The name game

When I first started getting interested in the so-called ‘intelligent design creationist’ (IDC) movement, I noticed that they were very careful about terminology and insisted on using specific terms.

For example, IDC people would divide science up into two categories that they called ’empirical science’ and ‘origins science.’ Empirical science was defined by them as the kind of science where you could do experiments in laboratories or in the field. Origins science dealt with subjects that dealt with the origins of things and which had happened long ago. So theories of cosmology, astronomy and, most importantly (for them), evolution of life came under the heading of ‘origins’ science.

They were also very insistent on avoiding the use of the terms ‘creationist’ and ‘God’ and pushed for the use of the term ‘design’ which they used to mean things that were not randomly created. ‘Intelligent design’ was used by them to denote design by a human-like intelligence and not by (say) a computer program.

Since I came from the scientific world where what something is called is not what is important and it is the operational definition that matters, I was initially willing to go along with their terminology. The problem was that I discovered that rather than the names being used just as a harmless label for the underlying operational definition, as is the case in science, in the case of intelligent design, no operational definition was forthcoming. Instead, the names themselves became used as arguments, so that conceding to them the choice of names meant conceding a substantial portion of the argument.

Let me illustrate with some examples. Since they did not use the name God in their literature, they could proffer the claim that theirs was not a religious theory (“See, nowhere do we use ‘God’ in our work”). Also, since they did not use the name ‘creationist,’ they could dissociate themselves from the young-Earth creationist (YEC) movement and the old-earth creationist (OEC) movement, both of which explicitly mentioned god in their literature and had already been struck down by the courts as being religious in nature and thus inappropriate for inclusion in science classes. Also, the YEC and OEC were embarrassing to the IDC people in that they interpreted the Bible literally (to differing degrees) and thus alienated a lot of potential allies.

This attention to words and language has been part of a careful thought-out strategy. In testimony in the Dover, PA case, it was shown that in the book Of Pandas and People which the students were explicitly told to read as an ‘antidote’ to evolution, early drafts of the book used the words creationism but later replaced it with intelligent design. This enables the intelligent design people to claim that their theory does not involve god because they avoided providing an operational definition for intelligent design or an intelligent designer. If they did so, it would be hard to see how that operational definition was not functionally equivalent to an operational definition of god.

Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel points out that all these theories are variations of creationism, and he creates a classification scheme that lists them as YEC, OEC, and IDC (for intelligent design creationism). This is the terminology that I have adopted and will use henceforth so that the relationship of intelligent design to creationism is kept explicit, and IDC people cannot hide their creationist links.

The use of the empirical/origins science distinction is another example of this verbal sleight of hand. By dividing science in this way, and by putting evolution into the origins science category, they then try to imply that evolution is not an empirical theory! Since the word ’empirical’ implies data-driven and subject to the normal rules of scientific investigation, casting evolution as ‘origins science’ is part of an attempt by IDC people drive a wedge between evolution and other theories of science and make it seem less ‘scientific.’.

The IDC people also assert that the way we evaluate theories is different for the two categories. They assert that ’empirical science’ can be tested experimentally but that ‘origins science’ cannot.’ This assertion allows them to claim that how competing theories of ‘origins science’ should be evaluated is by seeing which theory ‘explains’ things better.

I have already shown that using ‘better’ explanations as a yardstick for measuring the quality of theories leads one down a bizarre path where the ‘best’ explanation could well be the Raelian theory (or ET-IDC using Pennock’s classification scheme). But it is important to see that the reason that the IDC people can even make such a claim is because of their artful attempt to divide science into ’empirical’ and ‘origins.’

The fact is that all science is empirical. All scientific theories ultimately relate to data and predictions. If one wants to make distinctions, one can say that there are historical sciences (evolution, cosmology, astronomy) that deal with one-time events, and non-historical sciences where controlled experiments can be done in laboratories. But both are empirical. It is just that in the historical sciences, the data already exists and we have to look for it rather than create it.

But IDC people don’t like to concede that all science as empirical since that would mean that they would have to provide data and make predictions for their own theory just like any other empirical theory, and they have been unable to do so. This is why it is important that the scientific community not concede them the right to categorize the different kinds of science in the way they wish, because it enables them to use words to avoid the hard questions.

The different use of terminology in scientific and political debates

I would like to revisit the question addressed earlier of why scientists are at a disadvantage when they try to debate in political forums, like those involving so-called intelligent design creationism. This time it deals with how terminology is introduced and used.

Scientists often need to introduce new terms into the vocabulary to accommodate a new concept, or seek to use a familiar everyday term or phrase with a more precise technical meaning.

The scientists who introduces the new concept usually has the freedom to name it and most of the time the community of scientists will go along with the name. The reasons for the name vary and can sometimes have whimsical origins. The physics term ‘quark’ for subnuclear particles for instance was named from the line “three quarks for Muster Mark” from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and was invoked because it was thought at the time that there were only three subnuclear particles that made up the proton and the neutron. The proton consisted of two ‘up’ quarks and one ‘down’ quark, while the neutron consisted of one ‘up’ quark and two ‘down’ quarks. But then other particles were discovered which had unusual properties and these were dubbed to be ‘strange’ particles and so a third type of quark, the ‘strange’ quark, was postulated to explain their properties.

Later a fourth type of quark was required and this was called the ‘charm’ quark. Not all terminology sticks, however. When a fifth and a sixth type of quark came into being, initial attempts to name them ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ seemed to most physicists to have crossed the line of acceptable whimsicality, and the names of those two quarks settled to the more mundane ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ quarks.

Although there are a variety of reasons for the names scientists select for new concepts, the success or failure of the ideas that are associated with the concept does not hinge on the choice of the name. This is because science concepts are more than names, they also have ‘operational definitions,’ and it is these definitions that are important. Many non-scientists do not understand the importance that scientists attach to operational definitions.

For example, if you ask a non-physicist to define ‘mass’, you will usually get some variation of ‘it is the amount of matter present in an object.’ This intuitive definition of mass may give a serviceable understanding of the concept that is adequate for general use but it is too vague for scientific purposes. It could, after all, just as well serve as a definition of volume. A definition that is so flexible that it can apply to two distinct concepts has no scientific value.

But an operational definition of mass is much more precise and usually involves describing a series of operations that enable one to measure the quantity. For mass, it might be involve something like: “Take an equal arm balance and balance the arms with nothing on the pans. Then place the object on one pan and place standardized units of mass on the other pan until balance is achieved again. The number of standardized units required for this purpose is the mass of the object on the other pan.”

For volume, the operational definition might be: “Take a calibrated measuring cylinder with water up to a certain level and note the level. Then immerse the object in the water and measure the new level of the water. The difference in the two level readings is the volume of the object.” We thus see that, unlike the case with intuitive definitions, there is a clear difference between the operational definitions of mass and volume.

It is possible for a concept to have more than one operational definition. For example, the mass of an object could also be defined operationally as placing something on a triple beam balance, moving the weights around until balance is achieved, and then taking the reading.

It does not matter if a concept has more than one operational definition. In fact that is usually the case. The point is that consistent operational definitions of mass would enable one to show that the different definitions are functionally equivalent, so that you can use any one of these mutually consistent operational definitions. If you actually want the mass of an object, all the various operational definitions would result in the same numerical value, so that mass is an unambiguous physical concept.

Such operational definitions enable scientists to avoid confusion and quickly agree on what names like mass and volume mean. The names themselves tend to be value neutral and by themselves do not advance an argument. Scientists tend to not challenge the ways things get named because it is the underlying operational definition that is crucial to scientific arguments. Scientists are quite content to go along with whatever names others give to concepts, because they rightly see the name as irrelevant to the merits of the debate.

This is quite different from what goes on in the political arena. There what you call something can be a crucial factor in whether the argument is won or lost. Take for example, what was known as the ‘estate tax.’ This is a tax on the estates of very wealthy people who become deceased. It affects only a tiny minority of people and was very uncontroversial for a long time. The term ‘estate tax’ is fairly descriptive because we associate the word ‘estate’ with the wealth passed on by rich people.

But there were interest groups who wanted to repeal this tax and one of the ways they achieved this goal was by renaming the tax as a ‘death tax,’ which seemed to imply that you were being taxed for dying. By getting this new terminology accepted in the debate to replace the old term, they have succeeded in getting quite considerable popular support for the removal of a very egalitarian tax, even though few of the people supporting the repeal would have estates large enough to worry about paying the tax.

Similarly the Bush administration at one time tried to get the media to use the term ‘homicide bombers’ instead of ‘suicide bombers,’ Perhaps they were thinking that ‘suicide bomber’ would remind people that the people doing this were making a great personal sacrifice and that raised awkward questions about their level of determination to remove US troops from their country and the reasons behind the determination. But that effort at renaming went nowhere because the old name was an accurate description of the person, while the new name was seen as being redundant and conveying less information.

In political battles, winning the name game is half the battle because accepting the name preferred by your opponent often means tacitly conceding the high ground of the argument and playing defense. So the habit of scientists to concede the name and to work with whatever name others come up with is not a good strategy when they enter the political arena. But it is not clear that all scientists have realized this and know when to shift gears.

In the next posting, I will examine how IDC advocates have used this casual approach to names to get an edge in the public relations wars, and how scientists should fight back.

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 5

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

It is quite possible for someone who has a seemingly spotless record on matters of race, who has said all the correct things, who associates freely with people of other groups, to take political actions that have a disproportionately harmful effect on other races. And often such people’s actions are not closely scrutinized because they are seen as not being racist.

For example, take former President Clinton. Because he seemed so at ease with black people, he was welcomed by many black leaders, even being occasionally referred to as ‘America’s first black president.’ He seemed quite at home in black churches and showed no awkwardness at all in interacting with black people. I am quite willing to accept that he is not a racist. And yet he was the architect of a so-called welfare reform program that had a huge and negative impact on the lives of poor people, disproportionately black. But because he was perceived as not being personally “anti-black,” he was able to enact these policies and escape the kind of criticism that would have erupted had the same thing been done by someone like George Bush, whose bona fides on race are more suspect.

Another example is that of former Education Secretary William Bennett. On his radio show, in response to a caller, said: “[Y]ou could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” It was clear that he was making a hypothetical case and not advocating this as policy because he immediately followed this by saying that such an action “would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do.” But his statement created an uproar, with charges that Bennett is a racist and should be taken off the air, and he and his supporters vehemently denying it.

Is Bennett a racist? I don’t know and frankly, I don’t think that that is an important question. It is the policies that he advocates and implements that concern me. And there is evidence that have nothing to do with his private beliefs about race that he was exactly the wrong person for the job of Education Secretary. Reed Hundt, the former head of the Federal Communication Commission recently recounted the following story about Bennett:

When I was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (1993-97), I asked Bill Bennett to visit my office so that I could ask him for help in seeking legislation that would pay for internet access in all classrooms and libraries in the country. Eventually Senators Olympia Snowe and Jay Rockefeller, with the White House leadership of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, put that provision in the Telecommunications Law of 1996, and today nearly 90% of all classrooms and libraries do have such access. The schools covered were public and private. So far the federal funding (actually collected from everyone as part of the phone bill) has been matched more or less equally with school district funding to total about $20 billion over the last seven years. More than 90% of all teachers praise the impact of such technology on their work. At any rate, since Mr. Bennett had been Secretary of Education I asked him to support the bill in the crucial stage when we needed Republican allies. He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education.

To me, this story is a far more damning indictment of Bennett’s suitability for public office, especially that of Education Secretary, than his speculations about the relationship between race and abortion and crime. It is truly appalling that he so badly wants public schools to fail that he is willing to withhold important resources from them. If public schools are to be deprived of resources and pushed along the road to failure, this has a huge and disproportionately negative effect on poor and black children. So his actions in this case, his unwillingness to support this measure and the reasons for doing so, are a much better measure of his suitability for public office than whether he hangs out with black friends in the evening. And yet, this particular story from Reed Hundt has attracted next to no attention, while everyone looks for clues to see whether Bennett is ‘really’ a racist or not.

Conversely, during the last presidential election, there was a minor fuss made about the fact that Howard Dean had few black people in his cabinet when he was governor of Vermont. The attempt was made, and was marginally successful, to use this to portray him as somehow unfriendly to black people. But on the other hand, as governor he had instituted health care reforms that opened up access health care to almost all the population of his state. This meant that the poor, who are disproportionately black, had more access to health care than before. To my mind, those are the measures that are important, rather than appointments to cabinet offices, which can be symbolic and not substantive.

It is hard for us to get rid of the prejudices we have. One of the things that my many years of teaching have taught me is that the beliefs that students bring with them into the classroom are the most powerful beliefs of all, and have a far stronger hold on their minds than the new things they learn from their teachers in their formal classes. This is because the things we learn informally are based on our life experiences and are what our minds have worked out for themselves, even if not done consciously. Our stereotypes and prejudices have been constructed over many years, starting when we were very young. They are a kind of theoretical model based on bits of actual data, things we were told by the peers and adults in our lives, conversations we have had, books we have read, and films and TV that we have watched. Our minds have taken all these things and created a network of ideas. And it is precisely because we have created this mental structure ourselves that it is so powerful. We cannot simply will them away. As the economist John Maynard Keynes said: “The difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping from old ones.” (The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936)

Stereotypes and prejudices are part of our own constructed knowledge structure and we may never be able to get rid of them completely however much we wish to. But rather than trying to hide their existence, we need to bring our prejudices out of the subconscious and unconscious where they usually exist so that we can more effectively deal with them. Then we can let our intellectual commitment to deal with people fairly do battle with our instincts.

The battle between our intellect and our instincts will always be an ongoing one. Race is a very sensitive topic and people shy away from it. What I have written this week on the topic may have caused discomfort and even offense to some and if so, I apologize.

But if the battle is fought in the arena of our conscious minds, and in open dialogue with others, we are more likely to be able to defeat racism. Can we ever have such a frank discussion about race? I don’t know. The real question is whether we can afford not to try.

POST SCRIPT: Some Friday video fun

See this video where people are interviewed about which country they think should be invaded next in the “war on terror.” One person even suggests Sri Lanka.

JibJab also has a new video where they take on Walmart. Take a look.

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 4

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

In order to begin an honest discussion about race, it might be good to start by accepting certain things. The first is that all of us harbor stereotypes, and have prejudices based on them. These come about despite our best intentions. People should be able to concede this without fear of being labeled racist.

The second is that people who have been the victims of prejudicial actions by others are not immune from thinking and acting prejudicially against others. Being a victim of racial prejudice is not some kind of vaccine that inoculates you against carrying the disease yourself. It is very easy, when one or one’s group has been the victim of prejudice, to convince oneself that one’s own actions towards others must be beyond reproach. This kind of hubris can lead to appalling injustices perpetrated by one discriminated group against another.

The third is that just because one believes in stereotypes and has prejudices based upon them, does not automatically imply that one cannot be fair in one’s actions. It is perfectly true that some people may not like people of another color/ethnicity/religion, etc. They may dislike the thought of having such people as neighbors or marrying into their family. But such people might also be opposed to taking any steps to restrict the rights of the groups they dislike, to prevent them from living where they wish and marrying whom they want. In other words, they may well want the very people they are uncomfortable to be around to be treated fairly.

For example, during the time of slavery, there were many white people who felt that having slaves was wrong. Often they aided the escape of slaves and, as jurors, often refused to convict others who had provided such aid. It is quite possible (even likely given the times they lived in) that the people who did these good things may not have actually liked black people or wanted them as guests in their homes. But many people respond to the higher call of justice, and an appeal to it can produce good results that appeals to other qualities cannot. As I have often said in the past, people have an intuitive sense of justice. You can’t force people to like other people, but you can expect people to act justly. It is the one quality that seems to have universal appeal.

I believe that it is easier to deal with a person who does not wish to associate with people of different color/race/religion but who also believes in justice and fairness than to deal with someone who may think that they are free of prejudice, and says all the right things, but cannot see that they may be acting is subtle ways that are harmful to other groups.

The relationship of private beliefs and public actions becomes more important when it enters the public political sphere. Some of you may be aware that following the inept response of the federal government in response to hurricane Katrina, singer Kanye West said on live TV during a fundraising event that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” This naturally stirred up a storm of controversy, as any public statement about race always does, and people looked for evidence that either supported or undermined his assertion. As usual, what was looked at was whether Bush had close friends and associates and advisors who were black, whether he appointed black people to positions of authority, and whether his statements could be analyzed to see what he really felt about race, etc.

I have seen these kinds of discussion many times before. In Sri Lanka, which has had a long history of ethnic strife between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority, the government has always been in the hands of the majority community and when it comes to ethnic matters there is always a close examination of the head of state to try and discern what that person’s private feelings about the minority community are, using the same measures that are being used to gauge George Bush’s ‘true’ feeling towards blacks following Kanye West’s allegation. So people try and look closely into the leader’s life to see if they can find clues as to whether they are “anti-Tamil” (as they say in Sri Lanka) or whether he treats the Tamil people around him well.

It has been my view that such analyses are largely a waste of time. It really does not matter what Bush thinks privately, or even what his actions are in relationship to the people in his immediate world. It is what he does publicly and politically and have a large-scale impact that matters. Someone (I wish I could remember who, because the words had a strong impact on me) wisely said something along the lines of “It is very difficult to determine the private beliefs of public figures, and even if, after much trouble, one is able to do so, it is not clear that the knowledge gained is worth the effort.”

To be continued tomorrow…

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 3

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1 and part 2)

The problem with fighting prejudice is that we think that conceding that we have any prejudices at all is in itself shameful. So to avoid being thought badly of, we deny that we have them or avoid conversations that run any risk that we might unwittingly reveal our prejudices. This is why it is so hard to have an honest discussion about race in America (or most places for that matter). Any discussion that does take place either ends up with people holding hands and singing “We shall overcome” or “Kumbaya” or uttering platitudes about everyone being the same or being guarded and defensive.

It always amazes me, for example, when I hear people say that they do not see the ‘color’ of people. For example, I have done a lot of work with the public education system in urban areas in and around Cleveland. There are immediate color issues that arise in schools because the majority of teachers are white and many of the students are black. This imbalance carries with the ever-present danger that any teacher-student conflict will be interpreted in race terms. Teachers often try to preempt this by saying that they do not ‘see’ their students in terms of their color. But I often wonder if that is really possible or if they are just trying to fool themselves.

I think that they say this to imply that they are not prejudiced. But I find it hard to accept that people literally do not see color, when people’s skin color is such an important factor in our lives. I remember someone once trying to help me identify someone else who had attended a meeting by describing that person. I was given various pieces of information but at one point I asked “Was she black?” And the person said “yes.” If I had been given that piece of obviously useful information right at the beginning, I could have identified the person much earlier. I think the reason that my friend had not volunteered this important identifying marker right up front was due to the fear that if he had said so, that meant that the person’s color had been noted by him and thus he was prejudiced.

But this is raising the bar for evidence of lack of prejudice to an absurd and unreachable level. Of course we register the color of the people we meet. How can we not when skin color is such a major part of our political and social dialogue? When I go into a roomful of people, I immediately register people on the basis of their skin color and gender and age and size (height/weight) because these are the major identifying categories that I use. Interestingly, I find that I do not register hair or eye color, although many other people do. When someone asks me if so-and-so has blue eyes or brown hair, I find that I cannot recall this kind of detail at all. This may be because in Sri Lanka, everyone has black hair and dark brown eyes so we never use hair and eye color as identifying markers, and I have not acquired that habit. But although we are all brown skinned, there was a wide range of shades and skin color is an important feature.

If we really want to have honest discussions about race we need to start by acknowledging that it is natural to believe in stereotypes and to have prejudices. By natural, I do not mean that it is admirable (it is not) or that we can do nothing about it (we can). We can and should strive to eliminate such thinking. But at this stage of our social development, both individually and as a society, we have stereotypes and prejudices and it is not use denying them. It may be more helpful to simply concede that we have them and think about how we can prevent ourselves from taking actions based on them.

Fortunately in my own case, I have been lucky to have worked with people with whom I can discuss issues of race honestly, and am able to ask them questions about customs, practices, and behavior that increase my awareness of the culture of other communities. This has enabled me to increase my personal store of information about others that I hope will slowly eat away at the false knowledge structures that were built on inadequate data. But it is foolish to think that this has enabled me to eliminate all my prejudices. At best, it has helped me to remove some of my major misapprehensions.

To be continued tomorrow…

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 2

As I get older and more introspective, it is becoming increasingly clear that I have deep within me all kinds of stereotypes about other groups of people based on their religion and ethnicity and nationality and class. So I am sure that, if I go deep into my psyche, I will discover beliefs about Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Norwegians, Chinese, Ugandans, working class people, rich people, in fact every group that I myself am not a member of, that would be seen as laughable, absurd or even offensive by members of those groups. The reason is that basically I know very little about any of these groups.

Because of this I have learned that I cannot trust my instincts, because they have been acquired using inadequate and erroneous data. In order to combat my stereotypical thinking, I have to fall back on my intellectual understanding of politics and race and class. In my intellectual/analytical mode, I know that stereotypes are unreliable guides to predicting the behavior of people, that race has no validity as a biological construct, and hence no inferences can be drawn about what various ethnic groups are ‘really’ like, as if there is some innate and unchangeable quality that characterizes groups of people. We are the products of our upbringing and while there is variation due to genetics and heredity, these qualities do not correlate with ‘race, ‘ because the concept of race is not a biological one.

But to say that intellectually I understand that my stereotypes have little basis in science and reality is not to imply that the prejudices the stereotypes generate have no power over me. It is that when it comes to issues of race (and class), my intellectual knowledge is in a constant struggle with my ‘gut’ feelings, and I have to constantly guard against making snap judgments. While I trust my intuition in many areas of life (say in applying laws of physics to situations), I know that it is unreliable in making judgments involving race, and so I have got into the habit of being on my guard whenever issues of race comes up. This is why I was so skeptical of the initial reports of people of color behaving badly after Katrina. It was not because I am not prejudiced. It was because I am consciously aware of the existence of my prejudices and so realize the need to be alert whenever I encounter news reports that have racial implications. I needed to see harder evidence about the events of Katrina to convince myself that I was not believing things because I was succumbing to my prejudices. And that hard evidence never materialized.

I think that we all have such stereotypes. We cannot help it. It seems to be an instinctive trait that we make generalizations and create theories (often unconsciously) about everything in life that we encounter. It is well known in the educational literature that even very young children develop quite intricate models of how the world works, prior to, and even in the face of, formal instruction. The less actual data that we have about any thing, the more likely that our theories will be faulty, and thus are stereotypes and prejudices born, often at a very young age.

Stereotypes are not necessarily completely false. They usually have kernels of truth. In my own case, there exist stereotypes about each of the categories of the community of people that I grew up in, which consisted of middle class Protestant Christian Tamil Sri Lankans. They are not completely untrue. The difference is that since I know that community very well, I am well aware that the common features that give rise to stereotypes are dwarfed by the huge diversity and variation that exists within that group. And because of that variation, I know that it is foolish to judge any individual in that group based on the stereotype, because any given person in that group might come nowhere close to it. So while elements of the stereotype may be true, it would be a mistake to judge any individual person based on that stereotype.

To take a trivial example, Sri Lankans in general have the stereotype about being somewhat casual about punctuality, especially in attending social events. This has an element of truth and I recognize it. So when one is invited to dinner at a Sri Lankan home, one should not be surprised to see people arrive at a range of times spanning a couple of hours.

But recently I was invited to a surprise party in the US where a sizeable number of Sri Lankan Americans had been invited. These kinds of parties depend on all the guests arriving by the scheduled time in order for the surprise to be effective. I discovered that all the Sri Lankan invitees had been given a starting time that was an hour earlier than that given to other guests, on the assumption that then they would arrive by the scheduled time. When I discovered this little ruse after arrival, I found it mildly offensive, even though it would have been too petty to complain. I resented being put in a box, when the hosts had no idea whether I was a punctual person or not. From my personal experience I knew that, despite the stereotype, there are many Sri Lankans who are punctual and they should not have to be treated based on the stereotype.

This is where I think the problem lies. While it is perhaps inevitable that each of us harbors prejudices about other groups of people based on stereotypes, we should not base any specific actions on them. It is not what we believe that is the problem, it is what we do with those beliefs.

To be continued tomorrow…

POST SCRIPT: Real Time with Bill Maher discussion on religion

Bill Maher, Salman Rushdie, Ben Affleck, and Andrew Sullivan discuss religion on the TV program Real Time.

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices

Growing up in Sri Lanka, I never met any African Americans. As far as I could tell, none ever lived there. Looking back at that time, the only African American in Sri Lanka that I can recall was the US Ambassador to that country, whose picture occasionally appeared in the paper giving a speech at some formal function or attending some cocktail party. Given that my only contact with African Americans (if you can call it contact since, not being a member of high society, I never actually met him) was based on a single very important and distinguished-looking black man, you might expect that growing up I would have been spared the acquisition of negative stereotypes of black people that we saw surfacing during the post-Katrina coverage.
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Using Katrina to beat up on poor people

There is no question that people of color lag behind whites in almost all the indicators of social and economic well-being. One can respond to this realization by seeing it as a consequence of institutional structures that perpetuate long standing injustices, try to identify the causes of this situation, and urge the adoption of measures that provide the promise of ameliorating those injustices.

Or one can adopt the much easier course and either blame such people for their condition by saying that they willfully engage in behaviors that are self-destructive (which I call the socio-pathological model of inequality) or argue that this condition is due to largely unchangeable (and presumably genetic) qualities.

One reason that the immediate (and false) characterization of people in New Orleans as primarily antisocial beings who used the breakdown of civil society to engage in widespread and rampant looting, thuggery, raping, and murdering was so easily believed is that this is how poor people are often portrayed. And Katrina enabled a lot of pundits to dust off their well-worn sermons on what is wrong with poor people.

George Will uses the occasion to point the finger of blame at unmarried African American women with children.

Given that most African Americans are middle class and almost half live outside central cities, and that 76 percent of all births to Louisiana African Americans were to unmarried women, it is a safe surmise that more than 80 percent of African American births in inner-city New Orleans — as in some other inner cities — were to women without husbands. That translates into a large and constantly renewed cohort of lightly parented adolescent males, and that translates into chaos in neighborhoods and schools, come rain or come shine.

And you can always rely on Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve fame) to surface again and recycle his thesis that America has a permanent “underclass” that is beyond improvement, due to largely hereditarian factors. It does not matter that his book (co-authored by Richard Herrnstein) has been shown to be really shoddy scholarship. As Nicholas Lehman asserts: “The Bell Curve, it turns out, is full of mistakes ranging from sloppy reasoning to mis-citations of sources to outright mathematical errors. Unsurprisingly, all the mistakes are in the direction of supporting the authors’ thesis.”

But people like Murray, however much their work is shot down (See The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, Steve Fraser (Ed.), Basic Books, 1995) are always given access to mainstream media to repeat their tired charges of the hopelessness of trying to improve the “underclass”. For people like him, the supposed bad behavior is merely ‘The hallmark of the underclass,’ which is the title of his piece in the latest platform he has been given, the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal where he says:

Other images show us the face of the hard problem: those of the looters and thugs, and those of inert women doing nothing to help themselves or their children. They are the underclass.

The lack of home ownership is not caused by the inability to save money from meager earnings, but because the concept of thrift is alien. You name it, we’ve tried it. It doesn’t work with the underclass.

Despite the exceptions that get the newspaper ink, the statistical reality is that people who get into the American job market and stay there seldom remain poor unless they do something self-destructive. And behaving self-destructively is the hallmark of the underclass.
Hurricane Katrina temporarily blew away the screens that we have erected to keep the underclass out of sight and out of mind. We are now to be treated to a flurry of government efforts from politicians who are shocked, shocked, by what they saw.

Ezra Klein writing in The American Prospect gives Murray his deserved comeuppance

Which brings us to today’s Wall Street Journal atrocity. Penned by Charles Murray, he of The Bell Curve fame, it argues that what we’re seeing post-Katrina isn’t poverty but a once-again visible “underclass,” a sort of shadow society of unsocialized black men with no appetite for work, no capacity to hold jobs, and no ability to be helped through conventional methods. They are, quite literally, savages, unable to function in the world the rest of us inhabit. They are, as he puts it, the “looters and the thugs,” not to mention the “inert women doing nothing to help themselves or their children.” And government attempts to craft helpful policy will fail because, after all, it doesn’t matter if you give a gorilla a college loan, it’s still a gorilla.

I’ve no idea where Murray got the idea that the New Orleans evacuees lacked jobs rather than cars and social skills rather than transportation – from deep within his own prejudices, I’d guess. And where he got the concept that these men and women are somehow incapable of holding jobs and unwilling to send their children to school – that’s all similarly obscure. The absence of autos affects the social and the unsocialized alike; the folks you see on buses are often en route to jobs they hold, contra Murray, perfectly well.

But if his argument is flawed, its aim is clear. All those stories of urban anarchy were, to Murray, accurate, everyday manifestations of the Black people we’d hidden from sight. The normal explanation, that their assumed bad behavior was a reaction to extraordinary circumstance – that was the wrong part. This had nothing to do with Katrina; it was part and parcel of an inferior race, an incorrigible culture.

It is too much to hope that Murray will disappear from the opinion pages of major newspapers. People like him will surface to repeat the same tired and discredited message whenever there is another social upheaval. But there is no reason that we should let their ideas go unchallenged. And the way we do that is be very wary of initial news reports that are unsubstantiated but appeal to popular prejudices. Because otherwise rumors become ‘facts’ and then the ‘facts’ are used to create policies that are more punitive than helpful.

In the final analysis, events like Katrina and our response may reveal more about us and our deeply held prejudices than it does about the nature of the people directly affected by the disaster.

POST SCRIPT: An Atheist’s Manifesto

Sam Harris comes out with another strong essay titled There is No God (And You Know It). Check it out. It is well worth reading.

Why were the New Orleans stories believed?

The degree to which the stories of mayhem in the Superdome and Convention Center were overblown is captured in this story in the Seattle Times:

After five days managing near riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following days of internationally reported murders, rapes and gang violence inside the stadium, the doctor from FEMA – Beron doesn’t remember his name – came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.

“I’ve got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome,” Beron recalled the doctor saying.

The real total?

Six, Beron said.
[Read more…]