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Media Reports On Burning Paper

September 9, 2010 3 comments

Most of us are aware of the religious crank that wants to burn some paper in Gainsville, Florida. I think “Democracy in America” has the perfect reaction to the controversy.

What a great way to report objectionable or violent publicity stunts, right? What could be more frustrating for a publicity-seeking extremist than to have the media refuse to report their cause? “Men set off bomb to publicise their message.” “Youths insult people to publicise their message.” Or, more recently, “Group will burn texts to seek media hype.”

There is no need to put a spotlight on a guy like this. But we also need to step back and notice a few of things. First, we can’t hope to prevent every individual from doing stupid things. Second, his right to burn paper is protected by the First Amendment. Third, we shouldn’t be excusing religious overreaction to an individual burning paper that he doesn’t believe is sacred. PZ Myers, noted desecrator, makes the case.

The lesson of that incident wasn’t that you can find some jerk somewhere who will disrespect what some group finds holy — that was trivial and uninteresting, and I actually had to ignore many of the elaborate suggestions for cracker disposal sent my way to emphasize the absolute triviality of tossing a cracker/piece of Jesus in the trash. No, the real lesson was that mobs of people will react with irrational freakish hysteria to the idea that other people don’t believe as they do.

The problem isn’t the desecrators. The problem is the people who have an unwarranted sense of privilege, that their beliefs wil not be questioned or criticized, ever, by anyone. What I was saying was that it was crazy to believe a cracker turns into Jesus, and what all the outraged Catholics were doing is confirming to an awesome degree just how mad their beliefs were, with their prolonged and excessive outrage.

So I’m looking at this recent episode with Terry Jones — a fellow I don’t like at all, and I think he’s a fanatical goofball — and I see that the serious problem here isn’t Jones at all…it’s all the lunatics who are insisting that burning the Koran is a major international catastrophe. (my emphasis)

I fully concede that actions like burning holy books might inspire violence against our troops. But that just suggests that we shouldn’t be publicizing the actions of a stupid man. I appreciate all the people trying to persuade (not including public officials) this pastor to not hold this event, but where is all the energy at trying to persuade fanatics from carrying out horrific acts of violence because some other fanatic decides to burn a freaking book? What does it suggest that people keep worrying that “peaceful” people will react with spectacular violence if they feel the slightest sense of offense? Also, I thought people weren’t supposed to judge the actions of an individual as representing the whole (I guess that was a one-way street). Of course this all ties into the whole New York Mosque controversy. Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic hits all the right points. Read the whole thing.

If the standpoint of broadly collective responsibility was the wrong way to explain the atrocities, so too was the standpoint of purely individual responsibility. There were currents of culture behind the killers. Their ideas were not only their own. I am reminded of those complications when I hear that Islam is a religion of peace. I have no quarrel with the construction of Cordoba House, but not because Islam is a religion of peace. It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war. All the religions have all the tendencies within them, and in varying historical circumstances varying beliefs and practices have come to the fore. It is absurd to describe the perpetrators of September 11 as “murderers calling themselves Muslims,” as Karen Hughes recently did. They did not call themselves Muslims. They were Muslims. America was not attacked by Islam, but it was also not attacked by Jainism. Mohammed Atta and his band (as well as the growing number of “homegrown” Islamist killers and plotters) represent a real and burgeoning development within Islam, an actualization of one of Islam’s possibilities, an indigenous transnational movement of apocalyptic violence that has brought misery to Muslim societies, and to us. It is not Islamophobic to say so. Quite the contrary: it is to side with Muslims who are struggling against the same poison as we are. Apologetic definitions of Islam will not avail anybody in this struggle.

The more we give into cultural blackmail which demands that we respect beliefs we don’t hold, that we yield to the sensitivities of Christians and Muslims, or that we embrace American conservatives’ convenient willingness to tout “the moral superiority of victimhood” the tougher our task will be to break the stranglehold these forces have on liberty, reason, and uncontrived peace. Real harmony will not be won through a cultural version of M.A.D. Be tolerant or else. Don’t criticize or else. Close your eyes to hypocrisy or else. Excuse away our immorality or else. 

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Science: Not A Strength Of The Religious Or Of Science Reporters

Back in 2009 I posted a piece poking fun at scientific versus faith-based thinking analogizing it with the classic Chicken vs. Egg dilemma. 

Science and religion approach humanity’s puzzles differently. Take the classic chicken or the egg dilemma. Science answers the egg; religion presupposes chicken.

Now PZ Myers blasts a science reporter at MSNBC (along with the scientist that is “partly responsible”) who claims science has discovered that the chicken came before the egg.

You simply can’t make the conclusion the reporter was making here. The species ancestral to Gallus gallus laid eggs, the last common ancestor of all birds laid eggs, the reptiles that preceded the birds laid eggs…the appearance of egg laying was not coincident with the evolution of ovocleidin. The first chicken that acquired the protein we call ovocleidin now by mutation of a prior protein also hatched from an egg.

(photo from UC Davis

Summers-Time Class: Gender Studies

June 16, 2010 2 comments

Discussing potential differences in innate abilities between groups remains a controversial topic and research area. Famously, Larry Summers found himself at the center of a nationwide controversy after he upset many of the students and faculty at Harvard when he speculated on the reasons why women might be less represented in math and science fields. John Tierney in The New York Times has written two columns (here and here) that present some research along with his opinions which seem to vindicate Summers. 

The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.”

The researchers say it’s impossible to predict how long these math and science gender gaps will last. But given the gaps’ stability for two decades, the researchers conclude, “Thus, sex differences in abilities in the extreme right tail should not be dismissed as no longer part of the explanation for the dearth of women in math-intensive fields of science.”

Other studies have shown that these differences in extreme test scores correlate with later achievements in science and academia. Even when you consider only members of an elite group like the top percentile of the seventh graders on the SAT math test, someone at the 99.9 level is more likely than someone at the 99.1 level to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university.

[…]

The gap in science seems due mainly to another difference between the sexes: men are more interested in working with things, while women are more interested in working with people. There’s ample evidence — most recently in an analysis of surveys of more than 500,000 people — that boys and men, on average, are more interested in inanimate objects and “inorganic” subjects like math and physics and engineering, while girls and women are more drawn to life sciences, social sciences and other “organic” careers that involve people and seem to have direct social usefulness.  

You can argue how much of this difference is due to biology and how much to society, but could you really affect it by sending scientists and engineers off to the workshops mandated by the bill now in Congress?  

PZ Myers isn’t too happy with Tierney.

Now here’s the problem: there is no clear marker or metric for success in science. It’s a complicated task, with lots of variables and lots of different strategies for doing well. It’s not like looking for the person who runs the 100 meter dash the fastest, in which we could just line up the applicants, fire a starting gun, and give the job to the first person who crosses the finishing line. So what do we do? We use proxy metrics.

The best proxies are measurements that most closely approximate performance in science. We look at publication records, grants awarded, recommendations of colleagues, the sort of thing we’d expect our new scientist to continue doing. It’s not perfect — maybe the applicant is a neurotic living on the edge who’s about to break down, or maybe they have an abrasive personality that will affect the performance of other faculty — but it’s a good start. It’s what most committees should evaluate most highly in the hiring process. 

[…]

All of those things are still just proxies for the constellation of properties you want in a scientific colleague. We have to balance them to get an idea of the potential of an applicant: it would be insane to hire someone with no experience, no publications, and no grants just because they got straight As in high school and college. But for some reason, in this tedious argument about the suitability of women to do science, all that gets mentioned is a gender difference in performance on standardized tests. 

He then goes on to point out that wealth is also a great predictor of success in test scores. He’s using this example to blow up Tierney’s connection between gender and test scores since obviously wealth isn’t innate. Myers makes some interesting points but this is a poor one. It’s entirely possible (and researchers have made the point before (e.g. Steven Pinker)) that intelligence and wealth are correlated because, unsurprisingly, intelligent people are more likely to be wealthy due to their intelligence helping them get higher paying jobs. In other words, intelligence is a cause of wealth rather than the reverse. 


Real discrimination is a problem, but pretending that no differences exist makes it more difficult to establish when actual discrimination is taking place. At the very least we should be able to discuss the issue without being vilified. If not we might have to sue Mother Nature for age discrimination.


Science of Morality Roundup

May 7, 2010 1 comment

Ever since Sam Harris’s TED talk went up there has been a healthy debate on the topic. Here are the major links for those interested.  I included some worthwhile excerpts from the various links. 
The TED talk.


The longer Google version. 


The Moral Landscape.


My first reaction. 

[It] seems a strong case can be made that liberty is a moral value that doesn’t rely on well-being as its foundation. Sure, supports can be garnered to strengthen the moral case for liberty but humans, for example, could theoretically be worse off because of liberty and a strong case can still be made for its moral value. Kant, of course, made a strong moral case that humans are ends not means. Therefore, conscious beings as autonomous agents might make suboptimal decisions, but restricting their free choice through a benevolent paternalism might be less moral even if it leads to greater well-being.

Sean Carroll’s initial critique. 

Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur. After all, not everyone is all that concerned about the happiness and suffering of primates, or even of other human beings; some people take pleasure in torturing them. And even if they didn’t, again, so what? We are simply stating facts about how human beings feel, from which we have no warrant whatsoever to conclude things about how they should feel.

Sam responds to Sean.

It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.

 And the philosophical skepticism that brought us the division between facts and values can be used in many other ways that smart people like Carroll would never countenance. In fact, I could use another of Hume’s arguments, the case against induction, to torpedo Carroll’s entire field, or science generally. 

Russell Blackford counters Sam.

To illustrate Singer’s conception of moral action, if I wish to act in accordance with the so-called ethical point of view, and if I see that Φ-ing (say, selling my house and donating the proceeds to Community Aid Abroad) is the unique way for me to do so in my current circumstances, then it can be said that Φ-ing is what I ought to do. 

 Notice, however, that I expressed this as a hypothetical imperative. It is what I have reason to do if I already wish to act from the ethical point of view. At this stage, no good reason (some kind of non-moral, or pre-moral, “ought”) has been given as to why I should, or might, wish to act in accordance with the ethical point of view. It’s no good saying that my interests are not objectively more important than anyone else’s. So what? They are still my interests, and I may desire to further them. How have I made any error if I set out to do so? My desire to further my own interests is not the sort of thing that can entail any truth-claims that might be in error. I simply have desires … and they motivate me. 

 Sean tries to clarify. 

The second point I wanted to mention was the justification we might have for passing moral judgments over others. Not to be uncharitable, but it seems that the biggest motivation most people have for insisting that morals can be grounded in facts is that they want it to be true — because if it’s not true, how can we say the Taliban are bad people? 

 That’s easy: the same way I can say radical epistemological skepticism is wrong. Even if there is no metaphysically certain grounding from which I can rationally argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter, nothing stops me from using the fundamental assumptions that I do accept, and acting accordingly. There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!

Sam’s guide to moving from “is” to “ought.” 

FACT #8: One cannot reasonably ask, “But why is the worst possible misery for everyone bad?”—for if the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad, the word “bad” has no meaning. (This would be like asking, “But why is a perfect circle round?” The question can be posed, but it expresses only confusion, not an intelligible basis for skeptical doubt.) Likewise, one cannot ask, “But why ought we avoid the worst possible misery for everyone?”—for if the term “ought” has any application at all, it is in urging us away from the worst possible misery for everyone.

Massimo Pigliucci thinks science can inform morality but not answer ethical questions. 

The crux of the disagreement, then, is embodied in the title of Harris’ talk: in what sense can science answer (as opposed to inform) ethical questions? Let me take one of Harris’ examples, the (highly questionable) legality of corporal punishment of children in several US States. Harris rhetorically asks whether we really think that hitting children will improve their school performance or good behavior. But that isn’t the point at all. What if it did? What if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits? Harris would then have to concede that corporal punishment is moral, but somehow I doubt he would. AndI certainly wouldn’t, because my moral intuition (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it, deal with it) tells me that purposefully inflicting pain on children is wrong, regardless of whatever the empirical evidence says.

Sam’s response to Massimo. 

That is not exactly what I asked. I asked whether subjecting children to “pain, violence, and public humiliation” leads to “healthy emotional development and good behavior” (i.e. does it conduce to their general wellbeing and to the wellbeing of society). If it did, well then yes, I would admit that it was moral. In fact, it would appear moral to more or less everyone—just as slitting open a child’s belly to perform an emergency appendectomy seems obviously moral to anyone who understands the purpose of this procedure. The patent immorality of corporal punishment relates to the sense that it is clearly bad for children, both in the moment and in the long run (along with the fact that it is generally the product of anger, rather than benevolence, on the part of the brute holding the paddle).

Sean believes morality can’t be answered scientifically even in principle. 

So how are we to decide how to balance one person’s well-being against another’s? To do this scientifically, we need to be able to make sense of statements like “this person’s well-being is precisely 0.762 times the well-being of that person.” What is that supposed to mean? Do we measure well-being on a linear scale, or is it logarithmic? Do we simply add up the well-beings of every individual person, or do we take the average? And would that be the arithmetic mean, or the geometric mean? Do more individuals with equal well-being each mean greater well-being overall? Who counts as an individual? Do embryos? What about dolphins? Artificially intelligent robots?

P.Z. Myers sides with Sean.

I think he’s right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it’s a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don’t survive). However, I don’t think Harris’s criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can’t. We can certainly use science to say how we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it. Harris is smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.

Sam responds to PZ and Sean. 

I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that he is not as healthy you are?” And yet, these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously. 

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