Saturday, December 15, 2012

Problems of Implementing Rationality: Not Respecting Superstitions

In my last post I mentioned that we might see a guest appearance from Mike of The Lucky Atheist, so without further ado, here it is. He expands on the ideas presented here in this post on his own blog.

Thanks to Tim for letting me guest post. Here I'm posting about a particular problem of actually implementing rationality in your life. If this particular thought has crossed your mind before, I discuss a few others at my own blog, The Lucky Atheist.

Atheism is one outcome of applying more rational thinking to everything in our lives. But humans are not pure rational creatures, and even though some of us see the practical, real benefits of applying good rationality habits to our own thinking, and trying to help others see those same benefits, there are coordination problems. We're not lone hunter-gatherers in the savannah, problem-solving our way to evading big cats or treating infections. Quite the contrary, the vast majority of your happiness and material well-being depends on other human beings, many of whom are irrational as all get-out! So the problem is how does an erstwhile rationalist optimize outcomes for her or himself, without being out of sync with the irrational human beings around them? (I call optimizing for the near-term for purposes of coordinating with irrational people "sub-rationality".)

Maybe the best example is how to handle particular superstitions. What if people that you depend on for a paycheck (or something) believe, or claim to believe, in God, or fan death, or the evils of vaccinations? What do you do?
  1. Tell/show them why they're wrong.
  2. Keep your mouth shut.
  3. Say or do something to show loyalty to the idea even though you know it's BS.
To optimize your own outcome in the near term, it seems #2 or #3 should be the way to go; pay lip service to it or at least don't object, while not actually making decisions based on the belief. #1's risk ostracism, and even if convincing people of their folly is the goal, they may not even accomplish this. Granted, this may be a slippery slope, but it doesn't make the problems of implementing rationality disappear, and I'm posting these to look for solutions.

One problem is that if you do #1, and the superstition involves bad fortune, and something does happen to you, you know that superstitious people will all point to the superstition. "He walked under a ladder and got really sick that week. Well of course!" More generally though, it occurs in situations like these: you're hiking, and you knew damn well doesn't matter which trail you take, or you're working on some project and you know it doesn't matter which tool you use, which way you cook something, etc. But someone who thought s/he knew better (boss, friend, teacher, etc.) insisted that one of the two ways was superior. And you thought to yourself, "I have equal chances of success at this task with either method. And if I choose the method that the other person claims is inferior, and I fail, I will never ever hear the end of it. Since it doesn't matter, I'll just choose the method they prefer and be done with it." Rational in the near-term, but you just reinforced someone else's irrational belief about the task at hand.

Another point here is that of the three courses of action in the face of others' collective irrational beliefs, it seems that many or most of the #2's and 3's, i.e. people who don't object or even appear to go along with Superstition X, actually don't endorse it with their behavior, and in fact this often appears to be exactly the case. Do supposedly creationist Christians expect their insurance companies to give them a discount because more people are praying for them? Do they refuse to go to doctors trained in evolution? Do they refuse to invest their retirement money with mutual funds that buy shares of oil companies that operate based on secular old-Earth assumptions? (No doubt many of them do think they believe what they say they believe, but I'm sure there are plenty professing creationists who know it's nonsense and just like the benefits afforded by their church membership.)

The problem is that while you're optimizing for yourself in the near-term – and you really are – you're reinforcing the nonsense. Someone else who sees you mouthing the superstition in question thinks to him or herself, "Well, I better go along with it, because she just did too – and who am I to say it's not actually true?" Case in point: just last week I mentioned the difficulty with treating a patient who was ardently pro-homeopathy. The nurse sternly told me that so was she. (This, at UCSD!!!) Do you think I took this opportunity to lecture her on her irrationality? No. I'm a medical student, so I'm the lowest in the hierarchy anywhere I go. Not only would my #1 have not been received, I would have decreased my own utility in the process. So I did #2. Justification for my sub-rationality? So I can do a #1 when I'm an attending physician.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

San Diego New Atheists & Agnostics Meetups

Over the past few weeks I've been to a couple of events hosted by the group San Diego New Atheists and Agnostics. One was earlier this evening: an informal five-on-five soccer match for which I was tragically unprepared. My lack of endurance running ability aside, though, I had a great time.

Nonbelievers of all stripes showed up, but what struck me about the meetup was how little about nonbelief it was. We had a short chat, warmed up a bit, and got right down to playing. In other contexts it might have been nice to talk at length about our common views on religion and theism. But in a way it was refreshing to see us come together, get some exercise and have some fun without having to frame it in terms of belief or lack thereof.

You can read a summary of the other event, a presentation by Secular Coalition for America's executive director Edwina Rogers, in my guest post over at The Lucky Atheist. I've written a bit about this blog before, but to summarize, Mike Caton runs the only other active San Diego-based atheist/skeptic blog that I'm aware of, and he puts out good stuff. Hopefully we'll see a guest post from Mike over here at some point in the near future.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Electoral Prediction and Cognitive Bias

Over the past couple of weeks, a startling number of pundits and commentators have been relentlessly attacking political statistician Nate Silver and his blog FiveThirtyEight. Why? Because his electoral prediction model, which uses a mix of national polls, state polls, demographic information and economic data, calculates that Obama's chances of winning the election are slightly better than the convention wisdom suggests. At present, they're hovering at a little below 75 percent.

Nate has a great track record when it comes to predictions: In 2008, he called all 35 Senate races right, as well as 49 of 50 states for president. In 2010, he correctly called 34 of 37 Senate races and 36 of 37 governors' races. When he was wrong, the outcome was usually decided by a razor-thin margin. And his reasoning for this year's prediction is simple: Obama holds small leads in enough crucial swing states (e.g. Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, Iowa) to get him to the needed 270 electoral votes.

But the critics dismiss all that, declaring in a textbook case of 20–20 hindsight that those other predictions were a cakewalk, and this time is different. They whine that Nate's biased because he's rooting for Obama (which never shows in his incredibly calm and even-handed commentary). They complain that his poll weighting system is subjective and introduces bias (even though it's actually based on objective measurements of poll recency, methodology and track record). And when all else fails, they mock him as puny and effeminate.

It would be one thing if Nate was alone in making the forecast that he does... but he's not. The various prediction markets, which despite their flaws are usually pretty accurate, tend to mirror his probability estimate very closely. And it turns out that his model is actually quite generous to Romney compared to other competing models of the same type.

So why have Nate's projections been subjected to such merciless criticism? For several reasons, none of which have anything to do with the merits of his model.

One is that the media has an incentive to portray elections as close—in this case, a virtual dead heat—so that people get excited and tune in for more coverage. So when someone comes along claiming that one candidate actually has a small but substantial lead, the public and the less-savvy pundits are naturally skeptical.

Another reason comes down to the fact that people do a very poor job of grasping probabilities. Commentators hear Nate estimate a 75% chance of Obama winning and think, "Wow, he must be really sure of himself." That's certainly the impression Joe Scarborough gave when he insisted that Obama's chances were at 50.1%. But Nate's prediction isn't all that dramatic. What many fail to understand is that if you assign Event X a 75% probability of occurring, it means you expect it to not happen 25% of the time. In fact, if such events occur more often than three out of four times in the long run, you've made a very real error.

The third and most glaring reason is a combination of wishful thinking and confirmation bias. Conservatives want very badly for Romney to win this election (or more to the point, for Obama to lose), so some will do anything to interpret the data as favorably as possible. Their most common defense is an allegation that the pollsters are (intentionally or not) oversampling Democrats—a claim based on the faulty assumption that party identification is static, rather than fluid and subject to change in response to current events. Another is to hold polls favoring Obama to a higher methodological standard, while clinging uncritically to those favoring Romney, such as the overly volatile Gallup tracking poll. Still another is to ignore polls altogether and point to less direct indicators, like an alleged closing of the gap between male and female voters or the candidates' favorability ratings. Yet one more is to claim, baselessly, that undecided voters break dramatically against the incumbent. Anything to keep the dream alive.

Meet the man who thought Bush's response to Katrina
would be his crowning achievement.
Finally, the more cynical conservative pundits may be consciously biasing their predictions. They have an incentive to tell their audience what they want to hear—Republicans who want to be reassured will look to them for certainty. Dick Morris, for instance, has such a catastrophic track record of predicting GOP victories that it's hard to imagine he's anything but an opportunist looking to get more attention and sell more books.

Now, before any staunch liberals out there get too cocky about the follies of their counterparts across the aisle, I should point out that this mindset is by no means limited to one party or ideology. In 2004, Democrats were guilty of groundlessly criticizing poll oversampling just as Republicans are today. And a quick perusal of the comments on Nate's blog posts will reveal many left-leaning readers expressing far more confidence in Obama's chances than is warranted by the data. Many of his acolytes also seem to follow the blog just to pacify their anxieties rather than to follow the data wherever it leads. So no matter what your politics, beware of how your biases influence your views and expectations.

Now I leave you with one final prediction. If Romney wins, you can bet that all the critics will be crowing with triumph and declaring the demise of FiveThirtyEight. But if Nate turns out to be right, you can bet those same critics will brush it off as a fluke, blaming voter fraud or Hurricane Sandy or anything else they can think of to resolve their cognitive dissonance, in much the same way that a cult will rationalize its failed doomsday predictions.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

While We're Young

I was going through all the ancient stuff I had buried at the bottom of my desk drawers and came across this:

It's a letter from my former church congratulating me on becoming a Christian, from way back in July of '96. I was seven at the time.

Seems so innocuous, doesn't it? They were so glad to welcome me into the fold. They assured me I had made the right choice, a vital choice, renewing the sense of relief I had from avoiding damnation. They invited me to the Clubhouse—the name has that enticing air of exclusiveness about it. Actually, they didn't invite me: the subtle use of "when" made it a foregone conclusion that I would attend. Tell your parents what time you want to come, they suggested. Have fun, watch puppet shows, sing songs. And oh, by the way, bring your friends!

It really was fun. They put on an engaging production in the church auditorium, surprisingly polished for a kid's program. There were engrossing quiz games, props and puppets flying everywhere, funny voiceovers over the loudspeaker—more like watching an interactive play than attending a sermon. The stuff for older kids was considerably more dry and dull, but they really knew how to reel in the six-to-ten crowd. They understood the importance of grabbing our attention from a young age.

I'm probably making all this sound too sinister. I can only assume that these were genuinely nice people with pure intentions. The goal was not to snare hapless children in some nefarious trap. But when good people are misguided, when they're incredibly motivated, when they have years and decades and centuries to hone their sales pitch, when their target audience still believes in the tooth fairy... well, it's not exactly a fair fight.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Political Sites for Skeptics, Part 2

I forgot a few key resources in my previous post about neutral and/or skeptical political sites. So, without further ado...

Two of these sites are On The Issues and These resources list the political stances of politicians and commentators in a simple and straightforward way. To do so, they use their legislative voting record as well as direct quotations from speeches and books. Here are On The Issues' pages for ObamaBiden, Romney, his newly-selected VP candidate Paul Ryan, and the main third-party candidate, libertarian Gary JohnsonProCon compares six presidential candidates' answers to 61 questions in this handy chart. (They also have some good, even-handed information on other controversial issues at their main page.)

Then there are the "transparency" sources. Most people lump politicians in with the likes of lawyers and used car salesmen in terms of honesty and integrity, but it's often hard to know exactly where their loyalties lie. OpenSecrets goes a long way toward solving that problem by posting detailed information about what special interest groups are donating to whom—for example, SOPA author Lamar Smith's media-based donors. Their side-by-side comparison of the two presidential candidates is also quite nice. GovTrack is useful for keeping track of the voting records of various legislators—Paul Ryan's, for instance. MapLight is another potentially useful site that combines the latter two.

Finally—and I have no idea how I could forget this one—there's Snopes. Sure, they tackle every subject under the sun, but they have a specific page dedicated to politics, and even separate subsections for Obama and Romney. There are a ton of rumors about Obama that have bubbled up over the past five or so years, and the vast majority of the ones tackled here are exposed for the sensationalist nonsense they are. Barbara and David Mikkelson do a great job researching and running the site, and their work in these areas mainly serve to highlight how immensely unreliable political chain emails tend to be.

Politics today is so vicious and partisan that finding reliable, neutral information is nearly impossible. It's hard for me to form opinions when so many sources present their information through the lens of their personal worldviews. With the help of the sites I've covered here, though, I feel like I have a fighting chance of distinguishing vested narrative from objective truth.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

But It's Not Hurting Anyone!

What we have here in the title is perhaps the most common objection skeptics receive when we criticize an scientifically unproven "alternative" treatment. Those who utter this treacherous phrase usually do so with the best of intentions. The only problem is, they're almost always wrong.

The harm caused by snake oil treatments isn't necessarily obvious in every case. Disasters happen now and again, but usually the effects are very subtle. Here are some reasons, in general, why buying treatments of unproven efficacy would be a bad thing.
  1. Ineffective treatments fail to prevent suffering. While patients may still benefit from the placebo effect, that effect is also present for treatments that really work. Snake oil wastes precious time that could have been spent actually treating the patient's ailments.
  2. The chance of harmful side effects on the user. Acupuncture, for example, can expose people to serious infections, while detoxing can cause severe malnutrition. Naturally, scientific treatments can have side effects as well, but those that are approved for public use are well documented, and their benefits have been conclusively shown to outweigh their risks.
  3. The chance of harmful side effects on the environment. For example, many remedies in Traditional Chinese Medicine are made from the body parts of rare animals like rhinoceros horns, tiger penises and bear bile. This can cause these animals to suffer unnecessarily, or to be hunted to endangerment and even extinction. This has far-reaching consequences not just for an individual species, but potentially for an entire ecosystem. 
  4. Money is being wasted on companies who contribute nothing to society. Not only does this discourage the researchers and manufacturers from pursuing other more productive careers, but they will also use that money to market new brands of snake oil, perpetuating a cycle of medical ignorance.
  5. Conversely, that money isn't going to more rigorous companies. This is money that could have been used for new and even more effective treatments, advancing medical science to new heights. And when science-based researchers and manufacturers are deprived of much-needed funding, they're that slight amount more likely to go out of business altogether.
Again, the damage caused by the purchase of a single alternative supplement is usually very small. But just as the seemingly insignificant votes of individuals can decide the fate of entire nations, those purchases add up to create entire industries of harmful "alternative" treatments. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a Power Balance bracelet contributes to a culture of scientific illiteracy that we should be trying our utmost to break away from.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Political Sites for Skeptics

I'm not going to delve too far into political issues with this blog. But since skepticism is a big part of what I write about here, I thought I'd take a few minutes to present some of the online resources I would recommend for skeptics to use when following politics.

If verifying political claims is your goal, both PolitiFact and FactCheck are invaluable resources. I especially like PolitiFact for its quick Truth-O-Meter ratings. Both parties tend to champion the sites when it supports them or attack them as biased when it doesn't—in other words, politics as usual. I won't claim that these sources are "true neutral," as that's difficult if not impossible to come by, but if they have a secret plot to further one side over the other, they've done a great job hiding it. Unfortunately, the sites are far from comprehensive. Apparently thorough, balanced reporting actually takes some time and effort—who knew?

As far as political discussion forums go... well, there's a subreddit for everything these days. I generally steer clear of the hard-left sensationalism of r/politics, in favor of smaller and more thought-provoking places like r/2012elections, r/PoliticalDiscussion, r/ModeratePolitics and r/NeutralPolitics. The first is highly topical, while the second is an open space for talking about every political idea under the sun. Even if you're not a moderate, chances are you'll still enjoy the latter two, as the focus is on civil discussion instead of creating an echo chamber. I like to view these four in unison as a single multireddit.

Want predictions and polling numbers? RealClearPolitics does a decent job of compiling the national figures, but FiveThirtyEight is the best source for polling data and data-driven political analysis I've found. It's run by Nate Silver, a professional statistician with an amazing track record of correct election predictions—49 of 50 states in the 2008 elections, for example. His model for predicting the 2012 outcome pulls in (among other things) virtually every state poll in the country and even corrects for systemic biases (e.g. registered versus likely voters). And his daily blog posts probe the nuances of political science in a completely detached, non-partisan tone. If you want to know who's going to without all the wishful thinking and daily gossip, this is your place.

Finally, I'll end with a decidedly partisan source: RightWingWatch. While there are unquestionably plenty of fringe wingnuts on the left (and let me know if you know of any reputable sites that compile madness on that side of the aisle), I'm including this one mainly due to its exemplary coverage of the extreme religious right. There are people in relatively influential positions who say things which are absolutely bonkers, but would fly under everyone's radar if RWW didn't cover it. They'll have a sensationalized headline now and then, but on the whole their reporting is an accurate portrayal of just how radical the fundamentalist faction of politics can be.

Being a skeptic with regard to the supernatural is relatively straightforward—it's just a matter of waiting until some phenomenon with sufficient evidence comes along. With politics it's a lot harder. To take a proactive stance on positions that have real impacts on millions of people is no small task—especially when the few objective facts available, are massaged and twisted beyond recognition. It's such a vicious and insular culture that keeping up can be exhausting, but with the help of these resources, I can at least be confident that I'm not completely in the dark.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Shifting Focus

I haven't written anything here in a while now—seven weeks, to be precise. There are a few reasons for that. One is a reduction in free time now that I have a full-time job on my plate. Another, frankly, is laziness. I still have a decent amount of free time, but I spend far too much of it on television and internet browsing. But perhaps most importantly, the original purpose of this blog has been accomplished: I've laid out in some detail why I'm no longer a Christian, and I'm (partially) out as an atheist.

So, what now?

Well, ever since I created this blog at the beginning of 2011, the subheading has been "My Reasons for Leaving Christianity." At the time I came up with it, I didn't yet consider myself an atheist yet—that happened a few months later.

But at this point I have more than enough reasons for leaving the religion I was born into. Despite my lingering bias towards Christianity, I feel I should be shifting focus a bit now that I really have migrated fully to the other side. And just what is the other side, anyway? Well, that's now answered explicitly in my new blog tagline:
Leaving Christianity and Embracing Skepticism
Although I call myself an atheist, it doesn't mean very much in itself to "embrace" atheism. It's only a stance on a single question, so I wanted a more positive and encompassing term to describe myself. I would also consider myself a freethinker and possibly a humanist, but "skeptic" really captures the basis of what I think atheism should be rooted in: applying proper standards of evidence equally to all claims, not just theistic ones.

I'll still have plenty of criticism for Christianity here—after all, it makes sense to stick with what I know. But the harm religion causes is just a small part of the harm caused by credulity in general. Fundamentally, it's the notion that belief can be justified without sufficient evidence that opens the door to belief in everything from vaccine denialism to faith healing to repressed memory therapySo sometimes I'll be delving into a skeptical topic that's unrelated to any religious theme. But it'll all be for the same basic purpose: to help, in my own small way, to build a more informed and rational world.

In the past I've also tried to funnel my efforts into very detailed and involved posts. But that high bar has been a big part of my drop in motivation, and I'd rather have shorter, simpler posts than none at all. That doesn't necessarily mean a drop in quality; it just means that the deep analyses will be interspersed with pithier observations.

With these two changes, I hope to start posting a bit more often. Welcome to the next chapter of Reflections from the Other Side!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

No Religious Test

The No Religious Test Clause of the U.S. Constitution says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Yet remarkably, no less than eight of our state constitutions either give theists preferential treatment or single out atheists to deny them the right to hold office:

Arkansas – Article 19, Sec. 1:
No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.
Maryland – Article 37:
That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God[.]
Mississippi – Article 14, Sec. 265:
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.
North Carolina – Article 6, Sec. 8:
The following persons shall be disqualified for office: Any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.
Pennsylvania – Article 1, Sec. 4:
No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.
South Carolina – Article 17, Sec. 4:
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.
Tennessee – Article 9, Sec. 2:
No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.
Texas – Article 1, Sec. 4:
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.
There are a few things worth noting here. One is that Maryland and South Carolina have overturned their clauses (although they're still on the books). Another is the bias toward classical monotheism baked into the wording: in most of these clauses it's taken for granted that one god exists who's superior to all other beings. A third is that Pennsylvania and Tennessee also focus on belief in "a future state of rewards and punishments"—which throws deists out in the cold along with Taoists, Shintoists and many Jews. Finally, Arkansas' constitution doesn't even allow atheists to testify as court witnesses. But this is Arkansas we're talking about, so maybe we're just lucky there's no law saying we need to be shot on sight.

As bigoted as these provisions are, they're thankfully superseded by the federal Constitution. But that doesn't mean they've never caused any harm. In 1961, Roy Torcaso's appointment as a notary public was revoked after he refused to declare a belief in God. The case of Torcaso v. Watkins went all the way to the Supreme Court, which unanimously struck down Maryland's religious test clause. But that was 50 years ago. Surely we've grown as a nation since then, right? Well, virtually the same thing happened in 1992 when Herb Silverman crossed "so help me God" off of his oath to become a notary in South Carolina. And in 2009 Cecil Bothwell was elected to the city council in Asheville, North Carolina—but not without a group of vocal opponents trying to bar him from office and sending out fliers fearmongering over his unbelief.

It's important to remember, too, that highly-publicized prejudice is not the only form of harm that can come from clauses like these. Although they have no real legal weight, fundamentalists can still use them as ammunition to intimidate would-be public servants. For every atheist who runs for office, how many aspire to but decide against it due to a wall of opposition that's both institutional and societal? Striking these intolerant words from our governing documents wouldn't instantly erase the deep-seated prejudice that Americans have against atheists in politics—but it would be show that we're ready to give them a chance.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Key to Science

Here's Richard Feynman explaining science in 63 seconds:

It's so simple. It's so incredibly, impossibly simple. I liked Feynman's explanation so much that I converted it into flowchart form:

Using this unassuming little method is like following a compass when lost in the wilderness. Despite constant opportunities to veer off course, science keeps you on the right track by forcing your assumptions to adhere to objective reality.

Each step of the process is crucial. If you don't make any guesses, you live in a world devoid of any truth claims. If you don't make predictions, your truth claims are useless. If you don't test those predictions, you'll never know if they're wrong. And if they're wrong but you keep them anyway instead of starting afresh, you'll be operating on potentially harmful false assumptions—and any assumptions built on top of them will probably be false as well.

It's such a remarkably simple heuristic, yet it seems so hard to instill into people as a fundamental value. Why is that? Maybe it's because it seems cold and harsh to unceremoniously toss our cherished ideas out the window when they turn out to be wrong. It's often easier to just go on believing what you've always believed, and sometimes false beliefs just appeal to us more than the truth.

This is where a solid science education ought to come in, but things often go wrong at some point along the way. When I was in grade school, we learned about the scientific method and even used it to do experiments in class. But we were never really shown the deep significance behind the process—how it allows fields like aeronautics and genetics to flourish in just a few decades, while astrology and faith healing spin fruitlessly in circles for millennia. This basic system, carefully honed through advancements like double-blinding, significance testing, peer review and replication, ensures that the map of our knowledge matches the territory of reality. And once we can easily navigate the known world, we can set out for parts unknown, on a voyage to fill in the farthest reaches of the map.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Televangelist's Con

I was channel flipping last night when I came across a televangelist by the name of Mike Murdock. At first I thought he was just preaching some gimmicky message about "the five wisdom keys," but after a couple of minutes I realized that he was peddling his personal brand of prosperity theology. What you give to God, Murdock said, he will return to you a hundredfold.

He repeatedly referred to this as "planting a seed," and used his own life as an alleged example. He'd had only a few thousand dollars to his name and given most of it away, when suddenly strangers approached him with expensive gifts: a rare vintage car, a $10,000 check, a luxury van. His premise doesn't even make mathematical sense: if everyone receives dramatically more than they give, where's it all coming from? Is God stealing it from the non-givers or something? It's all nothing more than a religious Ponzi scheme, one invented wholesale simply to jump-start the first layer of the investment pyramid.

Then came the actual requests for cash: Murdock urged viewers to get up from the sofa and plant their $1,000 seed. You sometimes hear about the questionable practices televangelists employ, but it's a bit surreal to watch one of them gaze right into the eyes of the home audience to ever-so-fervently bilk them out of their hard-earned money. Interestingly, I never heard any specific information about where the money would go. Both in his TV sales pitch and on his horribly garish website, he says only that it goes toward "spreading the gospel." Sounds awfully fishy—and sure enough, it turns out that he spends most of the donations on himself. Less than one percent goes to charity.

Murdock specifically makes people in financial trouble the targets of his exploitation. He promises that your debt will vanish, that you'll make your mortgage payment, if only you plant your seed. He's intent on wringing every last coin out of them:
"Maybe you've got money in a closet somewhere, in a coin collection, in stocks and bonds. I don't know where you're going to get it, but you know."
One last bit of abuse that really made my jaw drop was his promise of "household salvation." He said that after one woman had promised to write him a check, the Holy Spirit had come to him and said:
"Tell her that because she's planted a seed to spread the gospel, every member of her family will be saved."
All those who planted the seed, Murdock said, could receive this wonderful blessing as a "fourth harvest" in the next 90 days. The words "insane" and "despicable" come to mind, but don't even begin to describe what this man is doing. When someone says, 'Give me money and your loved ones will receive eternal reward,' they've arguably splintered off from Christianity and started their own personal cult.

At first I considered the possibility that Murdock could actually believe what he was saying. But the more I read about his history, the more obvious it was that he's motivated by pure greed. He's taken full advantage of an environment that eschews skepticism and critical thinking in favor of miraculous stories and emotional appeals. My guess is that as soon as he steps off that stage, he's laughing all the way to the bank.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fun With Memes

The r/atheism subreddit is often overrun with image-based memes that satirize Christianity. I have no problem with the memes in themselves—ideas are not inherently deserving of respect, and humor is often a good way to approach the more ridiculous ones—but they tend to get pretty repetitive and the logic doesn't always make sense. I usually spend more time in one of the reddit's many alternatives to r/atheism, but here I'd like to share a few of the memes that I actually did enjoy.

As a general rule, these memes tend to point out an inconsistency with some facet of Christianity. They're nothing groundbreaking, but they do get their point across in a concise, funny and sometimes unconventional way. I'll start with a few choice sayings from the big man himself:

The Scumbag Christian meme focuses on apparent hypocrisies common among Christians themselves. It features particularly obtuse fundamentalist Kirk Cameron wearing the Scumbag Hat as its primary inspiration:

Philosoraptor may use some unusual reasoning to reach his conclusions, but he often does have a good point to make:

And here's Condescending Wonka to raise a few final issues in his lovably patronizing tone:

If you like these, there are hundreds more in the r/AdviceAtheists subreddit. Personally, though, I think of them as I would a particularly rich dessert: slightly nauseating when consumed too often, but delightful in moderation.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Purpose of Hell

Everyone agrees that criminals should be punished, but what many people don't realize is that there are several different theories about why punishing criminals is a good idea. Here I'll examine whether any of these penal theories apply to an eternal punishment in hell. I'll assume in this post, purely for the sake of argument, that unbelief is in some way a bad thing. But even granting this, what we find is that these five rationales either don't apply in the case of the Christian God punishing us in hell, or imply that some other punishment would be more just.

The first reason that one might be justified in punishing a wrongdoer is rehabilitation—punishment for the purpose of morally improving the criminal. But since people stay in hell forever, anything they might learn to better themselves could never be put to use. At most it would result in morally upright people suffering forever, which is clearly even worse than if hell was only filled with the unrepentant.

There's also restoration—punishment for the sake of repairing the damage resulting from the crime. But there's no reason to think that suffering endlessly in outer darkness would benefit God or any other possible victims in the slightest—unless we label God a sadist, who takes pleasure in our boundless pain. In fact, if we take at face value the apologist's claim that God is quite upset about having to punish us, hell seems to work against restorative justice.

The third is deterrence, which is intended to prevent crimes from being committed in the first place. Perhaps hell is a way to bully people into obedience. But there are two problems with this: First, given that 70% of people on earth are non-Christians, the threat of the Christian hell has been largely ineffective at the global scale. Second, by attempting to threaten people into genuine belief when in fact belief is not generally a choice, this form of justice would fall into the same trap as Pascal's Wager.

The fourth is incapacitation, or punishment for the sake of protecting potential victims from further harm. If believers are the victims here, hell would keep the evil heathens from corrupting them—but there are other ways to do this that don't involve excess suffering. If God is supposed to be the victim, it's unclear how hell is "protecting" him from unbelievers. Presumably he isn't so fragile that unbelief or even rebellion would cause him the slightest amount of harm. Perhaps rebellion harms God in some emotional sense. But in that case, hell is once again totally counterproductive: it's the perfect way to stir up even more resentment against him.

Finally, the crudest and most basic reason for punishing wrongdoers is retribution: the idea that evil deeds inherently deserve to be punished, apart from any tangible benefits that will result from such punishment. This may feel like an appropriate reaction, but it's really nothing more than barbaric, institutionalized revenge. What some perceive as punishment for the sake of some idealized "pure justice" is actually a combination of the other rationales listed above. Even if we accepted retribution as a legitimate penal theory, though, it still wouldn't justify hell. Retributive justice carries with it a sense of proportion: the punishment must fit the crime, and eternal punishment for even the tiniest sin certainly doesn't qualify in that sense.

There really is no justification at all for hell as a punishment. This is true because many sins are essentially victimless crimes, and because eternal punishment for sin results in no benefit to any party. However, apologists sometimes sneak around this by saying that hell is a choice: if we willfully reject God, he grants our wish by taking us to a place where we can be completely separate from him. Nonsense. He could accomplish the same thing by simply snuffing out our existence altogether, and avoid all the unnecessary suffering. This would serve as a perfect form of incapacitation (it's impossible to cause any further harm) as well as a more reasonable form of retribution (more proportionate with the perceived crime).

One last defense apologists occasionally give is to claim both that retributive justice is valid and that hell is a proportionate punishment, because our crime has somehow caused infinite offense against God's infinite dignity. Ridiculous. The relevant factor is not dignity, but actual harm. A crime against a king would deserve no more punishment than the same crime against a peasant. If the king threw a fit, demanding the culprit's execution due to some abstract violation of dignity, we would rightly label him a tyrant. If anything, the more power this king has and the more severe his demanded punishment, the more petty and unjust he becomes.

Hell is not only useless as a punishment according to most penal theories, but also highly unjust and even counterproductive. The onus is on Christians to show that this unending punishment can somehow be justified, and they certainly have their work cut out for them.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On Ultimate Significance

It's only a matter of time.
Have you ever made a sandcastle near the ocean shore at low tide, knowing that it would soon be erased by the waves? It probably happens thousands of times every day. Kids (and kids at heart) carefully craft the moat and courtyard, drizzle a spire of wet sand on each lofty tower, stand back to admire their work. All while keeping in the back of their mind a solemn understanding that all good things must come to an end.

Of course, it may not even occur to the youngest beach builders that their efforts will be washed away. They work with such determination that the incoming surf takes them by surprise. When the water finally crashes through their frantic attempts at a defensive wall, they can only watch and mourn the ruins of their once-mighty fortress. But even for these naïve castle-makers, their sorrow at the destruction of their castle does not outweigh the satisfaction they got from creating it. If you asked them, most would say it was all worthwhile.

Those who believe in eternal life sometimes wonder how the rest of us can live with the fact that it's all going to end someday. Even if we could use technology to achieve biological immortality, we would still ultimately be limited by the heat death of the universe in roughly 10100 years. So, they ask, what's the point of trudging along each day if it's all futile and meaningless in the grand scheme of things?

To which I answer: Why build that sandcastle?

Because you enjoy it while it lasts. Because you treasure the memory as long as you can. Because its very impermanence is what makes it so special.

Further, I put it to them: What is it about the prospect of eternity that imbues our existence with meaning? I don't see how the mere existence of an endpoint in any way negates our current actions, or how the lack of one is needed to validate them. In fact, the more you start really thinking about what really eternity means, the harder it is to imagine it as anything other than a fate worse than death. If you lived for another 101,000 years, you'd probably be too busy going mad with boredom to think back on how significant your life was 101,000 years ago.

Savor your life in the here and now—everything, from your fast food burger to your wedding day. If not for you, then out of respect for all those who will never get to. Because out of the countless quadrillions of people that could have been born to live a short life on this little blue planet, you are here.

You are here to gaze up at the stars and ponder your kinship with the universe. Be glad that you can reflect on the past, relish the present and make your mark on the future. And even though that mark will eventually be washed away in the waves of time, be grateful.

Be grateful, because you didn't have to be here—but you are.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

My 5 Favorite Freethought Quotes

Now that I've done five installments of my Powerful Thoughts series, I thought it might be a good time to go back through and pick my five favorite quotes from among them. There were so many great ones that it was almost impossible to choose, so I made a Google doc for my 15 favorites. Here are the top five along with my comments:
5. "Answers are a luxury enjoyed only every now and then. So early on, learn to love the questions themselves." –Neil deGrasse Tyson
Curiosity is a great thing because it so often gives rise to discovery, but sometimes the answers elude us. It's easy to grow impatient and settle on the first convenient explanation that comes along even when the real answer is still out there. So we need to value the process of forming and testing hypotheses as much as actually arriving at conclusions—to value the journey as much as the destination. It requires us to think of unanswered questions not as obstacles to be overcome, but as invitations to explore our world.
4. "Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." –Thomas Jefferson
How wonderful it is that the same man who authored this quote was also a central Founding Father and our third president. We needed someone of his wisdom to guide this country in its formative years. During this period of American Enlightenment, intellectuals were already starting to question Christianity and embrace deism. But in a letter offering advice to his nephew, Jefferson had the audacity to suggest something that would be unthinkable to most people at the time.

The quote, highlighted on a page of the original letter.
This encouragement of radical, intrepid questioning should be an inspiration to skeptics everywhere. And he follows this by steamrolling the most common obstacle to investigating one's faith—the fear of divine retribution—in a way that beautifully echoes Galileo's disbelief that "the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use".
3. "Forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today." –Lawrence Krauss
Plucked from a legendary 2009 physics lecture entitled "A Universe From Nothing," this statement on our origins may at first seem shallow in its irreverence, but I don't see it that way. Too often religions like Christianity rely on the beauty of ideas rather than their truth, making reality look cold and alienating by comparison. People take solace in God's invisible guiding hand and fear that a world without him would be desolate, chaotic, meaningless.

But Krauss shows that in some ways, the natural world can beat the supernatural even at its own game. An innocent god-man being tortured and killed on our behalf is an inspiring tale (if a gruesome and illogical one), but it can't hold a candle to the breathtaking magnificence of cosmology. All the heavier atoms in your body—the oxygen and carbon, the nitrogen and calcium—had to be forged within the blazing furnaces of stars. They later became supernovae, exploding so chaotically that they briefly outshone entire galaxies, forming nebulae rich with heavy elements that then collapsed to form solar systems—and eventually, in our case, intelligent life. Here's Neil deGrasse Tyson again, describing this process:

As Carl Sagan said, "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." Truth, it seems, is far more worthy than fiction of our awe and admiration.
2. "Mythology is someone else's religion, different enough from your own for its absurdity to be obvious." –Anonymous
What a perfect summary of the double standard inherent within every exclusivist religion in history. It's so easy for Christians and Buddhists and Muslims to look at each other and scoff at those other peculiar beliefs, all while retaining an intense blind spot with regard to one's own. So persistent is this bias that even I as a former Christian suffer from it, despite my deconversion.

This is why I love Daniel Dennett's suggestion that schoolchildren be taught a mandatory, neutral, fact-based class on world religions. Only the most cripplingly stubborn parents could object to an impartial presentation of alternative belief systems. Yet many students would come out with a more critically informed view of each religion—including their own. The more information kids can access about religions from all cultures, the less likely they are to succumb to the ingroup-outgroup bias that allows religious exclusivism to thrive.
1. "I had no need of that hypothesis." –Pierre-Simon Laplace
This famed quip was in reply to none other than Napoleon, who told Laplace, "They tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator." Laplace's response encompasses so much in just a few words: the principle of parsimony, the relentless march of science, the ever-diminishing God of the gaps. Although it was probably just an offhand remark, his calm yet firm rejection of God as explanation is emblematic of the human race's steadily increasing storehouse of knowledge.

No need of that hypothesis.

After millions of years of cowering at shadows, we have finally begun to crawl out from the darkness and into the light. We need only to let our eyes adjust to the dazzling brilliance we've discovered. It is my hope that for any incredible explanation that lacks equally incredible evidence, we, as a civilization, will soon have no need of that hypothesis.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Uncertainty of Intuition

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."  —Richard Feynman
I'm only a novice when it comes to philosophy, but I think I've noticed a general trend within the field. First, someone comes up with a philosophical framework for explaining a certain phenomenon. Then someone else comes up with a counterexample that intuitively appears to falsify that framework. Philsophers are then faced with a couple of options: They can follow their intuitions and either modify the framework or reject it entirely, or they can continue to accept the framework and claim that it's in fact our intuition that's faulty.

Let me give a couple of examples, starting with one in the field of ethics. Utilitarianism, generally speaking, is the ethical theory that one ought to maximize the overall amount of happiness that exists. It seems like a perfectly sensible way of approaching the subject, but some versions of this concept are vulnerable to what Derek Parfit calls the Repugnant Conclusion. In the diagram below, each box represents a population; width measures group size and height measures average happiness. The Repugnant Conclusion is that according to some forms of utilitarianism, Z is preferable to A because Z's total area is greater than A's. In other words, having a massive number of people whose lives are barely worth living is preferable to having a (relatively) small number of people whose lives are extremely happy.

Intuitively, this conclusion does seem repugnant—but is it our ethical theory or our intuition that we should modify in response? Perhaps we look at Z and imagine throngs of people toiling away in a wretched struggle to survive, when what we should realize is that a life "barely worth living" is still worth living. If these people looked back at their lives in their golden years, they could honestly say they were glad to have lived. Hmm... maybe such a world wouldn't be as bad as we think.

In the previous case it was pretty easy to imagine our intuition being wrong. But now let's take on a tougher example, this time from philosophy of mind. The leading philosophical framework for understanding what constitutes a mind is called functionalism (see also the SEP). Basically, it says that what makes a mind is not any particular material (e.g. neurons), but a way of functioning: it must receive inputs which alter its internal state and produce outputs. It could be made of neurons, silicon or anything else as long as it's properly organized and functional.

Enter the China Brain. Ned Block asks us to imagine the entire population of China hooked up to one another in some way (walkie-talkies, for example), with each person corresponding to a neuron. The individuals then communicate in a rudimentary manner that mimics the firing of interconnected neural pathways. The result is sometimes known as a Blockhead.

Haha. Blockhead. Because his last name's Block.
Can this vast collection of people buzzing at each other on walkie-talkies really have mental states? Can it experience sadness or the color red? Block wants us to intuitively conclude that such possibilities are ridiculous, and certainly they seem to be. But how much of this intuition is due to the fact that we normally think of minds as embodied and centralized?

Imagine that we could somehow shrink this crowd of a billion, put them inside a human skull and attach them to the appropriate sensory inputs and motor outputs. If you had a conversation with this entity, who looks and acts exactly like a normal person, would it really be so hard to think of them as having a mind? Conversely, imagine that we could take someone's still-living brain out of their head and the stretch the neurons out across hundreds of square miles. If you walked into the middle of this silky net of microscopic axons, would it seem any more like a thinking, feeling, experiencing mind than the China brain does? Suddenly, the obvious conclusion may not be so obvious anymore.

This post is partly an excuse to share some really cool thought experiments, but I do have a point to make as well: We need to be careful about accepting intuitive philosophical arguments, because they can be engineered (intentionally or not) to push us toward an unwarranted conclusion. Daniel Dennett coined the term "intuition pump" to describe such cases. Often these arguments employ sophisticated misdirection to make us ignore factors that would dramatically change our judgment if properly understood.

Sometimes, too, an argument has at its core a subject that we as fallible humans are just flat-out bad at making judgments about, or even one that lies completely outside our realm of experience. I'm referring specifically to the cosmological argument, which I hope to eventually delve into more deeply. In arguing for Kalam, William Lane Craig proclaims that the temporal universe cannot always have existed because actual infinites cannot exist. He uses the Hilbert hotel paradox as a demonstration of this, but all he's really demonstrated is that the math of infinity is incredibly unintuitive. He also asserts that whatever begins to exist has a cause, and it again seems staggeringly unintuitive to think that the universe could have sprung up uncaused out of absolute nothingness. But a complete lack of everything—space, time, even physical laws—is in such opposition to our everyday experience that making any definitive pronouncements about its properties would be pure folly.

So here's the moral of the story: In all aspects of life, theological and ordinary alike, be skeptical about relying on intuition to solve problems. Your minds is better suited to some tasks than others, and it's beset with biases at every turn. It's easy for subtle yet crucial details to escape your notice, drastically skewing your judgment. Consider a given issue from many perspectives and try to think of what variables you may be leaving out—even when the answer seems clear-cut. Because as satisfying as it is to debunk pseudoscientists and expose charlatans, the most important part of being a skeptic isn't questioning other people. It's questioning yourself.