The Challenge of Uncertainty

I think to varying degrees, many of us have been taught the challenge is to arrive at a firm opinion or belief.  And, of course, it helps if that’s also a true belief.

At times, it seems as if we think the human mind somehow finds it difficult to harbor a conviction.  Yet, after seven or eight years of reading debates and discussions posted on popular internet forums,  I suspect most of us might be too certain of our beliefs and opinions.

That is, it does not seem we humans have as much of a problem being certain as we have a problem being uncertain.

At the root of this problem I think is the human desire for permanence.  That desire manifests itself in many ways, but one way seems to be how it manifests itself as a fetish for convictions.  I think the sense is, if our beliefs last, so do we.

It might be that the real challenge is — not to have a firm opinion or belief — but to be open to learning something new.

Can Men and Women be Just Good Friends?

I had a drinking game I liked to play when I was in school.  The goal was to guess someone’s religion based on their answers to a short series of questions.  The catch?  The questions couldn’t be about religion.  Instead, the questions had to be about love and sex.

The game fascinated me.  I got so into it, I would keep a running tally of hits and misses from which to work out a “career average” for correct guesses.  I couldn’t get over how often you could match someone to the religion they grew up in with no more than the answers they had given you to three or four questions about love and sex.

To be sure, I did not try for the denomination.  The categories were Catholic, Liberal Protestant, Conservative Protestant, Jewish, or Mormon.  In other words, I wasn’t dealing with a lot of religious diversity.  Back then, most everyone fit into one or another of those categories.

I can only recall one of the core questions now, but it was my favorite because I felt it did more work than the other questions in allowing me to figure out someone’s religious background.   If I was asking a woman, for example, I would phrase the question this way, “Do you feel men and women can be just good friends, without having sex?”  Followed by, “Why or why not?”

I read a blog post tonight that reminded me of that game.  Specifically, the woman claimed it was all but impossible for a man and woman to be platonic friends.  She said she’d only in her life had one boyfriend she wanted to be real friends with.   And making friends with him had taken 20 years from the time the two of them broke up to the time they were “just good friends”.

Twenty years to make a friend?  After reading that, I figured maybe he and she didn’t bring to the problem the world’s best people skills.  But I also took a look at her “About Me” page, and noticed that her religion fit her attitude that men and women cannot be just good friends.

Religion isn’t everything, of course.  Lots of other things influence how easy it is for men and women to be just good friends.  For instance, the older you are, the easier it gets.  And the biggest influences of all are arguably the individual people involved.  But religion does seem to have an influence on what we tell drunks in college bars about our attitudes towards sex and love.  Of that, I’m reasonably certain.

Bi-Curious Kids and the Ruin of Us All

This is an earthquake issue. This will change our state forever. Because the immediate consequence, if gay marriage goes through, is that K-12 little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal, natural and perhaps they should try it.

– Michele Bachmann

“Perhaps they should try it?”

Well, suppose they did.  Suppose, say, that a heterosexual junior in high school became bi-curious one semester due to a lecture on homosexuality in his or her sex education class, and gave it a shot?  For the sake of argument, let’s say they engaged in protected sex with a classmate.

What would be the most likely outcomes of a bi-curious youth experimenting with his or her sexuality?

Not the worse outcomes.  Because the worse usually doesn’t happen.  If you want to go by worse outcomes, please first explain why anyone should get married or drive a car, because the worse outcomes of marriage and driving are arguably murder by your spouse, and death by accident.  So, let’s go with likely outcomes.


(H/T: Cognitive Dissenter)

What the Hell is Wrong with Eric?

Every now and then, I try to learn patience from Eric.  I’ve known Eric since he was an underclassman in high school habitually sneaking out of his parent’s house at night to visit a friend.  Eventually, the friend became his wife.  The two of them combined have enough brain power to light a small city, but what really marks the couple in my opinion is something that marks a lot of less intelligent couples — they are fundamentally decent people.  Kind, compassionate, open-minded, and honest people.

If there is any significant difference between Eric and his wife, it might be that Eric is significantly more patient than her.  I wouldn’t bet my last dollar on that, but Eric is significantly more patient than most people.  So, it seems possible he might even be more patient than his wife.

As it happens, Eric needs every ounce of patience he can get, because he has a trying hobby.  Eric likes to go online to engage Creationists, Climate Change Deniers, and many other often willfully ignorant people in rational, evidence-based debate.  And he’s amazing to watch.

The “Deniers” — for they are all deniers, in a way — inject whole oceans of nonsense into the threads.  Stuff like Darwin recanted his Theory of Evolution on his deathbed.  There is no consensus on climate change among climatologists.  Or, public health care systems are more expensive than private ones.   I no longer bother with such folks other than — at times — to demand they cite peer-reviewed sources.  When they refuse (often enough in a huff) to cite peer-review sources, I ask them to drop the subject or move on.  But now and then, I wish I had Eric’s patience.

He is all but unfailing polite — even courteous.  He sticks to well grounded evidence woven together by hard logic, and he does not indulge himself in personal attacks.  He does not condescend, but treats everyone with dignity.  He looks for what little common ground he can find.  When he makes a mistake — as we all do — he readily admits it.  And he does that stuff almost regardless of how inane his opponent’s points or reasoning become.

Don’t take away from this the notion Eric is perfect.  He is not.  He screws up now and then.  He sometimes betrays his own values. But I’m pretty sure he’s more often like I’ve described him than not.

In other words, Eric has so many of the virtues of a gentleman that I am left with no other option but to conclude he’s nuts.  The man is bonkers.  A lunatic.  Almost no one behaves like him anymore, and by 2015, he threatens to be the last true gentleman left on the internet — the last one of us able to hold his own while showing an appalling generosity of spirit.  Like any true gentleman, Eric is no push-over, but in light of today’s hyper-aggressive society, he appears to be…unusual.

Which raises the question, are his values really increasingly rare? Are there more or fewer people who practice those values today than there were, say, a few decades ago?  And were those values ever widely held to begin with?

Last, can you learn such values — can they be taught — or are you born with them?

What Do You Tell Your Children About Believing in God?

My mother, who turned 94 this year, was in some ways open to negotiation in how my two brothers and I were to be raised.  For instance, it took a mere twelve years of sustained and passionate begging before she allowed a TV in the house.   A black and white TV fully capable of pulling in one channel, and only one channel — a station twenty miles down the road.

To give her credit, her opposition to television was not based on a whim.  She believed a TV might distract us from learning to read. Consequently, we did not get our TV until my youngest brother had finished his first novel.  And mom really did compromise in a way.  She had planned for us to go without a TV until he had finished his sixth novel.

Yet, despite her remarkable willingness to negotiate on such things as our learning to read, on one issue she was absolutely fixed and could not be moved: Mom was set against our deciding whether or not to believe in god.

You see, she believed the god issue was simply beyond the scope of a child’s intelligence, his emotions, and his wisdom.  At the same time, she was just as opposed to making that decision for us.  Hence, she insisted we were to decide the issue for ourselves — but not until we had “reached an age at which we could reason well enough about it.”

Naturally, I went through a period when I wanted her to tell me what to believe.  But I never succeeded in getting her to do that. “Why won’t you tell me what you believe?”, I’d ask.

“Because you would ape me.”

“No I won’t, mom. I promise.”

“I’m glad to hear that”, she’d say, “All the same, my beliefs are my business and not yours.”

“But when can I know?” I’d whine.

“When you have reached an age of reason, and no sooner.”

I thought at times I would never live long enough, for even as a kid I sensed that for an American, the age of reason comes no sooner than 40 or so.

Like all parents, mom had her paradoxes.  No matter how much she insisted on doing things her way when it came to certain things, her policies on other things were models of laissez-faire.   For instance:  We were free range kids.  On weekends and during the months we were not in school, we could roam anywhere in the town or countryside so long as we pedaled back in time for supper.   She guarded which programs we were allowed to watch on television, but I don’t recall her even once opposing my choice in books.

Mom was criticized in the community for her manner of raising us.  People accused her of not being able to control her son when I grew my hair long.  After she allowed me, at 16, to hitchhike for the summer around the United States, her decision became for a week or ten days the talk of the town.  Yet, her most controversial decision was the god one.  Plenty of folks objected to our being raised that way.

The criticisms often enough worried her, but they never altered her course.  She refused to “take counsel of her fears”.  For mom was — and still is — a conservative in the genuinely traditional sense of “conservative”.  A sense that is all but gone out of fashion today.  That is, she is set against her or anyone else messing in other people’s affairs.  And few things are to her more a person’s own business than what he or she believes about god.

Wild Bill Davenport and His Scientific Method Medicine Show

Some long time ago, one of my best professors, William Davenport, introduced me to the basic scientific method.  Professor Davenport was an extraordinary logician and a philosopher.

He revolutionized my thinking on a number of issues,  and he did so though his voice never in all our conversations deviated from a soft monotone — a monotone I once swore capable of knocking out a busload of screaming cheerleaders on amphetamines.  But to be fair, I was drunk when I swore it.  After I sobered up,  I realized my mistake, and corrected my statement to two busloads.

Despite his voice, Professor Davenport had fully developed the logician’s skill of slicing away fat to reveal the essential ideas.  He could pull a string of logic so tight it would seem like an acrobat might walk his thoughts without a balance pole.  The false and fake never had much chance with him.  And that is precisely what I most needed when I was 19.

I was fresh out of a stifling rural town where it seemed that no one — at least not publicly — pursued their thoughts much beyond their neighbor’s thoughts.  Where everyone lived by the rule that, to get along, you reigned in.  That is, you pulled your thoughts up short even while they were still colts.  You tightly corralled them, though they naturally wanted green pastures.  And the gods help you if you did not break your ideas to the saddle of conformity.

In contrast, Professor Davenport seemed to me — fearless.

Though the first course I took with him — “Introduction to Logic” — met at a bleary-eyed eight in the morning, I could not have been more attentive to his lectures had he paid me for it in gold.  By the third or fourth week, I was certain that logic and evidence — only logic and evidence — were his navigational stars.  And I was beginning to sense how liberating that was, how whole worlds could be discovered — could be braved — steering by those stars.

I threw myself into that course with improbable intensity. Looking back, I realize now I so put myself into it because I was learning more than logic.  I was rising up out of the blinding conformity of my town.   At the same time coming home to a truer home than I’d known before.  In short, I was finding myself.

Professor Davenport not only had a monotone, but he trumped his soft voice with a shy and unassuming personality.   Then too, his boyish build and youthful appearance made him look like a fellow student, rather than an accomplished professor.  Last, he had an almost unnatural ability to at all times, and in every place, appear lost.

Even when you met with him in his office — even right on his home turf — you felt a deep concern to take his hand and lead him to the university’s lost and found.  There was really nothing about the man that spoke of steering by stars to brave new worlds.   Except for the fact he could place ideas before you illuminated like comets by his mind.

I wish now I had kept my notebooks from the courses I took with him.  I would especially like to read his comments on the hypothetico-deductive model of the scientific method.  There is more than one way of describing the model, but I think the simplest is to liken the model to the taunt belly of an erotic pole dancer.

Unfortunately, that is also by far the least accurate way ever invented of describing the hypothetico-deductive model.  I’m not saying who invented such a useless way of describing the model, but it was not Professor Davenport.  A much better — yet simple enough for this blog post — way to describe the hypothetico-deductive model might be:

  1. Define the question
  2. Gather information (observe and/or study the observations of other folks)
  3. Form a falsifiable hypothesis (i.e. a hypothesis that could conceivably be demonstrated to be false)
  4. Make a prediction from the hypothesis
  5. Perform an experiment designed to test the prediction
  6. Collect data from the experiment
  7. Analyze and shift out noise in the data
  8. Interpret data  (e.g. does data support or contradict the hypothesis)
  9. Draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
  10. Publish results (peer review)
  11. Retest (frequently done by other scientists)
  12. Accept Nobel Prize  (even more frequently done by other scientists)

Although I think the model fails to show how scientists actually practice science, it does seem to me useful to the extent it lays out a bit of the logic of the sciences.   To be sure, the above is not Professor Davenport’s description of the hypothetico-deductive model, but then it’s been about 35 years:  After all that time, I think I should be forgiven even if I were to, say, ridiculously confuse the model with the taunt belly of an erotic pole dancer.   Not that I would, though.

In that introductory course in logic, we began to study the logic of the sciences near the close of the semester.  And it was all over before we had time to complete our studies. But, for me, that hypothetico-deductive model, even half-understood, was the high point of the semester.   I didn’t know at the time how problematic it was.  Instead, I saw in it a method of establishing reliable truths that transcended blind conformity to anyone’s opinion; that relied neither on whim, nor on authority; and which seemed to open many more doors than anything I had been taught before.  I confess, even to this day, I have a fondness for it.

I took a handful of courses with William Davenport, and both because he was such an unassuming man, and because he so deeply impressed me as intellectually fearless, I came to privately think of him as, “Wild Bill”.

Despite the irony, it was an apt name because his courage was the key to him.  You couldn’t really understand Wild Bill without understanding he would go wherever reason took him.  There’s integrity and a kind of authenticity in that.  And like anything that rises above all around it that is merely fake and cheap, that authenticity can inspire others.

I sometimes wonder at people who think only giants can liberate us.  Wild Bill Davenport was in almost all ways an ordinary man.  He was certainly no bigger-than-life-giant: No Moses of the American Midwest.  He was so shy, it took all but an act of will to pay him the attention he deserved.  He was so unassuming, even now, even knowing how he inspired me, even understanding that he helped midwife my intellectual liberation, even today, I cannot think of him as heroic.

But he probably was, in a very genuine way, heroic.  Just not in any way that would obligate you to notice it.  Just not in any giant way.

What’s Wrong With Primarily Teaching Kids Abstinence?

Earlier today, I was visiting Karen Rayne’s thoughtful blog, Adolescent Sexuality, where she had a post up on the follies of abstinence only sex education.  I think her post prompted me to articulate my own views of teaching kids about abstinence a little bit better than I normally do.  Because I want to give Karen’s blog a shout out (It’s very much worth placing on your schedule of blogs to regularly visit), and because I wish to prompt you to share your own views on the matter, I will quote the  comment I made there:

As someone who has been voluntarily celibate for years, I guess I would be a hypocrite if I did not support abstinence. And, indeed, I wish for a world in which no one — especially young people — is pressured into having sex when they don’t feel or intuit it’s right for them.

At the same time, though, I have increasingly come to the belief we should raise kids to anticipate that they will become sexually active at sometime in their late teens or early twenties, and, of course, to be prepared for it if and when it happens. In other words, I’m no longer of the opinion, if I ever really was, that we should tell kids their first choice should be abstinence and that having sex is only plan B.

For one thing, it’s my understanding that the average age of first sex in the US is currently somewhere around 17 or 18. For another thing, I recall that only one in ten people wait for marriage to have first sex. And, if those and other things are the real facts of the matter, then I find it a bit off to pretend — as so many of our leaders do — that most kids can benefit from being taught that abstinence ought to be Plan A.

I would turn it around. Responsible sex is Plan A, abstinence is Plan B, and Plan C is to take responsibility for neither and become a fool.

Of course, given the current politics of sex, I believe there is no way any public school system instructor in the US could get away with telling kids, “You should pretty much expect to have sex by your late teens or early twenties, and if you don’t, then that’s alright too.”

So, Karen, am I a nutcase for thinking the primary emphasis should be on preparing for sex, rather than on preparing for abstinence?

I will ask you the same essential question I asked Karen: Should the primary emphasis in sex education be on teaching kids to prepare for sex, rather than on teaching kids to prepare for abstinence?  What do you think?