Closed to openness

Re What’s So Scary About Free Speech On Campus? (Nov. 14): I imagine that many of the so-called “social justice warriors” on college campuses would probably identify as left-leaning liberals, as I do on most issues. The irony, however, is that their reflexively irrational (and sometimes violent) opposition against anything they deem to be “offensive” demonstrates some of the most intolerant and illiberal behaviour possible.

Many of their arguments aren’t just intellectually dishonest – they’re corrosive to the very liberal values they think they’re defending.

Their illiberal ideas and behaviour perfectly demonstrate why we desperately need a new centre, one that defends secularism, science and free speech against their common enemies on both the left and the right.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail.

Tsunamis and Stoicism (Redux)

MEXICO-QUAKE

Franklin. Gert. Harvey. Irma. Jose. Katia. Lee. Maria. Nate.

Now, with Tropical Storm Ophelia developing into a hurricane, 2017 has become the first year since 1893 to have 10 Atlantic storms reach hurricane strength. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been one of the most prolific on record — and the season doesn’t even finish until the end of November.

In September two earthquakes rocked Mexico City and surrounding areas in Central Mexico, killing hundreds and injuring thousands more. Dozens of buildings have collapsed, with countless more left uninhabitable due to structural damage and slated for demolition.

With these natural disasters come ecological destruction (or “ecological succession”, if you’re in a more positive frame of mind). It also hastens grief at the individual and societal scale. Life for many people in southeastern U.S., Caribbean islands, Central America and Mexico — including members of my own immediate family who live in Mexico City — has been upended, thrown into uncertainty and chaos for the foreseeable future.

The uncertainty and chaos that has enveloped what seems to be much of the world is not limited to just natural disasters. An anxiety, one that has an acutely contemporary quality to it, has also infected the political and societal landscape: Trump. Brexit. North Korea. Artificial intelligence. Islamic fundamentalism. Climate change. Identity politics. Neo-nazis. (You get the idea.)

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Good Writing Matters, Mr. President

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Re “It’s the Twitter Age. Let Trump Have His Way With Words,” by Farhad Manjoo (State of the Art column, Aug. 28):

It’s not as if Donald Trump is an articulate, thoughtful or composed person who just happens to make spelling errors on Twitter. That would be forgivable.

The problem is that his tweets are like a mirror held up to the inner workings of his mind: nonsensical, unintelligent, erratic and dangerous.

The end result is a barrage of tens of thousands of tweets going back almost a decade that are full of not just spelling errors, but also a cascade of other public embarrassments: one-word sentences that operate more like dog barks, poor word choices, odd (or missing) punctuation, factual mistakes and outright lies.

This is unforgivable for a president. End of story.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

The Architecture of Truth

IMG_2703 (Mark Bessoudo)

[Note: This was initially published in THE CUBE Magazine Issue B: Truth]

Misinformation can now be spread effortlessly through the echo chambers of social media at an unprecedented scale and velocity. However postmodern these assaults on public facts may seem, they are, in fact, nothing new. The “post-truth” narratives and the construction of alternative realities are merely a reflection of a much deeper and more systemic problem, one that did not originate in the twenty-first century.

The problem is one of human cognition. We have a tendency to exhibit numerous biases, fallacies, and illusions — the very lifeblood of post-truth narratives. These behavioral and cognitive errors aren’t flaws in the system; rather, they arise as a result of being built into the very cognitive machinery that allows us to think. So while problematic post-truth narratives may appear to be imposed on us from outside or above, they are actually more of a collective manifestation of our default cognitive setpoint.  Continue reading

Terror lives here

Re: Manchester suspect latest second-generation citizen to attack European city

It is absurd, naïve, and wholly insufficient to place blame for the Manchester terrorist attack on a “feeling of cultural dislocation”, particularly when the suspect in question was a British citizen who was born, raised and educated in Manchester. Cultural dislocation is a genuine phenomenon, no doubt. But to connect it to the coordinated and preemptive slaughter of innocent people is the height of intellectually dishonesty.

Like many jihadis before him, the Manchester bomber was a middle-class, university-educated, soccer-loving European citizen. These facts alone prove the point that Islamist terrorism isn’t a matter of poverty, education, or lack of economic opportunity. Rather, it is the direct result of a person’s specific beliefs about specific doctrines, particularly those related to jihad, martyrdom, and Paradise. Furthermore, the jihadis are themselves telling us this, ad nauseam.

Until this fact is fully absorbed, any attempts to counter Islamist terrorism will be futile.

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Note: An edited version of this appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail

Artificial intelligence as a philosophical endeavour

It’s true that artificial intelligence will quickly disrupt the economy and society, but not necessarily in ways that are beneficial. To dismiss the potentially adverse consequences of AI demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what it will be capable of. Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) — a machine or system that cannot only learn, but also teach itself to learn — would quickly outpace human intellectual ability in scope and scale, something referred to as an “intelligence explosion”. Unless an AGI’s goals are aligned with our own, the economic and ethical risks posed by this scenario are obvious.

This is why many experts have predicted that moral philosophy will soon become part of the tech sector. So, while the federal government may see AI as a path to reverse stalled economic growth, it needs to remember that it isn’t just a technical or economic endeavour — it’s also a philosophical one. The very people who are developing AI — those trained in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) — should also have a better foundation in the humanities.

Desert games: On the politics of climate and sports

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It’s been widely reported in journals such as Nature, and elsewhere, that “most cities might be too hot to host the summer Olympic Games after 2085 because of climate change”. Only 25 cities in western Europe – and just eight in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere – are deemed “suitable” to host the 2088 Games.

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The detailed study, which integrates climate modelling with biometeorological factors affecting human comfort, is most impressive; however, it overlooks the political and financial dimension to the host city selection process: Host cities are rarely ever selected for their climate suitability. Continue reading