Jan 23rd, 2007 12:39 pm | By

So where are we.

Downing Street appeared to be wavering today on allowing Catholic adoption agencies exemption from gay rights legislation, after a warning from the leader of Catholics in England and Wales that agencies may close rather than comply with the regulations…Mr Blair’s official spokesman said: “This is an issue with sensitivities on all sides…The key thing we have to remember in all of this is the interests of the children concerned and that there are arguments on both sides. This is not a straightforward black-and-white issue. This is an issue where there are sensitivities on all sides and we have to respect those but equally find a way through.”

But are there arguments on both sides? Or are there just sensitivities. There is a difference. I hope Blair knows that – but I’m not confident that he does. It’s also worth pointing out that in fact we don’t ‘have to’ respect all sensitivities just because they’re sensitivities. I hope Blair knows that too, but again, I’m not confident that he does. It sounds too like the usual community-respect-grievance-fuzz-wool for confidence. This is one reason all this kind of thing gets so…hopelessly lost in the fog: it’s because people know that all they have to do is bleat about sensitivities and respect and conscience and faith and there will be spokespeople eager to say that we have to respect those. Well we don’t. Not necessarily. It depends what they are. The people of Little Rock had ‘sensitivities’ – the white people among them, that is – about integrating the public high school there. No one ‘had to’ respect those, because they were nasty and wrong. You could multiply that example by the thousands or tens of thousands all over the planet. Everywhere you go there are ‘sensitivities’ about various outgroups and ways in which We don’t want to mix with Them and in order to avoid that dread fate we want to shut them out of various public accommodations and services so that we won’t have to, you know, mix with them and be contaminated by them. Those sensitivities do not have to be respected, and ought not to be respected, and it’s not impressive to see Blair or his spokesman saying they do. A Tory MP did a hell of a lot better than Blair did.

The Tory MP John Bercow, who has argued strongly in favour of gay equality, said: “The idea of an exemption for Catholic adoption agencies is an anathema and contradicts the concept of equality at the heart of this legislation. People choose their religion, they do not choose their orientation. I believe equality is equality is equality and it is quite incredible for the Catholic church to insist its religious views should take precedence over others’ human rights.”

Yes, it is. Perhaps this is a more straightforward black-and-white issue than Blair wants to admit.

Let’s have a look at the archbishop’s ‘argument’ then.

[T]o oblige our agencies in law to consider adoption applications from homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents would require them to act against the principles of Catholic teaching. We require our agencies to recruit and approve appropriate married and single people to meet the needs of children in local authority care for whom adoption has been identified as being in their best interest. We place significant emphasis on marriage, as it is from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born and it is within the loving context of such a relationship that a child can be welcomed and nurtured. Marital love involves an essential complementarity of male and female. We recognize that some children, particularly those who have suffered abuse and neglect, may well benefit from placement with a single adoptive parent. However, Catholic teaching about the foundations of family life, a teaching shared not only by other Christian Churches but also other faiths, means that Catholic adoption agencies would not be able to recruit and consider homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents.

That’s it. And frankly it seems completely worthless. A single parent is okay, though not the first choice – but a gay couple is not okay. Because…’it is from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born and it is within the loving context of such a relationship that a child can be welcomed and nurtured.’ Sorry, that doesn’t work. It is, of course, from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born, because that’s how that works, but adoption isn’t about the birth of new life, it’s about rescuing an existing life from loneliness, abandonment, neglect and unhappiness. The idea seems to be (though the archbish does a damn bad job of spelling it out) that because children are born to two parents, therefore adopted children ought to be put in a situation that mimics a two-parent situation. Well – why? Why ought they? That is not clear. And, especially after learning what we’ve been learning about life at Goldenbridge, I think the archbishop should have made it clear. I assume he didn’t because he couldn’t because there is nothing to make clear. It’s not a real reason, it’s just a ‘sensitivity’ (that is, a taboo) dressed up in religious clothes, as ‘sensitivities’ so often are.

Not to worry

Jan 22nd, 2007 2:16 pm | By

The MCB is so dutiful and giving and conscientious, don’t you think? It assures us that, when it’s absolutely necessary, even a Muslim will in fact do her job.

A Muslim woman police officer refused to shake hands with the head of the Metropolitan Police on faith grounds…The woman’s refusal was based on her view that her faith prevented her touching a man other than her husband or a close relative…Sheikh Ibraham Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said people should not be alarmed by the officer’s beliefs and that Muslim law “was not set in concrete”. He added: “If the officer is called to a male victim who has been shot, the laws go out of the window. If she has to resuscitate that dying person, Muslim law will then change and allow her all sorts of physical contact because a life is at risk and life is so precious. Muslim law will say, ‘forget everything, save this life’.”

Ohhhhh – isn’t that generous? I’m so impressed. If a male victim is dying, then the law goes out the window. Coolerino. But so – if he’s not dying but just mangled, it doesn’t? Or if there’s uncertainty about whether he’s dying or not? Or if he’s quite all right really but trapped and in pain? Does she have to do her job only if the male victim will die if she doesn’t? Is there, like, a get-out clause for all cases short of death? Is that what everyone should be not alarmed about? Or should people instead be alarmed about the whole idea of other people taking up jobs that their religions forbid them to, you know, do?

It all reminds me of Mr Collins –

I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England.

And Lizzy’s reflection on him: ‘Elizabeth was chiefly struck with his extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine, and his kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying his parishioners whenever it were required.’

No equality please we’re Catholic

Jan 21st, 2007 5:35 pm | By

God, this is revolting.

Ruth Kelly is trying to water down new anti-discrimination laws to let Catholic adoption agencies turn away gay couples. Backed by Tony Blair, the embattled Communities secretary is at the centre of a full-scale cabinet row over the new gay rights laws…The Catholic church has threatened to close its seven adoption agencies rather than comply with laws that forbid them to discriminate against gay couples. The Prime Minister is supporting her efforts to water down new laws that are supposed to guarantee gay people equal rights to goods and services.

Well, great. Because the Catholic church has such a shining history of taking care of children, doesn’t it.

Of the 2,900 children put up for adoption last year, the agencies placed around 4 per cent. But they found homes for around a third of the “difficult-to-place” children. Ms Kelly argues it is these children that would suffer if Catholic couples were no longer encouraged to adopt by church-run agencies. Gay campaigners argue, however, that gay parents are themselves more likely to adopt the most vulnerable children and nothing should be done to bar them from the system. Ms Kelly refuses to say whether she regards homosexuality as a sin. She has defended failing to vote for civil partnerships or gay adoption on the grounds that they are “issues of conscience”.

What’s that supposed to mean? If it’s a vote, it’s an issue of law; she’s in the government; what right does she have to refuse to vote on an issue not of conscience but of what Lord Whatsit the other day called ‘church teaching’?

Oh dear – I’m coming over all militant atheist. If Ruth Kelly wants to inspire a lot more people to turn militant atheist, she’s going the right way about it.

Joan Smith is cross with her.

Ms Kelly stands accused of preparing to give in to homophobic lobbying from Roman Catholic bishops. It seems that these worthies, who present themselves as champions of children’s rights in their relentless campaign against abortion, would rather see kids remain in institutions than hand them over to same-sex adoptive parents. Faced with equality legislation that would make such discrimination illegal, they’ve lobbied the Government and found sympathetic listeners in the Prime Minister and Ms Kelly who – this is not a joke – is the cabinet minister responsible for equality.

Yeah well – we know they preferred to see them in institutions in Ireland rather than hand them over to their own mothers, in many cases not because the mothers were abusive but because they were unmarried. We know they have a very warped idea of what is immoral and what isn’t. Forbidding condoms during a pandemic, moral; keeping children in institutions rather than letting them go to gay parents, moral; being gay, shockingly immoral and sinful and bad.

If I were thinking about how best to promote the welfare of children in need of adoptive parents, I certainly wouldn’t take much notice of an organisation with such a scandalous record. No doubt Ms Kelly takes a different view, but then she would: she’s a devout Catholic, and in a sane world that would disqualify her from taking decisions which might provide special treatment to an organisation of which she is a member. Those of us with a surer grasp of morality are entitled to explain to Ms Kelly that for the second time in a month she faces something called a conflict of interest, and the Prime Minister’s support cannot alter that fact.

Why is Blair supporting her?

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who is set to become the leader of England’s Catholics, recently warned the Government not to “impose on us conditions which contradict our moral values”. “It is simply unacceptable to suggest that the resources of… adoption agencies … can work in co-operation with public authorities only if the faith communities accept not just the legal framework but also the moral standards being touted by the Government,” he sermonised last November. When it comes to Mr Blair, the archbishop is preaching to the converted, according to senior ministers. The Prime Minister first asked Alan Johnson, then responsible, to include a loophole in anti-discrimination legislation to allow the Catholic ban on gay parents early last year. When he refused, the PM moved him and handed the equalities brief to Ms Kelly, whom he knew could be trusted to back him on the issue.

Well what a pretty story.

Militant atheism

Jan 20th, 2007 9:49 am | By

I’ve been pondering something Julian says in Atheism: a very short introduction (again). I think there’s something I disagree with; unless I misunderstand it, which is always possible.

It’s to do with his overall rejection of what he calls ‘militant atheism’ in favour of a less hostile or less noisy variety. I’m not saying there are no reasons to object to noisy and/or hostile atheism – people offer me such reasons often, and I can see that some of them have force. (There’s the fact that it can be boring, irritating and repetitive, for instance!) I’m just taking issue with a couple of particulars here.

On page 106 he says:

Nor do I believe that a firm belief in the falsity of religion is enough to justify militant opposition to it…I think my opposition to militant atheism is based on a commitment to the very values that I think inspire atheism: an open-minded commitment to the truth and rational enquiry…Hostile opposition to the beliefs of others combined with a dogged conviction of the certainty of one’s own beliefs is, I think, antithetical to such values.

Agreed – except for this objection I have, unless it’s a misunderstanding. It’s the (crucial, I think) bit about ‘hostile opposition to the beliefs of others.’ I don’t think it’s beliefs we’re hostile to (we militant or noisy or hostile atheists). I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s statements, assertions, truth-claims, that we oppose, sometimes with hostility. Like Elizabeth I, we don’t really want to make a window into people’s heads. We (mostly)* don’t mess with people’s internal beliefs, we mess with the externalized version that comes out as assertions or arguments. I think that makes a difference. I could be wrong, but at the moment it seems to me that that makes a difference. Hostile opposition to the beliefs of others may well be objectionable, but hostile opposition to the assertions or arguments of others? Is that objectionable? (Well, it partly depends on how you define ‘hostile,’ of course. If it descends to name-calling, yes; but if it’s just energetic disagreement, that’s another matter.) It seems to me that even militant atheists, even outright brawlers, don’t care about internal states of other people, it’s only external states that meet opposition.

The assertions and arguments are of course based on the beliefs, so that by opposing the assertions and arguments we are in effect also opposing the beliefs – but not, I would say, as such; we’re opposing them as a necessary part of opposing what flows from them. Of course that’s not obvious when these disputes are going on (or afterwards either) – but I think it’s true all the same, and I think it matters.

If that’s right, I think it’s possible that militant atheists get something of a bad rap, even from other atheists. Being (I take it) what is meant by a ‘militant atheist’ myself, of course I have a motivation for saying that, but I think it’s possible all the same.

On the other hand – it may be that by ‘beliefs’ Julian means assertions and arguments as well as mental states. He may mean ‘beliefs’ to cover that whole complex – in which case my objection becomes irrelevant. Or it may be that he would argue that hostile opposition is objectionable in any case. Or it may be both of those. If that’s the case, then I admit that I offer hostile opposition to the beliefs of people like Theo Hobson, Giles Fraser, Keith Ward, Madeleine Bunting, Phillip Blond. In a way I suppose it’s reasonable to call what they write in columns and articles their ‘beliefs’ – arguments and assertions are instantiations of beliefs, at least. I do often feel and express hostility to such arguments and claims – but is that because of ‘a dogged conviction of the certainty of [my] own beliefs’? Hmm. No, I don’t think so…At least, not a dogged conviction of the certainty of oppositional ontological beliefs. I might have a certain amount of dogged conviction that their way of reaching conclusions is wrong…Yes; that’s what it is. That’s what sparks the hostility. It’s not the substantive beliefs, it’s the way of thinking.

So the question becomes – Is a firm belief in the badness of woolly thinking (as opposed to ‘a firm belief in the falsity of religion,’ see above) enough to justify militant opposition to it? Well, yes, frankly; I think it is, at least when the woolly thinking is published in newspapers and on newspaper websites. I think that’s a different kind of thing – different from beliefs about the falsity of religion. Furthermore, it seems to me that if the woolly thinking is offered up in public media, then it is necessarily fair game, in a way that mere beliefs about the non-falsity of religion are not. I think that’s especially true when the woolly thinking is itself rather aggressive, as with Theo Hobson and Co it so often is. There is in fact something inherently aggressive and would-be coercive about conspicuously bad arguments – they have a whiff of force about them, at least to my aristocratic nose. A whiff of ‘believe or else,’ of ‘unbelief is not permitted,’ of ‘submit,’ of ‘how dare you.’

I think that’s what triggers the militant atheism. Not the basic beliefs, not internal states, but aggressively weak arguments delivered as public challenges. You don’t see a great many militant atheists invading churches or disrupting funerals, as far as I know. You see them disputing public claims. And perhaps upsetting dinner tables, but that’s an issue for Miss Manners.

It’s a swell book, by the way, as commenters (and I) said in the previous post on the subject.

*I’m generalizing throughout. I think what I’m saying applies to most militant atheists, but I don’t claim it applies to all. I’m extrapolating from myself, is what it boils down to, and I certainly don’t know that there are no exceptions.

What kind of respect are we talking about?

Jan 17th, 2007 11:04 am | By

We keep hearing about public objections to or fears about the creation of human-animal embryos for research purposes, but the objections and fears that are cited are, frankly, rather pathetic. They also seem to be very much in the minority. In fact it looks as if the news media are creating and inflating these objections and fears, more than they are reporting on their existence. Oh, well that’s a surprise, that’s never happened before. Surely?

The Indy offers some background, including on the opposition.

There are many pressure groups and religious organisations who have voiced their opposition on the grounds that it is unethical or immoral to mix germ cells from humans and animals to create potentially viable embryos. They believe that it undermines respect for human life, and some believe it is also demeaning to animals.

And…that’s it, at least as far as this article goes. It undermines ‘respect,’ it’s ‘demeaning.’ Sounds familiar, doesn’t it – sounds like the wack objections to gay marriage: it undermines respect for the institution of marriage. How and why it does that is never spelled out – what that even means is never spelled out. People who oppose the opposition ask and ask and ask to have the reasoning made plain, but…if they’ve had much success, the results are being carefully hidden.

Why, exactly, does the creation of a certain kind of egg, which will be destroyed within fourteen days, undermine respect for human life? I want to know. What’s the thinking here? That thirteen-day old embryos might end up being dressed up in little outfits and enrolled in school? That they might start marrying people’s children? That they’ll make all the buses and movie theatres and supermarkets too crowded? That they’ll jostle us off the sidewalk and humiliate us? That they’ll want to spend the night in our houses and have their horrible unthinkable disgusting squelchy sex right there with us in the next room listening in fear and horror?

That’s it, isn’t it. It’s sex. The many pressure groups and religious organisations are afraid that they will want to have sex with each other where we’ll be able to hear; they’re afraid they will want to have sex with us. They’ll seduce us, they’ll lie down on top of us in the night when we’re asleep and impregnate us with their horrible hybrid pinkish fibrous mucousy slimy – oh, jesus, help me.

Okay maybe that’s not it, maybe I’m being unfair, as usual. But what is it then? What, exactly, is it? What is it about some embryos in a lab at Newcastle or King’s College London that causes respect for human life to be undermined? Perhaps it’s that potential murderers will, as soon as such embryos exist, no longer think ‘No, I mustn’t, it would be wrong,’ but instead will think ‘Hey, there are those little embryos at Newcastle, they have some cow DNA mixed in – not very much, admittedly, but still some, so what is human life worth? Not much, obviously; therefore I will murder that co-worker who gets on my nerves, because why not?’ Is that it? Well, if so, could it be that the worry is ever so slightly far-fetched and, as it were, strained? That the likelihood of that looks no more robust than the likelihood of any other random fanciful absurd scenario one could come up with? Maybe the next time I take the 74 bus one of the passengers will decide the existence of tomato paste in tiny cans makes life not worth living, and so get off on Stone Way instead of 40th Street.

Why do pressure groups and religious organisations get to ‘voice their opposition’ on worthless empty meaningless grounds that way, and be considered a serious and worth-heeding opposition? Talk about undermining respect – they’re the ones who undermine respect, if you ask me: they undermine respect for human ability to oppose things for good reasons as opposed to completely factitious whimsical made-up ones. This isn’t just messing around, after all! This isn’t like old Coke versus new Coke; this is medical research that could cure horrible diseases. What business do people have opposing it for silly frivolous worked-up reasons? It’s revolting if you look at it hard enough. Is it just for the sake of the self-righteous glow? The little aura of piety? Well – that’s a crappy reason. A crappy, vain, narcissistic, beside the point reason. If we want to fret about respect for human life, why not fret a great deal more about the lives lost or ruined by Parkinson’s or Motor Neurone disease than about some mysterious vague unspecified general ‘life’ that belongs to no one in particular but would be less respected because of those eggs? Respect for human life, indeed. Pull the other one.


Jan 17th, 2007 11:04 am | By

I did a comment a couple of weeks ago about Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think and NASA and the Challenger explosion and Richard Feynman. I got Feynman’s book (What do You Care What Other People Think?, the one that includes his account of the investigation of the explosion) from the library yesterday – it’s a fascinating read. It is all about bad or non-existent communication between managers and engineers, along with the fact that the managers make the decisions. Baaaad set-up. However good a manager you are, you can’t manage a cold stiff non-resilient rubber O-ring into doing its job of holding in the hot gases during launch. That just isn’t a managerial skill. O-rings and rubber just aren’t…manipulable or commandable or influenceable or persuadable in that way. They just do what they do, no matter what plans the managers make, no matter how many zeros the managers add to the number an explosion can’t happen in. That kind of thing just doesn’t change what happens when a cold O-ring isn’t resilent enough to expand when the joint expands. It just can’t be coaxed. It doesn’t expand, the gas escapes, blam; that’s all.

I’ll tell you more another time, but there was this one passage I read this morning that made me sit up and take even more notice than I already was, which is a lot. It’s highly interesting in itself, but it also exactly echoes something I was thinking…the other day, recently some time, but I couldn’t remember when. You know how that is. I enjoyed that ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s just what I was thinking…whenever it was,’ but I wanted to remember when I was thinking it. (I don’t know. I just did.) I knew I could find out though, because I scribbled a note about it at the time. I scribble notes about things like that in a notebook. You never know when you might want to recall them. It took me awhile to find the note, but I did, and oddly, I scribbled it the day after that post. (I date them. I do several every day, so I insert each day’s dates. I don’t know. I just do.) I’d forgotten that it had anything to do with NASA. But I ended up having the same thought Feynman did about the whole matter. I find that interesting.

Here’s some of what I say in the notebook (don’t mind the sketchiness and crudeness, it’s just a note, a scribble, a memory-aid):

Politics is like NASA. It’s about taking off your engineering hat and putting on your management hat. It’s about – agreement, compromise, persuasion, manipulation, acceptance, opinion. It’s got nothing to do with accuracy, evidence, inquiry, critical thinking – it’s all mush. Mush-world. Baby world. Coax world. ‘Is this okay, will this do?’ Who cares; is it right, or not? [etc] But the political way of thinking – at the extreme – is like NASA – and is a kind of magical thinking – if the majority thinks so then it is true, which can even become, if the majority wants it to, it will happen. Like prayer, perhaps – a background idea that our hopes and wishes (and prayers) really do affect rocks and gases – really do protect the shuttle and keep it from exploding.

That’s politics at its worst, of course, but still, it did strike me with a peculiar force or clarity at that moment, and explain to me why I’m really not very interested in politics these days. So you’ll be able to see why this bit of Feynman’s book made me sit up.

The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty. In other fields, such as business, it’s different.’ He cites advertising, where the goal is to fool the customer, and then: ‘When I see a congressman giving his opinion on something, I always wonder if it represents his real opinion or if it represents an opinion he’s designed in order to be elected. It seems to be a central problem for politicians.

Yes. It does. That’s exactly it. It’s wearing a management hat not an engineering hat – which means ignoring what the engineers tell you if it’s not what you or the voters want to hear. Even if that means ignoring the engineers telling you it’s dangerous to launch when it’s this cold and launching anyway, as if managers or politicians have some kind of magical power to over-ride physical reality and make O-rings resilient by the mere power of wishing. Step right up, buy our magic hats, they can make you beautiful and healthy and young, and they can prevent shuttles from exploding and hurricanes from breaching levies.

Once you’ve been impressed by that difference, it’s hard to go back, I think.

Not Hezbollah now, thank you

Jan 16th, 2007 6:26 pm | By

What’s all this about liberal education then? Does it have to do with the free discussion of ideas and a more cosmopolitan sense of the world maybe, as opposed to whatever green-and-slimy thing Bill O’Reilly thought he saw under the bed one day? Michael Bérubé offers some thoughts:

I’ve given up on trying to come up with formulations about the goal of liberal education that everyone would agree with, but I think cosmopolitanism beats the alternatives…What I’m offering, simply, is the much broader stroke of opposing cosmopolitanism to parochialism…I look at how it was, from Clifford Geertz onwards, that the idea of “local knowledges” took such hold of us. Why would the local be taken as a good in itself?…[I]t struck me as strange that the fetishization of the local would become so entrenched…[C]osmopolitanism…still gets a bad rap in quarters where it’s understood to entail rootlessness and a lack of grounding or commitment…Not only do I disagree – I think cultivating the idea of “world citizens,” to take Martha Nussbaum’s phrase from Cultivating Humanity, now more than ever beats every alternative I can think of. It offers a rebuke to certain pragmatic nationalisms – and I also think the talk of supersession of the nation-state is running well ahead of the actual facts. Finally, I would much rather be associated with an internationalist left than with a so-called patriotic left, and I think cosmopolitanism works toward that end.

Same here. With considerable emphasis. Cosmopolitanism, internationalism, world citizenship over the parochial, local and patriotic every time. Hand me my tiny patchwork flag, would you? I want to wave it.

The university is perhaps ‘one of the more genuine public spheres, in contrast to the kind of politics that we get on TV,’ the interviewer suggests.

There is always (and often for good reasons) suspicion of anyone launching a critique of Chomsky because he is so iconic; and all criticism is considered apostasy. So this week on the blog I said, let me try to explain what the difference is between the “democratic” and the “anti-imperialist” left, because the anti-imperialist left these days, I think, is leading itself right off the cliff to – well, the phrase this month is “we are all Hezbollah now.” I’m not Hezbollah, thank you, and I’m also not part of the Iraqi resistance…You don’t want to be in the position of saying, well, the repression and the homophobia of such and such a regime—at least they’re at least anti-imperialist, revolutionary homophobia and repression, as opposed to reactionary, imperialist homophobia and repression. In the last ten years or so, I have not only come around, as I argue in Liberal Arts, to a kind of re-appreciation of what the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was trying to do, but I’ve gotten increasingly impatient with that wing of the left that will cut some slack to whoever is the enemy of my enemy at the moment.


Read the whole thing, as they say.

Christianity invented atheism

Jan 15th, 2007 6:40 pm | By

I shouldn’t say anything about Giles Fraser, it’s what he wants, he’s just doing it to provoke me, I should ignore him – but there are just one or two or three or four things I want to point out, ever so gently, that are tendentious and incorrect. I know (because Allen has told me) that the Guardian just does this, and no one pays any attention, but – just these few little items, very gently and politely.

His overall point is what one might call the Michael Ruse Move: claiming that atheists are IDers’ or fundamentalists’ best friends and that the only really okay sensible good nice okay people are ‘mainstream’ Christians like – well, rather like Giles Fraser, actually.

Fundamentalism was invented only in the 20th century.

The word was, yes, but the thing itself? Uh, no. All Christianity was ‘fundamentalist’ in the sense of orthodoxy-enforcing and heresy-punishing for centuries; that didn’t start along with the hip flask and wireless radio.

Many Christians don’t believe homosexuality is a sin. Far from it. We think it’s a gift of God – a means by which many show love and commitment and compassion. This is not an eccentric view within the church. It’s also the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury, though, admittedly, he is insufficiently bold in expressing it.

Well, that’s sweet, but why does the Vicar of Putney get to pretend that it’s inherent to Christianity? One, belief that homosexuality is indeed a sin ya youbetcha is not a novelty, and two, he’s simply talking about moral intuitions which trump religious rules and which anyone can have; there’s nothing specifically Christian about them. Why does he give Christianity credit for it?

But bigots who dress up in the clothing of faith are being encouraged by media atheists in the view that orthodox biblical Christianity is intrinsically anti-gay. That’s rubbish.

Is it. Is it really. So Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, 1 Kings 14:24, Romans 1:26-28, those are all – ? What? Not part of ‘orthodox biblical Christianity’? Er…since when? And according to whom? And how do we know? And why should we trust it?

Ignoring the fact that Christianity invented secularism, on these pages last week Toynbee described the row over sexual orientation regulations as “a mighty test of strength between the religious and the secular”.

Christianity invented secularism, did it. So what was all that about the popes then? The Vatican being a sovereign state? The monarchs who were defenders of the faith? Calvin’s fun-loving regime in Geneva? That was all just the early days of the Enlightenment was it?

Christianity also invented elevators, toilet paper, steam, rayon, and capitalism. Little-known fact.

Thank you for stopping by, Dr Fraser, it was a pleasure having this little chat with you, have a good week.

There, see? Quite polite.

It is my right to blah blah blah

Jan 14th, 2007 1:01 pm | By

Look at this leering little pill. Look at that ineffable smirk. Well naturally, she’s got her picture in the paper, and she’s been given a chance to set up as the new fun thing to be, a Martyr for her Faith. Of course she’s smirking. She must have been beside herself with joy and excitement when a teacher told her to take off the nasty little necklace with torture-execution emblem. She’s probably been waiting to be told that for weeks, wondering what was taking everyone so long. Mind you, she was allowed to wear the same revolting thing as a lapel badge if she wanted to, the pious little creep, but no, that would interfere with the martyrdom-pose, so obviously she wasn’t about to close with that offer. Hell no. Where would be the fun in that? She would hardly get a chance to announce to the Telegraph that ‘I am determined to keep wearing the crucifix whatever the consequences – even if I get suspended or expelled’ if she settled for just swapping a necklace for a lapel badge, would she. Nor would her mother get the chance to drone to the same newspaper that ‘I was brought up to be proud of my religion and we believe it is Sam’s right to be proud of what she believes in and wear a symbol of her faith. It’s a total disgrace. I don’t want Sam’s schoolwork to suffer, but she believes in standing up for what she believes in.’

They must all be just tumbling over each other with bliss in the cross-infested sitting room of their pious devout proud spiritual faith-based religious proud courageous dwelling place. They get to be in the newspaper. Called devout. Talking about what they are determined to do even if they are tortured or killed or imprisoned, or anyway expelled from Robert Napier School, Gillingham, Kent, which is much the same thing if you look at it the right way. Everyone will admire them! Everyone will think how brave and proud and self-sacrificing and devout and brought up they are! Everyone will be so impressed! They’ll probably get to meet the queen, and Charles, and Camilla, they’ll probably get to have Julia Roberts over for dinner, they’ll probably get to make the House of Lords do something or other. It is all so exciting. Darling little cross, what fun it is.

Subject closed – or not

Jan 13th, 2007 1:05 pm | By

Something W K C Guthrie said about Socrates set off a train of thought.

[S]ince no one will try to find out what constitutes right action, or what is the real meaning of freedom or justice, if he thinks he knows it already, the first task was to convince others too of their ignorance.

True enough, probably – unless she already thinks that things keep on being worth thinking about even if she does think she knows something about them already. That’s why a basic stance of skepticism, uncertainty, revisability, is a good thing. If we have it, we’re likely and predisposed to go on (and on and on) trying to find out things even if we have thought about them before. We’re never finished. There are no closed questions.

The belief or conviction that we already know all that needs to be known on a subject probably does impede further inquiry and thought about it. That’s a sensible time-saving mechanism in a world of finite time and attention, especially when it comes to simple straightforward factual information like bus timetables, but it’s also the high road to dogmatism and delusions of infallibility and lack of practice in thinking and questioning on more complicated subjects. The absence of a sense that ‘That subject is settled, closed, there is nothing to think about’ is a necessary condition of thinking about it. If you really think there is nothing to think about, then you won’t.

So, as with biases, I’ve been trying to figure out if I can think of any closed subjects – subjects that are closed for me. Subjects I just wouldn’t want to think about no matter what the new evidence or arguments. Er – I couldn’t do it. I can think of subjects that bore me into fits, and that I avoid discussing or thinking about in certain terms – US politics, for example, which is 95% campaign and only 5% substance (figures pulled out of air), and just unbelievably boring and pointless. But that’s different from closed. I can’t think of anything actually closed. I must be fooling myself! I must be, that must be sheer delusion. Tax policy. Economics. No…I feel resistance, but that’s laziness and ill-informedness, not imputed knowledge. I can’t think of anything I know so much about that there’s nothing to think about. Well that’s plausible enough! Maybe I’m not fooling myself: maybe that’s just the product of ignorance and a bad memory. I’m serious. I find it easy to get interested in subjects I’ve already learned something about, because I’ve forgotten what I learned. I can just start over. Wonderful quality, that! It leaves you pig-ignorant, but also keeps you interested. Let’s see…belief in the existence of the self. We’ve never talked about that (surely?), so let’s get down to it.

STDs don’t know who did what to whom

Jan 13th, 2007 12:12 pm | By

A tangential comment in this piece on why Harvard shouldn’t pretend, as Steven Pinker put it in The Crimson, “‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing” is pertinent to a recent discussion here of condoms and the Catholic church:

Indeed, it is not uncommon for religious leaders to advocate acting on faith in the face of reason – as when Catholic priests forbid married women to use condoms even when their husbands are infected with AIDS.

Of course, Catholic priests (and bishops and archbishops and cardinals and the pope and many theologians and Catholic thinkers and writers) forbid everyone to use condoms under any circs, but the point Lawrence Krauss is making by putting it that way is the one that gets, bizarrely, overlooked by people (and there are some) who defend the Catholic church’s position on the issue by pointing out that people already disobey the church’s teachings by not being monogamous; the condom issue, they say, is subsidiary to that fact, and therefore no reason to blame the church for its loathsome murderous policy. There are a lot of problems with that defense (such as the lack of fit between crime and punishment – adultery is not self-evidently the right sort of thing to punish with a slow unpleasant death), but one of the most glaring is the one Krauss indicates by his way of stating the policy. The ban on condoms is a blanket ban, so, obviously, it punishes monogamous partners (and children) as well as non-monogamous partners. Of course that is not to say the spread of AIDS is the church’s fault and no one else’s, but it is to say that the church (to put it as mildly as possible) ought not to do anything to hinder AIDS-prevention. The church ought not to be helping along ‘punishment’ in the form of a horrible disease – that seems simple enough. (That discussion got sidetracked in the earlier thread by an irritating eruption of sexist bullshit. I run a classy outfit here; if anyone’s going to lower the tone it will be me. Sexist bullshit is right out.)

Self and deity

Jan 12th, 2007 6:11 pm | By

I read a bit of Julian’s Atheism: a Very Short Guide earlier today and there was a bit I wondered about. It gave me pause. He’s comparing belief in God with belief in the existence of the self – one’s own, that is.

For many religious believers, their belief in God’s existence is of comparable strength. They feel the truth of God’s existence so strongly that they can no more doubt it than they can doubt the existence of their own selves.

Is that true? I wondered. I don’t know that it’s not – but I wonder. It seems implausible. It seems implausible because (as we all know via Descartes, of course, if not in any other way) it’s not the same kind of belief or truth-feeling or inability to doubt. We can’t (I think) even imagine not believing we ourselves exist. We can imagine believing we’re in the clutches of the evil demon, in the matrix, all that, but we can’t imagine believing we don’t exist, because if we did we would immediately wonder (unless we’re very absent-minded) who that is doing the believing then. But no other belief can have that kind of strength, or force, because no other belief has that trick up its sleeve. Unless of course I’m just wrong. I’m curious about it. I could ask Julian, but I don’t think he has time for my footling questions.

His point is interesting, and no doubt right: that arguments are beside the point for most religious believers because arguments aren’t why they believe in god to begin with. I’m sure he’s right about strong belief – but I wonder if it can be as strong as belief in the existence of one’s own self.

I suppose for people who believe in an immanent god it could. You just believe your self and god (and all selves) are the same thing – so you need to believe in just the one. I don’t think that’s really what Julian meant though, since he wasn’t talking about mysticism and inner experience and so on. But maybe it is what he meant all the same. Anyway it’s given me an interesting puzzle.

Good book, by the way.

Let’s play identity

Jan 10th, 2007 6:30 pm | By

Uh oh.

[I]t might be useful to examine what deaf identity might be and how that identity fits in with current notions of other identities based on race, gender, sexual orientation…[T]he status of deaf people has changed in important ways, as deaf activists and scholars have reshaped the idea of deafness, using the civil-rights movement as a model for the struggle to form a deaf identity. Deaf people came to be seen not just as hearing-impaired, but as a linguistic minority, isolated from the dominant culture because that culture didn’t recognize or use ASL…Harlan Lane, a professor of psychology and linguistics…drew on the ideas of Edward Said and Michel Foucault to suggest that the deaf were like a colonized people. Lane was instrumental in defining deaf identity based on the notion that deaf people were a linguistic and even an ethnic minority…The definition of the deaf as a colonized, ethnic, linguistic minority has in turn been widely accepted in deaf circles and taught for more than a decade in deaf-studies programs…

A colonized, ethnic, linguistic minority – I can certainly see the linguistic and minority, but colonized? Ethnic? Well – no doubt that’s exactly why words like that tend to make me come over all suspicious. It’s because I think there may be some conning going on. Who, may I ask, colonized ‘the deaf’, and what the hell for? To corner all their minerals? To force them to find ivory? To disappoint and confound The International Commonist* Conspiracy? Because it was a way to employ younger sons? Why? And as for ethnic – well I always knew that was a stupid meaningless elastic word that people use to make themselves feel special, and that just puts it beyond doubt.

[I]s a deaf person excluded from his ethnic identity of deafness if he or she chooses not to act deaf?…African-Americans who speak standard English and do not code-switch are sometimes accused of being “Oreos” — black on the outside and white on the inside. Do we really want to go down the road of thinking of some people as deaf “Oreos”?

Hey, I don’t even want to go down the road of thinking of African-Americans who speak standard English and do not code-switch as Oreos, let alone thinking of deaf people that way. That is precisely one of the chief reasons I despise the whole identity mess – this business of telling people they’re not [whateveritis] enough, not authentic enough; this business of expecting them to code-switch whether they want to or not. It’s coercive and parochial and stifling and I hate it.

The problem with such concepts is that they exclude people, reduce their rights, and create marginalized communities. And then there is the question of who gets to set up the barriers and checkpoints. In the past, it was hearing people who did; now segments of the deaf community have declared themselves the gatekeepers, by defining deafness in the narrowest possible terms.

What I said. Parochial and stifling. I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.

*McCarthy always pronounced it Commonist.

Wit and its relation to the master

Jan 9th, 2007 12:41 pm | By

Allen was inspired (by a passing joke of mine) to send me a line of Frank Cioffi‘s, from his review of Sulloway’s Freud: Biologist of the Mind (1979):

Material has been accumulating for some time that the account of the birth
and early growth of the psychoanalytic movement which derives from Freud
and Ernest Jones, and has been so often repeated, bears little relation to
reality. In an ideal world this would have knocked several more nails in
Freud’s coffin, but since it is so widely believed that he is not in it,
having climbed out on the third day, it has had little discernable effect.

I liked that so much he sent another, this one from a review of Fisher and
Greenberg’s survey of studies on Freud’s theses, The Scientific
Credibility of Freud’s Theories and Therapy
(1977) in the THES:

What these studies really show is that there are psychologists who would
sooner part with their own penises than with the concept of castration

So Freud had something in common with Falstaff. Schön.

The bad ideas file

Jan 9th, 2007 12:09 pm | By

Excellent stuff (as usual) from Fred Halliday. The world’s twelve worst ideas.

Number nine: We live in a “post-feminist” epoch. The implication of this claim, supposedly analogous to such terms as “post-industrial”, is that we have no more need for feminism, in politics, law, everyday life, because the major goals of that movement, articulated in the 1970s and 1980s, have been achieved. On all counts, this is a false claim: the “post-feminist” label serves not to register achievement of reforming goals, but the delegitimation of those goals themselves.

Really. The idea that feminism has nothing left to do – what a joke. Tell that to women in India, or Pakistan, or Niger, just for a start.

Number seven: Religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life. From the evangelicals of the United States, to the followers of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to the Islamists of the middle east, the claim about the benefits of religion is one of the great, and all too little challenged, impostures of our time. For centuries, those aspiring to freedom and democracy, be it in Europe or the middle east, fought to push back the influence of religion on public life. Secularism cannot guarantee freedom, but, against the claims of tradition and superstition, and the uses to which religion is put in modern political life, from California to Kuwait, it is an essential bulwark.

Secularism cannot guarantee freedom but it certainly is a start, and its absence is a near-guarantee of unfreedom.

Number one: The world’s population problems, and the spread of Aids, can be solved without the use of condoms. This is not only the most dangerous, but also the most criminal, error of the modern world. Millions of people will suffer, and die premature and humiliating deaths, as a result of the policies pursued in this regard through the United Nations and related aid and public-health programmes. Indeed, there is no need to ask where the first mass murderers of the 21st century are; we already know, and their addresses besides: the Lateran Palace, Vatican City, Rome, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. Timely arrest and indictment would save many lives.

Yeah. And note how the three link up – religion playing a huge role in political and social life, religio-male domination, and extra suffering and death on a massive scale caused by the combination. Three sucky ideas creating pointless stupid misery. And yet people wonder why atheists won’t just be quiet.


Jan 7th, 2007 1:31 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jan 7th, 2007 12:59 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How extraordinary

Jan 6th, 2007 7:47 pm | By

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

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

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

Sense of humour failure is it?

Jan 6th, 2007 7:17 pm | By

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

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

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

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

I gotta go.

Surely you’re joking, NASA

Jan 5th, 2007 7:29 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

Christ almighty.

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

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