Tag Archives: United States

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

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New Zealand in good company. Pity about the USA

Credit: Calamities of nature

What a glaring anomaly – the USA which on many things is a world leader – so out of step with an important aspect of human knowledge.

And perhaps New Zealand is not so bad after all. The CIA World fact Book (2008) gives our Gross Domestic Product per capita as about $27,200. Its probably a little higher now but surveys indicate our acceptance of evolutionary science as high as 80%

Not bad – we’re up there with the northern Europeans.

Thanks to Climate Denial Crock of the Week – Graph of the Day: This Explains a Lot.

The climate change denial machine

Here’s an interesting diagram I found at Climate Progress (see Organized Climate Change Denial “Played a Crucial Role in Blocking Domestic Legislation,” Top Scholars Conclude). It’s taken from the book  chapter,Organized Climate Change Denial,” by Riley E. Dunlap and Aaron M. McCright in The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society.

This describes the situation in the USA where Joe Romm points out:

“the fact is that what the deniers have accomplished in this country is unique in the world, going far beyond the spread of disinformation.  They have allowed fossil fuel interests to “capture” almost an entire political party — at least these in national office (see National Journal:  “The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones”).”

The New Zealand denial machine

OK. things are nowhere as bad in New Zealand. But I still think a similar diagram applies here – providing we include international connections.

We have some local corporations and financial interests supporting climate change denial, but they themselves have international inks. And many of the fossil fuel interests in the US have connections down under.

At the next level we even have our own conservative think tank – The NZ Centre for Political Research. This has important links with local big business, overseas business and conservative think tanks, local politicians and news media. Links with the NZ ACT Party are clear – and one can’t help thinking that this was the organisation pulling the strings behind the recent leadership coup in that party. Especially as the plotters were not even members of the party!

Links with astroturf climate denier and contrarian organisations like the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition and the NZ Climate Conversation Group are also clear. The Centre for Political research also has a forum which displays plenty of evidence of links with some way-out conspiracy theory organisations and individuals.

These links with media, politicians, astroturf organisations., blogs and internet forums form the local denier echo chamber. Individuals involved in the echo chamber also spread their influence more widely, for example, to conservative Christian and political blogs, by their cut and past activity.  Follow one of these blogs and you get the impression of a few very active individuals passing on links to denier sources, and disparaging comments about science and scientists. They rely very much on the “authority by hyperlink” process.

The authors of the chapter from which this diagram is taken say in their conclusion:

“We have argued that because of the perceived threat posed by climate change to their interests, actors in the denial machine have strived to undermine scientific evidence documenting its reality and seriousness.  Over the past two decades they have engaged in an escalating assault on climate science and scientists, and in recent years on core scientific practices, institutions and knowledge.  Their success in these efforts not only threatens our capacity to understand and monitor human-induced ecological disruptions from the local to global levels (Hanson 2010), but it also weakens an essential component of societal reflexivity when the need for the latter is greater than ever.”

Again, this denial machine has far less influence in New Zealand than in the USA. But I think, if we remember the activity of the local components (as for example their attacks on our NIWA scientists), this conclusion does describe the local denial machine as well.

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Atheists aren’t shrill – just disgusting?

Perhaps the common hostile reaction to the so-called “new atheists” (or gnus) is more a matter of the disgust in the eye or brain of the beholder than any “stridency” or “shrillness” on the part of the atheist. Well, that’s what the recently published work of Ritter and Preston suggests (see  Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs).

They used groups of Christians as subjects in two experiments to test the effect of reading material from their own group (bible) and outgroup (Muslim and atheist) sources on feelings of disgust. This was evaluated by rating  responses to  a drink before and after copying a passage from these sources.

From the paper’s abstract:

“In Experiment 1, Christian participants showed increased disgust after writing a passage from the Qur’an or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but not a control text. Experiment 2 replicated this effect, and also showed that contact with an ingroup religious belief (Christians copying from the Bible) did not elicit disgust. Moreover, Experiment 2 showed that disgust to rejected beliefs was eliminated when participants were allowed to wash their hands after copying the passage, symbolically restoring spiritual cleanliness. Together, these results provide evidence that contact with rejected religious beliefs elicits disgust by symbolically violating spiritual purity.”

I guess this explains this strange knee-jerk effect I have observed among Christian apologists. Just the mention of the word “Dawkins” in any discussion sends them off at a tangent. The reactions are clearly emotional, and not rational. So it does seem logical that these emotional responses utilise common intuitions or feelings – and disgust is the obvious one.

Now, I don’t suggest this phenomenon is restricted to only Christians, or even just the religious. (Although i suspect religious believers may be more prone to emotions related to purity and disgust).  I think we are all prone to react emotionally rather than logically when encountering anything conflicting with our beliefs. So I think the authors are right to conclude that disgust plays a role in the protection of beliefs, especially beliefs which hold moral value.

This paper is discussed in more detail by  Tom Rees at Epiphenom (see Is The God Delusion more disgusting than the Koran?). His discussion includes figures from the paper.

Perhaps next time I find a Christian apologists getting distracted by Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion during a discussion I should recognise they are suffering from disgust, rather than producing any logical argument. Maybe I should then suggest they go away and wash their hands before continuing our discussion.

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Evolution and education – advice for teachers

Creationists have far less influence in New Zealand than they do in the US. Still, quite a large proportion of Christians here do not accept evolutionary science. So, I imagine, their wish to undermine the teaching of evolutionary science sometimes becomes an issue, for some teachers.

Here’s a couple of videos prepared by the US National Center for Science Education (NCSE) which does a great job in the US. They are of a talk given by NCSE programs and policy director Steve Newton to an audience of high school teachers from across the US.

Steve covers questions like:

  • What challenges do biology teachers face from creationists?
  • How do you respond to students asking the “10 questions”?
  • What are the different flavors of creationist belief?
  • And other issues.

Teaching evolution in a climate of science denial, Part 1.

Part 2: Teaching evolution in a climate of science denial, Part 2.

See also: NCSE YouTube Channel

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Are scientists hostile to religion?

Book review: Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund.

Price: US$19.72; NZ$59.97
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (May 6, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0195392981
ISBN-13: 978-0195392982

This book reports on the recent  Religion among Academic Scientists study in the US. A research project identifying the range of views on religion held by US scientists, and determining the statistical distribution  of different beliefs among US scientists.

Elaine Howard Ecklund gives an overview of the research and the questionnaire it used. She also includes data from other studies. Data collection was funded primarily by the Templeton Foundation (the major grant was US$283,549) Participants were randomly selected from seven natural and social science disciplines at 21 US universities (I think the way such studies often neglect the non-university scientific institutions is rather short-sighted). The questions used related to religion, spirituality and ethics.

While the data and interviews of this study are interesting and useful I don’t think they necessarily support the author’s conclusions. I explain why below

Ecklund is a sociologist and currently the director of The Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.

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The heart of opposition to climate science

Harrison Schmitt, Member of the Board, The Heartland Institute Former U.S. Senator, New Mexico

The Heartland Institute’s Fourth International Conference on Climate Change occured this week in Chicago, USA. It was basically a gathering of activists opposed to climate change science and/or political measures to deal with global warming.

It’s worth looking at the programme and the list of co-sponsors. These reveal the nature of the political and ideological links organisations involved in promoting climate change denial. It also provides some idea of how these organisations operate.

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The rickety bandwagon of climate change denial

OK, this cartoon is lampooning extremest attitudes within the US Republican Party. But I think it is also very relevant to this whole “climategate” hysteria.

Relevant because some of the most extreme pronouncements from climate change deniers do smack of McCarthyism. To be honest they also remind me of the campaigns against scientists and intellectuals launched by Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.

Have a brief look at some of the pronouncement in denier blogs and twitter tweets. The description of climate change science as a conspiracy. The accusations that honest scientists have lied, hidden and distorted data and interfered with scientific publication processes. And all on an international scale. The huge and authoritative IPCC reviews are being discarded unread as rubbish and lies.

The accusations that these honest scientists are criminals, that they should be prosecuted. Some of these bloggers and tweeters want immediate  punishment – they can’t wait for a trial, let alone an investigation.

And as for the official investigation of charges of violation of freedom of information laws, let alone scientific ethics, these critics scream “whitewash” beforehand. Justice and truth is the last thing they want.

Persecuting climate scientists

The label “McCarthyism” is so obvious, down to McCarthy’s tactics of persecution of victims and hearings. US Senator James Inhofe is actually demanding criminal investigation of climate scientists. He has even named 17 US and UK climate scientists he wants to prosecute.

Michael Mann, one of the US climate scientists Inhofe wishes to imprison or otherwise punish, has warned about the climate denier hysteria:

“I think the following quote characterises the situation best: ‘Continuous research by our best scientists … may be made impossible by the creation of an atmosphere in which no man feels safe against the public airing of unfounded rumours, gossip, and vilification.’ The quote wasn’t made during the last few months. It was made by US president Harry S Truman in 1948, in response to politically motivated attacks against scientists associated with the dark era of McCarthyism.”

Mann added:

“I fear that is precisely the sort of atmosphere that is being created, and sure, it impacts research. The more time scientists have to spend fending off these sorts of attacks and dealing with this sort of nonsense, the less time is available to them to actually do science, and to push the forefront of our knowledge forward. Perhaps that is the intent?”

He is right to warn us about the nature of the current anti-science hysteria.

But I think the cartoon also conveys an important point. These days McCarthyism (and Stalinism, Maoism and Pol Potism) is a sign of weakness. It is an extremely weak and rickety bandwagon to jump on to. These extremists sail so close to the wind that they will inevitably be exposed. Their whole edifice will collapse.

I suspect this collapse will become more and more obvious as we get the results from the current investigations into the “climategate” issue. It is likely that any real unethical or illegal activity found will be no greater than interference with freedom of information requests. And these may relate only to emails rather than data. After the dust is settle, after any real inappropriate behaviour has been dealt with, many people are going to look ridiculous.

Demand transparency from deniers

I only hope that we can spend some time investigating these people. What has been their attitude towards revealing their own sources of funding and treatment of data? How have they responding to information requests? How have they behaved ethically toward reporting scientific facts, let alone reporting the behavior of honest scientists?

Some of these people are journalists. Others bloggers. The there are the denier organisations and their websites. Should we place any trust in such people in the future?


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Open Letter from U.S. Scientists on the IPCC

Recently an Open Letter was sent by US scientists to federal agencies expressing concern about the current “climategate” hysteria and attitudes towards the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The over 250 signatories included both IPCC and non-IPCC authors and professionals from related disciplines including physical, biological and social scientists (see Open Letter from U.S. Scientists on the IPCC).

The letter is certainly informative. It conveys the signatories’ concerns about the current attacks on climate scientists. But it also gives a useful history and description of the IPCC review process and puts the whole question of recently disclosed report errors into its correct context. It endorses the public right to know the risks involved in climate change and the need for restoring confidence in the review process. The letter proposes specific ideas for improving the review process, providing for more rapid acknowledgment and correction of inevitable errors and correcting misconceptions about IPCC conclusions.

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