Links and Comments: Flip-Flopping Politicians; Jerry Coyne’s new book; Six Basic Storylines; Trigger Events

Slate: Our Best Presidents Are Flip-Floppers

Politicians are attacked for changing their positions due to political expediency — as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a one-time biology major, has done about the teaching of creationism in schools, to appeal to his ignorant base — but changing one’s mind in reaction to new evidence should be a measure of intellectual integrity. (That’s how science works.) Of course, the link above is about how politicians do this for political expediency…

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The event of this week is the publication of Jerry Coyne’s long-awaited book Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Got my copy today. Its topics are familiar to me as themes of this blog, but it’s nice seeing all these issues summarized and encapsulated into a rigorously referenced and indexed volume. I’ll blog my own summary and responses in a week or so.

Coyne’s own distillation of the themes of this book formed this short essay at The Scientist:

But while science and religion both claim to discern what’s true, only science has a system for weeding out what’s false. In the end, that is the irreconcilable conflict between them. Science is not just a profession or a body of facts, but, more important, a set of cognitive and practical tools designed to understand brute reality while overcoming the human desire to believe what we like or what we find emotionally satisfying. The tools are many, including observation of nature, peer review and replication of results, and above all, the hegemony of doubt and criticality. The best characterization of science I know came from physicist Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.”

In contrast, religion has no way to adjudicate its truth claims, for those claims rest on ancient scripture, revelation, dogma, and above all, faith: belief without sufficient evidence. Is there one God, or many? Does he want us to work on the Sabbath? Is there an afterlife? Was Jesus the son of God? The problem, of course, is that faith is no way to decide what’s true. It is, à la Feynman, an institutionalized way of fooling yourself. Religion acts like science in making claims about reality, but then morphs into pseudoscience in the way it rejects disconfirming evidence and insulates its claims against testing. The toolkit of science is—and will remain—the only way to discover what’s real, whether in biology, physics, history, or archaeology. Religion can offer communality and can buttress morality, but has no purchase on truth.

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The Independent: All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research.

I recall Hemingway (or was in Heinlein?) said there are only three basic stories. Anyway, here is more evidence that I need to understand concerning my Provisional Conclusion about narratives — that we as human beings, our minds having been honed by evolution for survival, rather than accurate perception of the real world, interpret everything in terms of cause and effect, beginnings, middles, and ends — because our daily lives involve incidents that have consequences. And this is why we have such negative reactions to narratives (e.g. certain TV series) that don’t end as we think they should.

The most popular storyline, according this article:

What do the following novels have in common: Pride and Prejudice, Brideshead Revisited and Carry On Jeeves? Well yes, they’re all written in English by famous English authors, and they all feature characters and dialogue; but on the face of it, they’re completely different. Not to Professor Matthew Jockers from Stanford University, they’re not.

According to his computerised analysis, they’d all be examples of the “Man in a Hole” form of fiction – an emotional arc in which our hero/heroine starts out happy, hits a patch of unhappiness (Lizzie Bennett discovers her baby sister’s been seduced by the cad Wickham, Charles Ryder discovers his best friend Sebastian is a hopeless drunk, Bertie is tasked with stealing an embarrassing manuscript from a prospective father-in-law) and winds up happier and/or wiser at the end.

Prof Jockers suggests that 46 per cent of the world’s novels are variants of the Man in a Hole storyline. …

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There have been numerous articles in recent weeks and months about “triggering events”, about whether students in literature classes at universities, say, should be warned in advance that the various classic works of literature (Shakespeare, et al., et al.) that certain situations in these works might … upset them. That is, acknowledging the reality that many events in human history have involved murder, rape, sexism, and so on, which while hopefully will not affect any of these students’ lives, but which nevertheless actually happened in the past, might be troubling to their studies.

Here’s Jerry Coyne again, at New Republic, on this subject: Life Is “Triggering.” The Best Literature Should Be, Too.

The pathway of such trigger warnings—not just for sexual assault but for violence, bigotry, and racism—will eventually lead to every work of literature being labeled as potentially offensive. There goes the Bible, there goes Dante, there goes Huck Finn (loaded with racism), there goes all the old literature written before we realized that minorities, women, and gays weren’t second-class people. And as for violence and hatred, well, they’re everywhere, for they’re just as much parts of literature as parts of life. Crime and Punishment? Trigger warning: brutal violence against an old woman. The Great Gatsby? Trigger warning: violence against women (remember when Tom Buchanan broke Mrs. Wilson’s nose?). The Inferno? Trigger warning: graphic violence, sodomy, and torture. Dubliners? Trigger warning: pedophilia. 

Which is to say, the *whole point* of reading literature is to expose readers to other ideas and realities, about why other people have different ideas about what is true and proper, and while what you may upset about in any particular story is not something necessarily universal. Which leads us back to Coyne’s new book, about how science and faith have such different, and dramatically differently effective, methods for identifying what is real about the world.

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