Monday, April 9, 2007

Slap on the Wrist

Rush Limbaugh was fired from ESPN for claiming that the media overrated Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb because they wanted to see a black QB succeed in the NFL. Trent Lott was fired as Senate Majority leader because he said at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday that he would've made a fine president when he ran for the office back in 1948. Jimmy the Greek and Tom Brookshier lost their jobs as sports announcers, the first because he suggested that blacks were bred during slavery for physical excellence and Brookshier because he suggested that the members of a college basketball team, all of whom were black, weren't too bright.

Think what you will about any of these firings for real or alleged racially offensive remarks, none of them was anywhere near as repugnant as Don Imus's remark calling the members of the Rutgers girls basketball team "nappy-headed 'hos." So, what punishment did the reliably anti-Bush Imus get from his employers at the very liberal MSNBC? Two weeks suspension and that only after there was an outcry from the African-American community over Imus' outrageous insult of these girls.

When it comes to race it seems that some people get a pass and some don't. No matter how egregious your remarks, if you're on the right (actually left) side of the ideological divide you get a slap on the wrist. No matter how innocuous your words, if you're on the wrong side you get crucified.

By refusing to can the perpetually offensive Imus MSNBC is saying that calling a group of black female athletes "whores" on national radio/television is not that big a deal.


Journalistic Embarrassment

Journalists need to write to justify their paycheck, to be sure, but most journalists prefer to write about things they know something about so as not to make themselves look utterly foolish. Few of them are as eager to display their ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and contempt for the concept of the free exchange of ideas as eagerly as is Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News.

Consider this passage from her recent column on the Intelligent Design conference to be held at Southern Methodist University:

"Those who favor intelligent design seek to prove that evolution is impossible because the complexity of human systems is beyond the capacity of the Darwinian process to accomplish. Hence, humankind must have been created by a supreme designer."

In just two sentences she manages to make at least four errors all of which she could have avoided had she taken the trouble to do a little research:

1. ID proponents do not seek to prove evolution is wrong. Many of them are themselves evolutionists. The seek to show that the materialist assumptions which undergird contemporary evolutionary theory are inadequate.

2. It is not the complexity of living systems that is at odds with physicalist versions of evolution such as Darwinism, rather it is the ubiquity of specified complexity - complex arrangements of things in specified patterns - that makes the claim that physical mechanisms like natural selection and genetic mutation are all that are needed to account for life implausible. Specified complexity, i.e. information such as we find in DNA and proteins, has never been shown to be a product of blind, mechanical forces, but is always the product of intelligence.

3. It is not just the specified complexity of human systems which needs to be explained, as anyone with even a minimal knowledge of the subject is aware, it is the specified complexity found throughout the entire biosphere as well as the exquisite fine-tuning of the cosmic constants, force strengths, and other parameters that have led many scientists and philosophers to the conclusion that there is an intelligence behind it all.

4. ID says nothing at all about who or what the designer is. To suggest that it is a supreme being is to go well beyond what ID posits. The designer could be a "demiurge" as Plato thought, or the impersonal prime mover of Aristotle, or it could be a universal mind such as the European Idealists envisioned, it could be an alien in our own universe, or it could be an inhabitant of one of the universes in the multiverse, or it could be the Judeo-Christian God. On the identity of the designer ID is officially silent.

Ms. Cullum, having acomplished the remarkable feat of having proved herself to be a journalistic lightweight in just two short sentences, is nevertheless unabashed. She plods resolutely on, determined to make herself look as benighted as one person can possibly look. She declares, for example, that:

"Their [ID proponents] mistake is presenting themselves as a science and Charles Darwin as their natural enemy when, in fact, they are arguing from a religious base."

It's not clear how people can present themselves "as a science" but leave her maladroit syntax aside. What exactly does it mean to argue from a "religious base"? Does the fact that most IDers are believers disqualify them from advancing a theory about biology or cosmology? Does Richard Dawkins' anti-religious "base" disqualify him from talking about origins? Of course not, but perhaps we're expecting Ms Cullum to have thought matters through more thoroughly than she is accustomed.

Maybe this is what she means by ID's "religious base":

"The principal funder of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, sponsor of this confab along with the Christian Legal Society at SMU's Dedman School of Law, is Howard Ahmanson, who long has shown interest in conservative religion."

Ah. Well, that settles that. The driving force behind the conference is a man of traditional religious views. It's an outrage that a Methodist school would host a scientific conference financed by a man who is a Christian. Imagine. Someone with conservative religious views, in Ms Cullum's world, should not have the same rights to support his ideas as everyone else, and if a religious person funds an academic institute then that Institute is perforce religious and thus out of place in a Methodist university. I wonder what John Wesley thinks of all this.

Much of the remainder of the column is pretty much incoherent but there are a few lines worthy of note. She says, for instance, that:

"If advocates of intelligent design would assemble a conference with their own speakers and professors versus, say, Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and an evolutionary biologist, that would be a solid and fascinating program."

Does this mean that if the organizers sought to make this a religious debate rather than a discussion on the philosophical assumptions of science that that would meet with Ms Cullum's approval? As long as it were an entertaining conference then SMU would be justified in hosting it? Are all academic conferences at SMU required to offer platforms to opposing points of view? Would Ms Cullum place the same demand upon a conference of Darwinians? The questions raised by Ms Cullum's column are endless and none of them flatter her.

Interestingly, the organizers of the conference did issue an invitation to each science department at SMU, including the anthropology department, to debate the issues during the conference. None has accepted. Perhaps Ms Cullum would be willing to step in and fill the void by debating, say, Bill Dembski or Michael Behe, since the Darwinians at SMU have suddenly realized that they're busy that evening and since she obviouisly, being a journalist, has a great deal of expertise in these matters.

Undaunted, Ms Cullum presses on:

"Intelligent design is not science, and SMU, though unassailable in its defense of free speech, needs to rethink its policy regarding future use of its facilities and their implied prestige."

So, if a theory is not a scientific theory in Ms Cullum's thinking then it has no business using SMU's facilities to air it's ideas. Does she editorialize against allowing historians, or literary scholars, or philosophers use of the university's facilities? Even if it were granted that ID is not science, a concession I'm not convinced is necessary, it is at least philosophy of science. Has the materialist inquisition whose water Ms. Cullum is carrying suddenly decreed that philosophy of science is intellectually and academically disreputable?

"The university does not have a First Amendment obligation to provide a venue to intellectually suspect arguments, unless they are framed in a way that does not violate settled history (the Holocaust) or settled science. Care must be taken, of course, in discerning which bodies of knowledge are rooted in fact and which are not. But an institution devoted to the life of the mind does have a right and a duty to make those choices."

There are two things about this paragraph that merit comment. First, Ms. Cullum's rule would have prevented Albert Einstein from speaking at SMU, or, for that matter, Charles Darwin. It would also have banned the early advocates of quantum theory and the Big Bang and modern advocates of string theory and science writers like Paul Davies who support the idea of the multiverse. Each of these has certainly "violated" settled science.

Second, Ms Cullum glides seamlessly from declaring ID to be extra-scientific to declaring it therefore to be intellectually suspect. This is a fine example of scientism - the view that whatever is not scientific is intellectually inferior and not suitable for discussion at an academic institution.

Since Ms. Cullum has set herself up as an authority on what is called the demarcation problem in science perhaps she'll be so gracious as to answer a couple of questions about it.

ID's fundamental claim is that natural processes by themselves are not adequate to explain the fine-tuning of the cosmos nor the specified complexity of the biological world. If that claim isn't science, then how does its denial, the claim that natural processes are sufficient to explain these things, qualify as science? Indeed, how would one scientifically test the claim that natural processes alone produced our world?

I doubt Ms. Cullum has an answer to those questions, but we won't press her any further. She's embarrassed herself enough already.


Sam Harris and Self-Refutation

An L.A. Times article quotes anti-theist writer Sam Harris as saying that, "Everything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence. The rest is self-deception, set to music."

Apparently Harris embraces the credo of evidentialism, famously expressed in William Clifford's (1845-1879) syncopated cadences, that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence."

The problem for Harris and Clifford is that they both deeply believe this proposition even though they can not cite an iota of evidence in support of its truth. What evidence could possibly be adduced in support of the claim that it is always wrong to believe anything on insufficient evidence? In fact, the evidentialist claim, ironically enough, is an article of faith.

This puts our evidentialist friends in an awkward philosophical pickle: If their credo is false then obviously Harris and Clifford should not believe it since it's not true. But if it is true they still should not believe it because they have no evidence for it. Either way, Harris clearly believes something he should, by his own standard, not believe. This is how we define a very confused man.

Mr. Harris is featured in the current Newsweek in a conversation with Pastor Rick Warren moderated by Jon Meacham. The conversation was supposed to be about the question "Is God Real?" but unfortunately the interlocutors wandered off on digressions into the truth of the Bible and Christianity and other matters even less relevant to the question of God's reality. Even so, Harris' confusion was prominent in this piece when he insisted that:

"I'm not at all a moral relativist...I think there is an absolute right and wrong. I think honor killing is unambiguously wrong...."

Now this is very odd. If there is no transcendent moral authority how can anything be wrong at all much less absolutely wrong? What Harris is doing is simply expressing his personal dislike for "honor killing" (killing a daughter or sister who has brought sexual disrepute upon the family - a practice not uncommon in the Arab world). He's declaring that honor killing displeases him and is offensive to his tastes, but he has no grounds for saying that the practice is "wrong" unless he wants to argue that whatever displeases him is ipso facto morally wrong. This move, however, would require an extraordinary measure of hubris, even for Mr. Harris.

Harris believes honor killings and so on are wrong because they are the negation of human empathy which is a product of evolution, but just because evolution gives rise to some trait like empathy, assuming that it does, is no reason to think that that trait is morally incumbent upon us, and certainly no reason to think it is absolutely so. To reason this way is to try to derive an "ought" from an "is." It is to say that because things are a certain way that therefore they ought to be that way. In logic this error is called the naturalistic or genetic fallacy, and it's really quite surprising to come upon a well educated person in this day and age who still commits it.