Good, closer, best

It’s funny how the good-better-best sequence misbehaves if you apply it to the word “friend”. A best friend is a perfectly good superlative of a good friend. But if you say Joe is a “better friend” than John, that introduces a negative tone. The right thing is to say that Joe is a “closer friend” than John.

As my mother always told me and my sister, comparisons are odious.

[20 September 2018]

Jack London and the French

At the end of a happy year in Lyon, during which I see I’ve written five of these notes related to France, I will finish with three more. Here is the first.

Jack London is one of those authors Americans have heard of and possibly read as teenagers. But if you ask an American these days to list some important American novels, I doubt they’ll think of The Call of the Wild or White Fang.

But the French will! I marvel at how alive Jack London is in this country. He is seen as one of the essential American authors. Translations of his books are on their shelves and in their bookstores, well-read and well-loved.

You may expect me now to remark that this shows a limitation of the French perspective, perhaps that they are trapped in a Wild Western image of America that is long out of date. But I read Croc Blanc this year, and I loved it too. It’s marvelous. Truly a book for the ages.

So I have reached the opposite conclusion. Americans, knowing their culture in detail, are aware of a thousand things, and this is natural. But from a distance, one may see more clearly the main lines, and in my opinion, the French have got this one right.

[15 September 2018]

Bad logic in a good cause 3: unconscious bias

We all want hiring to be fair.  In support of this goal, lately we are required to not notice a glaring gap of logic.  Orwell called the necessary skill doublethink.

The issue is what’s termed “unconscious bias”.  The Royal Society has issued a position paper, and we are required to read it for hiring in the Oxford Mathematical Institute.  Here is the logic of the paper in the context of gender and mathematics:

(a) There is no evidence that males or females are intrinsically more able at math.

(b) Nevertheless, many of us unconsciously suppose a man is more likely to be outstanding at math than a woman.  (Pointer here to a famous web site at Harvard.)

(c) This is a contradiction: position (b) is unjustified.

But both (a) and (b) can be true!  Statement (a) pertains to intrinsic ability, whereas (b) pertains to the adult products of decades of socialization and education.  Alas, four out of five math PhDs are men.  We must try to change this, and fighting our biases in hiring is indeed crucial — but let’s not pervert logic along the way.

Here are the RS’s slippery words.  “…You unconsciously associate science with men and arts with women….  There are such strong cultural stereotypes that they feel truthful, when research has shown over and over again, that they are not.”

[1 September 2018]