Sunday, 19 November 2006

atheism and assholes

A few weeks ago, my listlessness started to creep me out. I've been listless for a lot longer than a couple of weeks--more like a couple of years, actually. At the same time, I've only been listless about certain things--mostly the debate over evolution and intelligent design. It's not that I stopped having opinions or stopped caring, it's that I stopped doing anything about it. In my undergraduate days, I played Huxley to the Wilberforces I encountered. As time passed I recognized that my arguments proved little, were not new, and moreover convinced no one. Similarly for the rejoinders. Soundly beaten, this horse trudged on, and I became rather disgusted with the whole affair. Soon after, we all graduated, began new activities in new places with new people, and I found that the debate would have to proceed from the beginning--another endless rehearsal of unconvincing arguments. I put on a superior air and made myself aloof to the debate, deeming it unworthy of my attention. Atheism stank of dogmatism and evangelism, and anyone who participated in the debate was wasting time.

And so I have remained for a few years, only occasionally roused to comment usually to objectively clarify, in passing, some point made by someone else. I'm not sure I stated my own position once in those years, as I was at the time afflicted by the creeping relativism that comes from moving to Canada and wanting very much not to be the hated American. I was brutally critical of simplistic argumentation, but I was at the same time dismissive of the battle itself. This must have been especially frustrating to a close friend of mine who was working for the atheist group Center For Inquiry. He is now as disillusioned an atheist as I am, but earlier on my refusal to engage in the debate must have just seemed rude--and it was. Apologia finit.

About a month ago, I read Battle of the New Atheism, which has Sam Harris saying (page 4), "at some point, there is going to be enough pressure that it is just going to be too embarrassing to believe in God." I don't think Harris is right about that, but I began to wonder who had framed the debate I was ignoring. Perhaps I had become disillusioned with the debate because it had been framed by the architects of intelligent design.

This point was driven home by Natalie Angier (thanks Cosmic Variance!), who points out the hypocrisy of scientists who
want to augment... the number of people who believe in evolution without bothering to confront a few other salient statistics that pollsters have revealed about America's religious cosmogony. Few scientists, for example, worry about the 77 percent of Americans who insist that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction. Nor do the researchers wring their hands over the 80 percent who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned.
My initial reaction was that this is a false analogy--denying a law of nature (evolution) is a much more serious offense than making an exception to one (virgin birth). For a compatibilist, that's what makes a miracle. But Angier goes on,
Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University's "Ask an Astronomer" Web site. To the query, "Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?" the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, "modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . ."

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," snarls Dave Kornreich. "It is considered to be a ludicrous scam."
The difference is not just the number of people involved in each activity (probably as many people read their horoscope each day as say Grace at supper), it's the number of people we offend by calling their practice a "ludicrous scam." Everyone knows horoscopes are a ludicrous scam--those who read them do so for a laugh, for inspiration, or as a kind of decision outsourcing, like the flip of a coin. On the other hand, everyone knows that religion is deadly serious, and being flip is not funny.

Saturday, 18 November 2006

framing the election

One more in my continuing series, "Avoiding Major Papers Through Rants." As usual, apologies.

How should we understand last Tuesday's election results?

Of course, there's Red State, Blue State, One State, Two State. Besides 1984, when Reagan painted the map blue (yes, the colors were reversed--Mondale turned his home state of Minnesota Democratic red), a dichotomy is the opposite of informative if you're trying to understand anything about the election. Even USA Today is more informative than the Red-Blue map. (Okay, maybe not. In fact... note to self: write editor of USA Today to suggest that, next election, they send out the paper with a large uncolored pullout map--with state names printed in full, none of those confusing abbreviations--and red and blue crayons.)

Back in January 2004, Robert David Sullivan offered an alternative to the red-blue commonplace. Instead of two colors correlating with the two parties, he has 10 colors correlating with 10 regional voting blocs of equal population. "The regions are based on voting returns from both national and state elections, demographic data from the US Census, and certain geographic features such as mountain ranges and coastlines." The added granularity alone is a big help in showing some of the relevant patterns in recent elections (in particular highlighting the deep divisions inside some states--note that Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, Texas, and California all have regions of three of these divisions within them.

What do the regions "mean"? Sullivan doesn't really explain much about the factors he weighed or how he drew the lines. Here's a synopsis of what he does say (approximately left to right across the map):

Upper Coasts - high tech, independent progressives
Sagebrush - rural libertarians
Farm Belt - white farmers with high school educations
El Norte - young and Latino
Southern Comfort - Republican heaven
Big River - always highly contested, high school educated
Great Lakes - urban industrial centers versus suburbanites
Appalachia - poor Republican dirt farmers and coal miners
Southern Lowlands - African American Democrats and white Republicans duke it out in this region every election.
Northeast Corridor - big city liberal intellectuals.

I'll come back to these divisions in a moment, but first I'd like to show that they remain somewhat useful. Take a look at this county-level map of the 2004 election (scroll down 2/3 of the entry):

I like this map a lot more than red-blue, because it has a LOT of granularity to it. It's still somewhat unrepresentative since New York City is a tiny speck even though it has the population of that whole big red region in the middle there, but at least it shows purple gradations. But other than the gestalt effect, which I like, there's really too much information on this map to be useful, and that information is encoded in a way that makes it very hard to analyze in any meaningful way (at least, in the amount of time I intend to spend on it).

Now compare Sullivan's geo-demo-elector-graphic pre-election map with the post-election county map. Some similarities should pop out.

It's obvious that Upper Coasts and El Norte are Kerry-country. Sagebrush (other than the New England portion--hooray us!) went Bush, along with Southern Comfort and Appalachia. In some sense, we can conclude that Sullivan's map is successful in identifying regional differences in voting outcomes, and in some sense this might be considered "explanatory" (i.e., an instrumental or utilitarian sense). But it is completely unsatisfying if we seek to understand the differences. At the very least, we would need to spend some time constructing Rudyard Kipling style "just so" stories to describe the relationship between the geographic, demographic, and election history factors Sullivan used in creating the map.

Some of the divisions are immediately sensible, like dividing along geographic boundaries rather than political ones. Farmers on opposite sides of a state line are still more likely to agree with one another than with industrialists in their own states. But which geographical boundaries do you choose? Which ones are relevant to elections? How is it that Sullivan decided to make a Latino region? Don't pretend you didn't notice--he called it El Norte. There's no geographic component to this other than vicinity. Sullivan isn't dividing mountains from plains here, he's noticed that regions of the country with a heavy Latino representation vote as a bloc (or at least, the regions indicated do). There's no explanation for this, though--it's just a statement that if enough people in a region check the "hispanic" box on the census, then that region will likely follow a certain voting pattern. Is this what passes for explanation? (Granted, Sullivan never claims to be explaining anything, so this shouldn't be seen as a criticism of his project.)

Perhaps the trouble here is that I'm seeking an explanation where no explanation is to be had--or where any given explanation is just as satisfactory as the next. The trite, five-second post-election "analysis" says Tuesday's vote was a referendum on the war. Maybe it was. But maybe this is the same kind of analysis that accompanies the daily financial report: "The Dow was down 24 points today on news that ACME will lay off 2,500" Really? Is that the reason? Can you show me a causal map? No, of course not. To do so would be to point out how absurd the stock market is. It's not news about ACME that's important. It's how people react to news about ACME. More precisely, it's about how traders think people are going to react to news about ACME. Actually, that's not quite it either, it's really more about how traders think other traders think people are going to react to news about ACME. What's frightening is that these imaginary reasons for doing things become real when events unfold in just the way we would predict they would if those reasons obtained. This is, unfortunately, not a simple case of ad hoc, post hoc rationalization. It's a case of reification.*

If I leak news about ACME corporation to a bunch of stock traders, and they start buying or selling ACME stock on the basis of what they think OTHER stock traders are going to do when they hear the same news, surely the news really is the cause of what happens to ACME stock.

And surely, if I say that the election was a referendum on the war, and politicians start acting like the election was a referendum on the war, then the election really was a referendum on the war. Or it may as well have been.

Do election results have anything to do with, say, environmental concerns? The minimum wage? Social security? Universal healthcare? Stem cells? Congressional pages? Inheritance taxes? No. It's all about the war.

* In this analysis, I rely on ideas from Ian Hacking's 1982 essay "Experimentation and Scientific Realism." In it, he writes, "we are completely convinced of the reality of electrons when we regularly set out to build--and often enough succeed in building--new kinds of devices that use various well understood causal properties of electrons to interfere in other more hypothetical parts of nature." Or, if you want the shorter version: "If you can spray it, it's real." I mention this to give credit where due, but also because it's probably the first time anyone has ever supported an argument about politics with evidence from the philosophy of science.


In the interest of avoiding authoring another paper on the history of astronomy, I submit the following for your distraction:

Theoretically, I suppose, we are all aware that there is a distinction to be made between the folks who create, um, actual stuff, and the folks who create ads to make people want to buy that stuff. But generally, we sort of assume that there's some kind of connection between those two groups of people. For example, one person might make a new car and another person will produce a commercial about that car. (Well, okay, they're not "one person" and "another person," they're corporations and agencies, but still.) Apparently, that's not how things work at all.

Elizabeth Merrick has been creating controversy lately in relation to her book This Is Not Chick Lit, an anthology of fiction by serious female authors who (since they are serious) don't write about shopping, high heels, or purses. Apparently, there is a raging debate in the blogosphere about this (whatever "this" is. I assume it has something to do with Sex and the City, which is feminist, because the women in it both like and have sex, and which must also be chick lit, because the women in it both like and have handbags). (So I'm informed.) Given Merrick's outspoken stance against "chick lit" and all the purses that literature implies, how can we explain this invitation to the book launch?

Is this supposed to be ironic? Look at the fine print: "During the special event, receive 20% off." Irony doesn't usually come with a rebate, does it? No, I think what happened was something like this:


So, who's the expected audience for this book of yours?

Upper middle-class socialite feminists like me.

Okay, perfect.

He (duh) hangs up the phone and dials MEL GIBSON-LIKE CHARACTER FROM WHAT WOMEN WANT.

Hey, Mel, let's prepare a launch for a bunch of rich women.

No problem, Alan Alda.

He hangs up the phone and turns thoughtfully to HIS ASSISTANT (A WOMAN).

Gee, what do rich women like? Hey, I know! Shopping.

On it boss! Ooh! Can there be purses right there in the invite?

Hee hee! The humorous possibilities are endless! Oh, the antics that will ensue! Too bad this is real life!

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. There's this website run by the "Parents Television Council," which, if you can't tell from the name, is one of those groups that makes long lists of what's wrong with television (see this). They've recently decided to turn off the search feature on their site, because sponsored links were promoting the very shows PTC criticized. For example, "a search for FX's Rescue Me would get you the headline "PTC Outraged Over Graphic Rape Scenes on FX's Rescue Me"—and a helpful link advertising: "Low Prices on Rescue Me. Qualified Orders Over $25 Ship Free." " What's a little funny is that it was PTC who decided to pull the search feature. Okay, granted, those ads are inconsistent with their message. Fine. But shouldn't it have been FX that pulled their ad from the PTC site? I mean, they're the ones being criticized. Even if "there's no such thing as bad press," isn't this a slightly different, insidious, unsettling form? A few years ago, when I was editor of my high school paper, Doug Vanderweide (an editorialist for our local paper) warned me that the job was not simply to balance positive and negative coverage of issues, but also to be aware of issue framing: the choices about which issues were being included and which excluded. That was the first time I understood the hidden power of editors, and at the same time, the role of corporate ownership and sponsorship in journalism suddenly became a bit clearer. Over the years, practical guidelines have arisen--in stories about GE, NBC discloses that GE is their "parent company", for example--but the issue has never disappeared. Maybe it has disappeared now, though, and on the internet advertisers and content editors no longer have to do the money-credibility dance. Maybe editors can be independent in their decisions about which story to publish--and what spin to give it. Maybe advertisers can just look at PageRank(TM) statistics and readership surveys to figure out where to place ads--without worrying about what relevance their ads have to the content, or the content to the ads. And that's great. Right?

Maybe what is really happening here is that all of this automates the old advertising checks versus balance-in-reporting equation. Clearly, computers make the advertising decisions. Statistically, I bet they're good at it. I bet the ads are just as cost-effective when they're splattered on pro and con reviews of their own or competitors products. That can be scary or comforting--maybe it indicates positive correlation between repeated exposure and likely purchase, regardless of positive or negative associations (scary), or maybe it indicates that people actually weigh evidence and make choices for themselves (comforting). In either case, though, issue framing is still present. If CNET never writes a story about Apple Computer, probably the computers will stop putting Apple Computer ads on the site. The editors know this, so they're probably going to continue to write stories about Apple Computer. The really scary part is that humans have been removed from the advertising side of the equation. Computers decide where to put the ads. We can intervene, but first we have to notice that there's a problem. If the Merrick and PTC stories are any indication, I'm not sure that's a job for humans or computers.

gender history

Gender history is activist history (cf. those activist judges who have the gall to interpret the constitution). Received history is about men. White men. White, land-owning men. Rich, white, land-owning men. A few centuries ago, a Whig named MacCauley wrote a history of the world. This history began in Greece, presently moved to Italy for a millennium, headed a bit north, fuddled around for another millennium, and then arrived in Britain, culminating with the recent decisive political victory of the Whig Party. History pursued in this manner is now known as Whig history. To some extent impossible to avoid (for reasons of reader interest--not to mention researcher interest), such history clearly lacks objectivity. Howard Zinn is famous for providing, if not objectivity, then a certain gestalt anti-Whig history. Gender historians have the agenda of providing the female perspective on history, often with the method of examining the social roles of men and women, with especial attention paid those women (and sometimes men) who break from those roles in various ways. Gender is the (or a) lens through which the historian peers in the endeavor to explain or describe the events of the past. Sarah, being female, socialist, and feminist, is a strong proponent of gender history, though not to exclusion; she also favors material culture as contrasted with intellectual history--things versus ideas. History of science, a relatively new field previously occupied by books written by scientists with a fascination for things past--invariably men, rarely trained in historical methodology. Their works are invariably Whiggish and invariably fascinated by genius and revolutions in science (indeed, many such works are autobiographical). The past several decades have done much to update the field; one might suggest that a revolution has occurred in the history of science (that is, if one wished to endure the academic equivalent of a schoolyard beating). Nevertheless, the actors on the stage are predominantly men. The historian with sympathy for the gender agender, er, agenda, has five possible responses to the history of science: 1) impugn the field as a fundamentally gender-biased endeavor, 2) take solace in the fact that at least some of the historians are women, 3) artificially inflate the roles of the women who are actors in the standard history (there are many, and they are important. A history of Lavoisier would be incomplete without attention to his wife, who was an assistant in his lab and served as the public relations arm of his self-described Chemical Revolution by hosting extremely popular parties, present at which were other chemists as well as the political elite. But it would be misleading to make her the key figure in the Chemical Revolution), 4) find and highlight previously neglected women in science and remain generally dissatisfied [this is, by the way, the standard approach], 5) attempt to recast the enterprise of history of science in such a way as to include the activities of women.

I suspect that Sarah would favor the first approach, and perhaps rightly so. (5) is an approach that has worked well in the history of technology, but works less well in the history of science. A study of cheese manufacture, for example, can go beyond the industrial history of the Kraft company and discuss artisanal cheese-making, an activity pursued by women in many cultures, and with many interesting ties to gender roles. Indeed, any time the gender lens gives context to the activities under investigation, it is worth employing. I fear that in the history of science, especially prior to the 18th century, women will forever appear as ancillary characters purely because those activities we presently identify as having a connection to the development of those activities we term science were pursued by men and were not pursued by women. To recast the enterprise of history of science so that it includes the activities pursued by women is to recast history of science as history general. Just as gender is a lens, the Whiggish pursuit on the trail of activities related to present-day science is a lens. What is the historian to do? Turn to philosophy. That's what I do! But I do feel compelled to use the gender lens whenever possible. It is, after all, useful in providing one more perspective to complement that fractured form of objectivity now so very fashionable.