Links and Comments: Robert Wright on Brian Williams; Obama on Christianity; Children of Gay Parents; Republicans and evolution

Robert Wright — author of among other books The Moral Animal (1994), one of the best books I’ve read about how evolutionary psychology affects human culture and relationships — offers his perspective, in New Republic, on how Brian Williams Is Being Punished for Something Every Human Does.

Why would human brains be so fallible? The best guess is that, from the point of view of the brain’s creator, natural selection, unreliable memory is a feature, not a bug. 

The foundational premise of evolutionary psychology is that the human brain was designed, first and foremost, to get our ancestors’ genes into subsequent generations. During our evolutionary past, high social status could help do that. Believably telling stories that connect you to important people or underscore your daring can elevate your social status. And the best way to believably tell those stories is to believe them yourself. So genes for this kind of self-deception could in theory flourish via natural selection.

With more about confirmation bias, the nature of journalism, and what makes a good story.

One thing that runs scary foreigners a close second as an attention getter is a scandal involving someone famous. And if that someone famous is “lying,” that makes for a better story than if he’s just being human. It is, as we say in journalism, a story that’s too good to check.

Alternet: Amanda Marcotte on 5 Right-Wing Freak-Outs Over the President’s Completely Accurate Comments on Christianity.

This echoes my occasional comments that some Christians, supposedly beholden to a commandment about not bearing false witness, are happy to misrepresent facts when it suits their purposes.

The irony is that the conservative reaction to Obama’s speech proves his point, that Christians are capable of “terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” We are seeing this happening before our eyes as one Christian after another commits the terrible deeds of lying and slander, all in supposed defense of their religion. One after another, they openly and aggressively say untrue things and level false accusations, even though their faith supposedly forbids bearing false witness. And they do it, as Obama says wrong-headed people often do, by invoking religion as justification. If they really want to show that Christians are good and honorable people, they should start by choosing to act like it, instead rushing to tell lies to smear a man who was simply telling the truth.

On a similar note, there’s another ‘study’ this week about the children of gay and lesbian parents, sponsored by an anti-gay Catholic (whose bias should therefore discredit it immediately), that purports to show that those children have more ’emotional problems’ than children of straight parents. The problem, as with the widely-discredited Regnerus study, is that the study conflates children of gay parents with children of broken families, i.e. divorces.

Nathaniel Frank at Slate summarizes What We Know—Really—About Lesbian and Gay Parenting in which he compiles results of dozens of such studies at What We Know. 71 studies show no adverse effects on children; 4 do, all with methodological problems, like this latest one and Regnerus.

As our collection makes clear, and as the American Sociological Association concluded in its 2013 brief to the Supreme Court, the consensus of serious scholars on the matter is overwhelming. And the handful of researchers purporting to show harms from gay parenting are not brave Galileo-like outliers speaking truth to groupthink; they are ideological opponents of gay equality who are part of an orchestrated campaign to influence the Supreme Court with scare stories and bogus scholarship.

(Reality check: *why* would children growing up with two men or two women suffer emotionally? Because of rigid male vs female personality types? I don’t think so; the range of male personalities, and the range of female personalities, surely overlaps. If the critics of gay parents took their argument seriously, they would be campaigning just as stridently against *single* parents. Which they are not.)

There have been several stories today about a survey of potential Republican candidates for President and what the think about evolution. Here’s Salon’s summary, which shows that the candidates generally range from “I’m not a scientist” to “Hell no”.

But here’s a nuanced take on what this all means by Jamelle Bouie at Slate: Don’t Ask Scott Walker About Evolution.

Bottom line:

Which is to say that when a politician answers a question about evolution, they aren’t defending or rejecting science as much as they’re sending a message: I am one of you, and this is how you know.

Thus does the need to identify with a social group or tribe trump evidence, logic, and reality. (One of my Provisional Conclusions…)

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