The Epitome of Arrogance: The Religious Righteous Among Us

As a non-theist and card-carrying member of the reality-based community, I have found myself using the term arrogant with increasing frequency these past several years. It just seems so descriptive of all those right-wing ideologues who blatantly distort and deny established facts while promoting their self-serving interests. My prime target has been Christian fundagelicals, who can be recognized by their pious certitude and their meddling in affairs that all people of good will consider personal choices. Those fundies with their theocratic agenda represent arrogant ideology at its most menacing. And to think that with so little to go on they actually fancy themselves gifted with knowledge of nothing less than the ultimate truth – the truth about life’s meaning and purpose, the existence and nature of an afterlife; souls, free will, morality, sexual conduct, gender roles, all of it. And of course they claim to get it all directly from The Source, the Big Guy in the Sky, their creepy version of Almighty God. Boldly displaying their signature arrogance, they yearn to replace our Constitutionally protected rights with their “Biblical Law,” as several past and present Republican presidential candidates have affirmed. Never mind that there is no real evidence outside their own minds to support their bizarre fantasies, which makes them just about the last people on earth who have the right to call anyone arrogant.

Still, a devoutly religious acquaintance recently took offense at some critical comments I wrote about the religious righteous, accusing me, among other things, of being arrogant and condescending. I conceded that he had “about two-fifths of a point,” but I emphatically denied the accusation of arrogance. I suggested he might be misconstruing justifiable indignation – outrage, really – at the religious right’s habitual, menacing violation of all the canons of rational discourse and mutual respect.

I told him of my lifelong commitment to the primacy of evidence and reason, citing David Hume’s dictum, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” That commitment, if honored consistently, virtually rules out arrogance. How, I asked, can a blanket willingness to abide by evidence be called arrogant? I reminded him that arrogance is defined as “an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” If I gave him that impression, I said, it was probably due to careless writing on my part or poor reading on his, because I know this much about myself: I value evidence as much as anyone and have devoted a good portion of my life, including a college class in Bayesian statistics, to trying to understand how to evaluate evidence. And not only out of interest but because, in tandem with reason, sound evidence is the foundation of everything I accept as likely to be true. So if we’re going to debate who’s arrogant, let’s talk about devious denial of all scientific findings that conflict with believers’ Bronze Age dogma. That, to me, is close to the epitome of exaggerated self-importance.

I also pointed out that I feel as strongly about my reason-and-evidence-based world view and morality as he and his fellow believers feel about their religious intuitions and institutions. Despite using the nice word, intuitions, and not the mean word, delusions, I haven’t heard from him since. Oh, well. I’m not writing for true believers who are inoculated against well-established facts such as, say, evolution happened.

Anyway, about the only thing I care to communicate to fundagelicals is this:

Well-informed people here and all over the world understand that you’re deluded. You need to get a proper education and broaden your horizons if you hope to contribute something useful to 21st century dialog.

So yes, I am guilty of condescension – more accurately, contempt – toward many on the religious right, not because of my self-importance but because they are so blatantly and belligerently ignorant. For a very long time, Biblical literalism has been known to be so ridiculous that it’s not even wrong. So I’m responding to them the same way I would if a seemingly competent adult were stubbornly arguing for the existence of elves or fairies. Or alien abductions, or holocaust denial, or homeopathy (remember, it’s just water!). Or if they asked me, in all seriousness, “If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” Or if they claimed that the Denver Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow enjoys an advantage on the field because of his close relationship with a “Lord and Savior”? (I had to get that in . . . Go, Patriots!) At some point it is no longer rude to point out that the emperor is naked. I used this quote from Thomas Jefferson in an earlier column, but it bears repeating here:

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

Now I don’t generally condone or enjoy gratuitous contempt (or ridicule). It must be used appropriately, as a last resort; the target has to deserve it, otherwise it is unfair, insensitive, mean-spirited – Republican, if you will. So I try, not always successfully, to conduct my discourse based on the principle that every individual deserves the benefit of the doubt, until they demonstrate otherwise. Of course benefit of the doubt has a very short shelf life for ideologues who immediately start waving red flags in your face; but not every fundie is willfully ignorant and judgmental. Some, perhaps most, are victims of childhood indoctrination by trusted adults. On that I’ll go along with Richard Dawkins, who says childhood religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse.

So I guess the take-home is this: There will always be political strife in a free and diverse society. But if we’re going to survive as a viable constitutional democracy, we must all make an effort to coexist in some semblance of peace and harmony. The willingness to consider good evidence and to accept overwhelming evidence would seem to be a minimal requirement. Regrettably, there are far too many individuals and groups in the U.S. who fail to meet that standard, and I see no signs of improvement on the horizon. On the contrary, any faint beacons of hope appear to be receding out of sight.

One final point about the fundies among us: I would’t give a damn about the nonsense they believe if they didn’t wield such excessive political power, if they didn’t pose a serious threat to our freedoms. I’d feel more like we teenagers did back in the day when the holy rollers did their hooting and hollering in tents on the edge of town and we joked about them. These days they have long since folded their tents and flocked to the televangelists and megachurches, from whence they have gone mainstream-political in a big way. And the harm they have caused here and in other countries (e.g, with their heavy-handed opposition to contraception and birth control) is incalculable. All because their leaders have convinced them that they know the mind of some vengeful, Old Testament God.

Next time, chapter and verse on the sins of the religious right. In the meantime, I urge you to purchase and read Sean Faircloth’s revealing book, “Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All – and What We Can Do About It.” It will disabuse you of any apathy or lingering sympathy you may have for the religious righteous among us.




One Nation Indivisible? Tell Me Another One.

Damn, I forgot the “under God” part. Seriously. I wrote it that way without even thinking about the latest (1954) addition to the Pledge of Allegiance – that historically contentious, often coercive, semi-secular American ritual. Almost since its inception in 1892, the government-sponsored (sometimes required) public recitation of the Pledge has been criticized and legally challenged on several rational and persuasive grounds. If we’re going to be stuck with a pledge – and personally I don’t like it, with or without the God reference – it would be a more respectful and culturally mature practice if it didn’t promote a particular form of religion. Separation of church and state just seems like such an enlightened and prudent idea, seeing that it protects everyone’s right to believe and worship, or not, as they choose. What could be more quintessentially American, more in the spirit of “with liberty and justice for all”?

(Never one to pass up an opportunity for irony, I am obliged to point out that the Pledge was written by a Christian socialist and Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy.)

Now on with the latest rambling rant. . . . The Pledge is just one relatively minor, albeit revealing, flashpoint in the pervasive and incessant culture wars that have almost come to define this country of late. So I’ll say it one more time: the U.S. is irredeemably and dangerously polarized, at least for the foreseeable future (and I fear depolarization cannot be accomplished peacefully.) Every day the very idea of a United States is belied in the print and broadcast media, on the internet, in our national and state legislatures, in churches, and in too many schools.

There are cultural and political fault lines everywhere; but the big one – the San Andreas of our fractured landscape – is right versus left, conservative versus liberal. It can also be characterized as ideologically-driven denialists versus the reality-based community. There I go, defending reality again. Who would have thought that reality – along with its intimate partner, science – would need defending in the 21st-Century United States? But you know it does, unless you’ve been ignoring all the right-wing religious and political rhetoric.

Actually, I want to put liberal in quotes due to the unmistakable rightward lurch that has both expanded and demonized the term over the past 30 years. What used to be moderate is now labeled liberal, usually derisively when used by those on the right. The lockstep Republican base is now so extreme that former conservative icons would be considered “too liberal” today unless they pandered to the deluded ideologues who hold the Republican Party in a death grip. I’m talking about transparent pandering as practiced by the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, with the seeming exception of Ron Paul.

Speaking of Congressman Paul, it should be noted that he sponsored the Sanctity of Life Act, which would define human life as beginning at conception. (I can’t be alone in thinking that the only possible rationale for such an absurd position has to be religious. And don’t you agree that any and all laws based solely on religion, without a compelling secular justification, should be ipso facto unconstitutional?) It seems oddly inconsistent that Paul, who bills himself as such a consistent, libertarian proponent of individual freedom, would take the lead in trying to criminalize the act of removing a clump of cells from a woman’s fallopian tube or uterus. His excuse that he inadvertently witnessed the brutality of a “partial-birth abortion” fails to make a distinction between a zygote and a nearly full-term fetus. Such blatant contradictions are typical of right-wing ideologues: they don’t try to justify their positions with logic and evidence but merely offer plausible emotional reasons to satisfy the incurious but dogmatic political base. 

Now I don’t mean to say that all the Republican candidates are adopting extreme right-wing positions in their speeches and debates only for political advantage. That would be giving Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, for example, far too much credit. It’s clear they really believe much of the bizarre ideological nonsense they’re promoting. But in any case I’m not going to focus on the political and economic issues that are making most of the headlines. That assignment is being handled admirably by others here at TPJmagazine. What I want to discuss are some very fundamental differences between people who identify as conservatives versus those who place themselves somewhere on the moderate-to-liberal spectrum. In the process I will reference and quote a couple of remarkable, recent articles: the first has the provocative title, Promising new research hints at possible treatment for Conservative Personality Disorder. It is an entertaining and informative tour de force written this past February by a gifted, progressive New York City blogger who writes under the pseudonym, Iris Vander Pluym. The second article, titled New Confederacy Rising: Testing, once again, whether this nation can long endure, was published at In These Times on October 5 and rerun at AlterNet, my favorite political website, on December 8. The author is Theo Anderson.

Anyway, I’m thinking I now have an assigned topic – Compare and Contrast Liberals and Conservatives – that I can roll with through most of 2012. And unless someone gives me a good reason not to, I plan to include moderates along with liberals on the grounds that it is not possible to be a moderate conservative these days, or maybe not an independent moderate, because half way between Republican and Democrat is still extreme conservatism. So except for low-information voters, it’s nearly impossible to be a moderate, much less an informed, thoughtful moderate. Also, I doubt that there’s any meaningful role for moderates in the shrinking tent of the Republican/Tea Party (what Steve Jonas calls the GOTP).

That leaves us with that strange breed known as Independents, who might better be labeled “Indifferents,” or “Shruggies,” to appropriate a term first used, to my knowledge, by Dr. Val Jones at the Science-Based Medicine blog. On second thought, a lot of Independents are best classified as low-information voters who perk up, but never catch up, during major election years. That makes it ironic, and frightening, that people who spend about five minutes deciding which candidates are most attractive often hold the balance of power in elections. There are, of course, other groups that will deserve attention from time to time.

Like most of my friends and perhaps a majority of Democrats, I’m politically left of center, but not what most people would describe as far left. Regardless of what the right says, we are not socialists; we don’t actively oppose well-regulated capitalism. But we do recognize and oppose corporate and big-money domination as a serious threat to fundamental democratic values. We all support an evolving social safety net and the importance of strong and effective Federal government. And yes, we certainly believe in fiscal responsibility. Where did the idea come from that the economy is better under Republican administrations? Republicans, I’m sure. But show me the data, and I’ll listen.

In my previous column I confessed to being addicted to reality – hence the pen name, Science Junkie. In essence, I am compelled to acknowledge good evidence as likely being true and to make appropriate course adjustments whether or not the evidence supports my current beliefs. From a political-values standpoint I identify more with European social democracy than with any political movement in this country. But I am always prepared to modify my beliefs based on sound and reliable evidence. Anything less would be arrogant, wouldn’t it?

So next time I’ll begin to take a close look at the major differences between conservatives and liberals, citing research data where possible, to try to determine why the U.S. seems so hopelessly polarized. But to conclude on a more hopeful note, a podcaster I respect recently suggested that even fundamentalist and evangelical Americans are more secular than they think they are. And on those rare occasions when I watch network TV, I’m actually encouraged by all the crass and tacky superficial materialism that dominates our favorite prime-time, mass-entertainment medium. Call it hopeful ambivalence: the millions of people who watch that inane, vulgar programming can’t really be foot soldiers in the the repressive right-wing religious and political army. Can they?

In the meantime, I wish you all the happiest of holidays.









My Name is Bob, and I’m an Addict

Back in the days of my misspent youth, addiction referred to a self-destructive dependency on psychoactive, habit-forming drugs like heroin and alcohol. But as with so many words in this hyped up era, the meaning expanded to include, in addition to substances, a variety of behaviors, notably sex and gambling. Then the concept took on a positive tangent with the publication of William Glasser’s book, “Positive Addiction.” Glasser recommended the practices of meditation and distance running, claiming they could produce a euphoric, life-enhancing alteration of consciousness.

Speaking from experience as one who has pursued his share of serial passions, including distance running, chess, and photography, I am prepared to say that the line between a positive and negative addiction can be very fine; and it is quite possible, depending on circumstances, to cross the line from positive to negative, as I did more than once. I would not be surprised to learn that most all addictions, positive as well as negative, will be found to have common neurochemical causes at the level of the brain. The research seems to be trending that way. After all, virtually every experience alters the brain; and repeated experiences that activate reward circuits appear to change the brain in ways that lead to the compulsive behaviors we label addictions. Of course it’s more complicated than that, which means I will have to revisit the subject very soon.

Junkie is a closely related informal term that can refer to a drug addict or, according to the dictionary, “a person with a compulsive habit or obsessive dependency on something.” As in political junkie. By the way, in case you’re a newer reader who has wondered what TPJ stands for, the original name of our magazine was “The Political Junkies.” When I started writing columns here, I chose a pseudonym, “Reluctant Junkie,” intended to convey the idea that my obsession with politics was forced on me rather than stemming from any abiding interest or curiosity – except possibly morbid curiosity, as depicted in this little satirical masterpiece from the Onion News Network. Anyway, for most of my life before the Bush debacle, I was pretty much happily indifferent to politics, although I always leaned left. But then came Bush-administration-induced nagging paranoia. I mean, what thinking person who valued constitutional democracy would not have been alarmed by the machinations and serial misconduct of that organized crime syndicate? And lest you forget, “Bush’s Brain,” Karl Rove, is still out there, scheming with other members of the vast, right-wing conspiracy to bring about the utter destruction of all remaining progressive values.

So I became a reluctant political junkie about ten years ago. My addiction/obsession was mostly involuntary, bringing few satisfactions until I started writing a column for The Political Junkies that gave me a forum where I could express my thoughts, fears, hopes, frustrations and general loathing for most things political. Then Obama was elected, which still ranks as one of the most memorable and happiest nights of my life – it’s hard to beat the combination of relief and schadenfreude! But my happiness was, as I feared at the time, destined to be fleeting, soon to be replaced by my default lesser-of-evils mode, which is where I’m stuck now. I keep saying this is a Paul Revere moment, and I want to ride through the streets shouting, “Wake up and smell the theocratic fascism brewing on the right; it’s time to take the offensive rather than remaining mired in the sickening, self-defeating appeasement of the past three years.” This is no time for finesse: a near-critical mass of Americans are ready to wage an epic struggle, but they have to be inspired. Inspired by what? How about something along the lines of Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope”? Certainly not futile bipartisan efforts which elicit nothing but contempt from the right-wing warriors. 

Okay, that’s enough damn politics for a while. And considering that I’m more than halfway through this column, it’s time to get to the point and fess up about my addiction. Besides, there will be many opportunities in the coming months to rant about politics. Soon we won’t be able to escape the lies, non sequiturs and ignorance of another presidential campaign. So let me talk about my current addiction, which inspired my new pseudonym, “Science Junkie”:

I am addicted to reality.

I know it’s a stretch, but don’t laugh just yet. Strange though it may sound, reality needs defenders. So I shamelessly used the addiction shtick to call attention to the fact that despite the proliferation of “reality” shows on TV, Americans seem less committed to accepting it than at any time in my memory. Looking out across this vast cultural wasteland, I see more groups forming enclaves of ideology, setting up online, fact-free zones where they congregate like holy rollers reaffirming their bizarre dogmas, ignoring or denying all contrary evidence. And like religious fanatics, they are turning to vicious demonizing of scientists and other rational experts who reject their claims on the basis of competent science. The anti-vaccination movement is a particularly pernicious case in point, but these days any group with sufficient resources can make outrageously false claims with confidence things will play out to their advantage.

A major reason they get away with it is because of the profit-driven complicity of a mainstream news media that has abdicated its responsibility to pursue facts that might lower ratings or prove embarrassing to the wrong people. Even when convincing refutations of falsehoods are published, they rarely attract enough interest to even begin to reverse the advantages already gained by the charlatans and the sincerely deluded. So while corrupted news sources are pandering to corporate greed and the lowest common denominator, there is a highly effective and no doubt lucrative industry out there utilizing all the proven artifices of mass persuasion. And we are about to be subjected to a deluge of the very worst of it as the political season ramps up. But the sorry truth is it doesn’t take that much to persuade low-information voters who are complete strangers to critical-thinking skills. This is certainly not what Thomas Jefferson envisioned.

Anyway, that’s the reality I see every day. And because I’m addicted to it, I can’t look the other way or pretend things are okay or are going to get better. The tabloid mentality prevails far and wide, and the discourse – what little there is – sounds more like The Jerry Springer show than anything approaching civilized debate. I’d bet Jefferson would be rolling in his grave, if he could.

So while I facetiously call myself a reality addict and a science junkie, those labels are not far from the truth. On the other end of the spectrum, I know and read about lots of people who give the impression that they are attracted to pseudoscience and other forms of woo because they are unscientific. And they’re not all dolts: many fairly bright individuals seem to take perverse pleasure in rejecting or opposing the findings of scientific “elites.” I have to think Republicans bear much of the responsibility for this. If so, I’m sure they’re proud of it.

Next time: a look at some of the worst reality deniers.


Forward, Backward, and In Between

Hello, and Happy Halloween. Today you get two columns for the price of one.

I didn’t plan it that way. The original plan was to title this column “What’s Wrong With Science?” But as I was going back through my notes and earlier columns to see what I had already written on the subject, I kept coming across recurring themes and dire warnings that seem to have held up and, I think, deserve a second look. So this seems as good a time as any to begin to reprise some previous observations and reassess or update them in the light of what has transpired in our great nation in the past three years.

But first, a look ahead. Thus far I have barely scratched the surface of what I intend to say about science versus its poorly informed, unscrupulous opposition in the modern world, chiefly the political and cultural assassins known as right-wing Americans. I will pick up on that subject in future columns; for now, here’s the spoiler.

The answer to “What’s wrong with science?” depends on whether we’re talking about ideal science or science as now practiced in the early Twenty-First Century. I see very little wrong with ideal science – scientific best practice – which keeps improving, keeps expanding our knowledge and understanding and growing more refined and effective. But I do see a great deal that is wrong with everyday science as it is now conducted and as it reaches us through the distorted lens of an incompetent, negligent, and corrupt media (a recurring theme of mine).

Many or even most of the problems of contemporary science are caused by one underlying weakness: human nature. Despite its great power and unlimited promise, science is a human activity that is carried out in a human cultural and political context. Anywhere and any time humans are involved – and especially when the stakes are high – the manifold flaws of human nature assert themselves and are quite likely to royally screw up the process. As in U.S. politics, or medicine, or business, or virtually any other institution.

Bring on the Libertarians

Still, despite our well-documented and persistent proclivity for screwing up everything, there are those who call for an even longer leash, less regulation – or, in the case of wacko libertarians, no leash at all. These ideologues claim the answer to our problems is to implement their grandiose thought experiment and allow human nature to run amok in an unregulated environment where everyone does pretty much as he or she pleases. That deranged philosophy allows for such abominations as denying service in restaurants to members of minority groups the owners don’t like. That’s right, that’s what they say they want – impunity for racists and bigots who inflict the vilest forms of discrimination on fellow citizens. I’m not surprised to hear such retrograde callousness from a group of ideologues who pride themselves on their doctrinaire consistency. As Lewis J. Perelman wrote, "Dogma is the sacrifice of wisdom to consistency."

But as libertarians become less marginalized and inch ever closer to being widely electable, they may back off that stance, a la Republicans like McCain, Romney, Perry, et al. Amazing how readily the prospect of getting elected turns latent into blatant hypocrisy in political types such as the erstwhile “maverick” (more on that guy shortly). To quote Thomas Jefferson, “Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.”

As for the libertarian wet dream in which everyone is gloriously free to succeed or fail beyond their wildest imaginings, I say bring it on (okay, not really, that’s rhetorical mockery). Oh the brave new world that awaits us once Ron and Rand and their right-wing allies take over and complete the destruction of our badly frayed safety net. Assassins on steroids. In the meantime, which is fast running out, it’s hard to miss the irony of libertarians like Rand Paul joining forces with the socially regressive/repressive Republicans. Evidently, the right of an adult to control her own body will not be included among those precious personal freedoms supported by one of Ayn Rand’s best-known disciples – he’s named after her! Just let a teenage girl make a mistake, or get raped, and she’ll pay for it for years to come, maybe for the rest of her life (serves the slut right). I wonder if anti-choice libertarians really get all misty-eyed over those precious, single-digit clumps of cells with their darling little cherubic souls implanted by God at the moment of conception? Or does it have more to do with being electable? Never mind that their great hero, the sophomoric philosopher and dreadful novelist Ayn Rand, was an atheist who detested Christianity. She would surely have contemptuously dismissed the religious-righteous meme, “ensoulment occurs at conception.” But not her namesake, Senator Rand Paul. Of course Ayn Rand never ran for public office. Even if she had, I don’t think she would have stooped so low as to feign concern for the souls of zygotes. Not that I think Rand Paul is lying about his position on abortion. I can’t read the man’s mind, but it does seems like a strange position for a libertarian who admires one of the previous century’s most outspoken atheists.

Now – finally! – back to science and human nature. I have made the point more than once that there is a potential cure for the default tendency to go with the flow of our human nature. Instead of allowing our thoughts, preferences and actions to be driven by the short-term dictates of “selfish replicators” – our genes and cultural memes – we can choose our goals by learning and implementing a process of rational self-examination. It comes down to teaching young people critical thinking skills modeled on scientific method. It also comes down to more science: These are exciting times in the realm of the cognitive sciences, and we are finally beginning to get a firm handle on some of the key facets of human nature. I have already discussed a few of these findings, and there will be many more to come in future columns. But the take-home message is this:

We are evolved creatures, fashioned by the gradual process of evolution through natural selection to cope with the demands of a primitive, natural environment. Technology and science played no role in the evolution of our biological and emotional characteristics; nor did logic, mathematics, philosophy, or science. We became what we are before we knew anything about ourselves – indeed, before we understood anything.

Following our natural impulses – the dictates of our genes – enabled us to survive in the ancient environment of evolutionary adaptation; but continuing along that course now is a prescription for disaster. It bears repeating to point out that it is in our nature to focus on short-term, first-order, gene-driven gratifications at the expense of enlightened self-interest, or our long-term welfare, which now includes our very survival.

Both individually and collectively we can and must overcome our tribal prejudices and wanton traits and begin to lead examined lives, basing our choices and decisions on the knowledge, understanding, and tools of critical thinking that have been bequeathed to us by science and reason.

To the extent that I have begun to do it justice, all of the above is explained in compelling detail by the cognitive psychologist, Keith Stanovich (here and here) in his profound and challenging 2007 book, The Robot’s Rebellion. You can listen to an audio discussion between Prof. Stanovich and D.J. Groethe at the Point of Inquiry website (just click on “Download MP3”). This is my favorite book of the past decade.


Speaking of Tribal Prejudices, How About Those Republicans?

My first TPJmagazine column appeared in September, 2008, under a former pseudonym, “Reluctant Junkie.” The title of that column – Did He Just Say “The fundamentals of Our Economy are Strong?” – was a direct quote from the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, who made that egregiously ridiculous assertion in the face of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Phil Graham, the McCain campaign’s “chief financial advisor,” received a ton of richly deserved media opprobrium when he doubled down with this typical Republican reaction: “You’ve heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession. . . . We have sort of become a nation of whiners.”

Sheesh, that was really harsh and sounded more like an effort to deflect responsibility than a reasoned assessment of a devastating crisis. So after consulting my economic advisor, Paul Krugman, via his column in the New York Times, I was moved to write about “the spiraling financial crisis and the misery it will inevitably inflict on so many of us.” And I had this to say about Graham’s cavalier indifference:

A callous statement like that by now has a familiar ring – it sounds so . . . Republican. And Republicans, long bereft of good ideas, will continue to do what they do, cater to the special interests and pretend to have solutions to problems they caused – either deliberately or through incompetence – or else don't really care about. It's no surprise that people who hate government are so stunningly inept at governing. The criminal cabal of political, corporate, and religious ideologues who dominate the Republican Party have long since forfeited their right to the trust and confidence of the American people. Yet despite their horrendous record, two of the least qualified of that ilk may win this election.

Mercifully, they did not win; but now they’re back, weirder and nastier than ever, all worked up for another shot at the ultimate prize. And you know what? Far too often I feel as if we didn’t even win the last time.

Anyway, in that same initial column I went on to excoriate McCain for his vice-presidential selection:

By the way, is there anyone else out there who thinks that McCain's selection of Palin may very well be the single most irresponsible act ever by a major presidential candidate? Last night, on Real Time With Bill Maher, I heard conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan say just that; then he added that with that cynical decision McCain had disqualified himself. Andrew was definitely in a state. And why not? We're talking about handing over management of the Executive Branch and giving the nuclear-arsenal code to a person who knows nothing and believes the rapture is imminent.

The selection of Sarah Palin was one of the major low points in McCain’s up and down political career – another cynical capitulation to the Republican base, just like his earlier, craven flip-flops regarding prominent leaders of the odious religious right. Remember how he did the voter-math and recanted his earlier depiction of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance”? Or how he rejected the endorsement of weird John Hagee after the evangelical, Christian Zionist leader’s anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and other bigoted statements were made public? Hagee’s the asshole who said that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for the level of sin in New Orleans. I read that McCain worked for a year to secure his endorsement.

Now we are dealing with a new generation of Republicans-cum-Tea Partiers that our esteemed editor, Steve Jonas, is fond of calling the GOTP. I like that. What I don’t like is President Obama’s stubborn, irrational persistence in pursuing the chimera of bipartisanship – a fool’s errand if there ever was one. It should have been clear to Obama long before he took office that those people on the right don’t cooperate or compromise. They see themselves as a lockstep political army determined to destroy the opposition – that would be us – and to secure power through any and all means, regardless of the damage to the country and its people. That’s who they are; and, to our everlasting disgrace, they have a good shot at winning it all this time around.




Not Even Wrong

I love the phrase, “Not Even Wrong,” because it so aptly describes most of the spurious claims that dominate our informational space. When I’m in one of my frequent, cynical moods these days, it seems that U.S. culture – and I do mean that ironically – has morphed into a tacky, 24-7 media outlet featuring infomercials on all channels. Hucksters and their marks abound; everywhere I turn, someone is spewing face-palming nonsense to a poorly informed, intellectually inert, gullible public too immersed in their Facebook trivia and “reality” TV to think about, much less investigate, what they’re hearing. Much easier to go with the gut, accept whatever confirms their biases, whatever a favorite celebrity talk-show host/pundit/doctor/politician/pastor tells them is the belief du jour (e.g., the succession of Obama canards, including “anti-Christ”). On their end, the hucksters are busy mining their opinion polls and focus-group results to make sure they’re pandering to preconceived biases and superstitions, the better to persuade the marks to buy, or buy into, what they’re selling – from holographic bracelets to nutritional supplements to alternative-medicine quackery to trickle-down economics to praying for cures or rain in Texas. The main thing is to keep the messages brief, superficial and memorable, and repeat them often. Above all, avoid elite-sounding terminology, complexity, uncertainty, or anything that entails time and effort to understand. Americans just don’t want to deal with the inherent messiness and uncertainty of science and reality. And with the Internet facilitating all these self-reinforcing, tribal communities, we seem to be entering a post-modernist’s wet dream where everyone’s “truth” is just as good as the next guy’s opinion. To quote the great Isaac Asimov,

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Never mind that what is true has never been determined by popularity (the correlation is surely negative). But enough contemptuous sarcasm for the moment: let me explain my title phrase, since you may be reading it here it for the first time.

It originated with theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was the first to postulate the existence of the neutrino and went on to receive the Nobel Prize in physics in 1945 for his contributions to quantum theory. He was nominated for the prize by none other than Albert Einstein. A colorful personality, Pauli was also noted for pithy, often witty, expressions: He famously said of his colleague, Paul Dirac, “If I understand Dirac correctly, his meaning is this: there is no God, and Dirac is his Prophet.” A nice play on the Muslim mantra, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet.”

When Pauli said “This is not even wrong,” he was referring to purportedly scientific claims or theories that were so unclear and vague as to be untestable and thus did not belong in the realm of science. He thought that such claims were much worse than wrong because there was no possible way to falsify them and thus no good reason to take them seriously. Sound familiar?

In general I find Pauli’s concept of “not even wrong” to be useful in deciding which propositions are pointless to debate. If a belief or a claim cannot be tested or verified, then there seems little or no reason to argue about it. I put faith claims such as the existence of gods – or any supernatural spirit entity, for that matter – in this category. People who believe these things do so for reasons other than evidence, and they need to recognize that their faith has no greater claim to truth than anyone else’s. Many argue they have had personal experiences that provide all the evidence they need for their beliefs. I consider this to be arrogant and narcissistic, bordering on solipsistic. (Just think of all those right-wing Republican candidates who claim they have been “called by God” to lead the nation – people like George Bush, Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, et al. Or the right-wing dominionists who claim divine authority to take over the world for Jesus. Lamentably, in our times most people still seem to take this personal revelation nonsense seriously, at least when its consistent with their own beliefs.)

But if someone’s going to cite personal experience as valid evidence for their belief, they have to deal with at least two major problems: The first is other people who claim personal experience in support of conflicting beliefs. You can’t expect someone to accept your experiential claims unless you’re willing to accept theirs! A second insurmountable problem is simply that there’s no way to verify that a person actually had the revelatory experience they relate or that it means what they think it does. By now we know enough about the brain and states of consciousness to be skeptical of anyone making such claims.

It’s possible, in principle, that a reported personal “revelation” could constitute evidence worth considering. For instance, suppose someone reports having had a near-death experience and then reveals detailed information they could not possibly have acquired through any known normal process. There have been a few such claims, but as far as I know they didn’t hold up. A woman patient came out of anesthesia and reported floating outside her body, looking down on her surgery, and seeing something on a high shelf that wasn’t visible from the operating table. The surgeon was deeply impressed and claimed this was evidence of a genuine out-of-body experience. Unfortunately, the great breakthrough into the other realm turned out to be as simple as a reflection in a clock face. Nope, faith-based claims are not EVEN wrong and certainly not an acceptable basis for judging other people. And surgeons may be brilliant technicians, but that doesn’t mean they have been trained in critical thinking.

The current usage of Pauli’s phrase has been expanded to include pseudoscience and bad science. I’m concerned that Indiscriminate use may rob the phrase of its usefulness, but I do favor applying it to claims that can and have been tested but have no scientific plausibility. Homeopathy is the best example: despite having the Royal Family’s endorsement, its claims are so absurd, so contrary to mountains of scientific evidence and theory, that it simply cannot work. (I was going to say “cannot work as claimed,” but I really mean cannot work at all, because it is, quite simply, absurd.) Other types of alternative-medicine are almost as absurd: acupuncture is based on the assumed flow of energy through nonexistent channels called meridians; similarly, chiropractic spinal “adjustments” that cure almost everything are based on invisible, totally hypothetical, nonexistent spinal “misalignments” called subluxations. In simplest terms, the prior plausibility of these hypothesized mechanisms has got to be close to zero.

So I favor adding beliefs and theories that flagrantly contradict well-established science to the “not even wrong” list. One problem is that even though most alt-med “treatments” make no biological sense, it is devilishly hard to put them to rest. Part of the reason is bad research, a topic I’ll take up next time. But I am pleased to report that recent, well-controlled studies are showing acupuncture and many of the ridiculous claims of chiropractic to be no better than a placebo.

Research using human subjects is notoriously difficult, and it has taken a long time – far too long – to develop and implement experimental protocols that control for the placebo effect and other sources of experimental error. I fully expect acupuncture and chiropractic to be widely classified as pseudosciences within the next few years. Sadly, even if this comes to pass, it will take much longer to put the Hydra of unscientific health care in its well-deserved resting place.

Finally, there are a multitude of religious beliefs like the abomination known as young-earth creationism or the foundational story of the Exodus. These myths have been around for ages and persist despite massive amounts of scientific evidence proving beyond reasonable doubt that they are wrong. No, make that not EVEN wrong and no longer worthy of serious consideration. Still, we are treated to the spectacle of creationists coming up with bizarre arguments to deny the science and cling to the embarrassing fiction of a 6,000-year-old earth. Sadly, millions of Americans take them seriously. Similarly, archaeologists and Egyptologists have pretty conclusively shown that the 40-year Exodus of jews never happened. To quote the Wikipedia entry,

The archaeological evidence of the largely indigenous origins of Israel is "overwhelming," and leaves "no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness."

So there you have it, the concept of not even wrong, the idea that certain beliefs and claims do not merit serious attention, except, of course, for the social and political problems their adherents pose. As always, there is this scientific caveat: pending new and compelling evidence.

Next time I’ll take a look at several reasons why science as practiced so often comes up short of the ideal of best scientific practice and so often gets it wrong.


We’re Natural-Born Lawyers, Not Scientists

I don’t recall where I read my title, but it essentially captures what I have been getting at in these columns. Theoretically, both science and the law recognize and depend on the centrality of evidence, and the goal of both is to reach “true” or at least optimal decisions based on verifiable evidence and reasoned argument. But despite a few superficial similarities, science and the law obviously represent very different approaches to evidence-based discovery. Science mostly adheres to the ideal of basing its (provisional) conclusions on reliable, verifiable, repeatable evidence. I insert the modifier, provisional, because every scientific finding or theory is subject to refutation or revision in the light of new, better evidence. Science is a work in progress, always seeking more complete evidence, always developing more refined theoretical models for improved prediction and control (i.e., technology). In science, sound evidence – verified data – always reigns supreme. If a hypothesis or even a longstanding theory is disconfirmed by new observational or experimental evidence, then the hypothesis/theory must be revised or discarded.

Primarily because of this commitment to the primacy of evidence, science works – damn, does it ever produce results! Anyone who wants to question the efficacy of scientific method has a huge mountain to climb. It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to see that science has given us astounding knowledge, understanding, and technological progress – virtual godlike powers by the standards of only a few hundred years ago. Imagine discovering and reviving a preserved adult corpse from, say, the 16th century. She would be stupefied. Virtually everything she saw would astonish her, exceed her wildest imaginings. She would be a living testament to Sir Arthur Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” One of her few experiences that might be somewhat familiar would be other people, who wouldn’t be all that different from the folks she remembered. Or would they?

Anyway, let’s not debate the awesome effectiveness of science, which proves that reality is discoverable, predictable and, allowing for a number of obvious limitations, controllable (though for both good and ill). Is this fantastic success due to the greatness of individual scientists who came up with profound, breakthrough insights by virtue of their genius? I’ll argue that the answer is no. While there have been many brilliant scientists who are justifiably honored, the profundity and brilliance reside in the methods of science and not in the genius of individuals. After all, there have been great geniuses in arts and letters, philosophy, politics, and maybe even religion. And I don’t disparage their contributions, except to note that they mainly influenced others rather than actually advancing our knowledge, understanding and control of nature. Freud was a genius, but it is certainly appropriate to question whether his speculative, unscientific “theory” contributed to or detracted from our understanding of human nature and behavior. And with regard to arts and letters it is worth noting that history is traditionally part of the humanities; but to the extent that historical accounts are based on verifiable data, it belongs with the sciences.

(Since I mentioned religion again, I’ll raise this question once more: What do we understand about reality, including human nature, that can be attributed to religion? I’m thinking that just about everything religion tells us about human nature is either flat wrong or highly questionable. It seems increasingly clear that the fundamental Christian tenet of free will is a myth, that human behavior has natural causes, like all other natural phenomena. Another myth is that we’re governed by a disembodied essence such as a self or soul that influences our mind. It is becoming increasingly clear that the mind is what the brain and nervous system do, nothing more. There’s no evidence for a tiny, incorporeal homunculus named “Self” or “Soul” sitting at the control panel of the mind.)

Anyway, most practicing scientists are members of a community that is dedicated to expanding our knowledge, understanding, prediction and (in the experimental sciences) control of the nature. (I started to write “control of the natural world”; but what other world is there?) The members of the community of scientists adhere to rules and practices grounded in evidence that have a proven record of phenomenal success. Science is far more than the body of knowledge taught in most schools. It is a method, a rigorous discipline, a set of very high standards that always come down to verifiable, repeatable evidence. Each branch of science has its own distinct methods of observation, testing, and experimental controls; but they are all doing essentially the same thing. And the individual scientist knows that she must present data and analyses that meet those standards if she wants to persuade her peers. Primarily, she must be willing to change her mind on the basis of evidence.

So, finally, here’s the point: What scientists do does not come naturally. Skeptical, critical, methodical, evidence-based thinking is not part of our DNA. Evolution did not program us to withhold judgment until we had collected sufficient reliable evidence to explain a natural phenomenon. It did not program us to question our own hypotheses or the pronouncements of prestigious authority figures. It did not provide us with a good sense of probability, which now plays such a central role in the sciences.

Quite the contrary! We seem to be programmed to invent explanations, to adopt group beliefs that “explain” everything and then use our ingenuity to defend those beliefs come hell or high water. Back in the era of evolutionary adaptation, the struggle for survival took place on an entirely different playing field where utter ignorance was the norm. Now the game has changed radically, and so must we, starting with how we think. The stakes are obviously very high and they are now planetary rather than local and tribal. We live in a world that has changed much faster than our evolved nature, and many of us are still answering the call of Stone Age genes. I would argue that as never before it is critical to get things right, to base our individual and collective choices and decisions on the most accurate understanding of the realities we’re dealing with. That’s where science comes in: it is the only way we know of to get it right. Nothing less than our survival depends on supporting science and rejecting pseudoscience and superstition. And as individuals we need to cultivate habits of thought based on science and reason.

But back to lawyers, at least so I can justify the title of this piece. They operate in a very different arena, one that feels far more familiar and natural than the discipline of science. In litigation they make use of evidence primarily to support the client’s cause, not as part of a cooperative effort to advance our understanding of reality. A scientist who cherry-picks data and spins evidence to create a favorable reception for his hypothesis will not be honored by his peers. A lawyer who wins cases using those techniques enhances his reputation. In other words, litigating is more like salesmanship than like science. It is arguing for a predetermined position rather than participating in a collective effort to expand knowledge and understanding. I don’t say that to disparage honest lawyers, who provide a necessary service. The point is that when it comes to our beliefs about the world we operate like a lawyer steadfastly and cleverly defending a particular position, not like a scientist willing to consider all the evidence and go where it leads.

I’m not saying that scientists are more honorable people than lawyers (although on average I think that’s probably the case). If scientists are more honest, it has to be in large part because of the rules they follow – rules enforced by the scientific community – and because they value that community and share its goals. Of course there are scientists who have sold out and have become mercenaries in the service of political and commercial interests. The rogues who abetted the tobacco companies and the anti-climate-change corporate interests come to mind. Then there are other scientists who are so enamored of their theories they can’t accept the negative verdict of their peers and decide to take their case directly to a less skeptical public. A number of people in the field of paranormal research fit this description.

I’ll wrap up somewhat gratuitously with one of my favorite quotes. It comes from former Colorado governor Richard Lamm, who in 1992 looked at the ratio of engineers to lawyers being trained in various nations, and worried about the trend in the U.S.

“All we know about the new economic world tells us that nations which train engineers will prevail over those which train lawyers. No nation has ever sued its way to greatness.”

And no nation from this point forward will flourish without a strong commitment to science and reason. Yet as I look at the irrational, anti-science, ideological madness pervading the political and religious right these days, I am increasingly fearful that we’re rapidly regressing in the direction of theocratic fascism. Rick Perry? Michelle Bachmann? Sarah Palin? The Tea Party? Creationism? Would you believe it?