[First published on skepolitical.com on 9/15/12]

A Links Post! (With commentary.)

I’m very excited to see what comes out of the newly formed Center for Applied Rationality. Julia Galef, of whom I’m a fan from the Rationally Speaking podcast (for which I have had much success evangelizing), is President. You can listen to her talk about the program on the RS podcast page here. This looks like it has the potential to be a great resource for my pet project of promoting skeptical critical thinking education. I may try to see if I can do something with it on the UMBC campus.

When I noticed that Eliezer Yudkowsky is involved with CFAR, it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read his “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” fanfic. I’ve never tried fan fiction, but this one comes highly recommended. I would describe it as Harry Potter reimagined with Harry as an over-the-top precocious Skeptic. Eight Chapters in and I’m loving it.

The atheist/skeptic community has been dealing with a problem of sexism and a lack of diversity. In response, blogger Jen McCreight suggested a new focus, to be called Atheism Plus (or “A+”). It is basically the atheist movement with a focus on social justice. It’s being billed as the next wave of the atheist movement, and in fact grew as a reaction to the “New Atheist” movement, with it’s Four (white male) Horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Secular Humanists respond with: “Hey, we’ve already been doing that for decades!” See: Ronald Lindsay at the Center for Inquiry; Massimo Pigliucci of Rationally Speaking. Gary Berg-Cross of Secular Perspectives. (Pigliucci and Lindsay each criticize Richard Carrier in these posts for his “intemperate” and “strident” support of A+. I’d never heard of Richard Carrier before this.)

I wrote about Jill Stein last month. This month, I learned in a Reddit thread that the Green Party embraces alternative medicine (one of the low-hanging-fruit targets of the skeptic movement). Soon after, she did an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) session on Reddit, in which she criticized the Green Party platform on the issue of alt-med, but not quite to the satisfaction of the skeptic community (including yours truly).

Steven Novella of Science Based Medicine dissects the report claiming positive results for acupuncture effectiveness. I am inclined to agree with Novella that acupuncture is probably just a placebo. I think Robin Hanson has it partially right that placebos “work” because the show care, although he goes on a bit of a flight of fancy about the mechanism. Novella has pointed out on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast (my gateway to the skeptic community and identifying as a skeptic) and elsewhere that the placebo effect is also largely response bias, experimenter bias, and other experimental artifacts that cannot even be described as a true benefit of placebos.

Salon.com has done some good reporting regarding atheism recently.

Tim Burke (history professor at my alma mater), has been providing really valuable perspectives on some social issues I’ve been thinking about in the past few months. For example: Gun Control; whether Niall Ferguson still deserves to be called an intellectual, scholar, or expert (Ferguson produces some of the most odious social commentary that has ever found its way into any publication I [used to] read. In this case, Newsweek); and Journalistic Framing.

Larry Lessig, who will be interviewed by Dan Carlin in the next episode of Common Sense, has a promising-looking program called “Rootstrikers” working to fix America’s corruption problem.

Speaking of Dan Carlin’s Common Sense, the most recent episode was all about the importance of having a flexible mind able to adjust to circumstances. Naturally, I took it as another indication that he should embrace the Skeptic Movement. I reminded him via Twitter that he promised us an episode on education. I am eager to hear his ideas. (He also had a great Gun Control episode recently that helped shape my thinking on the matter.)

I’ve applied to join the new skepticblogs network and am in the running. (98)

Advertisements

[First published on skepolitical.com on 9/12/12]

Allow me to indulge in some public self-exploration. I promise to conclude with a worthy resolution. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to react to the injustices I see in the world around me. Of particular interest are those injustices that I am ostensibly responsible for: those committed by my own government. The current reality seems to be that Americans are so far removed from the levers of power that they have, perhaps rationally, given up not only the hope of affecting their government’s actions, but also any sense of responsibility for them. Any lingering sense of civic duty in a typical American’s heart is assuaged by voting once every four years and voicing their indignant anger at those in opposition to their favored party. Over one-third of Americans didn’t even bother going that far in 2008 (37% didn’t vote).

The problem with this is that we, collectively, are ultimately responsible for our government’s actions. That is the nature of our democratic republic. The question I have been mulling over is this: how should I, as an individual, proceed when I believe I am responsible for horrific actions but feel powerless to intervene? Is it even possible to be responsible for something if I’m powerless?

I think the first part of the answer is to acknowledge a problem with my premise: I am not powerless. I certainly have at least a small measure of power granted to me in the form of my vote, but, more importantly, I can take action to gain more influence. My first step on this path was to start contributing to this blog, which so far has had 50-300 views per post. Not much, but something. I’ve used this space to highlight some of the injustices that I think necessitate civic action; to explore my own thinking about politics and how to make a difference; to share information about skepticism and critical thinking; and to promote my idea that getting skeptical critical thinking taught in our schools is an achievable goal that would pay dividends in many ways, particularly in improving our government. This has started a handful of productive discussions and even landed an interview with a major media outlet. (Nothing has come of it.) However, like voting, it’s simply not enough. The magnitude and importance of the problem of America’s corruption and injustices are too great to be solved by such meager efforts. Voting and blogging doesn’t do much more than artificially assuage the cognitive dissonance caused by the conflict between my self-image as a good person who doesn’t remain “a spectator to unfairness” and the reality that I’ve been neglecting my civic responsibility.

My next step is something I’ve been avoiding because it is so far out of my comfort zone. I’m going to try to get involved with a college campus group promoting civic agency. I recently started a PhD program in statistics at UMBC (home of a student government renowned for its efficacy). I contacted the teachers for a course called “Civic Agency and Social Entrepreneurship” in the political science department. This sounded like the sort of training I needed to get my voice heard and ideas rolling. I was able to talk with David Hoffman, who encouraged me to get involved with a new project called BreakingGround, which is focused on encouraging civic engagement. I tend to be skeptical of this sort of earnest community/campus activism group, largely because in my experience they seem to make very little difference. Also, most of my ethical concerns deal with the actions of the Federal government, not UMBC’s. However, I’m excited about this opportunity for two reasons. First, from what I know about UMBC’s culture and from my conversation with David Hoffman, it seems like they are more committed and more effectual than similar groups in other places. Second, from a personal standpoint, I feel it’s past time for me to embrace opportunities like this to increase my civic agency rather than resign myself to powerlessness.

This is pretty far out of my comfort zone, but I intend to confront my misgivings about my civic responsibilities this week and start contacting some of the BreakingGround members. I’ll ask what sorts of projects they are working on, and hopefully I’ll gain some experience with flexing some of my civic agency muscle. Perhaps I will then use that muscle to help advance education in skeptical critical thinking.

(101)

[First published on skepolitical.com on 9/5/12]

[Updated below, Sept 8.]

Chris Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation is quickly becoming one of my favorite political commentators. (I defended him in an earlier post after he was criticized for discussing his misgivings with the use of the word “hero” as a blanket descriptor for any American soldier who dies in combat.) Recently, I learned that Hayes made almost the exact same commentary on his show Up With Chris as the one I made in my last post (and on the same day, August 18), where I decried the use of the word “hypocrisy” to describe certain stances and behaviors of advocates of small government.

I think a better title for my previous post would have been “Let’s be more careful about how we use the term ‘hypocrite’” instead of “Let’s cool it with calling small-government advocates ‘hypocrites’”, because, well, sometimes it is appropriate. We (critics of Paul Ryan and other small government proponents) shouldn’t entirely “cool it” with using that term unless it doesn’t apply. We just need to be more judicious with it. That is to say, I think that calling Paul Ryan a hypocrite is actually perfectly accurate, but some of the evidence being marshaled to support this claim rests on naive assumptions about the philosophy behind small government proponents in general. For example, commentators (including Glenn Greenwald) have pointed to the fact that Paul Ryan has received a government paycheck for his legislative duties as evidence that he secretly likes government spending and is therefore a hypocrite for supporting less of it. Greenwald also points to the fact that Ryan benefitted from social security payments he received after his father’s death as evidence that he likes that form of government spending as well. Both of these arguments seem to rest on the assumption that Ryan would turn down such assistance if he truly believed the government should not be providing them.

In this clip from Up With Chris, Chris Hayes perfectly summed up the criticism of this assumption, complete with a perfect analogy to the critics of Occupy Wall Street protesters who used Apple products, which are “a product of the same system of global capitalism they distrust.” Playing a sort of Devil’s Advocate for both libertarians and occupiers, Hayes said:

We are all imbedded in the world as it is: a capitalist economy with a system of social insurance, inadequate as it may be, and few of us can individually withdraw fully from either.

Exactly. There is no hypocrisy in doing the best we can in an imperfect system while working to make it better unless we also profess a belief that we shouldn’t. Hayes goes on to criticize the “ridiculously self-serving” vision put forth by Ryan, a fair criticism that avoids the misuse of the charge of hypocrisy.

The clip from Up With Chris was sorely needed to offset some of the feckless “hypocrite” charges that were on full display in a recent episode the Best of the Left podcast (a prime target of criticism in my last post) focusing on Paul Ryan. This episode was released shortly after my post criticising many of the clips from an earlier BotL episode. The funny thing is that the first half of the episode had no such problems. In fact, the first several clips played, especially one featuring an expose of Ayn Rand by Cenk Uygar, were so deliciously devastating that I was already starting to write a post in my head about how fantastic the episode was. The improvement in the level of discourse was so marked that I began to wonder if Jay Tomlinson may have even read my previous post (after all, he did take the time to correct my post about Our Blue Media) and taken my arguments to heart. Nope. Forty minutes in, we are treated to an accusation of hypocrisy on The Jimmy Dore show (“hypocrisy” at 1:35). Clearly, Jay was not swayed by reading my post after all. The episode went down hill from there. To my great dismay, a clip featuring Uygar that was played at the very end of the episode was just awful — the exact same misguided arguments I talked about in my last post. Making things worse, this clip has been shared over 1200 through the BotL website, compared to only 30 for the second most shared clip from that episode. Obviously, this isn’t Jay’s fault, but it is a disturbing reflection of the type of demagoguery that resonates with many of his listeners.

I think it’s clear that Jimmy Dore and Cenk Uygar are not meeting a reasonable standard of discourse in these clips. A trickier question is whether Jay Tomlinson is similarly guilty for having included such clips in his podcast. The clips do contain some good parts, and so their inclusion could be viewed as worthwhile. My opinion is that including the clips without any mitigating comment from Jay makes him an accessory to the “crime” of sophistry here. Jay uses about 15 minutes at the end of his episodes for editorializing; if that space had been used to address the problematic aspects of these clips, I think that would have helped. Better would have been to preface the clips with a few seconds of commentary within the episode, but that would interfere with the aesthetic of the podcast. Ideally, the problematic parts of the clips would have been omitted entirely from the podcast. If Jay really wanted to address the issue, he could have included the clips in the editorial segment and discussed the problems as I do here. Perhaps he could have even used the Chris Hayes clips for to help describe the problem.

*****

I’m not sure how compelling it is for my readers to read technical criticisms of discourse, especially when the targets of criticism are ideological allies. However, I think this is a valuable and appropriate exercise for several reasons. First, criticisms from within a community tend to carry more weight. Second, thinking critically about arguments made by one’s ideological allies is essential to being a skeptic. Third, criticism and debate that is internal to a group or a movement is a signal to those outside the group that the group is ideologically respectable; that is, it is a sign of a healthy movement.

With that in mind, let me quickly relate a troubling interaction I’ve had with Michael DeDora, with regards to an email he sent on May 3 to supporters of the Center for Inquiry in his capacity as that organization’s Director of Government Affairs. In the email, he made the faulty claim “that Obama pledged to issue an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors while on the campaign trail in 2008.” After a few emails with De Dora, I convinced him that Obama had not in fact made such a pledge. In my view, this should have prompted an immediate correction on the part of De Dora and CFI. On May 16th, he told me he had changed the wording in the news release on the website. Later that day, I wrote De Dora an email that included the following:

I appreciate that you’ve put effort into fixing this, but to do it right I think you need to go a bit further. The emails that you send to your mailing list are by far the most prominent communication I receive from the CFI and the most likely to be read. I imagine this is true for many supporters of CFI. Anyone who read your original email and did not research it as I did will be left with an incorrect impression of the situation, and that is your fault. It would seem to me that the appropriate action would be to make note of the error in a future email to the same mailing list. If I know skeptics, they appreciate full acknowledgement of errors, however minor. If you want to really impress us, send out a dedicated email about it. I don’t think that’s necessary (tacking it onto your next announcement should suffice), but it would show you take accuracy seriously and impress a lot of your members. It’s a sign of a healthy and trustworthy organization.
In addition, regardless of whether you decide to make note of the error in an email, I think you should give some indication on your news update (dated May 3) that the update was altered later altered – perhaps an asterisk at the appropriate point with an explanation at the bottom.

De Dora agreed. He added an asterisk to the wording on the CFI website and acknowledged the error there. However, despite email reminders I sent him on June 12, June 25, and August 19, he still has not sent out any email acknowledgement of the misleading statement that was sent to CFI supports on May 3. On August 22, he responded to tell me that he would address this in the next email from CFI and that he would forward me a copy. I am still waiting. Meanwhile, readers of the CFI emails are left neglected and misinformed.

The Center for Inquiry is one of my favorite organizations (in fact, I am a financial supporter), and I enjoy De Dora’s contributions to the Rationally Speaking blog. I wish I could say I can trust the information they give me and my fellow CFI supporters.

UPDATE 9/8: After posting this three days ago, I tweeted the link to those who were mentioned, including Michael De Dora. Yesterday, I got a tweet from Mr. De Dora saying he sent out an email correction, and it included this link. The link shows exactly the text of the email that I received a few minutes later. The statement looks good, and I am pleased that the correction got its own email for this specific purpose. (I assume that it was sent to the whole mailing list and not just to me!) As I told Mr. De Dora, this looks like an ideal correction: exactly what I was hoping for five months ago. I guess my blog post was the motivation he needed! (137)

[First published on skepolitical.com on 8/18/12]

Criticizing the deceitfulness of one’s ideological opponents is the national pastime of the blogosphere, but it’s all rank hypocrisy unless one simultaneously holds the discourse of one’s ideological allies to an equally high standard. I wish neither to be a hypocrite nor to relinquish the moral high ground required to criticize my ideological opponents, so I feel obligated to point out a an example of unfair “spin” that’s recently been propagated by Glenn Greenwald and Jay Tomlinson’s The Best of the Left podcast. Since this is ostensibly a skeptical blog, and since a primary goal of the Skeptic Movement is to improve the level of discourse in society, this topic seems especially appropriate. Besides, this shit’s been getting on my nerves for weeks. Before I get into it, I want to emphasize that these rhetorical offenses are not representative of BotL and (especially) Greenwald; to the contrary, I find them noteworthy because they are exceptional.

Basically, the criticism that I find problematic is the following: that libertarians and minarchists who receive government assistance are necessarily stupid or unprincipled or hypocritical. The assumption being made about libertarians is that because they would prefer a governmental system devoid of financial assistance and a safety net, it must follow that these libertarians consider it unethical to make use of the safety net or to accept any assistance from the government. Greenwald and the commentators on BotL disregard the possibility that a libertarian might simply be doing the best he can under a system he finds wasteful or otherwise problematic but not necessarily unethical. I think we can fairly call this type of criticism an “implicit straw man” argument: the critics are making an unstated false assumption about the ideology of these people, and then basing their criticism on that assumption.

As a quick aside, I want to say that even if an individual did consider the system unethical, calling him unprincipled for participating in it as best he can still seems unfair. We are talking about people who are stuck in a system that they believe unethically and forcibly extracts money from them through taxes. If a thief takes your money and offers some of it back, is that charity? When forced to live in a system you consider inherently immoral, do you really have a moral obligation to hold yourself to the ethical standards of your preferred political system? To hold people to their own higher standards in such a situation is, at best, rather presumptuous.

In any case, the “hypocrite” charges that I wanted to discuss here are even sillier, because they don’t even bother trying to establish whether the recipient of government assistance considers it unethical or whether they realize that they will lose their benefits under the system they are supporting. Examples of this sloppy type of criticism have been popping up on BotL for months, but I only started making note of them when I heard this egregious example in a clip featuring Jimmy Dore, where he calls Ron Paul a hypocrite for cashing his social security checks without establishing whether Paul has ever suggested that doing so is unethical. Later, BotL played this clip from The David Pakman Show, the end of which criticizes an opponent of the Affordable Care Act for “voting against her interests,” as if it would be more admirable for her to vote for her “interests” than for her principles. Now this past week, Glenn Greenwald joined the fray, denouncing “Paul Ryan — Randian Super-Hero of Individual Self-Reliance and Working Class Warrior against government debt, waste, and intrusiveness — whose actual life is a testament to the precise opposite values,” simply because “he has relied, and continues to rely, on various forms of government help in climbing every rung on his educational and careerist ladder.” This criticism is based primarily on the social security benefits Ryan received after his father died while Ryan was a teenager. Another BotL clip from Sam Seder on The Majority Report made explicit part of the “implicit straw man” argument by claiming that libertarians don’t even know what “small government” means, and that “everyone’s a libertarian until it infringes upon what they like.” Even here, though, the central assumption underpinning all these criticisms, that libertarians necessarily consider receiving benefits to be unethical, is left unsaid.

Let me state this as clearly as possible: there is nothing hypocritical, unprincipled, or even mildly pernicious about enjoying the benefits offered by one political system while simultaneously working towards changing that system. In fact, it is all the more admirable for someone to work for change when it would incur a negative affect on one’s own personal short-term fortunes, for this implies a willingness to sacrifice personal enrichment in exchange for what one perceives as a more righteous society.

Whether Paul Ryan or the other people criticized in these clips are truly motivated by such lofty idealism is not relevant to the point I’m making here. The point is that it is a breach of civil discourse to assume the most cynical of motives without any real evidence to support such an assumption. Greenwald implies that since Paul Ryan used social security checks to help pay his way through college (and other minor examples of benefiting from government programs), it’s now reasonable to assume duplicity when he says he doesn’t think such payments are good for society. To assume such base motives with such little evidence looks to me like rank out-group demonization. Greenwald does not even bother pointing out that Ryan has, in fact, criticized those who accept government assistance, calling them “takers.” It seems that Greenwald considers this irrelevant to his point that Ryan does not live up to his principles. To the contrary, it is a critical point. I’m genuinely surprised at Greenwald’s sloppiness here.

Just as problematic is Pakman’s argument that the woman who is opposed to Obamacare is stupid for not supporting what is clearly in her own self interest. To him I say: criticize such activists for being stupid if you must, but understand that such a criticism implies that you respect only the most cynical, personal enrichment-based ideology. Or perhaps you don’t care if your argument makes sense as long as it’s pithy. This is about as distasteful as things can get for a skeptic, and I have to call it out when I see it being made by someone on my side of the argument.

Worst of all was probably Jimmy Dore’s attempt at skewering Ron Paul for hypocrisy. An accusation of hypocrisy is only valid when the accused has attempted to mislead someone about his true convictions. Perhaps Dore assumes that Paul secretly likes big government because it has benefitted from it financially. If that were the case, Paul’s proclamations against big government would indeed be hypocritical. The problem is that Dore provides no evidence to suggest this is the case. Indeed, there is no indication that Dore thinks any such case needs to be made. He simply declares Paul a hypocrite for accepting Social Security. To me, Paul seems to simply be living as well as he can under what he views as an imperfect system. Either way, Dore transgresses civil discourse by making the charge of “hypocrite” without bothering to present evidence for it.

Finally, the Sam Seder clip reveals the amount of credit these commentators seem to be giving to the supposed principles of libertarians: “everyone’s a libertarian until it infringes upon what they like.” Just as with the other commentators, Seder is unfairly presupposing the worst possible motives for all libertarians. Even if it was meant as hyperbole, unsubstantiated blanket statements like this do not belong in civil discourse.

To be sure, some American libertarians don’t realize exactly what their political ideology would entail, and some libertarians do feel that accepting government charity is unethical. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the individuals criticized by Greenwald, Seder, Dore, and Pakman are indeed guilty of the hypocrisy or stupidity with which they are charged. If so, it is incumbent upon their critics to establish this guilt rather than to just assume it. Otherwise, it lowers the level of discourse.

*****

Glenn Greenwald is moving to The Guardian, which I hope will be less infested with intrusive ads than his previous host, Salon. (I guess I could have simply subscribed to get rid of those ads.) The Guardian is (was?) also home to Bad Science, the excellent skeptical column by Ben Goldacre.

*****

The discussions at the end of the Best of the Left episodes recently have involved theories about centrism and third-party voting. Considering that I’ve been thinking about voting third-party, I’ve found the discussion quite interesting.

*****

I just noticed that the August 6 episode of Occupy Media features Dan Carlin. I’m very excited to listen to that, especially considering I think I “introduced” Dan to them via Twitter. (132)

[First published on skepolitical.com on 8/6/12]

In an upcoming post, I’ll look at the benefits of voting for either Obama or Romney in the upcoming election. Today, I’ll discuss some of the considerations involved in voting for a third party and give a brief introduction to the Green Party’s presidential nominee, Jill Stein.

Voting for a minor party candidate in any election has an obvious opportunity cost: you (practically) forgo your opportunity to have a say in who actually wins that election. Depending on how different the two major party candidates are and how much power comes with the position in question, this cost can easily overwhelm any benefits of voting third party. However, at least in the case of American Presidential elections, I think these differences are overrated by most people. I see three major reasons for this. One, overestimating our differences is an inevitable consequence of the universal human tendency to be prejudiced against members of an “out-group,” which results in preconceived negative opinions of the supporters of the opposite party and their ideas. Two, the media has incentive to play up the differences because conflict sells. Three, it is only natural that the political campaigns themselves should focus on the differences between the candidates; pointing out similarities is clearly a waste of resources.

If you agree that the costs of voting third-party are small relative to conventional wisdom, we still need to take a look at the benefits. Although there is indeed some miniscule chance that a minor party could win a major election, this is not the real goal. The benefit of voting for a third party is primarily that it’s an opportunity to stand in support of certain principles in a way that is more likely than usual to be noticed by the media and thus potentially influence the culture. This possibility is actually improved by the overestimated differences between the parties, because this means the media tends to see voting for a third-party as a bigger sacrifice than it really is. The degree of the perceived sacrifice correlates with how attractive the story is for the media to cover.

Of course, the media coverage really becomes significant when a minor party is seen as a “spoiler” for one of the two major parties, as was the case with Ralph Nader’s Green Party in 2000. This is a treacherous road to follow. In the case of the 2000 Green Party, I think you could argue it actually did damage to their cause, because the liberals who supported the Democrats that year were so furious with the Green Party that I think they subsequently associated Green Party principles with radical and misguided ideology. My impression is that, as a result, the environmental, pro-consumer platform of the Green Party was only further marginalized in American culture and mostly ignored by the Democrats in subsequent campaigns. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration certainly did not seem to think it needed to take Green Party ideas into account in their governing or in their subsequent campaigns. The Green Party had made themselves into an “out-group,” and their principles were consequently scorned.

Still, I’m inclined to think that was a worst-case scenario. The Green Party probably brought it upon itself to some degree; rather than fighting for principles that have been completely overlooked by the two major parties in equal measure (like corruption), the Green Party was viewed (rightly, I think), as a direct challenge to the Democrats, who were already considered the environmentalist, pro-consumer party but had de-prioritized those planks on their platform. Perhaps with a less partisan platform, a minor party could avoid the bitterness that the Green Party incurred in 2000. I’m inclined to like the idea of voting for principles because I think the possibility of shifting the culture in a positive direction is far more valuable than forcing a Democrat on a populace that mostly doesn’t support the Democratic platform. However, I’m open to the possibility that I’m overrating the value of use voting-booth as a form of activism.

In order for a minor party to be worthwhile, I think it needs to comport closely with your central principles, and, preferably, have those principles be unmistakably associated with the party so that the media has no choice but to acknowledge them. (The media has a tendency to form its own narratives if it is given the opportunity.) The principles I am primarily concerned about are skeptical education, government transparency, the rule of law, and the influence of money in politics. Until the electorate becomes more concerned about these problems, the major party candidates have no incentive to address them. (In the case of money in politics, the public is already concerned about it, but the campaigns have obvious opposing incentives that are still quite a bit stronger than the public’s outrage about it.) Assuming there is a party or candidate that takes up causes in line with your principles, the question becomes: is it more worthwhile to work towards long-term systemic and cultural change with some low probability of making a difference on principles you care about, or is it more worthwhile to use your vote to make a more direct but relatively small and short-term difference by picking one of the two major candidates?

To answer this question, it is necessary to have some idea of what principles are being espoused by the available minor parties. To this end, let me present Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party, my current favorite option among the minor parties. There is a clear downside to be associated with the Green Party (Rocky Anderson’s Justice Party has a better name and may be a better option): in addition to the bad blood generated in the 2000 election, the Green Party is too closely associated with divisive policy initiatives like environmentalism and consumer protections. I support these policies, but they will certainly distract from the media’s narrative concerning core principles I want to support. The good news is that, of the four principles I’m most concerned about, Dr. Stein seems genuinely to want to focus on three of them. Skeptical education is not on her radar (it didn’t pick up the steam I had hoped for after the ridiculous Texas Republican Party platform was published), but she seems appropriately outraged by our society’s disregard for transparency, law, and political corruption. She seems more focused on these principles than the more divisive, and if that focus persists, I will likely vote for her.

She is certainly doing what she can to make herself more visible. This past Wednesday, Dr. Stein was arrested along with her running mate Cheri Honkala and three others for trespassing in a Philadephia bank while protesting Fannie Mae’s impending foreclosure of two homes. (One of the others was an 82-year-old nun. This past month has me in the unusual position of agreeing with the reactionary Catholic Church about something: many of their American Nuns are not behaving like true Catholics.)

Stein’s arrest was likely a calculated publicity stunt as much as anything, but I find it encouraging nonetheless. It shows she understands the radical nature of her endeavor to help change our political culture and what is needed to grab the attention of the media. Also, the nature of her arrest (fighting foreclosures) is directly in line with the Occupy movement, which has managed to save several families across the country from foreclosure through similar types of direct action protest. Indeed, this parallel is probably no accident. Stein’s running mate Honkala has said she thinks they are the party for Occupy Wall Street. This suggests that they understand that activism in pursuit of cultural change, as opposed to electoral strategizing, is what is most important.

The statement Dr. Stein made after being released, that spending a night in jail “should be a required experience of anyone running for public office,” is obviously hyperbole, but I agree with the sentiment. Public officials who have had such an experience would be much more sensitive to the plight of the less privileged among us. Even President Obama, who grew up with the social burdens associated with his race but has never been arrested, seems indifferent to the problems of the prison system and over-criminalization. (The exceptions, of course, are when it comes to white-collar crimes or war crimes. In those cases, pursuing justice would be too divisive.) I think the arrest and this statement shows that she takes the problems with our justice and prison systems seriously.

A day or two before her arrest, Jill Stein was interviewed by Dan Carlin for his Common Sense podcast. I was impressed. Previously, I had considered her to be sorely lacking in charisma and poise, but here she sounds quite polished. I hope this means she is getting more comfortable on the campaign trail, but I fear it may just be that she is more comfortable in a phone interview setting. One highlight from the half-hour interview came in her answer to why she would want to run for president. She described how her observation of problems in the health care system led her to politics, and how her experience in politics has led her to realize that nothing can be fixed until we “fix the broken political system.” More specifically, she says she learned that “our political system doesn’t really care about life-saving, money-saving, job-creating solutions. It really cares about protecting the status quo that pays it to be there.” It really sounds like she understands that we need to set aside our efforts at finding those life-saving, money-saving, job-creating solutions until we rebuild the system that might enable us to produce acceptable solutions.

Later, Dan asks her what we can do to deal with the problem of corruption given that the people in office are beneficiaries of the corruption. She says that to fix problems in the present political climate, “we have to really go around [the representatives]” because they are beholden to the monied interests, and she gives the example of how public outrage helped stop the SOPA bill from passing. I guess this works in isolated cases where the people have the support of some powerful entities such as Google, but way too many issues will slip through the cracks. Besides, what good is a representative system if the electorate needs to remain constantly vigilant about the actions of their representatives? And how does this fix the systemic problem of corruption? Stein gets around to answering that to some extent, saying that as President she would use her Bully pulpit to help keep the public informed of important bills coming up. Of course, she is not actually going to be president, and this still requires way too much active participation by the public.

The truth is that Jill Stein does not seem to have the solution to Carlin’s “Gordian Knot” any more than any of the other third-party candidates he interviewed, and I agree with Carlin that her Green New Deal and other divisive stances, though admirable, are too distracting from the fundamental problems that she clearly understands need to take primacy. Still, I like her focus on transparency, corruption, and justice, and I think her campaign has the potential to bring these issues into the public discourse. That is the hope, anyway.

In the end, however, I’m afraid that these ideas will only catch on once the public can think critically and skeptically. That is the key to bringing about good policy in a democracy. If Stein’s ideas are good ones, a skeptical society will embrace them. If not, a skeptical society has a good chance of shifting focus to ideas that truly are good. Sadly, while we do have one party (R -Texas) specifically opposed to the kind of education that could bring about such a society, I have yet to see any party make supporting skeptical education one of the pillars of its campaign. Please let me know if there is one!

*****

In an effort to bring attention to issues of corruption, Dan Carlin and his minions have started a subreddit called “reformstorm.” I’m not a redditor myself, but I’ve looked at some of the posts and find it promising. Perhaps I’ll start an account. (205)

[First published on skepolitical.com on 7/16/12]

Last month President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security issued a memorandum regarding the enforcement of immigration laws. Immigration is one of those policies, like prison reform or even foreign policy, that has very little direct effect on me until I reflect on the fact that, to the extent that I consider myself to be a citizen of a sovereign nation, I am responsible for this nation’s policies. A major part of my ethical awakening in the past decade is to take this civic responsibility more seriously even though, as a relatively privileged white male, it is so much easier to ignore it on a day to day basis. Indeed, the fact that it took me a whole month to bother writing this article is a result of my natural inclination remain apathetic. Along with fighting for skepticism in education and civic discourse, fighting against apathy is one of the two driving forces in my current worldview. I consider fighting apathy to be an ethical stance, while the skeptical activism is more of a strategic stance. Of course, undergirding these stances is a fundamental belief in democracy and the American model in the first place. After all, if the nation in which I reside is not democratic and sovereign, then my ethical and strategic stances need to be quite different. I’ve heard some interesting arguments along these lines on Occupy Radio (iTunes link), including discussions with the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan. I’m not ready to jump ship and join the anarchists, but the principled alternative is certainly not apathy. One thing the anarchists and statists (such as myself) should agree on is that solidarity is essential to social justice.

Though belated, I thought this post would be worthwhile because, as far as I can tell, I have a unique perspective on Obama’s executive order, stemming from my own particular brand of naïveté.

After listening to and reading several days worth of media coverage of the new immigration policy last month, I was truly shocked when I sat down and actually read the document. The facts that were implied and left unchallenged in the articles I had read and NPR discussions I listened to were simply not borne out in the text of the order.

From the media coverage, I got the impression that Obama had granted a temporary reprieve from deportation to a certain class of undocumented immigrants. All sides seemed in agreement on that point, and the various arguments and discussions hinged on this agreement. My impetus for reading the original document was that I wanted to write a post about how Obama’s decision related to my recent post about overcriminalization and, specifically, the problematic practice of prosecutorial discretion. I also wanted to point out that Obama makes a mockery of our system of government by arguing that he could not wait any longer for congress to act, for it should also be congress’s prerogative not to act or even to fail to act. An executive branch that respects the actions of congress only when it sees fit is not behaving as part of a balanced system but rather claiming the dominant position in a totalitarian system. These arguments seemed compelling to me, so I figured I should read the primary document to hone my argument for my post.

Imagine my surprise when I found the document to be very sensitive to the executive branch’s limitations regarding the right to assure illegal immigrants any leeway whatsoever. The memo was very careful to emphasize that even those immigrants who met the stated criteria were to be considered on a “case-by-case” basis. That is to say, even assuming they fit the criteria and the order stays in force (Obama is not exactly the most steadfastly principled politician, and Romney may be even less so), they could still be deported. “[The Department of Homeland Security] cannot provide any assurance that relief will be granted in all cases… This memorandum confers no substantial right… Only Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights.” Since prosecutorial discretion was already necessarily being conferred, this language actually constitutes nothing more than a mere suggestion of how to apply that discretion. Indeed, the memo acknowledges that, “our ongoing review of pending removal cases is already offering administrative closure to many of them.” If you were a qualifying undocumented immigrant, would you voluntarily register your personal information with a government offering that level of “assurance” in a document that can be rescinded as suddenly as it was executed? Would you want your name and personal information on file in the event of a Romney presidency? Compared to what the media was reporting, if we interpret the document literally, registering for this program would seem to be a high-risk endeavor.

So, why was there such a discrepancy between what I was led to believe would be in the executive order and the actual text of that document? I suspect that the disconnect has less to do with negligence or misinterpretation by the media and more to do with the fact that the words in the memo are not to be taken literally. That is to say, I suspect that all the caveats and nods to Constitutional constraints are instinctively understood among media insiders and other executive-branch observers as mere boilerplate to be ignored in order to correctly interpret the memo’s meaning and implications. As a relatively new observer, perhaps I was naive to have taken the memo at face value. In the future, I, too, will know that a mere suggestion by the President of policy within the executive branch will be taken by the President’s underlings to be inviolable law, and the media will report it as such. I find this to be frightening and disturbing, but it seems like the best explanation. (136)

[First published on skepolitical.com on 6/29/12]

The Texas Republican Party has just published their new platform for 2012 (h/t Elena). They have made a significant change to their education policy. This is from their old platform from 2010 (via The Daily Texan) :

Knowledge-Based Education – The primary purpose of public schools is to teach critical thinking skills, reading, writing, arithmetic, phonics, history, science, and character as well as knowledge-based education, not job training. We support knowledge-based curriculum standards and tests. We support successful career and technology programs, but oppose mandatory career training. We oppose Outcome-Based Education (OBE) and similar programs. Further, because of an aging U.S. population and global competition, and because much of today’s education teaches children to be employees or perhaps at best managers for employers, we encourage the teaching of entrepreneurial skills and investment skills.

I’m not entirely on board with the KBE over OBE thing, and what I would really like to see is for schools to go beyond just practicing critical thinking and to actually give kids tools to do critical thinking well. That is, I’d rather focus on teaching skeptical thinking so that kids can recognize common biases and the difference between good and bad arguments rather than just telling them that all criticisms are worthwhile. Giving kids the vocabulary of skepticism should enable them to discuss and distinguish between good critical thinking and sloppy critical thinking. The standard mode of teaching critical thinking rarely acknowledges any such distinction.

That said, this 2010 platform is nothing to get upset about. I like a lot of it. It supports a focus on “entrepreneurial skills and investment skills,” but “not job training.” Most importantly, it leads with a focus on “critical thinking skills.” It’s not my precise vision, but they sound like they might be persuaded to embrace Skeptical Education if it were presented in the right way.

The following is the corresponding plank of the 2012 Texas Republican Platform:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

A complete about-face on critical thinking (and a removal of the focus on entrepreneurial skill over job training). In 2010, critical thinking was the primary purpose of public schools. In 2012, Texas Republicans are now opposed to teaching critical thinking at all! Why? Because is has “the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” Well, at least there is no confusion about the power and purpose of critical thinking. Of course, fixed beliefs are only truly threatened by critical thinking if they are wrong, and authority is only undermined if it is unfair, unjust, or otherwise illegitimate. These are clearly desirable outcomes. Could Republicans have caricatured themselves any more aptly than this? As Gary Berg-Cross points out,

It’s straight out Chris Mooney’s Republican Brain and Lakoff’s writings on Moral Authority. They worry that it might challenge “student’s fixed beliefs. ” Fixed by group decision and closed minds with no discussion allowed.
The language of undermining “parental authority” can be understood from Lakoff’s discussion of the Strict Father model:

“This model posits a traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and to enforce the rules. The mother has the day-to-day responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father’s authority. Children must respect and obey their parents; by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are, of course, a vital part of family life but cannever outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance—tough love. Self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that children must learn.”

The real mystery is how that mindset let to support for critical thinking just two years ago. That even the Texas Republican Party supported critical thinking until just this year lends credence to the argument I made in my previous post: the idea of focusing on critical thinking in schools would have broad support.

If I’m right and the population is indeed inclined to support a more direct focus on skeptical critical thinking in education, the only thing that is left to do is bring the question into the public discourse. I tentatively addressed this in my previous post, saying:

We already have an enthusiastic Skeptic Movement going that will likely be willing to throw their support behind a mission like this if it is presented to them along with a respectable plan of action. I don’t know exactly what that plan of action will be, but it could include a media campaign, social networking, public demonstrations, maybe even skeptical charter schools.

By throwing such a clumsy first punch, the forces in opposition to the Skeptical Education Movement (as I call it) may have done us a great service: they have brought the issue into the public consciousness. The Huffington Post, Reddit, Slate, PZ Myers, and Cenk Uygar have picked up the story. Many of those outlets are focusing on ridiculing Republicans for the benefit of Democrats. That is not my goal, but it serves the purpose of making this issue a focal point. I think this is really a fight we can win if this story gains a little more traction and the implications of an “anti-critical thinking” platform are brought to light. With any luck, we can ride the coming wave of support for critical thinking to the more ambitious goal of instituting a curriculum that devotes time to Skeptical Critical Thinking. What can we do to help that happen? I’m not sure, but perhaps now is the time to try some of the ideas I mentioned in the last post: media campaigns, social networking (does “liking” articles do anything?), and public demonstrations. I doubt I have the clout to “take the reins” on this one, but I don’t think I can let myself do nothing. This post is my first step.

*****

Please enjoy this three-minute video of George Carlin ranting about American Education: