Thought experiments: scientific parallels

I’ll be giving a controversial paper at two conferences: the American Political Science Association (Sept 1-4, in Philadelphia), and the European Consortium on Political Research (Sept 7-10, in Prague).

My paper draws parallels between thought experiments in political theory and philosophy, and controlled experiments/comparisons in the natural and social sciences. Some of these parallels have been noticed before, by people like Frances Kamm, Tamar Gendler, and (in the book on political theory methods that I’m editing) Kimberley Brownlee and Zofia Stemplowska. But no one I’m aware of has taken advantage of the powerful toolkit that social and natural scientists have developed. I thus use ideas like internal and external validity, controlled comparison, omitted variable bias, interaction effects, spurious correlations, testable implications, and parsimony.

This helps us see better how to do thought experiments, and how much we can learn from them.

Thought ExperimentOf course, some readers will be more interested in my broader claims about the relationship between political theory and science. But note that I don’t equate the two: there are parallels, but also important differences. By contrast, I do argue elsewhere that some textual interpretation is essentially scientific: we often ask empirical questions (like what Locke meant by ‘rights’ or why he wrote what he wrote), and scientific ideas are the best tools we have yet developed for answering such questions. (See here for the most explicit version of the argument, and here for the most details account of what a scientific approach to textual intepretation involves.)

This isn’t really what’s going on in political theory thought experiments – which are, furthermore, only one part of political theory, and a part that many authors don’t use. Nonetheless, this casts some light on what some philosophers of science mean when they discuss ‘naturalism’, defined here as philosophy and science being ‘continuous’.

Although I’ve been thinking about and teaching some of these ideas for many years, my paper was written quite quickly, and needs more work. In particular, I cannot yet say how widespread the problems I discuss are.

The paper is here. Any comments and criticisms would be much appreciated!

‘Methods in Analytical Political Theory’ sent to Cambridge University Press

Marthe Donas, Le Livre d'imagesI’ve now sent the manuscript of Methods in Analytical Political Theory to Cambridge University Press.

Each chapter gives ‘how-to’ advice, explaining how to use the method or approach being discussed.

The lineup is as follows:

  1. Introduction: a ‘how-to’ approach (Adrian Blau, King’s College London)
  2. How to write analytical political theory (Robert Goodin, ANU)
  3. Thought experiments (Kimberley Brownlee, Warwick, and Zofia Stemplowska, Oxford)
  4. Reflective equilibrium (Carl Knight, Glasgow)
  5. Contractualism (Jonathan Quong, USC)
  6. Moral sentimentalism (Michael Frazer, University of East Anglia)
  7. Realism (Robert Jubb, Reading)
  8. Realistic idealism (David Schmidtz, Arizona)
  9. Conceptual analysis (Johan Olsthoorn, KU Leuven)
  10. Positive political theory (Alan Hamlin, Manchester and King’s College London)
  11. Rational choice theory (Brian Kogelmann, Arizona, and Gerald Gaus, Arizona)
  12. Interpreting texts (Adrian Blau, King’s College London)
  13. Comparative political thought (Brooke Ackerly, Vanderbilt, and Rochana Bajpai, SOAS)
  14. Ideological analysis (Jonathan Leader Maynard, Oxford)
  15. How to do a political theory PhD (Robert Goodin, ANU, and Keith Dowding, ANU)

The book should be out in 2017.

Because that’s what women do: the dangers of stereotypes in kids’ toys

I’ve found some troubling gender stereotypes in the Playmobil range of toys. I love Playmobil: I had lots of their toys as a kid, and still enjoy them with my niece and nephews. The toys are fun, robust, varied, and interchangeable.

5491_product_detailBut like many toys, their boxes portray worrying stereotypes. As I show in more detail below, Playmobil boxes are much more likely to show women than men looking after kids, and often depict women cooking, cleaning, shopping, or in caring/nurturing roles. And among the child Playmobil figures on the toy-boxes, it’s often the boy who is portrayed as independent and the girl who is being looked after.

Does this matter? Such stereotypes, in combination with similar stereotypes in adverts, TV programmes, computer games, and other toys, can influence some kids. True, real life often conforms to these stereotypes, but that is itself part of why we should challenge these stereotypes: if from an early age kids see women doing most childcare, for example, many people will have that same expectation later on. It’s how we end up with female political candidates being told that they aren’t fit for public office because they haven’t done their job of having children.

This is precisely why the hashtag #EverydaySexism is so important: the images we see and the words we use affect what we think and, sometimes, what we do.

Women buying handbags. Because that's what women do.

Women buying handbags. Because that’s what women do.

Here are the details of my test. After spotting the stereotypes a couple of days ago, yesterday I ran a search for ‘Playmobil City Life’ on, and looked at the first three pages only. I found 64 toys, of which 32 had gender stereotypes on the boxes and 32 did not. (There were a handful of Playmobil toys in other ranges, some with and some without gender stereotypes on the boxes; I haven’t listed these below.) These numbers are approximate: the judgement-calls were not always easy, so I’ve tried to give Playmobil the benefit of the doubt where I can, although other people might code things a bit more or a bit less favourably to Playmobil. But the sheer number of boxes showing gender stereotypes is a concern.

Almost 100 adults were featured in total. 24 women were shown looking after children, cooking or cleaning, compared to only 11 men looking after children or cooking (and the one man cooking is cooking on a barbecue, of course). Women are shown shopping or going to the beauty salon 9 times, while 0 men do the same (but 1 man brings flowers to a woman – groan). Only 3 woman have an ‘action’ role, compared to 9 men, and in each case the woman’s role is less action-based than the men on the same toy-box: the female co-pilot is outside the airplane (the male pilot is in the pilot’s seat), the female Coast Guard worker is a lookout (the male Coast Guard workers are either in charge or doing the rescuing), and the female rescue-boat worker has a nurturing role (doctor) whereas the male rescue-boat workers do the rescuing. Many kids won’t pick up these subtleties, but some surely will.


A woman looks after two boys and a girl. The boys do active things by themselves, the girl needs help.

Even the portrayals of children on the toy-boxes are sometimes biased: I counted 5 toy-boxes where boys were portrayed as independent while girls were shown being helped by an adult.

Thankfully, there are equal numbers of women and men being portrayed caring for animals or working as vets: 5 women, 5 men. I counted 8 cases of women and 9 cases of men in fairly neutral jobs (e.g. waiter). And I counted 7 women and 5 men in leisure situations (e.g. sunbathing, dog-walking). So, I’m only claiming that the stereotypes are common, not universal.

(There might be a bias in the above numbers, by the way, if Amazon has put the most popular toys to the top of the list and toys with stereotyped boxes are bought more often. So, at some point I may have to test the complete sets on the Playmobil website.)

In summary, then, a lot of the toy-boxes are fine, but a lot are not – more than half, on my count. The simplest solution would be for Playmobil to vary their depictions of women and men for new toys. They could perhaps repackage some of the existing toys. They needn’t change everything: it’d be crazy not to depict some women looking after kids. But we need more boxes depicting more varied gender roles, among adults and to some extent the kids too. And I haven’t even touched on ethnicity (nearly everyone in the City Life series is white) or age (there were almost no old people portrayed). I discuss the problems with those and other stereotypes here.

Here are the specific toys I found in the test described above, listed in the (more…)

Help needed: Darwin on confirmation bias

Apparently, Charles Darwin said that when he heard something that did not fit his theory, he wrote it down, otherwise he tended to forget it.

Can anyone give me a reference for this?


UPDATE: Thanks to David Schweiger (via Steven Hamblin’s blog), we have the answer. It’s from Darwin’s Autobiography (p. 123):

I had also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.

Darwin finger

How to do history of political thought

Interpreting textsHere is my draft chapter on how to interpret texts, for a book on methods in political theory that I’m editing for Cambridge University Press.

I’m keen for comments – however critical! The only problem is that I need comments by August 1st if possible, as I’m submitting the book manuscript on September 1st. Sorry for the crazy deadline.

I’m particularly keen to hear from current graduate students (MA or PhD), or advanced undergraduates, as that is who the chapter is aimed at.

Even if you’ve never met me, I’d love your criticisms and suggestions! Please download the article and email me at Adrian.Blau [at] – thanks!

Nat Blau (1928-2010)


Joseph Norman ‘Nat’ Blau

My dad died five years ago today. He was a brilliant doctor, empathising closely with his patients and making thousands of lives better. He was a neurologist specialising in headache and migraine, and co-founded the City of London Migraine Clinic, which gave free consultations to all migraine sufferers. In 1962 he beat Roger Bannister to the post of consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, at Queen Square in London. He used to joke that it was the only time anyone ran faster than Roger Bannister.

Queen's Square consultants, Oct 1974. Dad is second from left in the middle row.

Queen Square consultants, Oct 1974. Dad is second from left in the middle row.

My dad teaching my brother about migraine

My dad teaching my brother about migraine

He published over 100 papers in scientific journals, not only on migraine but also on such things as ponytail headache (from tying ponytails too tightly) and sleep-lack headache. He edited a respected textbook on migraine, and his Headache and Migraine Handbook (1986) was written in a straightforward style for ordinary people. He was a superbly clear and concise writer: many of the tips I pass on to my own students came from him.

Mum and Dad's wedding

Mum and Dad’s wedding

He was married to my mother, Jill, for 41 years. He was a caring father to me, my brother Justin and my sister Rosie. He put a lot of emphasis on our education, and inculcated a questioning attitude in us. One of his sayings I still quote is: “If a theory explains all the facts, the theory must be wrong, because some of the facts are wrong.” He disliked the phrase “we now know”, because in his view, some of what we “know” is actually incorrect. His papers would sometimes mention what we don’t know or what his hypothesis could not explain – partly out of honesty, partly as a spur to further research.

He used to refer to “Blau’s Law of 10%”, which was his rule of thumb that only 10% of people have “got it”. He would sometimes follow this up with another comment: “If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. If you haven’t got it, you’ve had it!”

Meeting Princess Diana

With Princess Diana

His preferred version of IQ was the “Insight Quotient”; no one could get to 100% on this scale. He also invented an SQ – a “Sleep Quotient” – referring to the number of people in the audience who were asleep in talks and lectures. His own SQ was almost always zero, I suspect – he was an exceptionally engaging lecturer. He would never get stuck behind the lectern or talk at an audience.

Maida Vale Hospital staff, Nov 1968

Maida Vale Hospital staff, Nov 1968. Dad is in the middle of the front row.

He was by all accounts a superb teacher. He taught until he was 80, when his cancer excessively affected his mobility. His students had great admiration and affection for him. He disliked the way that medical students were expected to soak up knowledge without also developing critical faculties.

He was very funny. If we complained of some pain or ache, his answer was always “Talking too much”. In my case, this was usually true.

Dad age 75

J.N. Blau, at 75

Around the age of 75, he started work on a book called Wrong Ideas and No Ideas in Medicine, which he never finished. He had always been fascinated by wrong ideas which held back progress. He published a seering critique of the neurologist Harold Wolff (Cephalalgia 24:3, 2004) which attacked him for “a high degree of obsession, a desire to be on top and to win, and from an intellectual point of view, his dogmatism and ultra-focus on the vascular theory of migraine …. Wolff retarded progress in the understanding of migraine by at least 30 years”. That sums up several things Dad regarded as key sins. He used to say “Listen to the patient: he is telling you the diagnosis.” Wolff’s descriptions of migraine clashed with what Dad heard from the vast majority of his own patients. The one thing worse than a theory which explained all of the evidence was a theory which didn’t even match much of the evidence in the first place!

A black-tie event at Queen's Square, Feb 1965

A black-tie event at Queen Square, Feb 1965

In his day, most medical students came from wealthy backgrounds. He had next to nothing, and if he hadn’t worked hard at school he couldn’t have won the scholarship that allowed him to study medicine. I’m incredibly proud of what he achieved.

I think of him most when I’m very sad or very happy. When I’m sad I wish he was here, and when I’m happy I want to share good things with him. When I won a teaching award in 2013, I had a brief moment of joy and then started crying, because he wasn’t around to hear about this. My brother won a teaching award in the same year and I think my dad would have been prouder about these two prizes than the promotions my brother and I also got that year. Teaching mattered more to my dad than academic standing. When I asked why he wasn’t a Professor, he said: “I don’t profess to know anything.”

I love and miss him very much.

Empowering students to be critical

Students often struggle to criticise what they read: many feel that they are not qualified to do so, or not knowledgeable enough.

I try to empower my students to be more critical. Yesterday, I sought to plant this intuition by using the analogy of Hobbes’s state of nature, where the weakest can kill the strongest while they sleep. So too with essays: even students with little experience or knowledge can criticise what they read, because even the cleverest writers leave gaps in their defences.

Killed in his shleep

Killed in his shleep

Hobbes himself recognises this: most ordinary people can spot some errors of reasoning (Elements of Law chapter 5), and even ‘the ablest’ can draw ‘false conclusions’ (Leviathan chapter 5). Hobbes, indeed, is one of the ablest at producing false conclusions!

Now obviously, it doesn’t go far enough simply to give students this intuition – that brilliant scholarship can be criticised, just as strong people can be killed in their sleep. We should also show students how to do this, and give examples of good and bad practice. But hopefully the above analogy will help to give some students more confidence to be critical.


Family Guy and American Dad: equal opportunities offenders?

Family Guy and American Dad are well-known US sitcoms that arouse controversy for their stereotypes of Asians, blacks, gays, Italians, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, and so on.

The creator, Seth MacFarlane, defends this as equal opportunities offending: any group can be laughed at.

Asian_MathThere is some truth here but it misses the key problem: these sitcoms are not equal opportunities stereotypers. Asians, blacks, gays and so on usually get depicted in the same, stereotyped ways. By contrast, White Americans get depicted in great variety – unless they’re gay, Jewish or Italian-American, in which case the predictable stereotypes usually surface.

That’s a problem.

For example, each character in the main American Dad family has a separate, clear personality. But the two gay men over the road, Greg and Terry, are virtually identical: they are both newsreaders, they are both exceptionally camp, and … that’s about it. There is not much more to their personality than this. It’s as if the scriptwriters don’t know enough about gay people to portray them in any other way. And the same applies to almost every gay male who appears, even fleetingly, in American Dad and Family Guy.

Francine, Greg and Terry ... or is it Francine, Terry and Greg?

Francine, Greg and Terry … or is it Francine, Terry and Greg?

(This is also true of Little Britain, where one of the main writers is actually gay. That doesn’t excuse lazy stereotyping! The saving grace of Little Britain is that Daffyd Thomas, ‘the only gay in the village’, turns out not to have had any gay experiences and might even be disgusted by homosexuality. To me, that’s comedy genius, like the final episode of South Park series 1, where Cartman is so full of bile that when he’s playing with his teddy bears and doing their voices, one of them even insults him, which angers him.)

There are some exceptions to American Dad and Family Guy stereotyping. For example, in American Dad, Principal Lewis and Snot have far more personality than most of the two shows’ other black and Jewish characters, respectively. But these are the exceptions.

Such stereotyping isn’t necessarily a problem. Consider the cyclist who keeps answering questions by saying that what he’s doing is ‘a great way to stay in shape’ (in ‘Peter’s Daughter’, Family Guy season 6 episode 7). This is a nice parody which doesn’t do any harm.

Also unproblematic are stereotypes of British people. As on The Simpsons, Brits are usually portrayed as having bad teeth and weird accents. I’m a Brit with decent teeth and a nice accent, but I have no problem with the above stereotype, which can be extremely funny (as in Chap of the Manor, the spoof British version of Family Guy in ‘Viewer Mail 2’, series 10 episode 22).

But I do have a problem with virtually every Muslim-American or Arab being portrayed as a terrorist (e.g. in ‘Turban Cowboy’, series 11 episode 15). Still, even that is not my main gripe, and it’s been dealt with by others (e.g. about racial stereotypes and disabled stereotypes).

I also want to leave aside the question of whether these stereotypes are actually poking fun at white Americans who don’t fit into the above categories. That is sometimes the case, as with the caption ‘White guys: scared of every race’ (in ‘Save the Clam’, Family Guy series 11 episode 19). But even if this is always the case – which I doubt – then it again implies that the writers are writing for and about white Americans.

And that is a problem. I suspect that most writers on Family Guy and American Dad are sub-consciously thinking ‘what can we write that will make white Americans laugh?’ And sometimes the answer is ‘let’s show that Mexicans are lazy.’ Perhaps many white Americans know so little about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans that such jokes get a quick and easy laugh. But compare the way that Arrested Development deals with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans: not exactly perfect, but much richer and more diverse in the characters and personalities. Or consider Key and Peele on white-sounding black men, which has a subtlety to it that usually eludes American Dad and Family Guy, where almost every Italian-American man is the same, almost every black woman is the same, almost every gay man is the same, and so on.

I still enjoy American Dad and Family Guy hugely, and I laugh at some of the jokes based on stereotypes: hell, I’m a bad man. And hell is where I’m heading, into the special section for self-righteous hypocrites.

But my point remains: we can’t keep defending these shows by describing them as equal opportunity offenders. We also need to see that they are unequal opportunity stereotypers.


Gadamer’s God-awful account of science

I’ve just finished my chapter for the book of the Reading Between The Lines conferenceGadamer Truth MethodMy chapter included a critique of Gadamer’s account of science, in his book Truth and Method and elsewhere.

I argue that Gadamer makes deeply misleading claims about what science involves, and does not reference any practising natural or social scientist; as far as I can tell, Gadamer’s most recent reference to an actual scientist was from someone writing 98 years before the publication of Truth and Method. Oh, and Gadamer misquotes this scientist and treats him as far more naive than he was.

But many commentators simply repeat Gadamer’s caricatures or pass over them in silence. This might actually be more troubling than Gadamer’s naughty scholarship.

My question is: can anyone point me to a good critique of Gadamer’s account of science? So far, I’ve only found five people who criticise any aspect of his account of science:

  • pp. 226 and 236 of Dieter Misgeld’s article in the journal Philosophy of Social Science, from 1979;
  • pp. 168-9 of Richard Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (1983);
  • the opening chapter of Joel Weinsheimer’s Gadamer’s Hermeneutics (1985) – this is the most powerful critique but still leaves Gadamer largely unscathed;
  • p. 4 of Georgia Warnke’s Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason (1987); and
  • p. 158 of Robert D’Amico’s book Contemporary Continental Philosophy (1999).

If you can point me to any other references – preferably in English! – I’d be most grateful. Thanks!

Is Derrida full of bullshit? Part 2

Part 1 outlined two notions of bullshit: Harry Frankfurt’s notion of bullshit as phoniness or indifference to truth, and Jerry Cohen’s notion of bullshit as unclarifiable clarity.

We saw too that Cohen claimed – very naughtily, without references – that there is a lot of bullshit in Derrida. Such sentiments are quite widespread.

I’m only going to look at one passage by Derrida which has been called bullshit by Brian Leiter, a prominent philosopher who is bitingly critical of Derrida on his excellent blog, Leiter Reports. Leiter has a deliciously acerbic approach to ‘frauds and intellectual voyeurs who dabble in a lot of stuff they plainly don’t understand’. Leiter is a Nietzsche expert who reserves special vitriol for Derrida’s ‘preposterously stupid writings on Nietzsche’, the way Derrida ‘misreads the texts, in careless and often intentionally flippant ways, inventing meanings, lifting passages out of context, misunderstanding philosophical arguments, and on and on’.

I’ll focus solely on Leiter’s 2003 blog entry, ‘Derrida and Bullshit’, which attacks the ‘ridiculousness’ of Derrida’s comments on 9/11. This came from an interview with Derrida in October 2001. Here is an abbreviated version; you can see the full thing on p. 85 onwards of this book.

… this act of naming: a date and nothing more. … [T]he index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this ‘thing’ that has just happened … But this very thing … remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about.

9/11 turned the world upside down. Or at least 45 degrees to the side.

9/11 turned the world upside down.
Or at least 45 degrees to the side.

So, is this bullshit, on the Frankfurt and/or the Cohen notions of bullshit? I would say no. I take Derrida to be saying the following.

We often repeat the name ‘9/11’ without thinking much about it. But the words we use can be very revealing. Why do we try to reduce this complex event to such a simple term? Because the event is so complex we cannot capture it properly. Precisely by talking about it in such a simple way, we admit that we don’t really understand it.

If I have understood Derrida – tell me if I haven’t – this explanation is surely wrong. I’d guess that in most cases we call such events by a name, usually a place or a thing. For example:

  • Pearl Harbor, the Somme, Gallipoli, the Korean War
  • the Great Fire of London, Hurricane Katrina
  • Watergate, the execution of Charles I, the storming of the Bastille
  • Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez

My guess is that we are most likely to use a date where we cannot restrict an event to a place or name:

  • Arab Spring
  • (May) 1968 riots
  • the 1960s
  • Black Tuesday, Black Wednesday

But my guess is that such names are rarer: places or things are usually more identifiable.

So, why was 9/11 called ‘9/11’, ‘September the 11th’? My guess is that it would usually have been called ‘the attack on the Twin Towers’ except for the fact that there were two other locations: an attack on the Pentagon, and a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I’m also guessing that ‘9/11’ had a ring to it because of the shop ‘7/11’. If the attack had happened in just one location on February 9th, we’d simply refer to the place.

I might be wrong. Other explanations will be gratefully received. But if I’m right, it suggests that Derrida’s explanation is a bit pompous, and probably wrong, but it is not Frankfurt-bullshit, because it is not attempting to deceive anyone, and it is not Cohen-bullshit, because it is not unclarifiably unclear.

There’s a deeper point here, about method. Philosophers and literary theorists often ask questions which are essentially empirical. Derrida’s question is empirical: what explains the name ‘9-11’? To answer empirical questions, it is best to use a scientific approach – for example, looking at more than just one possible explanation. In the fortnight that BlauBlog has been active, this is a point I’ve already made several hundred and fifty times.

Derrida, however, does not think like a social scientist. As a result, his explanation only seems plausible because he has not considered the alternatives.

In short, what Derrida said is crap, but not bullshit.

Is Derrida full of bullshit? Part 1

Why is there so much bullshit in politics? Does a particular kind of bullshit flourish in French philosophy?

These are questions which have excited lots of academics in recent years, partly because they are fascinating and important questions – but mainly because it allows us to swear in public.

Academics discuss two key ideas of bullshit. (I’m working on a third, but it’s not ready yet.) The first and most famous comes from Harry Frankfurt’s famous essay On Bullshit. The essence of bullshit, for Frankfurt, ‘is not that it is false but that it is phony.’ The bullshitter may or may not deceive us, or intend to deceive us, about the alleged facts. ‘What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise.’ In short, the essence of Frankfurt-bullshit is phoniness, indifference to truth.

Frankfurt’s essay is great fun, but quite frustrating, not least because of the woeful lack of useful examples. The example Frankfurt discusses at greatest length, a comment by Wittgenstein, is not obviously bullshit, even for Frankfurt. He could have mentioned politicians who evade questions. ‘That’s not the real issue, the real issue is why my opponents are doing such-and-such.’

Apparently Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, often bullshits like this. For example, when asked whether two players would be fit for a game, and wanting to keep his opponents guessing, he replied ‘I know what you just asked, but I was so mesmerized and dazzled by your voice right there. You have got a great voice. I lost my train of thought.’

I used to bullshit when I started teaching and didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t understood a question. ‘It’s interesting you should ask that, because Aristotle says something similar …’, I might say. Then I could talk for a minute in the vain hope that my students would not spot my phoniness and my inability to answer their question.


The second idea of bullshit comes from Jerry Cohen, whose essay ‘Deeper Into Bullshit‘ defines bullshit as ‘unclarifiable unclarity’. Whereas Frankfurt-bullshit focuses on the mental state of the bullshitter, Cohen-bullshit focuses on the bullshitter’s output. Someone may be entirely sincere in what she says, but may still come out with something which is unclear and cannot be made clear.

Staggeringly, even Cohen doesn’t give useful examples. His only specific example, by Etienne Balibar, is probably not bullshit: it actually does make some sense, as Frankfurt himself points out in his response to Cohen in the book Contours of Agency.

Worse, Cohen feels free to make airy accusations about bullshit flourishing in French philosophy: ‘what I have read of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva leads me to think that there is a great deal of bullshit in their work’. Yet Cohen gives no references. Perhaps he was intending to do so before his untimely death. If not, I’m afraid we should not hesitate to describe Cohen’s comment as lazy and unscholarly. If he has read enough of these writers to see ‘a great deal of bullshit in their work’, then he should give us some examples. A claim as important and critical as this needs to be backed up.

Given Frankfurt’s and Cohen’s notions of bullshit, is Derrida full of bullshit? I will answer this in Part 2.

Is replication just for scientists? Part 1: thought experiments in philosophy

Natural scientists are big on replication. When one lab reports an important finding, other labs try to replicate it. If they can’t, as with Fleischmann and Pons on cold fusion, you have a problem.

Social scientists are getting bigger on replication. Leading social science journals now require authors to upload empirical datasets. But in practice, replication is rare, as Andrew Gelman notes. Replication is still not widely expected – and besides, there are far fewer social scientists than natural scientists.

What about political philosophy and history of political thought? I’m not sure how much replication has been discussed in these areas, except in empirical areas e.g. experimental philosophy. (Let me know if you have references about replication in other areas of philosophy! I’m not thinking about such things as checking someone’s logic, of course.)

This strikes me as an important issue. Indeed, much of my work – and much of this blog – is about showing the intellectual links between philosophy, history and social science.

This post will thus address replication in philosophy. Part 2 will cover history of political thought.

A common tool in political philosophy is thought experiments. Is it worse to kill someone than to let someone die? This is a hugely important moral question. It is also a hugely complex moral question. How do we approach such difficult problems?

Nietzsche: is it worse to kill someone or to make them stronger?

Nietzsche: is it worse to kill someone or to make them stronger?

One method used is thought experiments. Is it worse to intentionally drown a child if one wants to get its inheritance than to fail to help the same child if it slips in a bath and starts to drown? This is Frances Kamm’s example – see p. 18 of Morality Mortality, volume 2. And there are many similar examples: Nozick’s experience machine, the ticking time-bomb scenario, Jim and the Indians, trolley problems, and so on.

My suggestion is that philosophical thought experiments are actually easier to replicate than almost any natural or social science research, provided the thought experiment is outlined clearly enough. You simply think through the experiment as described by the author, and see what your intuition/answer is.

Sometimes you reach the same conclusion. Sometimes you don’t, as with Frances Kamm’s retort to Peter Unger – see p. 13 of Morality, Mortality, volume 2.

Sometimes you question whether your intuitions are reliable. This may be because you reject the nature of many of these thought experiments, as with Robert Goodin – see pp. 8-9 of Political Theory and Public Policy. Or it may be because you think your own intuitions have been primed by previous thought experiments, as Mike Otsuka discusses – see pp. 109-10 of his 2008 paper in the journal Utilitas.

Sometimes you re-run the thought experiment with a different model, e.g. different order or different frames. Otsuka does this in the paper mentioned just above.

And sometimes – perhaps most importantly – you re-run the thought experiment with different variables. For example, if one adds uncertainty to the ticking time-bomb scenario, even many people who initially advocated torture become less willing to do so. I use the ticking time-bomb scenario with first-year politics students as a way of getting them to think about thought experiments in terms of variables.

Replication with different variables is also important in the social sciences. My favourite example is Daniel Treisman’s 2007 paper in the Annual Review of Political Science. He attempt to replicate many well-known cross-national analyses of corruption, and finds that small and reasonable changes to the independent variables often alters the results (see pp. 222 onwards). This challenges the reliability of the data and the models. It’s strikingly similar to the way that Otsuka questions our intuitions and alters the model (see above).

Replication matters, and it’s pleasingly common in philosophy, at least in relation to thought experiments.

Was Shakespeare a schoolteacher? How sloppy are some journalists?

Several people have been claiming that Shakespeare spent a few years working as a schoolteacher in Titchfield, a village in Hampshire. The claims have some plausibility and may be right. But I’m interested in how sloppily the BBC reported the story. The BBC makes it sound like a definite finding. Surprisingly, the Daily Mail newspaper is more even-handed, as we’ll see. And the claims about Shakespeare make some interesting intellectual errors in their own right.



What is it like to be Leo Strauss?

Last year, I published a critique of Leo Strauss. Strauss was an important and influential thinker who is controversial in two ways. He’s a conservative, and may have influenced many neoconservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations. I don’t care about that. What I do care about are his historical interpretations, especially his claims that writers like Plato and Machiavelli hid secret messages in their texts using odd techniques which Strauss often seems to have been the first to spot. I have no problem with the idea that some people have written esoterically, but I do doubt the particular claims that Strauss makes. Near the end of my paper, I wrote a little satire, mimicking Strauss’s approach and parodying his style to ‘prove’ that Thomas Hobbes hid secret messages about the music of Beethoven – even though Hobbes died 91 years before Beethoven was born. While writing the satire, though, I suddenly saw what it might have been like to be Leo Strauss. I had been finding lots of astonishing parallels between Hobbes’s writings and Beethoven’s music – it was starting to get freaky. And suddenly, a thought started to flash into my head: ‘Is it possible that Hobbes was actually writing about Beethoven?’ I didn’t even finish this thought: of course, Hobbes could not have been writing about Beethoven. But that moment showed me how easy it is to read too much into a mere coincidence. Strauss and his esoteric bookshelves, by Adrian Blau And this is where Strauss goes wrong. There is a natural human bias to look for evidence which fits one’s ideas, or to interpret things to support one’s ideas. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. If you think you don’t suffer from this … well, I’m very happy for you, but you’re probably not going to be the next Sherlock Holmes. Scientific methods arose in part to counteract biases such as confirmation bias. Scientists shouldn’t just look for evidence which fits their theories: they should question their evidence, test their theories, compare different explanations, and so on. If he had applied such principles, Strauss would not have made many of the claims he made. What is it like to be Leo Strauss? I can’t say for sure, but one brief moment, I might just have known.