:

    “We don’t have a “clear idea” of ancient genetic distributions, because we only have DNA data from modern populations, and a lot of assumptions and guesswork has to go to infer ancient population DNA profiles from current ones. ”

    = = =

    I think as a general matter that people have a serious misunderstanding not just about how we acquire knowledge about the ancient world, but what the status of that knowledge is. People think that a claim like “Caesar did such and such” is just like a claim that “Winston Churchill did such and such” and this simply is not true. It’s not just that the number of corroborating sources is so much fewer in the case of the ancient, but that the nature of the sources is different. What the Greeks or Romans meant by the doing of history was very different than what modern historians mean by it or do.

    I resist the idea that even modern history is really social “science.” With respect to ancient history, I completely reject it.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    Seriously? You pick single individuals from an area and imply they are not only typical, but the only possibility?

    What makes you think I was picking single individuals? Did you click on the links? They all show a swathe of people from those countries, which is why I chose them. If you think the senior Roman in the video is similar to these then ok. But Taleb’s suggestion that he isn’t is at least reasonable.

    It very obviously is [a rebuttal of Taleb]

    The Taleb tweet (quoted in your own article) said: “Where did the sub-saharan genes evaporate? North Africans were lightskinned.” Taleb was explicitly talking about sub-Saharans not North Africans. Thus pointing to North Africans is not a rebuttal.

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  21. ejwinner

    I don’t understand the need for asserting the purity of the Caucasians; the term apparently has some coin in bio-anthropology, but I don’t think it survives in genetics. At any rate if it includes all tyhe peoples between north India and North Africa, it’s a bit of a stew anyway.

    And to assume there was no trade (and hence intermingling) between those from the sub-Sahara and those from the Sahara, seems a bit of denialism. The Sahara actually only dids around 4000- 3000 BCE, making north-south travel less tenable, We don’t know what traffic occurred before then, really.

    At any rate, the purity of the Caucasoids was surely impinged beginning in around 600 CE, when the Western African empires began trading north, and the Mongolian empire reached into southwest Europe. .That’s not about the Roman issue, obviously, but does go to any claim of purity or superiority.

    I personally don’t fear the possibility of Sub-Saharan African genes in me. Mongrels are usually healthier than pure breeds.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Bunsen Burner

    ‘They all show a swathe of people from those countries, which is why I chose them’

    At first I was going to make the point that the ethnic makeup of the political elite in these countries is not even comparable to the ethnic makeup of the people of these countries, let alone of the people that lived there 2000 years ago. But, even so, the Egyptian and Algerian pictures clearly have dark-skinned individuals in them. I decide to do a test, I took RGB swatches of their skin and compared it to the the skin colour used in the cartoon. Remarkably close.

    On a personal note, I have visited many places in North Africa and the Middle East. They are very ethnically diverse. My impression of people’s skin colour was that it covered a very broad spectrum.

    Liked by 4 people

  23. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Bunsen,

    I decide to do a test, I took RGB swatches of their skin and compared it to the the skin colour used in the cartoon. Remarkably close.

    I’m all for having the dark-skinned Roman in the cartoon, and agree with your point in general, but I don’t think this is a good test at all. RGB values are not a measure of skin tone or even gross colour. RGB values depend too much on lighting (remember the blue-black/white-gold dress controversy?), and the cartoon isn’t even a photograph. All we have to go on really are the contrast between the skin of the dark-skinned Roman and those around him.

    That said, and in support of your larger point, there certainly are individual North Africans in those photos who are much darker skinned than those around them.

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  24. Markk

    Massimo:

    If I was to guess, I’d say that because the Russian language is the way it is, it constantly forces the brain to make that distinction between light and dark blue, and the brain adapts to this during the individual’s lifetime.

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