Tag Archives: cherry picking

The Bible And Ayn Rand

A few days ago, a commenter asked me to write something about Ayn Rand. Since I have opinions about lots of things (I know, you’ve noticed!) let me begin by suggesting that a lot of her “fans” haven’t really read her books, and those who have, read them rather selectively.

We used to call it “cherry picking.” Researchers now have a more scientific term: “Confirmation bias.” We tend to accept at face value information that is consistent with what we already believe, and to disregard more “inconvenient” facts.

We all do it, although most intellectually honest folks try not to. And that brings me to my favorite story about Ayn Rand and the Bible.

Several years ago, I was working with a colleague who had a contract with the State of Indiana to do some research; I no longer recall what it was about. (My participation was minor.) He came into my office after meeting with the head of the agency for whom he was doing the research, and he was practically doubled-over laughing: the agency head was an outspoken Republican conservative (this is Indiana, after all) and a proud devotee of Ayn Rand.

It seemed he’d given copies of Atlas Shrugged and the Bible to everyone on his middle-management staff, and told them they were the most important two books they’d ever read.

Ayn Rand, of course, was a strident atheist. It is impossible to read any of her books–and I’ve read all of them–without being hit over the head (over and over and over)by her absolutely un-biblical worldview. Her philosophy is the utter antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount, in particular.

I read Rand’s books when I was in college, and I am continually amused by the self-proclaimed Christians who claim to have been profoundly influenced by her writing. Assuming they really read her books, they must read them the same way they read their bibles: very selectively.

Both critics and fans of Ayn Rand read her without context. She had escaped at a young age from a grim, totalitarian communist society in which the collective took precedence over the individual, and she was (over) reacting to that experience.

That over-reaction wasn’t unusual. Most ideologues I’ve known have had a desperate need for bright lines–this is bad, so its opposite is good. Good guys versus evil-doers. No shades of gray, no ambiguities. Their need for clarity, for an open-and-shut, prescriptive philosophy is so strong that when they recognize that a belief system they’ve embraced is flawed in some way, they will frequently shift to its opposite, and cling to that philosophy just as fervently. (Ex-communists helped launch National Review, and Ronald Reagan started out as a New Deal Democrat.)

If you have a need for clarity, Rand will supply it. (The Bible won’t, despite the protestations of the culture warriors.)  And that brings us back to cherry picking.

The Christian conservatives devoted to Ayn Rand–the folks who drove around with “I am John Galt” bumper stickers, who equate taxation with theft and call people who depend upon the social safety net “looters”– somehow manage to miss the militant atheism as they read her books.

They read their bibles through a similarly selective lens. They are quick to quote Leviticus (“If a man lay with another man”) but somehow miss the far more numerous exhortations about helping the poor, the widow and the orphan. You’ll rarely hear them quote the bit about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

I think it was Simon and Garfunkel who wrote: “a man hears what he wants to hear,
and disregards the rest.”

Next time someone cites Ayn Rand to you, ask him (it’s likely to be a “he”) if he agrees that religion is a sop for weaklings, and there is no God. If that shocks him, you’ll know that Rand isn’t responsible for his worldview–she’s just a prop.

Cherry-Picking And The Rule Of Law

If we assume that humanity will survive into the future–and that there will indeed be future historians attempting to understand the decisions and assorted insanities of the particular era in which we find ourselves–they may well dub ours the “Age of Cherry-picking.”

Think about it: we increasingly choose to rely on information that confirms our preferred beliefs. We routinely dismiss evidence that is inconsistent with our prejudices, ignore realities that are inconvenient, and resist information that challenges our world-views.

I can just see those future historians trying to figure out why more of us didn’t call out the hypocrisies.

Think, for example, of that go-to bible verse cited most recently by Jeff Sessions–the one that supposedly instructs believers to follow even laws they dislike. That verse, which Sessions used to support the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, has  also been cited to support slavery and “the Southern way of life.”

Religious groups opposed to the policy found and cited their own biblical selections.

“The Bible teaches that God ‘loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt’ (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).”

Since Trump’s election, a casual review of Facebook posts hurling biblical quotes back and forth would suggest that Republican and Democratic Christians own very different versions of the Bible. (Not that the Bible should even enter into a discussion of civil law in a nation that separates Church and State…)

On the issue of immigration, until he was forced by public outrage to moderate the policy, Trump had insisted that his administration had no choice but to separate children from their parents, because it was “a law” and his administration enforces all the laws. 

Speaking of cherry-picking….

As Howard Gleckman recently wrote for Forbes,

Question: What does the Trump Administration’s policy decision to separate immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border have in common with its policy decision to refuse to enforce IRS curbs on church involvement in political campaigns?

Answer: Nothing.

As Gleckman noted, the administration’s insistence that the law required the separation of children from parents was somewhere between dubious and inaccurate.

But the Administration’s absolute claim that it must enforce laws, even if it disagrees with them, turns out to be somewhat…situational.

Twice in the last three weeks, in formal remarks, Vice President Mike Pence said the Administration would ignore another statute: The Johnson Amendment that bars 501(C)(3) non-profits, including houses of worship, from participating in political campaigns for, or against, a candidate.

Pence could have not been more explicit. Speaking to the Family Research Council on May 25, he said the Johnson Amendment “will no longer be enforced under this administration.” He repeated the vow in a speech to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention last week.

So let’s summarize the delusional state of “leadership” in our country, where the administration picks and chooses its realities:

  • The administration enforces all the laws except those Mike Pence’s Bible doesn’t agree with. (What First Amendment?)
  • The “scientists” relied upon by administration climate-change deniers are sure that the warnings of the other 97% of scientists are bogus.
  •  Larry Kudlow, the President’s current “economic advisor” plucked from Fox News, says the Republican tax bill is responsible for the (non-existent) decline of the deficit. (The deficit and the debt are actually exploding–but not, evidently, in Kudlow’s alternate reality.)
  • Spitting on our longtime allies and cozying up to our enemies is putting America First.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, and so it goes…..


My Study is More Reliable Than Your Study…

An online publication called “Journalists’ Resource” recently posted a really helpful article about academic studies.

By this time, most sentient beings understand that we live in a world ruled by confirmation bias: the process of cherry-picking data in order to confirm our pre-existing beliefs and prejudices. We all do it–us “good guys” as well as those who (since they disagree with us) are clearly wrong. And when we encounter an academic study that confirms our positions, we’re excited.

See? I was right!

For those of us who do try to seek out different perspectives, who make an effort to step back and be analytical and measured, credible research is important. The problem is, not all research is reliable, and relatively few people have the statistical and methodological skills to assess the credibility of a given study.

That’s why this article is so useful. It gives journalists–and by extension, the rest of us–a “map” for determining whether and to what extent a study’s conclusions are reliable.

This requires data literacy, some familiarity with statistical terms and a basic knowledge of hypothesis testing and construction of theories.

Journalists should also be well aware that most academic research contains careful qualifications about findings. The common complaint from scientists and social scientists is that news media tend to pump up findings and hype studies through catchy headlines, distorting public understanding. But landmark studies sometimes do no more than tighten the margin of error around a given measurement — not inherently flashy, but intriguing to an audience if explained with rich context and clear presentation.

The rest of the article is well worth reading; it lists the questions one should ask, defines scholarly terms, and provides context for figuring out what a particular study is really telling us. Or not.

Really helpful–assuming we are looking for information, and not just ammunition.


Holy Books

When I was in college, I read everything Ayn Rand wrote–and was immensely influenced by it.

The Cold War was still a reality, and Soviet communism was a genuine menace, ideologically and geopolitically. Rand’s books were a corrective (okay, an over-corrective) to the notion that the individual should live for the state, and her lack of balance was understandable coming as it did from someone who had escaped the Soviet Union when she was still a teenager.

Over the years, Rand’s books and philosophy took their place as one aspect of my own broader exploration of political philosophy. I still think they are a useful expression of  radical libertarianism, even though the demise of the Soviet Union and communism have made her work seem increasingly dated and shrill.

People can agree or disagree with Rand’s philosophy, but what has bemused me is the appropriation of bits and pieces of her writing in ways that I think would probably infuriate her. Case in point: the head of a state agency who told a colleague of mine that he required his employees to read two books for inspiration: Atlas Shrugged and the Bible. Ayn Rand, a committed atheist who considered religion a weakness, would have been appalled.

I also had to laugh at the rash of bumper stickers and letters to the editor a few years ago from people self-identifying with Rand’s hero, John Galt. Virtually all of them were arguing for government policies that would benefit businesses–tax breaks, subsidies, regulatory changes and the like. Most of their arguments echoed those of Rand’s villain, James Taggart–the sniveling parasite who embodied the corporate behaviors of which Rand disapproved–rather than the ideology of her (very unrealistic) protagonist.

As the current political season heats up, we are once again seeing references to Rand–Eric Cantor, the architect of the GOP budget is said to be deeply influenced by her philosophy, and left-wing bloggers mutter darkly about her evil and pervasive influence–and I can’t help seeing parallels between the way people read Rand’s books and the way they read the bible or the Koran or the Constitution–which is to say, very selectively.

Homophobes point to three or four passages in the Christian bible to justify marginalization of gays. Anti-Muslim bigots point to isolated passages of the Koran to paint all of Islam with a broad, terrorist brush. People who don’t like the implications of government’s obligation to treat citizens equally and their belief systems neutrally use isolated provisions to justify revisionist interpretations. Those on the other side of the philosophical fence respond with their own cherry-picking.

Ayn Rand, like those who wrote our Constitution and other “holy books,” was a product of a particular time and place. In her case, she was reacting against a repressive, totalitarian regime. She really can’t be faulted for failing to recognize the threat posed by a radical individualism that didn’t exist in her world, just as Karl Marx can’t be faulted for failing to recognize the dangers of the communist revolution he was promoting.

Ideally, we should all read widely–Rand and Marx, bible and Koran. But if we can’t read widely, at least we should read carefully.

I think about that every time I encounter a “bible-believing” Christian who identifies with Ayn Rand.