ABC News Panic

This is ABC News Breakfast co-host Virginia Trioli, in a recent promo:

I reckon when people wake up in the morning they have one primary concern: is the world safe? Has anything happened drastically overnight that I need to know about and that I need to worry about.

I don’t know if this is how 24-hour news reporters justify themselves generally, or if Trioli just happens to know a lot of very stressed, panicky people.

Is “is the world safe” honestly and truly the very first thing that comes to your mind in the morning? Is it even neurologically possible for that to be your one primary concern, before, say, eating breakfast?

Now, I enjoy a good dose of global catastrophe-voyeurism as much as anyone else, but not before something infinitely more important: deciding if and when I need to actually get out of bed and do something productive. I first need to establish this mental framework before I’m capable of entertaining lesser questions of what disasters may have befallen humanity during my state of unconsciousness.

Maybe I’m just in the wrong demographic, and I have nothing against Virginia Trioli, but surely we ought not to be encouraging a culture of panic.

I’m not racist, because…

Following on from that racism study, the comments below SBS’s article on the subject threaten to provide some good starting material for an incarnation of internet bingo.

Again the Left shows its superficiality. If people are wary of Islam, then they are not racist because Islam is not a race. It’s a religion.

Aha! Religion, not race, therefore prejudice is impossible! I am overwhelmed by non-superficiality.

If 10% of Aussies are racist, I say most of of that 10% are of Arab, Asian background. Colonial Aussies are not really racist, they are culturally biased.

I’m not racist – it’s those other races that are racist! Get your stinking paws off me you damn racist Arabs! Learn to be “culturally biased” instead, like proper, refined white folk.

Because I am concerned about the radical elements of Islam in Australia, I am deemed to be racist.

Well, you know, the survey didn’t find that you personally were racist – you seem to have worked that out yourself.

To love the culture and race which ones heratige originates over that of others is not racism.

So, nothing wrong with “white pride” then? Just a bit of cultural fun.

This is all in stark contrast to the comments below the corresponding ABC article, which managed to avoid using the word “racism”. Commenters at the ABC seemed to be far less defensive.

A “pseudo-intellectual trifle”

Scott Stephens has an article on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website called “The Poverty of the New Atheism“.

PZ Myers has a go at this (and he’s seen it all before). Stephens’ article resembles the Courtier’s Reply, another of Myers’ illuminations. Theologians seem to object to atheist arguments not because they’re wrong – they hardly even mention the issue of correctness – but because atheists pay insufficient attention and reverence to the details of theological discourse. In this case, Stephens objects to “New Atheism” not because it makes errors but because it doesn’t go far enough into his other pet interests.

Many of Stephens’ remarks are just empty put-downs, like this:

But is there not is a kind of implicit acknowledgement of inferiority in the tone so many of the “New Atheists” have adopted? The air of contemptuous flippancy reduces atheism to a form of light entertainment and petit bourgeois chic.

New Atheists might adopt contemptuous flippancy towards the more extreme and fantastical religious imaginings floating around, but it’s not atheism that this reduces to light entertainment – it’s religion. Their tone might convey arrogance (which is the usual accusation), but Stephens does this quite well himself, as you can see.

Stephens use of “bourgeois” might be telling, considering that his next dozen paragraphs lead us on a wild adventure into Marxist philosophy. Stephens is strangely enamored with Marx, who he promotes above the New Atheists. I was torn between two possible reasons for this. Either –

  1. Stephens wants to laugh at his contemporary adversaries by comparing them unfavourably to a long-vanquished foe; or
  2. Stephens does see a redeeming quality in Marx, and is disdainful of New Atheism for not also being New Communism.

I lean towards the latter interpretation, because Stephens wraps up his Marxist adventure as follows:

And here the “New Atheists” fall tragically short.

By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctum of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to a vapid form of well-being and personal security, and by failing to advocate alternate forms of virtuous community – all in the name of “reason” – they end up providing the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of “commonsense” rationality.

I think Stephens displays a profound misunderstanding of the terms of reference, so to speak, of atheism. It is silly to chastise atheism (or agnosticism, or secularism) for what it doesn’t do. Atheism is not supposed to be a holistic solution for all your philosophical needs; it is only one aspect of philosophy.

In particular, if you want to hear atheists make passionate moral arguments, tell them to take off their atheist hats and put on their secular humanist ones. It is humanism that (typically) drives morality for atheists, not atheism. Atheism is concerned with the non-existence of God. That’s not just where it happens to be focused at the moment; that’s what it is. New Atheism is merely a modern-day expression of this.

It’s even sillier to accuse New Atheism of legitimising “the pathologies of capitalism”, simply by having nothing to do with it. Atheists span the entire political spectrum. As many atheists would argue for capitalism as against it. As many theists would argue for capitalism as against it. We can debate the existence of God without invoking economics. We can debate the relative merits of capitalism without invoking the supernatural. The two issues are completely independent, and it serves no purpose to conflate them.

However, Stephens finally uses the capitalism theme to launch into the unlikeliest of proposals:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recognized as much and has thus proposed – though not unproblematically – an alliance between atheism and Catholic Christianity.

“Not unproblematically” is something of an understatement, you might think. Atheism would not be atheism if it made an “alliance” with religion – the idea is self-contradictory. Secular humanism might make an alliance with religion (in some hypothetical context) – and that might even entail atheists, but not atheism per se.

Finally, we have this:

By continuing to ignore its debt to the Christian intellectual and moral revolution, and by severing itself from the profoundest insights of its own tradition, the “New Atheism” will find it impossible to avoid becoming a fad, a pseudo-intellectual trifle.

That’s the thing about atheism, Stephens – it has no debt to the past. Atheism is merely the rejection of religious mythology. Every one of us is born with the capacity for such reason. We don’t need cues from those living decades, centuries or millennia ago – we can work it out for ourselves. And that’s why it will endure.

The institution of specious reasoning

Stumbling across the ABC’s “Religion and Ethics” department, I discovered David Novak’s rather bluntly titled article: “No Right to Marriage for Same-Sex Couples“. It’s long, rambling and so far hasn’t attracted a lot of attention (judging from the solitary comment).

Novak’s points are at least made clearly enough (though rather verbose), but in the end they boil down to a set of very ruthless and arbitrary value judgments. Novak feels it necessary to declare himself a “Traditional Jew”, so I can’t help but feel that there is some religious motivation behind his position, even though he briefly tries to dispel that notion. He does appear to claim, a little way in, that God created marriage.

Throughout his piece, Novak (like most other opponents of same-sex marriage) talks of the “institution” of marriage. I find this to be a clever rhetorical device for giving form to an abstraction. The word “institution” merely means “tradition”, yet the former seems to demand more reverence. Tradition, by definition, is just the way things have been done in the past, but “institution” seems to imply something more formal, almost concrete, built-up over the ages from humanity’s noble efforts. In fact, three times Novak mentions the “traditional institution” of marriage, wherein I fancy he’s tripping over himself.

Novak’s first point of interest (after trying to dismantle a strange analogy with public education) is that the state should not interfere with marriage because marriage predates and “transcends” the state. I’m only quoting selected parts of Novak’s article, but much of it is the kind of waffle that rings all sorts of cognitive alarm bells (if there was a valid point to be made, surely it would have been made in far fewer words and with far more precision).

Novak lays the foundation of his argument as follows:

The most the state can honestly do in such appropriation of an institution that predates its founding – and in many ways transcends its operation – is to refine and reformulate in its governance of this institution the original reasons why this institution has deserved and still deserves social recognition and support.

A bit of a mouthful, but not entirely unreasonable. I’ve stopped Novak there because what he says next is truly ridiculous:

That should be done by judges, already designated by society to be the proper interpreters of the law. If judges cannot refine and reform the existing institution of marriage, then legislators who want this radical change should implement the abolition of this institution altogether, or they should subsume what used to be known as “domestic relations” under some other existing institution, such as private contracts. But, if they do that, they should be honest enough to stop calling what would not have been recognized in law as “marriage.”

I’m not sure what test Novak is  proposing to determine whether judges can “refine and reform” marriage. Judges may well have already sanctioned same-sex marriage if not for the explicit intervention of legislators. In Australia at least, it’s the Marriage Act that provides the legal basis for marriage being heterosexual in nature, not any judge’s determination (as far as I’m aware, though of course I’m not a laywer). Novak would be foolish to assume that the judiciary holds his same views on the origins of and reasons for marriage. To me, same-sex marriage is a natural part of the existing “institution” of marriage (one that has been conspicuously omitted), not at all a radical departure from it.

Novak seems committed to the idea that marriage cannot physically be redefined, though I can’t imagine what he thinks would happen if we simply decided to do so anyway. It’s a testament to the emptiness of Novak’s (and others’) beliefs that they are so possessive of the word “marriage”. Why should the state, and by extension society, be forced to use a different term (e.g. “civil union”) for the concept we want to call “marriage”? You can’t own a word, either morally or legally (except of course as a trademark). Even if same-sex marriage was a significant departure from the traditional definition – which it really isn’t –  it’s perfectly acceptable for words to be co-opted into new meanings, as long as the meaning is clear. Language constantly evolves. Many more words have their meanings corrupted beyond recognition*, and yet this is looked upon at worst as a mere annoyance.

However, Novak is not finished yet. He tells us that there are good reasons, aside from tradition, for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. He cites one Martha Nussbaum, who divides the various reasons for marriage into two categories: expressive (e.g. love, companionship) and procreative (having and raising children). Novak decides that the procreative aspect of marriage, unlike the expressive aspect, is in the public interest and should “be governed by the laws of the state”:

The state’s interest in procreation and familial continuity is because the state needs to replenish its citizenry regularly and thus ensure social continuity.

There is something terribly cold about this logic. Novak talks about “the state’s” interest, as though this is somehow divorced from society’s interest, and this obscures a fairly obvious and universal human sentiment. Yes, it clearly is in society’s interest to continue procreating (at some level, at least). However, surely the expressive aspect of marriage is also in society’s interest. Surely our society is richer and more human for its collective (not just individual) embrace of love and companionship. The state is supposed to serve the interests of society, not just keep the human race alive. Nevertheless, Novak continues:

Since procreation combined with child rearing is the only truly public reason for marriage, I think marriage is essentially endorsed and structured by the state to best facilitate the procreation and rearing of children.

This betrays a rather stunted idea of what a “public reason for marriage” might be. Novak is saying, quite earnestly, that love cannot be a basis for the legal recognition of marriage. Couples should only be allowed to marry on the basis of their having procreation and/or parenting potential. This is a particularly egregious value judgement, and is completely nonsensical when you consider all the symbolism and ritual associated with marriage. Marriage vows are generally about love and companionship, not raising kids.

Even after we accept this monstrous logic, Novak is aware that there are still two obvious problems: (a) not all heterosexual couples can or even intend to have children, and (b) homosexual couples can and do have kids (in various ways).

On (a), Novak invokes a bit of Latin:

I would answer that objection by citing the old legal principle: de minimis non curat lex, which could be translated loosely as “the law is only made for what usually obtains.”

The fact is, the majority of people who marry are fertile and are of an age to be fertile. And how could we reasonably establish a criterion to determine who is fertile and who is not? Moreover, in an age when new reproductive technologies are enabling persons heretofore assumed to be sterile to become parents, almost no one can be presumed to be incurably infertile.

That is, the law is designed to take care of the big problems, and we shouldn’t worry so much about the little ones. Basically, we can’t really come up with a ironclad test for fertility, especially considering technological options. However, this undermines his larger point. Novak is already applying a gender-based fertility test (heterosexual and you’re in, homosexual and you’re out), which is by no means an ironclad determiner of a couple’s ability to have kids, one way or another. However, if we hold the gender test to be valid – as Novak does – why not more fine-grained tests? Why not have a marriage automatically revoked after a period of time if no babies have resulted? That would be quite easy to administer, and would almost certainly achieve Novak’s stated objectives for marriage.

On (b), Novak descends into pure snobbery:

But let us examine some examples of how gays and lesbians can “have” or “create” children.

The first example concerns children from a previous – and I assume heterosexual – marriage. Since children from a previous marriage can be and often are raised by a single parent after having been widowed or divorced, I fail to see what the addition of another adult adds to the family, especially when that new spouse functions in loco parentis, at least de facto, replacing the now displaced parent in the new domestic arrangement.

What passes for an argument is merely Novak “failing to see” how a homosexual partner can fulfil the role of a parent. This is empty prejudice, with not even the veneer of an intelligent point. He further adds:

There is also the question of adultery and its connection to the question of custody of children after a divorce. That is, when an originally heterosexual couple divorces because one of the spouses decides he or she is really homosexual, is it often the case that this spouse discovered his or her homosexuality from having been involved in a homosexual relationship already?

I don’t know Novak – is it often the case? You don’t appear to have any evidence that homosexual parents are engaging in adultery. I myself don’t have any problem imagining that a homosexual parent might discover his/her homosexuality without engaging in an extramarital affair. Are you perhaps predisposed to thinking of homosexuals as being morally inferior?

The second example concerns surrogacy or artificial insemination, which creates a violation of a child’s natural right to have both natural parents raise him or her.

I skipped over the bit when Novak rambles on about a child’s “natural right” to have a mother and a father, but it comes into play here. Novak never gets around to saying what is actually wrong, morally, legally or practically, with surrogacy or artificial insemination. His case is, once again, built entirely on value judgments. Bringing a bit of the real world into this story, it seems a Victorian gay couple have just been granted the right to parent a daughter conceived with a surrogate mother. If there was anything wrong there the judge certainly couldn’t discern it. (Remember again that judges are the people Novak would have guarding the institution of marriage).

Personally, I reject the entire notion of natural rights. I prefer to think of “rights” as an evolving societal construct that has no meaning without the consent and support of members of society. What society demands principally, I think, is that a child have dedicated and loving parents. I don’t think we’re all that worried about their gender. (At least, we won’t care about it for long, given the trends in public opinion of same-sex marriage.)

Novak then talks about adoption, and seems to do a bit of backtracking:

Nussbaum’s last example concerns adoption. Despite all my talk about natural parentage and childhood, I am in favour of the institution of adoption. Surely, a child’s right to being raised to adulthood is better upheld by adoptive parents than by natural parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their natural offspring.

And, in principle, I am not opposed to a gay or lesbian couple being able to raise a child so abandoned by his or her natural parents. Surely, a child is better raised by two people who love him or her and each other, rather than being raised in the less personal setting of an orphanage, or by foster parents.

Exceptions, exceptions, exceptions. Novak is clearly quite eager to make an exception for adoption, even for homosexual couples, but again this undermines his main point. If marriage is all about raising kids, and Novak concedes that a homosexual couple can be viable parents, then why can’t homosexual adoptive parents get married? His logic is tangled into knots of self contradiction.

The two previously-quoted paragraphs provide at least a flame of enlightenment, which Novak can’t help but extinguish in the following text. Nothing else Novak has said so far has any bearing on homosexual vs. heterosexual adoption, and yet he still manages to worm his way into arguing that the latter is preferable.

That is because a heterosexual couple can better simulate – perhaps improve upon – the heterosexual union that produced this child in the first place. This better simulates the duty of the natural parents to raise this child, a duty they would not or could not exercise.

Better “simulate”? Whatever parenthood might entail, it’s not about “simulating” anything, least of all (in the case of adoption) the original parents. There is clearly no biological directive at work here – no “natural right” left to uphold – so what makes a homosexual couple less able to raise an adopted child than a heterosexual couple?

Novak concludes by returning to the state, and raising the notion of “civil unions”:

Although I have extrapolated on many points at which Martha Nussbaum and I disagree, I do agree with her when she says: “I personally favor the solution of leaving civil unions to the state and leaving marriage to religions and other private entities.” In fact, such a move would greatly strengthen the social prestige of religious marriage.

Novak’s religious underpinnings are showing here. There would be utter outrage from across secular society at the notion of “leaving marriage to religions and other private entities”. Marriage is a secular concept, co-opted by religion by means of various rules and rituals. Every society in the world has marriage, even those that have nothing in common by way of religious tradition. Given the universal applicability of marriage, it is society that grants religion the privilege of officiating marriage, not the other way around.

It is secular society, not religion, that holds the mandate for changing it.

The ABC of climate change denial

The ABC chairman Maurice Newman’s thoughts on the reporting of climate change are, I think, symptomatic of the damage that denialism has inflicted. He was interviewed on Wednesday, and appears more than a little ignorant of the state our of climate knowledge, and even a little naïve regarding scientific processes.

Newman says:

My view on any of these topics is to keep an open mind and I still have an open mind on climate change, I have an open mind on a whole range of issues because I think that to have a closed mind leaves you in a position where if you take a strong stance you are likely to be wrong-footed.

And I’ve just made the point that I’ve been around long enough to know that consensus and conventional wisdom doesn’t always serve you well and that unless you leave some room for an alternative point of view you are likely to go down a wrong track.

This is all fine and good as far as platitudes go, and presenting alternative points of view is all very democratic. One can never be completely certain about scientific outcomes, after all.

However, there is a line, somewhere, beyond which we must accept that an assertion (e.g. that we are changing the climate) is sufficiently well-supported to be considered true, and that alternative view points (however well meaning) are so implausible as to be wrong. The truth is not absolute, but neither is it a matter of opinion, and providing “balance” in such situations is grossly misleading.

Newman’s mistake, perhaps, is in assuming that a consensus among scientists is just like a consensus among any other demographic. This rather misses the point of science. Scientists have fought long and hard  – certainly, a lot harder than anyone else – to understand the truth. Science does not just systematically invent evidence and stories to support pre-determined conclusions, as so often happens with political interest groups. Science exists so that we can have at least some people who don’t do this, so that the whole world isn’t just a fantasy land where the laws of physics can be amended by popular vote. Observers of politics may have difficulty swallowing the idea that anyone cares about the actual, real truth, because in politics it’s such an alien concept. This is really a terribly cynical and blinkered view point.

I think that there are points of view supporting what you’ve just said, there are other points of view which will discount that and they come from also eminent positions; these are not cranks. Many of the people who have a different point of view on the climate science are respectable and credentialed scientists themselves.

So as I said, I’m not a scientist and I’m like anybody else in the public I have to listen to all points of view and then make judgements when we’re asked to vote on particular policies.

Here Newman betrays something of an unwillingness to properly investigate the issue. Most of the people who have a different point of view on climate science are most certainly not eminent scientists. Most of them are bloggers (like me). And yes, there are cranks – Lord Christopher Monckton being a particularly spectacular example. Some scientists do fall into the dissenters’ camp, but most of them are not involved in climate science.

It’s interesting to note that, while denialist opinion is usually contrasted against the views of the IPCC, the IPCC’s reports themselves are based on the broad spectrum of views permeating the scientific community. If you’re after some sort of balance, you would do well to remember that alternate views have already been factored in by the IPCC. The only real debate is over the magnitude of climate change and its effects. Those who argue that it isn’t happening, or that we aren’t responsible, or that we can’t change anything, tend to be very light on relevant scientific credentials.

I am an agnostic and I have always been an agnostic and I will remain and agnostic until I’ve found compelling evidence on one side or the other that will move me. I think that what seems fairly clear to me is that the climate science is still being developed. There are a lot question marks about some of the fundamental data which has been used to build models that requires caution.

There are not a “lot of question marks” over this data. There’s simply a lot of hot air coming out of those who read and believe the things that Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts write. Newman has apparently bought into this sort of disinformation.

It’s highly unlikely that he would even recognise “compelling evidence” if it were presented to him. And why would he expect to, after all? What would he, as a layperson, accept as “compelling evidence” that anthropogenic climate change is real? Does Newman need to personally assess the evidence for other scientific theories as well? What would he accept as compelling evidence that quantum theory accurately describes the universe? What would convince him that a newly-discovered hundred-thousand-year-old skeleton represents a previously-unknown species of human? There is expertise involved in making such judgments. Laypeople like Newman, or indeed myself, cannot presume to be equals in this respect.

In other words, the reason Newman hasn’t seen any compelling evidence is that, in all probability, he doesn’t know what he’s looking for.

This is the subtle, deranged beauty of climate science denialism. Everyone is an expert! It doesn’t matter whether the denialists themselves win over any actual supporters. What matters is that they bring the credibility of science down to the level of punditry, in the eyes of their audience. The denialists succeed by creating agnostics who feel they are above the fray, who don’t even bother to distinguish between scientists and bloggers. I wouldn’t hold this against most laypeople, but for those who should know better, this is outright intellectual laziness disguised as a form of neutrality. Surely the chairman of the ABC has a duty to be better informed.

Quality news

How’s this for a misleading headline from the ABC: “China may have to bail us out: Rudd“. The user comments below the article howl in derision at the injustice of selling out the country to those funny Mandarin-speakers. No, people, Rudd wants China to bail out the International Monetary Fund, not Australia. The ABC’s article is essentially just a snippet of Rudd’s rhetoric, and fails to explain up front what the actual proposal is: China is to get greater voting rights at IMF in return for more money. See – it’s not that hard. (The idea is that the current arrangement reflects an outdated post-WW2 world, and also that the IMF needs more money to address the global financial crisis.)

I do love the ABC, but sloppiness like this doesn’t inspire confidence in the overall quality of its news reporting.

What matters in this election?

There’s an online poll on the ABC’s 4 Corners website regarding the election. The first question asks “In the last two weeks of the campaign what do you see as the SINGLE most important issue?” You are given a choice between “Economy/Interest rates”, “Climate change”, “Industrial relations”, “Education” and “Health”.

Important for whom? Us or the politicians?

But what’s really missing from this picture? After the intervention in the Northern Territory to impose the Libs’ ideals of capitalism and individualism by force on the Aboriginal people, after the ongoing mandatory detention of people whose only “crime” is trying to escape their wartorn homelands for a better life in Australia, after the “Pacific solution” in which these people suddenly became so unimaginably dangerous that they were not even allowed to set foot on Australian soil, after our continuing support for the catastrophic war in Iraq, after the two-faced bribery of Saddam Hussein to the tune of $300 million, after the detention and even deportation of Australian citizens for being unable to produce a passport, after the introduction of terrorism legislation that bulldozes some of our most basic legal rights, after witnessing the opacity and unaccountability of ASIO and the AFP in their roles under that legislation, after the introduction of “control orders” to bypass the legal system and impose sanctions on people for whom there is no evidence of guilt…

Can we not, just once, put aside the ridiculous charade of deciding who can manage the economy better and focus on the real world?