Notes and Comment Blog


Jan 7th, 2007 1:31 pm | By

While we’re on the subject of biases and the difficulty of spotting one’s own (especially compared to the extreme ease of spotting everyone else’s) – Nigel later asked me a follow-up question for that interview he did at Virtual Philosopher, about just this issue. I didn’t see it until after he posted the interview, so I’ll post the q and a here, on account of relevance.

NW: Do you really believe we can eliminate our prejudices, the political, ideological and moral commitments that usually infect our judgements? I’m thinking of what Nietzsche said about how philosophers end up simply confirming their own prejudices under the guise of applying reason dispassonately…

OB: Well, I don’t really believe there’s any certainty or guarantee of that, of course; I don’t believe we can or should ever relax into confidence that we have. But I think we can make the attempt, I think something is better than nothing, I think awareness of the issue at least helps us to be vigilant. If nothing else, I think understanding the mechanism helps. If we realize that X commitment influences our thinking and causes us to ignore or downplay or attempt to explain away evidence we don’t like, there is at least a chance we can try to correct for that. If we’re not even aware of the mechanism, there is little hope we will try to correct for it.

I could have answered more thoroughly, and better…Actually I argued with JS a bit about that part of B&W’s About page, which he wrote, and which is where Nigel got that phrase about the political, ideological and moral commitments that usually infect our judgements. I said (September 2002 it must have been) we can’t and don’t want to get rid of them, surely? And he said no, but that’s not what the about page says, it says B&W opposes ‘Those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents, and the general tendency to judge the veracity of claims about the world in terms of such commitments.’ It doesn’t oppose the commitments, it opposes schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the commitments. I think I went on arguing for awhile, not quite grasping the distinction, but then I finally did.

But there is still a question: do I really believe we can have thoughts whose truth claims are not prompted by our commitments? Then I’d give much the same answer – I don’t think we can ever be confident or certain about it, or that we should, but I do think we can be aware of the issue and try to correct for it, and that awareness is step one. So it is with biases, and with all quirks and habits that distort our thinking.

Along the same lines: I’ve been yapping a lot about taboos lately, so it keeps occurring to me to try to figure out if I have any taboos, and if so what they are. I can name some of my basic assumptions, and some commitments, but I’m not sure about taboos – which makes me suspect I just haven’t dug hard enough. Or, indeed, that I’m just flattering myself.

It depends what we consider a taboo, of course. There are some arguments that I find exasperating and don’t feel like bothering with, but I think not for taboo-like reasons but just because they’re familiar and fatuous – the ‘atheism is just another faith’ trope is high on that list. I’m thinking of taboo as an irrational revulsion – a Yuk – as opposed to a heightened or vehement or irritable reaction; I’m also thinking of it as morally righteous; as dealing in shame or guilt or moral blackmail of some kind. A ‘how dare you’ kind of thing. Holocaust jokes – that might be a candidate; except it doesn’t come up, so it’s not a very good one. I want some realer taboos than that.

Update: I suggested a spot-the-taboo game, but then when I saw the comments realized it was way too narcissistic. Enough about me; what do you think about me? That kind of thing. So never mind the game. Unless you’re up for a nice game of hockey? I’ll just get my skates.


Jan 7th, 2007 12:59 pm | By

Biases are just endlessly interesting, don’t you think? Apart from anything else they remind us (if we’re paying attention anyway) that we all have them; they’re like kidneys, or toenails; part of the standard issue equipment. In fact the idea that we’re too clever to have them (or anything like them) is one of them.

Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths: About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average. In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war.

It’s a familiar paradox – optimism and confidence are psychologically useful, good motivators, good for the mood and the health and getting things done, but they can also inspire godawful messes. Tricky.

What is ironic is that individuals who attribute others’ behavior to deep hostility are quite likely to explain away their own behavior as a result of being “pushed into a corner” by an adversary…If people are often poorly equipped to explain the behavior of their adversaries, they are also bad at understanding how they appear to others…Excessive optimism is one of the most significant biases that psychologists have identified. Psychological research has shown that a large majority of people believe themselves to be smarter, more attractive, and more talented than average, and they commonly overestimate their future success. People are also prone to an “illusion of control”: They consistently exaggerate the amount of control they have over outcomes that are important to them – even when the outcomes are in fact random or determined by other forces.

An item along those lines in Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think (page 109) is that in a survey of one million high school seniors, all of them (all of them!?) thought they were above average in their ability to get along with others; 25% thought they were in the top 1%. That just made me laugh and laugh and laugh. I’ve never for one second in my life thought that about myself. Never. I’ve always known perfectly well that I’m terrible at it. I know some other people who are terrible at it, too, though – I even know quite a few who are worse at it than I am, even a lot worse. But if that survey is any indication, they all or almost all think they’re good at it. That’s hilarious. It also explains a lot – I do know some people who are blithely rude and tactless and insulting and get surprised when anyone gets cross with them. Rich people are like that, I’ve noticed – they must think their richness somehow makes people love and admire them so much that rudeness is taken for charm?

There’s a good line in Robyn Dawes’s book Everyday Irrationality (page xi): ‘We neurotics tend to whine, to feel unappreciated, to be “passive aggressive,” and – worst of all – to expect our therapists to alleviate our problems.’ Oh! thought I when I read that, enlightened, I’m a neurotic! That’s good to know. (The therapist bit doesn’t apply, on account of I don’t have one, nor do I have problems. But if I did have a therapist, I would certainly expect it to alleviate anything I wanted alleviated. What’s it there for after all?)

The bias about not understanding how we appear to others seems particularly applicable to the Bush administration – which prompted some idle musing this morning on the oddity that people like Wolfowitz are clearly not stupid, and yet they seemed to have a really bad case of this inability – a really astonishing blindness to the way an invasion would appear to the rest of the world. They should have had someone like Kahneman (or in fact Kahneman) on the staff.

How extraordinary

Jan 6th, 2007 7:47 pm | By

He’s been a comedian or ironist for awhile, Umran Javed has. He was doing the playful postmodernist irony thing in Birmingham way back in 2003.

Posters have appeared around Birmingham describing the September 11 hijackers as the “magnificent 19.” The posters, which have been branded illegal by Birmingham City Council, also feature Osama Bin Laden, the twin towers on fire and advertise a political meeting to be held on the anniversary of the attack…A small radical Islamist group called Al Muhajiroun are featured on the posters. Al Muhajiroun spokesman Umran Javed said: “For us to air our views with regard to this issue, should in fact fall into the category freedom of speech. I don’t see how people should have a problem with it. We believe what these individuals carried out on September 11 was an extraordinary event.”

Extraordinary, yes, but was it ‘magnificent’? But that’s postmodernist wordplay for you, of course. Magnificent on the posters, extraordinary when talking to the press. And then of course there’s that same familiar irony of defense of freedom of speech coming from someone who shouted ‘bomb, bomb Denmark’ because of…cartoons. I just love postmodernist irony, I just can’t get enough of it. Which is good, because there’s lots of it around.

Sense of humour failure is it?

Jan 6th, 2007 7:17 pm | By

It’s nice when people remind us not to be literal-minded, isn’t it – that’s always a helpful bit of advice. There’s nothing more dreary than people who can’t see a joke, unless it’s people who think a metaphor is a statement of fact, or perhaps people who think advertising is literally about causing people to pay money for products, or then again maybe people who think candidates for office ought to live up to the statements they’ve made about what they plan to do once elected. Pedants all; drones and killjoys. Jokes are jokes, soundbites are soundbites, metaphors are metaphors.

There are those witty and fascinating people for instance who traipse around embassies wearing masks and holding posters that say drolly ironic things like ‘Behead those who insult Islam’ and ‘Massacre those who insult Islam’ (note the broad and flexible vocabulary) and ‘BBC=British blasphemic crusaders’ (note the creativity). What wonderfully puckish, wry, postmodernist, playful fellas (they do seem to be all fellas) they are, don’t you think? I wish I could join them for a pleasant afternoon drinking coffee and chatting about ideas – it would be so enriching. And yet, if you’ll believe it, there are those who think they meant the stuff about beheading and massacring literally. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad – as they point out themselves:

Javed told the jury: “I regret saying these things. I understand the implications they have, but they were just slogans, soundbites. I did not want to see Denmark and the USA being bombed.”…The conviction was attacked last night by Muslim activists who said that a fair trial was not possible in the current climate in Britain. They said that the demonstrators had merely been expressing their anger and not literally calling for murder.

Well of course they had. They were just giving original, thoughtful expression to their very natural and legitimate anger at – um – some cartoons. Some cartoons which were…um…not jokes at all, of course, but deadly, literal…um…insults, if not quite exactly threats, directed at…um…the prophet and therefore also at all those who…um…admire the prophet, and so –

I gotta go.

Surely you’re joking, NASA

Jan 5th, 2007 7:29 pm | By

A remark in Thomas Kida’s splendid book Don’t Believe Everything You Think (Prometheus) snagged my attention yesterday. Page 193:

However, overconfidence can also cause catastrophic results. Before the space shuttle Challenger exploded, NASA estimated the probability of a catastrophe to be one in one hundred thousand launches.

What?! thought I. They did!?! They can’t have! Can they? I was staggered at the idea, for many reasons. One, NASA is run by science types, it’s packed to the rafters with engineers, it couldn’t be so off. Two, I remember a lot of talk – after the explosion, to be sure – about the fact that everyone at NASA, emphatically including all astronauts, knows and has always known that the space shuttle is extremely risky. Three, the reasons the shuttle is extremely and obviously risky were also widely canvassed: a launch is a controlled explosion and the shuttle is sitting on top of tons of highly volatile fuel. Four, a mere drive in a car is a hell of a lot riskier than a one in one hundred thousand chance, so how could the shuttle possibly be less risky?

There was no footnote for that particular item, so I found Kida’s email address and asked him if he could remember where he found it. He couldn’t, but he very very kindly looked through his sources and found it: it’s in a book which in turn cites an article by Richard Feynman in Physics Today. I knew Feynman had written about the Challenger and NASA, but no details. The article is not online, but there is interesting stuff at Wikipedia – interesting, useful, and absolutely mind-boggling. They can have, they did. Just for one thing, my ‘One’ was wrong – NASA is apparently not run by science types, it’s run by run things types. Well silly me, thinking they’d want experts running it.

Feynman was requested to serve on the Presidential Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster of 1986. Feynman devoted the latter half of his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? to his experience on the Rogers Commission…Feynman’s account reveals a disconnect between NASA’s engineers and executives that was far more striking than he expected. His interviews of NASA’s high-ranking managers revealed startling misunderstandings of elementary concepts. In one example, early stress tests resulted in some of the booster rocket’s O-rings cracking a third of the way through. NASA managers recorded that this result demonstrated that the O-rings had a “safety factor” of 3, based on the 1/3 penetration of the crack. Feynman incredulously explains the gravity of this error: a “safety factor” refers to the practice of building an object to be capable of withstanding more force than it will ever conceivably be subjected to. To paraphrase Feynman’s example, if engineers built a bridge that could bear 3,000 pounds without any damage, even though it was never expected to bear more than 1,000 pounds in practice, the safety factor would be 3. If, however, a truck drove across the bridge and it cracked at all, the safety factor is now zero: the bridge is defective. Feynman was clearly disturbed by the fact that NASA management not only misunderstood this concept, but in fact inverted it by using a term denoting an extra level of safety to describe a part that was actually defective and unsafe.

Christ almighty.

Feynman continued to investigate the lack of communication between NASA’s management and its engineers and was struck by the management’s claim that the risk of catastrophic malfunction on the shuttle was 1 in 10^5; i.e., 1 in 100,000…Feynman was bothered not just by this sloppy science but by the fact that NASA claimed that the risk of catastrophic failure was “necessarily” 1 in 10^5. As the figure itself was beyond belief, Feynman questioned exactly what “necessarily” meant in this context – did it mean that the figure followed logically from other calculations, or did it reflect NASA management’s desire to make the numbers fit? Feynman…decided to poll the engineers themselves, asking them to write down an anonymous estimate of the odds of shuttle explosion. Feynman found that the bulk of the engineers’ estimates fell between 1 in 50 and 1 in 100. Not only did this confirm that NASA management had clearly failed to communicate with their own engineers, but the disparity engaged Feynman’s emotions…he was clearly upset that NASA presented its clearly fantastical figures as fact to convince a member of the laity, schoolteacher Christa McCauliffe, to join the crew.

That’s one of the most off the charts examples of wishful thinking in action I’ve ever seen.

Persistence and tenacity

Jan 4th, 2007 8:20 pm | By

A little more on this question of ‘faith’ and cognitive disability – in hopes of provoking more foolish outbursts from angry Christian commenters. No not really; in hopes of exploring the issue further.

There’s a basic and important difference between ‘faith’ and inquiry. Their goals are different. The goal of faith is faith. The goal is confirmation, continuation, stability, loyalty. It’s Queen Elizabeth’s motto: semper eadem: always the same. It’s continuity. The goal is to have faith and go on having faith and go on going on having faith. It’s sameness, tenacity, clinging, stubbornness, persistence. The virtue is in resisting doubt. In inquiry, understanding, knowledge-seeking, research – science – that’s not the goal. There the goal is to get it right, not to hang on no matter what. The goal is different, the attitudes are, the virtues are, the habits are, the methods are, the whole way of thinking is.

It’s a radical difference.

In most situations, we recognize and understand that the first is wrong and stupid, bad and dangerous, even lethal, while the second is right. If you’re looking for food or water or shelter, it’s not virtue to decide it’s in place X and then hang on to that no matter what the evidence. But with ‘faith’ it is a virtue.

It’s a radical difference and a large one.


Jan 4th, 2007 7:24 pm | By

Science classes are one thing, religious education or comparative religion is another thing, or perhaps two other things.

The government has cleared the way for a form of creationism to be taught in Britain’s schools as part of the religious syllabus. Lord Adonis, an education minister, is to issue guidelines within two months for the teaching of “intelligent design” (ID), a theory being promoted by the religious right in America…Adonis said in a parliamentary answer: “Intelligent design can be explored in religious education as part of developing an understanding of different beliefs.”…The theory has gained a foothold in the American state school system, sparking legal challenges from secular groups seeking to oust it from science teaching.

From science teaching. Not from comparative religion teaching, from science teaching. It makes a difference which class we’re talking about. At least it ought to.

Although Adonis stopped short of permitting the teaching of intelligent design in science lessons, one of the key lobby groups behind the theory, Truth in Science, hailed his statement as a significant breakthrough…Andrew McIntosh, a professor of engineering at Leeds university who heads Truth in Science, said: “We believe that evolutionary theory should be taught in a critical manner, and some space must be given to credible alternative theories, such as intelligent design.”

Credible alternative theories such as intelligent design? It’s not all that credible, really. It’s more credible than young earth creationism, but that’s not saying much.

The lobby group says its ultimate aim is to pressure schools to teach ID in science lessons as a challenge to Darwinism. It says it has the support of about 70 heads of science across Britain, who want ID to be introduced in the national curriculum as part of science.

Does it say how many ‘heads of science’ across Britain it has the opposition of? I bet it’s more than 70.

It has emerged that 12 prominent academics wrote to Tony Blair and Alan Johnson, the education secretary, last month arguing that ID should be taught as part of science on the national curriculum. They included Antony Flew, formerly professor of philosophy at Reading University…

That’s sad. See Raymond Bradley’s article on ‘Intelligent Design or Natural Design’ for more.

Atheists speak out shock-horror

Jan 3rd, 2007 8:08 pm | By

This is rather depressingly stupid, in a predictable conformist unthinking way. Same old thing – atheism is shocking, offensive, in need of explanation, rude, violent, extreme, naughty, whereas theism is just fine, natural, as it should be, nothing to question, no problem, nothing to see here folks go on home. Why is theism the default position while atheism is something to draw a crowd of open-mouthed horrified finger-pointing gawkers?

[T]he fact is that in the waning months of 2006, a kind of militant atheism was making itself felt across the land. There were two best-selling books declaring belief in God to be a kind of mass delusion, and a harmful mass delusion at that…

Uh…yes; and? Is it so blindingly obvious that belief in God is not a ‘kind of’ mass delusion? Not to me it’s not. Actually I would say that the belief that belief in God is not a mass delusion is, in fact, a mass delusion.

…occasioning a vigorous and often angry response from many people who believe the repeated announcement of the death of God to be wrong, spiritually deaf and dangerous.

What the flock does ‘spiritually deaf’ mean? Deaf to what? Deaf to what ‘spiritual’ noises? Chirps? Barks? Grunts?

But of course empty jargony meaningless decorative burble about spiritual deafness is precisely how mass delusions are dressed up as something Deep and Special and Reverent and Not To Be Questioned By Those Horrid Militant Atheists. It’s amazing what magic the right kind of jargon can do.

Atheism is nothing new, of course, and perhaps not even the militant, proselytizing atheism of the sort taking place just now.

Oh my god – militant, proselytizing atheism – can you imagine. The arrogance and, you know, proselytizing militancy of some people – it’s staggering. Militant, proselytizing theism, of course, is perfectly all right and normal and nothing to make a newspaper fuss about, but militant, proselytizing atheism is an outrage.

But at least a few atheists are now actively, angrily, passionately trying to persuade the religious to their point of view, none more conspicuously than Sam Harris,…whose book Letter to a Christian Nation portrays Christianity as a kind of malign nonsense. Harris is engaging in no polite parlor discussion, showing due respect to the views of others.

Yes, and? So what? Why is that a problem? But Bernstein is either so stupid or so habituated to this way of thinking that he (apparently) doesn’t even realize there’s anything to explain – it’s just self-evident that atheists are not allowed to try to persuade people to their point of view or to fail to show ‘due respect’ to the [religious, and religious only] views of others by not questioning them in any way.

Atheism as a necessary attribute of civilization – religion as the opposite of civilization – that argument is being stated more assertively and is being welcomed in some quarters more warmly now than at any time before. What is going on?

What do you mean, what is going on? What is all this foolish wondering? Why are you taking it for granted that theism is perfectly reasonable and sensible while atheism is bat-loony and calls for explanation?

This kind of fatuous unthinking is precisely why some atheists feel a need to do some persuading.

The best-sellerdom of books like those of Harris and Dawkins shows that there is a market for militant atheism, but the market for religious belief is bigger. I wouldn’t imagine any candidate for office winning on a platform of disbelief in God.

Well nooooo kidding, bub. And that’s one reason atheists are getting restless. It has to do with not wanting to live in a theocracy! Or even in a thought-world where theism is taken for granted and atheism is treated like a visitation from Mars.

The two movements are almost entirely dissimilar, of course, with Christian fundamentalism engaging in no violence or threats.

I beg your pardon??? Christian fundamentalism engaging in no – oh the hell with it, the guy must live under a rock. He wrote a not-bad book a few years ago, but maybe something has gone wrong since then.


Jan 2nd, 2007 9:07 pm | By

From Norman Levitt’s Prometheus Bedeviled:

[T]he authoritarian presuppositions that had to be defeated for democracy to emerge as our primary political paradigm were closely linked, and sometimes identical, with the obscurantist articles of faith that science had to sweep aside in order to gain its place at the center of our contemporary knowledge system…The entrenchment of dogmatic religion was (and, to some extent, still is) an important prop of a social order based on hereditary caste and class. Simultaneously, it was wedded to an epistemology that automatically excluded both the modes of inquiry on which science depends and the conclusions about the physical and biological universe to which it inexorably led.

This suggests, to me, a way in which religious indoctrination really can be seen as a kind of abuse – intellectual or cognitive abuse.

It’s not just the obvious: that dogmatic articles of faith represent a mistaken way to go after understanding about the world; it’s because dogma can’t be contradicted or refuted. That makes it a trap. It prevents, rules out, forbids, closes off precisely what we need, which is a permanent on-going process of questioning, examining, thinking, that goes with a sense that anything and everything can be questioned – that there is nothing walled off in a shrine, a sanctum, an ark of the covenant, a kaaba, a holy of holies.

When that is done to children, it is a form of cognitive or epistemic abuse. It trains children who are, precisely, too young to be skeptical of what they are told, to think in the wrong way – it disables a basic part of their cognitive functioning before they’ve had a chance to form it. Since they are too young even to be able to resist, this is a cheat, an abuse of power via age-difference. It’s like foot-binding in that way – like distorting young soft bones into a deformed, disabled shape.

In other words it creates an intellectual disability, a mental handicap. It’s similar to handicapping children for begging purposes, as some desperate parents do. Some former children can overcome the handicap later, of course, but many never get the chance. This is a basic injustice. It’s not one that can be fixed by laws or social workers, but that does not mean it’s not a real one.


Jan 1st, 2007 11:30 pm | By

Dennett is optimistic that the powerful mystique of religion is going to fade out – though he also has pessimistic moods when he thinks Martin Rees is right that some whack-job group will do a mass kill with a nuke or a biological weapon. But he says he’s confident that the better thing will happen. I’m not, but I hope I’m wrong.

Why am I confident that this will happen? Mainly because of the asymmetry in the information explosion. With the worldwide spread of information technology…it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts (and, yes, of course, misinformation and junk of every genre) that gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance. The religious fervor of today is a last, desperate attempt by our generation to block the eyes and ears of the coming generations, and it isn’t working. For every well-publicized victory…there are many less dramatic defeats, as young people quietly walk away from the faith of their parents and grandparents.

Let’s hope so! Bless their electronic little hearts.

Michael Shermer is optimistic that science is winning out over magic and superstition. Well, not at the Grand Canyon, but again, let’s hope he’s right.

Rebecca Goldstein finds it hopeful that novelists are exploring the propositional attitudes of other people.

In one early important experiment (Heider & Simmel 1944), almost every single subject, when shown a short movie consisting of geometrical shapes moving on a screen, attributed propositional attitudes to the shapes. Subsequent research has strengthened the view that our capacity for mental attribution is universal and nearly reflexive—in short, an aspect of human nature.

So we think geometric shapes have minds (of a sort) – that’s interesting. Similar to and no doubt connected with our pattern-seeking habit, and our meaning-imposing tendency, and our anthropomorphic bias, and our need to see causality everywhere. Mind you…I would think that would lead to hostility just as easily as it would lead to harmony – but never mind; I’ll be optimistic for today. Happy new year.

What is child abuse

Jan 1st, 2007 6:38 pm | By

Ed Brayton wrote an open letter to Richard Dawkins after the, er, discussion at Pharyngula and Panda’s Thumb. Long story. There was a petition about religious indoctrination; Dawkins signed it; people had issues with the petition; P Z emailed Dawkins to raise the issues and ask if he really endorsed what the petition said; Dawkins said no, he didn’t, he hadn’t read the whole thing and it was a mistake to sign it, and he’d withdrawn his signature; Dawkins also posted on Ed Brayton’s post on the subject (but you have to scroll through some four million posts to find those from Dawkins). So Ed wrote this follow-up post, and a comment by Orac snagged my attention:

I keep asking myself the question: Why would Dawkins settle for such a tepid response to such an evil if he really, truly believes that religious indoctrination and labeling of children is often as harmful as child abuse?

My guess would be that it’s because it’s complicated: it is quite possible that religious indoctrination (at least in some cases) really is as harmful as child abuse, but also that it is harmful in a much subtler, more unobvious, long-term, invisible and intangible, difficult to demonstrate way than other kinds of child abuse are, and that that fact makes it pretty much impossible to interfere with the practice in general without being monstrously coercive and doing more harm than good. This also ties up with that ‘often’ – ‘that religious indoctrination and labeling of children is often as harmful as child abuse’ [emphasis added]. Often but not always. In short what we have is an opinion that religious indoctrination and labeling of children is often but not always as harmful as child abuse, and that religious indoctrination and labeling of children is often as harmful as child abuse but is not identical with child abuse; along with the fact that religious indoctrination and labeling of children, if and when harmful, will be harmful in much less self-evident ways than, say, beating. That constellation presents a problem. It’s an existing problem, and a real one – there are kinds of child abuse that are terribly harmful but are much much harder to detect, and thus do anything about, than physical abuse is. It’s a problem that is of its nature pretty much impossible to correct without massive totaliatrian intervention and/or surveillance – without some kind of social work system that would employ half the population, and be unworkable. In other words we all sort of know, though we don’t confront it or think about it much, that in fact there are huge numbers of children who are indeed abused but can’t be helped, because there is simply no workable way for anyone to know they are abused. There are parents who, accidentally or on purpose, mangle their children emotionally. It seems safe to guess that that’s not even rare. But how is anyone going to know that? And the same applies to religious indoctrination. I would say that certain kinds of abusive religious indoctrination – repeatedly telling a child she was going to hell to be tortured for eternity, for example – should be a reason for social workers to come calling. But it never will be, for the same reason that repeatedly telling a child she is stupid and ugly won’t be.

In other words, there’s a real problem, not a pseudo-problem. I think it’s wrong to think that Dawkins is just daft to say that religious indoctrination of children is often as harmful as child abuse, or that he’s mistaken in saying that and still saying that government intervention in the matter would be a horrible idea. He’s not being inconsistent, in my view, he’s simply recognizing that there are two evils and government surveillance of all families would be by far the worse of them. But that does not entail that the lesser evil is not an evil. It damn well is an evil. Every despised child who is fed and clothed enough and sent to school but is constantly told she is a worthless nuisance is an evil. Many problems of life can’t be fixed, but that doesn’t mean they’re not problems. It’s as well to be aware of that. Especially since some of them can be at least alleviated by education, by as Dawkins says consciousness raising, by changes in the culture, by altering the climate of opinion. There is growing awareness that emotional abuse is harmful; it seems probable that more people make an effort not to abuse their children that way than would have without that awareness; so the same could in principle be true of religion.

Ethnification and violence

Dec 30th, 2006 7:59 pm | By

Cass Sunstein points out that ethnic hatreds are rarely primordial.

Part of what we have been witnessing is a kind of rapid “ethnification,” in the form of a social cascade…[S]ome societies show slow or rapid ethnification, as people devote more of their efforts to showcasing their ethnic identity…As Hitler obtained power, many German Jews became more closely self-identified as Jewish, in part for reasons of self-protection. A key factor here is whether the relevant social norms impose pressure to identify in ethnic terms, or not to do so. It may be “politically correct” to broadcast one’s ethnicity, or it may be politically correct to hide it. Sometimes the governing norms shift abruptly. When this is so, there can be intense pressure to self-identify in ethnic terms, sometimes to retain friends, sometimes to obtain material advantages, sometimes to save one’s life.

Or sometimes just to be or feel right-on. To feel a self-righteous glow, to have the thrill of talking about ‘my brothers and sisters,’ to feel special and proud and bigged up. Ethnification is a wonder for that.

A major conclusion is that even the most intense forms of ethnic hatred and fear can be a product of a process of ethnification, rather than a cause of that process…[E]thnic hatred is not in anyone’s blood. Whether people focus on ethnic identity, or on something else, is partly a product of (current and recent) social pressures, not of anything that happened in the distant past.

As Amartya Sen pointed out in Identity and Violence. Some critics said that he failed to explain why identity and ethnification are so attractive, if they are so shallow and contingent. I’m not so sure he did fail – but maybe that’s because I take the reasons to be more or less self-evident. Feeling self-righteous and bigged up and part of a special group is fun! It’s fun, it’s attractive, it’s rewarding, it’s something to do, it’s something to think about. I take all that to be so obvious that it hardly needs explaining – but maybe that’s obtuse of me.

Some good news is that ethnic hatred can decline fairly rapidly as well, especially when it is a product of social norms to which people have unenthusiastically yielded. Some bad news is that when violence is rampant along ethnic lines, any such decline is extremely difficult to engineer.

As we keep seeing.

Don’t forget Hazlitt

Dec 30th, 2006 7:43 pm | By

Antonella Gambotto-Burke, reviewing A C Grayling’s new book of essays seems to appreciate the essay as a genre. Very good.

The form, as he points out, has a distinguished history in the literary and philosophical tradition: Herodotus, Pliny, Plutarch, Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Samuel Johnson, Thomas De Quincey. The premise? To essay contributions to the one great conversation is to offer “pieces for a mosaic that would in sum depict something true about the human condition…

She doesn’t include Hazlitt though. I’m guessing that Grayling did, since he’s written a book about him, and anyone who’s read even one Hazlitt essay knows he is one of the stone geniuses of the form. He’s the single most under-read under-rated unaccountably obscure writers in the English language, in my view. He ought to be vastly better known than, say, Thackeray, Lamb, De Quincey, Orwell. Yes, Orwell. Orwell was good, but as a stylist he wasn’t within shouting distance of Hazlitt.

[H]e is really only yearning for a time when philosophers and artists could be superstars, in which the immaterial not only mattered but prevailed; in essence, a derailing of the democratising of our language (“This tendency is what, in the extreme, produces pidgins: simple clumsy languages incapable of nuance, detail, abstraction and precision”) and demotion of its elder gruntsmen (David Beckham, Shane Warne). His is a clarion call for constructive elitism.

That’s constructive elitism and also open elitism – thus (in my view) not really elitism at all, which is one reason I wish people wouldn’t throw the word around so easily. Real elitism has to do with closing doors to the horrid many. Simply saying that some interests are more enriching than others and that everyone should be urged to try them is the opposite of that kind of elitism, and so, in truth, not really elitism.

Queen Beatrix defends free speech

Dec 29th, 2006 9:18 pm | By

The discussion of what the Statement of Academic Freedom means, of what it means to cover and what (if anything) it doesn’t mean to cover, goes on in comments, so I wanted to add a point or two.

The trouble is that it’s rather carefully worded in such a way that it’s hard to figure out exactly what it does and doesn’t cover. ‘[A]cademics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive’ and ‘academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff’. What is ‘received wisdom’ and what are ‘opinions’? Would it be an exercise in questioning received wisdom and putting forward controversial opinions for a lecturer in history to teach students that slavery in the US was a voluntary arrangement between ambitious Africans with a longing to travel and see the world, and a set of generous slave traders and plantation owners who wanted to help them achieve their dreams? Would it be an exercise in questioning received wisdom and putting forward controversial opinions for such a lecturer to teach students that Henry VIII defeated the Vikings at Culloden in 608 and that his daughter Victoria had him beheaded and ascended to the throne along with her consort Isambard Kingdom Brunel? In other words, is the statement about opinions as distinct from empirical claims, or does it cover any and all claims of any kind, with or without evidence?

A related but not identical question is, what of teachers who spend a lot of class time on subjects that are slightly or not at all related to the subject matter? That’s another fuzzy area, obviously – teachers of history, literature, politics, and the like often have very good reasons for talking about a range of subjects. And no one, but no one, wants David Horowitz or a Florida legislator whose previous job was selling insurance or even a university administrator with excellent sense and intentions, sitting in on classes and barking ‘Too far off topic!’ at intervals. But what of teachers like the high school history teacher in New Jersey who regaled his lucky students with his born-again religious views instead of teaching his subject, which was (ironically) Constitutional law? Is that his job? Is that what the students need or want to know? If students sign up for a class in algebra and get pastry cooking instead, isn’t that a problem? But the Statement of Academic Freedom doesn’t seem to rule that out.

Boringly enough, this is at least as much a matter of practicality and the finiteness of time as it is one of principle. It’s often not so much a question of the right to offer and hear unpopular opinions as it is of the fact that there are X hours of classes and Y amount of material to cover. This comes up in arguments over ID in science classes with dreary regularity. Proponents of ID say teach the conflict, let students decide, expose them to more than one theory, what could be fairer than that. Opponents say, among other things, look, this is biology class, there is a lot to cover and not enough time to cover it, there isn’t room for philosophy or religion too (especially not bad philosophy, but that’s one of the other things they say).

And then there is the falsification of evidence issue, and the fact that falsification of evidence is not automatically obvious or detectable even by experts, let alone by students. Suppose a historian of science who assigns a class a book or article that claims Einstein’s wife played a major role in his early work, and assigned no other material on the subject at all. That historian of science might have an ‘opinion’ that Mileva Maric did indeed play such a role. Does that mean (in the terms of the Statement of Academic Freedom) that the academic institution that employs the historian of science has no right to curb the exercise of this freedom to put forward a controversial opinion on an empirical matter? The statement doesn’t make that clear.

On the other hand! Just to try to be clear myself – I couldn’t agree more with the ‘whether or not these are deemed offensive’ part. Especially in the wake of the hilarious item I heard on Radio Netherlands a couple of days ago about Queen Beatrix’s Christmas speech. She talked about the importance of free speech, the reporter informed us, and also said that of course no one has the right to insult anyone. I collapsed in laughter, then threw some chairs around the room. Well done, Queen! Free speech great, important, wonderful, special, gotta have it, good stuff, hooray for free speech, thank your stars you have it, but of course you have no right to insult anyone. Such as, we all now understand, by drawing cartoons of their prophets. So, good news, you can have it, except that you can’t. Hooray for free speech, but don’t say anything with it. Free speech rocks, but shut up. Oookay.

Academic freedom

Dec 28th, 2006 1:45 am | By

The Statement of Academic Freedom:

We, the undersigned, believe the following two principles to be the foundation of academic freedom: that academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal.

But..what does it actually mean in practice to have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom? If your job is to teach beginning biology or geology or geography or history, do you have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom by teaching stark falsehoods? Do you have unrestricted liberty to spend all your teaching time systematically teaching misinformation? If not, what in the statement makes that clear?

I’m not asking that to be provocative; I really don’t know; I don’t see anything in the statement that would distinguish between controversial opinion on the one hand, and plain charlatanry or even plainer lying or pure error and incompetence on the other. What if someone becomes convinced that Einstein’s wife helped him with his work and teaches her students that (in Women’s Studies or History or Sociology of Science and Knowledge or Broadcast Media)? What are academic institutions supposed to do about falsehood and/or error?

A History of Neglect, and Worse

Dec 28th, 2006 1:07 am | By

Paddy Doyle has this page on Irish Industrial Schools. It’s useful background for Marie-Therese’s account. It’s wrenching stuff, too.

1868- The Industrial Schools Act. Industrial schools were established to care for “neglected, orphaned and abandoned children.” They were run by religious orders and funded by the public…1929- The Children Act allowed destitute children to be sent to industrial schools, even if they hadn’t committed a crime…1933- The Commission of Inquiry Into Widows’ and Orphans’ Pensions found only 350 of the children in industrial schools were orphans (5.3 % of the total)…1933- Industrial schools were abolished in the UK, but not in Ireland. 1934- The Cussen Report, which investigated industrial schools, had reservations about the large number of children in care, the inadequate nature of their education, lack of local support and the stigma attached to the schools, but concluded that “schools should remain under the management of the religious orders”.

I934. The Cussen Report had ‘reservations’ in 1934, and yet the horrible places went on for decades and decades.

1944- P. Ó Muircheartaigh, the Inspector of Industrial and Reformatory Schools reported that “the children are not properly fed,” which was “a serious indictment of the system of industrial schools run by nuns-a state of affairs that shouldn’t be tolerated in a Christian community” where there was “semi-starvation and lack of proper care and attention.”…1946- Community pressure in Limerick, led by Councillor Martin McGuire, on the Dept. of Ed forces the release of Gerard Fogarty, 14, from Glin Industrial School after he was flogged naked with a cat of nine tails and immersed in salt water for trying to escape to his mother. A call for public inquiry into industrial schools was rejected by Minister of Education. Thomas Derrig because “it would serve no useful purpose”.

For trying to escape to his mother. Well we can’t allow that. No, obviously not, he has to be kept locked up in the nice Industrial School and starved, not to mention flayed and soaked in salt water.

1946- Fr. Flanagan, famous founder of Boystown schools for orphans and delinquents in the US, visits Irish industrial schools. He describes them as “a national disgrace,” leading to a public debate in the Daíl and media. State and Church pressure forces him to leave Ireland. 1947- Three-year-old Michael McQualter scalded to death in a hot bath in Kyran’s Industrial School. Inquiry found school to be “criminally negligent,” but the case was not pursued by the Dept. of Education.

Church pressure forces him to leave Ireland, so they could get on with scalding children to death and then doing nothing about it.

1951- The Catholic Hierarchy condemned the ‘Mother and Child’ scheme (4 April), which provided direct funding to expectant mothers for their children; Dr Noel Browne, Minister for Health, resigns; the scheme was abandoned on 6 April…1955- Secretary of the Department of Education visited Daingean Industrial School, Offaly, and found that “the cows are better fed than the boys.” Nothing was done for another 16 years.

That would be while Marie-Therese was at Goldenbridge. And on it goes, into the ’70s. Horrifying stuff.

Biblical thermodynamics

Dec 27th, 2006 8:42 pm | By

Does the THES have this right?

The “unrestricted liberty” to be offensive to others without fear of sanction forms the foundation of a radical statement of academic freedom proposed this week by an influential group of scholars. The statement, launched by 64 academics including philosopher A. C. Grayling, would extend the current law that ensures that academics are free to “question and test received wisdom, and to put forward unpopular opinions”. If adopted in law, it would give all academics the unfettered right to speak out on any issue, “both inside and outside the classroom”, whether or not it was part of their area of academic expertise and “whether or not these [issues] were deemed offensive”…The statement would also offer backing to Andrew McIntosh, professor of thermodynamics at Leeds, who has been sharply criticised for claiming that the world is only 6,000 years old and that evolutionary theory is wrong.

Would it? Phil Baty doesn’t say how he arrives at that conclusion, and it seems…surprising, at least. It rides roughshod over the distinction between opinions that are deemed offensive, and being flat wrong. Academics are expected to be competent in their fields, and as far as I know academic freedom isn’t generally taken to mean freedom to teach gibberish. His conclusion also ignores the distinction between ‘fear of sanction’ or sanction itself, and being sharply criticised. Dawkins (for instance) isn’t ‘sanctioning’ McIntosh by saying he’s wrong or by saying that Leeds should dissasociate itself with his views. So I’m wondering if the THES just got it wrong, or if the statement would protect flat error as well as ‘offensive’ opinions. (Yeah, I know the difference is not always clear-cut, but that doesn’t mean it never is, or that there is no such.)


Dec 26th, 2006 11:13 pm | By

Allen Orr talks about metaphysical imagination.

Dawkins’s problems with philosophy might be related to a failure of metaphysical imagination. When thinking of those vast matters that make up religion – matters of ultimate meaning that stand at the edge of intelligibility and that are among the most difficult to articulate – he sees only black and white. Despite some attempts at subtlety, Dawkins almost reflexively identifies religion with right-wing fundamentalism and biblical literalism. Other, more nuanced possibilities – varieties of deism, mysticism, or nondenominational spirituality – have a harder time holding his attention. It may be that Dawkins can’t imagine these possibilities vividly enough to worry over them in a serious way…[P]art of what it means to suffer a failure of imagination may be that one can’t conceive that one’s imagination is impoverished. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that people like James and Wittgenstein struggled personally with religion, while Dawkins shrugs his shoulders, at least in part because they conceived possibilities – mistaken ones perhaps, but certainly more interesting ones – that escape Dawkins.

I love the ‘part of what it means to suffer a failure of imagination may be that one can’t conceive that one’s imagination is impoverished’ bit. It seems true, and amusing, and a useful warning, all at once. To put it another way, it describes an interesting variety of cognitive distortion, and I’m fascinated by cognitive distortions. I’m especially fascinated by those infintitely regressing kinds, that you can’t tell you have because the ability to detect them is precisely the distortion you have.

But at the same time, I’m not entirely sure it’s a fair point overall. I haven’t read The God Delusion (nobody gave it to me for Xmas, the bastards), but I’m not entirely sure it’s a fair point in general, independent of the book. That’s because one of the striking things about orthodox, common or garden, churchy, public religion is how unimaginative and impoverished it is. How narrow, confined, hemmed in, and uninspiring it is. I don’t deny that metaphysical speculation can be imaginative, but I’m not convinced that religion generally is. Religions have creeds and dogmas and orthodoxies, and orthodoxy is not conducive to metaphysical imagination. The ‘more nuanced possibilities’ may be of interest, but I’m not sure all discussions of religion have to deal with them.

Ben Goldacre talks about imagination (in a way) in Bad Science.

People who like science usually just happen to think that the story it can tell us about the world is more interesting, more intricate, and more beautiful than anything anyone could make up and put in a holy book…I’m just not very interested in religion. Maybe if there was a religion that was invented after the enlightenment, after the invention of the microscope, the discovery of the atom, that incorporated a bit more of what we knew, it might have a bit more oomph. But when you stand up “made in seven days” against the amazing findings of comparative anatomy, and everything that suggests about convergent and divergent evolution, the way that my hand is the same structure as a bat’s wing, the way that the green toed sloth has a symbiotic relationship with algae that provides it with green camouflage against a forest background, and more, I’m sorry, I know whose books I’m buying this Christmas. From the moment we started to work out what was going on with the stars we realised that we weren’t the centre of attention in the universe, and the rules had to be rewritten. From a starting position of glorious pointlessness, we generate meaning for ourselves.

Yes. ‘Made in seven days’ just doesn’t…sing.


Dec 25th, 2006 2:01 am | By

Apparently JS is going to be on the radio to talk about Why Truth Matters – unless that’s a joke or a fraud or a counterfeit or all three. Maybe it is, since no one told me about it (a reader sent me the link), but in case it’s not and you want to mark your calendars, there it is. Sounds like quite an interesting subject.

Yet to encounter

Dec 22nd, 2006 8:02 pm | By

Another goofy item. (I know. Like counting sand on the beach, pointing out all the goofy things people say. I know. But we all have our recreations. This is mine. It keeps me out of bar brawls. One day I’ll tell you about my louche past, but not now, not now.)

While reading Johann Hari’s quote of Richard Dawkins, “In the absence of any evidence whatsoever for a belief , we should assume it is untrue”, I am reminded of the conversation between the Astronaut and the Brain Surgeon. To counter the Surgeon’s belief in God, the Astronaut says, “In none of my travels throughout the Universe, have I encountered any evidence indicating the existence of God, and so I think you are wrong.” “Funny that”, replies the Brain Surgeon. “In all my neurosurgical experience, I have yet to encounter any evidence proving the existence of a thought”.

But God as commonly understood isn’t the same kind of thing as a thought. A giant person who created everything and is good and all-knowing is not the same kind of thing as a thought. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to think of the source of the universe as a thought – or a thinker, and the universe as a thought; it’s an interesting idea; but it’s not the usual meaning of the common English word ‘God,’ so the neurosurgeon’s reply is not all that relevant unless both parties had already agreed that they were talking about God as thougt or a source of thoughts. But that can’t be the case for this particular anecdote, since it wasn’t said, so the neurosurgeon’s reply is irrelevant.