Saturday, April 30, 2005
  Golden variables


When trying to spot bad arguments or bad theories, it's always helpful to separate constants from variables. Many bad arguments assume that a constant phenomenon is causing a changing result.

Example 1: "Why do they hate us?" The assumption is that we were attacked because Arabs suddenly decided to hate some aspect of our policy or behavior. Easy to take this apart: Hate is a constant in human history. At any time, half of all nations or tribes hate the other half. If hate caused attacks, all 'haters' would be attacking their respective 'hatees' all the time. That's never been the case; attacks happen only when one leader thinks he has something to gain, and thinks he can get away with it. The variable cause in this specific case is that we led Osama to think he could get away with his attack, so that's the problem we need to repair.

Example 2: "School shootings (as in Columbine) happen because kids have access to guns." This is especially weird. 50 years ago, kids had far more access, and indeed often took guns to school casually. The variable must be elsewhere; in these specific cases, the shooters seem to be participating in a well-formed religion that loves death.

Now: I'm thinking about the Golden Rule as applied to torture. Indeed the Golden Rule works just fine in small communities; within a village or an online forum, we learn quickly how to behave and give if we want to receive respect. But does it work between nations? Should we be making such a big stage production of prosecuting Lynndie England, on the grounds that we want our own soldiers to be treated fairly? Let's look at the constants: For the last century or so, American armies have been trying to treat prisoners decently. Now the variables: What have we received in return? Only the Germans in WW2 treated our prisoners fairly. The Japs, the Vietnamese, Saddam in 1991, and the Arab insurgents in Iraq right now, all felt free to mistreat our soldiers and civilians. Was Germany the only nation that had heard of our efforts? Nonsense. The German army had its own strict rules of civilized warfare, which were not influenced in the slightest by our behavior. These other nations and tribes did not have such rules, again without any influence or reference to our behavior.

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Irrelevant update: Supposedly new brides in Victorian times were advised to keep their minds and bodies above all sexual taint on the rare occasions when it was necessary to engage in certain activities for the sake of procreation: "Just lie still and think of England." Lynndie gives new life to this old phrase.

 


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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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