Following the Science

Thursday, 05-28-2020

 

I have nothing to say against real science.  But isn’t it interesting that the people who talk most about “following the science” usually don’t know much about the science?

Today we have a vaccine for chickenpox, which is much safer than the disease.  Get your children vaccinated!  But when my generation was small, that option didn’t exist.  The only way to develop immunity was to catch it and recover from it.  If a child in the neighborhood came down with the illness, parents would sometimes bring their children over to play with him so that their children would get it too.  This carried a risk, but since the disease is much more dangerous in adulthood, taking the risk made a certain sense.  For if the children didn’t come down with the illness until after they grew up, their danger would be far greater.

Mind you, I am not proposing that you take your children to play with infected children.  Please don’t.  Yet since the great majority of healthy people recover from the coronavirus, in the absence of a vaccine it’s actually good that eventually many of the healthiest people will get it and recover from it.  If enough people develop immunity, then everyone else is safer.  While we are waiting for that vaccine – and let us hope the wait won’t be long -- the chances of passing on the disease to the weakest and most vulnerable persons are greatly reduced.

I am amazed that so few people understand that except for those for whom the disease would be most dangerous, social distancing was never supposed to be about preventing its spread.  It was about slowing its spread so that medical facilities would not be overwhelmed.  Flattening the curve means stretching it out, not wiping it out.  That goal has largely been achieved.

In all but a few isolated places, manic efforts at completely preventing the spread of the infection cannot succeed.  All they can do is delay the development of immunity among the population at large, putting those who are most in danger in even greater danger.  In short, excessive fear of infection means that more people will die.

 

The Spectrum of Journalistic Bias

Monday, 05-25-2020

 

Surveys consistently show that overwhelmingly majorities of journalists identify themselves as liberal or progressive (pretty much like university professors).  In theory, journalists could be liberal and still treat conservatives fairly.  Conservatives say that they don’t.  Liberals respond by citing supposedly neutral studies and “fact checks” showing that they do.  But studies of bias are married by gross biases about what counts as bias.

Another reason for denying bias is that it often lurks in subtle things that make big differences.  For example, how do journalists compare numbers?  Suppose the average incomes of groups A and B are $50,000 and $100,000 in one year, and $55,000 and $106,000 in the following year.  Comparing dollar amounts, the difference between the wealthier and poorer groups has increased from $50,000 to $51,000.  But comparing ratios, the wealthier group started out making twice as much as the poorer group, but ended making only about 1.9 times as much.  So in dollar terms the poor are falling further behind, but in percentage terms they are catching up.  The safe thing would be to report the raw numbers along with both measures of difference, but does that often happen?

The third and most interesting reason why liberal bias may be denied is that different biases may obscure each other.  Leftism is far from being the only common bias in the media.

For example, in a paradoxical sense, journalists tend to be pro-presidency.  Most are in love with the institution of the Presidency, even though they may detest the fellow who inhabits it at any given moment.  No other office in the government is so made for the media.  It's unique, it's powerful, it's glamorous, it contains within itself all sorts of possibilities for tragedy and triumph, agony and ecstasy.

News people also tend to be pro-politics.  Political developments are treated as big news; developments in marriage, family, religion, and society are slighted.  One reason may be that political changes can happen more quickly.  But another is that the liberal views of most journalists lead them to consider government more important.

Media folk tend to be pro-passion even if they adopt a cool style of reportage.  During one of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaigns, a female supporter standing at the back of the stage shed tears as the candidate delivered his speech.  Brit Hume, not at all an excitable man, and one of the rare network commentators who is conservative, was moved to offer the awed remark that she showed what politics is all about.  Contrast the Founders, who considered passion deadly to republican politics, built features into the Constitution to defuse it, and hoped that the people would be calm.

Reporters like activity.  Whether a politician is liberal or conservative, they like him to do things.  Not only does activity make good press, but it ties in with at least a part of liberal ideology about the proper role of government.

They like conflict.  It’s boring to report that people are getting along, but it’s fun to write about people scratching each other’s eyes out.  If there isn’t any conflict to report, journalists try to invent it.  “Mr. President, what would you do if your subordinate refused to obey your orders?”  “He’s not going to do that.”  “But Mr. President, what if he did?”

Almost all of them are hostile to expressions of faith.  Most view faith as a matter of feelings with no basis in reason, even if the religion under examination views faith and reason as allies, as Catholicism does.  Most place all strong belief in the same basket, for example calling strong conviction “fundamentalist” whether it is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu.   Most connect strong belief with intolerance, even if, like St. Hilary of Poitiers, one of the things the believer believes is that God does not desire an unwilling worship or a forced repentance.  Most also assume that faith is hypocritical – “he doesn’t really believe that” -- while faithlessness is sincere.  If we use the term “religion” for a person’s unconditional loyalties, then the anti-religious journalist is religious too, but he doesn’t tell you – and may not know -- what god he himself worships.

They glory in scandal.  Virtue may be more interesting to live, but vice is more interesting to watch.  Even if the fellow bleeding in the water is one of theirs, journalists find it difficult to resist joining the sharks, although sometimes, if the stakes are high enough, they will do it.  In fact, anyone who shows conspicuous marks of virtue – or even of thinking it important -- is bound to become a special target.  This is not entirely bad; if moral character is important, then when a statesman does something deplorable, we need to know about it.  On the other hand, excessive coverage of real, accused, hypothetical, and even imaginary crookedness, is not only the product of cynicism but also produces it.  It makes us doubtful about the very possibility of good character and blasé about its importance.

They love disaster.  As Joseph Epstein has remarked, “In journalism, they used to say ‘if it bleeds, it leads’; nowadays the saying is ‘if it weeps, it keeps.’”  Grief is more interesting than happiness.  Catastrophes and human sorrows sell the news.  It is in the interests of the news industry to make most trouble seem worse than it is. Someone tends to be blamed for everything bad that occurs.  Who gets the blame is another question, and may have little to do with who, if anyone, is responsible.

Although they are still called reporters, more and more they prefer interpreting facts to reporting them – even if the facts are imaginary.  Sometimes the interpretation is reported as a fact, and the fact is not reported at all.  This begins with slanted headlines, which are all that some readers read.  As columnist Holman Jenkins points out, “reporters are actually praised for ‘advancing the narrative’ – e.g., finding ‘facts’ to support a desired story line.”

Finally, there is the narcissus syndrome, for journalists tend to be fascinated with themselves.  One aspect of this is that they are unfamiliar with people who are not like themselves, and often contemptuous of them – although there is some evidence that in general, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.*  Another aspect is that journalists tend to find themselves eminently worthy of attention.  Reporters report the opinions of reporters.  Headlines are composed about headlines.  The dumping of a network news anchor is treated as having the same news value as the resignation of a prime minister whose government has collapsed.

What about my own biases?  I am putting these observations in plain sight so that you can decide for yourself whether I am wearing my spectacles crooked.  Here is how it seems to me; compare it with how it seems to you.

* See:  Character May Be Destiny, Personality Isn’t

 

Covid-19 and Goo Goo-12

Thursday, 05-21-2020

 

Yes, the epidemic is real.  However, the rate of coronavirus infection, Covid-19, is dwarfed by the rate of infection with the less publicized seehowworriediam virus, Goo Goo-12.  Like others in the Goo Goo family, the pathogen is spread by listening to conventional and electronic media.

Some people are already saying that social distancing should become permanent – not just while the coronavirus runs its course, but forever.  If it's good for the coronavirus it's good for the common cold, right?  While we’re at it, let’s ban large public gatherings permanently.  Someone might get sick.  Holiday festivals, musical concerts, political rallies, worship services, sporting contests – mass events are just superspreaders of disease.  Who needs them?

Maybe the agoraphobics have been onto something all these years.  Popular culture is just another name for germ culture.  Ugh.

I obey the law, and I am pretty careful.  I could tell you about people who are demonstrably less cautious about infection than I am, but who are convinced that I must be reckless just because of my attitude toward public panic.  My sin isn’t my behavior, but my beliefs.  Since I have suggested that some of the most extreme and inconsistent social distancing rules reflect agendas having nothing to do with public health, they think that I ought to be isolated.

Some people think it is okay to visit all friends and relatives except those who think it is okay to visit friends and relatives.

Many writers have commented on the incredible level of hypocrisy among journalists and public officials who stand to gain from mass hysteria.  But what does this hypocrisy tell us?  Consider just two of the many examples.

What does it mean that a big city mayor threatens to put people in jail for congregating, shuts down a variety of businesses including beauty parlors, and then goes out to get her hair done?  It means that she doesn’t believe the rules are really necessary.

So we must ask:  What does she gain by imposing them?

And what does it mean that public officials in three of our largest states moved coronavirus patients into nursing homes, even though their hospitals were not overburdened?  It means that they don’t much mind deaths among the weak and elderly.

So we must ask:  If not protecting the most vulnerable, what could their objective be?

Reluctance to suspect bad motives without evidence is right and good.  But refusing to pay attention to the evidence is merely blind.

 

Lunacy and the Life of the Mind

Monday, 05-18-2020

 

In verse:

There was an insane sanatorium

Whose inmates set up an emporium

They hawked all their manias

And taught their inanias

Holding class in a big crematorium.

 

And in this ersatz institution

They prated with circumlocution

For right was a fable

And wrong was unstable

And ethics mere irresolution.

 

You see this is all about power

For reality’s just a bit sour

Solipcism’s a hoot

When it’s done in cahoots

But this sure ain’t the ivory tower.

 

In prose:

One of the high points of Western civilization was the invention of the university, an institution for contemplating truth.  These days universities are under the shadow of various creeds – postmodernism, identity politics, pragmatism, moral antirealism, a whole tribe of them -- that deny the reality of objective truth.  There are differences among the members of this tribe, but they all either affirm, or in the end come to, what I say of them here.  Some, like critical legal theory, are frank about it.  Others are not.

By objective truth I mean correspondence with reality.  As the logician Alfred Tarski remarked, the proposition “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.  Those of whom I speak deny this.  In their view there is no reality to which thoughts must conform.  They use the word truth for what the powers that be say that it is, and nothing more.

Or they use it for something that in the end comes to what the powers that be say it is.  For example we may say that truth is “what works,” but since there are different ideas of how things should work, someone has to define what counts as working.  Or we may say that truth is “consensus,” but since we aren’t actually in consensus, someone has to announce what will be treated as though it were consensus.  “All of the people who matter say that ...”

This is supposed to be liberating.

If we examine these ideas we find mires and paradoxes.

One might think those who propound them were merely trying to criticize the hypocritical pretensions of the powerful.  But to say that the claims of the powerful are hypocritical pretentions is to say that they distort objective truth.  This in turn supposes that there is an objective truth to distort, which is just what they deny.  How exactly does such a doctrine help the powerless?  It baffles me that its proponents could be taken seriously.

They would do better to give up speaking and take up cawing, like crows.  At least crows don’t claim to be uttering meaningful propositions.

The craziness goes deeper still.  Logically, someone who thinks truth is nothing but what the powers that be say it is should acquiesce to power, shouldn’t he?  Since the powers that be define the truth.  Yet the proponents of these creeds typically make a great show of standing up to power.

The solution to the paradox is that for all their talk of standing up against the powers that be, in contemporary universities such folk are the powers that be.  They are the ones who say what works.  They are the ones who say whose consensus matters.

They are not standing up to power.  They are trying to secure and extend it.

To them, I suppose, this seems just.  For justice, like truth, is what those with power say it is -- and that means them.

 

The Path of the Skeptic

Monday, 05-11-2020

 

In verse:

I can doubt that there is a Vermont

I can doubt that I eat my croissant

Though it comes as a shock

And a startling knock

I can doubt anything that I want!

 

I can doubt whether life is a dream

And whether a song is a scream

Whether girls correspond

To manes red, black, and blonde --

Perhaps nothing is just as it seems.

 

If I could have truths for a penny

Then surely I’d have a great many

Were they clear, then I’d know

Every one, even though

I just don't, so there must not be any!

 

And if I could clearly conceive

What were true, then I’d surely believe.

It would matter a lot

What I put in the pot

Of the thoughts to which intellect cleaved.

 

But since I can’t plainly perceive it

I’m not dutybound to believe it

Since belief is just chatter,

It just doesn’t matter,

I can equally take it or leave it.

 

This being the case, I’d be stressed

To think any thought I detest.

Since truth’s not a question,

And just an oppression,

I’ll think only what I like best.

 

So far as my mind can construe

I know this, I’ll know it, I knew

It’s simple and sheer

Giving nothing to fear

And undoubtedly all of it’s true.

 

In prose:

Golly, I can doubt anything whatsoever.  Therefore there is no good reason to believe anything.  If there were clear truths, then I wouldn’t have these doubts.  But I do, so there must not be.  Logically, then, it doesn’t matter what I believe.  It would be especially silly to believe anything that would interfere with my desires.  All this, undoubtedly, is true.

 

When Is It Tyranny? When Do We Say No?

Friday, 05-08-2020

 

Query:

As I’m sure you are aware, the governor of Illinois has stated that church services cannot begin until there is a Covid-19 vaccine or effective therapy.  Yesterday the governor of Michigan outlined her own draconian plan.

Waiting until there is a vaccine or effective therapy means having no church services in such states for more than a year.  Of course abortions have been permitted the entire time of the pandemic.  Surely it’s obvious even to the most pessimistic and atheistic epidemiologist or infectious disease expert that such differences in treatment have nothing to do with slowing the spread of illness.  They simply favor abortions over worship.

When commanded by the authorities to stop preaching about the risen Christ, St. Peter said “we must obey God rather than man.”  Hasn’t the time come for our church leaders to be asking whether they should say the same thing?

 

Reply:

I think the time is long past when they should be asking that question.  As to the answer, though, dramatic responses short of civil disobedience are still possible.  Suppose worshippers scrupulously obeyed ten-person or fifty-person rules, but in selected churches, priests celebrated Mass after Mass after Mass, ten or fifty congregants at a time, so that everyone who wished could participate.  To reduce the heroic demand on overworked priests and ministers, variations could be worked out.  Perhaps not all the services could be Masses.

Wouldn’t that be a strong witness?   Why isn’t it happening?

In places where no indoor meetings at all are permitted, another possibility is to hold church services outdoors, for example in parks or in parking lots, with the congregants six feet away from each other, wearing masks.  My own parish, in the diocese of Texas, is resuming public indoor Masses on a small scale, but asking those who are over sixty-five not to attend.  So another advantage of holding some worship outdoors is that more could attend and even older people who might otherwise be at risk could participate.

As I mentioned in a previous post, in some places worship is already being held outdoors.  Why isn’t this being done everywhere that indoor services aren’t possible?  I would like our bishops to tell us that.

Suppose these things were more widely done.  It would be interesting to see whether officials in the more draconian states treated such worship as though it were an act of civil disobedience, even though no state regulations had actually been broken.  In some states, as in most of mine, the authorities would be – have already been – cooperative.  In others, they would be – have already been -- tyrannical.

Actual disobedience to the law should not be considered until all things short of disobedience have been tried, so that it would be difficult for even the most confused citizens to think that worshippers were merely hooligans who cared nothing for public health.  Give official bullies a chance to show their true colors.  The time to plan disobedience is when the authorities refuse to allow worship even within the bounds of reasonable public health restrictions.

But even so, there is a right and a wrong way to practice disobedience.  In the first place there must be no disobedience except to rules that are actually unjust.  Worshippers would have to rigorously keep that six-foot gap, and wear those masks, so everyone would understand that they did not reject public authority for the common good.

Priests would have to cooperate with their bishops, publicizing widely ahead of time what their churches would be doing, why they would be doing it, and why nothing less would suffice.  They would have to do whatever was necessary to avoid giving the appearance of disrespect for just laws.  Force and insult would have to be met with prayer and blessing.  Any who were arrested would have to offer no resistance, no shouting, and no hard words.  As during the Civil Rights movement, it would be necessary for the participants to be prepared ahead of time spiritually, because otherwise such discipline would be impossible.

Let us hope it does not come to this!

But let us not just wait to see what happens either.  The precedents being set for the oppression of faith during the epidemic will some day be invoked when there is no epidemic.  Why is there no sense of urgency?

You shepherds of the flock, are you paying attention?

 

Will MAD Come Back?

Monday, 05-04-2020

 

I see in the news that the government is clamping restrictions on the use of electronic parts supplied from abroad for use in our electrical power grid.  The purpose, of course, is national security.  One would not want the grid to be hacked by a hostile foreign power.

This raises an interesting question.  We have long known that all sorts of crucial domestic systems, not just the power grid, are vulnerable to being hacked.  In fact, there already have been numerous intrusions and thefts of information on a small scale, as though our defenses were being tested.  We have adversaries who might take great satisfaction in seeing our fragile setups collapse.  Why then hasn’t that happened already?

One possibility is simply that they aren’t ready.  Another possibility is that the ability to crash our systems is cherished not as a first-strike weapon but as a last resort; hostile powers might hesitate to do us too much damage, because in an interlocked global economy their own countries would suffer too.  

But there is another reason besides unpreparedness and fear of economic harm why hostile powers might hesitate to bring us down.  Even though our government is not very good at protecting the country against foreign hackers, it is no slouch at hacking hostile foreigners.  For example, the United States and Israel are widely believed to have collaborated on the development of the subtle Stuxnet computer worm that damaged the centrifuges used by the Iranians for processing nuclear fuel back in 2010.

The stalemate among the competing hackers of the various great powers brings to mind the old theory of Mutual Assured Destruction, called MAD, current at the height of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.  “We too have nuclear weapons and ICBMs, and we can launch ours before yours arrive.  Be sure that if you destroy us, within minutes you too will be destroyed.”

Some of those involved in security debates opposed (and still oppose) the development of defenses against incoming missiles, on grounds that no one will murder if he knows without a shadow of doubt that by doing so he will accomplish his own suicide.  The devil is in that shadow of doubt!  But leaving aside the devil -- can one ever leave aside the devil? – the theory holds that the utter, helpless vulnerability of each nation to every other is the only hope of peace.  Let us all brandish razors, and all bare our throats.

I wonder whether those who take this view will oppose the development of greater computer security for the same reason.