“It’s the principle”: why turkeys do often vote for Christmas

US liberals and leftists who won’t vote for Clinton, even though that decision will help Trump, who is even worse, are an interesting case study. It reveals a deep difference, not between liberals and conservatives, but between “principlists” and “consequentialists”.

Consequentialists do what they have to do to get the best available outcome, even if the means – and the end – fall short of their ideal.

Principlists feel an inherent wrongness in doing anything against principle, even if the result is an outcome even further from their ideal.

They’re two totally opposed mindsets – ways of thinking about how to choose action – with little scope for persuasion between them.

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Three Eggcorns

An eggcorn is a linguistic phenomenon in which a person, hearing a word or phrase, understands its meaning, but incorrectly analyses its components. Usually this is done by mistaking a word or a part of a word for something which sounds very similar. Often the person then imagines a plausible derivation from the incorrect components.

A typical example is “ex-patriot”, a common eggcorn for “expatriate”. Imagine you learned the word “expatriate” only by hearing it used, but never seeing it in writing. You would gain an understanding of its meaning and the appropriate way to use it. You’d also be able to pronounce it correctly, since “expatriate” and “ex-patriot” are homophones (different words pronounced identically). But all along you imagine that the word you’ve learned is “ex-patriot”, ie someone who no longer counts as a lover of their native country, since they moved away from it. No-one’s told you that this is the root meaning; you’ve just come to that conclusion because it makes sense to you. For years, you happily use the word in conversation, and no-one suspects any error, because as far as they can tell, you understand it perfectly well. Then, one day, you have to write it down, and the mistake is revealed.

I particularly like “ex-patriot”, because the mistaken etymology makes such immediate, intuitive sense. It’s also a good example of the typical cause of eggcorns: they usually occur when the original derivation has become obscure or archaic enough to be unfamiliar to the speaker, who has only encountered it in the one particular phrase which becomes their eggcorn. How often do you hear “expatriate” used these days as a verb for withdrawing or being banished from your native country?

The term “eggcorn” was coined by linguists Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum on the Language Log blog in 2003, after Liberman had reported the case of a woman who had written it in place of “acorn”. Since then a database has been set up to collect other examples, and currently has 641 (though I think work to add new ones stopped some time ago). It’s a highly entertaining read, and I’d recommend anyone who enjoys words, and has a rainy afternoon to idle away, to have a browse.

The slightly unnerving thing about eggcorns is that it’s quite possible you suffer from one or more yourself, and you might never know. Now you know about the phenomenon though, you’ll be able to spot the exposure of an eggcorn when it happens. Here are three possible contenders I’ve noticed, two of which were mine:

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Craven’s Wager

My friend John Bevan sent me a link to this video by Greg Craven, and asked me to comment on it, so here you go.

In the video, which has been around for several years and has several million views (by which I mean to point out that this contribution is superfluous), Craven gives his analysis of the climate change debate. Using a simple logical tool, he seems to cut straight through all the controversy over whether and to what extent climate change is man-made and preventable, to an incontrovertible conclusion about what we must do: act now to prevent it.

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Response to Creationist 8

8. “Where do you derive objective meaning in life?”

This is another interesting one because it shows what 8 – and presumably many others like him – is really concerned about. It certainly isn’t “which theory of the origins of life and the universe is best supported by the evidence?” He really doesn’t care at all about that.

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Response to Creationist 7


Yeah, what about noetics!?

No really, what is noetics? I had to look it up to find out. Then I was embarrassed, because apparently it’s a branch of philosophy, and I studied philosophy at university, and I’d never heard of it. Then I was relieved, because I discovered it’s utter bullshit.

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22 Responses To Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In Evolution

This is a response to Buzzfeed’s 22 Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In Evolution. If you know the background to the post, you can skip the introduction and go straight to number 1.

On 4 February 2014, Bill Nye, a well-known US science advocate and TV personality, debated with Ken Ham, President of Answers in Genesis, a creationist propaganda organisation, at the latter’s “Creation Museum” in Kentucky. The full video of the debate can be watched here.

A Buzzfeed staffer called Matt Stopera went to the debate. While there, he asked creationist attendees to write questions and messages to Bill Nye and evolution/science supporters, and took photos of them with those messages. The full gallery is here.

The first time I read the creationists’ messages, I thought they were so stupid, I wanted to dismiss them all with rapid-fire answers. I imagined assembling all 22 people in a line, in order, and marching down it, pointing at each one, saying, “Yes, no, yes, no, the rotation of the earth relative to the sun…”

Later I realised it’s worth considering them in a bit more detail, though not because they have any validity, nor because a fuller response might persuade them. As Peter Boghossian argues in his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, it’s no use arguing over facts and evidence with religious fundamentalists. They’ve already rejected ‘reasoning from evidence’ as a belief-forming mechanism. His approach is to try to understand humans as imperfectly rational, as suffering from psychological flaws which prevent them from understanding, or even trying to understand, the world around them – and then to find ways which pragmatically help to repair those flaws.

Therefore, in the spirit of trying to understand the reasons behind the 22 creationists’ messages, I’ve written 22 responses. They’re not short, and the whole thing was getting too long for a single post, so instead I’m going to post each one separately and link them from here as I progress.

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A modern etiquette dilemma

If someone lets you use their computer, and it needs some updates installing – assuming the owner isn’t there to ask – should you do it?

On the one hand, it’s none of your business. It’s their computer, their responsibility to update it. Just say “no” to the pop-ups and continue checking your email. Maybe they know what they’re doing, and have actively chosen not to run the updates: they prefer the version of the program they’re currently running, for example, and are holding off from upgrading to the latest one.

On the other hand, perhaps like most computer users they’re just hopelessly technologically illiterate and don’t realise they’re supposed to say “OK” to all some of the pop-ups that appear every time they boot up. And what if some of the updates are urgent security patches? Without them, the machine could be hacked, infected, recruited into a botnet and used to attack other systems. Like a child without a measles vaccination, increasing the risk of epidemic in the wider population, every second this computer isn’t updated puts every other computer in the world at greater risk. It’s not just acceptable, it’s your duty to update.

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Beyond Belief on organ donation

I don’t usually listen to BBC Radio 4‘s religious discussion programme, Beyond Belief, but I happened to be driving yesterday while it was on. The programme, broadcast on Monday 12th August 2013, and as of the time of writing, available on iPlayer, dealt with the ethics of organ donation.

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