Fundamentalist Politics

“Faith is…the evidence of things not seen.”

—Hebrews 11:1

Paul Krugman’s latest column is very kind to conservative Republicans, calling them,

The Ignorance Caucus

Ignorance, you know, is curable. And some of us think that what ails the Republican Party these days is not so curable. Krugman was sort of taking it easy on them.

In any case, he pointed out a few things that should scare all thinking people:

Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” because, it said, such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

On Eric Cantor’s “major policy speech” last week, Krugman said,

when giving a speech intended to demonstrate his openness to new ideas, Mr. Cantor felt obliged to give that caucus a shout-out, calling for a complete end to federal funding of social science research. Because it’s surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we’re trying to change.

Krugman adds:

the entire National Science Foundation budget for social and economic sciences amounts to a whopping 0.01 percent of the budget deficit.

In his speech, Cantor said he supported medical research, but Krugman points out that,

he and his colleagues have adamantly opposed “comparative effectiveness research,” which seeks to determine how well such treatments work.

The federal government, since it runs a rather large health insurance program—Medicare—and since it partners with the states to run another rather large insurance program—Medicaid—and since it operates a rather large health care system—the Veterans Health Administration—might be interested in the comparative effectiveness of health care treatments. But Republicans, preferring ignorance and thus incompetence, want to keep government in the dark.

On climate research, Krugman notes the usual attempts by Republicans to kill it. And even when they don’t kill it, even when they consent to some meager research, they still can’t help themselves from asserting their fondness for ignorance:

Republicans in the State Legislature have specifically prohibited the use of the words “sea-level rise.

That would be like trying to assess the dangers of playing football but prohibiting the use of the words “brain damage.”

Here’s more conservative-embraced ignorance via Krugman:

House Republicans tried to suppress a Congressional Research Service report casting doubt on claims about the magical growth effects of tax cuts for the wealthy.

On guns and violence:

…back in the 1990s conservative politicians, acting on behalf of the National Rifle Association, bullied federal agencies into ceasing just about all research into the issue.

Why should Republicans fear knowing things? Because knowing things is often an enemy of fixed beliefs. And the GOP has a lot invested in those fixed beliefs. Related to that, Krugman hits on something of fundamental importance that all Americans need to make an attempt to understand because it is responsible for much of the lack of progress we see:

The truth is that America’s partisan divide runs much deeper than even pessimists are usually willing to admit; the parties aren’t just divided on values and policy views, they’re divided over epistemology. One side believes, at least in principle, in letting its policy views be shaped by facts; the other believes in suppressing the facts if they contradict its fixed beliefs.

Epistemology is a big but necessary word because it is critical to our advancement as individuals and society. Epistemology comes to us from philosophy, and all philosophers by the nature of their discipline have, or should have, something to say about it. In short it is “the theory of knowledge,” which involves thinking about what “knowledge” is, how we get it, how we know it is genuine—heck, if even there is such a thing as “genuine” knowledge.

Krugman referenced the Texas Republican Party’s rejection of critical thinking skills. He wasn’t kidding. Here is the original language in the party’s 2012 platform:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

What Texas Republicans did was advance their own theory of knowledge, their own epistemology, which has “fixed beliefs.” And their theory of knowledge is based on the following, also part of their platform:

Traditional Principles in Education – We support school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded and which form the basis of America’s legal, political and economic systems. 

This Republican epistemology—which has authoritarianism and inerrant biblical religion at its core—is not limited to Texas Republicans, although they feel free enough in that state to unabashedly share it with the rest of us. The theory of knowledge that says there are fixed beliefs that critical thinking should not explore is a feature of all fundamentalist religion, and, sadly, it is today a feature of what we can confidently call fundamentalist politics.

And whether we call it ignorance or something else, we have to recognize that fundamentalist politics represents a threat to our progress and our national well-being.

The Glenn Beck Paradox, Part 2

I wrote the following in response to some very thoughtful comments on my post, “The Glenn Beck Paradox.”  If  philosophy-talk is not your idea of a good time, then avoid the following:


To all,

I just love these philosophical discussions.

First, of course it is good advice not to just put trust or faith in any one person or idea, but to seek out all the information one can in a finite period of time.  But at some point, one has to stop looking and make up one’s mind.  G. K. Chesterton said,

The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

The point of the post was to raise the sticky issue of epistemology (“What is knowledge and how do we come to know what it is we think we know”) in the context of someone (Beck) who clearly wants people to take his word for things, despite his urging them not to.  That is one of the oldest tricks in the Book of Demagoguery.

Despite Beck’s pleading, “Don’t take my or anyone else’s word for anything,” I was simply trying to point out that there are limits to skepticism.  Even science makes assumptions about the universe which cannot be proven, and without those assumptions, we would not have “knowledge” in the sense most of us use the word.

Fundamental among the assumptions of science would be the “real” existence of the physical universe (and other minds).  Science also assumes natural causation (the root of most conflicts between religion and science).  Scientific reasoning assumes that explanations for things happening in our universe can and will only be found in nature itself.  And, further, the evidence supporting those explanations will only come from the natural world, which, science assumes, has an operating consistency we would call predictability or “order.”

Oddly, none of these assumptions in science can be proven by science.

But notwithstanding the epistemological (and causation) problems in science, I raised the epistemology issue in the Beck post because it has always been a mystery to me how we come to know what we believe we know. 

Given the fact that none of us have infinite time to explore issues, how do we come to sound conclusions?  How much do we need to read and from what sources?  How much weight do we give a particular source?  Don’t we naturally give more weight to sources who share our worldview?  But, then, why do we have that worldview in the first place?  Where do we actually get our basic views?  Our opinions?  Even our assumptions?

I realize a lot of folks know the things they know because their truth meters are calibrated by their parents or priests or pastors.  But I know a lot of people who have rejected their childhood training, some radically so.  What’s the difference between those that do and those that don’t?

These things have fascinated me even before I did a 180 degree turn, as far as my political (and for the most part, my religious) views are concerned.  I can tell you what real-world events I think (I “assume”) led me to change my mind about conservatism, but I can’t tell you how those events actually “caused” that change, if in fact they really did.  Lots of people confront things that challenge their philosophy, but they don’t change their views.  They mostly stick with them.  Why is that?

I was so fascinated by this topic that I once e-mailed Alvin Plantinga, the great Christian philosopher, who is a first-class thinker and who is credited with rehabilitating theism’s respectability among professional philosophers.  I had understood his explanation of a belief in God as a “properly basic belief,” but I wondered how he could also consider confidence in the veracity of the Bible as a properly basic belief, too.  He referred me to a chapter in one of his books, in which he explains how the “conditions” for such a basic belief can be met.  Is he right?  Beats me.  Wish I knew.  I can only say I don’t believe he is.

But I do believe we have to have some sort of confidence that we can reason our way to justifiable beliefs and that what we then believe corresponds to the way things are, which in turn leads us to the way things “ought” to be.  

I am at present reading Sam Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, in which he argues that not only can science “determine human values,” it is our only reliable guide for doing so.  I started out as being somewhat skeptical of his claim, but I am becoming more convinced.  Again, how does such “convincing” work?  Beats me. Wish I knew. I can only say I am coming to believe he is right.

Finally, I believe in the power of scientific reasoning because it appears to represent the best hope we have of not only discovering valuable and useful knowledge about the universe, but about ourselves.

Oh, I do believe something else: Glenn Beck doesn’t have the foggiest idea what scientific reasoning is, and his lack of understanding is infecting others, as this audio clip demonstrates:


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