Over the weekend, a group of my friends had a lengthy and acrimonious discussion about feminism. For the bulk of the conversation, there was no common ground. We disagreed about the merits of feminism. We disagreed about the goals of feminism. But especially, we disagreed about the proponents of feminism. Some of us thought they were touchpad sensitive harpies who would jump on any cautionary statement as “blaming the victim.” Others of us assigned the label more broadly, to average men and women who wanted everyone to be treated fairly. The former group was dismissive; the dismissive group was being called chauvinistic. It was getting ugly.

“The world has real problems – like sex trafficking and forced marriages – why don’t they focus on those?” the first group asked. “Sex trafficking and forced marriages are issues that feminists focus on,” the second group responded. Oh. And as it turned out, that’s what the disagreement was: we all had different images in mind when we talked about feminism and feminists. Once we clarified what we meant by our words, there was nothing left to argue. Such is the situation behind most altercations: people who agree, talking about different things or using different definitions. Read the rest of this entry »

Drinks Conversation

Last night, a friend and I were discussing the oft-hilarious results of non-science people talking about science: in particular, a newspaper article referring to the different sizes of infinity. “There are an infinite number of multiples of 3, and an infinite number of multiples of 9,” the article goes on to say, “but there are more multiples of 3.” My friend found this highly amusing.

At the time, I laughed along. We were at a party; it was drinks conversation. But the more I thought about it, the less shocking it seemed. The idea of countable and uncountable infinities is not exactly intuitive. The idea that there exists a one-to-one correspondence between the multiples of 3 and the multiples of 9, and somehow that means they’re the same size, is also not intuitive. There’s no reason to expect that someone without a math background would be able to get it right, just like there’s no reason to expect someone who’s never had sex to make love like a porn star (although there is reason to expect a newspaper to hire a competent fact-checker). Read the rest of this entry »