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Proud to be the party that protects human life July 24, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Freedom, Politics, Religion.
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The Republicans have published their 2016 Party Platform, in which they claim to stand for noble ideals:

We denounce bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, and religious intolerance. Therefore, we oppose discrimination based on race, sex, religion, creed, disability, or national origin and support statutes to end such discrimination… Our ranks include Americans from every faith and tradition, and we respect the right of each American to follow his or her deeply held beliefs.

Not bad, but they’re missing a crucial bit at the end there: it should read, “we respect the right of each American to follow his or her deeply held beliefs — so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others.” We don’t condone polygamy, for instance, or human sacrifice, no matter how deeply someone might believe in them. But the omission was not accidental: before you know it, the authors’ own “deeply held beliefs” are trumping their supposed opposition to bigotry and discrimination.

We … condemn the Supreme Court’s lawless ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges… [in which] five unelected lawyers robbed 320 million Americans of their legitimate constitutional authority to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman…

We endorse the First Amendment Defense Act… which will bar government discrimination against individuals and businesses for acting on the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

This obstinate resistance to same-sex marriage (in spite of the fact that a majority of Americans support it) might seem puzzling, since the Republican platform is all about promoting “married family life as the basis of a stable and prosperous society”, and it praises adoption as well (“Families formed or enlarged by adoption strengthen our communities and ennoble our nation”). Why, then, are they hellbent on preventing same-sex couples from marrying and adopting? The only justification they offer is a depressingly familiar one: “traditional religious beliefs that have been held across the world for thousands of years”. Do those who use that argument really not realize that it applies equally well to innumerable atrocities we have worked hard to leave behind us, from witch hunting to slavery?

Same-sex marriage is not the only bogeyman the Republicans squander their energy on: abortion is mentioned in the platform thirty-four times. (Climate change is mentioned just nine times — the scientific consensus is rejected, in case you were wondering.) And this is where we really go through the looking glass. The platform says things like “We affirm our moral obligation to assist, rather than penalize, women who face an unplanned pregnancy,” and “We are proud to be the party that protects human life and offers real solutions for women,” but those words must not mean what I think they mean.

we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to children before birth…

We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage…

We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

Needless to say, those laws were designed solely to reduce the availability of abortions: Texas could not provide the Court with a single example of a woman whose health would have benefited from the laws’ provisions. And in addition to making it as difficult as possible for women to get abortions, the Republicans also want to make it more likely that they’ll need them:

We renew our call for replacing “family planning” programs for teens with sexual risk avoidance education that sets abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior. That approach — the only one always effective against premarital pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease — empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes. We oppose school-based clinics that provide referral or counseling for abortion and contraception…

This despite the fact that abstinence-only sex education has been shown to be ineffective at preventing unwanted pregnancy or the spread of STDs — in the U.S., abstinence education was actually found to be positively correlated with teen pregnancy. And just for good measure, the platform also opposes embryonic stem cell research, which has the potential to produce therapies for many horrible injuries and diseases. But don’t forget, they’re “proud to be the party that protects human life”.

Why does the Republican Party care more about clumps of cells than the health and happiness of actual human beings? Why do they obsess over controlling people’s sex lives (despite claiming to be “the party of independent individuals”)? It all starts with their definition of “the fundamental precepts of American government”:

That God bestows certain inalienable rights on every individual… that man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights; and that if God-given, natural, inalienable rights come in conflict with government, court, or human-granted rights, God-given, natural, inalienable rights always prevail…

And they have a specific God in mind, of course:

We support the public display of the Ten Commandments as a reflection of our history and our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage…

Yes, the same Ten Commandments that teach us to kill people for worshiping the wrong god. So much for respecting Americans from every faith and tradition. The Constitution, of course, never mentions God at all. Because, if you care about reality and about the wellbeing of those living in it, you need to base your policies on reason and critical thinking — instead of blindly maintaining ancient beliefs and traditions just because they’re ancient, in the face of all evidence against them.

Assisted suicide is yet another humane policy opposed by the Republican platform. But some things should really be allowed to die.

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Who’s afraid of evidence? July 9, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Reason, Science.
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3 comments

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted:

Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence

Apart from theocrats and dictators, you’d think most everyone could agree with that sentiment in principle. But not UCLA sociologist Jeffrey Guhin: he says it’s “a very stupid idea”. Guhin, you see, has uncovered a fatal flaw in the scientific method (brace yourself): Scientists aren’t perfect!

… experts usually don’t know nearly as much as they think they do. Experts often get it wrong, thanks to their inherently irrational brains that, through overconfidence, bubbles of like-minded thinkers, or just wanting to believe their vision of the world can be true, mislead us and misinterpret information. Rationality is subjective. All humans experience such biases; the real problem is when we forget that scientists and experts are human too—that they approach evidence and reasoned deliberation with the same prior commitments and unspoken assumptions as anyone else. Scientists: They’re just like us.

Well, that’s a surprise to precisely no one. Apart from the “rationality is subjective” nonsense, scientists would certainly agree with the above, Tyson included. That’s why the scientific method has developed tools to help correct for error and minimize bias: randomized and blinded experiments, peer review, meta-analysis, etc. Which is how, despite the human flaws of individuals scientists, science has been so amazingly successful at expanding our knowledge and improving our lives: electromagnetism, evolution, genetics, cosmology — the list goes on and on. Advances in medical science have doubled our life expectancy over the last century. Guhin, however, is not impressed:

… science has no business telling people how to live. It’s striking how easily we forget the evil following “science” can do. So many times throughout history, humans have thought they were behaving in logical and rational ways only to realize that such acts have yielded morally heinous policies that were only enacted because reasonable people were swayed by “evidence.” Phrenology—the determination of someone’s character through the shape and size of their cranium—was cutting-edge science. (Unsurprisingly, the upper class had great head ratios.) Eugenics was science, as was social Darwinism and the worst justifications of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Scientific racism was data-driven too, and incredibly well respected. Scientists in the 19th century felt quite justified in claiming “the weight of evidence” supported African slavery, white supremacy, and the concerted effort to limit the reproduction of the lesser races…

And yet, despite its abysmal track record, people continue to have extremely positive opinions of “science.”

You’ve got to be kidding me: “abysmal track record”!? Just last week, NASA’s spacecraft Juno entered Jupiter’s orbit after travelling 1.7 billion miles over five years — and it arrived within one second of the predicted time. Now, it’s true that following the scientific method does not guarantee immunity from mistakes: reality is complicated. But Guhin’s purported examples of “the evil following science can do” are actually not scientific at all: from pseudoscience (like phrenology) to fascistic propaganda (like Nazism), the great mistakes of history were caused by ideological dogmatism, and would have been prevented by more skepticism and more insistence on rational evaluation of the evidence — exactly the lesson Tyson wants us to learn. Sure, the bad guys tried to leech off science’s good reputation by claiming it was on their side, but saying something is scientific doesn’t make it so. Does Guhin think Scientology is a scientific organization? Does he consider North Korea a democracy just because it calls itself “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”?

Democracy is actually a good example of another system we stick with even though it’s imperfect — because it’s better than the alternatives. And that is the crux of the matter. Science is hard, and we should do our best to understand the ways it can fail so as to mitigate them; but come decision time, the only relevant question is whether there’s a superior alternative. If experts and evidence are stupid, what does Guhin think we should base our policy on instead? What method has a better track record than science? He does not get very specific about that.

Science may give us data, but that doesn’t mean that data points to truth—it just means that’s what we currently understand as truth. So how we act on that data requires nuance and judgment. It’s philosophical, maybe religious, and certainly political.

Oh, we just need to use “nuance and judgement”! Genius. What else? “Maybe religious,” he says — but which religion would that be? There are many, their prescriptions usually conflicting. And since religious beliefs aren’t evidence-based, religious differences cannot be resolved through rational discourse (witness the wonderful policies of ISIS, for instance). As for philosophy and politics, I would hope those are based on reason and evidence — otherwise we’re just back to religion again. Evidence is what grounds us to reality, and losing touch with reality inevitably turns out badly. Science is no more and no less than our best honest attempt to figure out what’s really true about the world we live in — and that’s exactly what you want to base your life decisions on.

Why, then, is Guhin so irrationally opposed to Rationalia? I don’t know. Perhaps he’s afraid that if the demand for reasonable arguments supported by evidence ever becomes widespread, he’ll have a hard time getting published.

Juno image by NASA