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Death 19 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Teaching.
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One of my students was killed in a car accident last week.  I found out through a phone call from his sister.  It’s early in the semester and so I didn’t know him very well yet, but I feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut.  I think many of us educators have unconscious paternal connections to our students, and for some reason this feels really personal to me.  My thoughts and condolences go out to his family and friends today.

When I was religious (a lifetime ago) I had all kinds of pat answers for why death happens and what it means to die.  It’s been years since I believed any of that, and now I find myself left with the anger at the caprisciousness of the world.  It is no wonder that we spend our lives seeking meaning out of the senselessness of birth and death.

But the connections are real, even if they are fleeting and tenuous, and when one of us dies, it’s an inevitable loss.   It’s more than just being reminded of my own mortality; it’s about all Kris had ahead of him, the promise of a life denied.

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Sam Harris “The View from the End of the World” 16 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Religion, Science.
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The now famous speaker against maladaptive religious belief, Sam Harris gave a talk earlier this year summarizing his arguments. What I find most compelling and important are his arguments for why and how public critique of religious belief should happen, what he calls “conversational intolerance.” All democracies around the world are in danger of losing their autonomy, if they don’t speak truth to religious beliefs and work vigorously to maintain a separation of church and state. But Harris is going beyond those issues to the cultural issues of living in a society where people have a right to believe false ideas.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3975633975283704512&q=sam+harris&hl=en

Higher Education — Some Musings 14 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Teaching.
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Now that I’m no longer part of the academic proletariat, or as I used to call myself, the academic-sharecroppers (i.e., the ever-growing army of part-time, adjunct faculty), I’ve begun to take a hard look at the state of higher education, my relationship with students, the institutions, the pay, the actual education, and research. It is an odd realization that even as an adjunct faculty member for five years (and a graduate instructor for five years before that) I hadn’t ever really stopped to look at what I was doing or the institutions I was working my ass off (and indenturing myself to the federal government’s loan program) to be a part of.

Last year, most of my energy was spent making the huge mental shift from “graduate student” to “professor”, trying to get up to speed on a couple of classes I’d never taught before, and securing a contract for my first book (coming out in early 2007, if all goes wel). This fall, however, somewhat settled into my new ‘identity’ and having a better feel for my particular institution, I’ve begun to reconsider the whole enterprise of higher education. Part of this has been confronting some interpersonal issues I’ve had with students (usually issues of personal discipline (e.g., whining when they have to actually do an assignment)); part has been confronting my lack of time to do the research I want to do (I’m a public teaching institution with a 4/4 teaching load); and part has been dealing with the educational culture and its intertia at the institution that employs me. In a nutshell, now that I’m a professor, I have a stake in the institution and actually care about the quality of education for my students and the quality of my work life here. From talking to many of my colleauges, I know that I’m not the only one who cares; yet I find an overdetermining sense of resignation to the Way Things Area and to the Powers That Be. I’m currently torn between following the example of my more experienced and wise coworkers and kicking against the pricks.

[Given the reality that several professors around the country have been punished for the contents of their blogs, I’m only going to speak in abstracts here.]

Recently one of the former Presidents of Harvard, Derek Bok, published a book about what’s wrong with undergraduate education, which was subsequently reviewed in Commentary by Donald Kagan, Professor of Classics, Yale University. In the book, Bok outlines the major problems with undergraduate education today, and the findings are grim. In Kagan’s words,

It seems, in short, that our colleges are “underachieving” after all—and that even their supposedly happy clients know it. Fewer than half of recent graduates, according to Bok’s ever-ready statistics, think they have made significant progress in learning to write, and some think they have actually regressed. Employers confirm this self-assessment, complaining that the college graduates they hire are inarticulate. As for critical thinking, “The vast majority of graduating students are still naïve relativists who ‘do not show the ability to defensibly critique their own judgments’ in analyzing the kinds of unstructured problems commonly encountered in real life.” In the area of foreign languages, fewer than 10 percent of seniors believe they have substantially improved their skills and fewer than 15 percent have progressed to advanced classes. Nor are the results any better in general education, the great battleground of the critics. According to one study, only about a third of seniors report gains in the understanding or the enjoyment of literature, art, music, or theater. Bok goes so far as to quote Daniel Bell’s judgment of the typical curriculum as “a vast smorgasbord” amounting to “an admission of intellectual defeat.”

Beyond the measurable shortcomings in the intellects of college graduates are deficiencies of character. According to Bok’s findings, recent graduates lack self-discipline. Employers complain that they are habitually tardy, lazy, and unable either to listen carefully or to carry out instructions. Bok blames this, too, on their undergraduate experience: grade inflation has undermined standards and professorial laxity has encouraged negligence. “If undergraduates can receive high marks for sloppy work, routinely get extensions for assignments not completed on time, and escape being penalized for minor misconduct, it is hardly a surprise that employers find them lacking in self-discipline.”

Kagan argues that the reason for this failure is that professors teach so much less than when he was an undergraduate 50 years ago. He says that in his day, professors taught five courses per semester, and that that was slowly widdled down to 2 courses per semester by the 1980s. To be frank, I’m a bit dubious that a professor at a research university ever taught 5 courses per semester, but I’m willing to take him at his word for the sake of argument. There is something to the argument that the priorities have shifted from teaching to research (although research was always a part of the equation). But I think that Kagan’s analysis is lacking in historical and sociological accuracy. Kagan argues that most classes are taught be ill-equipped graduate students and adjuncts (so far so good) and that this is because professors are spoiled and lazy.

Here’s where I think Kagan could use a bracing dose of reality. The economics of higher education have dramatically shifted from his youth prior to WWII. Perhaps Kagan suffers from these misperceptions from his relatively privileged position at Yale. In a nutshell, as America’s politics took a turn to the right, funding for higher education has been dramatically cut (at least at the public university). At the same time, demand for places in undergraduate institutions has continued to rise. We are left with a situation in which there isn’t enough money at my institution to even pay the professors they have a living wage in this state; and to fill the need, more than 1/2 of the courses taught statewide in my university are taught by part-time teachers, many of them not fully qualified (i.e., no Ph.D., as when I was an adjunct before completing my degree). Adjuncts who are fully qualified are overworked and underpaid and have no time for continued research and development in their field. These economic factors and the social pressures to cut costs have also been accompanied by inflation of salaries and rewards on the administrative side of universities, the cost of which has increased exponentially in the past 3 decades.

Bok, on the other hand, offers an equally problematic solution. Bok says that it’s professors refusal to use accurate and substantiated “assessment techniques” to understand why their courses are failing. Although I do have a respect for actually studying what is working and not working in classrooms, I find this to be simplistic in the extreme. Undergraduate education has deteriorated because professors don’t use assessment? I hardly think that’s adequate. Bok suggests these possibilities:

He gamely offers a number of suggestions. At the prodding of their presidents, for example, colleges could undertake continuing “evaluation, experimentation, and reform.” They could offer professors seed money and released time for trying new and better ways to teach. They could hire better-qualified, full-time instructors instead of the graduate students and academic gypsies who currently teach subjects disdained by the regular faculty (like writing and foreign languages). From the other side, student evaluations could be made more probing. Ph.D. programscould be made to include better preparation for teaching. And so forth.

I actually agree with most of his proposed solutions. But again, I think the reality is more complex and am not sure that there would be much progress made. Nearly 80% of graduating high school seniors go on to a post-secondary institution now. The reasons are clear: A BA/BS is a key to the professional-managerial class in the U.S. It’s a credential required by most middle-class employers. But most of them fail or drop out. (Only 22% of Americans actually end up with the degree.) With the massive influx of students on one hand and the significant and much ballyhoo’d problems in our K-12 system in the U.S., is it any surprise that students come unprepared for a college experience and that they drop out or fail? Institutions like mind spend millions of dollars on remediation, trying to get students up to just a freshman level, but that’s after they’re already at a four-year institution! The community college system in California just voted (finally) to increase it’s graduation requirements so that students couldn’t get an AS/AA unless they had achieved at least a freshman college level of English writing and of Algebra. To me this seems like a no-brainer, but in California, this was a debate that took years, because people were afraid that the increased requirements would mean that many students would be denied degrees.I am a vocal advocate for working to decrease social inequality in any way possible. But I think that lowered expectations at the university level (which widely results in the decreased value or meaning of a university bachelor’s degree) is precisely the wrong way to go about doing that.

So I agree with Bok that professors should work to improve teaching, but think that’s inadequate; I also agree with Kagan that there are perhaps some spolied “Imperial Faculties” out there. But I think the economics of the issue must be addressed, as well as the overall state of education in our nation, and including the cultures of educations on our campus which have led to dramatic reductions in expectations overall and results, which are lowering the value of an American college degree.

John F. Kennedy on Secrecy and Security 8 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, History, Journalism, Politics, War & Terrorism.
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Although he had his faults, like all men and women, he was a believer in democracy and freedom. His words stand in stark and alarming contrast to the cynics who run our country today. Thanks to whoever posted this speech to YouTube and to Mike the Mad Biologist for spreading the word.

Evolution and Culture [via a lecutre about brains], part two 8 September 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Science.
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[Note: This is a rough draft, taken from lecture notes. I’ll return later today to clean it up for readability and clarity.]

As I mentioned last night, I’ve been teaching about evolution of human cognition, leading students toward a naturalistic explanation of culture (both its origins and how it functions in human populations). What follows is a redux of my lecture notes from yesterday. I follow pretty closely the topics of Chs. 2-6 of David C. Geary, The Origin of the Mind: Evolution of Brain, Cognition and General Intelligence (Washington, D.C.: APA, 2005). But I also mix in some Deweyan language to take off some of the rough edges in Geary’s theory.

What selective pressures might have caused encephalization?
anticipate unpredictable climate, ecological and social changes within a lifetime
bounded by time (have a hard time thinking beyond the time frame of a human life)
climate is unlikely; but ecology is very likely and then at a later point, social

Uncertainty (Geary: Motivation to Control)
[this is a fundamental idea of the American pragmatists, and is most fully expressed in John Dewey’s Nature and Experience.]

nature of the environment is unpredictability and changeability; organisms then experience the desire to stabilize or create equilibrium
does not seek best possible outcomes, but “good enough” outcomes control outcomes
instability, uncertainty, “problems” = need to control and/or to create certainty
Brains & Uncertainty
individuals who control social and physical environment have advantage
attempts to control are dependent on the brain’s structure and cognition
folk psychology, folk sociology, folk physics, folk biology/ecology

Brain development & evolution
evolutionary development (chains and processes in response to the environment)
brain as a continuum of constrained inherent systems and plastic systems
because the environment consists of two kinds of sensory input
invariant social/ecological conditions across generations (constrained)
variant social/ecological conditions within a lifetime (plastic)

debates about prenatal development, but clearly a mixture of
experience of the fetus
input from firing subcortical neurons
inherently constrained patterns of nueral migration

parts of the brain that deal with the environmental patterns most important for “fitness” are the larges and most active depending on the species. In humans: Visual cortex and hand/finger sensitivity/tough/dexterity

Experience and Brain
postnatal experiences influence the brain’s development
learning, developmental experiences, etc.
experiences have a small to moderate influence on brain structure, but a huge influence on the content of the ‘mind’; scientists say that experience “fine-tunes” the brain; human children actually undergo a process of “pruning” neurons, where through experience, neural connections actually die or atrophy as the child grows up, so that by age 12, a large proportion of the neural connections are actually lost, as the child gains the ability to fit into the environment it is born into (social and ecological). Current research suggests that between the ages of 8 and 18, the base metabolism rate for the brain decreases by as much as 50%!

Modular Domains
E.G., folk psychology/sociology
self-level
the ability to think about the self
and to process social information about the self
individual-level
self, facial expressions, language, relationships
group-level
kin, categorize people (frontal lobes), in-groups, out-groups
all of these co-evolved to aid the individual to fit into its environment
and control social outcomes

Soft-Modularity
folk systems emerge from
inherent constraints <—> experience
the most plastic modules are those dealing with the most variable input
the function of the developmental period of human children is to enable
nueral, perceptual, cognitive, behavioral systems to the variation within
these domains in their particular environments

Bounded Rationality vs. Conscious Problem Solving

Bounded Rationality
decision making mechanisms in our brain that work automatically in our ecological contexts; guide behavioral decisions based on implicit knowledge
remember, this is not the optimal or best behavior, but the “good enough” behavior

Conscious Problem Solving
humans can overcome their automatic decision-making processes and became aware of the environment and use explicit, conscious problem solving. This is on the side of the variant inputs, and so the bounded-rationality is less effective and perhaps even dangerous, because they are unpredictable and uncertain. Here is the most need for cognitive “control”.

Conscious Problem Solving and the Mind
—inhibit the heuristic-based processing of bounded rationality and form conscious representations of the environment in question

Executive Control & Working Memory
[slave systems: especially processing of auditory and visual information]
Executive Control depends on Attentional Control
attention-driven amplification of certain brain functions, which synchronizes the executive brain function with the automatic/slave systems, and amplifies the work of the latter
prefrontal cortex (attention) also controls sense of self and the ability to “time travel”
being able to sense the self in the environment and to project that self backwards and forwards in time is CRUCIAL to the ability to conscious problem solving.

The EC and WM systems combined allow the brain to form conscious representations of a social or ecological environment and MENTALLY CHANGE THAT REPRESENTATIONS, virtually conducting mental experiments.

This combines with the desire to create stability or equilibrium or certainty in the environment, as human beings exert control over their environments.

Evolution of Problem Solving
the climate is to slow in changing to account for the changes
ecological (food, shelter) and social, however, are

The current theory of what the mind actually IS combines all of the above:
self-awareness combines with mental models to create an “perfect world” wherein the individual is able to control and organize and stabilize the environment, both social and ecological. This is the conscious activity that our minds engage in to begin and motivate the on-going problem solving cycle. Notice that it is always a complex interaction of society and physical world, because survival depends on our adaptation in this complex environment. This ability to conjure a “perfect world” is an advantage evolutionarily when the environment is dominated by highly variant information.

BYU Is at It Again—9/11 Conspiracy Theorist Put on Leave 8 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Commentary, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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This time, they’ve put a professor on administrative leave for being part of the 9/11 conspiracy theorist dog-and-pony show. Now I’ll be the first person to say that Steven Jones, physics professor at BYU, is simply off his rocker on this one. He is traveling the country with a handful of other academics claiming that 9/11 was actually perpetrated by the U.S. government, which is now blaming other people for its own ends. On the face of the evidence and using simply Occam’s Razor logic, there’s virtually nothing to their arguments (but I do think there has been a concerted effort to cover up the administration’s deep incompetence leading up to the events, including the upcoming ABC program, which, if accounts are true is basically a propaganda piece).

That said, I have to yet again say that BYU is as wrong on this one as it is in its heresy cases, such as Jeff Nielsen earlier this summer. The principle of academic freedom is designed, among other things, to allow professors to research and question and explore whatever they want to, without fear of recriminations or punishment from their university. The University in Illinois with the holocaust denier hasn’t fired or put him on administrative leave. Although his arguments are fringe, he’s doing exactly what an academic *should* do, which is present his evidence in a public forum to be vetted by peers and experts.

So Jones is pretty much a whack job (he aparrantly teaches his students that Kolob is “dark matter,” Kolob being both the planet next to the mormon god’s dwelling and the planet from where the gods of Battlestar Galactica come (except they call it Kobol)). More importantly, I don’t buy his arguments about 9/11. But I think that is beside the point. The whole concept of academic freedom is to protect professors against precisely this kind of capriscious action, where a university says your research or public activities “tarnishes the university” or is “unamerican” or is “evil.”

BYU’s own policy actually “splits” academic freedom into two parts (see my earlier post about academic freedom at BYU), where you have complete academic freedom on anything that doesn’t directly touch on the church or the institution’s mormon mission or student faith; when you do or say anything that touches the church or BYU’s connection to the church, you are no longer protected. In most of these academic freedom issues, BYU’s rationale is that the professor violated their contract by questioning the church, which it has separated as a different aspect of academic freedom.

In Jones’ case, under BYU’s own policy, he has not violated its academic freedom policy and he should be reinstated immediately.

Evolution and Culture [via yet another conversation about religion], part one 7 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Religion.
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This semester, I’m teaching a course on the connection between “Nature” and culture. We’ve started the class with a few weeks on human evolution, and today we just covered the evolution of the brain and mind. I’ve been reading about these ideas for a couple years now, but when you have to teach them to people who don’t necessarily get it or who are just thinking about the issues for the first time, it really forces you to put things together.

Today, I’ve been really trying to articulate better the connection between the evolution of the brain and the emergence of culture, or the complex meaning systems that human beings use to understand and control their social-ecological environments. On a message board I participate in, I’ve been discussing with a few people this process, and addressing again my problems with the “meme” metaphor for understanding culture. I apologize in advance for the stream of consciousness, but I’m really just sort of trying to frame some of this for the first time.

From an internet aquaintence, fh451:

Fair enough – I’d be interested in hearing more about this. It just seems to me that social processes (do you define religion as a “social process?”) and memes survive and propagate through a type of selection process, just as organisms survive and propagate within a physical selection process. As you said, the two are connected; thus, is it not reasonable to say that social processes (and memes) can contribute to physical survival fitness? This was one of the thesis put forward in “Darwin’s Cathedral” by David Sloan Wilson. He talked about certain religious orders (in particular, the Calvinists, iirc) and how traits of the religion contributed to survival. Perhaps far from “proven,” but interesting nonetheless.

My response:

1. Religion is a cultural phenomena, rooted, in my opinion, in certain brain functions, especially the overlay of our causal reasoning and our theory of mind (i.e., imputing intentionality on others); but the meanings, myths, rituals, structures, institutions, etc., are all social processes. To clarify, religion as we think of it is a complex social and cultural interaction overlayed (emerging out of?) a narrowly construed brain quirk. [There are other theories of the origins of religion evolutionarily, but that’s the one I currently find the most convincing from Cognitive Sciences. I can direct you to a couple great articles if you’re interested.]

2. Memes do NOT survive and reproduce through a selection process, at least not in a way that is analagous to natural selection processes. To be clear, it is simply not empirically true. Richard Dawkins makes a classic mental error of misapplying a theory that works in one area onto another area where it doesn’t, in fact, work. My problem isn’t of thinking of ‘units of meaning’ as a meme, but of thinking of a meme as an evolutionary analogue.

At the same time, culture is connected to biological survivability. In a nutshell, our brains evolved in such a way to produce culture, which is the effect of having a group of individuals with the “conscious problem solving” abilities, which is the use of mental models of the real world, combined with language and symbol systems and representations, which then allow the transmission of massive amounts of information from person to person, and from generation to generation, in order to solve problems in the real world. So the questions become, when and how do cultures change? And when and how is cultural change connected to biological fitness in a specific social-ecological environment? What is tricky is that although cultures are connected to biological fitness, cultures do not change over time in a pattern that follows the rules of natural selection.

Here are a few examples of why the meme analogy (as espoused by Dawkins) doesn’t fly empirically:

a) cultures do not brachiate in the way that species do. Indeed, although cultures have histories, their histories are incredibly messy, skipping generations and jumping populations and subject to the whims and vicissitudes of any number of individual egos at any given moment.

b) this non-brachiated movement through time and space is an embodied process (that is, human beings are doing it) and is subject to human agency (embodied human beings are picking and choosing the meaning systems that work in their particular social-ecological environtments and which answer individual questions and satisfy individual desires (not to mention group needs and desires)).

c) and therefore, most important of all, cultures do not exist independent of human experience, but rather emerge from it. Human beings generate, create, borrow, and modify meanings systems to meet their needs and satisfy their desires in specific social-ecological environments, and they do so in transaction with that environment and through the sensory input of their bodies. Because of the embodied origins of cultural meaning production, units of meaning (memes) cannot be thought of as viruses with independent lives subject to impersonal, arbitrary selective processes (as is the case biologically).

d) human beings agentively change and modify their cultures for many different reasons, including capricious and nonsensical reasons. Human beings will very often choose to transform their environments to fit their culture, rather than the inverse (although they usually do a combination of the two).

d.5) of course, to complicate matters, all perceptions and thoughts of human beings are already culturally conditioned, which means that there are cultural perception mechanisms in place before an individual or group even thinks about what they need or desire or goes to encounter or create new cultural objects, practices, symbols, or ideas. This means that agency is always conditioned by previous experience, which is necessarily, always cultural. However, that prior conditioning is surprisingly plastic under the right circumstances. But it is likewise important not to misinterpret this to say that we are tabulae rasae, in the old behaviorist model. There are some brain systems and modules that are hardwired, and our cognitive systems use those hardwirings; brain development and functioning seems to be an inextricable interplay of experience (cultural and physical) upon the hard-wired ways the brain is structured to cogitate.

e) cultural ideas can contribute to biological fitness; but the fact that they do or do not tells us nothing about their nature. It is important to make the distinction between saying that our brains evolved to be cultural, and to then discern how cultures themselves come to be and change over time. It turns out that although cultures are always embodied and necessarily impact biological survivability, the actual movement of that culture through time uses different mechanisms (and further, nonanalogous) to those of natural selection.

f) when a culture persists, it usually is for a combination of reasons, but it seems those reasons always include a mixture of: 1) it “works” in the environment for the individuals who live it and propagate its system of meanings; and 2) it isn’t deleterious to the biological survival of the individuals who believe and live it.

Now on fh451’s comment about Calvinism:

As a social scientist, I’m concerned with the empirical study of social relations and, for me especially in my work, the generation of and movement through time of culture. Or did the author you cite mean that Calvinism provided for the survival of the puritans biologically? Either way, it’s very tricky. Human culture itself is the adaptive product of the evolution of our minds that allows us as a species to deal with a constantly changing environment. On a purely survival level, it is hard to think of any culture which lasted any amount of time that affected survivability of the species (or at least the group): All cultures that I can think of allowed individuals to live long enough to reproduce. The exceptions here are when social interactions take place and cultures compete with each other, as in 500 years of European expansion in the world, when colonized peoples had to adapt their cultures to a new social environment or perish.

Biologically, culture is a survival trait; but specific cultures themselves behave in ways that follow patterns dictated by language and symbol transmission and social interaction, rather than the laws and patterns of natural selection. There is a great working theory of when cultural change must occur biologically, that basically states that there is a “tipping point” in an environment when a culture *must* change or the organisms that live it will die. The problem is that in most social-ecological environments, that tipping point is hard to reach, unless the culture is really living on the edge of survivability (maybe, for example, an Inuit culture? or a bedouin? where the environment is so harsh that there is very little play in their options). In most cases of human society, there’s a great deal of play to work with before the tipping point is reached, and the biological surivivability can withstand a broad swing in most aspects of a culture. In sum, the vast majority of cultural variation is neutral in terms of biological fitness and survivability.

Gays in Iraq 4 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay Rights, War & Terrorism.
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As the social bonds in Iraq continue to deteriorate and as faction-controled militia have taken over larger swaths of the country, the lives of gay men and women are in more danger than ever. Scores of murders and kidnappings terrorize gay men, who have taken to disguising themselves and running away to protect their families; and gay women are forced into traditional female roles and clothing to save their lives. If the militia and gangs of thugs in the streets don’t summarily execute anyone suspected of being gay (all in the name of God, of course), then they threatend, extort and blackmail the friends and families of gays and lesbians. This is a side of the Iraq war we hear little or nothing about in the United States.

365gay.com reports on a recent article published in the UK weekly Tribune about the current state of life for gay and lesbian Iraqis:

Plight Of Iraqi Gays Worsens
by 365Gay.com Newscenter Staff

September 4, 2006 – 2:00 pm ET

(London) As Iraq continues to spiral closer to all-out civil war the situation for the country’s LGBT community worsens by the day a British gay rights leader said on Monday.

Outrage leader Peter Tatchell, writing in the leftist weekly Tribune, says that information reaching the organization points to a “Talibanisation of Iraq”

Citing sources within the country, Tatchell says that some Baghdad neighborhoods, are now under the de facto control of Taliban-style fundamentalist militias.

“Two militias are doing most of the killing,” he writes. “They are the armed wings of major parties in the [US/UK backed] Iraqi government. Madhi is the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, and Badr is the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is the leading political force in Baghdad’s ruling coalition.”

Tatchell highlights the situations experienced by a number of Baghdad gays. One, Wissam Auda, was a member of Iraq’s Olympic tennis team. Tatchell writes that Wissam “had been receiving death threats from religious fanatics on account of his homosexuality.”

On 25 May, his vehicle was ambushed by fundamentalist militias in the al-Saidiya district of Baghdad. Wissam, together with his coach Hussein Ahmed Rashid and team mate Nasser Ali Hatem, were all summarily executed in the street.”

Tatchell said that Outrage is working with an underground LGBT group in Baghdad and has established “a clandestine network of gay activists inside Iraq’s major cities” to ensure news of the gay community’s situation reaches the West.

In April, IRIN, a United Nations sponsored media group, reported that armed gangs are regularly kidnapping and holding for ransom Iraqis – many of them gay. (story)

Quoting a Baghdad LGBT organization, IRIN reported that that 12 members of the organization had been killed by kidnappers when their ransom demands could not be met. Another 70 had been threatened with kidnapping.

In March, prominent Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for death to gays. (story)

The partner and family of a gay Canadian peace activist who was kidnapped in Iraq kept his sexuality a closely guarded secret until after he was freed in a military raid. (story)

James Loney was kidnapped in Baghdad along with fellow Canadian Harmeet Sooden, Briton Norm Kember and American Tom Fox, whose bullet-ridden body was found last month.

Loney’s sexuality was revealed only on his return to Canada when he was greeted at the airport by partner Dan Hunt.

For more on gay men and women in Muslim countries, see Ahbab News.

*365gay.com is a good source of GLBT news online, despite it’s apparent lack of editors or proofreaders and its refusal to syndicate with an RSS feed of its service.

The Panda’s Thumb: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design Review 4 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Christianity, Evolution, Religion.
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The Panda’s Thumb: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design Review

This is a brilliant review/chapter-by-chapter rebuttal of an inept defense of ID.

Political Fervor 4 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cognitive Science, Democratic Theory, History, Politics.
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[On a post-mormon forum I participate on, there’s been some discussion about why Mormonism breeds such intense political feelings in addition to the religious identity one would expect, so much so that it is often impossible to have a rational discussion about politics with a mormon (or any religious person, for that matter. Here are some of my thoughts:]

Cognitive Scientists have done a series of studies on people’s reactions to political discussions (not ideas) and here’s the thing: people have to make a concerted effort to stay in a ‘rational’ mode. If they don’t, emotions take over, so that the emotional brain controls the discourse. I’ve found this to be true here in the Bay Area as well, even among secular, left-wing people. I thought when I left Kansas for San Francisco, I’d be politically free; but I find that the political culture here is just as reactionary and normative as it was in Kansas, only from the other side of the political spectrum. I’ve been scolded in a Berkeley parking lot by complete strangers for throwing away a plastic bottle (instead of recycling it) and have been called a Republican and a fascist (in tones approaching religious fervor) because I questioned the city’s policies on homelessness and, more recently, school busing. In short, people seem to hold political positions uncritically, in general, and emotionally; and they are usually identities as much as or more than they are political positions.

In social psychology (i.e., microsociology), it’s been pretty well demonstrated that, at least in democracies, political affiliation is rarely a mere alignment of parties and even rarer of intellectually substantiated argument; rather, it is almost always an alignment of values and group boundary drawing of peoplep who share those values. Values can (and should!) be discussed and arrived at rationally whenever possible (we should have reasons for taking the value positions we do), but the reality is that most often we *feel* our value positions, rather than think about them. And thus, our political affiliations, which are value affiliations, are emotional attachments, not rational choices.

American politics’ two-party steaming pile of fresh bullshit has the frustrating cultural effect of making Americans think that all issues only have two sides and two possible solutions, and one is evil and one is good. I cannot see how American politics could possible ever get better until we have a multi party, proportional representational system, and publicly funded proportional campaign financing. But I digress. My point here is that the emotional nature of political affiliation is then exacerbated by the fact that we have a political culture based in a duality that forecloses our ability to see the complexity of issues and possible solutions to problems.

All this historically is actually connected to the way Americans do/have done religion. Where disestablishment had the unintended effect of imbricating religious participation and political participation completely by the 1830s. My small point is simply that it is deeply American to have inextricable relationships between faith and politics. Even during the long 100 year long period where ostensibly evangelicals believed that religion was incompatible with secular politics, they framed religious issues as political issues (think: Scopes trial; temperance movement; etc.). And so people’s religious identities and political affiliations are woven together in vexing and vexed ways.