Saturday, August 1, 2015

By striving to know more than 'tis allow'd

From The Poetical Works of Samuel Butler.

An extract from Satire Upon the Abuse of Human Learning dealing with many issues with which we struggle today.

For the more languages a man can speak,
His talent has but sprung the greater leak ;
And for the industry he 'as spent upon 't,
Must full as much some other way discount.
The Hebrew, Chaldee, and the Syriac,
Do, like their letters, set men's reason back,
And turn their wits that strive to understand it,
(Like those that write the characters) left-handed :
Yet he that is but able to express
No sense at all in several languages,
Will pass for learneder than he that 's known
To speak the strongest reason in his own.
These are the modern arts of education,
With all the learned of mankind in fashion,
But practis'd only with the rod and whip,
As ridings-schools inculcate horsemanship ;
Or Romish penitents let out their skins,
To bear the penalties of others' sins.
When letters, at the first, were meant for play,
And only us'd to pass the time away,
When th' ancient Greeks and Romans had no name
To express a school and playhouse, but the same,
And in their languages so long agone,
To study or be idle was all one ;
For nothing 1 more preserves men in their wits,
Than giving of them leave to play by fits,
In dreams to sport, and ramble with all fancies,
And waking, little less extravagances,
The rest and recreation of tir'd thought,
When 'tis run down with care and overwrought,
Of which whoever does not freely take
His constant share, is never broad awake,
And when he wants an equal competence
Of both recruits, abates as much of sense.
Nor is their education worse design'd
Than Nature (in her province) proves unkind :
The greatest inclinations with the least
Capacities are fatally possest,
Condemn'd to drudge, and labour, and take pains,
Without an equal competence of brains ;
While those she has indulg'd in soul and body.
Are most averse to industry and study,
And th' activ'st fancies share as loose alloys,
For want of equal weight to counterpoise.
But when those great conveniences meet,
Of equal judgment, industry, and wit,
The one but strives the other to divert,
While Fate and Custom in the feud take part,
And scholars by prepost'rous over-doing,
And under-judging, all their projects ruin :
Who, though the understanding of mankind
Within so strait a compass is confin'd,
Disdain the limits Nature sets to bound
The wit of man, and vainly rove beyond.
The bravest soldiers scorn, until they 're got
Close to the enemy, to make a shot ;
Yet great philosophers delight to stretch
Their talents most at things beyond their reach,
And proudly think t' unriddle ev'ry cause
That Nature uses, by their own bye-laws ;
When 'tis not only' impertinent, but rude,
Where she denies admission, to intrude ;
And all their industry is but to err,
Unless they have free quarantine from her ;
Whence 'tis the world the less has understood,
By striving to know more than 'tis allow'd.

The Forer Effect

Clearly the stars are aligned to make my language more precise. Yesterday I came across Simpson's Paradox to explain a phenomenon for which I had made up the term, Texas-Wisconsin Paradox.

Today I discover that there is a term for the circumstance where a person believes that a randomly generated description of that participant is a highly accurate insight to the personality of that person. It is the Forer Effect further described here in the Skeptic's Dictionary.
The Forer effect refers to the tendency of people to rate sets of statements as highly accurate for them personally even though the statements could apply to many people.

Psychologist Bertram R. Forer (1914-2000) found that people tend to accept vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realizing that the same description could be applied to just about anyone. Consider the following as if it were given to you as an evaluation of your personality.
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.
Forer gave a personality test to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student the above evaluation. He asked them to evaluate the evaluation from 0 to 5, with "5" meaning the recipient felt the evaluation was an "excellent" assessment and "4" meaning the assessment was "good." The class average evaluation was 4.26. That was in 1948. The test has been repeated hundreds of time with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2 out of 5, or 84% accurate.

Security is a way of data life not a static condition.

There are always disconnects between what you hear in the news, see in the numbers and what you experience in real life. The skeptical mind tries to reconcile those different streams of pattern identification.

One persistent disconnect over the past decade and more, for me, has been what I see in terms of warnings about identity theft and news accounts of massive (tens of millions) data theft from government and companies including names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mails, and even social security numbers. Taking all that at face value, it feels like there must be a massive amount of identity theft going on and huge fraud numbers.

And yet, listening to friends and acquaintances, I don't hear of more than two or three people a year having to deal with identity theft and its ilk. My quandry is not that I believe identity theft to not be occurring, but that it seems to have such little real world impact. Till now, I have assumed that the reconciliation between news reports of data thefts and my personal observations of few instances of identity theft must lie with some non-normal distribution curve of those affected. Perhaps there is a lot of identity theft occurring but it is concentrated among the poor or the elderly or the very rich. But frankly, I didn't think that was a particularly good explanation, just the most probable one.

Stolen Consumer Data Is a Smaller Problem Than It Seems by Nathaniel Popper offers an alternative explanation.
Enormous numbers like these can make it feel as if we’re living through an epidemic of data breaches, in which no one’s bank account or credit card is safe. But the actual effect on consumers is quite different from what the headlines suggest. Only a tiny number of people exposed by leaks end up paying any costs, and for the rare victims who do, the average cost has actually been falling steadily.

How could that be? For starters, several laws protect consumers from bearing almost any financial losses related to hackers (though not the headaches of having to enter new credit card numbers into Amazon and elsewhere). Instead, banks and merchants, like Target, must bear the cost. But even their losses have been dropping in recent years, as data security experts have learned new strategies to prevent intrusions from turning into theft.

“The bad guys are getting good,” said David Robertson, the publisher of The Nilson Report, a data provider for the card industry, “and the good guys are getting even better.”
The risk remains real but my take away from Popper's reporting is two-fold. 1) The funnel between data hacking and data exploitation is far more constricting than we think. Only a small fraction of what is stolen can be used. 2) The fraud system is dynamic like a biological system with attackers and defenders in a constantly evolving system of offense and defense. Security is a way of data life not a static condition.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Simpson's Paradox

A couple of years ago I referred to The Texas-Wisconsin Paradox and intergenerational income mobility. The Texas-Wisconsin paradox became a point of some marginal discussion in the campaign led by teacher's unions to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in 2013. One of the claims made by the Wisconsin teachers was that unions were responsible for higher student performance in Wisconsin when contrasted with non-unionized education in Texas.

In the internet age, this claim had a half-life of about 12 hours before it was pointed out that while the overall average for students in Wisconsin was higher than the overall average for students in Texas, when you split out the racial groups (White, Blacks, Hispanic, Asian-Americans, Native Americans), each racial group in Texas scored higher than its corresponding group in Wisconsin. Not knowing what to call this, I referred to it as the Texas-Wisconsin paradox where the score at the aggregate level can be higher but all the sub group score averages are lower.

In the case of Texas, all its racial groups scored higher than the corresponding groups in Wisconsin. However, the two highest scoring groups, Whites and Asians, were heavily overrepresented in Wisconsin and the lowest scoring groups, African-Americans and Hispanics, were overrepresented in Texas. Texas teachers were doing a good job of educating the students they were faced with, better than teachers in Wisconsin, but they were faced with a different mix of students.

I now discover that this is referred to as Simpson's Paradox, a discovery I made from When average isn't good enough: Simpson's paradox in education and earnings by Brad Hershbein. Hershbein provides an earlier example.
In the early 1970s, the University of California, Berkeley was sued for gender discrimination over admission to graduate school. Of the 8,442 male applicants for the fall of 1973, 44 percent were admitted, but only 35 percent of the 4,351 female applicants were accepted. At first blush, and assuming the applicants’ qualifications were similar, this pattern indeed appeared consistent with gender discrimination. However, when researchers looked more closely within specific departments, this bias against women went away, and even reversed in several cases.

This apparent contradiction, in which the trend of the whole can be different from or the opposite of the trend of the constituent parts, is often called Simpson’s paradox, after British statistician Edward H. Simpson, who described the phenomenon in 1951. In the Berkeley case, the “paradox” occurred because women disproportionately applied to departments with low acceptance rates, as shown in the table above, while men disproportionately applied to departments with high acceptance rates. Examples of Simpson’s paradox have also been found in baseball batting averages, on-time flights of airlines, and even survival rates from the Titanic.
Glad to make the discovery. I was sure that there had to be a proper name for the statistical phenomenon but simply wasn't googling the right questions in the right fashion to find the answer.

I knew the Roman legions and the harsh-voiced Danish hordes

London Under Bombardment
by Greta Briggs

I WHO am known as London, have faced stern times before,
Having fought and ruled and traded for a thousand years and more;
I knew the Roman legions and the harsh-voiced Danish hordes;
heard the Saxon revels, saw blood on the Norman swords.
But, though I am scarred by battle, my grim defenders vow
Never was I so stately nor so well-beloved as now.
The lights that burn and glitter in the exile's lonely dream,
The lights of Piccadilly, and those that used to gleam
Down Regent Street and Kingsway may now no longer shine,
But other lights keep burning, and their splendour, too, is mine,
Seen in the work-worn faces and glimpsed in the steadfast eyes
When little homes lie 'broken and death descends from the skies.
The bombs have shattered my churches, have torn my streets apart,
But they have not bent my spirit and they shall not break my heart.
For my people's faith and courage are lights of London town
Which still would shine in legends though my last broad bridge were down.
One among the selection in Field Marshall Wavell's Other Men's Flowers, an anthology of poetry published in the midst of World War II as he led armies across the globe. In the time period leading up to the publication of the anthology, he fought the Italians and Germans in Libya, the French in the Levant, in Iraq, with the Russians in Persia and against the Japanese in Malaya, Singapore and Burma. As Viceroy of India he had non-military catastrophes to deal with at the same time as his war responsibilities including the Bengal famine in 1943.

I think of Wavell when people mention that they do not have time to do something.

Wavell appended a note to this poem.
I read these verses in an Egyptian newspaper while flying from Cairo to Barce in Cyrenaica at the beginning of April 1941, to try to deal with Rommel's counter-attack. I was uncomfortable in body - for the bomber was cramped and draughty - and in mind for I knew I had been caught with insufficient strength to meet a heavy counter-attack; reading this poem and committing it to memory did something to relieve my discomforts of body and mind.
Poetry is not an effete exercise - it is something primal and I like this image of it being so critical an element of the life of one of the most important men at one of the most important moments in history.

What once was a popular art is now unsustainable without institutional subsidy

An interesting biographical, Clive James’ Last Act by John Broening.

I first came across Clive James sometime in the early 1980s and quite enjoyed his autobiography Unreliable Memoirs which chronicled his journey from WWII, lower middle class, culturally circumscribed Australia, to a much wider world, a journey further elaborated in the second in the autobiographical series, Falling Towards England.

I enjoyed the verve and out of the mainstream insights of those first two books. I enjoyed them so much that I have continued occasionally acquiring books by James in subsequent years even though the others have gone sampled but largely unread. James has always impressed me as being highly intelligent, immensely well-read, impressively versed in the technical minutiae of literature and particularly poetry. But that wasn't all. In the later books there was neediness and insecurity and crassness and all sorts of other intimations. Not enough to quit hoping of finding writing akin to the first two books but too much to invest time reading the newer books.

Broening captures much of my view in his review of James's life and works. I liked this passage.
The lifetime close study of poetry leads James to a wealth of intimate insights. Rereading Frost, he discovers something he hadn’t noticed before:
Then I pick him up again and find that his easy-seeming, usually iambic, conversational forward flow is a deception, a way of not just bringing show-stopping moments to your attention but of moving them past your attention, so that you will form the correct impression that he has wealth to spare and does not want the show stopped for such a secondary consideration as brilliance.
Poetry has of late become like jazz; what once was a popular art is now unsustainable without institutional subsidy; and as the audience for it has disappeared, or rather deserted it for hip-hop, the number of professionally-trained practitioners has paradoxically increased. Like jazz, one of the reasons poetry appeals to initiates is because of its difficulty. James himself is a workmanlike poet rather than a brilliant one, a diligent versifier, really, but he has tried and failed at it enough that he understands what those difficulties are.
I like that line by Broening - "What once was a popular art is now unsustainable without institutional subsidy."

Not just jazz. Painting, most other genre's of music, poetry, literature. Whole swaths of what should be the crowning glories of culture are no longer commercially viable in a way they once were. In some fields, it is just a change and we'll come through the winnowing stronger. For example, after a couple of decades seeing the traditional vinyl era of commercial music disappearing, the new model, radically different, is commercial viability through performance rather than sale of discs. One can argue and complain of the relative merits of either business model, but there is at least a viable model.

Poetry - no. Gone. Not the writing of poetry which is, in some ways, too much with us. A vomiting forth of lines with no eyes to read them or ears willing to listen. Too much supply and too little demand. Sometimes poetry feels like the canary in the coal mine, signalling to the other muses of literature and painting what might be in store for them as well.

My most recent disappointing acquisition was Cultural Amnesia about which Broening has to say:
James’ magnum opus, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from the Arts is an incoherent failure, perhaps because its stated aim, to showcase the culture of liberal democracy, is at odds with it true aim-to exist as a monument to its creator. Cultural Amnesia rigorous organization – it is alphabetized by subject and each entry has a capsule biography of its subject and two quotations – highlights rather than camouflages James’s intellectual disarray, his inability to engage in systematic thought. Cultural Amnesia also draws attention to James’s weaknesses as writer, which have become more pronounced over the years: his tendency to drag in off-topic personal information and to make himself the center of an essay no matter what the given assignment; his inclination to hold forth on a huge range of issues and subjects, whether or not he has anything of interest to say; his atrocity-mongering (as Tibor Fischer said about Martin Amis, James is ‘constantly on the prowl for gravitas-enlargement offers'); his fanboy’s fascination with the particulars of show business; his knack for making a showy display of simple common sense.
Another good line from Broening is this
A common theme of James’ excellent literary criticism, in his writings on Yeats, Shaw, Solzhenitsyn, Auden and others is that it is futile to wish away the follies and blindnesses of great artists, because those failings come from the same place as the art and accomplishments we cherish.
Indeed. It is always a tricky proposition when we are invited to condemn some reasoning, behavior or set of actions of an artist (or anyone of achievement). In some regards, it sounds like the right thing to do. They said something unforgivably bad, they behaved cruelly, they held beliefs widely divergent from our own - You are encouraged to show you are not tarred with the same brush of bad thoughts by disavowing them. But the thing of beauty is its own piece. It has no antecedents else we banish all beauty from the world. Vespasian's maxim, pecunia non olet, holds as true now as in the first century AD. The moral stewards of right thinking are merely the most recent manifestations of the barbarism that always threatens civilization and things of beauty.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fear always stands near those who go to sea.

From A Sailor's Pay by Jack Cady in the anthology, Sea-Cursed, edited by T. Liam McDonald.
Fear is an old friend. I have known fear in a thousand storms. I have heard fear, and felt it, when my vessel's radio picked up the terrified voices of doomed men; men giving last loran positions as their ship took its final dive. Fear always stands near those who go to sea. At first you learn to bear it, then, finding its true nature and depth, you befriend it.
An interesting parsing of fear. I am not sure I buy befriending it. But I do testify to fear always standing near those who go to sea.

I love swimming, sailing, travelling by ship. And while I do not fear or panic in and on the water, there is a respect that is almost certainly founded on fear.

Oddly, in moments of apparent peril, such as when your sailboat capsizes far from shore, there is not much fear. You have an issue to address and your entire being is focused on that. Even, once, being tangled in rigging under water, no panic: solve the problem.

The fear that I recognize most is that of the unknown and the unmanageable.

You are swimming offshore and fish begin to panic and break the surface of the sea near you, escaping some unseen predator. I feel that fear as I write these words. Sighting a reef shark much closer to you than you thought. That brings on shivers. Spotting what appears to be a poisonous sea snake sinuously close. That's when the adrenaline flows.

And also, but differently, when you are on a big ship in bad weather. A mere bystander to the awe inspiring. I was fortunate to sail in the old Queen Elizabeth across the North Atlantic in the mid-1960s, a wonderful journey for a child. But in the middle of the five day voyage we had an autumn blow when the sky greyed out and merged with the steel sea and the wind blew hard and the ship rolled, further and further, improbably far.

Oddly, what I remember most clearly was my first conscious awareness of the whistling of a key hole. Most people were confined to their cabins with sea sickness. For some reason, I was prowling around, enjoying the absence of adults. There was a fine old solid wood door from some lounge area out onto the deck, the deck being swept by that cold, wet Atlantic wind. I stood by the door, pushing hard to open against the wind but then noticing the whistling sound as the wind squeezed itself through the keyhole. I was fascinated, standing there stock still listening to the wind's song. Then, as a child will, trying to mimic it with my recently acquired whistling skills.

Harder still was a wintertime passage across the North Sea from Denmark to the UK some years later. Hard winds and high seas and nausea and the rolling, yawing and shifting of the huge ship, a plaything of circumstance. That's when I begin to edge towards fear. I had a similar experience crossing from Stockholm to Helsinki in the Baltic on a stormy winter day.

It is not the fear of sinking or getting wet or the waves or the winds. It is the fear of the cold. I was accustomed, having lived in Sweden and England, to swimming in bone chilling water and I think that breeds a deep respect for how quickly it can debilitate you. Riding those roller coaster ships in those storms, it was relatively easy to anticipate how to get off the ship, should it capsize. The fear was in knowing that you would only have minutes in the water to get into a lifeboat or raft before your life energy was drained away. Of course that was all simply anticipatory fear. The ships did not sink. They weren't even in real danger. It was just another rough crossing in northern wintry seas.

Only many years later did I come close to fully comprehending how that fear of cold water was so warranted.

I was shooting some mountain white water rapids with a troop of boy scouts and even though it was a warm summer day, the mountain river was dam fed and dam water is cold, cold, cold. All was going well till I spotted one of the scouts projected from one of the rafts upriver into the water. I could see his panic, flailing, trying to grab hold of rocks, eyes saucer sized.

I slipped over the side of my raft with the intent of lodging myself among the rocks to grab him as he swept by. The plan went off without a hitch. He came hurtling by me and I was able to reach out and latch onto his life vest and hold on tight. I knew one of the other rafts would be able to slow enough to grab us as it went by. We weren't in the water more than five minutes, probably but two or three, before one of the other rafts barged up against us and strong arms pulled us in.

I felt no touch of fear at any point because it all seemed manageable.

But what struck me later, stretched out in the sun, soaking up summer heat as fast as possible, was just how fast that cold water steals away your life energy. I don't think we were ever in serious peril. But in the few minutes wedged into those rocks with the whitewater roaring over and around us, I could feel approaching incapacity. I wasn't incapacitated at all but I probably went from 100% to 60% in minutes, just from that cold water sucking out my body heat. The respect that had been somewhat theoretical is much deeper now.

But for all that fear always stands with you, the inspiration of far horizons and vaulting skies and towering clouds, and deep waters brings you back to the oceans and the seas. A magical, primal draw.

Wishful thinking - a large bonus for accurate predictions did not result in a smaller bias

From Wishful Thinking by Guy Mayraz. The abstract:
This paper presents a model and an experiment, both suggesting that wishful thinking is a pervasive phenomenon that affect decisions large and small. Agents in the model start out with state-dependent payoffs, and behave as if high-payoff states are more likely. Subsequent choices maximize subjective-expected utility given these beliefs. Subjects in the experiment were paid in accordance with the future value of a financial asset. Despite incentives for hedging, subjects gaining from high prices made higher predictions than subjects gaining from low prices. Comparative statics agreed with predictions. In particular, a large bonus for accurate predictions did not result in a smaller bias.

The chill reached the marrow of our bones.

From Sea-Cursed, edited by T. Liam McDonald et al. The Ship of Silent Men by Philip M. Fisher. A description of conditions at sea as a context for storytelling.
They were a superstitious lot, too - Belgians and Swedes and Welsh - and I found myself colder yet as I listened to the yarns they told. At sea, with the illimitable waste about one, and the loneliness of it all, stories of the strange and unexplainable always thrill more than they do on land. And when they are told when the actual conditions then existent are strange and unexplainable, too, and the nearest land is a mere speck seven hundred miles back, the thrill changes into something more like a spine-prickling uneasiness. The crew were that way - and the passengers three.

The cold became more penetrating. The bridge officer - wool-wrapped - paced stumblingly. The radio had lapses of an hour long - the wireless operator was frantic. The shadows below decks became as of the dead alive, and the black gang forgot its tales, and cursed softly.

Then came darkness, and with it a doubled phosphorescence in our wake. The air was permeated with that weird sea feel, hardly to be called an odor, or ozone. And at about seven bells of the first watch, just before midnight, the steel rigging was alive with bluish flickering - electric streamlets, running, pausing, dancing, now quiescent and dying dim - now pulsingly alive, now peacefully aglow - now madly, enthusiastically, and at times almost malevolently, rampant.

The deck watch shivered a bit from more than the cold - the below-decks crew, about to come on watch and up for a breath of air, stared thoughtfully and stowed back their half-filled pipes, and felt their way down to the comfort of their still steady engines.

Eight bells, and midnight came. The chill reached the marrow of our bones. The electricity on the rigging silently threatened. The shadows blacked and grayed with a hundred shifting, shapeless things that stared and kept one's chin on one's shoulder in breathless moments when the lights went nearly out.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

It was a snippy, prim, smug bourgeois armchair leftism

Camille Paglia is one of our few genuine public intellectuals and that is intended as a compliment rather than a snide attack. From Camille Paglia takes on Jon Stewart, Trump, Sanders: “Liberals think of themselves as very open-minded, but that’s simply not true!” interviewed by David Daley.

Whatever she says, she says with verb, insight and from a deep well of knowledge. She always strikes me as genuine, an attribute by which I set great store.

Salon is running a long interview with her over three days. The following blistering excerpts are from today's segment. On atheists:
I regard them as adolescents. I say in the introduction to my last book, “Glittering Images”, that “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination.” It exposes a state of perpetual adolescence that has something to do with their parents– they’re still sneering at dad in some way. Richard Dawkins was the only high-profile atheist out there when I began publicly saying “I am an atheist,” on my book tours in the early 1990s. I started the fad for it in the U.S, because all of a sudden people, including leftist journalists, started coming out of the closet to publicly claim their atheist identities, which they weren’t bold enough to do before. But the point is that I felt it was perfectly legitimate for me to do that because of my great respect for religion in general–from the iconography to the sacred architecture and so forth. I was arguing that religion should be put at the center of any kind of multicultural curriculum.

I’m speaking here as an atheist. I don’t believe there is a God, but I respect every religion deeply. All the great world religions contain a complex system of beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and human life that is far more profound than anything that liberalism has produced. We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system. They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny. Politics applies only to society. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves the eternal principles of life and death. The great tragic texts, including the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of western civilization.

The real problem is a lack of knowledge of religion as well as a lack of respect for religion. I find it completely hypocritical for people in academe or the media to demand understanding of Muslim beliefs and yet be so derisive and dismissive of the devout Christian beliefs of Southern conservatives.

But yes, the sneering is ridiculous! Exactly what are these people offering in place of religion? In my system, I offer art–and the whole history of spiritual commentary on the universe. There’s a tremendous body of nondenominational insight into human life that used to be called cosmic consciousness. It has to be remembered that my generation in college during the 1960s was suffused with Buddhism, which came from the 1950s beatniks. Hinduism was in the air from every direction–you had the Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ravi Shankar at Monterey, and there were sitars everywhere in rock music. So I really thought we were entering this great period of religious syncretism, where the religions of the world were going to merge. But all of a sudden, it disappeared! The Asian religions vanished–and I really feel sorry for young people growing up in this very shallow environment where they’re peppered with images from mass media at a particularly debased stage.

There are no truly major stars left, and I don’t think there’s much profound work being done in pop culture right now. Young people have nothing to enlighten them, which is why they’re clinging so much to politicized concepts, which give them a sense of meaning and direction.

But this sneering thing! I despise snark. Snark is a disease that started with David Letterman and jumped to Jon Stewart and has proliferated since. I think it’s horrible for young people! And this kind of snark atheism–let’s just invent that term right now–is stupid, and people who act like that are stupid. Christopher Hitchens’ book “God is Not Great” was a travesty. He sold that book on the basis of the brilliant chapter titles. If he had actually done the research and the work, where each chapter had the substance of those wonderful chapter titles, then that would have been a permanent book. Instead, he sold the book and then didn’t write one–he talked it. It was an appalling performance, demonstrating that that man was an absolute fraud to be talking about religion. He appears to have done very little scholarly study. Hitchens didn’t even know Judeo-Christianity well, much less the other world religions. He had that glib Oxbridge debater style in person, but you’re remembered by your written work, and Hitchens’ written work was weak and won’t last.

Dawkins also seems to be an obsessive on some sort of personal vendetta, and again, he’s someone who has never taken the time to do the necessary research into religion. Now my entire career has been based on the pre-Christian religions. My first book, “Sexual Personae,” was about the pagan cults that still influence us, and it began with the earliest religious artifacts, like the Venus of Willendorf in 35,000 B.C. In the last few years, I’ve been studying Native American culture, in particular the Paleo-Indian period at the close of the Ice Age. In the early 1990s, when I first arrived on the scene, I got several letters from Native Americans saying my view of religion, women, and sexuality resembled the traditional Native American view. I’m not surprised, because my orientation is so fixed in the pre-Christian era.
On academic poseurs.
When I was in college–from 1964 to 1968–I saw what real leftists look like, because a lot of people at my college, which was the State University of New York at Binghamton, were radicalized Jews from downstate. They were very avant-garde, doing experimental theater and modern dance, and they knew all about abstract expressionism. Their parents were often Holocaust survivors, so they had a keen sense of history. And they spoke in a very direct and open working-class style. That’s why, in the 1990s, I was saying that the academic leftists were such frauds–sitting around applying Foucault to texts and thinking that was leftism! No it wasn’t! It was a snippy, prim, smug bourgeois armchair leftism. Real ’60s radicals rarely went to grad school and never became big-wheel humanities professors, with their fat salaries and perks. The proof of the vacuity of academic leftism for the past forty years is the complete silence of leftist professors about the rise of the corporate structure of the contemporary university–their total failure to denounce the gross expansion of the administrator class and the obscene rise in tuition costs. The leading academic leftists are such frauds–they’ve played the system and are retiring as millionaires!
Well worth the time to read the whole interview.