Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Inauguration Lawsuit

It appears that, in the case of the lawsuit against religious expressions at the inauguration, my attempt to write shorter posts resulted in gaps that made it difficult for me to be clear. So, allow me to take the time to express my position in more detail.

First, of course, I address this issue as a moral question, not as a legal question. The moral question concerns the moral rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion which, I hold, is an immunity from a violent response against what a person might say or his religious practices, so long as those practices do not do violence to others.

I wish to apply these principles to the specific counts brought up in the lawsuit.

Count 1: The alteration of the Presidential Oath of Office specified in Article II of the Constitution, to be perpetrated by defendant Roberts with no authority whatsoever, violates the establishment clause.

My response to this is that, if the alteration did not violate the establishment clause, would it then be permissible? In making the argument itself, the pleading says that inserting the words “so help me God” into the oath constitutes a change in the same way that inserting the word “not” before the words “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” constitutes a change to the oath. The argument is that Roberts has no more authority to make the first change than he does to make the second.

Yet, please note that the second change – the insertion of the word “not” does not violate the establishment clause. In fact, the establishment clause does not enter into the argument against the word “not” at all. This is a case of a person (charged with defending the Constitution) taking upon himself the authority to make a change to the constitution without any legitimate authority to do so, and in violation of the provisions established in the constitution that such changes require an amendment to the constitution.

Count 2: Government-sponsored invocations to God and benedictions in the name of God, provided at the inauguration of the President by government-invited clergy, violate the establishment clause.

My statement against this argument is the (rhetorical) question, shall we make it illegal for a politician to attend a religious service while in office on the basis that for him to attend such a service constitutes promoting one religious belief over others? Should it be interpreted as an act that denigrates every religious service that he did not attend, or every religious practice he does not participate in?

One way to ask the same question: Is it truly an insult against Islam and Christianity for an atheist even to exist, since being an atheist implies that one holds that Muslims and Christians are in error, and it is wrong for anybody to denigrate the beliefs if Muslims and Christians?

Part of my issue here is the establishment of the degree to which this is a “government sponsored” invocation. I hold this to be an Obama-sponsored invocation, and the expressions that Obama makes to be within his right to make. The pleading states (and I agree) that Obama has the right to add the words “so help me God” when he takes the oath of office. I hold that this also gives Obama the right to hand the microphone over to a priest, if he wishes, for that person to speak in Obama’s name.

Any word, phrase, or sentence that Obama is constitutionally permitted to say at his inauguration, in his inaugural speech or otherwise, I hold that he has a right to allow somebody else to say in his name. If Obama is permitted to lead a prayer at the inauguration, then Obama is permitted to give the microphone to somebody else and have that person give the prayer. If the Constitution prohibits prayer during the inauguration, then Obama is not permitted to add “so help me God” when he takes the oath of office.

I hold that it is vitally important to a free and democratic society that there be a particularly strong prohibition on summoning the threat of violence to prohibit people from saying what they believe. The only legitimate response to words – no matter how callous – are words and private actions. In this case, the private actions include the act of voting or refraining to vote for a candidate based upon what that candidate might say (or have others say) at his inauguration. However, an appeal to the courts is an appeal to violence, and a violation of the prohibition on the limit of responding only through words and private actions.

Let us assume that the people elected a racist President. During the inaugural address he wishes to hand the microphone over to the leader of the KKK, who shows up in the white sheet characteristic of that group, to give a speech denigrating “negroes”. The President would be within his constitutional rights to do so. The legitimate actions to take to prevent that from happening is not to call upon the courts to prevent it, but to work to make sure that somebody like that does not get elected.

Similarly, the legitimate moral remedy in this case are private actions to ensure that a candidate who denigrates atheists will not get elected, and to point out to the voters that a candidate who would make such a statement is unworthy of holding public office.

Yet, however pernicious a candidate's position may be, there must be some room within the right to freedom of speech for him to say, "This is my vision of an ideal society." If there is no such freedom, then freedom itself does not exist.

Count 3: The alteration of the presidential oath of office, to be perpetrated by defendant Roberts, and the government-sponsored, clergy-led invocation and benediction, to be perpetuated by the remaining defendants, violate the free exercise clause.

Count 4: The alteration of the presidential oath of office, to be perpetrated by defendant Roberts, and the government-sponsored, clergy-led invocation and benediction, to be perpetuated by the remaining defendants, violate [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act].

Count 5: The alteration of the presidential oath of office, to be perpetrated by defendant Roberts, and the government-sponsored, clergy-led invocation and benediction, to be perpetuated by the remaining defendants, violate the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Each of these three provisions are mere modifications of the two provisions already discussed. Alteration of the presidential oath of office is an alteration of the Constitution made without amendment and does not depend in the slightest on its religious content. Whereas the moral right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech places a moral limit on the legitimate response to a President expressing his beliefs at his inauguration of words and private action.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Limits on a Politician's Religious Expression

This morning I complained about a lawsuit aimed at eliminating many religious elements imported into President Obama's inauguration (and all Presidential inaugurations for that matter). I complained that this lawsuit violates a moral prohibition against using violence (including state violence) to control what other people say.

I am – as many readers know – emphatically in favor of legal action taken to remove "under God" from the Pledge and to remove "In God We Trust" as a national motto. So the question comes up: What is the difference between these cases?

On the other side of the equation I want to address the question, "Should we prohibit political leaders from ever attending church or some other religious service while they are in office? Should we interpret the act of attending church to be an endorsement of religion that violates the First Amendment of the Constitution? After all, if the politician attends a Catholic Mass (as a Catholic), is he not communicating that this is the correct religion and all other religious beliefs are incorrect?

So, what is the moral line to be drawn between legitimate and illegitimate expressions on the part of Government?

The first thing that I want to point out is that my objection to "under God" in the Pledge and "In God We Trust" as the national motto does not hinge on any specifically religious objections. Rather, the Pledge, as written, says, "A person who does not support a nation under God is hereby to be regarded the same as a person who supports rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all."

The National Motto, as written, says, "A person who does not trust in God is not to be thought of as one of us."

These are examples of blatantly bigoted hate speech whose function and purpose is to promote hostility towards atheists and, in particular, to provide a social barrier that keeps atheists out of public office. Change the text so that the Pledge identifies blacks as being rebellious, tyrannical, Yet, it would not be based on any type of religious objection. It is based on the objection that the government is wrong to brand any of its citizens using such derogatory language.

However, if we interpret going to church to be an act that insults atheists by publicly denigrating their beliefs, then we are going to have to interpret the act of not going to church as denigrating the beliefs of those who go to church. We are going to have to accept the objection that not mentioning God when talking about biology denigrates the beliefs of those who accept creationism.

Those attitudes put us in a no-win situation, where somebody gets the right to declare themselves the victims of an unjust slight no matter what the politician does.

A politician's right to freedom of speech and right to freedom of religion should be understood the right to speak freely about his religious beliefs, just as he speaks freely about his beliefs regarding God. And that we get to praise or criticize him based (in part) of those beliefs.

Innaugural Lawsuit

Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheists report on a group of atheists who are suing to remove "so help me God" from the inaugural pledge and the inaugural prayer from the inauguration on the grounds of separation of church and state.

(See Atheists Sue over the Inauguration)

I do not see the merits of this case.

I have argued that freedom of speech is an immunity from violence, not an immunity from criticism. We are free as citizens to criticize the statements that any politician makes - including his or her religious statements. However, the right to freedom of speech implies that we will not resort to violence in order to prevent people from speaking.

This particular lawsuit is an appeal to violence. The decisions of courts are enforced through the use of people with guns. The authority of the court, ultimately, comes from physical intimidation - from its ability to direct people with guns to threaten those who do not obey the court's decisions.

In our state with separation of powers, judges do not have any direct control to order around people with guns. The execution of a court order is handed over to the executive branch, and any direct control the courts have is constrained by the legislature. However, none of this changes the fact that an appeal to courts is an appeal to violence.

An appeal to the courts to prevent certain things from being said is, then, a resort, not to reason or to moral criticism as a way of objecting to the claims of another. It is a resort to violence.

The right to freedom of speech is a prohibition on the use of violence to control what is said.

If the justice who delivers the oath adds the words, "so help me God" at the end of the pledge, we have reason to protest. The duty of the justice is to give the oath as written.

However, once the candidate takes the oath as written, then decides to add on his own the phrase "so help me God", we are free to condemn and criticize his actions (and we have reason to do so). However, we have no right to bring the instruments of violence to bear to prevent him from speaking.

The same is true of the inaugural prayer. We have the right to protest the degree to which we are taxed in order to provide and pay for a national church service. However, if the President wishes to give the microphone to somebody to speak, we may well criticize and condemn him as we would criticize any person for the things said (if they are worthy of criticism). Yet here, too, it is wrong to bring the instruments of violence to bear against their being said.

Sorry, but this lawsuit suggests that quite a few atheists do not have as firm a grasp of the moral standards of freedom of speech and freedom of religion that they claim to have.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Atheist Denial

On the issue of anti-atheist bigotry among atheists, one of the issues we should look at is anti-atheist bigotry among those who are atheists in fact, but who do not identify themselves as atheists.

Often, when I hear people assert that they are not atheists but agnostics, they give reasons for this such as, “Atheists are just as dogmatic as theists. Both groups claim to have certain knowledge of something that neither has (or can possibly have) any evidence for.”

This reason hints at anti-atheist bigotry. This claim about atheists is not true of most atheists. It is not even close to being true. If we actually listen to what atheists say, most of them speak in terms of a “God Hypothesis”, and view the proposition that “God exists” to be comparable to the proposition that “A teakettle orbiting Mars exists.”

In fact, their attitude towards the existence of God is, in many cases, exactly the same as the agnostic’s attitude. The agnostic simply uses a different term.

The reason that the agnostic mis-identifies what atheists believe is because they have bought into society’s anti-atheist bigotry. They have bought into a lie that anti-atheists use to cast atheists in an unflattering light, and they spread and promote that lie. They are atheists in all but name, who have learned to view atheists unjustly.

In this, they are like the homosexual who refuses to admit that they are gay. They assert the claim that homosexuals are selfish people who seek only their own sexual gratification while caring nothing about morality. They are as likely to have sex with children and animals as with adults because sex is the only thing they care about. “I am not gay, because I do not have these qualities. Sure, I enjoy sex with people of the same gender from time to time, but I certainly do not qualify as one of them.”

These people are homosexual. However, because they have adopted society’s “values” they are, at the same time, anti-gay bigots. Accordingly, many agnostics are atheists. However, because they have adopted society’s “values” towards atheists they are, at the same time, anti-atheist bigots.

The same applies to many humanists, free-thinkers, and the like. Their hatred of atheists and fear of viewing themselves as “one of them” drives them to look elsewhere . . . anywhere . . . where they can avoid association with the dreaded term “atheist”.

The same analysis applies to many people who would call themselves Christian, Jew, Muslim, and the like. Here, I refer to members (probably in good standing) of a community that detests atheists. These members know, “My community will reject me, if they ever knew that I was not so strongly devoted to their beliefs. So, I must make sure that they do not suspect me.”

These people take on a particularly vigorous anti-atheist stance the way that some religious people become so adamantly anti-gay. “They cannot suspect me of being that which I condemn so harshly.”

When we look at the question of whether atheists are anti-religious, these are some of the types of cases that we need to consider. These are examples of some of the types of people that our current culture gives rise to, and they are examples of cases in which atheists not only lack anti-theist bigotry. They share in and promote anti-atheist bigotry.

How many people are there?

Promoting a Demand for Science Literacy

I have written quite a bit in these last couple of weeks about the need for some demand-side (desire-side) management to promote the value of scientific literacy. Yet, my writing has been short of specific recommendations. So, I hope to make up that deficiency in this post.

“What can I do to promote a demand for scientific literacy?”

(1) Become scientifically literate.

We lead by example. One of the ways to get other people to value something is to simply express that value in your own actions. If you are "caught" reading scientific articles and admiring expressions of scientific literacy, then this tells other people that this is something that might actually be worthy of being valued.

Carry scientific periodicals with you on the bus, read them in the restaurant, leave them on your desk at work, and, most importantly, know what they say so that you can intelligently discuss the contents with whomever asks.

Many people who understand science treat it like an embarrassment. The last thing you want to do is to be caught being a geek or nerd or some similar type of braniac freek. Yet, this type of behavior is exactly what promotes an aversion to scientific literacy.

(2) Express public approval of those who embrace science, and public disapproval of those who embrace pseudo-science.

Seriously, people who embrace pseudo-science deserve some measure of public ridicule. This is one way of embarrassing them against that type of behavior.

Of course, if it were a harmless activity, then there would be no particular reason to condemn those people. However, we are not talking about a harmless activity here. A person who can be made to believe in ghosts based on no evidence at all is the same type of person as the person who can be made to believe that Iraq was responsible for 9/11 and that greenhouse gasses cannot lead to climate change.

Some of the decisions that these people make – people who have no idea how to link premises to conclusions – are decisions on which the lives and well-being of a great many people depend. It is perfectly legitimate to tell these people, "You have an obligation to those who might be harmed to get a stronger grasp of reality, so that your decisions will fit the real world."

This is exactly how I would recommend expressing this objection. "If you are only hurting yourself then I have no objection to you accepting these baseless claims. However, when it comes to looking at policies that affect other people, I hope that you appreciate the need for a better class of evidence."

(3) Join an organization devoted to promoting science, and push that organization to collect money for and to fund a public advertising campaign that promotes scientific literacy.

Push an organization into hiring a professional public relations firm to design an advertising campaign of radio, television, print, and other forms of advertising, and to solicit funds for that campaign. Such a campaign would go so far as to include a set of slogans, like, "Science saves lives."

This campaign should be drawn up by trained professionals and market tested for effectiveness. Advocates of science should be quite willing to recognize that the truth is often not what “sounds good” to the listener but is what the evidence supports. This goes for selecting an advertising campaign to promote science as well.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Anti-Atheist Bigotry among Atheists

In response to my recent post suggesting studies on the extent of anti-atheist bigotry, Luke commented:

I suspect that if you chose atheist subjects and had them evaluate files (some of whom were made to be explicitly religious), you might very well see the same effect.

I suspect that this is not the case in the current environment. However, I can see how it can easily become the case if a conscious effort is not made to prevent it.

Research shows that cultural prejudices tend even to penetrate into members of the target group. Blacks tend to show more anti-black prejudice than anti-white prejudice. Women tend to see even other women in stereotypical roles. Cultures that deny women any number of liberties and freedoms would not be able to continue to do so without the active cooperation of the women in that culture in perpetuating those institutions.

This tendency of a target group to take to heart society's expressed attitudes towards them helps to explain why the suicide rate among teenage homosexuals is so much higher than it is among teenagers in general. In their case, society's prejudices are internalized as self-hatred. It takes a great deal of courage and strong sense of self to stand up to a whole culture and say, "You are wrong." We are disposed to adopt the values that surround us, not reject them.

So, I expect that among the "non-religious", we will tend to find a lot of the same anti-atheist bigotry that we see expressed in the culture at large. A great many atheists internalize anti-atheist bigotry and turn it into self-hatred in the same way that homosexuals internalize anti-gay bigotry. This makes atheists docile and motivates them to submit to whatever the theist community demands – adopting a political attitude that, "We must never to anything that might anger the theist. If an atheist angers a theist it is always the atheist who is wrong, and who deserves our condemnation."

There is clearly a subset of atheists who are anti-theist bigots. Atheists are human, and are susceptible to the same psychological forces that dispose us to unjustly favor members of "us" and promote hostility towards "them". As a result, if atheism should become the norm, there is a very real risk that atheists would then band together as a group that comes to assume that any given member of the group is inherently superior to any given non-member. In the bell curve of human dispositions, there are a few atheists today who fit that description.

However, the fact that there are atheists today who fit the description given above – and that they tend to be the most vocally critical of religion – does not disprove the thesis that atheists in general tend to absorb society’s anti-atheist bigotry and to act on those values instead, even viewing their own lack of faith as a fault.

In general, I adopt the principle that atheists are psychologically like humans in general unless and until evidence proves otherwise. As a part of the psychology of humans in general, members of groups that are discriminated against still tend to adopt those same attitudes of discrimination, even against themselves and other members of their group. I would actually be surprised if the research showed that atheists were somehow different in this regard.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Anti-Atheist Bigotry: A Call for Research

I have been thinking, recently, about the value of some experiments that would look at the effects of religious prejudice in various types of decision-making.

Create a folder about a person and fill it with relevant information for, for example, a political appointment, a parole hearing, an assessment for an award or grant, a military commendation, a grade for a school paper.

Take the same folder and alter a few basic facts, but leave the rest of the information exactly the same. Specifically, while the original folder mentions membership in and participation in various religious activities, the counterpart folder mentions membership in and participation in equivalent secular organizations.

Then, give these folders to evaluators and look at the results.

See what effect religious belief will have on the evaluations that people give different candidates.

For example, write up a senior paper for high school. Put it in a folder with the student's personal evaluation. In one case, the student is described as a President of the school's Bible Club. In the other, he is a member of the school's Atheist and Freethinkers' Club. Then, look at the grades the teachers give the students.

Or, better yet, write a report in which the students are being recommended for disciplinary action, and one is soliciting an impartial opinion on what level of punishment would be appropriate. In one folder, put a letter from a pastor testifying to the student’s character. In the other, put a comparable letter from the head of a local atheist organization.

Or, create a resume and job application for a candidate who is seeking a job. Give that resume and job application to some hiring managers and see if they will accept the candidate for an interview. Then, hand out a folder that is identical except the candidate’s religious affiliations are replace with atheist affiliations, and look at the results.

One study that I am particularly interested in would involve folders showing two candidates for state legislature or some other minor political office and ask people to read through the material and decide which candidate they would vote for. Then, create two folders identical to the original folder except one of the candidates is made to be an atheist. Everything else is the same.

This will allow somebody to say that he against a candidate for some reason other than his atheism. However, the research should tell how important atheism is as a matter of fact.

Again, the same types of studies can be set up for military review boards who are recommending soldiers for promotion or commendation, parole hearings, loan applications, anything where one person gets to sit in judgment of others, and look at what the results are.

I have my predictions as to what those studies will turn out. I predict that this research would show that being an "out" atheist puts one at greater risk of being denied jobs, promotions, bonuses, social recognition (such as awards), grants, political appointments, public office, a not-guilty verdict at a trial, a lighter sentence where punishment is judged appropriate, a favorable result at a parole hearing, an A on a high-school paper (though possibly not college).

I would like to see some empirical data on just how much bigotry exists against atheists in this country.

Monday, December 22, 2008

BB3: Mooney and Kirshenbaum: Media Coverage of Science

This is the ninth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

I have used the opportunity of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirhsenbaum's presentation at the Beyond Belief 3 conference, “Candles in the Dark”, to engage in a multi-post presentation that argues against supply-side reforms promoting science, in favor of demand-side or desire-side programs. Those programs use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote a desire for scientific literacy and an aversion to buffoonery and evidence-free decision making.

In their presentation, Mooney presented two “reasons” why interest in science is declining in this country. This involved the conglomeration of media into a small number of super-companies, and the fragmentation of media into millions of little, insignificant, individual blogs and web sites that allow users the opportunity to self-select what they read and see.

On the issue of conglomeration, Mooney pointed out how a number of major companies – Time-Warner, Disney, Viacom, NBC-Universal, et al., - have acquired almost all traditional print, radio, and television media. These organizations, of course, are not interested in truth. They are interested in the bottom line. In recent years, they have worked to improve their bottom line by getting rid of science and technology departments – and eliminating science and technology segments from their news.

Question: Why is it that the effect of conglomeration is to reduce science reporting? Mooney says that it is to save money. But this simply leads to another question. Why is it the case that saving money means cutting back on science reporting?

Here is another option for the media to save money . . . fire all of the sports reporters. Simply eliminate the sports section of the news broadcast and release all of the people who are involved in reporting on sporting events. This will save a lot more money than getting rid of the science reporters – for the simple reason that there are a lot more sports reporters to get rid of. Compare the mere size of the sports section of the paper to the science section, or the science broadcasts on the cable news networks to sports broadcasts, and you can see how much more money can be saved cutting sports reporting.

But sports reporting will not be cut.

The reason for this, quite obviously, is that there is a demand for sports reporting. The news organization that cuts sports from its reports will find its readers, listeners, and viewers abandoning them as well and going to the competitor that offers these products

The problem, as I have been arguing for this past week, is not a lack of supply of science reporting. The problem is a lack of demand. If we fix the demand problem, the supply problem will take care of itself.

The media is cutting science reporting because they can cut science reporting. There is not enough demand for this particular product to warrant the expense of continuing to report it. One might as well devote those resources to something that people actually care about.

The second media-related issue that Mooney blamed for causing more ignorance in science is that the media has become more fragmented. Here, Mooney is referring to the small “press” outlets available through the internet, where people can select from millions of available blogs those that happen to capture their interest. On television, 4 stations (each compelled to offer a few hours of news in exchange for having a license to broadcast over the public airways) provided news to people who had to view it whether they wanted to or not.

Now, people who want to avoid science broadcasts can easily do so . . . by turning to whatever stations and whatever shows appeal to their actual interests. This “self-selection” keeps people away from any view they dislike, or that various social groups have taught them to dislike.

Here, too, it makes no sense to argue that the problem is a lack of supply on the internet of good, scientific data. In fact, scientific data is easy to find on the internet. The reason that people are not taking advantage of their access to that data is precisely because they are not looking – because they do not demand scientific literacy in themselves or others.

This is because people do not value scientific literacy. Many value religious literacy. Many value sports literacy. Apparently, there is a market for games that test people’s knowledge of the television Sitcom Seinfeld, so there is a certain amount of cultural value to be found in Seinfeld literacy. However, there is little or no general public interest in having science literacy – not enough for people to find entertainment value in games that test this particular skill.

If there were a demand for scientific literacy, as there is for sports literacy, then media groups would have a science section and science reporters as they have a sports section and sports reporters, and there would be games that sought to fulfill this demand as there are games that help people develop their understandings of the Bible, or television and movie trivia.

The way to change the situation is not to complain about those who put less and less effort into activities that do not fulfill any demand or social value. The way to change the situation is to promote the social values that would put those institutions and activities in demand.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rick Warren and the Inaugural Invocation

Some people seem a bit perturbed recently that Obama has selected Pastor Rick Warren to give the convocation at his inauguration. Warren was a proponent of California’s Proposition 8 which took away the rights of homosexuals to marry in that state. He supports an absolute prohibition on abortion and on stem-cell research. He is not a fan of the separation of church and state.

There is some reason for this. First, Warren has sought to expand the concerns of the evangelical community beyond these issues to include aid to the poor, combating AIDS, and care for the environment. This is in contrast to other members of the evangelical community who see these issues as distractions – as wastes of time that pull resources away from the vital concerns of “traditional family values.”

Second, Obama has said that he is the President of all Americans, not just the Democratic Party. Right-wing evangelicals are Americans and, as such, it is fitting that Obama give them a role in his inauguration.

However, on this second point, we must note that white supremacists and neo-Nazis are Americans, too. There must be a line somewhere that defines some set of Americans as persona non grata in this Administration.

Wherever that line is, we need to ask on which side of that line Obama sees the atheist community. He has gone through a great deal of effort to make sure that evangelicals see a place for themselves on the table. He opened the Democratic Convention in Denver with a faith-based gathering, and he has attended “debates” that focused specifically on faith-based issues.

However, at least to my recollection so far, he has done absolutely nothing to show any sign of respect or consideration for those who do not believe in a God.

I suggest that this is further confirmation of a political strategy that will likely define the Obama administration that I have discussed in the past. Obama is focused primarily on the issues of global warming and energy independence. Even his economic stimulus package will be aimed primarily at these ends. He has already announced that will include major expenditures on making government buildings more energy efficient, thus lowering our demand for energy (and saving the government money in the long run).

He is not going to waste political capital on issues that he sees as distractions.

In order to keep the evangelical community from becoming an obstacle, he will throw them whatever bones happen to be prudent. The quality of those bones will feed the evangelical community will depend on the quality of the opposition he might stir.

On the issue of stem-cell research, there are lives at stake, and people who see their lives and the lives of those they care about hanging in the balance. These bones will be very dry.

The issues of same-sex marriage and abortion have well-organized political groups backing them, who will almost certainly protest if the bones he throws in these areas are too meaty.

However, if history is any guide, there will be little or no protests against the bones that Obama has the power to throw with respect to secular values and the equal consideration and respect of Americans who do not believe in a god. Here is an area where he can give the evangelical community exactly what they ask for, and keep them content, while he pursues his political objectives without interference.

This is merely a prediction based on observations.

It suggests that the decision to do nothing is going to come at a price. It suggests that the demand-side (desire-side) management of the religious community, promoting a social aversion to anything secular and reinforcing desires to support a nation under God and trust in God, will continue to earn political dividends for those who support (and are supported by) these rituals.

There is a price to be paid by taking one’s case only to the courts and not to the people.

Wait for it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Promoting Science: The Current Situation

Over the past few days I have been writing a series of posts on promoting science. In those posts I have argued that "supply-side reform" - producing more scientific information and expecting people to simply consume it eagerly - is a weak and ineffective way of promoting science. The only method that will actually have long-term success is demand-side reform. Demand-side reform means using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to alter desires - to encourage people to want to have scientific literacy and to create in them an aversion to scientific illiteracy.

As it turns out, the proponents of evidence-free thinking have been the master of demand-side reform.

They begin in school, teaching children that a person who does not support a nation "under God" is the equivalent of one who supports rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all. This ritual creates an emotional desire to be somebody who supports a nation under God, and the same type of aversion to those who do not support a nation "under God" that the child learns to have for those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. Of all of the religious rituals that we have in this country, this gets their most enthusiastic support precisely because it is such an effective tool in the demand-side management of a child's desires.

The same applies to the use of a national motto that says, "If you do not trust in God, you are not one of us." One of the biggest fears of children is being cast as an outsider - of not being "one of us". They have reason to be afraid - children tend to be quite unkind to those that they are taught to think of as "one of them" instead of "one of us". So, again, demand-side management promotes being somebody who trusts in God, and inhibits being somebody who does not trust in God.

Intelligent, science-literate people are geeks, freeks, and elitist. They are inherently immoral - incapable of finding a foundation for their ethics because they cannot find it in the evidence-free methodologies that "the rest of us" use.

The movies and entertainment industry regularly preaches a view in which the scientific and evidence-based thinker is blind and incapable of solving problems. The hero is the person who relies on his or her feelings, faith, or some supernatural force that solves the problem for them before the end of the movie or episode.

In this, I am quite pleased with the way that the CSI shows are breaking through this particular stereotype - giving people a valuable lesson and a set of heros for whom evidence-based thinking is the order of the day, and accomplishes things with a level of certainty that evidence-free thinking simply cannot provide.

No matter how well intellectually (among our system of beliefs) we recognize the virtue of evidence-based thinking, we are still the victims of our culture's demand-side management of our desires. A person with a fear of flying can be given a perfectly sound understanding of how safe airplane flight is when compared to other modes of travel. Yet, he will still feel the fear of taking off. That aversion to flying - however irrational - will continue to motivate his actions. The only way to rid him of the fear of flying is to work on his desires, not his beliefs.

The same with those of us who have learned an aversion to criticizing evidence-free forms of thinking. I can write post after post on how destructive these desires and aversions are - of the benefits of using evidence-based reasoning in policy decisions and the unpleasant consequences of depending on evidence-free thinking. However, the desires and aversions given to us as children will still be there, and still motivate those actions.

The solution is not a better understanding. The solution is to take action to engage in a but of demand-side reform.

The best place to start - at least for those who have a concern for welfare of future generations - is simply not to allow others to inflict the same demand-side manipulation on the next generation of children that the previous generation inflicted on us. It requires paying attention to those rituals that aim at promoting in children a desire for evidence-free thinking and an aversion to evidence-based thinking, and putting an end to those rituals.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Promoting Science: Demand-Side Reform Engines

I am writing a series on promoting science in the public at large. So far, I have argued:

(1) Essay 1A: The task is not to make science relevant, it is to teach idiots to recognize and respect a relevance that already exists.

(2) Essay 1B: There is no distinction between scientific and non-scientific policy questions. All good policy decisions require evidence-based evaluation of the available options.

(3) Essay 2: Supply-side reform – promoting the supply of useful science – is a waste of time as a method of reform. It’s only use is to fulfill a demand that already exists.

(4) Essay 3: Demand-side reform is what we should be looking at. However, demand-side reform is an in-your-face type of reform that uses condemnation, ridicule, and other forms of treatment to make intelligent methodologies popular and buffoonery unpopular.

(5) Essay 4: Positive Demand-Side Reform. Demand-side reform is not always negative. Praise and reward are as much a part of demand-side reform as criticism, condemnation, ridicule, and punishment.

With respect to demand-side reform, I would like each reader to realize that each of you is a demand engine. You cannot spend a dollar, or utter or post a word in public, that does not send a message to others, and probably alter how they will focus their energies in the future.

When you buy a movie ticket – and when you do not buy a movie ticket – you send a vote to the movie industry regarding the types of movies you want them to produce. They record your vote, and then they plan next year’s slate of movies based on the tickets that they receive.

When a buy a book you tell publishers what types of books to produce next year. When you buy groceries, you tell the world what types of crops to grow and what type of finished products to put them into. When you buy energy, you tell the world what types of energy to produce and in what quantities.

You also have an impact on the world each time you speak in public – or you refrain from speaking (particularly in the presence of children). Words of praise will tend to promote that which you praise in the minds of the listeners. Listeners do not need to consciously adopt your attitudes. They hear a positive evaluation of something and, in the future, they will be disposed to have (though certainly not guaranteed to have) a more positive attitude towards it themselves.

Many people argue that we have an obligation to vote. However, in an election, unless you win a majority of the votes, you are left powerless – with nothing. Increasing the votes that a losing candidate gets by one percent means very little.

However, in the economic and social realm, every vote that you cast matters. If the amount of money being spent on goods and services that respect evidence-based thinking goes up by one percent – this is enough for companies to take notice and to change their behavior, in the hopes of capturing their share of that one percent.

Your voice in the social environment has a real effect. It may be small, but it is real, and better than you will ever get from casting a vote.

So, if you are an advocate of voting on the grounds that each person has an obligation to take part in the political process, then you should be an even stronger advocate of a type of voting where every vote really does count - where the minorities are not without power and influence and, thus, can use all of the support they can get. That is to say, you should be an advocate of economic and social voting against practices that denigrates evidence-based thinking in the eyes of children and promotes this as a genuine value.

Understanding Others vs. Name Calling

In my series on promoting science using "demand-side reform", Steelman commented:

I usually try to understand others' points of view, especially when they seem rather misguided. That way I may be able to assess the roots of their false beliefs, and have some hope of convincing them to change their views. My wife, however, usually goes straight for name calling. She'll be delighted to know there's an ethical system that employs her preferred method of operation.

Nothing in this blog will condone the behavior of Steelman's wife, as described here.

In fact, the person who goes straight for name-calling is doing exactly that which I condemn in these posts, not that which I commend.

The moral crime is that of jumping straight to conclusions and disregarding evidence - of failing to take the effort to actually understand what one is talking about.

The person who "tries to understand other points of view" is the person engaging in evidence-based thinking (I hope - that this is a vital aspect of how he acquires understanding), and is the person who is to be praised. The person who "goes straight to name-calling" is the arrogant person who presumes a perfect understanding of a topic without actually studying it, and is the person to be criticized and condemned.

Furthermore, nothing that I have written recently shall be taken to contradict my earlier posts the accused deserve a presumption of innocence - the benefit of any reasonable doubt. It is up to the accuser to demonstrate that the evidence supports the conclusion that the accused is guilty - never the duty of the accuser to prove her innocence. And his method of proof of guilt shall be evidence-based.

So, while I advocate that it is legitimate to use criticism, condemnation, and ridicule against those who advocate evidence-free decision making (particularly on matters of public policy), the person who does the condemning must still show that the evidence supports the guilt of the accused.

In fact, the moral requirements that the accused is to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty, and that the proof of guilt is to be based on the evidence, are corollaries to the proposition that people have an obligation to base their decisions on evidence-based thinking. They are applications of that principle.

Ultimately, Steelman actually repeated the main point I have given in these articles.

I'm concerned that the supply side, the side that can educate the public on the differences between science and pseudoscience, is dwindling in response to low demand.

This is why we need demand-side reform. However, demand-side reform does not come from reason. It comes from the manipulation of desires through social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Stiffle and suppress demand-side reform - insist that the advocates of evidence-free thinking may not be criticized - those who demand evidence-free policy making . . . and we create an environment in which evidence-free policy making can grow and thrive.

That would be (and has been) a mistake.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Promoting Science: Positive Demand-Side Reform

I am writing a series on promoting science.

The points I have already covered are:

(1) Essay 1A: The task is not to make science relevant, it is to teach idiots to recognize and respect a relevance that already exists.

(2) Essay 1B: There is no distinction between scientific and non-scientific policy questions. All good policy decisions require evidence-based evaluation of the available options.

(3) Essay 2: Supply-side reform – promoting the supply of useful science – is a waste of time as a method of reform. It’s only use is to fulfill a demand that already exists.

(4) Essay 3: Demand-side reform is what we should be looking at. However, demand-side reform is an in-your-face type of reform that uses condemnation, ridicule, and other forms of treatment to make intelligent methodologies popular and buffoonery unpopular.

Today, I want to look at the positive side of demand-side reform.

Recall, "demand-side reform" means making a change in society by changing what it is that people demand – which means changing what they like and dislike. It means giving people a desire for scientific literacy as a way of promoting a demand for scientific literacy; and promoting an aversion to foolishness as a way of reducing the demand for fools such as Bush and Palin.

In my last post, I looked at the use of criticism, condemnation, and (in extreme cases) punishment as tools of demand-side reform. These tools aim to promote an aversion to that which we have reason to want others to avoid. In this case, the discussion is on promoting an aversion to evidence-free thinking on matters of social and public policy.

However, we also have the tools of praise and reward – positive reinforcers that are useful in promoting a desire for particular states that we have reason to want other agents to pursue.

At the highest levels of science, we already use rewards such as the Nobel Prize and membership into the National Academy of Science or the Royal Society to mark success. Successful scientists also gain the respect and admiration of their peers, and given any of a rich variety of other honors.

There is also a reward to be given for evidence-based thinking based entirely on the usefulness of evidence-based thinking. The person who does the better job predicting the outcome of alternative actions will tend to succeed more often and fail less often than the person who shuns evidence. Consider the success rate of a group of people who attempt to drive across the country while blindfolded, versus the success rate of a group that makes driving decisions based on evidence acquired by looking at the world around him.

Yet, culturally, the common person who has a scientific interest and curiosity is ridiculed and denigrated, compared to the non-thinker who is honored and respected. In politics, for example, we reward evidence-free thinking by electing them into public office, while we denigrate evidence-based thinkers by declaring them inherently unfit to hold public office.

We have a pledge of allegiance and a national motto that hold evidence-free thinking in high regard (and teaches young children that evidence-free thinking deserves the highest respect), while denigrating evidence-based thinking that suggests that no God exists for the nation to be under, or for a citizen to trust.

Our entertainment media is filled to the brim with "heroes" who shun evidence-based decision-making and who rely, instead, on feelings and instinct. Somehow, feelings in the movies and on television is always successful, while evidence-based thinking often fails.

Why is that? Could it be because the author of the piece actually engineers the entertainment to be one in which intelligence fails and "feelings" succeed? Authors have a way of manipulating events to suit their liking that we, in the real world, do not have. Which is why feeling-based thinking tends to be so successful in works of fiction, when it has such a poor record in fact.

Demand-side reform does not mean simply condemning and ridiculing those elements in the culture that promote evidence-free decision making. It means promoting, by whatever means at one's disposal, public attempts to promote and to respect evidence-based decision-making.

It means, for example, taking advantage in conversations and other forms of public expression to say not only that, "Those people with their faith-based mumbo jumbo are idiots," but "Here are people that I admire for their love and respect for evidence-based decision-making."

You don't have to be negative all the time.

Promoting Science: Demand-Side Reform

I am writing a series of postings on the issue of promoting science. So far, I have covered:

Making Science Relevant: The task is not to make science relevant, but to teach people of a relevance that science already has – a relevance that, when ignored, costs lives and promotes suffering.

Science Questions: Science – the practice of making increasingly reliable predictions based on available evidence – is relevant to all policy questions, not just a subset of questions such as climate change and stem cells.

Supply-Side Reform: Attempting to reform the pubic by making more scientifically relevant facts available is a waste of time. Stockpiling and attempting to sell what nobody wants to buy is an effective way to waste a lot of time and resources.

If we are going to focus on bringing about real change – if we are serious about promoting the use of science and of scientific methods – then we need to focus on demand-side reform.

Demand-side reform is in-your-face, confrontational reform that uses the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment as a way of promoting a desire to acquire a scientific understanding of the world around us and an aversion to scientific ignorance.

Morality itself fits into the realm of demand-side reform. Morality is concerned with promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires. This is exactly the same as saying that morality is concerned with demand-side management. It seeks to create and enlarge the demand for charity, honesty, and (as I argue here) intellectual curiosity.

It seeks to promote an aversion to (and thus decrease the demand for (such things as murder, rape, theft, and reckless and negligent behavior – including intellectual recklessness and negligence.

In the case of promoting scientific literacy, it means investing time and effort – and money – to praise and reward those who are scientifically literate, and to get our neighbors to do the same thing. It also means going to the effort if condemning and, in some cases, punishing those who lack scientific literacy.

The term "Buffoon" was once widely used to refer to such people. There is merit to the idea of resurrecting this term and applying it as a term of ridicule, applicable to anybody who engages in, or who sides with those who engage in, intellectual recklessness and negligence in matters of public policy.

Demand-side reform means NOT standing back and saying, "Well, I happen to disagree with you. However, everybody is entitled to your opinion, and I certainly respect you for what you have to say."

Imagine being in a car, and the driver happens to express the opinion that the bridge up ahead is perfectly safe, as he speeds towards it without slowing down. You, on the other hand, being a proponent of evidence-based thinking, happen to have an engineering study in your hand that suggests that the bridge cannot support the weight of the car and its passengers.

Imagine responding to that situation by saying, "While I humbly disagree with your opinion that the bridge will support us, given the evidence, I respect your right to your opinion and your right to act on your beliefs as you see fit. In fact, I share the general impression that it would be wrong for anybody to condemn or criticize you for that belief."

The results of that attitude under such circumstances are inevitably tragic.

The morally proper response to the driver's belief that the bridge will support the car would be, "You moron! You and your faith-based, evidence-free thinking is going to get you and me and the rest of us killed! Kill yourself with your own stupidity for all I care. But you have no right to take the rest of us with you. Pay attention to the frippen evidence, you idiot!"

Our remarks to the morally reckless in society should find the same type of voice.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Promoting Science: Supply-Side Reform

This is a series of posts inspired by the talk that Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum gave at the Beyond Belief conference "Candles in the Dark".

I wrote about that presentation yesterday, discussing two errors that I see in the ways some people talk about promoting science. The two propositions that I argued against are:

We need to make science relevant to people's lives.. Science is already relevant to people's lives. The degree to which they do not recognize or appreciate that relevance is responsible for countless deaths and a great deal of human suffering every year. The task is not to make science relevant, but to teach people of a relevance that already exists.

Science questions are relevant, but most political questions are not science questions.. Every political question is about making choices. The only institution with a proven track record for being able to predict the results of one’s actions is science. Science – or evidence-based predicting – is relevant to all political questions.

So, the question is: How are we going to get people to do a better job of applying science to these policy questions, so that we can get better results?

Answers to these questions can be categorized into two types; supply-side reforms, and demand-side reforms.

A supply-side reform is a reform that follows the model, "If you build it, they will come." It says that if you create a supply of scientifically relevant facts, people will flock to it and consume all that is available. Supply-side reformists say that we need to focus on supplying the people with a better understanding of science, the scientific method, and the conclusions that scientists have reached.

This is actually the practice, if not the philosophy, of the Science Network – the people who put on the Beyond Belief conference, and who post the videos on the web for all to see. They are attempting to engage in supply-side reform by supplying the world with the thoughts of those who come to the conference.

Typically, I consider supply-side reform to be a waste of time. Supply-side reform is like trying to push a cooked strand of spaghetti across the floor. Pushing does not do any good – the spaghetti simply twists and distorts itself, resisting any attempt to actually move it across the floor. That is, until the end that one is pushing on becomes the front piece of the spaghetti strand, and the action one is engaging in switches from being the push (supply-side) end to the pull (demand-side) end of the spaghetti.

Mooney pointed out that major news organizations are closing down their science and technology departments. They simply do not report on science and technology any more. Now, if supply-side reform had any merit, then the fact that there was once a supply of science and technology reporters means that the types of reform Mooney was talking about should have already taken place. The media was, once upon a time, supplying the public with more and better technological and scientific understanding of the world. But supplying scientific and technological information isn't enough.

In fact, supply-side reform is a waste of time.

As reform.

Where there is a demand for science eduction, it is good to have somebody around ready to meet that demand. However, the success of a supply-side project rests in having a demand to be met.

I will have more to say on demand-side reform in my next two posts.

Monday, December 15, 2008

BB3: Mooney and Kirshenbaum: The Political Voice of Science

This is the ninth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Our next presenters at the Beyond Belief conference were Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. They came to speak about science gaining a voice in the political process. (See: Beyond Belief 3: Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum)

Mooney is the author of the book, The Republican War on Science, which is about the way the Republican party censored silence and replaced it with an institution of propaganda where 'truth' was defined as "that which supports the Administration policies". Mooney and Kirshenbaumwere responsible for the attempt to have a presidential debate focusing on science issues – Science Debate 2008. They are continuing to work on projects that will give science a voice in the political process.

In this presentation, they focused on telling us how weak the scientific voice currently is, and evidence that it is getting weaker. Media outlets are firing their science writers and closing those parts of their news organizations devoted to science and technology. The entertainment media depicts scientists solely as "geeks or freeks" – as people who are trying to take over the world or who, at best, are blind to “the truth” that is supposedly "out there" (paranormal, occult, and religious entities).

Making Science Relevant

So, the question is, how do we make science relevant to the political process.

The first point that I want to make is that science is already relevant. That's the problem. I am puzzled by the tendency that science advocates have for talking about making science relevant to public decision-making, as if there is an option for science to be irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that science is relevant to decision making whether we want it to be or not. Policy makers ignore science at their peril . . . and ours.

What is the value of science?

Science is a tool for making predictions. "If we do nothing, what will happen?", "If we do X, what will happen?"

From the beginning of history, people have known the value of being able to predict the future. Ancient leaders would pay good money for people who could make reliable predictions – predicting things as various as the outcome of a war, the selection of a particular ruler, the next harvest.

For thousands of years, people did not have reliable ways of predicting the future. They turned to astrologers, various forms of divination from the reading of entrails, tea leaves, and bones thrown down on a particular design, and the reading of palms or cards. Usually, these methods were controlled by priests, who commanded great power.

The one dominant value of science is that it is the only instrument that actually gives us a reliable way of predicting the results of various forms of action. Science predicts the courses of hurricanes and of rocks hurling through space. It predicts what happens to to a human being when certain chemicals enter the system, and what will happen to the sun at the end of its life (and when it will happen). It predicts the effects of adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, what will happen if a particular mass of cells discovered in a woman’s breast is left alone, and what will happen under various forms of treatment.

The problem is not one of making science relevant to our daily lives. Science provides us with the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the energy we use to heat our homes, the electricity we use to power our toys, immunizations from disease and treatments for disease that we cannot immunize ourselves against, the tools for communicating around the world or for travelling to places that we would never see if all we had to rely on was walking.

The Bush Administration's attitude towards science goes hand-in-hand with the epic failure of his administration. He shunned the predictive power of science and went, instead, with his gut or what he thought God whispered into his ear when he prayed for guidance. He failed precisely because he refused to show respect for the one set of tools that we have for looking at a set of data and computing the likely results.

He KNEW that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He KNEW that the Iraqi People would greet us as liberators and immediately establish a prosperous democracy. He KNEW that tax cuts would bring economic prosperity. He KNEW that deregulated bankers would bring about that which is in the best interests of themselves and their customers. He KNEW a lot of things – while, at the same time, he had a total lack of respect for evidence or the opinions of experts who have actually studied the relevant data.

Those of us who are concerned about the state of science in this country are not concerned because we found something that we really like – like an artist or a piece of scenery – and we simply happen to want other people to value it like we do. We do not see science as one brand of bottled water that we want people to buy – even though it is substantially identical to every other brand of bottled water (and some non-bottled water).

Our interest in science is more like that of telling a blindfolded driver that he is heading for a cliff. If he doesn’t believe us – if the driver ignores those who can actually see where the car is going and what will happen when it gets there – then we are in for a very unpleasant future.

Science Issues

Another form of presentation that I disagree with is the idea that there are 'science issues' and 'non-science issues'. Global warming and stem-cell research are considered science issues because these are things that scientists care about. The war in Iraq and the financial meltdown are non-science issues.

However, every single policy decision has a set of facts in common. We are confronted with a set of options. The very act of deciding which option to take has to do with assessing what will happen as the result of taking any particular action. Science is the one and only instrument for making predictions that we have that actually works.

The question of how the people in Iraq will react to an American attack, or how the economy will react to the infusion of $700 billion in cash delivered in a particular way, is just as much a scientific question as the question of how the body will react to ingesting a particular chemical or the question of how the earth will react to the impact of a 700 ton asteroid.

If you are involved in making a distinction, then you are involved in asking and answering the question, "What will the results be of doing A versus doing B?" And that is just the type of question that science is uniquely qualified to answer.

The cost of being anti-science – the cost of ignoring science – is that we seriously handicap our ability to make smart decisions. The cost of ignoring science on any issue means that we fail to avoid the death and suffering that science could have predicted.

In this sense, we do not actually need a 'science debate'. Every debate that a politician engages in is a science debate – and it should be viewed and evaluated as such. What does the debate tells us about what the politician knows about the results of various policy options, and what types of evidence is that politician looking at to get those answers?


This point is actually the beginning of my look at Chris Mooney and company’s presentation at the Beyond Belief conference. It illustrates two differences in the perspective with which I approach the issue of the political relevance of science that are not widely shared. It is a view that says that it makes no sense to talk about how to make science relevant – science is already relevant. It is also a view that does not divide political questions into "science" and "non-science" questions.

Every political question is a question involving choices of outcomes, and that involves making predictions, and that is what science is for. To ignore science is to ignore the best tool available for making predictions as to the results of our actions. That means making poor choices - choices that cost lives and increase human suffering.

That is why science is relevant, and people fail to realize this fact at their peril.

Putting Science in Science Fiction

For quite a while now I have been wanting to see a movie where characters who were supposed to be scientists talked like scientists, and where the writers took the effort to get the science right. (See SciFi Wire: Day's Reeves Pushed Real Science

I very much enjoyed the movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still" because, for once, I saw a movie that spoke to, rather than down to, a scientifically literate member of the audience.

There was, of course, fiction in this work of science fiction. But the science was, at least, respectable.

Apparently, it is a debt that I owe to Keanu Reaves, who, according to an article in Sci-Fi Wire:

Reeves added: "It's important that we respect the science as much as possible."

One of the changes that resulted from Reeve's value in science was to ensure that the doctor that Klaatu, the alien visitor that Reeves plays in the movie, had a Nobel Prize in a field that would be relevant to the story. So, according to director Scott Dickerson:

"So we all did some research and picked that the scientist that Klaatu meets won for biological altruism. It's a phrase that most people would gloss over, but it means a lot to the people who would understand it."

Unfortunately, I fear that the efforts in this movie may fall victim to the anti-science culture we live in where movies are supposed to promote mindless stupidity. According to one reviewer at CNN.

The new “Day” can’t be bothered to include the thought-provoking dialogue of the original, choosing instead to bury the audience with special effects that are visually impressive but no substitute for an actual script. And what words do remain are so exquisitely awful that they provide some of the season’s biggest laughs. My personal favorite? Astro-biologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) takes alien Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) to see a Nobel Prize–winning scientist and notes that her colleague was honored “for his work in biological altruism.” What would that entail, exactly? Helping frogs cross the street?

(See CNN: ‘Day the Earth Stood Still’: Klaatu barada stinko)

This is one of those all-too-common instances in which a writer - an educator - wallows so deeply in his own ignorance that he can't see what is right in front of him. How hard would it have been for the reviewer to have typed "biological altruism" into Google and read:

In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. The costs and benefits are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, or expected number of offspring. So by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce.

See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Biological Altruism

I enjoyed the movie. I thought it was quite good. The criticisms that I have seen have typically involved elements of the science that the author simply did not get. For example, why did Klaatu seem to acquire an understanding of humanity that the rest of his people overlooked? Answer: Because Klaatu, ultimately, was born human.

I think that an effort such as this deserves some measure of support. If it gets enough support (while efforts that stupidify science gets our condemnation), we may see a small shift in entertainment away from that which supports stupidity and ignorance, and towards that which contains real science as far as we know so far.

Friday, December 12, 2008

BB: Naoimi Oreskes: Science vs Beliefs about Science

This is the eighth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Our next series of presentations at the Beyond Belief 3: A Candle in the Dark conference dealt with the subject of the politics of science. This is not to be confused with the subject of the science of politics – or, more precisely, the neurobiology of politics – to come later).

Naomi Oreskes gave the first presentation in this section. In her presentation, she described a significant problem in some detail, but offered no solution to that problem (except to criticize the idea of conceptualizing the problem in terms of “A Candle in the Dark”).

The main conclusions that she presented were:

(1) Science had formed a consensus on the issue of human-induced climate change as early as the 1970s.

(2) Yet, today, a substantial portion of the population still believes – 30 years later – that there is no scientific consensus.

This is not to say that people are not aware of a scientific consensus that exists (the way that they might not be aware of the fact that the planet Jupiter has rings). They believe that a consensus does not exist (the way that they might believe that Jupiter does not have rings.).

It’s the difference between what people don’t know, and what they think they know that simply is not true.

Let me share with you a list of the little-known facts about the scientific consensus on climate change over the past century that Oreskes brought to the presentation.

(1) In the late 1800s, scientists knew that CO2 and H2O were greenhouse gasses – that they kept the earth warmer than it would otherwise be. Without these gasses, the earth would be a frozen ball of ice.

(2) By the early 1900s, scientists knew that if the level of CO2 in the atmosphere were to double, then global temperatures would go up somewhere around 4 degrees centigrade (7 degrees F), which would result in significant changes in the global climate.

(3) By the 1930s, scientists knew that humans were probably increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

(4) In the late 1950s, scientists started to monitor global CO2 levels.

(5) By the late 1960s, scientists knew from these observations that humans were, in fact, increasing atmospheric CO2 levels at a rate that would lead to climate change.

(6) In the 1970s, the National Academy of Science commissioned its first report on climate change based on the already existing consensus in the scientific community that human-induced climate change was a fact.

In other words, by the late 1970s, there were only two legitimate answers to the question, "Is there a scientific consensus on whether humans are increasing CO2 levels at a rate that risks significant climate change in the future?"

Those two answers were "Yes," and "I do not know."

Anybody who answered “No” to that question in, say, 1980 was wrong. They were as wrong about the scientific consensus on climate change as they would have been if they had said that the world was flat or that the Earth’s oceans consist almost entirely of methane.

However, even today, over 40% of Americans believe that the answer to the question of, "Is there a consensus in the scientific community on human greenhouse gas emissions and their contribution to global warming?" is "No." On this issue, over 40% of Americans are simply wrong. They hold a false belief. They are not only wrong about climate change, they are wrong about what scientists believe about climate change.

Of course, they were lead into this error by people who think nothing of lying for profit – lying to such a degree that they are willing to lay waste to whole nations for the sake of padding bank accounts that are already among the largest in the world.

I have no trouble comparing the Board of Directors of Exxon-Mobile to the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s with regard to the amount of global destruction they are willing to impose for their own profits. It does not matter that these executives do not believe that they are bad people – that they do not believe that they are doing harm. The members of the Nazi Party in Germany did not believe that they were bad people either. In fact, they considered themselves the most virtuous people in the world. It was "everybody else" – everybody who was trying to stop them – who were the bad people.

We can get some hint of where Oreskes is heading with these facts by a mention of her upcoming book that was discussed when she was introduced. It concerns the practice, perfected by the tobacco companies, of confusing the public on matters of science so that they can continue to make profits through actions that are exceptionally harmful to others.

Just as I have no trouble relating the Board of Directors of Exxon-Mobile to the Nazi Party of Germany, I have no trouble relating the leaders and employees of Phillip Morris and other tobacco companies to a global child sex ring. The future harm that a child will come to suffer as a result of being seduced into the world of tobacco is at least comparable to the future harm a child will suffer as a result of being seduced into the world of tobacco.

In doing so, they keep their activities legal and profitable by flooding the market with misinformation – with lies and deception that aim to fill the culture with mistaken beliefs about the real-world facts regarding the activities that they are engaged in.

Oreskes did not offer any solutions to the problem that she described.

One response to these facts (and others like them) that I would recommend begins with the recognition that they deal with a set of moral failings. This practice of doing great harm to children or other countries for the sake of personal benefit is something that no good person would do. The practice of sitting back and doing nothing, or of offering political support to such groups, is something that no good person would choose to do (except in extraordinary circumstances).

In other words, we are dealing with malleable desires where the moral tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment can be used to mold those desires in a new direction. We have many and good reasons to turn these tools against those who would promote ignorance for the sake of inflicting such harm on others. We should act on that good reason and turn those moral tool of condemnation against those like the leaders of Exxon-Mobile and Phillip Morris, and against the public officials and private citizens that support these groups.

One thing I want to add, as I have added in the past. If a society is an open society where people can speak freely and their opinion counts, it would not be legitimate to engage in private violence against those who would engage in these practices. Private violence is not called for except in a closed society where there is no form of legitimate protest or to bring about a peaceful change. However, words and private actions directed at these groups is certainly legitimate – and long past due.

Political Corruption and Party Affiliation

Back during the election I complained about the Democratic campaign claim that one reason for people to vote for Democrats instead of Republicans is that Republicans are corrupt. Indeed, there was, at the time, a string of news stories in which politicians were caught in various corruption scandals and, in a vast majority of the cases, the corrupt politician was a Republican.

I objective at the time that this had nothing to do with Democrats being more virtuous than Republicans. Rather, it was because Republicans had something to sell, and the Democrats did not. Republicans controlled all three branches of the federal government. They controlled the political agenda. Why would any person interested in buying favor in Washington approach a Democrat?

On that model, what we can expect to see for the next two to four years is a shift. Now, we will see Democrats caught in a series of corruption scandals, while Republicans acquire this illusion of virtue based on nothing but the fact that now Republicans have nothing to sell. Why would any person interested in buying favor in Washington approach a Republican?

Then, we will hear in four years' time, an argument from the Republicans that we need "change". We need to throw out the corrupt legislators (Democrats) and replace them with members of the party that have not experienced much corruption for the past four years (Republicans). If the Republicans should gain power, then they pendulum will swing in the other directions, where Democrats once again claim virtue over and above corrupt Republicans.

And so forth.

As it turns out, this form of reasoning is actually the essence of bigotry. There is no moral difference between the assertion, "That Republican did something bad; therefore, we should not have any Republicans in positions of power," and the assertion, "That black person did something bad; therefore, we should not have any black person in positions of power."

It should be shocking, the number of people who recognize how unfair it is for others to say, "That Democrat did something wrong; so all Democrats should be viewed as corrupt," become absolutely giddy at the chance to say, "That Republican did something wrong; so all Republicans should be viewed as corrupt." This is really pure tribalism. Justice and truth are thrown away for the sake of promoting one's own tribe over a competing trible. This is not the behavior of a moral person.

When the Democrats and Republicans make their respective arguments, they are promoting bigotry. They are promoting the idea that it is morally legitimate to "spread the guilt" that we see in one member of a group throughout the whole group – even those who have not done anything wrong.

A policy of fighting bigotry means condemning the practice of spreading the guilt of a few across whole groups – many of which are innocent. It means condemning the practice of blaming all Republicans for the corruption of some Republicans, and of condemning the practice of blaming all Democrats for the crimes of a particular Democrat.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dogs and a Sense of Fairness

There is a study out that reports to show that dogs have a "sense of fairness". (See, Associated Press:Studies Show Dogs Have Sense Of Fairness)

Since I deny that a sense of fairness exists, I naturally have some objections to the claim that a particular study shows that dogs have that which does not exist.

I object to moral sense theories in general. Moral sense theories are theories that say that moral properties exist "out there" in the universe, and that we have a moral sense organ that allows us to detect these properties. In much the same way that our eyes see trees and cars, our "moral sense" sees fairness and unfairness – a theory that says that fairness and unfairness exists "out there" in the same way that trees and cars do.

The problem with moral sense theories is that we do not sense moral properties. We only sense our own likes and dislikes. Of course, it is tempting for us to view our likes and dislikes to be "moral properties" that exists "out there".

That interpretation then gives us a justification for forcing others to act in way that fulfill those particular desires. "I am not forcing you to do X merely because I like some result. I am forcing you to do X because it realizes something that (I sense) to hold a moral property that makes it worthy of being promoted, even if I did not want to promote it."

It’s like the argument, "I'm not condemning you for your homosexuality. God is. I am simply following God’s will." In fact, God has no will. God has no morality other than that which the theist assigns to God. So it is not "God's will" the theist is enforcing – it is his own prejudices.

So, a study that claims that dogs have a "sense of fairness" is as objectionable as saying that dogs have the capacity to sense God’s presence. In fact, why not use this explanation? What the dogs are sensing is not "fairness" but "God's will." Recognizing God's disapproval, and having an innate disposition (provided by God) not to do things that God disapproves of, they avoid that which we call "unfair". That is why the researchers got the results they did.

Ask the researchers why it is that the "sense of fairness" theory is better than the "God's approval" theory. The only difference between the two theories is the assumption that "fairness" exists as an entity to be sensed and that we (including dogs) have an organ capable of sensing it, versus the assumption that God's approval exists as an entity to be sensed and that we (including dogs) have a capacity for sensing it.

Both options represent equally good "science".

I would like to add that I am a moral realist – I think that moral properties do exist. I simply deny that that both divine command theories and moral sense theories are mistaken about what moral properties are. The entities those theories refer to do not exist. Clearly, other alternatives are available.

What Makes Altruism Good?

I was recently interviewed for a new podcast (I will release the details when they become available), in which it came out that I cringe every time well-recognized atheists get into a discussion of morality. Those atheists tend to adopt one of two views on the nature of morality – each if which has significant flaws that their theist opponents clearly see and eagerly point out.

The more sophisticated atheists dance back and forth between these two views to dodge objections, the way theists will dance back and forth between incompatible and contradictory claims about God.

One option is that the atheist will assert that intrinsic values exist. Against this, the theist will respond that the existence of intrinsic values is no less mysterious or problematic than the existence of God. In fact, the arguments for the existence of intrinsic values are substantially identical to arguments for the existence of God.

One option is that the atheist will defend some sort of strict subjectivism – the type that says, "I don't like rape; therefore, rape is wrong." At which point the theist will simply respond that, "This means you can make rape perfectly legitimate simply by acquiring a fondness for raping others. Slavery, genocide, the torturing of a young child are all legitimate if the agent doesn’t feel bad about enslaving others, slaughtering people, or torturing young children."

In recent days, evolutionary ethicists have pretended that they have solved this problem because we have evolved certain altruistic tendencies and moral sentiments. Evolution, they say, favors altruism and other moral sentiments, and that is where morality comes from.

Yet, just ask an evolutionary ethicist:

What makes altruism good?

You will almost always get one of two answers.

Either altruism is good because it has an inherent, intrinsic quality of goodness built into it (or it produces something that has intrinsic goodness like evolutionary fitness), or it is good because we have evolved a disposition to be altruistic.

If he gives the first answer, he still falls into the trap of asserting the existence of intrinsic values that are just as mysterious as God. If he gives the second answer, then he falls victim to the objection, "If we had evolved a disposition to enslave others, wipe out whole populations, or to torture children, then these acts would have been good. And, in fact, if we can show that genocide or rape are also evolved traits, by your argument, you would have to defend them as being morally legitimate – even obligatory."

Technically, the theist who objects to intrinsic value theories on the grounds that "they are no better grounded than God theories" has not defended God theories. At best, he puts the two on equal footing.

And the atheist can simply bite the bullet and agree that slavery, genocide, rape, and the torture of young children are not really wrong – we have merely evolved a disposition to dislike these things. This is one weakness with a reduction ad absurdum argument – the agent has the liberty to embrace absurdity.

In matters of morality, atheist speakers are still caught on the horns of a dilemma. They either speak about intrinsic values as mysterious as God, or about strict subjectivist values that lead to conclusions as absurd as those of any religion. For this reason, theists still have a substantial advantage in debates on the relationship between theism, atheism, and morality.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Corrupting Influences

I have another question from the studio audience. Chris asked in Condemning Actions Not People

What would you say to the idea that certain actions tend to corrupt one's character or self? A possible move would be to say that person A cares about person B, and believes that if person B begins doing certain actions, that those actions will begin to tear away at the person?

An action that tends to corrupt one’s character or self would be an action that tends to cause the agent to acquire desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Smoking provides an excellent example. The act of smoking fills the brain with chemicals that promote a very strong desire to smoke. The desire to smoke, in turn, is fulfilled by actions that tend to cause lung disease, various forms of cancer, and other effects that smokers have many and strong reasons to avoid getting.

Parents have very good reason to fear having their (foolish and ignorant) child take up smoking because, once the child acquires the desire to smoke, the rest of her life will be worse off. The child will then have to live the rest of her life choosing which set of very strong desires she must thwart – the desire to smoke, or the desires that can best be fulfilled through good health.

One question to be asked, however, is whether there is good reason to believe that a particular action tends to cause a desire that tends to thwart other desires. In the case of tobacco use, we have overwhelming evidence that these acts do cause desires that tend to thwart other desires. We know the mechanisms that do this.

The tobacco companies also understand these relationships. Unfortunately, they are consumed by such evil that they actually use this knowledge to promote the act of smoking and increase the tendency of this act to promote a desire to smoke. In encouraging children to smoke, they are, effectively, promoting far more harm to children than many of the worst child abusers currently rotting in prison – and I would argue that they deserve comparable treatment.

However, there are also cases where people adopt the belief that an act is corrupting – not because they have evidence to support it, but because, “If this were true, it would give the harm that I would do to others in fulfilling my own desires an appearance of legitimacy.”

People who blamed homosexuality for AIDS, for example, or who link homosexuality to child abuse, are people who adopt an attitude, not because the evidence justifies it, but because it gives their own evil actions an appearance of legitimacy.

These claims fail not only in virtue of a lack of evidence, but also a lack of reason. If AIDS were more common among heterosexuals than homosexuals, would they have condemned heterosexuality? What explains their willingness to draw a particular inference in one case, but not the other? Ultimately, they are motivated by a desire to view behavior harmful to the interests of homosexuals as legitimate, and they have no such desire to view behavior harmful to the interests of heterosexuals are legitimate. So, they blind themselves to the invalidity of the inference in the first case that they allow themselves to see in the second.

So, yes, there are corrupting influences out there, and there is reason to prevent people from performing actions that tend to cause desires that tend to thwart other desires. However, this does not mitigate our obligation to find out whether these relationships exist as a matter of fact, or only on the minds of those motivated by the desire to give actions harmful to others the appearance of legitimacy.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Condemning Acts and People

Annie has asked, in a comment made to Hate Speech and the Presumption of Innocence:

Would you please clarify . . . how and whether you make a distinction between condemning an act from condemning a person? If you don't make a distinction, would you elaborate as to why you don't? Thanks-

I think that condemning an action is as absurd as condemning a refrigerator or a chair. It only makes sense to praise or condemn a person. We may premise our praise or condemnation on the fact that the person performed or failed to perform a particular act. However, it is the person that we praise or condemn, not the act.

When I write about the tools of morality, I typically write about praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. The absurdity of praising or condemning an action is easily illustrated by the absurdity of rewarding or punishing an action.

It is not even conceivable that we might invite an action to the front of a room or before a gathering of its peers so that we may provide it with a medal or a plaque of recognition.

Similarly, when it comes to punishment, it is absurd to fine an action, or to imprison an action, or to execute an action for its crimes.

We reward and we punish people.

We assign rewards and punishments based on actions. However, the reward and the punishment is directed at the action. It is directed at the person based on "the fact that you have demonstrated that you are the type of person who would perform such an act."

Clearly, a strong piece of evidence that a person to demonstrate that he is the type of person who would perform a particular action is for him to perform the action. We take the act as a reliable indicator of the quality of the person who performed it. However, it is still the person that we praise, condemn, reward, or punish – not the action.

Then we have the question of how we determine whether a given act provides evidence that the agent is somebody we have reason to praise, condemn, reward, or punish.

Acts that show that a person has desires that tend to fulfill other desires are acts that show that the person is somebody we have reason to praise or reward. Our reason comes from the desires fulfilled by desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

Acts that show that a person has desires that tend to thwart other desires are acts that show that the person is somebody we have reason to praise or reward. Our reason comes from the desires thwarted by desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

However, we do not praise or condemn desires either. We face the same problem – how do you praise or condemn a desire? Even here, we praise or condemn people – based on what that person’s actions (or non-actions) tell us about his or her desires.

(Technically, I hold that a person is a bundle of desires. Consequently, praising or condemning a person is the same as praising or condemning a bundle of desires. However, this track would take us deep into the philosophy of personal identity, where we do not have room to travel at the moment. As Eneasz says, you cannot disentangle a person from his desires.)

This slogan that one should "hate the sin but love the sinner" is nonsense rhetoric that certain groups of people adopt in order to deflect the charge of hate-mongering. In fact, only persons can be condemned or punished – never actions. Only sinners can be condemned, never sins. People who lie to themselves (by claiming they condemn actions and not persons) do so in order to blind themselves to the evil that they do. However, people who refuse to see the evil that they do still do evil. The wrongness of their actions does not depend on their willingness to see them as wrong.

Do the Ends Justify the Means

In a debate about the merits of various moral theories, it is considered a fatal blow to any theory to be able to accuse its defender of asserting that "the ends justify the means." No moral theory in which this is true, allegedly, can ever be worthwhile.

For example, utilitarian theories tend to be consequentialist theories. The right action, according to many forms of utilitarianism, is the action that brings about the best consequences (or ends). The way that those consequences are brought about are said to be justified by the value of those consequences So, "the ends justify the means."

The problem with this form of ethics is that some particularly horrendous means are possible. If the ends justify the means, for example, then we might be able to justify the holocaust, slavery, or the torture of a young child. All that matters is whether the consequences are good.

As an objection to utilitarian theories, this clich├ęd response actually falls quite flat. Utilitarianism actually denies that the ends justify the means, because the utilitarian counts the act itself - the "means" - as one of the consequences of a moral choice. As a result, in utilitarian moral theory, a particularly bad "means" cannot be justified by a plain and ordinary end. Only an end of exceptional value can justify a particularly bad means.

In fact, "the ends justify the means" is actually an objection that is best applicable to intrinsic value theories - theories that hold that certain states have, for all practical purposes, an infinite value, such that they justify any and all means. It applies to Machiavellian theories that hold that the preservation of the state (or "the prince" in a position of power) is of such paramount importance that all possible means are justified in defending it.

It applies to many religious theories, who hold that promoting their religion is of infinite value and any and every conceivable act that aims at promoting that religion is justifed because of the absolute value of this particular end.

However, the biggest problem with the claim that "your theory is one in which the ends justify the means" as an objection to that theory is that it turns out to be internally inconsistent. The objection ultimately contradicts itself.

Whenever a person identifies a particular means as being bad, saying that no end can justify these particular means, we can apply that objection to the claims of the person making it with a very slight change in perspective.

When a person says, "These particular means are so bad that they cannot be justified by any end," all we need to do is define "the avoidance of using this particular means" as a new end. So, if somebody claims that no particular end can justify torture, we can change this into a question about the value of the end of avoiding torture. What the person making this objection is saying is that this end (avoiding torture) is so good that any and all means for realizing it (allowing whatever suffering the torture could have prevented) is justified.

Any person who claims that the end cannot justify the means invariably ends up contradicting himself. At the same time he says this he says that some other end (avoiding a particular set of acts) is so valuable that it justifies any and all suffering that might go along with realizing that end.

So, this cliche objection is actually a meaningless and self-refuting slogan. It may sound good, and it may be effective in making people think that a meaningful objection has been raised. However, it doesn not contribute anything substantive to any moral debate. It's a piece of rhetoric. Nothing more.