Mapping sea level rise

Back in 1970s, while still in high school, I was really into topographic maps. I tried making topo maps of parts of Concord, Massachusetts, where I then lived. This was back in the days of drawing with pen and ink on paper, so making maps was challenging and fun.

I remember reading somewhere about what was then called the “greenhouse effect,” which would prompt the melting of the polar ice caps. I forget the amount of sea level rise predicted. But when I looked at a topo map of Concord, most of the town would be underwater, with just a few of the tallest hills was islands.

Yep, we knew back then about what is now called global climate change. Then, as Michael Mann has documented in his book The New Climate War, the oil companies conducted a massive disinformation campaign. The oil companies basically hijacked our elected officials while we weren’t paying attention. And here we are today, even more worried about sea level rise.

With all that in mind, I was glad to find the Conspiracy of Cartographers website. They make maps showing what things will look like if the sea level rises 66 meters — the current best estimate assuming all the polar ice melts. Here’s a link to their map of the Boston area. I love their place names: Concord Bay, Lexington Archipelago, Flint Island — this last represents what is now high ground to the east of Walden Pond. Here’s a screen grab of part of their Boston map:

Screen grab of part of a fictional map showing sea level rise west of Boston.
Screen grab of a small part of the Conspiracy of Cartographers map of Boston

Beautiful maps. And depressing. And a very good corrective to the decades of lies and misinformation emanating from the oil companies.

Jake or young kid

One of my favorite Youtube videos is titled “Guess: JAKE or Young KID? — Ukulele Challenge.”

If you know anything about the current ukulele scene, you’ll immediately figure out that “Jake” refers to Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele virtuoso who is probably best known for his ukulele versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But his range as a musician goes far beyond rock and pop music. He has arranged jazz, classical, funk, and bluegrass music for the ukulele, and written his own compositions. He is known for playing complex music requiring amazing feats with both left and right hands.

The point of “JAKE or Young KID?” is simple: a panel of professional ukulele players listen to only the audio portion of a Youtube video of one of Jake’s arrangements or compositions. Sometimes it will be Jake playing, but sometimes it will be a child or young teen playing. The panelists have to figure out which it is. Given what a virtuoso player Jake is, this should be no problem, right?

Actually, the panelists regularly mistake Jake for the Young Kid, and the Young Kid for Jake. This says a lot for the high level of playing in the rising generation of ukulele players (it also says a lot about the popularity of the ukulele these days, that kids are willing to spend so much time learning the instrument). But it also makes us confront one of the nagging questions of our time: how do we know what is true and what is false? If a ten year old kid can play like Jake Shimabukuro, then what?

But the video doesn’t get into existential questions like that. It’s just hilarious. Although panelist Kalei Gamaio easily beats panelists Abe Lagrimas, Jr., and Aldrine Guerrero, each of the panelists makes hilarious mistakes.

Screen grab from the video
L-R: Abe Lagrimas, Kalei Gamaio, and Aldrine Guerrero — Kalei was the only one who figured out this player was NOT Jake, but a little kid

To all my progressive friends and compatriots

Conservative lawyer David French is now writing a column for the New York Times. Yoicks. A conservative writing for the bastion of liberalism in the U.S.?

Well, according to this opinion piece, French had the temerity to stand up for his “commitment to the classical liberal ideal of government as neutral guarantor of free expression and association that the new conservative intellectuals have abandoned.” Beyond that, he got hated on by conservatives in social media when he, a white man, adopted a Black child. It sounds like he kind of got kicked out of the conservative club.

In his first column in the Times, French wrote:

“Any time my tribe or my allies are under fire, before I yield to the temptation of a reflexive defense, I should apply my principles and carefully consider the most uncomfortable of thoughts: My opponents might be right, my allies might be wrong and justice may require that I change my mind. And it may, in all likelihood, require that I do this again and again.”

Presumably French is actually talking about himself. But he might as well be talking about us liberals and progressives and leftists.

You know what, sometimes we’re wrong. I won’t talk about liberals and progressives, but I can talk about my people, the leftists. Before my day, leftists in the 1930s were wrong about Stalin and the Soviet Union; we had to change our minds, which forced us to rethink what we meant by socialism and communism: we had to be reminded by conservatives that totalitarianism is always wrong, even when it masquerades as socialism or communism. In my day, leftists in the 1970s and 1980s veered from freedom of expression into hyperindividualism, and we mocked the conservatives who held on to values of community. We were wrong, and we began to realize individual expression had to be balanced against community. (By the way, this became even more clear when some leftists veered into libertarianism, went to Silicon Valley, and started creating a new kind of totalitarianism.)

And today? Hmm…some leftists are veering away from a commitment to the ideal of government as neutral guarantor of free expression and free association…in other words, some leftists are also veering towards totalitarianism.

We all need to listen to one another, without yielding to the temptation of reflexive defensiveness — liberals and conservatives, progressives and right-wing libertarians, leftists and today’s hyperindividualistic right wingers. We don’t have to agree — but if we listen, we might find we have to clarify our ideas or even change our minds.

Epistemology of identity politics within Unitarian Universalism

“Standpoint epistemology,” according to philosopher and law professor Brian Leiter, is the Marxist idea that our social position influences our beliefs; if you are, for example, a member of the working class, your beliefs have been “distorted by the ideology propagated by a different, dominant class, which systematically distorted social reality in its own interests.” This is in distinct contrast to current “bourgeois academic philosophy” where “standpoint epistemology has, ironically, been turned on its head. Now the social position of the purported ‘knower’ — usually ‘race’ or ‘gender’ or ‘sexual orientation’ — is not taken to be a distorting influence on cognition, but rather an epistemic advantage, one which even demands epistemic deference by others.” A key point Leiter makes is that this kind of thinking is done by “well-to-do professors who never challenge the prerogatives of the capitalist class.” The full post, which is short, is here.

My sense is that much of the thinking about identity politics done within Unitarian Universalism follows a similar pattern. We Unitarian Universalists often do give epistemic deference to knowledge based on social position, particularly for social positions based on race, gender, and sexual orientation; recognizing, however, that we tend to assume that the social position of white, male, and/or straight persons is distorted, and therefore should be subjected to serious critique. Contrast this with the epistemological approach of some past Unitarian and Universalist thinkers: early Universalists grounded their epistemology in reason and scripture, both of which were assumed to be equally accessible to all persons; Transcendentalist epistemology assumed that all persons had access to the divine through their faculty of intuition; early humanists relied on the powers of reason which were accessible to all persons; etc. Current Unitarian Universalists tend to be critical of all these earlier approaches, since they were typically written down by white, straight, male thinkers.

I find three interesting points here. First, current Unitarian Universalism generally assumes that knowledge is not accessible by all persons equally; the knowledge of white, straight, and/or male persons is assumed to be in some sense distorted. Second, current Unitarian Universalism (as has been the case through most of its existence) tends to ignore class status; the viewpoint of working class white persons are grouped together with elite white persons like Donald Trump, under the assumption that the standpoint of all white persons leads to a distorted knowledge of the world — the standpoint of all white persons, that is, except for enlightened white persons (such as white Unitarian Universalists) who have questioned their white person’s standpoint. Third, many current Unitarian Universalists are now seriously critical of the notion that there exist some kinds of knowledge accessible to all persons.

I know I’m cynical, but I’m tempted to believe this complicated identitarian epistemology helps Unitarian Universalists maintain their comfortable belief in capitalism.

Universal concepts — or not?

Are the concept of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding universal and shared across different cultural and religious traditions? Or are there no important philosophical concepts that are shared among people in all cultural and religious traditions?

The interdisciplinary team of the Geography of Philosophy Project aim to find out. They’re taking an empirical approach, and just opened a Web site where they plan to report at least some of their progress. Not much there yet, but I plan to keep an eye on the Go Philosophy Web site.

(Thanks to.)

Identifying postmodern approaches to truth

“Truth isn’t truth,” said Rudy Guiliani on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He later tried to clarify that his “statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology.”

Actually, I would argue that Guiliani’s statement has more to do with philosophical epistemology than with moral theology; that is, with the philosophical study of how we know the world. I would further argue that Guiliani’s statement reveals his indebtedness to the philosophical stance of postmodernism. To see what I mean, the first paragraph of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on postmodernism may prove helpful:

“That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.”

The relevant point here, I think, is that post-modernist statements such as “truth isn’t truth” and “alternative facts” can be considered attempts to destabilize the concept of epistemic certainty and univocity of meaning — that is, these are attempts to upset my sense that I can know something to be true, and to upset my sense that truth is the same for all reasoning beings. Statements such as these are trying to make us feel that we do not know the world adequately, and that we cannot know the world adequately through use of reason.

Guiliani’s statement is notable for its lack of nuance. I also think we’re seeing an uptick in fascist politics in the United States, a politics which increasingly seems to rely on postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty. I see this as a troubling trend: a link between fascism and the denial of epistemic certainty.

At the same time, I’m also thinking that some discourse by political liberals may also prove destabilizing to epistemic certainty, though with different intention and probably different ultimate effects. Some varieties of identity politics may involve assertions that person within one identity group cannot fully understand persons in another identity group, which assertions, if nuanced, may be useful and reasonable. For example, a woman could say to me, with great reasonableness, that because I’m a man I cannot understand many aspects of what it’s like to be a woman. Usually, there are several levels of understanding implicit in such a statement, e.g.: that while a man can’t understand fully what it is like to be a woman nevertheless a man can reason out something of what women experience (as exemplified by male novelists who write reasonably convincing female characters); that a transgender person who transitions from male to female can experience something of both male and female directly; and so on.

In a similar vein, scholar of religion Stephen Prothero asserts in his book God Is Not One that religions have different goals and different end points — and he also makes it clear that it’s possible to engender understanding between different religions, and between practitioners of different religions. In sum, then, one can assert that certain kinds of understanding between different persons may never be fully possible, while at the same time leaving room for the possibility that significant understanding may happen with effort. As a man I’m never going to experience what it’s like to bear a child, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m never going to experience the submission to Allah characteristic of Islam, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience.

But here’s where it gets tricky. I think political liberals have to be careful of how they use identity politics. Identity politics has been rightly critical of those who assert truths that are self-serving, as, for example, male scientists who assert that it is a “truth” that fewer women are capable of being scientists. This kind of argument is effective when it it appeals to reason, e.g., by pointing out how one’s bias can affect how one interprets data, i.e., how bias blinds one to reason. On the other hand, identity politics can move into the realm of postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty, for example with assertions that different identity groups have different truths that can not be mutually understood. If one is going to assert “Your truth isn’t my truth,” one must be careful to explicate how that statement is different from “Truth isn’t truth.”

Postmodernism and postmodern ideas are widespread in our society, and in our public discourse. We are all affected by them. The point I’m trying to make is that we have to be critical of our own discourse, and be aware of how we’re being affected by postmodern efforts to destabilize epistemic certainty. Because no one wants to wind up like Rudy Guiliani, saying in a public setting, “Truth isn’t truth.”