Monthly Archives: February 2016

Consitutution Thumping

scaliaI have a colleague who is really smart. Undeniably smart. He does his complex job extremely well and is deeply conversant in all spheres of intellectual discussion. He is also Bible literalist. He truly believes that he has arrived at all of his religious views through careful reading and unbiased interpretation of the Bible. In the end all he really does is cleverly pick and choose from the Bible to claim external validation of and authority for the beliefs he wants to embrace.

Substitute the word Constitution for Bible here and I could be talking about the late Antonin Scalia.

This is not an uncommon trap that smart people fall into in order to justify their biases and beliefs. Look at Ken Ham (see here). He invokes the Bible to “prove” his truly insane ideas and uses convoluted arguments to dismiss any Bible passages that contradict him. Ham claims that any Bible passages that can be interpreted to agree with him are “literal passages,” and any that do not agree are “historical.”

Just as Ken Ham and my colleague use the Bible as their inviolate source of authority that only they can interpret correctly, so do Conservatives like Scalia attempt to turn the Constitution into a secular Bible to serve their religious and conservative agenda. To them, the Bible and the Constitution are both sources of authority that they can invoke to support their dogmatic views. They claim that any interpretation that supports their views is literal or purist or originalist, while any that disagree are attempts to reinterpret or bastardize these written in stone authorities.

Since secular society does not accept the absolute authority of the Bible, religious fundamentalists seek to transform our Constitution into a secular Bible to serve as a proxy through which they can impose their religious views. Having established themselves as the protectors of the Constitution and as the authoritative interpreters of original intent, they portray the Constitution as infallible and unchangeable, like the Bible. No one is allowed to question its authority or that of those who profess to protect it.

By coopting the Constitution, religious fundamentalists have established an authority structure by which they can mandate and enforce social change according to their religious worldview. All they require is a Supreme Court that will continue to interpret the Constitution so as to maintain and expand their theocratic worldview. Antonin Scalia has been their great champion in this effort.

There is a great deal of manipulative coded language that these religious fundamentalists employ to market their reimagining of the Constitution. Foremost, they preach the absolutism of original intent. This is actually a phrase first adopted by Bible literalists to justify their interpretation of the Bible in the same way that religious fundamentalists seek to own the Constitution.

Even if it were possible to interpret original intent, this is neither practical nor desirable. The very idea is antithetical to what was almost certainly the clearest original intent of the founders that the Constitution remain a fluid and responsive document that can be continually reinterpreted to best meet the needs of a growing and changing nation. This view has actually gained widespread acceptance in Canada and formalized as their “living tree doctrine” which mandates that their constitution remain organic and be progressively reinterpreted to adapt to changing times. However, in America fundamentalists continue to try to reshape the Constitution into their own likeness and then cast it in stone.

Ironically, those who seek to control us incessantly warn about “activist judges who reinterpret the Constitution.” They tout the intellectual purity of Supreme Court justices like Scalia who “uphold the Constitution” according to “first principles.” In short, if you hear people invoking the Constitution and ranting about Constitutional first principles, be very wary.

Supreme Court judges like Scalia who claim to rule according to original intent are as deluded or as deluding as Ken Ham. Every interpretation of the Constitution is unavoidably colored by current culture. Every ruling is necessarily constrained and shaped by the many rulings that form a chain of precedent reaching back eventually to the Constitution. But that chain of legislative rulings may have drifted far, far away from original intent, as we saw most recently in the long, twisted chain of rulings that have taken us to Citizens United, a ruling so completely in contradiction to “first principles” as to be considered almost comical. I call this process of judicial drift from one precedent to the next until it has drifted far out to sea, “judicial brainwashing.”

Ironically, these same patriots who are overwhelmingly concerned with upholding the purity of original intent when interpreted according to their religious ideals are the first to push for Constitutional changes when they find the Constitution insufficient to their ends, as in pushing for a Constitutional Right to Life amendment.

Does this mean that original intent does not matter? It certainly does. As Garrett Epps pointed out in his excellent article “Stealing the Constitution” published in the February 7, 2011 edition of The Nation magazine:

“Serious originalist scholarship is very useful as one way of learning more about the Constitution. But in the hands of judges like Antonin Scalia or demagogues like Glenn Beck, it is really a kind of intellectual weapon…”

Antonin Scalia was the Ken Ham of the Supreme Court. If he truly cared about original intent, he would have acknowledged, for example, that our forefathers could never have imagined let alone intended to protect modern weaponry. The most they might have known was that this new innovation called the “flint-lock” was soon to appear. They could never have imagined or factored in the horrific killing-power of modern weaponry. But instead, what Antonin Scalia did was focus on the word “the” in “the right to bear arms” as the key concept in his extremist interpretation. Antonin Scalia, like Ken Ham, was a deeply self-deluded individual.

Our Constitution is a tremendously important statement of principles. However, in truth there are many countries with similarly admirable Constitutions. It is only the high court system of a nation, and how it interprets and enforces that Constitution, that makes it a great nation or a poor one.

The Constitution might just as well be a Rorschach drawing or Simon and Garfunkel lyrics for that matter. Either of these alternatives might be just as good in the hands of wise men or just as abused in the hands of ideologues.  Antonin Scalia may have been smart, but he was not wise. We can only hope his successor will not be so susceptible to Justice Scalia’s insanely flawed moral and intellectual reasoning.



Satisfaction Surveys

SatisfactionSurveyHave you ever filled out one of those ubiquitous satisfaction surveys? Of course you have. Everyone wants to know how satisfied you are. Whether it be your phone company or your local dry cleaner or your waiter, everyone is keen to quantify, record, and report your level of customer satisfaction.

But despite the fact that satisfaction surveys are as annoyingly common as pennies, how truly useful are they? If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t provide exactly high quality response data to these surveys. If I cannot escape the survey without being rude, I just check “Excellent” for everything without even reading the questions. It’s the easiest thing to do. And what direct benefit is there in it for me to be thoughtful and honest? I’m much more likely to get better service next time if I indicate that my waitress is excellent in every possible way, especially if she was terrible!

And there are lots of reasons beyond immediate self-interest and laziness that most of us lie like Persian rugs on these surveys:

  1. People forget the bad stuff. We have selective memories, and the longer it is after our terrible customer experience, the more likely we are to remember it positively.
  2. People never want to seem like complainers. Even if we had gripes, we are programmed that complaining only reflects badly on us.
  3. People are nice. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings unnecessarily – even if we are anonymous.
  4. People are habituated to say “I’m fine.” Even if we’re in the middle of vomiting up our lunch after being told that our beloved kitty just got electrocuted attacking an electrical outlet, we automatically say we’re fine.
  5. We assume no one <really> wants to know. We figure that this is pointless paperwork that no one will ever actually read let alone act on it.
  6. Saying everything was wonderful is the easiest way to dispense with this annoying and meaningless survey and get home in time for The Walking Dead.

Here’s an even bigger problem worth discussing in depth. We don’t know what we don’t know and have poor imaginations to envision what we could have. Satisfied compared to what? How do you rate your Toyota? Excellent. Oh wait, I didn’t realize I could have had a Porsche instead… Can I change that answer to Poor?

How do you rate your healthcare? Excellent? Great! But did you know that Norway has a healthcare system that costs ½ the price and ranks 11th to your 37th? Would you like to change your survey answer?

Since we don’t know what we don’t know let alone what we cannot even imagine, Poor to Excellent is not an absolute scale. It only encompasses what we know. If we’re given a dozen similarly bad options, we’re likely to rate the least worst of them Excellent. By the way, this is one of the reasons that “happiness scientists” tell us that more choices make us less happy. We become less satisfied with what we can get if we are made aware of all the better options that we cannot hope to get our hands on.

I have a more nefarious theory about these surveys. I think that smart customer service providers offer these surveys knowing all of this, but they figure that when you indicate that their service was great you’ll actually remember it as being great. Probably sound psychology!

But here’s the biggest problem with these victim-less white lies called satisfaction surveys. We sometimes really, really do need an accurate answer to assess satisfaction. We have lots of important social science studies that have little choice but to measure satisfaction through this sort of survey. Unfortunately, for all the reasons given, this data is usually just so much garbage in.

We need smarter measures of satisfaction.

One solution is to de-emphasize or even abandon the self-reporting of satisfaction measures. Instead, smart companies or researchers measure indirect indicators of satisfaction. Rather than ask for a self-reported satisfaction, they look at objective behaviors that correlate with satisfaction.

For example, given a subsequent choice of options, what option does the person actually choose? Do they recommend the option to others? Instead of asking whether they like the coffee or the ambiance of the restaurant, measure how many refills they ask for and how long they remain to digest and converse over their coffee.

Satisfaction surveys are just a microcosm within a wide range of human behaviors. In almost every situation dealing with people, looking at actual behaviors can tell us far, far more than relying upon anything they tell us about their motivations or their opinions.

Dismissed with Prejudice

ElvisDo you have one of those wacky friends? The ones with a deep, sincere, heartfelt conviction that Elvis still lives. That he is actually in seclusion preparing for his epic comeback? Busy rehearsing for the ultimate Elvis concert that will transform the world?

Your friend undoubtedly has an articulate rebuttal for every possible reason you can throw at him for dismissing the possibility that Elvis might still be alive. His death was staged. The witnesses are all in on it. The corpse in Graceland is a DNA-identical clone of him. He is being kept young by a chemical concoction that the pharmaceutical industry has suppressed.

Your friend probably turns the tables on your skepticism quite easily. How can you be so arrogant to claim to know everything? Are you that close-minded? Surely you can’t prove and therefore can’t know for certain that he isn’t still alive. If you are as scientifically open-minded as you claim you must admit some possibility that he might still be alive. Surely you can admit that reasonable people can disagree on this unless you believe he is dead purely as a matter of faith. The only intellectually honest position on this question must be agnosticism.

Your friend points to several well-regarded scientists who admit that it is possible Elvis is alive. He recommends a plethora of scholarly books that debunk all those fallacious “scientific” arguments claiming that Elvis is dead.

Or perhaps your friend has a different but similarly wacky belief that he clings to and argues for with great passion.

All that was my way of setting the stage for the real point of this article – that I do not need to read any of those books purporting to prove that Elvis might be alive. Elvis is dead. Period. Any book that starts with the premise that he may still be alive is necessarily idiotic. There is no need for me to actually read them in order to legitimately dismiss them out of hand. Good scientists dismiss an infinite number of implausible claims all the time every day.

So there is no need for me to entertain arguments about how Elvis might still be alive. And there is no reason for me to read a book that starts with the premise that Elvis is alive or the Holocaust did not happen or the Moon landing was faked or alien overlords built the pyramids. I can dismiss them all out of hand without even reading the book jacket. The only reason to read them may be if your interest is studying delusional thinking or the infection of magical thinking amongst otherwise healthy individuals.

And I have read a great many of these books that purport to present a logical or scientific argument for at least allowing the possibility that god might exist. When I wrote my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here) I took the time to slog through a 4-foot stack of books that undoubtedly made Amazon the lucrative enterprise it is today. It was largely a waste of time and money on my part. Believers have had two millennia to come up with arguments so there are simply no new ones to be found.

As a concrete example, I bought several books on Neurotheology (see here). I did the world a service by throwing these out rather than reselling them. Written by Andrew B. Newberg and a host of his followers, these books typically spend 250 pages citing brain imaging and cognitive studies related to belief and god. Their real goal is to establish their science creds so that you will believe them when, in the last 50 pages, they leap to outlandish claims that go something like “since we have clearly evolved to believe in god, the only conclusion must be that god himself designed us to believe in him.”

The only conclusion is that this is an idiotic conclusion. But then again what can you hope to get from any author that starts from the silly premise that god exists and works backwards?

Religious books purporting to be scientifically legitimate examinations of the “evidence” for god pop up on Amazon every day like so many weeds. I can’t read them all but I can still dismiss them all out of hand. There simply is no god, can be no god, and therefore every book claiming to argue this point is necessarily as idiotic as books arguing that Elvis is alive and well and living in a secret wing of Graceland.

And thus, dear reader, we finally reach the heart of my dilemma: Do I read these silly books and respond to them or do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring them is not easy. If no one pushes back on them, they seem to win the argument. And there are so many of them saying the same silly things that many readers mistake quantity as an indication of quality. On the other hand, the time for engaging these silly debates is over. At this stage of the atheist movement, we must move past engaging in and thereby legitimizing these ridiculous debates. We should give no more consideration to religious ideas than we do to racist ideas or homophobic ideas or sexist ideas or the idea that Elvis is amongst us.

Still it’s hard to resist getting sucked in. Recently a new book appeared on Amazon called “Can Science Explain Religion” (see here) written by a priest who is also a Professor of Religion. It apparently “debunks” the very theory of the evolution of belief that I present in my own book. Do I buy this and read it so I can credibly criticize it and defend my position, and thereby risk encouraging this nonsense? Or is it best not to even respond and hope that the rest of the country follows my sensible example?

After struggling with this dilemma for many years, I have come to believe that refusing to engage is the best strategy moving forward. Engaging in further debate with them only feeds the beast. Like booing Donald Trump at a rally.

It’s not an easy course of action nor is it without risk or criticism. But in science, we must first ask whether our basic assumptions are valid before we enter into discussions of the resulting questions. We must not let ourselves get caught up in grand debates over how Santa manages to deliver all those presents in one night when the very premise of Santa is pure fantasy.

And that is how we should respond to these books and these arguments – by dismissing them out of hand and with great prejudice and by refusing to entertain dependent arguments arising out of purely implausible assumptions.








Proximity Ethics

Proximity EthicsIn our everyday lives we make ethical judgments resulting in ethical decisions all the time. So often in fact that we mostly don’t even realize that we are doing so. Often we don’t even think of these as ethical decisions but merely as practical routine judgments. These range from small personal decisions to collective national policy decisions.

In making these judgments we weigh and balance, largely subconsciously, a large number of different criteria across a number of different dimensions. One key criterion is the proximity of the individuals or organizational entities involved relative to ourselves and our own identity groups. In general, the closer the impacted group is to our own, the greater weight, priority, and consideration we give the issue.

This is perfectly understandable, natural, and sensible. For example, we give our spouse higher priority than our family which we give higher priority than our friends to whom we give higher priority than other people. Similarly, we give higher priority to our own neighborhood, followed by city, state, and country. We are more concerned over issues impacting our own gender or race or religion than others.

There is a great deal of sensible practicality in this kind of analysis. It’s fair that we organize into groups. It doesn’t say we should ONLY give consideration to groups closest to our own, but it’s fair that we give groups in close proximity to us greater consideration.

But there are a number of ways that this proximity calculation can fail us. The first is if our concern falls off too rapidly. While we should first look out for those close to us, too much emphasis on our own groups can lead us to be needlessly callous and insensitive to the needs of groups farther away. We demand the best school for our own kids, but completely ignore the needs of other kids in our own neighborhood. Orthodox Jews, as one example, might focus exclusively enriching their own enclave communities, regardless of the cost to society as a whole. We often maintain an extremely close proximity calculus even when helping those farther away from our own sphere would, in the long run, help ourselves as well.

The second problem that arises from our proximity calculation comes into play not when we are thinking about allocating benefits, but when we are assigning and assuming responsibility. In this case we often assign far too much weight to far groups and assume far too little for our own. How often do we hear “those Chinese should take action to stop climate change” or “I’m not responsible for US militarism.”

Of course we have to keep it in perspective. Of course the Chinese should do their part to alleviate climate change and we as individual citizens cannot bear the entire brunt of US aggression abroad. But we can and should affect change in our closest proximity groups first. Those are the groups we can and should make right first before we point fingers and deflect all blame and responsibility. We should step up and take every action we can on climate change first. We should appreciate that each of us are citizens with the right to vote and speak out. We all collectively share <some> blame and responsibility for American militarism and torture.

The bottom line is this. Be aware of the role of proximity assessments in your ethical decisions and judgments. Try to avoid giving unduly large or exclusive priority to your own narrow group. Likewise try to avoid assigning blame and responsibility disproportionately to groups farthest away from you.

How do you achieve a fair, just, and healthy balance of self-interest and social consciousness? Here’s a couple good rules of thumb:

  1. If you typically care about how others can share benefits that your group desires or enjoys, you’ve probably got it pretty right.
  2. If you first ask what your group can do to improve the world for everyone before you point fingers at other groups, you’ve probably got it pretty right.


Liberal Moderation

ModerationAll things in moderation” is a pretty sound truism. It is true for most things, but there are exceptions. Lead is never good to ingest even in moderation. Likewise, activism is not usually very effective and can even be harmful when taken in moderation.

Imagine you were an abolitionist living in the 1760’s. Would you demand a complete end to slavery or would you politely request limits on slave whippings?

Or how about if you were a feminist in the 1860’s? Would you demand equal rights or would you have request (demurely) that women be allowed to smoke in public?

How about if you were a civil rights activist in the 1960’s? Would you demand nothing less than equal rights or would you go out of your way to show how nonthreatening you are by simply asking to sit a few rows further up in the bus if all seats further back are taken?

This was the very question that troubled Martin Luther King in 1963. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” King pushed back against his well-meaning supporters and their strident calls for moderation. He correctly assessed that these friends were a bigger hindrance to the achievement of equal rights than were his opponents. The modest calls of his so-called allies undermined his own demands by making them seem unreasonable and even radical in comparison.

I feel his same frustration. In all the causes I care about, I feel thwarted by fellow “activists” who demand only minor incremental improvements with negligible benefits. Often doing a little bit is worse than doing nothing at all. It often gives the impression we’ve already “fixed” that issue, making it even harder to come back later for real effective change.

That was certainly true for Healthcare. Failing to demand national healthcare and accepting at least a public option was a tactical mistake of President Obama from the beginning. Now we are stuck with a private for-profit “solution” that addresses none of the systemic private-market abuses of our healthcare system.

JoyBuzzer.pngIn fact, President Obama took years to figure out that his moderate reasonable approach in all areas were doomed to fail. Over and over he reached out across the aisle with modest requests of Jokers in Congress, only to accomplish less than nothing. It took him what, 5 years of getting joy-buzzed to finally understand that moderation did not make his opponents any more reasonable or receptive.

Bargaining isn’t a new or complicated skill. In bazaars all across the continents merchants show us how to do it. You demand 10 times what that trinket is worth and finally settle for “only” 5 times its actual value. Only a fool starts out with its actual value and hopes to get anything close to it.

Yet far too many activists fail to apply these simple bargaining rules. In a vain hope of looking reasonable, they ask for next to nothing and if they are unfortunate enough to get it, it becomes extremely difficult to come back for more. The other party always wins when they give away next to nothing. Yet we see these moderate activists in every important area diligently undermining the “extreme militant activists” who might without their “help” bring about real change.

Healthcare: What we asked for and got was a “reasonable” giveaway to the private healthcare sector. What we should demand in the next round is nationalized healthcare. We may be willing to settle for a quality low cost public option.

Gun Control: What moderates call for are “sensible” expanded background checks and mental health services. What we should demand is a near total crippling of the gun industry and close security monitoring of those who own certain guns. We might settle for reestablishing the right to sue gun manufacturers and dramatically increased gun controls and insurance requirements.

Climate Change: What moderates call for are “realistic” industry-friendly systems like carbon trading. What we actually have to achieve in order to save our planet is a near total shutdown of carbon-based fuels and greatly expanded emission limits. Our planet simply does not have the time for moderation on this.

Campaign Financing: What moderates call for are modest reforms that do nothing except create yet more loopholes and workarounds. What we should demand is a complete prohibition from politicians receiving any outside money or working in the private sector for 10 years after leaving office rather receiving a generous government pension. We might settle for public campaign financing.

Atheism: “Non Angry” atheists call for mutual respect and a live-and-let-live attitude toward religion. What we should demand is that magical thinking, like racist or homophobic thinking, not be taken seriously in any aspect of civil society. What we might settle for would be a far stricter enforcement of the separation of church and state including an elimination of all religious carve outs and tax benefits.

War Funding: Our “pragmatic” moderates are thrilled if we can just limit the amount of annual increase in the Pentagon budget. What we should call for is a 90% reduction of our military budget and a retuning of our military industrial complex. Perhaps we might settle for only a 50% reduction.

Abortion: Supposedly hardcore Choice advocates feel lucky if they can mange to push back on just a few of the State actions to restrict abortion. We should call for Federal funding of abortion services and a requirement that all institutions receiving Federal funds provide abortion services. We might settle for much stronger Federal protections of abortion services that prohibit any State legislation that intentionally or unintentionally inhibits abortion services.

Income Disparity: Moderates beg for a slightly higher minimum wage. What we should demand is a steeply graduated progressive tax up to 90% with a maximum income cap based on some multiple of a guaranteed minimum income. We could possibly negotiate on the threshold levels.

Presidents: Moderate liberals feel lucky if they can elect a President that is only slightly to the Left of their Republican opponent, even if that takes us much farther to the Right than before. They should support Bernie Sanders and maybe settle for Hillary Clinton. But they should not vote for her out of fear. The timidity and fear of our liberal moderates ensures we keep losing ground and that is why our nation has drifted steadily Right for nearly 40 years.

In the end, moderation in activism does more harm than good. Moderation does not ever sway our opponents or make the battle any easier. The effort to achieve ANY compromise is not significantly lessened if the demands are modest. Rather it is often easier to get ones opponent to accept a significant compromise if far below the demands. And in the end the ground gained through a small compromise of modest demands is far less than the ground gained by a large compromise on grander demands. Further, you often only get one compromise in a decade or more so incremental movement is often a delusion, or at least far too slow for the people or the planet involved.

A bolder and smarter enemy will give a bit of inconsequential ground to keep their key institutions safe. They will give a bit of ground to gain a bunch of ground elsewhere. That is all the Conservatives give us in response to our modest demands. Conservatives are bold and smart and they know how to demand and bargain and play the long game.

But like President Obama, liberal moderates have no clue. They are neither bold nor smart and they generally lose the long game on every front by moderating each other with continual calls for moderation.