Thursday, January 27, 2011

I did not have sex with that man

http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/01/ted_haggard_im_probably_what_the_kids_call_bisexual.php

Well OK Ted, I don’t care what you do with your penis or anyone else’s providing any other party that might be involved consents.  But this lighthearted tale of bisexuality and masturbation doesn’t jibe well with your decades of vicious condemnation and hatred of homosexuals.  Or your spittle-splattered diatribes on the sanctity of marriage. 

It’s not about you, Pastor Ted.  It’s about the people you’ve hurt.  For example, your wife (I expect) and the people you’ve told not to be gay because it’s evil.  You know perfectly well how you abused your power as former pastor of that big church to make people feel bad for being gay.  And by feeling bad I mean feeling condemned to everlasting torment in hell.  It’s OK though because Ted knows that being wanked off by another man doesn’t condemn you to hell.  Only sex sex does that.  Wanking and cigars are not sex sex.  Ted knows how god judges sexual activity because he says he does, which is certainly good enough for me.

Ted, you’ve wasted your life in the worst ways I can imagine: telling other people not to do the things you want to and making a drama out of your perfectly reasonable urges.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Double standards

Sky Sports presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray seem quite horrible.  Thinking their microphones were turned off, they made sexist remarks about two female match officials and a sports executive.  This is how the Guardian reports it:

Keys and Gray were recorded during transmission of Saturday's Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool complaining that the assistant referee, Sian Massey, probably didn't know the offside rule and that someone "fucked up big" by appointing a female match official. "The game's gone mad," said Keys, the channel's football anchor.

But that’s pretty wide of the mark.  In fact, they stated flatly that women – all women - don’t understand the offside rule.  Their claim that the game had gone mad referred unambiguously to the hiring of women as match officials.  And they said other horrible and horribly sexist things.

Everyone seems to want an apology. This seems to be the standard response to outrage of any kind these days.  Infidelity, theft, illegal wars…. what we really want in cases like these is a public apology.  Let me explain why people bay for PublicApology™: change is bad.  Apparently we want to use notpology as a proxy for actually doing something to prevent damaging behaviour from happening again. We don’t really care for the most part whether future bad behaviour is prevented as long as we can pretend it has been and get on with things without too much change happening.  Change is bad, I think I mentioned that.

I’m tempted to be satisfied with condemnation about the remarks.  It was a set of fucking moronic things to say and only contemptible idiots could say such things.  My instinct is to respond with contempt.  Don’t tune in.  Don’t demand an apology and then pretend it’s permission to tune in again despite their idiotic views.

But the vibe that came from this story was indignation (in the sense of unfairness) and condemnation (in the sense that something ought to be done (presumably by someone else) about it).

The very next story on the BBC news was about a Church of England church in Darlington (right on my doorstep!) which might be converting to Catholicism because it doesn’t want any of its officials to have a vagina. As far as I know, Sky Sport doesn’t endorse the views of its idiots.  The church does.  Not just the Darlington church in question, but the Church of England in general.  It obviously thinks there’s merit in people leaving the church if they don’t think vaginas are compatible with spreading the world of god.  This is a far, far worse example of sexism both in this particular case and in the general case of the Catholic church not allowing women to be priests than is some random idiots spreading poison off-record0. 

But there was no condemnation or indignation from the BBC. It was just accepted as OK that religions get to play by different rules.  There was no phone-in, no pundit, no pretence that there are two sides.  It’s just automatically OK for religions to do such horrible things. The horror doesn’t go away.  We just pretend it does.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book Review: The Dawkins Letters

The Dawkins Letters is a short book by David Robertson, a Christian minister and a man with a serious chip on his shoulder.  This is evident before you open the book: the blurb on the jacket makes veiled accusations against Richard Dawkins for some unfathomable reason.  You see, Robertson feels he is “the intelligent Christian response” (he actually says this of himself) to The God Delusion and he posted an open letter on his website explaining some of his objections to that book.  As the book jacket says “This, somehow, found itself onto Dawkins’ own website”.  By this, of course, the text means that Dawkins linked to it.  There’s nothing nefarious about this, despite what the jacket seems to suggest; the RDF site frequently links to articles featuring views opposed to Richard’s and quite rightly so.  The letter was open, after all.  You’d have thought Robertson would have enjoyed the traffic and the publicity; his letter surely reached an enormously wider audience than it would other have done.  He did not.  He objected to some of the comments the post generated.  I find it hard to get excited about comments on websites.  At least, not for long.  But Robertson was offended by the harsh tone of some of the comments and was prompted to write The Dawkins Letters, which contains the original open letter and some other ones, which address other points made in The God Delusion and in the comments to his original letter.

Robertson’s chip is evident again from page 1.  His passive aggressive tone is wearisome and I’ll try not to dwell on it, but it’s worth mentioning that for someone who seems to be so concerned with tone, his own is rather poor.  He begins by stressing that unlike Dawkins, he isn’t a famous professor with no fancy book-learnin’, but…. well…. nothing.  This is another theme we encounter from Robertson all along.  It’s frequently necessary to read paragraphs several times because he doesn’t actually make a point.  This opening paragraph seems genuinely to be a snipe at Dawkins for having made a success of his life, which is surreal.  Actually, that’s unfair.  Robertson also launches straight into a lie.  He says that Dawkins has stated that he will not have discussions with people who believe in the supernatural.  This is breathtakingly, self-evidently untrue.  In his various television programmes, for example, Dawkins does exactly that, for all to see.  So Robertson’s characterisation of Dawkins as some high-falutin’ arrogant professor who won’t speak to dissenters is simply and deliberately false.  Perhaps Robertson is referring to Richard’s policy of not publically debating creationists on the subject of evolution.  This is a sensible policy on Richard’s part.  First, as he’s stated, it looks a hell of a lot better on their CV than on his.  Second, it doesn’t really get us anywhere, especially since creationists invariably claim victory regardless of the actual outcome. Third, they frequently cheat by misrepresenting the nature of the debate or changing the subject after it has been agreed, informing the creationist right away and the evolutionist only at the last moment.  So you can see why Dawkins doesn’t debate creationists.  But he does speak to believers in the supernatural and Robertson’s claim that he doesn’t is simply a lie.

I feel I’ve laboured this point rather a lot, but it’s important to remember that this is halfway down page one.  It’s hardly a great start.

His next ploy is a rather tortured analogy.  Dawkins speaks of people who have come to their atheism through reason as having had their consciousness raised.  This is demonstrable.  For instance, Richard’s own gradual letting go of religion was fuelled in part by his realisations that religions all contradict each other so they can’t all be right and that religious people are almost always members of their parents’ religion.  This is a realisation about religions as a whole rather than a regurgitated view from within one.  It is consciousness demonstrably raised.  Robertson disagrees, likening the claim that atheists have raised consciousness to the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  That’s all.  He doesn’t explain why Dawkins is wrong and he’s right.  He just tells the tale and says “You see? That’s atheists that is.” and leaves it at that.  Well, leaves it at that other than to mischaracterise Dawkins’ position again.  He attributes to Dawkins the view that atheists are necessarily more intelligent, rational and honest than religious people.  A view, needless to say, that Dawkins does not hold.  This is characteristic of Robertson’s arguments by hyperbole.

After a little more pointless sniping including holding Dawkins accountable for what other people have said about The God Delusion, Robertson reaches his point: he didn’t like the book.  While he agrees that it was well and passionately written, he feels that logically and intellectually it isn’t up to snuff, that Dawkins’ arguments are of ‘sixth-form-schoolboy variety’ and he complains that in an anti-religious book, Dawkins has the temerity to say anti-religious things.  And here we are on page 3 and Robertson is already comparing Dawkins to Hitler.  What is the nature of this comparison?  The Nazis put out propaganda blaming Jews for all the ills in the world.  Dawkins, according to Robertson, blames religion for the majority of the ills in the world (he doesn’t) and therefore it’s fair to compare Dawkins with Hitler.  It’s starting to look as though perhaps we can’t trust Robertson’s assessment of Dawkins’ logic since his own seems to be of a rather low standard, but we have a great opportunity here.  Robertson is going to take apart Dawkins’ logic!  Since he’s the intelligent Christian response, he alone has seen the flaws in Dawkins’ logic and he’s going to reveal them to we, the readerm in a tiny little book!  I bet you can hardly wait.

He doesn’t do this in his first letter though.  He gloats that sometimes atheists become religious, uses his own personal experience of not letting go of religion to show that it’s actually perfectly easy for anyone at all (except Muslims) to leave religion and does a fair bit of accusation by supposition: for example, he asks whether Dawkins would disown his daughter if she became religious, clearly intending to suggest he would.  And what if he did, by the way?  What point would Robertson actually be making?  He doesn’t say.  He engages in a bit of cherry-picking as well, to answer Dawkins’ point that atheists are discriminated against.  One of his examples is Dawkins’ television programme The Root of all Evil?  When has anyone, asks Robertson, had the opportunity to write a book decrying the evils of atheism?  This inability to understand even the playing field, let alone the game, is another of Robertson’s hallmarks.  That programme was in part a response to the institutionalised nature of Christianity in the UK.  The school system is dominated by religion.  We have a national church.  We have programmes like Thought of the Day which are (almost always) restricted to religious commenters.  Whenever a moral issue is debated in the news, the first person journalists contact is a vicar, as though a vicar has special insight into morality.  I doubt that many atheists in the UK feel oppressed, but we are acutely aware of religion’s enormous and unwanted influence on our lives.  Robertson ignores the fact that the commissioning of The Root of all Evil? was surely based on the enormous commercial success of The God Delusion, as well as his past experiences and success at writing and broadcasting.  I have little doubt that a similarly successful book on the evils of atheism by someone with a similar media profile would attract a television company.  Besides, it’s simply untrue to say that there are no recent TV programmes which are not religious or even anti-atheist in tone.  We’ve had Songs of Praise since before I was born.  The BBC recently produced Around the World in 80 Faiths (not until after Robertson wrote his book, however).  I recall with some dismay programmes by deluded individuals who claim to have found the remains of Noah’s Ark or that the Turing Shroud belonged to Jesus.  I seem to remember that Tony Blair made a show about his faith.  He certainly spoke a lot about it in the News for weeks, and so did Ann Widdicome when she converted to Catholicism.

And on the other side, we have one programme by Richard Dawkins, yet Robertson conjures up an elaborate conspiracy of atheist propaganda.

He ends the first letter, as you’d expect, by comparing Dawkins’ atheism to religious fundamentalism. This has been debunked with much eye-rolling many times and I hardly need to comment except to say that atheism is a position of evidence: specifically that there’s none at all for any god and therefore no good reason to believe in one.  It requires no faith except in the highly dubious sense of faith in the power of evidence.  Religion is a position of faith and could not be more different.  Religion denies, ignores or lies about evidence to make it fit their facts, whereas if proper evidence for god turned up then I have little doubt that the majority of atheists would admit they might have been wrong.  I would, although it’s difficult to imagine what evidence could exist that was sufficiently convincing.  A 900 foot Jesus loudly announcing he’s the son of god wouldn’t do it.  This isn’t because I’m closed-minded, but because such an extraordinary claim would require spectacularly extraordinary evidence.  I’m happy to admit that I’m unsure what could constitute parsimonious evidence for the existence of a god.  Hopefully I’ll know it when I see it.

I’ll deal with Robertson’s second letter shortly.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Catholic tale somehow gets worse

It looks as though the Catholic church didn’t just ignore reports of child abuse and pretend to everyone else they didn’t exist.  It instructed Irish bishops not to report cases of abuse.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/01/18/world/main7257626.shtml

[Archbishop Luciano] Storero wrote that canon law — which required abuse allegations and punishments to be handled within the church — "must be meticulously followed." He warned that any bishops who tried to impose punishments outside the confines of canon law would face the "highly embarrassing" position of having their actions overturned on appeal in Rome.

Am I reading this correctly? Did Storero say that if bishops sacked priests for raping children or otherwise prevented them from raping children again, the Vatican would reinstate them and put them back in a position where they could rape children?  I don’t see any other way to interpret it.

Child-abuse activists in Ireland said the 1997 letter should demonstrate, once and for all, that the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but ordered by them.

If the letter is legitimate, that conclusion seems inescapable.

What I want you to do now is think of the most chilling paragraph you can.  Got it?  Well prepare to have it blown out of the water by this:

The 2009 Dublin Archdiocese report found that this actually happened in the case of Tony Walsh, one of Dublin's most notorious pedophiles, who used his role as an Elvis impersonator in a popular "All Priests Show" to get closer to kids.

The church actually did sack Paedo Elvis… but the Vatican did indeed reinstate him as it said it would.  Let’s look at how that worked out:

Walsh in 1993 was kicked out of the priesthood by a secret Dublin church court — but successfully appealed the punishment to a Vatican court, which reinstated him to the priesthood in 1994. He raped a boy in a pub restroom at his grandfather's funeral wake that year. Walsh since has received a series of prison sentences, most recently a 12-year term imposed last month. Investigators estimate he raped or molested more than 100 children.

OK, that paragraph is even more chilling.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Your cognitive toolkit

Edge asks what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? And lots of scientists answer.  There are some interesting ones, although I warn you that it’s a lot of reading and hard to stop once you’ve begun.  I don’t have a single answer to the question (see answer 2 Smile), but here are some of the contenders.

1. Estimation.  Some of the problems people have in understanding the world - and I suspect what puts many people off science – is difficulty in understanding quantity, scale and especially probability.  Two major issues arise from this: first, its hard to see the solution to problems if you don’t know what ballpark to aim for and second, it can be hard to understand that there’s even a problem if you don’t understand the scale of what you’re looking at.  People are frequently wrong by orders of magnitude when estimating numbers that are outside their range of experience, such as how many atoms there are in a pin or how big the universe is.  But they are also frequently wrong about familiar things when it comes to probability.  This is because much in probability is counterintuitive.  The most famous example is the Monty Hall Problem, but there are plenty of trivial examples of how our expectations can be fooled.  Consider how many people in a room will turn out to have the same birthday.  The probability is (obviously) 100% when there are 367 people in the room, but it surprises most people that it’s 99% with 57 people in the room and 50% with 23 people, assuming that a birth is equally probable on every day.  One of the reasons our intuition is fooled is that we’re not trying to match a particular person’s birthday.  We’re looking for a match between the birthdays of any two people in the room, which is a lot more likely.  A reliable intuitive grasp of quantities, probabilities and scale is an immensely useful tool for a scientist, or for anyone trying to make sense of the world.

2. I think you’ll find its a bit more complicated than that.  Science deals in simplifications.  We look at something and slice out a lot of the complexity so we can understand the core of what’s going on.  XKCD puts it this way.  This is called reductionism and is an excellent tool.  We use it all the time in computer science: we make assumptions about the environment to make systems tractable.  However, it’s all too easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater by assuming that something is less crucial to a system than it actually is.  When we do this, we sometimes find that we’ve been asking the wrong question all along.  It sounds like a cliché, but we frequently make assumptions about people’s motivations and behaviour that lead us to build systems that don’t do what anyone wants.  This is especially true of very large systems such as social and health systems and can lead to systemic problems such as those which led to tragic cases like those of Peter Connelly and Victoria Climbié.  One of the hardest things to do in science is to make sure you’re asking the right questions.  Sometimes it’s necessary to focus on the complexities rather than assuming them away.  The guy in the XKCD cartoon is infuriated because the physicist assumes that the complexity can be bolted on afterwards, when sometimes it’s the very heart of the thing.  Unfortunately, it often seems to be relegated to the ‘future work’ section of papers.  Complexity in environments can influence how we engineer solutions and failure to do this is a leading cause of systemic failure.  Understanding complexity well enough to make informed decisions about what questions to ask and how to go about answering them is therefore another important skill.  Unfortunately, it is one that’s hard to teach and not always easy to learn through experience.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Science reporting

BBC’s Breakfast show has just guffawed it’s way through an interview with the comedian Ben Miller, who they repeatedly described as a physicist even though he never worked as a physicist or completed his PhD.  That’s a minor niggle, but irritating as it confuses and further mystifies the matter of what scientists are and do. 

Miller is presenting a Horizon show called What is One Degree? which sounds decent enough.  We’ve measured an average temperature increase of the Earth’s surface of one degree since we started measuring it in the 19th century and Miller’s show apparently describes what temperature is, how we measure it and what one degree means in real terms.  It should be worth watching, even though Miller did quite a bad job of selling it on Breakfast. 

Anyway, the Breakfast presenters did what they always do, which is to revel in their ignorance of science.  It’s perfectly OK to be ignorant about science, but I don’t think it’s OK to brag about it or to think it’s funny.  It’s a quite explicit suggestion that people who understand scientific matters belong to an entirely different class of person and that it’s not worth the effort of anyone else even trying to understand. 

This is further mystification of science and it’s hard to see how it’s a helpful way to communicate science or promote education.

The BBC should be ashamed of this attitude, but it doesn’t seem to be.

Update

What happened to you, Horizon?  You used to be cool. What is One Degree was not very good.  It laboured superficial points beyond belief   and had no real substance.Miller repeatedly referred to himself as a physicist, which is simply not true.  A physicist is something you are and something you do.  Miller is neither if he’s never before been curious about temperature.  This approach seems to pander to a widespread view of science as a mystery, beyond the understanding of ‘ordinary people’.  Miller’s faux astonishment at and blowing out of proportion of superficial points that every schoolchild knows seemed to reinforce this impression.

Science is about hard work and discipline.  It’s also about a sense of wonder and wanting to know how the universe works, but I think this message is better coming from the professional scientists, rather than the dilettante pretending to be one.  This might sound harsh.  I’m not suggesting that laypeople shouldn’t get involved in the communication of science: far from it.  I’m suggesting that goggling at something unexpected is all very well, but understanding something in depth and still being amazed at and captivated by the marvellous complexity of the universe is a more powerful message.  And a more realistic one, if the goal is to educate the public in how science is done.  Perhaps that isn’t the goal.

The biggest problem, however, is one that’s typical for modern documentaries: the endless summarising of every single minor, superficial point and consequent lack of substance.  Why should it take half an hour to conclude that it’s possible to measure temperature?  It’s interesting to show that our senses register changes in relative temperature rather than absolute temperature, but does the point have to be laboured so much?  And after drawing out these points almost beyond belief, must the programme insist on summarising them?

My suggestion is this: trust your audience.  Those people aren’t stupid.  Suppose, for example, the show investigated the relationship between pressure and temperature (which is what I thought it was going to do).  A lot of interesting stuff could have been conveyed and the script would practically have written itself.  Some experiments measuring temperature at different pressures, an explanation of why this happens…. this would at the same time have provided insight into what temperature is and foster a sense of wonder at the connectedness of physical properties: a sense of what temperature means in a wider sense than how hot something is.

I’m glad there was a science documentary and I’m glad it showed that something most people take for granted is actually more complicated than they might expect.  But I don’t think there’s any need to underestimate the audience and to dumb down.  And if you’re going to use a comedian to present it, shouldn’t he at least be funny?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The meaning of Christmas

The iconography of Christmas means a lot to Christians.  The stable, the star, the manger, even the innkeeper (was there only one inn in Bethlehem or what?)  Unfortunately for Christians, not only is much of the iconography stolen more or less wholesale from the now pretty much defunct religion of Mithras, but the nativity story as we know it is internally incoherent and historically bogus. 

First things first: does any of this sound familiar?

  • Three wise men came to visit the baby messiah, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
  • The messiah was born on 25th December.
  • His mother was a virgin.

These are all legends of Mithras, which predates Christianity.  It’s also worth noting that Mithra died on a cross at Easter, but not before celebrating a last supper with his 12 disciples.  Interesting.

There’s no doubt that much of the iconography concerning Christmas is lifted in its entirety and apparently without shame.  But there are more serious problems still with the Christmas story as we know it today.

Of the four official gospels, only Matthew and Luke deal with the birth of Jesus.  Some of the apocrypha deal with it too, but we’re told that those are somehow not important even though they have no greater or lesser historical credentials.  Matthew gives us an extensive genealogy of Jesus beginning with Abraham and running fourteen generations through to Jesus.  However, it’s unclear why he does this, since Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ father.  Jesus, therefore was not in any sense at all ‘of the line of David’.  This seems to be what Matthew was trying to establish with all the genealogy, presumably to show that the prophecy in Micha 5:1-2 was fulfilled.  Actually, it’s a pretty vague prophecy, even by the general standards of these things:

Mic 5:2 "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting."

Jesus was, of course, never a ruler in any usual sense.  You have to torture the verse quite a lot before you can pretend it refers to the life and works of Jesus. 

But it doesn’t work anyway, because Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ dad.  This seems like an enormous spanner in the works that Christians seem intent to ignore.

Matthew introduces the concept of the virgin birth and points out that this all happened in the time of king Herod.  Then there’s the whole business of the three kings.  Nothing in the Bible says they were kings or that there were three of them or that they turned up on the day of Jesus’ birth, but the nativity as we see it in countless school plays every year has it that way.  And we know the rest.

But why are they in Bethlehem in the first place?  We know that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth, so why do they suddenly and conveniently turn up in Bethlehem, right whether the prophecy in Micah kinda-sorta said they’d be?  Matthew doesn’t spin any yarns about taxation and a census or stables and shepherds. That all comes from Luke, which I’ll get onto in a moment.  Reading Matthew’s account, it seems that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem all along, an account that contradicts various others.  With Matthew, it’s all about the wise men.

Luke’s story contradicts Matthew’s.  For one thing, the angel comes to Mary instead of Joseph and this is how we usually remember it in the school nativity.  Then we come to the part in Luke 2:1-5 which talks about a decree from the Emperor Augustus that a census be done.  He makes the unwise mistake of establishing some historical baselines.  Unwise because we can check it against historical data.  No such census took place in the days when Augustus was emperor of Rome and Quirinnius was governor of Syria.  But let’s suppose for a moment that one did and nobody wrote it down (an odd thing to do in a census, the entire point of those things being documentation).  Why would such a thing require that a person travel to ‘their’ city?  Surely the purpose of a census is to find out who is living where, not where…..well, wait.  Was Joseph born in Bethlehem?  There’s no suggestion anywhere in the Bible that this was the case, unless you count Matthew who – as we’ve seen – has them living there all along.  Matthew talks about the family being chased out of Bethlehem, their home, whereas Luke documents a fleeting visit.  So according to Luke, why is Joseph in Bethlehem in the first place?  Because it’s David’s city and David was one of Joseph’s ancestors, as established in Matthew’s genealogy.  Not very convincing, is it?  Why was David chosen instead of Joseph’s other thirteen ancestors?  Why not Abraham himself, since Matthew traces it back that far?  No part of this makes sense.

But this undoubted fiction gets them there, I guess.  Which is sort of in accordance with prophecy, I suppose. Then we have the business of the one inn in Bethlehem and there being no room there, since it was the millennium.  And we have stables and mangers and shepherds, none of which are mentioned in Matthew.  As well as only one inn, by the way, Bethlehem must only have had one stable.  The shepherds and the wise men seemed to find it without apparent difficulty. Oh, wait: the magi turned up a few years later and it's a modern conceit that the whole business plays out on a single night.

Luke’s account of the nativity is pretty brief, only 20 verses long.  Luke’s a dweller.  He bangs on and on about other happenings that we today regard as inconsequential, but he skims over the birth of the messiah as though it’s an afterthought.

Let’s finish by going back to Matthew.  The original text uses the word ‘עלמה’, which doesn’t specifically mean ‘virgin’.  It refers in general to an unmarried, betrothed or perhaps newly wed woman.  The same word is used elsewhere in the bible without the implication of virginity.  There’s a different, specific, word for ‘virgin’ and it’s hard to understand why that word wasn’t used if virginity was the concept Matthew – whoever he was (he certainly was not a disciple of Jesus as many claim) was trying to convey.

So in summary, the Christmas story is both inconsistent and incoherent.  It’s iconography is stolen from Mithras and other, earlier, religions.  The Bible is assembled from texts that were decided by someone with an ulterior motive to be canonical, while the others were thrown away.

And yet to Christians, this story is enormously important.

Monday, January 03, 2011

accommodationism debate

Round 1: http://fledgelingskeptic.com/2010/12/30/accommodation-vs-confrontation-a-debate/

Round 2: http://fledgelingskeptic.com/2010/12/30/accommodation-vs-confrontation-a-debate-round-2/

Round 2 isn’t up yet, here is what I wrote:

It’s widely suggested that skeptics should take a tactical rather than an ideological stance. I’m all for practicality and the idea sounds superficially reasonable. It’s only when it comes to practice that my spider-sense starts tingling. This approach has been called ‘accommodationism’ because it involves accommodating views antithetical to a movement or community in order to achieve some perceived greater good.

There are two troubling issues.  First, it’s unclear whether any such greater good exists; whether the majority of skeptics agree that it’s a greater good; or that accommodation is the best way (or even *a* way) to achieve it.  Second, we must consider the costs of accommodation: compromise is fine in many cases, but compromising one’s *values* or the shared values of a community seems a large price to pay, especially for a dubious goal.

Let’s illustrate by example: the teaching of creationism in schools. It’s for the most part (sadly influential) Christian extremists who want to do this; moderates tend to take Genesis less seriously. Accommodationists hold that if we get moderates on our side, they’ll be our allies in the battle against creationists. It’s important to consider what kind of evidence we’d need to support this assertion. I think we’d need evidence that moderate religious groups tend to be as concerned about the teaching of creationism as are atheist skeptics. If that’s not already part of their agenda, I see little hope that collaboration will be fruitful.  To date I've seen no evidence that it is and much evidence that religious types with even cavernous ideological differences prefer to stick together against the onslaught of evidence and reason.

But suppose we do manage to present a united front against creationism, what would it cost us?  Well, there might be various ways to achieve it, but the *accommodationist* stance holds that we should court the religious; that we should suspend our critical faculties in this particular case; and thereby become hypocrites.  Religion – like other irrational beliefs – is fundamentally incompatible with skepticism and while we might welcome the deluded as skeptics in other areas, we shouldn’t consider their beliefs immune to criticism, and neither should they.  By all means let’s engage with non-skeptics in a friendly and hopefully productive manner, but by regarding their delusions as off-limits to skeptical enquiry, we’re doing several unpalatable things:

• We compromise our core values.
• We risk lending a spurious air of skeptical or scientific credibility to nonsense. In particular, we might imply that certain forms of woo are compatible with skeptical enquiry when they most assuredly are not.
• We necessarily draw lines concerning what we should and shouldn’t accommodate in more or less entirely arbitrary places.
• We dilute the core message of skepticism, which is that everything can and must be questioned.
• We open ourselves to (justified) accusations of hypocrisy.
• We risk alienating hardcore skeptics in favour of short-term goals.
• Other stuff it would be fun to discuss in the comments.

This seems a high cost indeed and I’m not prepared to pay it.
This doesn’t mean I’m not prepared to work with woo practitioners against such evils as teaching creationism in schools.  I've done exactly that in the past.  I’m just more inclined to recognise that we’re all adults and can work together on the things both groups care about, while also recognising our differences

This is not the same as accomodationism: the accomodationist approach is to attract believers to a cause by strategically pretending their woo ain’t woo.  The approach I’m suggesting is that we fight them tooth and nail on all fronts we don’t share.  We use all the tools at our disposal: logic, reason, evidence, ridicule... but we still, if we want to, form brief alliances when they’re useful, without either side ever needing to compromise its values.

Wait, isn’t this how we were doing things anyway before accommodationists started telling us how to be nice?

I don't know whether my approach is the most effective given any particular goals and metrics, let alone in the general case.  But neither does anyone else, including accomodationists.