Notes and Comment Blog


Irritating Fella

Aug 24th, 2003 11:44 pm | By

But I already knew I disliked Alan Wolfe’s work – I just didn’t know quite how much. That’s how I found the comment about postmodernists, as a matter of fact: I was googling him to try to pin down exactly who he is and why he says such irritating things. Now I know he founded a Center for Religion, it all makes sense. I did a Note and Comment on an article of his a couple of months ago, one of the ones that disappeared when we had the server mishap, but I don’t think I’ll bother typing it back in, because the article in question is from the New Republic and it’s gone subscription. It was an irritating piece that kept telling us what ‘all Americans’ think, as if we all think exactly the same thing – but that, I am finding, seems to be Wolfe’s tactic of choice: to try to coerce all of us pesky dissenters and nonconformers into line by telling us that Everyone Thinks whatever it is so why the hell don’t we? For instance he does it in this article in Salon about the US ‘pledge of allegiance’, in which he complains about the atheists trampling on the wishes of the great, huge, vast, overwhelming majority.

Yet if society goes to the other extreme and bans from the public square any form of religious language, it violates the beliefs of all those who insist that religion is more than a matter of personal conviction, that faith is essential to how we Americans define ourselves collectively. In so doing, it may extend rights to nonbelievers or to those who believe in doctrines not widely accepted, but it does so at the cost of imposing a view of what America is about that others, in this case the majority of believers, do not share.

Well there you are then. ‘We’ Americans do this and ‘we’ Americans do that and if you don’t agree well then you must not be an American. You must instead be one of those horrible people ‘who believe in doctrines not widely accepted’. The nerve! How dare you have a view that the majority of believers do not share?!

Talk about coercive. Has the man never heard of de Tocqueville or Mill? Well of course he has, he’s not an ignoramus, but he doesn’t seem to have paid much attention. The tyranny of the majority holds no terrors for him. No doubt that’s because he believes the same things the majority of believers do, and bully for him, but truth isn’t decided by majority vote, and you’d think he’d know that. But never mind, he has a real clincher of an argument for us pesky atheists.

The only people excluded by the term are atheists. But since atheists define themselves against the religious beliefs of others, they should work to see the Pledge preserved, for without it, their very reason for taking public stands on these issues would be taken away from them.

Eh? I beg your pardon? I don’t ‘define myself against the religious beliefs of others,’ you ridiculous man. Why should I? I simply don’t share their beliefs. That doesn’t mean I need them in order to know what I think, and it certainly doesn’t mean I would feel a sense of loss if everyone were an atheist. He might as well say abolitionists should have worked to see slavery preserved, because without it, their very reason for taking public stands on these issues would be taken away from them. And what makes him think all atheists take public stands anyway? Oh never mind, he’s a believer, they’re impossible to argue with. And I haven’t even said why I was googling him, I haven’t commented on the irritating thing he said in his Afterword to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, which is what set me off. I’ll get to that later.



Category Mistake

Aug 24th, 2003 10:45 pm | By

Now wait a minute. There is a limit. I can make fun of postmodernism as well as the next person, but it has to be actual postmodernism, not just any old thing I don’t happen to agree with. There’s no shortage of real, avowed, self-declared pomos out there, there’s no need to start expanding the pool by calling people postmodernist who aren’t.

By ‘engaging big issues with the depth of insight that social science can offer,’ Wolfe said, the Boisi Center will stand in ‘a great tradition’ reaching back to pioneering sociologists such as Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and Emile Durkheim, author of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, scholars who treated religion prominently in their inquiries. In the process, he said, the center will stand counter to postmodernist trends in scholarship which, by viewing human society solely through lenses of economic materialism or race, sex and class, ‘reduce human beings to people without souls or without minds.’

That’s from a comment by Alan Wolfe about his directorship of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, a Center whose very name makes me want to rush hastily away and set up camp on the margin. But that aside, surely Wolfe knows that postmodernists aren’t the first people to think about human beings without thinking about their ‘souls’. And note the sly trick of conflating souls and minds, as if they were synonyms. Well, I suppose that’s the kind of thing people do who found Centers for Religion and Public Life.



And Another Thing

Aug 22nd, 2003 8:20 pm | By

The subject of yesterday’s Comment interests me perhaps out of proportion to its importance…but then again perhaps not. It does involve certain habits of thought and silly ways of arguing (what one might call bad moves) that one finds in a lot of fashionable nonsense. Or to put it another way, there is some fashionable nonsense going on in Colgan’s diatribe.

For one thing there’s the sly business of motive-questioning – which in fact in cases like this surely backfires on the perpetrator. What does it amount to saying, after all? ‘There can’t possibly be a legitimate reason for thinking and writing that my novel is bad, therefore anyone who does think and write so must have some invidious motive.’ Surely the flaw there is all too embarrassingly obvious. ‘Why can there not possibly be a legitimate reason for thinking and writing that your novel is bad? Why is it ruled out in advance that your novel is in fact bad? Because you’re perfect? Because you’ve been given some special dispensation (from whom, by whom?) that prevents you from ever writing anything bad? Or is it just because you’re you? If it is just because you’re you, do you not realise that you are the only person who is you, and that as a result that ‘reason’ has no force whatsoever with anyone else on the face of the earth? Because all the rest of us are ourselves, and don’t put your claims ahead of our own? Life is like that, and you might want to start noticing that about now.’

I once saw Woody Allen make the same embarrassing mistake – definitely a bad move. He was being interviewed on the US tv program ‘Sixty Minutes’, and the interviewer (Morley Safer I believe) remarked in passing, in asking a searching question about Allen’s subject matter, that many of his friends didn’t much like Allen’s movies. Allen ignored the substantive question and instead began urgently asking Safer why his friends didn’t like Allen’s movies. Safer tried to brush that aside and get to the question he asked (he said something like ‘They just don’t, they’re not to their taste,’) but without success, Allen wanted an answer, he wanted to know Why. And then he said what I thought was an extraordinary thing. I’m paraphrasing but not much, he said something very like ‘Since they’re your friends they’re obviously intelligent people with good taste, why don’t they like my movies?’ The brazen flattery was surprising enough, but the assumption behind the question is downright stunning. Intelligent people with good taste like Woody Allen’s movies – always, apparently, according to Allen. Their failure to do so is an anomaly that requires explanation.

Beware, oh beware, turning into a person so confident of her own brilliance that she can’t wrap her mind around the idea that not everyone will love her work. And beware the back to front thinking that results. ‘There can’t be a legitimate reason for criticising my work, therefore there must be an illegitimate one, so I’ll just work out what it is and then announce it.’ No; that is not the best way to approach the subject.

And then another aspect is the guilt-trip one. This business of people ‘looking down their noses’. When you don’t have a good case, resort to political accusation, is apparently the thought. These mean wicked people who dare to say a harsh word about popular novels, they are mocking The People’s pleasures, they are horrible sneering monocle-wearing aristocrats. It’s a useful tactic in a sense, it does often work, but it’s dirty pool all the same.



Who Is Rubbishing Whom?

Aug 21st, 2003 8:23 pm | By

Well we’ve seen this kind of thing before. For instance we heard it in a story also in the Guardian, and by the same reporter. Perhaps she specializes in silly self-flattering self-justifying whinges by bad novelists. What a dismal career choice.

But never mind that. The point is, what makes people think it’s a good idea to say things like this? Do they not realize how stupid and self-serving it makes them look? Yo! You wrote a novel, you got it published, you put it out there. Now people have a right and even a duty to say whatever they like about it. That’s how the system works. You do not have a right to prevent them. Got that? You do have a right to try to prevent them, to be sure. You do have a right to do what you’re doing – a legal right at least. To moan and bleat and fuss and make asinine accusations in the hope that your critics will stop pointing out how bad your novels are. But you don’t have a right to succeed, and that being the case, you might ask yourself if it’s really worth making a fool of yourself in the attempt.

She said female critics were most guilty of this damaging generalisation, and rose to the defence of Helen Fielding and her bestseller Bridget Jones’s Diary, which she said had suffered “unjust attacks from people who haven’t even read it. It’s a terrific book and it has sold more than two million copies.

Ah. Well I’ve read Bridget Jones, so allow me to make a just attack on it. It is, as many people have pointed out, quite funny. But it’s also stupid and irritating in more ways than I want to take the space to go into here. The most obvious, of course, is the dreary portrayal at this late date of a supposedly adult woman with nothing at all in her head except her appearance and her quest for a man. Yes, granted, it’s just a piece of fluff, and as a piece of fluff it is amusing, but so what? Does it follow that it should be immune from criticism? I don’t see why. But hey, it has sold more than two million copies, therefore it must be of surpassing excellence, and it’s elitist and snobbish and pretentious and undemocratic and downright evil for anyone to say a harsh word about it. Popular taste never errs, everyone knows that.

And then Colgan has the effrontery to use words like insulting, derogatory, rubbishing, and condescending, when she chooses to refer to the female critics she is angry at as ‘hairy-leggers’. That’s a cute phrase, I haven’t heard it before. But what’s really interesting about all this is that it’s yet another example of the kind of pre-emptive attack that is such a feature of intellectual discussion these days. Rather than addressing criticisms on their merits, rather than answering the substance, the tactic is to try to forestall by means of guilt. ‘You can’t say that about me/us. It is racist/Orientalist/elitist/whateverist to say that about me/us, so you can’t. It may or may not be true, it may or may not need saying; never mind that; we are downtrodden victims and you are a privileged oppressor, so if you say our novels are crap, we will say you are jealous and wicked and hairy-legged, so sucks.’ But I guess that’s how it is with chicks who write chick-lit.



Doubtful Favors

Aug 21st, 2003 12:27 am | By

Here is Part III of the story of the professor of English at Brooklyn College who was prevented from continuing to teach because he refused to inflate the grades he gave his students. At least his account of the story. It is the account of one party in a dispute rather than an impartial account by a disinterested observer. I find it all too credible, but I also keep in mind that I don’t know the facts, that we haven’t heard from the others involved, that Frederick Lang could be telling us less than the whole story.

But then again quite possibly not, because what’s in dispute is not so much what happened as whether what happened is a good thing or not. It may well be that if we heard from Tremper she would say ‘Yes, that’s exactly what happened, and here’s why I did what I did.’ It may well be that she would defend with passion and zeal the idea that it’s cruel and elitist, excluding and Eurocentric, mean-spirited and racist to give bad marks to students who haven’t learned to write. It may indeed be that she thinks it is doing students a favor to give them automatic high marks.

But Lang is quite eloquent on his reason for not thinking that’s doing students a favor. No doubt he learned to be eloquent with the help of the demanding education he cites as his reason. No doubt he thinks teaching students to be eloquent is doing them a much, much bigger favor than one does by giving them meaningless high marks and no eloquence.

If I am as well educated as my record indicates, it is because I was held to the same standards as the students who were paying tuition at NYU and Columbia. Were I currently a student at Brooklyn College, I would receive high grades, but I would quickly realize that I was not being required to meet high standards. I would not study as hard, learn to write as well, or strive to distinguish myself. In short, I would probably graduate with honors and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, as I did at NYU, but I would not be nearly as well educated. In short, my personal, perhaps selfish, reason for refusing to inflate my grades is that I can easily imagine myself being victimized by the practice.

Pretty convincing, however partial.



Oh Yeah?

Aug 20th, 2003 11:53 pm | By

This is a rather strange piece of comment. I used to quite like Karen Armstrong’s books, though I found her a bit too woolly about religion even then, but I suppose now that I’m older and less forgiving I’m more aware of…well, special pleading.

The religions are all committed to the quest for truth, however uncomfortable…There is unanimous agreement that the religious quest cannot begin until we see things as they really are. We cannot function effectively while trapped in enervating structures of denial, and a church that ignores the suffering of those it has injured in order to shore up its own authority has lost its way. There can be no healing for either the church or its victims unless the hierarchy learns once again to speak the truth that sets us free.

Hmm. Is that really true? Is it even close? Are religions all committed to the quest for truth however uncomfortable? You could have fooled me. They seem to me to be very much committed to the quest for untruth. For comforting fictions, for ways of thinking about ‘uncomfortable’ facts that make them seem less uncomfortable, for ways of thinking about the world that allow religions to go on interpreting the evidence in such a way that they have things right and non-religious people don’t. That’s not exactly my idea of the quest for truth. It is in fact my idea of an enervating structure of denial. I suppose Armstrong must have in mind some special definition of ‘the quest for truth’ that makes it match up with what ‘the religions’ do – spiritual truth, emotional truth, poetic truth, something woolly like that – which is why I call it special pleading. But that’s a perversion of the word. And if that’s not what she means, I truly don’t understand her assertion. Uncomfortable truth seems to me to be exactly the thing ‘the religions’ are not at all committed to the quest for.



A Meeting of Minds

Aug 18th, 2003 8:58 pm | By

There is an interesting convergence on Arts and Letters Daily today: one article about Ibn Warraq and his disavowal of Islam, and one by Christopher Hitchens taking issue with Edward Said, especially his new preface to Orientalism. This pairing interests us at B and W, of course, because we have a fascinating article by Ibn Warraq critiquing Edward Said’s Orientalism, and also because we admire Christopher Hitchens’ writing, particularly the anti-godbothering variety. So there we all are.

I’ve been wondering for some time what Hitchens’ opinion of Orientalism is now. I know they are friends of long standing – the friendship was Htichens’ defense, or at least reply, when Martin Amis shouted at him for insisting on quarreling with Saul Bellow over Israel, despite Amis’ multiple advance warnings to refrain from doing exactly that. ‘But Edward is a friend of mine,’ Amis reports Hitchens as saying, in Experience, to Amis’ fury (‘I’m a friend of yours too!’). But I also know, as who doesn’t, that Hitchens’ views on some things have changed since September 11. I also know, what is probably less common knowledge, that there is a highly enthusiastic blurb for Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am not a Muslim by Christopher Hitchens on the back cover (‘My favorite book on Islam is the rationalist critique Why I Am not a Muslim…’). I’ve been wondering, ever since we published ‘Debunking Edward Said’, exactly what Hitchens thought of Said’s best-known book. The answer turns out to be, not altogether surprisingly, that he has some reservations.

When he addresses the general Arab audience, he makes admirable use of this duality or multiplicity. In his columns in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram he is scornful and caustic about the failures and disgraces of Arab and Muslim society…Every year more books are translated and published in Athens than in all the Arab capitals combined. Where is there a decent Arab university? Where is there a “transparent” Arab election? Why does Arab propaganda resort to such ugliness and hysteria?…He is a source of stern admonition to the uncritical, insulated Arab elites and intelligentsia. But for some reason-conceivably connected to his status as an exile-he cannot allow that direct Western engagement in the region is legitimate.

Hitchens also mentions point-missing on a heroic scale, as well as pointing out many ways he considers Said got things right, and a certain amount of sly wit.

To the extent that American academics now speak about the “appropriation” of other cultures, and seldom fail to put ordinary words such as “the Other” between portentous quotation marks, and contest the very notion of objective inquiry, they are paying what they imagine is a debt to Edward Said’s work.

Yes. If I’ve seen one capital-O Other decorated with quotation marks, I’ve seen a million. What is it about American academics that makes them as slavishly sheepishly fashion-following as any pathetic junior high school girl in her little Britneyesque midriff-baring shirts? Now that would be a good subject for a book.



Non Sequitur of the Year

Aug 17th, 2003 11:23 pm | By

I’ve just done a study, one which involved reading one article from the THES and coming to a conclusion about it. My conclusion is that the guy doing the study the article discusses is, well, over-interpreting his evidence just a tiny bit. What did he find in his pioneering research which involved watching a popular quiz show on tv and seeing what kind of people won? He found that non-academics (or ‘housewives’ and workers, as the article oddly called them) did better than academics. Uh…gee…really? Could that be because shows like Wer Wird Millionär? don’t usually ask qestions about quantum mechanics or the Duhem-Quine thesis? On account of how most of the people who watch them aren’t academics themselves? Is this a big surprise to anyone? But the industrious researcher draws a rather sweeping conclusion from his study.

The study was in its early stages and the number of cases he had studied so far was not enough to reach final conclusions, Professor Prinz said. He plans to study more contestants and other quiz shows. “The results I have so far achieved are not conclusive, but they do prove that popular culture is just as valid and important as a good formal education.”

The results are not conclusive but they do prove something. Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction right there? But never mind that. The point is – have you ever heard anything so ridiculous in your life? Because I haven’t. Was the poor guy misquoted? That can happen, of course. Journalists will do that. But then again, if he’s silly enough to bother studying a quiz show in order to inform the world that many of the questions come from ‘showbiz, sport and pop’ then he probably did say it. So let’s ridicule him. Right, here we go. The fact that popular culture enables one to answer questions posed by a popular culture quiz show proves that popular culture is just as valid and important as a good formal education?? Full stop? Just as ‘valid and important’ (whatever on earth that means) for all purposes? Such as for instance detecting circularity in one’s own conclusions? Or asking oneself whether the ability to answer silly trivial short-answer questions posed by a tv quiz show is exactly what a good formal education is designed to do, and if so why and if not why not? Or asking oneself what one means by ‘valid and important’ and why one thinks answering questions on a quiz show is ‘valid and important’? Oh well, perhaps the Times Higher was just having a little August joke with us, and Professor Prinz is a hoax.



On Their Own Terms

Aug 14th, 2003 8:25 pm | By

‘On their own terms’ again. Such a handy phrase that is (see ‘Dyslexia in Excelsis’ below). It’s behind so much woolly thinking – the notion that if we’ll all just see all ideas and truth claims ‘on their own terms’ then no one’s self-esteem will be damaged and all will be well. Of course the idea doesn’t apply everywhere – which is indeed the oft-noticed contradiction in relativism, which is the same as the old Cretan liar’s paradox. Relativists want everyone to think that relativism is non-relativistically true. Same thing with ‘on their own terms.’ We’re not supposed to take, say, skepticism about taking things on their own terms on its own terms. But religion, now that’s another story. And if we have to hem and haw, shove inconvenient things under the sofa, change the subject, rush quickly past sensitive topics, and omit vital bits of information, why…it’s all in a good cause. Protecting religious fanaticism, what could be a better cause than that?

Witness this touching article about fundamentalist Jews and Muslims transcending their many differences because of the one core thing they have in common: unwavering belief in a lot of nonsense. The article is remarkably uncritical oh excuse me ‘non-judgmental’ about it all. But at one point that amounts to downright evasion.

When the Farm Animal Welfare Council recently proposed banning the traditional Muslim and Jewish methods of animal slaughter, where the animal is not stunned before it is killed, the two bodies co-operated in their response. Iqbal Sacranie, the Muslim Council’s secretary general, who also describes relations as “reasonably good”, reels off several other examples of Muslim-Jewish unity, including sitting together on government committees on inner-city regeneration.

Notice how briskly, even indecently, we rush away from the subject to talk about something completely different. What did the two communities say in their response? Who knows. We can guess, but clearly the author of the article doesn’t want to get explicit about it. Why is that? Could it possibly be because what they said was disgusting? Could that be it? Could the author be worried that if it were put down in black and white on the page that these nice religious people we’re being invited to approve of so warmly were insisting on their ‘right’ to go on slaughtering animals in an inhumane manner, we the readers might be a little repelled by that? Might that lead us to stop taking them on their own terms and start taking them on our own terms, where religion should not trump preferences for humane treatment of sentient beings? Who knows. I don’t know, I don’t know that that’s what happened. But I can’t help wondering.



Holistic, Sacred, Communal Bilge

Aug 14th, 2003 2:01 am | By

Ah well. Sometimes I worry about the possibility of becoming ever more reactionary and bilious as the days thunder past, but then other times, other times, I just throw up my hands and give in to it. There is just no alternative. For instance when reading the cringe-making ‘Mission Statement’ on the Web site of what sounds like the most cringe-making educational institution one could possibly imagine. The kind of place that makes one want to, I don’t know, dress up as a combination Wall Street shark and Ramboesque thug and roam about kicking small children and grinding the faces of the poor.

We teach of the need to heal from the traumas of living in less than a just, sacred and sustainable world; to resist the further destruction of people, planet and the more than human world; to create alternatives which inspire us to live differently in the world; to change consciousness from an objectifying and reductionist paradigm to one that is holistic and systemic; and finally of the need to overcome the fallacy of the isolated, autonomous individual and recognize the communal and ecological self.

Oh lordy. Doesn’t it just make you want to round up a crowd of your noisiest most obnoxious friends, if not that nice group of slit-eyed punks you passed on the corner, and go there and stand around and point and laugh? And then beat them all up? Doesn’t it?

It ought to be illegal to say stuff like that. But sadly it’s not. A dreadful teasing friend of mine found the Web site of my old school once and had himself a fine old time quoting bits of it to me and falling to the floor laughing. But that’s none of my doing – they didn’t talk like that in my day, I can assure you! No nonsense about forming our holistic spiritual beings, thank the goddess. I learned of the school and Mission Statement from the interesting blog Critical Mass, though for some reason Erin O’Connor passed up the chance to make fun of the loathsome fools.



Shadows on the Cave Wall

Aug 12th, 2003 8:56 pm | By

This article has a lot of food for thought, about how science works and the vexed relationship between theory and experiment.

It was not theory but experiment that plucked the quark idea from near oblivion. Aided and abetted by theory, experiments made quarks real, transforming them from a wayward hypothesis into concrete objects of experience. Experiments are what ultimately discarded the science fashions of the sixties and turned quarks into hard scientific fact.

It’s interesting to think of science and physics as being centers of fashion. Who knew that quarks were a fashion until experiments provided evidence that they were actually there, were not just Platonic physics, as Riordan calls it, but ‘hard scientific fact’? Well of course in a sense anybody who’s read Thomas Kuhn knew, that’s who, but you have to admit, paradigm sounds a good deal more serious than fashion. But the point is, whether paradigm or fashion, if the experiments don’t support them that’s what they stay, and otherwise they become knowledge.

One of the great strengths of scientific practice is what can be called the “withering skepticism” that is usually applied to theoretical ideas, especially in physics. We subject hypotheses to observational tests and reject those that fail…[G]ood experimenters are irredeemable skeptics who thoroughly enjoy refuting the more speculative ideas of their theoretical colleagues. Through experience, they know how to exclude bias and make valid judgments that withstand the tests of time.

There you are, they reject those that fail. No pausing to worry about the poor little theories’ self-esteem, just Here’s your hat and there’s the door, good bye. Mathematical beauty is all very well, but Riordan points out that it’s not an adequate standard for science.

Without such a rigorous standard of truth, science will have little defense against the onslaughts of the creationists and postmodernists, for whom it is just one of many ways to grasp the world. How could we ever hope to defend science against such attacks if it were based only on the opinions of its leading practitioners? Mathematics is not enough, no matter how beautiful. Even Einstein, who helped foster this theoretical style, insisted his ideas had to have observable consequences. The essence of scientific truth rests in the requirement that it should have strong accordance with the natural world that exists outside our minds and beyond human artifice.



Whose Culture?

Aug 11th, 2003 9:51 pm | By

And here we have an exhilarating opinion piece. Exhilarating I suppose because the things it says are both so obvious and so non-trendy. (Though there’s some danger in that line of thought – or perhaps I just mean some discomfort. The woods are all too full of people who are all to willing to make you a present of their bravely unfashionable opinions. You know the kind of thing. Defiant racism and sexism, defiant urges to trample on people, defiant calls to get rid of the minimum wage. Go away.) But that being said, the fact remains that this is great stuff, and should be said more often and more loudly, especially to people who don’t know it yet:

The problem is that the cultural relativists exaggerate the supposed consensus prevalent in a culture…What is usually defined as the culture of a people is in reality the interpretation and discourse put forth by the ruling class and its allied intellectual elite. For example, the interests of the Brahmin priests and Thakurs cannot reasonably be the same as that of the lower orders of Hindu society. Similarly the Islamic message cannot be identical for the decadent class of landlords and the landless tenants and rural proletariat, but since official religion is always defined by the rich and powerful the voices of the oppressed classes and sections of society within a culture are seldom heard and rarely allowed to assert an alternative interpretation.

Just so. All that guff about Eurocentrism and respecting the Other and what a bad idea the Enlightenment was really just plays into the hands of the rich powerful male Other, not the society as a whole.

Thus if this observation be granted that cultural relativism is a poor and unconvincing basis for objecting to modern human rights, we need to establish on what basis can a non-Western culture retain its historical identity while simultaneously incorporating and internalising modern human rights within its modern identity? Undoubtedly outmoded religious practices will have to be discarded and the core universal ideas of each culture retained.

How promising that does sound.



Dyslexia in Excelsis

Aug 11th, 2003 8:16 pm | By

Well here’s a piece that strikes me as completely bizarre. As if one should stare at a landscape buried under three feet of snow and say ‘How come it never snows around here?’ Or go for a nice walk in Death Valley and comment on how wet and cold it is, or eat some vanilla ice cream and say it’s too spicy. It’s like a kind of dyslexia. I suppose it’s really just the usual: confirmation bias, seeing what one expects to see and ignoring what one doesn’t. No doubt I’ll just be doing the same thing but in reverse – Elshtain sees the photograph and I see the negative or vice versa. But all the same, it does seem perverse to me to claim that we (in the US) hear more of people like Frank Lentricchia than we do of ‘serious reflection on religion.’ Excuse me? We do? Where would that be exactly?

As a result of the suppression of serious discourse about religion in many activist circles, we grow less able to appreciate what is going on in the war on terrorism. Issues of religious liberty, separation of church and state, the possibility that one might have a secular state in a society in which religions flourish, the dignity and status of women-all these matters and more can be seen clearly only if we take religion seriously, on its own terms.

Ah. Notice that final sly proviso, the last four words of the piece, slipped in at the last possible second, perhaps in the hopes that we won’t notice it. On its own terms. Oh is that how we’re allowed to discourse about religion – on its own terms. Well what if we want to discourse about it on our own terms? What then? Does that fail the test? Does that then become ‘suppression’ of serious discourse about religion? Is it serious only if done in religion’s own terms, whereas if we do it in secularists’ or atheists’ terms then it’s frivolous? If so, why?

In short here we are again, with religion demanding that everyone else take it ‘seriously’ despite its flat refusal to take non-religion seriously, and then to top it all off pretending that we don’t hear much about religion in the US. A counter-factual if I ever saw one.



No, Not Proof, Evidence

Aug 11th, 2003 5:38 pm | By

What was that I was just saying the other day about people translating ‘evidence’ into ‘proof,’ thinking the two words are interchangeable, just plain confusing the two? You’d think at least science journalists would know the difference, wouldn’t you? Well you’d be wrong, apparently.

Sir Patrick said scientists used peer review “almost exclusively” to publicise findings. But he said researchers could still attract publicity “for highly questionable results even when they offered no evidence that their research had been checked”. This was evident earlier this year when the Raelian sect announced the births of human clones. The only proof the sect’s US-based company Clonaid produced to support its assertion was a photograph of one of the children alleged to have been born in Japan.

See? You’d think it would be obvious, wouldn’t you. The juxtaposition is right there, evidence in one sentence, proof in the next but one. You’d think it would be all the more blindingly obvious given the nature of the example – given the fact that supporting an assertion (and a highly improbable one at that) is precisely the subject at issue. You’d think the writer would notice – that if a photograph of a child hardly qualifies as evidence that said child was cloned, the idea that it’s proof is even more nonsensical, so nonsensical that, hey, wait, I have the wrong word here. But no. No, clearly people really do think the two words are interchangeable, think it so automatically that they don’t even know they think it. But it’s so basic! The difference between the two, and between the claims for the two, is so extremely basic! And yet apparently most people aren’t even aware there’s a difference. Which means that most people don’t have a clue how science and inquiry work. Which is a pretty alarming thought.



Gospel

Aug 10th, 2003 9:20 pm | By

Yet another enthralling Start the Week, this one from June (I don’t listen to them in any sort of coherent order, rather I listen to the ones that sound most interesting first, in case I get run over by a bus before I get a chance to listen to them all). It’s interesting in general, but especially for the moment when, after everyone else has expressed great enthusiasm for a film about a charismatic Los Angeles preacher at a gospel church, Norman Finkelstein dissents from the general applause. He thinks it’s all an irritating exercise in white primitivism, and that the preacher in question is an embarrassment. It takes a bit of nerve to say that!



Translation 2

Aug 9th, 2003 2:13 am | By

Another thing irrationalists like to do is translate. Well I suppose all arguers translate, but irrationalists are especially fond of doing it. But then that’s not surprising, is it. Irrationalists are woolly by definition, so naturally they think one word is as good as another, vague approximations of meaning will do well enough, clarity is not necessary between friends.

One translation that’s especially popular – I may even have droned about this in a N&C before, I don’t remember, it certainly comes up a lot – is from evidence to proof. They seem to think the words are interchangeable – only they never say evidence instead of proof, no, it’s always the other way around. I suppose they have themselves so convinced that skeptics and secularists and atheists are claiming greater certainty than we in fact are that they just take it for granted we’re talking about proof and certainty even though we never use the word.

So that’s how it goes. I say something like ‘Why should we believe something if there is no evidence for it?’ and the irrationalists earnestly assure me that ‘the so-called scientific method of rigorous proof is a myth,’ and then go on about light’s being both wave and particle or quantum mechanics. But the ‘so-called scientific method of rigorous proof’ is a red herring, scientists don’t talk about proof, they talk about evidence. Proof is the province of math and logic, not science as a whole, and I didn’t say proof in any case. I said evidence. Evidence. Evidence. But confirmation bias is a powerful thing, and they apparently can’t hear me.



Let’s Redefine Evidence, Shall We?

Aug 8th, 2003 8:31 pm | By

Well to be sure it is a waste of time arguing with irrationalists, but on the other hand I did find out something I’ve been wanting to know, which is what they mean when they say that rationalists and atheists define evidence too narrowly. That seems to be a fashionable thing to say, I keep hearing it and seeing it, but the discussion always seems to go off in another direction before I can pin down what they mean by it. But this time after I asked about fifteen times, the irrationalist (who claims to have a PhD in cognitive science, which I hope is a bit of Walter Mittyism) finally said what he meant: ‘In terms of “evidence”… it can be non-material, non-phenomenological, but impinge upon an individual’s consciousness.’

Oh that. Is that all. Wanting to claim that something that happens inside my head (or your head, or X’s head) is evidence of something, not in my head, but in the external world. That’s what broadening the definition of evidence amounts to; I see. ‘I really really feel that Jesus loves me, therefore Jesus exists.’ In short, a piece of pure Humpty Dumptyism: words can mean whatever I want them to mean. It’s a question of who’s to be master, that’s all. If we can all decide that anything we can dream up in our own dear little minds constitutes evidence, why, what a fun world we can all create. Of course, that will mean we’ll have to come up with a new word which means what ‘evidence’ means now, and then the irrationalists will hijack and redefine that one too, so that we’ll have to come up with another one, and –

This could go on awhile.



Derrida and the WTO

Aug 7th, 2003 9:20 pm | By

Now, hang on. Surely one doesn’t have to be a postmodernist to have some doubts about the WTO. Well no, one doesn’t, because I do and I’m not. QED. But there seems to be some confusion on the matter.

This week in Montreal, there was an anti-globalization riot in which windows were broken in protest against a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting. But the Habermas-Derrida declaration praises the WTO and even the International Monetary Fund as part of Weltinnenpolitik…Yet it is not much of a stretch to claim the young anti-globalists as disciples of postmodernism and Derrida, who has hitherto been a foe of “logocentrism” (putting reason at the centre), “phallologocentrism” (reason is an erect male organ and, as such, damnably central) and Eurocentrism (the old, old West is the homeland of all of the above).

Well I think it is indeed much of a stretch. Not only does one not have to be a postmodernist, one also does not have to be either young or an ‘anti-globalist’ (whatever that means) to be a WTO skeptic. There are real, concrete, specific, non-woolly problems with the WTO and how it operates, but you’d never know it from about 95% (rough estimate, to be sure) of the media coverage. It’s not all about staying as sweet as you are and nostalgia for tiny farms with little plumes of smoke rising over the old farmhouse, it’s not about hating Starbucks, it’s not about anti-Eurocentrism or primitivism. It’s really rather simple. The tribunal is made up of appointed, unelected, unaccountable trade representatives who have the power to overturn (or at least penalize) any legislation that they claim interferes with trade. Environmental legislation, labour legislation, consumer safety legislation, truth in advertising legislation. This is not some kind of fuzzy-headed made-up grievance, it’s a very dangerous system. It’s ludicrous to lump doubts about the WTO in with postmodernism. Apples and oranges, Starbucks and Burger King.



Wasting One’s Breath

Aug 7th, 2003 8:31 pm | By

What a chump I am. I’ve frittered away a lot of time and energy on a discussion board, arguing with someone who disagrees with my ‘Science and Religion’ In Focus article but can’t come up with a convincing argument. Sigh. Same old bollocks. Atheism is a belief, theism and atheism are exact equivalents, you’re defining evidence too narrowly, I can’t prove god is there just as I can’t prove I love someone, blah blah blah. Can’t they do better than that? Well no, of course they can’t, that’s the whole point. Can’t come up with better arguments and can’t see how lame their own are, apparently. Right, I’ll just give us a quotation or two by way of refreshment.

I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment. [Steven Weinberg, ‘A Designer Universe?’]

Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion…The claims of science rely on experimental verification, while the claims of religion rely on faith. These approaches are irreconcilable approaches to knowing, which ensures an eternity of debate wherever and whenever the two camps meet. [Neil deGrasse Tyson, ‘Holy Wars: An Astrophysicist Ponders the God Question’]



Grammar School

Aug 6th, 2003 7:53 pm | By

I find this article very interesting, in a slightly queasy and guilty way. Queasy and guilty for a few reasons – one of which is that I’m not very keen to agree with Roger Scruton about anything. But then I promptly feel queasy about that thought, too, because it’s the basic principle of B and W that facts (and where possible ideas and opinions) should be judged on their merits rather than by association or ideological affiliation. That is to say, I’m almost obliged to acknowledge that a conservative isn’t automatically wrong about everything. But then will I end up agreeing with Rush Limbaugh about something? Oh please no –

Well, we all know the feeling, I suppose. Our Shanghai correspondent David Stanway said much the same thing in his blog on Monday (scroll down to August 4).

Reading another of Mark Steyn’s masterpieces in The Spectator , I am forced to admit that the idealism of youth is no longer an option, particularly in West Africa. I am also forced to admit the ineluctable truth that one becomes more right-wing as one gets older. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t even have looked at The Spectator.

Just so. Mind you, I usually manage to tell myself that I’m not becoming more right-wing, I’m just becoming more skeptical or observant or wised-up or nuanced or some such flattering spin. Then again other times I can’t help thinking I’m simply becoming more misanthropic and choleric and short-fused and scornful. But those are good things to be!

Ah well, never mind. I know there are some limits. I’ll never admire George Bush or Ronald Reagan, I’ll never rejoice over tax cuts for the rich, I’ll never join Scruton in getting dewey-eyed about fox hunting, I’ll never, ever become a god-botherer. That will have to do for now.

But another reason I feel a bit torn about the Scruton article is that I always feel torn about this subject – the competing goods of egalitarianism and meritocracy in education (and elsewhere). I would like everyone to have an education like the one Scruton got at High Wycombe Royal Grammar School. Yes and I would also like pigs to have wings and the land to flow with milk and honey. Even if societies were willing and able to spend the money that would take, there wouldn’t be enough brilliant teachers to make that possible. So…I’m just stuck with feeling torn, as always. Such is life, I’m told.