Monday, April 29, 2013

The Perils of Equivocation (and Bombs)

Thinking is hard work. Sometimes it’s unpleasant. Often it forces us to admit we’re wrong, but worst of all, it occasionally necessitates disagreeing with other people. This is never more apparent than when we discuss issues that actually matter, like politics, religion, and the possible connection between the two in certain instances. We all want to avoid conflict, but how?

The solution that academia has offered us is moral-relativism disguised as diversity and sensitivity. We can all agree to disagree and simply avoid difficult conversations by making sure they never happen in the first place. Won’t that make the world a better, happier place?

Only if you’re willing to trade argumentation for explosions, but for some, these appear to be approximately as threatening.

What played out in the media in the days following the Boston bombing could best be understood as a collision between the relativism bandwagon and the freight-train of fact. Even before the dust had fully settled in Massachusetts, the political-commentary magazine “Salon” posted an online article entitled “After Boston explosions, a scapegoat emerges on the right,” which vehemently and preemptively denounced the blaming Muslims for the bombing. A few days later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein accused Rep. Peter King of “develop[ing] some real disdain and hatred on public television,” for suggesting that there is a threat coming from within the Muslim community.

In an ironic but predictable twist of events, it turned out that bombers were not radical Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Christians, Quakers or Scientologists, but two brothers who subscribed to the same militant strand of political Islam as those who perpetrated 9/11, 7/7 and various embassy attacks, beheadings and bombings around the globe.

As stated by Randall Munroe, the artist behind the web-comic series “XKCD,” “correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there.’” Could there be a causal link between particular religious beliefs and acts of violence and intolerance?

I would posit that ideas have consequences. The belief that the eternal creator of the universe hates all unbelievers, an incessantly repeated idea within the Quran, could very well lead to the particular pattern of religious violence we’ve seen in the news over the last decade.

Before jumping to the false but traditional charges of “racism” and “Islamophobia” that people use to escape difficult discussions (as if a critique of an idea was a bias against an ethnic group or an irrational fear), think about the stakes for a moment. Just within April, two radical Jihadi men were sentenced to just under 20 years in prison for planning on attacking the Military Entrance Processing Center in Seattle, Canadian police arrested two more for preparing a major terrorist attack on the Amtrak-Via passenger line near Toronto, and three were arrested shortly before attempting to attack the British town of Wooton Basset. It would appear that the sheer effort of our intelligence agencies are all that stand protect us from something like a Boston bombing every few weeks.

Is protecting people’s sensibilities and avoiding the work of defending ideas on merit really worth that? If certain ideas—not individual rights, but ideas—remain off-limits to coddle people’s emotional sensitivities, then the odds of this pattern changing are slim. At the very least we—particularly college students, the future of our nation—must recognize just how high the ante really is. Lazy thinking and equivocating is an easy trap to fall into because it allows us to think of ourselves as good, moral people without having to take a stand if we can equivocate a bombing and the statement that the bombing might be part of a larger trend with a clear ideological cause. It’s so easy.

But thinking is not easy, and we should resist the desire to take the easy path because the safety of conformity is explosively deceptive. In his famous tract “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that in the pursuit of truth, we “must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.” It is a demanding task to critically evaluate euphemistic canned values like “diversity” and “tolerance,” but given the state of the world we live in, it might be necessary.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Truth and Fallibility: A Historical Perspective on Why Liberty Matters

History is arguably one of the most undervalued subjects in education. While history does not repeat itself, as is commonly and fallaciously stated, it does have a tendency to rhyme. Past events form a model for how we can expect the present and future to play out, and can guide our understanding and decision-making to hopefully escape the mistakes of our ancestors.

When we neglect the study of history, it is easy to forget why we hold certain beliefs and values, and perhaps the most important is the principle of free expression.  Its value is not particularly self-evident, and is in many ways actually counter-intuitive; shouldn’t we want to protect people from hateful speech of wrong ideas?
Such was the line of thinking that John Milton was arguing against in his time-transcending essay Areopagitica, in defense of freedom of the press. His was a time in which the printing presses were controlled and censored by the royal government, a government which was presumed, under the divine right of kings, to have a greater monopoly on truth than mere mortals. What if Kings too were simply poorly evolved mammals like the rest of us, prone to error in judgment and perception?

Censorship, according to Milton and to John Stuart Mill in his Milton-echoing essay On Liberty, harms us in three distinct ways: It robs us of potential exposure to some previously unknown truth in its’ presupposition that we already have the truth and that we cannot be wrong; It takes away our ability to critically analytically think about what we think we know, and our chances at more deeply understanding why we know what we believe to be true is, in fact, true; And finally, it fails to solve the problems it attempts to solve—namely false ideas. The prevention and punishment of the dissemination of thoughts we disagree with doesn’t make them go away, but merely forces them underground, promoting a polarized and uncommunicative society that lays the groundwork for greater misunderstanding, contempt and conflict.

The reasons for free expression necessarily imply the allowance for ideas that might seem untrue to us, or even hateful. An often-quoted example against such liberty is the famous ruling of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who sent members of the American Socialist Party to prison for opposing America’s involvement in WWI, claiming their distribution of pamphlets was allegorically equivalent to “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” As the smoke cleared from that unnecessary conflict, more than 117,000 American soldiers lay dead. Was Holmes really sure there was no metaphorical fire?

As a student, it is easy to fall prey to speech limitations from the pleading arguments of “tolerance,” but these neglect the thoughts of Mill and Milton and subsequently shut down debate. My critical writing in the school paper on college policies that impose orthodoxy in student thought have stirred controversy, alienated former friends and even threatened my job, but maintaining the values of the enlightenment seems well-worth the dangers in pursuit of discerning truth.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

BC more politically diverse than students think, study suggests

Dustin Boehlke scrunched his eyebrows and paused for a moment before filling in the blank pie charts in front of him. He had just completed a survey on student political views at Bellevue College and was now filling in his guesses as to what the results of the study would be. “Tolerance is probably a little bit bigger,” he said as he etched in the pie-chart on BC student value priorities, given a choice between tolerance, freedom and traditional morality. He filled in about 65 percent as being for tolerance.

In reality, of the 85 students polled for the survey, only 19 percent claimed tolerance trumped the other two options. Boehlke had wrongly guessed that most students at BC were “progressive liberals,” when in actuality, the outcome of the polling data seems to suggest that student political sympathies tend to be more libertarian and conservative than liberal. He wasn’t alone in his misperception however; 85 percent of the students polled felt that most people at BC are liberal.

The survey questionnaire posed four multiple-choice questions to students that focused on their views of human nature, equality, values and government. The fifth question asked students what group, between liberals, conservatives and libertarians, they thought was most prevalent on campus. Though the overwhelming majority guessed liberal, most BC students appear to be libertarians, with conservatives just slightly outnumbering liberals.

After being showed the results, students tended to offer two different explanations for the results. Many felt that the methodology was lacking in many regards. “That’s not a big enough sample-size” said Erin Hoffman, the news editor for “The Watchdog.” Hoffman added that many of the questions forced students into choosing between false dichotomies, and that some of the answers contained hidden biases. Giulia Balzola was particularly concerned about the second question, which asked students to decide whether people are capable of achieving ideal solutions to problems or are fundamentally flawed and resistant to change. Designed to emulate Thomas Sowell’s “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions of human nature that form the basic differences between liberals and conservatives, Giulia felt that the answers didn’t frame the different perspectives properly. “The first answer is addressing social and external problems the people could be able to solve. The second answer is saying the people have problems themselves. I think this answer does not exclude the first one.”

Balzola didn’t say the study was completely wrong though. “Most people on this campus aren’t actually liberal. They’re faking it. I’m a real liberal and I know what it means to be liberal.” She added that perhaps students felt that they had to say they were liberal, even if they weren’t. Other students expressed similar sentiments, and added that this was partially due to the dominance of a progressive-liberal culture that punishes people who step out of line. “I don’t even talk to [minority students] on campus anymore,” said one conservative student who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t have anything against them, I just don’t want to get in trouble if I say something that gets interpreted the wrong way.” Other students and staff members echoed the feelings of isolation, including Joan LeBeau, the president of BC’s College Republicans. “You feel like an island sometimes,” she said.

The term to describe this fear of retaliation which leads to isolation is “pluralistic ignorance.” Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker explained the concept in an interview with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, saying that “if dissenters are punished and can anticipate they’re going to be punished, then you might have a situation where no one actually believes something, but everyone believes that everyone else believes it, therefore no one is willing to be the little boy that says ‘the emperor is naked.’” According to Pinker, BC wouldn’t be alone if the pluralistic ignorance hypothesis proves to be true. “It’s the University[s] that imposes more stringent restraints on speech than society at large…and this pluralistic ignorance, as it’s sometimes called, is easily implemented when you have the punishing or censoring of unpopular views.”

Boehlke has good reason to fear punishment: he was threatened with sanctions from the school administration earlier in the quarter after making a Harlem Shake video that was deemed to be offensive, and was then accused of intimidating others when he tried to apologize to the offended student. “Is this people around BC? Because it seems like…that’s not what I see in people.” For Boehlke and for many others, the discovery that tolerance and progressive-liberal culture isn’t as nearly as prevalent as most students imagine could have profound implications. “Definitely publish this. It would be interesting to see what people think about it.”

Monday, April 22, 2013

Debating Animal Testing

I participated in my first recorded online debate over the course of the last week. While there are definitely things I think I could improve on, I think I made the case for my side about as strong as I could, given the time constraints. I actually feel somewhat guilty for not being a vegetarian and for wearing leather on occasion. The opposition, in my opinion, is actually a technically better debater, but it's hard to defend a motion in a debate tournament funded and organized by a group (PETA) with vested interest in the other side winning.

A brief teaser (my second of three videos):

The entire playlist of 5 videos is available here. All together, the whole debate is 17 minutes long.

Defending Margaret Thatcher

April 22, 2013

Perhaps the corollary to the old truism that “well-behaved women rarely make history” is that women who make history rarely go without being accused of not behaving well enough. One could hardly say she was “ill-behaved,” but former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher certainly has enemies that will say so, as the weeks after her death have tastelessly shown.

Within hours of her passing on April 8, detractors of the conservative Thatcher began playing “Ding dong the witch is dead,” as sung by Julie Garland from the Wizard of Oz, all across Britain. By April 11, the song reached number one on the iTunes download chart and it seemed to be on the climb towards hitting number one on the singles chart.

It was at this point that the British Broadcasting network BBC was faced with a dilemma. The increasing popularity of the song as well as incessant requests from listeners demanded that the insulting song be played over the airwaves. Conversely, conservative listeners pressed for the song to be banned to honor their former leader. It’s only proper, after all.

What to do?

Why not start by referencing the principles of one of the greatest British leaders of the last century—Margaret Thatcher. After all, not every public servant gets an entire style of politics named after them. What was “Thatcherism” all about? According to her Chancellor of the Exchequer (not unlike an economic cabinet advisor to the American president) Nigel Lawson, described it as a focus on “free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cutsnationalism, 'Victorian values,' privatisation and a dash of populism.”

“Victorian values” is a broad term, and could be interpreted in a variety of ways, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch to take some of the great British philosophical contributions from beneath its canopy. With consideration for the works of two of the greatest and most value-oriented English writers in the nation’s history—John Milton and John Stuart Mill—the task of banning music critical of Thatcher, however crude, becomes self-defeating. It would be a betrayal of the enlightenment values of free expression, to which England has had such a proud history of contributing and upholding. Add a dash of populism to the equation and it becomes an overt insult to Thatcher’s convictions, the very ones the ban-supporters are, ostensibly, trying to defend.

Ultimately, and thankfully, BBC chose not to ban the song. We can’t speak for the dead, but if Margaret Thatcher would support the allowance of this kind of immature criticism, she wouldn’t be alone. At the United Nations conference last year, President Barack Obama addressed a similar problem with the “Innocence of Muslims” film. “It was a crude and disgusting video,” he said, but banning the video was not the right solution. “As president of our country and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day. And I will always defend their right to do so…The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression. It is more speech; the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”

Of course, it is not always easy to hear such vicious criticism of someone you admire, but the best way to support your heroes is to stand for their values, and the right to criticize is certainly one that Thatcher used and stood for. If some people still worry that the "Iron Lady" will be turning over in her grave at the disrespectful aftermath of her death, Thatcher will always have her immortal response: "You turn if you want to. That lady's not for turning."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Toronto's "Misogynists and White-Supremacists"

April 15, 2013

Sometimes it is difficult to see where our biases blind us, but occasionally, some group will brazenly step into the spotlight and enlighten us all with a dazzling display of self-righteous stupidity. This isn’t solely entertainment; they’re powerful moments that we should use as an opportunity to reevaluate our own perspectives on important issues. Toronto, in a strange and twisted series of events, has again provided us with just such a “learning experience.”
On April 4, Dr. Katherine Young and Dr. Paul Nathanson came to the University of Toronto to hold a panel discussion they called “From Misogyny and Misandry to Intersex Dialogue.” Both doctorates in religious studies, the pair have co-written three books hoping to help spread awareness about a type of problem that another mob-targeted speaker at Toronto University, Dr. Warren Farrell, had spoken about in November of last year: problems facing men. It is an increasingly worrying subject, one that was even broached here at Bellevue College last year by Dr. Bernard Franklin.
But alas, we are told that such talk derails society’s attention from “the real issues,” the important issues (read “the ones facing women”). In fact, the very idea of bringing up men’s issues—the problems of boys failing in school, of men dying early, of ending up in prison at alarming rates, of increased alcoholism and five times higher rates of suicide than women—the mere mention of such problems, we are told, is tantamount to hating women. Apparently, the presence of evil Men’s Rights Advocates was serious enough to warrant an attempt to shout down the speakers so that no one could hear the presentation. When that failed, pulling the fire-alarm to more firmly impede opposing ideas seemed necessary. “The so-called men’s-rights movement is simply an alliance of misogynists, white-supremacists and people who aren’t very connected to reality, who have no real desire to make a positive change in society,” explained one of the calmer students at the rally outside Dr. Nathanson and Dr. Young’s discussion. “It blames feminism and the advancement of women for the problems of men in the world.”
In a sense, this is true. Almost all of feminism theory hinges on this thing called “the patriarchy.” The patriarchy, we are told, is the system in every society in which men systematically maintain their own power and influence at the expense of women. In the words of feminist and political theorist Carole Pateman, “the patriarchal construction of the difference between masculinity and femininity is the political difference between freedom and subjection.” Feminism views sex through the dichotomizing eyes of Marx and Engels, in which “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles…in a word, oppressor and oppressed…”
This dichotomizing belief is not merely untrue; it’s genuinely harmful. If we define power as the ability to control your own life, men are constrained by a similar set of gender-norms, and these come from the demands of survival, not from ‘male dominance.’ Men and women have held different roles due to biolgoical differences, not because of self-perpetuating exploitation. Falsely believing that men actively oppress women fosters hate and contempt in place of understanding and compassion.
Similarly, the now commonplace idea that women live in a “rape culture”—a society in which rape is accepted, excused or even condoned—is absolutely wrong. When the media attempted to give a different perspective on the recent Steubenville rape case, for example, they were (rightfully) vilified and denounced en masse. Their judgment and commentary was clearly not normal or accepted by the general public, nor should it be.
Incidentally, this brings us back to Toronto, where women can imagine what a rape culture might actually look like through the eyes of men. Four days before Dr. Young and Dr. Nathanson’s presentation, a 19-year old man was gang-raped by 4 women in a parking lot. The National Post quoted Detective Constable Thomas Ueberholz saying “…it is not completely unusual for a male to be the victim of a sexual assault.” In the same article, Nicole Pietsch of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crises Centres said “other men will say for example, ‘Oh, he’s so lucky,’ like that was actually a positive thing.” Is someone who sympathizes with the plight of this 19-year old man really a sexist racial supremacist?
I would say that the protesters are exposing their sham ideology for what it is, but don’t take my word for it. Watch the videos of the protesters and decide for yourself which side appears to be more rational and open to different views.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

New CDC Study Won't Change Minds on Vaccines

April 8, 2013

Purity, sanctity and self-righteousness are normally the attributes of the moral compass we associate with the reactionary right—religious zealots and gun toting, flag-waving ideologues who battle against science and reason. But are moral crusades solely a project of crazy conservatives?
“Left and right are like yin and yang,” said the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an interview with the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. “Morality binds and blinds, and when a group circles around sacred objects and sacred values, they then give up the possibility of thinking clearly about whatever they’ve sacralized. It’s easy to see this on the right…but what’s harder to see is that people on the left, if you know what they hold sacred, you can see where they deny science too.” The idea of purity, usually sexual purity, is arguably one of the more visible and harmful sacred values held by the right, but purity of what we put in our bodies has become a similarly powerful ideology on the side of the left.
To be clear, the issue is not scientifically rigorous studies on nutrition or toxins in our foods, but assumptions about the inherent goodness of “naturalness.” To illustrate how wrong this idea is, I want you to try to keep a straight face and ignore the thousands of natural toxins like cyanide and arsenic for the moment and instead consider influenza. It is perfectly natural for people to die to this virus; 18,000 people did just that during the 2009-2010 flu season and thousands more will do so by the end of Spring this year.
The flu vaccine, developed in the 1940s, is decidedly unnatural by contrast, but while we’re comparing, it’s hard to ignore the numbers. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, before the vaccine, killed between 50 and 100 million people. The first major flu outbreak after the vaccine, the Asian Flu of 1957, killed only around one million people.
So here we have one example of something “impure” saving tens of millions of people from something destructively pure and natural. But that’s not enough to stop the moral crusade against vaccines, a movement based on a fraudulent article published in 1998 in the British medical journal “The Lancet” that falsely linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine with autism.
The main worry rose from an ingredient called thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound used as a preservative in some vaccines. Though the arguments against thimerosal were arguments on correlational—not causal—links, their proponents conveniently ignored the fact that thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in 2001. Rates of autism subsequently continued to rise. An actual link between the levels of mercury in a shot, about one eighth the amount in an average tuna-sandwich, and autism was never established.
Deplorably, the article wasn’t retracted because of its unscientific nature, though it was eventually retracted in 2010 after it was revealed that the author of the article, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was receiving money from a local firm looking to sue the vaccination company. But that didn’t stop the righteous moral majority of health puritans from continuing their crusade against dangerous vaccines. The powerful anti-vaccination movement has recruited doctors, parents of children with autism and even celebrities like Jim Carrey. More than a year and a half after the “Lancet” article was retracted, a Sept. 2011 poll by Thomas Reuters-NPR found that more than a quarter of Americans still had serious concerns about the safety of vaccines.
On March 29, 2013, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released the findings of a recent study that definitively showed that “there is no relationship between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism rates in children.” Sadly, we can probably assume that this won’t do much to change the minds of those who have staked out their sacred ground in the natural and the pure, however unfounded and harmful their beliefs may be. Just as bloggers and activists like Christina England responded to critics of the anti-vaccine movement Penn and Teller by calling them “chauvinistic” and describing their arguments as feeble and bullying while conveniently ignoring the arguments themselves, we need only set our watches and wait for the righteous crusaders to claim that the CDC studies are biased or that the people who point out these inconvenient facts are somehow bad people.
Before we can jump to solving grand problems like global warming, everyone, no matter their political tendencies, has to let go of the idea that their party or side has a monopoly on truth and take our stances based on facts and ideals, not emotions and ideologies. Whether American society can pull together and figure out how to rid ourselves of something as easy and straightforward as the flu might very well be a litmus test for whether solving much more complex issues is even possible.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"What is offense, really?"

Credit: Game-Over-Custom,
I wrote that very question rhetorically in a rather lengthy rant against college speech codes back in November of last year, with the implied answer being that they were subjective. After taking several brain science courses, including cognitive and physiological psychology, it occurred to me that this question actually remains remarkably unanswered. A quick library database search found no scientifically rigorous books on the phenomenon of "offence," though I'm quite sure we can all agree it is a very real experience indeed, with equally real consequences.

My prima facie hypothesis on the nature of offence is essentially that it is the limbic system's response to perceived threats to an individual's or an individual's family's or group's social status (the 3rd and 4th tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs). Basic behavioral biology and game theory would easily explain why both our offence triggers and reactions are so varied and malleable. It could even explain why a soccer player would headbutt another player over a yo-mamma joke.

I've emailed by psychology professors and asked Reddit if there are current scientific paradigms about the experience of offence. If that fails (and given the remarkable lack of material online about the subject, it seems likely), I'll see if I can figure out a way to test my hypothesis and answer some of the following questions:

1. What is the substance of offence? Is it related to the limbic system, or to particular chemicals?
2. What are the physiological symptoms (if any) of the experience of taking offence?
3. Is taking offence in any way comparable to the experience of physical pain?
4. What are the most common and reliable triggers of offence? Are there universal triggers?
5. What is the evolutionary explanation for the phenomenon of taking offence?
6. How easy is it to change, eliminate, or impose offensive triggers?
7. Are there some things we should be offended by? Some things we are, but shouldn't be?

Given the political and legal importance of not hurting people's feelings in today's society, it is intriguing that these questions don't appear to have been subjected to serious scientific inquiry. The answers, particularly to questions 3, 4, and 6, are ones we really should have or at least be discussing when talking about issues of free speech, bullying, and related legal issues of a subjective nature.