Monday, July 28, 2008

Teachers and Critics

A week ago I returned from the 2008 CFI Student Leadership Conference. Lasting from Thursday evening until Sunday at noon, the conference saw a wide variety of lectures, discussions, and activities. Saturday and Sunday in particular were filled with information useful to leaders of community and campus groups. The three other officers of the IU Secular Alliance who attended and I will have plenty to work on and discuss before September brings about the return of the student body.

Although there were a lot of positive things I could write about (the discussion on representation and diversity could warrant a blog of its own), I felt like there was one leftover thought from Friday's sessions that I needed to exorcise, a thought that briefly came up today during a "Russell's Tea Party" here in Bloomington.

Despite reminders throughout the weekend that the conference was not an atheist conference, during the Friday sessions there was an inordinate amount of war rhetoric, sometimes subtle and sometimes plainly stated in the "us vs them" terms of allies and enemies. I'm certainly sympathetic to the notion that we are engaged in a culture war, but as advocates for a democratic process and reasonable debate, the metaphor seems like an inappropriate way for us to characterize the relationship. Do we really want to play the role of religion's adversary? Is the purpose of the skeptical/secular community to be simply critics and fact-checkers?

I think we have more to offer. We possess the narrative that relates us to our world, and it's not simply a narrative of facts, its a narrative about how we know what we know, about how we are constantly able to learn more, and about how anyone, anywhere, can expand our knowledge about ourselves.

As critics and antagonists, a number of our voices are failing because they speak without listening. Not a small percentage of vocal atheists have a tendency to define the terms of religion for the religious and ignore the many different forms of belief. Just as creationism varies from YEC to Deism, even the various traditions of a single religion like Christianity runs from those who believe they know their god's will to those who treat religion as a learning experience. When some atheists insist that religion is purely dogmatic or based on blind faith alone, it leaves out the many believers for whom naturalism and debates with nonbelievers are means toward understanding their god and our place in creation, and it leaves out those who have had deeply moving personal experiences.

To avoid such strawmen, we need to let the religious be in charge of their own definitions. We need to become aware of the disagreements between theists and begin our work there. The most important questions we can ask are "how do you know this?" and "how would you know if you are wrong?" More likely than convincing believers to deconvert is the possibility that we can convince believers that they can gain a better understanding of their religion if they adopt an improved method of verification. Contemporary disagreements show that the problem of communication isn't just an abstract proof, it's something religious groups and individuals struggle with daily. It's at the very heart of the translation issues that divides denominations and keeps grammars in Biblical Hebrew in stock at Christian bookstores.

In fact, that's a prime example of an area where we can do better. Everyday people are interested in learning more about the life of Jesus and early Christian history. This has spurred The Da Vinci Code and the many books that debunk it into the bestseller lists. With all of the multiple theories put forward, one can't help but find some common ground with any particular individual, no matter what they believe: at least some version of the Jesus story must be false in their view. The question is how they determine which are false and which are true and why their preferred theory passes those tests.

In American education, there has long been an on-and-off focus on constructivism: the concept that complex ideas aren't memorized so much as they are reconstructed within the mind of an individual student as they become familiar with the evidence and continuously evaluate the idea. In a constructivist's classroom, students are treated less as robots being fed code and more like miniature scientists set on the task of demonstrating some claim. It shifts the instructional focus from "ix X right?" to "how could we know X?" Many of the topics that come up in a religious debate are best served by the constructivist approach, especially as neither side typically has access to all of the data. We cannot show that Jesus never existed (if we even wanted to), but we can help show that if we accept the evidence for a life of Jesus as described in the Gospels it would lead us to criteria that demand we accept many other claims about the ancient and modern worlds that many Christians would be reluctant to accept.

Of course, this approach has the possibility of appearing smarter-than-thou, as if we are educators and possess all the answers. But this is a misunderstanding of both education and our position (albeit not a misunderstanding held by believers alone). We do not have the answers and never will. Skepticism isn't founded on statements like "Bigfoot doesn't exit" or "remote viewing is bullshit." Modern skepticism is about questioning the validity of the processes and reasoning that lead to claims and the acknowledgment that human psychology is predisposed to think irrationally without safeguards. A war narrative seems inappropriate for what should be a negotiation between multiple voices in a secular, democratic state. We are not here to combat the religious. We are here to show how effective homespun science is uncovering reality.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Music: The Pogues

The Pogues. "The Body of an American." Studio version in lieu of the classic SNL performance. Lyrics here.

If I did a chronologically ordered series on the bands that changed my life (or at least my conception of music), R.E.M. would beat out The Pogues by a few years. If it was ordered by importance of effect, my current obsession with American roots music of the 1920s and 30s would probably force me to place some other artists higher on the list. But there is absolutely no question that the first time I heard If I Should Fall From Grace With God left an incredible and probably permanent impression on me that colored my last years in high school and first few years of my undergraduate days. I would study Irish mythology, write papers on the likes of Joyce and Donleavy, and even start my own celtic punk band, The Sods, all as a result of semi-randomly checking out IISFFGWG from the local library.

So bear this as warning that my characterization of The Pogues and their importance in the Grand History of Everything might be slightly overstated.

Despite the literary references of MacGowan's lyrics and the eight-person arrangements of their middle period, The Pogues made the (still newly named) celtic music scene seem far less cerebral and "artsy" than the 70s folk-rockers which I had rediscovered in my parents' record collection. The Pogues were at once intellectual and yet stubbornly low-brow. Like a pub quiz penned by Behan.

Although polls on email lists and message boards tend to favor Red Roses for Me and Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, the lineup that recorded "Body" and IISFFGWG was my favorite. They went on to record two subpar albums (although there really are some hidden gems inside Peace and Love), but I'm willing to defend their experimentation and excesses as the very same aspects that made them great. At the time considered one of their faults by folk purists, that they worked with nontraditional instruments (piano accordion, five string banjo, drum set) only added to their originality. Even when they tried on other genres ("Fiesta", "If I Should Fall...", "London Girl") it rarely felt like they were falling into the trap of doing things the way they've always been done. (Well, except for throwaway recordings like the Sex Pistols knock-off "Hot Dogs with Everything"...) Each album, each song, the band reinvented itself. Much unlike many "pure" folk bands, the interplay between Finer, Fearnley, and Woods in particular stands out as the three seemed to negotiate their roles song-by-song rather than filling parts by rote. (And if the SNL version were available, one would be able to hear Woods' characteristic cittern noodling around the melody as he reinvented his part once again in live performance.)

These days, there are many Pogues imitators with neither the passionate genius of MacGowan nor the musical skill of the other members. Brutish, cartoonish meldings of generic celtic melodies with generic punk bands are no strangers to stages at places like the Warped tour. So much did the jock-rock version of "paddy punk" disillusion me that I more-or-less abandoned playing any sort of celtic music for years once I quit The Sods (and although there were other issues, it probably had some effect on my lack of motivation for finishing the second album).

When I began playing accordion with The Staggerers this summer, I rediscovered how much I loved The Pogues. Even after ten years of fandom, I'm still able to learn from them. The St Pat's day ruckus and "Fairy Tale of New York" karaoke at Christmas time really does the band no justice.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Shorts: The John Tierney Experience

Friday, July 11, 2008

Shorts: Ignorance, mathematical and linguistic

  • "Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language
    and cognition"
    - to appear in Cognition. Wherein the authors consider the effects of one's lingua mater upon the system with which one pursues and internally represents the mathematical arts. A paper remarked upon recently by Mark Liberman of Language Log Plaza.

  • Is Linguistics a science? - SGU forums. A debate on the matter between individuals with various levels of informed consideration. Including one long-winded post by the present author.

  • "I like feeling stupid" - FemaleScienceProfessor. An analysis of the role of ignorance and an acceptance of it in the motivation of scientific inquiry.

  • Naomi Baron: "Always On" - The Diane Rehm Show. A discussion upon technology facilitated communication and its potentially overstated devastating effect on the disposition of common working people toward proper English grammar.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sunday Music: Devo

Devo. "Love Without Anger." 1981. From New Traditionalists.

"Why believe in things that make it tough on you?"

Devo is one of those bands almost everyone knows (largely thanks to "Whip It") but few know much about. They have the same sort of cleverness to their act that make TMBG so endearing to geeks and The Decemberists either adorable or intolerable. On the surface, their shtick was based around advertisement depictions of American life, retro-futurism, reductionist lyrics, and cheesy synthesizers, but the act was always more than a gimmick. At the core, Devo has always been a performance art criticism of the "everything is ok, please keep shopping" reaction to the evils of the modern world. In the particular case of their founding, in reaction to Kent State.

Complete with their own corporate anthem, Devo's public persona was used to parody the consumerist lifestyle and at other times to deliver indictments with all the suppressed anger of young John Lydon. Devo's political messages were too often buried under unfamiliar geek references (early computer culture, The Church of the Subgenius), minimalist lyrics, and as much camp The B-52s' wardrobe department. Yet, aside from its usefulness as a means of keeping the act entertaining, the gimmicky nature of their proto-culture jamming was in the end their most effective form of critique.

A few months back, the problem of sincerity in music was debated over in The Onion's AV Club forms. The point was being made that Ryan Adams' bizarre, attention grabbing public persona was in many ways more sincere than other songwriters of our time. Steve Hyden argued that we don't actually want sincerity. While discussing the dourness in early TMBG lyrics in the Gigantic documentary, John Linnell made a point that its often more moving to hear someone hide their feelings than to bear them all in publicly and openly. Sincere or not, Devo's ability to take their fear, anger, and depression and turn it into a comic theory of humankind's devolution is where their art lies.

Other classics: Freedom of Choice, Beautiful World, and the sarcastically anti-evolutionary Jocko Homo. Also: Weird Al's spot-on parody/tribute Dare to Be Stupid.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Shorts: On the discriminating tastes of the modern reader

  • Nurture Your Inner Psychic - No Paranormal Powers Required! - Inkling Magazine. The secret to astounding mentalist feats revealed chiefly in the separation of personal sensibilities from the evidence under consideration.

  • Sex Difference Evangelists - Slate. An exercise in death-defying skepticism wherein one discovers a minority of women have "female brains." Marvel at the speed at which innatists draw conclusions from non-replicated studies, if you dare!.

  • The Paranoid Style in American Science - Slate. Wherein the inductive and unsettled nature of science is found to be a prime target for the incredulous and their transported goalposts.

  • Actual Infity - gyre & gimble. Being a description of different means of conceiving the infinite, and further evidence of a promising new blog.

  • Geese from Barnacles - Laelaps. A humorous tale of misadventures in the natural sciences.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Atheists, fundamentalists, and the rest

I forget who leveled the accusation, but I've heard it said that atheists tend to acknowledge and respond to fundamentalist branches more than religious liberals. If I remember correctly, this was said to be particularly true of the "New Atheists" (a term that seems to mean "atheists I don't like" to believers). Despite polls showing that at least some fundamentalist like beliefs are more common than many liberals admit, I felt some sympathy for the claim. Certainly an issue with someone like Hitchens is the non-empirical approach to religion that overlooks religious diversity. One doesn't get a glimpse of either the breadth or depth of human religious experience from his writing, and for that apparent lack of understanding, his arguments suffer.

Yesterday PZ Myers pulled out the stops and picked apart an interview with Karl Giberson with the same fervor one expects from him. Read it if you haven't.

Quoth PZ:
He is not a literalist looking for a bearded man in the sky described in the bible, but instead has this vague metaphorical notion that if he melts down the bible in the philosophical flux of his personal beliefs, he'll be able to extract something ethereal and true from its words — a beautiful, loving, personal god who thinks he is really, really important and wants to give him eternal life in a paradise. That's his Madonna-in-a-pita, his credulous imposition of an expected pattern on the swirling chaos of generations of ravings and noise and poetry that is the Christian faith. I suspect he is sincere in his delusion.

[...] It's all pareidolia, pure and simple, and there is no reason given that we should respect that — it's simply assumed that all matters of faith deserve reverence.

Once literalism is abandoned, all that seems to be left is one's intuition, which leads to self-serving bias. From my outsider perspective, it seems as if liberals take from the literature that which they feel is true. When the supposedly Big Questions are discussed, I don't see the important questions being asked:
  1. How do we know this is true?

  2. How would you know if it wasn't true?

Considering the number of supernatural explanations for events that we have eliminated, I don't see how a supernatural explanation for what Giberson experiences as religion is any more likely than a supernatural explanation for Our Lady of the Cheese Sandwich.

Though their targets are often literalists, the questions on the epistemology of religious claims asked by even the least empirical of the New Athiests seem to apply. Why not Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? How do we know we can trust your intuition and not that of someone else? What methods of evaluating sources apply in syncretic or salad bar practices? Outside of an extremely liberal position like that of many Unitarians, it seems to me that even a liberal Christianity has its basis in at least the Gospels being true, and as Greta Christina points out, it's not clear to me that even these are accepted in full even without questioning their historical worth.

Personally, I don't mind others practicing their religions so long as they respect the rights of others to do - or not do - the same. I've backed off from religious topics in part because I feel the need to regroup and find a strategy that allows nonreligious and the liberalists to fend off the literal-minded together. But at the same time, I think our culture is ready to progress to a period where we can be publicly skeptical of any public figure who claims to know answers to the Big Questions. It's not about being hostile, it's about uncovering the truth and acknowledging the limits to our knowledge.

Conclusions only acquire worth through the method used to reach them. It's not clear to me that the religion of someone like Giberson represents anything more than wishful thinking, and I don't see any reason to respect it intellectually.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Idealizing the Language-Thought Connection (Pseudolinguistics and Ideal Languages, Part 4)

The as-yet unaddressed topic in this series is the phrase "ideal languages". Nearly as commonplace as the belief that one's community doesn't speak a dialect (though neighboring communities do) is the belief that one's mother tongue is somehow more eloquent, more precise, more logical, or somehow better by another measure than other languages. I do not use ideal language in the Early Modern sense (though I hope to write on that phenomenon in the future), but rather in the sense of a pride (often national or religious) associated with some tongue.

In the same way that we note how obsessed Eskimo are with snow (they aren't really) or the way we puzzle over how Germans can have a word for that (its the morphology, dummkopf), we sometimes speak with pride about aspects of our own language. By a little folk reasoning through the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, those aspects become aspects of the national culture as well.
French has a very logical structure, therefore one can't help but reason logically when speaking French.

Italian is a beautiful language, therefore Italians are beautiful and/or great admirers of beauty.

The reasoning can even be turned against speakers of other languages.
German is an angry sounding language, therefore Germans are an angry people.

If one accepts that language and culture influence thought and one also accepts certain generalizations or stereotypes about a group or language, then such conclusions follow. In folk linguistics, one passes over details such as the sounds of German being spoken outside of parody or war movies or that the structure of French is a hodge-podge of over a thousand years worth of conflicting trends.

Sometimes the object of affection is not even the national language. Though I didn't address it at the time, this sort of reasoning appears to lie behind much of the writings on Edenics that I looked at when researching that post. As it seems to be tacitly assumed, if the ancient Hebrews were YHWH's chosen people and he communicated to them through their language, then studying the language can bring us closer to god. Hebrew, the Adamic language, and angelic languages have had their admirers over the centuries as well, and like Mozeson, more than a few have attempted to show the connection between them and their native tongue. One sees the same thing in other aspects of culture. Medieval Irish monks prefaced pagan myths with stories of Noah's flood and how some of his descendants settled Ireland. Such ideology is not always so innocent, however. In the present day, Hindu nationalists have placed great emphasis the Indo-European background of India and the Indo-Aryan origins of the Hindi language as a distinction between their culture and that of Muslims in the region.

In the next post in this series, I will look at the so-called Alphabet effect. You can read the first chapter of the book by the same name at the author's homepage and, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say, a review of mine from several years ago on Amazon.

Shorts: Talking apes and dancing robots

Catching up on the RSS feeds, here are some posts that stuck out: