Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Doing Darwin justice

It's a merry Kitzmas

Judge Jones has rendered his decision in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. Many megabytes of commentary have already hit the Web. Some good entry points to the discussion include Pharyngula, where PZ Myers has linked to other sources (both pro, especially The Questionable Authority, and con) as well as offering his own perspective, and The Panda's Thumb, where Warren Elsberry compiled an extensive overview during the entire court process. These sources are replete with informed opinions by scientists and attorneys who share their professional perspectives on the matters of science and law which Kitzmiller had to straighten out—and did.

Since my field is neither evolutionary biology nor law, I have little more than a layman's point of view on the whole matter. One thing that caught my attention, however, was the unfortunate inability of some news media to do justice to the controversy or Judge Jones's incisive opinion. The leading—or at least most visible—offender is the Associated Press, whose wire service report on Kitzmiller was widely disseminated and published by AP subscribers. AP staff writer Martha Raffaele wrote, "A federal judge ruled Tuesday that 'intelligent design' cannot be mentioned in biology classes." That is definitely not what the judge said, although the AP article provides fodder for those who want to cry "censorship" and portray themselves as martyrs in the cause of the free exchange of ideas. (I was pleased to note that some news outlets rewrote the lead paragraph when running Raffaele's article to eliminate the misleading "cannot be mentioned" phrase.)

Judge Jones ruled that intelligent design is—if you'll excuse the expression—designed to advance the religion-based notion of creationism. It thus violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution for a public school to teach it as an alternative scientific theory. In his own words, after commenting that he was not denigrating the sincerity of intelligent design proponents, Judge Jones said
Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.
Thus ID can even be discussed in a science classroom. It probably will be, too, especially in the wake of the headline news occasioned by the Kitzmiller lawsuit, but ID will not be taught as science. Because it is not. "We don't know what happened, so God did it" is not a scientific theory, even if its proponents hide God behind the phrase "intelligent cause." Burt Humburg and Ed Brayton documented with great clarity the fact that the authors of the recommended ID "science" text Of Pandas and People merely replaced the word "creationism" with the phrase "intelligent design" during the final revision of its manuscript. Science it's not.

My final comment is a celebration of Judge Jones's clear statement (on p. 71 of his decision) concerning one of the fundamentally illogical underpinnings of the antievolution crusade:
ID is at bottom premised upon a false dichotomy, namely, that to the extent evolutionary theory is discredited, ID is confirmed.
This is the exact point I stressed in The Sign of the Fraud, my earlier post on the peculiarly Holmesian approach adopted by ID advocates ("[W]hen you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth... ").

Logic is as much the enemy of ID as is science.

A screenshot of the Discovery Institute's Think Tank (a.k.a. The Amazing DembskiDozer) about to be destroyed by anti-ID panda warriors during a game of Panda-monium. The crusader pandas say "Intelligent design is an attempt by the religious right to establish a theocracy. Oh, no!" and the formally dressed panda says "Intelligent design is just creationism is a cheap tuxedo." For reasons known only to the IDists, the anti-ID pandas always win. (Perhaps it's because the keyboard controls for the Think Tank and its weapon are poorly designed.)

Monday, December 19, 2005

Why do you feel bad, whore?

Cruel to be kind

Some senior citizens have a special "phone voice" that they use during telephone conversations. Perhaps you know what I mean. My mother's phone voice is sing-songy and punctuated with little giggles; the manner is precious and a bit breathless. I suppose the special phone voice is an artifact of the days when telephone conversations were uncommon and called for more ceremony. Today, of course, cell phones are ubiquitous and telephone conversations are everyday occurrences (and seemingly 24 hours a day for some of our young people).

This is all by way of introducing Barbara McGuigan (pronounced "McWiggin") of EWTN's Open Line call-in program. McGuigan has an old school radio voice that sounds like a parody of my mother's phone voice. She anchors the Tuesday installment of Open Line, which is devoted to attacking abortion and fighting the evil pro-choice minions of Satan. She gushes over her callers, squealing with delight when they phone in to agree with her and affecting a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone if they dare dispute with her. McGuigan laughs at inappropriate moments more often than Julius Hibbert. Her closest real-life counterpart is probably the wacky Pat Robertson, who grins like a loon while denouncing various opponents as damned.

On December 6, 2005, McGuigan set her sights on the Los Angeles Times article Offering Abortion, Rebirth. With the assurance of the true believer, she repeatedly described as a liar the abortion doctor who was profiled in the article. McGuigan denounced him for saying he waived his fee for women with financial hardship, stating that this had to be untrue. It's strange how she calls him as a tool of Satan one moment and in the next moment declares that his only motivation is the money he makes from abortion fees; that's a pretty lame tool of Satan if he doesn't offer the infernal procedure under all circumstances. But logical consistency has never been one of McGuigan's strong suits. Minutes later she vigorously agreed with a caller who denounced the abortion doctor for charging money: "If he really thinks he's providing a service, he should be doing it for free!" "You are so right!" said Barbara, who knew that the doctor didn't waive his fees because she had already decided he was a liar.

The abortion doctor told the Times that during the first two trimesters he completely deferred to the woman in her judgment of her condition: "It's not a baby to me until the mother tells me it's a baby." We could argue whether the doctor's professed lack of a personal opinion is an exercise in sophistry, but McGuigan is ready to deal in certainties. Barbara stumbles, however, when she tries to raise the unassailable standard of life: "Every abortion flattens a heartbeat," observed Barbara, noting that the fetal heart begins to beat within 18 to 24 days of conception. She regarded this as a telling point, yet did not consider the obvious problem that such a criterion for "life" opens the door to birth control medications like Plan B, which prevent implantation in the womb and thus preclude there ever being a beating heart. Surely she did not mean to imply a loophole in the Catholic dogma that life begins at conception. Fortunately, she had a "brilliant" caller on the line who agreed with her.

McGuigan also helpfully embroidered the comments of the abortion doctor's clients. Where one woman was described in the Times article with the sentence "Ending her pregnancy seemed easier, she says," McGuigan smoothly changed that to "Killing her baby seemed easier, she says" as she read excerpts to her radio audience. She did not bother to admit that she had redacted the text, allowing her listeners to assume they were hearing actual quotes.

On this particular Tuesday, Barbara's prize exhibit was a caller named Charlotte, who reported that she had had an abortion as a teenager over twenty years ago, had converted to Catholicism, and was now a basket case. Charlotte was a textbook example of the pro-life approach to women who have had abortions. Now that she was Catholic, she was being made to understand that she was a murderess. Forgiven, naturally, but a murderess just the same. Strangely enough, Charlotte was having trouble gaining comfort from her new insight.

"I am drenched in guilt," Charlotte confessed. "And I think that being in the Catholic Church now has heightened my consciousness and I’ve been Catholic for three years and it’s just been—ever since then—eating and gnawing. And the guilt has grown exponentially every day that I get out of bed until I was not functioning. I had to go into counseling." Barbara was happy to point out to Charlotte that she was now washed in the blood of the lamb and surely she must realize that. Charlotte agreed that she was forgiven, but she was still acutely suffering. McGuigan cheerfully announced that all was well and dispatched her caller with a wish for continued enlightenment. It doesn't seem to me that Charlotte was particularly benefiting from the knowledge of her iniquity.

Open Line is always a happy gabfest on Tuesdays. McGuigan is generous in her praise of agreeable callers, while suffering penitents like Charlotte are jollied along and earnestly told that all is well now (even if it clearly isn't). It smacks a bit of those Protestant healing ministries where the lame and halt rise up and run to and fro in the revival tent; we don't get to see how they scramble to recover their canes and crutches after the cameras are turned off and their adrenaline rushes have faded. McGuigan isn't as skilled as the faith healers in pumping up afflicted callers like Charlotte, but she forges bravely ahead. She knows the truth and it has set her free—free to step sprightly over the shattered souls of those she has helped to understand their evil, evil ways.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Here's looking at you, kid!

Welcome to the surveillance society

So the government's been spying on us. Is anyone surprised? The president has "authorized" federal agents to spy on American citizens without benefit of warrants or sanction of congressional statute. Is anyone surprised?

Apparently some people are. My senior U.S. senator says it's "astounding." Come on, Dianne. You've had a front-row seat in Washington, D.C., for five years of the most corrupt administration since Richard Nixon's. While Nixon was the chief executive who actually said, "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal," it's George W. Bush who really took it to heart. American citizens have languished in prison for years without even being charged—let alone tried—for crimes real or imagined. Prisoners of "war" (there's been no congressional declaration of war, by the way) have been incarcerated and tortured with complete disregard for the Geneva conventions to which the U.S. is a signatory. Just as federal law apparently doesn't restrict what the administration can do at home, international treaties don't restrict what the administration can do abroad. We have become a form of despotism, under the rule of a man (and his minions or controllers) rather than under the rule of law.

These big issues have come front and center during the controversy over reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which is fortunately stalled for the time being in the U.S. Senate. (Thank you, Russ Feingold!) On the national stage we will see it played out, and patriotic Americans should be contacting their Senators and Representatives to demand a rollback of the act's more pernicious intrusions into personal privacy, especially any provision that allows federal agents to forgo the acquisition of a search warrant. (For those of you who haven't paid any attention to the U.S. Constitution since the Bush administration declared it inoperative, don't forget that the Fourth Amendment specifically says, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." That's the entire amendment. Do you see any clause saying "unless the president disagrees"?)

The Patriot Act is currently under attack by an unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans who fear the aggregation of unrestricted power by federal authorities to interfere in the private lives of Americans. Given Bush's damaged public standing in the wake of the Iraqi misadventure, indictments of political allies and White House aides, and revelations of paid propaganda efforts both domestic and foreign, it may be the ideal moment to clip his wings. That would set the stage for a three-year lame-duck period until he can be evicted from the White House to make way for a more responsible chief executive (which at this stage would be almost anyone else). We might even hope that the 2006 mid-term elections will cost Bush the complaisant congressional majorities that normally wink at his depredations. That might check—or even force into retreat—the president's reign of error.

In the meantime, we must be eternally vigilant against further abuses of our civil rights. A rollback of the so-called Patriot Act is overdue.

All politics is local

Many people seem to take comfort in the mindless adage "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." By definition, most of us constitute the "faceless masses" of the population and may feel secure in our anonymity. This position is not tenable.

While it is difficult to forecast when the tipping point will occur, we see every day that daily life is increasingly under routine scrutiny. Orwell's 1984 was clearly fiction because there was no way imaginable in which Big Brother really could be watching every individual's private life, but Orwell was writing his dystopian fantasy in the era before the rise of electronic surveillance. All large metropolitan areas and most mid-sized cities are festooned with webcams. You are captured on video every time you go downtown. Or pass through an airport. Or visit an automatic teller machine (which, of course, is also recording your transaction electronically, as indeed it must).

Our privacy is protected only to the extent that it is not yet possible to integrate all of our electronic spoor into individual profiles. We don't need much imagination, however, to visualize how well our financial institutions know us and to grasp how completely our lives could be characterized if our credit card transactions were matched with our appearances on surveillance cams, our library acquisitions, our magazine subscriptions, our website visits, and our political contributions. As an ACLU member who contributed to Clinton, Dean, Kerry, Boxer, and Hackett, I probably already qualify for residence at Guantánamo. Once computer programs learn to parse video and recognize faces, we could all have dossiers as detailed as those J. Edgar Hoover used to collect on the disfavored few. Imagine how helpful those could be to people who want to sell you stuff, discredit you, or harass you.

I don't think we can reasonably expect to reverse the trend toward greater availability of personal information on-line. How artfully could laws be drafted to retard the growth of on-line databases and what enforcement mechanisms would be required to make them effective (and would the medicine be worse than the illness)? Cameras will proliferate. Databases will grow. Network connections will increase. It's too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Perhaps prevention would have been nice, but that needed to happen yesterday. And it didn't.

I think we have to take a different tack. We need to be ready to punish the abusers of personal information. It won't be an easy task. Our progress toward the protection of personal privacy has been minimal, hampered by an administration that does not even recognize the notion of personal privacy (after all, the word "privacy" is not in the constitution) and the reluctance of elected officials to interfere with the lucrative information market. Yet it can be done. One small victory is the national "do not call" list, which requires telemarketers to refrain from intruding on the household serenity of those who put their names on the list. That seems like a small thing, perhaps, but it's an example of the kind of legislation that can be enacted when people become aggravated by constant disturbances.

The next steps will require legislators to enact condign penalties for those who use our personal information in ways contrary to our best interests or wishes. Think about the difficulties. There are civil liberty implications. Can we avoid infringing on free-speech rights? (Some claim the do-not-call lists infringe on the free-speech rights of marketing operations, but that argument has not proved to be very robust.) What would constitute improper use of personal information? Definitions must be crafted and balanced against competing interests. Penalties for infringement must be proportionate. We are at the very beginning of the discussion, but we would be well advised to get started now, while the window of opportunity is still open.

A couple of resources

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is one of the leading voices in the debate over personal freedom in cyberspace. Its website regularly reports on corporate and governmental abuses and intrusions. The foundation's new blogger rights program is dedicated to ensuring free speech rights for the independent voices that speak up in the on-line world. Keep an eye on the EFF site to stay informed on what's happening out on the electronic frontier.

For people who find the EFF to be insufficiently pure and too willing to compromise, the on-line journal The Register may be more to your taste. Based in the United Kingdom, The Register's banner carries the motto, "Biting the hand that feeds IT." Go visit its website for biting rants and amusing items like "Do webcams break when Tony Blair walks by?" (It appears that they do.)

And wherever you are, don't forget to keep abreast of the positions your local politicians take on privacy issues. If your city council votes for more surveillance cameras, where will they be placed, who will have access to the video, how will the information be used, and what penalties will be imposed on those who violate the rules governing and restricting said information? The genie is out of the bottle, so it's already getting late to be thinking about the rules we want to follow when we wish for a safe and secure society. The price may be higher than you think.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The twelve o'clock scholar

False starts
A dillar, a dollar
A ten o'clock scholar
Why do you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o'clock
But now you come at noon
The fall semester is over and it's time to file the grades. As a diligent pedagogue, I always make a point of checking that my grade spreadsheets accurately represent the handwritten records in my gradebook. Once again, I see an unmistakable pattern. Eight of my students' names were originally entered into my gradebook by hand because they did not appear on the original print-out. They were neither pre-enrolled nor on the official waiting list on the first day of class.

Seven of the eight students are gone. The one survivor squeaked by with a C. The others dropped the course (or I ended up dropping them for nonattendance). The moral is clear: It's a waste of time to add "walk in" students to your roster. If they didn't have their act together sufficiently to register before the beginning of the semester (or at least get on the waiting list for classes that are fully enrolled), they aren't going to pass.

If anything, my gradebook understates the magnitude of the problem. As a rule, I do not take a student's name the first day he or she happens to show up. Instead I give each one an enrollment card to fill out and tell the student to bring it to the next class session. Often I never see them again. Absent the instant gratification of an add-slip signed by the instructor, the student goes searching for more immediate rewards. No doubt this simple mechanism is sparing me from quite a number of foredoomed students, although I don't like stating it this way. It just seems to be the truth.

Perhaps I should have a short informational handout for next semester's late arrivals. Will it do any good? Only if they're able to learn a lesson from printed material, and I'm afraid the evidence for that is slender. In any case, here goes:

Dear prospective student:

Thank you for inquiring about openings in my math class. You are welcome to add your name to the "late add" list tomorrow if you fill out and bring back the student information card I gave you. If you had remembered to bring a pen or pencil, you might even have filled it out today.

No, I will not sign an add-slip for you today. I understand you think this is an urgent matter, but in that case you should have signed up for the class in advance. If this class is full, you could have added your name to the waiting list even before the semester began. We can put up to twenty names on the waiting list and there was room for yours, but we did not see you till today.

I'm sorry you think it's unfair that we begin our semester earlier than other colleges. We are an open-admission community college and we have a longer semester than the limited-admission state university. That's why we start earlier. For that matter, the university doesn't even offer the courses that you need, while we can even instruct you in the high school courses that you shirked.

Thank you for informing me that you're going to work really hard and do really well if I let you into this class. Such a result would be contrary to the bulk of the evidence I have seen in my years as a teacher, yet hope springs eternal.


Dr. Z

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The time of red and green

Not what you think

Colors carry associations, reminding people of different events or occasions. Red and green carry some particularly idiosyncratic associations for me, and I'm not talking about the traditional season of Yuletide. It's a weird story, which some people have difficulty crediting, but I swear it's as true as my recollection allows. In this instance, my recollection is vivid.

I was in high school in the sixties. The sixties are remembered today (with some admitted difficulty by many who lived through them) as a period of dramatic change. It was a time of transition and social upheaval. One small aspect of this upheaval took place in my hometown in central California, when revolution struck the high school P.E. department.

The ancien régime that ruled over high school physical education classes embodied a perfect caste system. The coaches operated a tracking system that classified people by physical attainments, not grade level. Twice a year (as I recall) we went through the humbling, sometimes humiliating, ranking process. The coaches eagerly put us through our paces, winnowing each new crop of students, separating the wheat from the chaff. As the scores in various physical tests were tallied, our fates were determined for the balance of the school term. And our fates were embodied in a visible emblem: the color of our gym trunks.

The color line

The students in our P.E. classes were assigned colors to represent the height (or depth) of our physical fitness. Red was a kind of least denominator classification. Everyone started with red trunks. The optimistic boys would get only a single pair, knowing they wouldn't have time to wear them out before ascending to the next level. Blue trunks signified that one had outstripped the mundane and risen above the crowd. Blue was a sign of distinction. Still, blue represented the minor nobility in our feudal society. Gold trunks were more desirable. Gold showed that you had really arrived and had achieved a level of athletic performance that would qualify you as coach's pet. Would qualify you. If the position had not already been filled.

The real coach's pets wore white satin trunks. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. White satin. These boys were the ne plus ultra of high school P.E. The white satin boys shared a few essential characteristics. For one thing, they did not know how to operate a T-shirt. Yes, T-shirts were part of the standard P.E. uniform, but white satin boys evidently could not figure out how to put them on. The coaches kindly looked the other way. (Actually, some of the coaches didn't look the other way at all, but let's not read too much into that, shall we?) The white satin boys had impaired vision, too, because they kept bumping into other P.E. students. I suspect their hearing was bad also, since they never reacted to the angry cries from those they knocked down. Naturally I was often perplexed that such fine physical specimens were impaired in so many of their senses. (I was not, however, in the least bit surprised that none of them were in my college prep courses, although I imagine some of them ended up in college anyway via the athletic scholarship route.)

Our P.E. rainbow was not limited to the red-blue-gold-white satin spectrum. There was also green. Green happened to be one of our school colors, but green was not a happy color in P.E. Rather, green was used to signify those who were not even worthy of the lowly red. That's right. There were certain minimum qualifications during the classification trials if one was going to be permitted to retain the generic red trunks. If you failed, you were required to suit out in green. This was exceedingly efficient, as it made it all too apparent which boys were available for recreational abuse. If a green complained to a coach, the coach would patiently explain to the green why it was the green's fault for getting in the way of a physically fit student (who might have been running, or jumping, or swinging his fist, for example).

Lest you feel pangs of sympathy for me, intuiting that I know the green experience myself, let me disabuse you. I never dropped below red. Sure, I was a nerd rather than a jock (those terms weren't much used yet), but I was a country boy who routinely wrangled hay bales on a dairy farm to feed a couple hundred head of milk cattle. (Those bales outweighed me in those days.) I could do the pull-ups, sit-ups, etcetera, necessary to hang on to my red rank. In fact, I hit blue on a couple of categories and managed white satin status on the bar hang (though what an ability to hang inert from a bar really has to do with fitness, I don't know; sure was good at it, though). That was handy because a couple of blue scores could be used to cancel a couple of green scores (I couldn't do a bar-dip to save my life) and retain red status.

Bastille Day

The end came abruptly in my junior year. The color system was suddenly scrapped and replaced with a class system. Students now took freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior physical education. I'm not sure how it came to pass, but it was a happy moment for the reds and greens. Whether the principal or the school board was the driving force, I cannot say, but whoever it was also decreed a new standard for our P.E. uniforms. Everyone was henceforth to wear green. It was, after all, one of the school colors.

The P.E. coaches were broken men after the color line was shattered. No doubt my memory exaggerates this aspect. After all, I had few sympathies for the coaches and actually disdained most of them (the ones with highly convex beer guts hanging over the waistbands of their gym shorts). The elite corps of white satin boys was gone, either blended into the new polyglot classes (no doubt with remedial training in the operation of T-shirts) or institutionalized for treatment of anxiety disorders. High school physical education became a less stressful hour of the day (although I still would have preferred to do without it) and it was interesting the degree to which the greens were able to vanish into the ranks of the general population. With rare exceptions, there were no dramatically clumsy standouts that reminded us daily of their green status in previous semesters. And for those few exceptions, there was no longer any point in denouncing them as "greens", for that's what all of us were wearing now. A glorious new age of égalité had begun.

I still hated P.E. though.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


Choosing the right targets

I have heard it said that anti-Catholicism is the last socially acceptable form of prejudice. Apparently, these days, the society that socially "accepts" anti-Catholicism is the community of the political left, since liberals are the quickest to criticize Church positions on abortion, birth control, and gay rights. Funny. Anti-Catholicism used to be the special province of the right-wing Christian, who supposedly abhorred popery and its attendant superstitions (as if conservative Protestant Christianity were a rational response to such foolishness). Today the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has largely made common cause with fundamentalist and evangelical Christian sects in their united front against reproductive rights and equality for gays. Perhaps people on both sides of this awkward marriage of convenience are content, at least for now, to mutter under their breath that the other side will surely burn in hell. But issues like eternity can wait till Roe v. Wade is overturned.

It seems like only yesterday that great works of anti-Catholic pseudo-scholarship were produced by Protestant polemicists. The famous tome Roman Catholicism by Loraine Boettner was published in 1962. Despite Boettner's unfortunate fate of releasing the definitive attack on the Catholic Church just before its upheavals of the Second Vatican Council, his book nevertheless became a primary source (both credited and uncredited) for later writers who wanted to take on Rome. To get the proper flavor for Boettner's charming ability to meld profound ignorance with sublime over-confidence, there is no better example than his incisive dissection of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Boettner knows that papal infallibility is supposed to occur in the pope's ex cathedra declarations on matters of doctrine or morals. Boettner knows that ex cathedra literally means "from the chair"; in this instance, it specifically means from the chair of Peter, the leader of the original twelve apostles who is recognized as the first pope ("I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" Matt. 16:19) of the Roman Catholic Church. Boettner therefore takes the trouble to insert a scholarly footnote reporting that a Vatican chair traditionally called "the chair of St. Peter" has been scientifically dated to no earlier than the ninth century. Poor pope! How can he issue infallible pronouncements if he doesn't have the right chair to sit on?

Now Boettner has more substantive biblical arguments to marshal against the doctrine of infallibility, but he takes another pratfall at the end of his discourse when he quotes at length an anti-infallibility speech spuriously attributed to a bishop at the First Vatican Council (where infallibility was given its definitive doctrinal form). Boettner was much more successful at demonstrating his own lack of infallibility than in undermining Rome's rationale for the teaching authority of the pope.

Anti-Catholicism today

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is an organization that serves as a watchdog for anti-Catholic bigotry. That sounds like a worthwhile mission. Somewhere along the way, however, the Catholic League seems to have decided that even Catholics can be anti-Catholic when they do not sufficiently adhere to the League's preferred standards of Catholicism. The Catholic League issues an endless stream of press releases quoting its president, Bill Donohue, the sort of Catholic toward whom I am happy to be anti. Donohue does not like fellow Catholic John Kerry and attacked him constantly during the presidential election. Donohue does not like gay rights, abortion, or contraception. That's all right. He's simply being faithful to Church doctrine on those issues.

Donohue does, however, have a fondness for painting as anti-Catholicism any action that goes against Church doctrine. Or his personal political preferences. Donohue's targets over the past year include Howard Dean (by saying the Republican Party is a "white Christian" party he's insulting Christians and driving them out of the Democratic Party), critics of the Church's handling of the priestly pedophilia crisis (it's not pedophilia, it's gays in the priesthood!), opponents of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance (Donohue wants civil disobedience against any ruling barring the invocation of God during a civic exercise), NPR (for reporting concerns that Alito would be the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court if confirmed), and Wal-Mart (its employees aren't saying "Merry Christmas"). He's not happy at living in a secular society and is an eager combatant in the phony "war on Christmas." He was especially upset that President Bush did not send out an explicitly Christian greeting card for Christmas. The issuance of a White House "Happy Holidays" card alienated Donohue from the president he has supported most assiduously in the past. On ABC World News Tonight, Donohue said, "We know him as a man of courage. So why is he caving in to the forces of political correctness?" Donohue went on to say that he would expect even a Jewish president to send out "Merry Christmas" cards. Perhaps he thinks Christmas is secularized enough that even non-Christians should be happily worshipping baby Jesus.

Speaking of Jesus, Donohue was pinned down by Miles O'Brien on CNN's American Morning, who asked him how the Christian savior would have reacted to the White House holiday card. In the transcript for the December 8, 2005, broadcast, O'Brien says, "What if Jesus got this card? What would he do? Would he be angry about it? He'd be okay with it, wouldn't he?

Donohue replies, "Well, maybe he would, but I've never met him."

Amen, brother.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

When the truth is a lie

Denotation vs. connotation

cel·i·ba·cy: noun
1: the state of not being married
2 a: abstention from sexual intercourse b: abstention by vow from marriage

es·trange: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): es·tranged; es·trang·ing
1: to remove from customary environment or associations
2: to arouse especially mutual enmity or indifference in where there had formerly been love, affection, or friendliness: ALIENATE

Languages are plastic. The meanings of words evolve. Yesterday's mistakes become today's accepted alternatives and tomorrow's preferences. I am a language usage conservative, but I understand and accept that living languages will inevitably change and adapt with time, even if I don't like it.

A curious aspect of language evolution is the creation of windows of opportunity for those who wish to exploit the transitional forms of certain words. Did you know that the original—and still primary, according to Merriam-Webster—meaning of celibacy is "unmarried"? However, celibacy is traditionally associated with chastity, the practice of refraining from sexual relations, probably because unmarried (and presumably chaste) clerics have long been the primary example of celibates. The secondary meaning of celibacy is probably, for most people today, the primary meaning. Think about it. If someone says, "I'm celibate," how would you interpret that? I rest my case.

I was reminded of the evolution of celibacy into its current usage while contemplating recent news out of the Vatican. (See Pox vobiscum.) While thinking about words that now carry connotations outweighing their formal denotations, I remembered a particular abuse that was repeatedly and irksomely brought to my attention during the controversy over Terri Schiavo. The case attained some notoriety and became a cause célèbre in the anti-abortion and right-to-life community. With great regularity, many of those protesting the court-supported decision of Michael Schiavo to discontinue his wife's nourishment via surgically implanted feeding tube referred to him as Terri's "estranged husband." The clear implication was that his relationship to his wife was damaged to the point that it was no longer appropriate for him to be making life-and-death decisions on her behalf, although the courts had repeatedly recognized his right to do so.

What does estranged mean? Strictly speaking, it means "to remove from customary environment or associations." Over the years, of course, it has picked up the additional implication of hostility or active disagreement. Merriam-Webster now gives this as a secondary meaning (as indicated in the definition quoted above), but some sources have now given primacy to the disputatious meaning of estranged. Under the circumstances of the case, there was no way in which Michael and Terri Schiavo could have been said to be fighting or disagreeing with each other, although Terri's parents and other family members were indeed in bitter dispute with Michael. The real reason that people used "estranged husband" to refer to Michael was to discredit him and impute hostility to his actions. This description of Terri's husband was used over and over again on the local Catholic radio station.

I think this was a dishonest usage, for all that the users could have turned to traditional dictionary definitions to argue the innocence of their intent and the accuracy of their description. When a word is heavily freighted with negative connotations, those who use it are responsible for introducing those factors into the debate. It's a reprehensible practice, but not a new one. Sometimes it is easier to lie when you're willing to misappropriate the truth.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Pox vobiscum

And also on you

Dear Lord, they're at it again. I am already on record in support of the notion that Roman Catholicism is the authentic version of Christianity and that all of the other sects are cheap knock-offs. I am not, however, blind to the remarkable foibles of the "one true Church." Problems arise pretty much every time the Vatican has to face some developing circumstance that outpaces its geriatric ability to respond. It happened with the Crusades ("We know God is on our side, so eventually we're going to win, right?"), it happened with the Protestant Reformation ("Geez, your Holiness, do you think we should reform before someone else does it without us?"), it happened with Galileo ("The Bible says the sun goes around the earth, right?"), it happened with Vatican I ("Modernism questions the authority of the Church, so let's get in its face and declare our authority infallible!"), and it happened with Vatican II ("Jesus Christ, the people are taking Church reform seriously! Hit the brakes!"). Now it's happening with gay men in the priesthood.

We are all shocked (shocked!), of course, to learn that Catholic priests are perhaps gay in greater proportion than in the general population. For some reason, young gay men appeared to be drawn into an all-male environment where everyone wore dresses and no one was allowed to date or marry women. Surely no one could have anticipated this.

It's easy to offer cheap shots at the Church's expense, so let me take a moment to stipulate a few items. Membership in the Church is voluntary these days, conversion at the point of a sword having been abandoned quite some time ago (which some octogenarians in Rome must fondly refer to as "the good old days"). Hence anyone in the Church's ranks can be regarded as having given at least tacit consent to its policies. Furthermore, like any other organization, the Church has a right to make its own internal rules as it sees fit. (As an aside, I'll mention everyone has a right to fight Church policies whenever they—as they so often do—intrude on the rights of the external society.) To this extent, therefore, I accept that the Church's rules are its own business and no particular concern of mine.

My comments are those of an interested observer, an observer who sees the trustees of his cradle creed in the process of taking another embarrassing tumble. The Vatican has issued a formal policy document (Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations With Regard to Persons With Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Sacred Orders) on whether gays can be members of the Roman Catholic priesthood. While it is certainly late in the day to be addressing this issue, the Church gets to decide what the qualifications are for its priesthood. For centuries the main rules have involved the possession of a penis and the avoidance of its use (except for excretory purposes, naturally). Priests must be men who neither marry nor engage in sexual activity. If these are the rules, then it seems rather pointless to fuss over the sexual orientations of those who aren't supposed to be engaging in any sex anyway. Rome should cheerfully defrock those clerics who violate their vows of chastity, whether immorally with other consenting adults or criminally with minors (the latter also to be subject to prosecution by civil authorities, of course). Orientation is moot. Problem solved!

But that would be too simple and fails to underscore Rome's deep abhorrence of homosexuality (especially in men, of course, since women have long been relegated to second-class citizenship in the patriarchal Church). Instead, however, the Vatican has taken a position that is confusing members of its own hierarchy. They can't even agree whether gays are now banned from the priesthood. The Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., said, "Conservatives will be able to interpret this statement as saying that all gays should be thrown out of seminaries. Or other bishops can interpret it as saying that homosexuals still can be ordained, if they're ready for a celibate life." Of course, if the second interpretation becomes dominant, then the new instruction from the Vatican is nothing but a restatement of current practice. Did Rome mean to maintain the status quo? Permit me to doubt this.

As Father Reese also pointed out in his comments on the Vatican instruction, the document is a relic of an earlier age. It uses old-fashioned terms like "homosexual tendencies" and talks about admitting to the seminary only those men who have "clearly overcome" those tendencies for at least three years. Perhaps "ex-gay" Catholics from the ranks of Exodus International are just what the Vatican ordered (except that so many of them are already in heterosexual marriages to "prove" their conversion to straightness).

What is the Church trying to prove with this new (if uncertain) assault on gay priests and potential gay seminarians? In some quarters, the Vatican instruction is being touted as a bold response to the child molestation scandals that came to light in recent years and have cost the Church dearly in honor, credibility, and cash. If that is indeed Rome's intent, then once again the Church's instincts have played it false. The molestation scandals involved criminal acts involving minors of all ages and both sexes. Most of the victims were boys, but then boys are generally more accessible to priests than girls. To turn it into a primarily "gay" scandal is to miss the essential point of abuse of authority and failure to adhere to the responsibilities that adults have relative to children. Many U.S. bishops and Vatican authorities were unmasked as deficient shepherds of their flocks when they preferred to hide molester priests rather than disciplining and dismissing them. The new instruction on gays in the priesthood is not going to raise the quality of seminarians, but it does pander to some of the Church's worst tendencies in language that reveals a persistent misunderstanding of the nature of sexual orientation. Yes, it's happening again.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

John Murtha the Bellwether

Nixon in 1974

Many news stories dutifully report that Representative John Murtha (D-PA) was first elected to Congress in 1974. I have not seen any reports, however, that provide much context for that fact, using it instead as mere background for today's news about Murtha's surprising role as a vociferous "peace hawk." The youngsters among us can be forgiven for not recalling the circumstances, but 1974 should resonate in the minds of middle-aged Americans. There are lessons for 2005.

The Vietnam War was by no means over at the beginning of 1974, although the fragile Paris Peace Accords were in place, U.S. POWs had been released, and President Richard Nixon was hoping to wind down American involvement in a dignified manner (as opposed to the actual rout over which the hapless Gerald Ford presided in spring of the following year). The longtime representative in Pennsylvania's 12th district had died in office and a special election was being held on February 5. Democrat John Murtha of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives jumped into the race, which would result in his becoming the first Vietnam veteran in the U.S. House of Representatives. His opponent was Republican Harry Fox (the administrative assistant to the late congressman from that district).

Fox found himself saddled with a highly questionable campaign asset. President Nixon was under threat of impeachment for the Watergate scandals (wiretapping, hush money, obstruction of justice, perjury, etc.) and had not reaped the hoped-for political benefit of the quasi-peace in Vietnam. Senator Sam Ervin had presided over devastating hearings on Capitol Hill where former presidential counsel John Dean had described his "cancer on the presidency" conversation with Nixon and White House aide Alexander Butterfield had revealed the existence of the corroborating White House tapes, which the U.S. Supreme Court later forced Nixon to turn over to the Watergate special prosecutor. Nixon was eager to promote Fox's campaign in the hopes that a Republican victory would strengthen his hand and demonstrate his continued political viability. Since the president himself was damaged goods, he dispatched Vice President Ford to the 12th District.

In a news segment on CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite reported that Murtha was avoiding making the special election a referendum on Nixon and Watergate while Fox was eager to depict Watergate as a locally irrelevant obsession of the national media. Nevertheless, the broader significance of the contest was widely recognized and Murtha's narrow victory was interpreted as yet another defeat for the beleaguered president. A month later it happened again in Michigan, when a Republican congressional district changed hands to the Democrats in yet another special election (Thomas Luken vs. Willis Gradison), but Murtha's victory was the first to highlight Nixon's vulnerability.

Now Congressman Murtha is taking on another damaged Republican president, although this time his assault is direct rather than incidental. With both houses of Congress in Republican hands, George W. Bush is in no significant danger of impeachment, but other parallels are more striking. The current Bush administration is increasingly seen as the most dishonest since Nixon's, the president himself widely denounced for misleading the public and members of Congress.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Bush is seen as a liar, as Nixon was before him. Bush's approval ratings are contending with Nixon's for the record low. A special prosecutor is chipping away at the president's White House staff and scandals abound in every quarter. Nixon's included illegal campaign funds, the criminal gang known as the White House plumbers, and disinformation attacks on political opponents. Bush's include smaller transgressions—such as turning scientific reports into propaganda—and greater ones, such as distorting military intelligence, cronyism involving incompetence: FEMA, Homeland Security, and the planning and overseeing of the war in Iraq. John Murtha has just made it impossible for Bush's defenders to paint all war opponents with the broad brush of anti-military liberalism. Murtha is a staunch military supporter who knows failure when he sees it. Though some of the sleazier GOP lifeforms slithered out from under their rocks to denounce Murtha as a treasonous leftwinger, the president himself soon felt obligated to distance his administration from those ridiculous charges. Bush found himself in the position of saying nice things about the man who dramatically turned the issue of the Iraq war against him.

The Republican Party has had a long, happy ride during its years of ascendancy. However, the glorious victory of 2004 may have been a last gasp rather than a new lease on life. The Bush administration has become a millstone around the party's neck, dragging the GOP toward a debacle like the 1974 general election, after which the Democratic majorities had grown to 61 versus 37 in the U.S. Senate (2 were independent) and 291 versus 144 in the U.S. House. (Observe that 61 votes in the Senate is more than enough to invoke cloture on a filibuster without extralegal maneuvers and lacks only six votes of being able to convict on a bill of impeachment.) Of course, these days Democrats are in the minority in both houses. The task in 2006 is to gain new majorities, not augment existing ones. Should Democrats get their act together rather than merely rely on Bush's continued stumbling and bumbling (and I wish I were more confident that that will occur), in 2007 we could have Bush cornered and stymied by new Democratic leadership in the House and Senate. There's a consummation devoutly to be wished, since a president without his current congressional wrecking crew would at least be limited in the further damage he could do. In particular, a Democratic Senate could put brakes on Bush's attempt to pack the courts with rightwing ideologues.

I doubt that Bush's administration will unravel to the degree that Nixon's did. Back in 1974, everyone thought of Nixon as the sly mastermind behind the White House chicanery. Today more people are likely to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, regarding him as a false front for the monied interests who bankrolled his ascension into power. President Bush is likely to remain in office until his successor takes over in January 2009, a date still disappointingly far in the future. Bush's tenure would likely be cut short only if it were discovered that he was a driving force behind the lies and distortions spoken in his name rather than merely Cheney's Charlie McCarthy. But what would be the benefit of that? Instead of the dummy, we would then be stuck with the ventriloquist. Does anyone think President Cheney would be an improvement over President Bush?

However, it does occur to one to speculate that Cheney's health would not be equal to the onerous burdens of the chief executive's office. Perhaps he would have to reluctantly stand aside. The next in line to the presidency is the speaker of the house. Right now the speaker is the unremarked and unremarkable Dennis Hastert, but that could change after 2006.

President Pelosi? Perhaps you read it first here.

Update: If this is the first place you saw the words "President Pelosi" side by side, you don't get around enough. Randi Rhodes and Daily Kos, among others, beat me by a mile. Check out this Google search.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Richard Socarides is still gay

Physician, heel!

NARTH is always good for a laugh, but not the funny kind. Derision is more appropriate. NARTH is the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. Its leadership consists of psychologists and psychiatrists still disgruntled that their professional organizations (the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association) no longer regard homosexuality as a mental disorder. NARTH is therefore a haven for the last of the hardcore "reparative therapists" who claim they can "straighten out" homosexuality. These practitioners provide a veneer of respectability to such operations as Exodus International, which describes itself as a ministry to those "who want to recover from homosexuality." (By the way, the ex-gay founders of Exodus International fell in love with each other and became ex-ex-gay, but that story is not featured in Exodus literature.)

Dr. Charles Socarides, M.D., is one of the grand old men of reparative therapy. A co-founder of NARTH, Socarides bills himself an advocate of homosexuals, defending their civil rights even as he works to wipe them out. Of course, he intends merely to show his clients the path to a thoroughly normal heterosexual lifestyle, so it's no wonder he thinks of himself as the homosexual's friend. Socarides recently published A Freedom too Far, in which he argues that academia and medicine have been politicized to the point that it is now difficult to speak honestly about sexual orientation. Socarides is particularly disturbed that same-sex orientation is now seen as a normal variation, like being right- or left-handed. The NARTH blurb for his book observes that Socarides adamantly denies that people are born gay:
He knows that the seeds of his patients' homosexual orientation were planted in their earliest years, usually before the age of three, and their appropriate gender-defined self identity impaired as the result of early family relationships.

We have all heard this before, of course. It's the classic explanation for why boys "turn" gay. Mommy smothers them and Daddy ignores them. (The geniuses who came up with this diagnosis never seemed to consider which was cause and which was effect. Boys may be rejected by their fathers in consequence of their being perceived as gay, rather than "becoming" gay because they are rejected.) In any case, Socarides is certain that the dysfunctional family constellation is the locus of homosexual orientation in children. And he knows how to fix it!

I gave away my punch line in the title of this entry. Dr. Socarides has a gay son. His name is Richard and he served during the Clinton years as the administration's liaison to the gay community. As you might imagine, relations are somewhat strained between père and fils. Perhaps it would be impolite, but nevertheless still appropriate, to ask the good doctor how much he neglected his son during Richard's childhood. What's more, why didn't the great expert diagnose and cure the condition?

Shades of Kinsey gray

Beating up on Charles Socarides is too easy. While some of the so-called reparative therapists are no better than charlatans, Dr. Socarides appears to be entirely serious and sincere. Is he simply so self-deluded that even the existence of his gay son has not managed to disabuse him? I think we can make a more constructive point than merely dismissing Dr. Socarides as a fool, although I admit that's tempting.

Reparative therapists have some telling evidence to support their claim that homosexuals can become heterosexuals. After all, to deny this is to deny the existence of the many ex-gays who belong to Exodus International and similar organizations. These people are telling us forthrightly that they used to be gay and now they are straight. Are all of them wrong?

Sort of.

In many cases, the supposed ex-gays are just fooling themselves. Some are desperate to conform to the anti-gay tenets of a religion or to please their families. But I doubt that this describes all ex-gays. Since sexual orientation is complex, it seems to me that humanity must contain some interesting variations. These may suffice to provide the examples that Socarides and others stake their reputations on.

When Kinsey shocked the delicate sensibilities of Americans with his published research on human sexuality, he acknowledged the complexity of orientation by promulgating his famous Kinsey scale. The purely heterosexual individual is 0 on the Kinsey scale and the pure homosexual is 6. An ambisexual person with exactly equal attraction to males and females would therefore be a Kinsey 3. Some people doubt that 3's even exist, perhaps because it's a commonplace of "coming out" literature how gay people may style themselves as "bi" before 'fessing up to actually being gay. But I see no reason to doubt that there are people in all categories on the Kinsey scale.

As with any numerical measure, the Kinsey scale may mislead by suggesting that something as complex as sexual orientation may be precisely gauged by a single number. How many decimal places should we strive for? Nevertheless, the scale is a useful starting point. Let's say you're an unhappy 4. You wish you were a 0. Your family offers to pay for treatment and ships you off to some treatment facility. Let's assume that the personnel at said facility are not complete wackos. (Unfortunately, there are entirely too many examples where outright loons run the operation.) Remember, you're a couple of Kinsey points away from being 100% gay, so with motivation you might be able to find the inner heterosexual. Who knows, you might even suppress your dominant gay side to the degree that you start to think of yourself as straight. With a little creative visualization in your head, your body might be able to act out the straight role. Hurray! You're cured!

No, you're not. You've just learned to express a different component of your sexuality. It's not really a conversion. Perhaps a Kinsey 3 or 4 could act out the straight role indefinitely, but only at the cost of denying a major component of his or her makeup. A 5 or 6 would truly be acting out a charade. The prize specimen would be a Kinsey 1 or 2 who was panicked by the occasional gay stimulus into seeking treatment. You'd expect that they would be the heralded longterm success stories that NARTH would never tire of telling.

Still, it's curious how fragile the ex-gays seem to be. Johan Paulk of Love Won Out fell off the wagon pretty badly when he was found hanging out in a District of Columbia gay bar. He said he just needed to use the rest room, which I think we may agree is a less than compelling explanation. Despite my discussion of the shades of Kinsey gray which characterize our proclivities, I do believe that we do cluster rather dramatically at the two ends of the scale. While human sexuality is diverse enough and just, perhaps, plastic enough to cover the entire range and allow a certain measure of individual relocation within the spectrum, NARTH and Exodus are sadly fooling themselves and others when they contend that it's really a choice. There are none so blind as those who will not see.


Dr. Charles Socarides died on December 25, 2005, of heart failure. He was 83.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Church of the Null Hypothesis

All things being equal

The concept of null hypothesis is a stumbling block to many statistics students. Perhaps people resist the notion of null hypothesis because it is the opposite of what they expect. The null hypothesis merely states that nothing special is going on. One proves that something significant is occurring by rejecting the null hypothesis. That is, we demonstrate that something is happening by rejecting the hypothesis that nothing is occurring. Talk about bending over backward!

The null hypothesis deserves more respect than it gets. I believe most of us have a mindset that neglects the contingent nature of existence. This bias toward meaningfulness causes people like Carl Jung to confuse random coincidence with significant synchronicity. Instead of postulating some weird "alignment" of universal forces, why couldn't Jung accept that in a lifetime of occurrences some coincidences would be more startling and remarkable than others? We do, after all, reside in an environment loaded with circumstance. Every day we have thousands of thoughts, meet dozens (hundreds?) of people, see tens of thousands of images, read hundreds (thousands?) of words, and make innumerable choices. Such a combinatorial plethora is all but certain to generate (at thoroughly unpredictable intervals) the occasionally startling coincidence. The startling coincidence will have just "happened" and will have neither significance nor meaning.

Perhaps this point of view is disappointing or even unacceptable to those who prefer to cherish coincidences and endow them with Jungian significance. For those who can't let go of the idea that such occurrences have to mean something, we can ask what happened to the random outcomes. Do they not occur? Are there truly no coincidences? Or is there a moderate position that declares some occurrences are significant and some are not? In this case, how can we tell the difference? And if we can't, how meaningful can the difference be?

The null hypothesis is more than a simple statement that nothing is going on. Its role in statistics is to provide a neutral baseline from which alternative hypotheses are evaluated. For example, suppose you are responsible for testing the claim that a new drug is efficacious. Naturally, the null hypothesis would be that the new drug makes no difference. You conduct a series of drug trials and find that those patients who received the drug did slightly better than those who received a placebo. How do you decide that the improvement was large enough to be meaningful? You return to the null hypothesis, the claim that there is no effect, and calculate the probability that the improvement could have occurred purely by chance. If you find that the improvement could have occurred only 5% of the time by mere chance, you would be justified in saying that the drug is better than the placebo. (Statisticians refer to the 5% threshold as the level of significance. The choice of level of significance is a judgment call, although 5% and 1% are traditionally the most popular.)

The null hypothesis is not a belligerent option. It is a touchstone or standard against which rival claims are gauged. If an alternative does not show itself to be sufficiently remarkable relative to the null hypothesis, then the alternative is not deemed worthy of provisional acceptance. That is, we do not reject the null hypothesis (nothing is happening) for the alternative hypothesis (something is going on) if our experimental results could easily occur under the null hypothesis. In terms of our drug-testing example, why would you accept the purported efficacy of the drug if the observed improvement could have occurred 40% of the time by mere chance? Sure, a 40% chance is less than even odds in favor of nothing happening, but it is still much too high to warrant much faith in the treatment. Statisticians routinely set the significance bar at 5% or even 1% to ensure that we do not reject the null hypothesis too casually.

A pox on all houses

Unfortunately for statisticians, the public most often encounters measures of significance in political polls, surveys whose results are controversial and contentious by their very nature. Poll results are usually stated with the caveat that they have been computed with a 95% confidence level. In other words, there is only a 5% probability (there's that 5% again) that the results are wrong by more than a specified amount (the specified amount is usually given as plus-or-minus a certain number of percentage points, the number of points determined by the poll's sampling size). Stated another way, if the poll were repeated multiple times, the results would be seriously wrong one time out of twenty (on the average). Given that political polls are conducted frequently during the most heated contests, we run into the unhappy situation where bitter accusations of bias or incompetence (from whichever candidate is trailing in the polls) are aligned with just enough divergent results (every twentieth, on the average) to cause people to throw up their hands and declare that pols, polls, and pollsters are all reprehensible. (I have not even raised the point that some polls are indeed conducted by hirelings who skew the outcomes to favor the candidate who hired them. The point that politicians may be scoundrels hardly needs to be made, as examples are conveniently numerous these days.)

The other unfortunate factor in political polling, quite apart from biased pollsters and acrimonious debates concerning even responsible polling, is that polls are by their nature no more than snapshots. A poll that finds 45% of the voters in favor of Candidate A in October is not suddenly invalidated if Candidate A receives 51% of the vote in November. For all we know (and there are statistical measures to help us gauge how much we can reasonably know), exactly 45% of the voters were in favor of Candidate A in October. The candidate simply picked up another six percentage points of support between the poll and the election. Still, the consequence of such contrasts is that polls are routinely regarded as having been proved wrong after the fact. That is really too bad, because responsibly conducted polls (in most cases, polls not sponsored by a particular candidate or cause) provide useful information on the opinions of the electorate. As I said, they are snapshots, not predictions.

A prediction

Speaking of predictions, there is another venue in which the poor null hypothesis is routinely treated with abuse. The entire field of psychic research is particularly unfriendly toward the null hypothesis that nothing is going on. Psychic researchers have been reduced in recent decades to searching through their data for subtle signs that something might be happening, attempting to tease out some shred of significance in anything slightly out of the ordinary. This is a good point at which to recall that most statistical tests expect the null hypothesis to be incorrectly rejected about 5% of the time anyway, just by chance. Of such Type I errors entire careers have been constructed. The diligent psychic researcher, however, will find that the false positives will eventually settle down at the unmeaningful 5% level as he or she continues to investigate. A notable example is Dr. Susan Blackmore, who eventually abandoned research in parapsychology for the more fertile field of consciousness. (See in particular her short essay on giving up parapsychology.)

The most parsimonious explanation for the longterm and continuing failure of parapsychological research is that they are searching for something that is simply not there. Rare examples like Susan Blackmore notwithstanding, I confidently predict that psychic research is here to stay. Its devotees are too emotionally invested in the idea that coincidences, lucky guesses, and intuition are deeply significant representatives of profound and underdeveloped human powers. The null hypothesis is a more satisfactory explanation because it is simple and sensible. What it lacks, however, is allure and mystery, so the null hypothesis will continue to be rejected by those whom it fails to satisfy.

I am confident in my prediction, but I will not, however, claim that I am clairvoyant if it comes true.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The myth of #1

Humans are not well-ordered

Mathematics is good stuff. I would never deny that. Still, mathematical ideas sometimes intrude where they do not belong. (See, for example, my earlier post on Who owns mathematics?) The responsible mathematician will not hesitate to point out when it occurs.

The recent (and continuing) controversy over the vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court has resurrected the persistent myth of number one, this time in the guise of "the best man for the job." Some commentators criticized the suggestion that a woman should be appointed to succeed Sandra Day O'Connor. ("You can't trust women," said Rush, "Give me a straightforward, honest speaking man any day.") Fortunately, except for unregenerate troglodytes like the aforementioned Rush, most people at least express a preference for the "best man or woman" for the job, or perhaps just "the best person." This notion is full of hot air, and I would like to deflate it.

In mathematics we sometimes talk about "well-ordered sets." A set S is well-ordered if every nonempty subset contains a minimal element. The classic example is the natural numbers: {1, 2, 3, 4, ...}. If the subset is finite, then the subset also has a maximal element. The population of humans on planet earth is finite, so it would have a maximal element if only it could be well-ordered.

We understand the ordering of the natural numbers because we can quickly discern which of two numbers is larger. Unfortunately, we then generalize from numbers to people with expressions like "the smartest," "the richest," and "the best qualified." We might think that Stephen Hawking must be the smartest, and there is good evidence that Bill Gates is the richest, but how are we to determine the most qualified person for a given job? There is no clear ordering criterion for such cases. In fact, we should expect that there would be a number of fully qualified individuals, although they might have diverse qualifications, any one of whom could fill the bill perfectly well. For example, if we're talking about Supreme Court nominees (as we were, you may recall), then presumably some weight would be given to courtroom experience. On other other hand, a lack of courtroom experience might be offset by participation in legislative service, giving the prospective nominee knowledge and sensitivity to legislative intent. Many other factors can be brought in, variously weighted and balanced. The notion of "best" is insupportable.

Personal best

I am reminded when a nephew expressed his dismay that university admission standards might prevent his enrollment in favor of "less qualified" minorities. I fear that I was not sympathetic to my nephew's plight and explained that it was entirely appropriate for admissions officers to consider many factors in their decisions. It was not my experience that any unqualified applicants were being admitted, but the successful candidates were selected for many different reasons, including grade point averages, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, letters of recommendation, athletic prowess, personal essays, legacies, and records of having overcome disadvantaged childhoods and limited educational opportunities.

My nephew was of the well-ordering school. He believed that one could rank the applicants from best to worst, after which one should then begin admitting students from the top of the list down, continuing until the university's capacity for students was exhausted. It sounded neat and tidy and so very defensible as a rational system. However, I pressed him to explain his ranking system. He told me that admissions should be based on grade point averages. I demurred. Some schools give easy grades and their students would be unfairly advantaged over those who attended more rigorous institutions. For the sake of argument, I recommended SAT scores as a preferable criterion, since SAT scores were nationally normed and independent of individual schools. My nephew could not agree with this at all. Further inquiry established that he had an excellent high school GPA but his SATs were merely good, not spectacular. This was clear evidence to him that SATs were not as good a measure of student ability as GPAs. Can you blame him? I sure don't. But I disagree with him.

By the way, you need not be unduly concerned over the fate of my nephew. Lucky for him, the California State University was not too fixated on SAT scores and he enrolled at one of its best campuses. He subsequently discovered that the University of California was also willing to admit him.

A corollary

The myth of #1 stalks us in many guises. One common form prompts people to criticize those whose priorities differ from their own. For example, many pets were separated from their owners in the confusion of the hurricane Katrina disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi. People who contributed to animal shelters and to efforts to reunite pets with their families were told that this was a foolish use of relief dollars when there were also children who were separated from their parents. Aren't children more important than pets?

At first, this seems an easy question to answer. Very few people would argue that cats and dogs should have priority over human children. But the myth of #1 suggests that higher priority issues must be resolved before lower priority issues can be addressed. The reality is very different. Even if the "highest" priority can be unambiguously identified, it is extremely unlikely ever to be fully resolved. To insist on dealing only with #1 until it is settled, while #2 etcetera languish, is to guarantee that #2 and the others will forever be neglected. One parody of the myth goes like this: "How can I even think of mowing the lawn when there is so much hunger in the world?"

The simplest response to the myth of #1 is to continue to make your own personal judgment of priorities. You then devote as much time, effort, or money as you can afford to those at the top, progressing as far down the priority list as you can reasonably go. You may, of course, feel that your #1 priority will absorb all of your effort or charity, and that is your right. However, don't let the myth of #1 cause you to cast aspersions at those who spread their efforts more broadly. After all, your #1 may be their #3, and it will be getting at least some attention from them.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Axiomatic Catholicism

A game for the skeptical masses

Most people manage to hang on to religious beliefs even after abandoning their youthful devotion to the cults of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. A few, however, continue their progression toward enlightenment and may feel some pangs of loss as they join the oppressed ranks of the unbelieving. The nonbeliever in the United States is surrounded by people who speak the peculiar in-language of their "Christian walk" and "give witness" to being "born again." Perhaps you know what I mean. Perhaps you were once one of them.

If you have not experienced a Roman Catholic childhood, you may find it difficult to imagine the sense of pride and security that comes from belonging to the "one, true religion." While Mark Twain may have said, "[Man] is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them," I believe it's easier to maintain one-true-religion smugness as a Catholic than as a Protestant. Episcopalians, for example, can shift uncomfortably from foot to foot while contemplating the unavoidable historical truth that their Anglican origins sprang more from Henry VIII's pursuit of a male heir than from any wellspring of reformist faith. Roman Catholicism retains a certain monolithic solidity while Protestantism shattered into tens of thousands of splinter sects. It just takes more work to persuade yourself of the primacy of your faith when its source is a disaffected preacher who decamped from some other denomination a few decades or even centuries ago. Catholicism, however, reaches back farther into the two millennia of Christianity than any of its wayward offspring.

Defensor Fidei?

As you might have guessed by now, I had one of those Roman Catholic childhoods. Curiously enough, my participation in the rites survived for several years after the end of my belief. Force of habit is powerful and the context of family offers numerous opportunities to follow the forms if not the substance of faith. Lapsing was not an act of rebellion, it was simply the eventual acknowledgment that I didn't believe the stories of resurrection, transubstantiation, and other miracles. The one thing that did not, however, go away was my belief that Catholicism was the authentic form of Christianity and that all other variants were inferior. This remnant of my childhood faith fascinates me. I pondered it until finally realizing that today I am a kind of "axiomatic Catholic." That is, I am not in any sense a practicing Catholic, but if we take the basic tenets of Christian faith as a starting point, I remain perfectly willing to dispute with those who argue that their preferred flavor of Christianity is the best. It is a kind of mathematical thing. Choose a set of axioms with which to begin and thereafter adduce the consequences of those axioms. If you don't really believe your axioms, then you're not going to believe the elaborate formal structure that may be erected on their foundation. In the case of Roman Catholicism, however, the structure is already there and the reality of its existence provides an odd sort of context for my logic spinning.

I drifted into axiomatic Catholicism by accident, although to a degree it is my adulthood's inheritance from my youth. Perhaps most of the credit (or blame) belongs to Bill, a friend of a friend who today is either enjoying his eternal reward for faithfulness or no longer exists in any sense except in the memories of his survivors. (Lucky believers! If they're wrong, they'll never find out!) Bill had made the long journey from left-wing labor organizer in his youth to right-wing evangelical in his old age. Still tied by bonds of affection to some of his comrades from the union movement, he would frequently participate in a Friday lunch group, wincing at the vocal criticisms of neo-conservative politics and patiently proselytizing on behalf of the gods of his old age. Bill was, by his own unblushing account, a phenomenal scholar. He could cure homosexuality (proof: a supposedly gay man he had once counseled had married and produced children!), disprove evolution (with probabilistically illiterate arguments about windstorms and junkyards), and give witness to biblical inerrancy.

Bill and I broke a few lances while jousting over biblical inerrancy. He was passionate in his devotion to sola Scriptura ("Bible alone") as the foundation of Christianity. I told him that sola Scriptura was a clearly specious argument because it had led to a proliferation of rival Christian sects who disagreed furiously in their interpretations of the Bible. If the Bible was the clear standard for Christian practice, why were there such disputes? In all seriousness, Bill patiently explained that the divisions arose because people were not interpreting the Bible correctly. I asked if he interpreted the Bible correctly. He admitted that he did. I asked if those who disagreed with him were damned. No, he said, unless they disagreed on fundamentals. I asked if there was agreement on what constituted the fundamentals. Bill said those were clear from the Bible. I asked if he would like to be the Protestant pope so that he could straighten out all those who disagreed with him. He repeated that a correct reading of the Bible would settle all the disagreements without the need for an authoritarian referee. I reiterated my claim that his co-religionists would likely agree with his declaration that "correct" interpretation was sufficient for Christian unity and then immediately begin arguing over what that meant. Clearly the combination of scripture and tradition, preserved by a long-lived hierarchy, was a sounder method for settling disputes and ensuring orthodoxy. Bill discerned that my statement reeked of Romanism and demurred. He and I never returned to sola Scriptura. I say it's because I utterly defeated his arguments, but I suspect he would say (if he were still here) it was because I had shown myself incapable of understanding the truth of his position.

Shouting in a vacuum

Axiomatic Catholicism is an intellectual game, hollow at its core, a pastime of perhaps no more significance than a round of checkers. It resonates with the training of my early years and keeps it alive in an artificial way. Sometimes, though, I think my dalliance with exegesis is slightly more than mere diversion. We live in a religion-saturated culture and must be prepared to contend with its excesses. Aggressive religious groups in this country are eager to enshrine conservative Christianity as a state religion, intruding on personal freedoms and opposing the secularism of the public classroom. While Bill was a friendly acquaintance, he showed to me the human face of a well-intentioned person who thought he was "doing the Lord's work." His vision of a well-ordered society was anathema to me. Creationism would be forced into the school curriculum, so-called "reparative" therapy would be the standard required treatment for anyone who exhibited same-sex attraction, and non-Christians would be second-class citizens ineligible to hold office (because they're wrong, you know). Bill embodied in full the agenda of the Christian right.

Mind you, my criticisms of the Christian right do not mean that Roman Catholicism is, by contrast, a benign influence in American politics. Many Catholics have made common cause with extremist evangelicals in their quest to outlaw abortion. Catholic radio broadcasters like EWTN regularly treat people like Patrick Buchanan and writers for Human Events as if they were representatives of responsible points of view instead of extremists on the very fringe of American politics. EWTN is an active participant in the mainstreaming of neo-conservative radicalism.

There is one area, though, in which the Roman Catholic hierarchy has demonstrated its capacity to learn—even if it is oh so painfully slowly. It was only a few years ago that John Paul II issued a statement on the Galileo case, expressing regret over the church's missteps in its dispute with the great scientist. John Paul also said that evolution was "more than a hypothesis" and thus warned Catholics not to get on the wrong side of yet another scientific argument. When Cardinal Schönborn recently served as a mouthpiece for some ID-inspired nonsense about problems with evolution, the Vatican moved more quickly than usual to dampen expectations that conservative church politics could be enlisted in the cause of creationist attacks on the biological sciences.

If Benedict XVI would encourage the church to pursue its charitable endeavors, minister to its communicants, and edge away from right-wing interference in American politics, my axiomatic Catholicism would be a bit more comfortable. I have no delusions that that is likely to occur. Hence it is not enough to argue, as the occasion may present itself, that most forms of modern Christianity are distortions of its tradition and that Roman Catholic deference to science should be emulated. I must also argue that this deference needs to be pursued more consistently and disentangled from the confounding effects of dogma. Don't expect Rome to hear that argument, no matter how many people are making it, but do expect the church to make reluctant accommodation with reality, ever so slowly, if we stand our ground. After all, Galileo got his apology in less than 400 years.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Teela Brown does not exist

Looking at "luck"
I am not prepared to enter into the concept of luck, as it is vulgarly called: philosophically it is indefensible; in daily experience we see it to exist.
Recently I took my graduate faculty advisor and his wife to dinner. This is not a bad thing to do once the dissertation is filed and the degree awarded . His wife arrived at the restaurant alone, explaining that her husband was trying to find a parking place. In a few minutes, his quest rewarded with success, the professor showed up and we took our seats. The first small-talk topic concerned one of my advisor's friends, who apparently has an uncanny knack for tracking down open parking spaces where less talented people would fail.

What is it about people who are "lucky"? I hold that the fundamental idea is meaningless. There is no such thing. To be sure, there are times when circumstances work out randomly in one's favor. Even if there is no such thing as luck per se, there will nevertheless be some who will have a greater number of happy outcomes than some others. It may be that a form of luck accrues to those who are better prepared to take advantage of situations as they arise, but I regard this as the mere appearance of luck. It is actually the consequence of superior faculties, either innate or acquired. I took my opening quote from The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'Brian, a passage in chapter six wherein Dr. Maturin explains his optimism concerning an impending venture by observing that Commodore Aubrey has amply earned his nickname of "Lucky Jack." However, Aubrey's purported luck is at least as much the result of his superior skills as it is the product of happenstance.

As for the professor's friend with the preternatural talent for finding parking spaces, could this be a talent? To a degree, I think it might be. Some folks could be more attuned to the ebb and flow of traffic, have a sharper eye for the vacant or newly opening space. Talent could certainly play a role. Another important factor might be our tendency to filter data. After all, simple random chance will fortuitously elevate some individuals above their competitors in ventures that are based on probability rather than skill. Once a person gets a reputation for being lucky in some endeavor, future good outcomes will be remembered as confirming instances of his lucky nature and bad outcomes will be disregarded as exceptions to the rule. Once the filter is in place, the individual's reputation will be robust and quite difficult to dislodge.

What about Teela Brown? She is one of Larry Niven's less successful creations in his many tales of Ringworld. Teela is born on a future overpopulated Earth where the right to bear children is subject to a lottery with very long odds. She is the product of several consecutive generations of winners in the birth lottery, so she is bred for good luck. When I read Niven's Ringworld novels, the introduction of Teela caused me to roll my eyes. We are all—each and every one of us—winners of the world's longest running birth lottery ever. If the recurrent mad sperm races have not bred shockingly good fortune into the human race, adding the artificial level of a formal birth lottery is not suddenly going to breed a race of the super lucky.

Larry Niven, by the way, was not especially lucky when he dreamed up Teela Brown. She was a difficult character to handle, especially when the author wanted to build suspense. By definition, things were going to work out for Teela. I guess she never lacked for a parking space.