Category Archives: Saving the Planet

Humans are Inexplicable

brainWhether it be in science or business or politics or popular culture, we expend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to figure out why people do whatever people are doing. We seem to have more analysts than actors, all desperately trying to explain what motivates people, either by asking them directly or by making inferences about them. For the most part, this is not merely a colossal waste of time and effort and money in itself, but it stimulates even greater wastes of time and effort and money chasing wildly incomplete or erroneous conclusions about why we do what we do.

Asking people why they did what they did, or why they are doing what they are doing, or why they are going to do what they are going to do, generally yields useless and misleading information. It is not clear that people actually have distinct reasons they can recognize let alone articulate. It is quite likely in fact that most of the decisions we make are made unconsciously based upon a myriad of complex neural network associations. These associations need not be rational. These connections don’t need to be internally consistent to each other or related to the actual outcome in any way. But in our post-rationalizations and post-analyses we impose some logic to our decisions to make them feel sensible. Therefore, the reasons we come up with are almost completely made-up at every level to sound rational or at least sane to ourselves and to those we are communicating to.

The truth is, we can’t usually hope to understand our own incredibly complex neural networks, let alone the neural networks of others. Yes, sometimes we can identify a strong neural network association driving a behavior, but most determinative associations are far too diffuse across a huge number of seemingly unrelated associations.

The situation gets infinitely worse when we are trying to analyze and explain group behaviors. Most of our shared group behaviors emerge from the weak-interactions between all of our individual neural networks. The complexity of these interactions is virtually unfathomable. The challenge of understanding why a group does what it does collectively, let alone figuring out how to influence their behavior, is fantastic.

If you ask a bird why it is flying in a complex swirling pattern along with a million other birds, it will probably give you some reason, like “we are looking for food,” but in fact it is probably largely unaware that it is even flying in any particular pattern at all.

So why point all this out? Do we give up? Does this imply that a rational civilization is impossible, that all introspection or external analysis is folly?

Quite the contrary, we must continue to struggle to understand ourselves and truly appreciating our complexity is part of that effort. To do so we must abandon the constraints of logic that we impose upon our individual and group rationalizations and appreciate that we are driven by neural networks that are susceptible to all manner of illogical programming. We must take any self-reporting with the same skepticism we would to the statement “I am perfectly sane.” We should be careful of imposing our own flawed rationality upon the flawed rationality of others. Analysts should not assume undue rationality in explaining behaviors. And finally, we must appreciate that group behaviors can have little or no apparent relationship to any of the wants, needs, or expressed opinions of those individuals within that group.

In advanced AI neural networks, we humans cannot hope to understand why the computer has made a decision. Its decision is based upon far too many subtle factors for humans to recognize or articulate. But if all of the facts programmed in to the computer are accurate, we can probably trust the judgement of the computer.

Similarly with humans, it may be that our naive approach of asking or inferring reasons for feelings and behaviors and then trying to respond to each of those rationales is incredibly ineffective. It may be that the only thing that would truly improve individual and thus emergent thinking are more sanely programmed neural networks, ones that are not fundamentally flawed so as to comfortably rationalize religious and other specious thinking at the most basic level (see here). We must focus on basic fact-based thinking in our educational system and in our culture on the assumption that more logically and factually-trained human neural networks will yield more rational and effective individual and emergent behaviors.

 

But More Importantly…

climate-changeThose of you who follow my blog know that I’m virulently anti-gun. In fact, I’ll take any opportunity to slip my disdain for guns and the deplorable people who own them into any discussion. Which is why you should definitely go back and read this, and this, and even this.

But not now! Because more importantly… climate change.

As much as I loathe, hate, and despise guns, I fear climate change far worse. No matter what your issue, you are extremely foolish if you do not prioritize climate change far ahead of it. Humanity will survive gun violence, wars, poverty, hate, bigotry, diseases, despots, jobs, slavery, even genocides. But we may likely not survive climate change. Every other issue can be fixed, waited out, and overcome in the long term. Climate change is a death warrant for civilization, for mankind, and possibly for all life on Earth. It’s a terminal disease, game over, if not treated with every means we can muster and more.

So how can you ever rationally argue that efforts to curb climate change must wait because your issue, however important, is more urgent and existential? And no, we cannot “do both.” We must still prioritize. If we spend effort on your issue or even my issue then we are not doing enough to avert catastrophic climate change.

Most of my readers have to know that I’m an outspoken atheist activist. However, I cannot prioritize my atheist movement over climate change. Not even remotely. In fact, if atheists are indeed the more rational and sensible humanists that we think we are and claim to be, we should be taking a leading role in battling climate change. Sadly my atheist community as a whole is not showing such wisdom and leadership.

If there is one litmus test in the next Presidential election, it should be climate change. Not abortion, or gender equality, or a Wall, or fealty to Capitalism, or anything else… because more importantly, climate change.

In a recent interview Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg rattled off ten or so things he would prioritize as President. Not one was climate change. When asked about climate change, he made a dutiful perfunctory comment about it. This should disqualify him utterly. Even if he does make stronger comments about climate change later, I would have no confidence that he is sufficiently sincere.

In fact, at this time, the ONLY candidate we should be strongly considering is Washington State Governor Jay Inslee. He is the only candidate showing the intelligence, leadership, and long-term thinking that we literally cannot live without. Others might make progress on health care, or immigration, or jobs, or LGBTQ rights. But really, will any of that ultimately matter if we fail to mitigate the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change?

Here’s what you should do. Ask your candidates at all levels about what they will do about climate change and make it an unequivocal priority. Be willing to put aside your own issues in order to work together to make progress on climate change. Demand that the social and religious organizations that you affiliate with push for action on climate change.

And finally, in the signature line of your emails, add the line “But more importantly climate change.” This will remind both you and your recipients that while whatever we are discussing is important, it does not begin to compare with climate change.

 

Atheism Still Matters

SaveThePlanetWe live in a period of grave social challenges. A woman’s right to choose is under serious assault. No haven seems safe from deadly outbreaks of gun violence. Our core institutions of democracy and social justice are being misused or methodically dismantled by self-serving leaders. And while there is so much demanding our immediate attention, looming above it all is our inexorable march toward catastrophic upheaval brought on by global climate change.

In the face of all that, it seems kind of silly to fuss about whether someone believes in god or not. Individually and collectively, don’t we have far more important things to worry about than some philosophical argument over purely personal beliefs?

Besides, the atheist movement has achieved their goals, right? Atheists are out of the closet. They can host talk shows on HBO after all. Religion is on the decline. So let’s move on already! Maybe the atheist movement should just wind down gracefully instead of clinging to their increasingly obsolete and unnecessary cause. Declining numbers of attendees at atheist events suggests that even among hardcore atheists, other priorities are taking precedence and passion is waning.

It’s unfortunate that energy for atheism as a cause is being diverted,  because here’s the thing. Religion is not actually in any danger of disappearing. Organized religion may also be in decline, at least for now, but “disorganized” belief-based thinking in the form of New Age and more recently Post Fact worldviews are very much on the rise. And despite their declining numbers, the influence of organized religion is nevertheless still growing. Our separation of church and state is as besieged as ever and atheists are still reviled and grossly underrepresented at all levels of leadership.

So the atheist movement is definitely not obsolete. On the contrary, it is needed more desperately today than ever. It is needed because at their core atheists are simply people with a deep respect for facts and reason and humanist ethics. Make no mistake, we atheists are not activists just because we want others to acknowledge that god is merely a silly fantasy. We atheists are activists because we care deeply about truth and facts and reality. We are atheist activists because we care deeply about bronze-age myths driving our public policies and infiltrating our educational systems.

And we are atheists because we understand that belief-based thinking can only compromise and harm the critical rational faculties that we desperately need to solve the urgent problems confronting us in our modern world. We atheists understand that “harmless” beliefs prepare people to be receptive and vulnerable to post-truth, post-factual, and even post-reality arguments. We know that belief-based arguments and false claims of factual equivalence generally serve only to manipulate people to act and to vote contrary to facts and reason and therefore against their own self-interest.

We atheists understand that you can chop at weeds as much as you like and they will just keep popping up. To eradicate harmful belief-based rationalizations, you have to pluck out the roots. It is those deep, insidious, roots of belief that atheism fights against. Religious conditioning to accommodate irrational belief prepares people to rationalize inaction on climate change, for example, or to accept fallacious logic and fantastical authority in supporting guns or racism or the restriction women’s rights. And that is why belief in god or the denial of evolution are legitimate litmus tests of our capacity for sound thinking, both individually and as a society.

Therefore, if you care about making making sane, fact-based, ethical decisions regarding women’s rights, or gun violence, or climate change, or anything else – you should care about atheism as well.  Pick another cause and champion it. But also support atheism because it strives to erode the foundation of belief-based, irrational, and dogmatic thinking that probably supports and enables whatever injustice you are fighting against.

Whether you are fully atheist or not, whether you are agnostic, or have no opinion, or are a None, even if you are an Evangelical or a Muslim, you don’t have to fully deny the existence of god to join us in solidarity for facts, for reason, and in promoting ethical and socially conscious humanist values. Whatever your cause, if you are battling against belief and manipulation, atheists are probably your allies. And regardless of whether you believe the universe was created in seven days, you can still join us in wonder and appreciation of our natural universe as revealed by science.

So even as you fight your day-to-day battles, join with us atheists and support us in our still essential movement to combat the belief-based thinking that probably underpins the social wars you are waging. Join us to support and encourage the humanist, fact-based solutions that will move us forward with reason and compassion and sanity.

 

You can read my other blog articles on atheism by clicking on the “Atheism” category on the right side of this screen and scrolling down through them. Or you can type in a keyword and search, try “Ken Ham” for example.

I have also written about these topics and much more in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief. If you’d like a little more meat but aren’t big on reading, check out my short video called Factuality for the Cliff Notes version.

 

The Supreme Court Must Ultimately Save Us From Second Amendment Genocide

gunlawsWe are trapped in a nightmarish, escalating civil war in which gun nuts, bolstered by the otherwise sensible people who support them in this national insanity, battle against those who recognize that we can we never hope to acceptably reduce gun violence until gun ownership is dramatically reduced.

Yes legislative action can blunt the damage a bit. We could and should prohibit semi-automatic weapons, as well as deadly ammunition and large capacity magazines. We could and should improve our mental health testing and strengthen background checks. We should stop shielding gun manufacturers from liability. But honestly, even all of these would not do nearly enough. These sort of legislative actions are merely the band aids we apply since we know we have no chance to obtain the life-saving cure we desperately need. In the case of our gun epidemic, that panacea is a radical gun-ectomy to remove all cancerous firearms from private hands.

Some think that repeal of the Second Amendment is a cure. But the reality is that we are so collectively obsessed with guns that we will never repeal our Second Amendment, no matter what the cost in lives. We could parade piles of bullet-ridden corpses down every American street every day and we would still stubbornly insist that no cost is too high to ensure our god-given right to bear arms. And even if we did, removing this right would do nothing affirmative to limit guns. States would only be free to pass their own similar gun-protection amendments.

But I think there is one slim hope that we are not sufficiently considering. That hope is the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, with the stroke of one landmark decision, could reinterpret the Second Amendment so as to not only open up legislative options but to force legislators to enact them. Keeping a sensibly interpreted Second Amendment in place would be far more valuable than simply repealing it.

To refresh your memory, the Second Amendment states that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This is an extremely vague statement. Our forefathers made much of their writing intentionally vague so that future courts could reinterpret them in the context of their changing times.

Certainly times have changed with respect to guns. Since this amendment was ratified in 1791, guns have obviously grown in destructive power like the growth of a fire-cracker into a nuclear weapon. The population and our proximity to each other have also grown dramatically. The days of hunting as a necessity are long past. And the number of guns, as well as their destructive power, has grown millions of times over.

Yes, I know that just back in 2008 the Supreme Court ruling in Columbia v. Heller tremendously strengthened Second Amendment protections. Although that ruling was actually very narrow, it has been extended to justify the most generous interpretation. It can be argued that this ruling was as indirectly disastrous for sane gun reform as Citizen’s United was for campaign reform.

But the Supreme Court can, should, and does evolve on important, deeply held issues. It seemed that the Supreme Court had spoken clearly against civil rights in Dred Scott v. Standford and Plessy v. Ferguson. But they did eventually do the right thing in Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia.

If our system is to work at all, we must not give up on the Supreme Court. We must hope eternal that at least one conservative member, in light of our exponentially deteriorating situation with regard to guns, might be willing to agree to subtle but dramatically consequential changes in our interpretation of the Second Amendment.

For example, the Supreme Court could rule that the phrase “a well regulated militia” is key and that it requires a far more limited distribution of weaponry. They could rule that the definition of “arms” must be far more restricted than our current interpretation. They could rule that “infringement” does not mean anything close to the current carte blanche in place now. They could clarify that their ruling in Heller does not justify extreme gun protections nor does it speak against sensible gun control.

Is this likely? Of course not. Is it possible? It certainly is and the impact of such a ruling could be huge. What we must do is not give up on this avenue even as we simultaneously pursue others. We must find justifications to bring a never-ending stream of cases before the Supreme Court to give them opportunities to put forth a modern, ethical, and rational interpretation of the Second Amendment. We could ask them, for example, to rule whether our current lack of gun control might actually violate our Second Amendment right to a well-regulated militia. We could ask them to rule whether it is consistent with the Second Amendment to allow certain weapons to be available for sport purposes only when provided at an approved facility.

Who knows, there may be a Justice right now who might now be willing to bend on this issue, if only given one more opportunity to make such a ruling. In any case, the reality is that until they do our Second Amendment genocide will continue to worsen.

Reinterpreting, not repealing, the Second Amendment is our best way out of this gun crisis that we have brought upon ourselves. Neither voters nor the repeal of the Second Amendment will force lawmakers to control gun proliferation. Just as with slavery and segregation, only a Supreme Court ruling can both allow and force them to do so.

 

Technology Empowers Our Humanity

CustomerSupportNot that may years ago, read/write CD/ROM drives were essential and a good one was quite expensive. I once paid top dollar to get a top rated drive from Toshiba. It never worked. I called Toshiba dozens of times over 6 months trying to get it working. It would take an hour to get past hold, read off serial numbers and customer info, fax in receipts, explain the problem all over again, to get transferred and repeat it all, to get disconnected, go through it all yet again, only to be told to clean the drive, to call Microsoft, to contact Intel, to reinstall Windows, to buy higher quality disks, to change bios settings, or buy a new connection cable.

In the end, it turned out that this was a known issue with the drive, but Toshiba had a policy not to admit to any such issues. Instead, they intentionally made me jump onerous technical support hurdles and run off on expensive and time-consuming wild goose chases for six months before they finally admitted as much. Most people gave up well before that, but I was on a mission. Nevertheless, in the end I tossed the drive in the garbage.

Everyone has their customer support horror stories. Not that long ago, such infuriating experiences were the norm, not the exception. I had many similar experiences with Sony in particular and resolved never to buy anything from them ever again.

But today customer support has transformed dramatically. Today, wonderful customer support is the norm, not the exception.

AT&T exemplifies this welcome new normal for customer service. The hotspot on my mobile phone quit working. Although I knew it was not an issue with AT&T because it worked on my wife’s phone, I went to their site, hit chat, immediately got a wonderful representative named Stephanie who happily helped me reset my phone, 5 minutes later my hotspot was working!

That’s great customer service. And it’s not just huge companies that are putting the service back in customer service. My garage door light started blinking in a regular pattern as if indicating some error. I called Guardian Garage Doors and immediately got a wonderful guy on the phone. He heard my issue and asked me to text him a video. I did so and after a short hold said their engineers didn’t know what the problem was but wanted me to send it in so they could diagnose it. He offered to rush out a replacement. But minutes later he called back and suggested I try replacing my LED bulb. I did so even though it seemed silly, LED’s don’t do that. But apparently they do. That fixed it!

This is nothing remotely like the bad old days of Toshiba and Sony era customer “support.” The kind of great customer support we often see today is greatly facilitated by technology. It is enabled by the Internet, by chat technology, by searchable knowledge bases, by intelligent call routing systems, and by interconnected global workforces.

But while these technologies are incredibly empowering, real people and attitudes are still essential to great customer support. Technology doesn’t make representatives so pleasantly informal yet professional in demeanor. Technology doesn’t ensure that customer service departments are staffed to connect quickly and to stay on as long as it takes to resolve an issue. It takes sensible management to not interrogate you to prove your identity, ownership, and warranty. It is an explicit choice to authorize representatives to own issues even if they are not directly responsible. And it is their conscious decision to admit to issues candidly rather than reflexively conceal and deny them beyond all rationality.

So, while I often bash private sector corporations, I must give credit where credit is due. Some things do get better. Customer service stands in direct contradiction to widespread fears of a cold and impersonal technology-dominated future. It shows us that technology, properly implemented, can make our lives and our interactions not only more efficient and satisfying, but at the same time more friendly, more personal, more sensible, and yes, more human as well.

Don’t Get Used to It

WeAreHereIn the early 1990’s, a group called Queer Nation came up with the “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” chant. It was wildly successful and contributed greatly to the phenomenal success of the Gay Rights movement. That movement was so successful that other movements still look to it as the gold standard for both inspiration and strategy. Many of them have adapted and adopted the “We’re here!” slogan-as-a-strategy in form, in spirt, and in attitude.

Arguably however, the slogan has jumped the shark. Even Lisa Simpson, longtime advocate for Gay Rights, eventually shouted in frustration “You do this every year, we ARE used to it!” (seen here). At this point, one could launch a counter-chant “You’re here! We’re used to it! Get used to it!

But the slogan is past its day in deeper ways. I’ll get to that shortly.

First let me point out that the slogan has become much more than a mere rallying chant. It reflects a worldview, an attitude, a tone, and an approach to relationships, both societal and personal that has influenced all of our culture. This message was so successful that it became deeply internalized and enculturated.  It permeated the very thinking of a generation of liberals and conservatives alike. It says, in the most uncompromising terms, that you get what you want by ultimatum. There is no room to negotiate. There is no shared responsibility nor shared blame. The burden is all on the other side. You had better change because I am what I am and I am not going to change or go back into any form of a closet. It is a problem when this no-compromise attitude is generalized beyond the bounds of movements like Gay Rights.

In addition, Liberals were particularly influenced in a much different way. The slogan enculturated the idea that we should not expect others to compromise. We must accept anything and everything no matter how distasteful we find it. We must never criticize other ideas or behaviors, let alone expect or demand anyone else to change. Good liberals chasten each other when they are insufficiently accepting of other viewpoints and differences. This is another unfortunate lasting impact of this movement which taught that it is wrong to judge or criticize.

If this seems confusing to you, I say good! It means you are paying attention! I am suggesting that the Gay Right’s movement in general and the “We’re here!” slogan in particular had two seemingly contradictory side-effects. One was to encourage a destructively uncompromising posture, and the other was to instill an attitude of principled acceptance. These actually reinforce each other.

In current culture this encourages us to assert an unwillingness to accommodate others in any way – even as we chide and criticize those who a do not accept the inflexibility of others. In practice, this is manifest by self-righteous “take me or leave me” declarations when the issue impacts us strongly, and at the same time preachy “you should accommodate others” admonitions when the issue does not impact us as personally.

While it was the right message at the right time for the Gay Rights movement, this confrontational get-over-it ultimatum it isn’t necessarily a good template for other movements. Moreover, it isn’t a particularly good attitude for society in general and it certainly is not a good approach to interpersonal relations. It is a strategy adopted even by the most vile and indefensible groups and individuals.

We’re here! We’re loud and obnoxious! Get used to it!

We’re here! We’re Confederates! Get used to it!

We’re here! We’re Gun-toters! Get used to it

Civilized societies have to cooperate, negotiate, moderate, and compromise if they are to survive. In most cases, an ultimatum strategy is doomed to result in unfortunate outcomes for both parties. When we can compromise and make changes, we can demand that both sides make some effort, some accommodation.

The same is true for interpersonal relationships. If one roommate declares “I’m a messy slob but I’m not going anywhere so you better just get used to it,” it leaves the other party no choice but to walk out. Love me or leave me doesn’t work. Unlike gender identity, most things are somewhat under our control and there are things we can and should do to improve our own behaviors.

In truth, this attitude is dated. Those still influenced by it are blind to the times we live in today. During this Era of Trump, uncompromising declarations and pious acceptance are not as appealing as they once were. People who are making a difference today are people who say “I am willing to change and I do not accept your assertion that you cannot change as well.”

WereHereWith radical crazies infesting the government and with Trump running a for-profit White House, we can no longer accept the “Accept the things I cannot change…” platitude. We cannot accept the fact that Donald was elected President. This picture posted like subversive graffiti on a telephone pole near my house. It reflects the new, more engaged attitude. It reads “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.

We cannot simply accept evolution and climate change deniers in the Congress and Senate. We cannot simply accept a narcissistic lunatic in the Oval Office. We have to criticize. We have to fight. We have to demand change. We have to give up this “liberal principle” of polite acceptance that has lobotomized our brains since the Gay Rights movement launched its famous slogan. We must stop falling for the jiu jitsu logic of Conservatives who tell us that – as we told them about Gay Rights – we now must “get used” to Trump and everything he fails to stand for.

The Gay Rights movement did not intend to teach us acquiescence. Quite the opposite – it was all about boldly fighting for your cause. But it also did not intend to teach that any assertion of an absolute position on any issue must be completely accepted. If both sides take absolute positions of ultimatum, we can only have division and dysfunction.

Apart from basic human rights issues, we do NOT have to accept every card we are dealt. No one should be allowed to build unassailable walls around their intransigence and we should not be pressured by our own peers into respecting and accepting those artificial constructs. “Get used to it!” should not be a principle that we apply in an uncompromising and self-destructive fashion.

Ultimatums are not a strategy, and neither is Zen-like acceptance. In most things, engagement with others and compromise on both sides is how we find win-win solutions.

In realms of faith, many of us conclude that my need for you to respect my crazy belief forces me to respect and support any crazy faith you may have. Truth and belief become inextricably blurred. It’s kind of the same thing here. If we want others to accept our ultimatums, we must then accept the ultimatums of others – no matter how crazy.

We have to exert more nuanced and fact-based judgement in both areas. It’s time to deprogram ourselves away from the old ultimatum-based “We’re here!” thinking of the Gay Rights era and adopt more sophisticated strategies to win hearts and minds and make real change. That starts with not accepting ultimatums or wisdom that tells us to accept what those who profit from the status quo tell us we cannot hope to change.

 

Out of Context

Charles MurrayIn the Grey Matter section of the Sunday Review in the New York Times, Cornell Professors Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci published an article entitled “Charles Murray’s ‘Provocative’ Talk.” In it, they described a small ad hoc study that they conducted to test whether the words of Charles Murray are objectively offensive and thus deserving of the level of resistance to his lecture at Middlebury College (see here).

In their study, the authors took a transcript of Murray’s actual talk and sent it without attribution to 70 college professors with a request to rate the words on a 9 point scale from very conservative to very liberal. They found that although “American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal,” those surveyed found Murray’s words to be “middle of the road” with an average score of about 5. Williams and Ceci interpret this finding as indicating that the protest over Murray’s invitation to speak was objectively ill-informed and unjustified.

This argument is deeply and fundamentally flawed. We often see similar tricks played when someone reads an excerpt from the Constitution or Mein Kampf and asks for an opinion about it – before the gotcha reveal when they identify the authorship.

One major study flaw is the premise that words stand alone. Context matters and the meaning and intent of words can only be fully assessed with due consideration of the person making the statement. Authorship is an essential part of that greater context. If PT Barnum claimed he had a Yeti in his house, I would have received it with tremendous skepticism. If Carl Sagan made the exact same claim, I would have been very excited about the potential of an important new anthropological discovery.

The reality is that Charles Murray has a long history of promoting what many consider to be highly destructive public policy research and analysis that has undermined valuable social programs and has attacked and divided us along gender and racial differences. For example, his statement that “We believe that human happiness requires freedom and that freedom requires limited government,” may sound perfectly reasonable to 70 of our professional contacts if unattributed. Coming from a known liberal speaker, this could be meant to affirm that we should not be forced to live in an overly-policed state. However, coming from Charles Murray it is clear that his intent is to promote the dismantling of social assistance programs. The same statement might mean something even more extreme if David Duke had said it.

Based on the work of Williams and Ceci one might argue that we should remove all bias in approving speakers by using a blinded, unidentified process in which presenters are approved or rejected based solely on the text of their planned presentation. That would be extremely foolish. The reality is that the larger views and history of any speaker plays an essential role in how we should interpret their statements. Reasonable but isolated statements can conceal a larger and very different agenda that is only apparent if we know the source.

I have no doubt that the authors would respond by saying that intellectually unbiased people should be willing to hear any reasonable speaker and make this assessment for themselves, without forced censorship. However, surely they would also agree that there is some limit beyond which a speaker would not be acceptable even to them. But reasonable people can reasonably disagree about where this fuzzy boundary should lie – and that boundary must consider not only the message but the messenger as well.

Clearly a determinative number of alumni, faculty, and students at Middlebury judged that the lifetime body of work by Charles Murray, as well as his very clear lifelong mission, crossed that fuzzy line for them. Williams and Ceci may disagree on their placement of this line and that is legitimate and fair debate. But it is not legitimate and fair to conduct what amounts to a gotcha stunt under the guise of objective science to prove that these people’s determination in this instance is illegitimate and irrational.

All that Williams and Ceci may have actually shown is that, without attribution, college professors don’t assume the worst or the best. They may merely fill the void with their own middle-of-the-road interpretation of unattributed quotations.