Notes and Comment Blog


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the petition said; Dawkins said no, he didn’t, he hadn’t read the whole thing and it was a mistake to sign it, and he’d withdrawn his signature; Dawkins also posted on Ed Brayton’s post on the subject (but you have to scroll through some four million posts to find those from Dawkins).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.)



Imagination

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.



Radio

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.



Fuller what?

Dec 22nd, 2006 7:07 pm | By

And then there’s Steve Fuller’s amazing non-sequitur.

Richard Dawkins complains (Letters, December 19) that Leeds University has not done enough to silence Professor McIntosh’s creationist views. He should take a lesson from his own university, Oxford, which has done nothing to silence his open promotion of atheism.
Professor Steve Fuller
Professor of sociology, Warwick University

Oh, and now that I look at the Letter in question, I see that Fuller also misrepresents what Dawkins said. What a bad man he is. Dawkins simply said that Leeds University ought to revise its press statement distancing itself ‘publicly from theories of creationism and so-called intelligent design, which cannot be verified by evidence.’ The press statement said ‘McIntosh’s directorship of Truth in Science, and his promotion of that organisation’s views, are unconnected to his teaching or research’ and Dawkins disputes that claim because McIntosh told Dawkins on a BBC programme that ‘evolution is incompatible with the second law of thermodynamics.’ Neither Leeds nor Dawkins said anything about ‘silencing.’ Fuller thinks everything is ‘silencing’ – that was much of the point of his testimony at Dover: that saying a theory is wrong amounts to silencing it. And then to make a thorough job of it, he pretends that creationism and atheism are the same kind of thing. Bad, bad, very bad.



A pretty Christmas thought

Dec 22nd, 2006 6:33 pm | By


Theo Hobson is strange
. He starts with a guess about what an atheist might say, then reviews the saying as if it actually existed.

The atheist might respond that they do all these things because they believe the story to be literally true, and want to create propaganda for it. But this is his interpretation, and on close inspection it’s rather odd, and it’s pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does. In reality he does not know exactly why people do these things, or what sort of belief in the story they have. He does not know the motivation of my aunt who sends me a card with a nativity scene on it, or my friend who attends a carol service.

That’s really quite funny, and a sign of a desperately woolly mind – to project a guess, and then in the very next sentence treat his own guess as if it were a well-attested fact. That ‘this’ in ‘But this is his interpretation’ is hilarious – what ‘this’? Where? What are you pointing at, Theo? I don’t see anything. You made it up, don’t you remember? You made up what the atheist might say, and you made up the atheist too – but you forgot your own process so quickly that now you think you even know what gender the atheist is. Tell us, what’s he wearing? Where did he go to school? Does he like quiche? And then Theo races on to fume about the atheist who doesn’t know the motivation of his aunt or his friend. That bastard! That pretentious bastard, with his interpretation! Who does he think he is?

At Christmas religious culture is rich and complex, full of depth and nuance, and the atheist’s little yapping dogmas about what religion is “really” about are just laughable.

[whispers] Theo…Theo…there are no little yapping dogmas – because there is no ‘the atheist’ – you made him up – remember? Scroll up – where it says ‘might’ – that’s you making a guess. Your pretentious dog-like atheist doesn’t exist, Theo, you dreamed him. You really need to learn to distinguish between your own fantasies and the real world.

Before I say Merry Christmas to my readers, I have a modest proposal. Let there be a public Boxing Day burning of all the unwanted copies of the God Delusion that are received at Christmas. Merry Christmas to my readers!

[whispers] Theo…Theo…it’s called persecution mania. I’d take care of that if I were you.



Hypocrisy on the hoof

Dec 21st, 2006 9:01 pm | By

Dembski seems to be losing it. Or maybe he always has been, but regular observers seem to think he’s getting worse. There’s the whole fart joke, which we’re too dignified to discuss. But there’s also a little matter of really pathetic hypocrisy. To wit:

From December 18:

Since Richard Dawkins thinks he has the right to reprint my letters to him by posting them over the Internet (go here), I’ll assume the same privilege applies to me.

That’s (in the technical sense) bullshit. That ‘Since’ is misleading, as is the clause it introduces. That makes it sound as if Dembski wouldn’t dream of publishing or posting other people’s emails to him, except that Dawkins posted one of his so now the rule is overthrown. That is brazenly, shamelessly misleading. Dembski himself posted the emails of a third party, emails that were not to him, without permission, last February. You may remember. I did some comments on the matter here. Michael Ruse emailed Daniel Dennett, there was a short exchange, then Ruse sent the whole exchange to Dembski, who promptly posted all of it on Uncommon Descent. As far as observers knew, Dembski didn’t have permission to post the exchange, but at the time we didn’t actually know that. However, I later emailed all three parties in order to pin down the facts for a news feature for TPM, so I no longer have to say ‘As far as I know…’ Ruse admitted (cheerfully and unrepentently) that he hadn’t asked Dennett for permission to send the exchange to Dembski, Dennett told me he hadn’t given anyone permission to send or post it, and Dembski…Ah well, Dembski now. Maybe there was an email breakdown. Twice. Or maybe not. At any rate, I asked Dembski, twice, why he hadn’t asked Dennett for permission to publish his emails to Ruse, and I got no reply. Maybe my emails never reached Dembski. Or maybe his never reached me. Or maybe he just didn’t reply. If so, why? Well…especially in the light of what he says about Dawkins in that post…probably because he knows perfectly well it’s at the very least not good manners to publish someone else’s emails on the internet without permission. It’s doubly not good manners when the emails in question are not even addressed to oneself but are addressed to a third party. If I email Sally and Sally emails me and then sends our correspondence to Jane, Jane has a damn nerve if she then publishes the exchange on her website without damn well asking me first. So unless in fact there was a surprise double email failure, it seems reasonable to think that Dembski didn’t reply to my two emails asking him why he published Dennett’s emails to Ruse without permission because he couldn’t think of anything to say. What could he say? ‘Because I’m so rude’? ‘Because I wanted to’? ‘Because I’m a Christian so all’s fair’? ‘Because Dennett’s an atheist and that pisses me off so I don’t have to be polite’? ‘I forgot’?

Well, whatever the reason, that’s what happened. He published the exchange, on his website, without asking the other party to the exchange. I thought that was remarkably unpleasant behavior, and I said so at the time. Now here he is bleating about Dawkins publishing emails that Dembski sent (unsolicited, just as Ruse’s to Dennett were) to Dawkins. There’s no third party involved, so Dembski committed a much grosser violation of etiquette himself less than a year ago, yet he has the nerve to complain now. He did it again yesterday:

Richard Dawkins continues to publish my past emails to him without permission and I continue to return the favor.

Without permission. Does he. He publishes your past emails to him; you published Dennett’s emails not to you but to someone else, without permission, yet now you kick up a fuss.

The guy has no shame.

It was a bit unnerving recently to see that he apparently reads B&W. I hope he read the comments about him and felt very hot around the face.



A decade

Dec 20th, 2006 8:27 pm | By

Ten years. I remember that morning ten years ago when the clock radio woke me up by telling me Carl Sagan had died. It was local news; he was here, at the Hutch; we knew he was here, and why, and we exchanged worried gossip. I knew people who knew people who said things looked grim. Then I woke up to the radio that morning – I remember the fury, the no no no no, the damn and hell.

He’s a sort of parent of B&W, Carl Sagan is. As is Dawkins. The two formed a kind of pair in my mind in the mid-90s, and I was oddly pleased to see what Dawkins said of Sagan in his tribute in Skeptical Inquirer:

My candidate for planetary ambassador, my own nominee to present our credentials in galactic chancelleries, can be none other than Carl Sagan himself. He is wise, humane, polymathic, gentle, witty, well-read, and incapable of composing a dull sentence.”…I met him only once, so my feeling of desolation and loss at his death is based entirely on his writings. Carl Sagan was one of the great literary stylists of our age, and he did it by giving proper weight to the poetry of science. It is hard to think of anyone whom our planet can so ill afford to lose.

Just what I thought. Especially right now, we could and can ill afford to lose him. (Look how bad things have gotten since then! So you see what I mean. Never mind about correlation and causation; you know what I mean.)

It was The Demon-Haunted World, especially, that was a kind of parent of B&W. It got a lot of attention, and Sagan did a lot of interviews. I taped a couple of them, on ‘Fresh Air’ and ‘Science Friday’; they were small educations in skepticism by themselves. The book and the interviews coincided with various encounters with New Agey people I kept stumbling into around that time, and the result was a heightened interest in pseudoscience and woolly thinking that has stuck to me like glue ever since. (Thus it is a little dizzying to see that Little Atoms is doing a special tribute broadcast this Friday with Ann Druyan and A C Grayling and several associates of Sagan’s. I’ve been on Little Atoms, thinks I to myself. Full circle, kind of thing.)

A lot of people date the beginnings of their interest in science to a tv programme or book or magazine column of Carl Sagan’s. He got a lot done in 62 years.



You belong in hell, the teacher said

Dec 19th, 2006 12:05 am | By

And people wonder why atheists get shirty. Or ‘arrogant’ as apparently Rod Liddle repeatedly said we are on his channel 4 encounter with Dawkins. Well maybe we don’t much want people saying everyone but Their Team is going to hell. Could that be it? We really just don’t want to hear from people who get their rocks off imagining their religious enemies being tortured to death forever. I don’t like people like that. In fact, I hate them. I think they’re disgusting, I think they’re rock bottom, I think they’re bad. Not as bad as people who make toddlers sleep in their own shit, not as bad as people who imprison small children in industrial schools and tell them their mothers are dead when they aren’t and force them to make rosaries and beat them and call them names – not as bad as that; but very bad. Morally bad. People who take pleasure in contemplating the suffering of other people are bad. I don’t want to hear from them, and I imagine that few atheists do. So we are ‘arrogant’ enough to resist. And then we get death threats.

And all this is ten miles from Manhattan. Err…

Before David Paszkiewicz got to teach his accelerated 11th-grade history class about the United States Constitution this fall, he was accused of violating it. Shortly after school began in September, the teacher told his sixth-period students at Kearny High School that evolution and the Big Bang were not scientific, that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark, and that only Christians had a place in heaven, according to audio recordings made by a student whose family is now considering a lawsuit claiming Mr. Paszkiewicz broke the church-state boundary. “If you reject his gift of salvation, then you know where you belong,” Mr. Paszkiewicz was recorded saying of Jesus. “He did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he’s saying, ‘Please, accept me, believe.’ If you reject that, you belong in hell.”

‘You belong in hell.’ No, actually, I don’t think a history teacher should be telling students that. But ‘the larger community’ apparently does.

…students and the larger community have mostly lined up with Mr. Paszkiewicz, not with Matthew, who has received a death threat handled by the police, as well as critical comments from classmates.

They’re getting closer. I was at Safeway yesterday and I heard an announcement over the store’s pa system – ‘all available employees to the back for – ‘ what? – ‘afternoon service.’ For what? Did I just hear that? Did I just hear what I think I heard? I wasn’t absolutely sure, because I wasn’t paying attention until I thought I heard what I thought I heard – so maybe I didn’t hear it. That is what it sounded like though…and it was Sunday. If that is what I heard it just creeps the bejeezis out of me. We’ll all be in a Christian concentration camp soon at this rate.



Evangelical atheism

Dec 18th, 2006 7:32 pm | By

More strange reaction to atheism, more bizarre confusion and surprise where no surprise should be.

And herein lies one of the central paradoxes of Richard Dawkins. Fervent atheist he may be, but he’s also a curiously evangelical figure. It requires no great leap of the imagination to envisage him declaiming from a pulpit, lambasting sinners for their moral laxity.

That’s not a paradox at all. It’s silly to think it is. Atheism is one thing and moral indifference is quite quite another. It’s simply a blank and rather stupid misconception to think that atheism entails lack of moral energy or that passion requires religion. It’s getting increasingly depressing to discover what inane ideas many people have of what atheism is.

Yet Dawkins’s dislike of any notion of God – along with his scorn for anyone who persists in believing in God – is so strong that at times it threatens to unbalance him. As anyone who saw his two-part television documentary The Root of All Evil? will recall, moderation tends to drop away. In its place comes a kind of wintery exasperation at the foolishness and primitivism he sees all around.

I don’t recall that, actually. What I recall is that moderation did not tend to drop away except during the moment when the ineffable (and, we now know, closeted) Ted Haggard decided to tell Dawkins what’s what about evolution. It wasn’t the theism that caused moderation to drop away, it was the (theism-motivated) combined ignorance and presumption of the claim that evolutionists say things developed ‘just sort of by accident.’ The rest of the time, Dawkins was pretty dang polite. So…what does the journalist mean by ‘moderation’? Politely agreeing with everything theists say? That would be asking rather a lot, wouldn’t it? Not raising the issue in the first place? But is it really non-moderate to ask questions about religion? Probably the journalist had no exact meaning in mind, just a formula. The formula is: Dawkins is a rude or harsh or extreme or scornful or unbalanced or fervent or evangelical atheist. Start from there, then embroider. Journalism has its recipes.



They were shivering and were all colours of the rainbow as they stood there waiting to be cleaned

Dec 17th, 2006 11:10 pm | By

[OB] You may remember that last month I did a brief comment on Goldenbridge, which I knew little about until I saw some comments Marie-Therese O’Loughlin had recently left on a comment from 2005 on industrial schools in Ireland. I asked Marie-Therese to tell me more, and she has; we’re working on an article which will be on B&W soon. Yesterday I asked Marie-Therese for a little basic detail about daily life – and she sent some. I don’t feel like waiting to publish it.

Warning: the following contains material which some readers may find disturbing. I know I do. Marie-Therese finds it very disturbing to recall it.

Morning at Goldenbridge

The children got up at six o’clock each morning. A staff member who grew up in the institution stormed into the dormitories and switched on the lights and roared ‘Get out of those beds immediately!’ If a child hesitated at all the bed covers were flung across the floor, if a child became even more stubborn, as often happened, the mattress with the child was toppled over onto the floor. We then had to make our beds to hospital standards.

Goldenbridge housed on average two hundred children, which included infants and babies; a good percentage of them were infants, babies and toddlers. I remember clearly, at 6:30 in the mornings, when I was eleven years old or thereabouts having to go to St Joseph’s babies/infants dormitory. I had to dress the toddlers. It was normal for some of them to have slept in their own excrement. When I took them from their destroyed beds, I found it so upsetting as they were always covered from head to toe in excrement. They were shivering and were all colours of the rainbow as they stood there waiting to be cleaned. I had to use the clean corners of the destroyed sheets. The only place to get water was from a very small toilet bowl. I dipped the sheet in the bowl and then cleaned the children. The whole dormitory which was a dark dank cold place stank to high heaven. The head honcho of the Sisters of Mercy at this time of morning was up in the convent saying her prayers. The sheets were placed in a soiled open sheet, and with the help of another child we carried them down to the school laundry. There were other sheets there from the Sacred Heart dormitory.

Children like myself who had no family visitors, or big girls who wet the bed, were given the grotesque taks of handwashing the sheets in cold water in the laundry.

This story, like that of the rosary beads, can be properly told only by those who were hidden in Goldenbridge, the ones who were imprisoned behind the doors, who were the lowest on the rungs of the institutional Goldenbridge ladder. Bernadette Fahy, author of Freedom of Angels, or Christine Buckley who appeared in the documentary ‘Dear Daughter,’ would not have been doing this despicable job, as they were both allowed to go to outside school.



Was it Ecstasy in the coffee?

Dec 15th, 2006 7:04 pm | By

Oh dear. The Independent has misplaced its marbles. It is very difficult not to choke with laughter.

No one likes to be labelled a conspiracy theorist. The term is generally associated with the sort of people who believe the world is run by aliens disguised as humans, or who think the moon landing was a hoax. But it is very important that we do not allow our desire to avoid pejorative labels blunt our critical faculties. Scepticism can be a healthy instinct.

Um…yes, it can indeed; but scepticism about what, exactly? Critical faculties in relation to what, were you thinking?

It is unfortunate that most vocal critics of the standard narrative regarding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed – which was outlined again by Lord Stevens’s report yesterday – have not been impartial or, in some cases, credible.

Ah. Scepticism about the standard narrative; I see. Yes, it is unfortunate about the non-credible witnesses; makes whoever wrote this leader look monster raving loony. Well you see that’s why scepticism and sharp critical faculties come in handy in more than one direction. For instance there’s the lurking idea that a ‘standard narrative’ is suspect because it’s a ‘standard narrative’ – it can get you into deep water with amazing speed, that one. Sometimes that is the case, of course, but quite often the ‘standard narrative’ is just the boring old truth. Quite often – nearly always in fact – the obvious is none the less right for being obvious. Sad but true.

This has added to the impression that anyone who believes there are unanswered questions regarding the deaths is foolish, opportunist or both. But this impression is unfair.

Aw. That’s a shame. Are people laughing at you? That is unfair.

Despite the detailed nature of the 832-page report by the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, a good deal remains unclear. Lord Stevens admits himself that “there are some matters about which we may never find a definitive answer”.

Well…I’m sorry to have to break this to you, but that’s how these things are. Things happen with nobody watching, and the result is that there generally are some matters about which we may never find a definitive answer. That’s not an unusual situation, much less one so unusual that only a highly elaborate and inherently ridiculously implausible conspiracy can explain it. It’s just not. When someone drives a car at 90 mph into a concrete pillar, there will be some details of what happened that are just lost to history.

And there remains enough doubt for rational people to feel uncomfortable. According to a recent poll, a third of the British public believe what happened to Diana was not an accident. This cannot be written off as a fringe belief.

Oh well then. If a third of the British public believe it, then it must be true or at least reasonable. A third of the public can never be just, you know, silly.

The question of whether anyone had the motive to murder the couple remains unresolved.

[shouting] Well it would, wouldn’t it! [more quietly] It’s not the kind of thing that can be resolved, you chump. Before you talk about scepticism and critical faculties, maybe you ought to get some. Of course no one can say definitively that no one had ‘the motive to murder the couple.’ But just saying someone had ‘the motive’ is not the same thing as saying the couple were murdered. When a couple of absent-minded rich people get in the back of a Mercedes whose drunk driver races off at high speed and bumps into a pillar – that is a car crash. It has the fingerprints of the laws of physics all over it.

Many have dismissed the activities of Mohamed al-Fayed over the past decade…No doubt the bereaved father is still grieving. But that does not make him deluded. And we should remember that without his campaigning, this inquiry would probably never have been established.

And that would be regrettable because…?

Whatever. The question now becomes, who had the motive to put whatever substance it was into the coffee of the author of that leader? Thirty percent of the British public think it was no accident.



Adversarial saints

Dec 14th, 2006 5:23 pm | By

Robert Irwin says some amusing things in this interview with Scott McLemee about Irwin’s book on Said’s Orientalism. Scott asked what made a criticism of Orientalism seem worthwhile or necessary enough for a book.

I got irritated by the way some people in Eng Lit departments seemed to regard themselves as adversarial saints, robed in white and “speaking truth to power” because they read Conrad, Austen and Flaubert in strange ways. Whereas academics who read Masudi, Tabari and Ibn Khaldun were necessarily robed in black.

Yep. The adversarial sainthood thing is a big – a huge – part of why descriptions of postmodernism by fans of postmodernism tend to be so irritating. The reek of self-imputed adversarial sainthood is all over them. The very ‘notion that no one view, theory or understanding should be privileged over another (or that no discourse should be silenced)’ is a classic adversarial sainthood notion. The very notion that the word ‘privilege’ is relevant in an epistemic context is puglistic sainthood, as is the notion that saying a theory is wrong is ‘silencing’. That substitution of political attitudes for analysis and evaluation is pure sainthood stuff. Sympathy for the poor downtrodden abused rejected Wrong Bad Stupid ideas. Never mind the boring old proles, who cares if their unions are busted and their wages slashed and their jobs sent to the Mariana Islands, the pomo saints are still valiantly defending Wrong Bad Stupid ideas. Yay.

The annoying thing about Said was that he wanted a debate based on false factual premises. Of course, there are vested interests in scholarship, but, for God’s sake, if one is looking at vested interests in in Arabic and Islamic studies, most of the ‘vesting’ comes from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Brunei with the establishments of chairs and lectureships which are implicitly circumscribed in what kinds of research they can initiate and publish. Above all, it is a great waste of time attacking British, French, American US and Israeli scholars of Arab and Islamic culture. The people who should be attacked are Senators, MPs, Israeli generals, arms merchants, media hacks, etc. The academic dog fight is a fantastic diversion from the real horrors of what is happening in the Gaza Strip, the Left Bank and Lebanon. If one is serious about politics, the Orientalism debate is an intellectual substitute for engaging with real, non-academic issues.

Well…yeah, but how else are academics going to get to feel like adversarial saints? Have a heart, Professor Irwin.

The earliest reviewers were mostly people who knew a lot about the actual state of the field. The enthusiasts who came later did not know the field and were mostly too lazy to check Said’s assertions. The book, by “speaking truth to power,” appeals to the adversarial mentality so common among students and radical lecturers. Bashing Orientalism has seemed to be a natural intellectual accessory to opposing Israeli policies on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, American imperialism and British racism. It is much easier deliver patronizing lectures or essays about old-fashioned Orientalists than it is to actually do anything useful for Palestine…As to whom my book may be useful to, Bishop Joseph Butler in the 18th century made the following observation: “Things and their actions are what they are and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we wish to be deceived?”

Because that’s how we get to feel like adversarial saints.



No chocolate, no compass, no matches

Dec 13th, 2006 7:42 pm | By

I’ve been wondering what ‘postmodernism’ is exactly. I don’t mean what its claims are, I mean what it is itself. What kind of thing is it? What box does it go in? It’s not a discipline. It’s not a kind of philosophy, like pragmatism or utilitarianism. It’s not a kind of inquiry. What is it? I realize I don’t even know, and I’m not sure other people do either, including postmodernists themselves. Their descriptions of postmodernism tend to be notably vague around the edges. Evasive, a hostile witness might say. Like this one from the hilarious article on the reception of ‘Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism’ by Holmes et al. last summer, the one that quotes comments on a blog as its main examples of that reception.

The postmodernist thinking that has characterised a number of academic disciplines in the last two or so decades of the 20th century – and is still alive and well in some quarters – has played an important role in creating new ways of developing ideas in the arts, science and culture. The relativism on which it is founded, and the ‘liberation’ from sacred cows it seeks, have a place in healthcare and health science…[P]ostmodernism is a response to modernity – the period where science was trusted and represented progress – and essentially focuses on questioning the centrality of both science and established canons, disciplines and institutions to achieving progress. The nature of ‘truth’ is a recurring concern to postmodernists, who generally purport that there are no truths but multiple realities and that understandings of the human condition are dynamic and diverse. The notion that no, one view, theory or understanding should be privileged over another (or that no discourse should be silenced) is a tenet of postmodernist critique and analysis.

The words used kind of give away the fact that there is nothing very rigorous going on here. Postmodernist thinking, creating new ways of developing ideas, the ‘liberation’ it seeks, a response, essentially focuses, questioning the centrality, a recurring concern, generally purport, notion. Tenet, critique and analysis sound a little sterner, but after all those mushy terms they don’t convince. It all seems to speak of…just some people saying some things. So, what is that? What is postmodernism?

Well, whatever it is, let’s have a fantasy. Let’s imagine someone who seriously does question ‘the centrality of both science and established canons, disciplines and institutions to achieving progress.’ Okay? Got the someone? Let’s call it X. Let’s imagine depositing X stark naked in the middle of a trackless northern forest in the dead of winter (now, in fact), and then let us see how long X will want to sustain this questioning. Remember – it’s science that is being questioned. So that means no tool use: that means no making a fire, no building a shelter, no making clothes, no trapping animals, no fishing except with bare hands, no throwing sticks, no snow shoes, no rafts. It also means no existing knowledge – X can’t discriminate between poisonous berries and the other kind, can’t identify venomous snakes, doesn’t know how animals behave, can’t tell what the weather is doing, can’t navigate by the north star or the sun, doesn’t know that water can be full of bacteria. X would be dead in a matter of hours.

Now, X will say, indignantly, ‘But I’m not going to be trapped naked in the middle of a trackless forest in the dead of winter!’ Well no, X, you’re not, unless you’re very careless, but that is my point. You are dependent on science for your very existence at every turn, and you don’t even know it. If you suddenly found yourself in the trackless forest scenario, it would probably become clear to you very, very quickly how ‘central’ science is. In short, you’re a fool.