Sunday: Hili dialogue

June 6, 2021 • 6:30 am

It’s Sunday, June 6, 2021: National GingerBread Day (I love the cake, but why does it have two capital letters?). It’s also National Applesauce Cake Day, National Frozen Yogurt Day, National Hunger Awareness Day, National Cancer Survivors Day, National Huntington’s Disease Awareness Day, Drive-In Movie Day (do any of these places still exist? They would have been popular during the pandemic), and Atheist Pride Day

And, of course, it’s  D-Day Invasion Anniversary (see below).  In honor of the soldier who died during what I think is a just war, here’s the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”, showing the slaughter visited on American soldiers storming Omaha Beach. (From what I hear, this is pretty realistic.).  WARNING: Gore and death. 

News of the day:

The bad news first: a federal judge in California has overturned the states’s 30-year-old ban on assault weapons. From the WaPo’s article:

In a 94-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of the Southern District of California said that sections of the state ban in place since 1989 regarding military-style rifles violate the Second Amendment. Benitez characterized the assault weapons Californians are barred from using as not “bazookas, howitzers or machine guns” but rather “fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles.”

The judge then compared an AR-15 to a Swiss Army knife.

“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” Benitez said in the ruling.

In California, “assault rifles” are defined by their “code”. The AR-15, mentioned by the judge, is a semi-automatic weapon that has often been used in mass shootings. It baffles me that this gun would be seen as good for inself-defense (unless you’re attacked by an army), much less as something that the founders would regard as useful for “a well regulated militia”.

Swiss Army knife? What does that mean? The loons are out in force, including those who think that the Supreme Court or some other venue could actually enable Trump to re-assume the Presidency this August! Those who believe this nonsense apparently include Trump himself. Listen to Jim Acosta’s measured but scathing assessment at CNN (click on screenshot to go to the 6-minute video). One quote from Acosta: “You are not well, sir. You need to get over this.” I like his paraphrase of “Wasted away again in Margaritaville.”

My high school in Arlington, Virginia, Washington-Lee High (spawner of alumni like Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty) recently decided to change its name because Robert E. Lee was head of the Confederate Army. I didn’t weigh in, for I thought the name change was inevitable, but the loss of my alma mater “W and L,” as we called it, is a bit discomfiting. Now, however, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia has decided not to change its name despite a lot of urging to do so. That surprises me, but the school is making changes to “separate itself from the Confederacy.”

The world’s oldest and longest-working disk jockey (DJ), Ray Cordeiro, has just retired at 96 after a 70-year career spinning records in Hong Kong (he’s of Portuguese descent). Among his honors are an MBE from Queen Elizabeth. Remember, 70 years ago was 1951, a few years before rock and roll got started, but during the years of Peggy Lee, Perry Como, and Dean Martin.

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 596,967, an increase of 418 deaths over yesterday’s figure. The reported world death toll is now 3,736,900, an increase of about 8,500 over yesterday’s total.

Stuff that happened June 6 includes:

After a gun accident, St. Martin healed, but there was a connection between a hole in the skin and the stomach, leading Beaumont to study the digestion. Here’s a diagram of St. Martin’s fistula. The round thing is his nipple:

  • 1844 – The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) is founded in London.
  • 1889 – The Great Seattle Fire destroys all of downtown Seattle.

Here’s a Wikipedia photo of the fire labeled, “Looking south on 1st Ave. from Spring St. about one-half hour after the fire started.” It burned 25 city blocks, destroying all of downtown Seattle as well as the railroad station and much of the wharf district. 

Here’s the first drive-in in the year it opened. Pity they didn’t last, as they would have been useful during the pandemic:

  • 1942 – The United States Navy’s victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway is a major turning point in the Pacific Theater of World War II. All four Japanese fleet carriers taking part—AkagiKagaSōryū and Hiryū—are sunk, as is the heavy cruiser Mikuma. The American carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann are also sunk.
  • 1944 – Commencement of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy, with the execution of Operation Neptune—commonly referred to as D-Day—the largest seaborne invasion in history. Nearly 160,000 Allied troops cross the English Channel with about 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels, and 277 minesweepers participating. By the end of the day, the Allies have landed on four invasion beaches and are pushing inland.

A Wikipedia photo of the aftermath of the landing, with Allied troops having a foothold on the continent:

From Wikipedia; English: Landing ships putting cargo ashore on Omaha Beach, at low tide during the first days of the operation, mid-1944-06
  • 1985 – The grave of “Wolfgang Gerhard” is opened in Embu, Brazil; the exhumed remains are later proven to be those of Josef MengeleAuschwitz‘s “Angel of Death”; Mengele is thought to have drowned while swimming in February 1979.

The fact that Mengele escaped and died in Brazil (drowned while swimming) is proof that either there is no god, or the existing god is unjust.

Notables born on this day include:

Here is a Velásquez with a cat!: “The Spinners”, c. 1657.

  • 1875 – Thomas Mann, German author and critic, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1955)
  • 1902 – Jimmie Lunceford, American saxophonist and bandleader (d. 1947)
  • 1918 – Edwin G. Krebs, American biochemist and academic, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 2009)
  • 1936 – Levi Stubbs, American soul singer; lead vocalist of the Four Tops (d. 2008)

Stubbs was of course the lead singer of The Four Tops, and here he is in Paris in 1967 singing my favorite of the group’s songs, “Ask the Lonely.” This is surely one of the best live soul performances of all time.

  • 1956 – Björn Borg, Swedish tennis player; winner of eleven Grand Slam singles titles including five consecutive Wimbledons

Those who “passed” (I hate that euphemism) on June 6 include:

  • 1799 – Patrick Henry, American lawyer and politician, 1st Governor of Virginia (b. 1736)
  • 1941 – Louis Chevrolet, Swiss-American race car driver and businessman, founded Chevrolet and Frontenac Motor Corporation (b. 1878)
  • 1961 – Carl Gustav Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist (b. 1875)

Here he is, presented against my will:

  • 1968 – Robert F. Kennedy, American soldier, lawyer, and politician, 64th United States Attorney General (b. 1925)
  • 1991 – Stan Getz, American saxophonist and jazz innovator (b. 1927)

Here’s a great 33 minutes of Getz, one of my favorite saxophonists:

  • 2005 – Anne Bancroft, American film actress; winner of the 1963 Academy Award for Best Actress for The Miracle Worker (b. 1931)
  • 2006 – Billy Preston, American singer-songwriter, pianist, and actor (b. 1946)
  • 2013 – Esther Williams, American swimmer and actress (b. 1921)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is taking it slowly:

A: What are you doing?
Hili: I’m deliberating over my next step.
In Polish:
Ja: Co robisz?
Hili: Rozważam następny krok.

A photo of little Kulka by Paulina:

A “meme” (not so mimetic) from Bruce:

From Jesus of the Day, an accidentally salacious Pooh:

From Nicole. I don’t even need to be sleepy to act like this; extreme logorrhea in someone talking to me will do it:

Two tweets from Ginger K., the first on hijabis:

And the second on kitty behavior. I’d like to see David Attenborough narrating this one:

Tweets from Matthew. Look at this cool stegosaur graph (Matthew’s favorite extinct animal):

Oh dear; Richard has put his foot in it again:

Cathode the Adventure Cat! Be sure to watch this entire heartwarming video.

This is one of the most reprehensible people I’ve ever heard of.  The thread contains more horrors.

Q: What are you studying? A: How much and how often do sheep pee?

The end of my conversation with Adam Gopnik about “ways of knowing”

May 14, 2021 • 9:15 am

Adam Gopnik and I have now finished our written “conversation” at the link below (click on the screenshot). He has produced letter #8 in partial response to my letter #7, so we’ve each had four chances to say our piece.  Since the conversation is now finished, I’ll make a few brief remarks, particularly with respect to our last two letters (#7 and #8).

This is a recurrent debate, one intensified by the rise of postmodernism which claims (along with religion) that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond the methods used by science (empirical exploration, testing, falsification/verification, etc.) Adam adheres to neither religion or po-mo, so he’s not on those sides. Rather, he sees art (literature, music, and painting, including abstract painting) as a “way of knowing.” I defined “knowledge” at the outset as “justified true belief.”

I’ve discussed individual letters before, so will just mention what’s in the last two letters.

I’ll take up three issues. The first is Adam’s insistence that I admit that Darwin’s theory of heredity was wrong (I gladly admitted that), but yet the whole theory wasn’t discarded, as a Popperian might have done. I noted that Darwin’s theory, which has several parts, doesn’t depend on the accuracy of a particular theory of heredity: only that there is genetic variation for traits and some variants leave more copies of their genes than others. In truth, I’m not sure what this was all about unless it’s to make me admit that scientists don’t conform strictly to Popperian falsification. But we’ve known that for decades.

Adam also leveled several “challenges” to me that he accused me of not answering.

Meanwhile, we have evolutionary psychology and epigenesis: I know from reading that you take a soft view on one, and a hard view on the other, but there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think   epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.

(I also note that you evade my challenge on the status of  epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, which experts like yourself, with ‘voting rights’ , find equally vapid or vital, underlining my point that the settled truths of science you cite are the very tip of the iceberg of argument.)

I didn’t really have time to deal with both epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, as those weren’t part of our argument; but I took time to answer the evolutionary psychology “challenge”. My words:

The other challenges I’m accused of evading involve two current debates in biology, the value of epigenetics and of evolutionary psychology. Yet this was not evasion, but rather my realization that full answers would require long essays on issues largely irrelevant to our exchange. But I’ll make room to deal with evolutionary psychology.

You note that “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud”. Well yes, there are biologists who think that, but I don’t know any good ones who do. No thoughtful biologist would argue that while our bodies are products of a long evolutionary history, and still show traces of that history, our brains (which after all are also made of cells) show none. While it’s not easy to study the evolutionary roots of human behavior and mentation, evolutionary psychology has shed substantial light on human sexual behavior (why do the two sexes look for different traits in a potential mate?), parental behavior (why do we favor kin over non-kin?) and differences in behavior between men and women (why is it males who typically engage in competitive risk-taking?). These are scientific hypotheses that have been supported by observations and experiments. To dismiss this whole endeavor as “fraud” is to be both incurious and ignorant. Certainly a lot of work in the field has been overly speculative. But opposition to evolutionary psychology as a whole comes not from some shoddy work in that field, but from a “blank slate” ideology that objects to any claim that human behavior could reflect our genetic and evolutionary past.

I still maintain that biologists who dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology as worthless are not doing so for good biological reasons, but for ideological ones. Adam then hit me with what he thought was a zinger:

So, in discussing evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that you are offering an excellent instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, when you say that no good biologist can doubt the relevance of evolutionary psychology. If Richard Leowontin [sic] and Stephen Jay Gould were not good biologists, then none exists – but they both were largely hostile to evolutionary psychology.  I don’t endorse their view—though obviously evolutionary psychology becomes perilously silly perilously soon, in the unskilled hands of someone like Robert Wright – but there’s no gainsaying the debate is taking place among equally ‘good’ scientists.

Well, it’s not exactly a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, though I’d rephrase my assertion this way: “I think anyone who dismisses the entire field of evolutionary psychology (of humans), a field that has progressed substantially since Lewontin and Gould (read Pinker’s The Blank Slate), is doing so for ideological rather than biological reasons, and in that sense is not acting as a good scientist.”

I still believe this of Gould and Lewontin, though of course both made considerable contributions in other areas of biology. But in the battle over the simple validity of evo-psych as a field of endeavor, I think Lewontin and Gould lost the war to Wilson, Trivers, Buss, and their colleagues.

I note, though, that Adam completely ignored my challenges to him! To wit:

But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.”  And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet?  If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.

Not a peep from Adam!

Finally, Adam, in defending Mozart against Bach, not only conflated “knowledge” with “understanding,” but, more important, conflated “knowledge” with “values”. Values are subjective, while knowledge, in principle always tentative, is not a matter of opinion refractory to being settled by observing nature. Here’s Gopnik’s discussion of Mozart vs. Bach:

So let me move back to the other, though related, issue I raised, that about the ‘content ‘of the arts: the point is that all arguments about aesthetics end up being arguments not about ‘sense impressions or ‘taste’ in the shrugging sense of whether or not I like it. They are arguments about values, judged by the evidence marshalled.   There’s a terrific video that everyone ought to watch that helps refine this point. In it, Glen Gould assaults Mozart – or at least the later Mozart – as a mediocre composer.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pR74rorRxsThis  – to me, shocking—claim is not one that Gould simply offers as ‘my feeling’ or ‘how it seems to me.” No, on the contrary he argues from evidence: he shows as a master musician what we mere listeners might now ‘hear’ – how mechanical and predictable Mozart’s sequence of development is in his piano concerti, running predictably round the ‘circle of fifths’.  Unlike a master, Bach, Mozart’s architecture is shoddy even if his ornamentation is flashy.

Now, as a Mozartean I was shocked and amused by this – but also arrested by it. I couldn’t dismiss it.  It forced me to argue back, not by saying “Well, I don’t care. I like it’ but by reference to other values that Mozart’s music possess. Melody, after all, is not ornament but substance of another kind– if Mozart is less intellectually architectural than Bach, it is in part because the beautiful flow of melody in his work would be defaced by too clever a development.  When we hear a great melody – say the theme from the slow movement in the 27th piano concerto in the heartbreak key of B flat – we want to …hear it again.

Note that “other values”, like a beautiful melody, are dragged in to save the thesis that Mozart is at least as good as Bach! But Gopnik seems to think that everyone will agree what constitutes a “beautiful melody”, or that everyone will rank melodies in the same order.

Gopnik continues:

Now, every listener might have their own place on this spectrum; but it is not a spectrum of’ opinion’ or ‘impression’ in the sense that all views about the issue are equally valid.  Someone who just shrugs and says, “Well, I prefer Black Sabbath” may have a right to existence – I doubt it; but okay [JAC: LOL! Here we agree!] – but no right to a place at this table.  We marshal arguments on behalf of Mozart, and the arguments, though they may start as arguments about formal structure, always end as arguments about values. Bach, we may say, may be a greater musical architect, but architecture is not the whole of art. Rococo ornament has a place in our system of values. And such arguments have within them other, still deeper arguments about human existence: As I pointed out at length in a recent essay about Helen Frankenthaler, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/12/helen-frankenthaler-and-the-messy-art-of-life deprecating ornament is a familiar way of deprecating the merely feminine’ aspects of life; standing up for mere decorative is a way of affirming aspects of life wrongly relegated to the rear.

Now, these aesthetic arguments are not as neatly resolved, and they are, in their nature, looser and less obviously progressive than the arguments of science.  But they are not without standards of progress too: no one with a feeling or understanding of art, for instance, would any longer argue for a neat hierarchy of values in which, say, illusionistic Greek art   stands unquestioned at the top and ‘primitive’ or African sculpture stands dismissed at the bottom.  We have learned too much, from modern art and anthropology alike, to subscribe to so facile a grouping: the artists of Benin will always hold a place now alongside the masters of Athens. (Those who wish to exploit the masters of Benin to deprecate those of Athens have no sympathy from me.)   You may not want to call this ‘knowledge’ in the sense that understanding the structure of DNA is knowledge, but it is certainly an advance in understanding, one as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides.

And yet, after hearing, and after having been convinced that Mozart’s music is more mechanical than that of Bach, Gopnik still insists that Mozart has a “beautiful flow of melody”. So who is the better musician: Mozart or Bach? Gopnik doesn’t tell us, but somehow seems to construe this discussion on the same plane as one about whether DNA is a double or a triple helix. Saying that the artists of Benin are not inferior to those of Greece is not an objective view that can be justified by empirical reference (unless you define “artistic quality” in advance and everyone agrees on those tenets), but a subjective view that some will agree with, and others not.

Given that aesthetic standards inevitably differ among people, this is not in any sense a question equivalent to a dispute about how nature works. You may say that whether Benin vs. Greek art is a dispute “as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides”. (But although I’m a big art fan, I’d take issue with that, for presumably Gopnik gets his kids vaccinated, and would consider the debate between antibiotics and shamanism as more important than the debate about whether Benin art is better than Greek).

I’d say that the entire dispute between Adam and me is encapsulated in his paragraphs quoted above. He regards a subjective assessment of relative value as “knowledge”, and I don’t.  This is why he says that art confers knowledge. What he means is that it confers value, and some art confers more value (to him!) than others. I’d add that yes, that’s true, but that value depends on the observer.

A prescient friend of mind, reading this exchange, wrote me this:

One word that Gopnik uses in passing—“understanding”—might have led to some terrain of agreement. Gopnik wants to assimilate “understanding” to “knowledge.” Perhaps you could have gotten him to see that these are different things. Understanding is a mental state that’s plausibly attuned to some facts; those facts are knowledge. Obviously, we’re all in favor of both. But if someone doesn’t realize the difference, he’s apt to fantasize that works of art yield immediate “truth.”

Anyway, the discussion is over, and I’m not convinced that art, music, or literature conveys knowledge, especially in light of Adam’s having avoided my very clear challenges above. Or perhaps he thinks that Pollock and Kandinsky confer “value”, which they do, but also believes that value is identical to scientific knowledge.

Clearly no agreement is possible here, but, as Adam notes in his ending,

Art is not optional.  It is mandatory for anyone claiming to want to understand the way the world wags and how we wag it.  On that thought, and with the promise of a good dinner someday in Paris, I send my final brotherly salutations.

I will agree with all of that, and particularly of the value of a good dinner in Paris!

The conversation with Adam Gopnik continues

April 23, 2021 • 9:15 am

Over at The Conversation site, I’ve posted a response (“Letter 7”) to New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik in our continuing debate about the question posted by the title below (click on screenshot). This is my last response, as I started the sequence and each of us gets four “letters”.

In his last letter (“Letter 6”), Adam emphasized that I hadn’t answered several of his challenges, including his demand that I weigh in about two sub-fields of evolutionary biology: epigenetics as a means of adaptation, and evolutionary psychology. As Adam said, “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think  epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.”

I didn’t have the space to respond to both of these, as they’re tangential to our exchange, but I did defend the field (though of course not all the work) of evolutionary psychology. As for epigenetics, I don’t think it’s been shown to be an important cause of adaptive evolution in organisms, although there are cases where environmentally-induced epigenetic modifications of the DNA can persist for several generations.

Adam’s last letter also began his defense of the claim that abstract art and music can convey “knowledge”. I took issue with that, as I think it’s palpably false. But you can see my arguments in Letter #7.  I also issued my own challenge to Adam:

But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.”  And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet?  If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.

Needless to say, I am not denigrating the value of literature, music, and art, as those who follow this site know that I’m a big booster of the arts. I am simply arguing that neither the purpose nor the effect of art like this is to convey “knowledge”.

I look forward to Adam’s final letter. After that, our discussion will have reached its end.

New letter from Adam Gopnik in our “ways of knowing” exchange

April 1, 2021 • 10:00 am

Adam Gopnik has written his third letter (the sixth between us) in our continuing exchange on the topic shown below (click on screenshot to see all the letters, but then scroll down on the site to “Letter 6” to see Adam’s latest.

You may want to read my last letter (Letter 5) in conjunction with his latest one.

Adam defends his views on Darwin and argues that he’s not, as I suggested, projecting his own views onto writers like Dickens and Trollope. (I didn’t argue that; I said he picked from the smorgasbord of literature just those views that he found congenial to his own, and labeled those as “knowledge”). He then begins what will be an interesting discussion: do music and abstract painting give us “knowledge”? His view is “yes, they do.” I doubt I’ll agree!

I’ll respond after I get back to Chicago, and that will be my last contribution. Adam, in his fourth letter, will get the final say.

Some may feel that this is a futile exchange and the issue can never be settled, and of course I didn’t expect a lot of agreement. But my own view is that there has to be a place where the arguments about “ways of knowing” are collected, and I hope this is one such place.

Another letter in my exchange with Adam Gopnik

March 18, 2021 • 9:45 am

Over at the “Letter” section of The Conversation site, I’ve posted another response in my continuing discussion with writer Adam Gopnik about “Ways of Knowing”. The topic is in the screenshot below, and you can see my latest (“Letter 5”) by scrolling down.

My letter doesn’t need a gloss, as the whole conversation is self-explanatory. I think that we’ll finish with a total of eight letters—four each—with me writing one more piece and then Adam finishing off the discussion after writing two more letters.

Adam Gopnik’s second letter to me

March 10, 2021 • 11:00 am

Just a note: Adam Gopnik has responded to my last letter on the “Letter” website of The Conversation. The topic we’re discussing, as you can see in the title below, is “ways of knowing”, and you can see Adam’s latest response (“Letter 4”) by clicking on the screenshot.

There is a lesson to me about how science is done, a statement about Darwin’s view of human evolution that I find dubious (but will check), and some claims about how sociology is best done not through sociological research, but through literature. I shall respond in a week or so. In the meantime, read for yourself, and feel free to respond below, being aware that Adam is my friend and you must not be rude, though you can be critical of either of us.

A new letter to Adam Gopnik

February 28, 2021 • 10:30 am

As I wrote about two weeks ago, Adam Gopnik, a well-known writer who’s on staff at The New Yorker, is engaging me in an Internet discussion about “ways of knowing” on the “Conversation” site of Letter. I was going to post only when the exchange—which will involve either three or four letters each—was complete, but I decided that I’d let readers know as each letter goes up.  I’ve just posted my response to Adam, which is my second letter and #3 in the series at the website below (click on screenshot to read). Each week should see a new letter.

The discussion is mostly about literature, where Adam’s expertise lies, and whether knowledge can be discerned from literature alone. But I won’t go into the specifics, as our thoughts will be laid out for all to see. Feel free to comment below, though, and remember, this is a civil discussion between Adam and me, that we’re friends, and that comments should also be civil—even when critical of either of us.

Response from Adam Gopnik in the “Ways of knowing” discussion

February 20, 2021 • 10:45 am

Adam Gopnik didn’t lose any time replying to my first argument, on the “Letters” site, that the empirical methods used by science are the only way to know the truth about the universe. (When I expressed surprise at how fast he answered, he said that, well, he’s used to working on a deadline. But he beat the deadline by five days: they expect only one letter a week.)

At any rate, you can read the first pair of letters by clicking on the screenshot below, and see Adam’s defense of literature as a “way of knowing.” I’m working on a reply now.

From now on I’m not going to call attention to each bout of our discussion because there will be at least six letters; the next thing you hear from me will be when the discussion is over. You can bookmark the site if you want to follow the interchange.  But I did want to call attention to the first two “letters”, for they contain the gist of our respective arguments.

This is fun. I get to engage someone who knows literature in depth as well as more science than the usual critic, and we are friendly and civil.

Misguided journalist argues that science—and wearing of facemasks—are based on a quasi-religious faith

January 12, 2021 • 10:15 am

Despite what I consider my strong refutation of the idea that “faith” is pervasive in both science and religion, that idea persists. I won’t go through the arguments that I made in Faith Versus Fact or, more concisely, in an article in Slate, “No Faith in Science,” but people nevertheless persist in their nescience. The latest attempt to argue that science is faith-based is in the pages of The Post Millennial, a conservative Canadian news magazine. It’s just so tiresome in every way that I get no pleasure from putting fingers to keys. But since that rag is fairly widely read, I’ll say a few words.

The article is really a disguised harangue about how mandates to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic are infringements on our liberty. In other words, it’s the right-wing libertarian argument against masks that we see so often in the U.S. And, says Andrew Mahon—identified as “a Canadian-British writer based in London who has written for the Spectator, the Daily Wire, Conservative Woman, New English Review, Brexit Central, Catholic Journal and others”—the notion that masks reduce Covid-19 transmission is based on faith, because there’s supposedly no evidence behind it.

Click on the screenshot to read and weep:

You can read my Slate piece to see that when scientists use the word “faith”, they use it differently from believers. Scientists use it to mean “confidence born of experience.” And when people say “I have faith in my doctor” or “I have faith in Anthony Fauci’s views”, they mean that they trust authority figures who have a good track record. That’s not the same as religious faith, characterized by philosopher Walter Kaufmann as ” “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

Read my piece if you want more. The upshot is that the scientific notion of “faith” does not turn science into a religion, as Mahon implies in his headline. If you look up “religion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you find this definition:

 Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.

Even if science were based on a religious-like faith, which it isn’t, it couldn’t be described as a religion. We have no obedience to or reverence for gods or the supernatural. End of story.

Mahon, who I suspect is a believer, has a weird notion of religion, claiming that it is not based on evidence or claims about reality. That’s of course untrue, but it does adhere to the Gouldian “Non-overlapping magisteria” view of science and religion:

The religious impulse cannot be avoided. Alongside faith, everyone participates in ritual and follows prohibitions in one form or another. We do it in every human interaction, and we certainly notice whenever anyone doesn’t follow conventional norms. The question becomes where to direct the religious impulse. And, leaving aside the truth or falsehood of its claims, what Christianity achieved was to direct man’s religious impulse to the ideal place, away from the empirically knowable. Unlike other religions, Christianity directed it wholly towards things unknowable, unprovable and unfalsifiable. This effectively freed up the knowable world, severing it from the realm of faith, and allowed the scientific method to step in and transform human civilization.

Away from the empirically knowable? But if you’re a Christian, don’t you have to have some “knowledge” about the existence of Jesus and God,  and of their powers and their plans? In fact, empiricism is the only way to know about these things, making the term “empirically knowable” a bit of an redundancy. I guess he’s talking about “other ways of knowing,” i.e., revelation, authority, and sacred books, which are non-empirical. Neither are they a way to arrive at the truth, as we know from all the contradictory claims of the world’s diverse religions. As Mike Aus, a pastor who quit the church, said:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

So, although Mahon gives credit for science to religion’s wise decision to step away from empirical claims, I can’t be all that grateful. And I wish that religion would keep its mitts off evolution.  But of course Mahon’s claim bespeaks a profound ignorance of religion, many of whose proponents really do make claims about reality that they believe absolutely, and are constantly trying to buttress with evidence (viz. Biblical archaeology, miracles, and so on).

But the “religious impulse” that “can’t be avoided” is now, argues Mahon, directed towards the pandemic, in particularly those nasty mandates to wear masks. He gets into his anti-mask argument slowly, as he doesn’t want to look like a crazy right-winger at the very beginning.

Step 1: A general assertion:

The rush to accept the claims of scientists with blind faith rather than insisting on proof is a distinct sign of our times, as is the demand for proof of unprovable tenets of Christianity. In thrall to this topsy-turvydom, many scientists expect politicians to trust them in the absence of evidence and many Christians try to construe the book of Genesis as if it were a scientific treatise.

Step 2: Mahon gets more specific:

Surely, given the unprecedented disruption to people’s lives, the suppression of basic liberties and the destruction of the economy, the decision to shut down society ought to have been evidence-based rather than faith-based. But with few exceptions, our politicians didn’t insist upon evidence, choosing instead to defer to (or should we say, hide behind) their scientific advisors, who presented them with predictions, models, worst-case estimates and beliefs.

And of course those scientific advisors, who were blindsided like many of us, initially went on the best guesses they could make from evidence derived from previous coronavirus epidemics and from epidemiology. In other words, they went on evidence, scanty as it was at the beginning of 2020. They weren’t always right, but they did not rely on revelation, sacred books, or mere unevidenced pronouncements of authorities. And of course those scientists eventually presented the politicians with a vaccine. That vaccine wasn’t, of course, based on faith.

Step 3: Mahon reveals his real animus:

Take mask mandates. People who believe in wearing masks think that they’re basing those beliefs on science. But if that were true, they’d be able to show evidence. What you get instead is a patronizing cartoon of people peeing on each other, or Paul Rudd trying to be funny and then yelling at you from his celebrity pedestal. “It’s science!” he shouts. But is it?

Wearing masks makes some people feel better. It also satisfies a naive intuition. The mask is clearly a barrier that will at some level prevent fluids travelling through fabric, just like your pants. But that doesn’t constitute scientific proof that masks prevent the spread of a virus. Scientific proof in this case would take the form of randomized controlled trials. There was one five years ago which compared medical masks to cloth masks and found that “Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection.” This was the line that most governments were taking at first, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. But then they altered course without any new evidence, and the vast majority of people now accept it as an article of faith that masks save lives.

There has been a grand total of one randomized controlled trial conducted to determine the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The Danish study that initially struggled to find a publisher conclusively showed that there is a statistically insignificant difference between wearing a mask and not wearing a mask. Add to this the fact that masks are disgusting, unhygienic sneeze receptacles that in practice are rarely washed or replaced, that people touch their masks and faces constantly before feeling up avocados in the supermarket, that because of the false sense of security, people wearing masks are less likely to do other, more effective things, like wash their hands, and finally, that there is little to no evidence of asymptomatic transmission, and we have to wonder why all these healthy people are still walking around with their faces covered. The answer is quite simply that their faith is misplaced.

Now let’s grant that we lack the direct controlled, randomized trials that we need to show with absolute certainty that masks are useful in helping contain the epidemic. (Of course other things are very useful as well: hand-washing, avoiding big social gatherings, quarantining, and so on.) Doing those types of experiments would be unethical.  But we have correlational evidence that show mask wearing by symptomatic and asymptomic people, whether the latter be infected or not, reduces the incidence of transmission; that masks contain respiratory droplets, a source of infection; and so on. All the evidence is summarized in this post on the website of my doctor, Alex Lickerman—a post I’ve mentioned before (click on screenshot to read it):

You won’t find any faith in the post above, just data—data sufficient to buttress the argument that we should all be wearing masks.

At the end, Mahon reprises his claim that mask-wearing is a religious act, and makes what I call “The Argument from the Norm”:

Not wearing masks is the norm, freedom to visit family and friends is the norm, freedom to conduct business is the norm, and evidence should be required to displace by legal compulsion each and every one of these norms. But too many people aren’t interested in that, preferring instead to trust in the government’s claim to be following “the science,” and if challenged, they often react the way a religious person reacts when his beliefs are criticized — offended and scandalized.

Well, read Alex’s post above and see if you think there’s no “science” behind mask mandates.

But the best part of Mahon’s argument is his claim, at the very end, that because the erosion of Christianity in our society has also eroded the distinction between “the knowable and the unknowable”, then perhaps a return of Christianity will actually help revive science! I kid you not:

I’m not sure whether a return to Christianity is necessary to salvage the unknowable/knowable partition and preserve the utility of the scientific method. But whatever direction our society chooses to go in future, one thing’s for sure: we will have a religion. We may not have science.

Can you believe that? Mahon’s not even wrong here. Eventually religion will largely disappear from Western society, but science never will because it cannot. In the modern world, we don’t really need religion that much, but we’ll always need science. How else would we have gotten a vaccine? Science is the only good way to materially improve humanity, whether it be through technology, nutrition, or health. And, of course, it’s the only way to satisfy our insatiable curiosity about the cosmos.

The Post Millennial was in fact irresponsible in printing this piece, implying as it does that mask-wearing has no effect on viral infection rates. Mahon may have the right to endanger Canadians with his pabulum, but the paper should exercise better judgement in allowing columnists to make misleading statements about science, particularly when they affect public health. If this column were on Twitter, it would have gotten one of those “false tweets” warnings.

h/t: Paul

p.s. If you saw a mattress ad, ignore it. I had to turn off adblocker to get the article, and accidentally copied that ad. It should be removed now.

Richard Dawkins on truth and “ways of knowing”

December 19, 2020 • 10:45 am

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an article by Dawkins appear in a magazine or newspaper, but now there’s a new one on the nature of truth and knowledge in The Spectator (click on screenshot for free access). Yes, it’s a rather conservative venue, but you’re not going to see The Guardian publishing critiques of theology and postmodern denial of objective truth. And Dawkins does take some pretty strong swings at Donald Trump, e.g. “For him, lying is not a last resort. It never occurs to him to do anything else.”

The article first defines what scientists mean by “truth”, and then attacks two areas that dismiss that definition—or at least offer alternative “ways of knowing”:

What is truth? Richard begins by analogizing scientific truth with the “the kind of truth that a commission of inquiry or a jury trial is designed to establish.” He adds this:

I hold the view that scientific truth is of this commonsense kind, although the methods of science may depart from common sense and its truths may even offend it.

I like that idea—though Massimo Pigliucci will be enraged—because it shows there’s no bright line between scientific truth and the kind of truth that people establish using “common sense”, which I take to mean empirical inquiry whose results people generally agree on. Truth is simply what exists in the universe and can be found by common assent. That’s with the proviso, of course, that there is a reality to be found, and one that’s independent of us. I’ll take that as a given, and don’t want to argue about it. And, of course “common assent” means, in science, the assent of those capable of evaluating data.

Finally, while truth is always “provisional” in science, there are some truths so well established that we can regard them as “not really that provisional”. These are the truths whose reality you’d bet thousands of dollars on. It’s unlikely, as I say in Faith Versus Fact, that normal DNA will some day be shown to be a triple helix, or a water molecule to have two atoms of hydrogen and two of oxygen. This is a point that Richard makes as well, and one we should keep in mind when we debate those who argue that, “Well, science is tentative, and can be wrong—and has been wrong.” To wit:

It is true that Newton’s laws are approximations which need modifying under extreme circumstances such as when objects travel at near the speed of light. Those philosophers of science who fixate on the case of Newton and Einstein love to say that scientific truths are only ever provisional approximations that have so far resisted falsification. But there are many scientific truths — we share an ancestor with baboons is one example — which are just plain true, in the same sense as ‘New Zealand lies south of the equator’ is not a provisional hypothesis, pending possible falsification.

Bad thinkers. Finally, the two groups Richard excoriates for rejecting the notion of scientific truths are the theologians on one hand and the PoMo-soaked philosophers and Critical Theory mavens on the other. First, the theologians, who by now are low-hanging fruit:

Theologians love their ‘mysteries’, such as the ‘mystery of the Trinity’ (how can God be both three and one at the same time?) and the ‘mystery of transubstantiation’ (how can the contents of a chalice be simultaneously wine and blood?). When challenged to defend such stuff, they may retort that scientists too have their mysteries. Quantum theory is mysterious to the point of being downright perverse. What’s the difference? I’ll tell you the difference and it’s a big one. Quantum theory is validated by predictions fulfilled to so many decimal places that it’s been compared to predicting the width of North America to within one hairsbreadth. Theological theories make no predictions at all, let alone testable ones.

Nor has theology ever, by itself, established a single truth about the universe. I keep asking people to give me one, but they either can’t or bring in truths that are empirical and can be verified not by revelation or dogma, but only by observation and testing. Ergo, theology is not a “way of knowing.”

And then the poor PoMos and Critical Theorists get their drubbing (remember, the roots of Critical Theory are in the filthy humus of postmodernism):

A more insidious threat to truth comes from certain schools of academic philosophy. There is no objective truth, they say, no natural reality, only social constructs. Extreme exponents attack logic and reason themselves, as tools of manipulation or ‘patriarchal’ weapons of domination. The philosopher and historian of science Noretta Koertge wrote this in Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 1995, and things haven’t got any better since:

Instead of exhorting young women to prepare for a variety of technical subjects by studying science, logic, and mathematics, Women’s Studies students are now being taught that logic is a tool of domination…the standard norms and methods of scientific inquiry are sexist because they are incompatible with ‘women’s ways of knowing’. The authors of the prize-winning book with this title report that the majority of the women they interviewed fell into the category of ‘subjective knowers’, characterised by a ‘passionate rejection of science and scientists’. These ‘subjectivist’ women see the methods of logic, analysis and abstraction as ‘alien territory belonging to men’ and ‘value intuition as a safer and more fruitful approach to truth’.

That way madness lies. As reported by Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh in The Nation in 1997, the social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth, at an interdisciplinary seminar, praised the virtues of the experimental method. Audience members protested that the experimental method was ‘the brainchild of white Victorian males’. Ellsworth acknowledged this, but pointed out that the experimental method had led to, for example, the discovery of DNA. This was greeted with disdain: ‘You believe in DNA?’

You can’t not ‘believe in DNA’. DNA is a fact. . . .

While different groups of people have different interests, and that may lead them to work on areas that reveal truths heretofore hidden, that doesn’t mean that there are different ways of knowing. Barbara McClintock, for example, was touted by her biographer Evelyn Fox Keller as having a special female-linked “feeling for the organism” that led to her Nobel-winning studies on mobile genetic elements. I don’t buy that thesis, but there may be some truth to the claim that female evolutionists helped emphasize the important role of female choice in sexual selection.  If so, that means that different aspects of a problem may appeal to different groups, but in the end the truth or falsity of ideas are established the same way by everyone. McClintock did her science the way everyone else did, as do those who study sexual selection. There may be many ways of thinking, but only one way of knowing. 

And that way of knowing is what I call “science construed broadly”: the use of observation, testing of hypotheses, attempts to falsify your theory, experiments, and so on. Science has more refined methods than, say, an electrician trying to find a glitch in house wiring, but in the end they both rely on a similar set of empirical tools.

Richard will of course be faulted for attacking the beloved notion of “other ways of knowing”, but in the end he’s right. And of course there are all those people laying for him, who will claim he’s arrogant in giving science such hegemony over truth. He attacks this head on:

Some of what I have claimed here about scientific truth may come across as arrogant. So might my disparagement of certain schools of philosophy. Science really does know a lot about what is true, and we do have methods in place for finding out a lot more. We should not be reticent about that. But science is also humble. We may know what we know, but we also know what we don’t know. Scientists love not knowing because they can go to work on it. The history of science’s increasing knowledge, especially during the past four centuries, is a spectacular cascade of truths following one on the other. We may choose to call it a cumulative increase in the number of truths that we know. Or we can tip our hat to (a better class of) philosophers and talk of successive approximations towards yet-to-be-falsified provisional truths. Either way, science can properly claim to be the gold standard of truth.

Amen! I’ll finish with a quote I used to begin Chapter 4 in Faith Versus Fact. It’s from Mike Aus, a former preacher who left the pulpit after admitting his atheism on television. Since then he hasn’t fared well, but he did produce one quotation that I think is telling:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

h/t: Eli