Tag Archives: Republicans

The Democrats & the Ku Klux Klan

One interesting tactic employed by the Republicans is to assert, in response to charges of racism against one of their number, that the Democrats are “the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” This tactic was most recently used by Senator Ted Cruz in defense of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

Cruz went beyond merely claiming the Democrats formed the Klan; he also asserted that the Democrats were responsible for segregation and the infamous Jim Crow laws. As Cruz sees it, the Democrats’ tactic is to “…just accuse anyone they disagree with of being racist.”

Ted Cruz is right about the history of the Democratic party. After the Civil War, the southern Democratic Party explicitly identified itself as the “white man’s party” and accused the Republican party of being “negro dominated.” Some Southern Democrats did indeed support Jim Crow and joined the KKK.

What Ted fails to mention is that as the Democrats became the party associated with civil rights, the Republicans engaged in what has become known as the “southern strategy.” In short, the Republicans appealed to racism against blacks in order to gain political power in the south. Though ironic given the history of the two parties, this strategy proved to be very effective and many southern Democrats became southern Republicans. In some ways, the result was analogous to exchanging the wine in two bottles: the labels remain the same, but the contents have been swapped. As such, while Ted has the history correct, he is criticizing the label rather than the wine.

Another metaphor is the science fiction brain transplant. If Bill and Sam swapped brains, it would appear that Sam was guilty of whatever Bill did, because he now has Bill’s body. However, when it comes to such responsibility what matters is the brain. Likewise for the swapping of political parties in the south: the Southern Democrats condemned by Cruz became the southern Republicans that he now praises. Using the analogy, Ted is condemning the body for what the old brain did while praising that old brain because it is in a new body.

As a final metaphor, consider two cars and two drivers. Driving a blue car, Bill runs over a person. Sam, driving a red car, stops to help the victim. Bill then hops in the red car and drives away while Sam drives the victim to the hospital in the blue car. When asked about the crime, Ted insists that the Sam is guilty because he is in the blue car now and praises Bill because he is in the red car now.  Obviously enough, the swapping of parties no more swaps responsibility than the swapping of cars.

There is also the fact that Cruz is engaged in the genetic fallacy—he is rejecting what the Democrats are saying now because of a defect in the Democratic party of the past. The fact that the Democrats of then did back Jim Crow and segregation is irrelevant to the merit of claims made by current Democrats about Jeff Sessions (or anything else). When the logic is laid bare, the fallacy is quite evident:

Premise 1: Some Southern Democrats once joined the KKK.

Premise 2: Some Southern Democrats once backed segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

Conclusion: The current Democrats claims about Jeff Sessions are untrue.

As should be evident, the premises have no logical connection to the conclusion, hence Cruz’s reasoning is fallacious. Since Cruz is a smart guy, he obviously knows this—just as he is aware that fallacies are far better persuasive tools than good arguments.

The other part of Cruz’s KKK gambit is to say that the Democrats rely on accusations of racism as their tactic. Cruz is right that a mere accusation of racism does not prove that a person is racist. If it is an unsupported attack, then it proves nothing. Cruz’s tactic does gain some credibility from the fact that accusations of racism are all-to-often made without adequate support. Both ethics and critical thought require that one properly review the evidence for such accusations and not simply accept them. As such, if the Democrats were merely launching empty ad hominem attacks on Sessions (or anyone), then these attacks should be dismissed.

In making his attack on the Southern Democrats of the past, Cruz embraces the view that racism is a bad thing. After all, his condemnation of the current Democrats requires that he condemn the past Democrats for their support of racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws. As such, he purports to agree with the current Democrats’ professed view that racism is bad. But, he condemns them for making what he claims are untrue charges of racism. This, then, is the relevant concern: which claims, if any, made by the Democrats about session being a racist are true? The Democrats claimed that they were offering evidence of Session’s racism while Cruz’s approach was to accuse the Democrats of being racists of old and engaging in empty accusations today. He did not, however, address the claims made by the Democrats or their evidence. As such, Cruz’s response has no merit from the perspective of logic. As a rhetorical move, however, it has proven reasonably successful.

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Voter Fraud Protection or Voter Suppression?

English: map of voter ID laws in US

English: map of voter ID laws in US (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One essential aspect of a democracy is the right of each citizen to vote. This also includes the right to have her vote count. One aspect of protecting this right is to ensure that voter fraud does not occur. After all, voter fraud can rob legitimate voters of their right to properly decide the election. Another aspect of protecting this right is to ensure that voter suppression does not occur. This is because voter suppression can unjustly rob people of their votes.

Many Republicans have expressed concerns about voter fraud and have worked to enact laws aimed, they claim, at reducing such fraud. In response, many Democrats have countered that these laws are, they claim, aimed at voter suppression. Naturally, each side accuses the other of having wicked political motives. Many Democrats see the Republicans as trying to disenfranchise voters who tend to vote for Democrats (the young and minorities). The Republicans counter that the Democrats are supporting voter fraud because the fraud is in their favor. In many cases, these beliefs are no doubt quite sincere. However, the sincerity of a belief has no relevance to its truth. What matters are the reasons and evidence that support the belief. As such, I will look at the available evidence and endeavor to sort out the matter.

One point of contention is the extent of voter fraud. One Republican talking point is that voter fraud is widespread. For example, on April 7, 2014 Dick Morris claimed that over 1 million people voted twice in 2012. If this was true, then it would obviously be a serious matter: widespread voter fraud could change the results of elections and rob the legitimate voters of their right to decide. Democrats claim that voting fraud does occur, but occurs at such a miniscule level that it has no effect on election outcomes and thus does not warrant the measures favored by the Republicans.

Settling this matter requires looking at the available facts. In regards to Dick Morris’ claim (which made the rounds as a conservative talking point), the facts show that it is false. But the fact that Morris was astoundingly wrong does not prove that voter fraud is not widespread. However, the facts do. For example, in ten years Texas had 616 cases of allegations of voter fraud and only one conviction for double voting. In Kansas, 84 million voter records were analyzed for fraud. Of these, 14 cases were referred to prosecution with, as of this writing, zero convictions.

Republicans have argued for voter ID laws by contending that they will prevent fraud. However, investigation of voter fraud has shown only 31 credible cases out of one billion ballots. As such, this sort of fraud does occur—but only at an incredibly low rate.

In general, significant (let alone widespread) voter fraud does not occur although the myth is widespread. As such, the Republican claims about voter fraud are based on a myth and this would seem to remove the foundation for their claims and proposals regarding the matter.

It could be countered that while voter fraud is insignificant, it must still be countered by laws and policy changes, such as requiring voter IDs and eliminating early voting. This does have some appeal. To use an analogy, even if only a fraction of 1% of students cheated, then professors should still take steps to counter that cheating for the sake of academic integrity. Unless, of course, the measures used to counter that cheating did more damage than the cheating. The same would seem to apply to measures to counter voter fraud.

One rather important matter is the moral issue of whether it is more important to prevent fraud or to prevent disenfranchisement. This is analogous to the moral concern about guilt in the legal system. In the United States, there is a presumption of innocence on the moral grounds that it is better that a guilty person goes free than an innocent person is unjustly punished. In the case of voting, should it be accepted that it is better that a legitimate voter be denied her vote rather than an illegitimate voter be allowed to get away with fraud? Or is it better that an illegitimate voter gets away with fraud then for a legitimate voter to be denied her right to vote?

My own moral conviction is that it is more important to prevent disenfranchisement. Obviously I am against fraud and favor safeguards against fraud. However, given the minuscule rates of fraud if attempts to reduce it result in disenfranchisement, then I would oppose such attempts on moral grounds. Naturally, another person might take a different view and contend that it is worth disenfranchising voters in an attempt to reduce the minuscule rates of fraud to even more miniscule levels.

Returning to the matter of facts, one rather important concern is whether or not the laws and policies in question actually result in voter suppression. If they do not, even if they do nothing to counter voter fraud, then they would be tolerable (assuming they do not come with other costs).

Unfortunately, the evidence is that the laws that are allegedly aimed at preventing voter fraud actually serve as voter suppression measures, mostly aimed at minority voters. Keith Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien published a study entitled “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” Based on their analysis of the data, they concluded “the Republican Party has engaged in strategic demobilization efforts in response to changing demographics, shifting electoral fortunes, and an internal rightward ideological drift among the party faithful.” The full study, from the journal Perspectives on Politics, is available here. Since this is a factual matter, those who disagree with these findings can counter this by providing an analysis of equal or greater credibility based on supported facts.

Interestingly, it is a common talking point among Republicans that professors are tools of the Democrats and that academic experts should not be trusted. While this is a marvelous ad homimen, what is needed is actual evidence and arguments countering the claims. If professors are tools of the Democrats and academic experts are not to be trusted, then it should be rather easy to provide credible, objective evidence and analysis showing that they are in error. In terms of specifics regarding voter suppression, I offer the following evidence based discussion.

One of the best-known methods proposed to counter voter fraud is the voter ID law. While, as shown above, the sort of fraud that would be prevented by these laws seems to occur 31 times per 1 billion ballots, it serves to disenfranchise voters. In Texas 600,000-800,000 registered voters lack such IDs with Hispanics being 40-120% more likely to lack an ID than whites. In North Carolina 318,000 registered voters lack the required ID and one third of them are African-American (African-Americans make up about 13% of the US population).

Another approach is to make it harder for citizens to register. One example is restrictions on voter registration drives—Hispanics and African-Americans register to vote at twice the rate of whites via drives. It is not clear how these methods would reduce fraud. The restrictions mostly do not seem to be aimed at making it harder for people to register fraudulently—just to make it more inconvenient to register.

A third tactic is to reduce the available early voting times and eliminate weekend and evening voting. This would seem to have no effect whatsoever on fraud, but seems aimed at minority voting patterns. In 2008 70% of African-American voters in North Carolina cast their ballots early. Minority voters are more likely than white voters to vote on weekends and in the evening. For example, 56% of the 2008 weekend voters in Cuyahoga County in Ohio were black.

A fourth tactic is to make it harder for people with past convictions to regain their voting rights. This impacts African Americans the most: 7.7% of African-Americans and 1.8% of the rest of the population have lost their right to vote in this manner. This tactic does not prevent fraud—it merely denies people the right to vote.

It would seem that the laws and policies allegedly aimed at voter fraud would not reduced the existing fraud (which is already miniscule) and would have the effect of suppressing voters. As such, these laws and proposals fail to protect the rights of voters and instead are a violation of that basic right. In short, they are either a misguided and failed effort to prevent fraud or a wicked and potentially successful effort to suppress minority voters. Either way, these laws and policies are a violation of a fundamental right of the American democracy.

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How Much is Me?

Usain Bolt winning the 100 m final 2008 Olympics

Back in my undergraduate days I was a participant in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. While almost all of the details of the debate have long since faded from my non-artificial mind, I still recall one exchange very vividly. The professor on the opposing side said that I believed in free will because I wanted to take credit for my successes. Being filled with the pride of youth, I replied with something to the effect of “of course, they are my successes.” I also recall showing some small wisdom by adding something like “my failures are also mine.” This was probably my first real attempt at reflecting on the extent to which I was responsible for my successes and failures. Naturally, this also got me thinking about success and failure in general and not just the specifics of my own victories and defeats.

Not surprisingly, I have thought about this matter over the years, often in the context of teaching. To use a small example, I have noticed that students who do well say things like “I earned an A” while students who do poorly typically say things like “the professor failed me.” At the start of each semester, at least one student will ask me if I fail students. My reply, which I make with a smile, is always “No. People fail themselves. I merely record the failure.” I follow that by saying that students have every chance to succeed and that I will do my best to ensure that they get the grade they earn. As might be imagined, being a teacher does tend to get a person thinking about who is responsible for the success and failures of students.

The matter of responsibility in regards to success (and failure) obviously extends far beyond the classroom. Thanks to a July, 2012 speech by President Obama, this matter became the focus in the political battle between Democrats and Republicans. The key part of Obama’s speech  is as follows:  “…Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

While some Republicans decided to interpret Obama as claiming that business owners owe all their success to others (especially the state), the most plausible interpretation is that Obama is claiming that people who are successful in business owe some of their success to others, including the state.

Mitt Romney, who was very critical of what he claims Obama meant, actually presented a very similar view about success back in 2002: “You Olympians, however, know you didn’t get here solely on your own power. For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers encouraged your hopes. Coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them. We’ve already cheered the Olympians, let’s also cheer the parents, coaches and communities.”

As with Obama, the most plausible interpretation of Romney’s remarks is that he is claiming that the athletes who made it to the Olympics owe some of their success to others.

These claims about success in business and sports seem to be intuitively plausible. Obviously, people do not appear as grown, educated adults ex nihilo via the power of their own will. Less obviously, but still rather obviously, business owners do not create their business out of nothing. To use a silly example, a business owner obviously does not invent the currency used to conduct business. In the case of Olympic athletes, they obviously do not just appear on the starting line with no support or assistance from others.

Outside of the reasoning damaging sphere of political rhetoric, the idea that people owe some or even much of their success to others (and perhaps even to the state) certainly seems intuitively plausible—at least enough so that anyone who claims to be entirely self-created would shoulder the burden of proof.  In any case, I would infer that anyone who can engage in such an act of self-creation would easily handle something as trivial as providing evidence of his/her amazing origin.

Assuming that I am right about this matter, the interesting question is not “do people owe some of their success (and failures) to others?” but “to what extent do people owe their success (and failures) to others?” Making this discussion manageable does require certain assumptions that can, of course, be challenged. I will be assuming that people have meaningful agency and that the universe is not strictly deterministic or entirely random. To illustrate this, I will use the example of a prize drawing after a 5K race. For those not familiar with such events, some races feature the usual earned awards (what the runners get for running well) as well as a prize drawing. One common way to do this is for the race director to pull out a runner’s race number from a bag. Interestingly, people often applaud as loudly when people win the (hopefully) random prize as they do for people who earn (hopefully) a trophy.

In a deterministic universe it makes little sense to speak of meaningful success or failure. To use my analogy, if I “win” the prize because it is determined that I will win (that is, it is rigged) then I have hardly succeeded and the others have hardly failed—there is no victory, there is no defeat.

The same holds true for a completely random universe. To use an analogy, if I “win” the prize because my number is pulled by pure chance, I have not succeeded and the others have not failed. Things have just happened by chance.

Success and failure, then, would thus seem to assume that the agent has a meaningful role in the outcome. Going back to the analogy, while I would not have succeeded by “winning” either a fixed or random drawing, I could succeed by winning a trophy in the 5K via my efforts. Naturally, the nature of this agency in even something as apparently straightforward as a 5K race is something of a mystery. However, for the sake of the discussion that will follow in additional essays, I must make this assumption of mysterious agency. After all, I want to think I earned all those trophies and I am obligated to accept the disgrace of my failures.

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Tax or Penalty?

The United States Supreme Court ruled that the ACA is constitutional. However, there was an interesting twist in the ruling: while the administration’s main argument for the mandate was made in the context of commerce, this was rejected. Instead, the ruling noted that the ability to impose the penalty for not purchasing the insurance did legitimately fall under the right of congress to tax.

Not surprisingly, a rhetorical battle began shortly after the ruling regarding whether or not the penalty is a tax or not. The Republican’s main narrative is that the penalty is a tax and that it will be very bad indeed. The Democrat’s main narrative is that it is a penalty and that it is a necessary if not good thing. There is, of course, the question of what the truth of the matter might be.

Given the ruling, the Supreme Court’s view (or at least 5 of the 4 members) seems to be that the penalty is a tax. This is mainly because the power to impose the penalty comes under the power of congress to tax rather than being justified in regards to commerce. As such, the idea that it is a tax has a reasonable foundation. That said, it seems to be an unusual sort of tax in that it functions more like penalty-that is, one pays it for failing to do something that is required.

On the face of it, taking the penalty to be a tax is somewhat like taking a ticket for not wearing a seat belt (a common practice in the United States) to be a tax. After all, one has to pay a penalty for not following the requirement to wear a seatbelt just as one has to pay a penalty for not following the requirement to get insurance. It seems rather odd to call such penalties taxes. After all, folks generally don’t say things like “I was taxed for speeding today” or “I got taxed because I parked illegally.” In the case of penalties, they generally seem to aim at punishing people for what they did (or failed to do).

While taxes do cause pain, they generally seem to differ from penalties. After all, when I pay a sales tax, this does not seem to be a penalty (or maybe it is—perhaps I am getting punished for buying local rather than via Amazon.com). Similarly, when my salary is taxed, I find that unpleasant, but it is not intended to deter me from working. That is, it is taxing but not penalizing.

As such, the penalty would seem to be a penalty that has been legally justified under the power to tax.

The obvious reply to this is that this makes all the difference. While it is a penalty, it is justified under the power to tax and is thus a tax. This, of course, does raise a question about what justifies the state in imposing penalties. The state can, of course, arrest me, lock me up, take my property, and kill me and these are justified in terms other than taxes. That is, an execution is not a tax one pays with one’s life. If the state can impose such penalties to get people to do and not do things without them being taxes, then it seems to indicate that the penalty in the ACA could be so justified. The main difference is that the mechanism of imposition is via the IRS rather than via the police.

The obvious reply to this is that involving the IRS makes it a tax—after all, that is what they do.  If the penalty was handled another way by another agency, then it might not be a tax. But, if it is handled via the IRS, then it is a tax.

While this does have considerable appeal, there are other cases in which one agency performs a function that does not automatically make it a function of that sort. For example, the military sometimes functions in a police role or a firefighting role, but it would not be claimed that police functions or firefighting are thus combat actions because they are done by a government body that normally engages in combat. Likewise, just because the IRS is providing the mechanism by which the penalty operates, it need not be a tax.

The counter to this is, of course, to note that the IRS is handling it like a tax. So, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck. So, the penalty is a tax.

At this point (if not earlier), readers might be wondering why it matters. After all, calling it a “tax” or calling it a “penalty” does nothing to change anything about the penalty/tax and this makes it seem to be a mere semantic point.

This does, in fact, seem to be the truth of the matter. The main dispute is not something substantial that would change the law if one side was right and the other wrong. Rather, it seems to be entirely a rhetorical battle. On the current typical Republican narrative, if something is a tax, then it is bad. So, if the penalty is a tax, then it is bad. By imposing this tax, the ACA is also bad.  Plus, Obama claimed he would not raise taxes for the non-wealthy and that the penalty is not a tax—so if it is a tax, he would be wrong twice. As such, the Republicans can score rhetorical points if it is seen as tax.

On the Democrat’s narrative, the penalty is a penalty, but it is what makes the ACA work and hence it is a good thing because the ACA is a good thing. Plus, the claim is that only a tiny percentage of people will actually be impacted by the penalty.

Thus, it does seem that the dispute is not over anything substantial but rather a rhetorical battle. This is not to say that the dispute is not important. It is, since there are political points to be won or lost here based on which label sticks. For those of us on the receiving end, whether it is a tax or penalty does not seem to change anything—either way we have to get insurance or pay. Or do we?

One part of the dispute that does have substance is the matter of the impact of the tax/penalty (perhaps it should be called a tanalty as a bi-partisan compromise). On the Republican narrative, it is supposed to be something both substantial and bad. On the Democrat’s narrative, it is supposed to be minor and good (or at least necessary).

Interestingly, Forbes did an analysis of the penalty that seems to indicate that both narratives are flawed.

It is estimated that, using today’s data, that about 7% of those under 65 would face the possibility of the tax/penalty. The other 93% either have insurance or are exempt from the penalty/tax.

Of those who might be subject to the tax/penalty some will probably buy insurance. About 60% of them will qualify for insurance subsidies. 3% of those possibly subject to the penalty/tax will have to pay full price. Of course, changes in 2014 (when the law goes into effect) could result in changes in these numbers. However, unless there are radical changes, the vast majority of people will not be subject to the tax/penalty.

But, suppose that a person is subject to the penalty/tax and a person refuses to get insurance. The Republican narrative is that this will be a significant tax while the Democrats claim it will not be that bad.

The price starts off at a modest $95 in 2014 and increases to $695 or 2.5% of your income (capping at $2,085—adjustable for inflation). While not something I would like to pay, the penalty/tax is not terribly high. Of course, I am sure that most folks would prefer to avoid paying it at all—which seems to be something that can easily be done.

While the law specifies that the IRS is to enforce the law by imposing a tax penalty, the law also prevents the IRS from using most of its standard tax enforcement methods. For example, the IRS is not permitted to treat the refusal to pay the tax penalty as a criminal act, thus eliminating that avenue of enforcement. Imposing a tax lien will also apparently be rather difficult. In fact, Professors Barry and Camp contend that the mandate is not very mandatory.

The main tool that the IRS does possess in the context of the ACA is that it can reduce a person’s refund. This does provide some bite since about 2/3 of taxpayers get a refund. This does lend some credence to the penalty being a tax—after all, by removing it from the refund it as if the person’s tax burden has increased. Of course, the overall result is the same as a penalty—a traffic ticket for $95 would have the same overall impact as the penalty in 2014.

Of course, even this bite is not as toothy as it might seem. After all, low income households are exempt from this tax penalty and hence their refunds would be untouched even if they decided to do without insurance.

In the face of this, it would seem that the Republican narrative that the tax will be a significant burden seems to be untrue. After all, it will not apply to the vast majority of people, the price itself will be fairly low, and it seems that even those subject to it stand a good chance of being able to avoid it. At most, it will impact those who are well off enough to afford insurance and who will receive a refund and who do not have insurance. That will probably be a rather small number of people.

Ironically, the same facts that seem to defeat the Republican narrative also seem to undercut the main point of the tax penalty. The ACA requires that pre-existing conditions can no longer be a factor in a person qualifying for a policy or its cost. Naturally, the insurance companies are in the business of making money, so they need to cover the additional costs this will impose on them. The tax penalty is supposed to be onerous enough to push people into buying insurance, but it does not seem to be harsh enough or certain enough to serve that function. It also does not seem that it will generate enough revenue to help offset the increased cost. This, interestingly enough, does support another Republican narrative, namely that the ACA is supposed to increase insurance costs. Somewhat ironically, this narrative seems plausible because of the seeming implausibility of another Republican narrative. After all, if the tax penalty were as onerous and sweeping as has been claimed, then it would either push people to buy insurance or provide revenue to offset their failure to do so. As such, it would seem that both parties appear to be in error. That, I am sure, shocks no on.

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Are Facts Dead?

Ideology Icon

Misrepresenting facts and actually lying have long been a part of politics. However, it has been claimed that this is the year facts died. The death blow, at least according to some, was April 18, 2012. On this day Representative Allen West of my state of Florida claimed that about 80 congressional democrats are members of the Communist Party. A little fact checking revealed that this is not the case. Interestingly enough, West decided to stand by his remarks rather than yield to the truth. While this might seem odd, West’s approach was probably the best policy politically.

In some cases, the abuse of facts is more subtle. For example, Obama has been attacked on the grounds that the average economic worth of the middle class in the United States plummeted on his watch. While this is truth-like, it does leave out some key information, namely that the plummet was well underway when Obama took office. To use an analogy, it would be like blaming a new pilot who took the stick halfway through a nose dive for that nose dive. Sure, he is at the stick and the plane was in a nose dive—but he did not put it there. As might be imagined, this approach of making truth-like claims is not limited to the right. For example, Romney is being bashed for the Massachusetts’ seemingly bad job creation numbers while he was governor. However, Romney’s situation was very much like Obama’s: he took the stick after someone else put the plane in a dive. Given that the situations are comparable, both men should be able to avail themselves of the same defense. Also, it is tempting to think that getting the relevant facts would defuse these attacks. That is, one might want to think that people would regard both attacks as flawed and essentially unfounded and this would be the ends of these attacks. But, one does not always get what one wants.

While this might come as something of a shock, people are often not very rational—especially when it comes to politics. While both of these attacks have been addressed in detail subject to rational examination, this did not spell their end. In fact, it has been found that when people get information that corrects a false claim, they will be even more likely to believe the false claim (provided that they claim matches their views).  For example, if Republicans and Democrats read an article that claims that one of Obama’s policies had a significant positive effect and then learn that the initial article was in error, the Democrats would  be more inclined to believe the original article despite the fact that it had been shown to be in error. The Republicans would be more inclined to reject the original article. In short, it seems that corrective information is generally only accepted when it corrects in a way favorable to a person’s ideology.  This has the rather unfortunate effect that correcting an error in an ideological context will only correct the error in the minds of those who already want to believe it is an error and will generally not change the mind of those who want to believe.

In addition to the obvious problem, this tendency also means that people who are wrong (intentionally or unintentionally) generally will not suffer any damage to their credibility among their own faction, provided that their errors match the ideology of said faction. As such, the consequences of saying things that are not true seem to be generally positive—at least from a pragmatic standpoint. After all, if the claim matches the proper ideology and is not called out, then it will be accepted. If it is called out and shown to be in error, the criticism will generally serve to incline those who agree with the claim to still believe it. As such, presenting an ideologically “correct” falsehood (which need not be a lie) seems to be generally a win-win situation.

Since I teach critical thinking, this rather worries me. After all, I devote considerable energy to trying to teach people that they should base their beliefs on evidence and rational argumentation rather than on whatever matches their ideology.  One stock response to my concern is that people are this way “by nature” and hence there is little point in trying to teach people to be critical thinkers. Trying to overcome this tendency and solve the problem of ideological irrationality would be as futile as trying to solve the problem of teen pregnancy by trying to teach abstinence (after all, people are fornicators by nature).

On my bad days, I tend to almost agree. After all, I have repeatedly seen people who are capable of being rational in non-ideological areas show that they lose this capacity when it comes to ideology. However, this is not true of everyone. After all, there are clearly and obviously people who can do a reasonably good job of objective analysis. While some of this might be disposition, much of it is clearly due to training. While everyone might not be trainable, most people could be trained to be critical thinkers. To use an analogy, just as natural tendencies can be overcome by other forms of training (such as military training), this allegedly natural tendency to just go with one’s ideology can also be overcome. I know this because I have seen it happen.

Of course, there is also an artificial barrier. Folks in politics and other areas benefit greatly from being able to (consciously or not) manipulate the poor thinking skills and emotional vulnerabilities of people. As such, they have a vested interest in learning techniques to do this and to ensure that people are left as defenseless as possible. As such, while critical thinking skills are in demand, the education system is actually largely designed to not create such skills. One rather glaring example is that the most basic critical thinking classes are generally taught in college and not earlier. While some educators wonder why students do so badly at critical thinking, this is obviously part of the answer. Imagine what the math skills of students would be like if they took their first actual math class as a college freshman. While it might be countered that critical thinking is too hard for kids, this is clearly not true—the basics could be taught as soon as kids were being taught the basics of math and probably even earlier. In short, I would say that much of what is attributed to human nature is actually the result of education—or the lack thereof.

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Pro-Life, Pro-Environment

Human fetus, age unknown

Image via Wikipedia

Here in the States we are going through the seemingly endless warm up for our 2012 presidential election. President Obama is the candidate of the Democrats and the Republicans are trying to sort out who will be their person.  The Republican candidates for being the presidential candidate are doing their best to win the hearts and minds of the folks who will anoint one of them.

In order to do this, a candidate must win over the folks who are focused on economic matters (mainly pushing for low taxes and less regulation) and those who are focused on what they regard as moral issues (pushing against abortion, same sex marriage and so on). The need to appeal to these views has caused most of the candidates to adopt the pro-life (anti-abortion) stance as well as to express a commitment to eliminating regulation. Some of the candidates have gone so far as to claim they will eliminate the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) on the grounds that regulations hurt the job creators.

On the face of it, these seems to be no tension between being pro-life and against government regulation of the sort imposed via the EPA.  A person could argue that since abortion is wrong, it is acceptable for the government to deny women the freedom to have abortions. The same person could, quite consistently it seems, then argue that the state should take a pro-choice stance towards business in terms of regulation, especially environmental regulation. However, if one digs a bit deeper, it would seem that there is a potential tension here.

In the States, the stock pro-life argument is that the act of abortion is an act of murder: innocent people are being killed. There are, of course, variations on this line of reasoning. However, the usual moral arguments are based on the notion that harm is being done to an innocent being.  When people counter with an appeal to the rights or needs of the mother, the stock reply is that these are overridden in this situation. That is, avoiding harm to the fetus (or pre-fetus) is generally more important than avoiding harm to the mother. In some cases people take this to be an absolute in that they regard abortion as never allowable. Some do allow exceptions in the case of medical necessity, rape or incest.  There are, of course, also religious arguments-but those are best discussed in another context.

If this line of reasoning is taken seriously, and I think that it should, then a person who is pro-life on these grounds would seem to be committed to extending this moral concern for life beyond the womb. Unless, of course, there is a moral change that occurs after birth that create a relevant difference that removes the need for moral concern. This, however, would seem unlikely (at least in this direction, namely from being a entity worthy of moral concern to being an entity who does not matter).

It is at this point that the matter of environmental concerns can be brought into play. Shortly before writing this I was reading an article about the environmental dangers children are exposed to, primarily in schools. These hazards include the usual suspects: lead, mercury, pesticides, arsenic, air pollution, mold, asbestos, radon, BPA, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other such things.

Currently, children are regularly exposed to a witches brew of human made chemicals and substances that have been well established as being harmful to human beings and especially harmful to children. They are also exposed to naturally occurring substances by the actions of human beings. For example, burning coal and oil release naturally occurring mercury into the air. As another example, people use naturally occurring lead and asbestos in construction. As noted above, it is well established that these substances are harmful to humans and especially harmful to children.

If someone hold the pro-life position and believes that abortion should be regulated by the state because of the harm being done, then it would thus seem to follow that they would also need to be committed to the regulation of harmful chemicals and substances, even those produced and created by businesses. After all, if the principle that warrants regulating abortion is based on the harm being done to the fetus/pre-fetus, then the same line of reasoning would also extend to the harm being done to children and adults.

If someone were to counter by saying that they are only morally concerned with the fetus/pre-fetus, then the obvious reply is that these entities are even more impacted by exposure to such chemicals and substances. As such, they would also seem to committed to accepting regulation of the environment on the same grounds that they argue for regulation of the womb.

It might be countered that these substances generally do not kill the fetus/pre-fetus or children  but rather cause defects. As such, a person could be against killing (and hence anti-abortion) but also be against regulation on the grounds that they find birth defects, retarded development and so on to be acceptable. That is, killing is not acceptable but maiming and crippling are tolerable.

This would, interestingly enough, be a potentially viable position. However, it does seem somewhat problematic for a person to be morally outraged at abortion while being willing to tolerate maiming and crippling.

It might also be argued that businesses should be freed from regulation on the utilitarian grounds that the jobs and profits created will outweigh the environmental harms being done. That is, in return for X jobs and Y profits, we can morally tolerate Z levels of contamination, pollution, birth defects, illness and so on. This is, of course, a viable option.

However, if this approach is acceptable for regulating the environment, then it would seem to also be acceptable for regulating the womb. That is, if a utilitarian approach is taken to the environment, then the same would seem to also be suitable for abortion. It would seem that if we can morally tolerate the harms resulting from a lack of regulation of the environment, then we could also tolerate the harms resulting from abortion.

Thus it would seem that a person who is pro-life and favors regulating the womb the grounds that abortion harms the innocent, then that person should also be for regulating the environment on the grounds that pollution and contamination also harm the innocent.

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Should Zygotes be Considered People?

Oocyte viewed with HMC

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In the United States certain Republicans have been proposing legislation that would define a zygote as a legal person. The most recent instance occurred in Mississippi when voters were given the chance to approve or reject the following: “the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” The voters rejected this, but there are other similar attempts planned or actually in the works. There are, as far as I know, no serious attempts to push person hood back before fertilization (that is, to establish eggs and sperm as being persons).

Since this is a matter of law, whether or not a zygote is a legal person or not depends on whether such a law is passed and then passes legal muster. Given that corporations are legally persons, it does not seem all that odd to have zygotes as legal people. Or whales. Or forests. There is, after all, no requirement that legal personhood be established by considered philosophical argumentation.

From a philosophical perspective, I would be inclined to stick with what seems to be the general view: zygotes are not persons. I do accept the obvious: a zygote is alive (as is an amoeba or any cell in my body), a zygote has full human DNA (as does almost any cell in my body), and a zygote has the potential to be an important part of a causal chain that leads to a human being (as does any cell in my body that could be used in cloning). However, these qualities of a zygote do not seem to be sufficient to establish it as a person. After all, the relevant  qualities of the zygote seem to be duplicated by some of the cells in our bodies and it would be absurd to regard each of us as a collective of persons.

But, as I noted, the legal matter is quite distinct from the philosophical-after all, zygotes (or anything) could become legal persons with the appropriate legislation. This leads to a point well worth considering, namely the consequences of such a law.

The most obvious would be that abortion and certain forms of birth control (such as IUDs and the “morning after” pill) would certainly seem to be legally murder. After all, they would involve the intentional (and possibly pre-meditated) murder of a legal person. This is, of course, one of the main intended consequences of such attempts. However, there would seem to be other consequences as well.

One rather odd consequence would be in regards to occupancy laws and regulations. These tend to be set by the number of persons present and unless laws are written to allow exemptions for zygotes, etc. then this would be a point of legal concern. This seems absurd, which is, of course, the point.

Another potential consequence is the matter of deductions for dependents. If a zygote is a person, then a frozen zygote is still a person and presumably the child of the parent(s). This would, unless specific laws are written to prevent this, seem to allow people to claim frozen zygotes as dependent children and thus take a tax deduction for each one. While the cost of creating and freezing zygotes would be a factor, the tax deductions would seem to be well worth it. Perhaps this is the secret agenda behind such legislation: people could avoid taxes by having enough zygotes in the freezer.

Of course a “zygotes are people” law might also entail that it would be illegal to freeze zygotes on the grounds that they would be confined or imprisoned without consent or due process. Naturally, laws would need to be written for this and they would also need to be worded so as to avoid making “imprisoning” a zygote in the womb a crime. There is also the matter of in vitro fertilization and whether or not certain processes would thus be outlawed by the “zygotes are people” law.  After all, some of the zygotes created do not survive. If these zygotes are people, IVF could be regarded as involving, if not murder, at least some sort  homicide or zygoteslaughter. Of course, outlawing such practices seems to be one of the intended consequences of these proposed laws.

Another point of concern is the matter of death certificates. After all, the death of a person requires a certificate and the usual legal proceedings. If a zygote were to be a legal person, then it would seem to follow that if a zygote died, then the death would need to be properly recorded and perhaps investigated to determine if a crime were committed. Naturally, specific laws could be written regarding various circumstances (for example, should women have to report every zygote that fails to implant-thus resulting in the death of a person). Perhaps the state would need to set up womb cameras or some other detector to monitor the creation of these new people so as to ensure that no death of a person goes unreported.

One rather interesting consequence is that such a law might set the precedent that any cell that could be cloned would count as a person (after all, as argued above, it would seem to share the relevant qualities of a zygote and the law in question mentioned cloning or any functional equivalent). This would have some rather bizarre consequences.

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Protect Life Act

Abortion Rights banner

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Abortion is a matter of seemingly endless moral and political debate. In the latest round, the Republican controlled House has passed the Protect Life Act. Two of the main aspects of the act include preventing federal money from being used in health care plans that cover abortion and to allow health care workers to refuse to perform abortions. This includes cases in which an abortion is medically necessary to save a woman’s life.

The first aspect of the act seems to be at least partially a solution in search of a problem. The Affordable Care Act (known by the dysphemism “Obamacare”) already prevents public money separate from private insurance payments covering abortion. However, the is a common misconception (intentionally fueled) that “Obamacare” pays for abortions.

The act goes beyond this in an attempt to restrict coverage of abortion. The bill, if made into a law, would forbid women from buying private insurance plans including abortion coverage. This is, of course, limited to purchases made through a state health care exchange.

The main justification for this aspect of the bill is that the Republican backers claim that taxpayer dollars should not go to abortions. Of course, the bill goes beyond that and attempts to restrict women’s choices.

On the face of it, the justification has a certain appeal. After all, in a democratic (or republican) system, the taxpayers have a right to decide where their tax dollars are spent (and also to have a role in decisions in general-if only via representatives). As such, if the majority of Americans are opposed to having tax dollars go to abortion, then it would be presumably correct to not provide such funding. Majority rule and all that would serve as the moral justification. This would, of course, entail that the same principle should apply uniformly. So, for example, if the citizens did not want subsidies going to corporations or did not want to fun capital punishment, then such things should not be allowed.

In the case of abortion, most Americans hold that it should be legal. While this does not entail that they want to fund abortions, it would seem to indicate that abortion rights are accepted by the majority of Americans. As such, attempting to restrict these rights under the guise of keeping taxpayer money from funding abortion would seem to be somewhat deceptive. After all, it is one thing to prevent public money from being used and it is quite another to forbid women from buying private insurance with their own money. It is especially ironic given the Republican mantras about the free market and individual choice.

Also, if most Americans favor the legality of abortion and the Republican backers of the bill are claiming that they are right to impose restrictions based on the fact that some people are morally opposed to abortion, then it would seem to follow that anything that is morally opposed should not be funded. This would include capital punishment, war, the drug war and so on. In fact, it seems likely that very little would be left with public funding. Naturally, it could be argued that the moral opposition would need to be significant, but even under that condition capital punishment and many other things could no longer be funded with public money. Perhaps this would be a good thing-but I am reasonable sure that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would be willing to accept this a general principle.

Perhaps the most controversial component of the bill is that health care workers who morally oppose abortion will have the legal right to refuse to perform abortions-even when doing so is medically necessary to prevent the death of the woman. Currently hospitals are legally required to perform abortions when doing so is medically necessary to saving the life of the woman.  Some Catholic hospitals have been breaking the existing law for years.

On the one hand, a strong case can be made for allowing health care workers to decline performing an abortion on moral grounds. After all, a law that compels people to perform what they regard as an immoral action (such as fighting in war or paying taxes to support a war or what they regard as an unjust system) would seem to be well worth both moral and legal scrutiny. This matter has, of course, been addressed in regards to civil disobedience and the question of what a person should do when his/her conscience conflicts with the laws of the state.

In the case of non-emergency procedures, I am certainly sympathetic to the view that health care workers with strong moral beliefs should not be forced to engage in what they regard as an immoral action (most likely murder). Likewise, I am sympathetic to people who refuse to fight in war or support the state on the grounds that they regard the killing  (or murder) of human beings as immoral.

On the other hand, a strong case can be made that professionals are obligated to perform their jobs even when doing so goes against their conscience. For example, a nurse who is opposed to drug use would not seem to have the right to refuse to treat a victim of a self-inflicted drug overdose of illegal drugs. As another example, a police officer who thinks that homosexuality is an abomination would not seem to have the right to refuse to protect a homosexual who is being beaten to death.

In the case of emergency procedures, a very strong case can be made that such procedures should be performed. On utilitarian grounds, performing such procedures would seem to be right. After all, the most likely result of not performing the procedure is that the woman and the fetus both die. The procedure would at least save the life of one person, which would presumably be a good action. To use an analogy, imagine that a child has been rigged with a terrorist bomb and is running at a woman. The bomb cannot be removed in time and will detonate in seconds. A soldier or police officer is nearby and can stop the child-but only by shooting her. The woman can, of course, scream to the soldier/officer that she would rather die with her child. However, it would not seem wicked of the soldier or officer to take the shot if the woman did not forbid it.

It can, of course, be argued that this is not a utilitarian matter but a matter of the action itself being right or wrong. If it is assumed that abortion is wrong because it is killing, it would seem to follow that not helping the woman would also be wrong-after all, this would cause her death.

At this point it is natural to bring up the stock distinction between killing and letting die. In the case of the woman, the medical care provider would be letting her die rather than killing the other being (which may or may not be a person). In general, our moral intuitions tend to indicate that killing is worse than letting die, which could be taken as a point in favor of allowing health care providers to let women die rather than perform an abortion. However, since the being will also die anyway (in most cases) it would seem that refusing to save the woman would (as noted above) merely double the number of deaths rather than do something that would be morally commendable. This could even be argued on the same moral basis as triage. In this case, the act could be seen not as killing the being, but saving the mother rather than allowing two patients to die. To use an analogy, if a mother and child were brought to a hospital and both were dying and the doctor knew that her choice was between saving the mother or letting both die while she worked to futilely save the child, then the right thing to do would seem to be to save the mother. Expending pointless effort on a child that could not be saved while letting the mother die would not be noble or good. Rather it would be a wrongful decision that would kill the mother.  As such, this provision is clearly immoral.

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What is a Fair Tax?

Comparison of progressive taxes

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While no one wants to pay taxes, if they must be paid then we can at least hope that the taxes of fair. Obviously enough, what counts as a fair tax is a matter of considerable dispute. Stereotypically, political liberals are cast as being favorably inclined towards taxes while the political conservatives are cast as being against taxes. While I will endeavor to avoid falling into any specific political leanings, it is obvious that any discussion of fair taxes will rest on numerous assumptions. While this cannot be avoided, I will do my best to present my assumptions so that they can be properly assessed and criticized.

One way to approach the matter of the fair tax is to assume that the fairness of a tax rests (at least partially) on the nature of the relationship between the citizens and the state, as well as the relationship between citizens. For the sake of brevity, I will consider only two main types of relationships. These are, of course, not exhaustive and I welcome others being added into the discussion. I will also be assuming that the discussion is taking place in the context of a first world democratic state, such as the United States, the UK, or Canada.

One view is that the relations between citizens and the state (and between citizens) is essentially of the same type as the relationship between a business and its customers. On this model, the state provides goods and services to the citizens and the citizens provide such goods and services to each other on the basis of economic compensation.

On this somewhat minimalist view of the state (and citizenship), the concept of a fair tax seems to be easily defined. A fair tax would be, in essence, a payment for the goods and services that a citizen receives. So, for example, if the state provides me with $15,000 in legitimate goods and services over the course of the year, then I would be fairly and justly taxed $15,000. Paying the fair value of what I receive would, obviously enough, be the epitome of fair.

This would, of course, create some practical problems in terms of calculating the value of such goods and services. However, given that businesses are able to address the problem of how much to charge, this seems to be something that could be resolved. Even if this presents a practical impossibility (which seems unlikely), it would still seem to provide a paradigm of a fair (if impractical) method of tax.

While this system would seem to be eminently fair, the extreme income disparities in countries like the United States might be seen as creating some problems. One obvious point of concern is that while the wealthy could easily pay for their goods and services, those who are less well off would probably be hard pressed to pay their fair share for such things as education for their children, police protection, fire protection, and so on.

Of course, this could be seen as being no different from the situation the less well off always find themselves in. After all, they cannot acquire all the goods and services that the wealthy can acquire and if this is fair, it would seem to be equally fair that they would be unable to receive all the goods and services of the state. If they cannot afford these services, then they must either find more income or simply do without. To use an analogy, if Bill cannot afford to buy a car, then he will have to walk. If he cannot afford to pay for police protection, then he had best learn to run. This might seem harsh, but in a pay as you go system, that is the nature of fairness. After all, why should anyone be forced to pay the way for anyone else?

While the business model has a certain appeal, it probably strikes some as being unduly harsh. After all, it essentially abandons citizens who cannot pay for their goods and services and these are, obviously enough, the people who most often need the help of the state.

One (and only one of many) alternative is to see the relationship between the citizen and the state (and other citizens) as less in terms of business and more in terms of a community. On the simplified community model, fairness is not measured solely in terms of the goods and services an individual consumes. The individual’s responsibility to the community is also a factor in determining what is a fair contribution in terms of taxes. The influence of this factor might increase the amount the individual should fairly pay in taxes or it might decrease the amount. As might be imagined, sorting out how much an individual should be fairly expected to contribute to the community is a rather controversial matter. However, it does seem reasonable to at least consider that a fair contribution might exceed or be less than what the individual actually uses or consumes in terms of goods and services. After all, there seem to be clear cases in which it is fair and just for an individual to contribute more or less than what they use or what others contribute.

To use an analogy, consider a family. In general, the children in a family are not going to be able to pay for all that they use or consume in the household. As such, the parents will have to bear the cost of their children. This would not seem to be, on the face of it, an unfair burden on the parents (although such cases could be imagined, of course).

But, someone might object, our relationship with other citizens is not analogous to the family relationship. As such, it cannot be used to justify allowing people to pay more or less based on these highly suspicious community factors.

In reply, another analogy might be offered. Suppose I am camping with my friends and a storm destroys most of their gear. Rather than let them die in the woods, I share my food, water and shelter because they are in need and they are my friends. Leaving them to die because I was unwilling to give up my “fair share” (that is, my property) would hardly seem to be fair at all.

“Aha”, an objector might say, “you are willingly sharing with your friends and not being forced to give up your goods. Taxes are not like this. Taxes are like having someone force you to share your goods to help some stupid strangers.”

This does have some appeal. However, there is an obvious flaw. I do, in fact, have a choice in regards to the taxes. As a citizen of a democracy, I have a role (albeit a small one) in the government and hence the taxes I pay are paid from choice. If I do not like how my money is being spent, I can do something about it. As far as the “stupid strangers” part, that does raise an interesting question about what we owe each other. As a country, are we more like friends or more like selfish customers thrown together into the same store by the vagaries of fate?

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The unquiet scientist

Science communication is not easy, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, reasonable people disagree about what science communicators ought to try to achieve. Should communicators just try to keep people up-to-date on the latest cool things happening in the world of science… or should they try to foster a critical way of thinking about the world? For another thing, it isn’t clear how you would go about science communication if you tried — since, as any grade school teacher could tell you, it is hard to figure out how to get your audience to care. And for another another thing, if the aim is to foster a scientific mindset, then it’s not clear that mass media will be of any use whatsoever. (Presumably, one does not learn chemistry by repeated viewings of Gil Grissom working ponderously over test-tubes.)

These are all important and interesting topics, well deserving of thoughtful and passionate dialogue.

Enter Chris Mooney. Mooney is an activist for communicating science. He is the author of The Republican War on Science, and is the co-author of the controversial book Unscientific America (with Sheril Kirshenbaum). Mooney holds a degree from Yale, a fellowship with the Templeton Foundation, and is a member of the board of the American Geophysical Union. He blogs at the Intersection. Mooney/Kirshenbaum’s ultimate legacy appears to be that they succeeded in starting a passionate conversation about the subjects listed above.

Which brings us to the topic of the present post. In addition to being in the science communication business, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are both critics of atheist activism. Mooney and Kirshenbaum have argued that activist atheism is detrimental peripheral to science communication, and that activist atheists are often uncivil. Their critical remarks have created a tumultuous debate in both online and national print publications. Not incidentally, Coyne, Dawkins, and many others have publicly argued that there is an intimate connection between science and atheism. (Full disclosure: although it shouldn’t make any difference to this post, on this issue — as on most things — I’m in the “Jason Rosenhouse camp“.)

On first blush, it seems as though there are two major issues here: civility, and the role of the naturalist worldview in science. But a little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Mooney about the role of passion and conflict might have in getting people to think about science. And from that conversation, I learned that Mooney acknowledges a third sticking point.

BN: I was glad to see that you didn’t focus on the deficit model in explaining scientific illiteracy — that’s really good. [Edit 2010: Roughly, the “deficit model” is the idea that science communicators should presume that citizens that are not scientifically literate are responsible for their own illiteracy.] And the alternative is to look at what people do know. So for example the mechanic has a body of knowledge that I can only dream of — I just don’t know how a car works. We ask ourselves how people have all this impressive statistical knowledge about baseball and things (without knowing about science), and the reason is: baseball is useful in some way. People are embedded in a social group and they know that this knowledge will be useful to talk about.

This can also help us understand how misinformation works. For example, the George Will episode. People will say “Atta boy” and pat him on the back for acting like an idiot.

CM: I think you’re right. These things have utility, is what you’re saying.

BN: Exactly. And this leads me to the atheism thing. So you’ve gotten into a bit of trouble with some folks online, because atheism has utility for them. And I’ve found that I’ve learned quite a bit on these atheist forums.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Because you’ve been interpreted as saying to folks like Jerry Coyne: “Don’t make atheistic arguments, because you’re putting atheism in the same truck as science, and people are not going to take science seriously because they’re religious.”

But atheism is a way of getting people interested in science. So Dawkins writes “The God Delusion” and he presents this panoply of interesting bits of information leading up to an argument.

CM: I understand exactly what you’re saying. People say all of these different kinds of things serves a purpose for them — I think that’s absolutely true. And I really like how you framed it, because I haven’t put it in quite that way, but it’s totally right, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to talk about bad information.

But that doesn’t change my particular view on atheism to point that out. I guess what I’m saying is that a lot of people in what we call the New Atheist movement have formed a community around a set of information, and it has utility for them, in your terms. There’s no doubt about that. You see them doing it so much, so fired up about it.

My argument is that almost in direct proportion to how it’s useful to them, it’s not useful for something else. And that can happen — a community can form around a shared body of information and another community can think it’s awful. That would totally work in your model. And my point is that even as they’re agreeing, scratching each other on the back, creating a dialogue that’s mainly amongst themselves, if you look at how that affects the broader dialogue in the country, it’s a different dynamic entirely.

So I think what I’m saying is: be aware that the way you talk about atheism works for you, and yet it also isn’t working in a different world. I think both those things can be true.

BN: A counter-argument is that you have religious folks who want to defend their views. The Ray Comforts of the world. And to the extent that they want to defend their views in any interesting way, they have to engage with the explicit arguments that are put forward by the atheist community. So that way it becomes something like a dialogue, so that at least it appears as though there’s something defensible going on [on Ray Comfort’s end].

So I have this underlying feeling that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can’t ever put ourselves in a place where we say, “Oh, no conflict, that’s no good”. And that seems to be what you’re doing — you call yourselves “accommodationists”, or at least that’s the label that’s been put on you. Conflict, to the extent that we want to have a debate, is okay. It’s just a certain kind of unproductive dialogue that sometimes goes on.

CM: Yeah. I think there’s all different kinds of conflicts. And there’s many things you can spend your time debating. We all pick and choose. My point on the general conflict between science and religion in the United States is that I don’t think it’s an incredibly fruitful one, and I don’t think it does the public understanding of science a lot of good to be hitched to the religion-bashing way. I think there are many ways to talk about science in religion in American society that would work better, and I think there’s a lot of evidence to support that, in terms of the way people react.

I’m sure that some people are getting engaged because of New Atheism — I’m sure some people are learning, some people are thinking about science — but I think it’s also clear that a lot of people are not getting engaged or are being negatively polarized. So it’s a difference of goals, in part, that explains the debate I think.

I think it is fair to say that, by far, Mooney and Kirshenbaum sparked the most outrage with their comments over civility. But the ensuing drama has drawn attention away from some of the most interesting questions. How does Mooney think people ought to communicate science? What does “science communication” involve, for him?

One thing is pretty clear. Mooney wants to offer strategic advice about communicating science. Both in person and in his written works, he aims to communicate the art of publicity to scientists, under the auspices of teaching them the art of communicating science to the public. This work is predicated upon the assumption that everyone has the same priorities, in the minimal sense that at least that everyone is on board with the “science communication” project.

But the most important point that I’m going to emphasize here is that his stance is self-consciously political. At least to some extent, there is a “difference in goals” between Mooney and the activist atheists — by which, I think, he means a difference in priorities. Mooney does not think that speaking out against religion is a priority, and that it is on the whole detrimental to science education; while others think it is a priority, and that it supports science education in some respect.

What’s interesting that the one thing that Mooney and the rest agree on is this: that activism over atheism really does have some utility in communicating science. It gives us something to talk about.