It’s going to be a busy week, with a beta of Kelly McCullough’s second Aral Kingslayer book to read and think about and all the usual work stuff to get done. So, instead of me spending time writing anything, y’all will get to see the hangovers of my impossible desire to grow up to be Cyd Charisse. Enjoy a week of choreography that goes beyond.

This, for example, demonstrates that two is merely the lower limit for a tango.


The Accommodationism Debate Explained

Desiree Schell, of Skeptically Speaking and other general awesomeness, will be on Atheists Talk in a few weeks to talk about strategies for effecting change. Since the announcement about her appearance happened in the middle of yet another discussion about accommodationism, Desiree (being the smart and highly prepared woman she is) asked for a clear description of a topic that doesn’t come up in what she does as a skeptic or union organizer. I think the results are worth sharing here.

I mainly stick to scientific skepticism, and I don’t follow atheist controversies very closely, so can someone tell me exactly what an accommodationist is? Every time I ask that question I get a different answer. And that’s understandable; I claim terms all the time to structure my own thoughts. But can someone (or a few of you) on this thread tell me about your perception of what that word means? It would help me, because it’s pretty obvious that it’s going to come up on air.

Accommodationism is used to refer to the idea that in order to get the support of religious people on political issues (teaching of evolution, separation of church and state, etc.) one should be careful to not challenge their religious beliefs or should, perhaps, even reinforce them. It’s as big a debate as it is because the idea is both very pragmatic and very problematic.

I think the pro-accommodationism argument is pretty clear and simple. The anti-accommodationism argument is a little more complicated:

  1. Try as you might to not disturb religious beliefs, the truth and supremacy of someone’s religion is exactly what these arguments often boil down to. At some point, you’re stepping on someone’s religious toes. The actual question is whose.
  2. Stepping on the toes of one religion generally looks, to the apathetic masses, like stepping on all religion, no matter what you try to do. Playing a middle game is tricky on the mass level.
  3. While accommodationism might work on a single political issue (although we don’t have evidence that it has), there are going to continue to be fights, all coming out of this same well of religious privilege. Reinforcing the privilege to win one fight is going to make the next fight harder.
  4. Therefore, the way to go is to take on the larger issue of religious privilege, even if it causes problems in the short-term. At that point, this becomes a fight about equality and civil rights, and the whole plan changes a bit.

So, would working with a number of different stakeholders (one of them being a church group) on a single-issue campaign like lobbing the government to keep fluoridating the city’s water system, be considered accommodation? Or is it only accommodation when working on a campaign that involves religion?

There will be a few people who say both. They’ll get lots of attention, but they’re not the sort of people who actually leave the computer and get anything done. For the most part, only the second would be.

So what if an atheist doesn’t much care about the larger idea of religious privilege, and is only personally interested in a single issue like ensuring that evolution is taught in schools. Are they an accommodationist by default?

Probably not by default, but for a single issue, an accommodationist approach really does make a lot of sense if you can find a big enough religious population to whom the issue isn’t intrinsically threatening.

I think that’s why this is so intractable. It’s really a difference of values, and you know how those go.

Do I ever.

The Accommodationism Debate Explained

Saturday Storytime: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter

Theodora Goss specializes in short work. Given that, it’s not terribly surprising that the two stories she published last year are both being collected in a Year’s Best, or that the following story a finalist for a 2011 Locus Award. An excerpt:

Mary created a trust that holds the deed to the house. We are all listed as beneficiaries:

Miss Justine Frankenstein

Miss Catherine Moreau

Miss Beatrice Rappaccini

Miss Mary Jekyll

Miss Diana Hyde

Mrs. Arthur Meyrinck (née Helen Raymond)

But it is her house, really. Her father left it to her, along with a moderate fortune. She is the only one of us who has inherited any money. Science does not pay well; mad science pays even worse.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter

The Value of Defiance

I’m in the middle of a migraine, and Blogger has royally pissed me off over the last couple of days. Today, I’ll just point to a couple of other posts that provide context to each other. Jerry Coyne comments on the idea that a new study showing religion is globally pervasive suggests that uprooting its ideals is “hopeless”:

That’s hogwash. As we can see from the tremendous secularization of the world over the past few centuries, especially in Europe, it is not impossible for religion to wither. The pervasiveness of a belief gives no warrant that that belief will be with us forever. Look how pervasive, only a century ago, was the idea that women were second-class citizens. This was true in nearly every society. Ditto for gays and ethnic minorities. And look how attitudes have changed! Granted, women, for instance, still get the short end of the stick, but in many parts of the world they’re much better off. Most of us now realize that people should be treated as equals, regardless of gender, color, and sexual orientation. That would have been inconceivable a few hundred years ago.

Let’s just tinker a bit with Trigg’s statement:

“If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature as the idea that women are inferior, thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests,” Trigg said. . “The female-equality hypothesis of the 1960s—I think that is hopeless.”

So how do we go about undermining the authority of a such a pervasive idea? Paul W points out that if we really want to understand that, social science offers us a great deal of research on the topics of conformity and minority influence.

Here are some topics worth looking up on Wikipedia—Mooney should demonstrate his familiarity with this stuff if he wants to be taken at all seriously, and his critics would do well to know about the six decades of relevant research he persistently ignores:

Conformity, Asch Conformity Experiments, Normative Social Influence, Social Proof, Information Cascade, and especially Minority Influence and Spiral of Silence.

Scientists and philosophers especially are in a position to exert minority influence, ending a spiral of silence by providing social proof, and undermining the information cascade that supports religion.

But that is exactly what Mooney is most opposed to—he is against the experts voicing the kind of expert opinion that has the greatest potential for minority influence, and he actively tries to undermine the appearance of expertise and minority solidarity that makes minority influence work best. He is firmly on the side of the normative conformity that keeps the masses ignorant of the kind of minority but expert view that could actually change a substantial number of minds.

The reading and the suggestions to be derived from it aren’t terribly straightforward, but this is stuff you’ll want to know if you’re running against the herd.

The Value of Defiance

The Accommodationism Challenges

Mike McRae, Tribal Scientist, indulged me in a discussion of his goals surrounding his latest salvo in the accommodation debate.

There are frequent olive branches thrown down in request of a ceasefire. Perhaps the most common is the plea for diversity. This call seems democratic, inclusive and reasonable. After all, if there are many different problems and many different audiences, there must be a need for many different methods. Let’s all live and let live, right? If one approach doesn’t work, another will.

The mediators are somewhat like a ring species for Accommodationis warminfuzziness and Newatheist confrontationist.

Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

I wanted to know why he put up a snarky post. I wanted to know why he generalized his criticisms to the group instead of making them specific to particular behaviors and people. Basically, I wanted to know why someone critiquing communication was engaging in such nonconstructive criticism. His response:

You ask what I hope to accomplish? Culture change. Encouraging atheists to see that if they want to defend their choices, those values they appreciate so much in science don’t suddenly disappear and allow them to have robust opinions based on gut feelings and wishful thinking.

Based on the rest of my conversation with Mike, I’d like to offer a set of challenges to those advocating that “New Atheists” be more accommodating of others in their communications.

Challenge 1: Decide whether this is important to you.

Is confrontation as a tactic among atheists an issue you think needs to be addressed? Will it really change the world if you can get a few people to follow your advice? Or are you annoyed by some people who have stomped on your feelings on the blogosphere?

These aren’t frivolous questions. You’ve got work to do. They’ve got work to do. And change, as you already know, is hard. You should also know that if you do this wrong, you’re going to entrench the bad blood over this issue even further. Every little thing you (and everyone else with any kind of platform) say on the topic goes on record these days. If you don’t care enough to do this right, maybe it’s time to shut up about it, at least in public.

Challenge 2: Know your audience.

Who are you trying to reach? Are you talking to published “New Atheist” authors? Are you talking to atheist groups that sponsor ad campaigns or social meetups? Are you talking to groups that lobby and pursue legal action? Are you talking to blog commenters? Are you talking to forum campers? Are you talking to unaffiliated atheists who just want religion to leave them alone?

These types of groups have very different goals. They have different tactics. They have different degrees of centrality and authority. They have different religious backgrounds and degrees of education. You have to take the time to understand them–ask them real questions and listen to the answers–if you want to know what language to speak and what problems you’re going to offer to help them solve.

You also have to understand that you frequently can’t address multiple groups using the same message. They’re just too different. Being an atheist only gives you so much in common with other atheists. At the same time, however, any individual atheist may belong to many of these groups. You’re never going to have the luxury of addressing just one set of concerns at a time, and you’re going to have to go to extraordinary lengths to keep from generalizing between groups based on the cross-group memberships of certain individuals.

Challenge 3: Learn to see privilege.

Being an atheist won’t get you killed very often. In many environments, being an atheist is entirely invisible. In some, it’s perfectly respectable. That does not put atheists on par with the religious. Unless you understand where the differences are, you will never be able to effectively address the concerns of atheists.

Read a privilege checklist or two. Understand what it means to have an area of your life that you choose to keep hidden because there are consequences of doing otherwise. Understand what it means to be watched for signs that you represent a degenerate type. Understand how much time and energy it takes to answer questions whenever you identify yourself. Understand how much it takes to run constant calculations on whether to go with the flow or upset the social order. Understand what it means to watch people take the time to decide whether they really knew you at all when you come out. Understand what it means to hear political debates on whether you’re ruining modern life.

Only once you get all that can you actually understand what you’re asking otherwise.

Challenge 4: Recognize the limits of your own expertise.

There is a fair body of cognitive science having to do with communication. It doesn’t begin to approach the complexity of real-world (meatspace and electronic) communications. There is a lot of information to be had from these studies, but this is a very new science, given the size of the topic. It can only tell us so much.

One of the things it can and has told us is that the power, privilege and out-group status of the speaker have an effect on how the speaker’s message is received. We know that whether we are trusted or even heard as speakers is often largely out of our hands. What we don’t know, what cognitive science, or at least those presenting the cognitive science, has yet to tell us despite our very real need for the information, is how to overcome this problem.

Until that happens, asking people to understand the cognitive science is reasonable. Asking people to replace current behavior is not. Confrontational tactics for minority groups may not be supported in the cognitive science literature, but neither are they shown to be worse than any other tactics for minority groups. In the presence of privilege, we simply don’t expect any communication tactic to have a high rate of success. (Legal tactics, on the other hand….)

Meanwhile, there are other disciplines that do suggest the confrontational approach has merit. The history of social movements is plastered with groups taking approaches that make people feel uncomfortable and threatened. It is also plastered with groups succeeding with approaches that make people feel uncomfortable and threatened. And frankly, familiarity with this sort of social history shows just how mild “confrontational” atheists of the current sort are by comparison.

Even if you aren’t concerned with social change directly, recognize that attacking the privilege problem directly is a communication tactic with the potential to succeed. Privilege gets in the way of effective communication. We can go around this with the app
ropriate tools when cognitive science gives them to us. Until then, we can do our best to go through.

Challenge 5: Recognize others’ work and expertise.

This is the point where I tell you to drop the word “but” from your vocabulary. Atheists, even highly annoying ones (whichever set that may be for you), have made major accomplishments in the past couple of decades. Best-selling books, wide blog readerships, social mobilization for political action, communities that support out atheists and those who have left religious communities, successful events at the regional to international level, cogent social criticism, historical scholarship, increased visibility of abuses of power despite a hobbled press.

Is there crap being produced as well? Of course. Sturgeon’s Law. That doesn’t make the accomplishments I just mentioned any less real.

It also doesn’t exempt anyone from the requirement to deal with the accomplished as, at the very least, people with as much to teach as you believe they have to learn. The lessons they have to teach may well include the fact that what they do is so more difficult than it appears on the surface–requiring extraordinary timing, wordsmithery, and humor–that most people may as well not try. You’ll never learn it if your approach is to say, “Yeah, they wrote a best-selling book, but it’s only because….”

Challenge 6: Offer something better.

The problem of addressing religious privilege while simultaneously working around the bald fact that the religious hold most of the political power is tough. It’s ugly. Nobody who is trying to do both thinks it’s simple. Your final challenge is to deal with the real difficulty of that problem.

However, the people who are tackling that work aren’t going to be lured by a message that is, in essence, “Ignore the privilege problem in order to solve problems that require political power.” Privilege is power. Your audience knows that solving individual political problems while allowing the privilege to persist is fighting a hydra. Offering a sharper sword only makes the heads multiply faster.

However, offer the equivalent of a torch, and you’ve got something. If you want to shape how atheists communicate, figure out how to offer them something that undermines religious privilege at the same time.

No, I don’t know what that is either. All I know is that if you offer something short of that, you’re offering less than what atheists ultimately want and need, and that won’t work. That’s why you need to decide up front how important this is to you. That’s why it’s a challenge.

The Accommodationism Challenges

Standing on Aether, Thinking Airy Thoughts

Or, Theology as Pseudophilosophy

There’s been a rash of criticism lately of New Atheists (or Gnu Atheists, popular atheists, internet atheists, outspoken atheists, non-invisible atheists–whatever term makes the writer comfortable that he’s not being prejudicial while generalizing for paragraphs on end) that we’re being anti-intellectual and displaying our lack of education by not grappling seriously with serious philosophy of religion. Everything used to be so much better and it’s all terribly concerning according to Michael Ruse:

Perhaps it is just a turf war, but I don’t think philosophy is something to be ignored or done after a day’s work in the lab over a few beers in the faculty club. I think if you want to show that science and religion are inherently in contradiction, then you should show why people like Kuhn (and indeed Foucault) are wrong about the nature of science. That I think is morally wrong, namely taking positions with major political and social implications, without doing your serious homework. Just mentioning Galileo’s troubles with the Church or Thomas Henry Huxley’s debate with the Bishop of Oxford is no true substitute for hard thinking.

Jacques Berlinerblau:

In fact, what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism.

And R. Joseph Hoffmann:

The old atheism was full of cranks and angry old men, but some of them were clever. Many of them (as my grandmother used to say) knew a thing or two. The big distinction between the old and the new is that the old atheism depended on a narrative, based in philosophy, and linked itself to a long tradition of rational decision-making. Not choosing to believe in God was an act of deliberation, not a foregone conclusion. At its best, it was studious and reflective.

Repeating a message in this way can be a very powerful thing. It can, in fact, make one deal with the message in a serious way. However, not all messages benefit from the serious treatment. This is one message that doesn’t.

Jerry Coyne makes some excellent points about the difference between understanding history and getting stuck repeating it endlessly instead of moving forward. If the majority of us can’t build on what our forebears knew, while leaving the details of exactly how they figured it out to those who like that sort of thing, we’ll get nowhere.

We don’t criticize farmers for not being socially conversant in biochemistry, although biochemistry underlies what they do. Nor, more importantly, can we legitimately exclude farmers from criticizing biological or biochemical theorizing–if their criticism is that the theories involved rely on faulty understanding of farming.

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is that it operates from faulty premises. Some of those faulty premises come from misunderstandings of the scientific process (e.g., not understanding the importance of good controls), but some come from misunderstandings of the subject being studied. Experiments in telepathy depend, in both the design and analysis phases, on the idea that communication is verbal and unambiguous (as well as the idea that humans are honest). Experiments in astrology rely on the idea that humans are internally consistent and externally different. Experiments in alternative treatments for the common cold rely on the idea that the condition is not self-limiting.

Theorizing on the causality of autism spectrum disorders frequently assumes that historical increases in diagnoses reflect a real change in the neurology of a population. Those studying the relative intelligence of the black, white, and oriental races assume that those are valid biological categories and that their measurement instruments are valid proxies for genetic differences. Too many experiments in evolutionary psychology assume “human universals” can be determined by studying undergraduate psychology students or industrialized populations and that social structures aren’t self-maintaining in the absence of underlying genetics.

To extrapolate, pseudoscience is often a process of deciding that something needs to be explained without first checking to see whether an explanation already exists. All the rigorous design, careful statistical analysis, and flawless logic in the world can’t help you produce good results if your premises are faulty. Biochemists can do all the meticulous work they want on how a particular type of bacteria present in a field breaks down pig manure and liberates nitrogen, but if the field under study only ever sees cow manure, the results are going to be meaningless. At that point, it becomes pseudoscience just as much as if the work itself were shoddy.

Philosophy is different than science, of course. That doesn’t mean, though, that pseudophilosophy isn’t just as important a concept to understand as pseudoscience is. And as with pseudoscience, the problems of pseudophilosophy don’t only happen when someone screws up the process by, say, falling prey to a fallacy. They can just as easily happen in the process of formulating questions.

There may be no stupid questions (except for the one you ask again because you didn’t listen to the answer last time), but there are bad questions. “Why is a hummingbird?” is a bad question. It isn’t a bad subject, but the question, as posed, won’t get you the answers you want except by chance.

“What do hummingbirds all have in common?” “How are hummingbirds different from other birds?” “Why do we call them hummingbirds?” “What is the evolutionary history of hummingbirds?” “Where do hummingbirds live?” “Why do hummingbirds capture our imagination?” “What would happen if hummingbirds disappeared?” “What about my backyard is attracting hummingbirds?” “Why does that piece of expressionist art suggest a hummingbird when it’s not remotely realistic?” All those and plenty more are questions that produce answers that increase our knowledge, about us, about our world, and about hummingbirds.

They also reflect our knowledge of the world. “Why is a hummingbird?” is a question that might have been seriously asked at one time. The answer would have been (in the form of a poem or essay) that the rapidly beating wings of a hummingbird demonstrate some lesson about work and life or that the creature is simply too beautiful to not exist. Answers then assumed that “why” was a question of existence or nonexistence.

As our knowledge of evolution and ecology has broadened, “why” has given way to questions of this organism or feature instead of that, this location or function instead of another. As our understanding of perception and cognition has developed, “why” has become a question of identification and classification.

The “why” that is a question of existence is met with “Why not?” Creatures exist in numbers and with a degree of diversity that we cannot count. We can only estimate. That one more exists is not a matter of surprise requiring explanation, although its individual characteristics might be. We question why one would ask the question.

The same goes for religious philosophy. We are being told we should respect the serious work
done by philosophers on these fundamental questions. Instead, we look at what we know of the world around us and ask why anyone is asking. Can the questions that made sense when religious philosophy mediated between competing ideas still produce any answers with meaning today, when religious philosophy is being used to defend its own existence in a world that continually reveals its secrets to us?

Michael Ruse thinks we must grapple today with “Does a creator god exist?” because someone else once did. Instead, we look at our universe and ask what “creation” would even mean in this context. When we understand that we don’t know whether our universe has always existed, whether time is a meaningful concept outside the bounds of our universe, whether our universe is the only one, it is perfectly valid to look askance at those who assume creation in order to ask about gods. When we know from our scientific pursuits that humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize, it is important to demonstrate not just that the question can be asked, but that it can lead to a meaningful answer.

The same goes for the “special place of humans” and “eternal salvation.” The idea that human exceptionalism is any more valid than hummingbird exceptionalism cannot be taken for granted. Claims to the contrary require privileging one’s own frame of reference over all others. Until those who apply vast amounts of logic to the “problem” can make a convincing case that their question is more important than the question of the “special place of bacteria,” they haven’t demonstrated that their work is worth my respect. Neither has anyone who mistakes unsupported dualism for a philosophical question in desperate need of an answer.

Until these questions are phrased in ways that reflect what science has taught us about the world, all the philosophical work done on them may be perfectly logical and rigorous, but it still hasn’t established that it isn’t pseudophilosophy, grand edifices built atop faulty questions. Until it has, it hasn’t demonstrated that it’s worthy of our time, our attention, and our respect.

There is nothing remotely ignorant or anti-intellectual about the demand that we be shown that questions formed in more ignorant times remain meaningful given our increasing knowledge of the world. There is nothing at all unserious about our requests for evidence that these questions are demanding answers. And equating those demands to anti-intellectualism, lack of curiosity, and tempter tantrums…well, let’s just say it doesn’t display any will to engage with current atheist intellectual traditions.

Standing on Aether, Thinking Airy Thoughts

Saturday Storytime: The Things

You probably know Peter Watts, through his run in with U.S. Customs and Immigration, if nothing else. You probably know this story, through the movie starring Kurt Russell. You probably don’t know Peter Watts’ version of this story. An excerpt:

I am being Blair. I escape out the back as the world comes in through the front.

I am being Copper. I am rising from the dead.

I am being Childs. I am guarding the main entrance.

The names don’t matter. They are placeholders, nothing more; all biomass is interchangeable. What matters is that these are all that is left of me. The world has burned everything else.

I see myself through the window, loping through the storm, wearing Blair. MacReady has told me to burn Blair if he comes back alone, but MacReady still thinks I am one of him. I am not: I am being Blair, and I am at the door. I am being Childs, and I let myself in. I take brief communion, tendrils writhing forth from my faces, intertwining: I am BlairChilds, exchanging news of the world.

The world has found me out. It has discovered my burrow beneath the tool shed, the half-finished lifeboat cannibalized from the viscera of dead helicopters. The world is busy destroying my means of escape. Then it will come back for me.

There is only one option left. I disintegrate. Being Blair, I go to share the plan with Copper and to feed on the rotting biomass once called Clarke; so many changes in so short a time have dangerously depleted my reserves. Being Childs, I have already consumed what was left of Fuchs and am replenished for the next phase. I sling the flamethrower onto my back and head outside, into the long Antarctic night.

I will go into the storm, and never come back.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: The Things