About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci
* Did you know that according to some conservatives Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is a plot by left wing liberals?
* More from the NYT’s The Stone on free will, with a note on the new atheism and so-called accommodationism.
* Philosophy of religion, or philosophy and religion?
* One more opinion on the “mosque” at Ground Zero (which is not a mosque, and is not at GZ).
* Uses and abuses of science blogging.
* The philosophy of social reality.
* eSkeptic on Hypatia of Alexandria (the movie and the historical figure).
* A great little picture I took in Reykjavik...
* And of course the latest RS podcast, featuring guest Jennifer Michael Hecht.


  1. Other than taking relativity-danying conservatives as an object of study (just as one could take the beliefs of Tasmanian natives as an object of study), what is the interest of some guy Schlafly opining on Einstein? By the same token liberals also fight sociobiology or the heritability of IQ, with equal passion and zeal. Scientific ideas, in these views, are valid only when agreeing with one's beliefs on religion or politics. Such opinions can be studied by scientists, trying to determine their social, cultural or economic correlates, but other than that they are as interesting as the Dar Ages belief that the end would end by the year 1000, or that being crossed by a black cat brings bad luck. Rationally speaking, why is all this worth bringing here?

  2. Well, for one thing the scientific status of sociobiology is nowhere near that of relativity theory...

  3. Massimo,

    I was unable to quickly locate an e-mail contact for you, so I am posting this here - as a link, it is somewhat on topic anyway.

    This Onion video, Man Refuses to Believe He Has Cancer, dovetails quite well with a critical post of yours from a while back about the sentiment of disdain for expert opinion in the United States. It also obviously satirizes the Opera-esque enabling and encouraging of such ignorance in popular culture.

    Warning: It is very twisted, but hilarious.

  4. Sadly, the "Mosque at Ground Zero" issue is being handled very superficially and in an unbalanced way by the media. Central to the concern of many is the very nature and intent of Islam which doesn't receive any coverage. Nor is the media examining the historical/geographical reality of Islam. Why are there always bloody conflicts until Islam becomes the national religion and everyone else is relegated to a second class status? Why aren't these issues ever discussed?

  5. Massimo,
    of course relativity and sociobiology have different degrees of solidity as scientific theories, but (1) relativity did not enjoy such advantage in its early years; (2) liberal authors attacking sociobiology or evolutionary psychology on partially ideological grounds(such as S. Rose or the late S. Jay Gould) are not on the same footing as raving religionists as Schlafly: they make considered scientific arguments even if ideologically motivated); (3) Wilson's sociobiology, mostly concerning insects, is not seriously doubted today (see e.g. J.Alcott's The Triumph of Sociobiology or Ullica Segerstrale's Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond).
    What I unsuccessfully tried to convey is that religious positions such as Schlafly's are not notable because they are motivated by belief (also those of Stephen Jay Gould were, even if more educated in scientific terms), but because they reflect a totally unscientific mindset (such as the one behind Dark Ages belief in the coming end of the world by AD 1000).
    These unscientific beliefs are better left to anthropologists to study, as they have no epistemological significance. Debates such as those around evolutionary psychology, or Elaine Morgan's aquatic ape hypothesis, or the validity of claims that recent climate warming is unprecedented for a millennium or more, do have epistemological significance, especially because the dissent came in all cases from relative outsiders to the field, was scientifically informed, and the resulting infighting involved instances of dismissal of outsiders qua outsiders by an entrenched epistemic elite. What is, exactly, the epistemological significance of these debates? Is epistemology evolutionary? If so, how does science evolve? If not, what would be the epistemological underpinning of scientific debate and the growth of knowledge?

  6. I can't say I care whether there is or is not a mosque. I don't think it's altogether sensible to put the center or whatever it may be at such a location given the likelihood it will be targeted for protests (nothing worse than that, it's to be hoped) but that's the owner's decision to make. There's no question regarding the legality of the use.

    But, I note Park 51's website states that a mosque will be among the facilities included in the building. Assuming that's the case, do those who claim that the center will not be a mosque mean that it will not be solely a mosque, but will merely include a mosque? This wouldn't seem a particularly significant distinction under the circumstances.

  7. The interview was disappointing to me. I have not read her books, but I've lost interest after that interview. She struggled to make her points clear and her criticisms seemed fairly weak. Even when Julia and Massimo stepped in to help her clarify, she was unable to do so. I left my take on the interview on the podcast website comments, but unfortunately that comments section was hijacked by a spammer.

  8. Why is Virginia Heffernan's article on science blogging, the one where she quote-mines GrrlScientist and recommends the climate change denialism blog "Watts Up With That?", one of your link picks?

  9. JJ,

    as I explained before, just because something is on the Picks it doesn't mean I endorse it. Sometimes I simply find the topic interesting and the author's points worth considering as food for thought.

  10. Now that the spammer's 100+ comments have been removed from the podcast website I don't want it to appear like I'm calling other commenters spammers.

    I'm curious if anyone has read Jennifer Michael Hecht's recent books, and if they read better than her interview indicated. I had a small interest prior to the interview, but lost interest afterwards.

  11. ccbowers, I've read both Doubt and The Happiness Myth, and found them both highly enjoyable and thought provoking (which, of course, is why we had Jennifer on the podcast). I do disagree with some of what she says in the second book, but that's the point of reading challenging books.

  12. I second J.J Ramsey's comments on the Heffernan article (a really bad article, an example of a journalist who did not bother to do her homework and went with her gut reactions). I would like to know what specifically in her article you d=find to be "food for thought." I usually like to feed my thoughts wholesome food.

  13. I think you guys are being unduly harsh. For one, it is the very topic of the article that one needs to think about. Second, the whole issue of whether advertising on blogs is a good idea or not. Third, the issue of "gratuitous contempt," which I have raised in the case of some of PZ Myers' posts. Fourth, the issue of whether it is productive to focus on one-liners instead of thoughtful analysis. Fifth, the contention that some blogging is modeled on to Fox News style writing. Again, seems to me there is food for thought even if one disagrees on the specifics.

  14. @Manns Word:
    You'll find rationalists are not huge fans of Islam, but we bind ourselves likewise to realistic evaluation of motives and threats.

    Reality check:

    (1) The people who want to build the cultural centre/mosque appear to want to do it for the usual religious reasons; nothing especially nefarious.

    (2) Your comment: "...until Islam becomes the national religion and everyone else is relegated to a second class status..." should be tempered by the knowledge that Muslims make up 0.8% of the US population, 1% of the Canadian. If they manage to make Islam the "national religion" with those numbers, then on that day I'll gladly bow to our clearly superior overlords.

    (3) The purported geopolitical goals of "Islam" (does "Islam" even act like a group with coherent motives?) are wholly irrelevant to the question of whether some innocuous people with a perfectly *legal* religion can buy some land for their version of the YMCA.

    Honestly, this thing is getting into blood libel territory.

  15. Hi Massimo

    A bit off-topic here but is there a video of your TAM8 presentation, or text to go with your slides?

    (I would, of course, buy "Nonsense on stilts" but it hasn't been released in paperback in the UK and Waterstone's want forty-five-****ing-quid for the hardback!)

  16. Tony, the videos should be released soon, just check the JREF web site. As for the book, you can get it from Amazon for the Kindle, if you'd like.

  17. Not only are 'social realities' NOT objectively real in any way, shape, or form, there is nothing new about the subject worth pondering (correct or incorrect).

    Do you really think cultural anthropologists have had their collective head up their ass concerning agreed upon "reality?"

  18. I've been holding out on Nonsense on Stilts until Kindle 3 arrives early september.

    "I do disagree with some of what she says in the second book, but that's the point of reading challenging books."

    Sure, but here has to be something of value before I will invest the time/money (these are both limited resources), but your partial endorsement says that perhaps its worth checking out. I'm think I'll take a look at Doubt at some point... it seems like the one to read first.

  19. Islam has a long tradition of building mosques on conquered territory to show dominance, and that's exactly how the Ground Zero mosque will be perceived by Muslims around the world. The WTC went down, a mosque went up.

    Now, is that the intent of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf? Is he a "moderate" like CAIR founder Omar Ahmad, who said, "Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran, the Muslim book of scripture, should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth."
    He sure fits the pattern, calling US policies "an accessory" to 9/11 and refusing to recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization. Of course, there are non-Muslim useful idiots who feel the same way, but they're not building a mosque near Ground Zero, and they're less likely to funnel money to Hamas the way The Holy Land Foundation did.

    Imam Rauf is also listed as a role player in Perdana, which is the single biggest donor to the Free Gaza Movement.
    I won't be surprised to see the headline: "Ground Zero Mosque imam charged with funneling money to Hamas"

  20. Max, really? Ground Zero is conquered territory? And yes, my friend, US policies were - unfortunately - accessories to 9/11. That doesn't justify the attack, but you know, people don't "hate us for our freedoms," they hate us because we put our soldiers everywhere and prop up dictators whenever it is convenient for us.

  21. "as I explained before, just because something is on the Picks it doesn't mean I endorse it."

    True, but unless you make a note indicating a lack of endorsement, it can be hard to tell whether you agree or not. If you had written,

    "A piece on the uses and abuses of science blogging. Very flawed, but it is interesting to see how ScienceBlogs looks to an uninformed outsider,"

    I doubt there would have been much surprise.

  22. Massimo,

    If a 9/11 survivor blows up the Ground Zero mosque because it made him angry, would the decision to build the mosque there be "an accessory to the crime that happened"?

  23. No. By the same token building anything anywhere there is a nutcase would make the building accessory to the crime.

  24. Nothing would justify blowing up or damaging the Park51 building which will, apparently, house a mosque among other things. Unfortunately, it's likely something along those lines will happen if the outcry over it is any indication. If the developers lacked the intelligence to anticipate this kind of reaction would result from their decision, they must know better now. Which, to me, makes any decision to put it there at best unwise, albeit perfectly legal. Now, perhaps, the developers (and others) feel they should proceed regardless just to make a point. It's wonderful what we can do when we don't think, and it seems to me there isn't much thinking going on.

  25. @Max:
    I am shocked - shocked! to discover muslims supporting pro-muslim causes! Next you'll tell me synagogues are favourable to Israel!

    Look, ethically and rationally Imam Wossname and the horse he rode in on, can both take a running jump.

    Legally, however, this looks like Generic_Religious_Organization_#21534 buying land and building a religious building. Sign here and don't forget your carbon copy. That is EXACTLY how the law of the land ought to see it, until and unless they do something illegal. There's a reason why lady justice is blindfolded.

  26. ianpollock,

    I get the sense that Muslim "moderates" and extremists play good cop/bad cop with us. The extremists threaten violence and launch attacks, and then the moderates half-heartedly condemn the violence and push their agenda. Condemn the violent reaction to Danish cartoons, and try to get such cartoons outlawed. Condemn the 9/11 attacks, and build a "Cordoba House" near Ground Zero. (The Great Mosque of Córdoba was built on the site of a church.) Condemn al-Qaeda, and remind everyone that "the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al-Qaida has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims."

    It's not quite as bad as Jeremiah Wright preaching, "America's chickens are coming home to roost," but anything they preach at Cordoba House will be amplified by the fact that it's the "Ground Zero mosque".
    And if it ever radicalizes like the Al-Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn, where the 1993 WTC bombing was planned, it will be especially traumatizing.


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