Thoughts About Books (1) Sokal & Bricmont – Fashionable Nonsense (Impostures Intellectuelles)

I hereby start a new segment in this blog, in which I’ll dispense some thoughts about books I’ve recently read. The first installment is devoted to Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense (Impostures Intellectuelles is the title of the book in its native French). The book was published in 1997 in French, and later translated (thank you Captain Obvious).

It deals, as its subtitle hints, with “postmodern intellectuals’ abuse of science”, and does so with accuracy, humour, focus and self-restraint. It is not a philosophical critique of the postmodern movement, which of course is as diverse as any other supposed philosophical movement. Rather, it focuses on a handful of “memes” that can be detected in philosophical and sociological texts which were written in the mid- and late-twentieth century. Most prominent among these memes are

– The idea that science and rationalism are no more than one way among many to try and establish truths about the world. The proponents of such ideas often claim that even the most established scientific theories are rather little more than social conventions or traditions.

– The intensive yet clearly ill-informed use of scientific terminology and mathematical notions in fields in which their relevance is less than obvious.

For the sake of definiteness and concision, Sokal and Bricmont focus on a list of authors, most of them French, whom they felt were particularly shameless in their “abuse of science”. Apart from that of Jacques Lacan (and going further in the past, Henri Bergson), their names will most likely sound somewhat quaint, if not completely unfamiliar for some of them, to people who like me were young children in 1997. Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze are names I might have heard before, but I’m almost positive I had never heard of Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard, Félix Guattari and Paul Virilio. Several of these names, however, are quite influential in the American academia, or at least were in the 1990s, which prompted Sokal and Bricmont to write this. I won’t go much further in the detail of what they write here, but this video of Richard Dawkins is a very good teaser for the book, which I can only recommend.

The Left’s Selective Endearment

In the last decade or so, we Westerners have heard the testimony of two brave young women born of Muslim parents in muslim-majority areas. These women are Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai and Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Both have shown determination in speaking out against islamic fascism. Both have done it at tremendous risk to their lives (Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s friend and collaborator Theo van Gogh was stabbed while she received countless threats, while everyone knows Malala (as she’s known throughout the Western world) was shot at point blank range in the most cowardly of acts). Both could be called freedom fighters and, surely, feminists, as they have spent countless hours advocating the education of girls.

In October 2014 Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, on which she had missed out, so to speak, the previous year. One can easily argue that the Nobel Peace Prize is bogus, 1979 recipient Mother Teresa being among the best illustrations of this fact as she spent decades fighting against the empowerment of women in Calcutta. Still, it is one of the clearest signs that you’ve got the mainstream Western left on your side. Few months earlier, in April 2014, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was disinvited from a ceremony at Brandeis University, during which she was scheduled to receive an honorary degree. There is the statement from Brandeis University:

Following a discussion today between President Frederick Lawrence and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s name has been withdrawn as an honorary degree recipient at this year’s commencement. She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.  For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.

Commencement is about celebrating and honoring our extraordinary students and their accomplishments, and we are committed to providing an atmosphere that allows our community’s focus to be squarely on our students. In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history, Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.

That’s for the general context. The central question, of course, is something along the lines of “Why are these two women treated so differently by the Western left?”. Why is Ms. Yousafzai a hero and Ms. Hirsi Ali a villain, while their messages are so similar? The main reason, as far as I can tell, is, predictably, the left’s very careful toeing the line of religious sensitivity. Ms. Yousafzai is raising the alarm about islamists from inside Islam, while Ms. Hirsi Ali is doing so from the outside, and is hence instantly suspected of bigotry and ill intentions. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to put it plainly, has fallen victim to the liberal theorem, which states that “we need more moderate voices” (I’ve provided a link to a certain moment in a debate, but I’m almost sure that later in the debate, Rabbi Neuberger almost uses this exact phrase. It’s hard to find without rewatching the whole thing, though). For saying that the harsh treatments faced by girls and women throughout the muslim-majority world, and some parts of the Western word, are largely motivated or condoned by Islam, rather than claiming, as Ms. Yousafzai, that “Islam says about equality, there’s no difference between a man and a woman”, Ms. Hirsi Ali has been repeatedly attacked by the Western left press. As always,  the Huffington Post has been leading the charge as seen here

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-lean/ayaan-hirsi-ali-neither-a_b_5175604.html ([1])

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/setareh-sabety/milking-the-marathon-ayaan-hirsi-alis-brandeis-speech_b_5132618.html ([2])

Both these articles were written in the aftermath of the Brandeis debacle. From them, I’ve selected some excerpts, which I think really illustrate the “progressive” position here. Let’s start with a paragraph found in [1]:

[Hirsi Ali] has expressed her support for defeating Islam (not extremists, but the entire faith) by military means if necessary. Let’s be clear: Such measures do not constitute “criticism.” Instead, they are dangerously close to advocating genocide.

This blurring the lines between ideas and people is the heart of the progressive argument. Ms. Hirsi Ali has repeatedly attacked ideas, and she has also explained that so-called “extremists” are simply relying on a straightforward reading of the Islamic holy scripture.  But most people on the left won’t have that. They’ll cling forever to their “we need more moderate voices” motto, and claim that violence is a betrayal of the holy texts. Later in the article:

Brandeis University’s statement described Hirsi Ali as an “advocate for women’s rights.” Others described her in the same way, including the New York Times andUSA Today. While there’s no doubt that Hirsi Ali has shed enormous light on cruel practices that target some Muslim women (including female genital mutilation, of which she was a victim), it feels cheap to hail her as a champion in that regard.

It is unclear how Hirsi Ali can be an advocate for Muslim women while simultaneously calling for the outright defeat of their faith.

It’s hard for me not to picture the writer, a Mr. Nathan Lean, let out a celebratory “nailed it!” while typing these sentences. Be that as it may, it is so feeble a line of argumentation, it barely deserves refuting. Indeed, it is obvious to any objective observer that muslim women are victims of their faith more than anything else. It is, as far as I can see, only their faith, or maybe rather, the fact that they were indoctrinated as children, which prevents them from realising how harshly they are treated. If they stop believing, they’ll have no reason at all to keep accepting their sinister fate. Mr. Lean pursues:

Her tragic experiences seem to have provoked within her an animus for Islam that she believes all women who suffer like she did must share. In her attempt to “save” them from these practices (which are mostly cultural, not religious),

(fact-denying at its best)

Hirsi Ali denies them the right to interpret their religion differently — to believe in the goodness of their faith and also bemoan its severe interpretations.

In other words: “I want these women to be moderately religious, this way they’ll share my motto that ‘extremists are the problem, not religions'”.

Instead she insists that their “nihilistic cult of death” is the real culprit.

As argued above, it’s clear to me that it is.

A quick Google search will teach you that Mr. Lean yearns to be a dhimmi, but really is a theocrat in the making.

Let’s take a look at [2] now. Its author, Ms. Sabety, gracefully offers a caveat paragraph to explain us that she was initially on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s side.  Then, the author tells us what changed her mind. A key excerpt goes thusly:

She milks the Boston Marathon bombing! […] [T]o blame the marathon bombing, perpetrated by two young Chechen/Dagestani immigrants, on the religion of so many millions of people struck me as incredibly vulgar and downright dangerous.

This is not quite an argument ad populum, but we’re pretty close. If anything, it’s not even an argument. It’s really an argumentum ad vacuum. The reader has to sit through a barrage of indignant questions about Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s planned speech at Brandeis in hope of learning what is “incredibly vulgar and downright dangerous” in Ms. Hirsi Ali’s attributing the Boston marathon attacks to Islamic doctrine, but only in vain. Ms. Sabety’s next point is (for real) that the right reaction is not to

blame the Boston Marathon bombing on an entire civilization — the same one, incidentally (and for how long do we need to repeat this fact?) that produced Rumi, Gibran and algebra!

Here again, we’re confronted to the intentional confusion between “an entire civili[s]ation” and a well-defined, finite set of religious documents. And just to answer Ms. Sabety’s question: for how long you need to repeat that the islamic civilisation produced algebra is up to you, but, just so you know, tomorrow morning we’ll all wake up learning of a heinous crime motivated by the holy islamic scriptures, either in Africa, in Asia, or maybe even, Europe, and at that moment you and your apologist friends will mysteriously feel compelled to remind us, once again, that a handful people who,  around one thousand years ago, happened to have been indoctrinated in the muslim faith as children, were great at math. Because of course, that perfectly compensates for the daily dosis of holy violence the world has to take.

And then there’s the nail in the coffin

Hirsi Ali closes her op-ed by claiming that Islam needs to be reformed. I think that is a great idea. But how is she helping the women of Somalia or Iraq from a podium at Brandeis? Let me use the Protestant Reformation as an analogy: Giving this speech to a mostly non-Muslim, American audience, publishing it in The Wall Street Journal, is like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the door of a mosque in Cairo rather than on the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg!

Once again, hard not to picture Ms. Sabety jubilating while writing this. But by writing this paragraph, she’s thrown a boomerang which I’ll happily let find its way back to her. I can just give it a soft nudge in the right direction. What does Ms. Sabety think the reaction of a muslim crowd would be to a woman who’s left their religion, and criticises their religion continually? Why does she think Ms. Hirsi Ali is writing for The Wall Street Journal, and working for the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute? The answer to the first question can be found in any newspaper on any day of the year in any country of the world, while the answer to the second question is calmly and clearly explained by the great Jerry Coyne here, and can be summed up as follows: Western liberals and feminists are not standing up for the values they claim to love. Ms. Hirsi Ali, who is as close as you can get to an allegory of the Enlightenment, is not welcome in their circles. Though she embodies everything they pretend to love, admire, and fight for, she has been excluded from the political left by people who think that, in the case of Islam, criticism of religion is worse than theocracy.

Why Women Still Aren’t Doing Science

If you’ve ever wondered why there aren’t more young women pursuing careers in what has become known as the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, look no further:

http://www.theverge.com/2014/11/13/7213819/your-bowling-shirt-is-holding-back-progress (henceforth referred to as [1])

http://www.xojane.com/issues/sexist-shirt-philae-matt-taylor ([2])

Social justice-type feminists have identified the problem and here it goes: a guy who worked on the Rosetta project wore this shirt

http://s3-ec.buzzfed.com/static/2014-11/13/10/enhanced/webdr01/enhanced-22054-1415894247-10.png

while interviewed. On it we can see drawings of scantily clad young women. In the Verge article [1] one can read the following paragraph

This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don’t feel welcome. They see a poster of greased up women in a colleague’s office and they know they aren’t respected. They hear comments about “bitches” while out at a bar with fellow science students, and they decide to change majors. And those are the women who actually make it that far. Those are the few who persevered even when they were discouraged from pursuing degrees in physics, chemistry, and math throughout high school. These are the women who forged on despite the fact that they were told by elementary school classmates and the media at large that girls who like science are nerdy and unattractive.

First things first. If you wonder how the writers (coming up with such nonsense required two persons) know that men wearing this kind of shirts, or similar “microaggressions” on women, as put in [2]  is “the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields”, let me break it to you: they won’t back up this claim with evidence. Obviously not a statistical analysis of any kind. Not even anecdotal evidence they would possess from their own personal lives. But that won’t prevent them from hammering on. In the next few sentences they modestly endeavour to speak on behalf of all young women interested in science. Facile point-scoring aside (how can a STEM professional be a “colleague” for a young woman who’s not a professional in that field?),  I want to mention that this is very typical of social justice warfare: they think incredibly lowly of the people they say they want to help. What else can I make of this litany of sentences which indicate that young women are so insecure and sensitive that they’ll give up the career of their dreams because they’ve witnessed one individual scientist behave in a way that might appear sexist -and maybe only really does to feminists? One thing should be clear: if you’re changing majors because you disapprove of something a classmate of yours said, you couldn’t have been a scientist anyway. Scientists thrive when exposed to ideas, even stupid ones, which they are usually well-equipped to disprove. Before carrying on, let me dwell a moment on what I consider to be a sort of “bonus” for the attentive reader of the quoted paragraph. It is stated, very plainly, that “elementary school classmates and the media at large [tell girls] that girls who like science are nerdy and unattractive”, and that this plays a big part in why there are so few women in STEM fields. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the authors of this masterpiece that the exact same observation as that between quotation marks just above could, word for word, have been made about boys who like science. I’ll even do it just for fun: “elementary school classmates and the media at large tell boys that boys who like science are nerdy and unattractive”. And yet, young men enroll in science, technology, engineering and math programs at universities.

That was the central paragraph in [1]. Now let’s take a closer look at [2], which is a longer piece, with Tweets on cue. The subtitle of this article reads (for real) “When a researcher wears a shirt covered with naked women on a live broadcast, you can see why there’s a shortage of women in STEM”. I wanted to ignore the first paragraph, which is just context, written in the typical style of faux social media-age bombast, with locutions such as “nerdy dream” used to show the reader that the writer is really, really a science lover. This is belied, I think, beyond any reasonable doubt, by the writer’s playfully putting in “(very science official term)” after a rough, but actually fair, description of the Philae probe’s mission. You see, we scientists have no “official words”, we only have useful, relevant words in a given context, and useless, irrelevant ones. But let’s move on. I won’t dwell so much on the article itself. It repeats the same tropes as [1]. Let’s simply mention that when the writer talks about “the other thousands of incidents involving sexism in STEM, large and small”, he/she (can’t tell the gender from the name or from the photo, which doesn’t matter, although he/she might well lecture me about gendered pronouns) can’t be bothered to even mention one, let alone provide a link to some story. I’ll dwell a bit, on the other hand, on Katie Mack’s tweets, at least those which were included in the article at hand. Ms. Mack is a female astrophysicist, and she criticised the shirt-wearer in such terms as

I don’t care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn’t appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM[.]

(Full stop at the end added for my grammatical comfort) So much for science and logic. This woman tweeted a self-contradictory -and hence self-refuting- statement. “I don’t care but I care” is exactly what she says here. I could say that I hope Ms. Mack applies better logic in the lab than she does on Twitter, but I don’t have to hope so. I know she does. She wouldn’t have a PhD in science if she didn’t. The problem is that she can contradict herself so badly in a Tweet and still be considered to speak as a scientist with this Tweet. As far as I can tell, she’s spoken as a feminist, just like a scientist who happens to be religious speaks as a believer and not a scientist when asserting his confidence in the existence of some god.

To see how utterly ludicrous the assertion that few women pursue career in STEM fields because of non-events such as a scientist wearing a shirt which depicts sexually attractive, scantily clad women, let’s focus on the fashion industry for a while. If this industry could be summed up in one picture, it would be, I think, that of a sexually attractive, somewhat scantily clad woman. Yet cohorts of young women throughout the world enter this industry every year. One could argue that this is not a valid argument, as girls who ambition to become models understand why they should be sexualised and attractive, while girls interested in STEM don’t. But women don’t only enter the fashion industry as models. They also become designers, photographs, make-up artists, and son on, and this, in large numbers. Apparently female make-up artists do not feel “ostracised” enough by of the image of the sexually attractive, somewhat scantily clad woman, ubiquitous to the fashion industry, to leave the industry.

I think this shows that feminists have logic against them here. And if they have data on their side, they’ve made no use of it whatsoever. The thing is, they seem to me to care less about facts than they do about stating their credo. If they cared about facts, they’d know that there’s a huge disparity between scientific disciplines, as far as the proportion of women goes. Let’s use statistics provided by the The Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

http://sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/cwsem/PGA_049131

What I’m looking at is the “gender gap” in degrees obtained by men and women in scientific fields. For the sake of concreteness, let’s settle for the statistics on Master’s degrees. Focusing on natural sciences only, we see that women made up, in 2011 (the most recent year available)

40.5% of Master graduates in Mathematics

28.2% of Master graduates in Computer Science

22.8% of Master graduates in Physics

46.5% of Master graduates in Chemistry

57.4% of Master graduates in Biological Sciences

etc.

From the looks of it, these numbers are fairly stable over the years. My own personal experience is in very good agreement with these numbers. I could add that if you split Physics in Experimental and Theoretical Physics, I’d bet there are many more women in Experimental Physics. What can be made of these statistics? Well, apparently, computer scientists and physicists are very sexist. That’s for the feminist analysis. As for an objective analysis goes, I think the most reasonable hypothesis to make is that young women are, on average, more interested in chemistry and biology than they are in physics and computer science. The thing is, when you’re facing people who care about ideology and not facts, you’ll never have enough data, and your arguments will never be persuasive enough. In the case at hand, you can trust feminists to claim that the disparities between scientific disciplines are due to stereotyping and discrimination. I’ll keep on hammering on anyway. I’ve been starting to look for a postdoc position recently, if only casually for the moment. Though I prefer to contact people directly, I’ve taken a look at scientific employment websites, such as

http://inspirehep.net/collection/Jobs

If you select “Postdoc” and “North America”, you will find that a healthy chunk of the proposed positions mention that the academic institution at hand “is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer”. I’ll briefly mention that this is a glorious example of Newspeak. “Affirmative Action” means, among other things, that a female candidate will be favoured over male ones with equal credentials. This is the perfect, unequivocal negation of “Equal Opportunity”. I’m not even arguing that “Affirmative Action” is a bad thing, that is, I think, another debate, but I just wanted to quickly underline how self-contradictory social justice language can be (as was the case with Ms. Mack’s Tweet, see above). In any case, one thing is very clear: the hiring of women is favoured here.

YouTube Channels Worth My Time (4) The Whole Package(?)

If I had to nominate my favourite channel on YouTube, I would go for Thunderf00t. This one-man channel has gained its reputation from its “Why Do People Laugh At Creationists?” series. In these videos, Thunderf00t, a.k.a. Philip Mason, puts much effort in disproving accurately and patiently  specific claims made by various proponents of “intelligent design”. It’s a time-consuming exercise, but it’s a crucial one. While it’s easy to laugh at creationists’ claims, it’s not always obvious to pinpoint what exactly is wrong with their claims. It’s always fairly easy, though, and requires a bit of research as well as some scientific thinking. With his knowledge of chemistry and physics, and his knack for simple but very telling order of magnitude-calculations, Thunderf00t does it very well. See here for instance , where he puts a clinic.

While this series is still running, Thunderf00t has addressed more topics in the last few years. He’s been an uncompromising advocate of free speech, which had him vilified by the usual suspects in the category of permanent offense, i.e. muslims, scientologists and third-wave feminists. He’s been a vocal critic of what one could grandiloquently as the “planned takeover” of the secular humanist/skeptic movements in the US by a handful of professional victim feminists, whose main tactics is to claim any criticism of their claims/ideas is criticism of their person and hence misogyny.

YouTube Channels Worth My Time (3) The Educators

A third post on YouTube channels, and this time I’ll be giving a shout out to some of the best educators on YouTube, as far as recreational but sound science is concerned.

The Vsauce channel is one of the very best on YouTube in my opinion. The activity is rather low (around, say, one or two videos per month) but the payoffs are high. Every video clearly requires many hours of research, writing, filming and producing. As far as I can tell the scientific content is always accurate -if at times slightly superficial, but it’s aimed at the general public. A particularly fine example of the channel content can be found here (this particular video is a collaboration with another, somewhat similar channel, Veritasium, which I know much less about, though its content seems enjoyable and of good scientific quality). Not all his videos are so centred on hard science, though, as the topics are sometimes more random (hah).

Another great channel, at least if you’re interested in math, and you should, is Numberphile. The person in charge of the channel, Brady Haran, is a journalist, and he endeavours to show us fun, cool mathematics explained by professional mathematicians in simple terms. There is much less showmanship involved than for Vsauce here, the recipe relies on the mathematicians’ passion and clarity of mind. Most videos are really mind-blowing at least to some extent, and a favourite of mine can be found here. It deals with the seemingly incredible patterns found in the decimal expansion of some fractions (e.g. 1/81=.01234567901234567901…).

YouTube Channels Worth My Time (2) The Ranters

A second post on YouTube channels. While the first one was devoted to information sources and political analysis, the second one will be about more opinion-centred channels (as far as refusing to close your eyes to facts can be called an “opinion”). Like in my previous post, I’ll focus on two channels.

First I want to give a shout out to The Amazing Atheist, a.k.a. TJ Kirk. On his channel he puts videos where, a bit like Jerry Seinfeld, he plays a semi-fictionalised version of himself. His character is a loud, angry, unapologetically offensive fatass who uses humor and exaggerations to make points. Recurrent targets include fact-hating ideologues of most stripes, from religious nutjobs to more mainstream conservatives to third-wave feminists. He also likes to take on celebrity culture, and sometimes makes great use of current news. TJ Kirk is quite fantastic a ranter, and never fails to find the most disturbing aspects of the opposition’s positions. A nice example of his craft may be found here, for instance.

And then there’s Pat Condell. In many ways, he’s like the British Amazing Atheist. While TJ is loud and purposefully over-the-top, Pat Condell likes to stay under control, at least to the best of his ability. Condell, apparently, used to be a comedian and it shows. His videos are centred around his rants which are delivered with stunning accuracy of tone and vocabulary. Condell is almost always angry, never boring, and often exhilarating. His passion for equality and human rights had led him to devote the bulk of his video to Islam and its increasingly pressing demands for special treatment in the UK, which, predictably, has had him labeled a racist. For a witty rebuttal by Pat Condell himself, see here.

YouTube Channels Worth My Time (1) The News Outlets

I’ll try and do a couple of posts about what YouTube channels I regularly watch. The first one could be subtitled “Why I won’t bother criticising the right so much”. And the reason for that is twofold:

– In educated circles, the political right is not so popular anyway. I guess with education and intelligence come the ability to put oneself into other people’s shoes, which really pushes people towards the left.

– Many people do it quite aptly as it is. I don’t want to spend too much time pushing at open doors.

Nevertheless, there are two YouTube news/opinion channels run by dynamic, smart young men which I really recommend.

The first one is Secular Talk, with Kyle Kulinski as an anchor. I’ve been watching his show for more than one year now, and I like the format. It’s quite informal, but the amount of research involved is clearly very high.

The second one is David Pakman Show, named after its main anchor. I’ve only been following him for a couple of weeks at most. It’s slightly more formal than Secular Talk, but still quite relaxed, and very fact-centred.

Both Kyle and David spend a considerable amount of time exposing the lies of US Republicans, along with a fair number of Democrats, and raising awareness about their backward value systems. One could say that the heart and soul of the show, at least in the case of Secular Talk about which I feel more able to make generalisations, lies in denouncing the high level of (often legal) corruption in the US political system.

Both of these channels actually belong to the TYT network, centred around the mother channel The Young Turks. I had been watching The Young Turks for more than two years when I unsubscribed -a month ago now, time really files by- after their laughable treatment of the Maher/Affleck/Harris debacle, which was the topic of my previous two posts. I miss The Young Turks, but the core people on the main channel have been clearly doubling down on their stance, which was more or less in agreement with Ben Affleck. A notable exception lies in Dave Rubin, frequently featured on The Young Turks, who also has a channel of his own, and who voiced his concern about the hypocrisy of many on the left on the issue of Islamism. Along with the aforementioned two “little sister” channels, this means that the TYT network is still, in my opinion, a place for honest information and sound analysis. Only, the mother channel has fallen behind because of the reluctance of its leaders to actually stand up for the values they say they care about.

Our Generation’s Rushdie Affair?

In my previous (and first) post I mentioned the “recent discussion on Islam and Muslims which included, inter alia, Bill Maher, Ben Affleck, and Sam Harris, on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher. This is what I want to talk about in more detail in this post.

Let me first provide some context from my point of view. During the 2000s militant secularism has been on the rise in the English speaking world. Sam Harris, who is featured in the discussion at hand, was at the forefront of the movement. Harris criticised Christianity a lot, which, as far as I can tell, was generally well-received by people identifying as being left of center on the political spectrum. He’s also been criticising Islam quite a bit. Which had him vilified at length in many liberal/progressive circles. For a tiny sample, see here:

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/06/richard_dawkins_sam_harris_and_atheists_ugly_islamophobia_partner/

http://www.salon.com/2012/08/04/five_most_awful_atheists_salpart/

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/03/sam-harris-muslim-animus

http://www.loonwatch.com/2013/04/sam-harris-and-new-atheists-upset-that-their-anti-muslim-animus-is-being-scrutinized/

It is because of such articles that Harris opens his exposé by saying that “Liberals have failed on theocracy”.  Harris then gets interrupted several times by a visibly agitated Ben Affleck. The first couple of times, one can give Affleck the benefit of the doubt: in his own head he might be going against a racist douchebag.  He’s not, and he’d quickly realise it if he let Harris talk. But let’s move on. Things get really interesting @2:11 within the video. Affleck agrees with Harris that bad ideas should be criticised, and then loses it when Harris states that “Islam, at this moment, is the mother lode of bad ideas”. This is when the conversation really gets started. While Affleck is choking in his haste to reply, Nicholas Kristoff jumps in. In spite of his apparent agreement with Affleck, he’s also quickly interrupted loudly by the actor, which decides host Bill Maher to jump back in.

At this point comes the painful confrontation between faith and reality. Not the muslim faith or any other denominationally religious faith, but the “liberal” credo that only a “tiny, minuscule” minority of Muslims take their religion seriously, while the other “don’t have those pernicious beliefs”, as Maher puts it (to try and describe Affleck’s opinion, not his). Affleck can be seen stating this credo @3:16. After some back and forth, Harris then spends one minute and a half confronting Affleck’s statement of faith against reality.  Harris’s analysis uses poll results, and it’s safe to guess the famous Pew poll

http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-overview/

is included in the lot (this poll is mentioned by Maher later in the discussion, where he makes a largish mistake when saying that it indicates that “90% [of Egyptians] believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion”. It’s actually only 86% of those in favour of Sharia, and thus around 64% of the overall population, according to the poll). Nicholas Kristoff and Michael Steele then intervene. They go for the usual “The problem lies with extremists and not moderates” routine which Harris had just shown is of little relevance. But Affleck gets impatient and gets back to tilting at windmills, going so far as to characterise Harris’s position as “‘You know, black people, we know they shoot each other, they’re blacks!” (the end of Affleck’s outburst is hard to decipher, and I had to trust Sam Harris’s account of it here). The final part of the discussion is kickstarted by Maher’s stating -with the exaggeration I discussed above- the aforementioned Pew poll result. Since Affleck could seemingly have a thousand angry interventions without making a single cogent point, let’s focus on Nicholas Kristoff’s reply that “This is such a caricature of Indonesia, Malaysia, of so much of the world”. If you stick to the exact question of death penalty for apostates, you will find here

http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-beliefs-about-sharia/

that among polled muslim Malaysians, 53% support the death penalty (as found from simple math) for apostates, while the support rate is at a measly 9% among polled muslim Indonesians. One can begin to see why moderate Muslims such as Reza Aslan insist on mentioning Indonesia as a poster-nation for moderate Islam. This 9% rate is indeed very low compared to other countries. It calls for a twofold reply:

– Mr. Kristoff and other liberals only ever mention Indonesia (or sometimes Turkey) when they have conceded, if only implicitly, that the support for the most barbaric teachings of Islam is fairly high in many other countries. To some extent, they will gracefully acknowledge it for places like Saudi Arabia (because it is an unfortunate ally of the US, or, rather, of US corporations and corrupt politicians) or Iraq (because they trust themselves to attribute it to the US-led toppling of Saddam Hussein, for reasons which only belong to themselves). I am yet to hear explanations of why orthodox Islam is so widespread in countries that have really little to do with US foreign affairs, such as overcrowded Bangladesh -a country that was cut out of India in a shameful religious partition- or the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom, a.k.a. Jordan, the only country in the Middle-East we never hear about.

– It’s hard not to be puzzled by Kristoff’s and Aslan’s eagerness to praise a country which is home, according to the Pew poll, to around 19 million Muslims which state they think people who leave Islam should be killed. In other words, more than one people in four hundred on this planet is an Indonesian Muslim in favour of death penalty for apostates. This, I admit, is largely due to the fact that Indonesia is a large, populated country. But forget about that for a while and focus on percentages. Is 9% acceptable when the question asked is the one at hand? It might be better than many other countries, but that fact tells more about the other countries than it does about Indonesia.

As far as I’m aware, the fatwa against Salma Rushdie kickstarted the first such discussion in the West. Then it was 9/11, and then, the Danish cartoons. More often than not, these discussions involved some prominent people on the left taking a stance against freedom of speech and/or democracy. With his immature shouting and gross mischaracterisations, Ben Affleck has perpetuated what is now sadly a tradition of tolerance of intolerance.

Insomnia Incipit

On this blog I’ll try to record what I will consider to be some interesting thoughts of mine.  I am a young physicist working, at the moment, somewhere in continental Europe. This blog, though, is not meant to be dealing with physics, but rather with politics (although the two are far from incompatible).  At this point in my life I consider to have no political family except that of secularism.

 

It’s been years since I’ve first thought of putting some of my thoughts on the internet. What really decided me to finally go for it, I suppose, was the recent discussion on Islam and Muslims which included, inter alia, Bill Maher, Ben Affleck, and Sam Harris, on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher.

This discussion, and the reactions to it, clearly highlighted a political divide within progressive/liberal/left/moderate/secular political circles. The question was “How much should we progressive/liberal/left/moderate/secular people criticise Islam and Muslims?”. It is clear to me that Sam Harris (and Bill Maher) had a more cogent argumentation than their opponents here. I think this is not an accident, and not due to the fact that they are better debaters. In my next post I’ll address these issues. Unless the world radically changes in the near future, this meme of “liberal” tolerance of intolerance will be recurringly addressed in my posts.