Tag Archives: United States

News media influences public trust in science

WEPT200a

No one will be surprised at the headline on ‘s Guardian blog - Fox News found to be a major driving force behind global warming denial. Still, the article references a new research paper by Hmielkowski et al. in the Public Understanding of Science (see An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming). The conclusions from this research affirms we are right not to be surprised, but also shows links between climate change denial and trust in science and scientists. They also conclude that the news media people read can influence both their attitude towards climate change issues and their trust in science and scientists.

Trust in science related to your news sources

These researcher found that:

“the more Americans use conservative media, the less certain they are that global warming is happening. Conversely, the more Americans use non-conservative media, the more certain they are that global warming is happening.”

This confirms previous findings. But they went further and found their results:

” . . demonstrate that the negative effect of conservative media use on global warming belief certainty is due, at least in part, to the negative effect of conservative media use on trust in scientists. The positive effect of non-conservative media use on belief certainty is likewise explained by the positive effect of non-conservative media use on trust. Furthermore, the use of within-subject panel data and longitudinal analysis shows that media affects people’s level of trust in scientists.”

I find this last point disturbing. It’s one thing for a group of people to disagree with current scientific findings, but far more serious if they are motivated to disagree by lack of trust in scientists. That does create a defense mechanism for the protection of beliefs against the evidence of reality.

Conservative media promote distrust in science

Further disturbing is the implication that such distrust is actively promoted by some conservative media.

It is probably not surprising that trust, or lack of trust, are cognitive mechanisms enabling people to draw conclusions without the need for intensive analysis of the evidence. consequently people are effectively programmed, by the nature of their normal news media reading, to draw politically motivated conclusions, whatever the evidence.

There are two implications from this work. Firstly, changes in public perceptions on climate change have probably had more to do with media either promoting or undermining trust in scientists than in evidence:

” . . it appears that climate change contrarians have successfully raised questions about scientists in the public mind. Polling data from 2008 showed that 83 percent of the US population at least somewhat trusted scientists as a source of information about global warming; however, trust declined in 2010 to 74 percent. By contrast, these results demonstrate that use of non-conservative media outlets increases trust in scientists, suggesting that mainstream and liberal-leaning media coverage plays an important role in limiting (and countering) the effects of the climate skeptic movement. Therefore, continued use of mainstream news media outlets by the public should help sustain the credibility of scientists as a source of information about global warming. Thus, mainstream news media should be cognizant of this role and continue to highlight scientists as a trustworthy source of information on climate change.”

The public role of scientists

Secondly scientists should attempt to make sure their public role on issues like climate science promotes trust, rather than the opposite. They need to defend their credibility when attacked by conservative media in this way:

“Scientists could remain on the sidelines and exclusively produce research for peer-reviewed journals and reports. Although this strategy may help keep scientists above the fray, this does not mean that they will remain neutral actors in the eyes of the public. Indeed, climate contrarians and conservative media outlets are already attacking the credibility of climate science and individual scientists. Remaining uninvolved gives climate contrarians and conservative media free rein to redefine how the public thinks about climate scientists and their research. Alternatively, scientists could use their trusted position in society to engage the public by providing them with understandable analysis and information about the causes, risks and potential solutions to climate change. However, this proactive stance may lead some members of the public to view scientists as increasingly politicized. In both scenarios, some members of the public may lose trust in scientists, which may be difficult to regain . Importantly, however, the sidelines strategy will likely lead to a greater total loss of public trust than the public engagement strategy – especially among the Cautious, Disengaged, and Doubtful audiences identified in prior research, if climate contrarians are allowed to shape public discourse uncontested. Regardless, scientists will play an important role in how different publics perceive the issue of global warming. The question is whether it is on their terms or the terms of climate contrarians and their allies.” My emphasis.

It’s an important issue for scientists – particularly in the US where the news media is so polarised and political factions concentrate around specific examples. The authors finish by stressing how important the role of the media there has become:

“This political polarization is contributing to national climate change policy paralysis in the USA, and it is becoming clear that the news media itself plays an important role in this process.”

Similar articles

Fluoridation and conspiracy theories

I am not one to stereotype people and in my blog posts on the fluoridation controversy I have so far steered clear of the more whacky arguments that come up. After all, some of my friends oppose fluoridation and I would not want to attribute these whacky reasons to them. (Mind you – I have some suspicions).

But it seems that even in little old New Zealand some of the leaders and foremost spokespersons for the anti-fluoridation activists are presenting these whacky ideas. So we can’t really avoid them.

Hamilton oncologist Dr Anna Goodwin appeared for the anti-fluoridationists at the recent hearings held by the Hamilton City Council. She spoke for them at a recent Auckland meeting as one of the 3 “expert” dentists and doctors (although she claims only to have had her road to Damascus moment in the last few months). These people just love titles, don’t they.

This first quote from her is a blatant example of Godwin’s law (rather appropriately in this case Go(o)dwin’s law refers to the  inappropriate use of Nazi analogies in articles or speeches – common on the internet and usually claimed as a sign of desperation). In her submission to the Hamilton City Council hearings she claimed

“Perhaps most disturbing is that the first efforts to fluoridate drinking water were put forth by the Nazis in concentration camps. They observed a mental “numbing” effect on the prisoners that made them easier to control.”

And in a Waikato Times opinion piece welcoming the Council decision to stop fluoridation (see Council’s bold water decision welcomed) she followed this with:

“America’s obsession with fluoridation (and their fluoridation induced brain damage) might explain the US’s dubious political choices over the past 25 years and reckless spending.”

She is promoting the conspiracy theory that fluoride is purposely added to public water supplies to ensure a docile population! (And perhaps giving us a wee peak at her political or ideological stance).

Her conspiracy theories stretches to collusion of the NZ government with fertiliser companies to dispose of a dangerous waste by putting it in our water supplies. (See Cheese is chalk if fluoride is fluoride, press release by  fluoride Free Hamilton):

“I was shocked to learn that, in the absence of any human studies to prove its safety or efficacy, the fertilizer industry held hands with government agencies (in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand) and fluorosilicic acid was deemed an “acceptable and equivalent” fluoride source, decades ago, completely without any real evidence for this assertion.”

I don’t know how widespread these ideas are among the anti-fluoridation activists in New Zealand, but clearly they are not far from the surface with some of the leaders. Conspiracy theories seem to be alive and well in the anti-fluoridation campaign

But here’s an example of an extreme form of these anti-fluoridation conspiracy theories in the US – an interview by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. He discusses addition of  lithium and fluoride to water supplies. The dangers of immunizations are also discussed along with how these poisons are used by design to chemically lobotomize people.

via Neurosurgeon Uncovers Fluoride & Lithium Conspiracies Part 2 of 4 – YouTube.

And there is more rubbish where that came from.

See also:

Fluoridation
Fluoridation – the violation of rights argument.
Poisoning the well with a caricature of science
Fluoridation petition – for Hamilton citizens

Getting a grip on the science behind claims about fluoridation
Is fluoride an essential dietary mineral?
Fluoridation – are we dumping toxic metals into our water supplies?
Tactics and common arguments of the anti-fluoridationists
Hamilton City Council reverses referendum fluoridation decision
Scientists, political activism and the scientific ethos

Education should never validate ignorance

Quite a concise and clear argument from Lawrence Krauss on the silly idea of giving equal time to creationism in a science classes (a big problem in his country – the USA). As he points out – the role of education is to overcome ignorance – not confirm it.

Teaching kids that the earth is 6000 years old, just because (in the USA) half the population believes it, is only validating ignorance. The fact is that half of the US population does not think the earth orbits the sun – they are clearly wrong but should that widespread belief mean that kids must be taught that mistake in their science classes?

Of course not.

That would be validating ignorance and is a form of child abuse.

Lawrence Krauss: Teaching Creationism is Child Abuse

Secularism – its internal problems

Book Review: How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by James Berlinerblau

Price: US$15.29
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 11, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0547473346
ISBN-13: 978-0547473345

Secularism makes the headlines these days – if only because of attacks on it by militant religionists. So I welcome media articles and books which help counter this misrepresentation. It’s necessary to encourage the proper understanding of what exactly secularism is and why “far from being the enemy of religious pluralism, is its guarantor”.

Berlinerblau describes secularism as “a term that, as we shall see, has been defined, derided, used, and abused in a bewildering variety of ways.” Especially by today’s “Christian ‘outrage machine.’”

So it’s worth quoting in a little detail Berlinerblau’s own definitions of secularism:

“Secularism is a political philosophy, which, at its core, is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion. It translates that preoccupation into various strategies of governance, all of which seek to balance two necessities: (1) the individual citizen’s need for freedom of, or freedom from, religion and (2) a state’s need to maintain order. . . it may create or actualize certain dispositions and world-views in us all. Foremost among these are the “secularish” qualities, such as tolerance toward others, moderation, and a willingness to be self-critical about one’s own faith.

It ensures that your child is not forced to join a “voluntary” prayer circle in the school cafeteria.

And if you fancy being able to think about God in any way you see fit, then once again, a little gratitude is in order. This type of freedom is secularism’s essence. This is secularism’s promise. This is the end to which all genuine secularisms aspire.”

But, my feelings about this book are mixed. On the one hand Berlinerblau does clarify the meaning of secularism and criticises those who use the word too loosely. He also delves into the history of secularism in the USA and proposes his own advice on the future strategy and tactics required by the US secularist “movement.” On the other hand I have doubts about the historical accuracy of some of his claims. And while there may be value in some of his suggested tactics, I think the advice sufferers from his own ideological biases and his idealisation of the concept of a secular “movement.”

Atheists need to pay attention

While Berlinerblau criticises the extreme distortion of secularism by strident Christians and other religionists he also takes a well-deserved biff at those atheists who often uses secular as another adjective for atheist. Sure, I can understand the need, particularity in the USA, to make use of words other than “atheist”, given its demonisation. But it does no good to co-opt “secular” – especially as this plays right into the hands of the religious militants and the “Christian ‘outrage machine’” who want to equate “secular” with “atheist.” It’s bad enough when those people play the old “bait and switch” trick. When they take text using the inclusive meaning of secular (neutral about religious belief) and dishonestly argue assuming it means atheist. But atheists who use “secular” as meaning “atheist” or non-religious” only fuel militant religious arguments against secularism.

So we should criticise anyone who uses the term “secular” in such a misleading way – especially in the names of organisation or benign references to people, organisation or media. On the other hand, the English language is full of confusing words and people should always take context into account. No amount of action from “language Nazis” can really influence common usage. Nor will our arguments instil sudden honesty into those religious militants and leaders intent on maintaining their privilege. Perhaps we just have to carefully make out context clear when we use these words.

History of secularism

I won’t comment on how accurate the author’s presentation of the history of secularism in the US is. Its outside my areas of expertise. I do think he makes interesting comments relevant to the tactics of people today wishing to prevent undemocratic encroachment of religion into government and state issues. But my concern is that Berlinerblau’s presentation of the history of secularism in the USSR and of the current attitudes of the so-called “New Atheist” is just not objective.

Quoting Stalin on “reactionary clergy” when he says “Anti-religious propaganda is the means that ought to bring to a head the liquidation of the reactionary clergy.”  Berlinerblau adds “Liquidating clergy? Needless to say, this is not a legitimate aspiration of secularism.” No, but he should recognise that “liquidation” of hostile, even armed, reactionary elements – in terms of removal from power and influence – is the “legitimate (even if undemocratic) requirement” for a regime that wishes to stay in power after a bloody civil war. And yes, sometimes that liquidation became physical as well as political.

Berlinerblau’s error in equating political and military actions during an extreme period of social upheaval with “legitimate aspiration of secularism” make me a bit suspicious of all the history he presents.

Personally I think the experience of religious groups after the 1917 revolution up to the present is a rich area which could teach us a lot. It is just too simplistic (if ideologically satisfying to many historians) to present the myth of a persecuted and banned religion and Orthodox Church during the period of communist power. After all, the most dangerous organisation to belong to during the Stalin Terror of the 30s was the Communist Party – half its Central Committee disappeared in the space of a few years between two Congresses so imagine what it was like in the ranks. Persecution at that time was widespread so it is wrong to draw general conclusions only from persecution of church members then.

After the 1917 Revolution and subsequent civil war all political organisations, except the Communist Party were made illegal. The outstanding exception was the Orthodox Church – a little surprising as it had lined up against the revolution and had previously supported Tsarism. The new regime obviously accommodated the church, seminaries operated during much of the time and priests were even members of the Supreme Soviet. Clearly, as the only legal political organisation, the Communist Party would have included members of all sorts of ideology and religious belief – it was the only way to take part generally in society. I think that, and the integration of the Communist Party into state and commercial structures helped decide the relatively peaceful transition to the post-communist society. It probably also influenced the nature of post-communist institutions and power.

In particular – I think there is a fascinating story behind the current Russian power structures with strong influence from a nationalistic Orthodox Church and the security forces on the one hand, and the roles and situations of these organisations before 1990 on the other.

Still, Berlinerblau history of secularism in the USSR has some value and his comments on secularism without democracy are worth consideration for the lessons they provide. They seem especially relevant to the current struggles in the Middle East where undemocratic secular regimes are being swept aside by the very religious forces they were meant to control. They were not able to solve the problems presented by militant religions and surely do not represent the future we wish to see for secularism in the West.

Then again the political situations and maturity of the various political and religious forces are very different. As are the societies themselves. So the history of secularism in undemocratic and authoritarian regimes maybe interesting but is of little relevance to our political situations. Despite the attempts of the local religious extremists to paint today’s democratic secularism in the colours of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (let’s not mention Hitler).

Those nasty “New Atheists”

This is a major obstacle for me. If an author presents an obviously distorted, and motivated, description of current phenomena we are familiar with, what trust can you place on their presentation of, and interpretation of, past histories? And what value can you see in the strategy and tactics they advocate for supporters of secularism today? Very relevant because the book is a “Call to Arms.”

Berlinerblau declares he desires that “secularists and atheists can pursue their legitimate and worthy agendas and work together when their interests overlap (which is often).” However, he belongs to the groups of non-believers who think that vocal atheists should STFU. Which makes me think his valid request for atheists not to equate “secularism” with” atheism” sometimes transforms into a wish for atheists not to be too public about their presence in any secularist movement, or in their demand for secularist policies. I wonder if that is what really motivates his desire to “disarticulate secularism from atheism.”

This agenda also prevents him from understanding lessons drawn by others. He ridicules the point made by Richard Dawkins and others that even “mild and moderate religion . . helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.” I think it’s a valid point but Berlinerblau’s agenda-driven misunderstanding raises questions in my mind about his objectivity and ability to understand issues he deals with. How does he possible get to this?:

“Surely a school of thought that can’t distinguish between a member of the Taliban beheading a journalist and a Methodist running a soup kitchen in Cincinnati is not poised to make the sound policy decisions that accrue to the good of secularism.”

This distortion reveals his wish to exclude vocal atheists from his secular “movement” – purely because they are vocal (he describes it as  “sound and fury”). As does his assertion:

“It is very clear that extreme atheists would rather that the church not exist, and this makes their inclusion in the secular camp problematic. New Atheists tend to make grand rhetorical gestures toward that goal, though little indicates they seriously plan on bringing their ideas to fruition. We now turn to some extreme atheists who did precisely that.”

This is followed by his chapter “How not to be secular” where he considers the experience of the USSR! Isn’t that “gleefully tarring” today’s vocal atheists with the Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot” myth? (I am borrowing a term he used in the book against these vocal atheists).

I think this emotive reaction to vocal atheism displays a political naivety that undermines his “call to arms”. How can we build an inclusive secular movement by excluding important sections  – just because these people are vocal about their beliefs and understandings? After all, it is the nature of beliefs that people keep them despite uniting in the common actions. Unity of action does not mean denial of freedom of belief or removal of political rights and freedom of expression.

Do we need “manifestos” or honest appraisal of political realities?

I disagree with Berlinerblau’s apparent assumption that we need a “Secular Movement” – for which his book is a “Call to arms.” Politics is rarely that simple – especially when unity of action  from diverse groups around abstract aims is involved. Personally I see that issues will be dealt with and resolved on an ad hoc basis. People will unite and act on specific demands, often local and not national issues. Even where they are motivated by grander concepts such as freedom of (and from) religion, equal rights and opposition to discrimination.

Also participants in a (lower case) secular “movement” bring their own understandings, ideas and skill to that movement. We are not rank and file soldiers unquestioningly following a “Call to arms.” Some people are activists, others are armchair supporters. Some people will follow a lead, others will lead. Some people are preoccupied with today’s struggles, others have longer term vision and aims.

That is why I think Berlinerblau and others who rant against today’s vocal atheists make a big mistake. They try to fit everyone into their own concept of what an atheist should be without recognising the reality faced by today’s atheists. There are a multitude of requirements. Unified political action for secularist aims isn’t the only game in town. Another important one is education – consciousness raising. How can atheists take part in a political movement if they don’t even recognise that they are atheists, are afraid to acknowledge that fact or inhibited in their political actions by their social surroundings.

In his rather biased criticism of the “New Atheism” Berlinerblau loses sight of fact that the practical role of Richard Dawkins and some others is consciousness rising for atheism – not coalition building for secularism. Concentration on consciousness raising does not mean opposition to coalition building by any means – as a simple reading of pronouncements by these people will make clear.

Frankly, I see consciousness raising as an important factor in any secularist movement. Denial or exclusion of that function, as Berlinerblau appears to want, actually weakens the movement.

And that is my main objection to this book.

Some readers will no doubt find value in the book’s description of the history of secularism in the US and the mistakes it may have made. The history of secularism and religion in the USSR and post communist Russia needs further analysis. (A general criticism of today’s historians as the ideological “perspective of the victor’ makes objectivity difficult). And the history and problems of secularism in authoritarian Middle East state needs further analysis. it’s a topical issue.

The book is of value for those reasons but I don’t think it should be taken as a “Call to arms.”

Similar articles

So you think science has a problem?

There are a number of opinion piece writers, usually  philosophers of religion or accomadationist atheist philosophers who really hate  today’s vocal atheists. Particularly if those atheists are also scientists. They often pretend to be concerned about the reputation of science. “These gnus should STFU,” they argue, “because it’s just turning people away from science.” And science needs all the friends it can get with the current attacks on climate and evolutionary science.

In my review of Elaine Ecklund’s book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think I argued this position, which she also was pushing, is mistaken (see Are scientists hostile to religion?). That in fact the data just doesn’t support it. If these people were really looking at the data properly perhaps they should be telling militant Christian activists to STFU – because polls show that people are losing the respect they used to hold for ministers, priests and the church. The data I referred to is in the graph below.

%age of US public considering professions of “very great prestige.”

Now the Gallup polling organisation has revealed data showing a steady decline in the public confidence of the church and organised religion:

Forty-four percent of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in “the church or organized religion” today, just below the low points Gallup has found in recent years, including 45% in 2002 and 46% in 2007. This follows a long-term decline in Americans’ confidence in religion since the 1970s.

See the graph below:

via U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion at Low Point.

Perhaps its time for these writers of opinion pieces to start considering the data that is staring them in the face. Rather than their knee jerk whining about the gnus and public respect for scientists they should write about a real phenomenon.

After all there are plenty of  factors they could speculate on as explanations for the public decline of confidence. As the article points out child molestation by Catholic priests and cover-up by church leaders appears to have had a noticeable effect. One could also consider the role that conservative religion plays in US politics today, the ongoing demands to be allowed to continue discrimination by religious bodies, interference in education, moral hypocrisy, and so on.

Perhaps these horrible gnus may have also been having an effect. Just not in the way these commenters claim.

Similar articles

Australian census confirms healthy trend

The early results from the Australian 2011 census have appeared. There has been a lot of comment on the trends for religion. The No Religion group has now moved to second place (22.3%), behind Catholic (25.3%) and ahead of Anglican (17.1%). And, the No Religion group is the only one of the major religious groups that has increased since the previous Census (2006) – all the other major religious groups have declined. I have summarised the data (from 2011 Census QuickStats: Australia) in the figure below.

This trend is just a continuation of that clear since earlier census results (see Secular twins and Non religious in Australia and New Zealand). And Australia still has some catching up to do with New Zealand. (In 2006 the No Religion was about 34% in New Zealand and 19% in Australia).  Although this might be at least partly due to the fact that in New Zealand we put the “No religion” choice at the top of the box while the Australians put theirs at the bottom (see Non religious in Australia and New Zealand).

I’ll return to this when the Australian detailed census data is published. My interest is to see the breakdown with respect to age. Previous results in Australia and New Zealand show that the “No Religion” choice is much higher for younger people (see Religious belief and age). And the recent Pew data for the USA show there was a sharp jump in non-belief among younger people in the middle of the last decade (see Sharp increase in “nones”).

Similar articles

Sharp increase in “nones”

The American Values Survey Question Database  from the Pew Research Centre suggests that with the new century we may be seeing a marked change in the beliefs of Americans.

On the statement “I never doubt the existence of God” the number of people who disagree jumped from 10% in 2000 to 18% in 212. That is after being constant for the previous 15 years (see figure below).


But the data is even more dramatic when broken down into age groups. The numbers disagreeing have increased in all age groups, but the increase is most marked for the younger ages. The increase for the 18-29 years group was about 100% (from 18% in 2000 to 31% in 2012). And most of this increase occurred since 2005.

Perhaps those horrible Gnus have been having an effect after all.

The data for New Zealand is not so detailed. However, the figure below shows data from the last 3 census results – 1996, 2001, 2006. Here we see what appears to be a steady increase in those choosing “no religion” on the census form in all age groups. Again the effect is larger for the younger groups. About 45% of people below 40 years old now have no religion.

Last year’s census was delayed because of the Christchurch earthquakes. But I suspect we are going to see some barriers broken in the results it produces.

See also: Belief In God Plummets Among Youth (CHART) for US data presented in terms of “generations.”

Similar articles

Why won’t Inland Revenue subsidise my life expenses?

Here is an interesting research report How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States. OK it looks at the United States and the data is not directly relevant here, in new Zealand. But the principles certainly are – the way we all subsidise supernatural religious beliefs and their propagation via exemption from taxation and local body rates.

Ryan T. Cragun, assistant professor of sociology, Stephanie Yeager, senior business management major, and Desmond Vega, senior psychology major, all at the University of Tampa, did the research.

Their Figure 1 summarises religious finances and subsidies in the US. Many of these are similar in this country. I know the theologically inclined try to argue that there is no subsidy because tax exemption does not involve providing direct revenue to religions. However, religions do not pay taxes that they would otherwise be required to pay, purely on grounds of supernatural beliefs and their promotion. But they get all the same advantages as the normal taxpayer gets from publicly funded benefits and necessities. This means that honest taxpayers are paying more than they should – they are subsidising religions.

More than $71 billion subsidies

The authors attempt to quantify these subsidies for the USA. This exercise is far from simple and clearly their final figures grossly underestimate the true subsidy. However, even that underestimate is an incredible US$71 Billion! Their Table  2 shows the breakdown. Have a look at the report for details of the different subsidies.

Alongside these privileges of subsidies, regulatory authorities treat religions with kid gloves. This means that while they are supposed to keep financial records they are not required to report the sources of donations, and may be exempted from actually reporting donation totals or proper auditing.

As the authors say “donations to religions are largely unregulated.” This lead them to the realisation that:

“religions would be an ideal way to launder money if you were engaged in an illegal enterprise. . . . Drug money could be laundered through the church’s bank accounts with little risk of being caught by authorities. If drug cartels and the Mafia aren’t already doing this, we’d be surprised.”

The report makes the case that while genuine charity involves “the giving of something,” and not providing a service for payment this is not so for “spiritual charity.” The later involves payment to a religious executive (their wages, accommodation, pensions, etc.) for the spiritual service they provide. “If someone is paid to address spiritual concerns, it is not charity when they do so.”

In fact, in their “spiritual” and “supernatural” roles “religions are more like for-profit corporations providing entertainment (such as movie theatres or  amusement parks) rather than charities. . . .religions largely provide entertainment for their ‘consumers.’”

I think that’s a useful way of looking at the situation. So I really like the cheeky conclusions this enables them to draw in their closing remarks:

“These subsidies should be phased out. But since that is unlikely to happen, we’d accept the following alternative: the ability to write off our annual entertainment expenses as “donations”; the subsidizing of all of our housing expenses, including utilities and maintenance costs; being exempt from paying taxes on businesses we start related to our primary purpose in life (say, a micro-brewery); direct cash transfers to us from the government for trying to convert people to our worldviews while claiming to provide social services; and, most important, the right to host games of bingo without reporting our income as gambling revenue”

Incidentally, I think any similar subsidies to “spiritual charity” performed by atheist and non-theist organisations should be looked at in the same way.

Thanks to: Council for Secular Humanism.

Similar articles

Conservatives, liberals and purity

I have just started reading Jonathan Haidt‘s new book. Its called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and was released a few days back.

Personally, I have learned a lot from Haidt’s writings and research on moral psychology. I certainly recommend his previous book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. So I am intrigued by the current book.

However, I do find some of his current claims, made in recent interviews and lectures, a bit disturbing. Perhaps he is being more political than he has in the past. (This seems to be the American season for political books. Chris Mooney has also recently published The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality. Looks interesting). Or perhaps this reflects changes in Haidt’s own political views. (He says he used to be “liberal” but has now moved more to a “centrist” position).

1: Are conservatives more “understanding” than liberals?

Haidt seems to suggest they are. He bases this on his “moral foundations” theory. (see www.MoralFoundations.org).  This “proposes that six (or more) innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.”

I see this as arguing that human morality is based on a number of subconscious or emotional  instincts or intuitions. He lists: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal and Authority/subversion. Have a look at the above link for his detailed description of these. He then has used on-line social surveys of a large number of people to identify the relevance placed on these different instincts by different (self-described) political groups. (By the way, there is a need to define terms here because “liberal” means something different in the US to what it does elsewhere. As Haidt says in his book: “Readers from outside the United States may want to swap in the words progressive or left-wing whenever I say liberal.”)

The results from his survey have been in the literature for a while and are repeated in his new book. The figure illustrates the main point – conservatives give more moral relevance to sanctity, purity, disgust, and authority than do “liberals.”

OK – I can see that. It’s not surprising. But my problem is the conclusion he draws in recent lectures and interviews. (see for example the Blogging Heads discussion with Robert Wright). There he has claimed that conservatives are naturally more understanding of “liberals” because they share the same importance of instincts like care and fairness. But, on the other hand, “liberals’ cannot understand conservatives because they don’t share the same relevance of authority and purity.

If this were true there should be some empirical evidence – and I can’t see it. Especially in the US. But the figure does not say that “liberals” do not share those instincts related to purity, etc. Just that they don’t give them the high relevance conservatives do in their intuitive moral choices.

Haidt appears to want to remove authority and purity from the “liberal’s” instinctual menu – just because of difference placed on relevance! in one case!

Actually, later on in the Blogging Head’s discussion he appears to do an about-turn when he criticises “liberal” academics for invoking a purity instinct when they avoid, or even refuse to allow, any research or discussion of racial differences. He asserts that “liberals” sanctify questions of race – and hence ring-fence it.

I like his moral foundations theory and its use to “explain” political differences in attitude. But I suspect his conclusion about conservatives “understanding” “liberals” (and therefore being able to listen to and communicate with them better than their political opponents) is an example of his “centrist” wishful thinking -  or even political bias.

And he certainly has not supported that conclusion empirically.

2: Preoccupation with “new atheism”

Perhaps this is part of his “new politics” but Haidt is throwing his hat in with those atheists who feel they have to indulge in “Dawkins bashing” and kicking over the straw man of the “new atheism” caricature. This seems to be coming from his desire to promote the scientific understanding of the historical role of religion in binding societies and providing community. Sure, this ties in with his understanding of the evolution of human moral psychology – but he is hardly the one to discover it. Its a common feature of modern understanding of the evolution and role of evolution – and probably has been for a while.

Bloody hell, Daniel Dennett (who Haidt would describe as a “new atheist”) describes these features in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

When Haidt says things like “religion is (probably) an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality. It is not a virus or a parasite, as some scientists (the “New Atheists”) have argued in recent years” he is unfairly caricaturing these scientists. Sure concepts of memes, and evolution and movement of ideas in a way similar to viruses have been suggested by some scientists – as a mechanism, not a complete explanation of religion and ideology.

Haidt appears to have a lot to say about “new atheists” in his new book. I’ll have to wait till I have finished before making a final conclusion. But it seems to me that even to use the term “new atheism” is not scientific. Its a caricature, and one that is very often used dishonestly – like “strident atheist,” “militant atheist,” etc. I can’t help feeling that this is the political “centrist” Haidt talking (or even emotively venting) rather than the scientist Haidt.

There are of course attitudes, ideas and approaches that should be critiqued in science. But lets deal with the specifics, illustrated by examples, rather than myths and caricatures.

That said – so far I have enjoyed this book – and with the exception of these lapses, find it very convincing. Well worth reading.

See also: Chris Mooney – The Republican Brain

Hypocritical gratitude?

It seems that some of the delusional god-bothers in the US are upset because there President omitted their god in the list of people he expressed gratitude to in his thanksgiving day speech. As PZ Myers put it – you would think that Obama was joining the New Atheists!

The Christian Post had a wee moan about the issue. It mentions Conservative columnist Ben Shapiro who said of Obama: “Militant atheist. To whom does he think we are giving thanks?”

What a pack of whiners!

I have always thought it rude not to express one’s gratitude to those who deserve it. And there are plenty (see Thanks, Thanking those who deserve thanks and Appropriate thanks). What’s with this rude habit of thanking a mythical being for one’s meal and ignoring the cook, serving staff, farmers, etc. Hell, I would even be thanking the agricultural scientists for their contribution to my meal.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Yet astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson relates what could be a common experience. At a thanksgiving meal he attended everyone went around  the table expressing their thanks. Until he spoke they were all thanking their god.

He expressed his gratitude to agriculture – far more sensible and genuine. But he got booed!

How rude.

Sam Singleton presented quite a relevant atheist sermon on gratitude and religious hypocrisy at the recent US Skepticon conference. Have a look at the video below.

Atheist Revival, Sam Singleton Skepticon 4

Similar articles