Preference falsification in our time and evermore

One of the main reasons I listen to the Secular Jihadists podcast is that there’s an earnest honesty from the hosts which is fading from our society in public discourse. Though I’m not a “New Atheist” personally (just an atheist), I don’t mind, and even appreciate, people who can discuss the reality that according to the Sunnah, Muhammad, PBUH, was a child rapist and sex slaver by the norms of the current year.

As I am not Muslim and I don’t wish to emulate Muhammad I don’t have to reconcile traditional Islam’s understanding of him with modern norms (not that Muhammad is special, Moses was a child slaughterer). But I am also not sure that airing the reality of Muhammad’s life is productive, or forwards any broader conversation. But the fact of the traditions of his life is trueIf facts are never aired, then facts fade from comprehension, and people may confuse polite ommissions with reality.

Because attitudes toward Islam have been ideologized honesty about the religion in public is dangerous, as the truth is a weapon in partisan games. For example, a few months ago I noticed Jerry Coyne had linked to an old post of mine on why being Muslim is not a racial thing on Twitter. Curiously, Twitter flagged the post as sensitive.

So what did I say? You can see….

Obviously, I didn’t say anything too crazy. Rather, the text flagger probably saw “race” and “Islam” and wondered if I this was frog-nazi talk. But more generally there has been heightened sensitivity around Islam and Muslims over the past 17 years, and frank discussion of the religion is now difficult. I recall watching the PBS’ To the Contrary in the 1990s and at one point there was a discussion about Muslim women and their plight. The most stridently Left on the regular panel, Julianne Malveaux, stated plainly that there was perhaps something about Islam which was constitutively anti-woman.

I happen to disagree with the idea that there is anything constitutively anti-woman about Islam, but that’s because I take a very dim view of religious essentialism. But it’s not an unreasonable assertion given the huge body of shariah where women are given inferior status in relation to men. Malveaux wasn’t crazy. And none of her fellow panelists said much in relation to her observation about the essential anti-feminism of Islam. It was the 1990s and anti-religious outbursts by a very Left-wing person wasn’t surprising. Islam was a religion, ergo….

Today the situation is different. I doubt Malveaux would say something similar in public. And I assume that her panelists, especially the conventional liberals, would come to the defense of Islam if she did. This despite the fact that privately many liberals will admit that Islam and women’s rights do not exactly correlate too well. I have a friend who chides Islamophobes on Facebook who will state it is a “fucked up religion” in personal conversation (and to be entirely frank, this is really common from non-Muslim South Asians in the West, who tend to come from Islamo-skeptic backgrounds and yet cultivate strong SJW public personas).

What I’m alluding to here is the ubiquity of preference falsification. The term was popularized in Timur Kuran’s Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification. Chinese “Communism” today is arguably just one huge game of preference falsification. Late stage Soviet Communism was also preference falsification writ large.

The Secular Jihadists don’t engage in preference falsification, and I find that refreshing because it’s so rare. I don’t agree with their New Atheist beliefs on a lot of the details, nor do I share their liberal politics, but I know where I agree and disagree. There’s no reading between the lines. They say what they mean and mean what they say.

While listening to podcasts and viewing YouTubes one thing I’ve come to realize is that Far Left and Far Right views are more interesting because the two groups are so marginal they don’t have an incentive to preference falsify. I disagree with both perspectives, but it’s honest disagreement. When I listen to mainstream Center Left and Center Right folks it’s generally much more boring. They are keen on telling truths that won’t rock the boat and will make the fewest waves. They will lie, omit, and manipulate, to also minimize rocking the boat.

Back in the 2000s Andrew Sullivan came up with the “Yglesias Award”, named after Matt Yglesias, now of Vox. From the page about the award: “This award…is for writers, politicians, columnists or pundits who actually criticize their own side, make enemies among political allies, and generally risk something for the sake of saying what they believe.” Can anyone imagine him criticizing his own side today? Vox and its coterie of writers have become well-off on cozying up to establishment power. They are now the system. Or at least one of the two primary systems (the Right and Left).

There is an equivalent on the Right. Back in the 2000s The Weekly Standard wrote some positive pieces on Intelligent Design. This was strange because The Weekly Standard was a flagship journal of neoconservatism, and so decidedly secular and urban, with a large contingent of Jewish writers and editors. In contrast, Intelligent Design was being pushed forward by evangelical Protestants, and to a lesser extent a small number of conservative Catholics. At the time most people understood that The Weekly Standard was engaged in coalition building. Privately no one there probably found Intelligent Design creditable, but they were part of a coalition of people who took these ideas seriously and sincerely. Though on some level everyone understood what The Weekly Standard was doing, the important thing was that it did what it did in public, and expended some of its capital among secular intellectuals to support religious conservatives as a costly signal to its commitment to the Right.

One reason that Heather Mac Donald began to speak out about atheism and the Right in the 2000s is that she’s a sincere person and was aggravated by the juxtaposition in public respect for religion that conservative intellectuals were prone toward, despite many of them privately having little use for faith.

There’s another dynamic where preference falsification and revealed preferences are connected. I recently observed that Joe Kennedy III seems to be evidence of the royal family of the Democratic party getting whiter while the party gets browner. Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Kennedy now have many great-grandchildren, such as Joe Kennedy III. Most are no doubt liberal Democrats who think diversity is great and good. But take a look at who these Kennedys are marrying. Since they’re a prominent family, their weddings are noted in the public record. Though the Kennedy’s of the current generation say the correct thing for liberals about racial diversity in public, their private choices are more in alignment with being in sympathy with a white ethnostate.

Why does any of this matter? As I said above, if the public lying is ubiquitous enough, people begin to confuse polite ommissions or accepted public distortions with reality. Eventually the public and private come into alignment. An analogy to religion is appropriate. All of the living descendants of Moses Mendelssohn descend from Christian branches of his lineage. The conversion in the early 19th century of prominent German Jews to Christianity was often a conscious act of assimilation, or a means toward professional advancement. There is evidence that some of these individuals were never sincere Christians in a deep theological sense, and many people understood this. But over time the preference falsification in these families faded, and they became sincere Christians in public and private.

Now consider the case of sex differences. One of the reasons I post on sex differences on strength is to remind people who de facto preference falsify about the truth, and expose newbies to the truth who might otherwise confuse falsification-by-omission with the truth. By this, I mean that over the past generation sex differences are not an issue that many among the cultural elite (on the Left) want to talk about in depth. Most people know that there are differences in strength, though they may be fuzzy on the details. But some younger people actually confuse the lack of attention to sex differences with the fact of no sex differences, and take maximal gender social constructionism at face value!

Because the truth is not fashionable preference falsification will become more and more common. Demands for politeness by omission will become more strident and all-encompassing.  Old-fashioned positivists and empiricists who naively make testable truth claims will still exist, but their prestige will be low. Instead of truth being telos, an ends, it will become purely techne, a means or artifice.

Truth, positivism, scientism. All these are the affectations of a small cult. Over time this cult needs to recede out of public view because they are inconvenient to power. The flourishing of truth in the dark and hidden corners of the world must occur through the cult’s service of power. The destruction of falsehood must occur not through argumentation, which falsehood will always win, but through fiat. Falsehood always bends more quickly to fiat.

Going back to where this post started, “ex-Muslims” are a particular affront to the modern order of things. Their existence is an offense, and uncomfortable to most Muslims. Their witness as to Islam’s illiberality is highly inconvenient for the modern Western Left, which maintains a public alliance with Islam. And yet most of these individuals are committed to Left social progress in all areas outside of Islam.

My prediction is that Left critics of ex-Muslims will become more and more vociferous. Not because they believe in their case. Rather, they know that marginalizing this one group despite the injustice of that course of action is an excellent “hard-to-fake” signal of their sincerity and commitment to their Muslim allies. They will destroy this small group not because it is right, but specifically because it is wrong. Innocence is not a defense.

Across the chasm of Incommensurability

The Washington Post has a piece typical of its genre, A Chinese student praised the ‘fresh air of free speech’ at a U.S. college. Then came the backlash. It’s the standard story; a student from China with somewhat heterodox thoughts and sympathies with some Western ideologies and mores expresses those views freely in the West, and social media backlash makes them walk it back. We all know that the walk back is insincere and coerced, but that’s the point: to maintain the norm of not criticizing the motherland abroad. The truth of the matter of how you really feel is secondary.

Tacit in these stories is that of course freedom of speech and democracy are good. And, there is a bit of confusion that even government manipulation aside, some of the backlash from mainland Chinese seems to be sincere. After all, how could “the people” not defend freedom of speech and democracy?

Reading this story now I remember what an academic and friend (well, ex-friend, we’re out of touch) explained years ago in relation to what you say and public speech: one can’t judge speech by what you intend and what you say in a descriptive sense, but you also have to consider how others take what you say and how it impacts them. In other words, intersubjectivity is paramount, and the object or phenomenon “out there” is often besides the point.

At the time I dismissed this viewpoint and moved on.

Though in general I do not talk to people from China about politics (let’s keep in real, it’s all about the food, and possible business opportunities), it was almost amusing to hear them offer their opinions about Tibet and democracy, because so often very educated and competent people would trot out obvious government talking points. In this domain there was little critical rationalism. One could have a legitimate debate about the value of economic liberalization vs. political liberalization. But it was ridiculous to engage with the thesis that China was always unitary between the Former Han and today. That is just a falsehood. Though the specific detail was often lacking in their arguments, it was clearly implied that they knew the final answer. I would laugh at this attitude, because I thought ultimately facts were the true weapon. The world as it is is where we start and where we end.

Or is it? From the article:

Another popular comment expressed disappointment in U.S. universities, suggesting without any apparent irony that Yang should not have been allowed to make the remarks.

“Are speeches made there not examined for evaluation of their potential impact before being given to the public?” the commentator wrote.

“Our motherland has done so much to make us stand up among Western countries, but what have you done? We have been working so hard to eliminate the stereotypes the West has put on us, but what are you doing? Don’t let me meet you in the United States; I am afraid I could not stop myself from going up and smacking you in the face.”

Others were critical not of Yang’s comments but of the venue in which she chose to make them.

“This kid is too naive. How can you forget the Chinese rule about how to talk once you get to the United States? Just lie or make empty talk instead of telling the truth. Only this will be beneficial for you in China. Now you cannot come back to China,” @Labixiaoxin said.

There is a lot of texture even within this passage. I do wonder if the writers and editors at The Washington Post knew the exegetical treasures they were offering up.

To me, there is irony in the irony. Among the vanguard of the intelligensia in these United States there is plenty of agreement with the thesis that some remarks should not be made, some remarks should not be thought. Especially in public. The issue is not on the principle, but specifically what remarks should not be made, and what remarks should not be public. That is, the important and substantive debates are not about a positive description of the world, but the values through which you view the world. The disagreements with the Chinese here are not about matters of fact, but matters of values. Facts are piddling things next to values.

So let’s take this at face value. Discussions about Tibetan autonomy and Chinese human rights violations cause emotional distress for many Chinese. I’ve seen this a little bit personally, when confronting Chinese graduate students with historical facts. It’s not that they were ignorant, but their views of history were massaged and framed in a particular manner, and it was shocking to be presented with alternative viewpoints when much of one’s national self-identity hinged on a particular narrative. Responses weren’t cogent and passionate, they were stuttering and reflexive.

Now imagine the psychic impact on hundreds of millions of educated Chinese. They’ve been sold a particular view of the world, and these students get exposed to new ideas and viewpoints and relay it back, and it causes emotional distress. Similarly, for hundreds of millions of Muslims expressing atheism is an ipso facto assault on their being, their self-identity. This is why I say that the existence of someone like me, an atheist from a Muslim background, is by definition an affront to many. My existence is blasphemy and hurtful.

And the Chinese view of themselves and their hurt at insults to their nationhood do not come purely from government fiction. There’s a factual reality that needs to be acknowledged. China was for thousands of years was one of the most significant political and cultural units in the world. But the period from 1850 to 1980 were dark decades. The long century of eclipse. China was humiliated, dismembered, and rendered prostrate before the world. It collapsed into factious civil war and warlordism. Tens of millions died in famines due to political instability.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s between 20 to 50 million citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China starved due to Mao’s crazy ambitions. This is out of a population of ~650 million or so. Clearly many Chinese remember this period, and have relatives who survived through this period. A nation brought low, unable to feed its own children, is not an abstraction for the Chinese.

On many aspects of fact there are details where I shrug and laugh at the average citizen of China’s inability to look beyond the propaganda being fed to it. And I am not sure that the future of the Chinese state and society is particularly as rosy as we might hope for, as its labor force already hit a peak a few years ago. But the achievement of the Chinese state and society over the past generation in lifting hundreds of millions out of grinding poverty have been a wonder to behold. A human achievement greater than the construction of the Great Wall, not just a Chinese achievement.

But it is descriptively just a fact that nations which have been on the margins and find themselves at center stage want their “time in the sun.” The outcomes of these instances in history are often not ones which redound to the glory of our species, but it is likely that group self-glorification and hubris come out of a specific evolutionary context.

There are on the order of ~300 million citizens of the United States. There are 1.3 billion Chinese. If offense and hurt are the ultimate measures of the acceptance of speech than an objective rendering might suggest that we lose and they win. There are more of them to get hurt than us.

But perhaps the point is that there is no objectivity. There is no standard “out there.” Once the measuring stick of reality falls always, and all arguments are reduced to rhetoric, it is sophistry against sophistry. Power against power. Your teams and views are picked for you, or, through self-interest, or, your preferences derived from some aesthetic bias. Sometimes the team with the small numbers wins, though usually not.

Discourse is like a season of baseball. At the end there is a winner. But there is no final season. Just another round of argument.

Ten years ago I read Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism. I literally laughed at the time when I closed that book, because the numbers did not seem to support him in his grand confidence about atheism’s decline. And since the publication of that book the proportion of people in the United States who are irreligious has increased. Contrary to perceptions there has been no great swell of religion across the world.

But on a deep level McGrath was correct about something. Much of the book was aimed at the “New Atheism” specifically. A bold and offensive movement which prioritized the idea of facts first (in the ideal if not always the achievement), McGrath argued that this was a last gasp of an old modernist and realist view of the world, which would be swallowed by the post-modern age. He, a traditional Christian, had a response to the death of reason and empiricism uber alleles, his God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Primordial identities of religion, race, and nationality would emerge from the chaos and dark as reason receded from the world.

With the rise of social constructionism McGrath saw that the New Atheists would lose the cultural commanding heights, their best and only weapons, the glittering steel of singular facts over social feelings. On the other hand, if facts derive from social cognition, than theistic views have much more purchase, because on the whole the numbers are with God, and not his detractors.

And going back to numbers. The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos. And China is a massive economic shadow over us all. Anyone who works in the private sector dreams of business in China. Currently Amazon is nothing in China. What if the Chinese oligarchs made an offer Bezos couldn’t refuse? Do you think The Washington Post wouldn’t change its tune?

When objectivity and being right is no defense, then all that remains is self-interest. Ironically, cold hard realism may foster more universal empathy by allowing us to be grounded in something beyond our social unit. In the near future if the size of social units determines who is, and isn’t, right, than those who built a great bonfire on top of positivism’s death may die first at the hands of the hungry cannibal hordes. Many of us will shed no tears. We were not the ones in need of empathy, because we were among the broad bourgeois masses.

In the end the truth only wins out despite our human natures, not because of it.

Winning the battle against post modernism by losing the war for the soul of science


Over 20 years ago Paul Gross and Norman Leavitt wrote Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. To me the book was revelatory and a shock; my own experience with “anti-science” was mostly with Creationists. This was only a few years before the Sokal affair.

In the wake of that it seems that the excesses of the “post modern” Left receded. When you review the “science wars” it is also notable that it is an elite affair, with a strong French inflection (Sokal’s book Fashionable Nonsense was actually originally published in French!).

With the rise of “big science” like the Human Genome Project the fuss about social constructionism in science seemed a bit silly. Onward and upward!

But change is in the air. There is a “new Sokal affair,” A new academic hoax: a bogus paper on “the conceptual penis” gets published in a “high quality peer-reviewed” social science journal. The abstract goes like so:

Anatomical penises may exist, but as pre-operative transgendered women also have anatomical penises, the penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity. Through detailed poststructuralist discursive criticism and the example of climate change, this paper will challenge the prevailing and damaging social trope that penises are best understood as the male sexual organ and reassign it a more fitting role as a type of masculine performance.

The whole paper is pretty amusing.

First, I have to admit that this is not equivalent to the Sokal Affair, because the journal is far less reputable than Social Text. Part of the story are lower standards in academic publishing, and the fact that “peer review” is a lot sloppier and error prone that many in the general public think. The authors made up citations, and the peers did not catch them.

Another element of this may be that these sorts of fields are so diffuse that it’s hard to get good peers who understand what you are saying. One reason specialist journals of reasonable prestige get good peer reviews is that the reviewers work in basically the same field. You can’t make up citations in that situation.

But ultimately the fact that people like Jerry Coyne are promoting this also highlights that twenty years after Alan Sokal’s hoax the science wars were not won. The problem with the tactics of the social constructionists in the 1990s is that they were too showy and swung for the fences. Over the past twenty years the way that this sort of constructionist narrative has succeeded is that first it has to colonize and dominate disciplines outside of science, and then leverage progressive causes which scientists on the whole are onboard with in any case. Instead of undercutting science, the new tactic is to be pro-science rhetorically, but to constraint and delimit. Accept the idea of scientific reality, but simply demand it conform to your one’s own preferences (this by the seems to be the stance of Creationists).