maritimes, Nova Scotia, politics, Rodney MacDonald

Life’s like that…

Wouldn’t you know that as soon as Rodney Dangerfield’s government finally collapsed under the weight of it’s incompetence and there’s something interesting and local worth blogging extensively about, I enter into pre-survey mode and become busier than ever. Gaaaaa!  Life is like that sometimes.

For what it’s worth, an anecdote. Owing to the fact that I’m going on a boat for a couple of months, I voted early last night. While waiting for Doug to cast his ballot, I was chatting with the matronly local who always seems to be employed at these balloting offices and I asked her what the write-in turnout was like. “Here”, she said, “it was so-so, a hundred or so. But provincially it’s waaaayyy up from the last election.”

Does that indicate a higher-than-pathetic turnout for this election? Does it indicate increased interest in the result? Usually, a high turnout is not good news for the incumbant, and I have to think that it’s the case here.

The fact that the only useful act performed by this government was to say “no” to the Commonwealth Games a few years ago (after letting the local Games committee fleece us for some fourteen large) and that he’s limited his campaign to empty promises to fine parents for the bad deeds of their kids (the Get Off My Lawn campaign plan of John McCain), he’s dead.

The NDP were essentially handed this election on a platter, and they’re running a classic leader’s campaign – cautious and deliberate, making no mistakes. However the Liberals are rejuvenated under their new leader and their support outside of the NDP bastion of Metro is growing quickly – areas where the electorate may well swing to them rather than the NDP.

The results are going to be interesting – the Conservatives’ greatest fear was obviously a surge of support for the Liberals, and that’s what they’re seeing. How will the results split? Will the “left” of the province (such as it is) perform the classic split between the Liberals and NDP or will the alergic-to-real-change voters in the province cut their votes between Liberals and Conservatives and let the NDP up the middle? I don’t think there’s enough support for the Liberals in Metro (this time) to give them a real shot at even a minority, leaving the only real options in my mind being a smaller Conservative minority or an NDP win, a larger minority or even a narrow majority. That said, the NDP have made moderate gains outside HRM, but it’s likely that a large part of those gains were traditional Liberal voters loaning their votes while their party was being lead by toothless befuddled idiots. 

An interesting campaign, which I will watch with great interest from offshore.

Canadian politics, Conservatives, Nova Scotia, right-wing tomfoolery

With a Move Showing Staggering Levels of Genius…

..The fiddler locks up the crotchety old man and nervous old lady vote. If there’s  anything that shows that the NS Conservative party has both run out of ideas and conceded that no-one under 65 is going to vote for them anyway it’s this. Really Rodney, I know it’ll play well with the old folks who vote for you, and God knows, they don’t like the looks of those teenagers, but with all the PR disasters of the last few years to make up for this is the best you can do? A curfew? Giving them ATV’s didn’t pan out, so now maybe you’ll remind them that they’re pariahs until they hit middle age?  Sure, it’s a safe bet, chasing votes by pissing off people who are too young to vote for you anyway and it does appeal to the “hang’em high” crowd, which seems to be the natural constituancy of the Canadian conservative. However Nova Scotia is suffering from a steady and damaging drain from the younger end of it’s population which is doing a number on it’s labour pool. Is there someone in the Conservative party who can explain  how reinforcing the “As soon as I can do it I’m outta this backwards-ass dump ” viewpoint is going to solve this problem? Or have they decided that as this demographic will be leaving shortly anyway  they can safely be fucked over. Not that I would blame anyone for leaving the low wage ghetto that is Nova Scotia but that’s another post. This will be a stupid, barely enforcable law that will leave the province open to court challenges from any15 and under kid with parents can find a lawyer with even a minimal grasp of how the constitution applies to age specific laws. Rodney has just stated his willingness to screw the province’s future and embrace a costly lawsuit or two just to get a couple of votes and keep those damned kids off his lawn.

NDP, Nova Scotia, politics, Rodney MacDonald

On Bluenose Polling…

Before yesterday’s first campaign debate, the Chronicle Herald released the results of Corporate Research Associates most recent quarterly political poll. This might well be the only poll we see during the Nova Scotia 2009 election campaign, so we should take note of the results. On voting intention, the result breakdown is this:

  • NDP – 37%
  • Lib – 31%
  • PC – 28%
  • Green – 3%
  • Other – 1%

There is little doubt now that Rodney MacDonald was right – it’s a two party race, unfortunately for him, his party is fading from the scene. Doubtless, the fact that the NDP are stronger in urban ridings rather than the overly-represented rural ones will produce a tighter seat total than the popular vote spread indicates, but the news is good for the provinical NDP and Liberals, who seem to be finally building under their new leader.

However, CRA did a curious thing with the undecided component of the vote – they combined it with the “don’t know”, “refused to answer”, and (shameful) “won’t vote” component of the vote, which together comprised 30% of the poll sample.  The curious thing about this is that they did not in fact lump all of these groups together in the poll, only in the press release. If you go to their website you will see that in fact only 17% of the poll sample is truly undecided.

Why would they do this? Would they do this because CRA would like to inflate the undecided vote to make the race seem tighter than it is? Hell, if 30% of the electorate is undecided, it’s anybody’s race, right?

Just sayin’…

atheism, christians, culture, religion, science, willful blindness to absurd extremes

Fish Story

So, Stanley Fish has felt the need to reply to the flood of reader responses to his blog post about religion, as I commented on here. His post begins thus:

According to recent surveys, somewhere between 79 and 92 percent of Americans believe in God. But if the responses to my column on Terry Eagleton’s “Faith, Reason and Revolution” constitute a representative sample, 95 percent of Times readers don’t.

Need I say, kudos to New York Times readers. He is gracious enough to indicate that the arguments against his original writing were not just name-calling, but contained some arguments to back it up. I will give credit where it is due, he did not have to acknowledge that his readers are actually intelligent, but he did. From there, however, Fish careens off the rails and into a mud hole of obscurity and postmodern blather.

Any long-time readers of this iteration of Blevkog and of its predecessor will recall that I have somewhat of a… problem with the idea central to postmodern thought: all forms of knowledge and understanding are valid, ergo none are. (I direct you to Francis Wheen’s Idiot Proof for a more fulsome discussion on the matter – I highly recommend it)

His main example is a dispute over the authorship of a poem – people, as he puts it, presuppose who the author may be, and see evidence to support it within the text. He extrapolates this to scientific endeavor, with people assuming they will see no evidence of god, so they see none. Conversely, those who accept god will see evidence of his works everywhere. I need not point out to rational readers that this is a classic example of a false analogy, a rationalization built on a faulty premise. The point, to adapt his example, is not to establish which author is reponsible for a particular work, but to establish that a human being wrote it, and that it did not spring from supernatural causes. The assumption of one author or another excludes its’ composition by ghosts or aliens, therefore it is a rational process. The problem arises when you ignore the central tenet of Occam’s razor, and add layers of explanation that require additional assumptions. If I assume Shakespeare wrote a sonnet attributed to him, there are rational and generally accepted ways to analyze the text to look for some clues for alternative attribution. I cannot, however, assume that it was written by a poet in the 30th century who travelled back through time and assumes Shakespeare’s identity when composing the work. It is accepting the limits of reasonable, and indeed possible, explanations that makes the poem analogy work as a metaphor for science.

As the whole piece is built on a faulty premise, Fish must struggle to reconcile the weakness of his analogy with his inability to refute his readers:

To bring all this abstraction back to the arguments made by my readers, there is no such thing as “common observation” or simply reporting the facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.

While those hypotheses are powerfully shaping of what can be seen, they themselves cannot be seen as long as we are operating within them; and if they do become visible and available for noticing, it will be because other hypotheses have slipped into their place and are now shaping perception, as it were, behind the curtain.

By the same analysis, simple reporting is never simple and common observation is an achievement of history and tradition, not the result of just having eyes. And while there surely are facts, there are no facts (at least not ones we as human beings have access to) that simply declare themselves to the chainless minds Hitchens promises us if we will only cast aside the blinders of religion.

The fact that this makes his argument invalid as well seems to escape him.

History and tradition govern the operation of science as well – methods are tested and developed, theories and hypotheses are tested and re-tested, we learn from the past. What we should not do is allow the superstitions of the past to overwhelm our reason. If, as Fish asserts, religions are as valid a way of knowing the world as any other, are we to accept the resurgence of human sacrifices to assure bountiful harvests, or to make the sun rise as necessary for our survival? If not, are we to assume that some religions do in fact have a premium over others in their interpretations of reality? Who decides? Is Fish actually preaching the supremacy of his own religion over others, and, if so, doesn’t that violate one of the fundamental ideals of religion (or in fact does it just represent the bias inherent in religious thought)?

We assume the relative importance of things around us, that is true, but that reflects these individual parts’ varied utility to us as we proceed through our daily life – everything around us is simply not as important as everything else. While the ojects in our homes are probably of greater importance to us than the average, they still are relatively more or less important dependent on context – the TV becomes less important as the pipes burst (at least, unless it’s the playoffs – remember, there are priorities). The same applies to facts, particularly about the natural world – they exist, and they do present themselves, but we do have to focus on them and apply the scientific method to discover them in a way that is transparent and rational, and, perhaps most importantly, can be re-discovered by others following the same method. ‘Facts’ in a scientific sense do not come onstage and dance for us unless they pass the auditions, thank you, to borrow from Fish’s artistic metaphor. The assumptions that make science what they are, of precision, of testing and re-testing, of openness to criticism and sharing of knowledge, have nothing in common with the blind faith required from religion – religious ideas fail as knowledge because they require no rigor, only a decision to consciously omit rigor in our thought.

Tradition is, and always is, an insufficient argument to establish anything – scientific methods have come down to us over time, ’tis true, but it’s because they have been proven to be consistent and reliable. Other traditions, like the aforementioned human sacrifices, or prohibitions against women voting, or owning property, etc., simply have no utility in an advanced society – they have no utility in practice.

Science and religion do not compare to one another, and they are not compatible with one another, no matter what anyone says – you do either your work or your faith an injustice if you try to have it both ways. Fish tries, and fails, to denigrate rationalism by indicating that religion is immune from the criticism that it relies on faith. The point is meaningless, and ill-considered for a university professor – it is comparable to saying that I must not be a white male because I have never said that I am (I am, and I have said so, repeatedly – but you take my point).

Perhaps the most telling portion of Fish’s post is the last line, which is simultaneously the most arrogant and ignorant comment I have ever seen, made all the worse because he refers to himself:

I refer you to a piece by syndicated columnist Paul Campos, which begins by asking, “Why is Stanley Fish so much smarter than Richard Dawkins?” Darned if I know.

The article would havc been more informative if it consisted of just that statement. We would then know clearly what Stanley Fish’s thesis was: I’m smarter than anyone else.


Conservatives, Nova Scotia, politics

Let the shoe drop…

The Nova Scotia provincial Conservatives have finally set out the budget, only a month after the start of the fiscal year and a mere five months after the legislature last got together for a congenial chat. Not only that, they’ve conveniently redefined the word “surplus” and demanded a change in laws to account for that new definition. This government has demonstrated time and again, but not showing up and by not doing anything when they do, that they exist only to collect their MLA and ministerial salaries. It’s time to be rid of them. For too long we’ve been led nowhere by idiots good only at treading water in the province’s salary pool – idiots that have built up an enormouse debt through croney collusions and backroom deals, with no vision for our future. It’s time to shine a light on the roaches in the legislature and start cleaning house. Oh that we could break free from our Liberal/Conservative voting record and dare to try something a little new. Oh, to dream!

Update: There, that was quick!

atheism, blogger, christians, culture, media, religion, religious right

Wow. You’re an Idiot.

Stanley Fish, on his blog for the New York Times, reviews a book by Terry Eagleton (what an American sounding name), Reason, Faith and Revolution. The book and the blog post are rife with inaccuracies about the structure, function, and basic nature of science and reason. Some choice excerpts, and my responses:

British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

The most universal and absolute of truths? Truths for whom? Certainly not me, nor many other countless millions of men and women, who regard religion as utter balderdash. And regarding direct links, I assume you write on a computer, which is connected to a huge network of other computers we call the Internet. Do you work from your climate-controlled, well-lit home? If not, did you drive your automobile with the internal combustion engine to your well-lit, network-connected structurally sound place of employment? I think you’re getting the idea as to my view of what is intimately connected to the lives of men and women in the bulk of the Western world, most of Asia and Oceania, and so on. The commonality of technology, and its’ integration into everyday life, didn’t come from divine inspiration, it came from the work of those you devalue: people engaged in the practice of science and reason.

…“A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.” By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

Certainly not from religion – the inherent contradictions within religious traditions render them as questionable sources of wisdom – even then, it was wisdom that may or may not have been useful 2000 years ago in the Middle East, among superstitious tribesmen. In terms of a question like “Why is there anything in the first place?”, I don’t need to point out how vague it is, but I will indicate quite simply that science and reason don’t generally get applied to questions of that nature – ‘Why’ in a philosophical sense is generally irrelevant. ‘Why’ in a cause-and-effect sense is relevant, and takes a great deal of experimentation, observation and careful documentation before we can find an acceptable answer. Ponder why humanity is here if you must, but don’t fault science for not finding answers to unanswerable, and inherently illogical, questions.

…Eagleton, of course, does not tell us [what religion is after], except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”

Ah, I love the smell of demonization in the morning. Smells like… sour grapes. And, yes, I’m well aware that I’m doing the same thing – this is a rebuttal of sorts, not a news story. By the way, I work for the government (not the U.S. government, but still…), and I have been pleased to work with some of the most caring, dedicated individuals you could ever hope to meet. They feel the tragedy and pain of the human condition as keenly as anyone else, and strive daily to alleviate it.

(In response to the basic question, “Who needs religion?”) Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition — an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) — because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.

First, historians are an edgy bunch, I wouldn’t pick on them if I were you. Second, scientific principles of human behavior can and are applied to the past to help illuminate our shared history, and, as indicated above, have been intimately connected with humanity’s everyday life, and indeed, with its’ history, particularly over the last century and a half. Longer lifespans came because of better understanding of population health, the current level of access to information is unprecedented, the potential to view firsthand the countries and cultures previously inaccessible to most people (with the added bonus of fun diseases!), these are just a few of the important ways in which science and reason have positively intertwined themselves with human affairs. Not to mention military technology, but there’s no point in going there for the moment.

… Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.

What is real and important, again in a philosophical sense, is only relevant to an individual as it is relative to the utility of the ideas presented. The laws of evidence do indeed need to start somewhere – without a theory to lend context to evidence, it is not evidence, merely a collection of items, facts, statements, what have you. The context arises from the culture in which the science is embedded, which, in the case of scientific culture, is more universal across international borders than any religious tradition. And you may read up on Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (as just one example) as an introduction to the efforts of some scientists to curb excesses. Who curbs religion’s excesses? Not a lot of trials for those who inflicted the Inquisition, were there? Not much in the way of censure for the religious officials who supported fascism, hmm?

If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.

It is valueless to you if you feel it is so. If that is the case, feel free to disassociate yourself from it and live in a cave with your stone knives and bearskins. If not, if you do truly care about your fellow human being and aren’t just concerned with YOU and how YOUR soul cries out for help from YOUR god and YOU are involved in a PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP with an all-powerful deity, then try to make it better. Don’t just throw stones and ask us to abandon the benefits of science and reason in favor of superstitious falderol.

Religion may have a useful place in people’s lives – fine by me, as long as they keep their religion to themselves. I frankly don’t care if they feel it will help me – I don’t want or need that kind of help. I recognize the weaknesses inherent in humanity and how progress can rush headlong in front of morality and law, but that doesn’t mean I throw up my hands, close my eyes, plug my ears and give up. That is cowardice, intellectual and moral cowardice. To help the world, you must understand the world – to understand it, you must systematically observe and record it. There is no salvation for humanity except through the work of dedicated women and men who are curing disease, building stronger structures, and linking us together to facilitate the exchange of ideas.

It’s when you fragment the world into the personal, superstitious fiefdoms of religion that we lose touch with each other and we fail utterly to lend a hand to others without a price. Religions preach peace, but fail to use the tools with the most potential to help achieve it. If you’ll excuse a cliche from the ’80s: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way.