Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Moral relativity

Once you accept a given non-evidence-based belief system, be it homeopathy or fundamentalist Islam, I see why that would require you to disbelieve in certain realms of scientific understanding.  If you are embracing something based on faith, and it comes into conflict with rationality, one or the other has to go.  It's time to surgically remove the source of the conflict.

I do, however, find it curious how selective the surgery can be.  The same people who object to biological science's understanding of evolution are frequently the same ones who are perfectly willing to take medicines and undergo medical procedures, all of which were developed by the same scientific framework that generated the theory of evolution.  It's a little hard to see how science can be so far right in one way, and then lead you so far wrong in another.

Be that as it may, I do get why the jettisoning of fact-based science happens.  But sometimes the specific bits that get rejected are a little hard to fathom.

Most of you have probably heard of Conservapedia, the crowd-sourced wiki project begun in 2005 by Andrew Schlafly to counter the "liberal bias" he found in Wikipedia.  His idea was that everything in the project would be written and supported from conservative and Christian ideals.  As a result, the page on Barack Obama is entirely negative; the page on climate change states that, basically, it isn't happening; the page on Jesus unquestioningly accepts his divinity; and so on.

All in the name of "eliminating bias."  Oh, and did I mention that its motto is, "The Trustworthy Encyclopedia?"

But so far, none of this is all that surprising.  It's hardly to be marveled at that conservative Christians embrace conservative Christian viewpoints.  But I just stumbled a couple of days ago onto two pages on Conservapedia that really, truly, mystified me.

Because apparently they find the Theory of Relativity, and Einstein's mass/energy equivalency formula (E=mc²) to be "liberal claptrap."  (Direct quote from the page on E=mc².)

And I'm thinking, "Okay.  I can see rejecting evolution, cosmology, and plate tectonics, because all of those strongly support the antiquity of the Earth.  But what in the hell is the problem with Einstein?  All that Einstein has done is to show that matter and energy can be converted back and forth, and how objects behave when they are traveling at a high rate of speed."  Neither one, I would think, would be first on the list of Theories Conservatives Shouldn't Like.

Apparently they are, though.  The Conservapedia folks go to great lengths to say how both of them are suspect, that any "dissenting views" by scientists who doubt Einstein are "suppressed as heresy," and how neither relativity nor E=mc² has ever been experimentally verified (in fact, they state in several places on the page for the Theory of Relativity that it has been "rejected," "is not entirely successful or proven," and contains "clear contradictions").

Amusingly, on the page for E=mc², they then follow up this criticism with a bunch of evidence that completely supports its validity, and state outright that in an experiment done all the way back in 1932, mass/energy equivalency was supported to an accuracy of ±0.5%.  I guess that's not enough to count as "verification," for some reason.

Only at the end of the page on the Theory of Relativity do we get an inkling of what is going on here.  Einstein's ideas, they say, promote moral relativism:
Some liberal politicians have extrapolated the theory of relativity to metaphorically justify their own political agendas. For example, Democratic President Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of "curvature of space" to promote a broad legal right to abortion.  As of June 2008, over 170 law review articles have cited this liberal application of the theory of relativity to legal arguments.  Applications of the theory of relativity to change morality have also been common.  Moreover, there is an unmistakable effort to censor or ostracize criticism of relativity.
So, yeah.  A mathematical system describing how matter behaves at extremely high speeds has anything to do with abortion law.

In any case, I decided to do a little digging, and find out what they hell they could possibly be talking about regarding the Tribe article showing that the General Theory of Relativity was pro-choice.  And I found the source; a paper from the Harvard Law Review in 1989 called "The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn from Modern Physics," in which Tribe used Relativity as a metaphor:
The Roe v. Wade opinion ignored the way in which laws regulating pregnant women may shape the entire pattern of relationships among men, women, and children. It conceptualized abortion not in terms of the intensely public question of the subordination of women to men through the exploitation of pregnancy, but in terms of the purportedly private question of how women might make intimately personal decisions about their bodies and their lives. That vision described a part of the truth, but only what might be called the Newtonian part. ... [A] change in the surrounding legal setting can constitute state action that most threatens the sphere of personal choice. And it is a 'curved space' perspective on how law operates that leads one to focus less on the visible lines of legal force and more on how those lines are bent and directed by the law's geometry.
So, now I'm thinking, are you people just idiots?  Or what?  When conservatives branded Bill Clinton with the nickname "the Teflon president," did you throw away all of your non-stick cookware?  Do you think that a "puppet government" is run by Pinocchio, Charlie McCarthy, and Howdy Doody?  When reporters call North Korea "the Hermit Kingdom," does that mean that we should immediately round up and imprison all of the hermits?  Or possibly hermit crabs?

Do you think that rainbows literally taste like Skittles?

You know, in this blog I've deliberately taken up the cause of clear thinking, and tried to do battle with those who promote ridiculous ideas and pretzel logic.  But sometimes, honestly, the muddy water seems to run too deep.  If you are that delusional, that much of a blithering moron, I just don't know that there's anything I, or anyone else, can do about it.

Einstein showed that morals are relative.  I mean.


  1. Evangelical Christians have already demonstrated a well-developed unwillingness to differentiate between metaphor and factual assertion. Why should they limit the application of that skill to the Bible? In a way, they're being completely consistent. By taking the literal interpretation of that Law Review article, they're giving it just as much standing as the Bible.

  2. "Once you accept a given non-evidence-based belief system, be it homeopathy or fundamentalist Islam" - Sorry to be blunt, but this is an attitude that really annoys me. It's a complete misrepresentation of the psychology of religious belief, all too common among critics of religion.

    I don't think I've ever met a person of faith, believer in alternative medicine or conspiracy theorist who couldn't cite at least *some* evidence for their position. The evidence they have in mind is often preposterous to our eyes (where 'we' are 'people who understand how to critique and evaluate evidence'), but they accept it, because they have subconsciously accepted a more generous standard of evidence than ours.

    For example, a homeopath (if that's not the term, it should be) may be able to cite any number of occasions on which homeopathic remedies have helped them or their friends. Their list will almost certainly be a combination of the placebo effect and confirmation bias, but it *is* evidence to them, either because they haven't heard of the placebo effect and confirmation bias or because they don't consider them to be phenomena which invalidate evidence.

    I'm not saying they're right, or that this is defensible. I believe the scientific evidential standard is superior to any rival.

    However, it's dangerous to treat people who are working on a different evidential standard as if they're not working on any evidential standard at all. It makes you treat them (as I think you have done with Conservapedia readers - though perhaps not Conservapedia writers - in this blog post) as unthinking and stupid when really they're just blinkered and not seeing the whole picture.

    It leads you to treat them as unthinking; irredeemably different in mental type from you, rather than just in need of an eye-opener. To write them off as 'woo-woos' (a term much better reserved for the peddlers of anti-science than their dupes) rather than to see them as human beings.

    After all, most people just don't think too hard about 'evidential standards' and the other deep philosophical issues that we're dealing with here. We start our lives with the evidential standard 'Mum and dad believe it and I trust them', and the exact ways in which our perspectives broaden seem to be matters of chance - what kinds of teachers and friends we have, how congenial our childhoods are to learning, whether we're given experiential reasons to question what we've been told and so on.

    I grant you that this doesn't help when it comes to defending Conservapedia (something I have no intention of doing). There's a long tradition of right-wing hostility to Einstein's ideas (see for example the 'Jewish physics' controversy cooked up by Nazis in the 30s;, and it *is* stupid to fail to understand a metaphor, even as spurious a metaphor as the one cited.

    But it's not irredeemably stupid, surely? I mean, I can remember being taught what a metaphor is. It took a few attempts on the part of my teachers to get the idea to stick, but only a few. I suspect that actually the conservapedia writer was being consciously disingenuous to stir up anti-scientific sentiment (again, I'm not defending the insincere and exploitative peddlers of this garbage - just the people they sucker in), but that doesn't mean we can just dismiss their readers as beyond saving/enlightening.

    Sorry, I'm starting to ramble. My point is this: you are treating people as beneath you because they are less educated than you and unaware of the fact. If you've 'taken up the cause of clear thinking', it's probably not helpful to ask questions like 'Do you think that rainbows literally taste like Skittles?' Last I checked, insulting the people you're trying to educate wasn't considered good teaching practice.

    1. I do agree with you in one sense, Rik; as I've mentioned before, the problem lies in the devoutly religious and the scientific rationalists "speaking different languages." We don't accept the same grounds for understanding, and therefore (in a way) there's a very real reason that we don't understand each other.

      However, what appalls me -- and what my point was, in this post -- is that if you really, honestly have no idea what you're talking about, then for pete's sake don't set yourself up as an expert, even if it is as a writer or editor in a crowd-sourced website. For example, I am not especially knowledgeable about politics, which is why I seldom write about it.

      The problem is that the writers of Conservapedia, and other heavily biased sources, use a thin understanding of science, along with a clear political agenda, deliberately to mislead. That the writer of the "relativity" article doesn't understand what a metaphor is unlikely; my ridiculous examples (such as the Skittles one) were more to point out that no one in his/her right mind would believe that metaphors are literally true, so using the "curvature of constitutional space" article as an indication that relativity is "liberal claptrap" is moronic.

      I do feel sorry for people who are poorly educated enough that they take this nonsense for gospel. I don't, or at least I hope I don't, condescend toward people who are simply ignorant; heaven knows I'm ignorant on enough topics myself. But toward the people who are smart enough to know better, and who still twist science toward their own ends (or use the bits of it they want, claim that the rest is false, and then try to influence governmental policy on that basis), I have nothing but scorn.

      So I think that largely, we'll have to agree to disagree on this one.

  3. I think our only actual disagreement (in this case, at least) is over the addressing of this article; when you say 'Once you accept a given non-evidence-based belief system, be it homeopathy or fundamentalist Islam, I see why that would require you to disbelieve in certain realms of scientific understanding', it sounds to me very much like you're talking to/about everyone who operates in those doctrines, rather than drawing the distinction between the peddlers, like the Conservapedia writers, and their audience as you've done in your follow-up comment.

    If you're mainly or wholly criticising the peddlers, say so - and believe me, I'm with you all the way on that.

    1. Well, maybe I'm not understanding your objection, here. Isn't it true that if you do accept a doctrine that approaches knowledge in a non-scientific way, that DOES require you to reject certain pieces of scientific knowledge? Anyone, for example, who accepts that the bible is literally true would HAVE to reject our current understanding of cosmology, for example. They can't both be correct. (And in my post, I wrote that "I get why the jettisoning of fact-based science happens" -- which hardly constitutes an attack on the faithful.)

      Perhaps I'm being dense, here, or maybe I just didn't write clearly. But I stated outright that it's unsurprising that conservative Christians have conservative Christian values, for example, and within their worldview I understand completely why they reject evolution and abiogenesis. What the gist of my post was about -- or, what I intended it to be about -- is that the writers of Conservapedia seem desperate to twist a great many things into liberal attacks on Truth -- even taking the obviously metaphorical title of an academic paper as if it were literal fact.

      I have, many times before, expressed sympathy with people who are ignorant or who have not had the opportunity to learn to think critically. However, I have no sympathy whatsoever with people like Andrew Schlafly, Ken Ham, and Kent Hovind, who obviously have the brainpower to use reason in most regards, and yet who employ pretzel logic and straw man arguments to mislead deliberately.

  4. Ronald Reagan was the original "Teflon president" (so named by Jimmy Carter, I think). Bill Clinton was whatever the opposite of Teflon is.

  5. The Theory of Relativity can only be suspect if you have amnesia to the fact that we used this scientific principle to assist in nuking a couple of cities in Japan.

    As for the plight of individuals who were never taught to think critically; Life won't wait for them to catch up. Reality has a decidedly non-empathetic regard for humanity. We can employ conjecture and the human perspective all we want... but bottom line... The future won't wait for us to pull our collective heads out of our asses. If we aren't prepared enough for the future, it will leave without us.

    No matter which country you call home, there is a universal understanding for justice:
    "Lack of understanding of the laws does not absolve one of their consequences."

    So it's NOT okay to be ignorant of the laws of your country, but it's okay to be ignorant of the laws of nature and the cosmos? Why? Because if you're guilty of a crime, you are punished. If you're guilty of expressing knowingly counter-factual information, there is (most often) no real recourse. There are no significant laws against deceiving someone, unless money is involved.

    It is by all of this logic that I have little sympathy for those who employ regressive or counter-factual information. That means both the peddlers AND the readers, alike.

  6. Hypothetical:

    A round table is created to discuss the threat of asteroids striking the Earth. In the interest of "all views should have equal representation" the round table is filled with all manner of scholars. If the religious scholar gets a turn to speak and says "Asteroids may bring about the Rapture! We don't want to interfere with God's plan!"
    A microsecond later, everyone in the room changes their perspective from "All views should have equal representation" to "Sit down and shutup."