Secular Right | Reality & Reason

CAT | science

Paul Ingrassia at The American Conservative has published a polemic entitled “The Religious Fanaticism of Silicon Valley Elites.” It should be noted that Ingrassia is himself Catholic, so he has no beef with religion per se. Just as the zealous Proud Boys find their greatest rival in a different type of zealot, namely Antifa, the biggest detractors of X often share many of the same qualities as X. In Ingrassia’s case, his Catholicism is perhaps leading him to mistake Silicon Valley for a rival religion. He writes:

While Silicon Valley types delay giving their own children screens, knowing full well their deleterious effects on cognitive and social development (not to mention their addictive qualities), they hardly bat an eye when handing these gadgets to our middle class. 

This is untrue. Or at the very least, there’s far from enough evidence to conclude this. Psychologist Amy Orben at Cambridge has researched the effects of digital technology on youth has shown that wearing glasses has greater negative effects on youth than does screen time with smart phones, which she correctly points out can include everything form perusing Kim Kardashian’s Instragram account to chatting with friends.

Ingrassia continues:

Their political views seem to become more radical by the day. They as a class represent the junction of meritocracy and the soft nihilism that has infiltrated almost every major institution in contemporary society. 

Silicon Valley gets more radical by the day? Eh. Updating Facebook Messenger’s user interface or introducing a chatbot into a banking app isn’t radical, and they’re the kinds of things that comprise the mundane bulk of what Silicon Valley is up to. But where Silicon Valley is radical, it contradicts the notion that it’s nihilistic. More interesting developments such as synthetic meat, 3-D printed prosthetics, and crypto-currency are expressions of idealism, not throwing one’s hands up. Scott Alexander has a good rundown here of the suprisingly, er, down to earth nature of what Silicon Valley occupies itself with. VR porn or drones for extreme sports enthusiasts isn’t on the top of the list.

Our elites hope to spare themselves from incurring any moral responsibility for the costs of their social engineering. And “social engineering” is not a farfetched term to use. A portion of the Times article interrogates the premise of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel Brave New World, which tells the story of a totalitarian regime that has anesthetized a docile underclass into blind submission.

Hyperbole, all the way down.

Say, what is the Godwin’s Law equivalent of invoking either 1984 or Brave New World? There must be something like that. If not, it’s just a matter of time before Silicon Valley invents it…

Ingrassia spills alot of digital ink bashing Silicon Valley “guru” and “maharishi” Yuval Levin for supposedly celebrating the demise of work and the creation of a “useless” class of citizens. But Ingrassia’s linked New York Times article describes Levin as a purveyor of the idea that “Silicon Valley is an engine of dystopian ruin,” and describes him as worried that “by creating powerful influence machines to control billions of minds, the big tech companies are destroying the idea of a sovereign individual with free will.”

It sounds like Levin is in agreement with Ingrassia, if anything.

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Oct/18

18

Fantasies, facts and values

The Western cultural tradition, which combined various elements (religious, intellectual, scientific) into a rich and resilient and trans-national framework of thought and practice, is all but dead.

Witness, for example, the increasingly propaganda-ridden media environment, the absurdities of identity politics where whims and fantasies routinely trump objective reality and, more generally, the self-righteous and narrow dogmatism of the progressive left.

The deep causes are not just ideological, but ideas and ideology play a role.

The notion that the world of which we are a part is a certain way and that we can have objective knowledge of that world is a crucial tenet of Western thought. Closely associated with this idea is the distinction between factually-based and values-based claims.

For all sorts of reasons the fact/value distinction needs to be maintained. It is basic to a sensible, modern view of the world. Unfortunately many philosophers and other intellectuals have in recent decades sought assiduously to undermine it. In so doing they have (wittingly or unwittingly) given cover and support to those who reject the idea that the sciences and rigorous forms of scholarship (coupled with common sense and ordinary observation) reveal an objective reality which is not at the mercy of our whims and preferences and prejudices.

Philosophies like Pragmatism are very popular these days, largely because they blur the fact/value distinction. William James had a religious view of the world, and his form of Pragmatism supported it. John Dewey had strong social and political commitments to which his form of Pragmatism lent a spurious intellectual authority.

Richard Rorty was another influential (and politically motivated) Pragmatist. He incorporated elements of Romanticism into his thinking and, unlike Dewey, disparaged and tried to undermine the status of the sciences.

Rorty wrote clearly and well, by and large avoiding the jargon-dense obscurity of the Continentals. He should also be given credit for seeing as totally futile much of the self-perpetuating philosophical and metaphysical discourse which was produced by analytic philosophers in the late 20th century. But his anti-science attitude, driven by the same general forces which drove many literary men and women before him — a kind of donnish snobbery bolstered by Romantic notions — was unfortunate.

Sure, it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the potentially factual from the value-related aspects of a statement or claim. But an ability to do such disentangling is one of the most important things that a basic education should develop. Not much chance of this when educators’ heads are stuffed full of postmodern fantasies. What they seek to encourage in their students is not independent thinking or real creativity (which is always based on actual competence) but rather a witless conformity masquerading as creative self-expression and a blind adherence to a mishmash of liberal or progressive dogmas, clichés and slogans.

The silliness and emptiness of all this is evident to many, of course, and not just to old fogeys and traditionalists. ZeroHedge reports:

The “weaponized autists” at 4Chan have done it again, because they can; a new meme suggesting that liberals are soulless idiots who can’t think for themselves has gone viral. The concept compares Democrats to “nonplayable characters,” or NPCs – the recurring characters in video games with repetitive lines and limited knowledge. Lack of an “inner voice” is a dead giveaway that someone may be an NPC… The NPC meme [is] meant to ridicule the post-election perpetual outrage culture in which liberals simply parrot the latest talking points from their favorite pundits, who do their thinking for them… The 4chan version is a simple greyed out, expressionless face known as “NPC Wojak” – which has triggered the left so hard that Twitter conducted a mass-banning campaign for accounts promoting the meme, and the New York Times wrote an entire article trying to figure it out.

I acknowledge that education, especially in the early years, is largely about imparting values, practices and myths. Values are an important part of education. The question is, which values?

A rudimentary education in science and/or some form of rigorous scholarship (disciplines which are dependent on virtues such as attention and patience) is crucial, in my opinion, for giving students a sense of objective knowledge. Such disciplines are always in a healthy tension with mythmaking on the one hand and ideological conformity on the other.

We can’t escape myths and ideologies. But if a good part of our thinking is grounded in objective reality we are at least less likely to be consumed by them.

 

 

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Jul/17

29

CRISPR, Faster

MIT Technology Review:

The first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos in the United States has been carried out by a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon, MIT Technology Review has learned.

The effort, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, involved changing the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, according to people familiar with the scientific results.

Until now, American scientists have watched with a combination of awe, envy, and some alarm as scientists elsewhere were first to explore the controversial practice. To date, three previous reports of editing human embryos were all published by scientists in China.

“Controversial practice”.  #sigh

Now Mitalipov is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases.

In altering the DNA code of human embryos, the objective of scientists is to show that they can eradicate or correct genes that cause inherited disease, like the blood condition beta-thalassemia. The process is termed “germline engineering” because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells—the egg and sperm.

Some critics say germline experiments could open the floodgates to a brave new world of “designer babies” engineered with genetic enhancements—a prospect bitterly opposed by a range of religious organizations, civil society groups, and biotech companies.

Faster please.

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Robert Tracinski, in What Atheists Have To Offer The Right‘s, kindly points to this website. He also goes on to assert:

That leads me to what atheists have to offer to this agenda. One of the problems with citing a religious foundation for freedom and Americanism is that these arguments tend not to appeal to those who don’t share your faith. People will naturally assume that, in order to agree with you, they have to believe in the same particular religious creed you have adopted. And given the vast range of religious belief, that’s a lot to ask for.

I’ve made this argument before. Modern American conservatism has become so culturally captured by the Religious Right that there’s a lot of talk about “Biblically based values” without much reflection that it might turn some people off who don’t share the basis of those values. I do think it is notable that conservatives with broad cultural influence such as George F. Will and David Brooks tend to have a secular affect (Will is personally an agnostic).

Trancinski goes on to talk about the relationship between conservatism and science at some length. I can speak here personally, as I am a scientist and a conservative. One issue is while most liberals may not be scientists, most scientists are liberals. Those who are not are invariably libertarians. I would cop to being conservative, albeit with a strong libertarian streak. And that makes me exceptional. The culture of scientists and culture of religious conservatives are so opposed to each other that a Christian evangelical friend who is an evolutionary biologist once told me he was asked literally every day how he could be a scientist and a Christian. I have been in the room several times where scientists talk about how they can outreach to the broader public, like conservatives, assuming of course that there were no conservatives in the room.

I don’t think this correlation is a logical necessity. It’s just an empirical sociological fact. And we have to deal with it in our political and policy culture. Most scientists exhibit strong domain specific in their cognitive competence, so there’s no reason to think that someone who has a strong command of molecular genetic mechanisms can therefore think cogently about global trade. But many scientists mislead themselves, assuming their powers of ratiocination are generally robust in all areas to which they put their minds. Scientists often are in fact ideally situated to be what F. A. Hayek would term Constructivists.

Oct/13

6

For the Children (Not)

IVFMuscular dystrophy is an inalienable human right (or something).

The Daily Telegraph reports:

A group of 34 European politicians, including eight British MPs and peers, has signed a declaration attacking plans which will make the UK the first country in the world to permit the new IVF technique. Under legislation being drawn up by ministers the treatment will be offered to a handful of parents at high risk of having children with conditions such as muscular dystrophy, as early as next year.

The therapy can dramatically reduce the risk of children inheriting disorders of the heart, brain and muscle which are caused by faults in the mother’s mitochondria, structures which supply power to cells. But it has proved controversial because it involves substituting a small fraction of the mother’s damaged DNA with that of a healthy female donor.

Because the swap takes place at the “germ line”, the third party’s DNA would not only be passed on to the child, but also to any future generations down the female line. The therapy was recommended to government by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority earlier this year after a public consultation revealed general support. Doctors developing the treatment have emphasised that the DNA in question lies outside the nucleus of the cell and will have no bearing on the child’s personality or appearance.

But a declaration made by members of the Council of Europe, a human rights and ethics organisation made up of politicians from across Europe [it’s rather more than that], strongly condemned the decision to permit the technique.The declaration proposed by Jim Dobbin, a British Labour MP, which compared the technique to a “eugenic practice”, was signed by 34 members of the human rights organisation’s 318-strong parliamentary assembly.

It said: “The undersigned members of the Parliamentary Assembly affirm that the creation of children with genetic material from more than two progenitor persons, as is being proposed by the United Kingdom Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, is incompatible with human dignity and international law”.

Superstition, nothing more. Well, on reflection, monumental arrogance too.

It was signed by five other Labour MPs and peers as well as Edward Leigh, a Conservative MP, and the Earl of Dundee, a hereditary peer along with politicians from twelve other nations. The declaration, in effect a statement of opinion by the signatories, does not reflect the view of the whole Council but could now become the subject of a full debate or report.

That Leigh, supposedly a conservative, believes that this is a matter for some international and unaccountable body rather than something to be decided by Britons for themselves only makes matters worse.

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May/13

27

Hmmm…

DaddJudith Potts writes in the Daily Telegraph:

One day in 2007 my late mother – then a sprightly 93 year old – said to me “I do wish these people would get off my sofa. They sit there all day and only go if I tap them on their heads or shoulders.” She and I were the only people in the room.

I was extremely alarmed when she described her “visions”. Not only were there the faceless people on her sofa but other apparitions which peppered her daily life and had been doing so for about 18 months. I suspect she decided to confide in me at that point because some of the “visions” were becoming difficult to tolerate. Up to that moment, she was terrified – not of the visions, but of losing her sanity.

Listening to her descriptions of gargoyle-like creatures evading capture, an Edwardian funeral procession – complete with plumed horses, carriages and clergy in red cassocks – and an urchin hopping from room to room, I was perplexed. I drove home pondering how to help, picking up a newspaper on the way. To my enormous surprise, the paper carried an article about exactly my mother’s experience and I learned that the condition had a name – Charles Bonnet Syndrome.
With this lucky discovery, I began to do some research and was able to reassure my mother that she was not alone – in fact it is reckoned that there might be two million people in the UK suffering from this condition….

The medical term for mum’s “visions” is Visual Hallucinations and they occur when there is partial or total loss of vision, caused by macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy or cataracts. The brain, which controls sight through the eye, fills in the blank spots with stored images. These can be from real life, from film or television, from books or radio. While these visual hallucinations tend to happen to people as they age, anyone who experiences loss of vision can be affected, even children.

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Mar/13

24

Hmmm

St FrancisPope Francis, unsurprisingly given the name he has chosen, devoted quite a bit of time to the environment in his inaugural homily.

We shall have to see whether the conclusions drawn by this reporter (for Religion News) reflect his own biases or is indeed what the pontiff does have in mind.

The pope’s homily was striking for its repeated references to environmental protection, highlighting what is likely to be a central theme of his papacy and setting up the 76-year-old pope as a leading activist against climate change.

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Jan/13

15

Gene Genie

GattacaShould people be allowed to see details of their own genetic information?

Of course.

Yet, as Reason’s Ron Bailey points out in a post linking to this article by Slate’s Virginia Hughes, “timorous and condescending bioethicists and physicians” insist on getting in the way.

Hughes notes:

The public discussion about DNA testing tends to focus on ethical dilemmas: What if doctors find that a person’s father isn’t really? Should they tell a patient about a DNA glitch if it’s only occasionally linked to disease? What if, while looking for mutations that could explain a known sickness, they stumble on others that might predict late-life dementia or indicate the presence of HIV? Would adding this data to someone’s medical record affect health insurance rates? What if—gasp—we end up with a real-life Gattaca?

These questions are worth talking about. But the genetics community and popular press spend too much time debating when and how the medical establishment should “protect” people from their children’s or their own DNA.

For example, many bioethicists argue that DNA glitches shouldn’t be disclosed if they’re ambiguous or linked to untreatable conditions. Doing so “may create unwanted psychosocial burdens on parents,” according to a commentary on newborn sequencing in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Ah yes, bioethicists.

They really are a useless, worthless bunch, philosopher-princelings and wannabe clergymen who hawk their insulting and condescending babble to a political class always looking for new reasons to tell people what not to do.

Bailey concludes:

It is way past time for 25 or so states that have restricted the right of citizens to obtain their genetic information from direct-to-consumer companies to lift their bans.

Indeed it is.

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Jan/13

1

Via Dolorosa

Locked in Syndrome Grim reading, I fear, for New Year’s Day, but the (London) Daily Mail has a report here on the evolution of the ‘Liverpool Pathway’, a National Health Service procedure which “involves withdrawal of lifesaving treatment, with the [terminally] sick sedated and usually denied nutrition and fluids. Death typically takes place within 29 hours.”

The notion that allowing someone to die—even if heavily sedated—through starvation or thirst is somehow humane is grotesque. At some level a good number of these patients know what is going on, and often they do indeed suffer.

And then there’s this:

Up to 60,000 patients die on the Liverpool Care Pathway each year without giving their consent, shocking figures revealed yesterday. A third of families are also kept in the dark when doctors withdraw lifesaving treatment from loved ones.

Despite the revelations, Jeremy Hunt last night claimed the pathway was a ‘fantastic step forward’.

So much for consent.

Naturally, anti-euthanasia vigilantes are up in arms over this news, but they would do better to ask themselves the extent to which their own pressure to keep patients alive regardless of what those patients themselves want has done to contribute the creation of this ‘pathway’.

Those opposed to empowering agonized patients to shape their own exit for themselves often talk darkly about a slippery slope. Greedy relatives, stingy governments and all that. Well, the individual being starved or dried-out to death (sometimes it seems without even the courtesy of being asked for his consent), not to speak of someone trapped in the coils of an excruciating disease from which he has no means to extricate himself, may well feel that he has already arrived at the bottom of the abyss.

Appalling. Simply appalling.

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Nov/12

20

Bad Start

The Washington Post reports:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in an interview that he isn’t certain what the age of the earth is, and that parents should be able to teach their kids both scientific and religious attempts to answer the question.

“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States,” Rubio told GQ. “I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that.”

The U.S. Geological Survey notes that scientists have estimated the earth’s age to be about 4.5 billion years old. Rubio, who identifies himself as Catholic, noted there are both faith-based and scientific theories about the earth’s beginnings. He said that he is “not sure” we will ever be able to fully answer the question of how old our planet is.

“At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all,” he added. “I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

Parents can, of course, teach their children whatever idiocy they may choose at home or in church, but as for the rest of what Rubio has to say, well…

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