Tag Archives: Chris Mooney

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

Converting beliefs to “truths”

Michael Shermer‘s latest book looks interesting – The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.

Chris Mooney interviews him about the book in the latest Point of Inquiry podcast (see Point of Inquiry or  download the MP3).

Shermer’s thesis is that with humans belief comes first – then we look of evidence to support that belief. I have often made the same claim – we are a rationalising species, not a rational one. There are good evolutionary reasons for this.

At first sight this seems a rather pessimistic thesis for a scientist and sceptic. However, in the book Shermer deals with the tools that science offers for overcoming this problem. For approaching a more objective knowledge of reality. He asserts that science is unique in this.

I have managed to get a copy and look forward to reading it.

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Limits of logic

I have commented before on the limitations of deductive logic – see “Other ways of knowing” – some sense at last). And how easily people manipulate logic by faulty reasoning and by assuming shonky premises. Very tempting for someone with a predetermined conclusion they wish to “prove.”

This brings to mind William Lane Craig who relies on such manipulation of logic for his debating prowess. This became an issue in his recent debate with Lawrence Krauss on evidence for existence of gods. Krauss describes how Craig  “systematically distorted” facts in his “continual effort to demonstrate how high school syllogisms apparently demonstrated definitive evidence for God.” (see Lawrence Krauss vs. William Lane Craig @ Pharyngula).

It is this distortion of logic which really puts me off any debate in which Craig participates. And I don’t think debates are useful anyway as a way of conveying information anyway. So I am not tempted to waste time viewing the video.

However, I did find the comments made after the debate by Krauss, and by Craig and one of his avid supporters, interesting.

Typically Craig provides a self-congratulatory analysis after each of his debates, declaring how clever he is and how silly was his opponent. In this case (see  A brief post-mortem) Craig claimed Krauss’s understanding of cosmology was “superficial” and declared himself “frankly flabbergasted by Krauss’s opening salvo attacking logic and the probability calculus.”

One of Craig’s avid supporters attributed to Krauss the claims that “logic doesn’t work,” “2+2=5, and we don’t know anything.” This Fan’s conclusion: “Rather than acknowledge the existence of God, to which logic and sound reasoning continue to lead us, atheists reject logic and sound reasoning. Krauss, to his credit, did manage to demonstrate this with profound success: atheism is irrational!”

I have often noted that religious apologists have a problem with honesty!

However, to get back to the issue of logic and its limitations. Here is how Lawrence Krauss puts it in his comments on the debate:

“Classical human reason, defined in terms of common sense notions following from our own myopic experience of reality is not sufficient to discern the workings of the Universe. If time begins at the big bang, then we will have to re-explore what we mean by causality, just as the fact that electrons can be in two places at the same time doing two different things at the same time as long as we are not measuring them is completely nonsensical, but true, and has required rethinking what we mean by particles. Similar arguments by the way imply that we often need to rethink what we actually mean by ‘nothing’, from empty space, to the absence of space itself.”

Krauss the author

Krauss is a great populariser of science and has written a number of popular science books. His latest one, out last month, is Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science . I am looking forward to reading this – especially after Chris Mooney‘s recent interview of Krauss on a Point of Inquiry podcast (see Lawrence Krauss – Quantum Man Mar 28, 2011). The author’s enthusiasm for his subject is obvious.

And talking of books – this last comment from Lawrence Krauss in his report on the debate looks interesting:

“I have taken great effort to describe our actual understanding of the Universe and its implications for understanding how it might be possible for something to come from nothing, i.e. non-existence, in my new book, which will come out in January of 2012.”

Looking forward to that book.

See also: This video of a talk by Krauss is relevant:

‘A Universe From Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss, AAI 2009.

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Chris Mooney interviews Michael Mann on “climategate”

This is an interesting interview (download MP3). Michael Mann has been vilified by climate change deniers. His work on the so-called “hockey stick” graph  is still being misrepresented despite being validated by the US National research council and other researchers.

He’s a bit of a lone voice at the moment but really worth listening to. Point of Inquiry recently interviewed him and describe the interview this way:

“In response to growing public skepticism—and a wave of dramatic attacks on individual researchers—the scientific community is now bucking up to more strongly defend its knowledge. Leading the charge is one of the most frequently attacked researchers of them all—Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann.

In this interview with host Chris Mooney, Mann pulls no punches. He defends the fundamental scientific consensus on climate change, and explains why those who attack it consistently miss the target. He also answers critics of his “hockey stick” study, and explains why the charges that have arisen in “ClimateGate” seem much more smoke than fire.

Dr. Michael E. Mann is a member of the Pennsylvania State University faculty, and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center. His research focuses on the application of statistical techniques to understanding climate variability and change, and he was a Lead Author on the “Observed Climate Variability and Change” chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report. Among many other distinguished scientific activities, editorships, and awards, Mann is author of more than 120 peer-reviewed and edited publications. That includes, most famously, the 1998 study that introduced the so called “hockey stick,” a graph showing that modern temperatures appear to be much higher than anything seen in at least the last thousand years. With his colleague Lee Kump, Mann also recently authored the book Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming. Finally, he is one of the founders and contributors to the prominent global warming blog, RealClimate.org.”

via Michael Mann – Unprecedented Attacks on Climate Research | Point of Inquiry.

Download MP3

See also:
Spinning exoneration of Dr. Michael Mann Into “Whitewash”
Climate change deniers’ tawdry manipulation of “hockey sticks”
Freedom of information and responsibility


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Dishonest debating

A small New Zealand Christian sect (“TSCF and a few churches” whatever that means) is attempting to organise a debate between a “top Christian Scholar” and a “first-class” New Zealand atheist (see Calling all atheists… we need a debate opponent). “An interesting debate” you might think. But that depends on the subjects debated, the audience and the motives behind it all.

The anonymous author of this post (“admin”) claims that the debate would be about science and reflect “Darwinist versus Christian” views. That’s the give away, isn’t it. The dishonest attempt to present evolutionary science as atheist. No doubt the audience will be Christians, members of “TSCF and a few churches.” The debate format creates a “them and us” situation and clearly conveys the message that evolutionary science (and probably science in general) is on the atheist side and opposed to Chrsitianity. And, of course, that is the message the organisers and “admin” wish to convey. In effect, they want to protect their “flock” from the truth.

And what is the truth they wish to avoid? Most Christians have no problem with science and evolutionary science. They can easily accommodate scientific knowledge with their religious beliefs. In fact, many US Christians are actively campaigning against creationist “intelligent design” and in support of evolutionary science and its teaching in science classes (see Religious opposition to “intelligent design”). This attitude is expressed by a Christian blogger in We Need a New Approach where he admits “intelligent design” has failed as a science and says: “Look, we gave the intelligent design thing a gentleman’s try, lets move on to something else.”

Debate with a Christian opponent

True, some Christians are still uncomfortable with aspects of evolutionary theory – particularly those with little or no knowledge of this science. In New Zealand approximately 40% of Christians prefer a creationist explanation (see New Zealand supports evolution). Clearly the real conflict over evolutionary science is within Christianity – that’s where the big divisions are. That’s where these debates should take place.

I say to the organisers of this New Zealand debate – why not be honest about it? Recognise the differences are within your own religion. Forget about atheists – organise a debate between Christians. They would have no problems finding Christians with expertise in science, and in evolutionary science, capable of providing a worthy debate opponent for their “top Christian scholar.”

Framing science

The tactic behind this particular debate is a specific example of “framing” – posing a question in a format similar to “When are you going to stop beating your wife.” Scientists are becoming more aware of this tactic as a result of the “intelligent design” and climate change controversies. For more about this issue for science have a look at (or listen to) the following sites:

Chris Mooney & Mathew Nisbet – Framing science podcast
Matthew C. Nisbet – Communicating about Science and Religion
Matthew C. Nisbet – Selling Science to the Public
Tom Flynn – The Science vs. Religion Warfare Thesis
The Scientist Delusion? Nature Column on AAAS Panel