Gendered names and hurricanes June 5, 2014Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: feminism, science, skepticism, society
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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.
- 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 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. 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.
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.
Progress versus Process December 2, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
Tags: politics, process, progress, religion, skepticism, teleology, transhumanism
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Politically, I tend to align myself with progressive thought. I generally like the idea of progress; moving towards an ideological target. But when I think more closely about the idea of progress as a concept, I think it lacks something important, and has some potential inherent dangers, when compared to the idea of a process.
One of the dangers of political ideologies is that very distracting idea of a target or set of social and political goals. Because while those goals may be based upon clear thinking, good values, and hopefully even empirically sound philosophical bases, the fact is that circumstances change and we may not notice if we keep looking at the destination.
See, progress is teleological. Process is methodological.
Teleology implies intention, design, and is associated with religious theology in many ways. The presence of intent and purpose, when it come to theology especially, might seem safe because the designer is often believed to be perfect, or at least optimally knowledgeable and powerful. But progress in the real world involves imperfect people, and so when we think about progressing towards some ideal utopia, or merely a better set of values and policies, we are almost certain to err. And if we are attached to the destination too strongly, we may not even see those errors.
Instead, we should be focusing on the process by which we solve problems and understand the world. Goals are nice, and often necessary to accomplish anything, but by focusing on the goal rather than the road we walk upon, we will lose sight of many things.
Many forms of religion, and religious thinking, suffer from this very problem. The focus on Heaven (or Hell) for many people is a prime example of this. Built into the worldview of many forms of Christianity, for example, are things like purpose, intent, and ultimate destinations for us in God’s plan. And even within the Christian world people will criticize other believers for focusing too much on the goal, rather than what God wants us to do here. By being focused on getting to Heaven (or avoiding Hell), many people are not doing many of the things here and now that they could, or should, be doing in this life.
And, of course, this leads to the common atheist criticism of religion; people’s focus on the afterlife, rather than this real life (the only one we have), leads people to miss all that we really have. But this mistake is prevalent throughout all of human groups, including some atheists. It’s one of the many imperfections with how our brains evolved, and I think we can all benefit from an awareness about what methods we use, rather than an ideological goal.
That’s what skepticism and science are good for. Because skepticism and science are not goals; they are methods. Granted, it’s hard to avoid looking at the potential horizon in our pursuit of the truth, but we need to make sure that how we think about those goals in the here and now, so we don’t get caught up in the dream rather than the reality.
Focusing on our process, our method, will make sure that we are on the right road, because all-too-often people find that the road they are one don’t lead anywhere; that the location in the horizon was a mirage, and the road (which they were not looking at) just goes in circles, or merely stops one day, nowhere near their illusory destination.
And there are many images of potential futures with science as our road (I’m looking at you, transhumanists). But we cannot live in the hope that those futures will occur. We can be inspired by them, but we have to live where we are. I’ve known Christians who miss too much of life because they are awaiting Heaven, and I have known atheists who let life pass by because they desire their cybernetic bodies or their mind to be uploaded into a different kind of immortality.
In my opinion, we all would be better off by making sure that the thinking we are doing today is connected to real goals and real life, otherwise we may be letting precious time slip by in the name of illusory goals. I want my goals to be attached to a skeptical worldview, utilized to make this life better for us and our descendants.
All of my distant goals and ideals are subject to change and revision because I keep my attention to what is going on around me, and thus my goals sometimes change.
Women at TAM: I think what you meant to say was… June 1, 2012Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: atheism, sexism, skepticism
The sphere is all abuzz with DJ Grothe’s complaints about how all the attention on sexual harassment at atheist and skeptic conferences may be discouraging women from attending. If, somehow, you’ve missed it, here’s the offending comment, from facebook:
Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.)
I have to say, I find this more funny than upsetting. Maybe it’s outrage fatigue… but it’s just becoming comical to me that, after all the conversations we’ve had in this community around this issue, somebody who (I do believe) is sincerely on the side of increasing women’s voices and women’s presence in the community could say something this obtuse. Somehow he’s missed the part where women who are subject to harassment often fear that they won’t receive institutional support if they report it. He’s missed the part where multiple reports of harassment and abuse are passed around as backchannel warnings between women, because they believe (justifiably, in my opinion) that the prominent status of the abusers would mean that a public report would do much more damage to the reporter than to the perpetrator. Saying “we haven’t had any reports of harassment” is like… well, it’s like saying “I’ve never seen a monkey turn into a human, so I don’t believe in evolution.” That objection just proves you weren’t listening in the first place. Saying that harassment occurs has only been half of the point of most bloggers I’ve read writing about this: the other, far more urgent half, is that women on the receiving end of harassment often don’t feel safe reporting it. And Grothe’s comment has only exacerbated the latter problem.
While I think Grothe is probably correct that part of the attrition of women at this year’s conference is due to the conversations we’ve been having around harassment, here’s the response that would have made it better instead of worse:
“I’m afraid a lot of women are avoiding attending TAM due to fears of harassment. While I’m not aware of any incidents at the last two TAMs, I want to assure all our attendees that we take the problem of harassment seriously, and that we’ve put the following policies in place to ensure the safety of our attendees: [insert policies here]. I encourage anyone on the receiving end of harassment to submit a written report to JREF, so that we’re better able to track this problem and address it.”
It can be less PR-speaky (I hope it is!), but that’s the essence of the message any conference organizer should be putting out in response to the harassment buzz, and possibly-related attrition in women’s attendance. Convince us your meeting is safe by showing us what you’re doing to make it safe, not by claiming that it was never unsafe in the first place. That cat is already out of the bag.
Polyamory is not a privilege, but is skepticism? April 18, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: polyamory. relationships, privilege, skepticism
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I wrote a long post two nights ago, in response to a post over at polytical.com which started some conversation. Today, I want to clarify a distinction that may help illuminate my central point.
There are social power dynamics which make achieving certain things more or less difficult in our culture. Those with more privilege have an easier time surmounting aspects of our culture than others. Some people avoid emotional, economic, etc hardships which makes certain things easier to achieve.
In other words, privilege exists.
For some people to arrive at polyamory, they need to overcome such hardships. For others, such struggle is not necessary. Thus, for many people to arrive at polyamory (or atheism for that matter), they need to take advantage of privilege. For others, lack of privilege can still lead one to polyamory.
The conclusions I draw from this are that there are privileged ways to get to polyamory, and for many people to get to it they need to take advantage of privilege, but polyamory is not a privilege per se.
Privilege will certaintly help to practice polyamory, but to simply be polyamorous is not a privilege.
Whether I could have gotten where I am today without my privilege of gender, race, economic status (although I have been quite poor myself at one time, I grw up without want), and education is unknowable. But that some people could have seems incontrovertable to me.
This brings to mind the question of whether skepticism is a tool held through privilege or not. Because yes, some people arrive at true opinions and healthy lifestyles without rational scrutiny, but is skepticism itself possible without privilege?
The ends of unhealthy relationships April 4, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: relationships, religion, skepticism
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Ever been in an unhealthy relationship? Ever had that relationship go bad and have it end in flames, the coldness reminiscent of the deep vacuum of space devoid of warmth or corporeal presence, or perhaps a little bit of both? I have. It is awful, painful, and ultimately liberating. But before your experience traverses the totality of the immediately previous triad, there is often a moment when the reality of it clicks home, a time when all you are capable of feeling is hurt. The anger and loneliness will come (again), but at that moment all which exists for you is a cognitively-blinding pain which compels a futile grasping towards the emptiness around and, seemingly, within you.
In time, will be the reflection and evaluation through sadness, anger, and even laughter as you remember what was good haunts you for days, weeks, and possibly longer. Eventually, you will begin to understand that the relationship was unhealthy. Sure, the relationship didn’t seem so at the time; the sex was good, you had fun with them most of the time, and there were some really good aspects to the person you cared for and with whom you built something important.
Even though sometimes they would be a little bit crazy or unbalanced. Perhaps they had some strange ideas, insisted upon them, and didn’t seem to allow you the freedom to express your ideas without complaining about being persecuted or somehow oppressed. Perhaps they had a bad history with relationships which you ignored for various reasons. Perhaps the relationship afforded you professional, social, or even political benefits which would be difficult to attain without the associations provided therein.
Or perhaps you thought what was good about them outweighed what was bad. Perhaps you rationalized that the bad was not even really bad, but merely misunderstood quirks and intricacies of the person you loved; things which illuminated their love for you…or something. Rationalization asserts more sense during its subjective composition it than it does through its dissemination.
But when the relationship ended, it hurt. It didn’t matter that the reason it ended was probably something that should make you feel better about getting away. It didn’t even matter that if you stopped to think about it rationally (that is, if you were capable of such a feat under the circumstances), you would realize that you will be much happier removed from such a relationship. The separation from an established relationship often brings forth sadness, depression, anxiety, loneliness, etc.
Breaking up with god
Anyone who has left religion might be noticing some analogs here. This is, obviously, intentional. The reason I am drawing some parallels between leaving religion and a break-up from a bad romantic relationship is that I think that there are some interesting comparisons between them. In fact, my experiences with unhealthy relationships has not only taught me a lot about relationships, but I think it gives me a glimpse of what losing religion might be like, since I never had a religion to lose.
To start with, I suspect that many people stay in bad relationships, and religion, longer than the relationships provide actual happiness. I think that much of what keeps people in religion is a combination of habit and the comfort of familiarity. I think that many people stay in relationships whether they are abusive, neglectful, or simply poor romantic matches for similar reasons. It takes a lot to leave a relationship we are invested in, and even knowing that we need to do so does not make the process easier.
Secondly, I think that people stay in such relationships longer than they should because they don’t recognize how unhealthy the relationship actually has been. I imagine that the full comprehension of this is never fully known until much later, in many cases. People often don’t recognize the difference between (co-)dependency and real intimate affection and concern, and this inability perpetuates unhealthy relationships all to often. The feeling of needing someone, especially if that needing reflects some feeling of possession, ownership, or obligation, is not healthy. The fear of loss (often in the form of jealousy), or basic insecurity of uncertainty, is not something to be held aloft as the basis for love, let alone “true” love.
And this is the type of relationship which religion instills; a fear of loss, of being owned, and even of feeling obligated to remain in relationships which are unhealthy.
Relationships need to be built upon things like trust, transparency, and honesty. We do not own our partners, we must be open about what we do, what we want, and what we can and cannot handle. We need to do the personal work to make sure that we know what we want, to make sure that we have exercised our ability to perpetually grow emotionally and intellectually, as well, in order to make sure never to prematurely cut off what we can handle to some too easily reachable goal which will stagnate who we could be if we challenged ourselves more.
And in terms of our relationship with the universe, our society, and even the “truth,” we need to make sure that we are continuing to challenge our boundaries, presuppositions, and to keep communicating with people with whom we disagree. The universe is massive, complicated, and often beautiful as well as terrible. We would be temporal thieves of potential experience, understanding, and perspective by not allowing ourselves to see as much of that beauty—and terribleness!—if we didn’t pursue the world with full thrust towards such potential.
We need to approach people and the reality which we all share with an open mind, open heart, and unbridled willingness to hear the world calling us on our bullshit. If we do these things, we will be better off in all our relationships, whether they are the two-way relationships of traditional monogamy, multi-faceted relationships of less traditional polyamory, or the one-sides intimacy of our own self-respect or the respect for reality.
For reality cannot love us back, but that does not stop us from finding it beautiful, compelling, and worth our effort to get to know it as intimately as our limited cognitive ability allows us.
Facts or it didn’t happen: unhooking the bra of reality March 31, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Religion.
Tags: creationism, evidence, evolution, intelligent design, science, skepticism
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?
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!
Scientism or skepticism? November 7, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: John Haught, science and religion, scientism, skepticism
There have been quite a few comments in recent months—in articles, debates, etc—proposing the evils of scientism. Religion and science, say many thinkers, are compatible and to see otherwise is to see science’s reach as going beyond its fingers. John Haught, for example, defines scientism this way:
Sicentism may be defined as “the belief that science is the only reliable guide to truth.” Scientism, it must be emphasized, is by no means the same thing as science. For while science is a modest, reliable, and fruitful method of learning some important things about the universe, scientism is the assumption that science is the only appropriate way to arrive at the totality of truth. Scientism is a philosophical belief (strictly speaking an “epistemological” one) that enshrines science as the only completely trustworthy method of putting the human mind in touch with reality.
(Science and Religion: from conflict to conversation, page 16)
Now, John Haught is considered, by many, to be one of the world’s foremost experts in the relationship between science and religion. And while I don’t deny that he has a lot to say about both science and religion, much of it valuable, I agree with Jerry Coyne (as well as Eric MacDonald) that his fundamental views about the intersection of science and religion is problematic if not down-right absurd.
Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the critics of the so-called “scientistic” people (one is tempted to juts call them “scientists”) seem to not understand the position as it is commonly used by those, such as myself, who believe that science is the preeminent epistemological methodology in the world (perhaps the universe!). The other part is, as has been pointed out, that this method conflicts too much with theological methodology which is often non-empirical. People like Haught have a bias, a conviction that ties them to a set of doctrines which make claims at odds with science, and so they see something beyond the reach of empiricism.
But to say something is beyond empirical reach is to say that there are non-empirical things. Well, how would they know? How could they know? From where could they get that data? Revelation? By what train does the “revelator” travel in order to get from a non-material world to a material one? What are the connecting tracks made of? Without a justification for how they get their information, we are right to be skeptical.
And that’s precisely it, isn’t it? It isn’t about science per se, but skepticism. The critics of us scientistic people think that we are claiming that we can design laboratory experiments in order to find answers for all questions, even their magic ones. They think that when we say that science can answer questions about morality (for example), that we mean that people in lab coats can sit around with complicated bunson-burner experiments to determine what types of things to value, what meaning is, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is a rather silly caricature, isn’t it?
Truth and the scientific method
If we are concerned with what is true, then we need to find tools which can help us find clues as well as shift through them to determine which of those clues can help. But further, we need to find the best tool-set to use, how to use them, and how to know when they are not working. Over the millennia human culture has developed a complicated history to how we determine the truth. From the early days of philosophy and rationalism through the enlightenment which brought us more powerful tools of empirical research, we have developed what we now refer to as the scientific method.
It is through this method that we have the best information about what is likely to be true. No other methodology is close to competing in terms of practical success or theoretical power. This perpetually leaves me asking people who are critical of the scientific method what they could even try to put up against it. There is no competition. Cake or death, or something….
But despite this success of the scientific method, many people (especially postmodern philosophers and theologians) try and argue that neither empiricism and/or logic can tell us what is true. That is, we have to assume some axioms, we must assume some things, to get anywhere with any of these methods.
Well, of course we do. The question is whether A) other methodologies would have to accept the same axioms (such as non-contradiction, existence, and reliability of sensory perception) and B) whether this actually damages the method itself. All important questions, but also beyond the scope of this post. Instead, I want to take another related path here.
Do you value truth? Does it matter to you to have as many true beliefs as possible and as few false beliefs as possible?
As a preliminary, I must address the issue of whether I should have to justify why we should desire truth. Having to justify the desire for truth when considering what methodology to use in determining truth is akin to justifying hunger when considering nutritional value in deciding what meal to eat. If you aren’t ever hungry, there is no point in making such a decision. If you don’t value truth, there is no point in the consideration of methodologies.
Is it not a value of yours to know true things? If so, then just stop reading. Just go somewhere else, play some video games, and have a few drinks because nothing you say, do, or think is relevant any more concerning anything I have said here. If you don’t care about what is true, or if what you prefer to be true is more important than verification, then there is simply no talking with you about epistemology, methodology, etc because you don’t care enough so it does not matter.
If you do care, then it should be your value, as a direct logical descendant of that prior value of truth-having, to utilize the best methodology for determining if things are true. To accept any other method would be absurd, because it is not as good at determining if something is reasonable to accept as true.
And the best methodology for determining truth is, well, science right? Well, partially. The best methodology is actually…
That is, after all, the central theme of this blog. “The Atheist, Polyamorous, Skeptic,” right? The first two terms in that title are qualifiers of the last; they tell you what kind of skeptic I am. But further, I believe that skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism (and possibly polyamory; a topic for another day), but that is beside the point that I am a skeptic first, which should imply that if the evidence were to point elsewhere I would be otherwise. Because evidence is what matters.
One of the primary ideas in skepticism is the idea of the null hypothesis. Now, I realize that in every day practical science this ideal is not a reality, but a s a rule of scientific inquiry in general it is essential as a part of the philosophy of science. It basically says that you should wait for sufficient evidence before accepting a hypothesis as true. That is, you withhold belief until enough evidence, or at least rational justification, is given to accept something as having a basis in reality.
Obviously the amount of evidence necessary to accept a claim is proportional to the claim; I don’t expect you to withhold belief in the claim that I ate pizza for dinner tonight; it’s not an extraordinary a claim that is worthy of serious skepticism, and accepting it even if false has little to no consequences generally. A supernatural being who created and controls aspects of the universe is a different matter, one worthy of skepticism and requiring good support to accept. As far as I have seen, no good support exists for such a claim.
Skepticism involves many tools and ideals beyond crude empiricism. Empirical testing, verification through demonstration of material effect, logic, reproducibility, etc. It is a large tool set which together give us a very powerful detection apparatus for what is true, what exists, and what is not sufficiently verified to rationally accept.
It is this method, that of skeptical inquiry, which the scientistic people are on about. It is not science per se but the whole set of empirical and logical tools which I call skepticism. It is thus my proposition that rather than call us “scientistic,” we should just call ourselves skeptics and have done with it. Rather than argue against scientism in the science/religion debates, we should be framing the debate as one about skepticism versus non-skepticism.
It is my contention that many fans of NOMA or other angles on the science/religion compatibility side are being non-skeptical, or at least not properly applying skepticism to all aspects of their beliefs, worldviews, or reality. I think this has been the crux of the issue all-along.
Against skepticsm, religion has a hell of a time competing. This is not to say that religion does not use logic, empiricism, or skepticism at all. It just often subverts them under the wing of revelation, authority, tradition, etc. Many theologians (including William Lane Craig) have said that if it came down to what science says and what their scripture says, they stick with scripture.
But of course many other religious thinkers, such as John Haught and Francis Collins, believe that the methods of science (and perhaps of skepticism) are compatible with their religion. But the problem with this is immediate, at least to me; religion is often essentially reliant on certain unquestioned propositions (sometimes referred to as “facts”) such as the crucifixion, the miracles of this or that deity or holy person, or the existence of a deity in the first place. These questions, when pressed against the methods of skepticism (and not merely science), do not stand. It has been one of the themes of this and many other “new atheist” blogs to demonstrate this week after week.
But when we open our skeptical tool boxes in the presence of ideas accepted due to tradition, faith, or unsupported personal experience we are told that those tools cannot reach there. We are told that the substance of those things, the nature of their meaning, or even there very ontological status is beyond material manipulation.
But we, as animals with material nervous systems which make up all that we are, are not exceptions to the universe. We ar enot privy to some magical bridge to some supernatural world. This has to be supported first. Haught and his cohorts on sciency-religious love-fests have to demonstrate that there is anything to their revelatory experiences in the first place. They have to demonstrate that there is any reason to accept that there really is a separation of nature from supernature before they start making claims that the questions about them need different tools.
Science and religion are incompatible because while they both deal with the real world, the extra stuff that religion is supposed to have exclusive access to are not credible in the first place. There is no reason to think they are real at all. Only the best set of truth-testing tools that we have can reliably determine what is likely to be true, and those tools don’t expose the presence of the magic world which religion claims propriety over.
If the science/religion discussion is about who can say what about what is beyond the scope of skeptical analysis, then I vote that we let religion have it. The result is that theologians get to play in imaginationland and skeptics and scientistics can go on having (as Haught says) “the only completely trustworthy method of putting the human mind in touch with reality.” What Haught and others don’t seem to get is that the rest simply is not rationally acceptable as real.
Tags: apologetics, scientific method, skepticism, sophisticated theology
Thesis: Theological apologetics becomes more complicated in the presence of skepticism. In other words, arguments which theists make in defending their religious beliefs become more and more
convoluted sophisticated (and again) the better our questions about those beliefs get. But, of course, I have written about this topic before. Nonetheless, I have a few more things to say.
Thousands of years ago, some metaphysical ‘genius’ could proclaim that the universe was all fire, water, or made of god stuff and we, a very young intellectual species, would not have had the tools or understanding to question such claims without it turning into a ‘he said, she said‘ affair (assuming a ‘she’ would have been permitted to say anything). That is, there was once a time when truly there was no significant epistemic distinction between religious and skeptical claims.
Because there was no established skepticism.
But with many of the ancient urban societies where philosophical ideas were born–China, India, Greece, etc–came questions of how we know things. Eventually, intellectuals would begin to question the bases of religious thought, and would become subsequently revered and sometimes chastised by contemporary religious and governmental institutions. Here in the West, Socrates is the most well-known example of this. With this infancy of philosophy, but more specifically epistemology or the study of knowledge and how we know things, traditional knowledge became subject to suspicion. For an example, here is Socrates (well, Plato at least) when asked by Phaedrus if he believes in the myth of Boreas seizing Orithyia from the river bank upon which the members of the dialogue sit. Socrates replies:
I can’t as yet ‘know myself’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters.
This early form of questioning would lead to more direct skepticism, of course. And with it, theistic philosophers would be forced to do more than merely assert their positions. (Well, ideally it would lead to this, but the fact is that much of apologetics, even from the revered William Lane Craig, is full of bald assertions). And as history marched along, theology became a serious philosophical topic. What’s the phrase? That philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. Well, for centuries that was true, as to be a philosopher in Europe was to be a member of the church. No other intellectual institution was very influential for many centuries; no competition was allowed to survive, where the church had the power to stop them. Consider the Cathars, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei for starters. The Inquisition was not a period of increased curiosity, after all.
So, with the basic epistemic questions posed, the tools of logic and inquiry developed. The tools of skepticism were sharpened both by the luminaries of orthodoxy who defended the faith of their particular institution as well as those who quietly (or not so quietly) harnessed doubts. There is no doubt that Thomas Aquinas, an orthodox philosopher if ever there was one, was a genius. But let’s not forget such thinkers as Peter Abelard, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus who, who were not in any meaning of the word ‘atheists’ but were openly skeptical of many orthodox theological ideas.
With the advent of the empirical methods which would lead to what we know today as the scientific method, the world of theological apologetics would receive a vital blow, even if it would not be felt by most people even now. The fact is that many people do not understand the implications of this methodology on theology, which is the basis for this argument between accommodationists and people such as Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and of course humble ol’ me, is a testament to how little most people think about complicated matters such as philosophy. But it has always been that way, I suppose. But for those of us who consider such matters, the opposition to theology and theism in general is not mere distaste (although it is that too), but one of realized philosophical implication. Theological apologetics simply does not have the rational justification to stand up to the power of the scientific method.
This is not a debate over mere conclusions, but one about methodology and therefore justification. One method is simply superior to the other. When religion is subjected to empirical testing, almost none of is survives. Not even the happy and progressive liberal theology survives, even if it tends to be more accepting and friendly. it’s sort of how you prefer people who are nicer, even if they have radically different lifestyles or beliefs than you.
Recently, one of the buzz terms in the blogosphere in which I swim is “sophisticated theology.” The basic idea is that we atheists and skeptics are not sufficiently educated in the complexity, subtlety, or profundity of modern theological thought. Of course, every time we run into some deep thoughts a la theologian, all we get is either postmodern word salad or bold assertions without philosophical or empirical justifications. Here is an example of the sort of thing I am talking about which I discovered a few weeks back via WEIT (also via the link above)
The bottom line here is that skepticism has put theology up against the metaphorical wall, and theology is flailing around in an attempt to save itself. Now, the metaphor is not really apt, because skeptics are not figuratively (or literally) threatening theologians or apologists with harm, but we are merely tapping them on the shoulder and asking hard questions. Sometime, when they agree to sit down with us and debate or discuss the issue, we ask those hard questions in bold ways. And, of course, when we skeptics talk to each other those hard questions often are paired with humor, frustration, and flabbergastion (that isn’t a word, is it? meh…). And this, to them, looks aggressive. And in many cases it is aggressive, because we are frankly fed up with pseudo-intellectual crap and the fact that they have so many credulous people to believe them. It does not bode well for humanity.
Like someone who will say anything to not be harmed when they feel threatened, assertions will lash out like fists and feet, adrenaline takes over, and survival supersedes truth. It just may take centuries for the disease’s symptoms to be noticeable to everyone, but they are already felt by many. We skeptics, like doctors of the body of humankind, can already see the theological cancer spreading over the body of humanity and have made our diagnosis; it is malignant. If we as a culture and a species are to become healthy this cancer needs to be treated, and possibly removed. If it isn’t, we may survive, but we will continue to be infirm and weak.
But in the mean time, the arguments of assertive theologians will continue to maintain influence on millions of people. Their claims will continue to be complicated, intelligent, and profound-sounding. This, of course, will not lend their ideas actual justification, but that will not matter because it will still compel many. And the more complicated, in-depth, and meticulous these rationalizations are, the harder skeptics have to exercise their sharpened tools to demonstrate the lack of reasonable foundation of such beliefs. It is a game where those who care about influence over truth have the advantage over those that genuinely care about what is demonstrable.
And then the sharper skeptics make their criticisms, the deeper theologians dig themselves into the rabbit-hole of complex and erudite obfuscation.
Thus the viscous cycle, the intellectual ‘arms race’ (Richard Dawkins would be proud, perhaps), continues.
But the complexity and obfuscation don’t make theological arguments better, they only make them harder to follow. It allows them to live in their worlds where they pat each other on the back for being clever, but never actually demonstrate anything. They just become more convoluted, intricate, and find themselves tied in knots that nobody else wants to try and untie because it is a waste of time and we can see that. Then they can make the easy rhetorical point that we don’t understand sophisticated theology.
It’s all just silly, like games children play where they make up the rules along the way and then declare victory.
Intelligence is needed to compose such sophisticated theology, but it is intelligence applied to rationalizing a conclusion and not in utilizing or improving the best methodology we have at our disposal. For theologians to do that would be suicidal, and they must know that to some degree.
When pressed against the wall, survival supersedes truth.
Skepticism, Secularism, and Public Policy July 9, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: public policy, secularism, separation of church and state, skepticism
Recent conversations (and subsequent private email correspondence I have not published) with Dr. Robert Benne have gotten me thinking about the relationship between skepticism, secularism, and public policy. It is a subject of interest to me, and one I think will be interesting for the atheist community, and governments everywhere, in coming decades.
Today, I don’t want to try and address this issue in any detail, but I want to throw out a few questions I have been considering.
What is the relationship between skepticism and secularism? Does a skeptical analysis necessarily result in a secular worldview? To me, this is a similar question to whether skepticism, especially when properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism (I say yes). So, does skepticism, when applied to how we make decisions for the public, result in a secular process necessarily? I am leaning towards yes, and I think this is why I am so interested in the issue of Jeffersonian separation of church and state (or separation of religion and government, which might be a better phrasing) and the role of secular thinking in public affairs.
Further, skepticism is a set of methods which relies on scientific analysis in addition to logic. If skepticism leads to people being secular, does that mean that if we are to ask those who create public policy to use skeptical analysis in their decision-making, we are asking them to be secular? I think the answer is yes. I also think this is a good thing. For too long have we tolerated Congressmen making arguments based upon scripture, personal belief, etc.
I don’t know how religious opinion can survive such an environment, and I don’t know how to reconcile the issue of religious liberty with this. I am not interested in encroaching upon personal rights of belief. However, when those personal beliefs are to be implemented as policy or effect policy, they have to be vetted. I don’t want parochial views to be influential, without some secular support for them, upon public policy. In other words, I want public policy to remain secular. Allow people to choose how to live their lives, unhindered by scripture or parochial moral views which they do not subscribe to.
Those who try and argue that this is a Christian nation, or who want to apply sharia law to places like Britain, must demonstrate reasons why the ideas which emanate from their worldview should be prescribed to society at large. I don’t envy them that task, because I think it is fruitless. In the long-term, perhaps the very long-term, those religious opinions may disappear. Until then, we need to make sure that those opinions don’t work their tendrils into the lives of the rest of us.