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For the Benefit of Art, Get Government Out of It

In a pair of dueling essays in the current Motif magazine, I take up the side of those arguing for the cessation of government funding for the arts:

When government creates funding streams that must go to art, the skills that procure money for an artist move away from the communication of love and toward the soulless description of benefits to bureaucrats and politicians. The people skilled at jumping through the hoops of the grant process and willing to produce the material that the government has defined as “art” — with a message that accords with the interests of government agencies and of politicians — will be the ones who have the opportunity to produce something that they’re able to package as “art.”

Continue reading in Motif.

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Reversing a Deadly Cultural Cliché

Betsy McKay raises a central puzzle for America in a Wall Street Journal article about death rates among white adults:

The increase in mortality rate for working-class whites can’t be explained by declining income prospects alone. Blacks and Hispanics face many of the same income struggles but have experienced declines in mortality over the same period, the two economists argued, though their findings reveal more recent troubles for blacks, with gains stagnating the past couple of years amid an increase in drug overdoses and stalling progress against heart disease.

“This doesn’t seem to be about current income,” Ms. Case said in a call with reporters. “It seems to be about accumulating despair.”

It’s about demoralization.  This trend results from the combination of economic hardship, the elites’ undermining of traditional family structures, and, as a final assault, the handling in the popular culture of white men as always the ultimate source of evil.  Dysfunctional families are easier to survive when there’s money in the equation, and cultural opprobrium is easier to laugh off when you’re advantaged.

To some extent, the problem is the inertia of cultural clichés.  It takes a while for the message that circumstances have changed to filter throughout those who make decisions throughout our institutions, arts, and media (often requiring the change of entire generations at the helm).  And the Left pushed this particular cliché unreasonably hard, because they liked the pose and the political upside.

In the meantime, our society will continue to fail in its role of uplifting its disadvantaged members.

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Freedom Through the Acknowledgment of Being Created

As a follow-up to my post this morning about the effect of secularism on the Right and the Left, John Waters’s review of Peter Seewald’s book of interviews with Pope Benedict XVI:

There is, [Benedict] said in that dazzling “bunker” speech to the Bundestag in September 2011, an “ecology of man.” Man “is not merely self-­creating freedom”; he is intellect and will, but also nature, “and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”

That speech amounted to a summary of his lifetime’s public project: to warn of the eclipsing of mystery in modern culture, of the decline into an absolutist relativism and the positivist codes and delusions which lock us into a bunker of error—and then the antidote: throwing open the windows so that God might be recognized anew by his people. “The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more.”

Real freedom comes when we acknowledge reality and accept our role in it, whatever our material condition.

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The “Real” News About Healthcare Reform

The Providence Journal and Rhode Island progressives are doing a disservice to the people of our state by advancing a biased and non-realistic perspective on the federal healthcare reform debate.

There are few issues that are more personal or important than planning for the care that can preserve the health of ourselves and our families. But what governmental approach best helps us accomplish this?

Currently, our state is following the federal Obamacare approach of seeking to insure more people with government-run Medicaid or with a one-size-fits-all government-mandated private insurance plan. This approach is in a death-spiral.

Continue reading at Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

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Walking the Narrow Path of Faith

Beginning with mugshot photographs of Russian Christians about to be murdered by the Soviets, John Burgess ponders what freedom means for Christians. He includes some good perspective for believers (Christian and otherwise) who fear the direction our society is headed:

The blessings of relative peace, prosperity, and humane governance in the modern West may further encourage us to think of freedom as the ability or right to fulfill our physical and emotional desires. Yet these desires, in fact, mostly control us. While we may believe that we have freely chosen to pursue what we imagine to be personal well-being and happiness, we are, in fact, driven by pride and sloth. …

Strengthened by spiritual practices and transformed by divine worship, the pure in heart attain spiritual freedom: the freedom to resist powers of evil and to live for God by worshipping him alone.

Indeed, with that as our goal, living in times of comfort can be more challenging:

Over the centuries, Christians have often recognized that they are more apt to discover spiritual freedom under conditions of persecution than when they are afforded toleration. When the Church is socially acceptable and when religious affiliation is more a matter of custom than faith, those who call themselves Christians are easily tempted to sell their inheritance of spiritual freedom for the pottage of social privilege and material wealth. This temptation is, perhaps, also ours in America today. A legally guaranteed right to religious freedom may too easily be mistaken for true Christian freedom.

And the key point:

Recognizing that human faith is feeble, Christians over the centuries have generally concluded that they should not seek persecution, even though we should be prepared to accept it.

Persecution, that is, is something neither seek nor avoid. In other words, neither persecution nor comfort should be the basic foundation of our decisions.  We are charged to move toward God, being neither distracted by the attractions of comfort nor intimidated by the promise of pain and difficulty.

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Aimee Gardiner: Now is the Time to Take a Stand Against the HPV Mandate

The 2017 General Assembly session is picking up steam, and the movement against the HPV vaccine mandate in RI has not lost momentum. Rhode Islanders Against Mandated HPV Vaccinations has continued to rally support and to speak with legislators. Our efforts are paying off. Three bills have been submitted already for 2017 and a forth may come soon.

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Making Difficult Personal Interactions a National Decision

Perhaps you’ve come across the story of the transgender wrestler who won the Texas title for girls’ wrestling.  If you haven’t, the opening summary of Dan Frosch’s Wall Street Journal article may need some clarification:

Mack Beggs, a star wrestler at Trinity High School near Fort Worth, has a new victory under his belt. On Saturday, he became the first transgender boy to win the girls state title in Texas.

Turning to biology for clarity makes things simpler:  Mack is a girl taking hormones (at the pre-majority age of 17) to become more like a boy.  Previous articles I’ve read were honest enough to note that boy-making hormones are essentially performance-enhancing drugs for a female wrestler.  Hence, the dilemma.

Many folks in the Northeast like to mock Southerners, assuming they’re as closed-minded about their views as New England progressives are about their own, but one must sympathize with the league:

“It is not a clean, easy thing to deal with by any means,” said Cody Moree, a superintendent in Apple Springs Independent School District in East Texas. Mr. Moree voted for the rule but said he understood both sides of the issue.

“I would understand if this student was wrestling in the boys division and there were objections there as well,” he said.

Putting the dilemma that way — and it is a dilemma — gets at a consideration that people around here tend to simply dismiss:  Other children have feelings, too, and they have a right not to have the weight of government come down on them to “correct” their wrongthink.

Even in the boys’ league, Mack would be taking performance-enhancing drugs, potentially wrestling against biological boys who are (for hormonal or other reasons) not as strong. As much as self-righteous, right-thinking people might be prepared to condemn those boys for their insecurities and bigotry, losses to a biological girl could be hurtful.  (They’d probably be at the lower weight classes, after all.)  Why should their feelings be dismissed?

Maybe we need to reconsider setting children on the path to biological transformation so early.

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Do We Need a Temperance Movement for the Internet?

As we all wake up groggy on the first Monday after the Daylight Savings switch and go about our plugged-in days, let’s give some thoughts to Ross Douthat’s exhortation to “Resist the Internet.”  Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Douthat encourages a vast new regime of laws and social norms limiting the degree to which people are plugged in through their computers and smart phones.

Fanciful as most of his essay is, his last suggestion and more-realistic expectation are worth taking seriously:

… The age of consent should be 16, not 13, for Facebook accounts. Kids under 16 shouldn’t be allowed on gaming networks. High school students shouldn’t bring smartphones to school. Kids under 13 shouldn’t have them at all. If you want to buy your child a cellphone, by all means: In the new dispensation, Verizon and Sprint will have some great “voice-only” plans available for minors.

I suspect that versions of these ideas will be embraced within my lifetime by a segment of the upper class and a certain kind of religious family. But the masses will still be addicted, and the technology itself will have evolved to hook and immerse — and alienate and sedate — more completely and efficiently.

That sounds about right.  Those with advantages adjust to innovations and changes, but as with much else in the culture war (particularly around sex and lifestyle), those who need us to build a common culture for their benefit and their ability to improve their lot are harmed.

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Unfair And Unreasonable Occupational Licensing Restrictions

It is time to change the status quo in Rhode Island. What if lawmakers were to realize the policy culture of considering only material needs has been harmful to our families? Instead, lawmakers should work to empower more families with the soul-fulfilling power of work by removing the obstacles that stand in their way. Rhode Island needs bold, broad-based reform ideas; ideas that will help existing and would-be businesses and families. One big idea is removing the heavy-hand of government occupational licensing restrictions on small businesses.

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Addiction as a Selfist Draw into Helplessness

It seems as if we’ve seen an upsurge in contrarian arguments recently, as with Paul Bloom’s book, Against Empathy, which I mentioned in my podcast this past week.  Here’s another example, this time with Peter Hitchens insisting that addiction is a “fantasy.”

Read the whole thing for his arguments, but this is the point I’d like to draw out for this post:

The Christian religion had no idea that a new power, which I call selfism, would arise. And, having arisen, selfism has easily shouldered its rival aside. In free competition, how can a faith based upon self-restraint and patience compete with one that pardons, unconditionally and in advance, all the self-indulgences you can think of, and some you cannot? That is what the “addiction” argument is most fundamentally about, and why it is especially distressing to hear Christian voices accepting and promoting it, as if it were merciful to call a man a slave, and treat him as if he had no power to resist.

I tend to agree with Hitchens that people can overcome these things if they work at it.  Labeling everything as, in essence, a disease may make matters worse, on a societal scale.  Mainly, that is, I agree with Hitchens that it is detrimental to inculcate a culture with the idea of powerlessness and, therefore, a denial of individual agency.

In gaining freedom from blame, we lose responsibility (which is a topic I’ve touched on before).

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In the Dystopia, Turn to the Other Listener

For your Saturday-afternoon unsettling reading, turn to the thoughts of Instapundit reader, security expert Eric Cowperthwaite, regarding the WikiLeaks release of CIA files:

The CIA has built a capability to hack pretty much anything, anywhere. It turns out that they, potentially, have more ability to intrude into servers, computers, smartphones and electronic communications than even the NSA. This capability is now in the hands of people other than the CIA. All the things you’ve read, that seem like science fiction movie plots, are really true. Other people can listen to you via your smart TV, can read your email, turn on the webcam on your laptop, without you ever knowing.

On the same topic, Roger Simon of PJMedia takes up some of the media and political ramifications.  This paragraph in particularly caught my eye:

Whatever the case, we all have to do some serious thinking — way beyond the general superficiality and contrived drama of congressional hearings or indeed the quick in-and-out of an op-ed.  What is being revealed here is a sea change in the human condition that is almost evolutionary in its implications. What are our lives like without the presumption of privacy?  What kind of creatures will we become in this brave new world that appears already to have arrived?   It’s not fun to contemplate. Even the medieval peasantry had moments of escape from their feudal lords.

Rather than “evolutionary,” I think I’d go straight to “existential.”  As a Christian, the notion of never being entirely alone is not exactly a new one (and not inherently a frightening one).  The key question becomes who is listening and why.

There is nothing an omnipotent God needs to sneak from us and no worldly advantage for Him to gain by knowing our secrets.  Whatever you’ve thought or done, worse has been thought and done by millions of others.  That is not true when the listeners are other people, with their own schemes and selfish interests.

Whatever new technological twists we put on the old plot, the central struggle remains the same for the individual: It’s them versus Him.

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Hate Crimes and Playing the Man in Politics

Noting that some significant portion of the anti-Semitic threats made in the recent past were perpetrated by a left-wing journalist, Kevin Williamson puts his finger on the impression that many conservatives (and, I would hope, clear-eyed moderates and even liberals) are getting: 

The Left, for the moment, cannot seriously compete in the theater of ideas. So rather than play the ball, it’s play the man. Socialism failed, but there is some juice to be had from convincing people who are not especially intellectually engaged and who are led by their emotions more than by their intellect — which is to say, most people — that the people pushing ideas contrary to yours are racists and anti-Semites, that they hate women and homosexuals and Muslims and foreigners, that they could not possibly be correct on the policy questions, because they are moral monsters. This is the ad hominem fallacy elevated, if not quite to a creed, then to a general conception of politics. Hence the hoaxes and lies and nonsense.

Phony hate crimes. Phony hate.

“Play the man.”  That is, rather than try to move the ball down the field, hurt the other team’s members so they can’t make any progress, either.

Of course, contact sports have, well, contact, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell how clean a play is or whether a player is going after his or her opponent or merely standing his or her ground in the face of aggression.  In policy, the important judgment for spectators is where the emphasis seems to be.  Charts and analysis coupled with a bit of roughness is very different from accusations designed to keep people from considering alternatives to one’s preferred perspective.

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The “Good Combination” of Religiously Grounded Schools

As one constitutionally disposed (so to speak) to resist the temptations of Donald Trump, I have to say that it’s great to hear sentiments like this from the President of the United States:

President Donald Trump visited a Florida Catholic school on Friday, praising the Catholic education system and touting his support for school choice programs.

“You understand how much your students benefit from full education, one that enriches both the mind and the soul. That’s a good combination,” the president told Bishop John Noonan of Orlando at St. Andrew Catholic School March 3.

Among the most compelling testimonies for school choice that I heard in Rhode Island came from a native American woman who told legislators about rebounding from childhood of abuse and a young adulthood addicted on drugs.  She emphasized that, although not Catholic herself, she valued the moral norms and religious foundation that her daughter’s Catholic school provided.

Looking at data, earlier, that suggests that public schools are keeping kids not only from dropping out, but also from transferring to schools outside of the state’s government system until senior year makes me wonder how many of those students needed what that woman thought her daughter needed.  Whether the problem is (a) the local economy — affecting both parents’ ability to afford tuition and donors’ ability to finance the education of others’ children — or (b) the government’s move into the private school market with charter schools or (c) the expanding perks that taxpayers subsidize exclusively for government-school students, if children aren’t finding the schools that are right for them, then we’re all worse off for it.

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Yes, Much of Today’s Ire Is Projection

Be sure to check out Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s summary in Reason of some recent research on collective outrage:

Ultimately, the results of Rothschild and Keefer’s five studies were “consistent with recent research showing that outgroup-directed moral outrage can be elicited in response to perceived threats to the ingroup’s moral status,” write the authors. The findings also suggest that “outrage driven by moral identity concerns serves to compensate for the threat of personal or collective immorality” and the cognitive dissonance that it might elicit, and expose a “link between guilt and self-serving expressions of outrage that reflect a kind of ‘moral hypocrisy,’ or at least a non-moral form of anger with a moral facade.”

Here are the key findings, quoting from Brown:

  1. Triggering feelings of personal culpability for a problem increases moral outrage at a third-party target.  …
  2. The more guilt over one’s own potential complicity, the more desire “to punish a third-party through increased moral outrage at that target.” …
  3. Having the opportunity to express outrage at a third-party decreased guilt in people threatened through “ingroup immorality.” …
  4. “The opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doers” inflated participants perception of personal morality. …
  5. Guilt-induced moral outrage was lessened when people could assert their goodness through alternative means, “even in an unrelated context.” …

Of course, these days, all social science comes with a caveat about replication, but this particular study sure does feel familiar and explanatory of behavior we can observe every day in the political field.

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Superficial Judgement Tends to Go with Intolerance

“Silicon Valley liberal” Sam Altman took the time to talk to those strange creatures called “Trump supporters” and wrote up his findings for Business Insider.  These two quotations particularly resonated with me:

“I’m so tired of hearing about white privilege. I’m white but way less privileged than a black person from your world. I have no hope my life will ever get any better.” …

“The amount of violent attacks and economic attacks perpetrated by the left are troublesome. My wife and I recently moved to the Bay Area. I was expecting a place which was a welcoming meritocracy of ideas. Instead, I found a place where everyone constantly watches everyone else for any thoughtcrime.”

The first quotation is a long-standing complaint I’ve made to liberals.  For all of the profundity they’re keen to attribute to the line, “What happens to a dream deferred?,” they’re willing to defer a whole lot of them if the dreamers don’t fit one of the profiles about which they feel guilty.

The second quotation may not point to a new phenomenon, but it’s increasingly relevant.  Watching progressives be active, whether locally or at the national level, their self-righteousness and willingness to excuse bad behavior are a lesson in how such things as the Salem witch trials happen.

The combination of the two quotes, though, is hardly surprising.  History has shown that the sorts of people who’ll judge others based on superficial qualities like skin color will also tend to be intolerant, sometimes to the point of violence.

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UHIP & Prostitution? Big Government Is Not Competent Enough To Run Our Lives

The status quo in Rhode Island needs a reality check with regard to the now epic UHIP computer systems disaster. With reports of Rhode Islanders being driven to extreme measures to make up for the loss of social safety net, the insiders must realize that once again they have headed down the wrong path. Big government is incompetent to run our lives.

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Communal Responsibility and Matters of Conscience in a Small World

Communication and transportation technology are making the world much smaller, which creates challenges for churches that make different pastoral decisions in distant regions.  George Weigel writes of a woman whose bishop in England has advised a different approach to divorce and Holy Communion than the bishop in Malta, where she has a vacation home.  In Malta, the hierarchy is, let’s say, reinterpreting tradition in the way that some have suggested Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia allows.

Weigel goes on:

And as the Church is universal, so is the crisis. Cardinal Wilfred Napier of South Africa is one of Catholicism’s more robust practitioners of the tweet. After the Malta bishops’ directive, Napier tweeted, “If Westerners in irregular situations can receive Communion, are we to tell our polygamists….that they, too, are allowed?” The archbishop of Durban was not being glib or snarky; Cardinal Napier was describing a real pastoral problem in Africa that has now been made worse.

The key point, in my view, is one that I made frequently back when same-sex marriage was the raging debate in the United States: boundaries are imposed on those who could handle more flexibility — because spiritual or material advantages — for the benefit of others.

We all must follow cultural and spiritual rules to prove that they are not arbitrary or merely impositions upon the disadvantaged.  For our privilege, we must establish those restrictions that can help others to overcome challenges, like a young man who quits drinking in order to help his troubled friend do the same.

Can matters of conscience be loosened on an individual basis?  Yes… maybe.  But especially in our high-tech society, when it comes to public acts, there is no purely individual action.

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Hey, Boy Scouts of America: Isn’t the Pattern Clear?

The Boy Scouts of America — and every organization founded in traditional values, especially those that just want to be left alone to do good in the world — really needs to learn the lesson quick:

After many years of divisiveness, the Boy Scouts of America have opened their ranks to gay and transgender boys. Yet a different membership dispute persists: a long-shot campaign to let girls join the BSA so they have a chance to earn the prestigious status of Eagle Scout.

It’s right there in the name of “progressivism.” Every step you let them take is just a step toward total capitulation.  In this case, the push to accommodate girls who really believe that they’re boys was another step toward the elimination of any distinctions.  In the end, there can be no institution remaining that seeks to help boys to be boys as boys.

Nobody wants to talk about it, but every boundary knocked down to make somebody feel less awkward makes somebody else feel more awkward.  A society has to weigh the claims, yes, but it’s reckless not to acknowledge their existence.

I had two repeated sleep-away-camp experiences as a tween and young teen, Boy Scout camp and a co-ed music camp.  The feel of the two was very different, particularly in the memory, largely because the latter was dominated by the mysteries of being an adolescent spending nights in a building with girls in the next room.

Our society has room — a need, even — for both.  Frankly, looking back, I wish I’d placed greater emphasis on the Boy Scouts than on gathering coming-of-age stories to share with my friends upon returning home from the co-ed camp.

AP writer David Crary calls the girls-in-the-Boy-Scouts push a “long shot,” but this is a well worn road, at this point.  Those bent on demanding that we all believe as they believe will not stop.  Without a great cultural reawakening to maturity, the only real question is whether the organization will someday be the Boy and Girl Scouts of America or will just be destroyed.

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Artifacts of Reality, and God’s Intention

Peter Woit is rightly skeptical in his Wall Street Journal review of a book called A Big Bang in a Little Room, by Zeeya Merali.  Science, after all, as Woit points out, is about what is observable, measurable, and current theories in physics are playing at the boundaries of what may be observable, even in theory:

[Theorist Alan] Guth was initially fascinated by the idea of baby universes getting produced and making up a multiverse, though he imagined these other universes would all have the same physics as ours. Ms. Merali relates that he quickly lost interest: Why care much about cosmological models producing not just our universe but other copies we can never observe? Over the past 15 years, however, [Andrei] Linde’s slightly different argument—for a multiverse of universes, each with different physics, has become very popular. Such a multiverse even provides an explanation for the lack of progress in recent decades toward a better understanding of where fundamental laws of physics come from: The laws we observe are just artifacts of where various inflaton fields happened to randomly end up after our Big Bang; in other universes, the laws are different. Ms. Merali gives a disturbing version of this, contemplating the possibility that “string theory and inflation may be conspiring against us in such a way that we may never find evidence for them, and just have to trust in them as an act of faith.”

Use of the word “artifact” brings to mind Tom Wolfe’s recent book, The Kingdom of Speech, about which I’ll get around to writing, one of these days.  Challenging previous efforts to fit speech into theories of evolution, Wolfe oversteps the argument by calling speech an “artifact” — happened upon or invented, but in no need of being made natural or inevitable.

Whether for multiverses or language, faith in this artifactness permits atheism.  Before such theories of relativism, the plain conclusion had to be that somebody created the universe and its laws, gifting mankind with its artifacts and abilities to create more.  If we just happen to be on one of limitless paths that happens to accommodate our existence, then our sense of the impossibility of the odds can be brushed aside with the infinite and purposeless attempts.

At the end of it all, the necessity of faith is unavoidable.  Belief in God versus chance is always a choice, even with relativism.  Take the notion of a multiverse containing universes that have alternative laws of physics.  I would argue that they exist, but essentially as theory, and can only be said truly to exist to the extent one can coherently follow them, sort of like relativity with an observation limit.  We make them exist, and their coherence points to a central intention, which is God.

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Harassing the Digital Assistant, Manipulating the Public

I’m with Jonah Goldberg when he writes that somebody’s testing the responses of digital home assistants for their reaction to sexual harassment is evidence “that this is a remarkably stupid time to be alive.”  There’s a more serious angle with a foreboding shadow in a paragraph that Goldberg quotes from the original Leah Fressler article in Quartz:

In order to substantiate claims about these bots’ responses to sexual harassment and the ethical implications of their pre-programmed responses, Quartz gathered comprehensive data on their programming by systematically testing how each reacts to harassment. The message is clear: Instead of fighting back against abuse, each bot helps entrench sexist tropes through their passivity.

Take this as a warning: As technology enters our lives in these personal — even intimate — ways, there will be people leveraging social pressure and government mandates to use them to manipulate you.  Even if we all agree that real abuse is bad, we can be sure that the definition will expand, and so will the manipulation.

These people are not willing to simply coexist with you.  If they can find a way into your life, they will use it to make you more like them.

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Smartypants Social Science That Can’t Be Replicated

So, this morning, I suggested that consideration of popular taste has its place in religious practice.  Somehow, an article titled “Most scientists ‘can’t replicate studies by their peers’,” on the BBC, by Tom Feilden, strikes me as related:

The problem[, when he couldn’t replicate a textbook study], was not with Marcus Munafo’s science, but with the way the scientific literature had been “tidied up” to present a much clearer, more robust outcome.

“What we see in the published literature is a highly curated version of what’s actually happened,” he says.

“The trouble is that gives you a rose-tinted view of the evidence because the results that get published tend to be the most interesting, the most exciting, novel, eye-catching, unexpected results.

The article goes on to quote University of Cambridge Sainsbury Laboratory director Dame Ottoline Leyser as suggesting that it’s not deliberate fraud, per se, but a push for “impact over substance, flashy findings over the dull, confirmatory work.”  One could read that two ways:  scientists want to make interesting discoveries to be read, but also, if they confirm the political or ideological biases of their peers and audiences, they’ll get more notice.

Thus, a flashy finding will make its way around the world and become truth even though other scientists might only be able to replicate the results with the same odds of rolling dice.

I can’t seem to find the link, but it certainly opened my eyes way back when I began reading and responding to items in the news that a study proclaiming the value of contraception over abstinence went around the world without anybody but your humble blogger pointing out that the percentages in the equation were such that improvements in abstinence actually made it look like contraceptives improved even more.

Back then, as I recall, the Bush Administration’s emphasis on abstinence education was the anti-science that the smart set was dying to prove to be superstition.  That incentive made their whole vaunted system for generating and promulgating information susceptible to believing erroneous science.

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