To see it as it is May 24, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Science.
Tags: Bertrand Russell
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In his essay “The Place of Science in a Liberal Education”, Bertrand Russell argues that one of the benefits of a scientific education has to do with “the temper of mind out of which the scientific method grows”:
The kernel of the scientific outlook is a thing so simple, so obvious, so seemingly trivial, that the mention of it may almost excite derision. The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires, tastes, and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world. Stated thus baldly, this may seem no more than a trite truism. But to remember it consistently in matters arousing our passionate partisanship is by no means easy, especially where the available evidence is uncertain and inconclusive…
The scientific attitude of mind involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know—it involves suppression of hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the whole subjective emotional life, until we become subdued to the material, able to see it frankly, without preconceptions, without bias, without any wish except to see it as it is, and without any belief that what it is must be determined by some relation, positive or negative, to what we should like it to be, or to what we can easily imagine it to be…
The instinct of constructiveness, which is one of the chief incentives to artistic creation, can find in scientific systems a satisfaction more massive than any epic poem. Disinterested curiosity, which is the source of almost all intellectual effort, finds with astonished delight that science can unveil secrets which might well have seemed for ever undiscoverable. The desire for a larger life and wider interests, for an escape from private circumstances, and even from the whole recurring human cycle of birth and death, is fulfilled by the impersonal cosmic outlook of science as by nothing else. To all these must be added, as contributing to the happiness of the man of science, the admiration of splendid achievement, and the consciousness of inestimable utility to the human race. A life devoted to science is therefore a happy life, and its happiness is derived from the very best sources that are open to dwellers on this troubled and passionate planet.
With him or against him May 17, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Religion.
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It was sixty years ago today that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools; and it was ten years ago today that Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. Michigan courts are attempting to follow suit, and you’d think members of a minority that had previously been denied equal rights for no reason other than prejudice would be sympathetic — but you’d be wrong.
Gay marriage would “destroy the backbone of our society,” said the Rev. Stacey Swimp of Flint at a Wednesday morning rally held by African-American ministers at First Baptist World Changers International Church in Detroit…
The ministers criticized people who compare the struggle for same-sex marriage to the black civil rights movement, saying such a comparison is offensive and historically inaccurate. Noting that millions of blacks were killed by slavery and public lynchings, Swimp said that backers of gay marriage who compare their movement to black struggles are being “intellectually empty, dishonest.”
Yes, gay people should wait until millions of them have been lynched to death before making a fuss about discrimination.
By the way, what exactly is the ministers’ problem with homosexuality?
“We believe in the Judeo-Christian conception on which America was founded upon,” said the Rev. Rader Johnson of Greater Bibleway Temple in Bay City.
Many quoted from the Bible and the history of Christianity to back up their beliefs. They also portrayed themselves as under attack from a secular culture that’s hostile to religion.
“God does not agree with this kind of behavior,” the Rev. James Crowder, president of Westside Ministerial Alliance Of Detroit, said of gay sexual acts. It’s “despicable, an abomination.”
Or, as Pastor Roland Caldwell put it:
Either you’re with God or you’re against him. If you’re against God, you’re against me… Anybody that’s an enemy of God is an enemy of mine.
And that’s why religion is so pernicious: it combines the (unjustified) belief that we know God’s will with the (immoral) conviction that obeying it is a virtue. This combination can produce positive behavior when what’s attributed to God’s will is actually good (amounting to doing the right thing for the wrong reasons); but so long as obedience is encouraged and critical thinking discouraged, there is always the potential to slide into doing evil (while thinking you’re doing good) — whenever someone decides to take the Bible seriously, for instance. Because the God of the Bible is fine with slavery (as the slaveholders of the South were fond of pointing out). And genocide. And stoning children.
If that God does exist, we should all be against him.
Letter to a successful white male May 11, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality.
Congratulations! You’re a successful white male. Or, as you might prefer to put it, you’re a successful person who just happens to be a white male — why would anyone think your gender and race have anything to do with your success? That’s textbook sexism and racism. You worked hard to get where you are. You never asked for special treatment, nor do you recall ever receiving any.
Of course, you don’t deny that women and people of color were once officially discriminated against in our society, with fewer rights and opportunities available to them as a matter of policy. But that’s all in the past. Today, the law requires that everyone be treated equally, and indeed, you yourself would never dream of discriminating against anyone, nor can you recall ever witnessing discrimination. If anything, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction: you’re always hearing about special programs and organizations and scholarships for the benefit of women and minorities, and everyone’s under pressure to increase “diversity” — who knows how many qualified white males have been discriminated against due to “political correctness”?
You naturally assume, then, that if women or minorities are underrepresented in certain fields, they must generally be less suited for them, or less interested in them, or less inclined to do the work necessary to succeed in them. Those who complain about being victims of discrimination are whiners, looking to blame others for their own shortcomings. Perhaps you yourself have suffered rejection in the past, say from astronaut school — at which point you didn’t accuse NASA of discrimination, you simply faced facts and got a different job.
Nevertheless, you keep hearing talk about “privilege” and “unconscious bias” from people who seem unimpressed by your logical reasoning. In order to silence the agitators, perhaps there is some scientific way to demonstrate the absence of discrimination in our society?
We could perform a controlled experiment. For example, we could send emails to university professors from fictional prospective students seeking to discuss research opportunities prior to applying to a doctoral program, varying only the name of the fictional student to signal gender and race — and discover that faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from white males (particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions). Or, we could send fictitious resumes in reply to help-wanted ads, varying only the name on the resume to sound either white or African American — and discover that white names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. Or, we could ask university science faculty to rate a fictional student application for a laboratory manager position, varying only the student’s name to be male or female — and discover that the male applicant was rated as significantly more competent and hireable, and was offered a higher starting salary and more career mentoring, than the (identical) female applicant. And so on.
Please understand: the fact that you are privileged does not mean you don’t deserve your own success, didn’t work hard for it, or ought to feel guilty about it; nor does it mean that you are to blame for the inequities of our society. There are, however, things you can do to help. You can support programs that encourage young women and minorities to pursue fields where they’re underrepresented and lack role models and encouragement. You can make an effort to seek out qualified women and minorities when considering candidates for a job, conference, etc. You can avoid perpetuating unjust stereotypes.
But before all that, before we can fix our society and make it more just and equitable, there’s a simple yet crucial step you can take right now.
You can acknowledge the problem.
Unsophisticated visitors May 3, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
Tags: 9/11, Islam
The soon-to-open National September 11 Memorial Museum will include a short video called “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” which “refers to the terrorists as Islamists who viewed their mission as a jihad.” I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that some people are unhappy about that.
“The screening of this film in its present state would greatly offend our local Muslim believers as well as any foreign Muslim visitor to the museum,” Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, the imam of Masjid Manhattan, wrote in a letter to the museum’s director. “Unsophisticated visitors who do not understand the difference between Al Qaeda and Muslims may come away with a prejudiced view of Islam, leading to antagonism and even confrontation toward Muslim believers near the site.”
… “The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did,” [Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington] said. “But when you associate their religion with what they did, then you are automatically including, by association, one and a half billion people who had nothing to do with these actions and who ultimately the U.S. would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”
… The museum did remove the term “Islamic terrorism” from its website earlier this month, after another activist, Todd Fine, collected about 100 signatures of academics and scholars supporting its deletion.
In interviews, several leading scholars of Islam said that the term “Islamic terrorist” was broadly rejected as unfairly conflating Islam and terrorism, but the terms Islamist and jihadist can be used, in the proper context, to refer to Al Qaeda, preferably with additional qualifiers, like “radical,” or “militant.”
But for Mr. Elazabawy, and many other Muslims, the words “Islamic” and “Islamist” are equally inappropriate to apply to Al Qaeda, and the word “jihad” refers to a positive struggle against evil, the opposite of how they view the terrorist attacks.
“Don’t tell me this is an Islamist or an Islamic group; that means they are part of us,” he said in an interview. “We are all of us against that.”
The museum still intends to keep the film; and yet,
“What helps me sleep at night is I believe that the average visitor who comes through this museum will in no way leave this museum with the belief that the religion of Islam is responsible for what happened on 9/11,” said Mr. Daniels, the president of the museum foundation. “We have gone out of the way to tell the truth.”
Truly, it’s impossible to underestimate the power of denial and self-delusion. According to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, these are the goals indoctrinated into al-Qaeda trainees:
- Establishing the rule of God on Earth.
- Attaining martyrdom in the cause of God.
- Purification of the ranks of Islam from the elements of depravity.
Al-Qaeda’s motives are explicitly Islamist: that’s all they ever talk about. Even if most Muslims disagree with some parts of al-Qaeda’s theology, it is by no means an implausible interpretation of Islam. (It’s not as if al-Qaeda is our only example of Islam-inspired violence.) And that means that Islam is part of the problem.
Consider, by analogy, the Inquisition — which I’m pretty sure had something to do with Christianity. Why do we no longer see Christians torturing and killing heretics and blasphemers? Is it because the scripture and doctrine of Christianity provide no support for such actions, and those inquisitors were all lunatics? No: it’s because most Christians no longer believe that (those parts of) their scripture should be followed literally. On the other hand, most Muslims still believe that the Koran, which is relentless in its vilification of unbelievers, is the perfect, unquestionable, literal word of God. Anyone who lends legitimacy to that belief system, even if opposed to violence himself, helps provide a basis upon which violent groups can thrive and attract followers.
It matters what people believe. If we want to avoid future atrocities, we need to be honest about what people have done, and continue to do, in the name of faith; and we must be uncompromising in criticizing irrational beliefs. If that offends anyone — sophisticated or not — too bad.