Thursday, January 20, 2005

Evolution on Scarborough Country

Compared to the complete insanity of the O'Reilly segment, last Friday's edition of Scarborough Country was a model of erudition and scholarship. The transcript is available here.

The topic was the Cobb County “sticker” decision. Here's Scarborough introducing the segment:


But, first, imagine that your child comes home from school and one of his science books has a sticker that reads—quote—“This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

Should red states be teaching kids creationism, while blue states are teaching evolution? Has the ACLU gone too far in demanding any that trace of religion be removed from our schools? And why is a federal judge stepping in and telling schools what they should put in their textbooks?


It's interesting that Scarborough takes it for granted that the Cobb County stickers were an attempt to bring religion into the classroom. After all, defenders of the sticker prefer to talk about things like “critical thinking” and “good science”.

Scarborough went on to introduce the panel:


With me now tonight are Marjorie Rogers. She‘s a Georgia parent who wants the stickers on science books. And we have got Dave Silverman. He‘s of American Atheists, who obviously does not.


Compared to other “public atheists” I've seen, Silverman does a reasonable job on these shows. But he should realize that he is simply allowing the Scarboroughs of the world to cast the issue in their own terms. From the moment he was introduced as an atheist nothing else he said mattered. Scarborough got across the message he wanted to get across: that accepting evolution is a religious position.

Let's see what Ms. Rogers had to say:


MARJORIE ROGERS, PARENT: Well, I opened up my student‘s science book and—the science books that were proposed to be purchased by Cobb County, and I was astonished at what I saw. If any parent wants to look in them, I think they will be also overwhelmed by the way that evolution is presented as an unquestioned fact supported by mountains of evidence, which it just is not. It is a theory. And it is presented unfairly.

They parade out all of the tired old icons of evolution that they have been putting out there for years as support for the theory, in the light of all of the new scientific evidence that has come forth, DNA discoveries, all the complexities of life that scientists are discovering of late. (Emphasis Added)


Rogers gave herself away with that boldface comment. She lifted that from Jonathan Wells' book of the same title. Of course, every major point Wells made in that book has been shown to be totally, ridiculously wrong.

It would have been great if Scarborough had come back with “New DNA discoveries? Really? Name one.” But I suppose that was asking too much.

From here Rogers went on to hit all the usual talking points: A growing number of scientists are embracing ID (she even had the Discovery Institute list!), this isn't about religion, blah blah blah.

I really despise people like her. I have spent most of the last five years reading everything I could get my hands on about evolutionary biology. I started with popular level treatments, moved into higher level books and articles, made a point of reading Darwin and Huxley and Fisher and Mayr and countless others. I have read almost everything the ID folks have put out and I have read everything scientists have written in reply. I have even read a large number of research articles on the subject, and often discuss this issue with my biological betters. And I would still be nervous discussing the issue on television, for fear of making a mistake on some scientific question.

Yet here is Ms. Rogers, who knows nothing about the subject beyond a few talking points she's absorbed, happily going on television and acting for the world like she knows what she is talking about. How do people like her become so shameless? How is is that they care so much more about their fifteen minutes of fame than they do about getting the facts right?

The only other interesting part of the segment was Scarborough's closing:


And I want you all to know out there, this is a big issue. It is not just affecting Georgia schools. Last night on “Nightline,” they were talking about a school in Ohio. It‘s happening all across America. Now, again, think about this, all right? This is not about whether you are a Christian or whether you are an atheist. It not about whether you believe in creationism. It is not about whether you believe in evolution.

It is about whether you believe a federal judge should decide what we put in our textbooks in our schools. I say leave it up to the school boards, leave it up to the local officials, not the federal judges.

Now, we are going to be following this case closely and talking about it more in the coming weeks.


At no point did Scarborough ever endorse creationism. In fact, he seemed to go to great lengths to present this as an issue of judicial activism. I take this to mean that Scarborough has little sympathy for creationism himself, but doesn't want to incur the wrath of his mostly right-wing viewers.

Of course local school boards have broad discretion over their curricula. But as noted by Judge Cooper in his decsion in the trial, they are not completely unfettered. They can do almost whatever they want, but not quite everything.

O'Reilly, Again

One of my commenters has pointed out to me that the transcript of the O'Reilly segment I discussed yesterday is available online here. So now I can give you the exact quotes from the segment. We consider it in full:


O’REILLY: Top Story Tonight. Spurred on by the ACLU and other so-called freedom groups, a nationwide controversy has erupted over teaching Intelligent Design in public school biology classes. Intelligent Design is the belief that a higher power created the universe. Some Americans want it taught alongside evolution. In the Dover, Pennsylvania school district, teachers wouldn’t even mention Intelligent Design, so today the District Superintendent had to do it. Lawsuits are flyin’. Joining us today is Michael Grant, a Professor of Biology at the University of Colorado.

See, I can’t understand, as a former high school teacher myself, why you can’t just say “Well, some people believe there’s a deity and the deity formed the universe and things progressed from there?” What would be wrong with that, Professor?


This is the standard equivocation about the meaning of the term “Intelligent Design.” O'Reilly is using the term for the minimalist claim that there is some designing intelligence behind the universe. This allows him to paint his opposition as a bunch of crazy atheists. Of course, this minimalist claim has nothing to do with evolution at all.

I'm sure O'Reilly would not approve of telling students, say in a discussion of the geological causes of the recent tsunami, that some people conclude from events like this that the world is not superintended by a loving God.

In the Dover, PA case, ID refers to a specific collection of challenges to modern evolutionary theory. Those challenges should not be discussed (not favorably anyway) because they are wrong. The science teachers in Dover have enough integrity not to lie to their students, and that is why they refused to read the statement in question.


GRANT: Well, my view of what would be wrong with that is it’s not science. And that’s not the place to talk about those kinds of things. The proper place to talk about those kinds of issues is in comparative religion. It’s in the philosophy classes. Biology classes should be science.


Exactly right. After all, many people look at the facts of nature and conclude there is no God. Does O'Reilly want that to be mentioned?


O’REILLY: OK. But science is incomplete in this area of creationism, is it not?

GRANT: Science is always incomplete in all areas.

O’REILLY: Well, I don’t agree with that. Science is not always incomplete and I’ll give you an example. There are twenty-four hours in a day. Alright. That’s science. And there are four seasons. That’s science. So you can state things with certainty in biology or any other science you want. However, if I’m a student in your class and you’re telling me, well, there might have been a meteor or big bang or there might have been this or there might have been that, I’m gonna raise my hand like the wise guy I am and say “Professor, might there be a higher power that contributed to the fact that we’re all here?” and you say - what?


Of course, Grant gave the answer that any scientist would give. Whatever branch of science you are working in has open questions. That, after all, is why people continue to do research.

But O'Reilly's response makes it clear that he was losing his grip on reality. He seems to interpret Grant's statement to mean that science is just an endless mishmash of guesses and hypotheses, with anything like certainty being a hopelessly unattainable goal. Thus, in his mind he can prove Grant wrong by showing that there are certain facts in science.

Now, evolution by natural selection is as much a fact as anything else in science. By O'Reilly's definition, it would indded be “complete science.” But in O'Reilly's mind evolution is a grand theory about the origins of everything. Since there is most definitely uncertainty about that question, O'Reilly feels justified in bringing up God as a plausible hypothesis.

Compared to what is coming, these are the insights of a scientific genius.


GRANT: I say that’s something you need to question, you need to think about, you need to discuss with other people. You need to do that in the proper class. In the biology class we deal with science, with the natural world and what fits our conventional concepts of science.

O’REILLY: But, what if it turns out there is a God and He did create the universe and you die and then you figure that out? Aren’t you gonna feel bad that you didn’t address that in your biology class?

GRANT: Well, to quote a famous quote ...

O’REILLY (overtalks all words): ‘Cause then it would be science, wouldn’t it? You know, if tomorrow the deity came down and proved himself, then it would be science, wouldn’t it, sir?


Any thoughts on how to respond to something that stupid? I'm trying to picture Grant preparing himself for the interview, trying to anticpate things O'Reilly might say during the segment. I'll bet he didn't anticipate that one!


GRANT: If it meets the convention standards - whatever it is you’re referring to - meets science, then I certainly would be convinced. And, until and unless that happens, I’m going to go on teaching what I see is current science.

O’REILLY: Alright. See. I think this is a narrow-minded view, with all due respect, that you are holding. But I must point out to our viewers that most academics agree with the professor. Alright. It’s pinheads like me that cause trouble. Now. Cloning of human beings. It’s never been done that we know of. Would you agree with that?


And, sadly, I think a majority of the people agree with O'Reilly.

Basically, the problem is this: Science has been so successful, and religion so unsuccessful, at explaining the world and tending to people's physical needs that science is now the standard against which truth claims about nature are evaluated. Thus, if you want to make an assertion about the natural world and be taken seriously about it, you have to defend your assertion in scientific terms.

But for most people, God's existence is as much a fact of nature as anything else. Therefore, God should be part of science.

Most people couldn't care less about the day-to-day work of scientists. They neither realize nor care that actually the job of the scientist is to go into the lab or the field and come out with useful results. If you try to point out to them that theories based on the supernatural are not helpful, they give you a funny look. What helpful? It's true, therefore it's scientific.

Had Grant had more than two seconds to respond to O'Reilly's insanity I'm sure he would have pointed this out. That's what he had in mind, I suspect, in talking about conventional standards of science. But to O'Reilly and many of his viewers, talk of “conventional standards” is equivalent to setting up arbitrary rules for the purpose of keeping God out. That view is delusional, but no less common for that.


GRANT: To the best of my knowledge, it has not yet been done. That’s correct.

O’REILLY (overtalks the last 8 words): OK. Now. Do you not talk about cloning of human beings in biology class? Do you not talk about the possibility that may come about in the future?

GRANT: In certain special classes and the bioethics classes, we definitely do talk about that....

O’REILLY (overtalks last 3 words): Yeah. It’s not science, sir!!

GRANT: ...whether it could or should be done. It’s very much science.

O’REILLY: Yeah. It’s not science, is it?

GRANT: There’s an enormous amount of science in it.

O’REILLY: It’s not!

GRANT: Absolutely.

O’REILLY: Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! It’s not science. It hasn’t been done.

GRANT: Yes, it is.

O’REILLY: So, by your theory in the creationism deal, you shouldn’t talk about that at all, because it hasn’t been done, it hasn’t been proven, nothing’s happened there!


As is often the case, the transcript does not do justice to what actually took place. Those who watched the segment saw O'Reilly in full ridicule mode here.

More to the point, does anyone know what O'Reilly is talking about here? All Grant said previously was that there are certain conventional standards of science that guide researchers in their work. Where did O'Reilly get the nonsense about cloning not being science (whatever that means) because no one had done it yet? Had Grant said anything that could even be misinterpreted to mean that?


GRANT: That’s not the definition of science and I never said that was the definition of science - that it hasn’t been done and it hasn’t been proven. What I’m saying is that we use conventional information about what our best understanding of the natural world is at this point in time. Of course it can change. I can give you lots of examples of where we have to change. That’s the nature of science. It does not take a biblical or any particular source as unchanging truth. We continually test. We continually monitor. We continually change.

O’REILLY (overtalks last 6 words): I wouldn’t teach the Bible. I - see, I agree that I wouldn’t say “Look, you guys should read Genesis and do the Adam and Eve nuh” - if I were professor of biology, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t do that. But I would say “Look, there are a lot of very brilliant scholars who believe the reason we have incomplete science on evolution is that there is a higher power involved in this and you should consider it as a scientist.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, Professor. And I think the people like the ACLU, who don’t want you to mention it in your biology class, are the Taliban. I think THEY are the ones that are infringing on the rights of all American students by not allowing that to be at least considered. I’ll give you the last word.


O'Reilly has a lot of nerve. When a handful of carzy leftists go to a Bush protest and liken Bush to Hitler, O'Reilly wails about the cheapening of our discourse. On the same show we are discussing above O'Reilly took a PETA representative to task for their recent ad campaign comparing meat consumption to the Nazi holocaust. Too extreme, he said. Yet he thinks nothing of likening the ACLU to the Taliban. Just lovely.

Incidentally, loyal O'Reilly viewers will recognize the line “I'll give you the last word,” as O'Reilly-speak for “I'll let you say one more sentence before cutting you off and telling the world you're an idiot.


GRANT: I think it should be considered in the classes that I mentioned. But you don’t start from the premise that Dembski, who’s one of the leading members of the Intelligent Design group, says. [Reads] “As Christians, we know naturalism is false.” If you start from that premise ...

O’REILLY: Nah. I wouldn’t do that.

GRANT: ... you’ve abandoned science.

O’REILLY: Sure. I mean ..

GRANT: Well, that’s one of your leading Intelligent Design individuals.

O’REILLY: But it’s not me! And I’m sayin’ you guys are all wrong by not allowing a biology class to consider the universe in all the forms that it may take. Professor, we appreciate your point of view. Thanks very much.


As I said yesterday, these chat shows exist for the sole purpose of aggrandizing their hosts. What O'Reilly understands that many of his guests do not understand is that talking to his viewers is like to talking to babies: It doesn't matter what you say. All that matters is the tone you use. You will never be able to nail someone like O'Reilly because he works completely unfettered by any regard for the truth or the facts. All that matters is that he is the one talking most of the time and that his tone is one of complete confidence.

All of cable news and all of talk radio is like this. The only comforting aspect of this I can think of is that O'Reilly is by far the most successful cable host and he only gets about three million viewers a night.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Evolution on the O'Reilly Factor

Bill O'Reilly decided to weigh in on matters evolutionary yesterday. The opening segment of his show dealt with whether ID should be introduced in science classes. To his credit, O'Reilly had a real scientist representing the evolution side: Bilogist Michael Grant of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

O'Reilly, of course, is famous for combining maximum arrogance with maximum ignorance. The fact that he knows nothing at all about biology does not stop him from making pronouncements with the utmost confidence.

The transcript of the segment does not seem to be available online, so I am doing this from memory.

The interview started off badly and got worse (oh, so much worse) from there. O'Reilly threw out his opening gambit, which was something about how some people look at the complexity of nature and see evidence for design, and why shouldn't this be mentioned in science classes. He threw in some gratuitous references to the Big Bang and whatnot, indicating that like most right-wing commentators he was thinking of evolution as some sort of metaphysical theory of everything as opposed to a humble finding of biology about the development of life once it appears. Sigh. This was actually the most intelligent thing O'Reilly said during the entire segment.

Grant replied calmly that the science classroom is not the appropriate place for such talk and that biology classes should deal with biology, not theology.

At this point, the interview was still taking place on planet Earth. It wasn't long, however, before O'Reilly sent things careening off into The Twilight Zone. He said something like “Now evolutionary science is incomplete, is that correct?”

Grant, no doubt sensing a trap but thinking he was still on planet Earth, replied that all science was incomplete of course.

But O'Reilly was ready for that one. “That isn't true!” he snarled. “Let me give you an example. There are twenty-four hours in a day. Okay. That's settled science. There are four seasons in a year.” Zing! He went on from there about how evolution wasn't like that.

I'm not very good at reading faces, but I'm pretty sure Grant couldn't quite believe he had actually heard something so stupid. He was probably longing for a really intelligent question, like “Will this be on the test?”

Of course, what O'Reilly was trying to say was that there are facts in life and there are theories, and evolution is definitely the latter. I won't rehash here all the ways in which that idea is misguided.

There was some more crosstalk during which O'Reilly made a bit of a slip. I think Grant had said something about science dealing with the natural world and confining itself to naturalistic explanations that can be verified by amassing data. Somewhere in here O'Reilly remarked that “I'm not talking about teaching the Bible. I'm not talking about Genesis or all that Adam and Eve no-” and then cut himself off before he could finish the word “nonsense.” He would have received some interesting e-mail had he completed the sentence.

Throughout the segment it was unclear what, exactly, O'Reilly wanted. It sounded like he would have been happy if every science teacher simply stated at some point in their lesson that some people look at the complexity of nature and conclude that there must have been a designer. At the beginning of the segment he defined Intelligent Design as simply the idea that there is some sort of supernatural intelligence at work in the universe. He never specifically endorsed irreducible complexity or anything like that.

I wonder how he would have felt about a statement that some people look at the progress of science over the centuries and conclude that there is no designer.

Anyway, O'Reilly was saving his best for last. His final salvo was the following bizarre question, “Has anyone successfully cloned a human being?” Grant replied that to he best of his knowledge nobody had. O'Reilly pounced. “So you're saying that since no one has done it yet it's not science! Are you saying you can't talk about cloning in a biology class?” Set and match.

At this point Grant tumbled to the fact that what he no doubt thought would be a serious conversation about high school science curricula was in reality just a chance for O'Reilly to preen for his viewers. Grant started to reply that there is plenty of good science behind cloning and that it would be an appropriate topic for science classes. I'm sure he would have added “You know nothing at all about science you freakin' moron. Stop pretending that you are anything other than a right-wing hack!” had O'Reilly not cut him off at this point.

Somehow O'Reilly got it into his head that he had caught Grant in some sort of contradiction and he started blathering that according to Grant's own definition of science they shouldn't talk about cloning. Since Grant had said nothing of the sort, he seemed puzzled as to how to respond.

Anyway, it was time to wrap up the segment. O'Reilly went into full lecture mode, and said something about how scientists need to be more open-minded and allow the possibility that God is behind it all. Grant came back with a quote from Dembski that made explicit that the ID crowd has considerably more in mind that making some vague reference to a designer. This at leaset got O'Reilly to repeat that he didn't want Christianity taught in the schools.

Anyway, there's a lesson in this for other scientists who are invited to appear on one of these chat shows. People need to realize that these shows do not exist to disseminate information or clarify difficult issues. They exist for the sole purpose of aggrandizing their hosts. To most of O'Reilly's viewers it didn't matter that the things he was saying made no sense at all. All they saw was the hero O'Reilly standing to up to the overeducated, anti-religious, arrogant pinhead scientist. Anti-intellectualism has always been popular in America. Thanks to cable news, it now gets hours of air time every night.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

More Sticker Shock

Agape Press columnist Mark Creech has now weighed in with a response to the decision in the Cobb County trial. Oh joy!

It's the usual litany of ID chest-pounding, but there are a few points worth commenting on:


Few people understand that “Methodological Naturalism,” “scientific materialism,” or “Evolution Only” is the prevailing view of scientists that make up the National Academy of Sciences, which writes the National Science Education Standards.


Interesting. Methodological naturalism gets capitalized while scientific materialism does not.

Creech is conflating different things here. I'm not sure what the phrase “scientific materialism” means; I have not seen that one in other discussions of this subject. “Methodological naturalism” refers to the idea that as a practical matter science must restrict itself to naturalistic theories. The goal of science is to impose some order on nature's chaos. It is an attempt to render features of the natural world predictable and controllable. Theories that invoke the supernatural are unhelpful in reaching that goal. Consequently, scientists do not accord them much respect. Methodological naturalism is to be contrasted with metaphysical naturalism. The latter makes a definite assertion about how the world actually is (namely that there is no such thing as the supernatural). The former makes no such assertion.

“Evolution only” is intended to to be a snide description of the high school curricula now taught in most states. It is a term used by creationists when they are trying to paint scientists as dogmatic, anti-God militants. No doubt they would describe the prevailing view of physicists as “Astronomy only&rdquo (thereby leaving no room for astrology), or the prevailing view of doctors as “Germ theory only&rdquo (which shows a certain disrespect towards the alternative, Demon-Possession theory).

Methodological naturalism and support for evolution are two separate things. And metaphysical naturalism is a different thing still.


John Calvert, who has a degree in geology and currently focuses on constitutional issues relating to the teaching of origins in public schools, says a highly regarded poll published by Edward Larson and Larry Witham in the Journal Nature, reveals 93 percent of members of the National Academy doubt the existence of a “personal god,” versus 7 percent who professed a belief in God.


This is the standard credential-mongering so common in creationist literature. Mr. Calvert has a degree in geology? Golly! Guess he's someone I should take seriously.

But then you find out that actually he has an undergraduate degree in geology and that is all. Basically, he was a geology major in college. I also note that the favorable biography linked to above does not mention the school from which he obtained that degree. You can be sure if it were a reputable school it would have been mentioned.

Just to avoid confusion, I am not saying that Calvert should be ignored because of his lack of geology credentials. The fact is, however, that Creech is deliberately exaggerating Calvert's scientific expertise.

And what, exactly, is that survey of the NAS intended to prove? I have no doubt that an inclination to believe in God goes down as scientific expertise goes up. But that is not because of evolution. It is because when you spend every day of your professional life meticulously accumulating evidence for every assertion you care to make, it becomes difficult to go home and suddenly start taking things on faith. Furthermore, the NAS includes only a tiny percentage of the scientific community.


In his remarks, made during Darwin, Design & Democracy v Science Converges on Design at the University of New Mexico, Calvert further explained:


“Methodological Naturalism [MN] holds that when scientists investigate and seek to explain the natural world they must irrefutably assume that Naturalism is true. We must assume that only natural causes have operated throughout the relevant history of life without the aid of any intelligent cause. Those who break this rule are not scientists and therefore are not qualified to speak or be heard. MN is sort of a rule that would require arson investigators to provide only natural explanations for all fires. If an investigator disagrees with the rule, he is not deemed a qualified investigator, so his reports cannot be considered. The result would be massive increases in insurance premiums and profound misunderstanding about the true causes of fire.”



A moment ago I said that Calvert should not be ignored simply because of his lack of science credentials. But, assuming this quote is accurate, he should be ignored because he plainly has no idea what he is talking about.

Irrefutably assuming that capital-N Naturalism is true is precisely what MN does not do. As I said previously, MN makes no claim about the world at all. Furthermore, it is fine to hypothesize that intelligent agents are implicated in whatever it is you are trying to explain. It is only supernatural intelligences that are forbidden, and that is for the simple practical reason that such hypotheses have never led to progress in the past. In fact, they have often hindered progress.

Seen in this light, Calvert's arson example is especially poorly chosen. In that context it is useful to hypothesize that the fire was started by some human intelligence. Investigators can use that hypothesis as a starting point for an investigation. But I think even Calvert would look askance at any investigaor who suggested that it was a fire-breathing dragon that started a particular fire.


Although what Calvert describes is essentially what science has become, it should be noted that modern science could never have arisen in our modern culture on such a premise. In other words, today's science essentially claims all of life is random, irrational and illogical. To borrow from Calvert, the core claim of evolution is that “apparent design is just an illusion.” Such rejects the notion of absolutes, therefore, rejecting the very foundation of science. Consider carefully: if everything is irrational and illogical, if there are no absolutes, if there is no design, then results in experimentation are relative. Scientific claims cannot possibly be subject to refutation or falsification. A foundation of that order for science destroys its credibility.


This paragraph is almost complete gibberish. I have no idea what it means to say that life is random, illogical and irrational, and I don't know a single scientist who would describe any finding of science in that way. We can say that according to the theory of evolution, randomness in some well-defined sense has a role to play in the development of life. That is all.

As for “illogical” and “irrational” it is simply a category error to apply those terms in this context. Arguments can be illogical and behavior can be irrational, but it is meaningless to apply those terms to life in general.

Next he equates the claim that “apparent design is just an illusion” with the rejection of absolutes. Someone explain this to me. Apparent design of what? What kind of absolutes?

The next sentence gets even worse. He once again abuses the terms illogical and irrational and provides no explanation regarding the sorts of absolutes he has in mind. He then says that if there is no design then the results of experiments are relative. Er, relative to what?

I think what he is getting at is the idea that if there is no God to impose order on nature, then we should expect nature to be chaotic and unpredictable. That would indeed make science impossible. Happily, Creech has it completely backward. A world with no supernatural intelligences is precisely the sort of world that should be predictable and non-chaotic. Physical, non-living objects can only do whatever it is they do. They can not decide to behave according to their whim. But if supernatural intelligences are at work in the world, then the regularities upon which science is based hold only so long as it amuses the gods to uphold them. It is in that sort of world that science would be impossible.

From here Creech goes on to repeat the standard canard about the great scientists of old being creationists. Blah blah blah. Read it at your own risk.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Leo on Liberals

Here's John Leo's latest column for Town Hall. It's the same litany of anti-liberal slurs and steroetypes that Town Hall publishes at least five times a day. But there is one statement that really stands out. In his attempt to show how superior liberals fancy themselves to be, Leo writes:


*Bush got re-elected because Americans are stupid. Many Democrats now refer to themselves as “reality-based,” meaning that they are neither “faith-based” or “unreality-based” like those irrational Republicans.


This was part of a series of bullet points intended to show how liberals view the world and how foolish they are for thinking the way they do.

It's hard to believe that Leo is not aware of the origin of the term “reality-based.” He wants us to believe that this is a term conjured up by arrogant liberals to distinguish themselves from the ignorant masses. Actually, the term was first used by an anonymous Bush advisor as a negative description of the opposition to Bush's policies, as described in this article by Ron Suskind.


The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That's not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”


After this, many liberal bloggers coopted the term as a badge of honor.

So if Leo thinks it is a sign of arrogance and “crazy thinking” (that's the title of his column) to use the term “reality-based,” then he should direct his ire at the Bushies.

Of course, it's especially rich for someone like Leo to lecture the rest of us about the perils of thinking ourselves superior. After all, there are no people on Earth more smug and superior than the right-wing punditocracy.

As James Carville once said in a different context, most of Town Hall's readers use the site the way a drunk uses a lamppost, for support not illumination. People aren't looking to Leo for sound argumentation and cogent thinking. That's a good thing, since he is incapable of providing it. What Leo, and most right-wing columnists, do is parrot simplistic talking-points to ignorant people who fancy themselves very learned. If saying that makes me an arrogant liberal then so be it. It's just that I have a fondness for reality myself.

Boston Legal

Anyone watch Boston Legal yesterday? Last night's episode had an evolution/creationism storyline.

The plot line revolved around a Massachussetts school board that had mandated the teaching of Intelligent Design in science classes. The science teachers in the school refused to go along with this mandate, and they were fired as a result. The teachers were suing on Establishment Clause grounds. The show's stars were defending the creationists.

The trial got underway with the testimony of a supporter of the mandate (though I don't recall if he was the principal of the shcool or the head of the school board or something else). The witness was made to look very foolish under cross-examination. I especially liked the fact that the show's writers made it very clear that ID was nothing but a euphemism for creationism. The witness virtually said as much on the stand. Actually, they went a little far even for me by implying that ID was identical to young-Earth creationism. I usually say there is no important difference between the two, but there are some differences.

The episode continued to move along well with the next witness: one of the teachers who refused to teach creationism. She testified in no uncertain terms that evolution was science and ID was crap. There was no cross-examination.

Sadly, you just knew the show couldn't keep it up. Closing arguments came along and the plaintiff's lawyer (not one of the show's regulars) gave a competant speech to the effect that mandating the teaching of creationism was obviously an Establishment Clause violation.

Then, sadly, came the defendant's attornery, played by Candice Bergen (!!) She gave a stirring speech about believing in both God and evolution, then whipped out the usual canards about open-mindedness and Darwinian censorship.

The judge, preposterously, found for the defendants and ruled that mandating creationism was not an Establishment Clause violation. The judge's decision was based entirely on his perception that secularism had gone too far and that scientists need to be more open-minded. I interpreted this as the writer's way of saying that both evolution and creationism should be taught in schools, which leaves me wondering whether I should continue watching the show.

But then the closing scene showed Bergen and another attorney for the firm wondering about whether it was a good thing that they had won the case. Bergen closed the show by asking rhetorically whether they had opened the door for some future judge to outlaw the teaching of evolution. “God forbid” that should happen, they said. Fade to black.

It's never goes well when popular, not-too-serious television shows start wading into issues of public concern. It's even worse when it's a David E. Kelley show. I'll keep watching for now (William Shatner and James Spader are too good to pass up), but I hope this week's episode was just a momentary lapse.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Moral Absolutism, Again

In this post from late last year I argued that public debates about moral absolutism vs. moral relativism really miss the point. At issue is not whether moral assertions are objective or subjective. The issue is how we go about defending moral assertions.

Weighing in on the other side is Dennis Prager, in this column over at Town Hall. We consider it in full:


For those who subscribe to Judeo-Christian values, right and wrong, good and evil, are derived from God, not from reason alone, nor from the human heart, the state or through majority rule.

Though most college-educated Westerners never hear the case for the need for God-based morality because of the secular outlook that pervades modern education and the media, the case is both clear and compelling: If there is no transcendent source of morality (morality is the word I use for the standard of good and evil), “good” and “evil” are subjective opinions, not objective realities.


Prager, in his role as right-wing crackpot, finds himself unable to make a case for anything without also throwing in some stereotypes and slurs. Note the casual implication that having a college education clouds your judgement when it comes to moral clarity.

Also note that he does not actually make any argument for believing (1) That God exists or (2) That He is perfectly good or (3) That we can know His will on moral questions. He merely asserts that the non-existence of God would have some unpleasant consequences.

Furthermore, the only way theism leads to moral objectivity is if you simply define morality to be synonymous with what God wants. Finding it plausible to make such a definition requires you to make all the baseless assumptions I described in the previous paragraph.

This is precisely the point I was making in my previous post. Any time you reason about anything you must begin with certain unproved assumptions. For Prager and his ilk, those unproved assumptions revolve around God's existence and character. For an atheist those assumptions usually involve certain assumptions about a person's obligations to society and his fellow human beings. Since we know that society actually exists and since we know what unpleasant effects occur when people ignore their basic obligations to one another, I find my foundation rather more solid than Prager's.

And the fact is that regardless of your personal beliefs there is a pragmatic problem to be solved. On the one hand people have to live together. On the other, people don't agree on whether God exists, or what He wants from us if does exist. But everyone has a stake in promoting a stable society. My foundation is based on principles that everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, can get behind. Prager's, by contrast, are meaningful only to those who share his beliefs.


In other words, if there is no God who says, “Do not murder” (“Do not kill” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew which, like English, has two words for homicide), murder is not wrong. Many people may think it is wrong, but that is their opinion, not objective moral fact. There are no moral “facts” if there is no God; there are only moral opinions.


Again, there are no moral facts even with God, unless you begin with the groundless assumptions I described earlier. And, also again, as a practical matter is makes no difference whether morality is objective or subjective. All that matters is what rules you can persuade people to agree to live under.


Years ago, I debated this issue at Oxford with Jonathan Glover, currently the professor of ethics at King's College, University of London, and one of the leading atheist moralists of our time.
Because he is a man of rare intellectual honesty, he acknowledged that without God, morality is subjective. He is one of the few secularists who do.


Since Prager has chosen to be repetitive, perhaps I can be forgiven for following suit. Moral assertions have to rest on some foundation. To the extent that that foundation is arbitrary, moral assertions are subjective. That is true regardless of whether your chosen foundation involves the needs of society or a mess of dubious assumptions about God and his nature.


This is the reason for the moral relativism -- “What I think is right is right for me, what you think is right is right for you” -- that pervades modern society. The secularization of society is the primary reason vast numbers of people believe, for example, that “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter”; why the best educated were not able say that free America was a more moral society than the totalitarian Soviet Union; why, in short, deep moral confusion afflicted the 20th century and continues in this century.


Let us note in passing that Prager, once again, feels the need to throw in the slur about higher education clouding one's moral judgment.

“Moral relativism” as used by Prager in the opening sentence here, is a red herring. No one really believes that morality is strictly a matter of personal preference. The fact is that nearly everyone, from the most hard-core atheist to the most extreme religious fundamentlaist, seems to agree on all the really important moral issues that arise in day-to-day life. Sure, there's disagreement about, say, abortion and homosexuality. But when it comes to murder, rape, theft, assault and similar issues there is no disagreement at all. That shows pretty clearly that a particular view of God's will is not necessary to make sound moral judgments. The cartoon version of relativism Prager is describing does not pervade society, becuase it does not exist at all.

I'm afraid the paragraph goes downhill from there. The statement “One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter” is a simple statement of fact about how different people can come to different conclusions about a situation. After all, the terrorists we are currently at war with are not morally confused secularists. They have moral clarity in spades, and that morality comes from their understanding of God's will.

As for the best educated not being able to say that the US was a more moral soceity than the old USSR, Prager can shove it. That's just a worthless stereotype, one that has no basis in reality.


That is why The New York Times, the voice of secular moral relativism, was so repulsed by President Ronald Reagan's declaration that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” The secular world -- especially its left -- fears and rejects the language of good and evil because it smacks of religious values and violates their moral relativism. It is perhaps the major difference between America and Europe. As a New York Times article on European-American differences noted last year, “Americans are widely regarded as more comfortable with notions of good and evil, right and wrong, than Europeans. . . . ” No wonder. America is a Judeo-Christian society; Europe (and the American Democratic Party) is largely secular.


Every time you think Prager's hit rock bottom, he finds a way to sink even lower. First he arbitrarily declares that the New York Times is the voice of secular moral relativism. Then he caricatures their antipathy toward Reagan by describing it as the product of moral relativism. In reality they believed that Reagan was engaging in poor diplomacy, not poor moral reasoning.

Attributing European discomfort with the language of good and evil to their secularism (an assertion for which Prager provides no evidence, incidentally) displays a level of arrogance and cluelessness I thought was beyond even Prager. Dogmatic assertions about one's own moral superiority relative to neighboring society's are the sort of thing that leads to wars. Europe has had enough wars faught on its soil to be justly suspicious of such talk. Prager, who works unburdened by any concern for the practical consequences of his belief, merely ignores such pedestrain concerns.


In the late 1970s, in a public interview in Los Angeles, I asked one of the leading secular liberal thinkers of the past generation, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., if he would say that the United States was a morally superior society to that of the Soviet Union. Even when I repeated the question, and clarified that I readily acknowledged the existence of good individuals in the Soviet Union and bad ones in America, he refused to do so.


Ye olde proof by anecdote.


A major reason for the left's loathing of George W. Bush is his use of moral language -- such as in his widely condemned description of the regimes of North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” These people reject the central Judeo-Christian value of the existence of objective good and evil and our obligation to make such judgments. Secularism has led to moral confusion, which in turn has led to moral paralysis.


No, the problem with Bush is not his use of moral language. It is that he, and his fawning admirers like Prager, believe that blunt moral assertions are all that is required. The practical consequences of Bush's “axis of evil” comment, followed by the war in Iraq, are that now Iran and North Korea are doing everything they can to obtain nuclear weapons. When an enemy nation describes three countries as evil, and immediately thereafter overthrows the government of one of them, what would you do? But the chest-pounding right has no time for such petty, practical consdierations. They were too busy being morally superior.

The same thing is clear in Iraq. They are evil and we are good. What more justification of the war was necessary? Anyone who raised concerns about the practicality of achieving a good result in Iraq were easily painted as morally confused cretins who just didn't get it. In reality, they were the only ones who did get it.

And that is the danger of Prager's brain-dead moral absolutism. People like Prager want to be able to make assertions and have that be the end of it. They believe that merely by asserting that God is on their side, they have all the justification they need to do whatever they wish to do.


If you could not call the Soviet Union an “evil empire” or the Iranian, North Korean and Iraqi regimes an “evil axis,” you have rendered the word “evil” useless. And indeed it is not used in sophisticated secular company -- except in reference to those who do use it (usually religious Christians and Jews).


Yes, of course those societies were and are evil. Who, exactly, thinks otherwise? Just recognize that merely diagnosing them as evil provides little help in determining sound policy.


Is abortion morally wrong? To the secular world, the answer is “It's between a woman and her physician.” There is no clearer expression of moral relativism: Every woman determines whether abortion is moral. On the other hand, to the individual with Judeo-Christian values, it is not between anyone and anyone else. It is between society and God. Even among religious people who differ in their reading of God's will, it is still never merely “between a woman and her physician.”


This paragraph is so stupid I hardly no where to start. The statement that the decision to have an abortion is between a woman and her physician is not a reflection of moral relativism. It is a statement that it is morally wrong for the government to take control of a woman's body for nine months and force her to remain pregnant against her will. It is the pro-life view that is immoral. Saying that the decision to have an abortion lies with the woman does not mean that it is morally right for some women and morally wrong for others. It is saying the decision lies with the woman and not with the government (or with Prager's interpretation of God's will, for that matter).

And since Prager is admitting here that religious people often disagree about God's will, it seems to me he is saying that the decision to have an abortion is between the individuals in a society and their interpretation of God's will. How is that an improvement over “it's between a woman and her doctor?”


And to those who counter these arguments for God-based morality with the question, “Whose God?” the answer is the God who revealed His moral will in the Old Testament, which Jews and Christians -- and no other people -- regard as divine revelation.


It doesn't get much clearer than that. If we adopt Prager's view of the world we are simply giving up all hope of persuading people about moral assertions. Prager says we should derive our morality from the Old testament. Why? Because he says so. When confronted with a society who views God's will differently there is no hope for resolution other than war.

The danger society faces comes not from people who recognize nuance and grey area about moral questions. It comes from the brain-dead right, well-represented by Prager, who have become so arrogant that they no longer find it necessary to make arguments in defense of what they believe. You either accept their view of the world or you are a bad person.

Prgaer goes on for one more paragraph, but I think that's enough for now.