Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy

When Bill Nye became the co-chair of the March for Science it brought on controversy due to his being a white male. That is really a shame. The real controversy should have been over the fact that Nye is not a scientist. He’s an entertainer with one earned degree, a B.S. in mechanical engineering. He tries to act like a scientist, but often fails miserably to pull it off.
As a scholar, I am used to non-academics butchering terms. I wince and then move on; I don’t have time to police others’ misuse of scientific language. Furthermore, I too speak ignorantly when I talk about things I do not know about, so I know I had better give others grace in that area. When a so-called advocate of the sciences does the butchering, though, those of us who are real scientists must speak out.
I’ll share just one example. Nye tried to use a scientific concept to critique opponents of global warming theory, arguing that they were suffering from cognitive dissonance. Instead he showed that he does not understand what cognitive dissonance means. It’s an impressive-sounding term and it’s often used to dismiss others’ beliefs, as Nye did on this occasion, but it has a real meaning, and it’s not what he thinks it is.
Here is a simple way to explain cognitive dissonance. When we have a deep belief that’s shown not to be true, we get uncomfortable. To deal with that discomfort we seek moral and social support so that we can continue to hold onto the belief we’ve invested ourselves in. Leon Festinger developed this theory in his classic book When Prophecies Fail, in which he found cognitive dissonance among an end-times cult. Festinger portrayed their discomfort after it became clear that the world did not come to an end as they expected; then he showed how they found relief from that discomfort: they concluded that their end-times beliefs had been right all along, but their sincere response to the prophecy had staved off worldwide disaster. This allowed them to avoid facing the painful fact that they’d actually been mistaken the whole time.
Festinger was clear that we could only assert cognitive dissonance when a belief is undeniably proved false. When the world didn’t end, people with this belief had to recognize that they were wrong.
Without undeniable proof, it just isn’t cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t meet the definition of the term.
This does not describe the global warming debate. Those who disagree with global warming theories have not seen undeniable proof that they are wrong. Furthermore — and I am not interested in the actual debate itself — it is impossible to absolutely prove or disprove the theory of global warming. We cannot prove whether human activity has had a devastating effect on the earth simply because we don’t have a world devoid of human activity to compare this one to.
Theories of global warming may well be true, but their opponents cannot be proved false in the same way we can show the end of the world cult was false. Therefore it is not appropriate to use cognitive dissonance to explain what is occurring in the global warming debate.
I know this because I, unlike Nye, am an actual scientist who is familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance. I have dozens of peer-reviewed publications. I know what it takes to accomplish work that is acceptable to other scholars. Real scholars are careful with their word choices; they understand the nuance of their subject matter. Real scientists try to use the most accurate words they have to describe reality. I do not see Nye as anything close to having the type of scientific mindset of an actual scholar.
It is ironic, since Nye is never shy about criticizing others’ lack of appreciation for science. But good science is done carefully. It is not a rush to judgment. Real scientists generally do not make the sort of pronouncements Nye sometimes makes because we are aware of the limits of our knowledge. Science is the constant striving to understand reality. We move closer to that understanding, but we never get there.
Someone who really cares about science would understand this. I can expect my students to make the common mistake of talking about “settled science.” I should not expect that from someone who wants to be the spokesman for science.
If Nye had said global warming debates were a matter of confirmation bias then I would say nothing. That is the proper concept I believe he is trying to tell us about. But he did not do his due diligence in finding the proper term for his argument. In fact, it is because of confirmation bias that scholars do their work for the scientific community and value dispassion toward results. We understand that confirmation bias is a problem for everyone. It is one reason why the scientific method emerged. Recognizing confirmation bias as a problem for critics of global warming would have been appropriate. Trying to group them together with an end times cult is not.
I can’t help wondering whether the March for Science is supposed to be about science or politics. Nye has maneuvered himself into a nice politicized position of being the “spokesperson” for science. His statements are not grounded in science, but they are useful for prosecuting certain political interests. If the organizers for the March for Science want to keep him as their spokesperson, they should not be surprised if many real scientists write the whole thing off not as promoting science, but as political propaganda instead.

What I like About the Benedict Option

The long awaited book “The Benedict Option” book is finally out and I am looking forward to reading it. When I do, I plan to perform a solid review of it. Although, I have not read the book, I have read some of the commentaries on it and Dreher’s discussion of the Benedict Option. Therefore, I want to react to some of the ideas floating around about the book.

Some argue that Dreher is advocating that Christians surrender all political and social power. Having seen some of his blogs on this subject, I tend to think these charges are a bit overblown. Perhaps after I read the book I will agree with them, but for now I am skeptical that Dreher wants Christians totally out of politics. Others argue that we do not need to go take Dreher’s advice because we can fight to take the culture back.

Has Dreher omitted the fact that God can bring American back from the brink? Of course, God can do that. Nevertheless, when I read the Bible I notice that God generally does not have us rely on our own political power. In fact, God warns against seeking help from political forces instead of from Him. God admonished Israel for seeking a King (I Samuel 8). God told Jews not to rebel against Babylon (Jeremiah 27: 6-11). I am not saying that Christians should avoid politics. We should seek our rightful political voice in appropriate ways. Christians have to be smarter in how they engage in political activism in a society where they are no longer the dominant voice. They cannot act as they have done in the past when they did have that voice. Furthermore, it is presumptuous to believe that God will automatically do exactly what we want. God often uses our lack of social and political power to strengthen us.
While Christians should be concerned about both political and cultural matters, if we had to choose only one dimensions to influence then it should be our culture. What attracts me to the Benedict Option is its focus on building up one’s own culture. Gaining cultural influence will eventually bring political influence. But having political influence does not mean that you can change the culture. While Christians have not totally ignored our culture, I fear that over the past few decades Christians have not given the same attention to changing the culture as to winning political offices. The Benedict Option offers us the opportunity to reset these priorities.
There are many steps Christians should take to gain cultural relevancy, but an important step is strengthening our own communities. We are a subculture that does not currently have great influence among the cultural elites. To survive co-optation the Christian community cannot be weak. A weak community follows the larger narratives in our society rather than protect its own values. Many critics of the Benedict Option have missed the point. To change our society we have to change ourselves. What we have been doing has not been working. It has not been working, in part, because our own communities are not strong enough to endure corruption from the larger culture.
If you have any doubt about the weakness of our communities then talk to your Christian friends with adult children. How many of them complain about their kids no longer living in their faith? In strong communities, the kids grow up to take the place of the adults. That is not happening nearly enough in our churches. This is just one symptom of a weak Christian community. The Benedict Option encourages us to seek out ways to strengthen our Christian communities. I know from Dreher’s blogs that he prioritizes creating the atmosphere that maximizes our chances of raising our kids with our faith. An important part of how to do that is by raising them in a strong Christian community.
If Christians are going to retain their voice in the public square then we need to have a subculture that maintains our distinctiveness. Christians need, at least for the time being, to forget the idea of “taking the culture back”. Instead, it is important for them to seek a place at the table with a unique voice. The only way this occurs is if Christians undergo an extensive campaign of cultural maintenance.
The entire notion of community has changed in my lifetime. When I grew up my community was people at my neighborhood and maybe people I met at school. With the development of the internet, our community can often be people we never met face to face. This is both scary and exciting. It is scary because the idea of having community with people online seems impersonal. Nevertheless, it is exciting because it opens up new avenues for communal resources. There are ways to build a strong Christian community if we can be creative in thinking about what culture is and how to use those resources. My hope is in time, more Christians will engage in creativity thinking about this new type of community.
With this new reality about community, it is wise to consider how we can fortify our Christian communities. How to strengthen our Christian culture is a question I have been thinking about lately, and I realize that there are many factors to consider. In due course, I hope to write more about those factors. My hope is that the Benedict Option will be a great beginning point to discuss how we can reinforce our Christian communities. I have my idea of what that community looks like and my vision may be quite different than Dreher’s. Nevertheless, discussing what that vision should be and exploring how we can achieve it is what the Christian body needs at this point of our history. If the Benedict Option encourages us to have this conversation, then it may be one of the most consequential Christian book we in quite a while.

Why I am Supporting the American Solidarity Party this Year

To say that this has been a difficult political year for most people is an understatement. I honestly think that both Democrats and Republicans elected the worst person they possibly could to run for president. But here we have it: Clinton versus Trump. In some ways this odd election has forced me to consider my own political allegiances, or lack thereof. You see, I am a political independent – sometimes voting Democrat and sometimes voting Republican. And this election has crystallized for me why I cannot join either party.

It is probably easier to start with my dissatisfaction with the Republican Party. It is pretty obvious to me that I cannot ever vote for Trump. He represents nearly everything I personally oppose. I don’t think I even need to supply the links of his insulting of a disabled person, sexist remarks, placating of racism and authoritarianism, do I? It is common knowledge that he has engaged in all of these activities. He has no experience for the job and I truly am scared of the idea that he would gain the nuclear codes. Church going evangelicals were not supportive of Trump in the primaries but many support him against Clinton today. However, I certainly am not one of them.

It would be unfair to attribute all his negative characteristics to the Republican Party as his nomination is quite a phenomenon. However, the ease in which he panders to racist elements in our society is disturbing because this is a long term problem for Republicans. Forget his ridiculous wall that Mexico is going to pay for. Four years ago Romney had to promise to make Hispanics “self-deport” to get the nomination. Beyond immigration issues, Republicans simply do not show a willingness to work through the tough racial issues in our society. There are some exceptions, but generally Republicans seem to tell minorities to just fall in line and forget about their concerns. I am not asking Republicans to adopt the desires of BLM. I certainly have my issues with that group. But is it too much to ask that Republicans at least acknowledge the contemporary struggles of people of color?

Throughout the years, I have never felt comfortable with the idea of identifying with Republicans. It is not that I disagree with everything they do. In fact there are issues where I am in strong agreement with the Republican platform. But not taking racial issues seriously is a deal breaker for me. I cannot become a member of a political organization that does not at least acknowledge the racial problems in our society and seriously seek solutions to them. I have voted for Republicans in years past when I thought they had the best candidate for that race, but I remain a critic of the party. Trump’s flirting with KKK and alt-right is merely an exaggeration of a common problem among Republicans.

That brings me to the Democrats. One would think that a black sociologist would naturally be a member of the Democratic party. Indeed there are certain issues where I appreciate a more progressive approach. But it turns out the Democrats are not a good fit for me either. To be specific, Democrats’ unwillingness to defend free speech and religious freedom rights unless it is for people who vote for them is particularly disturbing to me. I have come to the conclusion that the Democratic party of today does not actually believe in free speech and religious freedom. So while I feel quite strongly connected to the progressive perspective of the Democrats on certain issues, their non-support of free speech and religious freedom is a deal breaker.

I know that many disagree with my assessment of the Democratic party. I have accused the Democrats, and progressives in general, of not supporting free speech. The institution I spend the most time in, other than my home is a great example of this – higher education. It is not conservatives who are pushing safe spaces and microaggressions in attempts to shut people up on those campuses. It is progressives. It is liberal students who are more likely to say that the first amendment is outdated. Conservative speakers are disinvited or even forbidden to speak at college campuses. Even liberal speakers who are not sufficiently liberal enough are shouted down on our college campuses. Alternate viewpoints to a progressive ideology are simply not welcomed on college campuses and I have talked about such education dogma in the past. If someone believes I am being unfair putting this on progressives, then I welcome evidence indicating that conservatives are as restrictive of free speech on college campuses as progressives.

Unfortunately the tendency to stifle speech is not limited to college campuses. Remember that Brendan Eich was fired for contributing his own money to a conservative organization. It is progressives who want to outlaw hate speech, which will indeed rob us of free speech. When Michael Moore does his sting jobs, I do not see conservative prosecutors charging him with crimes. That was not the case for David Daleiden and his sting on Planned Parenthood. Although the charges were dropped, as there really was no case that could be sustained, one has to ask how much more stifling can one be to free speech than to threaten those with politically incorrect speech with jail time.

I am certain there are occasions where those on the right violate free speech. Usually when that occurs, there are many conservative politicians who speak out against such actions. This is in comparison to the relative silence of Democratic politicians. A notable exception is when President Obama affirmed free speech rights of college students. But his remarks are not the rule for Democratic politicians. Perhaps because he does not have to run for office as a Democrat again, he was free to support free speech. If that is true, then it is a sad condemnation of the lack of willingness of Democrats to support free speech.

Of my political values, free speech is one that I hold very dear. But if there is a value that I hold in higher esteem than free speech, it is freedom of religion or conscience. I believe it to be the most primary of values. When the government takes that away from us, then we truly are only a few steps away from having a thought police that must make sure that we have the “right” ideas in our society. Unfortunately the evidence is even stronger that Democrats are unwilling to support freedom of religion than it is that they will not support free speech. I am not sure whether I could become a Democrat with their unwillingness to defend the free speech rights of those they disagree with. But I am certain that their lack of support for freedom of religion or conscience for those who do not have the “right” beliefs makes it ideologically impossible for me to be at home with the Democrats.

I have criticized the tendency of Democrats and progressives on issues of supporting religious discrimination on college campuses, attacking Christian colleges and removing freedom of conscience for businesses. When I point this out, many say that if Christians merely obey the laws then they would not be punished. This simplistic approach does not take into account the way rules have a disparate impact although I suspect such critics understand disparate impact effects on rules such as voter ID laws. But rather than butt my head against that wall, let me merely point out that advocates of the policies I mentioned above always seem to go silent when people they like exercise their freedom of conscience in the public square.

These advocates are very silent when a hotel ejected an anti-gay marriage group for their views. They are silent when a church is denied an extension of its lease because of the hateful rhetoric of the pastor. They are silent when a lay pastor is fired from a job because he preached against same-sex marriage. They are silent when a landlord refuses to rent his apartment to Donald Trump supporters. They are silent when pharmacists are encouraged to use their freedom of conscience to refuse drugs to be used for the death penalty.

Of course many will state that these individuals who are rejected do not deserve to be protected. They will desperately comb through these cases to find some insignificant contrast to justify this differential treatment. Needless to say that if a hotel ejected pro-gay marriage groups, a Muslim Mosque is denied an extension of its lease, supporters of the Green party are not allowed to rent an apartment, a progressive pastor was fired from a job due to a sermon or pharmacists were encouraged not to provide abortifacients, then the reaction from these individuals would be much different. That is the point. It is not about whether you like the religion or beliefs of others. If you believe in religious freedom, then you believe in it for everyone. You do not only enforce the notion of public accommodation on conservative Christians. If you do not believe in providing freedom of conscience for everyone, then you do not believe in religious freedom. I find that Democrats, with very few exceptions, do not believe in religious freedom.

So I am stuck with two different political parties that have major deal breakers for me. If I lived in a battleground state, then I may have to stuff two socks up my nose and vote for Clinton. While she and the Democrats have no respect for religious freedom, the danger of a Trump presidency is more urgent. (Clinton also has a host of other particular issues I find distasteful as well, but as I stated she is less dangerous than Trump.) However, I live in Texas. If Texas is in danger of flipping to the Democrats, then the election is already over. So I feel a freedom to take Senator Cruz’s advice and “vote my conscience” in ways I may not feel if I lived in Florida. And while I have never voted third party for president before now, this appears to be the year to do that.

With that said, I now am happy to announce that my vote this year will go to the American Solidarity Party. I do not agree with everything promoted in ASP, but it is a party willing to address our racial divide in a meaningful way and respects religious freedom. I also appreciate the fact that this party is truly anti-big business which is something that we cannot say about either Republicans or Democrats today. So unless Trump drops out of the race or Clinton reaffirms religious freedom in a meaningful way, my vote will go to ASP. I am under no illusion that ASP will win the presidency but the more votes they gain will help them to position themselves in the coming years as a potentially viable third party competitor. Perhaps as such a competitor they may be able to influence one or both of the major political parties to move in a useful direction.

I know that most people are still committed to the two party system, even in a year like this. But if you are a never-Trump, never-Clinton type, then check out ASP. If you are a pro-life Democrat who feels that the party went too far this year, then check out ASP. If you are a Republican who cannot support Trump but you are not endeared to the hard right wing alternatives like the Constitution Party, then check out ASP. Come on in and join me. The water is fine.

My commitment to ASP is only for this presidential election. After November I will take a look at both political parties and ask some hard questions. Do Republicans want to take racial issues seriously? Are Democrats going to believe in religious freedom again? I will also take a hard look at ASP. Are they making moves to become a viable third party option? In time I may migrate back to being an independent that goes between both major parties or I may throw my full support to ASP and work to help them build something special. But those decisions can be made after November. Until then I am neither Republican nor Democrat. I am a Solidarist!! Michael Maturen for President!!

Using Critical Realism to Teach the Fundamentals of Sociological Research for Practitioners

This is the fourth blog in a series of posts about Critical Realism and research methods. Please register for my upcoming webinar on Tuesday, May 3, 2016 at 12 noon EDT. You can access the first, second, & third blogs here.

As part of my interest in using critical realism to teach sociological research methods, I drafted the following syllabus ideas. Although I haven’t yet taught this class, I’m sharing it with others who may be looking for ways to adapt their own research methods classes. I am particularly interested in connecting methods of data collection with normative assumptions and practical applications of sociological research.

I would welcome comments and questions on this draft syllabus.

Course Title: Fundamentals of Sociological Research for Practitioners

Instructor: Professor Margarita Mooney

Course Objectives:

This course has the following goals:

1) To introduce students to major philosophical perspectives that guide any empirical research project.

2) To review the basic methods of social research, including interviews, focus groups, ethnography, collecting survey data, and basic statistical analysis.

3) To discuss the evaluation and application of research findings to organizations.

Upon completing this class, students should be able to be able to identify the normative assumptions that guide their research questions, have practiced at least two methods of data collection, and understanding how to apply research to an organization. Specifically, students who take this class will learn how to:

  • Identify the philosophical and normative assumptions inherent in any research project;
  • Evaluate the strengths and limitations of various philosophical paradigms, methods, and explanations;
  • Understand the basic elements of sociological research design and data collection;
  • Design a research project for an organization (such as a non-profit, a religious congregation or a business).

Required Books:

Specific chapters from these books, and additional readings, are listed under each module below.

Module 1: Philosophical Foundations of Research (3 weeks)

Every good researcher is to some extent a good theoretician. Yet, typical approaches to research methods emphasize data collection techniques, often to the detriment of exploring the philosophical and normative assumptions made in any research project. The goal of this first module is to introduce students to various philosophical perspectives on sociological research, including positivism, post-modernism and critical realism. Topics we will cover in this module include:

  • How is ontology distinct from epistemology?
  • What are paradigms and how do they change?
  • If social science is both an empirical and social endeavor, how do we know our findings are true?
  • How do different forms of logic, including deductive, inductive and retroductive, enter into our research?
  • How do our personal experiences influence our research questions and analysis?

At the end of this module, students will write a 5-8 page review of a published book on an organization. This paper should a) assess the normative assumptions in the book; b) summarize the methods of data collection; c) reflect on the argument of the book; d) raise methodological, empirical, or ontological questions unanswered in the book.

Readings:

Danermark et al., Chapters 1, 2 and 4.

Porpora, Chapters 1, 7 and 8.

Luker, Chapters 1-3.

Edwards, Chapters 1 and 2.

Module 2: Research Questions and Data Collection Methods (5 weeks)

Sociologists use numerous methods to collect data. This module will be a survey of the several research methods and will allow students to practice a few methods. In the first part of this module, we will address questions like:

  • Where do our research questions come from?
  • How do we write a literature review or theory section of a paper?

The second part of this module will provide students with an overview of sociological data collection techniques, such as:

  1. participant observation
  2. ethnography
  3. focus groups
  4. conducting and analyzing interviews
  5. action and engaged research
  6. internet research
  7. content analysis
  8. elementals of survey design
  9. analyzing survey data (primary or secondary data)

Students will be asked to pick two of the above methods and practice them, such as a) conducting an interview with a religious leader; b) engaging in an ethnographic observation of a congregation; c) analyzing secondary data from the Association of Religion Data Archives; d) designing and conducting an online survey (such as through Survey Monkey).

In the final part of this module, we will discuss: How do we analyze data and develop explanations? How much data is enough data? What do we do if our findings don’t support our expectations? How do we draw practical implications from our findings? Students will be asked to write a 5-8 page paper with the following parts:

  1. literature review and research questions;
  2. data collection;
  3. data analysis and explanation of major findings;
  4. normative assumptions and practical implications of findings.

Readings:

Luker, Chapters 4-11.

Porpora, Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Danermark, Chapters 5, 6 and 7.

Module 3: Practical Research for Organizations (3 weeks)

Although many approaches to sociological research stop at describing empirical findings, leaders of organizations often want to know:

  • How can empirical research help me define my organization’s objectives?
  • How do I involve my own community in designing, interpreting and applying research?
  • How do I lead people towards change using empirical findings?

In this final module of this course, we will discuss more in-depth engaged research, in which the community is involved in research design, data collection and interpretation of findings. We will also discuss action research, where the goal is to directly influence an organization’s members using empirical findings.

As part of this module, students will interview a leader of an organization about a research project they would be interested in being involved in. Students will write a 5-8 page engaged or action research proposal addressing the following questions: a) What are the research questions to be addressed? b) What types of data will be collected and analyzed? c) How will the community members and leaders be involved in the various stages of research? d) What types of change do the leaders and community members hope to see as a result of this research project? e) How is this research influenced by values and norms?

 

  • How realism can guide attempts at systematic review.
  • Why more data and meta-analyses alone can never guide policy.
  • How to do rigorous applied social research.

Readings:

Pawson, Chapters 1 and 2 and 4.

Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to People, Introduction.

For other suggested readings for a course like this, be sure to see my past blogs:

 

Incorporating Critical Realism into Research Methods Classes

 

5 Great Articles Using Critical Realism in Social Science Research

 

Books on Critical Realism and Sociological Research Methods

The Eric Walsh Test

As I have stated in an earlier post, I will from time to time put on of my Stream op-eds here. I do not answer comments at the Stream but do sometimes answer my comments here. However all comments need to conform to my policy. Hope you enjoy the post.

I bow to nobody as a protector of religious freedom and a critic of Christianophobia in our society. But I have done so with two caveats. First, I do not like to hear American Christians talk about being “persecuted.” A quick look at what is happening in the Middle East shows what happens when persecution really occurs. Second, my research indicates that people who hate Christians are willing to allow religious activities in churches and homes, so I have told Christians to stop arguing that people with Christianophobia are going to interfere with their churches.

I still maintain the first caveat; however, the case of Eric Walsh is making me reconsider the second.
Read the rest here.