Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

One man's meat

A couple of days ago, my son and I were chatting, and he asked me if I'd ever heard about the concept of "high meat."

I told him I hadn't.  "High meat," he explained, is when people take the probiotic movement one step further, and eat meat and fish that have deliberately been left out until they are thoroughly spoiled.

It is an occupational hazard of writing here at Skeptophilia that occasionally someone will tell me about some damnfool claim, and it turns out they made it up just to see if I'll believe it.  The problem is, having written for seven years about the depths of nonsense to which the human mind can sink, it's hard for me to dismiss any claim out of hand.

After all, any species that can come up with downloadable medicines and homeopathic water is clearly capable of idiocy far beyond anything I could conceive of.

But I figured I'd hedge my bets, especially since my son has a reputation for being a bit of a wiseass at times.  (Can't imagine where he got that from.)  I said, "This is a joke, right?"

He assured me that it wasn't.  So I did some research.  And sure enough: there are back-to-nature types who are so back to nature that they want to recapture what it was like to be a hyena eating carrion in the hot sun of the African savanna.

Don't believe me?  Take a look at this article from the New Yorker by Burkhard Bilger, wherein he visits people who have various takes on the probiotic idea, finally ending up in the home of Steve Torma of Asheville, North Carolina, who has pushed the whole thing to the ultimate.  Torma makes his own "high meat" by letting raw meat or fish decompose in jars.  Then he eats it.  Bilger writes:
Torma ducked into the back of the house and returned with a swing-top jar in his hands. Inside lay a piece of organic beef, badly spoiled.  It was afloat in an ochre-colored puddle of its own decay, the muscle and slime indistinguishable, like a slug.
Even Torma seemed to recognize that it wasn't a very appealing diet.  "The first couple of bites," Torma said, "can be rough going."

There are a variety of other sites where I found out way more about this practice than I ever wanted to know.  The site Local Harvest has directions for preparing "high meat," attributing any resistance we might have to eating said decomposed glop to "prior conditioning."  The Raw Paleo Diet Forum goes into considerable detail about consuming "high meat," and says that if you end up with explosive diarrhea after eating it, not to worry because it's just your body "purging itself of toxins."

Okay, let's see.  Where do I begin?

Cooking, and food preservation strategies in general, caught on primarily because the people who used them were less likely to die of food poisoning.  There are a lot of bacteria out there that would be very happy to make you violently ill -- E. coli, Listeria, Cryptosporidium, and Salmonella come to mind -- and since decomposition happens because of the digestion of organic matter by bacteria, if you eat decomposed food, you are approximately 1,582,614 times more likely to get bacterial food poisoning than the rest of us.

And the symptoms you get are not from the body "purging itself of toxins."  What it is doing is attempting to purge itself of the pathogenic bacteria you were stupid enough to consume.

Consider, too, that we are evolved (not "conditioned") to avoid rotten stuff.  Decomposing meat contains two chemicals -- tetramethylenediamine and pentamethylenediamine -- that are so foul-smelling that their more common names are "putrescine" and "cadaverine," respectively.  Our noses are early-warning systems, giving us valuable information that is essential to our survival.

Including, for example, "Don't eat something that smells like a putrescent cadaver, you fucking moron."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

It's not that the whole probiotic thing is a bad idea.  Some fermented food -- pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi, for example -- are fermented with specific strains of bacteria to produce particular flavors and odors.  These bacteria are also chosen on the basis of (1) tasting reasonably good, and (2) not killing you.  (Many of these bacteria are part of a healthy intestinal flora, which has been shown to protect you from diseases like ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.)

Eating things that have rotted with your ordinary, garden-variety bacteria, however, is a good way to spend the next few days on a first-name basis with your toilet.  There's a reason we have strict sterilization protocols for food, such as cooking, canning of vegetables, and pasteurization of milk.  It reduces the likelihood of the Bad Guys getting into your digestive tract.  Consider the FDA's stance on pasteurization: "Raw milk is inherently dangerous," their guidelines on dairy safety state.  "It should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose."

So that's unequivocal.

But if you want to try out life as a vulture, have at it.  Me, I'm gonna stick with "low meat," medium-rare, with a large glass of red wine, which not only tastes great but is much less likely to give me horrible bacterial infections.  Call me particular, but I'm just kind of finicky that way.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Governmental facepalms

Because we evidently needed another reason to facepalm over a Trump appointee, today we consider: John Fleming, assistant secretary for health technology at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Fleming has some decidedly peculiar ideas.  In his book Preventing Addiction: What Parents Must Know to Immunize Their Kids Against Drug and Alcohol Addiction, Fleming states that opiates are proof of the existence of god:
Were it not for these drugs, many common and miraculous surgeries would be impossible to either undergo or perform.  In my opinion this is no coincidence at all.  Only a higher power and intellect could have created a world in which substances like opiates grow naturally.
Which brings up a couple of troubling questions:
  1. Why do these miracle substances intelligently created by a deity so often lead to addiction and the potential for overdose?
  2. If opiates are a blessed gift from god because they "grow naturally," why are people of Fleming's stripe virtually all against the legalization of marijuana?  Seems like an intelligent deity's creation of marijuana could be argued not only from the standpoint that it "grows naturally," but because its consumption is so beneficial to the tortilla chip industry.
 It's a bit like Dr. Pangloss said in Voltaire's masterpiece Candide:
It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end.  Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles.  Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches...  Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.
When, of course, rather than giving us noses to support spectacles, god could just have given us all perfect eyesight rather than noses built to support spectacles.


[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This, however, is not the only bizarre thing in Fleming's book.  He says there's a correlation between tattoos and drug addiction:
Body art comes into play in drug addiction as well, although obviously, not all who have a tattoo are addicts.  A sailor who gets a single tattoo on his arm or an adult woman who has a small butterfly tattooed on her lower abdomen are not necessarily drug addicts or even rebellious — just dumb, at least temporarily!...  When you see that your child has become interested in body art or has a fascination with the Goth or other subculture, then be on alert, because your child is likely headed into rebellion and possible drug experimentation.
So this makes me wonder how my two rather large tattoos haven't resulted in my being addicted to cocaine or something.  Despite the size and elaborate nature of my own body art, maybe I'm still in the category of "temporarily dumb."

Last, it turns out that Fleming himself might not have much right to point fingers about temporary stupidity, because he is one of the people who fell for the story in The Onion that Planned Parenthood was building an "$8 billion abortionplex."  Then, not having learned the lesson "if you're not smart enough to recognize satire and fake news, at least be smart enough to check your sources," he delivered a speech on the floor of Congress in 2013 to communicate the alarming news that the Department of Defense was starting to round up and court martial Christians so as to "create an atheist military."

Where, you might ask, did Fleming get this "information" from?

From Breitbart, of course.

So come on, folks.  Is it too much to ask to have a few government appointees who are competent, intelligent, and sane?  Because the ones we have now, in my dad's trenchant phrase, couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel.

Myself, I'm beginning to wonder if this is an elaborate experiment being run by alien scientists to see how long it takes us to figure out that the whole American government is some kind of huge put-on.  The question they're trying to answer is whether we'll just go along with it unquestioningly.  At some point, maybe they're expecting us to say, "Okay, ha-ha, very funny.  Game's up.  Come out of hiding, alien overlords, and give us back some semblance of normalcy."  I don't know how else you'd explain people like Fleming, not to mention Steve Bannon, who looks like he's spent the last ten years pouring Jack Daniels on his breakfast cereal.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The hydra of horrible ideas

For today's post, we will focus our attention on a Skeptophilia frequent flyer -- Representative Lamar Smith, who is narrowly edged out by Senator Mitch McConnell as the world's most punchable face.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Smith is in the news this week because of his appearance as a keynote speaker at the 12th annual conference of the Heartland Institute, a petroleum-industry-funded "think tank" dedicated to casting doubt on climate change science.  Smith has been unrelenting in his attacks on the scientific community, which makes it even more appalling that he has since 2013 been the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, a committee that also includes not only the virulently anti-science Dana Rohrabacher but Bill Posey of Florida, who believes that vaccines cause autism.

So the governmental oversight of scientific research in the United States falls clearly into the category of "heaven help us."  There's no doubt that Smith is in the pocket of the fossil fuels industry; they are far and away his largest donors, having funded his campaigns to the tune of $600,000.

And no one can say the industry isn't getting what they paid for.  Smith's talk at the Heartland Institute was fairly crowing with delight over the opportunity they have to completely gut any environmental legislation they want, given the appointment by the Trump administration of anti-environmental climate change deniers to damn near every leadership post in Washington.  "I think the president has ushered in a permanent change in the political climate," Smith said, to cheers from the audience.  "And by that I mean I think he’ll keep his promises and that he’ll do exactly what he said.  You’re seeing that in his appointments, like Scott Pruitt at EPA, for example.  So … I don’t think you’ll have any disappointment on any of those issues."

When an audience member suggested that Smith stop using the term "climate science" in favor of "climate studies" and "scientific research" in favor of "politically correct science," Smith agreed with a grin, and said he'd go a step further.  "I’ll start using those words if you’ll start using two words for me," Smith said.  "The first is never, ever use the word progressive.  Instead, use the word liberal.  The second is never use the word 'mainstream' media, because they aren’t.  Use 'liberal' media. Is that a deal?"

More cheers.

Most alarmingly, Smith said he's planning on increasing the pressure on research scientists to publish only results that support the goals of his political backers.  In fact, he spoke at length about his plans to craft legislation to punish federally-funded researchers who publish data that contradicts the party line -- in other words, that doesn't meet his warped concept of peer review, which means essentially having to pass a governmentally-set purity test.  To hell with what the evidence says; science becomes whatever the conservative agenda says it is.

The timing of this meeting is not without irony.  Just this week, research was published in Nature that the amount of warming we've already seen is leading to "devastating" bleaching of coral reefs; that climate change is enhancing the conditions that lead to life-threatening "smog events" in Beijing and elsewhere; that the winter of 2016-2017 showed "exceptional... periods of record-breaking heat" in the Arctic; and that last month was the second warmest February in the 139 years such records have been kept -- the warmest was February 2016.

But to Smith and his cronies, none of that matters.  It's all "politically correct climate studies."

All of this illustrates one rather sobering fact; for those of us on the left-ish side of things who breathed a sigh of relief when Paul Ryan's disaster of a health care bill died on the floor of the House last week, the fight is far from over.  This administration is proving to be a hydra of horrible ideas.  Destroy one of them, and two more appear in its place.

And this time, one of the hydra's heads is wearing the smarmy, smirking face of Lamar Smith, which is a mental image that will haunt my nightmares for some time to come.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Hell's gate

As a diversion from less cheerful subjects like what is currently happening in Washington, D. C., today we will consider: the Gates of Hell.

The interesting thing about the whole concept of hell is that it's connected to Christianity, and yet there's not much of a mention of it in the bible.  The Old Testament version, Sheol, was not really the traditional flaming inferno; it was more of a gray, dreary place cut off from hope and light, sort of like Newark but with less traffic.  The concept of a fire-and-brimstone version of hell doesn't seem to come up until the New Testament, for example Matthew 10:28 and Mark 9:43, where we are introduced to such fun notions as "the fiery furnace" and "unquenchable fire" into which you get pitched if you break the Ten Commandments and commit the Seven Deadly Sins, unless you're also a billionaire fast-talking con man, in which case you get elected president of the United States instead.

Wait, I said I was going to keep this post apolitical.  My bad.

Because of the mention of fire, there's been a picture developed that hell is a hot place underground, which has of course connected it in some people's mind with volcanoes and other subterranean phenomena.  There are a variety of places on Earth that have been considered possible candidates for gates to hell, three of which I describe below.

First, we have the Batagaika Crater in Siberia, which locals have nickname the "Hellmouth."  It's a pretty impressive feature, to be sure:


At its widest, it's a kilometer across and 87 meters deep, and is getting bigger.  The crater has nothing to do with hell, though, unless you're talking about the manmade hell we're creating by ignoring the human causes of climate change; it's something geologists call a megaslump, when removal of groundwater and thawing of permafrost cause massive subsidence.  So it's pretty awful, but doesn't have much to do with the punishment of the damned.

A second candidate is the Necromanteion of Baiae, a tunnel system near the city of Naples which apparently hosted a magical oracle who was supposed to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead.  She would enter the tunnel, breath the magical vapors, and come back and tell the locals what the dead had to say for themselves, which mostly was confusing, garbled nonsense, that the oracle's handlers then got to interpret whatever way they wanted.


What the dead probably should have told the oracle was "it's a stupid idea to breathe magical vapors in an area of high volcanic activity," because the gases coming out of the tunnel were high in sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, both of which are quite toxic, and explain her confusion without any magical explanation needed.  Baiae is near the Campi Flegrei, or burning fields, an area of fumaroles and boiling mud pits that illustrate that Mount Vesuvius didn't exhaust its capacity for violence when it destroyed Pompeii in 79 C. E.

Last, we have Darvaza, in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan.  Like Batagaika, Darvaza is due to the actions of people -- in this case, a natural gas drilling facility that went very, very wrong.  At some time in the 1960s -- given that we're talking about the Soviets, here, there's no certain information about precisely what happened when -- the ground collapsed underneath a gas-drilling rig, and during the collapse the methane seeping from the walls of the crater ignited.  People expected that it'd burn itself out quickly.

It didn't.


Darvaza is still burning today, and has become a tourist attraction for travelers who don't mind the fact that (1) it reeks of sulfur, (2) if you stay there long enough, the fumes will make you violently ill,  and (3) there are no amenities for miles around.  But if you're an adventurous sort, it's certainly something you won't see anywhere else on Earth.

So that's a trio of candidates for being the doorway to hell.  If none of these float your boat, however, there are actually dozens of others.

And that's not even counting Newark.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Drawing the line

One of the things I've liked the most about my seven years writing here at Skeptophilia is that it's given me the opportunity to think, learn, and reconsider my own views.  The point of skepticism, it seems to me, is to be open to revising one's stance if presented with new information or better arguments, and thus refining one's own perceptions.

Yesterday's post, about a couple of incidents in colleges where speakers with unpopular views were harassed or threatened with being banned outright, elicited a couple of comments from loyal readers that got me thinking about what I'd written.  And while I won't say it's completely changed my mind, it has made me realize that the topic is far more of a minefield than I'd realized.

[Note: I am quoting them with their permission.]

The first wrote:
While a person who makes up part of a vulnerable demographic for whatever reason absolutely has the right to avoid going to an event where they might be exposed to hate speech, simultaneously, allowing others on a campus to hear opinions that confirm them in thinking that hate speech against other people is a thing that is acceptable in society today seems overly affirming to people that perhaps don't deserve any audience at all. 
Not every campus speaker speaks hatefully, or on hateful topics, and you're right that unless we are exposed to all sides of an argument, we cannot develop informed opinions on that argument.  It's also incredibly difficult to draw a line in the sand that says 'these words are hateful, these words are just provocative, and these words are fine' - and I'm not sure that we should. 
So how do we listen to all sides of an argument that involves hate speech without making the victims of the hate speech feel that we are supporting the existence of said hate speech against them?   
I'm not sure there's an answer to this out there, but figured I would see what you thought.
I responded:
It's a tough question. I agree that to the disempowered, even having speakers who hold those kinds of views feels like tacit acceptance.  But I still think that the way to combat that is to work toward empowering the disempowered -- the professors encouraging them and supporting them in speaking up, even helping them to formulate questions and criticisms, or showing up with them to a talk -- is much better than denying the speaker the right to speak.  Like in the case with Stanger [the professor at Middlebury College who was assaulted after inviting Charles Murray, a political scientist with controversial views about the genetics of race and intelligence, to speak at the college] -- she was up front that she disagreed with Murray, but wanted him to present as an opportunity for her students to engage in reasoned discussion (and, perhaps, refutation of Murray's arguments).  It didn't work out that way, and the violence that ensued proved nothing.
She wrote back:
But that assumes that the students who feel disempowered by the topic of the speech will be able and stable enough to attend, listen to a speech that denigrates and attacks them (politely), before being able to disagree or question someone with which they disagree...  [You] might liken it to sitting down to listen to an hour of your worst childhood bullies argue about why they should have bullied you, or even to sitting down to listen to an hour of explaining why you shouldn't exist as a person at all. 
Some people are strong enough to do that, but not all of them are, no matter how much empowerment their professors try to share with them, which is why they would be the ones that don't attend - but then we have no one to question and debate.
And it turns out that the views of Laura Kipnis, whose talk at Wellesley prompted a group of faculty to draft a letter suggesting that such speakers be barred from presenting on campus, are not as academic and dispassionate as she claimed.  In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kipnis makes some statements that would strike many of us as ethically questionable -- that sexual relationships between professors and students are okay because when she was in college, "hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum...  We partied together, drank and got high together, slept together."  She scoffs at the idea that such relationships could result in a more powerful individual victimizing a less powerful one, or using that power differential for their own gain.

And she doesn't hesitate to engage in low blows against people who disagree with her.  About a man whose attitudes about inappropriate humor and unwanted sexual advances Kipnis considered puritanical and overly delicate, she even went so far as to suggest that his nervous coin-jangling in response to her questions was masturbatory.  In an academic journal.  Kipnis writes:
I recalled a long-forgotten pop-psychology guide to body language that identified change-jangling as an unconscious masturbation substitute. If the leader of our sexual-harassment workshop was engaging in public masturbatory-like behavior, seizing his private pleasure in the midst of the very institutional mechanism designed to clamp such delinquent urges, what hope for the rest of us?
So it seems like Kipnis is dancing pretty close to the line herself.

Another reader commented:
I'm generally with you on this topic, but I think we have to take off our privilege blinders.  Neither you or I would ever be compelled to take time from our schedules and prepare/engage in a "scholarly debate" with someone who says we are part of a genetically inferior race, or that our family members should be immediately locked up and deported. It's very easy for us straight white dudes to keep things civil when our humanity is never attacked.
Which is also spot-on.  My own attitudes about speakers being denied the right to speak based upon controversial viewpoints would probably be very different if I myself was a minority.  As the reader commented, being a white straight male makes it awfully easy for me to be on the side of free speech -- since that free speech is seldom used to harass or demean me.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I'm left with the conclusion that this is a great deal harder than it seemed at first.  To fall back on the basic rule of banning only speech that promotes criminal acts or violence is to ignore the fact that free speech has been used many times in the past to incite hatred, discrimination, and marginalization.  And ignoring that fact is only one step away from tacit acceptance.

On the other hand, where to draw the line is problematic.  I still believe that colleges do students a terrible disservice by insulating them from controversy; prohibitions against hearing speakers or reading books or papers that voice dissenting opinions are, by and large, antithetical to the reason we have education in the first place.  But the complexity of this issue, and the spectrum of where those controversial views might fall, make it a far thornier decision than I had realized.

Many thanks to my readers who took the time to respond to yesterday's post -- especially the ones who challenged me on what I wrote.  After all, having written a piece about how important it is to be pushed into reconsidering your preconceived notions, it would be a little hypocritical of me not to be willing to engage in a bit of that myself.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The silencing of dissent

The word education comes from the Latin verb educare, meaning "to draw out of."

Too many people involved in the educational process forget this.  Education is not trying to see how many facts we can stuff into students' brains; it's seeing how we can foster their growth, challenge their preconceived notions, help them to see the universe in a new way.

Which is why what happened at Wellesley College this week is so completely antithetical to the spirit of education.

On Monday, a committee of Wellesley professors presented a letter to the community of the college.  I quote  part of the letter below, but the entire text is available at the link provided if you'd like to read it:
Over the past few years, several guest speakers with controversial and objectionable beliefs have presented their ideas at Wellesley...  There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley.  We are especially concerned with the impact of speakers' presentations on Wellesley students, who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers' arguments.  Students object in order to affirm their humanity.  This work is not optional, students feel they would be unable to carry out their responsibilities as students without standing up for themselves.  Furthermore, we object to the notion that onlookers who are part of the faculty or administration are qualified to adjudicate the harm described by students, especially when so many students come forward.  When dozens of students tell us they are in distress as a result of a speaker's words, we must take those complaints at face value. 
What is especially disturbing about this pattern of harm is that in many cases, the damage could have been avoided.  The speakers who appeared on campus presented ideas that they had published, and those who hosted the speakers could certainly anticipate that these ideas would be painful to significant portions of the Wellesley community.
The letter was spurred by the appearance on campus of Laura Kipnis, writer and self-described feminist who has criticized Title IX implementation, and who has decried a "culture of sexual paranoia" on American college campuses.  Kipnis, for her part, was shocked by the faculty committee's response.  She wrote:
I find it absurd that six faculty members at Wellesley can call themselves defenders of free speech and also conflate my recent talk with bullying the disempowered.  What actually happened was that there was a lively back and forth after I spoke.  The students were smart and articulate, including those who disagreed with me. 
I’m going to go further and say — as someone who’s been teaching for a long time, and wants to see my students able to function in the world post-graduation — that protecting students from the ‘distress’ of someone’s ideas isn’t education, it’s a $67,000 babysitting bill.
Which is it exactly.  The goal of college -- hell, the goal of education in toto -- is not to insulate you from the trauma of ever hearing ideas you disagree with, it's to open your mind to consideration of other answers and other ways of thinking.  It's not supposed to be comfortable.  In fact, if you come out of college with your views completely unchanged from what they were on your first day as a freshman, the college has failed.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Note that I'm neither defending nor opposing Kipnis's views.  In fact, my opinion on Kipnis's views is entirely irrelevant.  But the idea that a college would block a speaker simply because his or her ideology runs counter to that of "dozens of students," and thus cause them to be "in distress," is ridiculous.

The bottom line: the only speakers who should be prevented from speaking on college campuses by decree are those who recommend criminal activity or violence.  Other than that, if you disagree with the views of a speaker, you have three options: (1) don't attend; (2) stage a non-violent protest; or [best of all] (3) show up and ask questions that push the speaker toward addressing whatever it is you disagree with.

Which is also why what happened at Middlebury College (Vermont) last week is so appalling.  Professor Allison Stanger, of the Department of International Politics and Economics, had invited Dr. Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute to give a talk.

The AEI is a pro-capitalism conservative think tank.  Murray rose to some notoriety with his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which proposed that intelligence was largely inherited, and was a better predictor of job success, likelihood of committing a crime, and financial status than is the socioeconomic status of the parents.  Murray was roundly condemned as a racist for writing about intellectual differences between different ethnic groups, and his book is still a subject of controversy today.

Murray never got to speak.  His appearance at the lectern was greeted by shouts of derision.  After it became clear that he was not going to have an opportunity to say anything, he and Dr. Stanger left -- but a screaming mob followed them, attacked Dr. Stanger's car, and resulted in her receiving a serious concussion and whiplash.

Stanger herself was astonishingly philosophical about the whole thing.  She writes:
It is obvious that some protesters made dangerous choices.  But with time to reflect, I have to say that I hear and understand the righteous anger of many of those who shouted us down.  I know that many students felt they were standing up to protect marginalized people who have been demeaned or even threatened under the guise of free speech. 
But for us to engage with one another as human beings -- even on issues where we passionately disagree -- we need reason, not just emotions.  Middlebury students could have learned from identifying flawed assumptions or logical shortcomings in Dr. Murray's arguments.  They could have challenged him in the Q. and A.  If the ways in which his misinterpreted ideas have been weaponized precluded hearing him out, students also had the options of protesting outside, walking out of the talk, or simply refusing to attend... 
More broadly, our constitutional democracy will depend on whether Americans can relearn how to engage civilly with one another, something that is admittedly hard to do with a bullying president as a role model.  But any other way forward would be antithetical to the very ideals of the university and of liberal democracy.
So the professors at Wellesley, and the students who rioted at Middlebury, are examples of exactly the opposite of what colleges should be about.  Once again, as long as you are not promoting violence or criminal activity, you should have the right to express your views.  Students learn more by being exposed to unpopular opinions, and learning to frame their arguments rationally and logically, than they will by belonging to an institution where unpopular opinions are suppressed.

And the professors and administrators should be unequivocal in their support of this.

The price of being cowed by the letter from the professors at Wellesley and the violence at Middlebury is the conversion of colleges into comfortable little bubbles of confirmation bias, where only the majority opinion is ever heard, understood, or argued with.  And if you need an example of where that can lead, you have to look no further than the echo chamber of our current administration, where yes men and women have insulated the president from the consequences of his own lies, and any dissent is labeled as fake news at best, and treason at worst.

Intellectual discomfort is not bad for you; in fact, you should seek out opposing opinions.  It keeps you honest about the soundness of your own views, and helps you to craft arguments against positions you disagree with based on the facts of what your opponents believe.  It hones your mind, improves your grasp of the real situation, and fosters dialogue and open communication.

Which should be the outcome of education in any case.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Humble pie

I think one of the most important attitudes to strive toward is a willingness to re-examine our beliefs if new evidence comes up.

It was that, more than its in-your-face religiosity, that always bothered me the most about the bumper sticker I used to see that said, "Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it."  And, to be fair, I've met people who were as close-minded about other things -- the controversy over the alleged dangers of GMOs and vaccines, the ethics of everything from capital punishment to abortion to eating meat, and a hundred different stances on political issues.

And then there's the person I know who once said, "If you don't believe that other species should have exactly the same rights as humans, I'm sorry -- you're wrong."

I believe it, and that settles it.

Highlighting the dangers of this attitude, and the advantages of adopting some sense of proportion about our own worldviews, was a study from Duke University published this week in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  Called "Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility," this paper makes a strong case that we can go a long way toward improving communication, reaching consensus, getting along with our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and relatives, and (most importantly) recognizing when we ourselves are wrong by ditching our arrogance.

"If you think about what’s been wrong in Washington for a long time, it’s a whole lot of people who are very intellectually arrogant about the positions they have, on both sides of the aisle," said study lead author Mark Leary.  "But even in interpersonal relationships, the minor squabbles we have with our friends, lovers and coworkers are often about relatively trivial things where we are convinced that our view of the world is correct and their view is wrong."

[image courtesy of photographer David Shankbone and the Wikimedia Commons]

I think this may be the feature of the current administration here in the United States that bothers me the most -- the steadfast determination never, ever to admit error.  Confronted by incontrovertible fact, the reaction is not to say, "Okay, I was wrong," or even to retreat in disarray; they attack, deflect, distract, try to discredit, screech about "fake news" and "alternative facts," and promise reprisal against anyone who says different.

"Death before reconsideration" seems to be the motto these days.

So the study's results were illuminating, but hardly surprising.  Intellectually humble people, they found, are more likely to applaud someone who changes his/her mind based on new evidence; the arrogant tend to label this as a "flip-flop," and consider it a sign of weak-mindedness.  The arrogant, when reading an article with which they disagree, are more willing to label the author with pejorative adjectives -- immoral, incompetent, dishonest, cold.

Most interestingly, intellectually humble people are far better at discerning strong arguments from weak ones -- leading one to the conclusion that the arrogant tend to make snap judgments based on what they already believed, while the humble wait to see what the evidence says.

A fascinating bit of the study was that they found no correlation between intellectual humility and political leanings, which is another blow to the "my side is right about everything" attitude of the intellectually arrogant.  "There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs," Leary said.  "We didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that."

A result I find fairly heartening.  It's important for us to realize that our own team doesn't have the market cornered on truth, and to keep our minds open to the fact that we might, in fact, be seeing a biased view of the world ourselves.

Which, now that I come to think of it, is pretty much the definition of "intellectual humility."

"Not being afraid of being wrong – that’s a value, and I think it is a value we could promote," Leary added.  "I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we’d all get along better, we’d be less frustrated with each other."

To which I can only add: amen.