A common complaint I hear a lot nowadays…

If you’re loafing about on a Sunday morning and looking for something to read, here’s a long form argument requesting skeptical consistency regarding political economy. Oh, man, is this familiar.

Unfortunately, the majority of high-profile skeptics in our community seem to promote scientific skepticism and so do not address political economy, citing a pre-requisite of hard data in forming skeptical conclusions: SGU doesn’t do politics (and when it does, as with Rebecca Watson’s work on feminist issues, you end up with petitions calling for their removal.); Brian Dunning, amongst others, blithely say that skepticism is not applicable to political “values”; and economic and political issues are barely represented at conferences, on podcasts, and in blogs, despite the disproportionate suffering it causes compared to staple feed such as homeopathy and psychics.

Yes. Yes. Yes. The modern skeptical movement is built on a very narrow foundation; a lot of the Old Guard spend an incredible amount of effort restricting the range of allowed topics to a tiny set of staples, which means that too often we hear lots about the bogosity of Bigfoot, but almost nothing about the bogosity of an economic system that maintains gross social inequities. And which belief do you think does greater harm?

We’ve been struggling for years just to get the established skeptics to recognize that religion, that citadel of lies, is a legitimate target for public criticism. The arguments to exclude that topic have been strained and absurd; most commonly, we’re told that since the claims of religion are completely evidence-free and untestable, True Skeptics™ are not able to address them…and usually these gatekeepers are as bad as creationists in claiming that they have the mantle of science in so constraining their range. They disregard the fact that scientists tend to be extremely dismissive, and appropriately so, of extravagant claims made in the absence of substantive supportive evidence.

Similarly, I can predict that skeptics will now struggle to exclude politics and economics from any debate; economics is notoriously fuzzy, and politics is wracked with extremes of opinion. But of course both fields do have hard evidence that can be addressed. Does the American political and economic system cause great hardship for many people? Does it promote stability and international cooperation? Are some of our expenditures unnecessary and others insufficient? Are there evidence-based alternative strategies that work better? Can we compare economies in different countries and assess their relative performance?

And most importantly, should rational skeptics take a stand on these issues, discuss and debate them, and come to reasonable conclusions? I don’t think it’s true that they are unresolvable.

Unfortunately, opening up the skeptic community to actually discussing these topics would lead to Deep Rifts that make the one over religion look insignificant. We’re riddled with wacky libertarians and their worship of the capitalist status quo (or worse, demanding a greater reduction in government and compassion). A libertarian speaker who openly espoused the opinions of a loon like Ron Paul — and there are people in this community who regard him as a saint — would pretty much guarantee a kind of noisy riot in the audience, and lead to a big chunk of organized skepticism decamping in fury.

Which would probably be a good thing.

So…cats were useful in days of yore

I wouldn’t have thought it, but a 16th century text reveals something cats were good for: acting as bombs.

catbomb

I bet they weren’t very good at it, though. I can’t imagine our hypothetical explosive-laden cat charging towards the enemy, but is more likely to snuggle up in our beds or fuss about in our kitchen cupboards.

(via io9)

You can’t buy good teaching

This little talk from Lawrence Krauss is one I agreed with right up to the last little conclusion, which is a complete non sequitur.

That first part is excellent: good education does involve getting students to ask questions and think deeply, rather than being able to recite answers back at us; I also think it’s true that a good science educator has to be comfortable in the field and be competent in the topic. And that means investing more in teacher training. It also involves paying them more to attract better teachers, because sometimes what happens is that a person with a family or special needs will find they can’t meet all their obligations on a teacher’s salary.

So far, so good. Here’s the concluding paragraph that I find disagreeable, however. It’s the one where he proposes different pay scales for science and math teachers rather than those other teachers.

I don’t think that science and math are more important than writing; I believe in communication. It’s incredibly important. I write. But for better or worse, in the free market, if you have a training in science, in general, you can go out and not become a teacher and earn more money than you would if you were a teacher. So I think we have to consider paying in order to recruit better teachers who have a training in science and mathematics, the possibility of differential pay scales to accommodate the free market. I know many teachers unions would be vastly opposed to that. But I think we at least have to consider that possibility if we want to recruit the people with the skills into the schools to be able to connect with the students.

My problem here is that after praising the value of asking good questions, critical thinking, general competence, and all that jazz, suddenly we switch gears to talking about competition in the free market. That is something completely different with no relationship to the values previously stated.

Teachers of English, theater, history, philosophy, art, music, etc. can also be inspiring, inquiring critical thinkers who lead students to deeper understanding, who get students to ask insightful questions. In that context, it’s silly to single out science and math teachers as somehow special — in my personal history, science and math teachers have been more likely to fall back on rote and massive data dumps than teachers in other fields, and also, at the college level at most universities, teaching skills are less valued in the sciences than in other more liberal artsy disciplines; the number one job skill for scientists is getting grant money. It’s very much a free market thing.

But that’s the other side of the coin, too. Why would anyone think free market competition for higher salaries would attract more people with better teaching skills? An economic battle between educational institutions and for-profit industry is going to have one foregone conclusion: the schools will lose. Demanding stable funding so the schools can hire people at a reasonable living wage is one thing, but trying to draw scientists from industry (where teaching is not a major factor in advancement) into the schools with financial inducements is not going to work, and is going to prioritize the wrong set of values.

Way back when I was on the job market, I had the choice of better paying jobs in tech fields, vs. the Research I rat race, vs. the low paying liberal arts track. I was tempted by bigger money, but what won me over was finding places where good teaching was actually respected and rewarded. That’s how you get good teachers: treat them like their skills are respected and important, give them opportunities to improve and learn, and let them explore new ideas. That’s why I’m in this business; it’s certainly not because of the pay scale (although if it were low enough it would drive me away), but because it lets me do what I love doing.

Those annoying New Atheists

I was amused lately to be reminded of this debate between John Cleese and Michael Palin, on one side, against Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, on the other — arguing over The Life of Brian…in 1979. It’s two smart, open-minded people with the ability to critically evaluate truth claims against a pair of pompous old farts who are indignant at the lack of reverence for their ridiculous dogma.


Nothing has changed, has it?


In case you needed it, here is a rebuttal.

Role models

In these times of tepid liberalism and snail-like slow progressive politics, what is a fervent and fanatical conservative group to do? Find successful role models to emulate, form alliances, and change. “40 Days for Life”, an anti-choice group, looked about in the political ecology for a powerful organization that could show them the way, and they found one.

“These guys know how to get the attention of the American people,” explained David Bereit, National Director of 40 Days for Life. “If there’s one thing we care about, it’s getting known – oh, and of course saving the lives of the innocent.”

Their new peers and colleagues? Why, they’ve teamed up with Westboro Baptist Church.

Because if any organization represents reasoned debate and broad popular appeal, it’s Westboro Baptist.

Although, actually, it’s not much of a stretch. If you’ve ever seen the clouds of spittle and waving signs surrounding a Planned Parenthood clinic, you know that their tactics aren’t much different.

An important warning regarding your household recreational drug use

I  try not to abuse my soapbox here by proselytizing too often, given that this is a topic on which hordelings have deeply divided points of view. But sometimes a warning is just far too important not to share.

I’m not moralizing here. What you do with your own body is between you, your conscience, and your connection. But an informed choice is always the best choice. I urge you to pay close attention to this Public Service Announcement.

People like this actually exist?

Christian talk radio is a real swamp of idiocy. Here are a couple of hosts babbling about feminists.

They did surprise me, though. They started talking about the two kinds of feminists, and oh no, I thought, here comes that boring anti-feminist crap peddled by Christina Hoff Sommers and happily swallowed by every MRA on the planet, that there are gender feminists and equity feminists. But no! I guess there is a lower level you can reach.

Their distinction was between cute feminists and ugly feminists.

I’d like to say we were done there, but they also go on to blame gays and feminists for the decline of western civilization. They’d get along just fine with a few atheists I know.

(via The Raw Story.)