RNA 2016

The Religion News Association annual meeting was fantastic – I’m very glad I got the opportunity to participate.  I have a whole bunch of things I want to talk about, but to start with, I figured I’d just do a nice, big post of some of the cool stuff and interesting facts I was introduced to by the various panels, participants, and exhibitors:

  1. The “nones” – that is, atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated – now make up 25% of the US population, making them the largest single ‘denomination’ in the US (if all denominations of Christians are counted together, they’re still a larger portion).
  2. Pastors and religious leaders have started using social media’s livestreaming options (such as periscope or facebook’s new facebook live) to host live ‘pray-ins,’ where people can text or message them requesting intervention.
  3. A group in Kentucky has constructed a full-size ark, based on the Genesis account, which is now open for public viewing.  The site also includes a zoo and a zipline park.
  4. There’s an awesome website called www.blessingnotburden.org, which tells the story of immigration and immigrants’ contributions through the lens of Scripture.
  5. Life After Hate is an excellent organization that helps rehabilitate people from lives of violence, in particular those associated with the extreme far right.
  6. Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the Catholic Church,  and Germany will be celebrating with all sorts of cool events (and by giving all of us who attended RNA little toy Luthers!).
  7. Not strictly about religion, but one of the sessions was sponsored by the new film Hidden Figures, which looks absolutely amazing.

Further posts to come on combating violent extremism, women’s evolving roles in religious communities, and a new Qur’anic translation with notes on the Christian Bible!

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Religion News Association

Just a quick post to say that I’m at the Religion News Association annual meeting in Silver Springs, MD this week – if anyone else is here and wants to meet me IRL, please leave a comment or email me at askanislamicist at gmail dot com.

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On flossing

So I want to talk about flossing, not because I have very strong feelings about dental hygiene, but because there’s been some interesting developments in what we know about flossing in the last few weeks that I think serve as a good model for one of the biggest challenges in talking about scientific and scholarly knowledge.

I’ve talked before about how powerful conventional wisdom is – as humans, and especially as scholars, we like to believe that we approach each new question with fresh eyes, weighing up the evidence on both sides to come to a conclusion, but in reality, we measure new knowledge against what we already know.  It’s a particularly flawed system because the information we’re given when we’re younger is often oversimplified, if not flat-out false, and obviously the more we study a question, the more we should find out, so future information should always be better than past information.

Which brings me to flossing – we’ve been told for decades that flossing is ‘good for you,’ by which is generally meant that it reduces long-term plaque buildup on our teeth better than just brushing and regular dental screenings and cleanings.  A few weeks back, an Associated Press journalist ‘took down flossing’ (as Poynter puts it), publishing a lengthy review of available studies and a freedom of information request which revealed that the DHHS had actually quietly removed flossing from its recommendations.  The article even implies that the decision to remove flossing may have actually been the result of the FOIA (which the AP reported had submitted the previous year, citing that all DHHS guidelines need to be based on scientific evidence and requesting the evidence base for the flossing recommendation).  As news agencies tend to do, the story blew up in newspapers, talkshows, and online, with headlines bordering on just announcing, “EXTRA! EXTRA!  EVERYONE STOP FLOSSING IMMEDIATELY!”

The people who actually work in dental health then started responding, pointing out that clinical studies on flossing are difficult to execute because they rely on self-reporting and at-home treatments, which are always the weakest options for getting consistent results, and that any long-term study might actually violate the rules for human testing because if, after 20 years of telling a control group not to floss, it turns out that it did cause them to develop periodontitis, the study itself would be liable for their condition.  They also noted that there’s still sound logic for flossing, that it breaks up plaque formation on parts of the tooth not reached by brushing, and that the description of available evidence as “weak” and “very unreliable” by the Cochrane Library (the group that reviews scientific studies, whose analysis started this whole discussion) are precise, hierarchical categories used to describe and rank scientific studies, and that the repetition of these terms in news reporting about the Cochrane Library’s report are unrepresentative because the general public takes these terms to mean something different.

Now, to start with, there are a ton of things wrong with the current system for funding and reporting scientific studies, and a ton more in how the media reports scientific reports.  There’s a great primer on this from John Oliver’s show, and some more info specifically on how the media reports healthcare/nutritional information from Adam Ruins Everything.  But these issues don’t really explain why we believed in flossing or what we should do about it because, as any good scientist will tell you, science is incremental, and scientific studies only focus on one or a few specific aspects of a much bigger issue or question.

As someone who works in research administration, one of my jobs is writing and copy-editing scientific grants, and every grants I’ve ever worked on opened with something to the effect of, “____ is a huge public health threat in the US today,” often without even a citation at the end (insert the general topic under which this grant falls – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.).  I’m sure most studies on flossing read the same way – I’d bet most of them opened with the statement “regular flossing seriously reduces the risk of periodontist” and then went on to discuss some particular aspect of flossing that that study would test.  The big issue gets treated as an axiom – something assumed to be true for the sake of the argument which follows – but without anyone admitting that it’s axiomatically true, not evidentially true.

It’s important the general public understand the serious problems with the state of scientific research today, but I’d argue it’s just as important – if not more so – that we all understand just how limited we are in addressing these axioms.  Again, the debate about flossing hits most of the high points – on the one hand, we can use literature studies to highlight gaps in significant evidence, and on the other hand, we can use logic and anecdotal evidence to try to explain deductively why the axioms might be true, but both options are hindered by our natural predisposition towards conventional wisdom.

Literature studies are often rejected by the very fields they investigate because even scholars and scientists have problems overcoming the sway of conventional wisdom.  In the case of flossing, the Cochrane Library report dates from 2011, but obviously wasn’t widely circulated or reported on until this one journalist highlighted it five years later.  The responses to the AP article by dentists and other oral health experts all have more or less the same tone – the Cochrane Library findings are interesting, but not interesting enough to overcome my feeling (as an expert) that flossing works, and besides, the risk of us being wrong is too severe for us to even consider behaving differently.  But that’s not the scientific method – that’s intuition and habit, albeit intuition based on relevant personal experiences.

A similar debate has (very quietly) taken place across the last several decades about the efficacy of dieting and weight loss.  Literature studies dating back to the 1990s have suggested that long-term weight loss is just not possible, and these findings get revived every 5 to 10 years (like from UCLA and Melborne), and yet nothing could be farther from the message most of us hear about weight loss and health, not only from the media, but from the medical establishment, as well.  Why? Well, the six billion dollar dieting industry probably has something to do with it, but in responding to these studies, scientists often take the same tone as with flossing – this doesn’t feel true, and besides, the risk is too real if we change things.

The reliance on logic to bolster axioms goes hand-in-hand with the power of conventional wisdom.  Again, as humans, we often think of logic as an objective, self-regulating *thing* – that if something is logical, that means something about its realness that extends beyond our own perception.  However, logic is a system that we invented to try to systematize understanding things that aren’t easily perceived, like abstract concepts.  It’s still grounded in our perception, and it can vary greatly from person to person.  Indeed, if you listen to people argue, often the argument will boil down to both people stating their logic, and then getting angry that the other person doesn’t accept it or continues to believe their logic is a better fit.  That’s because logic isn’t abstract or objective – it’s based on what axioms we presume at the outset, what laws we lay out to work within.  If these axioms aren’t specified, or if we want to question the axioms themselves, the whole system breaks down.

To take the example of flossing, it may sound logical to say rubbing a piece of waxed filament between your teeth breaks up plaque formations, but it’s also logical to argue that since plaque forms first on a molecular level, using floss to break it up would be like using the side of a skyscraper to push a balled up piece of paper across a street.  Being able to formulate an argument that sounds logical to support an idea doesn’t make the idea true – that’s the very definition of a justification.

Unfortunately, there’s no real solution here, but at the very least, these issues about testing or understanding axioms demonstrate that how desperately we need new and better language for discussing scientific and scholarly findings.  We often talk about scientific findings as if they were the very definition of facts – indisputable, consistent, not open to interpretation or variation by perception, but that’s just not true.  All scientific ‘facts’ are based on some axiomatically thinking, and like with any logical proof, we need a way to go back to the start, lay out exactly what those axioms are, and discuss whether they are still sound and reasonable assumptions.  At the very least, we need a way to be able to identify them as assumptions.  In the short term, it’s probably fine to carry on flossing, but not if it means we all stop asking why exactly we’re doing it.

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Does Trump appeal to Evangelicals because they’re Evangelicals?

Sorry updates have been a bit sporadic – they will likely remain that way because … well, because my brain is pretty scattered at the moment and writing is hard.  My cross to bear and all that, I know.

Also, I know I say this during every election, but I really do try to keep this blog as apolitical (and internationally-focused) as possible, but the US election is inevitably big news, and religion always seems to play a major role in it.

I resisted commenting to Donald Trump’s or Ted Cruz’ ‘plans’ for American Muslims, mostly because I couldn’t formulate a better response than just a bunch of angry, high-pitched screeching, and if nothing else, it’s hard to transfer that to the written word without it losing some of its impact.  I guess I could have posted a vlog, but I don’t think I’m really to go that modern yet.

However, the current discussions online center on how and why Donald Trump has won over the religious right, and that’s a discussion I feel I can enter into with actual English words, instead of just guttural noises.

Samantha Bee gave a great monologue on the topic last week, and Cynthia Burack, a political scientist at Ohio State, wrote a followup for HuffPo speculating on how Trump support has developed within Christian right circles, noting that some of the same prophetic language is now being used for Trump as was for George W. Bush in 2000.

It’s an interest point of inquiry, but unfortunately Professor Burack can only provide a couple of examples of where this new Trump-is-prophesied language has shown up.  I would also argue that she’s a bit quick to dismiss Trump’s reference to “2 Corinthians” (for non-Christians, it’s supposed to be “second Corinthians,” as in “Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians”) as representing his lack of familiarity with the Bible – however, not because the slip-up alienated him from Evangelicals, but because actually, the internet is now full of Evangelicals defending him and lambasting ‘the mainstream media’ for making such a big deal of it.  The general theme of these defenses all seem to be the same – that while it’s weird that he called the book “2 Corinthians,” the important part is that he understood the importance of the verse he cited, that true freedom and liberty come from the Lord (and baptism in the Spirit).

It seems to me a fairly weak defense, especially as, from everything I can find online, Trump doesn’t believe in second baptism.  It seems just as reasonable to assume instead that he picked the verse because it has the word “liberty” in it (or “freedom,” depending on the translation) and he was speaking at Liberty University, and running for President of the Free World (sidenote: the rest of the world actually does find it both insulting and hilarious that we call ourselves that, so we might want to stop).  So he had his staff do a google search for “Bible liberty” and that’s what came up (case in point, the chapter as a whole is definitely not talking about “liberty” in the sense of individual freedom, but rather the freedom that comes with spiritual enlightenment, as the rest of it is all about reading and understanding the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament that were supposed to have been written by Moses).

The fact that Evangelicals feel the need to defend Trump’s mistake, however, as well as the slow emergence of prophetic language being used to endorse him reveals something about why these voters are supporting Trump, which Samantha Bee suggests at the very end of her segment, that they’re support isn’t necessarily tied to their religious identity. Indeed, I’d be inclined to ask the question – does Trump appeal to Evangelicals because they’re Evangelicals?

Along with Muslims worldwide, American Christian Evangelicals are one of the religious communities most often presented as defined exclusively by their religious identity.  In the case of American Evangelicals, it’s not hard to understand where this characterization comes from – they often go out of their way to support it.  Go on any Evangelical website, and you’ll find guidance on what’s the correct religious way for Evangelicals to date, eat, dress, celebrate holidays – basically implying that there’s a correct Christian way to do anything and everything.  The reality, however, is far more complicated because humans are far more complicated.  An Evangelical Christian may also be a parent, a professional, a sports fan, and a huge fan of the Grand Theft Auto series.  All of those things are going to affect their decision-making processes.  

The same goes for picking a candidate – that Evangelicals are supporting Trump doesn’t necessarily mean he’s done anything to resonate with their religious beliefs.  Throwing the odd Biblical reference into his speeches will probably help them to justify their support of him, but ultimately, there are a whole host of other options for why these people might be supporting this candidate that have nothing to do with their religious identity.

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Oppression Jousting: Why We Pit Minorities against Each Other

Carrying on from my last post, I want to talk some more about the ICM survey of “What Muslims Think” (in Britain).  First, it looks like the survey is no longer available on ICM’s website; however, I did find a cached version of the raw PDFs of the data here, for anyone who wants to check it out.  There’s also a good discussion of why pollsters pick limited sample sizes and how that skews results over on UK Polling Results.

The survey result that’s gotten the most attention by far is that more than half of respondents said that they disagreed with the statements, “homosexuality should be legal in the UK” and “gay marriage should be legal in the UK” (52% for the former and 56% for the latter).  While it’s certainly an interesting result, in some ways, it’s actually a more interesting question.  It’s one of very few ‘special interest’ questions that doesn’t have any obvious link to Islam or Muslims (there are, by comparison, no questions about inter-religious marriage, despite questions asking how the respondent feels about various religious communities, and a very lengthy section about their opinions on Judaism, which no one seems to be talking about, probably because it’s largely positive).  In a lot of the reporting about the survey, these questions are used to highlight that British Muslims are out of step with British public opinion more generally, but these are also the only questions that mention a specific political opinion, and follow directly after the statement “Britain is a country of bad moral behavior,” making it sound more like the questions on LGBT rights were meant to illustrate examples of Britain’s ‘bad moral behavior.’

Setting aside the issue of small and skewed sample sizes, it’s worth pointing out that by not supporting same-sex marriage, British Muslims are, at best, out of date with British public opinion.  Even as recently as 2004, polling in Britain showed only 52% support for same-sex marriages, and four years earlier, before the introduction of the Civil Partnerships Act, it was 50/50. So claiming that non-Muslim Brits love queer people or that supporting LGBT rights is somehow as characteristically British as tea and cricket is seriously rewriting history.

However, I think the inclusion of the questions about homosexuality in a survey focused on “what Muslims think” reveals a larger problem with how dominant communities address oppressed communities; namely, the tendency to want to pit them against each other in order to distract from the real source of their oppression.  As far as I know, there’s no general term for this, so I’m going to suggest “oppression jousting.”  It’s interesting that, in Britain’s case, it’s Muslims versus queer people, as there’s a similar current in American public opinion about LGBT rights, that people of color, and in particular African-Americans and Latinos, are more likely to be homophobic than the general population (a belief usually explained by citing the position of these communities’ dominant religions, in particular Catholicism and Southern Baptists).  Interestingly, polling has always struggled to back up this belief, but it’s still pretty commonly held.  The underlying claim seems to be that these communities are dragging down the average, so that the remaining population (and in particular, the white community) should be seen as less homophobic than polling or legal action would suggest.  

In addition to there being very little evidence to support oppression jousting as really making a statistically significantly difference in rates of prejudice for the population as a whole, focusing on the potential divisions between minorities is also a red herring if the ultimate goal is ending prejudice and establishing equality, as, by definition, minority communities have the least political power to apply to this problem.  Even if Britain wanted to focus all of its social and political efforts on ending homophobia in the British Muslim community, that would probably have very little effect on LGBT rights because the British Muslim community is already politically sidelined.

That’s not to say that it’s not worth addressing prejudice within minority communities – it’s worth addressing because prejudice is always worth addressing – but it’s not an effective use of resources to end oppression because the minority communities aren’t the ones doing the oppressing.  Indeed, in some ways, it’s particularly disappointing to see Britain falling prey to oppression jousting when it comes to LGBT rights because there are strong links between British imperialism and the rise of homophobia worldwide.  For better or worse, British imperialism remodeled many cultures’ views on gender and sexuality, including, in the case of many Muslim countries, creating a concept of government-regulated civil marriage.  Closer to home, although there have been Muslims living in Britain for centuries, it wasn’t British Muslims who passed the Buggery Act.  They weren’t the ones who executed men even as late as the 1860s for homosexuality.  They weren’t the ones who sent Oscar Wilde to jail, or chemically castrated Alan Turing.  Prejudice can come from anyone, but oppression can only come from positions of power, and that’s where we need to keep our focus – not on the knights on horseback, but on the king who’s making them fight.

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Survey shows dozens of Muslims think things we’re uncomfortable with!

The Wall Street Journal ran a headline a few days ago that was simply, “Britain’s Muslim Problem,” proving once and for all that the WSJ has be fully integrated into the Murdoch news machine, which is sad, but also a bit hilarious, as it clearly isn’t trying very hard to cover up its bias.

For example, the article starts by saying, “at least 800 British Muslims have left the country to wage jihad with Islamic State. Another 600 were caught trying to join the group.” Setting aside for a moment that it gives no citation for those numbers, that’s a total of 1400 people. The population of British Muslims is roughly 2.7M, as of the last census. That means that the WSJ is warning us that 0.052% of Muslims have been radicalized (which is approximately 0.013% of the total population of Britain). Even if they want to claim that this is an annual rate, that means that it would take 1,929 years for the entire population of Muslims to be radicalized, assuming the rate and population remain stable. Presumably by the time the entire Muslim population of Britain is radicalized, they’ll be ‘waging jihad’ over those shiny, aluminum jumpsuits we all wear in the future.

Unfortunately, startling statistics about 0.013% of the British population isn’t all they have. They’re also citing a survey conducted recently by ICM for a Channel 4 documentary, entitled “What Muslims really think,” to air later this month.

First, for the uninitiated – “documentary,” when attached to the words “Channel 4” doesn’t really mean what you’re thinking. Channel 4 is well-known for producing scandalizing documentaries, often exploiting minorities and vulnerable populations to do so, producing what often amount to modern-day freakshows. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the satirical version produced by That Mitchell and Webb Show a few years back, called “The Boy with an Arse for a Face” (trigger warning for language that would match something with that title). So that the survey is for Channel 4 is already not a vote in favor of its even-handedness. Moreover, the survey included only 1,047 respondents, and as several people have pointed out, focused on neighborhoods that had at least 20% Muslim population, which are also some of the poorest neighborhoods in Britain. The survey is corrected for socio-economic status, but only within the sample group, meaning they didn’t find additional respondents to balance out the difference, they just weighted the responses from the existing pool of middle and upper class participants more.

There’s a lot to talk about with the survey – most reporters have focused in on the result that half of the participants said that they did not support the legalization of homosexuality or of gay marriage, which I think I want to treat in a separate post – but I think one of the most overlooked aspects is the issue of sample size.

For example, the WJS notes that the survey found that “7% of respondents support the establishment of an Islamic state.” To start with, only 1% of respondents, or 12 people, said they would support “a fully-separate Islamic area in Britain, subject to Sharia Law and government.” Another 17% percent, or 187 people, supported integrating in some ways, but maintaining a Islamic lifestyle as much as possible. The overwhelming majority (49%, 532 people) said they would like to “fully integrate with non-Muslims in all aspects of life.” While that suggests that the majority support integration, we’re still only talking about the opinions of 1,047 people for a population of 2.7M (that’s 0.039%, for those playing along on our home game).

Survey sizes obviously have to be smaller than the full population, but when you get down to survey populations that small standing in for actual populations that large, it leads to the interjection of way too many alternative variables. For example, it’s entirely possible that all 12 of those people who claimed to support a Muslim state in Britain were far-right nutjobs pretending to be Muslims. You could easily convince 12 people to do that. Or they could all be from the same family, or have studied under the same Imam, or they could have all just made some weird pack to answer the survey in as extreme a manner as possible. When it’s only 12 people, there are just way too many other options for how those answers might have come about.

Plenty of other people have talked about the problem with humans’ difficulty in understanding the relationship between large numbers, but when it comes to population-wide observations, we really do need to train ourselves to see these things in context. A less than 0.1% sample size is just not significant, unless you can provide some really compelling evidence for how this cohort was assembled. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same as me just stopping people on the street, asking their opinion, and then claiming that that’s “what Americans think” or “what white people think.” It’s not just not informative, it’s actually mis-informative, because it’s presenting something essentially anecdotal as statistically significant.

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White Supremacy and Global Capital

Sort of related to what I was talking about earlier with regard to the wSieci cover, here’s a great discussion of how global capitalism has strengthened the far right and white supremacy in North America and Europe:

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