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Entries for March 2005

March 31, 2005

The four stages of life: Stage 1- the student

For most people, their starting philosophy comes from what they acquired in their early childhood and is strongly influenced by the religion of their family and the values of their family and local community. Of course, the religious philosophies of the major religions encompass many strands, as they must if they are to maintain broad-based support. If their basic philosophies become too narrow, rigid, or constraining, then they will lose members or breakaway groups will form. Already, major religions have broad sub-groupings, such as the many denominations of Christianity, the Sunni and Shia groups of Islam, the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements in Judaism, the Mahayana and Theravada branches of Buddhism, and so on.

But even these subgroups allow for a wide diversity of philosophies within them. But most people tend to know only the range of philosophies of the religion of their own childhood. Thus they tend to be unaware of elements of philosophies of other religions that might have appealed to them.

For those who would like to go further afield in their philosophical explorations than just their own religious tradition, I can recommend the book The World's Religions by Huston Smith. (All quotes in this series of postings are from this book.) What I like about the book is the approach taken by the author, who is a Methodist minister. He simply lays out the basic elements of each religion. He does not try to make value judgments of each one, or compare and contrast the religions, or try to rank them. He simply describes what each one says about the major questions that concern them, and leaves it to the reader to take from them what they may. But this is not just a dry 'just the facts, ma'am' approach either. Smith manages to balance a non-judgmental approach with commentary delivered in a lively way.

Since I tend to be very eclectic in my tastes, not bound by any particular religious tradition, and willing to use ideas from whatever source as long as I find them interesting or useful, Smith's book appealed to me. A section that I found particularly interesting was Hinduism's approach to the life cycle, that each person's life can be split up into four stages, each having its own distinct characteristics.

Although I grew up in a country where almost 20% of the population were Hindus and I had many Hindu friends, I had never really gone beyond a cursory understanding of this ancient religious tradition, so the four stages of life described by the book were unknown to me until I read this book a few years ago. The philosophy of life implied by these four stages does not seem to me to be organically connected to Hindu theology and could be adopted by believers in any religion or by atheists.

Hinduism takes the diversity of human nature seriously and accommodates "a variety of paths towards life's fulfillment." But it also asserts that each person goes through four stages of life "each of which calls for its own appropriate conduct." I will end today's post with a description of just the first stage, which is that of the student, leaving the other stages for later.

The student stage starts around the age of ten (give or take a couple of years) and lasts for a dozen years. "Life's prime responsibility at this stage was to learn, to offer a receptive mind." There will come a time later, during other stages of your life, when you will have responsibilities to bear. But "for this gloriously suspended moment the student's only obligation was to store up against the time when much would be demanded."

But the learning envisaged was not just factual information or knowledge just for knowledge's sake, to create a mere walking encyclopedia. Education also required that character be developed and good habits cultivated so that one would lead a good and productive life. "The entire training was more like an apprenticeship in which information became incarnated in skill. The liberally educated student was to emerge as equipped to turn out a good and effective life as a potter's apprentice to turn out a well-wrought urn."

I like the fact that this says that the student's only obligation is to learn and not be too concerned with other, ostensibly weightier matters. This enables students to immerse themselves in the learning process, to experience the joy that true learning brings with it. (Note that grades and degrees and other types of credentials are not synonymous with the model of learning described here and may even detract from it.) But although the student is absolved from responsibilities for other things at this time, learning does take place with an eye to the successful carrying out of responsibilities that must be inevitably shouldered as one goes through the later stages.

What constitutes those three later stages – that of householder, retirement, and (most intriguingly) sannyasin - will be described in later postings.

March 30, 2005

What is your own philosophy?

Professor Sandy Piderit of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case has a wonderful knack of finding interesting sites and posting the links on her blog, so you should check it out regularly. She recently posted the results of an on-line survey that asks you to rate your responses to a series of statements and, based on those responses, gives you an analysis of your philosophical outlook.

Intrigued, I visited the site and below is the breakdown of my philosophical views, based on my own responses:

You scored as Existentialism. Your life is guided by the concept of Existentialism: You choose the meaning and purpose of your life.



“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.�


“It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.�


--Jean-Paul Sartre



“It is man's natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.�


--Blaise Pascal



More info at Arocoun's Wikipedia User Page...

Existentialism

80%

Utilitarianism

60%

Justice (Fairness)

55%

Hedonism

55%

Kantianism

45%

Strong Egoism

35%

Nihilism

20%

Apathy

15%

Divine Command

0%

What philosophy do you follow? (v1.02)
created with QuizFarm.com

One has to be very wary of, and not take too seriously, such quickie surveys (it has 36 questions and can be done in about 5 minutes or less) that purport to make such sweeping analyses of your belief structures. But more than the results itself, what I found interesting were the kinds of statements that were on the survey. For example, one question is “It would be wrong to steal food for a starving person--if everyone stole, society couldn’t exist..� Another was “We should decide the meaning of our lives, rather than letting religion or authority do so for us.�

These are the kinds of questions someone who is interested in developing a personal philosophy of life might ask, so the site is worth a visit. It unpacks the concept of ‘philosophy of life’ and reduces it to a set of concrete statements that anyone can understand without having to have a formal background in philosophy.

For example, I have very little knowledge of the various schools of philosophy that merged from the analysis, and only the vaguest idea of what existentialism is, but my own results seem to indicate that that it is my main emphasis (which seems reasonable to me, according to my rudimentary understanding of that philosophy). Utilitarianism and justice (fairness) and hedonism are a joint second. I had only recently come across the notion of ‘justice as fairness’ in reading A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, who develops his idea as a better alternative to utilitarianism. I like Rawl’s approach, so it will be interesting to see how my philosophical preferences change after I have read the entire book and had time to digest his ideas better.

Anyway, check out your own philosophy by clicking on the link. (You can ignore all that stuff about quiz name, user, and password.) And I’d be interested in seeing your comments posted on what you felt about the exercise.

March 29, 2005

Developing a personal philosophy of life

I wrote in an earlier posting about how college is an ideal place to start thinking about developing a personal philosophy of life, because it brings together all the resources that can help you get started on such a fulfilling journey. I also noted the disturbing trend that the number of college students seeing that as a major goal of college was decreasing over time.

But what exactly do I mean by ‘a personal philosophy of life’? And how does one set about developing one? Does it mean reading books on philosophy and taking courses in them? Not necessarily, though such things can help since it helps you develop the vocabulary to better understand those kinds of questions. I have never had a course on philosophy in my life, but I think that I do have some sort of philosophy. What studying formal philosophy does do is give you the vocabulary to label what you believe and to make better contact with the philosophies of other people.

The first thing to realize is that all of us have some philosophy of life already, although we might not be able to articulate it. What is more accurate to say is that it is likely that we have many philosophies, each dealing with separate areas of life. We might have one for our religious beliefs, one for our political beliefs, one for our scientific beliefs, one for personal relationships, one for life, one for death, and so on. These philosophies may be fairly separate and we simply pluck them off the shelves of our mind to deal with specific situations.

Developing a personal philosophy of life does not mean abandoning all of these separate philosophies and starting from scratch but instead starting the process of bringing these various elements into a common framework. In other words, trying to mold them into a coherent whole, so that the beliefs and values we apply in one area of life are compatible with those in another.

This is far from easy to do. Having separate philosophies for different areas of our lives can make life easy for us in very practical ways and prevent us from facing awkward questions and contradictions. One of the biggest problems that some people face (and which I have discussed before - see here and earlier articles) may be the different philosophies that are brought to bear on science and religion. Another might be those we apply to our friends and those we apply to strangers. People who are extraordinarily kind to people they know might be quite callous about the plight of strangers. For example, people who say they object to murder might be quite agreeable with dropping bombs on people of other nations. Or people who say they value life and yet may be agreeable to the death penalty, Or people who are vegetarians on moral grounds yet are comfortable wearing leather shoes. And so on.

We all have such contradictions. What I am saying is that recognizing their existence and trying to resolve them is the basis of understanding oneself. The act of trying to bring all our separate philosophies into one personal, individualized, coherent framework that makes sense for each one us may not be possible. There may always be some things that cannot be made to fit and we may have to live with the contradictions.

The point I want to make is not that we must have one unifying philosophy, but acquiring the desire to have one and starting us on the road towards developing one of the most valuable things that a university education can give us.

March 28, 2005

What makes us change our minds?

In the previous post, I described the three kinds of challenges teachers face. Today I want to discuss how teachers might deal with each case.

On the surface, it might seem that the first kind of challenge (where students do not have much prior experience (either explicitly or implicitly) with the material being taught and don’t have strong feelings about it either way) is the easiest one. After all, if students have no strong beliefs or prior knowledge about what is being taught, then they should be able to accept the new knowledge more easily.

That is true, but the ease of acceptance also has its downside. The very act of not caring means that the new knowledge goes in easily but is also liable to be forgotten easily once the course is over. In other words, it might have little lasting impact. Since the student has little prior knowledge in that area, there is little in the brain to anchor the new knowledge to. And if the student does not care about it one way or the other, then no effort will be made by the student to really connect to the material. So the student might learn this material by mostly memorizing it, reproduce it on the exams, and forget it a few weeks later.

The research on the brain indicates that lasting learning occurs when students tie new knowledge to things they already know, when they integrate it with existing material. So teachers of even highly technical topics need to find ways to connect it with students’ prior knowledge. They have to know their students, what interests them, what concerns them, what they care about. This is why good teachers tie their material in some way to stories or topics that students know and care about or may be in the news or to controversies. Such strategies tap into the existing knowledge structures in the brain (the neural networks) and connect the new material to them, so that it is more likely to ‘stick.’

The second kind of challenge is where students’ life experiences have resulted in strongly held beliefs about a particular knowledge structure, even though the student may not always be consciously aware of having such beliefs. A teacher who does not take these existing beliefs into account when designing teaching strategies is likely to be wasting her time. Because these beliefs are so strongly, but unconsciously held, they are not easily dislodged or modified.

The task for the teacher in this case is to make students aware of their existing knowledge structures and the implications of them for understanding situations. A teacher needs to create situations (say experiments or cases) and encourage students to explore the consequences of the their prior beliefs and see what happens when they are confronted by these new experiences. This has to be done repeatedly in newer and more enriched contexts so that students realize for themselves the existence and inadequacy of their prior knowledge structures and become more accepting of the new knowledge structures and theories.

In the third case, students are consciously rejecting the new ideas because they are aware that it conflicts with views they value more (for whatever reason). In such cases, there is no point trying to force or browbeat them into accepting the new ideas.

Does this mean that such people’s ideas never change? Obviously not. People do change their views on matters that they may have once thought were rock-solid. In my own case, I know that I now believe things that are diametrically opposed to things that I once thought were true, and I am sure that my experience is very common.

But the interesting thing is that although I know that my views have changed, I cannot tell you when they changed or why they changed. It is not as if there was an epiphany where you slap your forehead and exclaim “How could I have been so stupid? Of course I was wrong and the new view is right!� Rather, the process seems more like being on an ocean liner that is turning around. The process is so gentle that you are not aware that it is even happening, but at some point you realize that you are facing in a different direction. There may be a moment of realization that you now believe something that you did not before, but that moment is just an explicit acknowledgment of something that that you had already tacitly accepted.

What causes the change could be many factors – something you read, a news item, a discussion with a friend, some major public event – whose implications you may not be immediately aware of. But over time these little things lodge in your mind, and as your mind tries to integrate them into a coherent framework, your views start to shift. For me personally, I enjoy discussions of deep ideas with people I like and respect. Even if they do not have any expertise in this area, discussions with such people tend to clarify one’s ideas.

I can see that process happening to me right now with the ideas about the brain. I used to think that the brain was quite plastic, that any of us could be anything given the right environment. I am not so sure now. The work of Chomsky on linguistics, the research on how people learn, and other bits and pieces of knowledge I have read have persuaded me that it is not at all clear that the perfectly-plastic-brain idea can be sustained.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that the socio-biological views of E. O. Wilson, and more recently Steven Pinker, who seem to argues that much of our brains, attitudes, and values are biologically determined by evolutionary adaptation, are correct either. That seems to me to be too pat and too much like Kipling’s Just-So Stories, where Kipling’s fictional characters accepted the present state of affairs as ‘normal’ and biologically determined, and concocted fanciful tales to ‘explain’ how they came about. I am always skeptical of theories that try to make the status quo seem ‘natural’ and just. It seems to be very convenient for those who benefit from that status quo.

It seems reasonable that some structures of the brain, especially the basic ones that enable it to interpret the input from the five senses, and perhaps even learn language, must be pre-existing. But I am not convinced that the more sweeping claims, such as that men are better than women at math or that women are more nurturing than men or that our behaviors can be explained by the desire to maximize the spread of our own genes, are biologically determined.

So I am currently in limbo as regards the nature of the brain, mulling things over. At some point I might arrive at some kind of unified and coherent belief structure. And after I do so, I may well wonder if I ever believed anything else. Such are the tricks the brain can play on you, to make you think that what you currently believe is what is correct and what you always believed.

March 25, 2005

The purpose of teaching

I have been teaching for many years and encountered many wonderful students. I remember in particular two students who were in my modern physics courses that dealt with quantum mechanics, relativity, and cosmology.

Doug was an excellent student, demonstrating a wonderful understanding of all the topics we discussed in class. But across the top of his almost perfect final examination paper, I was amused to see that he had written, “I still don’t believe in relativity!�

The other student was Jamal and he is not as direct as Doug. He came into my office a few years after the course was over (and just before he was about to graduate) to say goodbye. We chatted awhile, I wished him well, and then as he was about to leave he turned to me and said hesitantly in his characteristically shy way: “Do you remember that stuff you taught us about how the universe originated in the Big Bang about 15 billion years ago? Well, I don’t really believe all that.� After a pause he went on, “It kind of conflicts with my religious beliefs.� He looked apprehensively at me, perhaps to see if I might be offended or angry or think less of him. But I simply smiled and let it pass. It did not bother me at all.

Why was I not upset that these two students had, after having two semester-long courses with me, still not accepted the fundamental ideas that I had been teaching? The answer is simple. The goal of my teaching is not to change what my students believe. It is to have them understand what practitioners in the field believe. And those are two very different teaching goals.

As I said, I have taught for many years. And it seems to me that teachers encounter three kinds of situations with students.

One is where students do not have much prior experience (either explicitly or implicitly) with the material being taught and don’t have strong feelings about it either way. This is usually the case with technical or highly specialized areas (such as learning the symptoms of some rare disease or applying the laws of quantum mechanics to the hydrogen atom). In such cases, students have little trouble accepting what is taught.

The second type of situation is where students’ life experiences have resulted in strongly held beliefs about a particular knowledge structure, even though the student may not always be consciously aware of having such beliefs. The physics education literature is full of examples that our life experiences conspire to create in people an Aristotelian understanding of mechanics. This makes it hard for them to accept Newtonian mechanics. Note that this difficulty exists even though the students have no particular attachment to Aristotle’s views on mechanics and may not have the faintest idea what they are. Overcoming this kind of implicit belief structure is not easy. Doug was an example of someone who had got over the first hurdle from Aristotelian to Newtonian mechanics, but was finding the next transition to Einsteinian relativistic ideas much harder to swallow.

The third kind of situation is where the student has strong and explicit beliefs about something. These kinds of beliefs, as in the case of Jamal, come from religion or politics or parents or other major influences in their lives. You cannot force such students to change their views and any instructor who tries to do so is foolish. If students think that you are trying to force them to a particular point of view, they are very good at telling you what they think you want to hear, while retaining their beliefs. In fact, trying to force or bully students to accept your point of view, apart from being highly unethical teaching practice, is a sure way of reinforcing the strength of their original views.

So Doug’s and Jamal’s rejection of my ideas did not bother me and I was actually pleased that they felt comfortable telling me so. They had every right to believe whatever they wanted to believe. But what I had a right to expect was that they had understood what I was trying to teach and could use those ideas to make arguments within those frameworks.

For example, if I had given an exam problem that required that the student demonstrate his understanding of relativistic physics to solve, and Doug had refused to answer the question because he did not believe in relativity or had answered it using his own private theories of physics, I would have had to mark him down.

Similarly, if I had asked Jamal to calculate the age of the universe using the cosmological theories we had discussed in class, and he had instead said that the universe was 6,000 years old because that is what the Bible said, then I would have to mark him down too. He is free to believe what he wants, but the point of the course is to learn how the physics community interprets the world, and be able to use that information.

Understanding this distinction is important because it is this type of misunderstanding of the purpose of education that leads to things like Senate bill 24, which seems to assume that students are like sheep who can be induced to believe almost anything the instructor wants them to and thus require legal protection. Anyone who has taught for any length of time and has listened closely to students will know that this is ridiculous. It is not that students are not influenced by teaching and do not change their minds but that the process is far more complex and subtle than it is usually portrayed. (This is a topic I will come back to in a later posting)

My own advice to students is: “Listen carefully and courteously to what knowledgeable people have to say, learn what the community of scholars thinks about an issue, and be able to understand and use that information when necessary. Weigh the arguments for and against any issue but ultimately stand up for what you believe and even more importantly know why you believe it. Don’t ever feel forced to accept something just because some ‘expert’ (whether teacher, preacher, political leader, pundit, or media talking head) tells you it is true. Believe things only when it makes sense to you and you are good and ready for it.�

Can ethical behavior be legislated?

If there is one underlying idea that drives the effort to pass Ohio’s Senate Bill 24, it seems to be the idea that college faculty cannot be trusted to behave ethically in their dealings with students, in what they teach and how they assess and grade.

College faculty are probably no better or worse than other people in their ethics. But in my experience, both university administrators and faculty know that it is in their interest to have everyone behave ethically. What this bill ignores is that there are already remedies available within the universities and in the courts for the most egregious violations of ethics, and tries to micromanage ethical behavior by detailing what can and cannot be read, taught, discussed, and examined in each course.

I am not convinced that people can be forced to behave ethically. The presence of rules can prevent the more obvious or overt forms of unethical behavior, but it cannot completely eliminate them. For example, we know that there are laws on the books, and official university policies, that prohibit discrimination against people based on their gender, ethnicity, or religion. We also know that we have to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.

But do we really believe that the existence of such laws and policies has eliminated discrimination? People who want to can always find ways within the laws to discriminate against people. In fact, the creation of lots of rules might work against more ethical behavior because it shifts the burden of proof. Now someone can say that as long as they are following the rules, they are behaving ethically, although they may be violating the spirit of ethical behavior.

People who value ethical behavior will, if left to themselves, of their own accord go beyond the letter of the law. Putting a lot of rules and regulations around them is likely to create resentment and hostility and a rule-following mentality.

For example, there are lots of things that instructors can do to help or hinder students that cannot be governed by rules. How an instructor responds when a students asks a question in class or asks for assistance outside of class can have a huge impact on a student’s attitude and learning. The amount of encouragement that an instructor gives, the level of guidance the instructor provides, even the letters of recommendation that they write, are very important for students, but such things cannot be legislated.

The same thing applies to students. An instructor who puts in a lot of rules designed to ‘make students learn’ is, in my opinion, doing something counterproductive. When confronted with a lot of rules and requirements, most students will simply do what is asked for and no more. What an instructor should do is to try and create the conditions which makes students want to learn and then give them the resources to do so. Learning is an inherently voluntary act and you cannot force people to learn any more than you can force them to act ethically.

There will be the rare student who will abuse this freedom, just as there will be the rare professor who abuses the freedom given to him or her. But they have to be treated as special cases and dealt with accordingly. Putting in a lot of rules to take care of such isolated cases results in the learning experience being spoiled for everyone else.

In my own experience most, if not all, students react very positively to being entrusted to take charge of their own learning. Our goal in universities should be to create students who are self-directed and ethical learners, people who enjoy learning even when no one is looking over their shoulders, and to encourage faculty to trust students and be ethical in their dealings with them.

How can people learn to achieve this higher level of self-direction if they are always viewed with suspicion and constrained by detailed rules? What we should be aiming for are fewer rules, not more.

March 23, 2005

Private grief and public spectacle

I have not posted anything so far on the big story that seems to be consuming the whole country, which is the sad, sad case of Terri Schiavo. This is partly because I intended this blog to be more concerned with reflections on slower-moving themes, and not consist of commentary on current events (which other people have the time to do much better), and partly because I felt that there was nothing that I could say that would add anything of value to the substance of the case. I have no moral or ethical wisdom to offer that would help people decide what should be done with the feeding tube.

But the non-substantive issue that depresses me most about the Schiavo case, and caused me to break my self-imposed silence, is the public circus that it has become. I can completely understand the grief that the immediate members of the family must be experiencing. This is an awful situation and as far as I can see, there is no ‘right’ answer to this problem. Whatever the outcome, there is not going to be a victory or a defeat for anyone, and no right or wrong.

While we can try and wrap this event up in big, overarching issues of national importance or see matters of grand principle, at its core it is just the sad story of a family tragedy. As such it is something that the immediate family has to come to terms with, with whatever help and strength that they can get from their close friends, the medical community and, as a last resort, the law. What surprises me that so many people who have little or no connection to the family have got so passionately involved.

I am fortunate that I have never had to make a decision that directly affected the life or death of a human being, especially someone close to me. Making that kind of decision about my much-loved dog caused me so much grief that I don’t even like to speculate about it happening to people that I care about.

I think that it is very risky to predict what one would do if placed in the kind of situation faced by Terri Schiavo’s family. I think none of us really knows until we are actually in that situation, because it is so extreme, so far removed from what we have experienced before, that hypothetical speculations are useless in such cases. I would like to think that, finding myself in such a situation, I would behave bravely, nobly, and selflessly, but I really cannot know in advance. This is why I refrain from judging the people directly involved in the Schiavo case or other cases like that.

I have only sympathy for the members of families who grapple with end-of-life questions for their loved ones. If any friend of mine had to make such a decision, I would simply stand by them and accept whatever decision they made, without urging them on or trying to tell them what to do, because the last thing that grief-stricken people need is gratuitous advice coming at them all the time from all directions. The rest of us should simply be thankful that we do not have to make the kinds of agonizing decisions that they must make.

If Terri Schiavo’s parents were my friends, I would accept their decision in their time of need. If her husband were my friend, I would accept his decision too, even though what he has decided is the opposite of what his parents have decided. The reason for my apparent indecisiveness is because I cannot know what either of them should do since I am not sure that I know what I would do if I were in their shoes. But since neither are my friends, I would just leave them alone to let them work their way through this with their real friends and their doctors, without the intense media scrutiny they are currently experiencing.

I also have nothing but respect for those doctors (and judges and juries) who are required to be involved in such decisions. It cannot be easy to do so and the fact that they have been put in this unpleasant position should make us refrain from criticizing them just because they make decisions with which we do not agree.

In cases like that of Terri Schiavo, there is enough tragedy and sadness to go around without it also becoming a media circus. The best thing we can do may be to just leave the family alone.

POST SCRIPT

The invaluable Juan Cole has a very interesting post on how the mixing of public advocacy with private lives in the Schiavo case has disturbing parallels with cases that have occurred in the Muslim world, where fundamentalist clerics have used that mixing to interfere in the private lives of private citizens. That posting is a must-read.

March 22, 2005

What should we teach?

I tend to be one of those ‘glass-half-full’ kind of people. Maybe it is because of my fundamental sense of identity as a teacher. I see most things, even things that I do not agree with, also as possible ‘teachable moments’ that can be used to obtain a deeper understanding of issues. This is why, even though I think that so-called intelligent design (ID) theory is not science, discussing why this is so can lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of science.

The same is true with the attempts to legislate a so-called “academic bill of rights� for students to supposedly protect them from alleged abuse by college professors and which in Ohio is taking the form of Senate Bill 24, currently pending in committee. While I think this is a really bad idea, articulating why this is so can lead to fruitful discussions on what education should be like.

Last Thursday I was on a panel that met to discuss the implications for universities if such a bill were to be enacted (Thanks to Veronica of the Case ACLU for organizing it.) A mix of faculty and students met over the inevitable pizza to discuss the issue.

As I said in my opening comments to the group, it is my belief that it is in such types of informal gatherings of faculty and students to discuss issues of mutual interest that real learning occurs. We should have a lot more of such gatherings and fewer structured courses in college. But since formal courses and grades are a seemingly unchangeable component on the current educational structure, what we should try to do is to replicate as much as possible this kind of informal atmosphere in our formal courses.

This means that we should, as far as possible, move away from highly detailed syllabi and course requirements, and allow for more flexibility so that the direction each course takes can be driven by the shared interests of students and faculty, while still maintaining the integrity of the overall curriculum. Of course, it is only in small enrollment courses (say with fifteen students or less) that achieving this kind of consensus becomes feasible and in my own small enrollment SAGES course I have been moving in this direction and will keep doing so.

With large enrollment courses, however, many of the course and curricular decisions have to be made even before the course begins, in order to manage the logistical issues. But even there we should try to build in room for as much flexibility as possible.

I have addressed in a previous posting that things like Senate bill 24 will move things in the opposite direction, in effect writing curricula and mandating what should be in syllabi and exams, and the mind boggles as to where this can lead. For example, section A of the bill says that “curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social studies shall respect all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.� This immediately raises problems of interpretation and enforcement.

For example, when discussing history can the instructor assume that the concentration camps of World War II are an established fact or is he/she obliged to also provide readings of holocaust deniers and use class time to discuss their ideas? If the instructor does not do so, does this mean that a student who does not believe that the holocaust occurred has grounds for complaint?

Also Marxist economics and social theory are not taught much in US universities although they have had a major influence worldwide. Should instructors be forced to have more of it and to analyze each topic in the light of what this theory says? If an economics course ignores Marxist theory, does a student have grounds for complaint? And even the terms “Marxist economics� or “capitalist economics� are open to many interpretations, with diverging schools of thought. Which schools of thought are worthy of inclusion?

If a student does complain in either of the above situations, who should be the judge of whether the instructor acted appropriately or not? Who gets to decide what is worthy and not worthy of inclusion? It is not hard to see that this kind of thing can lead to a bureaucratic nightmare.

What this bill does is infantilize faculty and students. It assumes that faculty cannot be trusted to exercise their trained judgment on what should and should not be allowed in curricula, and that students are not capable of judging when their professors are doing their job well. This bill also underestimates students’ ability to hold on to their beliefs in the face of opposing views, a topic I will discuss further in future postings.

Other panelists addressed the political and legal implications. I learned from Professor Durschlag some very interesting information about how the US Supreme Court has in the past interpreted the first amendment’s application to university education and the precedents that have been set. I will write about that at a future date when I get hold of the actual ruling. It involves a trek to the Law school library.

POST SCRIPT

There is an interesting post and discussion going on at Research in Progress about the Lawrence Summers controversy about the representation of women in academia and the professions, and the connection to Stephen Pinker's work and talk at Case last week. You really should visit.

Update: There is also now a new post on the topic, also well worth reading.

March 21, 2005

Safe Zones

As you enter my office, directly across from the door is a bulletin board and on it is a little sticker. It has the words ‘SAFE ZONE’ in large purple letters over an inverted pink triangle background.

It was given to me by the Spectrum group at Case which, according to its website seeks to “provide an environment where GLBTQQIA (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersexed, and allied) persons can socialize, learn, and grow.�

The sticker on my bulletin board is meant to be a signal that a student who fits into any of those categories can let me know without fearing any adverse or hostile reaction from me.

I have to say that I feel a little sad whenever my eye falls on that sticker. Have we come to this, that we have to publicly announce zones of safety for people for no other reason than their sexual orientation? Shouldn’t that be something that is taken for granted? The fact that it is not is a sign of how far we are from creating a tolerant society.

I have never quite been able to understand why some people get so upset by other people’s private lives. Yes, I can understand that because of your own religious beliefs or culture or upbringing or whatever there are certain things that you personally might not approve of. But you are always free not to do them. But why should the private lives of other consenting adults, even total strangers, matter to you?

And yet, it seems that many people are concerned about just such things. To me, one of the more disturbing features on last November’s election was the adoption of so many anti-gay measures across the nation. In Ohio Issue 1, that sought to prohibit gay couples from getting some of the benefits that married heterosexual couples take for granted, was adopted by 62% to 38%, an alarmingly large margin.

It seems pretty clear that there are at least two groups who currently run the risk of open discrimination – non-heterosexuals and Arabs/Muslims. It seems to be perfectly acceptable to say disparaging things against either of these two groups without being shamed or called to account.

When it comes to Arabs, for example, Third-Tier Pundit™ Hall of Famer Ann Coulter recently in her column referred to veteran journalist Helen Thomas as “that old Arab.� James Wolcott speculates as to the outrage that would ensure if that kind of language was applied to other groups. And Coulter’s fellow traveler on the Third-Tier Pundit™ circuit Michelle Malkin’s approval of the internment of ethnic Japanese during World War II and her advocacy of racial, religious and nationality profiling now is another example of this appalling tendency to select specific groups for discriminatory treatment.

Back to the issue of ‘safe zones’, I am not naïve. I know that people who are not ‘straight’ run the risk of being discriminated against, or much worse, in the broader society and that they are justified in being cautious about who knows about them. But it is a little disheartening that even in a university there is this fear of intolerance. A university should be different, even though it is populated by the same kinds of people as elsewhere, because in the university there exists something that does not exist outside in any organized way and which should act as a uniting force that overcomes the friction and divergence that can be caused by differences.

This unifying force is the love of learning and a respect for academic values that universities are built upon. If we immerse ourselves in that shared love of learning, then we will find that people who are sometimes very different from us can be the very sources of our own intellectual, spiritual, and moral growth.

In a university you will find people who are different in many ways, not just in terms of their sexual orientation. It is such individual differences that make life so interesting and enjoyable and these same qualities have been the fuel for some of the most creative people that ever lived. Our society, and our universities, should find room for all these people and not seek to shred them of their distinctiveness and make them conform to some idealized ‘norm.’

In other words, we need to make the whole university a safe zone for everyone.

March 18, 2005

What do creationist/ID advocates want-III?

It is time to tackle head-on the notion of what is meant by the "materialism" that the creationist/ID camp find so distasteful. (See part I and part II for the background.)

The word materialism is used synonymously with "naturalism" and perhaps the clearest formulation of what it means can be found in the writings of paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who said in Tempo and Mode in Evolution (p. 76.):

The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only.(Emphasis added)

Simpson was not an atheist (as far as I can tell) but he is saying something that all scientists take for granted, that when you seek a scientific explanation for something, you look for something that has natural causes, and you do not countenance the miraculous or the inscrutable. This process is properly called "methodological naturalism", to be contrasted with "philosophical naturalism."

Despite the polysyllabic terminology, the ideas are easy to understand. For example, if you hear a strange noise in the next room, you might wonder if it is a radiator or the wind or a mouse or an intruder and you investigate each possible cause, looking for evidence. For each question that you pose, the answer is sought in natural causes. You would be unlikely to say "The noise in the next room is caused by God knocking over stuff." In general, people don't invoke God to explain the everyday phenomena of our lives, even though they might be quite religious.

Methodological naturalism is just that same idea. Scientists look for natural explanations to the phenomena they encounter because that is the way science works. Such an approach allows you to systematically investigate open questions and not shut off avenues of research. Any scientist who said that an experimental result was due to God intervening in the lab would be looked at askance, because that scientist would be violating one of the fundamental rules of operation. There is no question in science that is closed to further investigation of deeper natural causes.

Non-scientists sometimes do not understand how hard and frustrating much of scientific research is. People work for years and even decades banging their heads against brick walls, trying to solve some tough problem. What keeps them going? What makes them persevere? It is the practice of methodological naturalism, the belief that a discoverable explanation must exist and that it is only their ingenuity and skill that is preventing them from finding the solution. Unsolved problems are seen as challenges to the skills of the individual scientist and the scientific community, not as manifestations of God's workings.

This is what, for example, causes medical researchers to work for years to find causes (and thus possibly cures) for rare and obscure diseases. Part of the reason is the desire to be helpful, part of it is due to personal ambition and career advancement, but an important part is also the belief that a solution exists that lies within their grasp.

It is because of this willingness to persevere in the face of enormous difficulty that science has been able to make the breakthroughs it has. If, at the early signs of difficulty in solving a problem scientists threw up their hands and said "Well, looks like God is behind this one. Let's give up and move on to something else" then the great discoveries of science that we associate with Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, etc. would never have occurred.

For example, the motion of the perigee of the moon was a well-known unsolved problem for over sixty years after the introduction of Newtonian physics. It constituted a serious problem that resisted solution for a longer time than the problems in evolution pointed to by creationist/ID advocates. Yet no supernatural explanation was invoked, eventually the problem was solved, and the result was seen as a triumph for Newtonian theory.

So when creationist/ID advocates advocate the abandonment of methodological naturalism, they are not trying to ease just Darwin out of the picture. They are throwing out the operational basis of the entire scientific enterprise.

Philosophical naturalism, as contrasted with methodological naturalism, is the belief that the natural world is all there is, that there is nothing more. Some scientists undoubtedly choose to be philosophical naturalists (and thus atheists) because they see no need to have God in their philosophical framework, but as I said in an earlier posting, others reject that option and stay religious. But this is purely a personal choice made by individual scientists and it has no impact on how they do science, which only involves using methodological naturalism. There is no requirement in science that one must be a philosophical naturalist.

The question of philosophical naturalism is, frankly, irrelevant to working scientists. Scientists don't really care if their colleagues are religious or not. I have been around scientists all my life. But apart from my close friends, I have no idea what their religious beliefs are, and even then I have only a vague idea of what they actually believe. I know that some are religious and others are not. It just does not matter to us. Whether a scientist is a philosophical naturalist or not does not affect how his or her work is received by the community.

But what the creationist/ID advocates want, according to their stated goal of ""If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings" is to enforce the requirement that scientists reject both philosophical and methodological naturalism. They are essentially forcing two things on everyone:

  • Requiring people to adopt the creationist/ID religious worldview as their own.
  • Requiring scientists to reject methodological naturalism as a rule of operation for science.

In other words, creationist/ID advocates are not asking us to reject only Darwin or to turn the clock back to the time just prior to Darwin, they want us to go all the way back to before Copernicus, and reject the very methods of science that has enabled it to be so successful. They want us to go back to a time of rampant and unchecked superstition.

This is probably not a good idea¦

March 17, 2005

The strange story of David Horowitz and the "Bush-as-war-criminal" essay

I apologize for the length of this post but I felt a responsibility (especially since I had a role in creating this rolling snowball) to provide a fairly comprehensive update on the convoluted, strange, and suddenly fast-moving, saga of David Horowitz, the organization he founded called Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), and the college professor who allegedly asked his class to write a mid-term essay on "Why George Bush is a war criminal," and then gave an F grade to a student who had been offended by the assignment and had instead turned in one on "Why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal."

As told by Horowitz himself on September 13, 2004, the story goes like this:

At the request of Colorado Senate President John Andrews, a legislative hearing was held in December of 2003 on a proposed bill to incorporate provisions of the Academic Bill of Rights in a Senate resolution. Many students and faculty members came forward to share their personal experiences of discrimination and harassment on campus because of their political or religious views. Among the evidence presented at this December hearing was testimony from a student at the University of Northern Colorado who told legislators that a required essay topic on her criminology mid-term exam was: "Explain why George Bush is a war criminal." When she submitted an essay explaining why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal instead, she was given an "F."

This story has been circulating widely for over a year, propelled by David Horowitz and SAF, and has been used to support allegations of rampant academic bullying in universities and the need for state legislatures to step in and protect students from such actions.

Horowitz gave testimony using this story again just last week to the state legislative committee holding hearings on the proposed Senate Bill 24 ("to establish the academic bill of rights for higher education") in Ohio.

I wrote about the essay story in an op-ed piece that appeared on March 4, 2005 in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where I said that I was skeptical about the story and that although I had tried to follow up the sources cited by Horowitz to find out what had really happened, I had not been able to locate the names, dates, and places of the alleged incident, making me suspect that it was an urban legend.

Enter the internet at lightning speed. The op-ed was picked up by the website of the media watchdog group Media Matters for America and featured on March 8 as one example of what they alleged are serial distortions by Horowitz on a variety of topics.

Media Matters for America seems to have a big readership and this news item set off a flurry of activity with many more people investigating this essay story in particular and Horowitz's claims in general. (See Cliopatria and Canadian Cynic for some of the blogs following the story.)

SAF responded to this new questioning by posting on their website on March 14 a new article titled University of Northern Colorado Story Confirmed that contained new information about the story, including the date and name of the course and the name of the professor involved. The student's name was withheld because she had requested confidentiality. Someone from SAF called me to alert me to the new posting. He was very friendly, we had a cordial conversation, and I agreed with him that the information now made available by SAF removed the story from the status of possible urban legend and that all that was now needed was information on the facts of the case itself, which had still not been revealed but which I was told was supposedly still under investigation. I posted an update on my blog to that effect.

Well, fresh information was soon forthcoming and it came from a report on March 15 by Inside Higher Ed, which describes itself as "the online source for news, opinion and career advice and services for all of higher education." After posting an initial report mentioning my op-ed piece, the editor Scott Jaschik investigated further and writes that he contacted Horowitz, got the name of the faculty member from him, and then spoke to him and the administration of the University of Northern Colorado.

This is what Jaschik found. (The six points below are mostly verbatim quotes from his piece.)

  1. Gloria Reynolds, a university spokeswoman, acknowledged Monday that a complaint had been filed two years ago complaining of political bias by a criminal justice professor.
  2. The professor who has been held up as an example of out-of-control liberal academics said in an interview that he's a registered Republican.
  3. The actual exam question was provided by the university and reads as follows:
    "The American government campaign to attack Iraq was in part based on the assumptions that the Iraqi government has 'Weapons of Mass Destruction.' This was never proven prior to the U.S. police action/war and even President Bush, after the capture of Baghdad, stated, 'we may never find such weapons.' Cohen's research on deviance discussed this process of how the media and various moral entrepreneurs and government enforcers can conspire to create a panic. How does Cohen define this process? Explain it in-depth. Where does the social meaning of deviance come from? Argue that the attack on Iraq was deviance based on negotiable statuses. Make the argument that the military action of the U.S. attacking Iraq was criminal."
  4. The student did not receive an F, and that although the instructions on the test said that answers were supposed to be at least three pages long, the student submitted only two pages on this question. Reynolds said there were clearly non-political reasons for whatever grade was given.
  5. Reynolds said that the student never had to even answer this question. The test, she said, had four questions: two required questions and two others (including the disputed one) from which a student needed to select one.
  6. Robert Dunkley, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Northern Colorado who was identified by Horowitz as the professor involved, said in an interview with Jaschik that politics had nothing to do with the student's grade, and that the context of his course has been distorted. For instance, Dunkley said that the course focused on the relationship between deviance and being classified as a criminal. "We talked in class about how George Washington was considered a war criminal to the British," he said. "We were going into the idea that different people define criminal behavior differently.� And in case there's any confusion, Dunkley wants it known that he does not think the father of our country was a war criminal. "I'm an American citizen and I thank God for George Washington. Without George, we wouldn't be here."

In a response to the Jaschik piece titled Correction: Some Of Our Facts Were Wrong; Our Point Was Right Horowitz does not challenge any of Jaschik's main findings. He says that he did not know any of these facts because he never spoke to the student concerned, never saw the exam, and had heard the essay story from an SAF intermediary. But he still asserts that he was right because: "the exam question is pretty much how the student remembered it without the text in front of her, and how we reported it." And he continues "Until I hear from the student I have no comment on the matter of the grade but it is conceivable to me that if this were an "A" student and she received a "D" or even a "C" on this exam, in her mind it might as well be an "Fâ". And, finally, it is quite plausible that since there were two required and two optional questions she might have been confused as to which were which."

I will leave it to the reader to judge whether the so-far undisputed facts of the case as unearthed by Jaschik and others (that this story was not given as testimony at the Colorado hearings, the essay was not required, the essay prompt was long, nuanced, and complex, the student was not given an F, and whatever grade was given involved other factors than political point of view) is compatible with Horowitz's translation of it as: "Among the evidence presented at this December hearing was testimony from a student at the University of Northern Colorado who told legislators that a required essay topic on her criminology mid-term exam was: "Explain why George Bush is a war criminal." When she submitted an essay explaining why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal instead, she was given an "F.""

In my original op-ed piece I compared this story to the myth of the 'welfare queen' and I think the comparison still stands. Ronald Reagan kept telling us about the woman who allegedly wore mink coats and drove a Cadillac to pick up numerous welfare checks under assumed names. The fact that you can probably find some poor woman somewhere who has chiseled the welfare system by getting money under a false name does not make the 'welfare queen' story true. It is the vividness of the details that make the story so compelling. Take away all the details, as in the case of the current essay story, and what you have is another case of student dissatisfaction with an essay grade. While unfortunate, and undoubtedly distressing for those who are directly involved, it is hardly worthy of nationwide media attention.

What is surprising is that given its shaky foundations, this story should have been flogged so relentlessly and unquestioningly in the media. Media Matters reports:

Other publications have cited the alleged incident, including The Christian Science Monitor; The New York Sun (registration required); and an op-ed on OpinionJournal.com, the website of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, by Brian C. Anderson, senior editor of City Journal, a quarterly magazine published by the conservative Manhattan Institute.
Horowitz also referenced this story twice during an online chat session on "Colloquy Live," hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education's website. In the course of the chat session, a person who identified himself as a teacher from the University of Northern Colorado questioned the need for Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights," to which Horowitz responded, in part: "Isn't your school the one where a criminology professor assigned a paper 'Why George Bush is a war criminal'? I think you have problems."

So there things stand. But given the speed with which things are moving, this posting may be already out of date. Media Matters just released another report on this topic. (And an even more recent report here)

Footnote: There is a small feature to this story that puzzles me. Horowitz in his March 15 response goes to some lengths to say that he did not know the name of the professor until Jaschik told him ("until Jaschik's article I had no idea who the professor was" and "This professor "whose name I now have learned is Dunkley"). But Jaschik says that Dunkley's name was given to him by Horowitz himself a day earlier on March 14 ("Horowitz provided Dunkley's name to Inside Higher Ed Monday, based on a request that he provide more information about the Northern Colorado incident").

This discrepancy might not signify anything but it is a curious contradiction nonetheless.

POST SCRIPT

Today (Thursday, May 17) in the Guilford Parlor from 11:30-1:00pm there will be a forum on Ohio's Senate Bill #24 (the so-called academic bill of rights. I will be on the panel along with Professor Mel Durschlag (Law), Professor Jonathan Sadowsky (History), and Professor Joe White (Political Science).

March 16, 2005

What do creationist/ID advocates want-II?

We saw in an earlier posting that a key idea of the creationists is that it was the arrival of Darwin, Marx, and Freud that led to the undermining of Western civilization.

The basis for this extraordinary charge is the claim that it was these three that ushered in the age of materialism. These three people make convenient targets because, although they were all serious scientific and social scholars, they have all been successfully tarred as purveyors of ideas that have been portrayed as unpleasant or even evil (Darwin for saying that we share a common ancestor with apes, Marx with communism, Freud with sexuality).

But if you want to blame materialism for society's ills, you have to go farther back than that, at least as far as Copernicus, and possibly earlier. For example, as stated by Thomas S. Kuhn in his book The Copernican Revolution (p.2)

[Copernicus'] planetary theory and his associated conception of a sun-centered universe were instrumental in the transition from medieval to modern Western society, because they seemed to affect man's relation to the universe and God. Men who believed that their terrestrial home was only a planet circulating blindly about one of an infinity of stars evaluated their place in the cosmic scheme quite differently than had their predecessors who saw the earth as the unique and focal center of God's creation. The Copernican Revolution was therefore also part of the transition in Western man's sense of values.

Copernicus was central to the development of Western civilization, as were Galileo, Kepler, and Newton after him. All of them sought to explain how the world works in materialistic ways. So if you want to pin the blame for society's ills on those who were influential in promoting materialistic ways of understanding the world, then you cannot pin the blame on Johnny-come-latelies like Darwin, Marx, and Freud.

But creationist/ID advocates do not go after these earlier giants of scientific materialism who justifiably occupy honored places in our history. To do so would be to be immediately labeled as crack-pots, on a par with flat-Earthers, UFO believers, and spoon benders. So they try to peel Darwin, Marx and Freud away from this distinguished line of scientists and treat them as if they started a parallel line of dubious thought, distinct from that of mainstream science.

But that argument just does not make sense. One may argue whether Marxism or Freudian psychoanalysis is scientific, but there is no controversy at all within the scientific community as to whether Darwin's ideas belong firmly in the scientific tradition. Darwin rightly takes his place among the giants of science and drew his materialist inspiration from the scientists who came before him.

The fact that all these scientists sought to explain the world in materialistic ways does not mean that they did not believe in God. For example, it is well known that Newton did believe in a God. He believed that the working of the solar system had a beauty that indicated the existence of God. But that did not stop him from pursuing the laws of motion and gravity that provided a completely material explanation for planetary motions. The residual features that his theories did not explain (such as the stability of the system) and which he ascribed to God were explained later by materialistic means using his own laws, after his death.

The same is true now. What creationist/ID advocates don't seem to grasp is that pursuing materialistic explanations for phenomena does not pose a problem for scientists who are also religious. Surveys conducted in 1996 and 1998 found that about 40% of scientists believe in a personal God as defined by the statement "a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man - to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer." Despite the explosive growth in science this century, this figure of 40% has remained stable since previous surveys done in 1914 and 1933. (Source: Edward J.Larson and Larry Witham, Scientists are still keeping the faith, Nature, vol. 386, April 1997, page 435.) The figure would undoubtedly be much higher if belief in a non-personal God (some sort of prime mover who acted only through natural laws) were included as well.

So why is it that scientists who are also religious have no trouble with materialism? Stay tuned!

March 15, 2005

Universities as a reality-based community

In a previous posting I described the disturbing phenomenon that so many Americans seemed to be living is a reality-free world. I argued that this was because they were being systematically misled by people who should, and do, know better.

Further support for my somewhat cynical view comes from an article by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind that appeared in the October 17, 2004 New York Times Magazine and that deserves to be better known because of the light it sheds on the extent to which the current administration is ideologically driven. His article has this chilling anecdote:

"In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend - but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

What you have on display here is a world-view that is so arrogant that it believes that it has the power to create its own realities.

It is not unusual in the hey-day of empires for its leaders to have the feeling that they alone can direct the course of events, that they can overcome the realities they face, and that nothing can stop them from achieving their goals, whatever they may be.

What is perhaps extreme in this case is that this arrogance seems to be causing the leaders to ignore the actual realities and to think that they can create their own version of it. In other words, they believe that what they want to believe actually exists. Now, in some ways, it is always possible to do this. Reality is a complex business, composed of many disparate elements, and it is always possible to pick out those elements that support one's fantasy, ignore the rest, and act accordingly.

But what is happening here is deeper and more disturbing. What this administration is doing is trying to make reality irrelevant by creating an alternate "reality." They do this by quickly and repeatedly and strongly saying the things that they wish the public to believe are true and depending on the media or the Democratic Party to not call them on the lack of support for the assertions. As a result, after a short time, the administration's assertions enter the public consciousness, become the new "reality", and thus become the basis for vacuous 'policy debates' that have nothing to do with the actual situation.

We saw this happen in the run-up to the war with Iraq and we are seeing it again with the recent killing in Lebanon of Rafik Hariri. Using a combination of innuendo and bombast, the administration has managed to make people think that Syria is the culprit even though, until today, no evidence in support of this claim has been presented and there even exists some counterevidence. On the other hand, Robert Fisk reports today that the UN investigation team is due to make a report that will allege that there may have been a cover-up of the investigation by Lebanese and Syrian authorities, so that the situation is still murky.

What most reality-based people realize is that while forcing your own version of reality on events can win you short-term political victories, it is a prescription for long-term disaster because eventually the contradiction between the 'virtual reality' and reality become too stark to make your actions viable. The "judicious study of discernible reality," sneered at by the senior Bush advisor, is the way to arrive at reasoned judgments that have a chance of producing policies that make sense.

In many ways, universities have to be reality-based. The work of universities rests on empirical bases, on data, on evidence. This does not mean that they restrict themselves to describing just what is. Speculative ideas are the life-blood of academia because that is how new knowledge is created. Making bold speculations and pushing the limits of theories is part of the job of universities.

But such efforts must always rest on an empirical basis because otherwise they cease to be credible. You can build on reality, but you can't totally depart from it. Academics know that their credibility rests on their ability to balance speculation and theorizing with empirical data. For example, a physicist who proposes theories that do not have a basis in data would be ridiculed.

But no such constraints seem to restrain the current political leaders. At one time, the media might have played the role of injecting reality into the public discussion, by comparing official statements with the facts on the ground and providing historical context. But now that the press has largely abdicated that role (see the previous postings on The questions not asked part I and part II) in favor of either acting as a mouthpiece for the fantasies of political leaders or debating tactical points while not questioning the core fantasies, it is up to the universities to fill that void.

This is why efforts like Ohio's Senate Bill 24 that seek to restrict what university instructors can and cannot say are so dangerous. They seek to bring universities also under political control, to suffocate one of the few remaining viable reality-based institutions. While opponents decry universities as being too "liberal", what really make universities "dangerous" is that they are fundamentally reality-based institutions that cannot be easily co-opted into accepting fantasies as reality.

It seems ironic that universities, long derided as ivory towers occupied by pointy-headed intellectuals out of touch with the "real world", may in fact need to be the force that brings reality back into public life.

POST SCRIPT 1

On Thursday, May 17) in the Guilford Parlor from 11:30-1:00pm there will be a forum on Ohio's Senate Bill #24 (the so-called academic bill of rights. I will be on the panel along with Professor Mel Durschlag (Law), Professor Jonathan Sadowsky (History), and Professor Joe White (Political Science).

POST SCRIPT 2

Update on a previous posting:

I received a call yesterday (March 14) from a person associated with Students for Academic Freedom informing me that my op-ed had triggered the release of more information on their website, where more details are given.

Although the student referred to had not in fact given this testimony at the Colorado Senate hearings as had been alleged earlier, the level of detail (which had not been released until now) provided on the SAF website is sufficient to remove this story from the category of urban legends since it does give some names and places and dates. But a judgment on whether this constitutes academic bullying will have to await more details on what actually transpired between professor and student. My contact at SAF says that the incident is still under investigation and confidentiality prevents the release of more information.

Update on the update (3/15/05): It gets curioser and curioser.

The blog Canadian Cynic reports that new information on this case has come out and that Horowitz is now backtracking on almost all of the key charges that were originally made. Canadian Cynic highlights Horowitz's statements now that "Some Of Our Facts Were Wrong; Our Point Was Right" and ""I consider this an important matter and will get to the bottom of it even if it should mean withdrawing the claim."

See the article on the website Inside Higher Education. It seems to be the most authoritative source of information on this case.

March 14, 2005

What do ID advocates want?

In an earlier posting, I spoke about how those who view Darwin's ideas as evil see it as the source of the alleged decline in morality. But on the surface, so-called "intelligent design" (or ID) seems to accept much of evolutionary ideas, reserving the actions of a "designer" for just a very few (five, actually) instances of alleged "irreducible complexity" that occur at the microbiological level.

This hardly seems like a major attack on Darwin since, on the surface, it seems to leave unchallenged almost all of the major ideas of the Darwinian structure such as the non-constancy of species (the basic theory of evolution), the descent of all organisms from common ancestors (branching evolution), the gradualness of evolution (no discontinuities), the multiplication of species, and natural selection.

So where does ID fit into this attack on evolution? It's role is explicitly outlined in the document that has been labeled the "Wedge Strategy" or the "Wedge Document put out in 1999 by the Center for the Renewal of Science & Culture (now called the Center for Science and Culture) of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which is the well-funded "think-tank" that funds and supports the work of creationists.

In the document it becomes clear that intelligent design is seen as kind of the shock troops that establish the beachhead on the fields of science, prior to the rest of the creationist army coming behind and occupying the entire landscape.

Here is an extended passage from the introduction of the document that outlines the issues as seen by them:

"The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.
Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.
The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.
Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.
Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.
Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies."

A little later in the document one comes across the 'Governing Goals' of the movement, which are:

  • "To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."

So there you have it. In a nutshell, the argument is:

  1. The greatest achievements of Western civilization are largely due to the idea that human beings were created in God's image.
  2. Things were just peachy until a little over one hundred years ago.
  3. Then Darwin, Marx, and Freud dethroned this idea and instead introduced materialist ideas that spread into all areas of science and culture.
  4. Everything pretty much fell apart after that.
  5. If things are to improve, 'scientific materialism' needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings.

This is a pretty sweeping line of reasoning. Such broad-brush analyses of society are inherently suspect since the way societies function and form is highly complex and claiming all the good for one belief structure and all the bad for the opposing side is to oversimplify on a massive scale.

I discussed in the previous posting some of the problems with this kind of reasoning.

But what is clear is that the ultimate goal of this movement is to eliminate "scientific materialism" and bring back God into all areas of life. Getting ID into the science curriculum is just the first step, hence the name "wedge" strategy.

This is the first of a series on this topic. I will look more closely into what "scientific materialism" is and the implications of this strategy in future postings.

March 11, 2005

The questions not asked II - UN resolutions

It's time to play another game of The questions not asked. This is where we examine the reporting of some news event and try and identify the obvious questions that should have been posed by the media, or the context that should have been provided to better understand the event, but wasn't.

Today's example is taken from a speech given by George W. Bush on March 8, 2005 and reported in the Houston Chronicle.

"The time has come for Syria to fully implement Security Council Resolution 1559," Bush told a largely military audience at the National Defense University. "All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair."
...
Bush, in a speech touting progress toward democracy in the broader Middle East, did not say what might follow failure to comply.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan also left the question open. "If they don't follow through on their international obligations, then, obviously, you have to look at what the next steps are," McClellan said.

So what questions were not posed? What context was not provided?

One immediate answer is to compare the situations in Lebanon and Iraq. How can Bush say that the Lebanese elections cannot be free and fair because of the presence of 14,000 Syrian troops there, when ten times that many US troops were present in Iraq during that election in January, but those elections were praised?

But that question was not asked, the context not provided.

But there is another obvious angle to this particular case that was also overlooked, and that is the way in which UN resolutions are used selectively to justify US policy decisions.

UN resolutions routinely call, among other things, for the withdrawal of foreign troops from other countries. And given that the UN is, for want of anything better, the closest thing we have to providing a global consensus, such resolutions should be taken seriously.

But this is not the first time that UN resolutions calling for the withdrawal of occupying troops to be withdrawn have been defied. For example, Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco in his article US Double Standards in the October 22, 2002 issue of The Nation magazine says that more than ninety UN resolutions are currently being violated, and the vast majority of the violations are by countries closely allied with the US. He says:

For example, in 1975, after Morocco's invasion of Western Sahara and Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, the Security Council passed a series of resolutions demanding immediate withdrawal. However, then-US ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan bragged that "the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success." East Timor finally won its freedom in 1999. Moroccan forces still occupy Western Sahara. Meanwhile, Turkey remains in violation of Security Council Resolution 353 and more than a score of resolutions calling for its withdrawal from northern Cyprus, which Turkey, a NATO ally, invaded in 1974.
The most extensive violator of Security Council resolutions is Israel. Israel's refusal to respond positively to the formal acceptance this past March by the Arab League of the land-for-peace formula put forward in Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 arguably puts Israel in violation of these resolutions, long seen as the basis for Middle East peace. More clearly, Israel has defied Resolutions 267, 271 and 298, which demand that it rescind its annexation of greater East Jerusalem, as well as dozens of other resolutions insisting that Israel cease its violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, such as deportations, demolition of homes, collective punishment and seizure of private property. Unlike some of the hypocritical and meanspirited resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly, like the now-rescinded 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism, these Security Council resolutions are well grounded in international law and were passed with US support or abstention. Security Council Resolutions 446, 452 and 465 require that Israel evacuate all its illegal settlements on occupied Arab lands.

All the UN resolution pointed to be Zunes are very serious and are much older that the resolution 1559 being used against Syria, so that these violations are long standing. All this information is in the public record. Any reasonably competent journalist should know it and, when the administration (and this is done by both Republican and Democratic administrations) cynically invokes UN resolutions selectively to achieve narrow political ends, should be able to pose the relevant question of why only some UN resolutions have to be followed while others ignored.

But the mainstream journalists don't do this. One question is why. But the more important question is, since they don't do their job, what can we do to make up for it?

March 10, 2005

Evolutionary theory and falsificationism

In response to a previous posting, commenter Sarah Taylor made several important points. She clearly articulated the view that evolutionary theory is a complex edifice that is built on many observations that fit into a general pattern that is largely chronologically consistent.

She also notes that one distinguishing feature of science is that there are no questions that it shirks from, that there are no beliefs that it is not willing to put to the test. She says that “What makes scientific theories different from other human proposals about the nature of the universe are their courage. They proclaim their vulnerabilities as their strengths, inviting attack.�

I would mostly agree with this. Science does not shy away from probing its weaknesses, although I would not go so far as to claim that the vulnerabilities are seen as strengths. What is true is that the ‘weaknesses’ of theories are not ignored or covered up but are seen as opportunities for further research. Since there is no such thing in science as infallible knowledge, there is no inherent desire to preserve any theory at all costs, and the history of science is full of once dominant theories that are no longer considered credible.

But having said all that, it is not necessarily true that finding just one contradiction with a theory is sufficient to overthrow the theory. In the context of the challenge to Darwinian theory by intelligent design (ID) advocates, Sarah’s statement that “All that any ID devotee has to do is to show ONE fossil 'out of place', to prove the theory doesn't work. Just one horse shoulder blade in a Cambrian deposit somewhere in the world, and we can say goodbye to Darwin� is a little too strong.

Sarah’s view seems to be derived from the model of falsificationism developed by the philosopher of science Karl Popper (see his book Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge), 1963) who was trying to explain how science progresses. After showing that trying to prove theories to be true was not possible, Popper argued that what scientists should instead do is try to prove theories false by finding a single counter-instance to the theory’s predictions. If that happens, the theory is falsified and has to be rejected and replaced by a better one. Hence the only status of a scientific theory is either ‘false’ or ‘not yet shown to be false.’

But historians of science have shown that this model, although appealing to our sense of scientific bravado, does not describe how science actually works. Scientists are loath to throw away perfectly productive theories on the basis of a few anomalies. If they did so, then no non-trivial theory would survive. For example, the motion of the perigee of the moon’s orbit disagreed with Newton’s theory for nearly sixty years. Similarly the stability of the planetary orbits was an unsolved problem for nearly 200 years.

Good theories are hard to come by and we cannot afford to throw them away at the first signs of a problem. This is why scientists are quite agreeable to treating such seeming counter-instances as research problems to be worked on, rather than as falsifying events. As Barry Barnes says in his T.S. Kuhn and Social Science (1982): “In agreeing upon a paradigm scientists do not accept a finished product: rather they agree to accept a basis for future work, and to treat as illusory or eliminable all its apparent inadequacies and defects.�

Dethroning a useful theory requires an accumulation of evidence and problems, and the simultaneous existence of a viable alternative. It is like a box spring mattress. One broken spring is not sufficient to make the mattress useless, since the other springs can make up for it and retain the mattress’s functionality. It takes several broken springs to make the mattress a candidate for replacement. And you only throw out the old mattress if you have a better one to replace it with, because having no mattress at all is even worse. The more powerful and venerable the theory, the more breakdowns that must occur to make scientists skeptical of its value and open to having another theory replace it.

After a theory is dethroned due to a confluence of many events, later historians might point to a single event as starting the decline or providing the tipping point that convinced scientists to abandon the theory. But this is something that happens long after the fact, and is largely a rewriting of history.

So I do not think that finding one fossil out of place will dethrone Darwin. And ID does not meet the necessary criteria for being a viable alternative anyway, since it appeals to an unavoidable inscrutability as a factor in its explanatory structure, and that is an immediate disqualification for any scientific theory.

March 09, 2005

The purpose of college

Why go to college?

For some, college is just a stage in the educational ladder after high school and before entering the working world or going to graduate school. In this view, college is primarily the place where you obtain an important credential that is the pre-requisite for securing well-paying jobs. This is not an insignificant consideration.

Others might see college as the place where you both broaden and deepen your knowledge in a range of subjects and develop higher-order skills such as critical thinking and writing and researching skills.

All these things are undoubtedly valuable and worth pursuing. But for me, I think the primary purpose of college is that it is the place where you start to lay the foundations for a personal philosophy of life.

What I mean by this is that at least in college we need to start asking ourselves the question: "Why do I get up in the morning?" For some, the answer might be "Why not? What other option is there?" For others it might just be a habit that is unquestioned. For yet others, it might be that they have particular ambitions in life that they want to achieve. For yet others, it might be because other people depend on us to do various things.

But while all these considerations undoubtedly play a part for all of us, the question that I am addressing goes somewhat beyond that and asks what we think of as our role in the universe. What is it that gives our lives meaning? What should be the basis of our relationships with our family and friends and society? What is our obligation to all those to whom we are tied together by a common humanity? What should be our relationship with nature and the environment?

All of us think about these things from time to time. But I suspect that these various areas of our lives remain somewhat separate. By 'developing a personal philosophy of life', I mean the attempt to pull together all these threads and weave a coherent tapestry where each part supports and strengthens the other.

I think that the university is a wonderful place to start doing this because it has a unique combination of circumstances that can, at least in principle, enable this difficult task to be pursued. It has libraries, it has scholars, it has courses of study that can enable one to explore deeply into areas of knowledge. It provides easy access to the wisdom of the past and to adventures towards the future. But most importantly, it has people (students and staff and faculty) of diverse backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, nationalities, gender, etc.

But I wonder if we fully take advantage of this opportunity or whether the day-to-day concerns of courses, homework, research, teaching, studying prevent us from periodically stepping back and trying to see the big picture. In fact, it looks like the search for broader goals for college education is declining alarmingly. In 1969, 71% of students said they felt it essential that college help them in "formulating the values and goals of my life." 76% also said that "learning to get along with people" was an essential goal of their college experience.

But by 1993, those percentages had dropped to 50% and 47% respectively, from the top ranked items to the bottom, being displaced by an emphasis on training and skills and knowledge in specialized fields. (Source: When Hope and Fear Collide by Arthur S. Levine and Jeannette S. Cureton, 1998, table 6.1, page 117.)

In my mind, this is an alarming trend and needs to be reversed.

One thing that events like the tsunami do, even for those not directly affected by it, is to bring us up short, to realize the fragility of life and the importance of making the most out of our time here. It reminds us that there are big questions that we need to ask and try to answer, and we cannot keep avoiding them.

This kind of thoughtful introspection mostly occurs outside formal classes, in the private discussions that we have in informal settings, in dorms, lounges, parks, offices, and coffee shops. But how often does it happen? And how can we create a university atmosphere that is conducive to making people realize the importance of having such discussions?

The meaning that we attach to life will depend on a host of individualized factors, such as our personal histories, what we value most, and what we are willing to give up. And we may never actually create a fully formed personal philosophy of life. The philosophy we do develop will most likely keep changing with time as our life experiences change us.

But the attempt to find out what our inner core is so that we act in life in ways that are consistent with it is something that I think college is perfectly suited for. I only hope that most people take advantage of it.

March 08, 2005

A Theory of Justice

I have to confess that this blog has been guilty of false advertising. On the masthead, of all the items listed, the one thing I have not talked about is books and it is time to make amends.

But first some background. Last week, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening having an informal conversation with about 20 students in the lobby of Alumni Hall (many thanks to Carolyn, Resident Assistant of Howe for organizing it). The conversation ranged over many topics and inevitably came around to politics. I had expressed my opposition to the attack on Iraq, and Laura (one of my former students) raised the perfectly legitimate question about what we should do about national leaders like Saddam Hussein. Should we just let them be? My response was to say that people and countries need to have some principles on which to act and apply them uniformly so that everyone (without exception) would be governed by the same principles. The justifications given by the Bush administration for the attack on Iraq did not meet those conditions.

But my response did not have a solid theoretical foundation and I am glad to report that a book that I have started reading seems to provide just that.

The book is A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, in which the author tries to outline what it would take to create a system that would meet the criteria of justice as fairness. The book was first published in 1971 but I was not aware until very recently of its existence. I now find that it is known by practically everyone and is considered a classic, but as I said elsewhere earlier, my own education was extraordinarily narrow, so it is not surprising that I was unaware of it until now.

Rawls says that everyone has an intuitive sense of justice and fairness and that the problem lies on how to translate that desire into a practical reality. Rawls' book gets off to a great start in laying out the basis for how to create a just society.

"Men are to decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims against one another and what is to be the foundation charter of their society…Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, not does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like…The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance." (my emphasis)

In other words, we have to decide what is fair before we know where we will fit into society. We have to create rules bearing in mind that we might be born to any of the possible situations that the ensuing structure might create. Right now what we have is 'victor's justice', where the people who have all the power and privilege get to decide how society should be run, and their own role in it, and it should not surprise us that they see a just society as one that gives them a disproportionate share of the benefits.

Rawls argues that if people were to decide how to structure society based on this 'veil of ignorance' premise, they would choose two principles around which to organize things. "[T]he first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example, inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society. These principles rule out justifying institutions on the grounds that the hardships of some are offset by a greater good in the aggregate."

Rawl's argument has features similar to that young children use when sharing something, say a pizza or a cookie. The problem is that the person who gets to choose first has an unfair advantage. This problem is overcome by deciding in advance that one person divides the object into two portions while the other person gets first pick, thus ensuring that both people should feel that the ensuing distribution is fair.

(Here is an interesting problem: How can you divide a pizza in three ways so that everyone has the sense that it was a fair distribution? Remember, this should be done without precision measurements. The point is to demonstrate the need to set up structures so that people will feel a sense of fairness, irrespective of their position in the selection order.)

All this great stuff is just in the first chapter. Rawls will presumably flesh out the ideas in the subsequent chapters and I cannot wait to see how it comes out.

I will comment about the ideas in this book in later postings as I read more, because I think the 'veil of ignorance' gives a good framework for understanding how to make judgments about public policy.

March 07, 2005

Where was God during the tsunami?

Last Thursday I moderated a panel discussion (sponsored by the Hindu Students Association and the Religion Department at Case) on the topic of theodicy (theories to justify the ways of God to people, aka “why bad things happen to good people�) in light of the devastation wreaked by the tsunami, which killed an estimated quarter million people.

The panel comprised six scholars representing Judaism, Islam, Jainism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism and the discussion was thoughtful with a good sharing of ideas and concerns.

As the lay moderator not affiliated with any religious tradition, I opened by saying that it seemed to me that events like the tsunami posed a difficult problem for believers in a God because none of the three immediate explanations that come to mind about the role of God are very satisfying. The explanations are:

  1. It was an act of commission. In other words, everything that happens is God’s will including the tsunami. This implies that God caused it to happen and hence can be viewed as cruel.
  2. It was an act of omission. God did not cause the tsunami but did nothing to save people from its effects. This implies that God does not care about suffering.
  3. It is a sign of impotence. God does care but is incapable of preventing such events. This implies that God is not all-powerful.
These questions can well be asked even for an isolated tragic event like the death of a child. But in those cases, it is only the immediate relatives and friends of the bereaved who ask such things. The tsunami caused even those not directly affected to be deeply troubled and it is interesting to ask why this is so.

Some possible reasons for this widespread questioning of religion are that the tsunami had a very rare combination of four features:

  1. It was a purely natural calamity with no blame attached to humans. Other ‘natural’ disasters such as droughts and famines can sometimes be linked indirectly to human actions and blame shifted from God.
  2. The massive scale of death and suffering.
  3. The rapidity of the events, the large number of deaths on such a short time-scale.
  4. The innocence of so many victims, evidenced by the fact that a staggering one-third of the deaths were of children.

Of course, although rare, such combinations of factors have occurred in the past and all the major religions are old enough to have experienced such events before and grappled with the theological implications. It was interesting to see the different ways in which the four theistic religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam) and the two non-theistic religions (Buddhism and Jainism) responded. But whatever the religion, it was clear that something has to give somewhere in the image of an all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent God, whose actions we can comprehend.

As one panelist pointed out, the last feature (of the ability to comprehend the meaning of such events) is dealt with in all religions with an MWC (“mysterious ways clause�) that can be invoked to say that the actions of God are inscrutable and that we simply have to accept the fact that a good explanation exists, though we may not know it.

Each panelist also pointed out that each religious tradition is in actuality an umbrella of many strands and that there is no single unified response that can be given for such an event. Many of the explanations given by each tradition were shared by the others as well. In some ways, this diversity of explanations within each tradition is necessary because it is what enables them to hold on to a diverse base of adherents, each of whom will have a personal explanation that they favor and who will look to their religion for approval of that particular belief.

The possible explanations range over the following: that things like the tsunami are God’s punishment for either individual or collective iniquity; that they are sent to test the faith of believers (as in the Biblical story of Job); that God created natural laws and lets those laws work their way without interference; that God is “playing� with the world to remind us that this life is transitory and not important; that the tsunami was sent as a sign that the “end times� (when the apocalypse arrives) are near and hence should actually be seen as a joyous event; that it was a sign and reminder of God’s power and meant to inspire devotion; it was to remind us that all things are an illusion and that the events did not “really� happen.

(Update: Professor Peter Haas, who spoke about Judaism, emails me that I had overlooked an important aspect of that religious tradition. He says that: "My only comment would be that you did not quite capture my point about Judaism, which was that the real question is less about WHY things like the Tsunami happened but about how we are to respond to such human suffering given that we live in a world where such things happen.")

All of these explanations posit a higher purpose for the tsunami, and some definitely relinquish the notion of God’s benevolence.

The non-theistic religions have as their explanatory core for events the notion of karma. Karma is often loosely thought of as fate but the speakers pointed out that karma means action and carries the implication that we are responsible for our actions and that our actions create consequences. Thus there is the belief in the existence of cause-and-effect laws but there is no requirement for the existence of a law-giver (or God). The karma itself is the cause of events like the tsunami and we do not need an external cause or agent to explain it. The MWC is invoked even in this case to say that there is no reason to think that the ways the karmic laws work are knowable by humans.

The non-theistic karma traditions do not believe in the existence of evil or an evil one. But there is a concept of moral law or justice (“dharma�) and the absence of justice (“adharma�), and events like the tsunami may be an indication that total level of dharma in the world is declining. These traditions also posit that the universe is impermanent and that the real problem is our ignorance of its nature and of our transitory role in it.

The problem for the karma-based religions with things like the tsunami is understanding how the karma of so many diverse individuals could coincide so that they all perished in the same way within the space of minutes. But again, the MWC can be invoked to say that there is no requirement that we should be able to understand how the karmic laws work

(One question that struck me during the discussion was that in Hinduism, a belief in God coexists with a belief in karma and I was not sure how that works. After all, if God can intervene in the world, then can the karmic laws be over-ridden? Perhaps someone who knows more about this can enlighten me.)


(Update: Professor Sarma, who spoke on Hinduism, emails me that: "As for the inconsistencies in Hinduism --there are lots of traditions which are classified under the broad rubric "Hinduism" so the attempt to characterize a unified answer is inherently flawed.")

Are any of these explanations satisfying? Or do events like the tsunami seriously undermine people’s beliefs in religion? That is something that each person has to decide for himself or herself.

March 04, 2005

Urban legends in academia?

Did you hear the story about the college professor who asked his class to write a mid-term essay on “Why George Bush is a war criminal,� and then gave an F grade to a student who had been offended by the assignment and had instead turned in one on “Why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal�?

I wrote about this in an op-ed piece that appeared in today’s (March 4, 2005) Plain Dealer.

You will be asked by the site to fill in your zip-code, year of birth, and gender for some kind of demographic survey. It takes about 10 seconds.

Update on 3/14/05

I received a call today from a person associated with Students for Academic Freedom informing me that this op-ed had triggered the release of more information on their website, where more details are given.

Although the student referred to had not in fact given this testimony at the Colorado Senate hearings as had been alleged earlier, the level of detail (which had not been released until now) provided on the SAF website is sufficient to remove this story from the category of urban legends since it does give some names and places and dates. But a judgment on whether this constitutes academic bullying will have to await the release of the facts of the case on what actually transpired between professor and student. My contact at SAF says that the incident is still under investigation.

Update on the update (3/15/05): It gets curioser and curioser.

The blog Canadian Cynic reports that new information on this case has come out and that Horowitz is now backtracking on almost all of the key charges that were originally made. Canadian Cynic highlights Horowitz's statements now that "Some Of Our Facts Were Wrong; Our Point Was Right" and ""I consider this an important matter and will get to the bottom of it even if it should mean withdrawing the claim."

See the article on the website Inside Higher Education. It seems to be the most authoritative source of information on this case.

March 03, 2005

Content-free political labels

Here’s a quiz. Who said the following:

“In his inaugural address, Mr. Bush calls 9/11 the day “when freedom came under attack.� This is sophomoric. Osama did not send fanatics to ram planes into the World Trade Center because he hates the Bill of Rights. He sent the terrorists here because he hates our presence and policies in the Middle East.
…
The 9/11 killers were over here because we are over there. We were not attacked because of who we are but because of what we do. It is not our principles they hate. It is our policies. U.S. intervention in the Middle East was the cause of the 9/11 terror. Bush believes it is the cure. Has he learned nothing from Iraq?
In 2003, we invaded a nation that had not attacked us, did not threaten us, and did not want war with us to disarm it of weapons it did not have. Now, after plunging $200 billion and the lives of 1,400 of our best and bravest into this war and killing tens of thousands of Iraqis, we have reaped a harvest of hatred in the Arab world and, according to officials in our own government, have created a new nesting place and training ground for terrorists to replace the one we lately eradicated in Afghanistan."

Was this said by some radical leftist? Some long-haired peacenik? Ward Churchill? Actually, it was Pat Buchanan, a staffer for Richard Nixon and long-time Republican stalwart writing in a recent issue of the magazine The American Conservative.

Ok, here’s another writer:

“The US economy is headed toward crisis, and the political leadership of the country--if it can be called leadership--is preoccupied with nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
…
Oblivious to reality, the Bush administration has proposed a Social Security privatization that will cost $4.5 trillion in borrowing over the next 10 years alone! America has no domestic savings to absorb this debt, and foreigners will not lend such enormous sums to a country with a collapsing currency--especially a country mired in a Middle East war running up hundreds of billions of dollars in war debt.
A venal and self-important Washington establishment combined with a globalized corporate mentality have brought an end to America's rising living standards. America's days as a superpower are rapidly coming to an end. Isolated by the nationalistic unilateralism of the neoconservatives who control the Bush administration, the US can expect no sympathy or help from former allies and rising new powers.�

Who is this Bush-hater? Michael Moore? No, it was none other than Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration and former Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review.

The point of my using these quotes is to illustrate my view that the labels ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ ‘Democratic’ or ‘Republican’ have ceased to be meaningful in identifying people’s political positions on many issues. They may have at one time identified particular unifying political philosophies, but now have ceased to have content in that there are no longer any clear markers that one can point to that identify those positions.

Not all political labels have ceased to have content but those four broad-brush categories in particular are used more as terms of political abuse than for any clarifying purpose. Their only purpose is to set up fake debates on television’s political yell shows. If you advertise that you have a liberal and conservative on your panel (or a Democrat and Republican), you can claim that your program is ‘fair and balanced’ even though both people pretty much say the same thing on major policy issues, differing only on minor tactical points or on style.

It makes more sense, rather than identifying and aligning with people on the basis of these meaningless labels, to form alliances on specific issues based on where they stand with respect to those issues. And when one does that, one finds that many of the old divisions melt away.

The greater danger of labels (whether they be of religion, nationality, or politics) is that they are used to divide us and herd us into boxes and make us think in terms of what we should believe and who are allies should be than what we really want them to be. They are being used as weapons to divide people into ineffective warring factions and thus prevent them from finding commonalities that might lead to concerted action.

I do not agree with Buchanan or Roberts on everything they say. On some things I strongly disagree. But unlike the members of the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ brigade who should be ignored, they are serious people who often have useful information or perspectives to share and I read them regularly.

Dismissing the ideas of some people simply because of the label attached to them makes as little sense as supporting other people for the same reason.

March 02, 2005

Putting thought police in the classroom

Most of you would have heard by now about the bill pending in the Ohio legislature (Senate Bill 24) to “establish the academic bill of rights for higher education.�

The bill is both silly and misguided. It mixes motherhood and apple pie language (“The institution shall provide its students with a learning environment in which the students have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subjects they study.�) with language that is practically begging students with even minor grievances to complain to higher authorities.

In a previous posting, I spoke about how lack of trust leads to poor learning conditions and that we need to recreate the conditions under which trust can flourish. This bill goes in the wrong direction because it effectively creates a kind of ‘thought police’ mentality, where any controversial word or idea in class can end up causing a legal battle.

Let me give you an example. The bill says “curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social studies shall respect all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.�

As an instructor, how would I respect “all� the knowledge in the area? What do we even mean by the word “knowledge.� How do we even separate knowledge in the humanities and social sciences from those in the sciences? What constitutes “dissenting viewpoints?� And how far should “dissenting� be taken? If a particular point of view is not mentioned by the instructor, is that grounds for complaint?

Take another example.

“Students shall be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study and shall not be discriminated against on the basis of their political, ideological, or religious beliefs.�

Grading is an art not a science. It is, at some level, a holistic judgment made by an instructor. To be sure the instructor has a deep ethical obligation to the profession to assign the grade with as much competence and impartiality as he or she can muster. But even granting that, a letter grade or a point allocation for an assignment is not something that can be completely objectified. Give the same essay or problem to two different teachers and they will likely arrive at different grades even if it were “graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge.� And this can occur irrespective of how agreeable or disagreeable the student’s views might be perceived by the instructor. So if a student complains about a grade, how can this be adjudicated?

As I said in a previous posting, the reason we currently have so many rules in our classrooms is that we seem to have forgotten the purpose of courses, and have lost that sense of trust that is so vital to creating a proper learning atmosphere.

This bill, rather than increasing trust in the classroom, will decrease it. Because as soon as there is legislation prescribing what can and cannot be done in the classroom, it will inevitably lead to teaching and grading issues ending up in the courtroom. And in order to avoid that tedious and expensive process, universities will start instituting detailed lists of rules about what can and cannot be done in the classroom, and teachers will start teaching and assessing defensively, simply to avoid the chance of litigation.

Is this what we want or need?

POST SCRIPT

Tomorrow (Thursday, March 3) from 7:00-9:00 pm in Thwing Ballroom, Case’s Hindu Students Association is hosting an inter-religious dialogue on how to reconcile a belief in God in light of major disasters like the recent tsunami.

There will be a panel of religious scholars representing all the major religious traditions (drawn from the faculty of the Religion department at Case and elsewhere) and plenty of time for discussions. I will be the moderator of the discussion.

The event is free and open to the public and donations will be accepted for tsunami relief efforts.

March 01, 2005

Living in a reality-free world

Here is some news to curl your hair.

The Harris Poll® #14 of February 18, 2005 reports that:

- 47 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001;
- 44 percent believe that several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis; and
- 36 percent believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded that country.

Virtually no one who has followed these stories believes any of the above to be true. And this poll was released just last week, long after the David Kay and Charles Duelfer reports were made public, putting to rest all the overblown claims that were used to justify the attack on Iraq.

Also something that experts do believe to be true, that Saddam Hussein was prevented from developing weapons of mass destruction by the U.N. weapons inspectors, is supported by only 46 percent.

How is it that so many Americans seem to be living in a reality-free world?

The reason is that such falsehood as the ones listed above are strongly implied by influential people and uncritically reported in the media, or influential people stay silent when such falsehoods are propagated.

Take for example a speech made just last week (on February 17, 2005) by California congressman Christopher Cox at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Michelle Goldberg of Salon was at the conference and reports his exact words: “We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and the facilities to make them inside of Iraq, and even more about their intended use, including that a plan to distribute sarin, and the lethal poison ricin -- in the United States and Europe -- was actively being pursued as late as March 2003.�

And who were the members of the audience who did not contradict Cox as this nonsense was being spouted? Michelle Goldberg reports that among those “seated at the long presidential table at the head of the room were Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, Missouri Senator Norm Coleman, Dore Gold, foreign policy advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and NRA president Kayne Robinson.� Cox’s comments were made while introducing Vice President Dick Cheney, who gave the keynote address.

Now it is possible to carefully deconstruct the congressman’s words so that some semblance of truth can be salvaged. But that would involve re-defining words like ‘discovered’ and ‘weapons’ and ‘facilities’ and ‘plan’ in ways that would make Clinton’s parsing of the word ‘is’ seem like a model of transparency.

So what are we to make of political leaders who can say such deliberately misleading things? What are we to make of other politicians who know the facts but choose to remain silent while the public is led astray? And what are we to make of the national media who spend enormous amounts of time and space on issues like Michael Jackson’s trial but do not provide the kind of scrutiny, factual information, and context that would make politicians more cautious about what they say?

Politicians who mislead the public may be just cynical in that they know the truth and are just saying things for the sake of political expediency. But the danger with allowing this kind of talk to go unchallenged is that it creates an echo-chamber in which people hear the same false things from different directions and start to think it must be true. When people start believing their own propaganda, then they have entered a reality-free zone and this can lead to disastrous consequences.

George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946) wrote “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.� The sad truth is that Cox’s speech is by no means the only, or even the worst, example of this kind of linguistic chicanery. One has only to go back to the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq to see even more egregious examples of deception by the highest ranking members of the government, and timidity and silence from the supposed watch-dogs in the Congress and media.

Is it any wonder that so many people live in a world that does not exist?