Friday, October 21, 2005

The Other Esquire Article

In addition to the article I described on Wednesday, the current issue of Esquire has a second article about ID, entitled “The Case for Intelligent Design,” by Tom Junod. It's not a case William Dembski or Michael Behe are likely to appreciate, however. Since it is not freely available online, here are a few excerpts:


Religion can't change science because it can't change the terms of creation, and science is creation's handmaiden. Can science change religion? Of course it can; everything can change religion, which is one of the reasons religion is so pissed off. History, economics, immigration, epidemics, art, music, even literature: Religion is the opposite of science in that it is a wholly human endeavor, and so it responds to the touch of other human endeavors. Indeed, religion's success - and harrowing lack of success - may be measured by how responsive or how resistant it has been to the challenge of new interpretations. As a matter of fact, religion has never responded particularly well to the challenge of science and has often resisted in the only way it knows how - by taking recourse in fundamentalism. In its effort to teach intelligent design as sceince, intelligent design is often seen as a tool of fundamentalism, and it may very well be. But by melding religion and science - by teaching science as religion, if you will, - intelligent design may provide the undoing of the fundamentalism it is said to serve and open the way to a subversive, even heretical understanding of the Judeo-Christian God. (Emphasis in Original)


Junod is building up to an argument that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog: That by invoking God to explain specific things like flagellae and blood clotting cascades, the ID folks are laying at God's feet all of the examples of poor design in nature. This is a serious theological problem for the ID folks. They have no remotely plausible answer for it. Theistic evolutionists can avoid the problem by arguing, for example, that an evolutionary process of the sort we observe was necessary if the creation was to be separate from God himself. Young-Earthers can get around the problem by blaming the sin of Adam and Eve for causing the world to become corrupted. But ID folks can't use either of these options.

Junod writes:


He is unknowable scientifically; in the topsy-turvy logic of intelligent design, that's how we know he's there. But he is also unknowable theologically, a supernatural being that exists to engage in experiments of nature. And so intelligent design, which started as a challenge to Darwinian orthodoxy, turns out to be a challenge to the orthodoxy of Western religion, because its Designer is not just really, really smart but also really, really limited, morally. We are used to framing our supreme beings in terms of absolutes. But the Designer of intelligent design can either be absolutely intelligent or absolutely innocent of the earth's own suffering. He can never be both.


Quite right. The problem with Junod's argument, however, is that it gives fundamentalism too much credit for self-reflection and serious thought. Fundamentalists support ID as a compromise forced on them by numerous hostile court decisions. They would prefer to teach a more overt sort of creationism, but that is currently not possible. So they embrace ID as the best they can do right now.

Junod goes on to describe his own idiosyncratic take on Christianity:


I remained a Christian - I remain a Christian; nominal, provisional, skeptical, but a Christian nevertheless - simply because the universe does not feel dumb and mechanistic to me, and because the countless minor miracles from which I've benefitted do not feel like dumb luck. The universe feels intelligent to me, and it feels generous (though not necessarily benificent), and the miracles, such as they are, feel like functions of the universe's generosity, which is to say they feel like dispensations of grace. And grace feels mysteriously aligned to the alignment of the world described by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount - that is, a world turned upside down by the unsettling element of love. Of course, with all this talk about feeling I'm well aware that I would probably feel differently about the universe were I starving to death and watching my children starve to death in a land stricken by famine and war. But here I am, for no other reason than that I'm here, and I remain Christian for much the same reason that the scientists behind intelligent design have ended up professintg their nonscientific heresy: because the universe feels different than Darwinan orthodoxy says it should, and seems to make different demands.


I suspect that Junod is here expressing the views of a great many sensible religious people. They are views I couldn't disagree with more. I agree with Richard Dawkins, who has famously said:


The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.


Junod is making a huge concession when he implies that his sense that the universe is intelligent and purposeful is really just a function of his status in life. He believes the countless “minor miracles” he has experienced are evidence of divine purpose. Would the starving people he mentions be justified in viewing their suffering as an argument against divine purpose, or as evidence that God is evil? If not, then what becomes of his argument?

I suspect that Junod's argument is a classic example of remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. He describes the countless minor miracles in his life as evidence of purpose, but I'm sure he could come up with other instances in his life where rotten luck prevented him for obtaining some good outcome. What conclusions does he draw from those experiences?

Let me close this blog entry by reproducing Junod's closing:


It's trippy, sure. But it's the theology for the Cult of the Really, Really Smart God. And hey I'm in. For 150 years, Christians have responded to the revelation of Charles Darwin either by trying to beat it back with their Bibles or by remaining agnostic to its implications - “I as a Christian have no trouble believing that God used evolution to make me.” Well, dammit, you should, because Christian orthodoxy and Darwinian orthodoxy simply cannot coexist as orthodoxies: One of them has to give. And intelligent design is the first indication that one of them is. For all its problems, it should be taken seriously, and the Christians who so glibly advocate its teaching should be aware of the questions it raises. Should intelligent design be taught in schools? Hell yes, but not as science, because it's not science. It's theology, and should be taught as such - as an attempt to fashon a new understanding of God from the persuasive challenge of evolutionary theory. Evolution not only creates; it keeps creating. The God of intelligent design is a new God - the God of the new, new covenant if you will - in that he takes the rap. He is the old God the God of the Bible and the God of Cavalry, in that he also takes the fall.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Bell Curve Revisited

In Monday's post I criticized conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan for his unwarranted smears of academics. I concluded the entry by pointing out the irony of arguing on the one hand that academia is “value-free” (on the grounds that certain scholars studying Middle East issues used the term “altruism,” in a peculiar technical sense, in descriptions of suicide bombers) while passionately defending a piece of scientific malarkey like Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve.

One place where Sullivan defended Murray and Herrnstein is this post, from August 26:


One of my proudest moments in journalism was publishing an expanded extract of a chapter from “The Bell Curve” in the New Republic before anyone else dared touch it. I published it along with multiple critiques (hey, I believed magazines were supposed to open rather than close debates) - but the book held up, and still holds up as one of the most insightful and careful of the last decade.


I remember that issue of TNR. Sullivan is being a bit disingenuous when he talks about publishing multiple replies to Muuray and Herrnstein. What he actually did was publish a ten+ page excerpt/article from the book, which is a huge amount of space in a slim magazine like TNR. Most of the multiple replies were from the magazine's usual contributors, not experts in statistics or IQ research. And most of them were just a few paragraphs, not detailed critiques.

Anyway, over at Slate, Stephen Metcalf has a good discussion of why The Bell Curve is actually dreck:


Far from having held up as a “careful” work of scholarship, The Bell Curve has inspired a lot of suspicion on the part of the properly accredited. In his own book on human intelligence, The Mismeasure of Man, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that Herrnstein and Murray had buried key data in remote appendices. Upon closer inspection, that data appeared to demolish one of their core claims, that low IQ correlates highly with anti-social behaviors, more highly even than low socioeconomic status. (Apparently they didn't plot “the scatter of variation” around their own “regression curves” and didn't “square their correlation coefficients” to statistics what the layup and jump shot are to basketball.) Do I know if Gould was right? Of course not. But I do know that in response to The Bell Curve, the widely esteemed Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks organized a yearlong faculty workshop on IQ and meritocracy at the University of Chicago. The dozens of resulting papers were presented by the Brookings Institute in a book, The Black-White Test Score Gap, whose conclusion was summarized by Jencks in the forward: “Despite endless speculation, no one has found genetic evidence indicating that blacks have less intellectual ability than whites. Thus while it is clear that eliminating the test score gap would require enormous effort by both blacks and whites and would probably take more than one generation, we believe it can be done.”


Metcalf also does a good job of showing that many of the people Murray and Herrnstein relied on in their book have strong connections to overtly racist organizations. Of course, that is not directly relevant to evaluating the merits of Murray and Herrnstein's arguments. But I do find some interesting parallels here with other sorts of pseudoscholarship.

Metcalf describes how many of the people on Murray and Herrnstein's side of this claim to be courageous scholars, doggedly following the data wherever it leads in a selfless pursuit of the turth on a sensitive question. But go just a little bit beneath the surface and you find the usual cadre of racist organizations and unrepentant bigots.

So it is with holocaust denial. In public they are just courageous historians. But get them away from the cameras and the cartoonish, overt anti-semitism comes percolating up to the surface.

And so it is with creationists, who publicly claim to be intellectually honest scientists, but who privately descend into the silliest sorts of religious extremism.

As I've commented before: cranks all read from the same playbook.

As for Murray and Herrnstein, a friend of mine recently summed up the situation very well. They are trying to use sociological data to draw a biological conclusion. That never ends well.

The Dover Trial

There are a number of good posts up at other blogs about the trial. The ACLU blog has this post about some embarrassment suffered by ID proponent Michael Behe, who is testifying for the forces of darkness. Short version: Behe claimed that his popular book Darwin's Black Box went through a rigorous peer-review process prior to publication. The Plaintiff's attorney was able to produce a document showing that this was false. D'oh!

Meanwhile, writing in the York Daily Record, Mike Argento offers some further information about Behe's testimony:


Dr. Michael Behe, leading intellectual light of the intelligent design movement, faced a dilemma.

In order to call intelligent design a “scientific theory,” he had to change the definition of the term. It seemed the definition offered by the National Academy of Science, the largest and most prestigious organization of scientists in the Western world, was inadequate to contain the scope and splendor and just plain gee-willigerness of intelligent design.

So he devised his own definition of theory, expanding upon the definition of those stuck-in-the-21st-century scientists, those scientists who ridicule him and call his “theory” creationism in a cheap suit.

He'd show them. He'd come up with his own definition.

Details aside, his definition was broader and more inclusive of ideas that are “outside the box.”

So, as we learned Tuesday, during Day 11 of the Dover Panda Trial, under his definition of a scientific theory, astrology would be a scientific theory.

Astrology?

Who knew that Jacqueline Bigar, syndicated astrology columnist, was on par with Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe?

Eric Rothschild, attorney for the plaintiffs, asked Behe about whether astrology was science. And Behe, after hemming and hawing and launching into an abbreviated history of astrology and science, said, under his definition, it is. He said he wasn't a science historian, but the definition of astrology in the dictionary referred to its 15th-century roots, when it was equated with astronomy, which, according to the National Academy of Science, is a science.

So, taking a short logical leap, something Behe would certainly endorse since he does it a lot himself, you could say that intelligent design is on par with 15th-century science.

Sounds about right.


And if you're really a glutton for punishment, you can find the trial transcripts here.

After reading multiple accounts of the trial from people on both sides of this, and after browsing through some of the transcripts, it looks like things are going well for the good guys. As Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out, creationists do well in public debates, where the emphasis is on theater and showmanship. But they are lousy in court, where they must adhere to strict rules of evidence and must rely on substance rather than style.

If the judge rules against ID, it will be a serious setback for their side. With clear court rulings against them in both the Cobb County trial and now the Dover trial, very few School Boards will have the stomach to undertake this fight.

But will the judge rule for the good guys? Who knows? The judge is a W appointee, which means he is probably at least somewhat sympathetic to ID. On top of that, the legal bar the Dover policy has to clear is not terribly high. If the judge is so inclned he can ignore the fact that the Dover policy was plainly motivated by religious concerns, and find that it serves the secular purpose of informing students about scientific alternatives. And he could buy the ID line that ID is science with theological implications, as opposed to the brain-dead religious twaddle it actually is.

As the conservatives are so fond of reminding us, judges can do pretty much whatever they please. On the merits it looks to me like the ID folks don't have a leg to stand on. Hopefully the judge will see things the same way.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Best Magazine Article Ever

Here's something I never thought I'd write: I bought the latest issue of Esquire magazine at the newsstand the other day. The reason for this unlikely step was a headline on the cover that read “Creationists and Other Idiots.” The rather fetching picture of actress Jessica Biel on the cover didn't hurt either.

The article's author is Charles Pierce, and its title is “Greeting from Idiot America.” The subhead reads:


Creationism. Intelligent design. Faith-based this. Trust-your-gut that. There's never been a better time to espouse, profit from, and believe in utter, unadulterated crap. And the crap is rising so high, it's getting dangerous.


I don't know of any other magazine that has had the courage to state the truth so bluntly. Sadly, it's not freely available online. So allow to me to transcribe a few choice nuggets for you.

After describing a visit to the nascent creationism museum being built in Kentucky, which features a dinosaur exhibit in which the fearsome creatures are wearing saddles, he describes some of the obvious contradictions in the museum exhibits. Then Pierce writes:


These are impolite questions. Nobody asks them here by the cool pond tucked into a gentle hillside. Increasingly, nobody asks them outside the gates either. It is impolite to wonder why our parents sent us to college, and why generations of immigrants sweated and bled so their children could be educated, if it wasn't so that we would all one day feel confident enough to look at a museum filled with dinosaurs rigged to run six furlongs at Belmont and make the not unreasonable point that it is all batshit crazy and that anyone who believes this righteous hooey should be kept away from sharp objects and his own moeny.

Dinosaurs with saddles?

Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark?

Welcome to your new Eden.

Welcome to Idiot America.


And later, still talking about creationism:


This is how Idiot America engages the great issues of the day. It decides, en masse, with a thousand keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they must both be right, or at least not wrong. And the poor biologist's words carry no more wieght than the thunderations of some turkey-neck preacher out of the Church of Christ's Own Parking Facility in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an “expert” and, therefore, an “elitist.” Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable. He's brilliant surely, but his Gut's the same as ours. He just ignores it, poor fool.


Later still:


The “debate,” of course, is nothing of the sort, because two sides are required for a debate. Nevertheless, the very notion of it is a measure of how scientific discourse, and the way the country educates itself, has slipped through lassitude and inattention across the border into Idiot America - where fact is merely that which enough people believe, and truth is measured only by how fervently they believe it.

If we have abdicated our birthright to scientific progress, we have done so by moving the debate into the realm of political and cultural argument, where we all feel more confident, because it is here that the Gut rules. Held to this standard, any scientific theory is rendered mere opinion. Scientific fact is no more immutable than a polling sample. This is how there's a “debate” over global warming, even though the preponderance of fact among those who actually have studied the phenomenon renders the “debate” quite silly. The debate is about making people feel better about driving SUV's. The debate is less about climatology than it is about guiltlessly topping off your tank and voting in tax incentives for oil companies.


The whole article is quite long, and it covers a lot more than just creationism. The tone of the article is exactly right and long overdue.

The next time you hear some condescending pseudoliberal columnist peddle cheap excuses for the fundamentalists; the next time you hear someone say they are just responding to misperceived threats to their faith or to an overzealous atheist like Richard Dawkins; the next time you hear some postmodern nonsense about people basing their worldviews on different assumptions; just remember the wise words of this article. Religious fundamentalism is born out of laziness and cowardice. It is the province of people who can't be troubled to educate themselves about anything, and who have no higher ambition in life than to be led by a charismatic preacher. It is nothing more noble than that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Arrogance of Youth

By way of Pharyngula I came across this essay by University of Iowa junior Stacey Perk. It provides some insight into the breathtaking arrogance and short-sightedness teachers at all levels are forced to deal with. We consider it in full:


I loved high school. I loved the memories I have of parties, football games, and hanging out with my friends. These are the things I have taken with me, not the useless information acquired in the classroom.

I remember complaining about how I'd never use knowledge I gained in the classroom in real life. I regretted all the time I devoted to school because, in the end, I didn't remember the algebraic equations, historical dates, or the periodic table.

A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn't prepare students for their careers. When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn't learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid.


There's a reason high school doesn't prepare students for their future careers: High school isn't job training. First of all, nobody (Perk included) knows what career she will pursue as a high school freshman. Secondly, Perk seems to have the strange idea that knowledge is only useful if it in some way directly helps you get a job later on.

I've heard this lament so many times from students (and, frankly, I think I levelled it myself a few times in my educational babyhood) that I have my reply down to a single sentence: “It's useful to know stuff.” Not just because the odd fact that you pick up here or there turns out to be precisely what you need to impress a job interviewer (though that has happened to me). But also because there's more to education than facts.

Perk thinks she wants to be a journalist. Fine. That will involve a lot of writing, and one way you learn how to write is to read a lot of good writing. Pass your eyes over enough well-crafted sentences and you begin to write a few yourself. And high school English classes are a good place to pass your eyes over some very good sentences indeed. As a journalist she will be exposed to a lot of people trying to get her to believe nonsense. The logic and clear thinking she learned in her math and science classes will provide a good antidote for that. And whatever aspect of society she finds herself reporting on will inevitably have been influenced by its past. Simply understanding a bit about how America has arrived where it is requires learning about its history.

Education isn't primarily about facts or job training. It's about exposing yourself to all of the things human beings have been up to for the last few thousand years. You read the works of the ancient Greek playwrights not because you really care about their nifty plots, but because by reading those works you immediately realize that the concerns of people thousands of years ago are pretty much the same as their concerns now. You read Dickens or Shakepeare or Hemingway (or Agatha Christie or Stephen King (yes, they belong in the canon too!)) because by doing so you appreciate for a moment what the English language can be made to do. You learn science partly for the specific facts you learn (you really ought to know that the Earth orbits the Sun an not vice versa), but mainly so that you can marvel for a moment at the sheer ingenuity, persistence, hard work and cleverness that went into figuring all this stuff out. You learn history not just because you should know when the Civil War was fought or what the Mayflower compact was, but because everything that happens today finds its raison d'etre in the past, and knowing something about the past can not help but make it easier to make good decisions today.

It's precisely because you will not be learning these things when you're out of school, and encumbered with the demands of work and family, that you should study them in school. If you do not learn history and science and math and all the rest in school, then you will never learn about these things.

And if you're inclined to give me the whiny, childish, petulant answer, “Who cares if I never learn them! I don't like history and science and the rest!” then I will reply with the obvoius answer: “How do you know you don't like them, if you haven't even tried them?”

Perk continues:


The school system needs a reality check; most students aren't going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes? If students know at an early age what they want to do for their careers, then high schools should offer classes in that area. This would make me feel that the time I spent in the high-school classrooms wasn't a waste.


As I said, breathtaking arrogance. The very idea that anyone needs a reality check from a college junior is almost too rich to ponder.

Since I have already answered her other points here, allow me to relate a quick anecdote from my school days. I was a high school junior and my English teacher, Ms. Goodman, had assigned the book My Antonia, by Willa Cather. We were given two weeks to read it, at the end of which we would be given a “reading test.” This was a multiple-choice test whose purpose was to ensure that we actually had read the book.

As it happens, these tests were generally very difficult. Ms. Goodman took great pride in her reading tests. She would rent the movie of whatever book we were reading, find the places where the movie differed from the book, and make sure that precisely those points were raised on the test. She would get the Cliff's Notes and make sure that most of the questions on the test addressed things not covered in the notes. And, frnakly, some of her questions involved points that were so obscure, you wouldn't pick up on them after a dozen readings. (What color were the buckles on Hester Prynne's shoes in the opening scence of The Scarlet Letter? That sort of thing).

Nonetheless, I generally did tolerably well on these tests. But not the one for My Antonia. That one I failed. Failed hard. The sort of failure where you can just feel yourself failing as your taking the test.

Later that day I ran into Ms. Goodman in the hall. By this time she had graded the tests, and was therefore well aware of the new standard of suck I pioneered in her class. Since this was a dramatic departure from my usual stellar performance (the paper I wrote for her on Randall Patrick McMurphy's shifting motivations in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is still rightly regarded as a modern classic) she asked me, with evident concern, to explain myself.

In retrospect I think her question was motivated by a genuine worry about my well-being. I seem to recall having had a truly disgusting pilonidal cyst removed from my tuchus shortly before this test. So she was probably relieved by the answer I gave her. I'm sure I didn't put it quite this way, but here's basically what I said:

My Antonia is a boring, ponderous, overwritten piece of dreck and you should be ashamed of yourself for including it in the curriculum. Sure, I read the book. But I found it so hard to pay attention to any of the wearisome banalities taking place on its pages that I overlooked all those trivial, picayune, unimportant details you so glory in on your straight out of the Marquis de Sade reading tests. So what do you think about that? Huh?”

She was neither impressed nor amused. I sucked it up and reread the book.

And to think, our clever U. of Iowa student would probably read that story and conclude that I was the noble one, while Ms. Goodman was the obnoxious goober.

Perk continues:


When I got to college, the education system did a better job of focusing on students' career goals. But even then, I found myself stressing over statistical equations and astronomy facts during my first two years. Why? I was never going to use that information. For open majors, the general-education requirements are great. For me, they were a waste of time and tuition.

Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also hurt my GPA. Being forced to take classes makes them less interesting. If they aren't interesting, you won't do well in them. Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet. I worried that these classes - ones that I would never use - were going to hurt my chances of getting into the journalism school, which has a 3.0 GPA requirement. As it turned out, my GPA was below 3.0 after my first year. I had to take summer classes to raise it, and luckily, I was eventually admitted to the J-school. I can not imagine what I would have done if I were not admitted. I would have had to change my major.

How is this fair? I shouldn't have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low - all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let's just get rid of them.


Ah! So now we see what this is really all about.

It's total nonsense that if you don't find a class interesting you won't do well in it. But doing well does require a modicum of hard work and basic maturity. Perk is bummed out because she had to suffer the consequences of the bad decisions she made regarding her gen ed classes. Sounds like maybe she has learned a valuable life lesson.

Actually, Ms. Perk, you should have to give up your dream of working for Glamour if, as a college junior, you are so opinionated and set in your ways that you can't even drag yourself to class three times a week to pull off a decent grade. I very much doubt that your low GPA resulted from a lack of brainpower. It resulted from a fundamental lack of discipline, and if that deficiency is not remedied you will not find many employers taking an interest in you. Your low GPA resulted from your unwillingness to learn one of life's most important lessons: Sometime you have to do things you'd rather not do.

So grow the heck up and go learn something!

Rosin on Behe

Over at Slate, Hannah Rosin has a good run-down of Michael Behe's testimony in the Dover ID trial. She writes:


But when he gets any closer to explaining how one would actually go about proving the existence of intelligent design, Behe starts chasing his tail. Design, he says over and over, is merely the “purposeful arrangement of parts.” We can detect it when “separate, interacting components are ordered in such a way as to accomplish a function beyond the individual components.” This is a perfectly tautological argument. It is reasonable to infer design, he argues, when something seems well designed. In his writings, Behe argues that the theory can be falsified and suggests an experiment: Place a bacterial species without a flagellum under selective pressure, grow it for 10,000 generations (about two years), and see whether a system as complex as a flagellum is produced. It's a circular experiment, as William Saletan has explained. To that I add: Why wouldn't Mr. Designer, whoever he is, just go to work on that Petri dish? I need look no further than myself for counter-evidence: weak ankles, diabetes, high probability of future death. If there is a designer, she doesn't seem so intelligent.


See the original for links.

I especially liked this part:


I've met biologists who are strict Biblical literalists. Usually they exhibit a certain humility and reconcile their twin beliefs by admitting that there are many mysteries of creation the tools of science can never explain. Behe utterly lacks that deference. In his book, he writes that ID should be ranked as “one of the greatest achievements in the history of science,” rivaling “Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrodinger, Pasteur and Darwin.” The evidence of design is all around us, and any honest scientist would embrace that as the obvious Ur-Explanation.

My 4-year-old daughter feels this way, too. She marvels at how a katydid looks exactly like a leaf, or how stars really do twinkle in the sky. But I'm hoping by ninth grade her thinking will have evolved.

Monday, October 17, 2005

More Conservative Phoniness

As David Gelernter was desperately searching for something, anything, to excoriate the left for, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan was getting all worked up about this news brief from Science and Theology News. The brief describes recent speculation that suicide bombers are motivated by “altruism.” The brief begins:


Researchers’ attempts to understand suicide terror have revived a controversial theory of “altruistic suicide,” the act of killing oneself so that one’s community might live.

Altruism — a counterintuitive and little-studied motive for suicide — suggests that suicide terrorism is a phenomenon of group psychology and organizational behavior, rather than an outgrowth of fundamentalist religious beliefs.

The distinction could prove important, researchers say.

“Motivations for terrorism need to be clearly understood, rather than perceived stereotypically, so that they can be effectively counteracted,” said Karen Larson, an expert on the political ramifications of terrorism and an anthropology professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

Such understanding may, for instance, enable Muslim organizations to “promote a group identity that will help prevent recruitment of youth into radical organizations,” she said.


Later, we get a more explicit definition of what is meant by the term altruism in this context:


“The concept of altruism is based solely on sacrifice for the betterment of the group,” said Jeffrey Riemer, a retired Tennessee Technological University sociology professor. Riemer’s seminal 1998 study, “Durkheim’s Heroic Suicide in Military Combat,” helped revive a 19th-century theory to explain a 21st-century scourge. “Essentially, altruistic suicide is taking one’s life for the benefit of the group,” he said.


As is typical from news briefs of this sort, it is difficult to really get a good picture of the argument being made. But that doesn't stop Sullivan from drawing sweeping conclusions.

To Sullivan, you see, this is evidence of the great moral perfidy of modern academics. Under the headline, “Suicide bombing as - Altruism?” Sullivan writes:


That's a new “theory” on the motivations of suicide bombers. Read the piece detailing the study and see if you can find a distinction between martyrdom - which kills only oneself - and suicide-bombing, which, of course, kills others. Money quote:


There follows a quote from the news brief linked to above. Sullivan continues:


It seems to me that if Islamic fascists wanted merely to blow themselves up, few of us would object. In fact, it might be worth encouraging. Win-win: they go to “heaven”, we get to ride the subway in peace. But these people are mass-murderers. I guess it takes an academic to see that as altruism.


Sullivan has obviously missed the point, right? There is no value judgment being made in describing suicide bombers as altruistic. That's why I used the scare quotes earlier. As described in the quotes above, altruism has a precise technical meaning here. Once that is understood, it is also clear that Sullivan's distinction between martyrdom and suicide bombing is totally irrelevant.

But wait! The story continues. An e-mailer pointed out the obvious to Sullivan:


You're being somewhat unfair to the researchers who attribute suicide terror to “altruism.” We generally use the word “altruism” in a positive sense -- an “unselfish concern for the welfare of others,” as defined in The American Heritage Dictionary. However the same dictionary defines the scientific term “altruism” as “instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.” There are no value judgments inherent in this scientific definition, which seems clearly to be the meaning intended by the researchers in the article to which you link. The conclusions reached by the researchers may or may not be accurate, but understanding the mind of the suicide bomber is both a worthy and necessary goal.


Looks pretty clear to me. But Sullivan absolutely refuses to get it:


Huh? Let's concede for the sake of argument that altruism in this sense means precisely “instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.” You're saying that the murderers of 9/11 were exhibiting “cooperative behavior” for the “survival of the species”? Suicide bombing is an upper-middle class form of mass murder, attached to a psychotic, narcissistic version of religious faith. If someone wants to martyr himself as a protest, that's one thing. If he wants to take other innocent people with him, it's quite another. I would think that distinction is an obvious one. Within the confines of today's value-free academia, it apparently isn't.


Sullivan insists on seeing a moral connotation to the term “altruism.” That's why he thinks that describing suicide bombing as an upper-middle class form of mass murder somehow contradicts the statement that bombers are motivated by altruism, in the technical sense of that word.

The distinction between martyrdom and suicide bombing is obvious if your goal is to pass moral judgment on the actions of terrorists. But since for the moment the issue is the motivation for their actions, it is a completely irrlevant distinction.

The really amusing part of this is that Sullivan has elsewhere expressed his admiration for Murray and Herrnstein's infamous book The Bell Curve. This is the book where the authors tried to use messy sociological data to draw biological conclusions about IQ differences between races.

So when conservative academics use an obviously defective procedure to draw incendiary conclusions about race and IQ, Sullivan sees that as courageous and admirable. But when someone suggests that suicide bombers might be motivated more by group psychology than by religious fanaticism, Sullivan sees this as evidence of the lack of values among academics.

Ask me again why there aren't more conservative academics.

The Problem with Conservative Academics

If you want to understand why there are so few conservative academics, consider the latest piece of drivel from Yale computer scientist David Gelernter. It appeared in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times. It carries the title “Adrift in a Sea of Phoniness,” and the subtitle “American political discourse -- especially on the left -- has abandoned logic, reason and honesty for a pack of nasty lies.”

Now, when I think of the abandonment of logic and reason in modern politcial discourse, I think of things like the Republican party's wholesale embrace of creationism, or their fanaticism on the subject of abstinence-only sex education. When I think of dishonesty I think of all the misleading and false arguments they made to justify the war in Iraq, not to mention the unbelievably sleazy campaigns they ran in 2000 and 2004.

But Gelernter can't be bothered with such trivialities. Instead he gives three examples of leftist dishonesty and illogic. His first example is far too vague to be assessed:


Recently, Vice President Cheney and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) disagreed. Rangel denounced Cheney, rudely. The VP denounced him back. Rangel's response: Cheney must apologize.

First, why should Cheney apologize and not Rangel? More important, note the ever more popular idea that politicians must apologize on cue like trained seals whenever a noisy enough group orders them to. Yet every 5-year-old knows that a coerced apology has got to be insincere. Otherwise it wouldn't need to be coerced.


Am I really expected to assess this situation based on Gelernter's four sentence description of it? If I am going to determine who owes whom an apology, wouldn't I need to know what each person said? Gelernter doesn't even tell us what the subject of discussion was, for heaven's sake.

And the point of a coercing an apology out of a politician is not to get a sincere declaration of remorse. The point is to so embarrass the politician in question that other people will think twice about offending the interest group in question. Every five-year old knows that. When the politician has said something genuinely offensive, this can be quite a good result. When it's a matter of a narrow interest group being hypersensitive, then it's not so good.

Here's Gelernter's second example:


A few weeks ago, [conservative radio talk show host Bill] Bennett said on his radio program that X is a stupid idea; then he said that if you believe X, you might as well believe Y. But Y is “impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible.” One thing we know for sure: Bennett is against Y. He thinks that Y is “impossible,” is “ridiculous,” is “morally reprehensible.” “Y” was the idea that aborting all black babies would cut the crime rate.

So the left jumped all over him. Bizarrely enough, the White House chimed in. (A Republican White House opening fire on Bennett is like the Joint Chiefs bombing their own front lines.) Yet no one who read or heard Bennett's actual statement in context could possibly have believed that Bennett is racist or had talked like a racist. (Emphasis in original).


Once again, no one not already familiar with the Bennett situation will have the slightest idea what Gelernter is talking about. As it happens, though, this time I do know the details. So let me remind you that recently Bill Bennett said the following on his show, as described in in this article from Slate:


“I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were your sole purpose—you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down,” Bennett volunteered. “That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So, these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.”


Incidentally, the Slate article linked to above has a good run-down of all the issues related to Bennett's statement. In particular, they point to several examples of right-wing pundits telling lies about what Bennett actually said. But seeing major television pundits lie to protect a colleague doesn't seem to bother Gelernter.

It is possible that if you go digging around in the darkest corners of the left-wing blogosphere, you might find someone who believes that Bennett supports the wholesale abortion of black children. But back on planet Earth the criticism of Bennett revolved around his bald assertion that aborting all black children would cause the crime rate to go down. That was the statement that brought all of the well-deserved heat.

And what terrible thing happened to Bennett as a result of this fracas? Bennett made an offenisve statement and various interest groups (including the White House, as Gelernter notes) criticized him for it. That's it. Did Bennett lose his show? Was he forced to grovel publicly? Not at all. So what is Gelernter so upset about?

Let's go to his third example:


Richard Lamm is the former Democratic governor of Colorado (1975-1987), now a free-thinking, self-described “progressive conservative” who teaches public policy at the University of Denver. In the journal of the conservative National Assn. of Scholars, Lamm has written about the time he submitted an article about racism to a university publication called the Source — which is run by the administration, not by students.

Lamm's submission compared the harm wrought by racism to the good that comes out of working to overcome obstacles. His article discussed the success of the Japanese, Jews and Cubans in the U.S.; all three have suffered bigotry and prospered. Mexicans in America have done less well. But Mexicans and Cubans are equally Latino and face similar kinds of prejudice. If Cubans have thrived and Mexicans haven't, racism can't possibly be the whole story.

Exactly the sort of provocative, challenging article any university would be proud to publish, right?

Only kidding. Lamm reports that the Source rejected his piece: "too controversial"; then he appealed to the provost, and then the chancellor. They agreed with the editors. Too controversial.


Golly! A journal deciding not to run a controversial article. Censorship at tis worst.

There doesn't seem to be much information available online about The Source, but I was able to find this page. The Source is described as “Denver University's award-winning community newsletter.” It is published not by an academic department, but rather by the Office of Communications and Marketing. This doesn't sound like a journal whose purpose is to hash out difficult sociological issues.

Why aren't there more conservative academics? Because conservatives are far more interested in sriking a martyr's pose than in making a decent argument for their views.