Evangelical Christianity, Only 3 Centuries Behind Science

April 14, 2014 Leave a comment

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Pastor John Hagee, the well-known televangelist, is out with a new book and it looks like he’s trying to give Isaac Newton a physics lesson.

According to Hagee, God is “controlling the Sun and the moon right now to send our generation a signal,” which is why we have eclipses. That might have been a compelling theory, but Isaac Newton figured out that the Sun, moon, and all planetary bodies follow natural laws and aren’t actually celestial pegs in God’s Lite-Brite billboard. Granted, Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is a pretty dense book and Hagee may not have had a chance to read it. Then again it’s been around since 1687 so you think he might have heard about its lessons by now.

Helpfully we have Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot to let prophesying Christians catchup with three centuries of scientific advancement. Episode 3 takes on the issue of scientific vs religious prognostication specifically.

In an arduous tour-de-force of mathematical brilliance, [Edmund] Halley discovered that comets were bound to the Sun in long elliptical orbits. And he was the first to know that the comets seen in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were one in the same – a single comet that returned every 76 years.

In a stunning example of true pattern recognition, he predicted it would be seen again within 50 years in the future. For millennia comets have been props for mystics who considered them to be merely omens of human events. Halley shattered their monopoly; beating them at their own game. A game that no scientist had ever played before: prophesy. And he did not hedge his bet. Like Babe Ruth predicting where his next home-run would land in the stands, Halley stated flatly, the comet would return that the end of 1758 from a particular part of the sky, following a specific path. There is hardly a prophesy attempted by the mystics that ever he even strives for comparable precision.

[…]

Newton’s laws made it possible for Edmond Halley to see some 50 years into the future and predict the behavior of a single comet. Scientists have been using these laws ever since – opening the way to the moon and even beyond our solar system.

In contrast we have Hagee’s prediction: a “world-shaking event that will happen between April 2014 and October 2015.” It doesn’t really seem quite as precise. Maybe Hagee should pick up Newton’s Principia or Halley’s A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets Compared to the Bible, they’re practically new releases!

(image: Cosmos photo gallery)

The Anthropology of Modern Republicans

January 3, 2014 3 comments

elephant_evolution2_V1Pew Research released its recent polling on acceptance of evolution and the results are depressing. The most talked about demographic result has to be the finding that since 2009 there has been an 11 point plunge in Republicans willing to acknowledge humans evolved over time.

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Most of the commentary I’ve read suggests this is a consequence of “motivated reasoning.” In other words, respondents are using belief in evolution as a proxy for “are you a good Republican?” Using poll questions as tribal markers isn’t unique to Republicans. Both parties, for example, are likely to think the economy is doing worse than it actually is when the president is from the other party.

It’s also possible that people that accept science have been leaving the GOP. Or I suppose Republicans might just be getting dumber. Commentators focused on the cause of the decline and if tribalism is truly the reason for it seem to be asking the wrong anthropological question. The mystery is why being a good Republican means you have to be anti-science. Just reflect on that particular tribal characteristic of the GOP. When pollsters ask questions, self-identified Republicans are subconsciously motivated to be more ignorant.

(elephant image)

The Offensive Truth about Batkid

January 2, 2014 2 comments

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A minor internet brouhaha erupted after philosopher Peter Singer and others critiqued the wisdom of the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Batkid event.

You’d have to be a real spoilsport not to feel good about Batkid. If the sight of 20,000 people joining in last month to help the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the city of San Francisco fulfill the superhero fantasies of a 5-year-old — and not just any 5-year-old, but one who has been battling a life-threatening disease — doesn’t warm your heart, you must be numb to basic human emotions.

Yet we can still ask if these emotions are the best guide to what we ought to do.

[…]

It’s obvious, isn’t it, that saving a child’s life is better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid?

It seems distasteful to even question that utility of a charity that brought so much joy, but it’s partly this fear of giving offense that retards the moral growth of our society. It’s impolite, after all, to doubt the helpfulness of giving 32% of our charity to religion when only a third of all charitable donations goes to the needs of the poor. It’s rude to wonder if many of us favor immigration restrictions that trap people into a life of scandalous poverty because we’re uncomfortable with poor foreigners living near us. It’s positively vulgar to suggest that a charitable event that brought delight mostly to privileged Americans isn’t as beneficial as protecting children from parasitic worms.

Read more…

Music Break: Icelandic Edition

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Categories: Music

Don’t Go to War in Syria… or anywhere else.

September 2, 2013 Leave a comment

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As President Obama drums up support for military intervention in Syria, we should step back and examine if we’ve overcome the strong moral presumption against war. Given how frequently the US decides it’s sensible to risk the lives of our own soldiers and other nations’ civilians, it’s easy to forget the immediate costs of war are horrible for almost everyone.

So unless the long-run benefits of war clearly and significantly outweigh the almost certain death and suffering of thousands of innocent civilians in “collateral damage,” the risk to our troops and allies, the high monetary cost, and the potential long-term negative consequences, war should be avoided. In too many cost/benefit analyses, moral accountants overlook the last category on their ledger. Predicting all the ramifications of intervention is basically impossible as history has demonstrated. Most relevant to Syria, “military interventions in favor of the rebel faction” tend to lead to more civilian deaths not less.

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The record of experts to forecast is often worse than chance as Philip Tetlock established from a “20-year program of research” in his book, Expert Political Judgement.  In the 1980s our entire intelligence community basically failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequences that followed. What justifies any confidence our experts can anticipate the aftermath in a region and culture we know far less about? Even with over one hundred thousand troops, scores of “experts,” and hundreds of billions of dollars we haven’t been able to predict or guide Iraq or Afghanistan toward an obvious positive outcome. Tipping the military balance in Syria could lead to a power shift even worse than the status quo. Even purposefully maintaining a stalemate could embroil the region in an ethnically complex civil war that could result in more suffering and further risks to our allies and interests. Not insignificantly, prolonging war would likely raise the price of oil and further undermine global economic growth.

I’m not claiming I know exactly what would happen if we go to war in Syria. The point is that no one really knows. Couldn’t not going to war lead to terrible unintended consequences? Sure it could, but since we don’t know either way it seems perverse to directly (regardless of intention) kill civilians and spend billions of dollars for uncertain results.

Aside from predicting the humanitarian consequences, it’s doubtful even accomplishing limited goals such as preventing the use of chemical weapons is probable. Regime change in Iraq didn’t stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria; if that “message” didn’t fully entrench the “international norm” why should we think a relatively more modest campaign in Syria would prevent future use? Furthermore, the reason why civilians tend to die in greater numbers during military interventions on behalf of rebel groups is because government forces often get more brutal to compensate. Is anyone totally confident the Assad regime won’t be similarly motivated to scale up their response? Might the government respond by attacking us or our allies with conventional or unconventional weapons or tactics? Moreover, what if our interference in their civil war is too successful and leads to the Assad regime’s collapse? As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey wrote in a letter to Congress, “should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

President Obama thought it was politically prudent to ask for Congress’s approval before entering another war of choice in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the administration argues the vote is largely for show and has no binding force despite what the Constitution, the War Powers Resolution, and candidate Obama says. It’s as if laws regarding war are mere formalities like rules for a grammar descriptivist. Well, the legal prescriptivists need to assert themselves and check the president’s power. Going to war has undeniably bad effects and highly uncertain benefits at best. This war like almost all others is not for true self-defense. War ought to be averted whenever possible.

(photo: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)

Categories: War

The Reduction of Science

August 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Steven Pinker has a new piece in the New Republic defending the encroachment of scientific reasoning into subjects that have been traditionally partitioned from it such as art, morality, and the humanities.

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of that magazine, views that intervention as a “spectacular philosophical mistake.”

We are becoming a massified, datafied, quantified society, who looks for wisdom in numbers… which looks for wisdom in numbers. And thinks that numbers can provide certainties of certain kinds. And owing to the explosion of so-called “big data” there has developed this excessive confidence in the ability of the quantifying disciplines to explain human life. So economists are now regarded on authorities on happiness. Happiness is not an economic subject.

Unsurprisingly, Wieseltier relies heavily on confusion and authority to attack science.  Instead of exhibiting undue certainty, science is the language of doubt and caveat. “Big Data” poster boy, Nate Silver, who dealt with statistical luddites at the Times, wrote a whole book on the problem with overconfidence: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t. After all, it’s not traditional moralists, novelists, or theologians explicitly announcing their “margins of error.”

If you’re going to attack the utility of science, I suppose it’s at least consistent to ignore its lessons when constructing an argument against it. Why is happiness not a subject amenable to econometric analysis? Wieseltier declares so by fiat. No reasons necessary apparently.

Contrary to Wieseltier, economists provide important insights into happiness. Instead of relying on conjecture or conventional wisdom scientists can provide evidence-based judgements on ways to organize society that are consistent with more happiness and well-being. Does the data demonstrate that average happiness is unconnected to economic growth across societies as Richard Easterlin argued? Or does newer research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers “establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries?” This vital question has an answer. Rationality demands we don’t decide who is right by who argued it first or by who we intuit is correct. Whichever theory offers the more reliable data, the better scientific controls, and the more robust explanation points us to our provisional truth. If we’re not getting any happier striving for an ever increasing GDP we should hop off the hamster wheel and explore alternatives.  But if increasing our incomes does improve our satisfaction we should enact policies to help us accomplish that and continue to explore alternatives.

Another economist, Daniel Kahneman, has spent his career studying happiness and used the observations of neuroscience and the tools economics to vanish illusory forms of happiness and show how specific goals can affect an individual’s future contentment. Learning whether people tend to be happier if they spend their money on a fancier wardrobe or on taking a vacation can help provide useful knowledge when making our own decisions. Aggregating the experiences of others allows us to avoid common biases and mistakes – it allows us to boost the modest trajectory of limited experience. Is a bigger house worth the tradeoff of a worse commute? Economics supplies the means to evaluate these and other tradeoffs.

Wieseltier and other critics such as Ross Douthat want to constrain science’s influence on their own pet passions, the humanities and religion respectively. But by cordoning off scientific methodology and diminishing science to a file of facts and a tweaker of technology critics commit the same mistake they accuse of scientism – a crass reductionism.

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover

July 19, 2013 5 comments

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After Rolling Stone put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, the Boston Strong community has suffered from an alarming lack of fainting couches. But I’m here to calm everyone down enough to unclutch their pearls and to explain a lesson we all should have learned in elementary school.

If you can uncover your eyes for a moment, let’s take a quick look at the infamous cover.

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Once you get your CO2 levels regulated by breathing in and out of your paper bag, check out the part of the headline I’ve highlighted. Instead of “glamorizing” the subject of their article, they’ve defined him as “a monster.”

“Glamorize” is also a curious word choice for another reason. This image wasn’t staged; it’s a personal photo of Tsarnaev. It’s one the New York Times used on its front page. In other words, it’s an accurate portrayal of the alleged terrorist we’re interested in learning about.

There is some legitimacy in the criticism that Rolling Stone probably chose this picture to be deliberately provocative to sell more magazines. But unless you’re fundamentally opposed to any capitalist promotion in journalism your selective outrage carries little authority. As long as the image isn’t deceptive, selecting a picture that illustrates the nature of the story isn’t unethical.

So unless you deny the importance of studying the type of person willing to murder innocent civilians, you shouldn’t object to an accurate portrayal. And make no mistake, the article is about him and his transformation into a radical islamist bomber. So all those calls for putting a photo of police officer or a victim miss the point. The article is not about those subjects.

Mandating we only use photos of victims (even when not talking specifically about them) or only using scary images of criminals is a dangerous form a political correctness that prevents us from rationally understanding the threat. Using a “glamorous” photo isn’t unjustified once you recognize that seemingly normal people can become terrorists too. I wonder if the widespread knee-jerk reaction isn’t a subconscious defense mechanism against that frightening reality. When attractive people who look like us can be taken in and radicalized by such an unattractive ideology it scares us. Perception of the true face of the danger is essential to protecting us from the source of that fear.

We all should remember that looking at a cover-photo is only the beginning of how we consume the news. You are expected to judge the photograph, but it’s also understood you will read the content. If we censor ourselves from objectionable images and ignore the context, we’re ostriches blinding ourselves to threats. Everyone calling for a boycott or encouraging stores to not carry what you personally deem offensive forces others to submit to your information blackout. Just because it’s not illegal censorship does not make it benign censorship.

Just remember, don’t judge a book or a magazine by its cover.

(image: fainting couch)

Categories: Journalism
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