Entries for May 2005

May 31, 2005

Science, religion, and Ockham's razor

A few days ago I was working in my backyard when I noticed that the outdoor thermometer that I had fixed to a fence had disappeared. The mountings were still there but had been pulled away slightly. I thought that maybe the wind had blown it off and so I looked at the ground underneath but the thermometer was not there. There is a bed of pachysandra nearby and I looked nearby in it but no luck. I was baffled.

I pondered the various options for explaining the missing thermometer. One was that the wind had been strong enough to rip the thermometer from its mounting and blow it farther away into the pachysandra. The other was that it had fallen to the ground below and had then been taken away by squirrels or the neighbor's cat. The third was that neighborhood children had borrowed it without permission for some experiment. The fourth was that the International Outdoor Thermometer Cartel (IOTC) had raised the price of these thermometers to such a high value that organized crime gangs were stealing them and selling them on the black market. The fifth option was that aliens had taken it away as a souvenir of their clandestine visit to Earth.

Given these options, I decided that #1 was the most likely one and looked in the pachysandra over a larger area, and sure enough. I found it.

The reason for this anecdote is that it illustrates that I used something that we all use all the time (whether we are consciously aware of it or not), and that is Ockham's razor to make choices among competing theories.

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, the principle behind Ockham's razor (also called the law of economy or the law of parsimony) was stated by the scholastic William of Ockham (1285–1347/49), as "Plurality should not be posited without necessity." The principle is also expressed as "Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity." Ockham did not himself use the word 'razor', that was added to his name later by others.

The principle gives precedence to simplicity, but there are two ways it can be used. In the first case (which is more closely aligned with Ockham's intent), it says that you should not postulate more elements for anything other than the minimum required. For example, in the case of my missing thermometer, if I postulated one theory that a cat had taken it and a competing theory was that a cat that had a striped tail and a scar on its forehead had taken it, then in the absence of any extra information, the former theory is to be preferred. The latter theory just adds elements that do not add any necessary information to the explanation. The application of this version of the principle is fairly straightforward. One seeks the smallest subset of elements of a theory that provides an adequate explanation of whatever you are trying to explain.

The more problematic (and common) use of Ockham's razor is when you try and apply it to a situation where there are two competing theories that share no common elements or there exist at least some necessary elements of one theory that the other does not possess. We commonly interpret Ockham's razor in those situations as requiring us to choose the simpler of the two theories. But simplicity may well lie in the eye of the beholder and it may not be easy to get agreement.

So, for example, in the case of the thermometer that was found some distance away from its mountings, the simpler explanation (for me at least) was that of the wind. If called upon, I could call upon Bernoulli's Principle and the laws of motion to support my preference. That explanation is simple enough to satisfy me.

But this may not be true for someone else. For them, a theory that alien vandals landed in my garden, tore the thermometer from its moorings, threw it away in the pachysandra and left in their spaceship, might be the "simpler" explanation in the eyes of someone who is a believer in the existence UFOs and space aliens. After all, it does not involve the use of calculus.

That is exactly the problem in many of the science and religion discussions, and we will see that in the next posting.


In a comment to a previous post, Amanda (a former student who graduated a few years ago and is now doing her PhD in astronomy) sent me a link to an excellent New Yorker article that goes straight to the core intelligent design argument, cutting through all the confusion that often surrounds such discussions. The article is well written and lays out the basic premises of ID as well as clears up some popular confusion about how evolution and natural selection work. I strongly recommend the article and gratefully thank Amanda for bringing it to my attention.

May 27, 2005

What is going on in Kansas

A couple of months ago, I was called by a staff member at the Kansas Board of Education. He said that I was being invited to testify to speak about the nature of science before a committee of their state Board of Education. Since I feel, like most academics, a sense of responsibility to share my thoughts on the topics that I study, I agreed to go to Kansas, thinking that it would be a real sharing of ideas.

I subsequently heard from members of the Kansas Citizens for Science (KCFS) about what was really going on there, and as a result I withdrew my acceptance. Here is the story of the happenings in Kansas.

On May 6th2005, the Washington Post had an article that gives some background:

In 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education, with a conservative majority…deleted most references to evolution in the science standards. The next election led to a less conservative board, which adopted the current standards describing evolution as a key concept for students to learn before graduating high school.
Last year, conservatives captured a majority again [6-4], and many scientists fear the board will adopt revisions supported by intelligent design advocates.

Those fears were well-founded. Stan Cox, writing for Alternet continues the story. "In 2004, voters once more gave conservative religious members a majority on the state's Board of Education; as a result, science standards are to be rewritten yet again, in a way that deprecates evolution and permits discussion of intelligent design."

Cox continues: "In March, a 26-member writing committee assigned by the Board submitted a new draft of science standards that was, well, standard stuff. But eight dissenters on the committee submitted an alternative version that included anti-evolution language. Board members who liked the alternative version decided to schedule hearings for early May in Topeka, to weigh the relative merits of the competing drafts."

I was told by KCFS that three members of the majority, who had already decided to include ID in the standards, had scheduled these hearings before just the three of them to make it look as if these three members were carefully weighing the competing testimony presented to them and had been convinced that the ID arguments were better. It was these hearings to which I had been invited. KCFS felt that these were essentially show trials before a kangaroo court and passed the following resolution:

KCFS calls on the entire science and science education community of Kansas to refuse to participate in the hearing proceedings. Science has its own validity and has made its position on these matters perfectly clear and unambiguous. ID and other forms of creationism aren’t science. The specific proposals in the minority report have been rejected by the writing committee and by the science community at large. The science community should not put itself in the position of participating in a rigged hearing where non-scientists will appear to sit in judgment and find science lacking. Science should not give the anti-evolution members of the board the veneer of respectability when they take their predictable action. Let the board take responsibility for its actions without dignifying those actions with the appearance of academic rigor.

The scientific community totally supported the stand taken by KCFS and not a single scientist agreed to debate evolution in Kansas, although the board members tried very hard to find even one scientist nationwide who would be willing to come and provide their desperately sought veneer of respectability to the hearings. (The fact that they invited me shows that they were willing to really scrape the bottom of the barrel in their efforts.) This is actually a pretty impressive boycott since scientists are a notoriously difficult group to get to agree on any kind of concerted action.

The advocates of ID did go to the hearings and repeated all the same arguments that the scientist community has rejected many times before. The only pro-evolution person involved was an attorney Pedro Irongeray who cross-examined the pro-ID witnesses.

Is such a boycott a good idea? As I said before, my first instinct is always to engage in dialogue but even I have limits to my willingness to re-hash the same things over and over again, especially with people who are not really interested in what you have to say. As I said in my earlier posting concerning the "demon theory of friction," there comes a time when one realizes that a discussion has ceased to be fruitful and you need to walk away.

The scientific community has come out overwhelmingly against including ID in science curricula, and made its case over and over again. The "hearings" in Kansas had no educational or scientific purpose. They were purely political theater. Showing up at such venues to say the same thing over and over again is a waste of time. I think a boycott in this case was justified.

As I stated in the earlier posting, when you walk away from this kind of fruitless pseudo-debate, you do allow the other side to charge that you are afraid to debate them, however illogical the charge, and the pro-ID people in Kansas did exactly that. It reminds me of the duel scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which King Arthur chops off the arms and legs of the Black Knight, leaving just his torso and attached head on the ground. The Black Knight first offers a compromise: "Oh? All right, we'll call it a draw." When Arthur walks away from this offer, the Black Knight starts taunting him saying "Oh. Oh, I see. Running away, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off!"

After I debated the ID advocates in Kansas in 2002, a very earnest woman came up to me. She was clearly disturbed by my (unanswered) challenge to the ID members on the panel to provide the kind of predictions that scientists expect of any theory, and my conclusion that ID did not belong in science. She wanted very badly to have God as part of science so she had carefully written out what she felt was a definition of science that irrefutably included God. Her definition said that everything that had ever occurred and would occur was due to God and so everything in the world was due to God's action and thus science could not refute it.

There is nothing that one can say in response to this. I just thanked her and let it go.


Unlearning ideas

Worried about children learning dangerous ideas like evolution in science classes and elsewhere? See the advertisement for the Unlearning Annex and learn how to protect them!

May 26, 2005

Why scientific theories are more than explanations

At its heart, ID advocates adopt as their main strategy that of finding phenomena that are not (at least in their eyes) satisfactorily explained by evolutionary theory and arguing that hence natural selection is a failed theory. They say that adding the postulate of an 'intelligent designer' (which is clearly a pseudonym for God) as the cause of these so-called unexplained phenomena means that they are no longer unexplained. This, they claim, makes ID the better 'explanation.' Some (perhaps for tactical reasons) do not go so far and instead say that it is at least a competing explanation and thus on a par with evolution.

As I discussed in an earlier posting, science does purport to explain things. But a scientific explanation is more than that. The explanations also carry within themselves the seeds of new predictions, because whenever a scientist claims to explain something using a new theory, the first challenge that is thrown invariably takes the form "Ok, if your theory explains X under these conditions, then it should predict Y under those conditions. Is the prediction confirmed?"

If the prediction Y fails, then the theory is not necessarily rejected forever but the proponent has to work on it some more, explain the failure to predict Y, and come back with an improved theory that makes better predictions.

If the prediction Y is borne out, then the theory is still not automatically accepted but at least it gains a little bit of credibility and may succeed in attracting some people to work on it.

Theories become part of the scientific consensus when their credibility increases by these means until they are seen by the scientific community to be the exclusive framework for future investigations. A scientist who said things like "My new theory explains X but makes no predictions whatsoever" would be ignored or face ridicule. Such theories are of no use for science.

And yet this is precisely the kind of thing that ID proponents are saying. To see why this cannot be taken seriously, here is something abridged from the book Physics for the Inquiring Mind by Eric Rogers (p. 343-345), written way back in 1960. In it Rogers looks at competing claims for why an object set in motion on a surface eventually comes to rest:

The Demon Theory of Friction

How do you know that it is friction that brings a rolling ball to a stop and not demons? Suppose you answer this, while a neighbor, Faustus, argues for demons. The discussion might run thus:

You: I don't believe in demons.
Faustus: I do.
You: Anyway, I don't see how demons can make friction.
Faustus: They just stand in front of things and push to stop them from moving.
You: I can't see any demons even on the roughest table.
Faustus: They are too small, also transparent.
You: But there is more friction on rough surfaces.
Faustus: More demons.
You: Oil helps.
Faustus: Oil drowns demons.
You: If I polish the table, there is less friction and the ball rolls further.
Faustus: You are wiping the demons off; there are fewer to push.
You: A heavier ball experiences more friction.
Faustus: More demons push it; and it crushes their bones more.
You: If I put a rough brick on the table I can push against friction with more and more force, up to a limit, and the block stays still, with friction just balancing my push.
Faustus: Of course, the demons push just hard enough to stop you moving the brick; but there is a limit to their strength beyond which they collapse.
You: But when I push hard enough and get the brick moving there is friction that drags the brick as it moves along.
Faustus: Yes, once they have collapsed the demons are crushed by the brick. It is their crackling bones that oppose the sliding.
You: I cannot feel them.
Faustus: Rub your finger along the table.
You: Friction follows definite laws. For example, experiment shows that a brick sliding along a table is dragged by friction with a force independent of velocity.
Faustus: Of course, the same number of demons to crush however fast you run over them.
You: If I slide a brick among a table again and again, the friction is the same each time. Demons would be crushed on the first trip.
Faustus: Yes, but they multiply incredibly fast.
You: There are other laws of friction: for example, the drag is proportional to the pressure holding the surfaces together.
Faustus: The demons live in the pores of the surface: more pressure makes more of them rush out and be crushed. Demons act in just the right way to push and drag with the forces you find in your experiments.

By this time Faustus' game is clear. Whatever properties you ascribe to friction he will claim, in some form, for demons. At first his demons appear arbitrary and unreliable; but when you produce regular laws of friction he produces a regular sociology of demons. At that point there is a deadlock, with demons and friction serving as alternative names for sets of properties - and each debater is back to his first remark.

Faustus's arguments are just like those of the ID advocates, and the reason why they are consistently rejected by the scientific community. Scientists ask for more than just explanations from their theories. They also need mechanisms that make predictions. They know that that is the only way to prevent being drowned in an ocean of 'explanations' that are of no practical use whatsoever.

You can't really argue with people like Faustus who are willing to create ad hoc models that have no predictive power. At some point, in order to save your time (and your sanity) you have to simply walk away and ignore them. At which point, they may jump up and down and shout: "See they cannot refute us. We win! We win!" (See the link to the This Modern World cartoon I mentioned in the previous posting.)

In the next posting we will see what happened during the recent Kansas 'hearings' on including ID in their science standards, because it illustrates some of the points made in this recent series of postings.


Cathie sent me a link to an excellent site regarding the Downing Street memo that clearly lays out why this is an important piece of news.

May 25, 2005

Why ID is not science

In the previous posting, I pointed out that if one looks back at the history of science, all the theories that are considered to be science are both (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive. Thus these two things constitute necessary conditions.

This is an important fact to realize when so-called intelligent design (ID) advocates argue that theirs is a 'scientific' theory. If so, the first hurdle ID must surmount is that it meet both those necessary criteria, if it is to be even eligible to be considered to be science. It has to be emphasized that meeting those conditions is not sufficient, for something to be considered science, but the question of sufficiency does not even arise because ID does not meet either of the two necessary conditions.

I issued this challenge to the ID proponents when I debated them in Kansas in 2002. I pointed out that nowhere did they provide any kind of mechanism that enabled them to predict anything that anyone could go out and look for. And they still haven't. At its essence, ID strategy is to (1) point to a few things that they claim evolutionary theory cannot explain; (2) assert that such phenomena have too low a probability to be explained by any naturalistic theory; and (3) draw the conclusion that those phenomena must have been caused by an 'unspecified designer' (with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink to the faithful that this is really God) whose workings are beyond the realm of the natural world explored by science.

Thus they postulate a non-natural cause for those phenomena and cannot predict any thing that any person could go and look for. (This is not surprising. The designer is, for all intents and purposes, a synonym for God and it would be a bit bizarre to our traditional concept of God to think that his/her actions should be as predictable as that of blocks sliding down inclined planes.) When I asked one of the ID stalwarts (Jonathan Wells) during my visit to Hillsdale College for an ID prediction, the best he could come up with was that there would be more unexplained phenomena in the future or words to that effect.

But that is hardly what is meant by a scientific prediction. I can make that same kind of vague prediction about any theory, even a commonly accepted scientific one since no theory ever explains everything. A scientific prediction takes the more concrete form: "The theory Z encompassing this range of phenomena predicts that if conditions X are met, then we should be able to see result Y."

ID advocates know that their model comes nowhere close to meeting this basic condition of science. So they have adopted the strategy of: (1) challenging the naturalism condition, arguing that it is not a necessary condition for science and that it has been specifically and unfairly adopted to exclude ID from science; and (2) tried to create a new definition of science so that ID can be included. This takes the form of arguing that a scientific theory is one that 'explains' phenomena.

There are variations and expansions on these arguments by the various members of the ID camp but I have tried to reduce it to its skeletal elements. These variations that ID proponents adopt are designed to blur the issues but are easy to refute. See this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow (thanks to Daniel for the link) and this cartoon (thanks to Heidi) and this funny post by Canadian Cynic about the possible consequences of using ID-type reasoning in other areas of life.

The rejection by ID advocates of naturalism and predictivity as necessary conditions for science goes against the history of science. Recall for example the struggle between the Platonic and Copernican models of the universe. Remember that both sides of this debate involved religious believers. But when they tried to explain the motions of the planets, both sides used naturalistic theories. To explain the retrograde motion of Mercury and other seemingly aberrant behavior, they invoked epicycles and the like. They struggled hard to find models that would enable them to predict future motion. They did not invoke God by saying things like "God must be moving the planets backwards on occasion." Or "This seemingly anomalous motion of Mercury is due to God." Such an explanation would not have been of any use to them because allowing God into the picture would preclude the making of predictions.

In fact, the telling piece of evidence that ended the geocentric model was that the Rudolphine Tables using Kepler's elliptical orbits and a heliocentric model were far superior to any alternative in predicting planetary motion.

While it may be true that the underlying beliefs that drove people of that time to support the Platonic or Copernican model may have been influenced by their religious outlook, they did not seem to invoke God in a piecemeal way, as an explanation for this or that isolated phenomenon, as is currently done by ID advocates. Instead they were more concerned with posing the question of whether the whole structure of the scientific theory was consistent with their understanding of the working of God. In other words, they were debating whether a geocentric model was compatible with their ideas of God's role in the world. The detailed motions of specific planets, however problematic, seemed to have been too trivial for them to invoke God as an explanation, although they would probably not have excluded this option as something that God was capable of doing.

It may also well be true that some scientists of that time thought that God might be responsible for such things but such speculations were not part of the scientific debate. For example, Newton himself is supposed to have believed that the stability of the solar system (which was an unexplained problem in his day and remained unsolved for about 200 years) was due to God periodically intervening to restore the initial conditions. But these ideas were never part of the scientific consensus. And we can see why. If scientists had said that the stability was due to God, and closed down that avenue of research, then scientists would never have solved this important problem by naturalistic means and thus advanced the cause of science. This is why scientists, as a community, never accept non-natural explanations for any phenomena, even though individual scientists may entertain such ideas.

So the attempts by ID advocates to redefine science to leave out methodological naturalism and predictivity fly completely in the face of the history of science. But worse than that, such a move would result in undermining the very methods that have made science so successful.

In the next posting, we will see why just looking for 'good' explanations of scientific phenomena (the definition of science advocated by the ID people) is not, by itself, a useful exercise for science.


Public money, private profit

The National Weather Service is funded by tax payers. It seems to do nice work and produces (among other things) weather forecasts at its excellent website. Just type in your zip code and you get the forecast for your area.

This service is provided free to all, which seems right since it is funded by all of us. This weather information is of vital importance to pilots, fishermen, farmers, and others.

But never ignore the ability of private companies (with their lackeys in government) to make money off publicly funded activities. Just as private drug manufacturers profit off government funded medical research, now Senator Santorum (R-PA) has introduced legislation forbidding the National Weather Service from giving this information away free. Could it be a coincidence that the commercial, for-profit, AccuWeather company, that gets its data from the National Weather Service, then packages it and sells it for a profit to other people, is located in Pennsylvania? And that its employees are contributors to Senator Santorum's campaigns?

So if Santorum's legislation passes, consumers will pay for the same information twice, once in the form of taxes to generate it, and then again when we purchase the information we already paid for.

May 24, 2005

What is science?

Because of my interest in the history and philosophy of science I am sometimes called upon to answer the question "what is science?" Most people think that the answer should be fairly straightforward. This is because science is such an integral part of our lives that everyone feels that they intuitively know what it is and think that the problem of defining science is purely one of finding the right combination of words that captures their intuitive sense.

But as I said in my previous posting, strictly defining things means having demarcation criteria, which involves developing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, and this is extremely hard to do even for seemingly simple things like (say) defining what a dog is. So I should not be surprising that it may be harder to do for an abstract idea like science.

But just as a small child is able, based on its experience with pets, to distinguish between a dog and a cat without any need for formal demarcation criteria, so can scientists intuitively sense what is science and what is not science, based on the practice of their profession, without any need for a formal definition. So scientists do not, in the normal course of their work, pay much attention to whether they have a formal definition of science or not. If forced to define science (say for the purpose of writing textbooks) they tend to make up some kind of definition that sort of fits with their experience, but such ad-hoc formulations lack the kind of formal rigor that is strictly required of a philosophically sound demarcation criterion.

The absence of an agreed-upon formal definition of science has not hindered science from progressing rapidly and efficiently. Science marches on, blithely unconcerned about its lack of self-definition. People start worrying about definitions of science mainly in the context of political battles, such as those involving so-called intelligent design (or ID), because advocates of ID have been using this lack of a formal definition to try to define science in such a way that their pet idea be included as science, and thus taught in schools as part of the science curriculum and as an alternative to evolution.

Having a clear-cut demarcation criterion that defines science and is accepted by all would settle this question once and for all. But finding this demarcation criterion for science has proven to be remarkably difficult.

To set about trying to find such criteria, we do what we usually do in all such cases, we look at all the knowledge that is commonly accepted as science by everyone, and see if we can see similarities among these areas. For example, I think everyone would agree that the subjects that come under the headings of astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, and biology, and which are studied by university departments in reputable universities, all come under the heading of science. So any definition of science that excluded any of these areas would be clearly inadequate, just as any definition of 'dog' that excluded a commonly accepted breed would be dismissed as inadequate.

This is the kind of thing we do when trying to define other things, like art (say). Any definition of art that excluded (say) paintings hanging in reputable museums would be considered an inadequate definition.

When we look back at the history of the topics studied by people in those named disciplines and which are commonly accepted as science, two characteristics stand out. The first thing that we realize is that for a theory to be considered scientific it does not have to be true. Newtonian physics is commonly accepted to be scientific, although it is not considered to be universally true anymore. The phlogiston theory of combustion is considered to be scientific though it has long since been overthrown by the oxygen theory. And so on. In fact, since all knowledge is considered to be fallible and liable to change, truth is, in some sense, irrelevant to the question of whether something is scientific or not, because absolute truth cannot be established.

(A caveat: Not all scientists will agree with me on this last point. Some scientists feel that once a theory is shown to be incorrect, it ceases to be part of science, although it remains a part of science history. Some physicists also feel that many of the current theories of (say) sub-atomic particles are unlikely to be ever overthrown and are thus true in some absolute sense. I am not convinced of this. The history of science teaches us that even theories that were considered rock-solid and lasted millennia (such as the geocentric universe) eventually were overthrown.)

But there is a clear pattern that emerges about scientific theories. All the theories that are considered to be science are (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive.

By naturalistic I mean methodological naturalism and not philosophical naturalism. The latter, I argued in an earlier posting where these terms were defined, is irrelevant to science.

By predictive, I mean that all theories that are considered part of science have the quality of having some explicit mechanism or structure that enable the users of these theories to make predictions, of saying what one should see if one did some experiment or looked in some place under certain conditions.

Note that these two conditions are just necessary conditions and by themselves are not sufficient. (See the previous posting for what those conditions mean.) As such they can only classify things into "may be science" (if something meets both conditions) or "not science" (if something does not meet either one of the conditions.) As such, these two conditions together do not make up a satisfactory demarcation criterion. For example, the theory that if a football quarterback throws a lot of interceptions his team is likely to lose, meets both naturalistic and predictive conditions, but it is not considered part of science.

But even though we do not have a rigorous demarcation criterion for science, the existence of just necessary conditions still has interesting implications, which we shall explore in later postings.


Which way is East Antarctica?

An item in a recent issue of the journal Nature stated the there is a thickening of the ice layer in East Antarctica, as contrasted with what is happening in West Antarctica.

What puzzled me is how they could define an East and West Antarctica at all. Surely the entire coastline of Antarctica has to be North Antarctica?

May 23, 2005

Necessary and sufficient conditions

The problem of finding definitions for things that clearly specify whether an object belongs in that category or not has long been recognized to be a knotty philosophical problem. Ideally what we would need for a good definition is to have both necessary and sufficient conditions, but it is not easy to do so.

A necessary condition is one that must be met if the object is to be considered even eligible for inclusion in the category. If an object meets this condition, then it is possible that it belongs in the category, but not certain. If it does not meet the condition, then we can definitely say that it does not belong. So necessary conditions for something can only classify objects into "maybe belongs" or "definitely does not belong."

For example, let us try to define a dog. We might say that a necessary condition for some object to be considered as a possible dog is that it be a mammal. So if we know that something is a mammal, it might be a dog or it might be another kind of mammal, say a cat. But if something is not a mammal, then we know for sure it is not a dog.

A sufficient condition, on the other hand, acts differently. If an object meets the sufficient condition, then it definitely belongs. If it does not meet the sufficient condition, then it may or may not belong. So the sufficient condition can be used to classify things into "definitely belongs" or "maybe belongs."

So for the dog case, if a dog has papers certified by the American Kennel Association, then we can definitely say it is a dog. But if something does not have such papers it may still be a dog (say a mixed breed) or it may not be a dog (it may be a table).

A satisfactory demarcation criterion would have both necessary and sufficient conditions because only then can we say of any given object that it either definitely belongs or it definitely does not belong. Usually these criteria take the form of a set of individually necessary conditions that, taken together, are sufficient. i.e., Each condition by itself is not sufficient but if all are met they become sufficient.

It is not easy to find such conditions, even for such a seemingly simple category as dogs, and that it the problem. So for the dog, we might try define it by saying that it is a mammal, with four legs, barks, etc. But people who are determined to challenge the criteria could find problems (What exactly defines a mammal? What is the difference between an arm and a leg? What constitutes a bark? Etc. We can end up in an infinite regression of definitions.)

This is why philosophers like to say that we make such identifications ("this is a dog, that is a cat") based on an intuitive grasp of the idea of "similarity classes," things that share similarities that may not be rigidly definable. So even a little child can arrive at a pretty good idea of what a dog is without formulating a strict definition, by encountering several dogs and being able to distinguish what separates dog-like qualities from non-dog like qualities. It is not completely fool proof. Once in a while we may come across a strange looking animal, some exotic breed that baffles us. But most times it is clear. We almost never mistake a cat for a dog, even though they share many characteristics, such as being small four-legged mammals with tails that are domestic pets.

Anyway, back to science, a satisfactory demarcation would require that we be able to find both necessary and sufficient criteria that can be used to define science, and use those conditions to separate ideas into science and non-science. Do such criteria exist? To answer that question we need to look at the history of science and see what are the common features that are shared by those bodies of knowledge we confidently call science.

This will be discussed in the next posting.


I feel that the American media have not given nearly enough attention to the recently leaked secret and explosive "Downing Street memo" from the British secret service that reveals that Bush intended to invade Iraq all along and lied about it to the American people. Juan Cole says that the memo clearly reveals what has been long strongly suspected.

The Bush administration, and some credulous or loyal members of the press, have long tried to blame U.S. intelligence services for exaggerating the Iraq threat and thus misleading the president into going to war. That position was always weak, and it is now revealed as laughable. President Bush was not misled by shoddy intelligence. Rather, he insisted on getting the intelligence that would support the war on which he had already decided.

Cole's article, where he lays out the sequence of events, is a must read.

May 20, 2005

The comparison with Darwin and ID

I am a bit of a veteran of the battles that have been waged by so-called intelligent design (ID) advocates to challenge science in general and the theory of evolution in particular. Although not a biologist, I have always had an interest in both physics and the underlying philosophy of science. In the mid-to-late 1990's I was in the process of writing my first book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (which was published in 2000), and it was towards the end of that period that the ID advocates started getting more vocal, at least in Ohio. I was initially drawn to the discussion because of their claim that ID was a scientific theory, which naturally raises the question of what makes a theory, any theory, scientific. As this was a central topic of my book, I looked into ID ideas, although not in any great depth at that time.

But after the book was written, I started looking more closely into what the ID advocates were saying. Initially, I knew little about ID and so was open to the suggestion that there might be something of interest there, and wrote some articles that suggested that the so-called 'science wars' (which was a broader intellectual struggle around the knowledge claims of science that involved, amongst other groups, post-modern critics of scientific knowledge as well as the ID people) were being waged with too much animosity on all sides, and I called for a more amicable dialogue. This resulted in my being approached by ID advocates to speak at some of their functions, although they knew that I was still skeptical of ID claims that it was a scientific theory.

I attended a program organized by the ID people in Kansas in the summer of 2002 and also spoke at Hillsdale College in the fall of 2002. At these events I encountered some of the key ID proponents such as Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells, and listened to their arguments and talked to many of their ID supporters. I also met with Phillip Johnson, an emeritus professor of law at UC Berkeley who has been one of the most vocal ID proponents, when he visited Case at the invitation of a student group.

The discussions were cordial and thoughtful, but the more I got to know about ID, the less merit there seemed to be in the claims that ID belonged in science. Usually, when one looks more closely at something, one realizes that there are inherent complexities and subtleties that make it hard to make unequivocal judgments about it. The Copernican Revolution, that was the substance of a series of recent postings, illustrates this point.

In the case of ID, however, the opposite occurred, at least for me. The more closely I looked at it, the clearer it became to me that it did not belong in science. Scientifically speaking, there was nothing there.

If ID is not scientific, does that it mean it must be a religion? That conclusion does not automatically follow although it is true that in my encounters with ID supporters at these various forums, they seemed to be all Christians, with many of them being young Earth creationists, i.e. people who believe that the age is less than 10,000 years old, advocate a literal interpretation of the Bible, and are convinced that all the events described in it are historically true. Even the more sophisticated ID proponents seemed to be overtly Christian of a particular kind. Maybe there are non-religious ID advocates somewhere out there but I have not encountered them. And the wedge document makes it clear that the goal of ID supporters is to bring back their particular interpretation of Christianity into all aspects of life, and make it the basis of public policy. Attacking evolutionary theory is just the first step in this strategy.

But if ID is not scientific (as I assert) then what is it? Whether there exists a strict demarcation criterion that enables one to look at any given theory and decide whether it falls into a box labeled 'science' or another box labeled 'non-science' (or another box labeled 'religion'), has been called the 'demarcation problem' by philosophers and historians of science. There seems to be a consensus among this community of scholars that the demarcation problem has not been solved yet, and some (such as Larry Laudan) argue that it may be futile to try and find such criteria. (See Laudan's article The Demise of the Demarcation Problem published in the book But is it science? edited by Michael Ruse.)

But the fact that a strict demarcation criterion has yet to be found does not mean that we cannot say anything specific at all about whether ID belongs in science. But it does mean that we have to look closely at the role that necessary and sufficient conditions play in making such judgments. This will be the subject of a future posting.


I received yesterday the first print copies of my latest book The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine. It goes on general sale on May 30th. While I take pride in having written it, for some reason, it feels anti-climactic. I always feel this way after I publish something. Maybe it is because there is such a long period between the completion of the writing and the actual appearance of the book or article, but seeing it is like seeing something from a past life, sort of disconnected. Weird.

May 19, 2005

Catholic and Protestant reactions to Darwin's ideas

When reading and writing about the Copernican revolution and the religious opposition to it (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for that story in sequence), what immediately struck me were the similarities that that episode in scientific history had to the more recent religious opposition to Darwin's ideas.

Edward Larson in his book Summer for the Gods from which he has published an extended excerpt points out that (in America at least) there was little formal opposition to Darwin's ideas from the time of publication of Origin of Species in 1859 until about 1920 or so. (Opposition in England started much earlier and I will explore that question in a later posting.)

So as in the case of Copernicus, there was no religious opposition to a seminal work of science until about sixty years after its publication, and the initial religious opposition once again came from the Protestant camp. Initially, the fundamentalist Protestant movement was focused only on fighting "modernism" in the form of the so-called "higher criticism" which consists of "the study of the sources and literary methods employed by the biblical authors." Such critical methods are not favored by the religious fundamentalists, who see the Bible as divinely inspired and infallible and thereby beyond any criticism. It was only later that Darwinism came to be included under the modernism umbrella.

Larson argues that William Jennings Bryan (who later argued against the teaching of evolution in the famous Scopes "monkey" trial in 1925) switched from a somewhat uneasy equivocation towards Darwinist ideas to implacable opposition. This was caused by his reading of two scholarly books that argued that World War I (which we sometimes forget was an incredibly brutal war that took the lives of over nine million soldiers) was caused by misguided Darwinian thinking.

Bryan, who was a devout man of peace, was convinced by the arguments in these books and was outraged by what he saw as the evil consequences of evolution. He then joined forces with other fundamentalists in his campaign to destroy Darwin and all the social evils that he believed flowed from it. Larson says: "Fundamentalists came to view modernism, together with its twin supports of biblical higher criticism and an evolutionary world view, as the source of much that troubled Western culture." This has an interesting parallel now in that the wedge document of ID advocates says pretty much the same thing, that Darwin's ideas are the cause of a precipitous decline in morals.

Bryan also said: "Please note that the objection is not to teaching the evolutionary hypothesis as a hypothesis, but to the teaching of it as true or as a proven fact", a profound misunderstanding of the way scientists view theories that persists even now in the ID literature. Almost identical wording is used by ID advocates now in their efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution.

But, as in the case of the Copernican revolution, the religious opposition to the teaching of evolution was gathering steam just about the time when the scientific case was closing. By the 1920s, the fossil evidence in favor of evolution was accumulating rapidly, and together with other evidence coming from biology, physics, and geology, was causing the scientific community to coalesce around evolutionary theory as the framework for understanding the origin and diversity of all species, including humans.

This time, though, the Catholic Church has not got drawn into the controversy, as as had happened with Copernicus and Galileo. It has kept the evolution issue at arms length, taking a much more nuanced view towards the relationship of science to church teachings. Greg Easterbook writes:

For Catholics, the first important statement on church views of Darwin came with the papal encyclical Humani Generis ("The Origin of Humanity"), published by Pius XII in 1950. In this document, the Pope acknowledged that God might have used evolution as the mechanism of creation, and therefore Darwin’s theories did not necessarily contradict faith. But, Pius XII said evolutionary theory is insidious because it can be used to argue against the existence of God…Humani Generis concluded with the dictum that Catholics could teach and learn Darwin’s ideas about how existing living things change, but that the view that humanity is entirely natural in origin must “not be advanced in schools, in conferences or in writings of any kind, and that they be not taught in any manner whatsoever to the clergy or the faithful.�
Papal views of Darwin came closer to biology department views with Pope John Paul II’s 1996 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. This teaching, called Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, argued that faith should never fear any scientific finding, even one that upsets cherished views. Scientific truths, the Pope said, must be taken as they are because they add to the world’s store of truths.
At the 1996 session the Pope allowed that "new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis," noting that the idea of natural selection “has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.� John Paul II all but endorsed natural selection as a description of how animals evolve, but found the theory wanting as an explanation of the soul, rejecting “theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter.� The soul, the Pope said, must arise divinely, in ways that science does not see. With this teaching, John Paul II staked out what might be called the modified limited religious endorsement of evolution: that it exists but only explains the biological part of us, not the spiritual mystery. Interestingly, in this teaching the Pope said nothing about Adam, the Garden, or the Genesis account of creation. Since what is significant about papal pronouncements is often what is not said, the Pope’s 1996 reasoning seemed to back the church away from its previous insistence on a sudden, from-nothing creation of humankind.

Thus, unlike the case with Copernicus, the opposition to Darwin's ideas today can be seen (at least so far) as a mainly evangelical Protestant phenomenon, not even supported by the mainstream Protestant churches. The key argument by ID advocates that at least some biological changes cannot be explained by natural selection is not supported by the Catholic Church. Catholics are allowed to accept every single aspect of evolutionary theory and natural selection as long as they accept that the soul is divinely created.

Will the Catholic Church change its position and eventually be drawn into the conflict on the anti-Darwin side, like it did with Copernicus? It is possible but seems unlikely. The episode of Copernicus and Galileo casts a very long shadow.


I realized today that although all the Case readers of this blog know about the tragic death of Professor Ignacio Ocasio ("Doc Oc"), former students of the university may not be aware of it.

Ignacio died suddenly last Saturday, May 14th of what appears to have been a heart attack. He was only 53 years old. You can read an appreciation of him here. Those of you who wish to say something about him and make suggestions for how to memorialize him can go to the special site created for this purpose. His funeral is taking place in Puerto Rico but there will be a memorial service for him in the fall once students return to campus. The university is also organizing an event in his honor to be held in the Hovorka atrium at 3:00pm on Tuesday, May 24, 2005.

There is little that I can add to the heartfelt words that have been pouring in from some of the thousands of people whom he touched with his kindness and concern for others and just sheer friendliness. It is truly very sad.

May 18, 2005

Creating the conditions for a just society - 3

According to John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice we have to get together once and for all and make the rules of operation without knowing our particular situation. (See here, here, and here for previous postings on this topic.) And once we make the rules, and then lift the veil of ignorance and find out our particular situation (our gender, age, abilities, skills, talents, health, community, position in society, wealth, income, educational qualifications, level of authority and power, etc.), we are not allowed to renegotiate to get more favorable terms for us. This restriction is important since it ensures that careful deliberation goes into making sure that the rules created are perceived as fair by all.

Let's work through a specific simple case. People who are generally law-abiding would like to see laws and enforcement mechanisms that ensure their own safety and security and protect their property. If I belong to that category, I might want to advocate stern penalties (fines, imprisonment, harsh prison conditions, torture, even death) for law-breakers. But there is no guarantee that once the veil of ignorance is lifted, that I (for example) will be in the category of law-abiding people. It may turn out that I am actually a crook or have criminal intentions. Normally we would try and exclude crooks from the decision-making process because we have decided that they do not deserve the same rights as law-abiding people. But the veil of ignorance means that we cannot exclude people we disagree with in the rule-making process. I have to consider such possibilities as well when we agree to the rules.

So it is in my interest to make sure that the penalties for law-breaking are not too severe, since there is a chance that I may have to suffer them. Does this mean that crooks will prefer to opt for no penalties at all? No, because even crooks can function effectively only if they are the exception, if there is a general level of law-abiding behavior. After all, the executives who looted Enron and Tyco and caused thousands of people to lose all their savings could only do this because almost everyone else was behaving fairly honestly. This is why crooks can stash their stolen money in off-shore bank accounts and retrieve it later. If the officials in the off-shore banks were also crooks, the stolen money would not be 'safe.' Also if the other employees in your own company were not honest, the company would not make the amount of money that makes it worthwhile for you to steal it.

Even petty thieves could not function if everyone around them was also stealing from everyone else with no restriction. And since there is no guarantee that I will be the toughest crook around to fend off the other thieves, allowing for a totally lawless society could result in a terrible situation for me personally if it turns out (once the veil is lifted) that I am not very bright or strong or am clumsy with weapons. After all, there is no guarantee that I will be a skillful crook. An incompetent crook in a lawless society would fare much worse than one in a law-abiding society.

So it is in the interests of even crooks to create rules that encourage and reward honest behavior while ensuring reasonable treatment for law-breakers, just in case they get caught. So the two extremes (law abiding and honest people on the one hand, and crooks on the other) both have an interest in creating rules that balance the interests of both, since no one knows where they personally will end up.

What of the situation that triggered this series of posts, that of gay rights coming into conflict with certain interpretations of religions? Since the rules do not allow you to specify particulars, you cannot say (for example) that the Bible must be the basis for policy decisions. You would have to allow for the possibility for any religious text or that no religious text can form the basis. In other words, if the rules are to allow primacy for religion-based laws, you have to allow for the possibility that once the veil is lifted, you might end up as a Buddhist in a Judaism-based state or a Christian in a Hinduism-based state or you might be a gay person in an Islam-based state. If that should turn out to be the case, would you be content with the result?

Allowing for religious views to be the basis of regulating the private lives of individuals in a society also means allowing for the possibility that we might end up in a society run by groups like the now-defunct Shaker Christian sect, which advocated strict celibacy among its members. Of course, such a society would not likely last very long for obvious reasons (and the Shakers did, in fact, eventually disappear), but would we be willing to allow for this possibility?

Clearly the fact we could end up in any of these situations and have to live with it should cause us to think very carefully about what exactly are the rules of societal regulation that are important to us. I don't know what specific resolution will be arrived at using the veil of ignorance to address the problem of gay rights and religious opposition to homosexuality. But what I am suggesting is that that is the way we have to address problems such as these if we are to not to just continue to talk through each other, simply asserting our preferences based on our situation and repeating the same arguments.

In some ways, what Rawls is suggesting is that we need to get in the habit of seeing what the world looks like through the eyes of others who may be quite different from us, and ask ourselves whether we would still see the world to as fair from that vantage point. It also requires us to think in terms of universal principles as opposed to principles based on the beliefs and practices of specific groups.

Thinking in this way is hard to do but needs to be done if we are to have any hope of overcoming the differences in policy preferences created by the huge diversity that exists amongst us.

Now clearly those who believe that their vision of God is the right one, and/or their particular religious or secular text is the only source of authority, are going to find it hard to deal with Rawls' insistence that no identifiable and named groups can be used in formulating the rules. If you believe (for example) that Islam is the one true religion and that the Qu'ran (or Koran) has to be the basis of civil law, I cannot see how you can accept the 'veil of ignorance' principle (unless I am missing something). But rejecting this principle also means rejecting the idea of 'justice as fairness,' and dooms us to never-ending conflict because people who feel they are being unfairly treated will eventually rise up against their oppressors.


There is an interesting article by Steven Pinker titled Sniffing out the Gay Gene that is well worth reading. I came across it in the excellent blog run by The Center for Genetics Research Ethics and Law.

May 17, 2005

Creating the conditions for a just society - 2

In the previous posting we saw how people tend to advocate policies based on their own particular background, situation, or preferences, and this necessarily results in perceptions of unfairness over the decisions made.

The key to understanding Rawls' idea of 'justice as fairness' is that people perceive fairness in terms of the process by which results are achieved, not in terms of the actual outcomes of the process. When children play a game and at the end, one child complains that it was not fair, it usually means that the child feels that the rules of operation were either violated or exploited unethically, not that the child should not have lost (unless we are talking about a really spoiled child who feels entitled to always win).

So what Rawls is saying in his A Theory of Justice is that we need to collectively determine the rules by which decisions affecting all of society are arrived at, so that whatever results from that decision making process, everyone will accept that it is fair, although we may not agree with any given decision.

Rawls argues that the essential ingredient to achieving this fairness in process is the 'veil of ignorance' under which everyone who is involved in creating the rules (known as the 'persons in the original position') operates. What he means by this is:

First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism. More than this, I assume that the parties do not know the particular circumstances of their own society. That is, they do not know its particular economic or political situation, or the level of civilization and culture it has been able to achieve. The persons in the original position have no information as to which generation they belong. (p. 118)

The veil of ignorance only excludes particular knowledge about the state of individuals or societies. It allows for the kind of general information needed to make meaningful decisions.

It is taken for granted, however, that they know the general facts about human society. They understand political affairs and the principles of economic theory; they know the basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology. Indeed, the parties are presumed to know whatever general facts affect the choice of the principles of justice. (p. 119)

The rules which are arrived at cannot involve identifiable persons or groups or create special exemptions for such groups. For example, if one is making rules about religion, one cannot create rules that apply to a named religious group. You cannot say, for example, that a particular rule will be applied only if the majority of the population (once the veil of ignorance is lifted) turns out to be Christian (or Hindu or whatever.) You cannot also make rules dependent on what the particular situation of a named individual turns out to be. So you cannot say, for example, that the rule of free health care being available to all only kicks in if person X turns out to be sickly.

How would this work in practice? I will see in the next posting by applying it to special cases, including that involving the rights of gays.

May 16, 2005

Creating the conditions for a just society

The previous post that dealt with Dominionist's negative views towards gays generated an interesting set of comments that frame nicely the kinds of problems we face when we try to arrive at rules for society that we can all live by and perceive as fair. (I will defer the planned posts on the religious opposition to Darwin to address this question first.)

In those comments, Joe's understanding of Christianity leads him to think of homosexual behavior as sinful although he is not hostile to gays as people, drawing a parallel between the way that we can view alcoholism as bad while not thinking of alcoholics as evil people. Katie's interpretation of Christianity, on the other hand, leads her to being a passionate supporter of gay rights. Aaron is an atheist, and Christianity-based arguments don't have much sway with him. And, of course, there is a huge range of beliefs that span these three particular viewpoints. So how does one arrive at public policies that can be accepted as fair by everyone, not just with regard to gay rights, but in all aspects of public life?

Joe quotes the Bible to support his position on the gay issue but such an argument has no persuasive power for those who do not accept the Bible as anything other than literature. For such people, quoting the Bible carries as much weight as quoting Shakespeare. Also, quoting the Bible gets one into dueling battles of scripture verses, because those Christians (like Katie and Ran) who are accepting of gays have their own Biblical justifications for their actions and can cite verses too. And I suspect that if members of some other religion (say Islam) quoted their religious text in support of some policy that Christians found unacceptable, the latter are not likely to find it persuasive. So how do we decide what to do?

The problem has an easy solution if you think you are right and everyone who disagrees with you is wrong. Then all you have to do is to find the means to enforce your ideas on everyone, using the apparatus of state power, comforted in the knowledge that you alone are the guardian of universal truths. This is the way that authoritarian governments function. Such governments may claim to base their actions on religion or morals, and feel that they are serving God and that everything they do is for the greater good. But those people who do not share the beliefs and values of those in power are unlikely to feel that they are being treated fairly, even if they are not being severely discriminated against or suffering outright persecution.

Leaving aside this option of imposing one's views on others by force (which I am assuming that we agree is a bad idea), the other usual solution is majoritarianism (not to be confused with democracy) where the views of the majority are allowed to prevail unchecked by any other considerations. Then the political struggle lies in how to persuade the majority to adopt the point of view that we prefer, and once persuaded, to codify those ideas into laws that can be enforced on the minority.

But majoritarianism is also unlikely to be perceived as fair by all except in those extremely rare instances where everyone has a fair chance at being in the majority or to persuade the majority to accept their point of view. So, for example, since Christians are the numerical majority in the US, believers in that religion have a chance of getting majority support for government laws and policies based on Christianity, assuming for the moment that they want to. But Muslims, Wiccans, Jews, Buddhists, etc. have little or no chance of getting their religion as the basis of policy in this country.

Christians might respond that that is just tough luck. They might argue that the US is a Christian country and all others will just have to live with the consequences of this. This is what members of groups like the Dominionist want to see happen and are working towards, and since Christians are in the majority, they have a chance of making this come to pass.

A lot of public policy advocacy involves this type of reasoning. We advocate and make rules and laws based on our own particular situation. So for example, people who think they personally are unlikely to commit particular acts can advocate harsh penalties for those acts while going easy on other acts that they can conceive being guilty of. So we have harsh penalties for smoking marijuana while cheating on taxes gets off easy. Petty thievery carries with it a good chance of prison but abusing and harassing workers does not. Those who never drink alcohol might be in favor of draconian penalties for drunk driving while people who do drink moderately may favor a system of warnings and graduated penalties, since there is always the chance that they might inadvertently do this. Of course, each side can rationalize their decisions.

It is hard to ignore the fact that self-interest and self-preservation play a role in creating those policies that we now take for granted. The problem is that basing policy preferences on our own personal situation is unlikely to lead to consensus on what is a fair policy, since each person's situation is different. It also means that those people who are not members of the rule-making majority class are unlikely to perceive the society as treating them fairly.

This is where John Rawls' policy of trying to achieve 'justice as fairness' by creating rules behind a 'veil of ignorance' comes in handy in trying to see how to work things out. (See here for a previous posting on this subject. Full disclosure: I haven't completed reading Rawls' book A Theory of Justice yet so I will probably not be portraying his ideas correctly in all its aspects. But his 'veil of ignorance' idea strikes me as a really powerful problem-solving heuristic for addressing social problem and I am going to start using it to analyze this problem, even if I get some things wrong. I know that some readers of this blog are more familiar with Rawls' ideas and I hope they will feel free to correct and elaborate as needed.)

The main idea of Rawls is that we decide on the rules of society without knowing in advance what our own specific situation in society is. So the challenge for all of us is to decide on the laws and policies under which we are all going to be governed, while acknowledging that there are going to be a whole range of possible personal situations in society, that we might occupy any one of them, and that we do not know in advance of making the rules what our specific situation is going to be.

This is not such a strange concept. In fact it is quite instinctive in some aspects of ordinary daily life. We do it all the time, for example, when designing and playing games. The rules of games are decided in advance of the game beginning so that all players, whether they eventually win or lose, will accept the outcome as fair. And these rules are not always based on assuming that each player has equal talents but presuppose that the players will have a range of abilities.

So if people organize a pickup game of softball and teams have to be selected, it is usually done in a manner (by picking randomly or taking turns in picking players or some such system) so that the two teams have roughly equal chances at success. The same is true for the NFL draft, where the rules are more elaborate. The order of selection is decided in ways that serve the goal of achieving some level of parity for the teams and so that all teams feel that the draft selection process is fair.

Even in a game like chess, where playing white gives you an immediate advantage, you can address fairness by tossing a coin to see who gets white or by playing multiple games and changing colors each time. In professional tennis, where having the service is important, you neutralize the effect of one side of the court bestowing an advantage (because of wind direction, playing surface, background, sunlight, shadows, officials, etc.) by requiring that a player win each set with at least a two-game lead, and having the service change after the first game of each set and after every two games thereafter.

All these things are decided in advance so that once the game starts, and you know your specific situation (that you are playing black in chess or you have to receive service in tennis) you still feel that the game is fair, even if you find yourself in a slightly disadvantaged position. If the rules were such that one side had an overwhelming advantage simply due to their initial situation, then no one would play the game. In golf, allowance is also made for unequal skill by means of the handicapping system.

If we can go to such elaborate lengths to ensure that games are perceived as fair by all concerned, why is it that we do not take the same trouble to ensure that the rules and laws which govern our lives have the same structures to ensure perceptions of fairness?

One might argue that this is not possible because in the case of society, the game (so to speak) has already started, the rules are already in place, and our positions in the game are known, so we do not have the luxury of predetermining the rules using the 'veil of ignorance.'

In future posts, I will see how we might use Rawls' ideas to address this problem.

May 13, 2005

Dominionists and gays

Chris Hedges in his essay on the Dominionist movement in the May 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine recalls something his ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams, told him twenty five years ago. Dr. Adams, who was eighty years old at that time, told Hedges that eventually he (Hedges) would be fighting "Christian fascists" who, he said "would not return wearing swastikas and brown shirts. Its ideological inheritors would cloak themselves in the language of the Bible; they would come carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance."

Hedges continues: "Adams told us to watch closely the Christian right's persecution of homosexuals and lesbians. Hitler, he reminded us, promised to restore moral values not long after he took power in 1933, then imposed a ban on all homosexual and lesbian organizations and publications…Homosexuals and lesbians, Adams said, would be the first "deviants" singled out by the Christian right. We would be the next."

Was Adams being too gloomy? Was his comparison to Hitler overblown? Or was he remarkably prescient? It is hard to say. What is true is that homosexuality, like evolution, is high on the list of those things that are anathema to many religious believers, not just Christians. I have never been able to quite understand why it arouses such strong antipathy.

Take for example, all the referenda that were passed recently opposing same sex marriages. Much of the rhetoric warned that allowing gays to marry would take away from the sanctity of this institution. But we allow practically anyone to marry: murderers, rapists, pedophiles, criminals of any stripe, drug dealers, almost anybody with a pulse can marry with no restrictions whatsoever, and no one argues that this destroys the sanctity of marriage. Divorce is rampant, and yet no one is campaigning to have divorce outlawed in order to save the institution of marriage.

It is true that the Bible speaks out against homosexual behavior, but it also speaks out about a lot of things that do not get anywhere near the attention that homosexuality does. For example, homosexuality is not even one of the prohibitions cited in the Ten Commandments but adultery is. So, if someone is using the Bible as their main argument, surely for them adultery should rank worse than homosexuality and such people should also be campaigning for constitutional amendments against it?

Or is it that uniting against homosexuals is convenient because they are a minority and fairly defenseless politically? Historically, authoritarian movements have been able to unite the majority behind them by exploiting sentiment against small and powerless groups, by defining them as the "evil other." But for this strategy to work, this "other" has to be fairly small numerically and "different." It would be hard to mount a winning political campaign based on being against, for example, adultery. But by branding homosexuality as one of the worst forms of sexual "deviancy" it enables those who are not gay to feel very moral and superior, even though they themselves may be guilty of things that are actually harmful to others.

This is why I think that we should defend the right of gays to be treated the same way as anyone else, whether we ourselves are gay or not, or whether we even personally approve of the gay lifestyle or not. Gays are a powerless minority and the rights of powerless political minorities must be defended by all of us if we believe in a pluralistic society. Because in the end, each one of us can all be categorized as a minority is some way, and standing by while the equal rights of others are denied puts us all at risk.

May 12, 2005

Jews, Israel, and the Rapture

As pointed out earlier, believers in the Rapture are convinced that at the end of the world (which they think is imminent) all those people who are not Christians, or are even just nominal Christians and not the full-throttle version, are going to meet an extraordinarily sticky end, too gruesome for even a Quentin Tarantino or Mel Gibson film. But the role that Jews play in the rapture drama is curious and worth examining.

As Chris Hedges points out in his essay in the May 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, the Dominionist belief in the Rapture has a role for Jews that is not very appealing. They believe that "Israel must rule the Biblical land in order for Christ to return, though when he does, all Jews who do not convert to Christianity supposedly will be incinerated as the believers are lifted into heaven."

Gene Lyons, in his November 2004 Harper's Magazine review of the Left Behind novels points out that "Israeli Jews play a strange role in the Left Behind series, existing to be converted or slaughtered. As God's chosen, they are to be protected from harm until the battle of Armageddon, at which point they must accept Jesus as the Messiah or die."

So while many fundamentalist Christians speak of their "Judeo-Christian heritage," one suspects that what they mean by that is not that Jews and Christians are equal partners but merely that the Old Testament is an important part of their religious framework.

One might think that all Jews would recoil from being placed in this role and give a wide berth to Christian organizations that promulgate it. So then why was the Israeli Ministry of Tourism hosting a breakfast at the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters association, a stronghold of Dominionist thinking? And why were Avraham Hirschohn (the Israeli Minister of Tourism) and Michael Medved (a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host) featured speakers at an event where everyone sees only two options for them – conversion to Christianity or a gruesome death?

Both Chris Hedges and Gene Lyons suggest reasons for this seemingly bizarre alliance.
Once again, it is the End Times beliefs that provide an explanation, at least for the Dominionist partners.

The book of Revelations refers to "a thousand years" several times, and end-timers have thought that this is a clue that the Rapture will occur around the time of the millennium. Revelations also gives a special role for the city of Jerusalem and these two things help bring about this alliance, overcoming what one might think is an unbridgeable chasm. As Lyons says "Ironically, given American fundamentalism's historic ambivalence about Jews, it was the 1948 founding of Israel, coming as it did near the end of the millennium, that gave the End Times prophecy industry a boost." The true believers see this conjunction of events as a sign of the beginning of the end.

As a result, Christian fundamentalists have become some of the strongest boosters of Israel and the most implacable foes of Islam, supporting even Israel's most hard-line policies on settlement expansion, seeing all these things as fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that the end times are near. Belief in the rapture and seeking to hasten its arrival trumps everything else. At the broadcaster's convention, Hedges says that:

The [American] Christian writer Kay Arthur, who can barely contain her tears when speaking of Israel, professes that although she loves America, if she had to choose between America and Israel, "I would stand with Israel, stand with Israel as a daughter of the King of Kings, stand according to the word of God." She goes on to quote at length from Revelation, speaking of Jesus seated on a throne floating about Jerusalem as believers are raptured up towards him into the sky."

From the Israeli point of view, they obtain economic and political benefits from this alliance with a grouping that one might think they would otherwise recoil from. The immediate economic benefit is from tourism, thus explaining the Israeli tourism minister's presence at the convention and his announcement that Israel will build a Pilgrim Center for visiting Christian tourists. As Hedges says: "Some 400,000 Christian tourists visit Israel each year, and, what with the precipitous decline in Israel's tourism industry in recent years, these people have become a valuable source of revenue."

The more strategic benefit for Israel is that fundamentalist Christians now have a lot of clout with the American government and thus are likely to exert pressure to provide unqualified political support for Israeli policies, including economic and military aid. Hedges quotes Michael Medved (who was one of the most passionate Jewish defenders of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ) as saying: " Take a look at this support for Israel. A more Christian America is good for the Jews, something Jewish people need to be more cognizant about and acknowledge. A more Jewish community is good for Christians, not just because of the existence of allies but because a more Jewish community is less seduced by secularism."

One might wonder if the benefits of political, military, and economic support is sufficient to cozy up with people who think that the end of time is about to occur and that your only choice is to convert or die. It may well be that the Jews who are allied with the Dominionists think that this whole rapture thing is sheer nonsense and that they are willing to pander to it, knowing it will never occur, all the while benefiting from the existence of this belief. Basically, they may think they are playing the Dominionists for suckers.

I am not so convinced that this is a good strategy, even assuming that it is true. The trouble with rapture theology predictions (indeed with all predictions based on religious texts) are that they are so malleable. The Book of Revelations is graphic in its imagery but pretty opaque on what it all means and hardly an unambiguous blueprint for the future. People who devoutly believe that the rapture is imminent may grow impatient when it does not occur soon and start reinterpreting Revelations to explain the delay. What if the new message that emerges is that it is the existence of Israel that is holding up the rapture? Or that the present Israel is the "wrong" Israel (in whatever sense) and the "new" Jerusalem described in Revelations means new in terms very different from the way is conceived? Suppose that it is decided that the reason the new Jerusalem has not "descended" (another signal of the rapture) is because the old Jerusalem needs to be first obliterated to make way for it?

When you start basing public policy on Biblical interpretations, one is going down a very dangerous road. The secularism scorned by Medved may, in the long run, be what saves us all (in all countries) from governmental policies that are disastrous. Secularism leads to a reality-based world-view that is less likely to confuse wishful thinking with reality.

In case regular readers of the blog think that I have forgotten, all this rapture stuff is not a digression but does have relevance to the question of the religious opposition to Darwin. But before I address it directly, in the next posting, we will see another area where Dominionist thinking is affecting public policy, and that is with regard to gays.

May 09, 2005

The Book of Revelations and the Rapture.

I am a huge fan of the English comic writer P. G. Wodehouse, especially of his Jeeves and Wooster books. These books are so funny that I have to literally wipe tears from my eyes. (Dave Barry has the same effect on me.) The plots are pretty much the same in all the Jeeves stories but the smoothness of Wodehouse's writing, his superb comic touch, and his precise choice of words make them a joy to read. Even though I have read all of the Jeeves books many times and know all the plots by heart, I still re-read them periodically. Both Wodehouse and George Orwell had a command of the language that I admire.

In a typical Jeeves story, the hapless Bertie Wooster is invariably at some point trapped in a fast moving series of events that swirl around him, pulling him in all directions, none of them promising good outcomes for him, before Jeeves ingeniously rescues him and provides happy endings all around. But often, when the chaos is at its height and Bertie feels completely overwhelmed, he would say that he "felt like he was living in the Book of Revelations."

If you read the Book of Revelations (the last book of the Biblical New Testament, also called "The Revelation of John") you will see what Bertie means. It is for the most part a bizarre series of visions involving strange animals, angels, stars crashing into the ground, the sun getting eaten up, fires, plagues, and mass killings that would be a challenge for any special effects person, if it were ever to be made into a film.

When I was studying to become a lay preacher in the Methodist church, we pretty much gave this weird book a miss, treating it as one might a dotty uncle who has to be invited to every family function, but whom you hope will not make a scene and wish no one would notice and ask about him. We studied mainly the Gospels that focused on the life and teaching of Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles, some of the letters by Paul, some of the Old Testament prophets, church and biblical history, and theology. We pretty much ignored the Book of Revelations. It was just too far out there.

So it is somewhat amazing to me that it is this book that is driving much of the new militant Christianity, while the Gospels and the actual teachings of Jesus have faded into the background. And the idea that seems to have gripped the imagination of many such Christians is that of the rapture, associated with the end of the world.

Much of the basic beliefs about the coming of the rapture come from the letters written by Paul to various communities, but the full apocalyptic vision of the rapture is found in Revelations. This book is the source of much cryptic language and symbolism that enables people to pore over its significance and look for clues as to when the rapture will occur, what are the signs of its imminence, and how to identify the good and bad people. Like the writings of Nostradamus, the "predictions" are vague enough to allow for endless speculations and to "explain" anything. It also has enough numbers to keep numerologists busy for millennia trying to interpret their meanings. The numbers six, seven, and twelve seem to have special significance.

(Incidentally, there is a huge internet industry dealing with the rapture and speculations about it are rampant. One such set of speculations deals with the identity of the "Antichrist" (who seizes power for a short time after the rapture before being vanquished), and nominees for that post include Prince Charles and Bill Clinton. See also the Rapture Index which calculates (along the lines of the Dow Jones Index) a number to give a measure of how close we are to the rapture. Currently the number stands at 149. This is below the 2002 peak of 179 but any number above 145 falls into the highest category, labeled as "fasten your seat belts," meaning that the signs are favorable to the rapture happening any time.)

As far as I can tell, popular belief about the rapture (as opposed to serious theology about it) is that it is associated with the second coming of Jesus and marks the moment when true believers in Christ (both dead and living), will be taken up to heaven to join him. It will be a sudden event, occurring without warning. People who are saved (and whose names have been "recorded" from the beginning of time) will be taken up instantaneously and disappear, leaving just their clothes behind. So if you are with a group of people and several of them suddenly vanish from your sight, leaving their clothes and shoes in a pile on the ground, that means the rapture has occurred and you, personally, have not made the cut.

Up to this point, since I have a live-and-let-live philosophy, I have no problems with the rapture. If true believers are taken away to lead blissful lives somewhere other than the Earth, leaving the rest of us behind, I have no problem with that. I wish them all happiness in their eternal life as the rest of us somehow muddle through on this Earth without them. Clearly there will be some temporary disruptions in life as new people will have to be found to do the jobs that those raptured away used to do, but these do not seem to insurmountable problems since some estimates put the number of people who will be raptured as low as 144,000 (another number that appears in Revelations).

But that is not apparently how it works. Those left behind are not left alone, unfortunately. We are not to be kept busy merely distributing all the clothes left behind to various Goodwill stores. Instead we are to be victims of a massive and gruesome slaughter, with huge rivers of blood flowing everywhere, before everything comes to an end. The book of Revelations speaks of the flowing blood rising to the height of a horse's bridle for a radius of 200 miles. (Since I enjoy mathematical estimation problems, I briefly toyed with the idea of estimating how many corpses it would take to create this much blood, but simply could not muster the enthusiasm for this straightforward but macabre task. But it would make for a nifty homework problem in those religious schools that teach about the rapture seriously.)

It is hard to estimate how many people take this idea of the rapture seriously but given the numbers claimed by the Dominionist movement (around 30 million) it could be quite large. The twelve sequential novels of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (which weave a fictional tale around the rapture) claim a combined readership of 42 million. Of course, many in that number will be repeat buyers of the series and not all may be believers in the underlying message, but the numbers are still impressive. (Note that LaHaye is a co-founder with Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and works at Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia.)

I haven't actually read the Left Behind books myself or seen the film based on them (with all the books that I would really like to read, I just can't see myself reading a million words of rapture-based fiction), but Gene Lyons has a highly entertaining review of all the books and their message in the November 2004 issue of Harper's Magazine. He says that the "books portray Midwestern suburbanites and born-again Israeli converts as Warrior Jesus' allies in an apocalyptic struggle against a U.N.-anointed "World Potentate," who looks "not unlike a younger Robert Redford" and speaks the language of science and liberal internationalism."

The sins for which people are fingered to be slaughtered at the end of the world are sexual sins (fornication, homosexuality) or those of apostasy and blasphemy. Once again, it seems as if the only sins worth the name are those involving sex and violations of religious orthodoxy. Swindling retirees out of their life savings, depriving people of health care, making people work in sweatshops, stealing from old and poor people whatever they have, cheating on your taxes, beating your spouse and children, being abusive to ones employees, seemingly are not things which automatically disqualify you from being taken up at the rapture, but take one wrong step on sexual and doctrinal issues and you are toast.

Interestingly though, Barbara R. Rossing in her book The Rapture Exposed says that the particular form of the apocalyptic vision that seems so appealing to many American Christians these days was originated by a nineteenth century Scottish evangelist named John Darby and owes its origins to turmoil over Darwinism. "Rossing argues persuasively that certain people are attracted to Darby's "dispensationalist system with its Rapture theology because it is so comprehensive and rational - almost science-like – a feature that made it especially appealing during battles over evolution during the 1920s and 1930s." (Lyons)

So now we are back again with Darwin and evolution in the cross hairs of the evangelical movement. It is interesting to me how these two strands of human thought (science and religion) keep butting up against each other. Rossing's thesis sheds some more light on why evolutionary theory seems to be such a burr under the saddle for evangelical Christians, driving them to furious opposition, in ways that other scientific beliefs do not.

In a future posting, I will look more closely at the historical roots of the religious opposition to evolution, but first there is one curious feature of the rapture movement that needs to be commented on, and that is the strange role that Jews and Israel play in it, and this will be examined next.


While typing this entry up on Sunday night, I took a break to watch my favorite TV show The Simpsons. They had a special double feature (this being sweeps week) and, to my amazement, the second episode was entirely about the rapture! If that coincidence is not a sign of the imminent apocalypse, I don't know what is.

In the show, Homer is convinced after seeing a rapture-based film called Left Below (!) that the world is coming to an end. He makes numerical calculations based on the clues in Revelations and arrives at the conclusion that the rapture will occur at 3:15pm on Wednesday, May 18th.

It is a really funny episode on many levels and if you missed it, you should try and catch it on summer re-runs. It captures pretty accurately the essence of what the rapture is about.


At 5:00pm today (Monday, May 9th) in the Spartan Room of Thwing Hall, Professor Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Israel and a human rights activist who has been campaigning against the Israeli government policy of home demolitions of Palestinians, will be leading a discussion on current events in Israel. The session is sponsored (in part) by Case for Peace and is free and open to the public.


I will be traveling the next two days and so will not be able to post. The next posting will be on May 12, 2005.

May 06, 2005

The changing media face of Christianity

I grew up in Sri Lanka in a family that worshipped in the Methodist Church. I was strongly influenced by my family and also by the minister in my church and the chaplain in the private Anglican (aka Episcopalian) school I attended. These priests had such an influence on me that I became quite religious and studied to become a lay minister in the Methodist church, and was ordained soon after I graduated from college.

In that capacity I would be sent to various churches on Sundays to conduct services. As a lay minister, I was authorized to run every aspect of the service except the communion. I was even invited me to go to theological college and become a full minister and I briefly, but seriously, considered the offer. But in the end, I decided that I really wanted to be a physicist and declined.

But after I came to the US (first time as a graduate student to do my PhD in physics, then the second time to work here) my religious devotion waned considerably and I eventually became an atheist.

The story of what prompted that particular personal transition is not relevant here. The point that I want to make is that the kind of Christianity that I see in the US now is quite different from the kind that strongly attracted me as an adolescent and young adult. The priests who taught me were people who focused on the Jesus of the Gospels, and reminded us that belief in God carried with it responsibilities as well, the primary ones being to help bring about a better world, especially for those less fortunate than ourselves. While the idea of eternal salvation was not ignored, what was emphasized was that just professing our belief, and only worrying about the well-being of ourselves, our families, and our immediate community or nation, was not enough. We were supposed to live our beliefs by working for the betterment of everyone. These clergy preached tolerance for those who were different and believed different things, and an inclusiveness that sought to find ways to welcome all people. I was brought up to believe that it was more important to be good and kind than to be devout.

The social justice consequences of religious beliefs were what attracted me to religion then and I still support those religious groups (Christian and other) that seek to build a better world and fight injustices. There is no question that the quest for justice based on religious beliefs can lead people to make immense sacrifices for the collective good. The martyrdom of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Ursuline nuns in El Salvador (who were killed for speaking out against brutal dictatorships that were oppressing the people there) and the humiliations suffered with dignity by civil rights marchers in the US, are inspiring. It is clear that for such people, it was their religious beliefs gave them the courage to do what they did.

But that view of religion as an agent of social justice, although still present in many churches and other groups in the US, is being pushed aside in the public sphere by those who have quite a different view. Think of the people who appear repeatedly on TV as spokespersons for religion. The names that immediately come to my mind are Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson. The emergent Dominionist group that was highlighted by Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlett in the May 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, is close to them in their view of what Christianity means.

Issues of social justice seem not to be a major concern for members of this Dominionist Christianity. In fact, Hedges points out that "They are picture-perfect members of a new Christian elite, showy, proud of how God has blessed them with material wealth and privilege, and hooked them into the culture of power and celebrity."

If being materially successful is taken as a sign of God's blessings, then the corollary is that being poor and deprived must imply that you have somehow found disfavor in the eyes of God. If that is the case, why should one concern oneself excessively with poor people, since their wretched condition must be largely their own fault, due to their own sinfulness or faults of character? This may explain why this form of Christianity is so closely aligned with capitalist ideology and why Pastor Ted Haggard (profiled by Sharlett as the head of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and also head of the National Association of Evangelicals which, with over 30 million believers, makes up the nation's most powerful religious lobbying group) says that they "like the benefits, risks, and maybe above all, the excitement of the free market" (Jeff Sharlett).

This would also explain why such churches like to stay in the suburbs and rural areas and see the cities (especially inner cities) as dens of sin to be avoided because of their "homosexuality, atheistic school teaching and ungodly imagery" and humanism. Also, if you think that material success equates with God's favor, it makes sense to oppose (or at least not support) social security, social welfare programs, public schooling, and all other programs that have egalitarian goals, since the distribution of society's material goods is a measure of ones spirituality, and not every one is equally good. So the alignment of these religious groups with political parties that advocate anti-egalitarian policies makes sense.

Needless to say, this particular form of Christianity is not at all appealing to me, and is totally in opposition to the message that was taught by the inclusive and tolerant priests of my youth. But tolerance and inclusivity are out, replaced by Manichaean thinking that sees everything in good-evil/we-they terms.

In a later posting, we will see that there is more to be concerned about than the seeming lack of concern about social justice and the absence of empathy for those less fortunate than ourselves.

There is also the knotty problem of how, if you believe in being tolerant and accepting of diverse views and beliefs, you deal with people who not only think that they are right and you are wrong, but that their religious views alone should be given pride of place by the government and used as a basis for state policies.

May 05, 2005

David Horowitz and the art of the cheap shot

Oddly enough, just after posting two consecutive days on David Horowitz's cheap shots against academics, yesterday I received the latest (May 6, 2005) issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education which featured a long cover story on him. (For someone who is constantly whining about not getting enough attention from academia, Horowitz seems to be extraordinarily successful in getting publications such as this to cover him and his ideas. See Michael Berube's blog for a response.)

Anyway, the Chronicle article has a lot of information about him and it also provides some interesting background information on his funding. So I thought that today I would use that information to try my hand at manufacturing a cheap shot, an art I can learn from the master, David Horowitz himself.

Recall that in my previous postings (see here and here), I showed how he distorts and misrepresents academic life, saying things like: "Shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings? Try the richly paid leftist professors securely ensconced in their irrelevant ivory towers" and again "You teach on average two courses and spend six hours a week in class. You work eight months out of the year and have four months paid vacation. And every seven years you get ten months paid vacation."

Well, the Chronicle uncovered the fact that "Mr. Horowitz received an annual salary of $310,167 in 2003. He declines to give his current income, but in addition to his salary, Mr. Horowitz receives about $5,000 for each of the 30 to 40 campus speeches he gives each year." Horowitz says that college Republicans always invite him. Other student groups never do. "My kids have to scrounge up the money off campus." He drives a 2004 model Lincoln Town Car.

Despite earning the kind of money that most people (including academics) can only dream about, Horowitz still whines. The Chronicle article says

If he were liberal, [Horowitz] contends, he could be an editor at the [New York] Times or a department chairman at Harvard University. And his life story would have already been told on the big screen. Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, his autobiography, has been out for eight years. "Someone would have made a film out of it if I was a leftist," he says bitterly.
"He claims he would make more money as a liberal, too, "at least three times," what he earns now."

That's right, he claims he would have been earning about a million dollars per year if he were liberal. This is a man who is seriously delusional and needs professional help fast.

And there's more. His Center for the Study of Popular Culture receives millions of dollars from various right wing foundations. The Chronicle article says that: "The center itself is located on the fourth floor of an office building in downtown Los Angeles, but Mr. Horowitz prefers to work from home." Horowitz is quoted as saying: "I love my work space," and "I sit at my desk with my laptop. I listen to music. I take the dogs for a walk. Like most writers, I live in my head."

So here's my attempt at a cheap shot, to show how bits of accurate information can be rearranged for effect. Drum roll, please.

"Shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings? Try the richly paid right wing David Horowitz. He plays these gullible right wing foundations for suckers, taking millions from them in order to pay himself a fat salary just to stay at home, listen to music, and take his dogs for walks, when he is not out driving his fancy expensive cars. The only thing that gets him out of his house is if he is given the opportunity to pocket $5,000 for one hour's work delivering the same old tired speeches, extracting this money from impoverished campus student organizations, who have to struggle desperately to pay the high fees he charges them to support his luxurious lifestyle."

Ok, I'll admit that my cheap shot is not that great and needs considerable refining. But in my defense, I haven't had the years of experience doing this kind of thing that Horowitz has. And I don't aim to either.

May 04, 2005

The coming religious wars?

I like Harper's Magazine. Each monthly issue has at least one long article that provides the kind of depth and context to important current issues that are so hard to find in the media, and which makes me glad that I have a subscription.

The May 2005 issue has two articles on the activities of the religious right that are well worth reading. Jeff Sharlett writes about the New Life Church, which he describes as "America's most powerful megachurch" and has 11,000 members. He points out that slowly, over time, the town of Colorado Springs, where this church is, has become the capital of what he calls 'Christian conservatives.'

But the more disturbing article is that by Chris Hedges, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and author of the book War is the Force That Gives Us Meaning, who writes about attending the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters association, which was held in Orange County, California which he says "along with Colorado Springs, is a center of the new militant Christianity." And his essay "Feeling the hate with the National Religious Broadcasters" describes some disturbing trends in the way that these groups view the role of Christianity in America and the world.

Hedges traces the evolution of the militant version of Christianity that is becoming the dogma of the many separate groups that are coming together under a common doctrinal framework. He says:

What the disparate sects of this movement, known as Dominionism, share is an obsession with political power. A decades-long refusal to engage in politics at all following the Scopes trial has been replaced by a call for Christian "Dominion" over the nation and, eventually, over the earth itself. Dominionists preach that Jesus has called them to build the kingdom of God in the here and now, whereas previously it was thought that we would have to wait for it. America becomes, in this militant Biblicism, an agent of God, and all political and intellectual opponents of America's Christian leaders are viewed, quite simply, as agents of Satan. Under Christian dominion, America will no longer be a sinful and fallen nation but one in which the Ten Commandments form the basis of our legal system, Creationism and "Christian values" form the basis of our educational system, and the media and the government proclaim the Good News to one and all. Aside from its proselytizing mandate, the federal government will be reduced to the protection of property rights and "homeland security." Some Dominionists (not all of whom accept the label, at least not publicly) would further require all citizens to pay "tithes" to church organizations empowered by the government to run our social-welfare agencies, and a number of influential figures advocate the death penalty for a host of "moral crimes," including apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft. The only legitimate voices in this state will be Christian. All others will be silenced.

I have seen a number of articles recently documenting the seeming rise of this kind of thinking, and it raises the troubling question of how one should respond.

On its surface the movement seems so reactionary, with a Taliban-like fixation with enforcing religious orthodoxy on each and every person, that one is tempted to dismiss it as a group that is unlikely to actually gain governmental power because most people will be alarmed by their extremism.

But both Hedges and Sharlett warn that this may be too sanguine a view. There are indications that such groups already have considerable influence in government (both in the White House and the Congress) and we should not easily assume that they have already peaked in their numbers and will eventually become a fringe movement again.

Such groups represent a real threat to the kind of pluralistic, live-and-let-live democratic ideal that I (at least) subscribe to, where the chief role for the state is to provide the conditions for its citizens that they may have life, liberty, and be able to pursue happiness. In my worldview, as long as people are not harming others, their actions have the presumption of acceptability. I feel that it is none of my (or the government's) business what people believe or what activities freely consenting adults engage in.

So in one sense, I have no problems with the "Dominionists" (as described by Hedges) believing whatever they want. If their members join up voluntarily and are willing to give tithes to their own religious groups and to refrain from "apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft," that is ok by me. But the question is what should be done if they seek to attempt to enforce their beliefs on everyone else, by using governmental power.

In future postings, I will explore some of these issues in more detail.

May 03, 2005

Why David Horowitz attacks academia - part 2

I have been puzzled by the vehemence of Horowitz's attacks on the academic life. After all, his accusations of faculty laziness are contradicted by actual studies. Jerry A. Jacobs (of the University of Pennsylvania) in his Presidential Address to the Eastern Sociological Society in February 2003 (and published in Sociological Forum, vol. 19, #1, February 2004), points out that college faculty work an average of nearly 55 hours per week. By contrast, professionals in other fields or managers worked nine hours per week less than college professors. His study also found that professors report that they feel constantly under stress of work-related pressures.

Of course each profession has its share of people like Wally (the character in the Dilbert comic strip) who do the minimum amount of work expected of them. I am sure academia has its representatives, though I am hard pressed to think of a single one of my colleagues in my whole academic career who comes anywhere close to the Beetle Bailey-like stereotype that Horowitz alleges is the norm.

I do not expect Horowitz to change his message simply because actual data contradicts him. As Graham Larkin (a professor of Fine Arts at Stanford University) points out in his article David Horowitz’s War on Rational Discourse that appeared in the April 25, 2005 issue of Inside Higher Ed, facts have never been an impediment to his diatribes. Horowitz's strategy is to simply repeat things over and over again, even if they have been refuted. Since he is extremely well paid by a host of wealthy right-wing foundations that support organizations that provide him with platforms to keep him in the public view, his charges gain publicity well out of proportion to their actual merit or even their truth content.

It is easy to dismiss Horowitz as a crackpot who uses inflammatory rhetoric to get publicity. But somehow that seems insufficient to me. There is a vehemence to his attacks on academics that seem to require explanation beyond simple ignorance or that he is so naïve that he does not actually understand what a university is all about and about the extent of faculty work outside the classroom.

It is Michael Berube who, I think, nails the best possible reason for Horowitz's bizarre attacks on college faculty. Berube teaches literature and cultural studies at Penn State and writes with a style and wit that I can only envy. Check out his blog to see what I mean.

In his essay Why Horowitz Hates Professors, Berube writes:

I think we’re finally getting to the real reason David hates professors so much. It has nothing to do with our salaries or our working hours: he hates our freedom. Horowitz knows perfectly well that I can criticize the Cockburns and Churchills to my left and the Beinarts and Elshtains to my right any old time I choose, and that at the end of the day I’ll still have a job – whereas he has to answer to all his many masters, fetching and rolling over whenever they blow that special wingnut whistle that only far-right lackeys can hear. It’s not a very dignified way to live, and surely it takes its toll on a person’s sense of self-respect.

Berube is right. Academics have the freedom, as long as they are not being outright offensive or advocating criminal activity or bringing dishonor to their institutions, to take positions on any subject, generally without fear of retribution from their universities. I can support evolution one day and, if I find some convincing reason to switch my views, I can oppose it the next. I can even switch my views without any reason at all, just for the fun of it, and the only loss I suffer is to my credibility. But people like Horowitz have no such freedom. They have to be very sensitive to what their paymasters want and take exactly that line or they get thrown out on their ear.

Actually, this thesis might explain a lot of the animosity that the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ class have towards academics. All these commentators (and even reporters for the media) have a good sense of what their employers expect from them. It is the very predictability of their stances that gives them access to the media. If they start taking contrary position and become ideologically unpredictable, they risk losing their jobs. The Coulters, Malkins, and Goldbergs of the world cannot (for example) go beyond extremely mild criticisms of Bush or the Iraq war (even if they wanted to) because to do so would be career suicide.

It is true that there exists a doctrinaire left whose people also have similar constraints but those people do not have mainstream access, and most people have never heard of them. Most of the well-known people who are considered left wing by the mainstream media (such as Paul Krugman) are not as constrained in their views, because there is no equivalent to the scale of the right-wing foundations.

But academics (like Krugman) and more recently independent bloggers have no such constraints. It is because of this very lack of ideological oversight that universities can create new knowledge. It enables faculty and students to explore new ideas wherever it might take them. We are hired for our knowledge in physics or history or law, not for our ideological bent. But we also are expected to be public citizens and contribute to society, and this enables us to take stands on issues that may not be directly related to our academic research interests.

So is Horowitz's crusade driven by faculty envy, as Berube suggests? It makes sense to me. Because even as college professors complain about the amount of work they have to do, I know very few who would switch out of this life and do something else. This is because the faculty life is, in fact, a great life. Horowitz thinks that we enjoy it because we can goof off. But only a person who hates his or her own job will have such a view of what constitutes an ideal working life. An ideal job is when what we do as work is what we would do for pleasure. And that is what draws people to teaching.

Those of us in academia think it is a great life despite the workload because it is rewarding to grapple with ideas, it is stimulating to work with students who look at things in fresh ways, it is gratifying to solve a research problem, it is exhilarating to publish articles and papers and books and feel that one is contributing to the store of the world's knowledge.

We love our work and cannot imagine doing anything else. And, best of all, we can say what we honestly think about the important issues of the day. This must drive people like Horowitz crazy, and the result is not pretty.

May 02, 2005

Why David Horowitz attacks academia

Regular readers of this blog know that David Horowitz has been behind efforts to introduce the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, allegedly to "protect" college students from academic bullying by their professors. He has been going around the country, speaking on college campuses and to state legislatures, trying to place limits on what professors can and cannot say. In the process, he has also attacked what he considers the laziness of the academic life.

Horowitz resorts to his usual over-the-top rhetoric. He accuses faculty as follows: "Shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings? Try the richly paid leftist professors securely ensconced in their irrelevant ivory towers" and again "You teach on average two courses and spend six hours a week in class. You work eight months out of the year and have four months paid vacation. And every seven years you get ten months paid vacation."

Such utterances perpetuate a strong misunderstanding about the nature of a university and of what faculty do. People who say such things see it only as a place where the only worthwhile activities occur in the classroom, and even then, they see the process of teaching very narrowly, as that of transmitting information. Hence they are baffled that college professors seem to spend so little time in the classroom, and see the whole thing as some kind of boondoggle.

People who think like this overlook the fact that faculty are not hired just to transmit knowledge. They are also hired to create new knowledge. Indeed that is one of the key functions of all universities, but especially research universities. This requires faculty to learn, and to keep on learning all their lives, and this requires time more than anything else.

It is for this same reason (that learning takes time) that students can get a degree without spending more that 15 hours or so per week actually in class, along with long summer breaks. This enables them to think and read and discuss ideas. (This is why I am always concerned about those students at Case who have double- and triple-majors and throw in a couple of minors as well. I admire their ambition, energy, and work ethic but am concerned that in the process of accumulating credit hours, they don't have time to reflect on their learning, to toy with new ideas, and hence are not learning deeply enough.) So the logical end point of Horowitz's claim should be that college students too are not spending enough time in class and are also "shiftless, lazy good for nothings."

Universities have been the source of much of the new knowledge that has revolutionized our world. And the reason that they have been able to do so is because its faculty have been given the time to generate new ideas and put them to use. In Bertholt Brecht's play Life of Galileo Galileo himself complains to his university chancellor that he was teaching so much that he did not have time to learn.

My father worked in a bank all his life. On his desk he had an 'in' box and an 'out' box. He would pretty much spend each day reading and signing off on papers, transferring them from the in to the out, and then he would go home, his work for the day done. His work was well defined and a 'hard day's work' meant that he had been kept busy all day.

A faculty member's life does not have that same daily rhythm. Faculty members also have things that they need to do each day (prepare for class, teach, grade papers, attend meetings, write committee reports, talk with students and respond to their emails). But these things come in waves and they have other duties that cannot be done in a nine-to-five time frame (such as write a book or research paper, solve a problem, prepare research proposals, do research). These things are carried around in their minds all the time. The stereotype of the 'absent-minded professor' has a kernel of truth but it is not that the professor is actually forgetful. It is that he or she is always thinking about the ideas of their discipline, wrestling with them, sorting them out, and this process is so engrossing that it can often drive other concerns from their minds. When I am working on a book or article, I can assure you that it is almost a full-time, 24/7 preoccupation. I think about it as I am going to sleep and it is the first thing in my mind when I wake up.

The difference is that most academics do not see this as 'work', if by that we mean doing something at the expense of something else that we'd rather do. We tend to love our 'work'. This is what we live for and enjoy.

And perhaps, as we shall see in a later posting, this is what Horowitz really finds offensive about academics.