On nonviolence and the alt-right

The actions of the driver at the Charlottesville alt-right rally, who killed one person and injured another nineteen, are indefensible. So too are the views of the alt-right in general. But everybody trying to oppose them must be very careful not to sink to their level and use their tactics.

One repulsive practice of the alt-right is doxing, the releasing of private or sensitive information about a victim. When a victim’s address is published, they may receive death threats or even actual attempts on their lives. The alt-right has rather systematically done this to public figures such as Anita Sarkeesian, as well as otherwise private individuals. It is disappointing to see some anti-fascists going through videos and photos from the Charlottesville rally and asking on Twitter for the people there to be identified and publicly shamed. There are at least two problems with this. Firstly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is very clear on this:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

‘Everyone’ includes people who hold abhorrent views, and simply attending a march – even a neo-Nazi one – is not justification for releasing somebody’s home address, work address or contact details. Secondly, identifying people from grainy photos is tricky and leaves room for plenty of false positives. There will be innocent people who look like someone at the rally, and who live nearby, who will be falsely identified as a Nazi, and shamed.

The same goes for physical aggression (which can be distinguished from self-defence in response to an attack). Of course punching somebody is far less serious than running them over, but that doesn’t make it easier to justify.

To be clear, the above is not a defence of the alt-right’s freedom of speech. Regardless of legal disputes over whether freedom of speech covers hate speech, it is a different matter as to whether violence against them is legal, morally defensible, or pragmatic.

On the other side of the Internet, other people can become dehumanised, and it is unsurprising that the hateful views of the alt-right have brewed over many years on the anonymised image boards of 4chan. But we must remember that:

When we oppose the alt-right, we must do our best to keep on the moral high ground.

Otherwise, we create a moral equivalence and help to justify Donald Trump’s notion that ‘both sides‘ are to blame.

In other words, violent actions such as doxing and assault are ineffectual even on a pragmatic level, even if you don’t believe in nonviolence as a moral absolute. And, just as we expect Donald Trump to disavow his hateful supporters, we should call out our own allies who do use these tactics. Their actions are as important as their words and their beliefs.

Political bias

The BBC and especially its political commentator Laura Kuenssberg have been accused of left-wing bias by right-wing people, and of right-wing bias by left-wing people. Many such people do not apply that criticism solely to the BBC, but also to many other media outlets that fail to agree with them. For example, Another Angry Voice repeatedly criticise what they call the ‘mainstream media’; they claim that their views are not adequately reflected by any broadcaster or newspaper, despite, supposedly, being very popular. Far-right groups have similar people, such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars.

But if it appears to you that everybody else is biased against you, then what is more likely — that your opinions aren’t all that popular, or that the editors of the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Times and the Guardian are in some joint, secret conspiracy to silence you?

Pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.


  • Factual accuracy is not the same thing as being unbiased.
  • Misrepresentation of facts, particularly of statistics, does not count as factual accuracy.
  • To be clear, AAV and InfoWars are not simply left- and right-wing equivalents of each other. Despite both being biased, InfoWars does a lot more harm by actively promoting dangerous views such as the vaccine autism myth.

Anti-colonialism and Hong Kong democracy

Chris Patten gave an interview to the Guardian in which he described his regrets about not establishing sufficiently strong democratic institutions before the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, and criticised the anti-democratic positions of the Chinese government.

Some of the comments in response to that post call out the hypocrisy of a colonial governor calling for democracy, and point out the British Empire’s own poor record on democracy and human rights. While this may be true, it is a distraction: it doesn’t justify China’s actions.

If Western liberals are really concerned about democracy (as opposed to simple point-scoring against British colonialism and Conservative politicians like Boris Johnson and Chris Patten), then they must do more to speak up for Hong Kong’s right to vote, rather than keeping quiet and taking the ‘anti-imperialist’ view that this is an internal affair for China in which the West has no right to intervene. That would be echoing the propaganda machine of the PRC.

In defence of anecdotal evidence

Anecdotal evidence is worthless, right? It comes about through uncontrolled conditions, and the people reporting it may report selectively (whether or not they intend to be biased). Thanks in part to the works of writers such as Richard Dawkins, we have learnt to dismiss anecdotes and personal testimonials, bringing us closer towards a world governed by Reason and statistics. And we can consign anything supported merely by anecdotes to fire. Hurrah!

For many things in the natural world, it is relatively straightforward (if expensive) to isolate the thing to be tested, conduct experiments or controlled trials, and then quantify the effect of that thing, with well-defined error bars. There are well-established principles and procedures for designing clinical trials, which is why we can resolutely label things like homeopathy, claims about the MMR vaccine, and everything Deepak Chopra says as bullshit, even if there are occasional success stories.

But – and perhaps Dawkins and co. haven’t realised this yet – humans are complicated, and social phenomena, which involve multiple humans, are very complicated. It is impossible to control the environment in which they arise. Also, individual experiences are unique, and it is difficult to give meaningful definitions or boundaries (see also this post), and to ensure that everybody uses the same definition. Related to this, people do not always accurately report their experiences: something that is perceived to be ‘shameful’ will be underreported even if it is actually quite common.

For these reasons, many social phenomena have not been studied quantitatively. But

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

If anything, it is evidence that you haven’t yet done a good enough job collecting evidence on the subject.

When nothing else is available, and when it is not possible to conduct a systematic, controlled and quantitative study, then anecdotal evidence is the best you can do, and it needs to be taken into account, provided it comes from a credible reporter, who has no vested interests. And you must hear that evidence, even if you do not give it much weight.

In more technical language, I am arguing that probabilities are subjective measures of a degree of belief, not objective, and that any evidence should update your posterior probability, even if not by very much.

What I’ve said so far has been relatively abstract, but a failure to understand this has truly harmful effects when we dismiss anecdotal evidence. When hundreds of people report that they have been victims of something, then we need to start taking their testimonials seriously.

The Everyday Sexism Project has collected reports from tens of thousands of women about the sexist abuses that they have suffered. These are idiosyncratic and can’t be categorised; they might have happened repeatedly over a long time, or be one-off events. These acts are often not visible: even the person doing or saying the sexist things might not realise that they are being hostile. An individual claim of sexism might be dismissed by suggesting a variety of mitigating circumstances, or even by assuming bad faith on the part of the reporter! But what is more likely: that misogyny exists in our society, or that thousands of women have conspired together to make up that myth? (You may find Occam’s razor useful.)

Everyday sexism is just one example of microaggression, which also happens in other contexts such as race and religion. Moreover the fear of being subject to a racist attack is just as relevant as the number of actual attacks. Fear has a chilling effect on society, and has a measurable effect on the economy, but by its very nature it is difficult to measure.

Other examples include people’s testimonials of an NHS (or other public service) that is unable to provide a good experience. When thousands of people across the country complain about this, then it is no longer an egotistic individual or a problematic local service; there is something nationwide happening.

In summary,

When thousands of anecdotes are given, then it is no longer "merely" anecdotal evidence.

As with the etymological fallacy, the failure to give anecdotal evidence the weight that it sometimes deserves is a dangerous fallacy, because it is easy to commit it, thinking that you are rational and your opponent is not. This arrogant attitude poisons a discussion.

British Independence Day

Some Brexiters have suggested that June 23rd should become celebrated as Britain’s Independence Day. Simon Richards, head of the so-called ‘Freedom Association’ and a prominent Brexit campaigner, justified this just now on Radio 4. Apparently, Britain needs a national day to bring its people together. The fact that Brits don’t have such a day apparently makes us jealous of Indians and the African nations who all have national days of independence!

The etymological fallacy and related crimes

One of the argument techniques that I found most frustrating is the etymological fallacy, the idea that the meaning of a word or a symbol is determined completely by its origin, with no regard to its current usage or the particular context of the conversation. It is related to another common fallacy, which is to give a word a non-standard definition and then not sticking to that definition.

Like most fallacies, it is employed by people on all sides of an issue (and I welcome any further examples that you can think of). Etymological fallacies are often committed by self-identifying ‘rational’ people, who otherwise delight in picking flaws in other people’s reasoning. These people tend to see the world in black-and-white terms, and perhaps think that their arguments are impervious to criticism because they take an axiomatic approach. Such an attitude is nothing more than a cousin of Biblical literalism.

(Aside: Think of Professor Dawkins. Even their use of the self-label ‘rational’ is an example of the fallacy in action. I might rant some more about so-called ‘rationalists’ in the future. In the meantime, here is a caricature.)

The etymological fallacy does not only helps one invalidly arrive at a conclusion. What makes it particularly frustrating is that it can also shut down conversation completely. It is not possible to have conversations about complicated issues when the terminology are restricted to narrow definitions.

On the other hand, claiming that one uses words and symbols only according to their literal meanings is particularly insidious, because it is used to appeal to racists, without explicitly admitting that one is a racist. As such, it is a form of dog-whistling.

Continue reading The etymological fallacy and related crimes

Spreading the system

A new postdoc arrived in our lab this week, having come from China. In a one-party state that has such a strong control over its media, it’s unsurprising that he didn’t even know that an election was happening here, and he spent yesterday learning about the system. It’s a flawed system, but if the very act of holding an election means that people from countries like China are awakened to its workings and its benefits, then that is in itself a good thing, even if Theresa May did call it for dodgy reasons.

Some people complain of ‘election fatigue’, but we should take a step back and realise the privileged position that they are in, compared to billions of other people around the world.

Theresa’s pre-election patter song

Enter THERESA and chorus.

I seek power that your human rights I may impale,
And all th’intimate details of your life surveil,
Should the alt-right need placation, ban the Muslim veil,
And I’ll do this with the backing of the Daily Mail!

Yes she’ll do this with the backing of the Daily Mail!

That my Brexiteering actions shall not be derailed
We’ll lock saboteurs and judges in a trial-less jail.
Sans their nauseous interventions Britain shall prevail!
And we’ll do this in the name of the Daily Mail!

May she do this in the name of the Daily Mail!

If you hesitate to stop us, and we do not fail,
We will privatise the air and you will pay to inhale.
Yes the years to come will be quite a living Hell,
But I do this for the readers of the Daily Mail!

Yes she does this for the readers of the Daily Mail!


Tories or Star Wars?

Which of the following are quotations of Theresa May, and which are from Star Wars?

  • ‘Only through me can you achieve the power greater than any {Jedi|other country}.’
  • ‘Unelected members of the {Jedi Council|House of Lords} have vowed to fight us every step of the way.’
  • ‘Fear will keep {the local systems|potential extremists} in line.’
  • ‘The last vestiges of the {old Republic|European Union} have been swept away.’
  • ‘I will make it legal.’
  • ‘In order to ensure {security|stength} and continuing {prosperity|stability}…’
  • ‘Don’t continue to be a pawn of the {Jedi Council|Labour Party}!’
  • ‘At this moment of enormous {galactic|national} significance there should be unity here in {the Senate|Westminster}. But instead there is division. The {Galaxy|country} is coming together but {the Senate|Westminster} is not.’
  • ‘…for a {safe and secure|strong and stable} society!’
  • ‘I love democracy.’
  • ‘I was right! The {Jedi|saboteurs} are taking over!’
  • You have lost!’
  • ‘Every vote for {emergency powers|the Conservatives} will make me stronger.’
  • ‘Once more, the {Sith|Conservatives} will rule the {Galaxy|country}. And we shall have peace.’
  • ‘You will pay the price for your lack of vision!’