William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Category: Book review (page 1 of 20)

Please email me at matt@wmbriggs.com before sending books to be reviewed.

Making Gay Okay Reviewed. Part I, The Acts

reillyMaking Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything, by Robert R. Reilly (Ignatius Press: sample chapter).

It’s common in medicine to track men who have (or who simulate) sex with men, instead of asking patients whether they are “gay” or “homosexual”. This is abbreviated “MSM.” The letters for women aren’t as common, but let’s write WSW. In fact, let’s write PSP for people who simulate sex with those of the same sex.

Men can only have sexual intercourse with women, so that when two men or two women engage in certain acts, these can only be simulations and not the “real thing.” Also, the words “gay” and “homosexual” are variable, troublesome, and not universally accepted (are men in prison who engage in certain acts with other men “gay”?); thus, PSP is as neutral a word or term as we’re likely to get.

About these simulations: in particular, sodomy (this applies to both man-on-man and the much rarer man-on-woman). Is it moral or immoral? Normal or abnormal? Natural or unnatural? Disgusting or relative? Sinful or virtuous? Praiseworthy or disdainful? Nobody’s business or everybody’s business? If unhealthy, should it be banned? If immoral, should it be unlawful? Given the heated debate of all things PSP, it’s strange that these questions are scarcely ever asked. Reilly asks, and answers.

But first a distinction. Let us take an act, say, helping an old lady across the street. The act is praiseworthy per se, irrespective of the person carrying out the act, a person who may or may not have had good motives for committing the act and who may be at heart an evil or holy person (a person carrying out a per se praiseworthy act for an immoral reason is still acting immorally, just as a person who carries out an immoral act for the good reason is still acting immorally1). That is, we can and must discuss the merits and demerits of this or any act without bringing individuals into the question. It is the act we want to know about, and not the person.

The word natural is ambiguous. In one sense it means whatever is, but in another it means that which acts in accord with its purpose. The yearly murder rate in the USA is about 5 in 100,000, and, though variable, it is somewhat constant in that it was never 0, and nobody expects it ever will be. This rate is natural in the first sense. But we do not say therefore that because murder is natural in the first sense, it is therefore allowable or praiseworthy or moral. Murder is per se wrong because it is an act which is not in accord with the purpose of human beings. It is unknown at what rate old ladies are helped crossing streets, but whatever this “natural” rate is also does not determine the rightness of the act. The act is natural in the second sense, and obviously so.

Pointing to the number of people who engage in an act thus does not give us proof of its rightness or wrongness. We have to look at how the act relates to our purposes or ends. Reilly: “Deeds are considered good or bad, natural or unnatural, in relation to the effect they have on man’s progress toward his end in achieving the good.” The Good, according to Aristotle and many other profound thinkers, is the fulfillment of a thing or being’s essence or nature (a third meaning). Thus was born the Natural Law, which we will discuss later. For now, accept only that one of the ends of which the human body is directed is health, the idea that, in general, it is better to be healthy than ill (there are exceptions, like a man jumping on a grenade to save his comrades, etc.).

Sodomy is not healthy; it is not an act which is directed toward the health of either participant. Reilly reminds us of this quote from Aristotle, from his Ethics: “‘Those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other person is loved’ (emphasis in original).” Reilly uses this example, which ties health to the natural end of an thing:

A person stuffing objects into his ears is endangering his hearing, because he could puncture his eardrums or precipitate an infection. Ears are made for hearing, not for the storage of objects. Using them for the latter endangers the former. Any responsible person would advise someone stuffing objects into his ears not to do this because of the harm it could bring.

The “made for” is derived from Natural Law, which again we do not discuss today, though in the case of ears being “made for” hearing, few would object. In the same sense, we say the southernmost end of the human alimentary tract is made for the evacuation of waste material. This appears indisputable; nevertheless, it is disputed. But, like sticking sharp pencils into ear canals, objects inserted into the human anus tend to (it is in their nature) to cause damage and bring disease.

Reilly lists many of these damages and diseases, removing most to an appendix because they are not pleasant to contemplate. He also includes damages and diseases occurring to WSW, as many acts in which these people participate differ from regular procreative practices and are thus also dangerous.

This material can be found in the medical literature, where it is a specialty, though it’s unlikely to be familiar to many (e.g. type “MSM” into PubMed). A good survey is provided by Dr John Diggs: “The list of diseases found with extraordinary frequency among male homosexual practitioners as a result of anal intercourse is alarming: Anal Cancer, Chlamydia trachomatis, Cryptosporidium, Giardia lamblia, Herpes simplex virus, Human immunodeficiency virus, Human papilloma virus, Isospora belli, Microsporidia, Gonorrhea, Viral hepatitis types B & C, Syphilis” to name a few, including mechanical damages (tears, etc.), much lower life expectancy; there is also that which follows after the act due to uncleanliness and incaution (certain oral-alimentary-tract practices); the frequent appearance of certain drugs. Diggs also relates the departures from health due to other non-procreative activities. All of these maladies and misfortunes occur at rates far, far exceeding man-woman (true) sexual practices. Reilly shows, for example, that there is a 4,000 percent increase in anal cancer rates for those who practice sodomy.

HIV/AIDS is of course its own category, and though it is more known, it is curiouser than you might have imagined.

All rationalizations for sexual misbehavior, no matter of what sort, are allied to and reinforce one another. The rationalization being complete, anything goes, including “bug chasing”—the new craze in which homosexuals actively seek HIV infection because of the added sexual thrill. They call the men who infect them “gift givers”. One bug chaser said, “It’s all about freedom.”

This passage included a footnote to a 2003 Rolling Stone article “Bug Chasers: The Men Who Long to Be HIV+”. I have only been able to discover snippets of that article2. One source has the article beginning by discussing a man named Carlos, who is brought to consider HIV: “His eyes light up as he says that the actual moment of transmission, the instant he gets HIV, will be ‘the most erotic thing I can imagine.’ He seems like a typical thirty-two-year-old man, but, in fact, he has a secret life. Carlos is chasing the bug.”

There is a Wikipedia entry on Bug Chasing, and searching in the usual way brings up a wealth of literature. There is even a new book advocating the chase by W. C. Harris who (says Taki magazine’s Christopher Hart) is “a radical gay activist and Professor of Queer Studies and Early American Literature”. The book is Slouching Towards Gaytheism: Christianity and Queer Survival in America. There are many intriguing passages in Hart’s review, but this one stands out:

“Breeding the virus in another man’s body develops new kinships,” explains Harris (rather than, say, new burdens on health services), and they become one more couple in the “bug brotherhood.” The one who does the infecting is called the daddy, the recipient the son, and such incestuous overtones are also very exciting, argues Professor Harris, for they too are transgressive, subversive, and liberating.

What is indisputable is that sodomy in general, and “bug chasing” in particular, are damaging to one’s health, and are even life-threatening. It is also true that these are all avoidable risks, that the risks are based on willful acts. It is also true that people who were always celibate or always monogamous (in the literal interpretation of these words) face disease risks at or near zero (exposure to some diseases through, say, blood transfusions or through “dirty needles” are always possible).

Should physicians be barred from communicating these risks? Should ordinary individuals? Would it be right to call any who communicated these facts a “bigot”? (Facts themselves cannot be bigoted, but their presentation could be.) Is stating, “Sodomy is an enormous health risk” “homophobic”? How about stating, “Sodomy is disgusting”? Should prepubescent children be taught that sodomy is “natural” and “normal”? In the first sense of these words—that it exists—it surely is, but in the second—that it is good or oriented toward health–it surely is not. Or should we let kids come to adulthood before exposing them to their “choices”? Should sodomy be encouraged as an “alternate lifestyle”, even though we know of its harms?

Lastly, dear reader: bug hunting. Good or bad? (It will be interesting to see who avoids this question.)

The reader is cautioned to keep the discussion at a high level. Comments not in accord with gentlemanly or lady-like behavior will be edited or deleted. Let’s also stick to the topic at hand, the act. The history and other cultural consequences we will come to another day. For those tending to apoplexy or who are feeling undue stress over this topic, I recommend this.

Update Somewhat curiously, we seem not to be answering the series of question put to us at the end of this post.

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1“It is never acceptable to confuse a ‘subjective’ error about moral good with the ‘objective’ truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.” From Veritatis Splendour.

2Reilly listed in a footnote this URL for a PDF copy of the Rolling Stone article, but I was unable to locate it there.

On Truly Random Numbers

Don Knuth. The equations below are beautiful because of him.

Don Knuth. The equations below are beautiful because of him.

Party trick for you. I’m thinking of a number between 1 and 4. Can you guess it?

Two? Nope. Three? Nope. And not one or four either.

I know what the number is, you don’t. That makes it, to you, truly random. To me, it’s completely known and as non-random as you can get. Here, then, is one instance of a truly random number.

The number, incidentally, was e, the base of the so-called natural logarithm. It’s a number that creeps in everywhere and is approximately equal to 2.718282, which is certainly between 1 and 4, but it’s exactly equal to:

e = \sum_0^\infty \frac{1}{n!}  .

The sum all the way out to infinity means it’s going to take forever and a day, literally, to know each and every digit of e, but the only thing stopping me from this knowledge is laziness. If I set at it, I could make pretty good progress, though I’d always be infinitely far away from complete understanding.

Now I came across a curious and fun little book by Donald Knuth, everybody’s Great Uncle in computer science, called Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About whose dust flap started with the words, “How does a computer scientist understand infinity? What can probability theory teach us about free will? Can mathematical notions be used to enhance one’s personal understanding of the Bible?” Intriguing, no?

Knuth, the creator of TeX and author of The Art of Computer Programming among many, many other things, is Lutheran and devout. He had the idea to “randomly” sample every book of the Bible at the chapter 3, verse 16 mark, and to investigate in depth what he found there. Boy, howdy, did he mean everything. No exegete was as thorough; in this very limited and curious sense, anyway. He wrote 3:16 to describe what he learned. Things is a series of lectures he gave in 1999 about the writing of 3:16 (a book about a book).

It was Knuth’s use of the word random that was of interest. He, an expert in so-called random algorithms, sometimes meant random as a synonym of uniform, other times for unbiased, and still others for unknown.

“I decided that one interesting way to choose a fairly random verse out of each book of the Bible would be to look at chapter 3, verse 16.” “It’s important that if you’re working with a random sample, you mustn’t right rig the data.” “True randomization clearly leads to a better sample than the result of a fixed deterministic choice…The other reason was that when you roll dice there’s a temptation to cheat.” “If I were an astronomer, I would love to look at random points in the sky.” “…I thin I would base it somehow on the digits of pi (π), because π has now been calculated to billions of digits and they seem to be quite random.”

Are they? Like e, π is one of those numbers that crop up in unexpected places. But what can Knuth mean by “quite random”? What can a degrees of randomness mean? In principle, and using this formula we can calculate every single digit of π:

\pi = \sum_{k = 0}^{\infty}\left[ \frac{1}{16^k} \left( \frac{4}{8k + 1} - \frac{2}{8k + 4} - \frac{1}{8k + 5} - \frac{1}{8k + 6} \right) \right] .

The remarkable thing about this equation is that we can figure the n-th digit of π without having to compute any digit which came before. All it takes is time, just like in calculating the digits of e.

Since we have a formula, we cannot say that the digits of π are unknown or unpredictable. There they all are: laid bare in a simple equation. I mean, it would be incorrect to say that the digits are “random” except in the sense that before we calculate them, we don’t know them. They are perfectly predictable, though it will take infinite time to get to them all.

Here Knuth seems to mean, as many mean, random as a synonym for transcendental. Loosely, a transcendental number is one which goes on forever not repeating exactly its digits, like e or π; mathematicians say these numbers aren’t algebraic, meaning that they cannot be explicitly and completely solved for. But it does not mean, as we have seen, that formulas for them do not exist. Clearly some formulas do exist.

As in coin flips, we might try to harvest “random” numbers from nature, but here random is a synonym for unpredictable by me because some thing or things caused these outcomes. And this holds for quantum mechanical outcomes, where some thing or things still causes the events, but (in some instances) we are barred from discovering what.

We’re full circle. The only definition of random that sticks is unknown.

True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism Reviewed

Which is much better than probable reason.

Which is much better than probable reason.

Answer me honestly. How rational is it to believe any of the following:

  • Science can explain everything, even itself;
  • The reason anything exists is because of the laws of gravity, quantum fields, and so forth;
  • Jesus of Nazareth was an invention and not a real person;
  • Evolution is why we are so rational;
  • Even though God does not exist you can tell the difference between good and evil;
  • People are only Christians because they were born into it;
  • Miracles are impossible and reports of them are the result of lies, superstition, confusion, and reporting errors;
  • The Gospels on which Christianity relies were written hundreds of years after the fact and are mostly reinventions of other pagan traditions?

Each of these propositions is not only false but easily proven to be so, as even the most minimal exertions show. Yet believing any, and many more like them, are touted by “New Atheists” as marks of superior intelligence, as enlightened thinking, even as commonsense reasonableness. To these infinitely self-assured folks, disbelief is a synonym of rational. It’s just a guess, but perhaps this irrational belief is why it is so hard to persuade New Atheists of their errors?

What I like best about the new book edited by Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian and by Carson Weitnauer is the robust spirit on display from the fifteen authors who contributed essays. Right up front Weitnauer outlines the difficulty he has putting arguments across to a hostile audience, like the one which shows that if God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist. “In response to this argument,” he says, “atheists have sometimes complained that they are being falsely characterized as immoral.” A non-rational response.

The atheist’s problem with evil is that, according to his premises, evil doesn’t exist. It of course exists in reality, which is why most atheists are just as moral as most theists. But the words of Exodus hold no meaning to atheist theory: Neither shall you allege the example of many as an excuse for doing wrong. Instead of built-in universal morality, there is democracy. Whenever two or more atheists gather they can have a vote to see whether any should eat the others—why not?—or whether the worst possible misery for everyone should today be considered “evil.”

That’s what Sam Harris thinks is “evil,” incidentally. But the “worst possible misery” is not objective because any attempted definition must assume objectivity somewhere: there must come a point where is becomes ought. John M. DePoe and later Samuel J. Youngs go into the atheists’ problem of evil in great detail.

Tom Gilson’s account of a “debate” between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris is saddening. Harris’s tactic was to ignore Craig. No word on whether he brought out the onion (he’s done it before; this may be the debate Gilson mentioned).

Although there are plenty of sober and fascinating arguments from thoughtful atheists, philosophical subtlety is not the mark of a New Atheist, as Chuck Edwards shows. The kalam cosmological argument (to prove God’s existence) in simplified form goes: (1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause, (2) The universe began to exist, therefore (3) the universe has a cause.

Richard Dawkins moves from this to his triumph shouting rhetorically: If everything has a cause, then what caused God! Ha! Whether this proves Dawkins can’t read, is lazy, or so self-shackles his mental apparatus that he can’t see his blatant mistake can be argued. What can’t is whether his objection has any force. I only wish Edwards would have said more about why the universe cannot have existed an infinite amount of time and why it can’t have an infinite amount of stuff. Technicalities, perhaps, but juicy ones.

Naturalism, and its inbred cousin scientism, dogmatically says the supernatural does not exist. But naturalism can’t explain existence: it is necessarily mute on why there is something rather than nothing. Something, incidentally, necessarily includes physical “laws”. New Atheists are always using some science-of-the-gaps argument to evade the force of this observation. David Bentley Hart says, “For existence is definitely not a natural phenomenon; it is logically prior to any physical cause whatsoever; and anyone who imagines that it is susceptible of a natural explanation simply has no grasp of what the question of existence really is. In fact, it is impossible to say how, in the terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all.”

Man’s ratiocination is supposed to be explained by naturalism; that is to say, by evolution. But, as Lenny Esposito reminds us, if that is so then there is no reason for us to trust our intellects. After all, it’s “unclear how higher levels of reasoning—the ability to use and apply inference, for example—would develop in this way, for natural selection doesn’t care about truth, it only cares about survival.”

We might have evolved to think \int_0^1 e^x dx = e-1, but in reality it could be that equation is false! How would you know it isn’t? Your brain might be fooling you because it figures you have a better chance to survive if you believe this absurdity. Why, there might even be an “atheism gene” in the brain which causes people to have the comforting but absurd belief that there is no such thing as sin.

Yes, it’s silly. But so is the idea that our intellects are material (here is a lovely and brief proof we aren’t entirely physical creatures). David Wood’s essay is good here, Peter Grice shows that reason is teleological (it aims at truth, thus the modern views of causality are mistaken), and Esposito takes you the rest of the way: from reason to God.

David Marshall speaks of John Loftus’s “Outsider test for faith.” You’re supposed to ask yourself if you’d be Christian if you weren’t raised that way. If not, then you should switch to atheism. But some born-that-way atheists have asked themselves the same thing and switched to Christianity. You can read more about the One True Religion Fallacy here. Loftus’s argument is basically a ginned up version of the genetic fallacy.

Marshall also reminds us that David Hume “falsely defined a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature'”, an irrational definition seized upon by (as far as I know) all New Atheists (more on miracles here). Marshall and Timothy McGrew expostulate on the historical conceptions of faith and reason, which includes a nice discussion of Tertullian and theses words of Church father Justin Martyr: “Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions.” This pursuit of truth is what allows theists to escape the traps of naturalism, for instance.

The supposed “war” between science and religion is a false dichotomy. Admitting its existence is, in a way, a defeat, especially when talking to a scientist who embraces scientism. Ask that fellow if he uses mathematics in his work and if he says yes remind him that all of mathematics is metaphysical and not scientific.

The division between science, i.e. the natural, and religion, i.e. the supernatural, is artificial. Both are needed: you can’t have one without the other. Logic, truth, probability, mathematics, philosophy are not physical (natural) and there isn’t even a glimmer of a hope that the physical can be understood without them. Sean McDowell quotes Sam Harris pontificating (without the mitre) that the “success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma.” For once Harris is right: not all religions are equal. But then sometimes the success of religion comes at the expense of scientism. What matters, as Martyr said above, is truth.

Moving to the practical, Randall Hardman presents historical evidence for the Gospels, Matthew Flannagan investigates God’s command to put every Canaanite to the sword, and Glenn Sunshine discusses the Bible and slavery. Flannagan’s argument in particular, which is strained, is unlikely to convince. Then again, New Atheists can be talked into believing anything, no matter how laughable, as long as it disparages religion. If I hear the fiction of brave Galileo and his battles against a denying Church one more time—well, I can’t be answerable for what I might do. How about when those anti-knowledge Christians burnt down the library of Alexandria? It’s as if all New Atheists subscribe to the Walter Duranty school of history.

Carson Weinauer closes the book by recalling Christopher Hitchens, as do Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others, all religion “child abuse.” New Atheists usually say this kind of thing right before they congratulate themselves on their rationality.

To Coyne A Review: Did Jerry Coyne Really Read David Bentley Hart’s Book?

Coyne isn’t happy you’re not as smart as he

It took Jerry Coyne a while, but it appears—or rather, I should say there is weak and not overly convincing evidence—that the man has finally read David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. (I still owe readers the fourth and final installment of my review!)

The evidence we have is in the form of a confession. Coyne himself, in what purports to be a review, says, “I’ve just finished Hart’s book…”

Now this is important because this is his third review of the book, the first two coming before he read it. Not reading books is, science has proved, the fastest way to fulfill an obligation, but it rather tends to leave one clueless about their contents.

Coyne says Hart’s book is “hardly a compelling argument for God. It is in fact a series of recycled ‘proofs’ of God couched in fancy and often arrogant language.” Recycled? As in the way calculus textbooks prove its fundamental theorem? That an argument has been used before does not, of course, prove it wrong.

Hart, as even Coyne appears to recognize, says that his book is not a collection of proofs for God. Yes, one or two pop up on the course of things, as do fairly good refutations of scientism, but none of these are pursued rigorously. The best of these is Hart’s demonstration that our minds are not material, that there is more to us than appearances. No: Hart’s stated goal, and the one he accomplished deftly, was to define what the great religious traditions mean by God.

This was not a book of comparative religion, but of the fundamental truths that are accepted by Christians, Muslims, Hindus and so forth. Because there are many definitions in the popular mind, and particularly in the minds of scidolators, some reference was needed to highlight the distinction between what classical theists mean by God and what atheists do.

When atheists like Coyne hear “God” they think of some powerful, far-off being, probably itself the result of evolution, who started the universe going magically, and who then retired to pursue other interests. Hart calls this god the Demiurge, and it is the god of deism, atheism, and, it must be admitted, some Christians who succumbed to the taunts of scientism.

Coyne: “Hart seems to claim that beauty, consciousness, and rationality are God, a tactic that completely immunizes his views from disproof.” It is completely false that Harts arguments are “immunized” from disproof, unless that is meant in the sense that Hart’s claims are true. Coyne is trying to drag in the discredited notion of falsifiability for metaphysical propositions. Arguments about God are just as “falsifiable” as are arguments about mathematical theorems, which are also metaphysical.

It quotations like Coyne’s that produce skepticism that he actually read Hart’s book. Hart’s claims are scarcely as simple as Coyne says they are. Hart goes to great pains to show that God is the ground of all being, Being Itself: there is thus no mystery why God’s name is I AM. Hart is at his best when he shows naturalism—“the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order”—the philosophy Coyne embraces, and which is “ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking”, is necessarily false.

Hart says, “The very notion of nature as a closed system entirely sufficient to itself is plainly one that cannot be verified, deductively or empirically, from within the system of nature.” This is true. The key fallacy in naturalism is that it cannot explain being; it is mute on why anything exists. Science can never answer this. Only philosophy can, and when it is considered, the only explanation is that things exist because they were created by a necessary being, which is to say, God.

For existence is more definitely not a natural phenomenon; it is logically prior to any physical cause whatsoever; and anyone who imagines that it is susceptible of a natural explanation simply has no grasp of what the question of existence really is. In fact, it is impossible to say how, in the terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all.

Coyne ignores all of this. Wisely, too. Because if he confronted it honestly, he’d have to find a new hobby. He instead takes the greater part of his review to make weepy eyes at Ross Douthat. Coyne and Douthat have a long-running feud; at least Coyne thinks they do, so instead of answering Hart he gets mad at Douthat for being unable to produce an argument for God’s existence that is convincing to Coyne. Coyne also doesn’t like that Douthat is sympathetic to mystical visions, a.k.a. revelation, which Coyne dogmatically dismisses—I mean Coyne judges with no evidence whatsoever: if you think he has any, I’d be delighted to see it.

All this from a guy who claims people have no free will. Why is it propounders of this silly doctrine (no free will) are always so angry when people don’t agree with them?

My Genes Made Me Vote For Obama: Predisposed Reviewed

My brain made me pick this image.

My brain made me pick this image.

Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences by John Hibbing, Kevin Smith, and John Alford.

If a conservative is a person who clings to what is, who resists change and who distrusts innovation, then, to pick an example at random, a New York Times op-ed writer is a conservative. The last thing anybody who works at that paper wants is a change in the culture. Except for eliminating his enemies, he wants everything to stay just as it is.

What’s a liberal? Somebody who delights in the new? Who’s willing to take risks? Who thrills venturing into the unknown? Who is happy to leave other people alone as long as they leave him alone? Then, brother, Yours Truly is as liberal as they come. The last thing I want is a continuance of Modernity.

Maybe I had no choice except to be so liberal. Maybe each of us born with our politics and there’s nothing we can do about it. Why, babies born and raised in China, Kenya, or Fiji, were they transported here as eighteen-year-olds, would surely line up reflexively at the polls behind the jackass or elephant.

Sound strange? Well the key thesis behind Hibbing’s book is that we can “measure preferences on bedrock dilemmas and [that] these preferences should line up with political attitudes and beliefs in any given historical or cultural context” (emphasis original). Neuro- or bio-politics, as it were, is a new field, and one for which I have some sympathy. Our biology surely accounts for some of our behavior.

Yet I can’t figure the academy out. Haven’t we heard we’re all born equal, that none of us are different except for the pernicious or beneficent environment in which we were raised?

Take a lump of genes wrapped in skin and from birth let it live with two adults (let’s not be judgmental and call them “parents”) who listen to NPR, shop for organic food, and who attend marches for X Rights (where X is variable), and that lump will grow up to be one of the bien pensant. Or let him slog it out with a blue-collar mom and dad who watch Fox News, eat donuts, go to church, and attend Fourth of July parades. Then the lump will turn into Patrick Buchanan. Or Yours Truly. Environment and education—nurture, that is—rules.

But the academy also tells us there is no such thing as free will, that our genes our “selfish”, that our choices are made for us by that which is us biologically but not us mentally, that our behavior is hard-wired, that the reason we don’t like arugula is because of this gene, and the reason we are generous is because of that gene.

Hibbing and pals are somewhere in the middle—definitely not in the first camp. The view that “social context alone determines human behavior…has been a source of misunderstanding and even catastrophe throughout history.” Biology plays an under-appreciated role.

For example, they say it is because of biology that men are more likely to be math geniuses than women—no! Wait. No, no. That can’t be right. I correct myself. Absolutely not. Math ability can’t be genetic. Do you think these guys are some kind of sexists? No, sir. What Hibbing and others say is that the way we act politically is partly genetic.

They have the statistics to prove it. Weak, almost non-existent-correlation, small-sample, based-on-questionnaires, limited-applicability statistics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger collection of maybes, perhaps, probablys, could bes, supposings, possibles.

Here’s the problem. To prove any biological component of ideology you first have to separate the sheep from the goats. Only way to do that is to ask questions, which must be shaded such that divisions can be found, further supposing these divisions are forever fixed. These divisions will be fuzzy and accompanied by great uncertainty. Next is to investigate some ideologically driven behavior, like (they claim) smell preference or what jokes people think funny. That, too, will be measured with error. Last is to correlate the two measures (almost always using a straight line) and report on statistical “significance.” Unless the measurement error is accounted for, which is never is, the conclusions will be far, far too certain, which (as far as I could tell) they always were for the studies reported in this book.

Nobody outside the academy disagrees that biology is influential in our makeup. Some people are naturally delightful, like Yours Truly, and some are naturally bitter pills, like Harry Reid. Some of us are inveterately honest (me) and others choke on the truth (Reid). Others have massive intellects (you know who) while some can only parrot easily won slogans (thanks, Nevada). And we won’t even mention pure physical handsomeness.

Yet biology cannot be fully determinative. Identical twins don’t act in lockstep. The few studies Hibbing cites show twins are often found to be on opposite sides of the same questions, but perhaps not quite to the same rate as non-identical siblings. Environment plays its part: our intellects are ever at work. A man who was a liberal (as that word is commonly thought of) for much of his life can change to be a conservative, and vice versa.

The biological signal of political views is weak at best. I was convinced by none of the studies described in the book, all of which used the kinds of classical statistics (p-values, mostly) which guarantee over-certainty. Though there is enough evidence (from the book and elsewhere) to say biology is often determinative. Why didn’t the authors look to, say, intelligence, which has a robust biological signal? Too political: the findings go in the wrong direction.

Anyway, the authors are keen on their program: they claim their research will bring happiness to one and all by drawing a parallel argument about the course of the politics of homosexuality.

If recognizing that sexual orientation is anchored partially in biology leads to greater tolerance of different lifestyle choices, recognizing that political ideology is also tied to biology will lead to greater tolerance of different political viewpoints.

My knuckles locked up on writing “lifestyle choices” (thank God for the lubricating powers of whiskey), and there is hardly definitive proof how much if any homosexuality is caused by biology (but let that pass), but this is balderdash. I’ll tell you what will be “recognized.” When somebody disagrees with a progressive on a political point, he’ll recognize that his opponent is genetically defective. God help us when genetics testing becomes (more) commonplace than it is (especially in abortion decisions).

A last funny thing. The studies of political differences due to biology strangely always come down on the side of liberals. I keep a list of these studies (here and here) and they invariably paint a dark picture of traditionalists. Oh, and yes: there are increasing calls for selective breeding.

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