Sunday, November 29, 2009

Whence the Relativism of the Right?

It is not usual for me to find myself in agreement with Rod Dreher, editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, but today's Op-Ed piece is one of the exceptions.

Dreher correctly bemoans the role relativism in political discussion. An example is that the question of where President Obama was born isn't a matter of fact but opinion, with all opinions being legitimate. Dreher suggests that this kind of relativism has been a part of the rhetoric on the Left in American politics over the past few decades, but that it is appears to be growing on the Right and in the culture at large. Although I share his impression, it would be worthwhile for someone (not me) to undertake an investigation of whether there really is an increase in this kind of thinking.

But for the sake of my brief comments here, I will temporarily assume that the phenomenon we perceive is, indeed, real. It is clear where the relativism on the Left comes from. When explicit Marxism became discredited in academia, post-modernism came to the rescue of every social science charlatan. Its rise in the late 1980s gave ex-Marxists just the cover that they needed. It makes a virtue out of incoherence; It elevates opinion above independently verifiable fact; and it provides you with the ability to call anyone who disagrees with you racist or sexist.

But what I'd like to speculate about here is how the Right managed to adopt the relativism that they correctly scorned for so long. It may just be a consequence of long standing anti-elitist populism. But I'm going to add to the mix of possible sources.

Fundamentalist revival as a source of Relativism

Fundamentalists have always treated relativism as the enemy. Indeed, both Fundamentalists and Relativists need each other as bogeymen. Each say that the alternatives to their own positions is the evil of the other position. In this light it seems more than a bit silly to propose what I'm suggesting. I recognize that I have an uphill struggle in making my case. Also, I still have a lot of homework to do today; so I will have to be brief.

The first time that I heard someone on the Right launch into the rhetoric of Relativism I was both amused and horrified. He spoke of paradigm shifts and that scientific truth only made sense with respect to a specific paradigm, which in turn was a social construct. It was the usual line that I'd heard many times before, but I was surprised by the source. So why was this person on the Right trying to undermine science and facts? Because he was also a Young Earth Creationist. Creationism only works if you deny, destroy, or lie about science. And apparently Creationists of the day had adopted the same attacks on science and scientific reasoning that had been developed by the Left.

Just as post-modernist thinking tried to make a virtue out of incoherence and inconsistency just listen to any Christian try to explain the Trinity or any religious person talk about the mysteries within their belief system. Science has plenty of mysteries, but they are seen as problems to solve and demystify. Religion, on the other hand, treats mystery as supporting evidence.

Just as post-modernism elevated opinion above fact, many religions treat personal revelation as the best (often only) way to establish truth. My personal revelation is as good as yours, and it certainly trumps your facts.

And just as post-modern social science somehow enabled participants to dismiss their opponents as sexists or racists whose arguments and evidence don't need to be considered, fundamentalists know not to debate with the Devil. They explicitly won't consider the arguments of opponents because it might corrupt them.

Religious fundamentalism is a system of thought that (a) attempts to undermine science and scientific thinking, (b) treats its own mysteries as virtues instead of as embarrassments, (c) places unverifiable beliefs above facts, (d) and justifies covering your ears when confronted with opposing views. I'm suggesting that it this system of thought that legitimates relativism exactly among people who should abhor it.

A large grain of salt

What I've said here is highly speculative. It really is more of a plausibility argument than mustering evidence and argument for my suggestion. Furthermore we don't even know if the phenomenon I'm attempting to explain is real. Is relativism growing, and in particular is it growing on the Right? I don't know. But this is a blog, not a research paper.

[Update 2009-12-15: I've corrected many typos and grammatical and punctuation errors. I'm sure many more remain]

Friday, November 27, 2009

In Praise of the TAKS

A few days ago I had an eye-opening experience. I took the 2009 Exit level Math TAKS and have come to the conclusion that it is a far better designed test than I'd anticipated. Below I will explain both my initial pessimism and what impressed me about the test.

Before that, just some questions to get out of the way. I took the TAKS as part of a course assignment in my teacher training program. I missed one (out of 60) questions on an easy question due to a silly oversight. I didn't take the test under normal test taking conditions. On the one hand, I was free to make myself a fresh cup of tea every now and then; on the other hand, I had to put up with the dogs barking at the gardeners. I recommend that anyone – like me – who gripes about Texas standards and teaching to the test should try taking these exit level tests. Past tests are available from the Texas Education Agency for all levels and subjects for which the TAKS is administered.

Why I was pessimistic

I had not expected the TAKS exit level test to be as interesting as it turned out to be. There were several reasons for my pessimism. First was experience with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade math TAKS that my daughter took. They didn't really seem to involve any problem solving or mathematical reasoning; instead they were about the ability to apply memorized techniques to clear instances. In retrospect this was probably because educators take Piaget too seriously and (incorrectly) believe that grade school kids are incapable of formal reasoning. Whatever the cause, there is a large difference in approach between the grade school TAKS and the exit exam.

The second reason for my pessimism was based on my impression that in high school math education very little time is given to developing mathematical reasoning skills, and most of the time is on specific techniques to solve specific kinds of problems. Real understanding and creative problem solving rarely seemed to be emphasized. I had (incorrectly) attributed this to teaching to the test. I had thought what I had disliked about the curriculum was a consequence of the test.

Liking the test

Many problems on the test had multiple ways of getting at the solution. One method would be mindlessly applying the right set of procedures, plugging away at it (typically using a calculator), and eventually coming to an answer. But these problems were also set up as little mathematical puzzles. There was often a key insight which could lead one quickly, easily, and without a calculator to the right answer. Grasping the key to these problems not only saved time, effort, and tedium; but it also was less error prone. Many of the incorrect answer options were exactly the kinds of things one might arrive at for making a minor error (as I did in the question I got wrong). The more steps involved in computing an answer, the more opportunity there is to slip up on one of those common errors. If one had a good grasp of the meaning of the various mathematical concepts then the key was usually available.

Other questions were explicitly about concepts. These questions were not merely testing knowledge of technical vocabulary, but did require an understanding of the concepts to answer correctly. I don't think I have the skill to come up with questions of that nature, but I can recognize them when I see them.

As a minor anecdote that nicely illustrates how wrong I was about this test there was a question on the test that I had previously claimed would not be on a TAKS test. During my teacher training, I've taught some sample lessons to my fellow teachers-in-training. In one of them, I had students develop a model for an instances of n(n-1)/2 growth. I said at the time that this was an activity that would help them think mathematically but would not be on the TAKS. It was a dig at the TAKS and a completely unfounded one. Imagine my surprise when I hit question 6 on last year's test and discovered it to be exactly the kind of problem I said would not be on the TAKS.

I'm hoping that I will find time over the next few days to try exit exams in English, Science and Social Studies as well. Although high school teachers are specialists, we should – at a minimum – understand what is being expected of our students in all areas. (Now all I have to do is find someone who will grade the ELA writing sample if I do take that portion of that test.)

Decisions and Revisions

I was wrong in my expectations of the TAKS. Alternatively, I may have been correct in my expectations and wrong about my current evaluation of the TAKS. In either case I've been far off the mark at least once. While I certainly don't like being wrong, I actually enjoy the experience of discovering that I've been wrong. It is eye-opening in the best sense. I see things that I previously did not see, and I am forced to reevaluate both the reasoning that led up to the incorrect view and the consequences of that view.

But the big lesson in discovering that I've been spectacularly wrong about something is the heightened awareness that other positions that I currently hold firmly may also be wrong. Caveat lector.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ten adjectives that describe my office

Apparently some of my daughter's classmates are struggling with parts of speech. (We've been playing Mad-Libs since she was seven; it's not a problem for us). Anyway her class was given an assignment to go into three rooms at home and find ten adjectives in each room and write them down. They were allowed to find adjectives that described objects in each room

Tímea decided to make the assignment slightly less boring by finding ten adjectives that apply to the room as a whole. This is her list for my office

  1. Cluttered
  2. Messy
  3. Tumultuous
  4. Geeky
  5. Tangled
  6. Fun
  7. Crowded
  8. Interesting
  9. Exciting
  10. Ransacked

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"We will have no more marriages"

Apparently in Texans' zeal to rule out marriage for one group of people back in 2005, voters adopted an amendment to the State Constitution that rules out state authorized marriage for anyone. Read clause (b) of the amendment carefully.

(a) Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman. (b) This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

This observation is now making news, but it appears that this was also brought up during the campaign as well.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Post hoc dots

It is easy to spot warning signs after the fact. But it is important that we do investigate them. After the murderous treason at Fort Hood on November 5, we need to develop as a complete an understanding what of what information was available prior to the attack and what information processing failures may have allowed it to happen. I don't think that anyone disputes this.

As more and more facts come to light, it is natural to ask how we could have failed to connect the dots. What appears to have happened is that in several separate instances warning signs about Major Hasan were noted, but in no instance were they considered serious enough to escalate the case to a more comprehensive investigation of him. People will naturally think that this means that there was some flaw in the system.

There very well be flaws in the system, but that we won't know until we have more comprehensive understanding of the system itself. (And that understanding will probably not be made public in all its details.) But I do want to make clear is that when it comes to noting warning signs we need to look probabilities and false positives.

If a few innocent people get investigated due to false positives in our system that is not a problem. It is normal and to be expected. But we need to remember that we simply don't have the resources to properly investigate hundreds of thousands of people.

With that in mind, let's run some hypothetical numbers. Suppose, extremely optimistically, we have a tool that can correctly identify terrorists living in the US with an accuracy of 99.9%. Let's also suppose that there are about 1000 terrorists living in the US. Our tool would catch 999 of them and miss only one terrorist. That sounds excellent.

But now consider what happens with non-terrorists. With about three hundred million non-terrorists living in the US, our hypothetical tool would correctly identify 99.9% of them as non-terrorists. Unfortunately it would incorrectly identify three hundred thousand people as terrorists needing careful investigation. So even with a tool as accurate as only one error in 1000 we would have 300,000 false positives.

Three hundred thousand innocent people would need to be carefully investigated even if our screening tool were wrong only one out of 1000 times. Even if we were willing to accept the civil liberties implications of having the government undertake careful followup investigations of the political, religious, and psychological motives of that many innocent people, we don't have the resources.

If we can't perform the that many investigations (and here we are considering best case), then do we deprive 300,000 innocent people of working in sensitive positions? One doesn't have to be a card carrying member of the ACLU to recognize that that would be truly un-American. And such a practice would certainly lead to a backlash that could harm security more than help it.

I do not have a solution to this problem. I don't know how we can effectively screen against domestic terrorists. I expect that the DHS has people who are a lot smarter than I am working on these problems. Those people will also have real numbers to work with instead of my made up ones. But I do know that the inevitable calls we will hear over the next few weeks to follow-up every lead are failing to understand the implications of such a policy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Religion doesn't make you crazy, but …

Speculating about motives

In the immediate aftermath of the killing rampage at Fort Hood, I find it remarkable the extent to which the public was reminded not to speculate about any religious motivation of the apparent shooter, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan. Even as recently as November 8, General George Casey added his voice to the many along these lines. According to an AP report, Casey has urged the country not to get caught up in speculation about the Muslim faith of the Fort Hood gunman.

It is one thing to advise us not to jump to conclusions as the President has correctly warned us about, but quiet another to suggest that we shouldn't speculate. And the same people who wish to discourage speculation of religious or political motives are more than happy to speculate about psychological stress. Indeed, there has a been a collective grasping at straws speculation about anything other than religious or political motivations.

The conservative blog Red State nailed things perfectly in their November 6 Morning Briefing with a brief titled, The Media Will Downplay His Religion, But God Help Us if His Car Had a Talk Radio Station On. [Yes, I'm one of those strange liberals who follows a few conservative blogs and news sources.]

By today, November 10, the evidence really has mounted that the killer's motivations were deeply connected to his religious identification. Exact details of his thinking may never be known, but it is becoming clear that he saw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a war against Islam. He, as a Muslim, couldn't participate in such a war on the side of the US. And thus he committed the bloody treason that he did.

He most likely was also crazy. His actions speak for themselves on that front. But when insanity has a religious dimension we all too often downplay the way that religious beliefs may have contributed to the insanity.

Religion doesn't make people crazy, but …

The world is populated by a large majority of sane religious people. Religion didn't make Hasan crazy. But I believe that religion enables people to take their craziness further than it otherwise would go.

When a woman kills her child because she believes it is possessed by the Devil she is clearly crazy. But if she weren't part of a religious community that accepted things like demonic possession she may have been more likely to question her own beliefs and sanity before acting.

When a man kills his wife and children and then himself with the hopes of sending them straight to heaven, the newspapers report on how he was a very religious man only before the facts make it clear that he was the shooter. Later, after it becomes clear that it was a murder-suicide, does the obvious clue to the killer's thinking get listed only in the very last paragraph of the newspaper reports. If he hadn't been steeped in the belief that the innocent are rewarded in the next life, would he have killed his children?

These sorts of cases rarely make national news. But they may happen very frequently but only hit local news. If anyone knows a manageable way to get national data on these kinds of infanticide or murder-suicides, please let me know.

What does get national news is something like the treason at Fort Hood and, of course, the attacks of September 11, 2001. And this reflects a different kind of religiously enabled insanity. In these cases, the perpetrator has a political cause that they feel passionately about. But on top of that, they believe that their particular political cause is also the Will of God. They have come to believe that they know the master plan of the Creator of the Universe, the Final Judge of all men. Their absolute faith in their religion gives them absolute faith in their cause. And when one is certain that advancing a cause is the will of God, then pretty much any action becomes justified or even sanctified.

As long as religions support the notion that it is possible be know the will of God they are enabling this kind of terrorism. Whether it is blowing up school children in Pakistan or murdering abortion doctors in the US, this confidence that one is acting in God's will is pernicious.

It is all very easy to say, Well my religion teaches peace and the dignity of all humans. All religions are pretty much the same in that respect. Remember most forms of most religions legitimate the idea of demonic possession, a reward in the after-life, and that it is possible to have God's will revealed to you. Those last three ideas are irrational and dangerous. And I believe that they are responsible for enabling more horror than people like to admit.

When someone does something good, the world seems quick to point out the connection between their religious beliefs and their good deed. We need to be just as willing to do that when someone does something bad. Only then will we see the extent to which religious ideas enable crazy people to act on their insanity.