Ok Skeptics: What’s Next? Immodest Proposals For Political Activism

June 15, 2008

If you haven’t noticed the rising cultural tide of skeptics and non-believers, then maybe we still haven’t made enough of a nuisance of ourselves. Just you wait!

Me, I’d like to take some time to think about where this is all going. What do we want?

Mostly, it seems, just to talk. And that’s a good thing: the subjects we’re interested are abstract: they’re debates about ideas first and foremost. Skeptics have always been the traditional first-line defenders of free inquiry, and we’re not about to give up that role anytime soon.

Still, we seem to have all these people with so many common interests and values. We have conventions. We should, I think, consider having some more concrete goals. Some specific issues we have on the table every election season. And I’m not talking about amorphous things like “better funding for science” and so on. I’m talking about very specific policy proposals: specific enough that some friendly Representative could introduce them as numbered bills on the floor of Congress.

So what should these be? Getting a consensus is always difficult, but other interest groups do it. Skeptics may be, by our very nature, hard to herd, but it’s not impossible. I think most of us could, for instance, get behind a proposal to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which used to helpfully advise Congress on all sorts of complex scientific issues that Congressman and their staffs, rarely have much depth of knowledge about. And if you have your own suggestions, I welcome them in the comments, or on your own blogs (let me know and I’ll link to them at the end of this post).

Here’s my proposal though: that we reform public education. And I don’t mean weigh into issues like vouchers, funding, teacher unions, or any of that. What I mean is that we lobby for a particular set of concepts and skills to become a central part of state and/or federal education standards: a theme that runs through what and how we teach kids to write and reason. Subject disciplines like history, math, biology, English, and so forth, are all important. But it’s just as, if not more important to prepare children to be critical thinkers, to be intelligent and skeptical consumers of mass media, political appeals, and even commercial advertising. To understand logical fallacies. To know how to read an argument and set about responding to it. To appreciate the basic principles of statistics, independent of math level, and the basic pitfalls of interpreting scientific results (regression to the mean, sampling error, etc.) We need civics courses for a new age.

American students have always held an economic edge when it comes to creative, independent thinking: even when our students lag far behind in brute force effort and devotion to studies. I think playing on these strengths is a winning economic and social strategy. I’m not entirely sure yet on how best to sell it to the public, but that’s what Public Relations geniuses are for.

However, we’d also have to be very focused and restrained about how we go about it. All of us skeptics have our favorite sacred cows that we love to target. But in the bitter, rough and tumble world of curricula debates, most of these line-item punching bags are also going to be non-starters. Few of the players and factions necessary to win political approval are going to trust our proposals if they think we’re using them just to smuggle in our partisan views.

I recently scoffed at William Dembski’s petty hopes of trying to cram Intelligent Design down kids throats. There’s a real danger of any effort too similar to his, one that focuses on what to believe, rather than how to think, will get scoffed at, and for much the same reasons.

Just to highlight one example of how skeptical teaching can quickly become politically objectionable, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid fame has a great new educational video out called “Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking” I’m a fan of Dunning’s work, and this video is definately a worthy skeptical teaching tool.

But like it or not, a lot of the specific topics he covers are, sadly, too controversial for a public school. Maybe not scientifically, but politically. Panning over the countless nutritional supplements on store shelves and questioning their efficacy has great scientific and skeptical merit. But in practice, the owner of the drug store that makes big bucks off this stuff sits on the local school board.

And, right or wrong, many of these sorts of interested parties are going to give something like “Dragons” a big thumbs down when it comes to showing it in the classroom. Just to pick another example, the orange-grower lobby is not going to take too kindly to coursework that poo-poos vitamin-C’s cold-fighting powers. By the same measure, as silly as it all is, you can pretty much forget about the State of Florida ever endorsing such a course. Honestly, we’re lucky enough that there isn’t much economic force behind creationism or science education would really be in trouble.

But it’s not that we have to toothlessly stand down on everything just to play nice. That’s not the point. It’s just that in politics, everything has a price. Every issue has an interest group, every interest group is loyal to a faction, and every lost vote means having to scrounge up some more from somewhere else. Eventually, you price yourself right out of the market. So you have to be very realistic about how much you can do at any one time, with any one policy proposal.

And in this case, getting into those fights is ultimately unnecessary. If we focus on the core skills in question, it really doesn’t matter what examples we happen to use in the process of teaching them. And if we can lobby for school curriculums that do a good job of teaching kids how to critically analyze any and all claims, we won’t have to single out any specific targets for them.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too, politically. But we can serve students some cake, and then be pretty darn certain that they’ll eat it at some point, on their own initiative.

Anyway, I welcome constructive criticism on this, or any other policy idea you think would make a good centerpiece platform for skeptics. Is this something you think we could all rally around? Can we flesh it out sufficiently and seriously lobby for it? Or if not this, then what?

What’s next? And who’s up for it?


Michelle Malkin’s Lazy “Baby Momma” Excuses

June 12, 2008

I’m not fan of Michelle Malkin, but she’s perfectly justified in complaining when her critics employ sexist and racist stereotypes to dismiss her arguments and positions out of hand. And you’d think that’d make her more self-aware and sympathetic when other people receive the same the same lazy treatment. Isn’t it better to stand on unmoving principle about what’s acceptable and honest in public discourse, rather than pretending that any tit justifies any tat?

Apparently not. When FoxNews recently ran a graphic calling Michelle Obama “Obama’s baby momma,” Malkin was quick to both (legitimately) deny any responsibility and then simply belittle the idea that it was objectionable.

For Malkin, instead of a chance to unabashedly exercise a principle, it was just another chance to play into her usual game of interpretive innuendo.

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Congress Must Pay For Public Radio, Otherwise Taxpayers Might Have To

June 10, 2008

I think this guy’s a little confused…

HT: TaxingTennessee

Liberal Christianity vs. The Bible: Why a “Bible” at All?

June 8, 2008

I’m going to pose a question here, and hopefully not in the spirit of impertinence, but rather in sparking discussion and illumination.

My question: why would so many liberal Christians and their denominations (very broadly defined to include those Christians who do not acknowledge there being any unified canon of beliefs about God or exactly how God communicates textually: even those Christians that reject the idea of a traditional theistic god entirely), continue to retain and use the Bible in its (relatively) traditional form as a centerpiece of worship?

I’m not asking this rhetorically, quietly snickering at the idea or accusing liberal Christians of being inconsistent. But I do want to present it as something of a challenge, because I think there is a real choice to be made here, and not an easy one. Having the Bible as the Bible remain unchanged and/or at the center of worship inevitably means giving up other spiritual options, other theologies.

Let me try to explain what I mean in more detail, and indeed, make a sort of case for “breaking” the Bible:

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The Best Book on Atheism Out Today

May 24, 2008

No, it’s not from Dawkins, or Hitchens, or even Harris.  It’s David Ramsay Steele’s “Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy.”   Presented as a sort of primer on all the common atheist responses to theist claims, Steele’s book bears far more in common with George Smith’s classic “Atheism: The Case Against God” (which itself used to be the token atheist work in Barnes & Noble philosophy bookshelves long before Dawkins came along) than anything else.

Steele is clean, concise, and straight to the point, with a refreshing minimum of rhetoric and diverting character assaults.  The result is a nice, nearly encyclopedic compendium of atheistic responses that is well worth a place on the bookshelf, and far better than most slapdash internet sources.

While much of his material might be old hat to old hands at these sorts of philosophical matters (the relatively perfunctory discussion of evolution in my case), this is a weakness borne of the need to be fairly comprehensive in a relatively short work.  There is still a pleasure in seeing the same arguments explained well, particularly when some of his strongest objections to things like the “free will” defense of evil, or the “improbability” of existence, are also some of the rarest encountered in these sorts of debates.  He also includes a much-needed discussion of some of the core belief claims specific to Islam.

Of course, theists now often complain that the philosophical objections that atheists have to god beliefs never change: that the new atheists have little to offer over the old.  But I think there is a far more plausible alternative: it is theists who merely repeat the same arguments, and arguments that are false or unconvincing one day will continue to be for the same reasons tomorrow.  All that matters is the strength of these arguments, and whether critics can really deal with them, as opposed to merely finding ways to dismiss them.

Whether his arguments are old or new, Steele leaves very little wiggle room for apologists, even in the small amount of space he’s allowed himself.  Certainly a single book can never anticipate and respond to every possible objection, and critics of atheism are bound to have plenty.  But what he has down on paper gives me every reason to suspect who’d dominate further rounds of debate as well.

Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

May 17, 2008

In response to Stephen Pinker’s essay bemoaning the vacuity of “dignity” as a concept in bioethics, let’s highlight some critical responses from other thinkers: Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Alan Jacobs.

Let’s accept every single one of their criticisms about Pinker’s tone, his paranoia, and his obviously less than impartial personal opinions about people like Leon Kass. Nevertheless, Pinker does very clearly and very directly raise a lot of serious, and possibly fundamental, problems with the concept of “dignity” in bioethics. And none of these writers seem interested in responding to that particular challenge. Which is too bad, because that’s really the only interesting part of the whole debate in the first place.

As one commenter said:

I’m not convinced Pinker has all the answers, but he seems to be taking the dignity argument more seriously than Jacobs, Douthat, or Levin. I tend to expect better of all three of those names. If Pinker was only 20% substance, that’s a higher percentage than any of the rest of us have achieved today.

Just to be a little provocative myself, let me say that I suspect the high regard that conservative scholars have for “dignity” lies in the fact that it, unlike the concepts of liberty and personal autonomy mediated by due process which have served us quite well so far, “dignity” is malleable enough that it allows the otherwise absurd idea that a random citizen sitting on their front porch is violating their own dignity by behaving in a way those scholars find distasteful (like licking an ice cream cone, or holding the hand of their gay lover). This also alleviates the often distressing inability to directly justify their dislikes as being immoral or harmful in any sensible, non-theological fashion.

“Dignity” also has the amazing power to declare morally important actions and objects that have no “personal” capacity in and of themselves: such as nerveless, intention-less cells that happen to have certain proteins active (i.e. fertilized eggs), but lack any objective capacity that anyone can tie to an ethical interest. If you can’t explain why breaking apart an embryo is morally wrong in any sensibly direct fashion, well then you can always argue that doing so is a sort of bitter voodoo-doll assault on humanity’s dignity, by proxy!

As is often the case, I’m being a little glib here myself. But I don’t think I’m entirely without merit either. It’s true that personal autonomy has it’s own gray areas and problems, but it at least makes sense on some concrete level, especially as a principle value in a diverse and contentious society, and that provides a far more promising foundation than a concept that seems to mean everything and nothing. Furthermore, many of its problems can be redressed far more easily than the critics I referenced above allow. Even under a personal autonomy framework, we can, for instance, still understand why respecting the wishes of someone when they are not actively awake or unconscious would be important.

In that spirit, here’s a much more intriguing and substantive response to the Pinker article, from another writer at the American Scene, Noah Millman.

First Things First: Tsunami, Theodicy, and Recycling for Cyclones in Myanmar

May 8, 2008

This wasn’t quite how I wanted to start a series of posts on theodicy, but here we are. In the wake of the recent cyclone disaster in Burma/Myanmar, the conservative religious journal First Things has reprinted any article attempting to reflect on the similarly shocking disaster of tsunami. You might remember First Things from my previous rants on one of the journal’s founders Richard John Neuhaus and his loving fantasies of anguished atheists. Well, a link from Exploring our Matrix led me back there yet again, and this was the result:

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