Monday, August 04, 2008

When atheism is "Islamophobic"

LOL. I find this rather amusing: A sort of clash of correctnesses. I do rather wonder why Richard Dawkins finds religion so threatening. Much good science has been done by religious people -- going back at least as far as Isaac Newton. Isaac was actually rather a whizz at Bible interpretation

In addition to overseeing our understanding of science, Dawkins is also the best-known atheist in the country, a man who considers the worship of Christ to be about as relevant as dancing around a totem pole or deifying the Giant Spaghetti Monster. His fans will know all about this from his books, notably The God Delusion – a bestseller that picks apart the inconsistencies in religion with scalpel-like logic.

Dawkins is about to chew up religion again now, in a television series about his hero, Charles Darwin, which holds up to ridicule those who refuse to accept the theory of evolution. Astounding though it may seem, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, there are many people who don’t believe its findings, he says.

Some of these are evangelicals in far-off countries who think that God created everything in six days and that rainy days began with Noah’s Flood. Others, however, are a bit closer to home. British secondary-school science teachers, for example.

“Science is being threatened in our class-rooms,” says Dawkins, citing examples such as the schools funded by the evangelical car dealer Peter Vardy and the private Blue Coat school in Liverpool that employs a creationist science teacher called Nick Cowan. When Dawkins himself met Cowan, he was confidently assured that the Earth is only 6,000 years old (rather than 4.5 billion). Cowan also apparently solved the chicken-and-egg conundrum by explaining: “God created the chicken, and the chicken laid the egg.” “Nick Cowan is a scandal,” fumes Dawkins. “To have him teaching science at a respectable school is about equivalent to having a flat-Earther teaching geography.”

More seriously, Dawkins believes that many science teachers who do believe in evolution are selling our children short by kowtowing to political correctness. At the moment, he points out, Darwinian evolution is taught in British schools at key stages 3 and 4, but under the national curriculum, alternative theories such as “intelligent design” (part of the creationist credo) “could be discussed in schools . . . in the context of being one of a range of views on evolution”, according to a government education minister.

“It’s fine to teach children about scientific controversies,” Dawkins says. “What is not fine is to say, ‘There are these two theories. One is called evolution, the other is called Genesis.’ If you are going to say that, then you should talk about the Nigerian tribe who believe the world was created from the excrement of ants.”

Cowardice is at the root of the problem, he feels. When it comes to presenting the truth of science against the “mythology” of religion, science teachers duck the issue for fear of reprimand. And not only from evangelical Christians. In his view, devout Muslims are a large part of the problem.

“Islam is importing creationism into this country,” he says. “Most devout Muslims are creationists – so when you go to schools, there are a large number of children of Islamic parents who trot out what they have been taught.”

In his TV series, Dawkins faces a class of 15-year-olds at Park High secondary school in London. A few of the pupils readily tell him they don’t believe in evolution because it runs counter to their religious beliefs. It’s only after he bundles them into a coach and shows them fossils at the seaside that one or two admit there might be something in this evolution gig after all.

“I was shocked by how some put up barriers to understanding,” says Dawkins. “I showed them the evidence, and they just said, ‘This is what it says in my holy book.’ And so I asked, ‘If your holy book says one thing, but the evidence says something else, you then go with your holy book?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘It’s the way we’ve been brought up’.”

Even worse, from his point of view, their science teachers are extremely unwilling to oppose anything that smacks of a faith-held belief. And the same applies to their head teachers and the government – even when a belief is contradicted by scientific truth. This infuriates Dawkins.

“Teachers are bending over backwards to ‘respect’ home prejudices that children have been brought up with,” he says . “The government could do more, but it doesn’t want to because it is fanatical about multi-culturalism and the need to ‘respect’ the different ‘traditions’ from which these children come. The government – particularly under Tony Blair – thinks it is wonderful to have children brought up with their traditional religions. I call it brainwashing.”

Dawkins shakes his head with dismay. His large, light Oxford house is filled with books, of which his most precious is a first edition of On the Origin of Species, an imprint that ran to only 1,250 copies and sold out immediately. The book has never been out of print since.

Clearly, the weedy way in which the momentous findings of Darwin’s masterpiece are being taught in some schools pains him. “I would like to see evolution taught a lot earlier. There should be no problem teaching it to eight-year-olds.” What if parents don’t want their children included in the lesson? “For parents to deprive their children of an educational opportunity because of a traditional bigotry is unfair on the child.”

And science teachers, people who should be Darwin’s flag-wavers, are simply looking the other way. “It seems as though teachers are terribly frightened of being thought racist,” says Dawkins. “It’s almost impossible to say anything against Islam in this country, because [if you do] you are accused of being racist or Islamophobic.”


Women: Equal Access Does Not Guarantee Equal Outcome

This year's election postmortem (like those in the past) will be haunted by a shrill complaint: "Not enough women were elected!" The accusation should be ignored because there is no proper ratio of female versus male office holders. Whoever receives the largest vote total in a free election is the proper winner regardless of gender, race or religion.

But the gender card will be played. The argument will run: women constitute 50 percent of the population; if women were truly equal, 50 percent of elected officials would be women; the percentage is far lower; therefore, women are not equal. This argument is false and reflects the changing definition of "equality" within feminism.

Equality used to refer to opportunity: women wanted their persons and property fully protected under the law and to have the same access as men to public institutions, such as universities and the courts. Women's call to vote grew so loud that "woman's rights" and "suffrage" briefly became synonyms. In 1920, ratification of the 19th Amendment assured the vote to American women. And, yet, few women were elected to political office.

Sixties feminists faced a problem. Most legal barriers to women had been swept away. Yet "imbalances," such as the low ratio of female politicians, persisted and were viewed as proof that women were still oppressed. In their view, a true equality of opportunity would have rendered an equality of results. The call for equality became a cry for women to have equal access to all aspects of society. This new view of equality broke with the old one in two important ways. First, the traditional distinction between "public" and "private" was erased. Equality of access no longer referred to public institutions but to privately-owned ones as well. Second, the law was asked to accord privileges to women in order to compensate them for past wrongs and to establish a "level playing field." For example, affirmative action regulated whom a business owner could hire.

Today, almost two generations have been raised on this level playing field and have voted their conscience. Yet far fewer women than men are office holders.

One explanation is that '60s feminists were flatly wrong. Equal opportunity in life usually renders unequal results because outcomes depend on many factors other than the equality of either opportunity or access. For example, outcomes depend on the preferences of those involved, preferences that differ widely not only from group to group but also from individual to individual.

Consider how few female firefighters exist. This is not because women are barred from the profession. Indeed, fire departments actively recruit women to comply with affirmative action. The lack of female firefighters may be due to nothing more than the well-documented tendency of women to choose less dangerous, less physically demanding jobs that allow time for their families. In all likelihood, the imbalance has nothing to do with inequality.

Something similar may be at work regarding women office holders. If a majority of women do not choose a political career, if most women voters do not cast ballots for their own sex, this is a fascinating social pattern. But it doesn't necessarily say anything about women's equality: it only reveals women's preferences.

Nevertheless, politically correct feminists will proclaim that the election returns reflect the oppression of women. The definition of equality has changed once more to mean "equality of outcome," not of opportunity or access.

It is always instructive to read United Nations documents. The new term being used there is "substantive equality." The International Women's Rights Action Watch is an organization with "special consultative status with the U.N.," that works to "facilitate the monitoring and implementation" of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). IWRAW speaks of CEDAW's demand that states "ensure an equality of results between women and men." To do so, CEDAW realizes that states need to treat women and men "differently." Women's needs must be "specially recognised and catered for [sic] in the context of employment, education, financial services, politics and all other spheres of life." In short, pervasive laws will benefit women and disadvantage men in order to achieve an equality of results.

Election results will probably be included, if only indirectly. For example, in Kosovo, the U.N. mandated a gender quota. Every third candidate in the 2001 election had to be a woman. Close to a third of the offices went to women. The elections were still called "free" because no one tried to rig the vote count, only the nominations. But, as the notoriously corrupt 19th century politician, Boss Tweed once declared, "I don't care who does the electing just so long as I do the nominating."

Dr. Mark Cooray has well expressed the difference between various concepts of equality within feminism. "Equality of opportunity provides in a sense that all start the race of life at the same time. Equality of outcome attempts to ensure that everyone finishes at the same time." Cooray considers "equality of opportunity and freedom" to be "two facets of the same basic concept." Equality of results, however, "is the goal of radical socialism."

As long as women are as free as men to run for office and to vote as they choose, then whatever number of women are elected is the right number for an equality based on freedom.


This is a nudge in the wrong direction

It doesn't matter whether it tries to guide us or force us, government doesn't know best

A few hippies aside, everyone agrees that paternalism is a good thing when practised by parents. Children do not know what is good for them. Left to their own devices they would make many bad decisions. Caring parents will threaten, bribe, cajole, trick or otherwise manipulate their foolish offspring into doing the right things. When practised by governments, however, paternalism is more controversial. The idea that adults do not know what is best for them, and that the government should manipulate them into doing the right thing, strikes libertarians as outrageous.

Yet most politicians find the idea irresistible. The present Government aims to make us change our behaviour in all sorts of ways that libertarians would think none of its business. Among other things, they want to make us smoke less, drink less, eat less, take fewer drugs, exercise more, save more and spend more time with our families. So do David Cameron's new Conservatives. Treating adults like children is an idea that needs some justification, especially when it is espoused by a political party that until recently claimed to champion the individual against the State.

So you can imagine the delight with which these nannies have received Nudge, a book by the Chicago University professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein that claims to provide a new justification for paternalism and new ways of manipulating people that are compatible with libertarianism. The justification for paternalism is that, like children, adults are too foolish to know what is best for them. This may not strike you as a new idea. Most of us think that other people are fools. What's new, however, is scientific support for this common presumption.

Over the past few decades, "behavioural economists" have been studying how actual human decision making deviates from the perfectly rational ideal assumed in classical economics. Their sad, if unsurprising, conclusion is that we are systematically irrational. We are apathetic, favouring options that require no action or that preserve the status quo. We are herd followers, doing things that are bad for us simply because others do them. We are hopeless at statistics, buying insurance and lottery tickets even when the odds make them a bad deal. And these are only a few of many irrational biases. It is no wonder that we do all those things that the Government and Mr Cameron wish we would not.

But behavioural economics does not only show that we need external guidance. It also shows how we can be guided. Our irrationality can be exploited to nudge us in the right directions. For example, we can be made to save more if joining a pension plan is the default option when we get a new job - that is, if our employers structure our choices so that we must actively opt out of the plan rather than actively opt in. The right "decision architecture", as Thaler and Sustein call it, can use our apathy to benefit us.

Or we can be made to file our tax returns on time if the Government publishes statistics about how many of our fellow citizens have already filed theirs. Our herd mentality can be turned to serve our own good.

But here is a simple question. If the Government knows what's best for us, why only nudge us in that direction? Why not give us a mighty shove - as the Australian Government has - by making saving compulsory? Sustein and Thaler reply that nudging is consistent with libertarianism, but shoving is not. And they are libertarians. They advocate what they call "libertarian paternalism".

Alas, this is as incoherent as its name suggests. Libertarianism is motivated by the idea that a government cannot know what is best for individuals. That is why it is likely to harm us when it attempts to influence our behaviour. Those who favour governmental nudging must think the "central nudger" knows what is good for us. But then they have no reason to be libertarians.

Nor does behavioural economics justify paternalism, because it does not show that the Government knows better than we do what is good for us. The advantage that individuals have over central nudgers in deciding what we should do was never our perfect rationality. It is our superior knowledge of our own preferences and circumstances.

Take a simple example. Should you save more, as our would-be nudgers suggest? The answer depends on your present and likely future incomes, on how much you can expect to inherit, on how long you are likely to live and on your preferences regarding consumption now versus consumption in the future. The Government may know that you are foolish. But it cannot possibly have better information than you on all these matters.

Knowing that someone is irrational does not tell you what they should do, nor that they are at present doing the wrong things. Our would-be nudgers are like doctors who think that they can prescribe the right medicine simply because they know you are a hypochondriac.


New Leftist Australian government "Even-handed" about Israel

A few months ago, when I was back in Israel, one of Tony Blair's advisers approached me. Blair, the former British prime minister, is now a special envoy to the Middle East on behalf of the so-called quartet of the US, Russia, the UN and the European Union. "Did you know," the adviser asked me, "that your Government has increased aid to the Palestinian Authority? This was seen as a big deal by the quartet - something John Howard would not have done and a sign, perhaps, of a different approach by Kevin Rudd on Israel."

A week before Christmas the parliamentary secretary for international development assistance Bob McMullan announced Australia had indeed doubled its 2008 aid package to the Palestinian territories to $45 million. A senior Australian diplomatic source told me the increase "succinctly reflected a subtle repositioning and a new approach" in the Middle East.

Earlier this year Downer's replacement, Stephen Smith, gave an interview in Washington in which he said Australia was committed to an "even-handed" approach on Middle East policy. Smith told Tony Walker of The Australian Financial Review Labor would adhere to a long-standing policy acknowledging Israel's right to exist and the rights of a Palestinian nation state. "That's an even-handed approach which Labor has had as its policy for a long period of time. It's a two-nation solution. That's even-handed," Smith said.

Walker, a veteran Middle East watcher, observed that Smith's position "contrasts with the previous government, which tilted Australia's Middle East policy towards Israel and made little pretence of adhering to an 'even-handed' approach". Perhaps he was right. On February 8, Michael Burd, in a letter to the Australian Jewish News, wrote: "It wasn't so long ago Jewish Labor supporters were arguing there was no difference between Liberal and Labor policy towards Israel, and Jews who attended private dinners with Kevin Rudd in Toorak and other private homes were led to believe Labor would continue to support Israel. "This letter writer will be watching for the next Arab/Muslim-backed UN anti-Israel resolution to see if Rudd stands by his commitment to the Jewish community."

Around this time Rudd seemed to allay some fears when he introduced a motion into Federal Parliament honouring the state of Israel, which turned 60 this year. One of his MPs, Julia Irwin - a long-time critic of Israel's conduct - boycotted the motion.

Australia, meanwhile, is watching Israel closely as its Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, prepares to stand down amid myriad corruption allegations. Despite his domestic problems, Olmert has done much to advance the peace process. Australia also watches carefully as Middle East tensions rise over Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons capable of striking the heart of the Jewish state. Senior figures in the Rudd Government will not, based on intelligence briefings, privately rule out a pre-emptive, unilateral strike against Iran by Israel.

There is no doubt that, while the Australia-Israel relationship remains close, there is significant new uncertainty about it. Rudd, who has yet to visit Israel as Prime Minister, does little by accident.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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