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.
[Read more…]

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…]

When rumors kill

In a series of previous posts (see here and here), I suggested that we should all be very skeptical of news reports that immediately follow any major news event because those early versions can turn out to be very wrong on the facts but succeed in leaving a highly misleading imprint on the minds of people.

In particular, I pointed out that governments and official sources often lie to reporters so that they can initially get favorable reactions and support for their actions, knowing that people tend to be reluctant to change their views later, even if the facts change. I gave as examples of such lies Reagan’s comments on the aftermath of the shooting of the Iranian Airbus airliner, Clinton’s justification for the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, and the British authorities’ initial version of the killing of the innocent Brazilian in the wake of the London bombings in July. And of course, we have the whole series of lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which turns out to be one of the biggest and most reprehensible causes of the invasion of Iraq and the consequent debacle that is currently occurring in that country.

So we should be highly skeptical when high level government officials are the main or only sources of information on a big story. My belief is that low-level officials are much more likely to tell the truth for several reasons, all of which are precisely because they are low-level: (a) they know that they can easily get into trouble for lying unless they have powerful patrons to protect them, and even then they know they can be sacrificed for the sake of political expediency; (b) they are not aware of the big picture purposes the lie is designed to serve; (c) they have not, or do not wish to, become expert at the kinds of lying that is required to rise in the ranks to become a high level official.

But there is another situation when we should be highly skeptical about initial news reports and that is when those reports feed into our existing stereotypes about people and behavior. And nowhere is this kind of danger better exemplified than what happened to the people of New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

I watched in horror as, within the space of just one or two days after the hurricane struck, the displaced people of that city became transformed from desperate victims deserving of immediate help, to the ranks of the undeserving, with descriptions of them ranging from incompetent and selfish helpless whiners and complainers, to thugs and looters and rapists and murderers descending into ‘animalistic’ behavior. As a result, the emphasis seemed to shift from helping them to suppressing and controlling them.

As reports begin to emerge (and I will write about them later), it is clear that the kinds of criminality that received such huge coverage were vastly overblown. What was so harmful about this was that this hugely negative portrayal resulted in delays in rescue operations that undoubtedly led to unnecessary and avoidable deaths and misery.

Almost a month after the hurricane, the New York Times offered this sober reappraisal:

After the storm came the siege. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit, grounded helicopters. Edwin P. Compass III, the police superintendent, said that tourists – the core of the city’s economy – were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city’s two unlit and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

A month later, a review of the available evidence now shows that some, though not all, of the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations, the product of chaotic circumstances that included no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the longstanding raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.

The question is why these stories took hold so quickly and were seemingly believed and propagated by people in positions of authority even when they had no evidence that they were true. How could it be that the New Orleans superintendent of police (who resigned without explanation last week) could have himself believed those erroneous reports and how could it be that the Mayor could describe the people of the city as ‘animalistic’? These statements were passed on by reporters, and coupled with all the other rumors of vile behavior passed on as fact, became the reality for people all over the world. The nation and the world seemed to find it easy to believe them even though what they were describing was shocking.

Why was this? As I will argue in subsequent postings, what we tend to believe and not believe in the aftermath of such events is largely determined by our prior conceptions of people and our prejudices, and New Orleans opened a window into what we believe poor (and people of color) are like, and the picture is not pretty.

Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design – 2

In the previous posting I described a popular IDC argument that things like watches and Mount Rushmore are obviously ‘designed’ objects and thus imply the existence of a designer. By analogy, it is asserted that certain biological systems are also supposed to bear the hallmarks of design and thus must require a designer (aka god) too.

This argument seems to be persuasive to many people because I repeatedly hear it various forms. The usual response to it by scientists is to argue that the appearance of biological design is only an illusion and that random mutation and natural selection are perfectly capable of producing the seemingly complex biological forms that seem to stymie the IDC people.

But there is a philosophical issue here as well and that is what I want to address. First of all, while we all supposedly can agree that a watch and Mount Rushmore could not have simply appeared without human action, how is it that we are so sure that this is the case that we can accede to it without argument? How is it that in these cases we can definitely identify them as designed objects and say that other things (like rocks) are not designed?
[Read more…]

Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design

One does not have to spend much time reading about intelligent design creationism (IDC) to come across the “Mount Rushmore” argument. IDC advocate William Dembski even begins an article with it as follows:

Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?
[Read more…]

It’s the Rael thing – 3

In two previous posts (here and here), I discussed how the Raelian theory of how life was far more comprehensive than that of intelligent design creationist theory. So all the arguments used by IDC (intelligent design creationist) advocates for inclusion of their theory in science curricula apply even more strongly to Raelian theory. Furthermore, while some might be able to dismiss the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a Johnny-come-lately competitor to IDC doctrine, that charge cannot be leveled against the Raelian model which has been around since the early 1970s and claims over 35,000 believers in over eighty five countries (according to Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel). So Raelism actually precedes the latest incarnation of intelligent design.

The belief structure of the Raelians is based upon messages sent to Earth from the extra-terrestrial Elohim race through Claude Vorilhon (a French journalist and race car enthusiast) who claims that he was twice contacted by aliens who came in flying saucers and revealed to him the story of how life originated on Earth. Vorilhon is called the “Guide of Guides” by his followers and adopted the name of Rael.

But is the Raelian theory of life science? In a series of earlier postings, I said that for a theory to be even considered as a candidate for science it had to meet two necessary conditions. One was that it had to be naturalistic (and by this I mean methodological naturalism and not philosophical or metaphysical or ontological naturalism) and the second was that it had to be predictive. The latter feature meant that the theory had to have some feature or mechanism that enabled it to be used to make predictions, because that was what made a theory useful to scientists.

I said that IDC failed on both counts, since it had the idea of an intelligent designer who was undetectable and could not be counted upon to act in predictably in a manner that could be tested by any sort of observations.

The Raelians are one step better than IDC theorists in that their theory is materialistic in that the designer who produced the seemingly designed biological species was not a supernatural deity but merely space aliens.

But the Raelian theory suffers from the fact that their theory is not predictive. There is nothing in their theory that enables scientists to do anything with it. All scientists can do is to wait around until the aliens decide to visit us again and show us their latest creations.

This is the problem with all theories that contain appeals to revelation, divine or otherwise. While they may be satisfying an emotional and spiritual need, and appeal to their faithful followers (and there is nothing wrong with that), they simply do not provide science with anything useful to work with.

The scientific community rejects the inclusion of Raelian and IDC theories within the family of scientific theories, not because they are inherently opposed to revelatory notions (after all, many scientists are religious), but because such types of theories have no applications.

The Raelian theory also just pushes the evolutionary question one step away. After all, how did the Elohim come about on their own planet? How did they become so advanced in their technology? Did they too evolve according to some Darwinian model? Or were they created by another alien race? According to the FAQ on their website, the Raelians were created by other extraterrestrials and so on, and that one day the people on Earth will similarly populate other planets. This is, of course, an infinite regression model, but not more difficult than the “who created god?” question posed to believers in a god. As long as you are only interested in how life came to be on Earth, the Raelian model “explains” it well.

But it would be interesting to see how IDC theorists respond to Raelian theory. If IDC theory is accepted by various school boards for inclusion in the school science curriculum because it “explains” some things that evolutionary theory cannot, then I do not see any grounds for rejecting Raelianism. In fact, using the IDC yardstick, Raelianism should actually replace IDC in schools because it “explains” everything that IDC does and some others things that IDC theory does not have ready explanations for, thus clealy being a better theory.

The Raelians have so far not been pushing for the inclusion of their ideas in science classes. But it would not surprise me if, if IDC people succeed in the court case currently underway in Dover, PA, they seize the opportunity to urge that their own program be included in science curricula too. (See here for a blog on the trial maintained by the ACLU which is challenging the Dover school board’s decision. Interestingly, Robert Pennock, whose book I have been quoting about the Raelians, testified yesterday.)

Coming soon to a courtroom near you, the case of Intelligent Design v. Raelianism….

POST SCRIPT: Update on the trial of “The St. Patrick’s Four”

In the trial of the antiwar protest group referred to in the post script of a previous posting, they were acquitted of the serious felony charge of conspiracy but were found guilty of misdemeanor charges of damage to property and trespassing.

It’s the Rael thing – 2

In an earlier post, I introduced the basic Raelian idea of how the various life forms on Earth were planted here after being created by the Elohim genetic engineers living on their distant planet. (See Robert T. Pennock’s excellent book Tower of Babel, pages 233-242.)

The Raelians have a pretty comprehensive theory that in the wealth of its details puts the IDC theory to shame. The Raelian explanations for many of the features of life are stunning in their simplicity and their explanatory power.

Take for example, the fact that many flowers and birds and animals have beautiful colors and scents and ornamental features that seem to serve no obvious functional purpose. Evolutionary theorists have to work hard to show how these features could arise from the small differential advantages they provided along their slow evolutionary trek to what we see now. (See Richard Dawkins’ book Climbing Mount Improbable, among others, for how some of these seemingly designed things came about according to Darwinian theory.)

IDC theory on the other hand simply sees biological sophistication and complexity as evidence for a designer, which is not really an explanation. But the Raelian explanation is far more straightforward. Their Elohim biological engineers worked closely with their artists to create not just functional organisms but also things of beauty. These artists were allowed in many instances to allow their creativity to run wild, even if in some cases form took precedence over function so that some birds, like peacocks, were barely able to fly but looked terrific. The spectacular plumage of some tropical birds can be attributed to a Raelian Jackson Pollock letting fly with the pigments.
[Read more…]

It’s the Rael thing

In earlier postings on the issue of so-called ‘intelligent design creationism’ (IDC) I said that supporters of IDC assert that methodological naturalism and the ability to make predictions, which are the characteristic features of scientific practice, should be abandoned and that what should be the deciding factor in evaluating competing theories is to see which one explains things ‘better.’ They then go on to claim that since natural selection has not provided convincing explanations of some biological systems, that means that those things are probably ‘designed’ by an ‘intelligent designer’. The main IDC spokesmen (and they all do seem to be men) are coy about identifying this designer but after exhaustive study I have discovered who they are referring to and I’ll share the secret with this blog’s readers: It is god.

I (and countless others) have written before about all the logical and evidentiary fallacies behind this argument. For starters, negative evidence against a scientific theory can never be considered as positive evidence in favor a competing theory because it is never the case that there are only two competing theories.

But here I want to take the IDC argument about using better ‘explanations’ as the yardstick for theory quality at face value and see where, if the IDC policy is accepted, it can lead. And one place it leads to is, interestingly enough, the Raelians.

Some of you may remember the Raelians. They received a huge amount of publicity in 2002 when one of their spokespersons announced that they had successfully cloned a human being, that the baby (named Eve) had been born on December 26, 2002, and that four other cloned babies were on the way. They said that the mother and baby identities would be revealed later. The media was all over the story at first but it petered out when no evidence was presented in support of this sensational announcement. It looks like the whole thing was an elaborate hoax.

At that time, having no other knowledge of the Raelians, I thought that they were just some publicity-seeking crackpot sect but in reading Robert T. Pennock’s excellent book Tower of Babel, I learned some interesting things about the Raelian religion and it is clear that they have the ‘best’ explanation of all for the source of life on Earth.

The Raelians agree with the IDC people’s argument that Darwin’s theory of evolution as descent with modification (using the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection) is wrong because life on Earth is too complex to have evolved that way and must have been designed. But unlike the IDC people, they not only know who did the designing but are not hesitant to proclaim the news. It is not god. It is extra-terrestrials.

According to the Raelians, on a distant planet there lived a highly advanced alien community called the Elohim that long ago had reached a stage of scientific and technical knowledge whereby they had developed powerful biological engineering techniques that enabled them to make living cells and to tinker and modify them. But naturally they were fearful about letting loose these experimental organisms into their own environment because of the harm they could do. So they looked for a lifeless planet that they could use as a field test laboratory for their genetic engineering and found one. That planet was the Earth. So they used our planet to create a home for all their creations so that they could safely see what worked and what didn’t, just like scientists do in their own labs.

They took the lifeless planet Earth and staring building life on it. Starting with creating simple cells, they proceeded to create seeds, grasses and other vegetation and progressed to create plankton, small fish, then larger fish, then dinosaurs, sea and land creatures, herbivores and carnivores before they tacked the big project, creating beings like themselves. Thus came homo sapiens. This, according to the Raelians, is how the Earth became populated with all the life forms we see around us.

I must say that I was completely fascinated by this scenario. It is too beautiful for words. The details of how the Raelians set about designing their creations are also fascinating and in the next posting I will show why this explanation for life on Earth is far ‘better’ than the one proposed by IDC advocates.

POST SCRIPT 1: Forum on Katrina

Case’s Share the Vision program is hosting an open forum on Katrina in which I will be a panelist. The program is at 4:15pm in the 1914 lounge of Thwing. For more details, see here

POST SCRIPT 2: Dover court case on ID

Yesterday was the opening day of the trial by eleven parents of the Dover PA school district challenging the school board’s decision to include ID as an alternative to evolution in science classes.

You can read about what happened on the opening day of the trial here.