CAT | debate
Cross-posted on the Corner:
Over at AEI Mark Perry celebrates Earth Day with quotes from Steven Landsburg’s book The Armchair Economist, including this:
[E]nvironmentalists — at least the ones I have met — have no real interest in maintaining the tree population. If they did, they would seriously inquire into the long-term effects of recycling. I suspect that they don’t want to do that because their real concern is with the ritual of recycling itself, not with its consequences. The underlying need to sacrifice, and to compel others to sacrifice, is a fundamentally religious impulse.
That took me to the chapter specifically cited by Perry, which is well worth reading in full. Here’s an extract:
As environmentalism becomes increasingly like an intrusive state religion, we dissenters become increasingly prickly about suggestions that we suffer from some kind of aberration. The naive environmentalism of my daughter’s preschool is a force-fed potpourri of myth, superstition, and ritual that has much in common with the least reputable varieties of religious Fundamentalism. The antidote to bad religion is good science. The antidote to astrology is the scientific method, the antidote to naive creationism is evolutionary biology, and the antidote to naive environmentalism is economics.
Economics is the science of competing preferences. Environmentalism goes beyond science when it elevates matters of preference to matters of morality…. But in the…years since the first Earth Day, a new and ugly element has emerged in the form of one side’s conviction that its preferences are Right and the other side’s are Wrong. The science of economics shuns such moral posturing; the religion of environmentalism embraces it.
Comments off · Posted by Andrew Stuttaford in Science & Faith
Via Andrew Sullivan we have this piece by William B. Hurlbut, Consulting Professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Stanford University Medical Center, a man of science, who is, it turns out, also a fan of the benevolently deranged Francis of Assisi.
There’s plenty in the article for those with an interest in Francis himself, but I was more interested in this:
The traditional role of medicine, for example, has been to cure disease and alleviate suffering, to restore and sustain the patient to a natural level of functioning and wellbeing. The medical arts were in the service of a wider reverence and respect for the order of the created world: “the physician is only nature’s assistant,” as the Roman healer Galen explained.
But now, armed with the powers of biotechnology, medicine has found a new paradigm, one of liberation: technological transformation in the quest for happiness and human perfection. Slowly but steadily the role of medicine has been extended, driven by our appetites and ambitions, to encompass dimensions of life not previously considered matters of health, with the effect of altering and revising the very frame of nature. Increasingly, we expect from medicine not just freedom from disease but freedom from all that is unattractive, imperfect, or just inconvenient. More recent proposals, of a still more ambitious scope, include projects for the conquest of aging, neurological fusion of humans and machines, and fundamental genetic revision and guided evolution — for transhumans, posthumans, and technosapiens.
The danger is immediately evident…
It is? Danger? This all sounds splendid, although count me skeptical as to how far we will get any time soon towards, uh, transhumans, posthumans, and technosapiens. I’m still waiting for flying cars and Moonbase Alpha (which was due sometime before 1999).
In the absence of any concept of cosmic order, where the material and the moral flow forth from a single creative source, all of living nature becomes mere matter and information to be reshuffled and reassigned for projects of the human will.
Well, that absence is what it is. Hurlbut may be uncomfortable with the consequences, but they are what they are—and they need to be faced. He may wish to believe in a “cosmic order” (a fantasy that takes many forms, in any event), but he ought not to be surprised that there are those that disagree that such a thing exists and are thus reluctant to comply with its supposed rules. But that is not necessarily cause for despair. Experience shows that humility and caution in matters of this type are a matter of commonsense, and commonsense has a way, quite often, of winning out. As, if less frequently, does kindness:
Genetically engineered featherless chickens for cheaper pot pies and leaner pigs with severe arthritis are a violation of basic kindness and courtesy.
There’s a great deal more from Hurlbut, and, much of it like the writings of Leon Kass, is, in its glorification or, at least, inshallah acceptance of suffering, as morbid, and, in its implications, as revolting as some of the more lurid iconography of Christian martyrdom. It’s sad to see such words flowing from the pen or keyboard of a doctor who will in his own career surely have done a great deal to alleviate the suffering of others. Such are the contradictions of religious faith.
And then there’s this:
[O]ne can sense a wisdom in the severity and self-denial that were, for Francis, inseparable from the source of his joy. He had rediscovered an ancient truth in the inversion of desire, not as a negation of being but as a positive passion. In the image of the Lord, he emptied himself and received all things back renewed, purified, and restored in their divine glory.
When I read that, I see only an expression of a millennial asceticism that in our modern era has found expression not in the kindly ramblings of an oddball hippy saint, but in revolution, gulag, and the emptied streets of Phnom Penh.
Compared with that, biotechnological advance is relatively risk-free…
The Wall Street Journal has interviewed “eminent bioethicist” (itself a contradiction in terms) Leon Kass. The trigger was the Gosnell trial, but it was this aspect of Kass’s remarks that drew my attention:
Dr. Kass sometimes finds himself at odds with [anti-abortion] advocates. The movement’s narrow focus on nascent life, he worries, blinds it to the fact that “abortion is connected to lots of other things that are threats to human dignity in its fullness.”
“Pursuing perfect babies, ageless bodies and happy souls with the aid of cloning, genetic engineering and psychopharmacology,” he thinks, are among the most significant of those threats.
Not that, again. Of course, we need never to forget the terrible lessons of early twentieth century eugenics, but re-read those comments and what you see emerging beneath those soothing words about “dignity” is a morbid and sentimental attachment to suffering, and a profound contempt for the human mind:
“Killing the creature made in God’s image is an old story,” he says. “I deplore it. But the new threat is the ability to transform that creature into images of our own choosing, without regard to whether the new creature is going to be an improvement, or whether these so-called improvements are going to sap all of the energies of the soul that make for human aspirations, art, science and care for the less fortunate. All of these things have wellsprings in the human soul, and they are at risk in efforts to redesign us and move us to the posthuman future.”
And the corollary of this paranoid, mystical nonsense about a “new threat” is that the state, aided and abetted doubtless by a self-appointed (and sometimes taxpayer-funded) coterie of wise men, will decide that they know best where scientific inquiry should go.
Galileo, phone your lawyer.
In an earlier post here, Mr. Hume and Jackson Doughart, reacting to an exchange between Glenn Greenwald and Sam Harris, discuss (amongst many things) the way that the notion of ‘Islamophobia’ has been used to try to stifle those who have shall, we say, problems with hardline Islam.
The whole debate between Harris and Greenwald is in fact well worth reading in full (Harris easily has the best of it). I’d highlight this from Harris:
There is no such thing as “Islamophobia.” This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it.
Did you happen to see The Book of Mormon? Do you know how the Mormons protested this attack upon their faith? They placed ads for Mormonism in the Playbill. Imagine staging a similar production about Islam: Would it be “bizarre and wholly irrational” for Trey Parker and Matt Stone to worry that the Muslim community might have a different response?
And this (Harris is quoting himself from 2006):
Increasingly, Americans will come to believe that the only people hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world are the religious lunatics of the West. Indeed, it is telling that the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right, whose infatuation with biblical prophecy is nearly as troubling as the ideology of our enemies. Religious dogmatism is now playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game.
While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant. Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t.
The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.
To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.
That analysis was (and is) an overstatement, and in the seven years since Harris wrote that passage, awareness of the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism has broadened further, as has, in some-still too rare-instances, the willingness to push back. Nevertheless, the situation is still such that, for all their overreach and occasional nuttiness, we should still be grateful for the efforts of the made-in-Ukraine feminists of Femen. Writing in the Guardian here’s Jonathan Jones on their latest :
She’s topless. She’s angry. And she is, literally, taking liberties. The activist in this picture [link here] took part in a protest in Paris in support of Amina Tyler, a young Tunisian woman who has been targeted by Islamists after she put a bare-breasted picture of herself on her Facebook page in March with the words “Fuck Your Morals” and “My Body Belongs To Me, And Is Not The Source Of Anyone’s Honour” painted across her chest.
Both Tyler and this activist are members of Femen, the radical feminist group that originated in the Ukraine and specialises in topless politics. Hackers attacked Femen’s Tunisian Facebook page replacing pictures with texts from the Qur’an, while a prominent cleric has suggested Tyler might be stoned.
So here is a picture of Femen’s response – it declared 4 April to be International Topless Jihad Day, and protesters duly took their clothes off in Paris.
And you thought this stuff was complicated. Religious traditions, respect for cultural difference, fear of legitimating Islamophobia … You’d think twice about declaring a jihad on Islamic attitudes to women and their bodies, right?
Not Femen. This picture is gloriously crude. At a time of tight-lipped liberal relativism when even the president of the United States is damned careful what he says about Islam, here is a woman bearing her body, quoting Tyler’s anti-religious slogan, wearing a pseudo-jihadist black scarf over her face. Clearly, the protest is provocative – even in Paris, where this man who may be religiously offended, or just offended by women in general, appears to be kicking her.
Already, the New Statesman has weighed in with a critique of Femen’s “jihad”, arguing that it is naive to defend the rights of women in north Africa in this cheerfully secular way. But what is so wrong with stating a clear principle?
Tyler has asserted in her own words, on her own body, that she belongs to herself and is not an object of moral scrutiny or male honour. This is fair enough, no? She is claiming freedoms and rights taken for granted in most democratic countries – but which are frowned on and suppressed and violently denied by religious conservatives. If Christian conservatives ran things here, our society would be hobbled and distorted and modern freedoms denied. Femen has indeed attacked Christianity as well as Islam. But in western Europe the church has very little real power over public morals. Islam does exert such power in north Africa. Tyler objects to this moral control. Is she wrong to do so? Why does this activist for freedom not deserve the same support the Arab spring got? Or is freedom only worth supporting when there is no possible conflict with Islam implied by all the romantic Arabist rhetoric?
Does this picture look to you like a foolish and ignorant attempt to intervene in Islam’s private concerns? Please explain why. Because to me it looks like a blast of honesty in a dishonest age…
Indeed it does.
I happened to come across this 2011 piece by CSI’s Joe Nickell the other day:
…In fact, notwithstanding the claims in uncritical biographies, Pio’s stigmata devolved—from bleeding wounds that could easily have been self-inflicted (like those of many fake stigmatists before and after, as I described in my 2001 book Real-Life X-Files) to merely discolored skin that appeared to have been irritated by the application of a caustic substance. Indeed, a bottle of carbolic acid was once discovered in the friar’s cell, and Luzzatto cites letters from Padre Pio in which Pio requests that carbolic acid, and at another time a caustic alkaloid, be secretly delivered to him. Eventually Pio began wearing fingerless gloves, supposedly to cover his stigmata out of pious humility; however, to me, the practice seems instead a shrewd move to eliminate the need to continually self-inflict wounds.
Nor were the fake stigmata the friar’s only deception. Years before, Pio had written numerous letters to his spiritual directors describing his mystical experiences; however, it is now known that he copied these words verbatim from the writings of stigmatic Gemma Galgani (1878–1903) without acknowledging they were hers. And that is not all: Pio attempted to divert suspicion from his plagiarism by asking for help in procuring copies of Galgani’s books—saying he would very much like to read them!
…By the time of his death in 1968, Pio’s stigmata had disappeared, but that was effectively remedied in death. Although there was no need to cover his hands and feet—and indeed Capuchin rule forbids the wearing of socks—Pio’s “father guardian,” Father Carmelo of San Giovanni in Galdo, worried that the absence of stigmata might cause a faulty rush to judgment. Carmelo therefore had Padre Pio’s hands and feet covered, as if the covering still concealed his allegedly holy gift. And so the deception continued.
In 2002, the late friar was canonized Saint Pio of Pietrelcina—not for the stigmata he was so famous for but for his healings that were, with due illogic, assumed miraculous because they were said to be inexplicable. And when his remains were exhumed for display forty years after his death, those hoping his body would be found incorrupt… or that it would still exhibit the stigmata, were disappointed. The embalmed corpse had deteriorated sufficiently that it required a silicon mask—complete with bushy eyebrows and beard—fashioned by a London wax museum. Of the supposedly supernatural wounds there was not a trace.
That the friar was a fake is no great surprise, That the Capuchins forbid socks, on the other hand…
With so much talk of late of the supposed attack on religious freedom represented by Obamacare’s contraception mandate, this passage caught my eye:
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently renewed their call for measures to address gun violence by echoing their 2000 statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. Bishops have called for “measures that control the sale and use of firearms” and “sensible regulations of handguns.” The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a 1994 document, “The International Arms Trade,” urges political leaders “to impose a strict control on the sale of handguns and small arms” and states that “limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe on the rights of anyone.”
Well, it’s good to know where people stand.
Cross-posted on the Corner:
Sam Harris is a “New Atheist” and a Second Amendment skeptic too — wait, wait – and there’s a lot to disagree with in this new piece of his (“collective psychosis”, good lord). Nevertheless, agree or disagree, it’s carefully thought-out and very well worth a look by anyone with a serious interest in the gun debate. It also ought to make thoroughly disconcerting reading for the likes of Obama, Biden and the rest. Assuming, of course, that they were actually open-minded enough to consider Harris’s arguments seriously, something, I suspect, that is an assumption too far . . .
Harris sees the world as it is, as a place, shall we say, that is more Hobbes than Gandhi:
Like most gun owners, I understand the ethical importance of guns and cannot honestly wish for a world without them. I suspect that sentiment will shock many readers. Wouldn’t any decent person wish for a world without guns? In my view, only someone who doesn’t understand violence could wish for such a world. A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene. There have been cases of prison guards (who generally do not carry guns) helplessly standing by as one of their own was stabbed to death by a lone prisoner armed with an improvised blade. The hesitation of bystanders in these situations makes perfect sense—and “diffusion of responsibility” has little to do with it. The fantasies of many martial artists aside, to go unarmed against a person with a knife is to put oneself in very real peril, regardless of one’s training. The same can be said of attacks involving multiple assailants. A world without guns is a world in which no man, not even a member of Seal Team Six, can reasonably expect to prevail over more than one determined attacker at a time. A world without guns, therefore, is one in which the advantages of youth, size, strength, aggression, and sheer numbers are almost always decisive. Who could be nostalgic for such a world? . . .
It is reasonable to wish that only virtuous people had guns, but there are now nearly 300 million guns in the United States, and 4 million new ones are sold each year. A well-made gun can remain functional for centuries. Any effective regime of “gun control,” therefore, would require that we remove hundreds of millions of firearms from our streets. As Jeffrey Goldberg points out in The Atlantic, it may no longer be rational to hope that we can solve the problem of gun violence by restricting access to guns—because guns are everywhere, and the only people who will be deterred by stricter laws are precisely those law-abiding citizens who should be able to possess guns for their own protection and who now constitute one of the primary deterrents to violent crime. This is, of course, a familiar “gun nut” talking point. But that doesn’t make it wrong.
Harris is a supporter of far more intrusive regulation than I would support even on a “once and for all” basis (and doesn’t choose to discuss the way in which even a theoretically reasonable licensing process can be abused by the authorities) but he has the honesty to admit this:
Another problem with liberal dreams of gun control is that the kinds of guns used in the vast majority of crimes would not fall under any plausible weapons ban. And advocates of stricter gun laws who claim to respect the rights of “sportsmen” or “hunters,” and to recognize a legitimate need for “home defense,” simply give the game away at the outset. The very guns that law-abiding citizens use for recreation or home defense are, in fact, the problem.
And that’s the point. That’s why serious supporters of the Second Amendment find it so difficult to support what (many see as) self-evidently sensible gun control measures. “Once and for all” simply doesn’t exist. Once the big-government ratchet starts turning, it does not stop, and those few sentences by Sam Harris help explain why. And then there’s the prominence of Bloomberg on the gun-control team . . .
Anyway, read the whole thing.
Heather, you wrote:
Anyone who was expecting Vice President Wayne LaPierre to break the NRA’s week-long silence after the Newtown massacre with an olive branch and some sensible proposals regarding better background checks, say, or restrictions on high-capacity ammo clips didn’t know his man.
Well, regardless of what we might think of Wayne LaPierre’s, uh, less than convincing performance, it’s worth acknowledging that one reason that individual gun rights have survived so long in the United States has been the refusal of those who have been most prominent in their defense to make any concessions that could be seen as somehow diluting the Second Amendment. The effect of that stubbornness is that the debate is presently focused on assault weapons, ammo clips and the like, rather than on attacking the core freedom that lies at the heart of that amendment.
In an earlier post on this topic, you noted that the “sounds of the machinery of the federal government cranking into gear must be terrifying to many a libertarian.” That’s very true, and not only for libertarians. One thing that such people have come to understand all too well is that when that machinery starts up, it frequently begins with steps that are indeed quite often genuinely sensible. The problem is that the ratchet rarely stops there. Once an inch has been conceded, the state will take a mile in carefully calibrated increments, each of which are ‘reasonable’ until, of course, the moment that they cease to be.
Paranoia? Let’s just say that it is telling that Mayor Bloomberg is leading the charge for tighter regulation. The epitome of the technocrat who believes that he always knows best, Bloomberg has repeatedly demonstrated that the demands of the state (defined, naturally, by him) trump the freedoms of the individual. His prominence in the current campaign is a guarantee that it will not stop with “sensible proposals”.
And that’s a shame.
This is a complete red herring attack from defenders of the status quo who oppose giving parents the opportunity to make choices about their children’s education. They will probably not like the fact that the largest provider of opportunities for scholarship students has tended to be parochial schools. These schools are known to teach all sorts of scandalous things, for example concerning God raising a man from the dead and an important birthday coming up in a few weeks.
We’re competing in a global economy and that’s why we want our students to be exposed to the best science and the best critical thinking skills. We not only need to compete with students in Texas, but we need to compete with students in Japan.
In order to make sure our kids are able to compete with students around the country and the world in math and science, students in the scholarship program are taking the exact same tests as the students in public schools. Starting in 2014 with Louisiana’s move to the Common Core State Standards, those will be nationally standardized assessments. That means that a parent can choose the school with the curriculum and environment that’s right for their child, while still ensuring that they are receiving the baseline content they need to compete.
Furthermore, these results are going to be summarized and publicly available so parents and taxpayers can make comparisons. Schools whose scholarship students do not do well on the exams will not be allowed to continue participating in the program.
Parents are the ultimate accountability in education. Unlike traditional public systems where students are assigned to their school based on zip code, school choice gives parents the power to vote with their feet. That can be public school choice or it can be private school choice; we’ve done both in Louisiana. The parent knows the child better than a bureaucrat in Baton Rouge or Washington, D.C. Across the country, millions of parents don’t have this option and their child is stuck in a failing school unless they can move to another district.
If you look at the results of the students who started in the pilot program in New Orleans, they are outperforming their peers in Math and Science. For instance, the percentage of third graders in the Scholarship Program in New Orleans demonstrating proficiency in Math has increased by 23 points since 2008, compared to a 2 percentage point increase for all Louisiana third graders. Further, the percentage of third graders in the Scholarship Program demonstrating proficiency in Science has increased by 4 points since 2008, compared to a 1 percentage point increase for all Louisiana third graders. This mirrors national results, where no less than 10 gold standard research studies have found that when children choose their school–improving the child’s “match” with their school environment–they are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college.
That’s an encouraging response. It’s also good to read how well the pilot program appears to be working out. That makes it all the more important to ensure that the wider program delivers the sort of academic return the taxpayers who have been drafted into funding it have every right to expect. Success in this respect will be the program’s best defense against future political attack. Testing the schools that take part in this program (including, I note, of math and science) will obviously be a key part in this process, but so will a serious insistence on speedily removing accreditation from those schools that fail to make the grade. .
As to what is taught in these schools, that’ll be a topic to which I’ll revert (I wanted to post Mr. Plotkin’s reply as quickly as possible), I’ll leave the constitutional questions to the experts, but, as a matter of general principle it doesn’t worry me in the slightest that the education available under this program might include a religious element. The question, I suppose, is just how large that element should be, and what it might amount to. The thought that such questions might even be asked will be offensive to some, but taxpayer money never comes without strings, and rightly so. Democratic accountability matters.
Cross-posted on the Corner:
If there’s a policy that deserves to be a winner for the GOP (as well as being a thoroughly good thing in its own right), it is school choice and Bobby Jindal has done well to push it in Louisiana.
But having launched a flagship it’s important to ensure that it does not sink.
The Guardian reports:
[A] court case beginning Wednesday is set to shine light on a controversial policy in [Jindal’s] state which sees government funding given to schools that teach creationism….The case has been brought by a Louisiana teachers’ union and is aimed at a voucher scheme whereby some parents can take their children out of poor state schools and get vouchers to use at private schools.
One of the most controversial aspects of the programme is that some of the schools included on it are conservative Christian organisations that teach creationism in their science classes. When parents use the vouchers at such establishments they are effectively giving state money to teach children lessons that can include alternatives to the theory of evolution or questioning the widely accepted age of the Earth…
“This whole voucher plan was to give parents choices. But it is ignoring the quality of those choices,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, legislative and political director of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.
Now, there’s quite a bit of humbug running through those two sentences (Louisiana’s education scores have historically not been the most impressive), but Jindal has handed his opponents a useful weapon. He needs to take it back.
Stick with the voucher program—expand it wherever possible—but be careful to make sure that the standards of the schools that benefit from it are higher on every measure than those of the traditional public schools they may be replacing. I’m not convinced that taxpayer funding of schools that teach that the Earth is six thousand years old really does the trick, even if such schools are the rare exception rather than the rule.
The governor must plug the hole in his flagship. It’s too important to be allowed to sink.