Feynman was not being arrogant when he told people, “You’re wrong!”

or We Marginalized People Need to be More Like Feynman.

Update: There are some problems with the original post, as I had assumed that everyone else’s work was technical in nature and had formalized customs on what are considered “wrong” answers. In non-technical work situations, telling others that they are wrong would more likely get you fired. See the comments for some criticisms. I have amended this post, which appears as a strikeout correction and a note in the comments.

When the subject of discussion was physics, Feynman‘s brain did not process the higher authority of the people he spoke to. For example, even when he was unknown in his field, he could easily state, “No, you’re wrong,” or “You’re crazy,” to a famous and established physicist, because he would forget “who he was talking to”.

While some people may consider this behaviour arrogant, it actually indicates a temporary extinction of self-consciousness and ego, which is ideal when solving problems.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter Monster Minds, Feynman recounts his experience as a graduate student at Princeton, and research assistant under John Wheeler:

[…] Wheeler said, “Feynman, you’re a young fella—you should give a seminar on this. You need experience in giving talks. Meanwhile, I’ll work out the quantum theory part and give a seminar on that later.”

So it was to be my first technical talk, and Wheeler made arrangements with Eugene Wigner to put it on the regular seminar schedule.

A day or two before the talk I saw Wigner in the hail. “Feynman,” he said, “I think that work you’re doing with Wheeler is very interesting, so I’ve invited Russell to the seminar.” Henry Norris Russell, the famous, great astronomer of the day, was coming to the lecture!

Wigner went on. “I think Professor von Neumann would also he interested.” Johnny von Neumann was the greatest mathematician around. “And Professor Pauli is visiting from Switzerland, it so happens, so I’ve invited Professor Pauli to come”—Pauli was a very famous physicist—and by this time, I’m turning yellow. Finally, Wigner said, “Professor Einstein only rarely comes to our weekly seminars, but your work is so interesting that I’ve invited him specially, so he’s coming, too.”

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Common White Fallacies when Dealing with People of Colour

A white person needs to listen to the personal experiences of people of colour when they are under discussion. On the other hand, it is dangerous, and usually racist, to generalize from one or a handful of people of colour and make a general claim. These two statements do not contradict each other.

White people need to understand the basic structure behind first-order logic to avoid the errors of both (i) ignoring the voices of people of colour, and (ii) making generalizations about all people of colour based on the voices of some people of colour.

Errors in Making Generalizations about People of Colour

Fallacy: Confusing Existential Quantification for Universal Quantification (Interchangeable People of Colour)

The following reasoning is invalid:

A black person x thinks P.
Therefore, all black people think P.

This reasoning is invalid because black people are not interchangeable, and one (or any) black person is not the spokesperson for all black people. Just as with white people, black people are individuals and are diverse in thought, culture, appearance, and other properties.

Fallacy: Hasty Generalization

The following reasoning is invalid:

A black person x thinks P.
A black person y thinks P.
A black person z thinks P.
Therefore, all black people think P.

First of all, this argument is never deductively valid, no matter how large the sample size, unless the sample set is equivalent to the population set to which you want to generalize. Inductive reasoning is always deductively invalid. (Science and statistics use empirical observations to draw conclusions, but they are not making inductive arguments.*)

If, instead, the reasoner wants to make a statistical claim about the population of black people, then she may be committing a hasty generalization. The sample size may be too small, and even when the sample size is large enough, it may not be representative of the general population. For example, if you surveyed black people in certain areas of the Internet and found that most were gamers, it says nothing about black people in general.

Errors in Ignoring People of Colour

Fallacy: White is Right

The following reasoning is invalid:

A white person x thinks P.
A Chinese person y thinks not P.
Therefore, x is right and P is true.

This reasoning is invalid because a white person is not necessarily more rational than a Chinese person. Although Western culture identifies the West with rationality and logic, and the East with irrationality and superstition, this does not mean that it is true in reality. A white person is not necessarily correct when the opponent is a black person or any non-white person, either. If a person assumes that this is true, he has an implicit belief in “white supremacy”.

Fallacy: Appeal to White Belief

The following reasoning is invalid:

Most white people think P.
Most non-white people think not P.
There are more white people than non-white people (in the United States).
Therefore, P is true.

Appeal to White Belief is a racial form of the fallacious Appeal to Belief, which has the following form:

Most people believe that a claim, P, is true.
Therefore, P is true.

Appeal to White Belief and the more general Appeal to Belief are invalid because the fact that most people believe that something is true does not mean that is true. For example, if most white Americans believe that racism no longer exists in the United States, and most black Americans believe that racism still exists, then this does not mean that the whites are objective and the blacks have a persecution complex. Appeal to White Belief may appear together with the “White is Right” fallacy.

Fallacy: My Black Friend Agrees With Me

The following reasoning is invalid:

A black person w agrees with me.
A black person x agrees with me.
A black person y disagrees with me.
A black person z disagrees with me.
Therefore, y and z are wrong and stupid.

Sometimes the number of black people who disagree with the white person in question is larger than the number of black people who agree with him, and the white person still thinks that those who disagree with him do not count because they disagree. This reasoning is fallacious, because the fact that one or some black people agree with the white person does not entail that those are the “good blacks” and the rest are the “bad blacks” who are wrong and stupid. The blacks who agree with the white person may agree with him because they are different demographically from those who disagree, or their social position may hinge on being agreeable to whites.

For an example of demographic differences, Oprah Winfrey may think that any black person from the ghetto can become rich if she tried, but Oprah is of the demographic of black billionaires who started off poor, which is not representative of the general black demographic.

It is more difficult to give a concrete example of the fragile social position situation, because it posits that the agreeable blacks have or are influenced by an ulterior motive. However, this sometimes happens, as being outwardly agreeable towards authority figures is not uncommon for humans in general. (For example, you may outwardly ‘agree’ with your boss about something and your boss may believe that you truly agree with her, but your desire for job security may or may not have influenced your behaviour.) Whether or not this is true for a given situation depends on the individual situation.

In any case, the truth or falsity of your belief is not determined by the fact that some black people agree with you, or the number of people who agree with you, even if more black people agree with you than disagree. This is a variation of the “Appeal to Belief” discussed above. In the “My Black Friend Agrees With Me” fallacy, the fact that the blacks who agree with the white person are favoured over those who disagree may be influenced by the “White is Right” fallacy as well.

This reasoning is fallacious even when you substitute any non-white racial group for ‘black’. Whites should not ignore or dismiss non-white voices just because they disagree. Any criticism should be considered and evaluated seriously.


* Karl Popper‘s account of falsification is a more accurate picture of how the scientific method works, although Thomas Kuhn’s picture is more accurate than Popper’s, and others have criticized Kuhn, etc. A full explanation is much too complicated and is irrelevant to this post. The point here is that claiming that inductive logic is invalid is not the same as a criticism of science, statistics, or empiricism in general. Science, statistics, and empirical methods are very good ways of gathering knowledge.


Can hate speech be free speech?

Hate speech may stifle free speech by monopolizing the marketplace of ideas. Some types of arguments hinder rather than contribute to productive discussion (such as logical fallacies), and some hate speech may fall into this category. Additionally, some hate speech, or rather certain framings of how the world is, limit the scope of discussion and who is allowed to debate.

Generally, some practises can never be questioned in debate. Logical fallacies are not acceptable arguments, and persisting in logical fallacies is considered bad form rather than a valid avenue of discussion. Is it possible that some types of hate speech are inherently fallacious?

Is hate speech ad hominem?

Description of ad hominem:

An Ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B makes an attack on person A.
3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an Ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Not all personal attacks are ad hominem, as sometimes a negative characteristic about a debater is relevant to the topic. For example, if the debate is about one debater’s level of sexual attractiveness, a claim that the debater under discussion is ugly would not be ad hominem. However, is hate speech (directed against ethnic minorities, queer folk, people with disabilities, etc.) necessarily ad hominem?

For example, let us say that the debate is about whether all members of a minority group are involved in a global conspiracy. An implicit assumption in this debate is that any member of that minority group is not allowed to participate in the discussion. If a member of that minority, Person A, provides reasons why he is not involved in a global conspiracy, the other debaters, who are of the majority group, can argue that Person A‘s testimony is invalid because he belongs to that minority group.

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Mark Steyn uses flagrant transphobia to undermine “flagrantly islamophobic” accusation.

It is often the case that differences in political views are not just different opinions on isolated issues, but the underlying assumptions and worldviews are very different.

Beginning with the assumption that all Muslims are participants in a global conspiracy to take over the Western world, Mark Stenyn had argued in a Maclean’s article that the alleged plan will succeed because Muslims’ average birth rate is higher than the average birth rate of non-Muslim Caucasians. Four Osgoode law students called his article “flagrantly islamophobic” and filed a human rights complaint against Maclean’s for not publishing a counter article from their perspective.

Attempting to ridicule the activities of Canadian human rights commissions, Mark Steyn refers to a human rights complaint against a plastic surgeon who refused to perform labiaplasty on transwomen. The article he cites by Margaret Wente includes disparaging descriptions of transwomen’s bodies:

During the lunch break, I had a sandwich with Michelle. Her gestures were feminine. But up close, she looked more like a guy than a girl.

She had a man’s big hands, big teeth, broad-bridged nose, and coarse facial skin.

This, of course, is irrelevant to the case, but serves to demonize and dehumanize the complainants. In her introduction of Michelle, Wente ridicules Michelle’s height and voice, and doubts her female identity because she had fathered children:

First up on the witness stand was Michelle Boyce, a statuesque 38-year-old with a lush cascade of curly black hair and the breaking voice of an adolescent male. She described herself as intersex – someone who’d been born with both ovaries and a penis. Although raised male, she said she’d always thought of herself as a woman (despite the fact that in her 20s, she had married and fathered two children in the customary way).

Why does the fact that Michelle Boyce fathered children cast doubt on the claim that she had always thought of herself as a woman? It is quite probable that Boyce married and fathered children because she was raised as a male and was in the closet at the time due to tremendous social pressure. It is also possible that Boyce is a lesbian or bisexual. However, these possibilities do not seem to cross Wente’s mind, and this fact is introduced as if it was a self-explanatory contradiction to Boyce’s professed gender identity. There is no contradiction in Boyce’s narrative, but Wente sees contradiction due to her ignorance and false assumptions.

Other assumptions in Wente’s article include the assumption that labiaplasty is a frivolous operation for vanity, that discrimination against transwomen with respect to labiaplasty is not ‘real’ or ‘important’ discrimination, and that the lawsuit is self-evidently absurd.

Mark Steyn quotes Wente:

Well, he was rude. He said hurtful things and hurt her feelings. The hearing has now adjourned for a few weeks, in hopes that further mediation may find a way to soothe them.

Over lunch, Michelle told me that the demeaning treatment by Dr. Stubbs “had a profound effect on the rest of my life.” After that, she became a full-time activist. Today she has a government-funded job investigating the health status of the transsexual population.

and he comes to the conclusion that Boyce got the government job because her “feelings were hurt” as a transsexual:

My feelings were hurt by being denounced as a “flagrant Islamophobe”, but I’m unlikely to get a government job out of it.

It is quite possible that Boyce got the government job because she is the most qualified person for the job, but Steyn apparently cannot see that possibility. Steyn also appears to confuse the right to labiaplasty with compulsory labiaplasty:

On the other hand, I’ll be grateful if the commission doesn’t order me a compulsory labiaplasty.

Human rights commissions investigate human rights complaints. Steyn does not think that the Osgoode law students’ complaints deserve investigation, and attempts to discredit human rights commissions by bringing up a human rights complaint regarding discrimination in transwomen’s access to labiaplasty. However, in doing so, he reveals his prejudice against transgender people and an underlying hostility towards minority groups and their viewpoints.

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When Muslims cry “freedom of speech!” … opponents cry “freedom of speech!”

Four Muslim, law students from Osgoode Hall Law School at Toronto’s York University filed a Human Rights Complaint against Canada’s Maclean’s magazine on December 4th, 2007. In a Maclean’s article titled “The future belongs to Islam” published in October 2006, Mark Steyn had argued that Muslims will eventually take over the Western world. The Osgoode law students, on March 30, 2007, had asked Maclean’s to “publish a response to Steyn’s article from a mutually acceptable source.” Maclean’s refused, allegedly claiming that they “would rather go bankrupt,” which resulted in the law students filing the Human Rights Complaint.

Here is an interview with one of the law students, Khurrum Awan:

When the interviewer asks Khurrum how to strike a balance between human rights and free speech rights, the Osgoode law student responds:

I don’t think that this issue is about freedom of speech versus minority rights. This is really about the right of communities to participate in our national discourse on issues that relate directly to us. […] We just simply want to extend free speech to make it more inclusive of the communities in question. And if we do that, we don’t have to, you know, get into this false trade-off that we always assume that somehow free speech and minority rights — or free speech and multiculturalism — are somehow diametrically opposed.

What is ironic is that while many of the critics of the Osgoode law students criticize them for suppressing freedom of speech, the Osgoode law students claim that they are filing the Human Rights Complaint on behalf of freedom of speech (i.e., the right to publish a counter article in Maclean’s). While many critics accuse the Osgoode law students of censorship, the Osgoode law students feel that they themselves are being censored.

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Code Words of Hate


(via I am a shadow)

The above video is a concise summary of hateful, xenophobic rhetoric used against immigrants. There are four themes of this rhetoric: portraying immigrants as “invaders”; dehumanization; the sense that immigrants bring crime and disease; and a conspiracy theory that immigrants emigrate with the intention to take over the country.

There is a nice quote near the end by the ADL speaker:

The Anti-Defamation League is exposing these trends and this rhetoric, because words have consequences. There is a direct connection between the policies we have in our society, the words of leaders, and the daily lives of minority communities and immigrants.

People who describe themselves as “Anti Political Correctness” often claim that opponents of hate speech are trying to limit the scope of discussion, or that they are just hyper- or over-“sensitive” to negative comments about minorities. Of course, this is missing the point. Hateful rhetoric and propaganda exclude the target group from humanity and serves to remove their right to participate in the discussion.

Perhaps hate speech can be thought of as ad hominem arguments in debates about the target group, in which the target group cannot participate, since their humanity itself is the subject of debate.