Monday, June 21, 2010

Insane Clown Posse and Science: Deliberate Ignorance

Insance Clown Posse is a rap group known for dressing up like clowns and demonstrating proficiency with using the word "fuck" as an adjective or adverb. Their fans, called Juggalos, often border on the fanatical. Recently the group released a song called "Miracles" in which they assert that all sorts of everyday things are miracles. This list includes eclipses, giraffes, magnets, rainbows, butterflies and how children look like their parents.

Warning: the following video is painful. The pain comes not just from the stupidity of the lyrics but the fact that the music just sucks. Watch at your own risk.

By itself, this song might be dismissed as silly. However, the song contains the lyrics "And I don't wanna talk to a scientist/Y'all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed." When this song came out, there was a fair bit of uproar. Although science is abused by people everywhere in the political spectrum, it is rare for such a direct attack to occur. Taken together with the fact that every single thing listed in the song was some bit of science that is normally explained before people are in 9th grade, the reaction was predictable and humorous. They included Learn Your Motherf#@kin’ Science: A Textbook for Juggalos(amusing but for the fact that they explain rainbows incorrectly) and Rebecca Watson's imagining of how the song lyrics were devised.

This could have ended there. But Insane Clown Posse managed to dig themselves in into an even deeper hole. In one interview, the interviewer asked them if they knew yet how magnets worked and they replied that they were proud that they did not. They also wrote an official response to criticism of the song in which they made it clear that not only don't like learning but "We feel like these haters are the big dumb, popular jocks ganging up on the little class clown scrub." It isn't clear to me in what universe Insane Clown Posse operates if they think that the people who like science were the "big dumb, popular jocks." I'm also a bit confused by the notion that the people who know things like how a rainbow works are "dumb" but it may just be that I'm too stupid to understand. Similarly, it may be due to my stupidity that I'm wondering how they would be sure to put a comma between "dumb" and "popular" but not between "big" and "dumb." Is big actually an adverb modifying dumb? Is "big dumb" some sort of compound adjective? If only scientists were popular; I suspect that such a world would be a much better place.

This could have ended there but then Insane Clown Posse made another mistake: They had a concert in San Francisco, a city full of nerds. Noisebridge, a volunteer group devoted to science education around San Francisco decided to use the Posse's visit to their fair city as an opportunity to educate the Juggalos. They made a series of posters explaining how various things work, with titles like "Fuckin' butterflies, how do they work?" They then dressed up with Juggalo-style clown facepaint as well as labcoats, and went to the concert. They videotaped the result:

As you can see in the video, the Insane Clown Posse roadcrew had seen the Noisebridge website in advance where they had planned the event. Apparently, the Insane Clown Posse was not happy with these scientists, forced them to leave, and tried to take away their video camera. Now, one might think that this was just the work of an overzealous roadcrew claiming to have authority from the people in charge, but there's the not so tiny detail that one of the Insane Clown Posse members bragged on his Twitter account that they "ran those scientist haters off." I wish I were making that up. If I had seen the phrase "scientist haters" in any other context I would have guessed that it meant people who hate scientists. What we have here are people who are so proud of their ignorance that they actually interfere with other people engaging in a humorous attempt to educate.

Now, what could possibly make this situation worse? If you guessed "Insane Clown Posse claims to be religious" then you win a gold star. The exact nature of the band's religious status is not clear. Although songs include lyrics about murder, cannibalism, and necrophilia, the individuals who commit these actions always suffer at the end. They have a series of songs centering around a Carnival which punishes people, and the last such song contains the lyrics "Truth is we follow GOD, we’ve always been behind Him. The carnival is God and may all juggalos find him! He’s out there!” And did I mention they hate gays? So the Insane Clown Posse apparently, hates science, hates gays, and believes in a deity whose chief job is to punish people. If you're wondering if they self-identify as Christian then you win another gold star.

Still, the level of anti-science attitudes here is shocking. It resembles nothing more than a caricature of what is wrong with contemporary Christianity. I don't think that band's Christianity has anything deeply to do with their anti-science attitude. For example, they haven't come out strongly against evolution. The correlation in this case is to some extent probably incidental. But there is a real lesson here and it is contained in their strange idea that scientists are the "big, dumb jocks." That idea is very divorced from reality. How can someone be so wrong about the world around them? Let me suggest that it is because science is the best method we have of finding out about the nature of reality. It isn't the only one, but it is the most reliable and the one that has given us the most fruit. So, when you take an attitude that is so anti-science and against the minimal knowledge of how basic genetics works, or any of a hundred other subjects, you are going to not have good methods for telling whether your beliefs about reality map accurately to reality. And the more effort you make to deny science, the further divorced from reality you will become, to the point where you believe the nerdy guys who work in the labs and like to understand how things work are actually "big dumb, popular jocks."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Israel and The Flotilla to Gaza: Another Excuse to Promote Family Members

My father has a piece up at the Oxford University Press blog arguing that Israel was justified in its actions regarding the flotilla to Gaza. I'm not convinced by the argument. The situation seems complicated especially in that it is not clear that all the items that Israel is not letting are items that could be used to make weapons. The Israeli blockade has stopped hostilities, but it goes beyond that, effectively preventing the maintenance and rebuilding of Gaza's sewage treatment and power plants (See this summary). If the blockade was narrowly tailored to save Israeli lives it would be more morally defensible.

It seems that given the large amount of shouting about this issue, that this is not a bad opportunity to discuss some unambiguous facts about the current situation.

First, it is clear that the blockade has worked to protect Israeli lives. Rocket attacks from Gaza have become nearly non-existent after the blockade.

Second, it is clear that the motivation for the blockade is not primarily out of racial animosity for the Palestinians, although that may play some part. The evidence for this is that the West Bank, controlled by the moderate Fatah faction, is not under any similar restrictions.

Third, it is not clear, and likely will not become clear for the foreseeable future, who started the fighting on the Mavi Mamara. Eyewitness accounts are conflicting. Note that who started the fighting also has zero connection to whether or not the blockade is morally or legally justifiable.

Fourth, Hamas is refusing to accept the flotilla aid until demands are met. If one believes that this aid is vital, then this is a clear example of Hamas willing to let the people of Gaza suffer to suit its own political aims. However, it is important to keep in mind that this despicable behavior by Hamas is also not relevant to whether the blockade is morally or legally justifiable.

In any event, my father's piece makes a pretty strong argument, so go and read.