Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cal Thomas: An Immoral Moralist

I was recently perusing the opinion section of my local newspaper The Sioux City Journal when I came across Cal Thomas’ column "Death of an Atheist". At the time I read the article I was not that familiar with Mr. Thomas’ work so I eagerly read through an article about the late Christopher Hitchens, of whom I have much respect. Unfortunately, the contents of the article were marred with posthumous insults, pejorative stereotyping, and worst of all shady arguments for the existence of God. 

If any of these were used against Hitchens when he was still alive, Thomas would have been eviscerated. Convenient then, that he waited until after the man was dead to write an attack piece. Now while Hitchens himself was known for continuing attacks on his adversaries post-mortem; these were attacks he conducted while they were still living and knew full well they had an opportunity for rebuttal. Thomas did nothing of the sort and, like the invertebrate he is, waited until the prolific polemicist was dead before conducting his assault. This was both cowardly and immoral. 

Further (and possibly even more infuriating) the arguments that Thomas used don’t even hold their weight. First, Thomas assails Hitchens for being “unoriginal” in his unbelief and states that the wisest people of our time have responded to these accusations. This is rubbish. Cal himself consistently quotes a book that is over 1500 years old in constructing his argument, so there is nothing original about his belief either. As far as the wisest people responding to disbelief, that may have flown as late as the 19th century but I have a hunch that most if not all contemporary analytic philosophers disagree. In other professions, great minds such as Einstein, Freud, Crick, and even bastion of the right Milton Friedman have expressed their disbelief. 

Thomas then asks, and I quote, “Why contribute to charity or perform other good deeds? Without a source to inspire charity, such acts are sentimental affectations, devoid of meaning and purpose. If survival of the fittest is the rule, let only the fit survive.” Now I want to be crystal clear here; what Cal has just said is despicable. Essentially, if he isn’t going to get into heaven then he doesn’t want to be bothered helping people. Without God, there is no incentive. What a bastion of good will this man is, what convictions. If eternal punishment doesn’t await me...then I see no reason to be altruistic. Scrooge indeed. 

Cal then cements his ignorance with the statement, “To object to God is to create morality from a Gallup Poll. In Gallup We Trust doesn’t have the same authority.” Surely the intersubjectivity of morality doesn’t have the same authority as a divine being, but I would argue that it actually has better outcomes. God was willing to sit idly by while we hashed out whether or not slavery was moral, for instance. Take Leviticus 25:44 where clear instructions on how to buy a slave are spelled out and the moral authority to treat them as livestock is granted. If we were content with Biblical morality we would still own slaves (Leviticus 25, Exodus 21, Ephesians 6, Timothy 6), women would still be subjugated by patriarchal dictum (Colossians 3, 1st Timothy 2, Titus 2) and rape would be condoned in certain circumstances (Judges 21, Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20). “In Gallup We Trust” isn’t looking so bad now, is it Cal?

Finally, Thomas sums up his comments by saying, "Who is the author of evil? And if God is nonexistent, why do we call it evil? Is one person’s evil another person’s good? Does such a view lead to ethics that must inevitably be situational?" This is, in essence, the Euthyphro dilemma which Aaron Friel already covered in another post back in October. I won't go into this because he did a much better job than I ever could elaborating on divine command theory...which is essentially what Cal Thomas is proposing. The fact of the matter, though, is that human beings are actually quite resourceful in negotiating moral norms amongst themselves and have no need for divine intervention in this respect. Stating that Hitch isn't brilliant because he came to terms with this fact while Mr. Thomas is still unable to is ignorant and childish. Cal, you've raked a good man through the muck without much to show for it. I hope you're proud of yourself. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Rebecca Watson's Trolls - Why the Skepchick needs a new external relations strategy

Rebecca Watson is a victim. You don't have to take my word for it, either. You can read this post or this one or watch this video. It's so strange that someone who is a public figure and also a rather ardent social critic would have condescending or even violent threats directed towards them. Except that it isn't. In fact there's even a term for those people. They're called reactionaries and they've been around since before the term was coined during the French Revolution.

You see, when you threaten the status and societal benefits of being in a traditionally privileged group (in this case, men) they are going to do everything in their power to fight back. I am not agreeing with this in any way, shape, or form. In fact I consider myself to be a rather staunch feminist. All I am saying is that if you want to be on the cutting edge of erasing male privilege within society, you should fully expect and come to terms with (notice I didn't say "accept") the retaliation that the group you're assailing is going to offer.

The point you receive pushback and feel the need to voice your disgust is is the perfect time to prove that you aren't taking them seriously, however. There is a fantastic political theory out there called the "Spiral of Silence" theory and it basically posits that the less attention you give a fringe group, the less willingness they will have to express their unpopular ideas in public, and therefore less other people will be exposed to them. This is how racism became unpopular in America. We are now seeing the same phenomenon with homophobia which, just like misogyny, is still very prevalent in the media.

It is easy to see what happens when Rebecca responds to someone with traditionally misogynistic views. She isn't going to change the view of a true misogynist just like she will never change the view of a headstrong racist. She can only hope to minimize and trivialize their contribution to the conversation so that other people don't end up agreeing with them on some sort of facial evaluation of the issue. This includes: ignoring, blocking, laughing them off as the joke that they are, etc. It does not include writing a lengthy article where you expose their views to thousands of additional readers with varying levels of critical thinking skills. If nothing else it gives them additional ammunition and allows her traditionally pro-feminist blog to become compromised by the very message she seeks to eradicate.

I'm not saying they're right. I'm simply saying that Rebecca has created a false dichotomy in her mind when she states that the only two choices are a.) respond forcefully through her blog or b.) curl up in a ball and cry herself to sleep at night because the mean old men said nasty things. I agree that those people are bullies...but I disagree that they want her silence. They want her attention. They want to provoke a response and get their message out there as prominently as hers. She has given them that vehicle.

Yet for all the talk of bullying and decrying those in positions of power who want her to shut up, she sure does a lot of that to others...even those who are largely sympathetic to her cause. Take for instance her use of time at the CFI Student Leadership Conference, where she could have used her time to give a rousing speech about the importance of student involvement in the secular movement. Instead she used this time to tear down a specific student's completely defensible position on what she viewed as improper inference to something that was not necessarily implied (which is, arguably, a logical inconsistency on Rebecca's part).

It seems that Rebecca believes herself to be interesting position for a skeptic to take. Any time her methods are called into question she becomes defensive and uses ad hominem attacks on her detractors...which is, of course, another type of logical fallacy. Interestingly enough her tactic for suppressing the comments from UNIFI members is exactly what they have suggested that she do to Metzger, and for some reason it is valid in certain situations but not others. The odd thing is that if she would flip these tactics she would expose a much more relevant discussion on methods and leave out the batty anti-feminist "comedian" altogether.

So what is the end goal here, Rebecca? Is it to promote skepticism and feminism? Or is it to build your reader base and enthrall them with sensationalist responses to those who don't deserve even the most cursory of dismissals? It seems that you have abandoned strategies that are empirically proven to have a positive impact on society in favor of your own haphazard "I'm really pissed in this instance so I'm going to write about it" method. This is not the modus operandi of someone who is truly concerned with skeptical inquiry and social progressivism. These are the markings of an attention seeking media personality. Your move.

*Edited to include further citations*

Slater, M. D. (2007), Reinforcing Spirals: The Mutual Influence of Media Selectivity and Media Effects and Their Impact on Individual Behavior and Social Identity. Communication Theory, 17: 281–303. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2007.00296.x

Woong Yun, G. and Park, S.-Y. (2011), Selective Posting: Willingness to post a message online. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 16: 201–227. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2010.01533.x

Neuwirth, K., Frederick, E. and Mayo, C. (2007), The Spiral of Silence and Fear of Isolation. Journal of Communication, 57: 450–468. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2007.00352.x

Hayes, A. F. (2007), Exploring the Forms of Self-Censorship: On the Spiral of Silence and the Use of Opinion Expression Avoidance Strategies. Journal of Communication, 57: 785–802. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2007.00368.x

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Response to Gil Kerlikowske's Defense of the Obama Administration's Drug Policies

Below is an analysis of the claims given by Gil Kerlikowske (the current “Drug Czar” of the Obama administration) in response to the highest charting petition on the new White House “We The People” petition website. The original response can be found here
When the President took office, he directed all of his policymakers to develop policies based on science and research, not ideology or politics. So our concern about marijuana is based on what the science tells us about the drug's effects.
No it isn’t. Your concern is more geared towards winning the votes of people who think that drugs are boogeymen that will lead to the end of society as we know it. Of course this isn’t true, as we have recently learned from Portugal which had no spike in usage rates after decriminalization and no catastrophic social events to date. In fact, Portugal has Europe’s lowest lifetime usage rate for cannabis. Oh, and usage among vulnerable groups (like kids/teens) has dropped.

So science says that socially, it has an ambiguous effect at best (even for hard drugs like heroin, I might add). What does science say about this:
According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health- the world's largest source of drug abuse research - marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment. We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that marijuana use is a significant source for voluntary drug treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms
Of course anything we smoke has respiratory effects, but that is not the only method that people ingest the drug so this a moot point. Further, there is no causal link to cancer like there is with tobacco, even when smoked, let alone ingested. A large dose of marijuana can’t even kill you like a large dose of nicotine, alcohol, or even Tylenol could. And unlike long term tobacco or alcohol use, marijuana users aren’t even more likely to die earlier than their non-smoking counterparts! 
Further, according to an article published in prominent medical journal The Lancet, substances like cannabis and even LSD pose a much less significant public health risk than alcohol, tobacco, benzodiazepines, and a number of other legal substances.

As for your listed claims of health effects, lets examine the list for alcohol (and this is from the same website that was used for the White House’s statements, mind you):

  • Alcohol has major effects on every organ and can result in cancer, stroke, and liver disease as well as dependence.
It also creates cognitive impairment, and at a staggeringly higher level than marijuana I might add. 

How about nicotine?

  • Lung cancer, emphysema, bronchial disorders, cardiovascular disease, higher chance of miscarriage, and higher chance of low birthweight. It is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the nation.

That sounds a bit worse than the ones listed for marijuana, so clearly it cannot be the basis for its illegality alone. It seems that the “science” claim has gone relatively out the window at this point. Lets move on:

As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem. 
What you meant to say was that, as a former police chief, you did exactly that. In fact in 2007 you opposed a ballot measure that would have made marijuana the lowest police priority. And that is the current strategy nation wide. The most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics verifies that well over 18% of our current prison population is there because of drug related offenses ONLY. These are not people that were violent on drugs or anything else. Just drugs. That equates to over a quarter of a million Americans in jail. “But Keenan,” you will say to yourselves, “that is clearly for more harmful drugs and mainly aimed at sale and distribution.” Not so. In the same year, over 50% of drug related arrests were for marijuana. As for distributors, about 300,000 of them were arrested. Possession alone accounted for 1.3 million arrests. Appalling.

We also recognize that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use.
Portugal. The Czech Republic. The Netherlands. Moving on.

That is why the President's National Drug Control Strategy is balanced and comprehensive, emphasizing prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts that protect public safety and disrupt the supply of drugs entering our communities. [...] Our commitment to a balanced approach to drug control is real. This last fiscal year alone, the Federal Government spent over $10 billion on drug education and treatment programs compared to just over $9 billion on drug related law enforcement in the U.S.
Okay, so you’ve stepped up in treatment. We’re still spending 9 billion dollars towards something that is largely ineffective towards the supply side which has been your stated goal. Plus this is not even counting the astronomical cost of housing the quarter of a million prisoners every year. In 2005 it cost an average of $23,876 per prisoner per year. Multiply that by the number of prisoners in 2008 and you have over $6 billion that you aren’t counting into your statistic and that’s conservative at best. Balanced? Hardly. 
Thank you for making your voice heard. I encourage you to take a moment to read about the President's approach to drug control to learn more.
Is that a joke? Please tell me that was a joke and that your real response is coming soon. Rhetoric like this cannot and should not be acceptable in the information age. 

NORML has an excellent blog post on this issue as well, which can be found here.