Compartmentalizing Delusion

CompartmentsReligious people hold a lot of beliefs that nonbelievers conclude are delusional (see here). Many of these believers also hold important positions of responsibility in the government, in the media, and business. Some of them even sit on our Congressional Science Committee. Their decisions deeply impact public policy and the very existence of us and of our planet.

Those most fervent in their beliefs proudly tout the fact that their deeply held religious beliefs guide and influence all of their decisions as a lawmaker. But when someone points out that those deeply held religious beliefs are in direct conflict and contradiction to basic reason and accepted public policy, they then typically claim compartmentalization.

Essentially the contradictory claim they make is that while they affirm that they are deeply influenced by nonsensical ideas, those nonsensical ideas do not influence their thinking in rational matters. They insist that they can wail over rapture on Sunday and make prudent, long-term budget decisions on Monday. They can enumerate why evolution is a hoax cooked up by scientists at Wednesday evening Bible study, then properly assess the advise of climate change scientists in their Thursday morning advisory board meeting. They can affirm that the Bible is the only source of truth on Saturday morning, then go home and work on educational text book selections all afternoon. They assert that one is not affected by the other in the least – except when they want to tout the fact that it is.

Their amazingly selective isolation of thinking, they claim, is all thanks to the magic of compartmentalization. It lets them espouse crazy beliefs and claim to be perfectly sane and rational too. This claim is made so often and with such matter-of-fact certainty, that most people just tend to accept it as true.

But let’s examine this claim of compartmentalization more closely.

All of us compartmentalize somewhat. In fact, such compartmentalization is critical to our functioning. We mentally separate work and home, parent and spouse, private and public. When we think of scientific models, we hold two seemingly different views at the same time (see here). Compartmentalization is an essential rational and emotional adaptation. Maybe that’s partly why we accept their claim of exceptional compartmentalization so easily.

But all normal and highly functional behaviors can become abnormal and dysfunctional at some point. At the extreme, we see people with multiple personalities that are split so completely that they are not even aware of each other. And although some extremely rare individuals can apparently completely isolate their thinking, most of us cannot. For most of us, any irrational, dysfunctional thinking does spill over and taints our rational thinking.

We humans can do hand-stands too. When I was in high school, there were a couple of guys on my gymnastic team who could literally walk up and down stairs between classes, in a crowd at full speed, on their hands with perfect form. But because those rare individuals could do it doesn’t mean we can all claim it. Just because Jimmy Carter seemed to isolate his religious belief from his rational thinking in a healthy way, doesn’t mean that many of us can do that. Jimmy Carter was more like the gymnast who could walk up and down stairs on his hands. Most others who believe they can isolate belief from rationality will invariably plummet down the stairs, taking innumerable others crashing down with them.

As I point out in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), religious belief is the pot smoking of rational thought. Every pot smoker or alcoholic is convinced that they can handle it. That their rational thinking is not affected. They think what they are expounding while high is really profound, but it’s really just nonsensical gibberish. Religious people can’t see how ridiculous they sound while they’re high on the Bible and only listening to others who are just as stoned.

We don’t easily accept this same claim of compartmentalization in any area other than religion. We don’t fully accept that ones stressful job as a homicide cop has no affect on their home life. We would not accept the assertion by a racist that while he may attend Klan meetings on Friday nights, this has no impact on his professional behavior as a hiring manager. Most of us would be at least skeptical in accepting any opinion expressed by a Wiccan who claimed to have supernatural powers, despite any claim of compartmentalization.

Even religious people don’t accept any compartmentalization except the one they claim. If I ran for public office as an atheist, I don’t have any illusions that my claim that I can compartmentalize my atheism would be sufficient to convince any religious people to trust that my judgement has not been tainted by my atheism.

Religious thinkers claim compartmentalization to avoid legitimate skepticism regarding their compromised rationality. Sadly, we accept this claim for the most part. We should stop giving them this free pass. Not only can such fervent “deeply held” delusions not be sufficiently compartmentalized, but believers don’t really want or intend to compartmentalize away their beliefs in any case.

Religious people want and need to propagate their beliefs and weave them inextricably into public policy. Our polite acceptance of their dubious claim of compartmentalization only helps enable them to do that.


Trump’s Cabinet of Sycophants

Like the rest of the nation, I have lots of other topics I’d like to blog about, but I instead need to vent about Donald Trump’s pathetic first “Cabinet Meeting” held today. It was a new low for a President who keeps surpassing expectations for how low a President could possibly sink – and that made it a new low for our nation.

donald-trump-cabinet-meetingThere was no actual meeting. No normal business was conducted. No information was exchanged. It began unsurprisingly with Trump touting how he is the greatest President ever. His obscene self-aggrandizement was followed with each of his cabinet ministers taking their turn to genuflect at his feet and pour praises upon him in the most hyperbolic manner they could (see here). Each one affirmed that their lord and master is the greatest president ever, that he has accomplished more than anyone else could possibly imagine, and showered him with their deep gratitude for the singularly great honor of serving under him.

Trump accepted each sickeningly fawning public declaration of adulation and adoration like some cheap fantasy novel King, nodding his approval as each of his Barons pledged undying loyalty with flattery and tributes of gold.

It felt like we imagine North Korea to be, but then again I’m not sure even Kim Jong-un is actually as pathetically needy or that he has a more disgustingly sycophantic group of advisors around him than Trump does. Today, at least in the Executive Branch, we became worse than North Korea because unlike the North Koreans, we chose to empower this ridiculous child-king.

Trump is still not a President. He holds the title but he does not act like one. He rather acts like the winner of a reality TV show – Survivor or Last Man Standing. Or maybe he’s closer to a romance novel Beauty Pageant winner, doing the circuit of required appearances to revel in the applause and envy of all those who called her plain and dull in High School. Dressing up each day only to feed her vanity but with absolutely nothing of any actual substance to offer from atop her throne.

This meeting today dashes all hope that Trump would bring together a Cabinet of distinguished advisors who could competently manage this nation. To be sure, he has succeeded, but he has succeeded in assembling a Cabinet of Sycophants who are willing to debase themselves and grovel to feed the insatiable ego of this egomaniacally compulsive liar.

As long as there have been kings and dictators, the worst of these have found sycophants to serve them. Donald Trump has found his.

Don’t Get Used to It

WeAreHereIn the early 1990’s, a group called Queer Nation came up with the “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” chant. It was wildly successful and contributed greatly to the phenomenal success of the Gay Rights movement. That movement was so successful that other movements still look to it as the gold standard for both inspiration and strategy. Many of them have adapted and adopted the “We’re here!” slogan-as-a-strategy in form, in spirt, and in attitude.

Arguably however, the slogan has jumped the shark. Even Lisa Simpson, longtime advocate for Gay Rights, eventually shouted in frustration “You do this every year, we ARE used to it!” (seen here). At this point, one could launch a counter-chant “You’re here! We’re used to it! Get used to it!

But the slogan is past its day in deeper ways. I’ll get to that shortly.

First let me point out that the slogan has become much more than a mere rallying chant. It reflects a worldview, an attitude, a tone, and an approach to relationships, both societal and personal that has influenced all of our culture. This message was so successful that it became deeply internalized and enculturated.  It permeated the very thinking of a generation of liberals and conservatives alike. It says, in the most uncompromising terms, that you get what you want by ultimatum. There is no room to negotiate. There is no shared responsibility nor shared blame. The burden is all on the other side. You had better change because I am what I am and I am not going to change or go back into any form of a closet. It is a problem when this no-compromise attitude is generalized beyond the bounds of movements like Gay Rights.

In addition, Liberals were particularly influenced in a much different way. The slogan enculturated the idea that we should not expect others to compromise. We must accept anything and everything no matter how distasteful we find it. We must never criticize other ideas or behaviors, let alone expect or demand anyone else to change. Good liberals chasten each other when they are insufficiently accepting of other viewpoints and differences. This is another unfortunate lasting impact of this movement which taught that it is wrong to judge or criticize.

If this seems confusing to you, I say good! It means you are paying attention! I am suggesting that the Gay Right’s movement in general and the “We’re here!” slogan in particular had two seemingly contradictory side-effects. One was to encourage a destructively uncompromising posture, and the other was to instill an attitude of principled acceptance. These actually reinforce each other.

In current culture this encourages us to assert an unwillingness to accommodate others in any way – even as we chide and criticize those who a do not accept the inflexibility of others. In practice, this is manifest by self-righteous “take me or leave me” declarations when the issue impacts us strongly, and at the same time preachy “you should accommodate others” admonitions when the issue does not impact us as personally.

While it was the right message at the right time for the Gay Rights movement, this confrontational get-over-it ultimatum it isn’t necessarily a good template for other movements. Moreover, it isn’t a particularly good attitude for society in general and it certainly is not a good approach to interpersonal relations. It is a strategy adopted even by the most vile and indefensible groups and individuals.

We’re here! We’re loud and obnoxious! Get used to it!

We’re here! We’re Confederates! Get used to it!

We’re here! We’re Gun-toters! Get used to it

Civilized societies have to cooperate, negotiate, moderate, and compromise if they are to survive. In most cases, an ultimatum strategy is doomed to result in unfortunate outcomes for both parties. When we can compromise and make changes, we can demand that both sides make some effort, some accommodation.

The same is true for interpersonal relationships. If one roommate declares “I’m a messy slob but I’m not going anywhere so you better just get used to it,” it leaves the other party no choice but to walk out. Love me or leave me doesn’t work. Unlike gender identity, most things are somewhat under our control and there are things we can and should do to improve our own behaviors.

In truth, this attitude is dated. Those still influenced by it are blind to the times we live in today. During this Era of Trump, uncompromising declarations and pious acceptance are not as appealing as they once were. People who are making a difference today are people who say “I am willing to change and I do not accept your assertion that you cannot change as well.”

WereHereWith radical crazies infesting the government and with Trump running a for-profit White House, we can no longer accept the “Accept the things I cannot change…” platitude. We cannot accept the fact that Donald was elected President. This picture posted like subversive graffiti on a telephone pole near my house. It reflects the new, more engaged attitude. It reads “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.

We cannot simply accept evolution and climate change deniers in the Congress and Senate. We cannot simply accept a narcissistic lunatic in the Oval Office. We have to criticize. We have to fight. We have to demand change. We have to give up this “liberal principle” of polite acceptance that has lobotomized our brains since the Gay Rights movement launched its famous slogan. We must stop falling for the jiu jitsu logic of Conservatives who tell us that – as we told them about Gay Rights – we now must “get used” to Trump and everything he fails to stand for.

The Gay Rights movement did not intend to teach us acquiescence. Quite the opposite – it was all about boldly fighting for your cause. But it also did not intend to teach that any assertion of an absolute position on any issue must be completely accepted. If both sides take absolute positions of ultimatum, we can only have division and dysfunction.

Apart from basic human rights issues, we do NOT have to accept every card we are dealt. No one should be allowed to build unassailable walls around their intransigence and we should not be pressured by our own peers into respecting and accepting those artificial constructs. “Get used to it!” should not be a principle that we apply in an uncompromising and self-destructive fashion.

Ultimatums are not a strategy, and neither is Zen-like acceptance. In most things, engagement with others and compromise on both sides is how we find win-win solutions.

In realms of faith, many of us conclude that my need for you to respect my crazy belief forces me to respect and support any crazy faith you may have. Truth and belief become inextricably blurred. It’s kind of the same thing here. If we want others to accept our ultimatums, we must then accept the ultimatums of others – no matter how crazy.

We have to exert more nuanced and fact-based judgement in both areas. It’s time to deprogram ourselves away from the old ultimatum-based “We’re here!” thinking of the Gay Rights era and adopt more sophisticated strategies to win hearts and minds and make real change. That starts with not accepting ultimatums or wisdom that tells us to accept what those who profit from the status quo tell us we cannot hope to change.


Healthcare is a Limited Right

PrivilegeIt is obscenely immoral when Conservatives argue that healthcare is a privilege reserved only for the privileged few who deserve it, especially when the only criteria that determines whether the privileged few deserve healthcare is whether they happen to be rich enough to afford it. For Conservatives, wealth is the only measure of merit and the wealthy are the only ones meriting healthcare.

Conservatives have a wide range of specious logical arguments and appeals to emotion that they invoke with great fervor to support their petty shortsighted selfishness. Here is just one horrible article in the Washington Times that regurgitates much of this vomitous bile (see here). Among these arguments are 1) the Constitution does not explicitly enumerate any such right, 2) why should others pay for your healthcare, 3) this right to healthcare would have no limits, 4) it would lead to government death panels, 5) it would ration healthcare and slow it down, 6) it would stop all new research, 7) the free market is the best solution, 7) healthcare is a commodity like any other, 8) free healthcare would disincentivize work, and 9) we don’t consider food, shelter, or clothing to be rights, so why should healthcare be one?

Of course these all have relatively simple and well-known rebuttals so I won’t go into them all here. I won’t repeat the overall cost savings or make further appeals to basic humanity and decency. I will only point out that Conservative claims that healthcare as a right cannot work are all empirically proven wrong by the fact that every other civilized country in the world manages to make it work. And their claims that national healthcare in those nations leads to worse outcomes is empiracally proven wrong by actual metrics of healthcare outcomes.

The most popular recent argument worth singling out is “why should young people pay for the healthcare of older people?” Well, not ONLY because when today’s younger generation gets old, tomorrow’s younger generation will subsidize THEIR healthcare, but also because today’s older generation helps to pay for the colossal medical bills incurred when young people break their neck while skate-boarding or bungee-jumping.

Religion does not help us out much in this debate. As with pretty much every issue, religion only rationalizes and provides justification for whatever position one wishes to take. For progressive Christians, the Bible demands universal healthcare. But conservative Christians manage to find passages to justify their healthcare Darwinism. Representative Jodey C. Arrington, Republican of Texas, defended work mandates at a Congressional hearing for food stamps by quoting the Bible: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” This “Bible logic” has been applied to healthcare as well (see here).

Look, the answer is not that complicated. It is only made complicated by Conservatives who strive to make it seem murky and fraught with practical and ethical problems. The answer is simply reasonable moderation. No one suggests that a “right” to healthcare would not be a limited right. No right is unlimited. We should and could provide basic public healthcare that would do immesurable good. Just as we should provide a minimum wage and, yes, a minimum amount of food, clothes, and shelter to our fellow humans.

Rich people could still buy whatever elective or costly life-extending healthcare they like, just as they can still buy all the expensive food, clothes, or homes they can afford. But Conservatives won’t abide even reasonable moderation. They don’t want those good for nothing, undeserving poor people to have one penny “handed out” to them, whether it be food, clothes, shelter – or healthcare.

The false choice that Conservatives try to force us to accept is either to provide no base level of public healthcare whatsoever – like mindless animals – or to grant everyone an unlimited right to medical care. That is an intentionally paralyzing false choice. We can provide reasonable healthcare and retain an elective healthcare market and retain all the advantages of a private market with a public safety net. No one would turn up their nose at life-saving healthcare because it will not pay for their boob job.

We should not let Conservatives engage us in this false choice arguement, rather insist upon a sane and humane universal public system that ensures reasonable basic healthcare for all. The only debate should concern the extent and limits of healthcare that is covered under the public system. But that debate should not endlessly paralyze us either. Tweaks to specifics can be made at any time as needed.

And as to paying for all this… I say what I say about all social funding. Cut the military to a fraction of its current budget and tax the rich far more progressively, then we can talk about how much, if any, we still need to limit social programs.

We are Townsfolk in a Spaghetti Western

ClintAre you old enough to have watched those wonderful old Spaghetti Westerns? The typical story went something like this…

When the townsfolk people of some poor dust bowl are abused and impoverished by a gang of ruthless cutthroats, they elect an unsavory drifter as “sheriff” to protect them. A bloody shootout ensues, involving lots of gratuitous gunfire and dynamite explosions.  When the smoke finally clears, it never ends all that well for the townsfolk. Most of them are dead or wounded and their ramshackle town is pretty much reduced to a smoldering wood-heap. Their “sheriff,” having done what they asked of him, rides away from the dead bodies and the smoking rubble with saddlebags overflowing with their life savings.

None of those townsfolk were crazy extremists. They were just regular folk, farmers and shop owners, out of options and fearful for their futures. They were driven by desperation and circumstance to put their faith in the toughest, meanest, bad-ass Alpha male they could find.

Many of us lament that we vote so many arguably dangerous people into high office. Not only into the Presidency, but into the Congress and the Senate and even into the Supreme Court. Too many of these office holders hold frankly crazy views on science, on climate change, and on evolution. They advocate for policies rooted in their faith in the twin religions of capitalism and god. They take extreme positions on guns and militarization. They hold crazy Libertarian and Free-Market views on health care and social programs and racism and sexism and sexuality and abortion and deregulation. They seem to have no scruples whatsoever and will make any ridiculous argument, propagate any lie, to pursue their self-interest and ideology.

No wonder chaos ensues.

We generally blame the crazy extreme of our population for this situation. We argue that our lunatic fringe, driven by their zealous energy and amplified by Gerrymandering, have disproportionate power over electoral outcomes. If only we moderates could take charge, then we’d elect sane, reasonable, and compassionate leaders!

But I want to suggest that moderates are culpable as well. It’s human nature, or at least American nature. Even moderates, like the townsfolk in a Spaghetti Western, turn to crazy and dangerous individuals when they are looking for someone who can make a difference in their lives.

Look at it this way. Most of us are understandably concerned about our physical security and economic self-interest. When we’re worried about home security, we don’t hire someone like ourselves to protect us. We hire a bad-ass body guard, or maybe we adopt a vicious pit bull and buy a deadly semi-automatic pistol. If we are worried about going to jail, we don’t want the most reasonable and knowledgeable lawyer to represent us. We rather want the most aggressive and unscrupulous lawyer possible. We want a lawyer who is willing to say or do whatever it takes to protect our interests, law be damned.

Similarly, to protect our physical and economic security, we elect representatives that are far more extreme than we are. We find the nastiest, most crazy representative we can to fight for us and defend our interests. Even if our head tells us to hire someone smart and reasonable, we are overwhelmingly attracted to the brutal, unreasoning Alpha male (or female).

Part of our decision process is our calculation that no leader can be fully successful. So for example if we believe it would be good to eliminate fat from social programs, we elect a leader who says he wants to dismantle all social programs. We figure that maybe at least he’ll be successful in getting rid of that waste and abuse we are so outraged by. When our elected leader ACTUALLY dismantles vital social programs that we value, we are shocked and outraged. Even though the crazy candidate campaigned on throwing out the baby, we figured he would really just get rid of that dirty bathwater.

So when extremists vote, they tend to vote in someone much more extreme than they are whom they believe will fight hardest for them. They make extreme demands that they don’t necessarily hope to achieve. And then even those same extremists express shock and anger when that representative they worked so hard to elect actually does succeed in achieving what they demanded. I don’t think it is so much about voting against our own self-interest as it is about adopting a pit bull to protect our baby.

But moderates do the essentially same thing. Even moderates in large numbers buy guns as “reasonable” protection, then lament when they are used to shoot up a school-full of kids. Even moderates vote for the Alpha male to keep our country safe, then express outrage when he lies us into an unnecessary war. Even moderates vote for extreme “strongmen” (or strong-women) whom they foolishly believe will become reasonable and restrained and diplomatic upon taking office.

Just like in those Spaghetti Westerns, we moderates and lunatic fringe alike, have elected President Trump and a dirty dozen of tough, extreme bad boys to save us. One has to wonder what will be left of America when they get done protecting it. Or will Trump and the corporatist elite around him merely ride into the sunset of America with saddlebags packed full of our life savings?



Scientific Models

I recently attended a book club discussion on The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore (see here).  In it, Blackmore puts forth a thesis of “memetic evolution” to describe how our minds work. In fact, her assertion is that our minds can only be understood in terms of memetic selection. Although that seems to be a wildly exaggerated claim, the scientific model she proposes is both stimulating and promising.

But memetic evolution is not the topic of this article. I only cite it as one example of the kind of topic that  many non-scientists and even some scientists have great difficulty discussing fairly. Often in discussing such topics, a great many unfounded criticisms are lodged, and these quite often flow from an inadequate understanding and appreciation of scientific models.

This is understandable. Unless you are a trained, experienced, and particularly thoughtful scientist, you probably have had inadequate background to fully appreciate the concept of a scientific model. In fact, if you look up the word model in most dictionaries, the scientific usage of the term is typically not even mentioned. No wonder many people have a very limited if not completely mistaken appreciation of what a scientific model is. A scientific model is not analogous to a plastic model kit that is intended to look just like the real race car in every detail. It is not at all like a fashion model, intended to present something in an attractive manner. Nor is it like an aspirational model to be put forth as a goal to emulate and strive toward.

No, a scientific model is a working system that does not need to actually “look like” the real system it describes in any conventional way. The important characteristic of a scientific model is that it behave like the real system it describes. How accurately a scientific model reflects the real system it models is measured by how well it explains observed behaviors of the real system and is able to predict future behaviors of the real system.

For example, in 1913 Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr put forth the atomic model of matter that we are all familiar with – a nucleus of protons and neutrons orbited by electrons. This was a highly successful model because it described a huge number of observed characteristics and behaviors of matter, allowed us to gain great understanding of matter, and most importantly allowed us to predict as yet unobserved traits of matter.

But in truth the Bohr model is a laughably simplistic stick-figure representation of matter. It describes certain behaviors adequately but completely fails to describe others. It was quickly extended by De Broglie, by Schrödinger, and innumerable others to include wave and then quantum characteristics.

Despite its almost laughable simplicity and innumerable refinements and extensions made over the last century, the Bohr model remains one of the most important and consequential scientific models of all time. If the Bohr model was presented in many book discussion groups today, it would be criticized, dismissed, and even mocked as having no value.

Certainly we can and should recognize and discuss the limitations of models. But we must not dismiss them out of a mistaken lack of appreciation of the limitations of scientific models. Often these misguided criticisms have the more widespread effect of unfairly discrediting all science. Following are some examples of the kinds of criticisms that are valid and some that are invalid.

  1. We must first recognize when we are talking about a new idea like memetic evolution, that we are talking about a scientific model.
  2. A scientific model does not need to answer everything. We must recognize the limitations of every model, but the more important focus is on how useful it is within its applicable limits. Newton’s Laws do not describe relativistic motion, but in our everyday world Newtonian physics is still fantastically useful. Critics of science should not claim that a model – or science in general – is fundamentally flawed or unreliable because a particular model is not universal.
  3. Many critics of science think they have scored points by pointing out that “you can’t trust science because their models are always being replaced!” But models are hardly ever replaced, rather they are extended. The Bohr model was greatly extended, but the basic model is still perfectly valid within its range of applicability.
  4. The fact that there are many different models of the same thing is not proof that “science contradicts itself and cannot make up its mind.” We famously have the two major models of light- the wave model and particle model. The wave model correctly predicts some behaviors and the particle model correctly predicts others. Though they appear irreconcilably different, both are absolutely valid. Real light is not exactly like either model but is exactly like both models. Think of your mother. She has a mother-model that describes her behavior as a mother. But she also has a wife-model, a career-model, a daughter-model, a skeletal-model, and many others. None of these in themselves completely describes your mother, and many may seem irreconcilably different, but all of them correctly model a different set of behaviors in different situations and only collectively do they all communicate a more complete picture of your mother.

So, when discussing something like memetic evolution, it is proper and correct to ascertain its boundaries and to critique how well it describes and predicts observed behaviors within those boundaries. But it is wrong and counter-productive to dismiss it either because there exist other models or because it does not – yet – describe everything. And worst is to dismiss all of science as flawed because it puts forth multiple models of reality and extends them over time.

To describe and predict human thinking, Skinner put forth a stimulus-response model, Blackmore puts for forth a meme-model, and I often focus on a pattern-recognition model. These are not in competition. One is not right and the others all necessarily wrong. The fact that there are these three and many other models of human thinking does not reflect any fundamental weakness of science, but rather its strength.

It us unfortunate that far too few people have a sufficiently deep appreciation and level of comfort with scientific models. We must do much better to understand and communicate these subtleties that are so fundamental and critical to science.


Out of Context

Charles MurrayIn the Grey Matter section of the Sunday Review in the New York Times, Cornell Professors Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci published an article entitled “Charles Murray’s ‘Provocative’ Talk.” In it, they described a small ad hoc study that they conducted to test whether the words of Charles Murray are objectively offensive and thus deserving of the level of resistance to his lecture at Middlebury College (see here).

In their study, the authors took a transcript of Murray’s actual talk and sent it without attribution to 70 college professors with a request to rate the words on a 9 point scale from very conservative to very liberal. They found that although “American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal,” those surveyed found Murray’s words to be “middle of the road” with an average score of about 5. Williams and Ceci interpret this finding as indicating that the protest over Murray’s invitation to speak was objectively ill-informed and unjustified.

This argument is deeply and fundamentally flawed. We often see similar tricks played when someone reads an excerpt from the Constitution or Mein Kampf and asks for an opinion about it – before the gotcha reveal when they identify the authorship.

One major study flaw is the premise that words stand alone. Context matters and the meaning and intent of words can only be fully assessed with due consideration of the person making the statement. Authorship is an essential part of that greater context. If PT Barnum claimed he had a Yeti in his house, I would have received it with tremendous skepticism. If Carl Sagan made the exact same claim, I would have been very excited about the potential of an important new anthropological discovery.

The reality is that Charles Murray has a long history of promoting what many consider to be highly destructive public policy research and analysis that has undermined valuable social programs and has attacked and divided us along gender and racial differences. For example, his statement that “We believe that human happiness requires freedom and that freedom requires limited government,” may sound perfectly reasonable to 70 of our professional contacts if unattributed. Coming from a known liberal speaker, this could be meant to affirm that we should not be forced to live in an overly-policed state. However, coming from Charles Murray it is clear that his intent is to promote the dismantling of social assistance programs. The same statement might mean something even more extreme if David Duke had said it.

Based on the work of Williams and Ceci one might argue that we should remove all bias in approving speakers by using a blinded, unidentified process in which presenters are approved or rejected based solely on the text of their planned presentation. That would be extremely foolish. The reality is that the larger views and history of any speaker plays an essential role in how we should interpret their statements. Reasonable but isolated statements can conceal a larger and very different agenda that is only apparent if we know the source.

I have no doubt that the authors would respond by saying that intellectually unbiased people should be willing to hear any reasonable speaker and make this assessment for themselves, without forced censorship. However, surely they would also agree that there is some limit beyond which a speaker would not be acceptable even to them. But reasonable people can reasonably disagree about where this fuzzy boundary should lie – and that boundary must consider not only the message but the messenger as well.

Clearly a determinative number of alumni, faculty, and students at Middlebury judged that the lifetime body of work by Charles Murray, as well as his very clear lifelong mission, crossed that fuzzy line for them. Williams and Ceci may disagree on their placement of this line and that is legitimate and fair debate. But it is not legitimate and fair to conduct what amounts to a gotcha stunt under the guise of objective science to prove that these people’s determination in this instance is illegitimate and irrational.

All that Williams and Ceci may have actually shown is that, without attribution, college professors don’t assume the worst or the best. They may merely fill the void with their own middle-of-the-road interpretation of unattributed quotations.