23 November 2014

Corollary to controversy

There's a flipside of course to how atheists, secularists, scientists and science educators should proceed on the question of how to teach evolution to a population of creationists.

How creationists should interact when confronted or how they carry and present themselves is equally important to a civil discourse than how others push back against them.

As a hint. Having your beliefs criticized or questioned is not censorship or oppression. 

Don't react as though you are being silenced when a ton of people come into a social media forum and say "eh, no, that's wrong/stupid". That may or may not be an appropriate way to try to reach someone who is factually wrong about what the facts actually are, but it also isn't the same thing as being oppressed for your beliefs. You stood up and said something. Other people disagreed with it and decided to stand up and say something back. Criticism is how we (Americans at least) avoid the need for censorship, by making our ideas fight in the open for supremacy and social dominion rather than pressing them into the darker corners and demanding they stay hidden away. Some of our ideas are bad or inconsistent with available evidence, and those ideas will find many people ready to push back upon them. Each of us tends to have some of these wrongful beliefs and ideas in what we think of as carefully crafted assumptions core to our being and gets defensive when they are pushed back upon.

That doesn't mean that being pushed back upon is the same thing as being censored.

The entire reason this topic of evolution came up again in my radar is a famous former baseball pitcher (Curt Schilling) and now baseball analyst decided, unwisely, to use his twitter feed to try to debate evolutionary theory, as I guess one does when one doesn't think very much about what they will say on social media forums and expects that it will be a good forum for changing people's minds. Toward the end of this digression, he decided to make a parting shot that supposedly if say, Muslims, had brought it up, they wouldn't be attacked for it because we're all liberals who just hate Christians. This proceeds from a false assumption that somehow these other religions are okay or correct on these issues because they're not Christianity. Atheists, who are mostly liberal in their politics, actually spend a lot of time running down Islam, Judeo-Christianity, and even Buddhism, on creationist beliefs and other issues. There just aren't very many non-Christians in America that the attacks aren't very pressing and aren't seen very often by the majority dominant Christian seeking to claim persecution for his beliefs. There aren't very many Muslims running around in the US trying to say that god created the Earth in 7 days, or that the Earth is only 10000 years old or some other such absurdity, not because there aren't Muslims who believe such things, but because there aren't very many American Muslims. There are very many Christians doing so, in part because there are very many American Christians. So it is they who get pushed back upon. That has nothing to do with whether the underlying beliefs are more sheltered or presented because these other people hold religions that supposedly aren't as annoying to secularists. They do. Sometimes more so. But on that topic, they don't. Because there aren't many people to talk to and ask around these parts.

What was more amazing in raising this statement was that Schilling was not censored by anyone for attempting to bring up something that many people think is wrong (even if many people agree with him on some levels). In fact he wasn't even censured by his employer. He was still busily posting vaguely racist right wing interpretations of the impending problems in Ferguson, Missouri concerning a criminal justice matter over the weekend. But guess who was censured? His co-worker, Keith Law, who began posting counter-tweets and arguments to Schilling and others as the argument swirled around for the evening and into the next day. ESPN has claimed this was not the basis for a suspension from twitter but did not offer any counter-narrative explanation that there can be another interpretation that one can follow as plausible. Law posts fairly often about all manner of topics, as one does when one is actively using social media and was silent about the basis for the suspension himself when posting on other forums. What that leaves is an atmosphere where ESPN appears to have punished someone because they defended scientific theories publicly and not punished someone who expressed religious beliefs that apparently demand they doubt those theories publicly, but who also expressed the position that he was being punished for expressing those beliefs. When his opponent was the only one who was.

Something is deeply wrong with that impression that we have a society that concludes, very commonly, that its dominant population group by religious affiliation is somehow living in a systematically oppressed world. And quite simply: "you people" need to shut the fuck up about oppression on that point. Being told you are wrong about something is disagreement. It is unpleasant, yes. The fact that someone can disagree with you, and others may rush to defend that person, is not the same as being in a position of persecution and oppressiveness. People sometimes should disagree or attempt to in a more civil manner (this of course, goes both ways), or learn to try to have constructive debates where their core and essential beliefs and priors are more easily examined by casual and interested observers. But that we disagree, and that we sometimes disagree vehemently over positions as diametrically opposed as basic worldviews, is a consequence of living in a pluralistic and liberal democratic state of the sort that the basic rights of the US Constitution grant to the individuals to practice and the state to protect. It is not at all the same as living in a society that say, demands state fealty to a religion, or a lack of one, and punishes with criminal and civil penalties even including the death of those who refuse to comply. Nor is the same to claim this is the variety of persecution when one is told that because they work in a public position (a teacher for example) they cannot use that position to advance their religious beliefs upon others. They are still welcome to do this privately. They just can't do it in their official capacity. And quite simply it is absurd to claim that someone is being held accountable and persecuted for their beliefs if they aren't punished but someone who defends a position which appears contrary to those beliefs is punished. Atheists are much more likely to encounter public discrimination and censure than any Christian sect. They're much more likely to be fired or dismissed, or not hired or held up for a promotion on that basis. There are nearly zero elected officials with an open expression of atheism in the country at any level of government. And so on. I do not know Mr Law's religious views or lack thereof, and won't presume to speak for them, but he expressed a pro-science view, with the same level of politeness and openness to inquiry (if not more so) than his interlocutors. He was the one punished. So yeah. Shut the fuck up about being stepped on and persecuted. I see shades of this in the Gamergate and shirtgate backlashes, where threats are issued toward people for expressing an opinion, and it is this group issuing threats toward other people proclaiming that it is the oppressed. Both groups claim oppression, but if one side issues direct threats of physical violence as a means of depressing the turnout of their opposition, I'm inclined to say that's the side committing the oppression. I didn't see any threats issued here. But I did see discipline hammers fall down on people. They were not the people Mr Schilling assumes are likely to be punished (eg, himself).

There are reasonable presentations of religious persecution or oppression of religious belief. I am for instance more sympathetic to an argument that using the legal system to require privately owned businesses to provide certain wedding or marriage related services (usually for homosexual couples) seems a stretch. That does not mean that I wouldn't consider that behavior a form of bigotry or at least discrimination or that I would not consider encouraging boycotting such businesses to use social coercion rather than legal sanctions to overcome the practice or drive that any business practice like this out of the industry. But I'm not certain that the government needs to step in in these ways if we have an environment that is increasingly open and welcoming to homosexual couples for marriage and equal protection of the rights granted by marriage contract laws and that there may be competitors who will be happy to serve such couples and take their business. It is in this general realm of social coercion that I think people should be pushing back against wrongful or harmful beliefs perpetuated by some religious people, such as creationism or anti-homosexual views. People should criticize. They should argue. They should debate, persuade, cajole, annoy, organize, and persist. If this atmosphere of debate reaches a point where people do not feel they can air these views publicly, for fear of the social ostracization and consequences of holding and airing unpopular views, that still is not oppression. That may or may not reflect an unpleasant atmosphere for productive and constructive debate, where the best defenses of these now unpopular ideas are not being made or sought out. But it also may reflect that those ideas are held in social disdain for very good reasons. And that people who want to hold to them should have to confront those very good reasons and try to resolve whether or why they want to continue holding these unpopular views. Maybe they will come up with better arguments in response. Chances are they will not (Mr Schilling presented nothing that hasn't been a standard creationist or ID argument for decades for his part). In the case of religion, even it evolves in what it accepts and proclaims to its followers and interested observers, one could readily find and hear arguments made either for or against slavery from the perspective of religion. One rarely sees a direct claim that slavery is morally acceptable today. Similarly various religions or their derivations have adopted ways to incorporate scientific discoveries and interpretations like the orbits of planets, the big bang theory, and evolution without much conflict and violence done to the scientific consensus on these issues.

As a final point to all of this. One of the most annoying processes of public debate and discourse is the shifting goalpost method of argument. As an example. People demand evidence for X. Other people subsequently present evidence for X. Evidence of X now becomes a non-important factor to be dismissed (even though it was just requested), or the source of evidence comes under dispute. Almost no one is reacting by saying "huh, I didn't know that, I will now investigate what you have presented to me". Schilling did this several times (transitional fossils, "problems" with the fossil record, etc) before tossing off people attempting to present him this evidence as people attempting to persecute Christians.

Evolutionary theory is one of the arenas of social discourse for which there is abundant evidence because the biological field of scientific inquiry includes hard empirical sciences with lots of data points from which to draw reliable conclusions (genetics for example). On other matters, say, economic theories regarding minimum wage law, there is much less hard empirical data and a lot of speculative conclusions. Sometimes none of those may be shown as correct in a predictable and testable way. For these subjects, arguments regarding sources of data can be more valid concerns over ideological bias. One would expect that political matters could often inspire difficult and nonconstructive debates as a result as people retreat to the corners of expertise for which their priors hold to their stated outcomes and beliefs. For public concerns over science, this is less useful. Scientists can be individually biased, and many fields, particularly in difficult to research matters like social sciences or medicine can have complicated problems with the manner of research and verification or replication of results. Skepticism can be a useful tool in digging through results that do not smell right to us for that very reason. Lots of pharmaceutical studies are flawed because they are produced or paid for by the companies attempting to market a new drug, for example, and the results were cherry picked to make the drug look more effective or to have a broad array of possible benefits, and so on. Skepticism of that variety is very useful. But that skepticism neither requires us to go in the direction that creationists insist nor does it automatically mean that data is false because it conflicts with their priors. Even if they were able to disprove evolutionary theory or some other cosmological theory, this creationist explanation does not stand on its own merits as a central truth that should replace it, if one is being openly skeptical and examining the merits of each idea. Even standing within metaphysics and dismissing empirical observations altogether, what of some other religious faith's interpretation of the story of creation? Why is this one the one? It isn't, there isn't anyway to demonstrate that. It just is the one that you want it to be because it affirms many other things you would also like to believe about yourself, your identity, and the world and how you interact with it.

This may all be a fascinating argument in an introductory level course on comparative religions or something amusing to contemplate as one studies Greek mythology as a child, but it isn't a constructive way to talk about science and debate its merits. I would agree it doesn't seem very constructive to try to bludgeon Christians over the head with data, as that's been going on for decades. Or that there are institutional problems with the way science is being conducted, or that there aren't very many conservatives in some fields of study which may offer distinct perspectives, such as in moral psychology, and so on. But if Christian creationists aren't willing to observe what scientific study and the field is doing or what it has produced as evidence in support of its conclusions then why even bother having the argument? One possible interpretation for this is to not bother to engage or dignify this position with debate. If "they" want to go believe that, whatever. Our concern would be this large body of people who aren't sure what to believe. And maybe look at why that is and what we can offer. People tend to demand rigid uncertainties. Science doesn't tend to offer rigid uncertainties. But it can offer quite a lot in the way of taking some uncertainties and finding ways to make them predictable, testable, and empirical, taking the misunderstood or unknown and making it understood and known as best we are able.

Having a flashlight in a dark room doesn't always illuminate the whole room. But it makes it a lot easier to see than fumbling around in the dark.
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