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Showing posts with label evolution. Show all posts
Showing posts with label evolution. Show all posts

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Full of Sound and Fury: The Media Response to Dennett

This post previously published as an article in the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion in 2008.

What is the best way for a well-known, unabashedly atheistic philosopher to have a discussion with the American general public about the value and nature of religion? It is not an easy question to answer. Daniel Dennett's recent undertaking of just that task in his book Breaking the Spell has certainly not been short of controversy or criticism, which is entirely as he expects. "By asking for an accounting ofthe pros and cons of religion," Dennett explains, "I risk getting poked in the nose or worse, and yet I persist" (257). Clearly, he believes the potential nose-poking an acceptable risk to take in order to deliver an urgent message to Americans: that they need to take a hard look at the matter of why religious belief and behavior is so compelling in the first place, as well as what religion is really "good for," and for whom. The appropriate way to address this matter, Dennett argues, is through a scientific approach-that is, one based on methodological naturalism. Contra Eliade, there will be no privileged space for the sacred, no sense in which religion will be considered sui generis. Dennett dwells in the overlapping realms of evolution and cognition, and it is in these terms that his inquiry takes place.

But wait a minute .... hasn't this inquiry been going on for quite some time already? What exactly is Dennett trying to do which hasn't been done already by scientists such as Tom Lawson and Bob McCauley, Pascal Boyer, D. Jason Slone, David Sloan Wilson, and Walter Burkert? The main, critical difference is that Dennett is not only trying to present the best explanations for religion from cognitive science so far, but additionally to a) advocate for this form of inquiry in the first place to the American general audience, and thereby b) encourage a detached evaluation of the purposes (pragmatic and normative) that religion may serve for such an audience. Make no mistake; Dennett is wading into the culture war. And he is trying to do so from the vantage point of the concerned counselor, but whether the audience will accept him in this role is a different story.

A reader used to Dennett's previous work, expecting a treatment of religion along the lines of Consciousness Explained, may well find Breaking the Spell a bit of a shock. The reason for this is itself an interesting thing to contemplate. The book is explicitly speculative, offering tentative explanations but stipulating that the exploration of religion as a naturalistic phenomenon still has very far to go. Fair enough. But nevertheless Dennett wants to use these ideas to put forth the notion that maybe, just maybe, religion not only does not benefit us in the proximate, here-and-now sense (as opposed to the ultimate sense, a distinction evolutionary accounts often make), but perhaps it doesn't even benefit us ultimately. perhaps it exists simply to further itself. To make this case he must establish it on memetic theory, painting a picture through a series of metaphors of religion as a possibly parasitic, possibly symbiotic sort of virus that infects humans because of certain qualities which make it appealing because of adaptations we have evolved for other purposes. Certain inference systems we already have make certain aspects of religion "catchy." It is an epidemiological account, applied to religion previously by Boyer. But it's a bit unfortunate that Dennett had to introduce this concept, indeed introduce the book, by likening religion to the lancet fluke-a parasite that invades the brain of an ant and causes it to climb to the top of blades of grass in order to be more easily consumed by cows, into whose bellies the parasite seeks to travel. A cunning analogy? Certainly, but not very flattering. Dennett draws this comparison to point out that humans have evolved to a point at which our own biological fitness-producing a larger number of grandchildren than our neighbors-has taken a backseat to proximate interests. Democracy, freedom, justice-these are "ideas to die for," as he puts it, and we're comfortable admitting that. But we wouldn't say that the ant is "dying for" the lancet fluke. Rather, it is killed by, which is a different kettle of fish entirely. And that is why memetic theory, even (or especially) if it is true, is so discomforting. But then again, some respondents simply find the idea vacuous. Columnist Andrew Brown of the Guardian complains that Dennett "sees the difficulties [of theorizing about religion], marches bravely into the swamp and then - about halfway through the book, at exactly the point where we're wondering how to reach firm ground - he stops, inflates a hot air balloon that's labeled "memes", climbs into it and floats away" (February 25, 2006). H. Allen Orr of the New Yorker agrees: "The existence of a god meme is no better established than the existence of a god" (March 27,2006).

Dennett wants to argue that religious memes are ideas that we sometimes die for or kill for, but more commonly devote our lives to, and that perhaps we should step back and contemplate whether we ought to be doing so. But this requires exhorting us to "rebel against the tyranny of selfish replicators," as Dawkins originally put it when he coined the term in 1976, leaving us to ask precisely who is doing the rebelling, and with what. For it seems that everything is a meme. It remains highly questionable whether the meme of memetic theory-indeed, of naturalistic inquiry into religion-can be more infectious than the religious memes themselves, and perhaps Dennett is being too optimistic to expect them to be. I suspect that he would say that he has to espouse them regardless.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

How to deal with science you don't like: call it religion

Artist: Person who didn't exist yet, according to nearly
half of Americans
The revelation that in 2012, 46% of Americans believe that humans were created in their present form by God in the last 10,000 years is a little staggering. Staggering but not shocking, considering that Gallup has been conducting a poll on evolution belief for the past 30 years with pretty much the same result. This answer was one of three possible, the other two being 1) humans evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but the process was guided by God, and 2) humans evolved in the same way, but God had no part in the process.

I don't like these possible answers. For one thing, it doesn't look like it was possible for respondents to simply say "I don't know," so the poll forces them to assert a belief that they may not actually hold. For another thing, "God had no part in the process" is a nebulous statement. It could mean that God didn't specially guide the evolution of humans though he did put things in motion originally, which is a common belief of theists who accept evolution. But it sounds more like the respondent is asserting that God doesn't exist. A person shouldn't have to affirm God's non-existence or complete irrelevance to evolution in order to express a belief in evolution as it actually occurs-- that is, without any necessary guidance.

But let's go back to that "present form in the last 10,000 years" thing. Humans have been around in their present form for the last 10,000 years, yes. For that matter, they've been around in their anatomically modern form for about the last 200,000 years, and have been behaviorally modern (capable of symbolic thought, language, culture) for about the last 50,000. The city of Jericho is 11,000 years old. 46% of Americans don't even have their human history right.

What does this tell me? It tells me that evolution isn't the problem. By that I mean, I don't think the content of the story that conflicts with "We were specially made by God" is really an issue so much as the fact that it does conflict, and obviously so. It's not as offensive a creation story as those produced by a lot of religions, because religious creation stories generally entail that humans were created by some god or another, more or less deliberately. Evolution doesn't include that, so its creation story is abhorrent and false. Presumably it would be just as abhorrent and false if it asserted that we humans came into existence in some other very non-deliberate way, such as emerging from the earth like plants. Genesis says that God made Adam from dust, but he made him-- formed him, in God's own image. Special creation is the key...our existence must be on purpose, in order to have purpose.

That is, I expect, the kind of thinking behind Kansas school board member Ken Willard's recent objections to the science standards the state is developing along with 25 other states and the National Research Council. Willard, a Republican (surprise) has in the past "supported standards for Kansas with material that questions evolution," and now:
Willard said the draft embraces naturalism and secular humanism, which precludes God or another supreme being in considering how the universe works. He said he intends to raise the issue Tuesday. 
"That's going to be very problematic," Willard told The Associated Press in an interview. "They are preferring one religious position over another."
Unfortunately the public review period for the science standards is now closed, however in a section on the site titled The Nature of Science in the NGSS, I see this:
What is central to the intersection of the practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts?  Or, what is the relationship among the three basic elements of The Framework for K–12 Science Education? Humans have a need to explain the world around them. In some cases, the need originates in potential dangers, sometimes it is a curiosity, and in other cases the promise of a better life. Science is the pursuit of explanations of the natural world. As a foundation for K–12 science education, the issue is explaining the natural world and especially the formation of adequate, evidence-based scientific explanations. To be clear, this sort of explanation should not be confused with how students engage in the practice of constructing explanations. Obviously, students in K–12 are not likely to construct new explanations of the natural world; they can understand and engage in the process scientists use to acquire scientific knowledge. 
Might this be the root of Willard's objections-- the assertion that science is for explaining the natural world? That explanations must be based on evidence in order to be scientific? That is "naturalistic," in the sense that naturalism entails a belief that the universe obeys rules, and science is a means of discovering and explaining those rules. Naturalism also entails that nothing exists beyond the universe, or if it does it doesn't affect the workings of the universe, but the science standards don't appear to assert that this is true. I don't see anything that "precludes God," unless by that Willard simply means that the standards do not invoke God. His god, presumably-- one gets the feeling that acknowledgement of a deistic god would not suffice at all.

The refusal to take a position on religion is not itself a religious position, but I am guessing Willard does not believe this. Either that, or he is trying to obscure that fact by clumsily slapping on philosophical labels in order to turn it into one, which is far from a new tactic:
One of the most robust and effective conspiracy theories on the right, the notion that "secularism" – or, just as often, "Secular Humanism" – is a religion is meant to be taken entirely literally: right wingers genuinely believe it refers to an actually existing religious practice. How do conservatives know? Because, they say, the Supreme Court said so. It was, as religious historian and Lutheran minister Martin E. Marty has written, "an instance where one can date precisely the birth of a religion: June 19, 1961." That was the day the Court ruled in the case of Torcaso v. Watkins striking down the Maryland Constitution's requirement of "a declaration of belief in the existence of God" to hold "any office of profit or trust in this state" — specifically, in atheist Roy Torcaso's case, the office of notary public. In his decision, Justice Hugo Black, writing for a unanimous court, further asserted that states and the federal government could not favor religions "based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs" – and, in a fateful, ill-considered, and entirely offhand footnote explained: "Among religions in this country which do not teach what would be generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others."  
From here, things get wacky. As unearthed by the outstanding scholar Carol Mason in her masterpiece Reading Appalachia from Left to Right, in 1974 a Jesuit priest and Fordham University law professor named Edward Berbasse argued that "since humanism is now considered by the court to be a religion , it must be prevented from being established by the government." An activist asked him if that meant they could win their fight to ban the satanic textbooks being forced down their children's throats in Kanawha County, West Virginia by taking the matter to the Supreme Court. "I think you may have the material if you can get a crackerjack lawyer," Father Berbasse responded. A Supreme Court case was never actually attempted – not least because, as Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have pointed out, "While historically there has been an organized humanist movement in the United States since at least the 1800s, the idea of a large-scale quasireligion called secular humanism is a conspiracist myth." In Kanawha County, the textbook fight was fought out with dynamite instead. Nationwide, however, the conspiracist myth took on a life of its own – even unto the halls of Congress. 
For Secular Humanism was not just an imaginary religion. It was, as the subtitle to a 1984 book still revered by religious conservatives, put it, The Most Dangerous Religion in America. How so? Because it held that man, not God, determines human affairs. From that, as Martin Marty explained, the ascendant religious right developed the claim that "when a textbook does not mention the God of the Bible ... it necessarily leads to a void which it must fill with the religion of Secular Humanism." (It's a religion. Thus the Capital Letters.) And that any textbook which does not mention the guiding hand of God is rock-solid proof that the "secular humanist" conspiracists had written it; the absence was the presence.
Nobody honestly thinks that science in general is a religion. They just try to treat it as one when it comes to theories that they object to on religious grounds in order to make it constitutionally problematic to teach it. If it isn't a violation of anyone's religious freedom to teach that plants photosynthesize, it isn't a violation to teach evolution.

Last Easter, Pope Benedict took the opportunity to misrepresent evolution with regard to humans specifically, claiming that the Catholic Church accepts evolution, so long as it entails that humanity was specially created. That is, not evolved. I wrote then:
I'm sure it's possible to understand evolution and still find it depressing and threatening, but it's remarkable how many people who find it depressing and threatening do not understand it.  A hard-liner could quibble about the idea that we evolved "to" do anything at all, but in the context of simple order of events it is quite true that we evolved rationality into the world, in the same way that Daniel Dennett wrote that we evolved free will into the world. At least our version of it, in our world. Richard Dawkins, probably the greatest proponent of evolutionary theory alive today, likes to dwell on the unlikelihood of each of our personal existences, however significant they are to us. In Unweaving the Rainbow he wrote:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
The reaction I have to such thoughts is awe and wonder. The reaction that people like the Pope have is apparently revulsion and fear-- we, you and I, could not have come into this world without an act of special creation. Life has no meaning otherwise.  Yet here all of us evolution-believers are, comfortably denying ourselves to be the product of a design independent of the process of natural selection, and yet somehow managing to not commit mass suicide in a fit of despair. Some of us believe that there is a god behind the whole process and others don't, but the simple idea of being evolved individuals doesn't shake any existential pillars and cause our sense of teleology to come crashing down. How is that? 
I want to call it humility. But that wouldn't be at all humble, now would it?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Biased ! = wrong

Let me say this, right from the start: I love biases. No, I don't love that they exist, but I think they're endlessly  fascinating. I love thinking about them, identifying them, figuring out where they come from. Studying biases is how I came to the realization that the way we generally think about human reasoning is mistaken. Humans are not rational creatures who occasionally succumb to a bias which perverts their ordinarily sound, logical thought processes. We are creatures who are practically made of bias, for whom attempts at objectivity (or as close as we can get to it) are counter-intuitive and require effort. A 2003 paper by psychologists Martie Hasleton and David Buss on biases in social judgment begins:
Humans appear to fail miserably when it comes to rational decision making. They ignore base rates when estimating probabilities, commit the sunk cost fallacy, are biased toward confirming their theories, are naively optimistic, take undue credit for lucky accomplishments, and fail to recognize their self-inflicted failures. Moreover, they overestimate the number of others who share their beliefs, demonstrate the hindsight bias, have a poor conception of chance, perceive illusory relationships between noncontingent events, and have an exaggerated sense of control. Failures at rationality do not end there. Humans use external appearances as an erroneous gauge of internal character, falsely believe that their own desirable qualities are unique, can be induced to remember events that never occurred, and systematically misperceive the intentions of the opposite sex
...to give just a few examples. Approaching the matter from an evolutionary standpoint, they then go on to suggest that these biases are not necessarily "design flaws," (maladaptive traits) but actually features. A suggestion they make in that paper to agree with psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby remains, in its simplicity, one of my favorite things to quote: "[An evolutionary perspective] suggests that the human mind is designed to reason adaptively, not truthfully or even necessarily rationally."  What does that mean in practice? Well, that understanding the world as it really is, and thinking about it in the most logical possible way, is not necessarily the most efficient way to get your genes into the next generation. Rather, the specific lies we tell ourselves actually make it easier for us to get food, avoid being killed, find mates, and reproduce. If this is the case, we should expect to see people lying to themselves constantly...and we should expect to find ourselves doing the same.

That's kind of a discomfiting thought. But you get over it. Reading Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, for example, had me grinning (though occasionally ruefully) to notice examples of self-justification bias and other means of avoiding cognitive dissonance that I've been guilty of numerous times. It still doesn't remove the sting of being accused of bias by others, especially people who believe that sufficient to discredit what you're saying. And that is what I've been getting to in this post.

See, Ben Radford has a very good essay up today at SheThought about the various accusations of bias he has received on behalf of virtually every group he has written about based on something someone found objectionable in his articles. Most recently it has been complaints about his discussion of a soon-to-be-published book for children called Maggie Goes on a Diet, accusing him of bias for not denouncing the book (before reading it, by the way-- none of these commentators have had the opportunity to read it yet) as harmful to young girls' health and self-image. Radford remarks
I don’t mind the criticisms, it’s the bias accusations that annoy me, and it’s instructive to briefly analyze them. When I question claims about aliens and UFO photographs, critics assert that the only logical reason I would do so is because I have a bias or agenda as part of a government conspiracy to keep the truth from the public. When I question claims about alternative medicine and homeopathy, it’s not because I have researched it and know a lot about it, but because I’m being paid by Big Pharma. When I question claims made by psychics, critics say it’s because I have a bias toward protecting the scientific status quo—or that if I were to accept the reality of psychics it would devastate my worldview. And when I question claims about the links between media images and eating disorders, it can’t be because I know something about it—having studied it for years and written a book about the mass media—but because I hate fat people.
Whether Radford actually is biased against fat people, or whether Maggie Goes on a Diet is, is not the point here. As I said the book isn't out yet, but you can read his article about the protest against for Discovery here and the rest of his reaction to criticisms at the link above.

The point here is that we all have biases. And there is no harm in pointing them out-- in fact, it's always instructive and useful to do so. However, the simple fact of having biases does not make someone wrong. It might provide some useful psychological information in terms of why they're wrong...or why they're right. But it doesn't tell you which one they actually are. From one of my favorite Ed Brayton posts:
Everyone is biased. If one's bias leads them to make fundamental errors in reasoning, then point out the errors in reasoning. If it leads them to ignore relevant data or distort the nature of the evidence, then point those things out specifically. If you can't do either of those things then the accusation of bias doesn't tell you anything about the validity of the claims being made. This is merely a cognitive shortcut to dismiss someone out of hand rather than engage the arguments being made. 
So here's the quote from CS Lewis that sums this up perfectly:  
"You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong... Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is 'wishful thinking.' You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself... If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic..."
Spot on. And very useful. The point is that you must first engage the argument on its own terms. Once you've defeated the argument, then it's reasonable to point out that the inaccuracy of the claims may have been due to bias, or wishful thinking, or fear. But until you defeat the argument, you're not really saying much of anything.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Have we evolved to reject evolution?

Following on the Pope post, there are various theories about whether people might reject evolutionary theory because it contradicts their intuitions. One was described by developmental psychologist Paul Bloom in an article he wrote for Natural History magazine entitled "In Science We Trust." Bloom, who lays out a theory of intuitive mind/body dualism in his book Descartes' Baby, believes that we have intuitive "theories" about physics and agency which cause us to operate as though they're inherently separate things. Following from that, he basically argues that we may reject or misunderstand evolution because we have a hard time imagining something conscious being made out of non-conscious things (that is, consciousness as an emergent property), or that evolutionary change could happen without conscious guidance. This doesn't make it impossible to understand and accept evolution-- of course, since plenty of us do just that-- but it would suggest that we have some built-in biases in our thinking which predispose us against doing so. Bloom writes:
A minority of Americans subscribe to an unusual theory about the origin of people and other animals. They are often adamant about the truth of this theory, and believe that it is the only one that should be taught to children. But if you press them on the theory's details, their answers are muddled. It turns out that these people understand little of what they are defending; they are just parroting back what they have heard from others. Who are they?  
They are Darwinians--people who claim to believe in evolution by natural selection. . .  
Psychologist Deborah Kelemen of Boston University, for instance, finds that children insist that everything has a purpose. Educated Western adults believe that human-made artifacts have purposes (cars are to drive around in) and that body parts have purposes (eyes are for seeing), but young children take this further, saying the same for animals (lions ate for being in the zoo) and for natural entities (clouds are for raining).  
And psychologist Margaret Evans of the University of Michigan found the most direct evidence for natural-born creationism. She carried out a series of studies in which she asked children flat out where they believe animals come from. Their favorite answer is God. That is true of children whose parents are fundamentalist Christians--no surprise--but it is also true for children whose parents accept the theory of natural selection! Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was right to complain, then, that it seems "as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism." . . .   
Looking within the United States, the difference between Darwinians and creationists does not reduce to smarts or education: studies of college students found no difference in how well (or poorly) they understood the theory of evolution, whether they believed it was true of not and no matter how much biology they'd studied. When researchers asked the students who endorsed Darwinian beliefs to explain the theory of natural selection, their answers were on average no more accurate than those of the students that rejected evolution. Many in each group misunderstood the theory, coming up with something closer to Lamarck's view than Darwin's.   
So while an evolutionary biologist might argue that giraffes evolved long necks because the ones with longer-than-usual necks got more food from trees and hence tended to have more offspring, many students would say that it is useful to have a long neck and so (somehow) giraffes will have longer-necked children. They believe, as Lamarck did, that there is some mysterious force that causes animals to become better adapted to their environments, and they confuse this with modern evolutionary biology.  
Those are just a few excerpts; you can read the whole thing for free at the link above. I don't find it at all surprising to think that there are plenty of people who profess to accept evolution but don't actually understand evolutionary theory. I wouldn't be surprised, for that matter, if such people constitute the majority of evolution-accepters. The idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics which Lamarck advocated just seems to be easier for people to grasp whether they are pro-evolution or not. The matter of why some people find this misunderstanding of evolution perfectly okay and others abhorrent does not seem to be about who is more educated or who thinks more critically per se, but very likely more about religious and/or political affiliation. That's my thought, but I don't have the research to back it up...yet.

In the meantime, people advocating that evolution should be taught in public school science classrooms and never creationism should sit down with a cup of tea and a copy of Darwin's Dangerous Idea if they've never done so. Consider it an intellectual gift to yourself.

The Pope misrepresents evolution

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him
as an Australopithecine.
Apparently in his Easter address last night, the Pope had some unflattering words for evolution:
Pope Benedict XVI marked the holiest night of the year for Christians by stressing that humanity isn't a random product of evolution.  
Benedict emphasized the Biblical account of creation in his Easter Vigil homily Saturday, saying it was wrong to think at some point "in some tiny corner of the cosmos there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it."  
"If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature," he said. "But no, reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine reason."  
Church teaching holds that Roman Catholicism and evolutionary theory are not necessarily at odds: A Christian can, for example, accept the theory of evolution to help explain developments, but is taught to believe that God, not random chance, is the origin of the world. The Vatican, however, warns against creationism, or the overly literal interpretation of the Bibilical account of creation.
...which is kind of like saying that enjoying a thick, juicy steak every now and then doesn't conflict with vegetarianism because hey, steak is the only meat you eat. Just a technicality here, Pope, but I don't think you can really claim to accept evolution if you a) don't understand it, and b) firmly exclude humans from it.  As Jerry Coyne says sardonically on his blog, "Hey, Pope! Haven’t you heard about natural selection? Human evolution isn’t all mutation and genetic drift, you know." I'm guessing that the Pope actually doesn't have the foggiest idea how much randomness has to do with evolution; he's just using it to mean "not guided by God." Because who cares about causality if God isn't the cause?

One of Coyne's readers notes the irony in the fact that (if you ignore the word "randomly") the statement "in some tiny corner of the cosmos there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it" is quite beautiful, touching, and humbling. He/she says
I actually think that is a lovely poetic passage. We are bits of the universe that have evolved to bring rationality into the world — what a beautiful sentiment! It sounds rather like Sagan. 
I’m amused that, for me at least, it had precisely the opposite of its intended effect.
That's the thing, isn't it? I'm sure it's possible to understand evolution and still find it depressing and threatening, but it's remarkable how many people who find it depressing and threatening do not understand it.  A hard-liner could quibble about the idea that we evolved "to" do anything at all, but in the context of simple order of events it is quite true that we evolved rationality into the world, in the same way that Daniel Dennett wrote that we evolved free will into the world. At least our version of it, in our world. Richard Dawkins, probably the greatest proponent of evolutionary theory alive today, likes to dwell on the unlikelihood of each of our personal existences, however significant they are to us. In Unweaving the Rainbow he wrote:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
The reaction I have to such thoughts is awe and wonder. The reaction that people like the Pope have is apparently revulsion and fear-- we, you and I, could not have come into this world without an act of special creation. Life has no meaning otherwise.  Yet here all of us evolution-believers are, comfortably denying ourselves to be the product of a design independent of the process of natural selection, and yet somehow managing to not commit mass suicide in a fit of despair. Some of us believe that there is a god behind the whole process and others don't, but the simple idea of being evolved individuals doesn't shake any existential pillars and cause our sense of teleology to come crashing down. How is that?

I know, by the way, that the Pope wasn't announcing anything new-- that the Church's doctrine has long been that evolution can be accepted but that the human soul was a special creation. But Benedict chose this Easter to reiterate that doctrine in a way that betrays a clear willingness to see understanding (much less accepting) evolution as optional, whereas drawing inferences about its existential significance is not. In that sense he was pretty much promoting willful ignorance as ordained by God. And that I find depressing.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Who do you admire?

At The Daily Dish, Conor Friedersdorf contemplates the results of a recent Gallup poll asking Americans which men and women they most admire.  Barack Obama won out for men, whereas Hillary Clinton came out on top for women.  Friedersdorf thinks the fact that politicians make up the majority of people on both lists is "all about" name recognition, and I agree. He also says that "I'd never cite a living politician if asked who I admired most," and I agree with that too.  Nor would I cite a religious leader who is heavily involved in politics, several of whom also figured highly in the ranks (Billy Graham, Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama).  In fact, the only people at the top who wouldn't qualify for either of those two descriptions are Angelina Jolie, Oprah, and...Glenn Beck.  Dear god.

The poll asks "What man/woman have you heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?  And who is your second choice?"  I admit that if you called me on the phone and asked me this question impromptu, I would have some trouble coming up with my "best" answers.  I don't keep a list of heroes in my head, because usually it's not something important to consider unless you are asked for a Gallup poll, or, say, a job interview (why having a good answer to this question is an important quality in a receptionist, I'm not sure).  I couldn't tell you my top five movies or bands, either.  It's not because I'm apathetic or without preferences, just that ranking such things never really seemed that important.  But since I'm pooh-poohing the top answers given by the Americans polled, it seems like I should be able to come up with some I might actually give, at least for right now.  Such as...

Radley Balko:  Radley is a journalist.  To sum him up as a journalist, however, would be a little like summing up Norman Borlaug (someone who would absolutely be on my list, if he hadn't died last year) as a farmer.  Radley's work is decidedly political, but it is the kind of politics which any person with an ounce of compassion should praise, yet of which most are completely ignorant-- seeking out and revealing the cases of people who have been oppressed by America's justice system, whether by oversight or quite deliberately.   He's written extensively about the harm caused by no-knock drug raids, prosecutorial cover-ups, asset forfeiture, the necessity of access to DNA testing for convicts, and general police malfeasance.  His work bring injustices to public attention-- "My reporting helped get a guy off death row, helped win a new trial and acquittal for a 13-year-old murder suspect, and led to the firing of a corrupt medical examiner in Mississippi."  His blog, as you can probably imagine, is frequently a depressing read.  But it's a necessary one, and I admire him for doing this sometimes very dirty work.



Joel Salatin:  Joel is a farmer-- but not a regular one.  To quote Wikipedia, he is
"a self-described 'Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer'" who "produces high-quality 'beyond organic' meats, which are raised using environmentally responsible, ecologically beneficial, sustainable agriculture."  To unpack that, it means that he doesn't just farm without using pesticides or genetically modified animal foods, which is what "organic" usually implies.  Hence the 'beyond organic'-- the goal of Polyface Farms is to start with grass and build a progressive and decidedly non-industrial food chain off of it.  Cows, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs, all living off and contributing to the grass and each other's...err...products.  No pollution production, no pesticide runoff, no tight confinement of animals in dark spaces eating food that makes them sick.  No docking of tails for depressed pigs.  No government subsidies, because the government doesn't subsidize growing grass, or cows that were fed only grass or chickens that were fed only grass and the grubs of other animals that ate grass. Just a circular, self-perpetuating cycle of food production-- something you'd think was the norm until you found out otherwise.  I admire that immensely. I also admire Michael Pollan for making sure the world has the opportunity to know who Salatin is.


Eugenie Scott:  Eugenie, who sometimes goes by "Genie," is an anthropologist who heads up the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) and is, incidentally, one of the biggest fighters against creationism in public schools and promoters of evolution in America.  See Kitzmiller v. Dover.  Eugenie generally operates behind the scenes, but she is probably the foremost authority on the evolution/creationism controversy in the country.  And it's not just about Dover-- it's about a country-wide ongoing tireless battle to make sure that what is taught in public school science classrooms is actually science, and she's been contributing toward that effort for more than 20 years.  I find a lot to admire in that kind of dedication. I also admire Lauri Lebo for writing about the Dover trial in a way that could make everyone understand it and feel like they know everyone involved in it, because that's absolutely necessary if people are expected to care. 


Carol Tavris:  Carol is a social psychologist who studies human bias.  She is co-author of a very important book entitled Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, which is a lesson in intellectual humility that everyone-- everyone-- needs.  I could make a list of science-based books that have made my head spin with possibility...and will, at some point.  But reading this one, and hearing Carol talk about it in the interview below and this one, really punched through for me.   As often as people throw around the term "cognitive dissonance," they don't really seem to understand it.  It's not the simple fact of holding contradictory views-- it's the discomfort that arises from realizing that your views are contradictory.  Intellectually honest people feel cognitive dissonance and seek to resolve it by changing their views.  Intellectually dishonest people either don't feel it to begin with or they find a way to avoid the discomfort by rationalizing their views to make them seem consistent, which is what Mistakes Were Made is all about.  We're all regularly intellectually dishonest-- it's the norm, not the aberration.  Bias is in our nature, and bias is, in my view, infinitely fascinating.  That willingness to brave that chasm of human folly and make it easier for the rest of us to do so as well is why I find Carol so admirable.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

So....Skepticon

I'm glad I went, and I had a good time.  That said, I most likely won't go back.

It's amazing, what they're doing.  A free conference in the Midwest for non-believers, with this kind of lineup of stellar speakers?  Anybody in the area who is remotely interested in these topics would be well-served in checking it out.  This is the third year of Skepticon in Springfield MO, and the list of speakers includes most of the same people from the previous two years but keeps getting larger.  Normally in order to attend a sizable gathering for skeptics, you'd have to be on either the west or east coast.  I would love to attend The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas at some point, but seem to recall the tickets as costing around $400 for the entire weekend, which is beyond the means of many people, let alone college students.

And college students from Missouri State University are the people who instigated, planned, and organized this meeting.  The primary organizer, JT Eberhard, almost never stopped moving.  He managed to sit down and listen to a few minutes of some talks, but from what I could tell he was mostly running around making sure things went smoothly.  That's what being in charge of a conference is like-- the people throwing the party are usually the last ones to have time to enjoy it.  And this conference was like a party in a lot of ways.  In a rare spare moment I met JT and we talked for a bit.  He explained that the intent was to give skeptics a chance to get together, see that there are lots of others like them, curse a lot, later drink a lot, and have fun.

Now, to the controversial part.  I don't know if Jeff Wagg's blog post which said that Skepticon is not actually about skepticism but rather atheism is the only openly voiced complaint to that effect, but it seems to be the one getting the most attention.  Wagg's post is, on the balance, not at all offensive.  In fact, he goes out of his way to note his respect for the conference and its organizers, refers to his ruminating on this subject as "navel gazing," and in general is about as self-effacing as could be.  The title of his post, "Are Atheists Delusional?" is deliberately provocative and Wagg immediately notes that he believes nothing of the sort, but is simply trying to echo a talk given by Richard Carrier at Skepticon entitled "Are Christians Delusional?"  I still think he could've used a better title, but so be it. Wagg's argument:
I don’t believe the schedule shows “a myriad of skeptical issues.” The e-mail is an admission that the organizers of Skepticon believe that Skepticism = Atheism and that the event is designed to combat religion, specifically Christianity. I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you’ve missed the point. As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say. . .
The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor with a community that overlaps strongly with the skeptical community. Skepticism is about drawing conclusions that are proportioned to the available evidence. That’s it. And I think keeping the two things separate if [sic] vitally important.
This message was not taken at all well by Eberhard, who responded at AtheismResources.com, or PZ Myers, who has been a speaker at Skepticon since its inception.  Eberhard notes that several of the speakers scheduled were expected to talk about skepticism generally, and even if it were a conference all about atheism he wouldn't care:
My first response is that even if we were a purely atheist convention, so what?  Skepticism leads to certain conclusions like homeopathy doesn’t work or that psychics are frauds.  Just as certain as it leads to those conclusions, it also leads to the conclusion that god doesn’t exist (or that anybody claiming to have good reason to believe that god exists has done so in error).  And just like the previous conclusions, people who fail to grasp the godlessness of the universe often hamstring society. 
PZ, predictably, denounced Wagg's comments as "stupid" concerns about "harming the cause."  He then linked back to JT's commentary saying "I think we can tell where the future of skepticism lies," which caused JT to tweet:
@ calls me as the future of skepticism, links to me bitch-slapping JWagg. So flattered I shit my pants. 
Let's back up a bit.

I've been following the Skepticon Twitter feed throughout (#sk3), and now that it's over I noticed there are a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings being voiced, sometimes with people going so far as to say that they're not looking forward to going back to the "real world" after Skepticon. That's something people might say about any vacation or trip, and is in fact a regular post-con feeling for people who attend big events like DragonCon or ComicCon. But specifically what people are referring to is the time they spent amongst fellow unbelievers.   The blog for Skepticon 2 summarizes the event somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not untruthfully as "We're inviting a bunch of famous atheists to Springfield to criticize religion and explain how it's very dangerous."  The program for Skepticon 3, on its front page under the title, says "Unbuckling the Bible Belt" and the History section on the back reads:
The Skepticon series began in October of 2008 when a small group of pirates decided that they wanted to make a difference in the town of Springfield, MO.  They then somehow convinced PZ Myers and Richard Carrier to come to the Missouri State Campus to spread skepticism and criticize religion.
It's admirable that this summary's author acknowledges that spreading skepticism and criticizing religion are not identical ventures, and I hope he/she would also agree that criticizing religion is not necessarily even a subset of skepticism.  If skepticism means thinking critically and demanding evidence for the truth of an assertion before accepting it as true, which is how I define it, then one can quite easily criticize religion without being skeptical at all.  And, let's be honest, doing it that way is both easier and more fun for a lot of people, just as criticizing anything you want to be critical about can be easier and more fun if you're not actually concerned with evaluating the facts.  During his talk on Saturday morning, DJ Grothe described atheism as a kind of skepticism toward a particular topic-- belief in God.  He compared it to "a-UFO-ism," in that an atheist is a person who doesn't believe in God just as an a-UFO-ist would be a person who disbelieves in flying saucers.  But disbelief in a thing and skepticism regarding that thing are not identical.  People do not necessarily disbelieve in things because they are critical thinkers any more than they believe in things for that reason.  The irony in maintaining that people believe in God because they are stupid is that this conclusion is not at all bright itself, and atheists who maintain such while smugly congratulating each other on their critical thinking skills are not much fun to spend time with.

No, I'm not going to claim that this description fits the majority of people who attend Skepticon.  I will say, however, that creating an opportunity to criticize religion as an end unto itself is an invitation for people to engage in that sort of behavior.  It creates an atheist echo chamber-- as DJ put it, people saying "I'm really smart and so are you, so you should agree with me."  That's not a bad thing because it "hurts the movement," though it almost certainly does.  It's a bad thing because at that point it's no longer about skepticism, but cronyism.

The two areas of concern to be discussed during a conference on skepticism could be labeled Topic-Driven, or "things to be skeptical about," and Theory-Driven, or "how/why to be skeptical."  Most of the talks and both panels in this case were theory-driven, and that's okay.  But the topic-driven talks actually served to highlight things that should be discussed during the theory-driven ones.  Amanda Marcotte, for example, commented during her interesting talk on how irrationality nurtures sexism that religion acts as a "blank slate" when it comes to encouraging prejudice-- because it's a matter of faith and therefore doesn't demand the same burden of proof that other areas of belief do, it can be used to reinforce any pre-existing biases people have.  That's an interesting hypothesis, but she didn't supply evidence for it.  It could be that religion can only reinforce certain types of bias, or that only certain types of religion can.  Or it could be that religion is actually more likely to produce bias where it previously didn't exist.  I think that's unlikely, actually, but it's possible.  And it's a discussion worth having, considering the breadth of disagreement about how much blame religion should receive when people invoke it to justify their bigoted thoughts and acts.   These topics don't have to be avoided because they're weighty or boring, either-- David Fitzgerald, who went next, managed to make an interesting and funny talk out of the ostensibly very dry subject of differing representations of Jesus in historical literature. You don't have to swap skepticism for ideology to have a good time.  Man, I hope that you don't. 

Wagg's principle complaint is that he doesn't think religion is an appropriate topic for skepticism past a certain point, and that point is "testable claims."  In his view, bleeding statues qualify, but resurrection does not.  Bleeding statues and such are the domain of investigator Joe Nickell, who also spoke at Skepticon and explicitly rejects the label of "debunker" because he wants it noted that the falsity of supernatural claims is not a foregone conclusion for him.  But could Nickell investigate the topic of resurrection?  Sure he could-- by applying what we know about biology to specific claims that someone came back to life.  And aside from cases of someone flat-lining and being revived via defibrillation and the sort, what we know is that people don't come back to life.  Therefore, the skeptical stance to such a proposition is not to deny it outright, but it's also certainly not to believe it, or even to adopt the kind of agnostic position we might have when being asked what color socks the president is wearing today.  The skeptical stance regarding the claim of resurrection is: Everything we know says that it's incredibly unlikely that that thing happened, so I do not believe it.  Not only is there incredibly sketchy evidence for the resurrection of a man, but there is evidence against it.  Skepticism can be applied to any and all empirical claims, and the resurrection of a person, like so many other religious claims, is empirical.  Hence, fair game.  Richard Dawkins goes so far as to say that a universe which was deliberately created would look different from one which wasn't, so our understanding of the universe can be counted as evidence against the existence of the creator god in whom so many believe.  Essentially, he claims that the hypothesis offered by Intelligent Design, effectively the teleological argument, is actually refuted by the available evidence its proponents intend to confirm it.*

So religion is not at all a subject which should be counted as out of bounds for skeptics-- so long as they are being skeptical about it, and not simply mocking and condemning it.  If someone is the type of person who cares enough about religion to have become an atheist as a conclusion to a lot of thought and research, it baffles me why they wouldn't be interested in what research has to say about why people are religious in the first place, and what evidence science might have to offer about religious claims.  Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell has its critics among believers and scholars (and many who fit only one of those categories), but in addition to saying 1) Hey, we shouldn't consider religion a sui generis topic that isn't susceptible to the same scrutiny we give every other claim about reality, and 2) Here are the most common arguments for theism and why they fail philosophically, which are both important messages, he also delves into the considerable body of research on why and how people actually believe.  Which, I think, is the next logical step for a true skeptic so that he/she doesn't fall into the "they're just stupid/evil" trap.  And the explanations are there, if you just look for them-- trust me.  If you'd prefer to believe that the majority of world's population are actually just stupid and/or evil, I can't help you.  But I can say that that's not a skeptical position to take. 

So, I guess that means I don't agree with Jeff Wagg.  But neither do I necessarily agree with DJ, whose perspective is right-on but he doesn't seem to be skeptical enough about skeptics.  I don't think he acknowledges that they're vulnerable to the same tendencies as everybody else in terms of wanting to belong, and forming an "us vs. them" mentality.  That's how you get people who think that being skeptical is about your position on topics-- a conclusion rather than an approach, which is not how science works.  It's not about making sure everyone agrees and celebrating that....quite to the contrary, it's about pulling out the disagreements and examining them, finding out which arguments are legitimate and why. That's fun. That's skepticism. 



*Is Dawkins right about that?  Maybe, but that discussion could go on forever, and I don't honestly think that most atheists became atheists by applying the teleological argument in reverse.  Even if they agree that evolution demonstrates that a creator god who directly intervened in existence to create each species is unnecessary, that belief is not what made them atheists.  People were skeptical about the existence of gods long before evolutionary theory was even a glimmer of an idea, as even William Dembski will admit when pressed (perhaps by Christopher Hitchens), and it's possible to find atheists today who either deny evolution (rare) or don't actually understand evolution that well though they know they're "supposed" to believe it (much more common).  The Hitchens/Dembski debate from the 18th has been posted on Youtube, by the way. Worth a watch I think.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

12-year-old girl beaten after Christian youth meeting for "having a boy's name."

From Change.org:
What's in a name? A 12-year-old girl at Hernando Middle School in Mississippi was beaten by five fellow students -- reportedly because they said her name, Randi, was "a boy name."
"They started talking about me like I was a man," she told local news station WREG. "That I shouldn't be in this world. And my name was a boy name." The four girls and a boy surrounded her after a Fellowship of Christian Students meeting, and, she said, kicked her in the rib and leg, hit her in the face, sat on her, pushed her face into the floor, and threw her onto a cafeteria table.
Apparently, the incident was caught on surveillance camera, but in order to maintain student privacy, the film has not been released. A school administrator issued a statement, said WREG, that "fighting is not tolerated and that disciplinary action will be taken to the fullest extent of the law." No charges were filed, however, because the police were not called. Whether the attack was an isolated incident or part of ongoing bullying remains unknown.
The student in question was not said to be LGBT -- but whether she is or not doesn't matter. She was beaten because she was perceived to be in some way not conforming to her gender. That is yet another reason schools need to include discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in diversity and anti-bullying programs. It is not just LGBT students at risk, but potentially others as well. Students, teachers, and staff must learn that even characteristics some people might view as "deviant" or "sinful" are still no excuse for violence and bullying.
The part in bold is what is most important to me.  I'm not going to blame the kids' Christian youth group for this, much less Christianity as a whole, much less religion as a whole.  For all we know, the timing of this attack is irrelevant to the motivation.  The only reason I think it's worth mentioning at all is that perhaps in the future, the Fellowship of Christian Students could emphasize that beating the crap out of a girl because you think her name is boyish is not exactly loving behavior

My continuing suspicion is that at the root of homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, and any other gender-role-based hatred you will find a rigid belief in the necessity of conforming to gender roles-- a belief that there are ways that men and women should behave, look, and apparently even be named, and there is something wrong with people who do not conform to these standards.  This suspicion first occurred to me while being assaulted and called a dyke for having short hair in middle school, and has pretty much developed and strengthened from that point on.

The more complex problem is where this fervent desire to maintain gender conformity comes from, and everybody seems to have a different answer to that.  Some people are willing to chalk it up entirely to religion, and indeed it certainly seems like most religious systems on the planet have some kind of prescriptions about how men should be and how women should be, but I think it's more likely that those prescriptions became codified in religion because they existed prior to it.  That because people already thought that such conformity was necessary, they decided that that's what God/the gods/the universe want as well.  There are even (even?  I guess this is not surprising at all) people who use evolutionary psychology to make the argument that men and women have evolved to be certain things and therefore that's how they should be.  I have no issue with arguments that there are male and female behavioral tendencies that have evolved, but once you start getting normative with that stuff, I will whack you soundly over the head with the Mallet of Naturalistic Fallacy. 

I'm guessing the parents of the kids who beat this girl up didn't specifically tell them that people who diverge from tightly prescribed gender roles have something wrong with them and should be punished.  But there are a lot of ways to convey that message less explicitly and most people don't seem to see anything wrong with doing so.  No, you're not going to catch me saying that kids should only be given gender-neutral toys or toys intended for the opposite sex, boys should be enrolled in ballet and girls signed up for the baseball team whether they like it or not, etc.  But while I know full well that kids like to have things simple and categorized while they're young, I can't help but think that accommodating that urge when it comes to gender is going to serve them poorly later on, and certainly that actively providing and enforcing views about gender conformity when they're at any age is encouraging them to become like the students in this story.

Of course, maybe these kids just hate Randi and were using any excuse to go after her.  "You have a boy's name" is such a stupid reason to go after anyone that it's entirely possible.  But the gender role conformity thing shouldn't be dignified by calling it anything other than stupid.