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.

Monday, September 15, 2008

You know you must be doing something right...

... When both the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research get on your case! These two outlets of religious-centered non-thinking vehemently attacked my recent post on the inanity of choosing Sarah Palin as a Vice Presidential candidate -- which focused on her positions on teaching (she supports “equal time”) and censorship (she has attempted to remove “offensive” books from a public library, going so far as threatening a librarian with being fired).

Discovery Institute's Bill Dembski's blog, Uncommon Descent (how cute!) called me “a worrisome character” because I dared to suggest that education is not about having kids debate “the two sides” of every issue (to begin with, because there often are more than two sides, and straightjacketing the discussion in that way commits the logical fallacy of contrived dualism). Dave Scot, at Uncommon Descent picked up on an analogy I gave about the silliness of the “two views” doctrine and commented: “Massimo doubts that the science establishment can present the evidence for a round earth, like live satellite images, well enough to let children use critical thinking skills to decide if the scientists have made a compelling case.” Ah, so indirect observation now is enough to convince children (or anyone) of a scientific notion, is it? Well, we can observe evolution and natural selection happening under (indeed, inside, in the case of the influenza virus) our very noses, but still 50% of Americans refuse to accept it. Fossils are readily observable by anyone who cares doing so, but of course they are dismissed as the handiwork of the devil. Surely Mr. Scot is aware that some (“adult”) Americans reject images “allegedly” generated by space missions (like the ones to the Moon) as fabrications by a conspiracy-prone government, so why on earth would one trust satellite photos of the round earth? That’s the beauty of faith-based worldviews: they are impervious to mere facts.

Even more amusing is Christine Dao’s commentary on the ICR’s web site, whose title is “Palin slammed for supporting open debate” (if there is anything we have learned recently about Sarah Palin is that she is a vindictive politician who cannot bear dissent, let alone encourage open debate). Ms. Dao deserves to be quoted extensively to be appreciated: “Logic and evaluating evidence are tools used to analyze the world around us, and so far that same logic and evaluation has led many scientists and others to believe that the evidence speaks of a Creator God rather than random chance and natural selection.” Oh really? Which scientists would those be? The faculty of the ICR, who has to swear allegiance to a literalist interpretation of the Bible to be kept in employment? I don’t recall being forced to sign a document committing me to Darwinism when I was hired at Stony Brook University. Maybe it was in the small print.

Again, Dao: “Limiting how the evidence can be interpreted puts educators in the interesting position of not teaching students, but instead conditioning them to recite the ‘correct’ answers without a second thought to other possible explanations.” Except that I advocate the teaching of critical thinking skills, so that students can in fact inoculate themselves -- of their own accord -- against the nonsense propagandized by the Discovery Institute and the ICR. But critical thinking takes time to learn, you don’t just serve up two options without tools for assessment and say “here, you decide.”

More from Dao: “Individuals such as Pigiliucci [sic] have taken their cue from Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Meyers, and other evolutionary supporters in their active condemnation and ridicule of anyone who doesn’t agree with their own platforms.” First of all, if anyone thinks I have much agreement with Richard Dawkins they have not been paying attention (as for P.Z., I have discovered him many years after I started writing about these things, back in 1997). Now, the charge of ridicule is one that needs to be carefully assessed, however. I take the position that most people who believe in creationism are victims of blind religious propaganda and of the failure of our education system (though the roots of creationism are of course much more complex than just that). They, therefore, deserve consideration and help (in the form of good science education). Demagogues like Scot and Dao, on the other hand, are willfully engaging in a concerted effort to undermine the use of reason in our society, an attitude that among many other things has given us eight disastrous years under a “commander in chief” who belittles expert advice while thinking with his gut (which apparently advised him to support “equal teaching”). This same anti-intellectualism may well give us several more years of an even worse version of the same in Sarah Palin. It is people like Scot and Dao, and a fortiori their sponsoring organizations, that deserve to have all the ridicule that thinking people can amass heaped on them.


  1. "The Discovery Institute blog, Uncommon Descent (how cute!) called me “a worrisome character” "

    Tho they're entitled to their feeling on this, M, but you don't worry me at all.

    You don't worry me because the type of decision making devices that you do use eventually curtails it's own success. That meaning, a group of people that will follow a potential leader just because his slogan happens to be "Change" (alluding to Evo, in essence) frankly does not either impress or worry me too much one way or another. After all, there certainly was significant "change" down in Galveston the other day, but who ever would say at this point that ANY kind of change whatsoever is necessarily "good"? The 'change' concept here also alludes obviously to anarchy and chaos (still evo oriented)

    Some people seem to totally feel that way about the removal of conservative leadership. Creating chaos, and who knows what after that, is the interim is better than not getting ones way. But is it really? Differentiation from other systems of thought in the world, you ought to remember, is what procures the kind of freedom that we do have.

    Guess many of you are completely willing to risk it. Maybe one day you won't really want to convert to Islm. What will you do then? What makes you think that the world's philosophies are going to go YOUR WAY?

    Could it be that, contrary to what M says, there are really only TWO ways?

  2. Caliana, I don't know any Obama supporters who support him only because of his "Change" slogan. After all, the Bush Administration implemented plenty of change of its own -- change that most Obama supporters want to see reversed or redirected.

    Besides, the Republicans also clearly see political advantage in that "change" message, as they used it often enough at their convention this year.

    No, if religious conservatives lose ground in the White House this year (the way they already lost it in Congress two years ago), far from bringing chaos, it will probably look more like a restoration to an earlier political climate, before evangelicals rose to national attention around the Reagan years (e.g. Falwell's Moral Majority and Robertson's Christian Coalition) - back when Democrats and Republicans were distinguished more by their political-economic distinctions (although even those have since become sharper) than by their religious distinctions.

    If that happens, then perhaps we can make some real progress in addressing the most serious threats to our national (as well as global) well-being.

  3. Creationists like to portray their ideology as an "opposing viewpoint", abusing the standard meaning of that phrase.

    On any conceivable issue, there can be opposing viewpoints. In some cases, there could theoretically be infinitely many opposing viewpoints.

    But when people use the phrase "opposing viewpoint" in common parlance, they refer to a view that has some sort of respectability or solidity such that the issue at hand isn't settled.

    For example, there are "opposing viewpoints" on String Theory because the validity of the theory hasn't been established. There are "opposing viewpoints" on economic growth because it's not clear exactly what causes economic growth. There are "opposing viewpoints" on evolutionary theory because not all of the very important aspects of evolution have been worked out. Experts are a long way from settling these issues.

    But on the broader question "do species emerge through mutation and selection from previous species?" there is no scholarly controversy. The opposing view is not a scientific one, but one dogmatically held by people of faith.

    In classes, we should inform students of debates that exist at professional levels. There is no reason that students should remain unaware of the ambiguities that surround string theory or economic growth. It would mislead students, however, to lecture them on the "opposing viewpoints" of Creationism and Evolution. We might as well lecture them on the "opposing viewpoints" on the shape of the Earth.

  4. The words "debate" and "teach the controversy" are just cheap slogans intended to sway ignorant parents. What really bothers me is that conservative wackos are trying to dictate what science is from the secondary school level. As a result they sabotage the education of potential scientists, and turn children off of education in general.

  5. Congratulation Massimo on joining the worrisome character club! :)

    "because I dared to suggest that education is not about having kids debate “the two sides” of every issue (to begin with, because there often are more than two sides, and straightjacketing the discussion in that way commits the logical fallacy of contrived dualism)."

    Exactly, if we are to give equal time to ID-creationism, then maybe we should add in L Ron Hubbard's Scientology theories of human origins? Then the list could go on and on with equal time for absurdities.

  6. Cal,

    Are you trying to say we're going to have to convert to islam if Obama is elected? If that is so, what the hell is the matter with you? If not then what are you trying to say?

    Conservatives - can't think, can't write, totally insane.

  7. laneman,

    Not BECAUSE he is elected, more so because of what the "anything but GOD" crowd is already following.

    It could be any one of several things in the 'spiritual economy' the trips the wire. The interest in having a leader like BHO alone is merely symptom of something that has been going on for way longer than I have been alive. I would say back to the early 60s.

    You might not be very well apprised of what is in fact going on in ref to religious freedom in 2/3rds of the countries in the world already. But if terrorist sympathizing leaders (or just those who are fearful) of other countries sincerely get along with our (potential) leader, then either he is compromised or they are compromised.

    And the latter is not TOO likely.

  8. Which god might that be, Call? Zeus? Baal? Thor? Wotan? Quetzlcotl? Allah? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? Do you really want ALL these considered? Because your options in a secular democracy are all of them, or none of them.
    But then again, superstition has no place in the secular business of running a government, anyway.

  9. The interest in having a leader like BHO alone is merely symptom of something that has been going on for way longer than I have been alive. I would say back to the early 60s.

    Hm... a leader like Obama... what do you mean? Black?

    And the little "subtle" trick of calling him BHO (took me a few seconds to get that) just to remind everyone that his middle name is Hussein is really typical of the lowly conservatives during campaign. How about we keep reminding everyone that Sarah Palin seeming to be a pretty bad mother?

  10. "Not BECAUSE he is elected, more so because of what the "anything but GOD" crowd is already following."

    What is that we are supposedly following? Common sense? Reason? Logic? Reality? Evidence? Yeah that stuff is bad for you faith based people, eh?

    "symptom of something that has been going on for way longer than I have been alive. I would say back to the early 60s."

    What would that be? Rejection of medieval religious nonsense?

    And the idea that Obama is compromised because he is allied with the Muslim "terrorists" is absolute idiocy, anyone who seriously believes that is insane.

    a proud member of the "anything but GOD" crowd

  11. It always amazes me that scientists are stuck trying to teach evolution in about, what, 20 minutes to an hour in 9th grade. The religious have been indoctrinating the kids for YEARS, but they say they have to have equal time in school? Who's been counting the minutes?


  12. "And the little "subtle" trick of calling him BHO (took me a few seconds to get that) just to remind everyone that his middle name is Hussein is really typical of the lowly conservatives during campaign."

    I first heard him termed that way in an extreme left paper in Santa fe months ago, J. And frankly, I don't think that they care if he is a Hussein or not. But if you care…you can’t use the “H”? Funny.

    "How about we keep reminding everyone that Sarah Palin seeming to be a pretty bad mother?"

    Pretty, definitely. Bad, not even. lol!

    IF she didn't work for the right, she'd be considered okay as a working mom. To say that someone is a bad mom factually, one must have a reason other than politics and political spin. Most of what is said about her, I think, mainly comes from jealousy.

    And ya know, how ever did I get so lucky? I just happen to look a bit like Gov Palin. :) Or so I've been told. Eye color is different. I'm taller. But otherwise just in general face structure. And I can see it too when I'm out like yesterday. People study my face ...then smile at me ??? randomly give me coupons, a free chicken and free rack of ribs? (and yeah, that was just yesterday)
    AND TO BE FAIR ...I cannot forget the woman who cut me off in line and almost stepped on me at a well known left oriented cafe tho. Maybe she was mad about something else.

    I'm often walking around trying figure 'things' out. It's amazing that I don't run into more light poles, much less angry women. :)

  13. Where in an atom or molecule is its brain to formulate and work out new life forms? A simple element? Better lungs to breathe in a polluted environment?

  14. Cal,

    I don't think there can be any real doubt that Palin is a lousy, grossly irresponsible mother, or at the very least a bad person. I say this not because her daughter is pregnant (though that will tend to happen if you don't teach your sexually active children about birth control), but rather because she *willfully* risked the health and life of her latest child for obviously selfish or stupid reasons.

    By Palin's own admission, she boarded a plane knowing that she was in labor (itself stupid & irresponsible). She then, and this really gets me, deliberately bypassed a hospital in Alaska with a good neonatal intensive care unit, in order to go to a hospital nearer her home that didn't have one, *knowing* that a) she was having the baby pre-term and hence that it was at higher risk for complications and b) the baby would have Down Syndrome, and hence was at increased risk for heart defects, among other serious problems.

    Are these the actions of a "good mother"? of an even OK mother?

    Now, it is possible of course that she wanted the baby the die -- abortion by lack of action rather than action. But if that's true, it is just awful. Attempting to save a child w/ developmental problems in a hospital w/o a good neonatal unit would undoubtedly result in baby being put in considerably more pain, and, if it survived, being worse off.

    So either way, Palin was simply a bad mother / bad person. If she sincerely wanted to give this child the best chance at a life it could have, she damned well should have stayed in Texas, gone to the nearest hospital w/ a good neo-natal until, and sucked it up. If she didn't want the child, she should have had the guts to abort it after learning it had Downs, rather than screwing around w/ airplane flights, bypassing good hospitals, and trying to let it die at birth.

    On another topic, if the choice is between Christian fundamentalism and Muslim fundamentalism, well, I chose neither (that's the point when I would become willing to take up arms). I believe that the best chance we have of defeating fundamentalism of all stripes is calm, deliberate rationality -- the kind of reasoning that brought us out of the middle ages and into the enlightenment. Is the enlightenment world-view as given to us by the classic of western political philosophy perfect? Of course not. There are real debates about the limits of individualism, the limits of the ability of government to be neutral between comprehensive conceptions of the good, etc. But liberalism -- as the idea that government ought to remain as neutral as is possible between reasonable comprehensive conceptions of the good and provide as many opportunities as possible for people to pursue such conceptions -- remains, I think, our best chance at bringing those people who aren't already fundamentalists on board, and shutting out the fundamentalist call for a government that supports their view, and no other.


  15. J: "If she didn't want the child, she should have had the guts to abort it after learning it had Downs, rather than screwing around w/ airplane flights, bypassing good hospitals, and trying to let it die at birth.

    Do you care so much about ALL Downs children or only this one?

    What you forget, Jonathan, is that women use to, for eons and centuries, work extremely hard from morning to night and birth their children at home. And gosh, sometimes go right back to work to house chores and taking care of their other children within a few hours. And the fact that our lives tend to be SOFTER now does not mean that our lives are necessarily BETTER.

    And further, the fact that you have chosen to misunderstand Gov Palin (on an ideological level) and have decided that she MUST be a bad mother, (after all almost everyone says it), DOES NOT MAKE IT TRUE.

    We all know what the bigger issue is, that is, what you all are really upset about: And it is that she is a non-apologetic, full steam ahead conservative.

    People who don't want to have to THINK about their "choices" are not going to EVER like Palin no matter what she does. But that sure as heck does not change my mind. AS A MATTER OF FACT, it solidifies my decision.

  16. Cal,

    Actually, no, I'm not upset about the fact that Palin is a "non-apologetic, full steam ahead conservative." I'm upset that she lies, that she has a well-earned reputation for being vindictive & secretive, and and that she seems, to me, to make really bad decisions.

    I would respect her, but not agree with her, if she was honest and admitted that yes, she supported earmarks, and indeed, still thinks they are appropriate things for governors and state reps to go after. She could even say that *Presidents* ought not support them, but that that is the difference between representing a State and representing the Country. But she didn't. She decided to lie. That's not being a "conservative." That's being a liar.

    I may not agree with Christians, but I can respect those that are consistent in their attempts to live particular kinds of lives -- lives based on the teachings of Jesus. She's not one of those, though. She's one of the "evangelicals" who believes that she can pick and choose the issues to care about, and do, in the end, pretty much whatever the hell she wants, as long as she cloaks in in religion. Again, that's not being a conservative. That's just being intellectually and morally lazy.

    And yes, if any of the women I know were pregnant, went into premature labor in the U.S. near a major medical facility, and decided to hide that fact and fly to another state, bypass a good hospital, and go to a smaller one, I'd be angry at them for risking putting the baby in unnecessary risk and risking unnecessary suffering. And yes, I do feel that every child deserves a reasonable shot at a good life -- which is why I support abortion as one reasonable option when faced with testing that reveals developmental disorders. But, if abortion isn't an option for religious or personal reasons, I think it is owed to the child-to-be that one work to give it the best chance possible.

    Yes, in the past, babies with severe developmental disorders would be born at home. Many of them would die, some of them probably in great pain. Our lives are "softer" now -- we can ameliorate much of that suffering. I can imagine an argument to the effect that we shouldn't -- that suffering, high infant mortality, and
    'premature' death are all important parts of life to embraced. But I can't imagine it being a good argument.


  17. A minor point: Uncommon Descent is not the Discovery Institute's blog. It's William Dembski's and is actually much worse. The DI's blog/propaganda outlet is Evolution News & Views, famous for its motto: "The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site." (Honest!)

    Dembski's hole is worse because it has a talentless hack (Denyse "Accent on the "deny" O'Leary) and a borderline sociopath ("DaveScot") running the place and has a truly breathtaking band of crazies as commenters. The DI's place, at least, pretends to rationality (though failing miserably in the case of Casey Luskin) and keeps down the crazy by not allowing comments.


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