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The Child is Father of the Man

As published in the Rationalist Society of Australia Journal, September, 2016

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What should we tell a child about the world? How do we distinguish between knowledge and beliefs? Answering this question requires us to reach deep down into ourselves and grasp for the forgotten struts that hold one’s view of the world together. Proceed with caution however, as once the supports are prized away the whole thing is apt to collapse.

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My atypical view comes as a result of my six-year-old son’s placement in a fundamentalist and evangelical religious instruction (RI) program. Despite us immediately pulling him out of it, and even after I’d written opinion pieces opposing RI in the Australian media, our boy was put back in the class without our knowledge.

The experience brought me unwillingly face to face with the question of what to tell my son about religion. I’d prefer him to find these answers on his own. The conversation went like this: I tried to explain the limits of our knowledge, and cast some doubt on his new found certainty of the existence of a Creator God; while my son grilled me as to what I believed – presumably so he could instantly adopt my position. The resentment at being placed in this position cements and reinforces my opposition to proselytising in schools.

The school curriculum is a perennial source of controversy. Was Australia settled or invaded? Is Safe Schools an anti-bullying program or misguided social engineering? What should we teach children about culture, and religion? Opponents of both religious instruction and the Safe Schools program argue against teaching children contested beliefs or ideologies.

One of the architects of Australia’s National Curriculum, Professor Ken Wiltshire, recently demanded a stop to the “outsourcing’’ of religious instruction and sex education to “ideological interest groups’’.

“We don’t want material creeping into the curriculum without it being quality assured. You should never outsource the development of a curriculum to any group with a particular agenda, or blindly accept any curriculum material they have provided to be used in schools”.

The issue is fraught by evolving attitudes toward the rights of children – no longer merely the “don’t speak until spoken to” property of parents.

We should distinguish between rights as they apply to learning in three ways: the rights of parents, the best interests of society, and the rights of the child. In western cultures, parents still enjoy inordinately high levels of control over their child’s education.

According to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), parents have the right to bring up their children in their chosen religious or non-religious belief system.

Consider the tension between the rights of parents, and the rights of the child. The child cannot assess what is best for them and can only rely on the assumed best intentions and good judgement of their parents. But what if the parents insist on inculcating their child into an extreme or harmful belief system?

We also need to balance the entitlements of parents with the utilitarian notion of what is best for society, and reflect on the significance of a child’s potential.

As poet William Wordsworth noted “The child is father of the man”.

 

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety

 

Our days “bound each to each” the child begets the adult, connected by a continuous line of experience. The outcomes of what we teach children extend well beyond the lives of the parents, influencing the temper and texture of our future society.

But how can we measure the rights of parents? Beyond chattel ownership, parent’s rights can be measured in maximising the child’s ongoing welfare and opportunity to flourish.

So, to the extent that the parent’s rights rely on satisfying the best interests of the child, then the child’s rights take precedence. The rights of the parent turn on the best interest of the child. Given the prevailing balancing of parent’s rights over children’s rights, this should give us cause for alarm.

Children’s rights aren’t adequately protected when it’s legal to indoctrinate them into closed orders, send them to extremist schools, or proselytise fundamentalist dogma in state schools. Serving the best interest of society involves providing the child with knowledge and arming them with the critical skills to deploy it.

Those arguing against teaching contesting beliefs strike upon the crucial distinction: beliefs are secondary to knowledge. By definition, beliefs lack the verifiability and or universality which would otherwise render them as knowledge.

So, how about this rule of thumb? If adults cannot agree on a particular proposition, don’t teach it to children.

Challenging the generally accepted meme of parental entitlement, involves allowing the child greater autonomy and freedom of thought to develop their own framework of ideas and beliefs. Wordworth’s phrase evokes the unbroken link between a child’s world and the adult world, but it should also motivate us to reflect upon the gradations between belief and knowledge.

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marriage-equalityimages

Great Offense at Gay Marriage

A response to a letter to the RSA expressing Great Offense at Gay Marriage that is #SSM #samesame.

Published by the Rationalist Society of Australia website – 21 November 2017


From time to time we get unsolicited letters relating to one or other of our campaigns or policy stances. This one queries why the minority of LGBTI people in our community are being “allowed to undermine the rights of the majority.”

To RSA: On Civil Liberties and Human Rights, by Marianne Melnikas

I take great offense at Gay Marriage that is marriage equality. The LGBTI group will never have the equality of heterosexual couples. Why, simple as a norm a heterosexual couple can produce offspring without the need for a surrogate, donor egg or donor sperm. Yes some heterosexual couples do have trouble conceiving and need assistant of IVF, however this is not the norm.

For LGBTI people they will always need assistance to reproduce, why should a minority have a access to a program which was originally set up to assist otherwise childless heterosexual couples. Now it is down to whoever has the money.

As to actual marriage ceremony, it should be confined to civil ceremonies only, the State does not have the right to tell any religious body what services they can or cannot undertake.

LGBTI play both sides of the coin, they co-habitat and claim to be single when claiming Government Assistance. Yet a heterosexual couple are less able to make the same claims.

An individual, regardless of their sexual orientation, should not be forced to provide a service to a LGBTI couple wishing to marry or arrange to have a child. The right of the individual is being set aside to satisfy the LGBTI group, therefore discrimination is taking place which is not being addressed.

Why is this? Why are a minority Group being allowed to undermine the rights of the majority?traditionalmarriage

Yours

Marianne Melnikas

To Marianne Melnikas Re: Offense at Marriage Equality

Thank you to for your letter to the Rationalist Society of Australia outlining your “great offense at Gay Marriage”. Your argument provides an insight into some of the objections to Same Sex Marriage. In responding I’d like to try to clarify precisely what your offense at gay marriage entails, because your argument appears to fall prey to the fallacy of the non sequitur. As I’m sure you’re aware, this occurs when the conclusion does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement, often referred to in shorthand as “does not follow”.

You say “the LGBTI group” will never have equality with heterosexuals because “as a norm” they don’t produce offspring. And then, you readily acknowledge that some heterosexual couples cannot produce children either. You ask why should the minority LGBTI community, who will “always” need assistance to reproduce, have access to IVF which was set up for childless heterosexual couples? Well Marianne, why shouldn’t they have access to IVF? You seem to have omitted your reasons for excluding them. Aren’t both the LGBTI community and childless couples minority groups? What exactly is your rationale for wanting to grant the rights of one minority group and deny the other?

Even if IVF was set up for heterosexual couples, there’s no reason why this fact should exclude other couples. We need to assess the legitimacy of your reasoning to prohibit LGBTI couples. Perhaps a clue is found in your first sentence highlighting your “great offense”. Why take offense? Implied within your argument is the premise that because LGBTI couples cannot naturally have children, they should not be allowed to. You might also recognise this as the “naturalistic fallacy” — ie, just because something is natural does not necessarily mean it is right or good. MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker describes this as follows:

“The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is found in nature is good. It was the basis for social Darwinism, the belief that helping the poor and sick would get in the way of evolution, which depends on the survival of the fittest. Today, biologists denounce the naturalistic fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave (as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK)”.

 

I’m confident you don’t ascribe to the naturalistic fallacy, and so I’m confused as to your “great offense”. Is it because of their sexuality? Because they’re not normal or immoral? They offend you because they are different?

You go on to assert several ways you feel LGBTI couples are infringing on the rights of individuals. Individuals may be forced to provide services to gay couples wanting to marry. But aren’t LGBTI people individuals also? What about their rights? It appears you want to deny their right to marry and raise children because they are a “minority” and “not the norm”.

But equality does not depend on what is the norm.

We assign rights on the basis of our shared humanity, rather than how similar we are to each other. That’s the whole basis of civil rights. That’s why it’s offensive to segregate black people, to refuse to service them or to relegate them to the back of the bus. Our rights do not depend on being part of the majority. Quite the opposite, in fact, as modern notions of human rights are rooted in the post-World War 2 Declaration of Human Rights which specifically sought to protect minorities.

You make the curious claim that governments should not have the right to tell any religious body what services they can or cannot undertake. Notwithstanding the fact that no government has proposed that churches be forced to perform same sex marriages, your assertion also subordinates our democratically elected government to any group claiming to be religious. Is this intentional? Should any religious body have carte blanche to perform any religious service? Think of exorcisms, animal or child sacrifice, circumcision, crucifixions, self-flagellation (such as Ashura day), sharia punishments, infant dropping, vine jumping and countless other harmful practices. I’m confident your answer would be no.

You claim that LGBTI couples cohabit but claim to be single, while claiming Government assistance, whereas heterosexuals are less able to do so. What evidence do you have of this claim? Wouldn’t this be a consequence of the law disallowing them to marry? So, if we make Same Sex Marriage a reality your problem is solved.

Feel free to respond with the missing premises of your argument. Irrespective, I hope this response provides some food for thought.

Best regards

Hugh Harris

Rationalist Society of Australia

We received no further correspondence from Ms Melnikas.

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The danger of being swamped by confident idiots

 The danger of being swamped by confident idiots – The AIM Network 8 November 2016

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Five years ago, who’d have thought Donald Trump would be the leader of the free world? Truth may be stranger than fiction, but if there’s any lesson here, it’s that too many people prefer fiction to the truth. Conspiracy theories have gripped the public imagination to such an extent that a dangerous novice stands at the White House lawn.

Acting as a mirror for America’s anger, prejudices and grandiose delusions, he relies on the public consuming a diet of lies, conspiracy and misinformation. Working back from whatever outcome would “make American great again, Trump proposes ideas and solutions on the fly – building a $25 billion wall, or deporting 11 million immigrants – seemingly unconcerned with how implausible, dangerous, or just plain stupid these ideas might be. An egomaniac who believes his own latest thought bubble is good enough to become policy for the world’s most powerful country, may soon learning how to operate the nuclear codes.

But evidently, stupidity knows no borders. Closer to home, we have One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, who’s still enthralled by the vintage conspiracy theory that Jewish International Bankers control the world. He may have read Pauline Hanson’s ironically titled book, The Truth, in which she supports the crazy paranoia about the “New World Order”.

Since that déjà vu moment, when her quavering falsetto echoed through the Senate chamber, informing us that we’re in danger of being swamped by Muslims (not Asians), her support has quadrupled.

Mysteriously, the conspicuous failure of Asians to overrun us, hasn’t dampened Hanson’s confidence, or fatally wounded her credibility. Quite the opposite, in fact. Why is this so?

An answer may be found in the Dunning-Kruger effect: the curious phenomenon of “confident idiots” emboldened by their own ignorance, rather than cautioned by it.

The 1999 Dunning-Kruger study found those armed with low metacognitive skills grossly overestimated their own competence in metacognitive tasks. Those with test scores in the 12th percentile estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.

And so, according to David Dunning, those with intellectual deficits are often “blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge”.

This hasn’t passed through history unremarked: Recall Shakespeare – “a fool thinks himself to be wise but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”.

As Dunning states:

“Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack…”

The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to all humans. Beleaguered by an impressive array of confirmation biases which evolved to allow us to survive in a bewildering world of imperfect knowledge, we’ve adapted in ways which compensate for the gaps by applying greater certainty. The effect is something to be conscious of and to guard against.

Misbeliefs, according to Dunning, arise from cherished ideals, “narratives about the self, ideas about the social order—that essentially cannot be violated”.

“And any information that we glean from the world is amended, distorted, diminished, or forgotten in order to make sure that these sacrosanct beliefs remain whole and unharmed”.

Scorn of scientific expertise represents the hallmark of the “confident idiot”. Climate change denial has become the bellwether of a conspiracy theory epidemic, which has taken hold of many otherwise intelligent people. Luminaries such as Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt think climate change is part of a one world government conspiracy, aided and abetted by the United Nations, our own Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO. But somehow they are apparently embarrassed by Malcom Roberts assertions that’s it’s all a NASA cover up. Alternatively, Donald Trump thinks the global warming hoax was created by “the Chinese to make U.S manufacturing non-competitive”.

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Increasingly, the ability to discard inconvenient truths, to suspend belief in scientific fact, and to succumb to half-truths and spin, becomes a necessary skill-set used to choose whatever belief butters our bread, or suits our biases. Google provides an easy way of aligning the world to suit one’s prejudices: using the wrong-way round research method of finding the argument to suit the conclusion. Just by falling down a hole in the internet, crackpot theorist’s such as Flat Earthers, 9/11-Truthers, Chem-trailers, and Anti-Vaxxers, can find all the “empirical evidence” they need.

Science is not above reproach, or immutable. But its limits are well established enough. Adhering to established scientific fact should be a prerequisite for participating in public debate. Political correctness might have gone too far, but it’s consequences pale in comparison to scientific incorrectness.

Hopefully, Donald Trump won’t become President of the United States and we’ll look back on his candidacy as a grotesque caricature which appeared briefly, and then floated away, like a blimp at New York’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But the 50 million or so US citizens who’ll vote for Trump represent a more widespread malaise in critical thinking.

Muslims or Mexicans aren’t about to “swamp” us anytime soon. But we needn’t consult our tea leaves or call a psychic to recognise the danger posed by the Dunning-Kruger effect, and to wonder why we’re not doing more to mitigate the influence of confident idiots.