Giving science a bad name by pretending it can encompass morality by mattsteinglass
May 10, 2010, 12:14 am
Filed under: Philosophy, Science, Sexuality and Gender

Sam Harris thinks we should create a universal morality through…science!

Carroll and Myers both believe nothing much turns on whether we find a universal foundation for morality. I disagree. Granted, the practical effects cannot be our reason for linking morality and science — we have to form our beliefs about reality based on what we think is actually true. But the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous.

They have? Name a single disaster that has resulted from “moral relativism.” Couldn’t, could you? Here’s what happens to Sam Harris when he tries, earlier in the essay.

Many people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose, because we can combat human evil while knowing that our notions of “good” and “evil” are unwarranted. It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the “contextual” legitimacy of the burqa

Okay, stop right there. The burqa is “abominable behavior”? Has Mr Harris traveled to Afghanistan or rural Iran and asked women whether they would like to go out in public without a burqa? What responses did he receive? Gender-based dress codes inculcated at young ages become part of people’s cultural assumptions. Women in traditional areas of rural Iran or Afghanistan aren’t up in arms over their traditional form of dress. They’re probably much more upset that their men beat them. Women in urban Iran want to be able to dress as they please and resent legally imposed dress codes, but guess what: they arrived at that desire entirely without the aid of any scientifically grounded system of morality, and Westerners have universally supported them on the basis of existing Western liberal ideas about personal freedom, again without any need for a scientific grounding of morality. Now, systems of norms that allow men to beat women, or expect them to commit shame killings for violations of caste or religious expectations, are indeed “abominations”. But those abominations don’t suit Sam Harris’s purposes, because he wouldn’t be able to find any so-called moral relativists to defend them, so they don’t help him to denounce moral relativism. Continuing:

…or a practice like female genital excision, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that his moral relativism does nothing to diminish his commitment to making the world a better place.

How many Westerners can Sam Harris find who defend female genital excision? There basically aren’t any, and indeed the overwhelming majority of those who denounce female genital excision are secular Western leftists, precisely those whom Harris would presumably denounce as moral relativists. The defense of female genital excision is carried out by Muslim men and women who live in the countries where it is practiced. And here’s the key: Western governments have had no trouble whatsoever enacting or enforcing bans on FGM on their own territory, while Western anti-FGM activists have had only moderate and gradual success in fighting the practice through propaganda in the countries where it is practiced. And neither of those things would change one whit if we decided that we had some kind of science-based morality in addition to the Western rationalist secular moral tradition that has been getting along quite well over the past several hundred years.

I am a big believer in science. That’s why I think it shouldn’t attempt to generate knowledge in fields where it can’t generate knowledge. Science has been badly damaged, over the past century-plus, on those occasions when it has attempted to make claims in normative political arenas where it cannot justify those claims: Nazi racial “science” (projecting aesthetic and nationalist sentiments into biology), early “criminology” (of the phrenological variety), the “science” of marijuana-fiend drug abuse, and so forth. The wave of anti-scientific and anti-rationalist feeling that began in the ’60s came in reaction to attempts to misuse the mantle of science in service of moralistic claims. It doesn’t make any sense to repeat that episode.

Science skepticism's long and illustrious history by mattsteinglass
Microfossil from marine sediment. By Ethan Hein under Creative Commons license.

Microfossil from marine sediment. By Ethan Hein under Creative Commons license.

I think my feelings about the community of climate change skeptics are aptly summed up by referring to this Hilaire Belloc line, penned in 1900.

But Scientists, who ought to know,
Assure us that they must be so….
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!

The line comes from a children’s poem entitled “The Microbe”, and those pompous Scientists are being ridiculed for subscribing to the germ theory of disease. Which, in case the point needs any further explication, is correct.

Appleyard, Sullivan, and evolution vs. religion by mattsteinglass
November 29, 2009, 10:32 pm
Filed under: Religion, Science

So far, I’ve read 3 pieces by this guy Brian Appleyard whom Andrew Sullivan likes because he (Appleyard) has gotten himself into a huge feud with P.Z. Myers over evolution and religion. In each of the pieces I’ve read, Appleyard makes it clear via some quick point that he aggressively misunderstands science. My impression is that Appleyard doesn’t understand either the scientific outlook or the scientific background on a lot of issues, that this lack of understanding enables him to make vague and floofy points about how science can’t explain various things, and that when he is attacked by exasperated scientists, he complains that “science has become an ideology”.

For example, here’s the latest Appleyard piece Sullivan pointed to:

I think Darwinism has become, in some hands, unhealthily imperious. It is presented as explaining everything. Evolutionary psychology, for example, is always said to be true because it must be. But, since we have no clear idea of how the mind supervenes on the brain, this, for the moment, is an assumption too far.

What does Appleyard mean when he says evolutionary psychology is “said to be true”? “Evolutionary psychology” refers to attempts to explain observed features of human psychology by reference to how genes coding for such behavior may have proven adaptive, or otherwise well suited to propagating themselves through the human species. It’s not an up-or-down thesis that can be “true” or “false”; it’s a class of propositions. Some of them may be true, some false; or one might be skeptical about the evolutionary psychology approach, believing it to be speculative, unscientific, not rigorous, and so forth. What would it mean to say “evolutionary psychology” “must be” “true”? Who makes such a claim?

I think what Appleyard wants to say is that evolutionary psychology is a speculative field that rarely generates solid results. If so, many evolutionary biologists and evolution-believing laypeople — the majority, I would guess — would agree with him. But not because, as Appleyard says, “we have no clear idea of how the mind supervenes on the brain.” In fact, neurobiology is making unbelievably rapid advances in connecting all sorts of experience and behavior to its physical substrates in the brain. Rather, there are two basic problems with the evolutionary biology approach. The first is that we know very little about how genes connect to higher brain function and behavior, so we don’t know how or to what extent behavior is heritable via DNA. The second is that we have almost no evidence of how humans behaved for the first 1.99 million years of our evolution, before the advent of writing. Evolutionary psychology hypotheses tend to be very speculative and verge on the non-falsifiable, since there is no way for us to recover the evidence: there’s no way for us to discover, for example, whether women are more likely to ask for directions than men because, when we were all stone-age hunter-gatherers on the plains of Africa, a male who approached a stranger to ask for help risked being attacked. It sounds plausible, but it’s impossible to test a proposition like that.

Anyway, my sense is that Appleyard very often gets confused in handling these subjects, and glosses scientific issues inaccurately. Then people like P.Z. Myers, who are heartily sick of having science mischaracterized by people who don’t understand it, lose their cool and write insulting things about him. And then he complains that Darwinism has become an ideology and its adherents are rigid and dogmatic. I understand why Appleyard feels attacked. But I think he’s being attacked because he’s writing poorly, and doing a bad job as a journalist of ensuring he understands the subjects he’s addressing.

God designed humans? Not impossible, just infinitely unlikely by mattsteinglass
September 7, 2009, 10:17 pm
Filed under: Religion, Science

Jim Manzi: Defense Against Jerry Coyne (The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan).

I can sort of see why Jim Manzi would feel that Jerry Coyne’s response to him is intemperate, but I’m not sure how I can explain to Jim Manzi why his post really does seem extremely tedious to someone who accepts, not just the validity of the theory of evolution, but that people ought to approach the world by privileging evidence and Occam’s Razor. Essentially, Manzi has invented a new comforting notion for those who wish to believe that the universe is programmed by an intentional God. Maybe, he imagines, the universe is not a clock, as the folks who tried to rescue theism in the 18th and 19th centuries imagined, but a biological computer, like the ones that use DNA to solve problems. Those kinds of computers solve problems by setting some criteria for a solution and then running through zillions of combinations very rapidly, selecting out the more promising lines of inquiry and killing off the ones that begin to fail, until they arrive at a combination that meets the criteria established at the beginning.

To respond as briefly as possible to Manzi: it is indeed possible that God decided He wanted humans as a solution and set up the universe to run as a physical and then biological computational device until it finally, 15 billion years later, arrived at us as the solution. It is equally possible that God decided He wanted Africanized bees as a solution, was very happy in the 20th century when they finally emerged, and is now preparing to end the world and Rapture all the bees up to heaven; we are merely one of His less significant computational errors. But perhaps you think it more persuasive that God was seeking greater intelligence, according to some kind of principle of complexity or reverse entropy or something? Then it is possible that God decided He wanted the internet as a solution, and humans are merely building blocks towards the Singularity, like mitochondria were. Or it is possible that God wants something like humans, but much less violent and more careful and nurturing, so the fact that we’re about to be wiped out by global warming, resource conflicts, and nuclear war is part of the computational algorithm; we might take Earth as a whole with us, but God probably has His algorithm running on a trillion other planets in a hundred million other galaxies at the same time, so really, whether humans go extinct or not is no big deal.

This why Jerry Coyne was right to say that Darwin “demolish(ed)”

the comforting notion that we are unique among all species—the supreme object of God’s creation, and the only creature whose earthly travails could be cashed in for a comfortable afterlife.

It’s not that this idea is impossible. It’s that humans are no more likely than a literally infinite number of similar candidates for the ultimate end of a purpose-driven Creation. There is just no reason whatsoever to believe that the ultimate aim of an intentional God is humans, rather than some kind of gentle flying dolphin with tentacles that will evolve ten million years from now, or Skynet, or the highly artistic, empathetic and sensitive levitating robots of the final scene of Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.”, or a magnetically telepathic silicon-based life form currently evolving on a gas-giant planet somewhere in the Horsehead Nebula.

Manzi also spends some time on this thing about “first cause”. I don’t understand how intelligent people can get themselves tangled up in that red herring of infinite regression. Jerry Coyne’s answer is the old, simple one: if God is the first cause, what caused God? What are the rules that govern His behavior? How did they come into being?  What is the point of positing another step here?

The point is this: until the 19th century, the argument for God was that beings as complex and sophisticated as hummingbirds or humans could not possible have come into existence randomly; something had to have shaped them. Darwin showed that wasn’t true. Life evolves into existence constantly all around us without a creator. Once you get there, the only remaining reasons to believe in the existence of a creator are aesthetic ones, not centered on humans. The idea that humans are “unique among all species, the supreme object of God’s creation,” isn’t impossible. It’s just infinitely unlikely. I don’t see why Manzi keeps failing to get the point.

US losing its innovative edge? by mattsteinglass
June 5, 2009, 8:21 am
Filed under: Economics, Science, Trade

Last month, my news assistant came in with a new Blackberry. Only it wasn’t a Blackberry. It was a cheap Chinese knockoff of a Blackberry. Of course, the Chinese knockoff wasn’t the same as a real Blackberry. It was better. He’d had a real Blackberry for six months — bought it on a trip to the US for $400, then had to pay another hundred or so in Vietnam to get it unlocked for local mobile service — and it was inconvenient and flukey. The new one, he found easier to use. The parts, obviously, were exactly the same — they clearly came from the same factories. But he even found the Chinese software more convenient. They were adding features that hadn’t existed on the “real” Blackberry. The knockoff cost $150.

I thought about this after reading this Derek Thompson Atlantic Business post referencing BusinessWeek’s Michael Mandel’s article arguing that the US may be losing its innovative edge. Mandel points out that the US ran a $30 billion trade surplus in advanced tech in 1998. By 2007 it was a $53 billion deficit. Thompson asks: “Where Mandel’s explanation comes up short is: What are these innovators doing wrong?”

The example of the Chinese knockoff Blackberry suggests that maybe US innovators aren’t doing anything wrong. It’s just that they’re now competing against Chinese innovators, where they weren’t 10 years ago. This may have happened for two reasons. The first is that lack of intellectual property protection, combined with the outsourcing of manufacturing for all those high-tech products to China, gradually destroyed the US’s technological edge. The second is that in 1998, China didn’t have very many top-flight engineers. But they’ve spent the last 10 years doing nothing but graduate engineers, and now, they do. And that changes everything.

Isn’t the Prime Directive kind of paleo-conservative? by mattsteinglass
May 11, 2009, 10:00 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Foreign Policy, Science

Daniel Larison (a fan despite his political inclinations) on Star Trek:

There is almost nothing in the franchise’s politics that I find attractive, and the regular sermonizing was at times very unpleasant.

Isn’t the Prime Directive’s doctrine of non-interference in the affairs of (particularly underdeveloped) alien civilizations a classically paleo-con non-interventionist position? I would have thought Larison of all people would find it appealing.

Cochrane “health status insurance” plan leads to Cochrane invention of warp drive by mattsteinglass
April 2, 2009, 10:23 am
Filed under: Health, Oddities, Science

Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias and Josh Marshall find the missing connections. John Cochrane’s plan for “health status insurance” will solve the Medicare crisis, enabling the US to adopt Paul Ryan’s plan to lower the top marginal tax rate to 25%, and making it possible for entrepreneurs fifty years from now to easily obtain individual health insurance on the private market. That’s how Cochrane’s grandson, Zefram Cochrane, will be able to retire to his ranch in Bozeman, Montana in the 2060s, spend his time tinkering around with decommissioned ICBMs, and ultimately invent the warp drive on April 5, 2063 — leading to First Contact with the Vulcans, who presumably perfected their own health-insurance system long ago with their super-logical brains.

Now that’s a convincing stem-cell argument by mattsteinglass
March 21, 2009, 4:18 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Science

Ross Douthat finally somehow arrives at this defense of conservatives who oppose government funding for stem-cell research but don’t try to make such research illegal:

Fighting against government funding for stem-cell research is the equivalent of the Hyde Amendment approach to government funding for abortion: It may not work, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make political sense. 

Normally when you say a policy doesn’t work, but is pursued for political reasons, that’s not a defense, it’s a condemnation. (Though to be fair I’m not really sure what Douthat means by “not work” here — maybe he just means it won’t be enacted, but it’s politically appropriate to support it on principle?)

But in fact Douthat is right: Bush-era restrictions on government funding for stem-cell research were indeed similar to the various ineffective but politically advantageous stances the GOP has taken on a lot of culture-war issues over the past few decades, such as the abortion “gag rule”, refusal to fund needle exchanges for heroin users in foreign aid (including anti-HIV aid in countries with injection-drug-driven epidemics), defunding UNFPA, the attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts, the Terry Schiavo intervention, efforts to teach creationism in schools, investigations into the President’s sex life, the flag-burning amendment, and so forth. The GOP has not really been interested in serious governance for a long time, and has instead been driven by these kinds of tabloid populist distractions, which are intended to get it re-elected so it can provide its basic deliverables of lower taxes for the rich and less regulation of corporations. The problem for Douthat is that he, a reasonably thoughtful person who isn’t usually a provocateur, feels compelled to devise intellectually viable defenses of political stances that have been adopted for purely mediagenic reasons, and not because they make any sense when implemented. So he seems to wind up contorting himself into a pretzel a lot of the time.

One difference being that stem cells actually are useful in scientific research by mattsteinglass
March 11, 2009, 2:27 pm
Filed under: Science

William Saletan says allowing stem cell research because it promises cures is like allowing torture because it promises to defeat terrorism.

The second difference, obviously, being that torture victims are unarguably people.

Asians less excited about Obama because less prone to fundamental attributional error? by mattsteinglass
January 15, 2009, 11:47 am
Filed under: Science, United States, Vietnam

I’ve written several articles already about the fact that Vietnamese, while modestly enthusiastic about Obama, don’t think it likely that he will do much to change US policy towards Vietnam. I, like most Americans I think, regard such statements by Vietnamese with a twinge of disappointment: don’t they realize how significant a shift it is when Americans elect someone like Obama rather than someone like Bush? Do they think Obama (and, by extension, Americans in general) doesn’t mean what he says? At some level, I feel like what Vietnamese are saying is: sure, you change your leaders, you say different things, but basically you still behave the same way from one administration to the next. I feel my sincerity is being impugned.

But I was just reading a few posts about the fundamental attributional error, also known as correspondence bias, and it turns out that several studies in social psychology have shown that people from Asian collectivist societies (Japanese and Chinese) tend to attribute causality to context, while people from individualist Western societies tend to attribute it to individuals. Studies have shown that Chinese and Taiwanese focus on context in stories while Americans focus on intentionality of individual characters, and that Japanese attribute directionality in an image of fish to the school, while Americans attribute it to the single fish featured in the front of the image.

Obviously. Duh. Vietnamese see things contextually. They don’t think Obama matters so much because they don’t think any individual matters so much. One of the most frequently used phrases in Vietnamese organizational language is “create favorable conditions”. This sounds intensely irritating to an American ear — we want to hear that you’re going to do something, not that you’re going to create favorable conditions for doing it. Maybe Vietnamese find the phrase just as irritating, but I don’t think so. I think they expect American actions and attitudes to follow the direction in which conditions are most favorable, not to be determined by the individual preferences or character attributes of one guy. And to a great extent they’re probably right.


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