Questionable Motives

March 17, 2010

What is the key to accepting unjustified beliefs as true?

Several posts ago we looked at the issue of homeschooling biology textbooks out of Bob Jones University that endorsed creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolution. Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist and author of the excellent book Why Evolution Is True was asked to respond to a homeschooling parent who was concerned about this issue. He was then quoted in the New York times saying that these science textbooks lied to children by misrepresenting the science of biology and how irresponsible it was for parents to support this kind of lie for the maintenance of religious sensibilities over and above what is true.

I think to better understand how people can wholeheartedly believe unjustified notions (like creationism, for example) as if they were just as likely to be true as some notion informed by evidence and supported by a very high probability of the notion being true  (like evolution, for example) lies not in the facts as we find them but in the way we approach those facts.

Michael McHugh is head of a young-earth creationist organization, CLASS, that sells home-school materials on biology to parents. He states (on audio clip 100316 here) that the biology textbooks in question can select whatever ‘facts’ best supports the creationist worldview, that there are “no neutral facts.”  That is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview.  His suggestion for how to educate your kids involves choosing which worldview the parent believes suits them best, and then selecting the “facts” that fit this worldview.

That assertion is jaw-dropping stupid. It is so stupid, it burns. It is unconscionable in an educator, but it does explain an extraordinary phenomena we come across time and again of how people can remain fixated on some belief being true regardless of overwhelming contrary evidence. How can this be possible?

The mindset described by Michael McHugh explains exactly how so many otherwise rational people can become so selective in the ‘facts’ they already believe are representative of and meaningful to their worldview, while able to so callously disregard other ‘facts’ that are in direct conflict with the worldview. What this essentially means is that anyone who says “…there are ‘no neutral facts’…that is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview…” holds a worldview which cannot be changed by facts and will ignore or refute any evidence counter to their absolute premise. (Tip to #7 Oldfuzz commenting on WEIT about this subject.)

The facts don’t matter to someone who subscribes to this approach that no facts are neutral, that all facts militate for or against a worldview. But this approach means that all evidence does not count but only selected evidence, and this is exactly what we find with people who hold unjustified beliefs. They are only unjustified when all the evidence is considered, but appear highly justified when only carefully selected evidence is considered. In other words, to such people truth dos not matter. Inquiry is not needed. Intellectual integrity is disregarded. Knowledge is subordinate to and dependent on belief in that worldview.

And that’s exactly how ignorance becomes champion and can be promoted by so many well-intentioned homeschooling parents.

March 16, 2010

What’s to cover up about sex abuse in the Catholic Church?

The great catholic cover-up by The Hitch in Slate can be read in all its glory here.


Concerning the most recent revelations about the steady complicity of the Vatican in the ongoing—indeed endless—scandal of child rape, a few days later a spokesman for the Holy See made a concession in the guise of a denial. It was clear, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, that an attempt was being made “to find elements to involve the Holy Father personally in issues of abuse.” He stupidly went on to say that “those efforts have failed.”

He was wrong twice. In the first place, nobody has had to strive to find such evidence: It has surfaced, as it was bound to do. In the second place, this extension of the awful scandal to the topmost level of the Roman Catholic Church is a process that has only just begun. Yet it became in a sense inevitable when the College of Cardinals elected, as the vicar of Christ on Earth, the man chiefly responsible for the original cover-up.

March 15, 2010

Why is computer gaming – at $50 billion a year and growing – so popular?

Filed under: commentary,Computers,Culture,Entertainment — tildeb @ 2:17 pm

Today Tom Chatfield, Prospect arts and books editor and computer game fiend, says computer games aren’t just for teenage boys locked in their bedrooms – they are chewy fodder for the brain and vital tools for both social and intellectual development… and they’re fun.

Games are now starting to compete with the most sophisticated forms of other media, as well as the crudest. And they are taking up an increasingly large amount of our time. I think that this is a big deal. We need to be able to talk incisively about what the medium has to offer, and what its real dangers are, instead of falling back on a vision of games that’s ten year out of date and riddled with cliché.

Why do people fear the effects of video games?

You have this emerging medium which is a lightning rod, a convenient symbol, and something very easily misunderstood. Because of the history of games, there have always been insiders and outsiders. Now, we have a situation in which the experience of one generation is being very rapidly outdated by the experience of the next generation. This fracture is dangerous and it presents enormous challenges: in this sense, people are right to see large and real social concerns in games. But most critics haven’t yet managed to open up a productive or realistic debate, because they tend to start from a position that is not based in the reality being lived by most users of new media, but rather in fears based on a few exceptional cases.

Read the entire article here and find out Tom’s picks for his best FiveBooks and FiveGames here.

Why is the internet where religions come to die?

Filed under: Internet,Religion,Scrutiny — tildeb @ 1:54 pm

March 14, 2010

What’s this about the Pope housing a sexual predator?

Filed under: abuse,Catholic Church,child abuse,Conspiracy,Sex scandal,Vatican — tildeb @ 4:35 pm

Monsignor Charles Scicluna is the Vatican official in charge of prosecuting priests alleged to have committed serious sexual crimes. Isn’t that swell? The Vatican is now going to do something about this problem.

But wait. The pope housed a serial child abuser for years and reassigned that same abuser to another church where he spent more years abusing kids? Say it ain’t so!

“It’s true that there has been no formal condemnation,” Monsignor Scicluna said, adding: “It must be made absolutely clear that in these cases, some of which are particularly sensational and have caught the attention of the media, no absolution has taken place.”

Well, no absolution really is the key point here.

He also addressed accusations that the Vatican was obstructing justice by hiding reports of abuse, saying that

“secrecy during the investigative phase served to protect the good name of all the people involved; first and foremost, the victims themselves, then the accused priests who have the right — as everyone does — to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty”.

But he said Church secrecy had

“never been understood as a ban on denouncing the crimes to the civil authorities”.

No indeed. No ban at all. The officially approved Vatican directive by Ratzinger for both victims and those accused to stay silent on pain of excommunication can hardly be considered a “ban,” now can it? The church simply has no problem whatsoever with senior people like the pope when he was cardinal of Munich and Grafing house a serial offender for two and half years for highly effective ‘therapy’ who was then appointed by this same cardinal who now just so happens to be pope to serve as a priest in Grafing for an additional three years abusing more kids! What’s the big deal? It’s not like it’s the pope directly aids and abets child rapists.

No, no no. Let’s be very clear: the real problem here is “those who have tried, with a certain aggressive persistence, in Regensburg and Munich, to look for elements to personally involve the Holy Father in the matter of abuses.” he said.

It is those who are asking hard questions (and finding evidence) – of collusion between the institution we call the Church, its executives, and its agents who committed sexual crimes against children – is the real problem here… not the crimes that were committed nor the parties that aided and abetted in the cover-up of those crimes. Got it.

But perhaps we should suspect that when the Vatican’s prosecuting official is the same person defending the Grand Pooh Bahs from responsibility from their executive decisions and actions, then we have a conflict of interest. Although I am sure that the Church and all its leadership is absolutely blameless in allowing centuries of historical child abuse and sexual crimes to be committed by thousands of its priests and deacons and sisters, it borders on the miraculous that there was so little the church could do to stop the abuse and bring these criminals to justice. This must be another one of those Great Mysteries used to explain how god works through the catholic church in our world.

So we should all be good little catholics and stop asking hard questions and let the Grand Pooh Bahs do what they do best: remain perfect and blameless in all things.

What are Mark Twain’s thoughts about god?

From Intelligent Design to the problem of suffering, Mark Twain cook up an answer to this question in this article with his usual humor and aplomb.

First the dash of humor:

How often we are moved to admit the intelligence exhibited in both the designing and the execution of some of His works. Take the fly, for instance. The planning of the fly was an application of pure intelligence, morals not being concerned. Not one of us could have planned the fly, not one of us could have constructed him; and no one would have considered it wise to try, except under an assumed name. It is believed by some that the fly was introduced to meet a long-felt want.

and then a bit of the aplomb:

We hear much about His patience and forbearance and long-suffering; we hear nothing about our own, which much exceeds it. We hear much about His mercy and kindness and goodness—in words—the words of His Book and of His pulpit—and the meek multitude is content with this evidence, such as it is, seeking no further; but whoso searcheth after a concreted sample of it will in time acquire fatigue. There being no instances of it.

Read the entire reproduced article here from Project Reason.

March 13, 2010

Should prayer be allowed in high school graduation ceremonies?

Filed under: Graduation,High School,Poll,prayer — tildeb @ 4:25 pm

Take the poll here.

You are even allowed to explain your vote in the comments section… if you have the courage of your convictions!

March 12, 2010

How can we tell if someone is possessed by Satan?

Filed under: Catholic Church,Demons,Exorcism,Satan,Vatican — tildeb @ 3:45 pm

Pretty easy, actually. Just look at their vomit.

Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s Chief  Exorcist, said people who are possessed by Satan vomit shards of glass and pieces of iron.

How do we know Satan is active in the possession business these days? Why, silly, the sex abuse scandals which have engulfed the Church in the US, Ireland, Germany and other countries, is ample proof that the Anti-Christ is waging a war against the Holy See! Read more about this demonic onslaught here.

It’s all so… so… plausible.

Isn’t it?

What does Andrew Brown think is a proportionate response to priestly pedophilia? Not so bad… in comparison!

Filed under: abuse,Catholic Church,child abuse,Faith,Priests,Scandal — tildeb @ 3:15 pm

Andrew Brown would have you believe that “that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable”. He quotes a study from 2002 that shows about 4% of priests and deacons were sexually abusive between 1950 and 2000 in the United States and about half a percent in Britain. Note that this statistic is about abusers.

In comparison, Brown writes, “the most pessimistic survey finds that 27% of American women and 16% of men had “a history of childhood sexual abuse”; while the the most optimistic had 12.8% of women and 4.3% of men.” This statistic is about those abused.

See? The stats for catholic priests and deacons looks to be much lower so we are to assume that the difference between 4% of morally superior clergy who sadly and unfortunately abuse and perhaps up to 27% of women and 16% of men abused as children must have received that abuse from some other “profession”, leading us to the conclusion:

Certainly the safeguards against paedophilia in the priesthood are now among the tightest in the world. That won’t stop a steady trickle of scandals; but I think that objectively your child is less likely to be abused by a Catholic or Anglican priest in the west today than by the members of almost any other profession.

What absolutely disgusting, dismissive, and apologist tripe. There isn’t a shred of evidence that the church has any meaningful and effective safeguards against pedophilia in the priesthood, nor do I think victims would appreciate their personal and profound betrayal from a trusted and supposedly god-besotted cleric being described as a mere “trickle” of scandal. What Mister Brown thinks  and presents to us, his dear readers, is most definitely not objective whatsoever.

Father Bill Carney may very well be a typical example of one of the 4% Brown is willing to concede is a pedophile from the ranks of the catholic clergy,  “a serial sexual abuser of children, male and female,” known to his bishop and local police and named in complaints and suspicions “in respect of 32 individuals.” Also known was that “there is evidence he abused many more children”. A yes… another “trickle” comes to light.

So what did the Church do about this known pedophile?

We now know that complaints about Carney were diverted away from the Irish criminal justice system to Bishop James Kavanagh, a man described by the Murphy Report as someone with “a soft spot for Carney.” Kavanagh did what he could to protect Carney from the law to avoid scandal for the Church.

One conscientious policeman, praised in the Murphy Report, did investigate complaints and they came to court. But the press were kept away as Carney pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent assault and got probation. Six families were paid compensation and Carney was soon back working, with access to children.

Isn’t that a lovely outcome? Yes there was a bit of slap and tickle one could possibly call assault but nothing too severe… other than the suicide of one “trickled” young man. Nothing to keep this priestly fellow away from passing through the strictest of catholic safeguards and continuing to provide more “trickle of scandal.”

What’s that you say? Not severe enough a punishment? You mean Carney didn’t stop ‘abusing’ children, catholic code for the raping of children? How surprised are we that he continued?

In its 40 pages on Carney, the Murphy report said that his was one of the worst cases the commission investigated and that the Church’s handling of his case was “nothing short of catastrophic”.

“It was inept, self-serving and for the best part of 10 years displayed no obvious concern for the welfare of children,” the report said. In 1992, the Church convicted Carney internally, under Canon law, of child sexual abuse. But this compulsive paedophile refused to leave the parish house. So the Church paid him £30,000 to go away.”

Let’s see: one priest, perhaps hundred of victims: one abuser, many abused, and the church has no problem paying compensation… to the abuser!

Let’s revisit our apologetic Brown’s statistics, shall we? 4% of priests abusers, 27% women and 16% men victims. Might each and every abused victim come directly from the 4% of catholic priests who abuse? Probably not. Most likely not. Almost assuredly not. But what’s glaringly obvious to anyone who has an honest eye for detail and even half a brain is that each abusive priest leaves a trail of numerous victims. Just because the percentage of men and women abused (taken mostly from social service surveys, let us note, which should reflect a clientele in need of social services quite possibly from life altering encounters like sexual abuse from a trusted priest!) is greater than the percentage of abusers from the priestly profession does not mean that some greater percentage must come from “other professions.”  In fact, there is pretty plausible evidence that much abuse of children comes primarily from family members, so to conclude as Brown does that the risk of abuse is lower from the priestly caste than “other professions” is completely unjustified from anything written in his column or from any data I can find. Simply put, Brown’s thinking here is sloppy, wishful, dismissive, and deeply apologetic on the church’s behalf. Also, his ill-formed, unjustified, implausible opinion is grossly misleading and insulting to those in other professions. No other profession stands accused of any kind of long-term, organized, and officially sanctioned cover-ups for its membership to abuse children and avoid criminal prosecution. The catholic church does have exactly that history, with mounting evidence for its active culpability and long-term collusion from those at the highest levels of its leadership for protecting abusers within its ranks.

The Browns of this world may have faith that it is right and proper to protect, excuse, mitigate, and apologize for this child-raping organization. But let’s hope his kind of faith grows weaker as his numbers grow fewer. There is some hope. Each of us can do our part and make sure that we honour the victims of abuse at the hands of priests and turn these “trickles of scandals” into a fully justified reason to condemn this disreputable organization from having anything to do with our children. The catholic church does not deserve our faith.

March 11, 2010

Why is understanding plausibility so important to how we inform our beliefs?

Plausibility is essentially an application of existing basic and clinical science to a new hypothesis, to give us an idea of how likely it is to be true. There are three broad categories of plausibility we need to appreciate:

If evidence for a direct connection between a cause and its effect can be established, then we have a highly plausible explanation upon which we can depend for consistent results.

If we have evidence for an consistent effect from some cause but do not understand the generating mechanism, then we have neutral plausibility for an explanatory hypothesis.

If we have evidence for an inconsistent effect from some perceived cause and suggest an explanatory hypothesis that violates the basic laws of science, then our explanatory hypothesis is implausible.

As Steve Novella writes over at Science-Based Medicine regarding homeopathic treatments that claim to provide efficacy to improve ‘life energy’,

Invoking an unknown fundamental energy of the universe is not a trivial assumption. Centuries of study have failed to discover such an energy, and our models of biology and physiology have made such notions unnecessary, resulting in the discarding of “life energy” as a scientific idea over a century ago.

Essentially any claim that is the functional equivalent to saying “it’s magic” and would, by necessity, require the rewriting not only of our medical texts, but physics, chemistry, and biology, can reasonably be considered, not just unknown, but implausible.

How we inform our beliefs using the plausibility standard is important and depends entirely on the quality of the explanations we rely on to do so,  whether they are about specific ideas in medicine or religion or politics or about more general policies and procedures. If our explanations are plausible, then our beliefs are plausible. If our explanations are implausible, then our beliefs are implausible. If we are considering to act on our beliefs, then we need to first undertake due diligence and establish how plausible they really are.

If the beliefs are implausible, then we know they are poorly informed and, as such, are unjustified. Acting on unjustified beliefs in our personal and private domain is our prerogative. We have the freedom to do so because the founding documents and charters and bills of our liberal secular democracies provide us with the necessary legal framework and state-sanctioned power to protect these equal freedoms. But providing what’s necessary isn’t nearly enough. We must also do our part as individuals to maintain our own equal freedoms.

In stark contrast to the freedom we have to exercise our beliefs in the private domain, acting on our implausible beliefs in the public domain is wrong and richly deserving of sustained legitimate criticism. Whenever we come across those who wish promote unjustified beliefs as if they were informed and plausible when they are neither in the public domain using public offices, we must hold them to account for their abuse of their office’s public power that allows them to cross that important boundary between the what is allowable in the private but forbidden in the public.

Our task is to maintain sustained criticism towards those who abuse public office in this way – whether they abuse the office’s power to support implausible medical therapies, implausible religious truth claims, implausible political solutions, and so on. We must insist that only informed beliefs that are plausible be made into public policies and procedures. Our collective failure to participate in our civic duty in this matter is a failure to be responsible to no only ourselves but to our fellow citizens, which has a cumulative effect of reducing our equal common rights and freedoms. We harm the very fabric of our equal rights and freedoms under a liberal secular democracy when we allow the abuse of public office to promote implausible beliefs. We allow it to continue when we choose to remain silent about this abuse. Even more damning to our equal individual freedoms  is our active support of candidates and office holders who are willing to promote our favoured implausible beliefs… again, whether those implausible beliefs are about complimentary and alternative medicines, favoured religious beliefs, political strategies, and so on. This kind of willing support to the implausible is both unpatriotic and seditious no matter how great may be the popularity of these candidates and their platforms.

The standard of plausibility is a very important concept to inform public policies – useful to each of us to determine our level of support for these public policies and procedures – although we have the freedom (and luxury) to pay it scant attention in our private lives… for now. What is essential, however, is to understand why plausibility matters so much.

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