Thursday, September 26, 2013

Is Pope Francis a Liberal?

Is Pope Francis a theological liberal? I don't think so. He may be to the left of his predecessor, but that doesn’t mean that he’s a liberal, and no amount of wishful thinking on the part of those on the left will change that. He may be a moderate, but it’s unlikely he’s a liberal.

To be sure, Francis has done some things that gives one pause, such as how he has embodied a far more simpler lifestyle than his predecessor, such as living in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the Apostolic Palace, a practice that continues what he did when he was an Archbishop in Argentina where he lived in a small apartment rather than the archbishop’s residence, and he took the bus to work. And then there were his remarks over the summer where he said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, he was no one to judge. And more recently he was critical of the church for being obsessed with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. But I don't think he's a theological liberal. Why? Well, consider the following extended quote from a recent interview with the Pope that has garnered a lot of attention ("A Big Heart Open to God"):
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. 
The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.  
I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.
At first glance Francis does sound like a liberal, and it's easy to see why some liberal Catholics (and non-Catholics) are hopeful that he is sympathetic to some of their concerns ("Liberal Catholics Urge Pope for Reforms as Consultations Start"). After all, Francis does say that it's unnecessary to talk about the “issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” all the time. Instead, the church has to “find a new balance.” And God’s saving love must come “before moral and religious imperatives,” such that it can’t be “reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

But, notice what Francis doesn't say. He doesn't say that he intends to overturn the church’s teaching on abortion, gay marriage, or the use of contraceptive methods. Instead, he notes that on these issues the church’s teaching “is clear," and that he is “a son of the church” (in other words, he agrees with the church's teachings)."  Quite telling, in fact, is how in 2010 when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aries and Argentina’s President signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, he wrote, “This is not simply a political struggle, but an attempt to destroy God’s plan.” Moreover, elsewhere in the interview where Francis notes how important it is to define the role of women in the church, he also states that women have “a different make-up” than men, that Mary (i.e., the mother of Jesus) is more important than the bishops, and that “the feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions,” all of which suggests, at least to me, that although Francis sees a definite role for women in the life of the church, women priests isn't one of them.

In short, I think it’s unlikely that Francis will turn out to be the liberal that some on the theological left are hoping he will. As a recent editorial in “The New Oxford Review” noted ("Will the Real Pope Francis Please Stand Up?"), one morning they're going to wake up “to the fact that Pope Francis is Catholic and that he’s not going to jettison the Church’s doctrine” any time soon.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hedgehogs and Foxes

Winston Churchill was first elected to Parliament in 1900 and, except for a brief absence from 1922-1924, he served as a member of Parliament until 1964, about a year before his death. As a member, he held several offices, including Prime Minister from 1940-1945 and 1951-1955. His political career was anything but smooth, however. There were times even when he was a member that he was on the outside looking in, such as his "wilderness years" from 1932-1940, when he was a "back-bencher" (i.e., someone who was a member of Parliament but does not hold a government office or is a "front bench" speaker for the opposition). In fact, in 1932, when Joseph Stalin hosted a British delegation led by Lady Astor, the first woman to sit as a member of Parliament (1919-1945), he asked about the English political scene. "Chamberlain," Astor told him, "is the coming man." "What about Churchill?", Stalin asked. "Churchill?" Lady Astor replied with something of a derisory laugh (she and Churchill weren't on the friendliest terms). "Oh, he's finished." Well, we all know how well that prediction turned out.

Lady Astor, however, is not the only one who's found that predicting the future is difficult, especially when it's colored by wishful thinking. As I noted in a previous post ("How Good Are We at Predicting the Future?"), we love to predict the future but we're not very good at it. In fact, the psychologist Philip Tetlock ("Expert Political Judgment") conducted an experiment that asked nearly 280 political "experts" (economists, political scientists, intelligence analysts, journalists) to make a variety of forecasts about dozens of countries around the world. After tracking the accuracy of about 28,000 predictions over 20 years, Tetlock discovered that the experts weren't a whole lot better than the average person on the street. He also found that predictive ability did not vary by political ideology (i.e., liberals weren't any better than conservatives and vice versa), qualifications, access to classified information, or any other factor that might be thought to make a difference. This does not mean that non-experts are good predictors. Rather, it means that we're all pretty bad at it, expert and lay person alike.

However, he did find that one cluster of "predictors" did slightly better than the rest. These were those whom he called foxes as opposed to those whom he called hedgehogs. Drawing on an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin ("The Hedgehog and the Fox"), foxes are those who know many things while hedgehogs are those who know one big thing. What Tetlock found was that the only experts with any real predictive insight were the foxes, those who drew on a wide variety of information and traditions to make their predictions.

Is there a moral to this story? I know I cringe when someone refers to me as an "expert" with regards to terrorist networks because I don't feel like an expert at all. The more I study, the more I realize how little I know. I just wished more academics (and the other talking heads who fill the Sunday morning talk shows) felt the same way. Indeed, I pretty much refrain from making predictions, with the one exception being Presidential elections. But even here, I draw heavily on the results of prediction markets, which reflect the opinions of thousands of people from a variety of perspectives (a "wisdom of crowds").

P.S. As another example of how expert opinion is often lacking: after Apple introduced its iPhone 5s and 5c, the company was panned for not knowing what consumers want and Apple stock dropped accordingly. As it turned out, however, Apple sold a record number of iPhones after the release of the 5c and 5s (9 million as compared to the market forecast of 6 million), leading to a huge jump in its stock price. As one market observer (Daniel Ernst) noted ("Apple Polishes Forecast After Selling 9 Million New iPhones"),
The critics have told you Apple lost its magic. Customers are telling you something very different. Clearly, people like the product. That sentiment is almost more important than the number.
And the experts often don't know what they're talking about.

Slytherin Salvation

Snake Salvation is a new reality show that airs on the National Geographic Channel and features two Pentecostal preachers, Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, who practice the 100-year old tradition of handling deadly snakes in church, based on the following passage from the Gospel of Mark (16:9-19)
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
which they interpret as meaning that a poisonous snakebite will not harm them as long as they're anointed by God’s power. Coots and Hamblin also believe that if they don’t practice snake handling, they're destined for hell.

The irony is that this passage does not appear in the earliest manuscripts of Mark, suggesting that they were added later, probably in the second century. Most biblical scholars, even theologically conservative ones, agree that Mark's Gospel originally ended at verse 8, which means that Coots, Hamblin, and their followers are risking their lives for a handful of verses that don't even belong in the Bible.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Separated at Birth? Miley Cyrus & Albert Einstein?

All this time I've assumed that Miley Cyrus has been trying to distance herself from her Hannah Montana persona ("Miley Cyrus and Moral Outrage"), when in reality, she's just been trying to show us how smart she is. My bad.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

We Love to Watch You Play

Evidently, parents of Division I athletes have a hard time letting go. Parents call coaches, advising them how to encourage their daughter or son or ask why their kid isn't getting more playing time. I even read about parents who moved into a condo across the street from their freshman athlete’s university! To say that the kids don't like it is an understatement. As Tim Elmore notes what "parents may not recognize is the pressure and angst this kind of involvement applies." Here's what what student-athletes have been telling him ("What Parents Should Say as Their Kids Perform"):
  1. I love my mom, but when she does this, I get the feeling she doesn’t trust me.
  2. My parents are great, but I feel like I have multiple coaches telling me what to do and I get stressed out over it.
  3. I’m getting blackballed by my teammates because my mother keeps texting me and my coach, to give suggestions. I wish she would chill.
  4. I feel like I’m never quite good enough; I can never fully please my parents.
In fact, according to Elmore all we really need to tell our college age kids are six simple words: "We love to watch you play."

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pity the Poor Beer Batter

In some minor league baseball parks it has become common to designate a player from the opposing team as the "beer batter," and if the "beer batter" strikes out, then for a brief period of time (e.g. 15 minutes), fans can buy beers at half price.  A good deal for the fans, but pity the poor beer batter. It's been a while since I played professional baseball, but I'm glad they didn't have beer batters back then. There's enough to worry about without wondering whether you're going to contribute to the inebriation level of the home team crowd.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What Brits Say, What They Really Mean

So, here's a table that's been popping up on blogs and newspapers in the UK and elsewhere. It apparently first appeared, of all places, on an Oxfam blog ("From Poverty to Power").

I hear what you say
I disagree and do not want to discuss it further
He accepts my point of view
With the greatest respect

You are an idiot
He is listening to me
That's not bad

That's good
That's poor
That is a very brave proposal
You are insane
He thinks I have courage
Quite good

A bit disappointing
Quite good
I would suggest
Do it or be prepared to justify yourself
Think about the idea, but do what you like
Oh, incidentally/ by the way
The primary purpose of our discussion is
That is not very important
I was a bit disappointed that
I am annoyed that
It doesn't really matter
Very interesting

That is clearly nonsense
They are impressed
I'll bear it in mind

I've forgotten it already
They will probably do it
I'm sure it's my fault

It's your fault
Why do they think it was their fault?
You must come for dinner

It's not an invitation, I'm just being polite
I will get an invitation soon
I almost agree

I don't agree at all
He's not far from agreement
I only have a few minor comments
Please rewrite completely
He has found a few typos
Could we consider some other options
I don't like your idea
They have not yet decided

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Do We Have a Dog in the Fight in Syria?

Since the Syrian conflict began two and a half years ago, 100,000 Syrian civilians have been killed, 1.8 million have fled the country and living in refugee camps in Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan, another 6.8 million are in need of humanitarian support, 4.5 million have lost their homes, and now there is apparently evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. For humanitarian reasons alone, the situation is dire. Then there are the strategic concerns: Iran and Hezbollah, which are providing aid to Syria and not on friendly terms with the U.S., would probably suffer if Assad were to fall. But there's no guarantee that the forces that are currently opposing Assad would be any better. All of which begs the question as to whether the US should intervene. Does it, so to speak, have a dog in this fight? That is the subject of a Intelligence Squared US debate held in early August ("The U.S. has no dog in the fight in Syria"). Here's the summary of the debate from the Intelligence Squared US website:

There are certain international crises that on their face demand the immediate and urgent attention of presidents. We all know them when we see them -- and so does the man in the White House. Saddam's invasion of Kuwait comes to mind -- an easy call. But there are other situations where the call may be tougher to make. Bosnia got a president's attention; Rwanda did not. And what about Syria -- now in the midst of a civil war and humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions. Certainly there are U.S. interests at stake, but are they vital interests? And what of President Obama's response so far: it has been deliberately limited, but should he go further, and with what sorts of options? Military intervention? Something else? Something less? One thing is certain: Syria is not one of those easy calls. It's what we're debating in Aspen, when we take on the topic: The U.S. has no dog in the fight in Syria.
Arguing on behalf of the motion (i.e., against US intervention in Syria) are Richard Falkenrath (Principal, The Chertoff Group & Former Deputy Homeland Security Advisor) and Graham Allison (Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy and Plans). Arguing against the motion (i.e., in favor of US intervention in Syria are R. Nicholas Burns (Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs) and Sir Nigel Sheinwald (Former British Ambassador to the U.S.)

As with all Intelligence Squared debates, the audience votes both before and after the debate, and the team that changes the most minds wins, which means a team can win a debate without winning a majority of votes. For example, if prior to a debate, 65% of the audience supported the motion, 14% opposed it, and 21% were undecided and after the debate, 65% supported the motion, 28% opposed it, and 7% were undecided, then the team arguing against the motion would be the winners because their share of the votes increased 14% points, while the other team's share didn't increase at all. You can listen to the debate, as well as access transcripts of it, at the Intelligence Squared website  ("The U.S. has no dog in the fight in Syria"). It can also be downloaded from iTunes.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Puig for MVP

A few months ago, one of my students, a die-hard Los Angeles Dodgers fans, was lamenting how poorly the Dodgers were playing, and he asked me (knowing that I had played a little ball) whether I thought Don Mattingly (the Dodger's manager) should be fired. The Dodgers, after all, were loaded with talent but couldn't pull things together.  "No." I said. "Mattingly isn't the problem. What they need is someone who can bring the team together, much like Kirk Gibson did for them in 1988."

Sometimes I hate being right because that's exactly what happened. Yasiel Puig's arrival transformed the Dodgers from a mediocre team (albeit with a lot of talent) to one of the best (and certainly the hottest) team in baseball. He should be a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year, and (as much as I hate to admit it) he'd get my vote for MVP (assuming the Dodgers don't choke between now and the end of September). To be sure, a strong case could be made for Andrew McCutchen (as long as the Pirates make the playoffs), and Puig's teammate, Hanley Ramírez, but neither McCutchen nor Ramírez have had the effect that Puig has had.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Miley Cyrus and Moral Outrage

The reactions to Miley Cyrus's latest attempt to distance herself from Hannah Montana have been many and varied. One feminist blogger argued that it was disgusting, not because of its sexual innuendo, but because it was racist ("What Miley Cyrus Did Was Disgusting: But Not for the Reasons You Think"), an argument that struck me as a bit of a stretch. Others attempted to point attention away from the specifics of Miley's performance, toward our highly sexualized culture, and encouraged us to resist being so judgmental ("Miley Cyrus, the VMAs, Sex, and Moral Outrage"):
It's easy to take "the high ground of conscience" toward Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke for their hyper-sexualized performance at the VMAs, but it won’t solve the bigger sexual problems facing our culture. Sex scandals and blame will continue with each of our cultural rituals. Who will scandalize us at the next awards show? Who will scandalize us at the Super Bowl halftime show? Who’s the next politician to have an affair? Who’s the next celebrity to attend drug rehab? I don’t know, but I do know that we will love feeling morally outraged and enjoy taking the “high ground of conscience” as we imitate one another in uniting in animosity against whoever is caught up in the latest scandal.
The most common reaction was feelings of disgust, however. For instance, Robin Thicke's (Miley's dance partner during part of the performance) mom, Gloria Loring, appears to have been overwhelmed:
I just keep thinking of her mother and father watching this. Oh, Lord, have mercy. … I was not expecting her to be putting her butt that close to my son. The problem is now I can never 'unsee' it... I don't understand what Miley Cyrus is trying to do. I just don't understand. I think she's misbegotten in this attempt of hers. And I think it was not beneficial.
And then there was Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
That was really, really disturbing… That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed… probably has an eating disorder… That was disgusting and embarrassing… I feel terrible… That was really, really bad. They [MTV] should be ashamed of themselves… She is a mess… I don’t want to see that ever again on this show… It was pathetic.
And while some may want to dismiss these feelings as simply remnants of our puritanical roots (although as Rod Stark points out, the Puritans weren't very puritanical -- "America's Blessings," pp. 78-80)), feelings of disgust actually go much deeper and much farther back in time. As moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt  ("The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Religion and Politics") has noted, they are products of our evolutionary past and something we are probably born with.

Haidt and his collaborators have run a series of experiments in which they ask people to imagine a variety of scenarios in which the subjects do disturbing things but harm no one in the process, such as imagine "eating your dead pet dog,” “cleaning your toilet with your nation’s flag,” or “someone having sex with a dead chicken before cooking it for dinner,” and in almost every case, his subjects felt immediate disgust. But when asked why, seldom could they provide a reason. They just did.

What’s more, they have run these experiments in a variety of settings, from the slums of Brazil to the universities of the U.S., and found that across cultures, people share similar moral instincts, which suggests that they come before culture, not after, that they’re deeply embedded within our psyches, that they’re something we’re born with. This is not to say that they found no moral variation across cultures. They did. But it appears that most of us are born with similar moral intuitions that are modified through our interactions with the societies in which we are born.  In fact, Haidt and his colleagues have identified six moral intuitions with their possible evolutionary paths:
  1. Care/Harm -- This moral intuition evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of carrying for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need and despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering. 
  2. Fairness/Cheating -- This intuition arose in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. It makes us sensitive to indications to whether another person is likely to be a good partner for collaboration. It also makes us want to shun or punish cheaters and reward people in proportion to their good deeds (law of karma)
  3. Liberty/Oppression -- This one arose so that groups could shame, ostracize, or kill anyone who behavior threatened or annoyed the rest of the group. This gave rise to a variety of norms, sanctions, and occasionally violent punishments for those who strayed too far from a group's interests. This intuition feeds the egalitarian and antiauthoritarian impulses liberals and "don't tread on me" and "give me liberty" antigovernment impulses of libertarians (and some conservatives).
  4. Loyalty/Betrayal -- This moral intuition evolved in response to the challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to signs that someone is or is not a team player and leads us to trust and reward those who are and want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us.
  5. Authority/Subversion -- This one evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies; it makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or aren't) behaving properly, given their position
  6. Sanctity/Degradation -- This intuition arose in response to the challenge of living in a world full of pathogens, parasites, potentially lethal food; that is, it developed in order that we were repelled (i.e., felt disgust) from from noxious or unsafe food. However, it has evolved into a moral component that drives us away from all sorts of contamination.
These intuitions are not unmixed blessings, however. They can lead to good or ill, but in general all necessary for a healthy society.  Interestingly, Haidt discovered is that conservatives score high on all six of these intuitions, while liberals and libertarians score high on only the first three, which gives conservatives, according to Haidt, a built-in advantage when it comes to politics (but that's a topic for a later post). It also means that people on the left often have a hard time getting their head around the 4th, 5th, and 6th intuitions, leading them to dismiss them entirely or to reframe them in terms they understand (i.e., in terms of the first three moral intuitions).

It's the sixth moral intuition that interests us here, however. It generates feelings of disgust. For example, University of Pennsylvania students were asked what it would feel like to wear Hitler's sweater; "they said it would feel disgusting, as if Hitler's moral qualities were a virus that could spread to them" (David Brooks, "The Social Animal," p. 287).

Which brings us back to Miley Cyrus. I suspect what most people felt when watching her performance was disgust, a completely normal reaction that has been a part of us for millennia.  However, because liberals and libertarians tend to score low on this moral intuition, they found it difficult to fit their feelings of disgust with their moral universe, and this led them to strained criticisms, such as the feminist blogger mentioned above who tried (without success, in my opinion) to squeeze them into the care/harm foundation. Even her article's title ("What Miley Cyrus Did Was Disgusting: But Not for the Reasons You Think") betrays what she was probably feeling.

P.S. In the TED talk below (19 minutes long), Haidt briefly outlines his moral intuition theory. Please note that Haidt and his collaborators initially identified five moral intuitions. The liberty/oppression intuition wasn't identified until later. In this talk, he only mentions the first five.