Anecdotes versus data in public discourse

“The plural of anecdote is not data” is a phrase well-loved by scientific sceptics. Often attributed to Dr Ben Goldacre, but probably originating with Raymond WoIfinger, the phrase cautions us against the mistake of thinking that what you experience – or what you and your granny or friends experience – might not actually be representative of any significant trend, or give you valuable evidence regarding the causal efficacy or role of something you might regard as significant.

#GodDebate: Mahlatse Winston Mashua, Eusebius and I talk God

I took part in a very interesting radio debate this morning, on the topic of whether or not God exists. As I said in one of my first remarks, the first question we’d need to resolve is “which God?”, because that question is perhaps one that separates many heathens and believers.

By which I mean simply this: the debate around the existence of god(s) allows for vast amounts of embedded assumptions, implied premises, special pleading, confirmation bias and the like. I’m not a fan of Richard Dawkins’ approach to the religion debate at all, but he had it completely right in saying (paraphrased) that everyone knows what it’s like to be an atheist – I just go one god further than you.

Dealing with “unintentional racism”

Eusebius McKaiser invited me onto his radio show to talk about intentions and their role in assigning praise and blame, or more broadly, in determining the moral status of speech and action. You can listen to the podcast of the conversation, and/or read further if you’re interested in a fuller description of my views on the topic.

du Preez, McKaiser, racism and loaded questions

I’ve been thinking about racism a fair bit recently – not only because it’s a national preoccupation, but also because of things you likely know about already: the ongoing student and worker protests at my university (among others), and the Paris attacks over the weekend and responses to that (yes, I know “Islam is not a race“).

Another reason for the personal preoccupation is that I’m toying with the idea of writing a book on the subject, or rather a book on the concept of “whiteness” and how it influences discussions on race in South Africa. So it was with great interest that I attended Eusebius McKaiser’s Johannesburg launch of Run Racist Run last week, in which some of these issues are explored.


I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but I have been following two discussions of it and its author – one, a bunch of abusive ad hominem towards McKaiser on Twitter, from people who also haven’t read the book, but think they can dismiss it on the grounds of what they think they know of the author.

Two, in a lengthy Facebook post and discussion, Max du Preez expressed dissatisfaction at being (unfairly, in his view) singled out for criticism in one of the book’s chapters.

You need to read the thread yourself for a full view, but my summary of it is that du Preez is unhappy that McKaiser reads a certain newspaper interview as containing evidence that du Preez adopts a rhetorical strategy of pointing to obvious, and odious, racism to deflect from his own, more subtle racism.

11220930_10153588730640546_4454034221720839491_nAnother discussion of the case can be found on Jason van Niekerk’s public post, which helpfully also contains a page from the book in question, reproduced alongside. My concern with how this discussion is framed on Jason’s post, as well as by McKaiser, is that it’s easy to see this as an example of a loaded or complex question. For example, “have you stopped beating your wife?”.

These questions entail any answer simply implicating you further, making it impossible for du Preez to respond in any way except to say, “you got me – I’m sorry for my subliminal racism”. In these situations, the questioner holds both absolute authority over the framing of the question, as well as the acceptability of any answer – and I don’t think that’s fair.

I don’t think du Preez would disagree in the least with how McKaiser frames the false dichotomy in the closing sentence of the image above. I also don’t think du Preez would disagree that he – and all white folk – might sometimes have a reflexive thought that is attributable to a racially discriminatory upbringing or culture.

But that isn’t what he was being asked about in the interview McKaiser focuses on. He wasn’t saying that “because I reject the racism of Bullard/Roodt/Hofmeyr, I myself am immune to criticism”. If you want to criticise him for saying that you need an example of him saying that, rather than an example of an interview where he could be read as saying that, if we choose to be uncharitable.

Here’s what van Niekerk thinks faulty about du Preez’ response, with my response below:

du Preez doesn’t mention or address the three specific claims made against him. Instead, he suggests that we can know whether he’s a racist or not by looking at his history of written work.

2 things about that.
1. That response is begging the question posed in the chapter title. du Preez is, in his response, invoking exactly the conception of racism McKaiser is calling inadequate: racism as a fixed feature of character you either embody or don’t, rather than a vicious disposition the privileged can fall into without noticing.
2. Even if he weren’t begging the question, this isn’t an issue of representative sample sizes: McKaiser has picked that article as an exemplary demonstration of a specific rhetorical pivot. Other stuff du Preez has said or written that doesn’t do that wouldn’t be relevant to a discussion of that move.

It didn’t seem to me that du Preez was saying that his body of work immunises him from any accusations – rather, he’s saying that one article (which wasn’t even addressing the substantive charge being made against him by McKaiser and van Niekerk) is an unrepresentative data point.

It’s not question-begging, in other words, but (legitimately, in my view) rejecting the question as illegitimate. As I said above, I think du Preez would agree with “the conception of racism that McKaiser is calling inadequate” – he’s disagreeing that an interview of his manifests that kind of racism, because thinking it does so takes an interview given in one context (an Afrikaans newspaper, speaking mostly to a white community, where du Preez would be well aware of that and frame his responses accordingly), and interprets it as if it were offered in another context.

On the second point above, it seems to me that van Niekerk is doing the question-begging here. It’s only an “exemplary demonstration of a specific rhetorical pivot” if you assume McKaiser’s reading is correct, and I don’t think that’s obviously true at all.

More to the point, to use someone as an example of unconscious (or partly conscious) racism, when that person has neither the right of reply (pre-publication), nor the right to explain anything about how the context is relevant, seems unethical to me.

Again, if we put the simple question to du Preez, “do you think that condemning obvious and overt racists makes you, yourself immune from more disguised or subtle forms of racism, and that even you might sometimes slip into those?”, I’m pretty confident he’d say “yes”. Until you ask him that question, is it fair to read what he’s said – in another context, to a different audience, as proving a “no”?

(Disclaimer: all three of the people discussed above are (hopefully not “were”) friends of varying degrees of virtuality.)

John Lennox and @Eusebius McKaiser debate: does morality need God?

eusebiusMckaisercroppedA trip to Johannesburg last week (for the unlikely purpose of presenting a paper at a nutrition conference!) was well-timed, in that I had the opportunity to both attend a debate between Christian apologist John Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser, as well as to join Eusebius in studio the next day for a chat on religion and its place in state-run schools.

You can find the embedded stream of my interview with Eusebius at the bottom of this post. But while it’s still relatively fresh in memory, I thought I should capture a few thoughts on the debate for those of you who could not attend. A recording of debate will appear on YouTube at some point too, I’m told.

The topic of the debate was “Morality and God: is there a connection?”, although the conversation also ended up touching on other issues including the role of God in generating significance in life, and whether atheists are at all handicapped with regard to understanding science.

In his opening remarks, Lennox made the claim that science and atheism were essentially in conflict, as atheism undermines rationality. This was the first of many occasions where I had the clear sense that Lennox was failing to extend himself beyond certain premises that he considered to be axiomatic.

For him, God generates meaning, in that God creates the syntax and grammar of science – the order of things, the directions in which they flow, how they fit together. So without grasping God, you’re handicapped in your capacity to understand science at all. (This is my analogy, but I think it captures what he was saying.)

This question of mine (above) was put to him later in the evening, and he responded by professing ignorance regarding the state of Islamic science. This evaded my question, in that the dilemma I tried to make him grapple with was the possibility that his religion was interchangeable with any other for the purposes of generating this scientific foundation.

If it was not, he’d have to argue that his was superior – an easy thing to assert, but not easy to make a case for, and one of those occasions where the fundamentalism of the axiomatic premises I spoke of above would be exposed.

Another moment of disappointment to me was when he described evolution as a “mindless unguided process”, which reveals a rather caricatured and false view of evolution. Evolution is strongly guided by natural selection – but if one equivocates around what “guided” means, or rather, stacks the deck in favour of only one sort of guided (by a conscious agent, like God), then Lennox can certainly win the day, but only at the expense of making a plainly circular argument.

And that’s the problem with these debates. I’ve debated a couple of apologists over the years also, and besides the opportunity these debates present for showing an audience how arguments work (or don’t work), there’s pretty much zero prospect of productive argument between the antagonists.

Even strong critiques have little impact, such as when McKaiser exposed the inconsistency of Lennox (and all religious folk, to an extent) happily living in the empirical world of cause and effect when it comes to their day to day lives, but then bringing what is (to an atheist) essentially magic into the conversation when speaking of the souls, free will, morality and so forth.

We have a number of compelling (and competing) accounts for how morality evolves or is generated in animals that demonstrate moral instincts – and many of these are more plausible than an account requiring the sort of leap of faith that religion does (and, never mind the difficulty of then making a principled choice between the various religious accounts).

Again, it would only be if you’re predisposed to be sympathetic to the religious (and Christian) account of these things that they have any chance of gaining traction. In a fair fight, as it were, the religious account would be dropped from the list of plausible hypotheses fairly early on.

Similar tactics (and results) were in evidence with questions around the significance of life – a question that only becomes interesting if you grant that life needs some grand metaphysical meaning. There’s no reason to grant that premise, though – it’s a challenge that only has any force because it’s the product of centuries of religious privilege.

The conversation was fair-minded for the most part, although there were a number of sly digs from each debater towards his opponent. I thought Lennox more guilty of this, but my count might be unreliable, thanks both to my epistemic framework and the fact that Eusebius is a friend.

I suspect that Eusebius and I don’t agree on the morality question, although that requires that I hear his view outside of a context in which he was mostly attempting to rebut Lennox, rather than offer his full explanation of how moral principles are generated.

From what I heard on Thursday, Eusebius is a moral realist, which I’m not, but then, at other times, he seemed to speak as if his account of the objectivity of moral truths was one grounded in something like rationality, reciprocal altruism and the social contract, which together make certain moral principles binding on any rational agent.

If that’s true, we’d agree in substance, but I’d object that this doesn’t mean objectivity or moral realism, but rather that we’d converge on the same principles for pragmatic and contingent reasons – certain moral principles would be akin to conclusions in science, in that they are the best-evidenced, rather than being true by necessity.

Were you there? If so, feel free to let me know what you thought, below.

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Some updates on God (and related matters)

imagesJohn Lennox – mathematician and Christian apologist – is in town again, and giving talks at UCT, Stellenbosch and in Johannesburg. I’ve twice had the pleasure (or at least, experience) of chatting to him at length regarding his views on whether there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, and there’s no question that he’s a very smart and sincere man.

But he’s also wrong.

I’ve written many posts over the years dealing with meta-ethics and morality, and have debated a few Christian apologists on these topics over the years. There’s little point in doing so with the hope of changing their minds (and vice versa), but these conversations can still be very valuable to an audience, in that listeners or readers could certainly benefit from hearing how much moral behaviour we find in non-human animals, or about the clear lack of correlation between religious belief and “good” moral choices.

If you’re in Johannesburg this Thursday night (September 18), you might be interested to attend a debate between Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser on exactly this topic. It takes place at 7pm in the Great Hall of Wits University, and I’m looking forward to hearing what Eusebius has to say on the topic.

Eusebius is unlikely to say much that I’ll want to disagree with on this topic, but I do want to use the debate as a segue to briefly return to a topic he and I do disagree on, namely the question of whether we should call ourselves atheists or agnostics.

I’ve written about this at length too, so I’ll just summarise the disagreement here. All knowledge – excepting technical points like Descartes’ cogito – does not entail certainty. We can be overwhelmingly convinced of the truth or falsity of any given proposition, and for the sake of communicative efficiency, we call those propositions “true” or “false”.

Furthermore, we’ll in all likelihood often right to call many of those propositions true or false. In other words, they correspond to the way the world actually is.

What does it mean to say that you’re an atheist, as opposed to an agnostic? Here’s the problem: it can mean at least three things. First, you could mean that you’re sure that there is no God – that “God exists” is a false proposition. Second, you could mean that you are sure that there are no gods at all, or in general – that all god claims are false. Or third, you could be saying that you regard it as overwhelmingly likely that one of the two formulations above are correct, without claiming certainty.

The third formulation is consistent with the way in which I treat all other propositions, and I see no reason to treat propositions relating to God(s) differently. I don’t claim certainty for any other propositions, and wouldn’t want to claim one here, even if the chances of God(s) existing are vanishingly small.

Does that, then, make me an agnostic, as opposed to an atheist? Eusebius says yes, it does, and that it’s a more epistemically responsible choice to call myself an agnostic. And here’s where he’s not so much wrong, but perhaps reaching a slightly hasty and unsubtle conclusion.

We don’t need a qualifier like agnostic (in the sense that it qualifies that you’re not certain) when we speak about propositions like grass being green, or smoking causing cancer. Everyone from one interpretive community – the philosophically inclined one – will fill in the epistemic doubt for themselves, and know that you’re not making an absolute claim.

However, everyone from a different interpretive community – those who regard truth claims as being absolute – will simply assume you’re using language in the conventional sense (and to be honest, how most of us use it, most of the time), and that you are making a claim of absolute certainty.

And this, in turn, opens up the possibility of using these words – just like we use most words – to signal a certain stance or attitude towards the proposition in question, cognisant of who the audience is. If Eusebius and I are talking, we could both say we are atheists, and neither of us will assume the other is claiming certainty. Likewise, we could both say we are agnostics, and neither of us will assume that the other is in doubt about the overwhelming likelihood that we are correct in saying God(s) don’t exist.

But when talking to other people, especially ones we don’t know, we can be fairly confident that the common understanding of “agnostic” is “we’re not sure” – in other words, it signals that it’s an open question to us as to whether God(s) exist or not. And while it’s an open question in a strictly logical sense, it’s not an open question in any practically relevant sense, just like it’s not an open question whether grass is green or not.

So, using the word “atheist” – in situations where we don’t have the time to explain all this – might well both capture our position more accurately (in the mind of the audience), as well as serve a useful political function in reinforcing the notion that the proposition in question (that God exists) is one that we consider overwhelmingly likely to be false.

Having said that, I’ve come to prefer “agnostic atheist”, in that it seems a “best of both worlds” response, as well as one that tends to open up an interesting conversation, thanks both to not appearing to be dogmatic, and because it tends to discourage a dogmatic response (except in the case of some atheists, who think it a cop-out).

Before moving on to a different topic, I’d encourage you to take a look at Eusebius’s column this week. I agree with most of it, but would again want to disagree on some elements of politics and strategy, especially with regard to his example of Richard Dawkins, who has progressed from being a useful lightning rod to becoming somewhat of a troll.

In relation to the column, all I’ll say here – before this becomes far too long – is that while it’s of course true that the concept of God shouldn’t be treated with kid gloves, that logical point can be used as an excuse to be quite the bully (I don’t think Eusebius and I disagree on this point, though).

Moving on:

You might remember Andrew Selley, the chairperson of the Christian advocacy group FOR-SA, for his valiant (sarcasm font) efforts to secure parents the right to beat their children, because that’s apparently what Jesus would have wanted. He has written a more recent post arguing that the OGOD case against 6 schools entails “The Court … being asked to order that Christianity be removed and banned from the schools.”

That’s simply untrue – the point of the lawsuit is equality of representation, and obeying existing regulations that require schools to be essentially secular. He goes on to argue that the schools are welcoming to other faiths, but as I’ve said in the past, paying lip-service to inclusivity does not amount to inclusivity in practice. If a school advertises themselves as having a Christian character, that immediately a) decreases the likelihood of other faiths (and nonbelievers) getting a welcoming reception, and b) increases the likelihood that the school will remain Christian, because those of other faiths (and nonbelievers) will be less likely to apply to that school.

Lastly, I’m pleased to see the launch of an “Open Mosque” in Cape Town, where women will be treated equally, and where homophobia will not be tolerated. It should be noted that Sataar Parker, spokesperson for Cape Town’s biggest mosque, Masjid Ul Quds in Athlone, says this is “nothing new”, with their mosque having been “open” in these senses for 25 years. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but if it is, we can simply celebrate their now being two such mosques available to Cape Town Muslims.


Talking with Eusebius about argumentation

Power_FM_(South_Africa)Earlier today, Eusebius McKaiser invited me to join him in a half-hour conversation on critical thinking – how we should do it, and how we fail. Seeing as I happened to be in Johannesburg, I was able to join him at the PowerFM studios for the conversation that ensued, which proved to be far more interesting – for me, at least! – than the more typical interview by telephone. For those interested in the topic, the Soundcloud podcast is embedded below.

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Eusebius McKaiser asks: “Could I vote DA?”

Finding myself in a bookstore with some time to kill, I sat down to read Eusebius McKaiser’s new book, Could I Vote DA?, and am now in a position to recommend that (some of) you do so, too.

Regardless of the book’s title – although the DA (the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s only self-identified liberal party) is the main focus – Eusebius does a fine job of capturing the essence of some key ideas in politics, such as the point and value of a political ideology, what liberalism entails and doesn’t entail, affirmative action, and the strategic and tactical dilemmas faced by those in the political arena.

The book is overtly (even proudly) subjective, and Eusebius’s character is manifest on every page. For some people that will be a negative, but for those of you who can read past an impression of a character that’s not your preference, the personal narrative does, I think, help to bring the ideas to the forefront.

One aspect of the book and its subjectivity that I wasn’t enamoured of was what seemed (at times) to be gratuitous sniping at some former and current DA representatives or employees, in particular their former Executive Director of Communications, Gareth van Onselen (also a friend). They don’t see eye to eye on some things, and neither of them are fond of being told they are wrong, but Eusebius’s account of some recent dealings between van Onselen and people in the DA seemed a little too eager to “school” van Onselen.

(Much of the conversation regarding Gareth van Onselen is in a chapter detailing the disagreement between himself and Mmusi Mainane – the DA’s National Spokesperson and Deputy Federal Chairperson – on the topic of ubuntu, so this is an opportune time to link you to an email conversation Gareth and I had on the topic of ubuntu a couple of years ago.)

The language of the book is very informal, containing many colloquialisms and much slang. In tone and content, I’d think it well-suited to a younger audience – perhaps those “born frees” that will be voting in a National Election for the first time.

Those of you who know your political philosophy won’t learn much by way of theory, but can certainly still enjoy the book not only for how it might get you to think about issues again, even afresh (of value, because our beliefs and views can easily calcify without our realising it), but also for its gossip value – Eusebius gets to hear plenty of interesting stories while hosting his morning show on PowerFM, and in similar gigs prior to that.

The question of what market this was aimed at is an interesting one – the book retails for roughly R230, which might, I fear, place it slightly out of that youth market’s comfort zone. Stephen Grootes recently published SA Politics Unspun for around R185, and while Richard Calland’s The Zuma Years retails for a similar price to Eusebius’s book, Calland’s is research-intensive rather than a piece of reflective political philosophy.

These books aren’t directly comparable, but they do give a sense of what other publishers thought a reasonable price for a book about politics, in a market that we know doesn’t read an awful amount in any case. I hope I’m wrong, and that Eusebius can treat me to a gloating dinner with his royalties later this year.

A final though: the key point, for me, made in Eusebius’s book was regarding the tension between principle and pragmatism, and how difficult it is to strike a balance that both satisfies the electorate while not selling out the values you are ostensibly promoting. The DA has mostly stuck to (an attempted) defence of principle, even while foundering in doing so at various points (to mention just one example, Eusebius highlights the illiberal stance of Helen Zille on HIV/AIDS, something I’ve also previously written about).

But when they try to make a case for something that’s about more than only principle – or when they make a case for a principle in a way that’s designed to appeal to more people than only their liberal base (if that is still their base at all, as I questioned when writing about the Maimane vs. van Onselen thing, their message seldom seems both co-ordinated and coherent. Last year’s BBBEE confusion was the most striking example of this, and these examples all speak of a party that knows it needs to change it’s manner of engaging our voting population, rather than the voting population that can be found in textbooks.

Eusebius makes this case very well, and very thoughtfully, and his book is a welcome contribution to South Africa’s political debate, especially with an election less than three months away.