Defensive Epistemology

Expecting that everybody should have an articulate opinion on the day’s pressing issues (“informed citizenship”) is pernicious. I state this without argument here; if you want it argued look at In Praise of Passivity by Michael Huemer.

Being convinced of this, for the past odd year I’ve been trying to implement the idea in my daily life, with mixed results. Now, part of the problem is simply that outrage porn is fun. But I think there is also a conceptual lacuna that makes it hard to articulate just what one is trying to do by “tuning out”, and why it is so difficult.

Let’s start with the first-person experience. Have you ever been in the position of arguing against an expert in the expert’s field? I suspect this happens to ordinary people most often in conversations with doctors, realtors, financial advisors, teachers/professors, salespeople, religious evangelists, and enthusiastically political relatives at Thanksgiving dinner.

(The latter is not so much a matter of expertise, it’s just that somebody who has pre-memorized talking points can usually carry an argument against somebody who hadn’t been anticipating one.)

I find the experience of somebody talking circles around me very unpleasant, and I don’t think I’m unique in this. Of course, it is even more distasteful if there is an audience in whose eyes you are losing status. The impulse I feel in such situations is to hunker down, avoid losing face, and lash out at the other speaker with some “gotcha” calculated to make them appear foolish. In the worst cases, it may not be possible to escape the conversation without making concessions, unless you are willing to stoop to some sort of emotional All-In bet, like a fit of righteous anger or crying.

This is one reason why the conscious project of not forming opinions is difficult: you may not be interested in the Topical Issues, but they are interested in you. The world will bombard you with claims about crime statistics, interest rate predictions, the Rights of Man, history, Gini coefficients, genetics, and sundry other things. More relevantly, it will tell you that stock A is a sure thing, or that diet B is sure to help your child’s brain development. It’s no good to be completely ignorant about these things; not only will you will lose face, but your interlocutor can make their argument and lead you to concede they’re right. (Another approach is to pretend to take pride in your ignorance, but my guess is that readers of this blog can’t pull that off easily.)

What is needed is a battery of defensive arguments and ideas. Their purpose is (a) to serve as sanity-checks on unfamiliar ideas, (b) to get irritating interlocutors off your back.

For example, an Efficient Markets heuristic can help you hold your own against realtors and financial advisors trying to pull the wool over your eyes. “Why isn’t the stuff you just mentioned priced into the stock already?” “If houses are cheaper in the winter, why aren’t millionaires loading up on houses in winter to sell them in summer, until the difference goes away?”

Another example is vigilance against selection effects. “You say this is a good school – but I bet it just takes in unusually good students.” (Tip: if you actually say “selection bias” here, it sounds very authoritative.)

Another example is a suite of basic game-theoretical and strategic ideas, like “if once you have paid him the Dane-Geld, you never get rid of the Dane”, and “people respond to incentives”.

Yet another is a general lack of faith in Interventions to change somebody’s life course; a heuristic of genetic determinism as a baseline prior. This doesn’t work so well as an *argument*, but simply as a prior, it’s helpful to know that the differences between, say, parenting styles don’t seem to lead to huge divergences in results, and that throwing lots of money at social problems more or less always has epsilon effect.

I invite readers to contribute to a list of other such ideas in the comments. Those above I chose because I have actually used them on more than a few occasions I can remember.

The key to this argument class is no requirement for detailed background knowledge. Ideally, they rely only on basic logic, or simple empirical laws. For example, I don’t actually know about the teaching quality of the school in question – all I know is the reason why that quality is hard to evaluate.

Note also that this is a basically negative project. Its emphasis is on checking others’ positive claims about the world, not creating new ones. Its goal is to make you antifragile against ideas, not to help you build a great edifice of theory.

So to the person who wishes to divest themselves of pointless opinions and refocus on near-mode stuff, I propose that if you go too far in that direction, you just make yourself exploitable. You need to practice the art of defensive epistemology, or risk being a sucker (or at least losing status). And that probably requires some engagement with the world of ideas, to train your discipline against actual enemies.

*You may notice that this sounds like a manifesto for the skeptic movement. I’m tempted to talk about why skeptics in practice are disappointing, but I will leave that discussion for now.

Standard

Alphabetical Conundra

I have begun to wonder whether the concept of “rape” is useful as an umbrella term covering many instances that do not resemble each other strongly.  This is particularly noticeable in marginal and edge cases, where it seems to me worth doing to dissolve the question and taboo the word (e.g. diagnosing situations as “this person fucked up here and here, that person is likely to be dangerous in the future, the third person is probably in the ethical clear but  not relationship material” or whatever).  I don’t expect anyone who reads this post to find all of these examples ambiguous, but I think probably some of them will seem so.  They get weird in places.  I ran out of letters of the alphabet before I ran out of ways to make the concept of rape confusing, so feel free to add more ideas.  All of the rape-related content warnings.


1 – Alice agrees to PIV with Bob as long as he’ll go down on her after, because she doesn’t orgasm from penetration and she isn’t interested if she doesn’t get off. PIV ensues. When it concludes, Bob dumps her on the spot and doesn’t go down on her. Has Alice been raped?

2 – Alice agrees to sex with Bob as long as he gives her permission to sleep with her friend Caleb later. Sex ensues. Bob then reverses himself on letting Alice have sex with Caleb and says he’ll break up with her if she does it. Has Alice been raped?

3 – Bob agrees to sex with Alice as long as she’ll do the dishes the next morning, since otherwise he wants to get them handled tonight. Sex ensues. The next morning, Alice doesn’t even touch the dishes. Has Bob been raped?

4 – Bob agrees to sex with Alice as long as she’ll do the dishes the next morning. Sex ensues, and then Alice dumps him on the spot and never touches the dishes. Has Bob been raped?


5 – Caleb agrees to have sex with Doug if Doug promises not to mention this to anybody Caleb knows. They have sex, and then Doug tells Alice, a friend of Caleb’s. Has Caleb been raped?

6 – Doug finds out that Caleb has a lot of weird porn on his computer, and Caleb suggests that they could have sex and Doug could refrain from telling anyone about the weird porn. They have sex. Has Caleb been raped? If he hasn’t, does Doug later telling Alice about the weird porn change that?


7 – Elise and Felicity agree to have sex, but Elise makes Felicity promise not to laugh when she sees her naked; if she can’t be sure that there will be no laughing she’d rather not have sex. Felicity promises. They start to have sex, but on Elise’s back is written The Funniest Joke In The World, and when Felicity sees it she cannot help but laugh. Has Elise been raped?

8 – Elise and Felicity go through the exact same sequence of observable behavior as before, except now Felicity laughs voluntarily because she is a mean person. Has Elise been raped?


9 – Gail and Hal are planning to have sex, when Hal says something transphobic, including among other statements that he never, under any circumstances, wishes to have sex with a trans person (but not including any direct threats of violence against trans people). Gail strongly expects that bailing on sex at this stage for any reason short of an earthquake will lead Hal to suspect that she is (post-op) trans, which in fact she is. Due to fears about her safety, she proceeds to have sex with him. Have either Gail or Hal been raped?

10 – Gail and Hal go through the exact same sequence of observable behavior as before, except now Gail is motivated to continue by spite. Have either Gail or Hal been raped?

11 – Gail and Hal go through the same sequence of observable behavior as before, except now Gail is motivated to continue by Hal having a really nice ass. Have either Gail or Hal been raped?

12 – Gail and Hal go through the same sequence of observable behavior as before, except now Gail comes up with a plausible excuse about a migraine that she doesn’t think will cause Hal to think she’s trans; but she is unwilling to lie to his face about having a headache. Have either Gail or Hal been raped?


13 – Irene, due to a peculiar set of genes and/or being an unaging vampire, looks like an eleven year old girl when she is 26. John, also 26, believes she is eleven and invites her (without anything that would paradigmatically constitute coercion) to have sex. They do, without Irene opting to disclose her age. He is an obligate pedophile and would not have been interested if he knew her real age. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

14 – This time, Irene invites John to have sex and they do. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

15 – This time, Irene tells John that she is 26 but he doesn’t believe her. They have sex anyway. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

16 – This time, Irene tells John that she is 26, he isn’t sure if he believes her or not, and she says that unless he has sex with her, she’ll tell someone else that he did – someone else who still thinks she’s eleven. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?


17 – Katie, due to a peculiar set of genes and/or a time travel accident, looks 26 when she is in fact eleven. Laura, actually 26, invites her (without anything that would paradigmatically constitute coercion) to have sex. Katie, principally out of curiosity, agrees without opting to disclose her age. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

18 – This time, Katie invites Laura to have sex and they do. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

19 – This time, Katie tells Laura that she’s eleven but Laura thinks she’s joking. They have sex anyway. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

20 – This time, Katie tells Laura that she’s eleven and Laura believes her, but pretends not to, and they have sex anyway. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?


21 – Myron goes around routinely asserting to anyone who will listen that he thinks the concept of “too drunk to consent” is bullshit unless you’re actually passed out. Myron gets completely blackout drunk and sort of vaguely comes on to Noah, who is familiar with Myron’s opinions. They have sex. Has Myron been raped?

22 – Now Myron lacks the above opinion, but still gets blackout drunk and comes on to Noah. They have sex. Has Myron been raped?

23 – Now Myron is vocally against drunk “consent” to anyone (including Noah) who will listen, but still gets blackout drunk and comes on to Noah. They have sex. Has Myron been raped?

24 – Now Myron, insert any of the above opinions, gets completely blackout drunk and comes on to Noah such that Noah stopping him would require moderately violent scuffling, which Noah declines to undertake. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?


25 – Ophelia firmly believes that the concept of marital rape is nonsense and that her wedding vows constitute irrevocable consent for so long as she remains married to her husband Paul. One day Paul asks her if she wants to have sex and she says she’s not really in the mood and he has sex with her anyway. Has Ophelia been raped?

26 – As 25, except Ophelia is mid-divorce-proceedings and Paul knows it. Has Ophelia been raped?

27 – As 25, except Ophelia has always kept her beliefs about the implications of their wedding vows to herself. Has Ophelia been raped?

28 – As 25, except Ophelia dramatically resists (locking herself in the bathroom, trying to shove Paul away after he breaks in, screaming and crying the entire time). Has Ophelia been raped?


29 – Quentin is a college professor. Ruby is his student, and she knows who he is but he can’t identify her because there’s like three hundred people in that lecture. He hits on her at a coffeeshop and she has sex with him because she thinks he’s hot. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

30 – As 29, but Quentin knows that Ruby is in his class.

31 – As 29, but Ruby sleeps with him because she wants blackmail material.

32 – As 29, but Quentin knows that Ruby is in his class and expects to be able to control her with her grade.

33 – As both 31 and 32 combined.

34 – As 29 but neither of them can identify the other because there’s like three hundred people in that lecture and also Ruby is faceblind.

35 – As 29, but Quentin later identifies Ruby and threatens her grade to get a repeat performance.

36 – As 29, but when Ruby’s grade falls due to an exam graded by a teaching assistant, she blackmails Quentin to change it.


37 – Sarah is an eighteen year old homeless runaway and Terrence has a house. Sarah offers to sleep with him routinely in exchange for crash space, and he agrees, making it clear that he isn’t interested in having a roommate he isn’t having sex with. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

38 – As 37 but it’s Terrence’s idea.

39 – As 37 but Sarah reneges, betting that Terrence won’t really kick her out; when he really does she sleeps with him to get the couch back.

40 – As 37, but Terrence’s cooperation is contingent on Sarah not having any STIs, and she has one she lies about.

41 – As 37, but Sarah’s offer is contingent on Terrence having had a vasectomy, and he hasn’t, which he lies about.

42 – As 40 and 41 combined.


43 – Ursula’s boyfriend Vince can only communicate via an assistive communication device. It breaks. Ursula has sex with him in a relatively conventional-for-them manner. Has Vince been raped?

44 – As 43, but Vince can make noises for “yes” and “no” which Ursula is 85% accurate in interpreting and she thinks she hears “yes”.  Does the answer depend on whether she’s right?

45 – As 43, but Vince and Ursula had specific plans before the device broke to have sex in this way at this time.

46 – As 43, but Ursula introduces something new to spice it up a bit.


47 – Winston, Xavier, and Yvonne have an agreement as a triad that they will not get Yvonne pregnant or take any risks with that until all of them agree, and that if one of the boys gets her pregnant, the other boy must be told immediately and gets the house in the dissolution of the triad. This is mostly for Xavier’s benefit, as he would want to leave them both immediately if they did this. While Xavier is away, Winston and Yvonne have unprotected sex. They don’t tell Xavier and continue having sex with him as normal. Has Xavier been raped?

48 – As 47, except Yvonne tampers with a condom so that it will tear while Xavier is having sex with her, as cover.

49 – As 47, except Winston tampers with a condom so that it will tear while Xavier is having sex with Yvonne, as cover. Has Xavier been raped? Has Yvonne?

50 – As 47, except they consider telling Xavier until he comes home and expresses that he’s so glad they’d never betray him since if they did he’d probably murder them both.

51 – As 47, except they tell Xavier that Yvonne was sexually assaulted by a fourth party.

52 – As 51, except the concern is not pregnancy but Winston’s as-yet-untransmitted HIV.


53 – Zoe has persistent rape fantasies and a Star Trek holodeck. She manufactures a holographic representation of an attractive celebrity, turns off some safeties, and programs the hologram to rape her, which it does. She is not having fun anymore partway into the scene but can’t stop it. Has Zoe been raped?

54 – As 53, except Zoe enters the Rape Tunnel instead of her holodeck.

55 – As 53, except Zoe gets someone else to program the scene custom-order for her.

56 – As 53, except Zoe buys the holodeck program off the shelf.

57 – As 53, except that the safeties are still on and she’s just too freaked out to tell the holodeck to end the program.

Standard