Gendered names and hurricanes

I love me some subconscious gender bias and its hidden malevolent effects on society. So you’d think I’d have been excited when reports came out of a study claiming that female-named hurricanes are more deadly than male-named ones, because people don’t take them as seriously and don’t prepare or evacuate adequately.

Even more than rooting out subconscious gender bias, though, I love critically digging into scientific work and picking apart how strong its data, interpretations, and conclusions are. Especially when they sound fishy to me, and this one sounded a bit fishy. Gender bias is trendy right now, and while I think it can and does have powerful effects, that hurricane-deadliness thing is a huge claim. So as interested as I was in the original study, I didn’t get really excited until I started seeing some critiques.

Even more than both those things? I love names and naming and the psychology of names and name trends and all that. I try to keep that particular love quiet most of the time because it’s boring and weird to most people and not particularly useful. But this vortex of three keen interests of mine amounted to my spending a solid chunk of the last 24 hours reading, analyzing, playing with numbers, and generally geeking out in the worst way.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the actual writeup of the study… fortunately, some of the data is available for public view here, which is awesome. So I’m doing the best I can with what I have.

To summarize the original study, as best I understand it from the available info and writeups:

  • The authors took data on all hurricanes since 1950, including the hurricane name’s position on a scale from most masculine to most feminine, and number of deaths associated with the hurricane.
  • Statistical analysis showed that names that were ranked as more feminine were associated with more deaths.
  • To test their hypothesis that the higher death toll was due to social perceptions of a female-named hurricane as milder than a male-named, the authors did a series of experiments where participants predicted the severity of an invented hurricane, or indicated whether they’d evacuate or take other precautions for it. The scenarios were identical except for the gender of the hurricane name: Victor or Victoria, Alexander or Alexandra, as examples. Participants overall took the male-named hurricanes more seriously than the female-named ones.
  • The authors take the hypothetical scenario response results as evidence that people in general take female-named hurricanes less seriously, and are less likely to adequately prepare or evacuate, leading to a higher death toll.

Fine so far as it goes. Now let’s look at the critiques:

  • Up until 1979, all hurricanes had female names. Over time since 1950, hurricanes have become less deadly, which confounds the study’s data. (The study authors did do a separate analysis of hurricanes from 1950-1978 and 1979-2012, but the results did not reach statistical significance, which the authors say is because each group is too small.)
  • None of the six studies on hypothetical scenarios, which the authors used to demonstrate the causal link they’re claiming, used a population that is necessarily representative of the coastal town-dwellers who are actually impacted by hurricanes: three of the studies used undergrads, three used participants recruited via an online platform.
  • There are a lot of known major factors that impact a hurricane’s deadliness, and it’s unlikely (and insufficiently demonstrated) that a subconscious gender bias is strong enough to have a significant effect above those other factors. (I know, I worded that vaguely. That’s not the part that I examined, so read the article for more details if you’re interested.)

The first bullet point is huge. If it’s true that hurricanes in earlier decades were more deadly than hurricanes in more recent years, then that’s a major confound that potentially overthrows the whole study. The other issues are relevant and important, but the first one is major.

The authors responded in turn:

  • The analysis looked not only at male or female designation of names, but at the perceived masculinity or femininity of a name. (For non-hurricane examples, most people likely perceive Angelica as a more feminine name than Jean, and Brock as a more masculine name than Julian.) It was the name’s place on the masculine-to-feminine scale that related to its deadliness, not simply the male/female designation of the name, and those results held true even before 1979 with more feminine female names accompanying more deadly hurricanes.
  • Years elapsed since the hurricane (in other words, how long ago the hurricane happened) is not correlated with the hurricane’s deadliness.

They addressed the other critiques, but their commentary amounted to “Well, yeah, that’s an unfortunate feature of the resources we had available, but that doesn’t disprove it.” Which is true.

From reading the articles linked above, I had two major questions:

  • Have hurricanes actually become less deadly over time? It seems to me that the study’s authors and its critics are saying directly contradictory things about this, and it makes a huge difference.
  • How did the study authors determine the relative masculinity and femininity of names? And how valid was this ranking?

To my delight there is a spreadsheet available giving the hurricane names, ranking on masculinity or femininity, death toll, and lots of other data. So I’ve been able to play around with it a bit myself, and while my stats knowledge is pretty limited, I can do basic math.

To the first question, “have hurricanes become less deadly over time?” there seems to be a direct contradiction between what the study authors say — “how long ago the storm occurred did not predict its death toll” — and what the critics say — “hurricanes have also, on average, been getting less deadly over time.” Of course those sentences have different words in them, and it’s possible for both to be literally correct. And in fact, as far as I can tell, they are. This is why you have to read your science reporting carefully, kids!

I am sure there’s a sophisticated statistical regression thingy one could do with this data, and it might be that I’m doing it completely wrong, but here’s what I got. Using the good ol’ average formula, I came up with these numbers:

  • The average death toll of all hurricanes from 1950-1978 (when all hurricanes got female names) was 27.
  • The average death toll of all hurricanes from 1979-2012 (when hurricanes got male and female names) was 16.

Thus far, the critics seem to be winning. That’s a pretty substantial difference between the all-female group and the male-female group. Without doing any fancier calculations, this layman’s eye is gleaming with suspicion.

To get a sense of whether the decline was smooth over time, I did the average death toll by decade, and here’s what I got:

  • 50s: 24
  • 60s: 36
  • 70s: 16
  • 80s: 6
  • 90s: 15
  • 00s: 19
  • 10s: 68

Two major things jump out: the 80s were a great time to be in a hurricane, and the 10s were terrible. Of course, there were only three years counted in the 10s, 2010-2012, and in fact only three hurricanes happened in those years, so as a decade it should be discounted entirely. And one of those hurricanes was Sandy, which has the third highest death toll on the list (159, after Diane in 1955 with 200 deaths, and Camille in 1969 with 256. Hurricanes Audrey and Katrina were excluded as huge outliers, with death tolls above 400 and 1800.)

The authors’ statement, “how long ago the hurricane occurred did not predict its death toll,” may well be true. The weirdly low-fatality 80s plus the highly deadly Sandy coming right in at the end could blur the overall trend. (Please, someone who’s competent with statistics chime in and explain all the things to me!) But that doesn’t change the fact that hurricanes in the three decades of female-only names were, on average, more deadly than hurricanes since male names began being used.

So what about the author’s second rebuttal, that it wasn’t just male or female designation of a name, but ranking on a scale of masculinity to femininity, that predicted deadliness? They argue that even in the all-female era of hurricane names, a Hurricane Angelica would be taken less seriously than a Hurricane Jean, and thus lead to more fatalities. They rated all hurricane names on a scale from 1 to 11, with 1 being extremely masculine and 11 being extremely feminine, and used that rating in their analysis.

I wasn’t able to find out how they assigned the masculinity-femininity ratings to each name, and I’d be much obliged if someone who has access to the article could tell me. Because obviously, the analysis is only as good as the validity of those ratings. And I am — to put it mildly — skeptical of how valid such ratings could possibly be, especially in terms of supporting the authors’ hypothesis.

Name perception is a tricky thing. It’s formed by a lot of factors, sound and association being the biggest. I felt fairly confident that most people reading this would agree that Angelica is a more feminine name than Jean: it’s got more syllables, an ‘a’ ending, and the word ‘angel’ contained in it. Those are three big markers of femininity that add up to a pretty indisputable trend in how we’re likely to perceive it. But what about, say, Flossy and Edith? Alma and Ione? Erin and Sandy? In each of those pairs of names, which do you think is more feminine? How easy is it for you to judge? I’ll put the answers according to the authors in white text: (Edith, Alma, Sandy) Is that what you’d have said?

I did a little quick and dirty experiment on my facebook wall, asking friends to rank five names from the list in order of least to most feminine. The names were Erin, Sandy, Barbara, Cleo, and Ginger. After 13 respondents (I SAID it was quick and dirty) I tallied up my results. One thing I noticed was that absolutely no one ranked all five names the same way. Ginger was always in the top 3, Erin always in the bottom 3, but the others were all over the map. Sandy was particularly interesting: 5 of my respondents ranked it as a 1 (least feminine), and 5 ranked it as a 4 or 5. When the scores were averaged it ended up ranked right in the middle.  Grease-sandy I was curious about Sandy because I think of it as an androgynous name that’s used mostly for females, and thus on a 1-11 scale of masculinity/femininity, I’d rate it around a 7. The study authors rated it at 9, solidly in the middle of the feminine category, above names like Florence, Jeanne, Connie, and Opal. One person suggested that it’s an association with Sandy from Grease which leads to a more feminine impression of the name. So some people hear “Sandy” and think Olivia Newton-John, while others hear it and think, “Probably a girl but could be a boy.”

Interestingly, when I averaged my respondent’s ranking of each name, I came up with the exact same order that the study’s ratings of each name gave: Erin, Cleo, Sandy, Barbara, Ginger. Although none of my friends ranked them in exactly that order, the average matched neatly with the names’ order in the study. So yes, while individual ratings of a name may differ considerably, the aggregate impression over a large group of people might be stable.

But the question then comes in, which large group of people? If there’s one thing you can say definitively about name perceptions, it’s that they change dramatically over the years. Names like Florence, Mildred, Bertha, and Edith were once considered youthful, fresh, sweet names for a baby girl. Now they conjure up an image of a grandma or great-grandma. I think of Ashley, Stephanie, Jennifer and Samantha as normal feminine, young-woman names, but they’re on the cusp of becoming mom names, the kind of names that Barbara, Carol, and Donna are to me. Our impression of a name is profoundly tied to the generation we were born in. And this is important to assessing the study because the whole argument is based on the assumption that people’s subconscious impressions of a name — and specifically its masculinity or femininity — are shaping their behavior.

I don’t doubt for a minute that the name given to a hurricane gives people a qualitative impression of it, based on how they normally think of that name. Names shape how we see things and people; that’s why I find them so fascinating. But the impression I have of Hurricane Carol now is very different than the impression a community in 1954 would have had of Hurricane Carol. In 1954, most Carols were in their teens and twenties. Carol then was something like Madison today, just in terms of when it became popular and was being commonly used.

I assume that the study authors’ name ratings were obtained by asking a (hopefully large and diverse) sample of people to rate the names on femininity and masculinity. If they did their job right, they also checked their ratings for validity among a few different groups of people. Even if they did, though, that doesn’t mean the ratings are valid when applied to the specific people relevant to their hypothesis: the community of people that was responding to news of an incoming hurricane.

In fact, when it comes to earlier decades, we can be pretty confident that they aren’t: the entire cultural milieu, the people that were associated with a name, and the names that people thought sounded perfect for their baby girls and boys were entirely different.

Barbara then.
Barbara then.
Barbara Walters 512
Barbara now.

None of this disproves the study. It’s possible that perceptions of a name’s “femininity” remain stable over time even while the images of what kind of person goes with that name shift decade by decade. But in my view there is not nearly enough evidence that this is the case, and some good reasons to think that it may not be.

I also question how valid the correlation is between masculinity-femininity rating and associated deaths based simply on the distribution of names on the masculinity-femininity scale. The names tend to cluster at one end of the scale or the other, with the overwhelming majority lying up at the feminine end. There are 25 names in the bottom half of the scale, rated between 1 and 6: all but 3 of these are rated between 1 and 3. So the bottom half of the scale has fewer names and they’re heavily weighted toward the low end.  There are 58 names in the top half of the scale, 46 of which are rated between 8 and 10. So the top half has over twice as many names, and they’re weighted toward the top end but nearer the middle than on the masculine side of things. There is only one name each in the 3, 4, and 5 zones, and only three in the 6. Hopefully the authors did some fancy math to correct for any effects that this grossly uneven distribution might have contributed to, but without seeing the study I don’t know, and I remain skeptical.


As best I can tell from what’s available to me, the criticisms of the original study by Jeff Lazo are sound. Hurricanes did kill more people on average in the era of all-female names than since then. The authors’ counter-argument that they also found an effect of relative femininity of a name depends on fine-tuned rankings of a name’s femininity and masculinity, the validity of which I’m highly skeptical. It is possible that the authors’ contention is true and that the name given to a hurricane impacts people’s preparedness level, to an extent that its effect is noticeable over the other relevant factors (media coverage, economic issues, etc.) but it is not sufficiently demonstrated by the study thus far.

World Religion Tree

So, this is pretty awesome.  I have spent many years reading about the history of religion, and i think that the subject is very interesting.  I could have spent all of those years doing nothing except reading about religion, and still only scratched the surface of this:

Just a segment of the awesome.



That’s just a snapshot.  To see the whole thing (and to zoom in and scroll around), click here or the image itself.  The complex history and sheer number of religious traditions is astonishing to see displayed this way.  I could get lost in this image for hours.

Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that the fact that we can categorize religious traditions into a tree says something about the nature of religion, and of human culture in general.  Human culture, including religion, does not come out of a vacuum.  Religion is not revelations from up high, it is natural, organic, and growths from us.

In one sense, religions are beautiful in that they represent not only what is amazing and sublime, but also what is terrifying and dangerous, about our ability to create and to interpret the world.  They are windows into our “souls;” glimpses of what we could be–both good and bad.  They are dreams and nightmares all at once, prying under our mundane lives into the engines of possibility.

And yet, for all that is good in them, there are paths which can clean up the mess and the grime attached to these fantastic reveries.  There is a way to drain out the dirty water of fantasy and to know what is real, and as we advance in our understanding we learn more and more about how to do this.  The growth of this religion tree will not cease, but it may be pruned by this method.  There will always be branches of this religious tree, I’m willing to wager, but the branches which survive will have to contest with another tree.

Science, empiricism, and skepticism generally owe much of its existence to the  intellectual traditions of this religion tree, but it is a different type of organism.  Entangled, all too often, with this massive faith tree, skepticism takes root in a part of us which seeks to avoid the siren songs of Nietzsche’s old metaphysical bird catchers.  That ground is fertile, but for many it is foreign soil.  I hope that changes, because our culture needs better soil, if we are too grow, thrive, and survive.

So, once again I get to quote my favorite passage from Nietzsche, referred to above, because I think it encapsulates my values better than just about any collection of words I’ve yet seen:

To translate man back into nature; to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations and connotations that have so far been scrawled and painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura; to see to it that man henceforth stands before man as even today, hardened in the discipline of science, he stands before the rest of nature, with Oedipus eyes and sealed Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird catchers who have been piping at him all too long, “you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task

Reading Jonathan Haidt as a “New Atheist”

A week ago I wrote a quick post about how I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and quoted a bit from early on in the book.  I am nearly done the book (I have one chapter left), and although I liked much of the early book and think that some of what he thinks about the relationship between our moral instincts and subsequent rationalizations of them are worth reading, I must conclude that i am not on-board with Haidt’s approach to religion, especially his criticisms of the “New Atheists.”

In chapter 11, Religion is a Team Sport, Haidt tries to deconstruct the new atheist approach, following on his anti-worshiping of reason from earlier in the book, and says we need to address religion for what is is (a group selected set of community-building institutions) rather than what it is not (a set of beliefs, ideas, etc).  He thinks that our attention to beliefs as motivators for action is too simplistic, and points out that “belonging” has to be placed along with belief and action, in the matrix of religious behavior.

Well, yes of course it does!

I don’t need to get into the details of what is wrong with the book, at least in terms of the criticism of the new atheists, because that has already been done:

Sam Harris has some thoughts about Haidt’s treatment of morality, as well as how beliefs inform our actions.

PZ Myers has thoughts about Haidt’s relationship to the Templeton Foundation, and thus to accommodationism in general.

Als0, Helian has a good critique which points to another good critique from the New York Times by William Saletan.

I agree that there are parts of the book which are quite worth-while.  I did just get it from my local library, after all, and didn’t spend a cent to read it.  If you are interested in moral psychology, evolutionary psychology, and group selection (whether or not you agree with any of those research areas specifically), then I suggest reading at least the first several chapters.

But what was most telling was that Haidt kept on talking about the difference between what makes a group work well and what does not.  His conclusion is that religion makes groups work well, at least for members of the group.  Atheists who ask us to leave religion, as individuals or as a species, risk losing what Haidt sees as the glue that can hold us together.

Haidt is seemingly unfamiliar (due to lack of mention) with any new atheist thoughts past 2007 or so (the book was published in 2012).  Perhaps the problem is that he is unaware that many atheists have been working, especially in the last 2-3 years, on building up an atheist community.  No, we may not have anything sacred (not even science), but we are working on creating a sense of what it means to be skeptical, non-religious, and living in a world with potential for beauty and terrible atrocity.

Religion is not the only force for group-cohesion, even if it has the advantage of having sacred spaces, authority, and thus loyalty (what Haidt identifies as primarily conservative values).  I believe that care, a concern for fairness/ justice, and a sense of liberty (what Haidt identifies as what liberals tend to prioritize) are means to creating community as well.  We do not need to give up a concern for what is true (a value Haidt does not list, interestingly, especially because it is a high value for many new atheists, including myself) in order to create shared group identities.

Haidt, an atheist himself, is not connected to the atheist community.  Perhaps if he was, then his arguments would not be so poor.  Perhaps we should invite him to the party?


Facts or it didn’t happen: unhooking the bra of reality

So, you want to include Intelligent design, creationism, or some other moniker for questioning the overwhelmingly established science of evolution into our classrooms.  You also, likely, equate evolution with the origin of the universe, so you want to talk about how something must have created the universe too.  Like, for example, god.  Well, OK.  In that case, lets also include creation myths from Hindus, various Native American tribes, and (why not, it’s 2012) the Mayans? Let’s have as many challenges to evolution and cosmology as possible, if we are going there.

Or perhaps you are more concerned with the state of medical science.  Perhaps you want to have your medical school include spirituality in their training, so that future doctors will be more spiritually attuned, or something.  Well, OK.  In that case let’s not forget faith healing, acupuncture, and homeopathy.  Hell, let’s throw in some goat sacrificing as well.  If we are going to include alternative medicines, why not throw in everything, just in case someone thinks they are worthwhile, eh?


Have I gone down a slippery slope? Have I taken what should be seen as a legitimate addition of alternative points of view, in comparison with established science and skepticism, and equated them with obviously erroneous methods? Am I not taking things like spirituality, real “scientific” challenges to the Darwinian conspiracy, etc seriously? Am I merely being flippant and disrespectful?


Quantities of complexity and simplicity

What is the difference between the more sophisticated and complex challenges to the scientific consensus and those which are, how should I say, less sophisticated? What is the difference between the Discovery Institute and the creationist screaming on the street corner (or next to the reason rally)?

There are real differences between these two types of challenge to science.  One is better articulated, more gpolished, and appears more professional.  The other has not been dressed up in such finery, and is obviously naked to everyone (OK, most of us).  From where I stand,  all of these sophists look naked, adorned in transcendent Imperial attire, even if to many out there the transparency of such cloth takes on a denseness and opacity to them.  Such observations become quite illuminating to complex eyes, but not so complex to need an intelligence to evolve them, such as mine.

That is, the difference between these sophisticated attempts at “skepticism” and creationist buffoonery is one of methodological degree, and certainly not a difference of quality.

For someone to show a distinction between these two, they would need to show some empirical or methodological difference between the two claims. They cannot do this.  Because there isn’t any.

No matter how well the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), or any other disingenuous attempts to undermine science dresses up their creationism, that’s all it is.  So no matter how slick the presentation, elevated the vocabulary (to make it sound sciency), or how many “credentialed” contributors they parade out (or pay large sums of money) there will only be a difference of degree between them and the whack-jobs on the street-corner yelling about the time being “nigh,” or someshit.

The reason for this is simple.  The methodologies of science, based in logic, empiricism, and skepticism generally, are unique and powerful.  Religion, faith, superstition are all powerful motivators of human behavior, but they lack that method and so they fail to predict or explain reality.  There is a fundamental methodological difference between what real science does and what is done by such think tanks as referred to above.  Places like the Discovery Institute and the ICR are not using the best methodologies, but are in fact using the same type of methodology used by the creationist you will meet on the street, in a church, or proposing legislation to allow discussion of creationism in schools.

They arenot using skepticism.

So when we respond to such trite sophistry with what may appear hyperbolic, the fact is that it is not hyperbole at all.  It is, in fact, appropriate commentary on the ridiculousness of people’s beliefs about the world; beliefs which are not warranted by the facts or the reason that binds those facts into theories which teach us about reality.

Unhooking the bra of reality

One person’s idiocy is another’s profundity.  And one person’s profundity is another’s idiocy.  The difference between the two, however, is not mere subjective opinion or preference; reality can inform the difference, and reality gives up her lovely secrets only to skeptics (when she gives them up at all).  Faith and superstition—ever the prompts of religion—being so obsessed with what lays beneath nature’s bodice, frees itself to imaginings and unverified declarations.  But it is all rhetoric and no real experience.

Real experience requires knowing how to unhook the bra of reality, a secret revealed only by the reaching of the adolescence of our species during our philosophical and scientific development and matured in the fires of the Enlightenment with the advent of the scientific method.  Many an embarrassed and inexperienced person claims to have breached such depths, claiming to have seen this or that, done that or this, and have really only masturbated such things while those of us truly entered into mysteries of the plain world in our face, seen with skeptical eyes, know the beauty of reality’s bosom.

Or, to put the analogy more succinctly; pics or it didn’t happen, you keepers of faith and superstition!

A conversation about paganism, monotheism, and science

For anyone who is interested, I am having a conversation with another (Pagan) blogger about the relationship between science and religion.

It was in response to some comments made by him about the recent video about loving Jesus and hating religion.  The post is entitled Why I Like Religion (But Hate Jesus), and it is an idea I have heard before from people many times (it is even and idea I used to espouse) and which which I have a little sympathy.  Very little.

I don’t often talk with pagans about religion and science, mostly because I don’t run into many, but find it a different environment for discussion than talking with Christians, Jews, or Moslems.

If you are interested in the discussion, you can find it in the comments here.

Lamarkian theology

It struck me today that one of the reasons that so many theologically-minded writers are so enamored by teleological thinking when it comes to evolutionary theory—whether it be Intelligent Design, theistic evolution, etc—is that they are so accustomed to thinking teleologically.  What I mean is that because theologians seem to simply make stuff up*, they have the freedom and malleability to fit whatever environment they find themselves in, so they are always thinking about designing their ideology to fit the world.  This, on the surface, might seem like what one should do, except they also hold onto the core nonsensical propositions while doing so—while reinterpreting them!

The very process of doing theology is exactly backwards to how science works, which is part of why the conversation between theologians and scientists often goes so wrong; their methods are in opposition.  The idea of theistic evolution (that god created the world and subsequently guides evolution) is at odds with scientific ideas about how evolution works.  There is no need for guidance for it to work, so (for example) the official Catholic Church’s acceptance of evolution as a fact, though guided by god (an idea shared by many people as well) is not the scientific concept accepted by evolutionary biologists.  Similarly, Intelligent Design, the cultural political attempt to sneak creationism into us with the guise of “science,” has similar themes underneath.  It all is about keeping the idea of design or purpose in a mechanism which needs none in order to work.

And what this reminds me of, this predilection for shaping oneself into the hole it finds itself sitting in, is Lamarkian evolution.  You see, early in the development of evolutionary science, there was some debate about how changes in species occurred.  One idea, which is now rejected by the scientific community since we know how genes, mutation, and other forces work, was that some organism would change according to the environmental pressures it finds itself in and passes along those changes to the next generation.  A common example used to illustrate this is a giraffe that finds its neck too short gets a longer neck (or at least the idea of one), and passes this change onto its offspring.

Natural selection, of course, works nothing like this, but theology does work this way.

If some theological idea does not fit with the world, a newer theologian comes along and proposes a new way to see things; a new way to “interpret” the scriptures or the tradition in order to fit better.  And as the progress of science has marched along, theology has followed and changed its spots to fit to not be too egregiously out of style with the current scientific consensus.  But it is done in such a way as to just change enough to not be noticeable to most people.  It changes slowly, little by little, such that the theological concepts talked about seriously now in universities don’t seem to most people to be absurd or too far from their original tradition (which they define, of course).

But take a sophisticated theologian from 2012 (happy new years, btw) and send him to even a comparatively liberal and open-minded seminary from 1000 years ago, and they would be cast out as heretics, unbelievers, atheists even!

But it isn’t really their fault; they have to change to survive.  It’s just a shame that they can’t get rid of the core absurdities of their theologies.  You know,m stuff like gods and other supernatural crap.

I’ll say it again; theology is intelligently designed, but not intelligently enough.



*”Some time ago, when Jerry Coyne was preparing for his debate with John Haught, I recommended a book of modern theology in which a number of different theologians explained the very different ways in which Christian theology is done nowadays. The result that I hoped would derive from reading the book is what happened to me when I read it: that it would become obvious that theology in fact makes things up; that there is no basis for agreement between theologians, and that the bases for theological positions are as diverse as the positions themselves. That is, there is no basis for doing theology. Theology is like a mood that people have in the presence of sacred texts and the history of thought about them. It has no rational ground.”  –Eric MacDonald (source)

Morality as an applied science

Quick note: My blogging activity has been very light lately because I have just started working again.  I am going to dedicate some more time to writing so that I can have at least a couple of posts a week, and hopefully more.  One the positive side, my posts may become shorter (you’re welcome)

There continues to be conversations about the relationship between science and morality in the blogosphere (here’s some from yesterday), which is no surprise since it overlaps issues such as scientism, religion, and skepticism generally.  These topics are all hot tamales, at least on my google reader.

Moral philosophy can bee thought of as an application of scientifically discovered facts to a problem in social dynamics.  In a sense, it is a bit like a computer programming problem in that we know what kind of program we want to create (a harmonious society with minimal ill-treatment of its citizens), but we need to figure out how to achieve this goal with the software and hardware we have.  The hardware and software are (loosely) ourselves, and the program we want to write involves coming up with a way to order social relationships in a way which benefits people while preventing their harm if possible.

And what is morality? Is it the study of how humans (or other sentient beings) interact in groups, or is it the study of the how those humans should act in groups given some given desires and goals?  With morality the desires are given (they are the facts of our psyches), and the goals are at least defined even if not universally shared.  It is the logistics of how to achieve those goals which are where science comes in.

Is this puzzle one for the scientific method, or more generally one for empirical research? That depend son how we are defining ‘science’ here.  If it is meant merely are a set of tools towards pure research, where the empirical methodology we use is utilized in order to discover laws or support hypotheses towards some theory, then no.  If it is meant as a more general application of reason and the scientific method, then yes.  As I have written recently, I think that the term ‘science’ in terms of these philosophical questions (such as the issue of science v. religion) should make way for ‘skepticism’ instead.

Moral philosophy is not science in the same way that physics is a science.   There is science where we know the road (method) but not the goal (like physics), and then there is science where we know the goal (some achievement, technological or otherwise) but not the path by which to get there.  Morality is an example the latter; we know what we want to accomplish, but we need more information and analysis before we know how to get there.  Morality is an applied science.

When we are talking about doing the science of morality, we are not talking about designing a set of experiments to discover the underlying laws of morality as we would with physics.  But morality is a field where we have real, physical things about which we have questions and goals.  We will use reason, empiricism, etc in doing moral philosophy but most importantly doing moral philosophy will compel the need for further empirical research, some of which might be physics.  It will mostly be neuroscience.

So, to deny that morality is a scientific project only makes sense if we are to define science so narrowly as to limit it to pure research, rather than the larger skeptical project of discovering what is true or how to achieve things via naturalistic means.  This is why I prefer to use ‘skepticism’ in place of science in so many conversations such as this, because so many people conflate ‘science’ with pure research.  I think that is the source of much of the disagreement concerning this issue.

For people such as Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, etc, ‘science’ seems to stand for that larger skeptical project.  The best approach to any topic (including morality) is this skeptical method often referred to as ‘scientism’ by so many commentators, and confused with some kind of neo-positivism by others.  That’s why morality is a skeptical project; it is by these empirical and logical methods that we can get real answers to meaningful questions asked.

For morality, the question asked is something like “how should we behave socially in order to allow people to maintain personal and social well being?” This goal of well being (or whatever term you prefer) is not the thing we are trying to determine or justify, it is the project of moral philosophy from the start.  If we were not assuming, axiomatically, the values of well being, happiness, or whatever term we prefer, we would not be talking about morality at all, but something else.  And what other method besides the empirical ones of science could we use to find out how to answer this question?

We are not using science to determine what morality is or should be, we are using it to find the best ways to solve the philosophical problem we are already aware of.  That’s why this is not about the is-ought “fallacy.”  We are not saying that these are the facts, and so we should do this.  We are saying that here is the place we want to be, so how do we get there?

Much like how we are not using science to find or justify our desires for truth when we use it to determine what is true generally, we are not using science to discover or justify our desire for a moral society by trying to discover the best means to attain such a thing. If you don’t take that goal as axiomatic, then you don’t care about doing moral philosophy.  Similarly, if you don’t care about the truth, you don’t do science.

We skeptical and scientistic moral philosophers take what the hard sciences give us through their pure research methods and apply it to this problem of creating a better society in which to live.  That, to me, is applied science.

Faith and Doubt

This is a wonderful book

I have been told by many people, over many years, that doubt is part of faith.  The idea is that a person who does not challenge their faith has a weak form of faith.  I sort of appreciate the sentiment here, but I wonder how genuine this is.  I wonder how deep this lauding of doubt goes.  I wonder if it is real, skeptical, doubt.

Skepticism is about doubt.  A skeptic is a person who demands substantial evidence in order to accept something as true.  Yes, a person may not be ideally skeptical about everything,  and therefore may accept as true beliefs which would not stand up to even their own scrutiny if they were to apply it. But I think this is simply the nature of our cognitive limitations.  In other words, we are all credulous to certain dumb beliefs, but we’re just human.

It take a certain amount of courage to dig deep into your own beliefs.  To be an archaeologist of the soul, as Nietzsche put it, is a hard task.  And not everyone will be up for it, nor would most know how if they tried; we sometimes need a little help from our friends, I suppose.  And so when I meet a religious person who has the courage to at least make a surface or moderate attempt to doubt, to dig beneath the surface of their convictions, I find myself bestowing respect upon them, at least provisionally.

The provisional nature of this reverence is necessary, I have learned, because the institutions of religion, the insistence of doctrine, and the fragility of faith’s foundations are such that such ego-archaeological excavations often lead to one falling into holes, and thus clutching onto the ground of such landscapes in order not to feel the true exhilaration of freethought.  To fall into oneself, underneath the facades of our social selves padded with commitments to supernatural hopes, is a terrifying prospect in the face of oblivious alternatives.  The human condition of being, in the end, alone and finite (it’s alright) is a reality which doubts lead to, and which is less often the object of faith.

How often have you met a person committed to a faith that they will cease to exist upon death, and that there is no god that loves them? These ideas are conclusions reached upon careful thought and skepticism, not hope and desires.  The claim that these ideas are equally based upon faith are absurd, and are an attempt to level the playing field.  It is a rhetorical trick with no substance.  Faith seems to almost exclusively own subjects which we seem to prefer (like Heaven), or at least fear as an alternate to what we prefer (Hell).

So, does this imply that faith and doubt are truly at odds? The snark-laiden answer is to point out that if people had evidence (the answer to doubt), then they would not need faith. And while I think that this snark contains an important insight into the nature of the question of faith and doubt, I think that we can go elsewhere to address this issue.  The skeptical methods, science and reason, are a means to figure out what is likely to be true given our best tools for determining such things.  Doubt, in other words, is the seed of science and all of our (limited) mastery of the natural world.  Faith seems to be opposed to this progressive methodology, both philosophically and practically.  Anyone who has a long conversation with a true believer will ultimately hear the faith card played; all of our questions, doubts, and debunking of theological apologetics runs into this wall at some point.

Recently Eric MacDonald weighed in on this question of doubt and faith with the following, which was a concluding comment to his long piece about a Julian Baggini article in The Guardian:

If the kind of questioning ”theology” that [Richard] Holloway now indulges in were to become the norm, the churches would simply fly apart from the centrifugal forces of doubt and questioning. And that is why religion will remain dogmatic at its core, and why openness to changing one’s mind is simply not accessible to the religions. It may happen one by one, as religious believers are leached away from religion by the corrosive forces of science and reason, but a religion whose leaders were open to changing their minds in the way that [Julian] Baggini suggests is necessary in order to avoid fundamentalism would spell the end of religion, because religions have no foundation. They are built on air, and openness to revision would quickly expose this.

That is, even where doubt, or questioning in general, is encouraged (whether by accommodating atheists or moderate or liberal theologians), it is a recipe for the excavation of holes in the landscape of religion and the faith which binds people to it.  Doubt may be considered a part of being a faithful person, but the religion that survives this process is not the same as the religion that was handed to us from pre-scientific ages.  This religion is moderated by compromise, non-literalism, etc and away from fundamentalism.  Eventually, it erodes away into postmodernism, metaphors, and empty vessels with sentimental import.

And this is precisely what religious academics, such as the Bishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and King’s College president Dinesh D’Souza have been doing for some time; we “new atheists” are addressing a straw man, they say, and religion is full of doubt, questions, and nuance which are ignored by comments like Eric MacDonald above.  For such people of faith, doubt is part of their lives and to imply that faith is somehow antithetical to doubt is to be unfair and biased in a way that does no justice to sophisticated theology.  But it all falls apart, at some point.  Eventually, in the corrosive environment of doubt, religion becomes a shade in tattered robes that haunts our ivory towers and sanctuaries, largely unseen by the masses whom insist upon feeding on the corpse of literal truth, real historical promises, and miracles.

Well, Eric MacDonald (who is no stranger to sophisticated theology), Jerry Coyne, and others have said a lot about this very subject, and I shall not try and sum up their thoughts on such things here, as this would quickly turn into a small ebook if I were to do so.  So what I want to do is pose some questions which I intend to follow up on in the future.  They are questions about faith which I have some perspective on already, especially in conversation with former Christians (almost exclusively) about the role of questions and doubts in religious communities.  Having known people who would pose tough questions, voice doubts occasionally, etc within their religious communities, I have seen how some moderate religious communities (like Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, where I visited a couple of years ago) respond to such things.  Doubt and questions are not met with curiosity or answers, they are often met with ostracism and loss of friends, as I have had it explained to me.  Also, in my experience, outsider’s questions and doubts are treated with initial interest and then silence, in the vast majority of cases.

My questions are as follows (and I intend to ask them of people in positions of leadership in religious communities in coming months):

  • Are questions, doubts, and criticism welcome?
  • (if so) are doubts about any and all doctrines acceptable?
  • Have you seen or heard of people being socially sanctioned for having questions, doubts, or criticisms?
  • (if so) do you condemn such sanctions?
  • Is doubt more likely to be lauded or demonized?
  • Would the answer to the above change depending on the severity of the doubt?

As I said above, I have some experience with exposing religious ideas to doubt.  In the extremely vast majority of cases (I have not maintained a running count, but there are few exceptions) even when questions, responses, or criticisms are proposed, they almost always fizzle into nothing.  It is almost as if the leaders of these communities, whether they are priests, pastors, or whatever are so glad to hear some commentary, feedback, etc that they don’t notice at first that you have some serious objections to the message they are conveying, and then once that sinks in, they simply close off.  They are not interested any longer.  I suppose I am not surprised, nor should I be.

But right now, from where I sit, true skepticism, the kind of doubt which seeks to excavate the very foundations and assumptions of one’s worldview are not healthy for faith.  But perhaps I err in using “faith” as the Christian scriptures do:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

Because that seems, on the surface, to be in philosophical opposition to skepticism, and therefore to doubt.  Perhaps some other religious tradition has a use of the word faith which differs from this.  I don’t remember much about what the Quran says about faith (there is this, for starters), but I doubt that it says much that is friendly to skepticism.  And insofar as many religious people do have and maintain doubts, how far do they push those questions, are their questions they would refuse to apply doubt to, and would they truly be open to changing their mind?

I have long said that I want to know the truth.  If there is a god (or gods) I want to know.  I am open to being convinced of things which I do not currently believe.  Do believers share this quality? And if so, how many and to what degree?

And why aren’t more people doubting?

Robert Benne responds

A few weeks back, long before the events of this last weekend, I posted a response to Dr. Robert Benne’s article in a local paper.  I didn’t hear from him for a while, so i assumed I would not hear from him.  Today, he wrote back.

Today’s post is a response to the vast majority of what he wrote to me.

He starts, after some initial introductory comments, by complimenting my civility.  Wait, I thought I was one of those gnu atheists who are uncivil…

I appreciate your civility and attempt at fair-mindedness in your response.  Those virtues were not present in many of the vitriolic and contemptuous responses from what you call “the atheist community.”  I doubt if there is such a thing as an “atheist community” because there are atheists of all stripes, running from open-minded, classical liberals to those as dogmatic and nasty as any hide-bound fundamentalist Christian.  I received a lot of responses from the latter group, so I appreciate your reasonableness.

This is a problem that our community (and it is a community) is dealing with.  We argue amongst ourselves more than we argue with the religious world, I’d bet, over issues such as tone, accommodationism, new/gnu atheism, etc.  A recent issue with how to behave towards women has sparked an upsurge in conversations about feminism and the atheist community just in the last week.  We, as a community, only share a lack of belief in any gods.  Outside of that we disagree about any potential subject (including what to call ourselves, in many cases).  But we are a growing community, evidenced by the various groups, umbrella organizations, and online discussions which are interconnected.  We have a while to go before we are more solidified, assuming that will ever happen.


I think there is still a confusion in your response between the separation of church and state and the interaction of religion and politics, which was the main topic of my op ed.  When you inveigh against those Christians who want to exercise their religiously-based moral values in the political process—as in the restraint on abortion or resistance to gay marriage—you use separation of church and state language  (and suggest that the efforts are somehow illegitimate) when in fact it is an interaction between religion and politics.

One of the reasons for this is that for those of us fighting for the separation of church and state, the distinction between that and the separation between religion and politics is nonexistent, or at least insignificant.  And while the strict legal church/state (or religion/politics) fight is a little different than the issue of keeping parochial religious opinions out of public policy, they are part of the same basic concern.  For many of us, church/state and religion/politics (or government, more often) are interchangeable sets of terms.  This is one of the points of disagreement within our community, but many of us view the separation of parochial religious opinions and public policy to be paramount. Many of us,, in fact, are opposed to religious people imposing their religious views on public policy because there simply is no secular reason to support said views.  Where the courts and precedent will end up on this, I cannot say.  However I believe that trying to keep public policy based upon secular reasons as much as possible is the best way to go about this issue for the sake of everyone, including religious people.

I, for example, am strongly opposed to the government defining marriage based upon religious ideas.  For me, the definition of marriage (as an example) is NOT the union of ne man and one woman.  That definition is only accepted by many because religion has usurped the cultural phenomenon of legalized santioning of people merging their lives for reasons of property, financial advantage, love (that is a recent historical reason for marriage, and not traditional in any way) etc.  The conservative definition, ironically, is relatively new and culturally unsupported by actual practice in the world.

Christians, like others who have deeply held moral values, have every right to push for those values in the legislative and legal processes.  You may disagree with them and will have to contend with them in many ways—arguments, political organization, etc.   It will be in the rough and ready democratic process that these things will be worked out. That sort of democratic process is being worked out on the issues mentioned above. Sometimes it is also worked out in the judicial realm, though it is dangerous for judges to legislate and usurp the legislative process.  That is what has been happening too often, and that overreach makes the courts look too politicized.

I don’t want to address the issue of “activist judges” here, because that’s a rabbit hole too deep for this conversation at the moment.  I will ask you to consider this from another point of view; would you be comfortable with Muslim representatives implementing something like sharia law into our policy?  Are you paying attention to what is happening in Europe concerning this issue?  Is it sufficient that the majority may accept something to make it policy that effects the whole, especially when many are discriminated against as a result?



I agree that Christians should argue the case for their preferred public policies on as common ground as they can, but sometimes it may have to be on more particular religious grounds.  It is a question of prudence and effectiveness.  But as the Norwegian bishops put it when the Nazis tried to compel them to announce racist policies in their country, “we have to obey God rather than man in this case.”

But if there is no god, then the Norwegian bishops were just saying that they must obey their man-made laws over those of another set of men.  That is part of the problem with this issue from an atheist’s point of view.  There is no reason to appeal to God at all because we do have real reasons to reject such policies.  This leads me to the most important aspect of our disagreement here:

Actually, Shaun, there may not be universal rational grounds for anything.  Once reason was spelled with a capital R and purportedly could discern the Good, the True, and the Beautiful on autonomous grounds.  But postmodernism has pretty much finished that.  Reason is much tamed now, mainly being instrumental in character.

I am not a postmodernist.  I reject the postmodernist, relativist, “all-perspectives are valid” view.  I agree with Sam Harris, who in his most recent book tells us that science is the best (no, the only) tool that gives us real effective answers.  Postmodernism has put a hiccup in the liberal worldview that I hope it transcends soon, because it is philosophically sophomoric, politically problematic, and just plain incorrect.  Reason is not tamed; reason is tempered by the realization that we cannot have absolute certainty about our answers, and we must remember that all conclusions are tentative (even things like general relativity, the current explanation of gravity).  Science is a empirical and probabilistic enterprise, but it is effective and achieves results.  The skeptical methods utilized by science and rational thinkers is the best tool we have yet devised to determine truth.  Methods of revelation, pure insight, and even pure philosophy (my field) are all problematic and inferior to science in every way.  This is why I don’t want religious opinions being pushed towards public policy; it is based upon bad methodology, poor reasoning, and is not supported by skeptical inquiry.  When it is shown to the light, it dies.

Reason in this more modest sense draws upon cultural streams that have been dramatically shaped by religious traditions.  You are indebted to the Western Judeo-Christian tradition for your values.  Your “universal” rationality would not work so well in other societies—Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, Communist.

No.  religion usurps our values and calls them their own, while at the same time adding an other-worldly orientation that not only de-values reality, but poisons our ability to think clearly about this world.  In fact, Eric MacDonald, a favorite blogger of mine, wrote about this subject just today.  Here’s the link:  I encourage you to read it, as it says with more eloquence what I would like to say in response to your above comment.

I am not claiming that we know or have some universal rationality necessarily, I’m claiming that if one is to be found, we must use skeptical analysis to find it.  Religion, and the vast majority of its conclusions, simply fail at this.  Therefore, we need to keep it away from public policy.  This is not precisely what Jefferson had in mind, and in defending church/state the argument is somewhat more nuanced, but as a rationalist, atheist, skeptic I am arguing that religion would be better to be grown out of.  The fact that so many representatives pander to religion tells me that either they are lying to us for sustained power or are not the pinnacle of intellectual and emotional maturity.  In other words, they are indeed representatives of our current society.

That concludes my reply.  I will be interested to see if this conversation continues, and what will come of it.  I still think it is good to keep open dialogue with people with whom we disagree.  I hope my civility was sufficient still.