Let Me Count the Ways

I hate understanding what Peter Boghossian is tweeting about. It doesn’t make him less wrong. It just means I have to write about it, because everyone else is trying to figure out what he thinks he means, and he’s still wrong.

This latest nonsense is no exception. It’s nearly fractally wrong. Let me count the ways.

Screen capture of three Boghossian tweets. Text in the post.
Text: Tweet 1: There are no right angles in nature, yet no one says right angles are *social* constructs because they’re not morally motivated to do so.

Tweet 2: I’ll amend this with the modifier “Platonic” or “perfect”.

Tweet 3: Actually. I rescind this. I think it still holds. No?

He went back later and specified Platonic, in case you think it makes a difference.

Let’s start with the way this is supposed to be wrong.

  1. There are right angles in nature. There are several substances that produce cubic crystals. These crystals still form in the presence of gravity and possible contamination, but that just emphasizes that even in very simple systems like this, the circumstances under which development occurs are important. That “nurture” is found in chemistry is probably not a point Boghossian wanted to make, but he wanted people to tell him there are right angles. This was the point of the tweet. Spoilers: He’s trying to say people are silly when they object to gender binaries. It’s the context of these tweets in his Twitter timeline.
  2. The rest of this he didn’t intend. The idea that there are no perfect right angles in any of those crystals is also absurd. “Perfect” and “Platonic ideal” are actually social constructs, used to differentiate the way we talk about classes of things as abstractions from the way those things exist in the real world. Boghossian can’t be arguing for the form of a Platonic ideal that can’t exist, as it would invalidate the point he’s trying to make here. So we can operationalize “perfect” as a standard of measurement or tolerances. With the number of crystals we have to choose from and the variety of conditions under which they developed, we’ll find “perfect” crystals.
  3. Those of us with an interest in social constructs do talk about right angles being social constructs. Not everyone agrees that they are, but this special name for an angle that goes beyond it’s numerical measurement has happened because of the significance of that angle in certain pursuits. “Right”, “obtuse”, and “acute” are all terms of classification, which generally means we’re dealing with social constructs.
  4. The reason most of the world doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about classification of angles as a social construct is that such things bore nearly everyone but geeks and philosophers.
  5. The moral component is injected by those who try to argue that everyone should fit tidily into the classification schemes they (usually) grew up with. That’s the normative argument, not the “Nope” that comes in response. In these arguments, the current widely-used classification scheme is given moral weight, and deviance from it is equated with immorality. If someone were using the presence of right angles in nature to argue that architects who use curves were immoral or wrong, that person would be responsible for turning the conversation to one about morality.
  6. When fighting back against the normative use of such classification schemes, the question of how well those schemes describe the real world isn’t commenting on morality. It isn’t required. The simple knowledge that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is” (no matter how many professional skeptics publish books suggesting but not outright arguing you can) does that work. Talking about the complicated nature of reality and the fact that scientists who study that reality most closely don’t use these simplistic classification schemes serves a different purpose. Pointing out how divorced from actual scientific consensus these people making the moral argument are undermines their claims that they’re “just being scientific” rather than bigoted.

So, no. Boghossian remains wrong in trying to demonstrate that those who say people should fit a binary gender are doing anything but demonstrating their fondness for overly restrictive social constructions.

Let Me Count the Ways

One thought on “Let Me Count the Ways

  1. 1

    The universe is not a social construct. Our understanding of the universe, the ways in which we divvy it up into categories, the ways in which we analyze it, the ways in which we share that information: ALL OF THOSE THINGS are socially constructed as they are all products of humanity, a social species. Hence, science itself is also a social construct. Science is a tool, constructed by humans to attempt to understand the universe. Science is not the universe. Science is not the systems and forces it has been constructed to describe. It is the formal, cognitive lens we use to peer deeper into our surroundings, and like a highly polished lens, it still carries the subtle, telltale imperfections of its maker’s hand.

    However, to mention such things in certain ostensibly rationalist corners, is to utter heresy.

    The thing about the phenomena of sex and gender is that, in the long run, they just don’t give a shit about society’s (and thus, science’s) attempts to lop off their subtleties and stuff them into poorly wrought binary systems of analysis. Those corrupt systems of analysis tell us more about the prejudices of their makers than the reality of sex and gender. The universe doesn’t care about about human analytical tools. It trundles along its own path regardless. Innumerable real life human beings, across geography and time, have fallen outside of sex/gender binaries. Sex and gender will continue to defy socially normative systems of analysis regardless of how deeply people like Boghossian bury their heads in the sands of their prejudice.

    A competent scientist/observer will try to look past their prejudices and construct explanatory models which approximate the universe as closely as possible. A half-assed scientist/observer will cling to their prejudices and shove the universe (and human beings) into explanatory models which fail to approximate the universe but support their pet notions of normative culture and the power relations which play out there.

    Guess how Mr. Boghossian has been spending his time?

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