Thursday, December 22, 2005

Review of Fiorina book on culture war rhetoric

Fiorina: Culture War rhetoric arises from an ideologically polarized political class

Since I think it is relevant to the politics of the ID issue that I've been discussing today, I am copying the text of my Amazon review of Morris Fiorina's book on culture war in American to here. For example, Bill Dembski (an Intelligent Design author) frequently states that culture war is important to us and demands that ID be made a political issue. Fiorina's argument would make his motivation seem rather hollow and parochial.

Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (Great Questions in Politics Series) by Morris P. FiorinaEdition: Paperback
Price: $14.00

Political class is polarized, but the rest of us can think!, November 16, 2004

This is a very brief and tightly argued book of enormous relevance to us in 2004. It makes the following remarkable points:

(1) On close inspection of individual opinions, the vast majority of the electorate in the U.S. are *moderate*, not radically polarized into liberals and conservatives. That is, most of us are, as we would like to believe, capable of thinking independently for ourselves rather than strictly along party ideological lines.

We are a _closely_divided_ nation, as reflected in the very close recent elections, however we are NOT a _*deeply*_divided_ nation. That is, we are not really a nation of two distinct warring camps and a couple of swing states as the media sometimes present it for dramatic purposes. Fiorina sugests that we are actually something close to an ambivalent nation which divides itself in poltitical matters because we have no choice when presented with highly divided options.

(2) The American public has *not* become dramatically polarized even over such hot topics as abortion. Rather, relatively small differences among us have been magnified by the rhetoric used to present the issues to us.

(3) The political choices we have are determined by a distinct class of politicians, party activists, and interest group leaders, who *have* become increasingly polarized over moral and religious ideology as well as economic ideology.

(4) A large part of the polarization of the political class has been the result of the realignment of the South, such that republicans aligned aggressive foreign policy with hostility to the welfare state, and democrats aligned antiwar sentiment with support of those at risk. This is represented particular well by the "gender gap" which widened at the same time this realignment or tuning of the ideologies of the parties was taking place.

Fiorina suggests that when Bill Clinton once said early in his presidency that he was Pro-Choice, but against abortion, most Americans knew what he meant, that most of us, liberal or conservative, do not want to legislate morality for others, even though we have a clear sense of what is right and wrong. Fiorina also points out for example that most 80% of us believe that abortion should be legal under some conditions (even if wrong), and illegal under others. The extremes at each end which promote unconditional rights for unborn babies or for mothers are roughly the 10% tail at either side of a normal curve.

Finally, he also provides data showing that the averaged opinions of self-identified liberals and conservatives regarding abortion differ only regarding under what specific conditions they think abortion should be legal, not the legality of abortion in general.

The result is that the supposed "culture war" is really a war between increasingly ideologically polarized political parties and their activists who arent really even aware of each others reasoning, with most of us in the middle getting hit by friendly fire from both sides, but being forced to choose between them.

The bottom line for Fiorina's argument here is that we are a nation currently creating unneccessary internal conflicts and indulging in "culture war" polarized issues like gay marriage or unconditional rights of various kinds that are really of concern to a relatively small and unrepresentative number of us. They are sold to us by political parties and the media because of their drama rather than their relative importance. It's hard for me to look at the political ads for either of the current candidates in 2004 without nodding agreement on this.

Our political system provides us with ideological extremism on both sides, and seems to have no desire or ability to change itself, whereas most of us caught in it would usually prefer pragmatic and non-ideological solutions to issues that address larger numbers of us.

I read this at the same time at Juergensmeyer's book "Terror in the Mind of God," and it is chilling how much the "culture war" among the political elites comes to resemble the "cosmic war" of good and evil that Juergensmeyer theorizes leads to real violence under some conditions.

If Fiorina is right, we may not really have a (popular) culture war at all, but we could create one if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as we come to accept it uncritically. If Fiornia had a solution for this centrally important problem, this book would merit 6 or 7 stars. However, just by pointing it out so clearly, it merits the highest rating I can give it.

Please read this important and timely book.

BrainEthics: No ID theory in Penn classes
Santorum's Response to Dover is Reassuring (and I think honest)

I have to give Pa. Senator Rick Santorum a lot of credit. According to an article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, when he read through the testimony of the Kitzmiller "Intelligent Design" case and recognized the degree to which the proponents were religiously motivated, he no longer said he was in support of the case.

That reinforces the feeling I got from reading his book, "It Takes a Family" that he is sincere in his conservative political beliefs in general and not a religious extremist willing to lie to promote a cause as some of the folks at the Discovery Institute truly appear to be. From reading the testimony and responses to the trial, I've gotten the sense that there are a variety of different strands among those folks, from reasonably honest scholars trying to promote what they think will someday become a real scientific movement (I suspect that Behe and possibly Dembski fall into that category), to others with almost no scholarly integrity who simply want to wage culture war on secular philosophies like scientific naturalism above all else.

It is good to see honest conservatives who respect the different traditions, both religious and secular, differing with the extremist groups and coming closer to exposing them for the divisive, culture-war-obsessed parochial thinkers that they are. (That's just my interpretation of course).

The Inquirer article makes a very big deal out of the significance of ID as a re-election issue for Santorum, how his opponents are quoting him to show how he has "flip-flopped" on the issue.

Right now, from the quotes, I don't see it. I see quotes being taken out of context. There is a consistent pattern in all of them that Santorum, like many conservatives believes that:

1. ID is a theory that is compatible with the notion of a Creator but is also at least potentially and legitimately scientific

2. If ID is legitimate science, it shouldn't be legislated into curricula because of religious and political motivations but accepted by scientists themselves for evidential reasons within the life sciences

3. Scientists and educators have been loathe to accept alternatives to orthodox neo-Darwinism.

Now, I disagree with (1) to some extent, however I agree it is possible in principle, I think that (2) is absolutely dead on right, and that (3) is regrettably true to some degree.

I think the only place where Santorum actually flip-flopped on this issue is that he changed his mind that (2) was a neccessary evil in order to push past the problems caused by (3). Conservatism within science, I think even most conservatives would agree in principle, is best met by the promotion of new research from within science rather than legislation from without. ID has consistently been misrepresented as being a movement within science, when it most certainly is not. The testimony made that fact so well known to some of us much more obvious to others, and Santorum is one of the people reacting to that evidence.

I admire that wisdom even though I still can't quite see how ID or any other form of dualism could somehow morph into a form compatible with scientific naturalism and testability. The underlying philosophy of science is really a minor point compared to the kinds of deception that have been perpetrated by extremists in the name of culture war.

If Santorum is sincere, and I think he is at this point, he was as misled as most people as to what the ID case was about from the Discovery Institute perspective. They are not interested in teaching controversy over evolution, which is already done in science when it is taught properly, but in undermining legitimate scientific theories and replacing them with religiously rooted alternatives that aren't seen as "materialistic" and therefore less compatible with orthodox religious tradition.

Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think Santorum honestly didn't realize who he was in bed with, metaphorically speaking, when he voiced his support of the ID movement because he honestly but mistakenly believed the culture war propaganda that science was taken over by some sort of anti-Christian liberal elite atheist conspiracy and was no longer basing its theories on the richness of empirical data and full scientific creativity. Those of us who have a real interest in biology know how vital and dynamic it really is, and how scientifically productive, and it's good that the message is starting to get out in drips and drabs among conservatives.

Like the verdict of the court trial, the Santorum article today was good news to most of us that wisdom and common sense still sometimes prevail over extremism and political partisanship.

kind regards,


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The verdict for the Dover School Board case on "Intelligent Design" is now in.


The judge's opinion found (correctly, imo) that the case was essentially unsuccessful activism against the establishment clause of the 1st ammendment of the U.S. Constitution because ID is disguised religion being forced onto educators as part of the curriculum in science classes.

As I read the opinion:

1. ID is an untestable explanation which cannot be untangled from its religious creationist sources,

2. Weaknesses in evolutionary theory do not provide support for ID as an alternative scientific theory,

3. The ID proponents who may have sincere and bona fide scholarly intentions have however repeatedly lied about their motivations for supporting the movement and therefore place their loyalty to the movement above their integrity as scholars,

4. The bedrock claim by the ID proponents that evolutionary biology is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general is utterly false.

Therefore, on 1st ammendment grounds, the Dover School Board was permanently enjoined from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, and from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID.

My thoughts:

Not only is this ruling consistent with the establishment clause, but my feeling is that this should also be the common sense position of schools other than public schools where science is supposed to be taught competently. There should be no supreme being or intelligent designer entering into science classes, unless the consensus of scientists in that field is that the use such concepts is justified in their theories. As the testimony made clear, the ID proponents are a tiny and idiosyncratic minority of scientists who think in terms of a different tradition than other scientists and envision scientific theories differnently. Materialism is not given equal time in theology classes or catechism, theology should not be automatically given equal time in science classes just for the supposed sake of balance. You are no longer balancing yourself when you reach over to the person next to you for support. The interests of scholarly balance or charity do not require abandoning the core epistemic values of science and its distinct tradition of thinking.

I agree with the judge's opinion on all major points. For all of its variations in the different fields, science is conducted in accordance with a tradition that speaks with a single voice and a single set of epistemic values regarding inquiry into nature. This tradition is what is and should be the content of competently taught science classes, whether they are in public schools or not. ID is inconsistent with those epistemic values. Any role that research into "Intelligent Design," can play (explanations relying on something having planned nature itself, and explanations that rely on causes from outside of nature, violating physical causal closure of the scientific methodological naturalism) should be in other kinds of classes, not forced upon science classes by political or legal pressure as affirmative action alternatives. This is not just based on the abstract definition of science as physicalist, but on an observation of what scientists actually do and how they work. When they are speaking as ID proponents, professional technologists are not thinking as scientists in terms of constructing testable predictive hypotheses and testing them when they promote ID. They should certainly have the freedom to pursue those scholarly pursuits without prejudice, but scientists and educators in existing organizations are autonomous experts with their own ethical boards and have the right to decide on what is part of their own tradition and their own fields and what is not. Politicians should not be able to force alternate theories to be taught or to be able to interfere with topics of research in general unless the scientists are themselves doing something illegal.

The central ID argument that the naturalistic tradition of science is unfairly atheistic and therefore that religious explanations should be considered in the interest of religious tolerance is clever and unfortunately appears to be consistent with the way a lot of American conservatives think, but ultimately it is wrongheaded. Patriotism and religious faith are carried too far in emphasizing the moral criteria of loyalty over that of truth in this argument.

In my opinion, even apparently "non-religious" philosophical dualist arguments against materialism are ultimately inconsistent with the way science is and has been practiced for centuries and continues to be practiced, but the ultimate criteria should be their testability. I don't see how they could be tested, but I don't reject the possibility at some point. Notwithstanding, those arguments are not the basis for the ID movement as it now stands, nor do they seem to share the same motivations. They are another way in which some people have wrongly seen science as overly restrictive and want to expand it to be consistent with more intuitive ways of looking at nature.

To me, the reason science works as well as it does in certain domains of thinking is that it opposes our intuition in various ways, letting us get past it using other kinds of tools. That's why it is important that it remain autonomous as a domain of inquiry and not be pressured to conform with other traditions for social and political reasons.

By the same reasoning, neither do atheist radicals like Richard Dawkins who see no value whatsoever in religion speak for science. The constitution unambiguously protects freedom of the practice of religion. Science leaves little room for the operation of miracles, but it does not deny their possibility, nor the existence of a supreme being, nor is it a religious tradition or equivalent to religious traditions in any meaningful sense.