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.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Massimo's picks

* Guess what? There is scientific evidence that being nice to people makes for a better world. And you'll personally feel better about it.

* Teen birth rates are highest in States with high levels of fundamentalist religiosity. Imagine that.

* The American working class is angry. They have good reasons. But they are five years too late.

* Classic debates: Jonathan Wells vs. Yours Truly on evolution and intelligent design.

* Philosopher Julian Baggini on living a good life without children.

* Does post-modernism imply moral relativism? Here is a (perhaps too) charitable interpretation.

* Reflections on the financial crisis, from a philosophical perspective.


  1. It's easy to jump to conclusions when one hears a statement like "Teen birth rates are highest in States with high levels of fundamentalist religiosity." But don't be too quick to judge. What else is different about those states? It turns out the authors of the study adjusted for income and abortion rates at the state level, but perhaps there are other confounders.

    I'd also like to quote from the provisional version of the paper, freely available online:

    We would like to emphasize that we are not attempting to use associations between teen birth rate and religiosity, using data aggregated at the state level, to make inferences at the individual level. It would be a statistical and logical error to infer from our results, “Religious teens get pregnant more often.” Such an inference would be an example of the ecological fallacy, which was explicated by Robinson in 1950 and reviewed by Freedman in 2001. The associations we report could still be obtained if, hypothetically, religiosity in communities had an effect of discouraging contraceptive use in the whole community, including the nonreligious teens there, and only the nonreligious teens became pregnant. Or, to create a different imaginary scenario, the results could be obtained if religious parents discouraged contraceptive use in their children, but only nonreligious offspring of such religious parents got pregnant. We create these scenarios simply to illustrate that our ecological correlations do not permit statements about individuals.

  2. Nick,

    of course, correlation is not causation, and there are always other possible explanations. But the authors themselves know that some of those alternatives are much less likely, or they would not have couched the paper in the terms they used.

    Still, obviously more research needs to be done. But the finding is intriguing...

  3. "Teen birth rates" could be distorted. It could be that religious states have lower teen pregnancy rates, but when they get pregnant, they are less likely to have abortions.

  4. I believe the differences in abortion rates among states was accounted for in the study.

  5. I've watched that debate with Jonathan Wells before but I thought I'd watch it again. I didn't last very long this time though, what a moron that guy is. It was painful.

  6. “There is scientific evidence that being nice to people makes for a better world. And you'll personally feel better about it.”

    Sounds like some pretty profound evidence for intelligent design—the fortuitous correspondence between good behavior and good feelings/outcomes! This becomes even more poignant when we compare human society with the primates, where we find that the toughest, biggest, meanest alpha male gets all the gals, and consequently, all the progeny.

  7. How on earth do you get intelligent design from this? Wow, the human ability for mental gymnastics never cease to amaze me...

    Not only you missed the point (the connection is not fortuitous at all, it is likely the result of natural selection), but you don't seem to know much about our primate relatives either. The bonobos show a lot of "moral" behaviors, for the same reasons that humans do.

  8. Massimo,

    Let me “amaze” you further! We are surrounded by examples of intelligent design in whichever direction we look. I will not torment you with the many examples of the fine-tuning of the universe, of which I’m sure you are already painfully aware and which drive you to postulate highly imaginative solutions such as an infinite number of universes in order to account for it. Nor will I tell you about the wonderful associations I find between my conscience and the salutary direction its promptings lead me to take, lest you ascribe it once again to natural selection.

    Nor will I mention the informational DNA system and the inability of evolution to even whisper a theory regarding its origin. Nor will I be so cruel as to challenge you about the origin of life and the cell, when I know it will only promote feverish, ill-conceived theories. Nor will I even suggest you consider consciousness and freewill, lest this forces you to resort to the ultimate faith-answer: “Naturalism might not have an explanation now, but this doesn’t mean that we won’t have one later!”

    Nor will I be so indelicate as to raise the matter of the elegance of our equations which express the operations of the physical laws. (Indeed, there isn’t a law, formula, or equation that doesn’t carry His fingerprints!) For instance, my gullible unscientific mind was so impressed by the beautiful and simple formula for gravity: Gravitational Attraction = 1/ (distance separation between two bodies)². Why must it be exactly squared? Why couldn’t it have been 1.999 or 2.0001 instead? Why soooo elegant? Can you answer this? Does natural selection have anything to say about this? Can it explain why these laws are unchanging in the midst of a changing, expanding universe? Can it explain from where our tools of reason of and logic came or how they correspond so wonderfully and unchangeably to the challenges of life? Could all of this originated from an explosion, the big bang?

    And E = MC²? Again the elegance! But also the incredible coordination and harmony among energy and matter! Light, energy and mass all intimately related! And then there is the chemical periodic table which reflects so poignantly the order we find among the elements. Can you account for this elegant design? Even musical notes are related so precisely and mathematically. Not only that, but our ears and tastes also resonate to their precise relationships.

    Have you considered the perfect size relationship between our moon and sun and their relative distances from the earth, enabling us to see perfect eclipses of the sun? Have you considered the fortuitous properties of water causing it to expand at 33 degrees so that ice doesn’t sink and kill our aquatic life?

    However, I’m not doing justice to ID by merely pointing to particular instances of intelligent design. Rather, it seems that everything reflects harmony and beauty. The very fact that we can so meaningfully and constructively contemplate these lofty issues with a grey sponge we call “brain,” also points us to the bewildering correspondence between our minds and the world. And now we are being told that even “chaotic” arrangements evince their own fractal designs. It leads us to wonder whether everything is the product of intelligent design. Indeed, “The earth is filled with His glory!”

    This brings us back to the question of natural selection, which can’t even begin to explain the phenomena of design outside of biology. If it fails to enlighten us regarding life, DNA, freewill, consciousness, fine-tuning, and the origin and the perpetuation of the laws of nature, perhaps science is best advised to look for another mechanism that can parsimoniously explain ALL, even biological diversity!


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