Republican Postmodernism


Time was when Republicans decried the “postmodernism” they believed pervaded American Universities, by which they meant, I think, a sort of broad cultural relativism. Postmodernism, as I understand the core of it (which is very little), takes a dim view of any notion of objective truth; all beliefs, whether ethical or scientific, should stand or fall on pragmatic grounds, if on any grounds at all. But now Republicans seem to have adopted just such a postmodernist stance when it comes Mitt Romney’s political campaign. As reported by Buzzfeed

Mitt Romney’s aides explained with unusual political bluntness today why they are spending heavily — and ignoring media criticism — to air an add accusing President Barack Obama of “gutting” the work requirement for welfare, a marginal political issue since the mid-1990s that Romney pushed back to center stage.

“Our most effective ad is our welfare ad,” a top television advertising strategist for Romney, Ashley O’Connor, said at a forum Tuesday hosted by ABCNews and Yahoo! News. “It’s new information.”

The welfare ad has been the center of intense dispute, with Democrats accusing Romney of unearthing old racial ghosts and Romney pointing out that the Obama Administration has offered states waivers that could, in fact, lighten work requirements in welfare, a central issue in Bill Clinton’s 1996 revamping of public assistance.

The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” awarded Romney’s ad “four Pinocchios,” a measure Romney pollster Neil Newhouse dismissed.

“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” he said.

I don’t always agree with fact checkers myself; no one is infallible, and no one is completely unbiased. But some people value rationality and objectivity (those old-fashioned modernist notions) more than others, and strive to achieve them by at least trying to base their beliefs on well-verified evidence. The Romney campaign should dispute fact-checkers all they like, but they should dispute them with logical argument and counter-evidence, not with only a pragmatic or political end in mind.

Texas GOP Officially Opposes Critical Thinking!?


On page 12 of the Texas Republican Party’s 2012 Platform you will find the following rather astounding statement-

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Since I have no idea what the jargon “values clarification” and “mastery learning” mean, I’m hoping that this plank of the platform does not mean what it seems to. Could they really be opposed to the teaching of critical thinking skills, or do they mean something by that phrase other than what it standardly means (e.g., learning (1) how to logically analyze the structure of an argument and (2) how to evaluate its form and content)?

Why Do Conservatives Fear Gay Marriage?


Since President Obama’s recent endorsement of gay marriage, and the ensuing backlash from the Right, a question has been bugging me…

Just why do many people – particularly religious conservatives – fear gay marriage, especially when they seem willing to at least tolerate the legality of gay behavior? I realize that looking for reasons in a case like this is often bound to produce only frustration, but it might be interesting to catalog at least the sorts of explanations those who fear same-sex marriage usually set forth.

A common explanation cites the biblical condemnation of gay behavior as an “abomination”. A problem with this explanation is that, presumably, gay people in our society will engage in gay sex whether they are married or not; there is no reason to think that preventing them from marrying results in less gay sex, and at least some reason to think that it actually results in more gay sex, and hence in more “abomination”. Surely adopting policies that keep gay sex more promiscuous than it might otherwise be isn’t a very effective way of pleasing God!

There are, of course, many other arguments against gay marriage, including an obvious instance of the slippery slope fallacy and various economic concerns, all of which are easy to debunk, as this article by Tom Head rather effortlessly demonstrates: “10 Really Bad Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage…“.

As you can see from that article, theological arguments against same-sex marriage apparently all have countervailing theological arguments, and the empirical arguments – alleging deleterious effects on society, children, or straight marriage – have no evidential support that stands up to even the most cursory scrutiny. This fact, of course, provided the basis of Judge Vaughn R. Walker’s famous decision that California’s Proposition 8 violated the Equal Protection clause. If you’ve never read Judge Walker’s decision, you can read it here. Here’s the conclusion, after 135 pages of careful legal reasoning-

Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

Now, putting aside the technical legal arguments, perhaps the most common argument against legally recognizing same-sex unions is that “normalizing” such unions would result in their becoming more common, and that this would devalue or diminish heterosexual marriage. Such arguments often use analogical reasoning, and the sorts of analogies that come to mind in this context might include devaluation of the dollar (via inflation) by printing more dollars, or diminishing the quality of a wine by diluting it with water. Such analogies are obviously weak: the value of a particular marriage has nothing to do with the overall number of marriages, and producing more wine, even a new category of wine, does not dilute other bottles of wine. This is true even if those new bottles of wine are diluted relative to the others (as conservatives argue gay marriages are less valuable than straight marriages). Of course, if the new category of wine were diluted, then the average quality of all of the wine in the world would be diminished. But surely the value of marriage, in the only sense that has practical consequences, depends on the value of each marriage, and on the additive effects of those marriages on society – not on any merely theoretical average number. So… just how could expanding the category of marriage to include a new “vintage” devalue the other, pre-existing vintage? Well, only if the new vintage were perceived to be better

Could this be the correct explanation of the fear? Could it be that conservatives (subconsciously?) believe that if same-sex marriage were to become more accepted and hence more common, heterosexuals would actually begin converting their sexual orientation? Could conservatives really (subconsciously?) believe that gay sex is so much better than straight sex, or that switching one’s sexual preference is, at least for most people, as easy as switching brands? It sounds silly, but you do often hear conservatives fantasizing about gay folks – especially teachers – “recruiting” children who would otherwise be straight, as if changing or determining someone’s sexual orientation – even a child’s – were as easy as giving them the right sales pitch!

I’m sure that there are plenty considerations I’ve missed, including some that might buck up the conservative case against gay marriage. It is true, for instance, that legally recognizing gay marriage would be a social experiment whose long term consequences are not entirely predictable. What is disappointing is that in the very next breath, conservatives are likely to deny the much more predictable and clearly dire consequences of that other “social experiment” in which we’ve been engaged for a hundred years: dumping millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Since changing marriage law would be a lot easier than repairing the atmosphere, I’d much rather experiment with same-sex marriage than with global warming.

Anyway, I’m just asking the question; I haven’t settled on any answer. So if you feel like venturing an opinion, I’d love to hear it. The comments are open.

And The Winner Is…


Well, we’ve had a lot of fine candidates in the past week or two to choose from, but the winner of the Most Moronic Statement By A Politician, March 2012 edition, goes to… Rick Santorum!!!

The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.

(This comment might win the Most Cynical Statement as well, since it’s very hard to believe that Santorum is really as ignorant of basic physics as he sounds).

Santorum: Academia, Protestantism, and Politics Have All Fallen To Satan!


Well, this is pretty remarkable. It’s not news that Republicans these days are obsessed with outing crafty devils. First there was Rick Perry, who held a prayer rally with the New Apostolic Reformation, a group completely convinced that major American cities are in dire need of (literal) demon-cleansing. But mere demons are too small-time for Rick Santorum: Satan himself, he sincerely believes, is behind the fall of many of our most important institutions: academia, mainstream Protestantism (the Catholic Church having so far been spared, thank God), and politics. Being from academia myself, I can tell you that if I’ve sold my soul to the devil, the horned one has cut me a raw deal – so far I’ve received nothing for my precious soul but pay cuts and committee work.

In any case, if after listening to this excerpt from Santorum’s 2008 speech at Ave Maria University you’re not scared $#%@less at the thought of this guy actually becoming President of the United States, you’re taking way too many meds-

This is not a political war at all. This is not a cultural war. This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country – the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age? There is no one else to go after other than the United States and that has been the case now for almost two hundred years, once America’s preeminence was sown by our great Founding Fathers.

He didn’t have much success in the early days. Our foundation was very strong, in fact, is very strong. But over time, that great, acidic quality of time corrodes even the strongest foundations. And Satan has done so by attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition.

He was successful. He attacks all of us and he attacks all of our institutions. The place where he was, in my mind, the most successful and first successful was in academia. He understood pride of smart people. He attacked them at their weakest, that they were, in fact, smarter than everybody else and could come up with something new and different. Pursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they’re smart. And so academia, a long time ago, fell.

And so what we saw this domino effect, once the colleges fell and those who were being education in our institutions, the next was the church. Now you’d say, ‘wait, the Catholic Church’? No. We all know that this country was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic but the Judeo-Christian ethic was a Protestant Judeo-Christian ethic, sure the Catholics had some influence, but this was a Protestant country and the Protestant ethic, mainstream, mainline Protestantism, and of course we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it. So they attacked mainline Protestantism, they attacked the Church, and what better way to go after smart people who also believe they’re pious to use both vanity and pride to also go after the Church.

The fourth, and this was harder, now I know you’re going to challenge me on this one, but politics and government was the next to fall. You say, ‘you would think they would be the first to fall, as fallible as we are in politics,’ but people in political life get elected by ordinary folks from lots of places all over the country where the foundations of this country are still strong. So while we may certainly have had examples, the body politic held up fairly well up until the last couple of decades, but it is falling too.

The Liberal Modus Ponens Versus The Republican Modus Tollens


In my previous post, “The Republican Modus Tollens“, I pointed out that arguments apparently having the valid form

(1) If P then Q
(2) Not-Q
(3) So Not-P

allow for serious irrationality when P represents a matter of well-confirmed scientific theory and Q represents a prescriptive policy preference or a tenet of religious faith. So, to use one of the examples from my previous post, we have arguments about climate change that seem to be guided by the following pattern of thought-

(1) If climate change is occurring, then we should regulate CO2.
(2) We shouldn’t regulate CO2.
(3) So climate change isn’t actually occurring.

Of course, probably no opponent of climate change has ever explicitly made just this argument. My point is that the arguments they do make are evidently motivated by some such pattern of thought. Representing the pattern this way makes clear that they are often reasonable enough to recognize that if climate change were occurring, then we (perhaps) should regulate CO2. The problem is that they also very strongly desire not to regulate CO2 (perhaps for quite defensible reasons, such as worrying about the economic effects of such regulation), and this very strong desire against a possible policy choice, along with the normally valid modus tollens pattern of thought, leads them irrationally to deny a well-confirmed theory. In order to do so, they must massively over-weigh evidence contrary to climate change, sometimes fantasize about global conspiracies of scientists, and so on. It is this last move – the irrational denial of a scientific theory – that indicates they are being guided, at bottom, by strongly held policy positions and this modus tollens pattern of thought, or something similar to it.

Psychological explanations for why people argue like this aside, I suggested that the main logical problem with such arguments is located in their conditional (‘If P, then Q’) premises. This problem arises whenever P describes a putative matter of fact and Q expresses a prescription of some sort (often signaled by the inclusion of ‘should’ or ‘ought’). In such cases, the conditional statement can be viewed in one of two ways. If we view it as the sort of statement that actually belongs in a modus tollens argument (what logicians call a ‘material conditional’), then it can be criticized as being false on purely logical grounds. Famously, ‘is’ does not materially imply ‘ought’ – descriptive language does not materially imply prescriptive language. That does not mean that facts are irrelevant to policy choices, of course. As I put it in my previous post, facts can certainly bear on policies; it’s just that they never logically necessitate policies. On the other hand, if we view the conditional premise as a mere recommendation, then it doesn’t belong in a modus tollens form of argument at all, the argument form is only superficially similar to modus tollens, and the conclusion does not validly follow from the premises.

Now, almost as famous as “‘is’ does not imply ‘ought'” is another philosophical saying: “One person’s modus tollens is another person’s modus ponens“. Modus ponens is, like modus tollens, a valid form of argument that starts from a conditional premise. But in its second premise, instead of denying the conditional’s consequent (the statement that follows ‘then’), it affirms its antecedent (the statement that follows the ‘if’), and instead of deducing the conditional’s denied antecedent, it deduces its affirmed consequent. This sounds a lot more complicated than it is, as this sketch of the form shows-

(1) If P then Q
(2) P
(3) So Q

Starting from the conditional premise in the previous argument, we arrive at an argument that is commonly asserted by liberals-

(1) If climate change is occurring, then we should regulate CO2.
(2) Climate change is occurring.
(3) So we should regulate CO2.

A conservative upset with my prior post might try to turn the tables, observing that if the conditional premise is a problem in the modus tollens argument, then it is equally a problem in this modus ponens argument. I would reply that yes indeed, it is a problem, but not quite equally one. This is because in the cases that concern us, the antecedent is descriptive and the consequent is prescriptive, rather than the other way around. It is still true that the conditional statement is either false or not a material conditional (because it is a mere recommendation). But the difference is that when conservatives deny the antecedent because they deny the consequent, they are allowing their policy preferences to influence their view of the facts. On the other hand, when liberals affirm the consequent because they affirm the antecedent, they are merely allowing their view of the facts to influence their policy choice: precisely the rational thing to do. Even if both arguments are unsound or invalid from a purely logical viewpoint, in these cases the modus tollens sort of argument is irrational in a way that the modus ponens sort of argument is not.

Couldn’t the Republican arguments be expressed in a modus ponens form? Certainly. For instance-

(1) If climate change is not occurring, then we should not regulate CO2.
(2) Climate change is not occurring.
(3) So we should not regulate CO2.

The problem is that this way of representing their pattern of thought leaves the conspiracy theories and evidential biases that they rely upon to justify premise (2) totally unexplained. The same can be said for the other two arguments I discussed in the last post, in which premise (2) (of the modus ponens versions) would deny evolution and the safety of the HPV vaccine, respectively. Admittedly, some who deny evolution sometimes do so by promoting the notion of intelligent design, but the arguments for intelligent design are at least as weak as the arguments for the denial of climate change. The modus tollens representations help to explain why Republicans make such arguments (namely, because they are passionately against certain policies that they think might follow from acceptance of the facts); the modus ponens ones don’t.

By the way, some readers might have noticed an asymmetry in the title of this post versus that of the previous post: here I used ‘liberal’ instead of ‘Democratic’, whereas there I used ‘Republican’ instead of ‘conservative’. That is because, if the behavior of the House of Representatives and the current crop of Republican presidential candidates is any indication, the Republican party really has morphed into a purely conservative party. For better or for worse, thanks at least to the “blue dog” contingent, the Democratic party has not yet made a similar transformation into a purely liberal party.

Finally, it’s perhaps worth emphasizing that although the sort of irrationality I’ve sketched out above currently seems more common on the Right than on the Left, liberals are certainly not immune to it. The more passionately one holds a policy position, the more likely one is to fall into this style of thinking, and liberals can be just as passionate as conservatives. The answer, of course, isn’t to be less passionate. It’s simply to be more mindful of how those passions might influence one’s thinking.

Irrationality Squared


Killing innocent people because someone totally unrelated to them burned a book that one worships is irrationality squared. It is exponentially irrational because it is an irrational reaction to an act – the burning a Quran – that is itself irrational. The moral of the story that started in my hometown of Gainesville Florida and ended in Afghanistan is clear: religious extremism is a dangerous sort of madness that feeds on instances of itself.

To a non-religious person, the holy book of any religion is still just a book. Its content might be virtuous or vicious, worthy of respect or derision, but it embodies no supernatural powers. But a religious book burner takes the book burning act just as seriously as the worshiper takes the book itself; he takes the book burning to have supernatural significance, at least when he’s following the dictates of his own insane God (an insane God being one that not only doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong, but that would also dogmatically – godmatically? – stick to His ignorant opinions even if He were informed of the truth). The bigoted burner and the murderous worshiper are two sides of the same crazy coin, even if only the worshiper is directly responsible for his extreme over-reaction. And when the religious burner knows that the worshiper will likely over-react in such an obscene way, and he burns the book anyway, he is an accessory before the fact. He is morally responsible – if not for the murders, at least for his own damnable callousness and indifference.

God save us from such men of God.

Another Blasphemy Law Opponent Killed


Shabaz Bhatti, a Pakistani minister who opposed an Islamist blasphemy law that carries the death penalty, was assassinated outside his Islamabad home today. As reported by The Guardian, Bhatti opposed the law because he believed that it would be used to discriminate against religious minorities, including his own Christian community (he was Pakistan’s only Christian minister). While I think that opposition to such laws should be based first and foremost on their sheer irrationality, Bhatti was of course right about their being inherently discriminatory as well. In this video, taped a few months ago, he declared that he was prepared to die for his principled opposition-

This is the second such assassination in the last couple of months. The first was that of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who seemed to oppose the law for more liberal reasons, and whom I memorialized in this post.