Friday, January 17, 2003

Dead Horses, Alive and Kickin’

As a New Year’s resolution, D-squared has posted a list of propositions (scroll down a bit) that are so “bleedin’ obvious” that he refuses to get drawn into another pointless debate about any of them. Now, on the one hand, I’m highly sympathetic to the notion that some arguments just aren’t worth having. It irks the hell out of me when someone suggests that I’m narrow-minded because I’m no longer willing to consider the possibility that communism might really be superior to capitalism. I considered it once… and rejected it. I considered it again... and rejected it. I considered it umpteen more times… and rejected it. How many times must I perform this exercise before I can be considered open-minded? My brain-time is better spent considering the dozens of other propositions on which I’m as yet undecided.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but be shocked by some of the things D-squared considers “obvious.” Not probably true, or even very likely true, or true if you give it lots of careful thought, but “obvious.” Let me pick just three of D’s proposition and see if I can clear the very low hurdle of non-obviousness.

“That people making employment decisions are for the most part (probably unconsciously) racist in the way in which they make those decisions.” Wow. It’s one thing to say that racism still exists, that there exist some people whose decisions are motivated mostly by racism, or that most everyone harbors some amount of residual racism. But this is supposed to be a general proposition about “people making employment decisions,” and the claim is that they are *for the most part* racist. That’s an incredibly damning statement about an incredibly large and diverse group of people.

“That college admissions have never in the history of the world reflected ‘ability’ in the abstract, even if such a metaphysically dubious quality were to exist and that nor [sic] will they ever in the future, whatever happens to government policy.” Hmm. Okay, college admissions are indeed based on a variety of merit-irrelevant matters, such as race, geography, celebrity, alumni parentage, and so on. But in addition to these criteria, standardized test scores and GPAs are also used. And while these are far from perfect measures of ability, they do bear some correlation to ability, no? And if that’s the case, then college admissions almost assuredly “reflect” ability to some degree. Do a regression of college admissions for any selective university, with race, gender, parentage, etc., plus GPA and SAT scores as the explanatory variables; I’ll bet that the coefficient on GPA or SAT or both is positive and statistically significant.

“That the transatlantic slave trade was the moral responsibility of those who profited the most from it, and that it was the proximate cause of the American Civil War.” Okay, I’ll buy the first half, but as for the second… well, let me put it this way: the transatlantic slave trade ended (at least for the U.S.) in 1808. After that, most new slaves were the children of old slaves. The Civil War began in 1861. Are we using the same definition of the word “proximate”?

Enough. Suffice it to say that there’s a barrel of non-obviousness in virtually every one of D’s propositions -- even on the handful I agree with (in whole or in part).

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