How far does religious freedom extend?

In a previous posting that dealt with the problems that arise when you allow religious oaths in selecting jurors, I suggested that many of the religion-related frictions that occur in society would go away if the public sphere was made secular, and religion and religious practices stayed in the private sphere.

But while that might take care of some of the irritations that currently consume a lot of time and energy (swearing oaths, prayer in schools, the ten commandments in courts and city halls, locations of nativity scenes at Christmas, etc.) it would not take care of other issues, even in the unlikely event that the country committed itself to such a strict secular-religious demarcation.

In a comment to that previous posting, Erin pointed out that the separation might be hard to maintain when certain religious practices were taken into account since those practices might overlap with the public sphere. For example, she points out that certain religious groups such as Christian Scientists do not believe in taking medicine and would not take their children to a doctor even in the case of life threatening illnesses. And she also raises the issue about other religious groups that practice female genital mutilation. Should a secular state defer to religious sensibilities and stay out of such matters?

In a response to Erin, Paul pointed out that the religious freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights do not extend to actual practices, and that the courts have ruled that the state has an over-riding interest in the welfare of children that enables it to overturn the wishes of the parents if it feels that the life and health and well-being of children are threatened. So parental religious beliefs cannot be extended to cover actions that affect their children if those actions can harm their lives and well-being.

Not being a constitutional lawyer, I am not sure if that is the last word on the legal status currently prevailing in the US. But in some ways that is irrelevant because I am more interested in exploring what might be a reasonable way of reconciling the secular and religious interests in a society, and will leave aside specific questions of constitutionality and legality for others who are more knowledgeable in those areas to determine.

My own view is that people should have the freedom to believe anything they want, to practice their religion, to seek converts, and to gather with like-minded people to worship, provided all these things involve consenting adults who are making voluntary choices to participate. But religious freedom surely cannot be extended to those who would wish to impose their own belief on others or if the practices impinge on the rights of others.

I would also argue that secular laws should not have religious beliefs as their only basis. They must also have a secular justification. For example, you should not be able to pass a law that criminalizes homosexuality or prevents gay marriages just because some religious people find some objection to it in the Bible. Laws that regulate human behavior have to have a clearly articulated secular purpose.

Of course, drawing the lines between what religious practices are allowed and what not is always a tricky issue that requires an extended discussion (and usually litigation), but here I just want to deal with the rights of children. I agree with Paul that the state has a right, and even an obligation, to protect the rights of those in no position to defend their rights and children clearly fall into that category.

So I also agree with Erin and am firmly opposed to the genital mutilation of female children because you are causing irreversible changes on a child’s body without the child being in a position to give informed consent. Once the child becomes an adult, they should be able to make such a decision for themselves.

That same argument should apply to male circumcision as well. This again is something that I believe should be decided by someone after they become an adult, but of course this practice is common and does not cause any outrage. One reason for the two different responses seems to be that male circumcision has been sanctioned by western religious traditions while female genital mutilation has not. And from what I have read female genital mutilation seems to be a very dangerous, painful, and sometimes life-threatening procedure.

But if we are to be consistent on this issue, we should say that parents should not have the right to violate the physical integrity of children and impose irreversible physical changes on their bodies purely on the basis of religion, and that policy should apply equally to male and female children.

Misuse of scientific arguments

When I was in my first or second year of college, a friend of mine who belonged to a fundamentalist Christian church in Sri Lanka said that he had heard of a convincing scientific proof against the theory of evolution. He said the proof centered on the concept of entropy. I had already heard of the term entropy at that time, but I definitely did not understand the concept, since I had not as yet studied thermodynamics in any detail.

Anyway, my friend told me that there was this law of physics that said that the total entropy of a system had to always increase. He also said that the entropy of a system was inversely related to the amount of the order and complexity in the system, so that the greater the order, the lower the entropy. Since I did not have any reason (or desire) to challenge my friend, I accepted those premises.

Then came the killer conclusion. Since it was manifestly clear that the theory of evolution implied increasing order (under the theory, biological systems were becoming more diversified, complex, and organized from their highly disordered primeval soup beginnings) this implied that the entropy of the Earth must be decreasing. This violated the law of increasing entropy. Hence evolution must be false.

It was a pretty good argument, I thought at that time. But in a year or two, as I learned more about entropy, that argument fell apart. The catch is that the law of increasing entropy (also known as the second law of thermodynamics) applies to closed, isolated systems only, i.e., systems that have no interaction with any other system. The only really isolated system we have is the entire universe and the law is believed to apply strictly to it.

For any other system, we have to make sure that it is isolated (at least to a good approximation) before we apply the law to it, and this is where my friend’s argument breaks down. The Earth is definitely not a closed system. It continuously absorbs and radiates energy. It especially gains energy from the Sun and radiates energy into empty space and it is this exchange of energy that is the engine of biological growth.

So nothing can be inferred from the entropy of the Earth alone. You have to consider the entire system of the Sun, the Earth, and the rest of the universe, and you find that this leads to a net increase of the entire closed system. So the second law of thermodynamics is not violated.

You can have decreased entropy in a part of a system provided the entropy increases by more than that amount in another part. As an analogy, consider a sock drawer in which you have black and brown socks randomly mixed together. This is a state of low order and hence high entropy. If I now sort the socks so that all the black socks are on one side of the drawer and all the brown on the other side, then the sock drawer has gone from a lower to a higher state of order, and hence from higher to a lower state of entropy. Is this a violation of the second law? No, because it ignores the fact that I was part of the system. I had to use up energy to sort the socks, and in that process my entropy increased more than the decrease in entropy of the sock drawer, so that there was a net increase in entropy of the combined system (sock drawer + me). Strictly speaking, I was also in contact with the rest of the room since I was absorbing and radiating energy, breathing, etc., so if you wanted to get to an even better approximation to a closed system to be even more accurate, you had to take the entropy of the room into account as well.

This is why physicists believe that after the Sun eventually burns up all its nuclear fuel and ceases to exist, the Earth will inevitably fall into disorder, assuming that we haven’t destroyed the planet ourselves by then. (As an aside, Robert T Pennock in his book Tower of Babel says that some creationists believe that God created the second law, with its increasing disorder, as part of his punishment for Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.)

Once I understood better what entropy was all about, that was the end of the entropy argument against evolution, at least as far as I was concerned. Non-physicist scientists generally caught on to the fact that people were using the entropy argument fraudulently against evolution and were able to debunk it whenever it came up, so that nowadays one rarely hears that argument. One still occasionally comes across the entropy argument used in this fallacious manner, however, and it may still have power over the scientifically naive.

But even if the entropy argument itself has largely disappeared, other ‘scientific proofs’ against evolution and for the existence of god have arisen in the wake of so-called intelligent design (ID) and I will look at those arguments in future postings.

The problem with grades and other summary evaluations

In previous postings (see here and here), I discussed why college rankings vary so much depending on who does the survey. One of the reasons is that different criteria are used to arrive at the rankings, making it difficult to arrive at apples-to-apples comparisons. In this posting, I will discuss why I think that rankings may actually be harmful, even if the measures used to arrive at them are good.

The main problem with rankings is that it requires a single summary score obtained by combining scores from a variety of individual measures, and it seems as if people focus exclusively on that final score and not pay too much attention to the scores on individual measures that went into the summary.

This is a general problem. For example, in course evaluations by students of their teachers, there are usually many questions that ask students to evaluate their teachers on important and specific issues, for example, whether the teacher encourages discussions, is respectful to students, etc.

But there is usually also a question that asks students to give an overall evaluation of the teacher and when such questions exist, those people who usually read the results of the surveys (students, teachers, and department chairs) tend to focus almost exclusively on this summary score and not pay much attention to the other questions. But it is the other questions that provide useful feedback on what kinds of actions need to be taken to improve. For example, a poor score on “encouraging students to discuss” tells a teacher where to look to make improvements. But an overall evaluation of “good” or “poor” for teaching does not tell the teacher anything useful on which to base specific actions.

Teachers face the same problems with course grades. To arrive at a grade for a student, a teacher will make judgments about writing, participation, content knowledge, etc. using a variety of measures. Each of those measures gives useful feedback to the students on their strengths and weaknesses. But as soon as you combine them into a single course grade using a weighted average, then people tend to look only at the grade, even though that really does not tell you anything useful about what a student’s capabilities are. But teachers are required to give grades so we cannot avoid this.

I often hear faculty complain that they give extensive and detailed feedback on students’ written work, only to see students take a quick look at the grade for the paper and then put it away in the their folders. Faculty wonder if students ever read the comments. I too give students a lot of feedback on their writing and have been considering the following idea to try to deal with this issue. Instead of writing the final grade for the paper on the paper itself, I am toying with the idea of omitting that last step and ask the students to estimate the grade that I gave the paper based on their reading of my comments. I am hoping that this will make them examine their own writing more carefully in the light of the feedback they get from others. Then when they have shared with me what grade they think they got and why, I’ll tell them their grade. I am willing to even change it if they make a good case for a change.

I am a little worried that this process seems a little artificial somehow, but perhaps because that is because it is not common practice yet and anything new always feels a little strange. I am going to try it this semester.

Back to college ratings, those can be harmful for another reason and that is that the goals of a school might not mesh with the way that scores are weighted. For example, the US News & World Report rankings take into account incoming students scores on things like the SAT and ACT. But a school that feels that such scores do not measure anything meaningful in terms of student qualities (and a good case can be made for this view) might wish to look at other things it values, like creativity, ingenuity, citizenship, writing, problem solving, etc. Such a school is doomed to sink in the USN&WR rankings, even though it might be able to provide a great college experience for its students.

I am a great believer that getting useful feedback, in whatever area of activity, is an excellent springboard for improving one’s performance and capabilities. In order to do so, one needs criteria, and targeted and valid measures of achievement. But all that useful information can be completely undermined when one takes that last step and combines these various measures in order to get a single score for ranking or overall summary purposes.

The problem with rankings

In a previous post, I spoke about how the college rankings put out by the magazine its Washington Monthly differed considerably from those put out by US News & World Report.

There is a fundamental problem involved in ranking things in some order. In order to do so, it becomes necessary to reduce all the quality measures used to a single number so that they can be compared along a single scale.

This raises three issues that have to be decided. What are the criteria to be used? How can the selected criteria be translated into quantifiable measures? How are the different measures to be weighted in the mix in order to arrive at the final number?

All these questions rarely have unique answers and there is seldom consensus on how to answer any of these questions, and the two college rankings mentioned above are examples of disagreements in answering just the first question alone.

The Washington Monthly said that they felt that, “Universities should be engines of social mobility, they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth; and they should inculcate and encourage an ethic of service” and they devised measures accordingly.

US News & World Report mainly looks instead at the resources that universities have and their prestige among their peers. For example, I think that 25% of their final score is based on the “peer assessment score,” which is how people rate the universities. Such a measure is going to guarantee a high ranking for those universities that are already well known and regarded. The ratings also look at the scores of entering students, graduation and retention rates, the size of the endowment, the amount of money the schools have, the amount that alumni give to the schools, etc. All these things are also related to the prestige perception (high scoring students are likely to apply to high prestige institutions, and are more likely to graduate, get well-paying jobs, and earn more money, and so forth.) There is very little that an institution can do in the short term to change any of these things, which is why the USN&WR ratings tend to be quite stable from year to year.

The problem with both sets of ratings is that they do not really measure how well students are taught or how well they learned and grew intellectually, socially, and emotionally. In other words, neither survey tells us how much and what kind of growth the students experience during their school years. To me, that is a really important thing to know about a school.

There is one survey that I think does give useful information about some of these things and that is the NSSE, which stands for National Survey of Student Engagement. This is a research-based study that looks at how much students experience good educational practices during their college years. It does this by surveying students in their first and final years of school. Many schools (including Case) do these surveys in their first and fourth years and they provide each school with important information on their strengths and weaknesses in various areas. The results of the surveys are provided confidentially to schools for internal diagnostic purposes and are not compiled into a single overall school score for ranking purposes.

Should NSSE also produce a single quality score to enable schools to be compared? In a future posting, I will argue why such rankings may actually do more harm than good, even if the measures used to arrive at them are valid.

Swearing oaths on the Koran

Two years ago, I was called for jury duty. I was placed in a pool of about sixty jurors for a homicide case and we had to go through a voir dire process which involves filling in a detailed and lengthy questionnaire that asked all kinds of things that the lawyers and judge could use to see if we had any factors in our background that might cause them to want to disqualify us as jurors. Before filling the forms the judge asked everyone to swear on the Bible that they would tell the truth. But she said that those of us who wanted to could swear a non-religious oath, which I think involved promising to tell the truth on pain of perjury. Only about five of us took this other oath.

This whole thing struck me as odd at that time. If we atheists (I assume that the five of us were atheists although some may have been religious but not Christian) could be trusted to tell the truth by taking a secular oath, why was it necessary to have the Christians take a religious oath? Didn’t this necessarily imply that Christians were somehow less trustworthy than non-Christians, since they had to be made fearful of everlasting hell in order to compel them to tell the truth, whereas the mere threat of secular perjury charges was enough for atheists?

I was reminded of this when I saw the article in the Christian Science Monitor that said that a North Carolina judge had ruled that Muslim jurors could not swear an oath on the Koran. Needless to say, this decision is problematic.

On one hand, if you deny Muslims the right to swear on their own religious book, then you are clearly setting up a hierarchy of religious beliefs, with Christian oaths being ‘better’ than those based on other religions.

On the other hand, if you allow Muslims to swear on the Koran, then you may also have to allow people to swear on the holy icons of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Wiccanism, all the native American religions, and any other religion. Some scholars have advocated just that, with the Monitor article saying “according to law scholars, allowing a range of holy books in oaths of justice may not only lead to a greater feeling of inclusion among religious minorities but also encourage them to tell the truth.”

But where does one draw the line about what is a religion and what is not? What if, for example, devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster demand the same privilege? They have already asked the Kansas School Board for equal time if Intelligent Design is included in their science standards. Deciding which religious oath to allow and which not is likely to generate a massive collective headache.

This is another example of the kind of frustrations that arise when we have religious dogmas vying for inclusion and acceptance in the public sphere. All this could be avoided if everyone was simply required to take the secular oath and be done with it, and we had a secular state where nothing in the public sphere referred to any specific religious beliefs. Then people of all faiths could practice their religion freely in their private sphere without causing friction with each other or with the state.

But this is not likely to happen in the near future because of the political influence of those groups who are determined to make the USA into an explicitly Christian nation and believe that the absence of the Christian god in the public sphere is the cause of all the evils in society. But the more they seek to have religion in the public sphere, the more likely it is that other religions will seek similar accommodations. If they are successful, the net result, paradoxically, might be that Christian symbols get surrounded by those of other religions. Once you allow Christian religious symbolism into the public sphere, I cannot see how you can reject those of other religions, unless the country gives up even the pretence of being a secular state and declares itself to be an explicitly Christian nation, amending the First Amendment in the process.

Science and trust – 3: The Sokal affair

In 1996, NYU physicist Alan Sokal published an article titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity in the journal Social Text, a publication that deals with the sociology of science. The same day that the journal appeared, Sokal published another article in the magazine Lingua Franca (which stopped publishing in 2001) exposing his other article as a hoax. He said that he had mimicked the dense and obscure style of some branches of the arts and humanities (especially the post-modernist philosophers and the area known as cultural studies), but had loaded the paper with citations to well-known people in that field and had asserted conclusions he thought would be pleasing to the editors.

A nice wikipedia article on this hoax explains Sokal’s rationale for it and the response by the embarrassed editors of Social Text:

In their defense, the editors of Social Text stated that they believed that the article “was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field” and that “its status as parody does not alter substantially our interest in the piece itself as a symptomatic document.” They charged Sokal with unethical behavior and suggested they only published the article as it was because Sokal refused to make changes they suggested and it was of relevance to a special issue they happened to be preparing.

Sokal argued that this was the whole point: the journal published articles not on the basis of whether they were correct or made sense, but simply because of who wrote them and how they sounded. [He said] “Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless or even counterproductive.”…..The controversy also had implications for peer review. Social Text had dispensed with peer review, hoping that this would promote more original, less conventional research, and trusted authors of prospective articles to guarantee the academic integrity of their work. Social Text‘s editors argue that, in this context, Sokal’s work constituted a deliberate fraud and betrayal of that trust.

To my mind, this episode does not reflect well on any of the parties involved. First, if the editors of Social Text decided to dispense with peer review for the (perfectly acceptable) reasons given, then they should have on their editorial board a diverse enough group of people to make judgments about papers. They clearly did not in this case. Either the editors did not have the competence to judge the quality of the paper or they did not give it enough scrutiny.

It also is the case that in academia there is an undesirable element of ‘physics envy’, and the editors were clearly thrilled that a real physicist from a reputable department was publishing in their social science journal, presumably giving their journal greater credibility. It was probably this reason that enabled Sokal to persuade them to publish his paper despite some initial reservations they had about it.

On the other hand, it was not good of Sokal to take advantage of the absence of peer review to get his article published. The elimination of peer review imposes a greater obligation on authors to be more self-critical and scrupulous and to not to take advantage of those journals, because the journal editors are deliberately making themselves more vulnerable.

It is said that if you are invited into the home of a friend and steal a small amount of money that is lying around, you are committing a worse moral offense than if you break into your friend’s safe and steal a very much larger amount from their safe. Because it is not the magnitude of the amount stolen that is a measure of the crime, it is the degree of violation of the trust.

If Sokal had not exposed his own hoax, what would have most likely happened is that the article would have either been ignored (since it had no content most readers would have been simply baffled by it) or at some time later, a more discerning reader would have exposed it as a fraud. It would not have done any harm to the field itself, just like most scientific errors or fraud.

So what did the Sokal hoax accomplish? Unlike ‘hoaxes’ that are part of a research study to study the processes of research and publication (see my earlier post for examples of this), the main result of this was to make the editors of Social Text look foolish and incompetent. There was no other benefit that I can see. Sokal himself is aware ethical issues involved because he says: “Of course, I’m not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust” and tries to explain why it was justified.

I don’t think that that his reasons were enough to justify playing the trick. I believe that trust among researchers is a valuable quality and I would hate to see researchers squandering it away.

POST SCRIPT: Tracy Kidder to speak at Case

Tracy Kidder, the author of the biography Mountains Beyond Mountains: The quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world which I wrote about earlier is the speaker at the Fall Convocation on Thursday, September 1 at 4:30 pm in Severance Hall.

The event is free and open to the public but prior registration is required. For more information and registration, go here.

Reflections on “Mountains Beyond Mountains”

Yesterday (Thursday) was the Share the Vision part of the orientation program for the new Case students. This year’s theme was based on the biography Mountains Beyond Mountains: The quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world by Tracy Kidder, which the incoming class had read over the summer. This is a truly inspiring book about a man who is driven to bring quality health care to the poorest of the poor, mainly in remote regions of Haiti. Severance Hall was almost full with students and faculty and I was one of the panel of speakers. Below is the text of the talk I gave to the group.
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The ethical dilemma of faith healing – 2

There were some very thought provoking comments (some of them sent privately) in response to my posting on the ethics of faith healing. In one of the comments, Erin made a very telling observation that I’ve been thinking about and which prompted me to revisit the topic.

Those of us who do not believe in a god who intervenes in daily life tend to think of faith healing (if it works at all) as purely a placebo effect whose success depends on people believing that there is something real going on. As I said before, I have a real problem with how to deal with this.

On the one hand, the rationalist/skeptic in me wants to actively debunk all faith healers as, at worst, cynical con artists who are preying on the gullible for monetary gain or for fame and glory, or at best as self-deluding people who genuinely believe that they have some sort of gift. Even if a few people are of the latter kind, allowing them to propagate the belief that faith can heal allows the charlatans amongst them a greater chance of swindling others.

On the other hand, the humanist in me wants to keep out of the issue since I don’t want to jeopardize the chances of a “cure” for a few people, even if it is placebo induced.

In these types of discussions, we tend to contrast the placebo effect (which is based on an illusion) with the effects produce by modern medicine, which is assumed to be based on science and is thus real. But Erin points out that the medicine-as-science versus placebo-as-quackery distinction isn’t as clear-cut as one might imagine.

On the third floor of Allen building (where my office is) is the Dittrick Medical History Museum. It consists of just two rooms but contains enough devices and descriptions of past treatments to make me glad that we live in the current age. If one goes back in medical history, one finds all kinds of treatments that were once fully endorsed by the medical establishment and are now discredited. Some of them (such as bleeding using leeches) are pretty bizarre. The museum is free and open 10:00 am-4:30 pm Monday through Friday, and well worth a quick visit.

So what are we to make of these past treatments? Based on current science, we have no reason now to think that they should work, so any success they had must have been due to the placebo effect. But since the medical establishment believed in those treatments then, they must also have been considered science at that time. One assumes that the physicians of that time recommended these treatments with complete sincerity and achieved some “cures”. What distinguishes them from the sincere faith healers of the current times?

Can we maintain the distinction between science and the placebo? Some argue that we cannot. I have heard it said that: “The history of medicine is the history of the placebo.” This may be a little strong but it has enough truth in it to be disquieting. What if current medical treatments are also placebos? It could be that a few generations from now, people will marvel that bodies were once cut open with sharp knives or that strong chemicals were introduced into the bloodstream, all in the name of medicine-as-science.

One way to get around the problem is to think that past generations of medical scientists were simply wrong and that we are fortunate to happen to live in an era when science has come into its own, producing real cures, and that our current successful treatments are permanent. Some science triumphalists extend this argument across the board, arguing that current scientific knowledge, unlike that of its predecessors, is right in its essentials and that all that awaits us in the future are minor improvements, tinkering at the boundaries.

I am always a little wary of assuming that we live in a special time in history, whether it is a high point (as asserted by the science triumphalists) or an especially low point (as asserted by those Christian fundamentalists who think the country has gone to the dogs and want to return it to a previous era by putting religious symbols in the public sphere and overthrowing evolutionary theory). While changes have undoubtedly occurred and in some cases for the better, we may not be too different from our predecessors in our ability to distinguish good science from bad, or science from non-science.

One thing that has definitely improved is our research protocol methods. At least with double-blind clinical trials, we can have some confidence that some of the medical treatments we use are truly beneficial. But that still does not solve our problem of the ethics of faith healing and whether we should try and debunk them, whether the practitioners are sincere or not.

That’s the trouble with true ethical dilemmas. There is no obvious right answer.


Tom Tomorrow spells out how supporters of the Iraq war avoid reality.


As usual, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has the best take on Pat Robertson’s latest idiocy and the coverage of it (via onegoodmove).

Science and trust – 2

As I discussed in an earlier posting, trust plays an important role in science. It is hard to imagine science functioning as well as it does if everyone started being suspicious of each other. I see disturbing signs of this recently in the field of medicine. Increasingly, academic research on new drugs is being funded by private pharmaceutical companies that have a vested interest in the results coming out in favor of whatever drugs they are trying to market. Thus they can exert subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on the researchers to manipulate the results, since they are controlling the flow of money. This can raise suspicions about the credibility of the scientists who do this kind of sponsored research.
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The college rankings game

I was walking around the campus yesterday and it was wonderful. The day was cool and sunny and the campus was green and inviting, reinforcing my feeling that over the last fifteen years Case has transformed itself from an ugly-building and surface-parking-lot dominated landscape to one of the most attractive urban campuses in the nation. This is especially so this year with the new dorms that have opened up (I went on the tour last week and was really impressed by their spaciousness and tastefulness) and the new playing fields.
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