Saturday, November 28, 2015

George W. Porter's 10 Laws

Posted by Gary Berg-Cross

As part of Aron Porter's Eulogy for his father George W. Porter, co-founder of WASH, he listed the 10 Porter Laws. In the spirit of Martha C. Nussbaum's 

The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy they seem like a bit of a life's wisdom honed down to simple, digestible statements that readers of this blog might enjoy.

  1. At any given moment, 90% of the people in the world are goofing off.
  2. At least half the work accomplished is ultimately undone.
  3. Nobody really knows what the hell is going on.
  4. Assumption is the mother of disaster.
  5. What a person gets and what a person deserves are two different things.
  6. The garbage always needs taking out.
  7. Unusual weather is quite common.
  8. Exaggeration is the body of wit.
  9. There is no simple life; you can only hope for interesting complications.
  10. There is always one more thing.

Sam Harris argues bad religion should be blamed

By Mathew Goldstein

Interesting interview of Sam Harris by Sean Illing in Salon magazine. Sam Harris shares his insights regarding recent events including Islam, religion, and Daesh, Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, and GOP madness, Greenwald, Aslan, Kristof, Chomsky, and regressive leftism, and more. He also sharply criticized Salon magazine for irresponsibly publishing false attacks against him that Salon magazine redacted but can be read here on his blog.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Channeling Robert Ingersoll for Thanksgiving

by Gary Berg-Cross

Another Thanksgiving week and millions of us will be surrounded by family and old times feeling as peruse the bounty of turkey, stuffing with gravy and cranberries to the limit. Sure there are things to be thankful for and among the nonreligious moments of thanks, aka  “secular grace” grows in popularity among , humanists, agnostics, freethinkers and that group now called “nones.”
In  1897 Robert Ingersoll, ak a  “the Great Agnostic,” gave what he callled  “Thanksgiving Sermon.” Turning from the divine he instead asked who should be thanked.  He found real groups of people - scientists, artists, statesmen, mothers, fathers, poets in contrast to religious organizations and their operatives.. He found plenty of things to be thankful for starting with the long rise from savagery to civilization. 

"Looking back over the long and devious roads that lie between the barbarism of the past and the civilization of to-day, thinking of the centuries that rolled like waves between these distant shores, we can form some idea of what our fathers suffered — of the mistakes they made — some idea of their ignorance, their stupidity — and some idea of their sense, their goodness, their heroism.

It is a long road from the savage to the scientist — from a den to a mansion — from leaves to clothes — from a flickering rush to the arc-light — from a hammer of stone to the modern mill — a long distance from the pipe of Pan to the violin — to the orchestra — from a floating log to the steamship — from a sickle to a reaper — from a flail to a threshing machine — from a crooked stick to a plow — from a spinning wheel to a spinning jenny — from a hand loom to a Jacquard — a Jacquard that weaves fair forms and wondrous flowers beyond Arachne’s utmost dream — from a few hieroglyphics on the skins of beasts — on bricks of clay — to a printing press, to a library — a long distance from the messenger, traveling on foot, to the electric spark — from knives and tools of stone to those of steel — a long distance from sand to telescopes — from echo to the phonograph, the phonograph that buries in indented lines and dots the sounds of living speech, and then gives back to life the very words and voices of the dead — a long way from the trumpet to the telephone, the telephone that transports speech as swift as thought and drops the words, perfect as minted coins, in listening ears — a long way from a fallen tree to the suspension bridge — from the dried sinews of beasts to the cables of steel — from the oar to the propeller — from the sling to the rifle — from the catapult to the cannon — a long distance from revenge to law — from the club to the Legislature — from slavery to freedom — from appearance to fact — from fear to reason."

Here are some more of the ideas from the sermon as well as other of Ingersoll's notable quotes that may satisfy the secular senses at this time of the year.

I thank the honest men and women who have expressed their sincere thoughts, who have been true to themselves and have preserved the veracity of their souls.

I thank the thinkers of Greece and Rome, Zeno and Epicurus, Cicero and Lucretius. I thank Bruno, the bravest, and Spinoza, the subtlest of men.

I thank Voltaire, whose thought lighted a flame in the brain of man, unlocked the doors of superstition’s cells and gave liberty to many millions of his fellow-men. Voltaire — a name that sheds light. Voltaire — a star that superstition’s darkness cannot quench.

I thank the great poets — the dramatists. I thank Homer and Aeschylus, and I thank Shakespeare above them all. I thank Burns for the heart-throbs he changed into songs, for his lyrics of flame. I thank Shelley for his Skylark, Keats for his Grecian Urn and Byron for his Prisoner of Chillon. I thank the great novelists. I thank the great sculptors. I thank the unknown man who moulded and chiseled the Venus de Milo. I thank the great painters. I thank Rembrandt and Corot. I thank all who have adorned, enriched and ennobled life — all who have created the great, the noble, the heroic and artistic ideals.

I thank the statesmen who have preserved the rights of man. I thank Paine whose genius sowed the seeds of independence in the hearts of ’76. I thank Jefferson whose mighty words for liberty have made the circuit of the globe. I thank the founders, the defenders, the saviors of the Republic. I thank Ericsson, the greatest mechanic of his century, for the monitor. I thank Lincoln for the Proclamation. I thank Grant for his victories and the vast host that fought for the right, — for the freedom of man. I thank them all — the living and the dead.

I thank the great scientists — those who have reached the foundation, the bed-rock — who have built upon facts — the great scientists, in whose presence theologians look silly and feel malicious...."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Experiencing the Plight of Refugees

By Gary Berg-Cross
When did refugees become terrorists? Or at least some are like "rabid dogs" - see Ben Carson talks of 'rabid dogs': US refugee debate descends into ugliness.

To say the least the idea of letting scores of Middle eastern (think Syrian, no think Muslim refugees) into the US has stirred up nationalist and xenophobic  emotions. It doesn't help that there are politics and religion involved at times too. Consider:

GOP Politicians Rejecting Refugees Sound Like Racist Internet Trolls (RollingStone) or

Data Show Links Between Fear of Terrorist Attacks, Anti-Muslim Bias

Hate crimes against Muslims are up this year, despite a general trend downward for all such crimes. (US News and World Report) or

What the Republicans now rejecting Syrian refugees would have said about Jews a century ago. (Haaretz)

Sure there is some fact checking such US News’ 8 Facts About the U.S. Program to Resettle Syrian Refugees (or the Guardian) where we  learn such things as “refugees have to pay back the money for the plane ticket that brings them to the U.S and how “Refugees are subject to Department of Homeland Security background checks before arriving in the U.S.Checks to enter take 18-24 months and include the collection of biometric data, security checks, interviews and background investigations, but also “Refugees are processed in conjunction with nine nonprofits, not solely by the government.” (and there is even more at Vox on how few Syrian refugees have been allowed in.)

On the USNews site you can see where refugees since 2011 have bee settled – 25 are in Baltimore, while 115 are in Houtson.
Since a Syrian passport was reportedly found near one of the assailants in the Paris terror attacks there is heightened fears that Islamic State group terrorists could or are exploit(ing) refugee routes and resettlement programs as a way to prepare for later attacks. And on Thursday, the House passed a bill that would impose additional security measures on refugees from Syria and Iraq. But...

You can read critical articles like “The Big Logical Error Made By Everyone Linking Syrian Refugees To The Paris Attack” which asserts “All the perpetrators of the mass murder in Paris who have been identified are European nationals from France and Belgium.”

The Washington Post added that a passport was found near the slain body of one of the terrorists. It was issued to Ahmad Almohammad, a 25-year-old Syrian national, by officials in Greece on October 4. He had arrived a day earlier on a boat carrying migrants from Turkey. Some view this as evidence that one of the terrorists was a refugee. Authorities, however, have determined that the passport is fake. On Tuesday, November 17, Syrian officials arrested another man at a refugee camp who carried a forged passport with the exact same information. It is now unclear if he is involved in the case.
                                      From inquisitr

It seems unlikely that facts alone may not be determinative with this type of group concern meets a panic reaction for a while. Given political campaigns we are more likely to hear stagements from Republican presidential candidates like Chris Christie who has said his state will not take in any refugees – “not even orphans under the age of five”. Or Carlie Fiorina says 'vast majority' of Syrian refugees are able bodied young men. (Boo says Politifacat)

But perhaps getting a more personal experience with what refugees experience might provide a richer, human experience. Just last year a movie dramatizing the experience of the Lost Boys of Sudan provides one such theatrical experience that on what US resettlement is like and what some refugees go through before, during and after resettlement. This includes the chill imposed by 9/11 and the plight of families trying to reunite during a freeze in immigration. The story has a Christian immigrant view of things, but the experience is more general given who the real life actors are.

Orphaned by the brutal Civil war in Sudan that began in 1983, these young victims traveled as many as a thousand miles on foot in search of safety. Fifteen years later, a humanitarian effort would bring 3600 lost boys and girls to America

The main characters are played by actual refugees—two of whom we learn were child soldiers.  They are the focus with” uninflected, authoritative performances.” compensate for the feel-good simplifications of (the) script.  

If you want to feel a bit of what child refugees got through in war, what it is like to be torn from family and culture you can watch this movie and along the way learn a bit about a connection to Mark Twain via Huck Finn explain the nature of a Good Lie.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Remembering Freethinkers and Secular Humanist Lives

by Gary Berg-Cross
One of the 5 founders of WASH died in August, 2015. It got me thinking about how to celebrate a freethinker’s life and what we learn from the lives of people deep into the values of Secular Humanism and a reason-based life. So I looked up a few of the reflections people have made on a few of them and some their own thoughtful expressions
A starting point for me was a childhood influence, Bertrand Russell, describe in and OBIT as:
“Philosopher, mathematician, academic, and campaigner for intellectual, social and sexual freedom, and peace and disarmament, Russell was a prominent atheist. He wrote about his worldview in Why I am Not a Christian, and was a member of the British Humanist Association’s Standing Advisory Council, as well as President of Cardiff Humanists, until his death.”
When the NY Times wrote at length on his passing they included this:
Unlike some generative thinkers, Russell epitomized the philosopher as a public figure. He was the Voltaire of his time, but lacking in the Sage of Fernay's malice. From the beginning to the end of his active life, Russell engaged himself with faunlike zest in the great issues of the day-- pacifism, rights for women, civil liberty, trial marriage, new methods of education, Communism, the nuclear peril and war and peace-- for he was at bottom a moralist and a humanist. He set forth his views on moral and ethical matters in such limpidly written books as "Marriage and Morals," "Education and the Social Order" and "Human Society in Ethics and Politics."
Russell like others mentioned here helped build useful organizations and they often contributed in multiple areas as Renaissance people - philosophers, natural philosophers (scientists), intellectuals and writers.  They are thus remembered also in their own words on topics they held forth on important topics such as in  the quote from BR below:

A 2nd such poymathic person, also from my childhood, was Isaac Asimov.
On his passing STEVE ALLEN wrote this still relevant observation noting the avoidance of his humanistic and atheistic stance in some OBITs. Mainstream culture often values things differently than the innovator does.
 A Tribute to Isaac Asimov
It is interesting that even so prominent a newspaper as the Los Angeles Times, in running a long and complimentary obituary story, one that started on the first page, referred to Isaac Asimov as a “science fiction virtuoso” and made no mention of his achievements as humanist thinker and writer.

I have the impression that the Times intended no slight whatsoever to the humanist movement in this matter but that its lack of reference to something so important to Asimov himself is an indicator of the general lack of attention paid to humanist philosophy by the American mainstream mindset. Indeed it has occurred to me that if it were not for daily attacks by right-wing fundamentalists, who are given to using the term secular humanist as they might use the phrase Satan or Communist, the non-theistic humanist movement would get almost no publicity at all

More friendly was this letter on his personality:

Isaac Asimov was not merely a great and prolific writer, but also a very funny and warm and friendly man ("Isaac Asimov, Science Fiction Virtuoso, Dies, April 7). He was always bubbling over with the most amazing wit and had more energy than any three normal men his age together. No matter how deeply involved he might be in some project or how pressed by some publishing deadline, he always enjoyed giving generously of his time and experience to help and encourage young writers of promise.
The media attention following his death was on his amazing output of publications and their influence. But for those of us who knew him, his written work is dwarfed by the challenge of his personality. Just to know him was to become a deeper and wiser person. BEN A. TUPPER Ramona
More recent is the memory of Carl Sagan. Joel Achenbach provided a tribute to him in THE SAGAN FILE which included this characterization of something familiar but something remarkably balanced by cosmological perspective. Freethinkers require many adjectives:
 He was your basic progressive liberal, a college professor, a peace advocate. But he saw our human obsessions as trivial in the grand scheme of things. The universe isn’t about us, he would say. He railed against human arrogance, against “our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe.”
And yet the voice in the file is that of a person who liked human beings, who rooted for them. Perhaps because Sagan had seen so many desert worlds out there in our solar system, so many cold, airless, sterile planets and moons, he appreciated the one place where we know life has proliferated, and where intelligence has somehow appeared.
   And much more recently, but just as complex we have the life and remembrance    of Christopher Hitchens.  The AHA remembrance started with:

Humanists and atheists are saddened by the death of the prolific writer and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, who died Thursday, December 15 at the age of 62...
“Humanity has lost a powerful stalwart for atheism,”

We feel a deep lose when the person has made us think and feel deeply and made us proud to be of the human species.

 On Saturday November 21, 2015 from 10:45 AM to 12:45 PM at the Wheaton Public Library, 11701 Georgia Ave., Wheaton, MD WASH will  remember another Secular Humanist Life  -George Porter on of the five founders of WASH.

Speakers include:

Fred Edwords (former AHA Director & former national director of the United Coalition of Reason) will moderate and our speakers include:
Ron Lindsay (president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry)
Rob Boston (Director of Communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Editor of Church & State magazine)
Stuart Jordan (past WASH President, emeritus senior staff scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, past President of ISHV, served as Science Advisor to the Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy.)
Ken Marsalek (WASH Cofounder, 6 years as early WASH president, coauthor of WASH bylaws, early WASH Board member)
Pete Lines WASH Cofounder, coauthor of WASH bylaws, early WASH Board member, secretary and treasurer) 
Bill Creasy (WASH Board member and Baltimore Chapter coordinator for 16 years, 6 years as WASH president, current WASH secretary)
Mike Reid Reid (WASH Board member for 10 years, editor of WASHline for 6 years, WASH president for 5 years.) 
Aaron Porter (son of George & Lois Porter, musician, and administrator for the Navy Band in Washington, DC)

There will be a small reception afterwards.

Please come and honor George Porter's  Secular Humanist Life as people who knew and loved him reflect on his life and contributions.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A response to an argument that atheism is unreasonable

By Mathew Goldstein
A recent opinion article in the University of Louisiana student newspaper titled Atheism is Unreasonable defends the Catholic "knowledge of God by revelation" as enabling "understandings about the perfection of man and the universe, the origins of morality and the role of things such as ethics, science and so on."   It is a brief article, citing Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas as the philosophers to follow, and speaks mostly in generalities.  Yet the content expresses perspectives that are common among theists and makes a good basis for a discussion to explain the atheist perspective, which the author of that article does not appear to understand well.  So here follows a criticism of that theist perspective from an atheist perspective.
The author of the article says that contemporary philosophy has gone astray because by rejecting God it fails to answer the why questions.  She says "This is unreasonable because as rational creatures, we desire to know why."  Since "we see cause and effect in our world all the time. Why wouldn’t there be cause and effect for our existence or regarding morality and virtues? And isn’t it reasonable that God would reveal Himself to us and help us understand these things and our purpose?"  Atheists, she says, dispute "fundamentalist arguments" but Catholicism (unlike most other Christian denominations) "isn't fundamentalistic."
Because we desire to know why, it does not follow that why questions have an answer that is distinct from the answer to the corresponding how questions.  It is improper to start with an a-priori assumption that the universe is about us when trying to understand how the universe functions.  Addressing our desires on the one hand, and understanding how the universe functions on the other hand, are different goals.  We do not get to create the universe according to our desires, we are merely born into the universe such as is it.  Atheists recognize this distinction, theists too often do not.
The centrality of cause and effect is evidence that our universe is mechanical, physical, and material. A hypothetical God could transcend the mechanical, physical, and material. There is no good evidence for such divine intervention, which is a major problem for theism. All of the explanations that we uncover remain within the constraints imposed by naturalism.  Biological evolution, abiogenesis, chemistry, and physics, appear to be sufficient to explain our existence and to explain both our commitments to, and lack of commitments to, morality and virtues.  As for the "why not nothing?" question, we have no definitive answer.  But we can speculate that nothingness may be a fictional condition because a nothingness condition in the universe is unstable according to quantum mechanics.
The non-evidenced, a-priori assumption by many theists that absolute nothingness is the initial cosmic condition illustrates the disagreement between theists and atheists.  For atheists, following the empirical evidence and modeling the universe on a best fit with empirical evidence is the best we can do in our effort to understand how the universe functions.  There is nothing beyond the empirical evidence that gets us to non-fiction.  Not faith, not logic, not reason, not intuition, not desire, not first principle, not metaphysics, not Aristotle nor St Thomas Aquinas, not the Christian bible nor the Catholic Church, not best fit with cosmic meaningfulness nor purposefulness, nothing.  When we use logic and reason, as we all must, we must apply it to, and anchor it in, the empirical evidence.  When it really matters, as when our own physical welfare is immediately at stake, for example when driving a car, or walking near cliffs, or walking near walls, everyone respects the empirical evidence.  There is no good reason to abandon that uniquely successful strategy when the stakes are lower, such as when evaluating the veracity of supposedly holy books.
Since we are not all knowing or all present it is unsurprising that there are questions we are unable to answer.  Full stop.  We do not pretend to find answers by looking "beyond the physical" or by accepting the answers provided by any metaphysical philosophers who died before the germ theory of disease became general knowledge. We do not do that because we know, from the history of humanity, that methods of determining how the universe functions that are not rooted in best fit with the empirical evidence produce fiction.  Given that the available empirical evidence indicates that nothingness is an unstable condition, unless one day additional evidence is uncovered that says something more, that is literally the best answer we have to the question why there is something instead of nothing.
Arguments that Catholicism, or any other religion, or any metaphysical philosopher from the past, are the best sources for ultimate knowledge regarding how the universe functions, including "knowledge of God by revelation" that enables "understandings about the perfection of man and the universe, the origins of morality and the role of things such as ethics, science and so on" are unimpressive.  Metaphysical naturalism, a.k.a. atheism, is more reasonable because it fits better overall with the available empirical evidence.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Selectivity of NYC charter schools

Edd Doerr notes that this excellent  letter by Martin Brahms was published in the NY Post on 11/13/15

Brahms is a NY writer who frequently gets letters published in NY papers. I wish more of us would take advantage of this medium of communication. It is one cheap way of engaging on issues of importance and hopefully influencing opinion. (I have had several thousand letters published in papers and magazines across the country.over the years.) 

Dear Editor
Although the Post may deny it, the selectivity of NYC charter schools is well-established. Their student populations contain a far lower percentage of children with learning disabilities or who cannot speak English than do the regular public schools. Disruptive students are quickly expelled and kids who cannot cut it academically are  routinely "counseled out" to become the responsibility of the "failing" public school system.  It is also no secret that the vaunted charter school "lotteries" draw in kids from stable families who are more committed to their children's education rather than kids from dysfunctional family backgrounds.

Martin Brahms
Brooklyn, N.Y. 

BTW for an earlier comment on one of Marlin's letters see Charter Schools 
See also 

Pauvre, Pauvre NYC Charter Schools?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?

Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, by Mercedes K. Schneider. Teachers College Press, 2015, 245 pp,  $29.95 was reviewed by Edd Doerr.

A “common core” of K-12 education in math and reading sounds like a good idea on the  surface, given the complexity and mobility of our society, but the controversial “Common Core State Standards” system (Common Core or CCSS for short) that started off late during the Bush administration is nothing so simple. Mercedes  Schneider, a veteran public school teacher and author of the important 2014 book, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education  (which  I reviewed in Voice of Reason No. 128 at, traces the development and “selling” of Common Core in this well-researched, carefully documented report on the who, how and why of this  little understood movement in the schools that serve nearly 90% of our nation’s kids. This book is essential to understanding what is happening in American public education today.

Now, to get to the heart of the matter, let’s all too briefly summarize Schneider’s opus, quoting the author. “CCSS is a hurriedly produced product intended to impose high-stakes outcomes onto those without power over it. In general, CCSS is not owned and valued by those  required to institute it – current American public school teachers and administrators nationwide. This alone makes CCSS destined to fail.” Common Core grew out of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” with its “dependence on high-stakes testing outcomes to ‘prove’ that education was occurring – or else.” CCSS was largely pushed by big-money entrepreneurs and so-called “reformers” with little actual connection to teaching, including such conservative school-voucher-promoting outfits as the Fordham Institute,  headed by one Chester Finn, appointed in 2015 to the Maryland state board of education by Republican governor Larry Hogan. (Years ago Finn was a speaker at a Catholic University conference on vouchers; I was there and heard him declare that he was “ashamed to be a Jew” because the main Jewish organizations opposed vouchers; a prominent rabbi in the audience responded appropriately.)

Schneider explains that two groups, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, got “their unsuspecting state education systems” to commit to “what would be a set of inflexible standards tied to punitive assessments,” a set-up that “did not emerge from teacher practitioners and other education stakeholders.” And all this before the CCSS had actually been created. She shows that the CCSS was never field-tested before being foisted on the states by the federal government.  She concludes that “In the name of educating children, profitability assumed center stage – an exploitation that is indeed tragic for its corporate-serving end.” Then: “Those who love and respect the locally controlled American classroom  -- and resist its takeover by profiteers or by right-minded but misguided nonprofits who, for funds received, must produce studies, plans, influence, and results – need not despair.”

Schneider’s conclusions are worth citing. “We  need to put an end to policies and programs that betray our vulnerability for worshipping standardized test scores. Test-centric education allows for incredible scapegoating and profiteering even as it bankrupts our children’s education experience.” And: “A second lesson is that CCSS is principally the creation of those outside of the K-12 classroom. . . . There was no piloting of CCSS, and this incredible oversight continues to be excused by CCSS promoters. . . . [It] reduces public education to a dollar sign.”

The emphasis on endless testing in just two subjects tends to stifle other subjects, such as social studies, the arts, phys ed, languages, etc. Note that the respected 2015 Gallup education poll showed that fully 67% of Americans polled agree.

A short review  cannot do justice to this powerful, important, 5-star book. It needs to be purchased and read by everyone who cares about the future of education in our country.

For a 2014  interview with Mercedes K. Schneider see 

Bill Gates and the Push to Privatize Public Education

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Personal and Social Knowledge

by Gary Berg-Cross
The topic of personal versus social knowledge came up the other day in a group conversation that I was more or less part of.  The particular spark was a Pew poll that suggested the American public is becoming less religious.  As one can see from the lead paragraph the actual results are a bit nuanced:
..the Pew Research Center study also finds a great deal of stability in the U.S. religious landscape. The recent decrease in religious beliefs and behaviors is largely attributable to the “nones” – the growing minority of Americans, particularly in the Millennial generation, who say they do not belong to any organized faith. Among the roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults who do claim a religion, there has been no discernible drop in most measures of religious commitment. ....
The share of U.S. adults who say they believe in God, while still remarkably high by comparison with other advanced industrial countries, has declined modestly, from approximately 92% to 89%, since Pew Research Center conducted its first Landscape Study in 2007

But the way the group conversation went was a bit skeptical of the trend and wondered if Pew survey methods (as compared to Gallup for example), say just using landline phones as some claimed might be a reason to doubt the results. 
I did a quick search during the discussion to find that Pew uses a variety of methods but just point out that in general only 1 in 10 people contacted responds to their surveys.  
The group’s skepticism is not isolated.  RELIGION DISPATCHES, for example, argued that there are serious differences the way questions are argued that the religion-science conflict question (Generally, do you think science and religion are often in conflict?”) locked respondents into:
“ a specific formulation of concepts. “Religion” and “science,” as we mentioned earlier, can point to a very wide range of traditions, activities, and groups of people. ‘Conflict’ here could refer to a fundamental epistemological incompatibility between religion and science, or to secondary social tensions between dogmatists on one or both sides. Or it could refer to some combination of both. Asked whether science and religion are, “often in conflict” or, “mostly compatible,” the poll participant has to collapse any such nuances and pigeonhole their beliefs into one side of a binary.
It is true that surveys are based on respondent’s individual interpretations and the phrasing in different surveys is important to understand, but for many important topics group or social surveys provide important insights into topics that individual may not have due to a lack of one’s own knowledge, experience or existing biases.
There’s something to be said and maybe much to be said for personal knowledge via experience of something the witness actually saw or heard.  There is something attractive in the strong individual sense that appeals to conservative thinking of self sufficiency. It may be especially valuable if it is reflected experience and tested over time.  

Personal knowledge looked upon this way can be distinguished from what we learn from some other person or source.  In a way this was part of the experience of the Renaissance and more so the Enlightenment.  But only part, because the social aspect of knowledge is extreme important. Science is a social activity carried out by the community of scientists using methods agreed upon by that community’s cumulative experience over time. In Science the acceptance or rejection of the evidence submitted to must be carefully weighed.

Knowledge in the personal sense has to do with being familiar with something.  You can argue that  in order to know the color blue, one must have experienced blue; in order to know fear, one must have experienced it. And gather knowledge by acquaintance.

But much of the world reality is beyond my ability to directly experience it.  What do people believe about the existence of God, or the wealth needed to make one in the top 1% of people in the US?  These are social facts that I don’t experience directly but rely on faithful methods to produce a sharable “fact.” To the extent that I believe in the method by which such facts are gathered I may accept the sharing of them.  It’s an example of social knowledge and when you think of it, much of what we think of as our personal knowledge was been acquired in this social, shared way.

The distinction between personal knowledge and shared knowledge can be summarized by the difference between talking about what ‘I know’ and what ‘we know’. What we as a group know builds a sense of community and makes our relationships last.

In a democracy what we know together is important as are conversations about what we know and believe. And real conversations in political times can be challenging. The prejudices that surround them are so inveterate, that it is impossible to do them justice without entering into considerable detail and nuance, as was touched on in the Pew Survey results. And hearing 2 or more sides of an issue is hard enough in normal circumstances but becomes more difficult has emotional investment rises along with competing facts and interpretations.  You can get on fact checker sites to help but that doesn’t work with all issues and one thing I’ve heard from time to time is argument from “personal experience” that backhands away supposed facts such as from survey and statistical analysis.  I think that it is a mistake and would rob us of a variety of shared knowledge such as historical facts together with historical interpretations that comprise community knowledge over time.

It is also true of economic facts, such as unemployment rates.  Sure I and my neighbors may be employed but what is happening in Baltimore.  I rely on others to understand and report this. Economic topics are varied and vast so the evidence concerning them is varied, but just relying on direct, personal experience doesn’t get us through the problems of knowing.