Monday, September 26, 2005

Induction: Just a Theory and Still Being Tested

BBC NEWS | Americas | Parents in court over evolution:
Eleven parents in the US state of Pennsylvania are taking their local school board to court in an attempt to protect the teaching of evolution. The Dover Area School Board requires teachers to say evolution is a just a theory and is still being tested.

The Fundamentalists have now adopted the strategy of going for the intellectual high ground--accusing orthodox scientists and other normal human beings who take evolution to be a fact, as dogmatic.

Of course, when we're not doing philosophy, we're dogmatic--about such theories as the existence of other minds and an external world, and the legitimacy of induction itself. Science and common sense by their nature bracket those questions, operating on the assumption that there is an external world and that we can learn about it through induction, inferring from data about the way things have been to the way they're going to be and from characteristics of samples to characteristics of larger populations. That is the business of science and the operating assumption of scientific educationl.

I wonder if the parents in Dover Pennsylvania would be interested in financing philosophy classes in their high schools in which skepticism about other minds, the external world and induction could be discussed along with skepticism about evolution. A little open-minded skepticism is a dangerous thing--drink deep or taste not the Pyrrhian spring.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Everyone Wants To Be An X

Inside Higher Ed :: Class Dismissed

Fussell offered a nine-rung version of the class ladder...But far more interesting than the chapters on the lifestyles of the rich and famous was Fussell’s conclusion, which described what he called “category X.” This was a cohort that didn’t really fit into the status hierarchy he had just described...Fussell went on to write about the taste of X people — their need to live in a neighborhood with good bakeries, wine stores, and “a sophisticated newsdealer, for one needs British, French, German, and Italian periodicals.” In short, he summed up everything David Brooks ever had to say about the “bobos” (bourgeois bohemians). And he did in just under nine pages, written almost two decades before Brooks published his book.

I read Fussell's book. I recall that on his account the Upper Middle Class liked navy blue and that "high Proles" grew flowers in whitewashed tires. We readers were titilated by the taxonomy--and then Fusselli offered us the X option as an out, assuring us that unlike everyone else we couldn't be classified or put into boxes.

Everyone likes to classify, and no wonder: it was a significant evolutionary advantage to be able to classify mushrooms as edible or poisonous, animals according to species and humans according to tribe. But no one likes to be classified--prejudged by stereotype, constrained by conventional expectations, treated as a member of a group, in particular by an affiliation not of one's choosing, rather than as an individual.

We balk at the prospect of a homogenized, upper middle class Anglo universe. We dread the disappearance of rural villages and ethnic neighborhoods. But we wouldn't want to live there, not permanently even if we enjoy camping out. Unless we're satisfied with Potemkin villages, Colonial Williamsburg mock-ups, and Chinatowns, Greektowns and Little Italies run by suburbanites who commute in and put on their ethnicity to please the customers someone will have to sacrifice to accommodate us. If we want ethnicity, the peasants and urban ethnics will have to forgo being Xs.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Third Sex - Distortions and red herrings

Time and again, in letters and columns, sharia advocates accused opponents of spreading propaganda, of claiming sharia courts would see women in Ontario stoned to death for conjugal infractions: How paranoid of these bigots, right? In fact, no one involved on the anti side ever said that, or anything close. Time and again, and with breathtaking arrogance, advocates dismissed the Muslim women who led the no-sharia fight as a Westernized elite, an educated minority who demeaned other, more recently arrived women in the guise of protecting them.

I'm a member of the Third Sex, the richest, most highly educated quintile of the population.

In my small world males and females do the same jobs. At social events we talk to one another even when we have no interest in hooking up. Males are as articulate as females, read books, and de jure if not de facto share housework and child care; females are allowed to move furniture and go to work without make-up.

Even in my small world being male is an advantage, but only in the way that being tall, good looking or in mestizo countries being fair-skinned is. There is no gender dichotomy, no formal scheme for assigning tasks on the basis of sex, no "horizontal" sex segregation--just the "vertical" sort: maleness is one among many prestige-making characteristics that confers advantages. This is bad but not nearly so bad as the way things are in the other four fifths of the world where there are Men and Women.

In the lower four-fifths, Men and Women are virtually different species. They never work at the same jobs and the very idea that being male or female shouldn’t make a difference to ones opportunities, obligations or behavior, is unthinkable. The Man/Woman distinction is different across cultures. In some places it corresponds to the public/private dichotomy: men are the Street, chatting about politics and world affairs in cafes as Western journalists hang on their every world--women, in purdah, concerning themselves with domestic matters. In other places it tracks the body/mind dichotomy: men do manual labor, rarely talk or think, and never read; women do white collar work, deal with customers and concern themselves with the finer things.

Until recently, liberals rarely worried about Women. We worried, legitimately, that elite Third Sex females, faced discrimination when it came to getting partnerships in law firms or prestigious academic positions. We didn’t worry that the wage gap for men and women without college degrees was much greater than the gap for college educated males and females or that sex segregation for jobs at the low end of the labor market remained virtually complete. Insofar as we noticed that cab drivers, appliance repairmen and commissioned sales personnel at electronics stores were exclusively male or that receptionists, child care workers and “customer service representatives” were exclusively female most of us assumed that this was a matter of choice—it was part of Their culture.

We certainly weren’t bothered by the persistence of traditional male and female roles in developing countries or amongst immigrants. Even if we were firmly opposed domestic servitude for upper middle class white women, we were not disturbed to see women of color in the developing world pounding grain and drawing water or lower-class women in the US, pushed off of welfare, forced to do traditional pink-collar shit work.

So when the Canadian government, remarkably, considered supporting the establishment of Muslim family courts operating under Sharia law—according to which men and women are both separate and unequal—some erstwhile liberals supported the proposal We females of the Third Sex would not tolerate having our testimony in court count half of a male’s but Sharia law only applied to the other two sexes, not to the likes of us.

Mercifully, Canada will not be adopting sharia law for its brown citizens. Since 9/11 and, even more so, since 7/7 multiculturalism has increasingly fallen into disrepute. Even journalists are less likely to take young lower class males as the legitimate voice of their culture—and even listen to women who object to the constraints their culture imposes.

If this continues, with any luck Men and Women will disappear and all former members of these genders will join the Third Sex--the class of persons.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Benign Spooky

Getting Religion - New York Times
The caricature of American evangelicals as incurious and indifferent to learning is false. Visit any Christian bookstore and you will see that they are gluttons for learning - of a certain kind. They belong to Bible-study groups; they buy works of scriptural interpretation; they sit through tedious courses on cassette, CD or DVD; they take notes during sermons and highlight passages in their Bibles. If anything, it is their thirst for knowledge that undoes them. Like so many Americans, they know little about history, science, secular literature or, unless they are immigrants, foreign cultures. Yet their thirst for answers to the most urgent moral and existential questions is overwhelming. So they grab for the only glass in the room: God's revealed Word

Here is an autobiographical account of a (former) teenage Evangelical, possibly a decade younger than me.

I got religion as a teenager, but not the evangelical variety--possibly because I was older, and because I was female. I was on a quest for the benign spooky--an amalgam of high art, mysticism and the frisson that comes from ghost stories. In Spenser's time it was called "faerie"; now, in a degraded, homogenized, commercialized form it's New Age.

I'm not exactly sure when it started with me. Possibly reading Franny and Zooey, getting A Treasury of Russian Spirituality and trying the Jesus Prayer. More likely singing the Schubert Mass in G at music camp. The clincher was certainly my high school senior field trip to New York City when I went to the Frick and saw a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti--the Woman Clothed in the Sun, crushing the Serpent under her heel. I was thrilled. When I went to college it was more of the same: The Faerie Queene, Quarles Emblem Books and the Metaphysical Poets, the Grail Quest, Northrop Frye and the Archetypes, T.S. Eliot, Traherne's Centuries of Meditations ("The corn was orient and immortal wheat...") and more music--the Bach b-minor Mass. It was Romance, high Romance and the quest for the Transcendent.

At the time, the Church was a fairly good repository of all that, all the mysticism, aestheticism and Pre-Raphaelite stuff. There wasn't, in any case, anything else. Now there are Psychic Faires, the Pyramid Collection and the Church doesn't do that anymore.

But where is it, the benign spooky--the thrill, the magical mystery tour, the icons and archetypes, the grand Romance? The Church has failed me--and anyone else with that taste, anyone on that quest.And what else is it for--really? A community service agency ? an instrument of social control? Worthless: we now have better. If the Church isn't in the business of providing the benign spooky--the art, the mysticismand the thrill, the buildings and lovely things of every sort, the connection with our history--it has nothing.

I can't fathom why anyone would be an Evangelical. Reading this article, I can't get what appeal any of this could have. I suppose it appeals because the good stuff simply isn't available any more.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrinagate: this one has legs

As President Bush scurries back to the Gulf Coast, it is clear that this is the greatest challenge to politics-as-usual in America since the fall of Richard Nixon in the 1970s

Maybe the administration with its legions of spin-doctors and patch things up, but it won't be easy. Even conservatives like David Brooks are irritated:

He and others are calling the debacle the "anti 9-11": "The first rule of the social fabric - that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable - was trampled," he wrote on Sunday. "Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield."

But (predictably) it was Krugman today that had it dead on:

What caused that paralysis? President Bush certainly failed his test. After 9/11, all the country really needed from him was a speech. This time it needed action - and he didn't deliver.

But the federal government's lethal ineptitude wasn't just a consequence of Mr. Bush's personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn't forthcoming?

It wasn't primarily incompetence or stupidity, though there was plenty of that to go around. It was ideology, the idea that self-reliance, compassion and charity can solve our problems. At bottom it was romanticism--our anti-instututional bias and sentimentalism--that got us in this fix, our nostalgia for traditional societies were people are self-reliant, neighbors are neighborly and people take care of their own, the Walt Disney Dick-and-Jane village, Pleasantville where all is well, and will be well.

It isn't Bush, or his administration, or the state or local officials, or anyone personally: it is that ideology and, whatever impact this has on the careers of politicians one prays that Americans will finally get it, realize that government, and institutions generally, not grassroots efforts, personal concern or charity, are the solution, not the problem.