Necessary but not sufficient

In my methods course, the first lecture was on causality. It's also one of my favourite topics of discussion. As with many epistemological concepts, causality can be exploited to weaken any argument merely because of its observational constraints. That is, the unobservability of certain measures because of the non-universality of the values associated with them. Academically speaking, psychology, among other social sciences, was one of the worst affected because of this "exploitation". Of course psychology, by the sheer number of experiments and empirical data, evolved into a strong and independent area that it no longer had to wait for others' "approval". Contrarily though, measures such as IQ, though disputed by some scholars, have now been established as "objective" and "universal". This article provides a good critique of intellectual bias behind of some of these "scientific constructs".

All said, I'm no saint when it comes to exploiting the limitations of the scientific method or citing the same to invalidate overly assumptive nonsense. Crudely put, I switch sides to sound smart. I have had to do it quite often with a topic that we cannot avoid ourselves from getting into, post 9/11. It's about religion and terrorism; more specifically, suicide bombing. But this article provides a very coherent deconstruction that cannot be escaped. I’ll just quote the most relevant parts,

Dawkins is suggesting that the motivation for certain ‘evil’ acts (not a word I like, but I think it’s clear that Dawkins means act that most of his readers would consider morally unacceptable) is sometimes religious belief, but that atheism does not have similar effects. Of course, this doesn’t mean that atheists don’t act immorally – presumably, according to Dawkins, when they do act in such a way it is not motivated by their atheistic commitments, nor is carried out in the name, or to advance the cause, of atheism. Brown responds with the line about Stalin killing the priests and the clergy. But what does this fact alone demonstrate? That an atheist committed mass murder – which tells us what? I’m no expert on Stalin’s reign, and so I don’t know what motivated his actions, but is Brown suggesting that his atheism per se was a decisive or contributing factor? It would seem so, when he writes “The claim that Stalin's atheism had nothing to do with his actions may be the most disingenuous in the book”. But what does Brown base the conclusion about the role of atheism in Stalin’s stunning inhumanity on apart from a correlation? If there is evidence that it atheism was a driving force, where is the evidence?

And there seems to be a bit of a double standard here. Brown seems irritated at Dawkins’s suggestion that religion can lead to terrible behaviour, but then tries to counter it with by showing that atheism can lead to bad behaviour. If it’s too simple to blame religion for bad behaviour, as Dawkins supposedly does, it should also be too simple to blame atheism, as Brown implies.

Brown also takes issue with the suggestion that religious fundamentalism is a causal factor in producing terrorist bombers:
[T]he definitive scientific study of suicide bombers, Dying to Win, has just been published by Robert Pape, a Chicago professor who has a database containing every known suicide attack since 1980. This shows, as clearly as evidence can, that religious zealotry is not on its own sufficient to produce suicide bombers; in fact, it's not even necessary: the practice was widely used by Marxist guerrillas in Sri Lanka.
Whenever people want to illustrate the lack of efficacy of religion in producing suicide bombers, they always cite the Tamil Tigers, who are inspired by a Marxism rather than an explicit religious agenda (indeed, may Tamils might be atheists). Again, we have to ask what this shows. Imagine that someone wrote a book on the dangers of smoking, and reviewers pointed out that not all smokers get cancer, and that non-smokers also get cancer. Would we say “See, smoking isn’t dangerous after all”. Of course not. The fact that smoking is neither necessary nor sufficient for getting cancer isn’t the point. Smoking can still be an important cause of cancer – even the most important cause of cancer (I’m not saying it is) – even if people get cancer for other reasons. And so when people tried to get smoking banned in public places, or taxes increased to put people off smoking, we wouldn’t be entitled to say “But look, there are some other know causes of cancer, so leave smoking alone!”. It would still be appropriate to single smoking out, critically discuss it, and definitely withdraw government support for it (if there were, say, smoking academies).
As we see in the excerpt above, exemplary refutations suffer the same fate they inflict. It's like swords slicing one another. Then again, some swords are sharper than the others.


Anonymous said...

Your blog made it to Nilu's Puke of the Day

Suresh said...

hahaha I was expecting it, his idiot friend 'I' would have ran to him crying. Vetti pasanga

steve said...

er, this is a good post. whats to puke here?
is Nilu afraid of competition?

chantabbai said...

i saw it coming man. I thought Nilu was a little clever than his 'I' friend. And he proves it.

but aren't you going to respond on his blog?

Suresh said...

while I was expecting their move, I've given them what they could not have expected.
Now let's see who's "clever".

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