Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Defending Reason, Attacking Faith

This video by Richard Dawkins (hat tip pharyngula) is pretty interesting and does a good job I think of bringing home just how ridiculous most faith-based/superstitious beliefs are. This isn't to say those beliefs are wrong, it's just to say that if the holy spirit descends and inspires you to believe that Jesus was the only son of God and that he was born of a virgin, well... you should be aware that your belief are going to seem silly to those who don't share them.

What struck me as really interesting was the way Dawkins frames the battle between science and unreason. He views his struggle as a defense one:
...Reason and a respect for evidence are precious commodities, the source of human progress and our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth.

Yet, today, society appears to be retreating from reason.

Apparently harmless but utterly irrational belief systems from astrology to New Age mysticism, clairvoyance to alternative health remedies are booming.
The emphasis is mine. Though I respect the project Dawkins has devoted himself too I think the idea that "New Atheism" is just a response to new attacks from unreason is pretty far-fetched. If anything it's a new offensive by atheists which overtly breaks the old truce between science and religion that gave each their own Nonoverlapping Magisteria. Dawkins refusal to politely respect religious beliefs destroy this pact just as surely as a Federation Cloaking Device.

Granted, this truce is being attacked from the other side too. The view that the revealed truth of God can over-rule testable hypotheses is not confined to the New Age faith-healers.

Here's another theory of what's happening. Most people who hold these unscientific positions aren't stupid or gullible, they've just been raised with beliefs that humans are all too prone to accepting. The religious community has always herded it's friendly non-threatening casual believers with hard-core uncompromising evangelists/bishops/imams. Could it be that the atheist community has only recently gained enough adherents to support their own version of the uncompromising take-it-to-the-logical-conclusion type leader that has been the staple of religion for thousands of years?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

On not being racist

Reviewing the post below I realized that it may sound a bit... racist. I certainly don't mean to single out any racial or ethnic group as specifically prone to being poor or not having the skills to succeed. We should always keep in mind that the majority of American poor are white. I want to be completely clear that insofar as any particular group is doing more poorly than another this is almost always due to historical circumstances. Genetics can play a role - like how the lack of disease resistance in Native American populations lead to the downfall of many civilizations* - but I have seen no evidence that it played a role by modifying cognitive ability or behavior or that it plays any role in explaining modern day inequality. Humans are all pretty much the same and if some of us digest milk easier, or lose our Epicanthic fold as we age, or are more prone to rickets than to skin cancer, well, that's no reason why some of us should be rich and some should be poor.

Liberals tend to view the solving the problem of inequality as a matter of making up for past wrongs. Conservatives tend to reject this and argue that just about every group was oppressed at some point and most of them are now doing just fine. Basically, if the Asians could become successful after all the crap they went through, certainly Blacks can too. And if they haven't that's basically their own fault.

Personally I find neither of these arguments convincing. The "making up for past wrongs" view seems dangerously close to logic "blame the son for the sins of the father". To me, if you're going to make any kind of social justice argument it has to be grounded in current modern-day consequences of past injustice. The problem with conservative view is that though you can, for each poor person, chalk up their circumstances to a lack of "personal responsibility" it makes no sense to do this for a group. Ethnic and racial groups do not make collective moral choices. So even if you want to argue that, say, Sicilians are poor because they lack personal responsibility you still have to explain why they lack it so much more often than other groups. It's either 1) a really incredible coincidence or 2) due to outside forces. But if it is outside forces than you can hardly hold them personally responsible for the consequences.

Well... now I'm rehashing old ground. I just want to make the argument that inequality is real, in many cases it's not solely attributable to a lack of personal responsibility, and it's something that society should fix.

*Obviously war-making Europeans had a hand in it too, but let's not sell the Native Americans short: they probably could have defended themselves just fine is it wasn't for the whole small-pox thing.

Update: For a really interesting take on the sticky poverty problem see Ezra Klein. He references an interesting take on poverty from blogger Tyler Cowen a libertarian.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Cultural defense mechanisms

I was talking with a friend recently about immigration and assimilation and cultures of the poor when my friend opined that one of the reasons urban poverty was so persistent was that academic achievement wasn’t valued by the culture. When we hear this argument in the media, rap music and “thug worship” are usually singled out as the identifying marks of this trend. I have two observations to make. (Beware! The second one makes the first one unnecessary.)

First, every culture has defense mechanisms: methods of persuading members to stay in that culture and be proud of it. These mechanisms can include violence like punishing intermarriage by stoning or legal force or they can be less overt like French language policy. The amount of time Lou Dobbs’ spends worrying about Univision is difficult to understand if you believe he is motivated by a simple desire that America have a common language* but in the context of defending the integrity of his culture from outside influence it makes more sense.

One way a culture can defend its integrity is by discouraging members from pursuing activities where they are in the minority. This has the double effect of insulating members from outside influence and maintaining pride by devaluing things culture members don't have. It’s conceivable that a child from the inner-city might find it more rewarding to play basketball with their neighbors after school than to study for the spelling bee with a bunch of middle-class kids that won’t want to hang out afterwards anyways (because their parents don’t want their child picking up bad cultural habits from poor kids!). It's conceivable that poor urban youth might look at his low chances of getting a college education and think "Fine! I don't want your lousy diploma anyways!"

But even if you accept this line of reasoning it's clear that though "the culture devalues academic achievement" can explain why inner city culture is stuck where it is it can't explain how it got there in the first place. For that of course, you have to turn to the legacy of slavery.

Becuase you all understood that when I said "inner city children" and "poor urban youth" that I meant "poor black kids". Right?

The second point I want to make is that I don't think inner city culture actually devalues learning and academic achievement all that much.

No one on earth is more a product of their culture than a 7th grader. Lacking any self-identity they pretty much exist as a vessel for peer pressure to act on. My girlfriend teaches 7th grade at a public school in Oakland and she reports that just like students in middle-class schools her students enthusiastically want to go to college. And like middle-class students they also generally lack the long-term vision to study hard so they can get the grades they need to get there. The difference is that their parents generally don't give them the kind of incentives they need to achieve. For some, it's easier to accuse a teacher of racism than it is to take responsibility for a child's bad behavior. It's easier to say "It's in God's hands" than to force their child to study for the test. And all the while these kids have to deal with unstable home lives, bad nutrition and high-crime neighborhoods.

It's not that the culture doesn't value academic achievement. It's that the members don't understand what they need to do to achieve it and they face a whole bunch of additional obstacles besides that.

That leaves the question of how to fix it. On that score I don't really know. As far as I can tell conservative policy circles think it can be fixed by encouraging marriage (and discouraging teenage pregnancy as long as it doesn't involve sex ed), reducing dependency on government programs, reinging in teachers unions, and instituting school vouchers. The liberal plans basically break down into two camps: help individuals to move out of the ghetto, or try to fix the whole ghetto in the first place. In the upcoming primary these two views are represented by Edwards and Obama alternate plans to fight poverty.

*All the studies (PDF) I’ve seen show Hispanics are learning English just as fast as previous immigrants did though they tend to be bilingual longer.