Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Worrisome Specter of a Million Yahoo March

1. Focusing on the paranormal

     In yesterday’s Guardian, a psychologist, Professor Chris French, explains his peculiar psychological specialty that focuses on the “paranormal” and the extraordinary (Spoon-bending for beginners: Teaching anomalistic psychology to teenagers).
     French is in the field of anomalistic psychology (AP), which can be defined as "the study of extraordinary phenomena…, including … those which are often labelled ‘paranormal’.”
     AP is not to be confused with the more familiar field of parapsychology (PS), which, in practice, tends to assume the validity of paranormal ideas and seeks evidence to support them. AP, in contrast, “is directed towards understanding bizarre experiences that many people have without assuming a priori that there is anything paranormal involved.”
     That is, AP is cautious. And it's skeptical.
     Skepticism—an unwillingness to adopt an idea until sufficient evidence is identified, i.e., until, among other things, sources of doubt are overcome—is, and has been, essential to the success of the sciences. In the face of a possibility (hypothesis), the skeptic always looks for possible sources of doubt. Non-skeptics, in the meantime, ignore the sources of doubt, heading straight to belief.
     It’s a lot easier.
     You'd think that, by now, we would have largely overcome such abject yahooery.
     A scientific- (i.e., skeptical-) minded person would never adopt the belief, say, that James Van Praagh actually communicates with the dead--when it remains possible that something else—something more mundane—could be going on that fully explains his performances. Those who have actually studied Van Praagh’s routine observe the expected: that he throws out lots of ideas and then pounces upon those few that seem to cause a reaction in grieving but hopeful audience members.
     To the unwary, this can seem astounding.
     It isn’t.
     I love talking about the paranormal and the weird in the classroom. As a logic/critical thinking/philosophy instructor, I also urge my students to be skeptical in the face of extraordinary claims.
     Sounds negative, but it isn't. I explain that skepticism isn’t like atheism: the denial of something’s existence. Obviously, it is not like theism either. It is more like agnosticism, which is neither belief nor disbelief. Essentially, agnosticism—or skepticism—is the position one is compelled to take when the evidence is inconclusive. In that situation, both (confident) belief and (confident) disbelief are unreasonable, illogical, a mistake.
     So far, I’m a skeptic about Bigfoot (shouldn't it be "Bigfoots"?). Certainly, there is no strong evidence (yet) that Bigfoot exists. But I would be unjustified in confidently declaring the non-existence of B. (Declaring his likely non-existence is another matter; I’m happy to do that.)
     Like me, French believes in teaching students about alleged paranormal phenomena:
[Beginning]... next month, potentially thousands of teenagers at schools and colleges throughout the UK will start lessons that deal with telepathy, psychokinesis, psychic healing, near-death experiences and talking to the dead. … From September, anomalistic psychology will be offered as an option … for A-level students from … the largest of the three English exam boards….
     Why focus on the paranormal and daffy?
     Well, French, like me, thinks that a scientific and skeptical approach to the paranormal is a great way to teach critical thinking. (People, including me, are genuinely interested in the paranormal. And young people are naturally attracted to the rejection of “establishment” thinking--and in their benighted world, believing in the paranormal is normal.)
     Beyond that, belief in the paranormal is widespread and, says French, it is “deep-seated.” Maybe so. It isn’t something we can ignore.

2. Worrying about Stupid People

     People sure do believe in some goofy notions, ridiculous though those notions may be.
     Something like that is happening in politics too.
     I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but, these days, we seem to witness the growing political power of the Stupid People contingent (aka the “Republican base,” more or less). You know who I’m talking about: the birthers, deathers, and fans of Sean Hannity. --People who think that gays recruit at college campuses and that college professors like me get up in the morning intent on teaching “socialism” and godlessness.
     I’m a little surprised. Don’t these people watch TV? Don’t they read the paper? Do they live on an island? How could they possibly be that clueless?
     But wait! Maybe the Stupid People aren’t as numerous as they seem. It’s hard to say. The “mass media” are not some first-rate organization, you know.
     Imagine a graduate from the “Columbia School of Broadcasting” (Is it fictional?), a used car salesman, and a fresh graduate of Clown College independently setting out to cover the news in your town. Your knowledge of what goes on there pretty much depends on what these three publish and make available in leaflets that are strewn about.
     That’s pretty much our situation, informationwise. So it's easy for myths and exaggerations to get promulgated. Maybe the noisy “town hall” agitators represent nothing more than a few stray dopes and some seriously wily and wicked lobbyists!
     My guess, though, is that the Stupid People are numerous, albeit a distinct minority. But minorities with a sneaky (can the stupid be sneaky? 'Fraid so.) strategy can grow and can gradually control groups. If the Stupid People play their cards right, they can manipulate the Republican Party’s Presidential candidate nominating process.
     If that happens, we must prepare for things to get weirder. And dicier.
     And extraordinary!
     Picture the year 2010. GOP (or independent) Candidate Sarah Palin is preaching to the choir: “President Obama believes in a one-world government, you betcha. He’s pretty much into racism and genocide against the elderly, too. --An' innocent babies! (Loud boos.) He’s working with doctors and dentists and scientologists right this very minute to poison our children with mind-altering homosexuality drugs and vaccines.” (Outrage!)
     Then comes the clincher: “I may be just a gun owner and mom, but I think that’s just un-American.”
     The crowd explodes. Wild applause. Then: grunting, hooting. Waves.
     I can just see one of the Stupid People reading this post. Later, she’ll tell her friends, “Yeah, that liberal professor says he believes in Animalistic Psychology and he wants to teach agnosticism and homosexuality to our kids. I think he’s into Dutch painters too, 'cause he threw in something about one of 'em, so he’s some egghead type. You know whad-I-mean.
     (Staunchly, curtly, and with a knowing look, the friend responds:) “YES I DO.”
     Now, how does this “birther” stuff work in the mind of a Stupid Person? Here are some possibilities:
1. It could be true. Sometimes things like this ARE true. So it’s true.
2. The information I saw on that one website is just incredible. How can you not believe? You can’t argue with fax, and they got ‘em!
3. My minister says I gotta believe this, and he’s never led me astray—remember about that awful Reverend Wright? So I gotta go with it. You gotta trust somebody, put your faith in somethin’. Otherwise, you’re a godless communist like Obama.
4. Well, my Congressman seems to believe in this stuff, so that’s good enough for me, ‘cause he’s important, educated. Plus he’s a church-goin’ man. So there you go.
     People can be pretty clueless and illogical, as any college instructor will tell you. At a certain point, you know, there’s no use arguing with Stupid People. They can be too far gone to be reasoned with, like grizzly bears and boulders. All you can do is stand aside, avoid their spittle and fury.
     What if these Stupid People get even more organized and confident and bold? Imagine millions of ‘em standing together and demonizing the President, condemning and glossolalianatin’ about our nation’s godless embrace of homosexuality and socialism.
     What then?
     I have no idea.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Even their confusion is confused

     What if your friend buys a car, and, as time passes, you realize that she loves everything about it. Performance? Excellent! Reliability? Astounding! Styling? Magnificent!
     That would be odd. Surely there is something about the car that is less than excellent, even poor. One might say that her assessments of the many features of her car exhibit uniform favor and that that uniformity of favor is surprising or unexpected—something that, prima facie, stands in need of explanation.

Political orientations

     Our embrace of political orientations is like that. “Conservativeness” or “liberalness” is some form of embrace of a sprawling and messy assortments of ideals, beliefs, and convictions that (with regard at least to a prominent subset) fail to reflect a single philosophy.
     Here’s the surprising thing: with some familiar exceptions (e.g., libertarians among Republicans; Quakers among liberals; etc.), people tend to embrace pretty much every element of the whole mess (i.e., they exhibit uniform favor). So, if, say, John is a conservative Republican, then we can expect him to believe in a strong military and to enjoy old-fashioned expressions of patriotism. If Jane is a liberal Democrat, we can expect her to support “a woman’s right to choose” and to look favorably upon ethnic diversity.
     Again, there are exceptions, but they tend to follow familiar patterns. Lots of semi-selective belief “packages” are conceivable regarding the whole messy stew of familiar liberal political beliefs. But, in fact, one finds only a few familiar kinds. Same goes for conservatives. (Try to find a conservative or Republican who is down on the pursuit of wealth! Show me a liberal who doesn’t celebrate “diversity”!)
     BUT WAIT. One might argue that “uniformity of favor” (UF) is precisely what one would expect, for the set of liberal (or conservative) ideas are indeed unified by a philosophy or a small set of core values/beliefs. There's no reason why a car should be uniformly excellent. But there's every reason that the set of familiar conservative beliefs will all be conservative.
     That does seem true for some, perhaps many, of the ideas of liberals and conservatives. But it seems false for many others. For instance, why expect liberals to reject and condemn the development of nuclear power? (Is it liberal to fret over the welfare of future generations? Why isn't that conservative?) But they do, almost always.
     Why expect a conservative to suppose that an apparently brain-dead person has an active and sophisticated mental life? (Remember the Terri Schiavo case?) Is there something about conservatism that inclines one to reject empirical evidence?
     Why expect a liberal to embrace multiculturalism? Why expect a conservative to oppose environmentalism or land and resource conservation? Etc.
     Given the manifestly suspect doctrinal fidelity (or coherence) of the familiar bundle of "conservative" or "liberal" beliefs, one is tempted to make an unpleasant suggestion: that most conservatives and liberals don't think their way to their political convictions; rather, they fall in line.
     My suspicion is that a form of irrationality is at work here. (Actually, likely there are several forms.) Given that, leaving aside core convictions/ideas, the "liberal" or "conservative" idea bundles are plainly illogical (or doctrinally indefensible), and given that, nonetheless, most conservatives and liberals embrace the whole package (or, at any rate, enough of it to exhibit the illogicalness at issue), there would appear to be some poor thinking or thoughtlessness afoot.
     So why is it that virtually all liberals "celebrate diversity" and virtually all conservatives "defend the rights of the unborn"? How come conservatives aren't especially interested in conserving things (such as wilderness or our humane cultural legacy) and liberals are so illiberal about incorrect or hateful speech?
     What gives?
     If there is irrationality at work here, I’m not sure what it is. Is it that we are members of a team--one competing with another—and thus, knowing that success depends on team unity, we automatically go along with the team leadership’s agenda and game plan—forgetting that, in truth, we do not actually or equally endorse each element of that agenda?
     Do the set of “liberal” ideas reflect, not principle, but (to an extent) historical accident (and strategy and whatnot), and, because we are unreflective or shallow or suggestible, we fail to notice this fact, embracing every element with equal passion and conviction?
     Is it that most of us do not have the time to examine the issues, and so we trust some elite to work out the appropriate application of values—only we fail to perceive this elite's incompetence, corruption, or opaque strategic machinations?
     Are there other fallacies at work?

The opposing view (I think)

     My guess is that, with regard to their own convictions, many liberals and conservatives would insist that the set of “liberal” (or “conservative”) ideas do hang together naturally: they are (more or less) the result of the application of core beliefs and values: belief in tradition and unobtrusive government, belief in government as a social problem-solver, etc. Hence, no fallacy or irrationality is involved in the phenomena of political UF (PUF). --Not, at least, in the case of my side, they will say.
     Maybe so. But I have my doubts. Really look at these beliefs.

Liberals and farming

     Take farming. Liberals can generally be counted on to embrace “organic farming” and to reject “genetic modification” of foods (GM).
     First, just what is liberal about these stances? Do pesticides prevent free expression? Are science and technology the enemies of equality?
     Now, in fact (see below), the organic farming philosophy is shot through with myth and fallacy; logically speaking, embrace of this philosophy is similar to the embrace of, say, alternative medicines or conspiracy theories regarding the assassination of JFK. File under “people thinking poorly.”
     GM foods? Again, the rejection of this technology depends largely on myth and fallacy. In fact, given the likely (and unfortunate and probably avoidable) facts of world population, a rejection of GM would be catastrophic.
     Naturally, these points require evidence and argument. But they’re readily available. And it ain't rocket science. It’s like belief in alternative medicine: a rudimentary grasp of scientific method—and especially an understanding of such tools as clinical trials and double-blinding—will quickly end enthusiasm for homeopathy, medicinal herbs, and all the rest. A similar competence (minimal scientific or logical literacy) will be devastating for belief in organic foods and a rejection of GM.
     OK, so why do liberals take the views that they do about this stuff? There’s nothing really “liberal” about these beliefs. They aren’t liberal; they’re foolish and unfortunate.
     (I've chosen an example among liberals in part because most people would place me in that camp. I could easily have chosen a "conservative" example.)

The lovely Sarah (my niece)

The case against organic farming

     For those interested in the logical or evidential case against these planks (or plankettes) of the liberal agenda, I recommend reading Robert T. Carroll’s “Skeptic’s Dictionary.” Read in particular his article Organic food and farming.
     Carroll, a philosopher, begins by stating, “Organic food is food produced by organic farming, a set of techniques based on anti-scientific beliefs, myths, and superstition.” By the end of the article, it is difficult avoiding embrace of that thesis.
     You might want to read Ben Goldacre’s article in this morning’s Guardian Online: Argument is about capitalism, not food.
     Goldacre easily tears apart a prominent pro-organic organization’s critique of a British agency's predictable recent finding—that “organic food is no better than normal food, in terms of composition, or health benefits.”
     Goldacre starts by saying, “I don't care about organic food. I am interested in bad arguments”—namely, those provided by the pro-organic Soil Association.
     Ooh, I love it when he talks “logical” like that to me.
     He ends with this:
     In reality, this is not about organic food. The emotive commentary in favour of organic farming bundles together diverse and legitimate concerns about unchecked capitalism in our food supply: battery [hence inhumane] farming, corruptible regulators, or reckless destruction of the environment, where the producer's costs do not reflect the true full costs of their activities to society, to name just a few. Each of these problems deserves individual attention.
     But just as we do not solve the problems of deceitfulness in the pharmaceutical industry by buying homeopathic sugar pills, so we may not resolve the undoubted problems of unchecked capitalism in industrial food production by giving money to the ... [2 billion pound] industry represented by the Soil Association [a prominent pro-organic group that routinely defies logic and ignores evidence].
     Aha! Goldacre is in effect weighing in on my PUF issue. He seems to be saying that there is a group of thinkers (contemporary liberals, more or less) with “legitimate” concerns who, owing perhaps to some sort of emotionalism (and whatnot), bundle (and conflate) issues, supposing that embrace of organic food and rejection of GM cohere with the set of (reasonable) criticisms and suspicions regarding Big Money and Farming.
     As I’ve argued elsewhere, I don’t think “emotionalism” helpfully identifies the fallacies at work here. (Emotions are problematic only when they are tied to false beliefs and fallacies.) But I’m sure that Goldacre is on to something with this notion of “bundling” and mistaken association.
     It is as though we assume that the world has a simple regularity that it does not in fact have: the bad guys are always bad and, if they embrace something, it is bad. The good guys are always good, and if they embrace something, it is good.
     Not. C'mon. Are we not adults?
     As Goldacre points out, “organic” farming IS big money, big farming. Further, it is relatively hazardous (manure and disease) and it is ecologically unsound (future generations will have fewer resources). (See Carroll.)
     So how come liberals aren’t down on it?
     These pro-organic liberals: even their confusion is confused.

See a clip from Penn and Teller's recent episode concerning organic food.