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.