Monday, March 10, 2014

Richard Dawkins at UCSD April 2! Tickets on sale NOW!!!!

At UC San Diego's RIMAC, April 2, 6pm. San Diego New Atheists is getting together; RSVP here! (You still have to get your own tickets.) If you're not already a member, no time like the present!

Press release from the Richard Dawkins Foundation:
New York Times bestselling author Richard Dawkins will tour the United States in April to screen his new film, "The Unbelievers", and answer audience questions. The evolutionary biologist will be joined by internationally known physicist Lawrence Krauss, and at one stop by magician Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller. Filmmakers Gus Holwerda and Luke Holwerda of Black Chalk Productions will also appear and take questions.

The film is a road trip documentary that follows Dawkins and Krauss as they make stops around the world, from Australia to New York, to speak out for reason and science. "One of the most remarkable things about making The Unbelievers," said Gus Holwerda, "was to reveal the Richard Dawkins that you don't see in public life. He can be a bulldog at the podium when it comes to defending science and reason, but in the film we see him for the person he is, extremely warm and personable."

Several celebrities appear in the film to support Dawkins and Krauss on their journey to promote reason and science, including Stephen Hawking, Stephen Colbert, Cameron Diaz, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Werner Herzog, and Bill Maher. The movie ends with The Reason Rally, an Washington DC event in 2012 that was the largest atheist rally in history.

See the trailer and buy tickets at

Get free the first chapter of Richard Dawkins's autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, by signing up for news from the Richard Dawkins Foundation's fight for reason and science! See

Do note: again, you have to get a ticket; and if you're not familiar with the UCSD campus, please check the Meetup site for directions and parking suggestions. Sorry to say this about my institution but it's true - if you show up expecting to figure it out when you get there you're setting yourself up for frustration.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

From "Does Therapeutic Yoga Work"? (Hint: No)

In a hopefully successful attempt to piss off erstwhile yogis, the article writers compare therapeutic yoga proponents to the prayer-as-medicine crowd, to hilarious effect:
The media was hyping prayer studies intensely by the late 1990s, but the article in Archives was the high water mark. The journal article caught the attention of skeptical scientists, who decried the absurdity of its methodology. The families and friends of patients in the nonprayer groups probably prayed for them, too, making it impossible to separate the control group from the test group. Does it matter how much time a patient is prayed for or to which God his prayers are directed? How do we know people were really praying? (A cheeky Dutch physician even claimed that he was telepathically influencing the results from across the Atlantic, thereby nullifying the research.)
Full article here, h/t Niveque on fb.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The History of the Mount Soledad Cross as a Monument to Anti-Semitism

There's a recent chapter in San Diego history that America's Finest City would like to forget - understandably, because it's unpleasant. Marc Radazza describes it as a monument "put up in the 1950s for no other purpose but to promote Christianity. In fact, part of its purpose and effect was to signal to Jews that they were not welcome in La Jolla. (source) In 1989, when litigation over the cross began, the dishonest Christians decided to violate one of their Ten Commandments and lie that the cross was really a 'war memorial.' They then began the long pretextual process of retro-fitting it as a war memorial." (This from an attorney, in the context of telling fellow atheists to pick our separation battles wisely.)

(While you're reading about separation issues having to do with veterans memorials, here's a recent decision in our backyard up at Lake Elsinore.)

If you live in San Diego, you really should read more about it here. The history of anti-Semitism goes farther than just one cross on a hill. I look forward to the day, soon, when it actually is a war memorial, to all veterans (even atheist veterans like my dad) and not a re-adapted dog whistle to bigots.

Friday, February 28, 2014

George Bernard Shaw's Publishing History

From Wikipedia, on Shaw's story collection "The Black Girl in Search of God": "Both the story and the essay outraged the religious public, creating a demand that supported five reprintings." NICE.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Secular Food Drive: Can Your Workplace Host a Collection Bin?

North County Atheists and Agnostics has partnered with to (you guessed it) collect food in the month of March.

What do they need to make the food drive work? If you're in a position to host a collection bin at work (or anywhere) in San Diego County (not just North County), that would be awesome. You can contact Ollie Payne through his Meetup profile here.

The drive runs March 01, 2014 - March 31, 2014. Even if you can't host a bin, you can contribute food - and even if you can't contribute, you can help get the word out. The greatest need is for peanut butter, canned tuna, canned white chicken, canned fruit in natural juices, canned soup (chicken, tomato, or vegetable). Bin location information will be posted on North County A&A's meetup site beginning March 01. Show people that acting on your compassion doesn't require religion!

Voltaire's Possibly Apocryphal, Definitely Funny Last Words

Priest (offering last rites at beside): Have you renounced the devil?

Voltaire: Now is not the time for making new enemies.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Assembly Reading 23 February 2014

Below is the text of my reading for Sunday Assembly, as well as the video that inspired me to it. It was a real honor (and a lot of fun) to be able to read the same day as Claire and Ben and of course, all the many volunteers that make Sunday Assembly possible at all.

Jules Verne said that reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them. Think about this: Over aeons, inert matter blindly assembled itself into things which can suffer and love, which can help each other, which can write haiku and taste wine. The same stuff makes up the sun and the rocks and forests and our minds. Continents slid apart, mountains grew and crumbled, dinosaurs turned into hummingbirds, a whale died and settled into the seabottom sand, only to be uncovered under the San Diego Zoo. All these things are like waves traveling down through time until enough converged that pieces of the universe awakened. And through those pieces the universe is experiencing itself, in this room, right now.

Now think about this: the world will keep spinning and the sun will keep burning and eventually, each of us will have a last sunset, and a last kiss, and we'll exit the stage one last time. So too, in some unimaginably distant future, will the set pieces themselves disappear - first the Sun, then even matter itself. If in five billion years the ground beneath us is intact and above water, if there is anything sitting on it watching the last of the sun's glow, we'll have the same luck imagining it as bacteria have of imagining us. If in 10^10^70th years there is still some medium floating in space somehow storing haiku and the taste of wine, it too will disappear forever as black holes swallow the last matter and protons themselves decay.

But finally think about this: the more we learn about this play, the less it seems to be about us. The more we learn about it the more it seems the actors are a tiny afterthought on a stage so huge that we're beneath notice. Yes, that is true, but it's also irrelevant. Because in this precious fleeting moment when some genes and memories have bound themselves together as YOU, YOU are here. You can suffer and love, and help others to suffer or love. You can write haiku and taste wine. That is all that can ever matter. In this moment you are part of the ongoing story of creation, making new waves to travel down through time, deciding what lines to deliver. It's an enormous responsibility but it's also a gift we have: it's the superpower of being alive. Let's use it well.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"Biblical Studies Scholars and Their Thoughts on the Hobbit"

Find it here. I'm also looking forward to their thoughts on Dune, the Koran, the Odyssey, and the Norse Eddas.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Next Sunday Assembly San Diego: Sunday 23 February!

This time Sunday Assembly really is on Sunday (note: different location! See below.) I went to the last one, and even after seeing videos I wasn't sure what to expect, since I hadn't grown up religious. It was a lot of fun and it was great catching up with everyone before and after. All the community, none of the dogma; exactly what I was hoping for. Plus, I really like the T-shirts. More information here.

Details: February 23rd, 2014
11:00 am -1:00 pm

San Diego Woman's Club
2557 3rd Avenue
San Diego, CA 92103

As an aside: I remember when this was my fun little blog for writing long-winded posts about history and theoretical stuff (which I still sometimes do) but now there's stuff going on in San Diego constantly that needs to be plugged. Enough already! Wait, kidding! :)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Assembly San Diego Attendance Numbers Are Awesome

The folks who organized the first two San Diego Sunday Assemblies are doing a great job. I've been told the second and most recent one had an attendance of around 300 (I was there and it sure looked like it); apparently this is better even than dumb Los Angeles. Ha! (Just kidding LA guys. I kid because I love.)

Better to focus on the fact that San Diego has an amazing secular community. I'll see you at the next San Diego Sunday Assembly on 23 February!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Flood Myth: "Were You There?"

If the Flood happened, then the Mesopotamians were closer to it in time than the Hebrews - and they disagree on details. If we should ask anyone "Were you there?" as creationists are fond of demanding, we should be asking the people who wrote Genesis! Those guys were writing about the Flood thousands of years after it happened!

If the Flood happened as literalists say, then the Mesopotamians were much closer in history to the event, and their accounts conflict considerably with the Bible. For one thing, they say the ark was round, and not oblong. There's also the small problem that the two accounts disagree on which gods are real and therefore could have caused the Flood.

There's a Darren Aronofsky version of the story coming out soon, and like all of his work it will be excellent and I will be seeing it. I get that some atheists may think that's strange at first, but come on, it's just a fun story - why let the Christians have the rights to it? Let the secular world take it over! You'd see Beowulf and Clash of the Titans right? Plus, you'll get to see fundamentalists to go into conniptions over Aronofsky's version just like racists flipped out over Idris Elba playing Heimdall in Thor.

It's worth pointing out that in the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, the ark-builder rather than futilely exhorting people to get to high ground, carefully avoids disclosing to his neighbors what exactly he's doing. "Um, nope, no, that's not a boat. Why, building a boat on high ground! That's crazy talk! Now step aside while I load these kangaroos which for some reason that looks oddly like it can be explained otherwise, will be completely forgotten in the Old Testament that people will write a few thousand years from now." (Note: one interesting idea is that the flooding of the Black Sea, which occurred in 5550 BC, may actually be the basis of the flood myth; it also may explain the diaspora of the Indo-European language family.)

In all seriousness, we love to beat up literal creationists because they're a fun and easy target, but the on-the-fence people who are inching closer to non-religion, and where our efforts are most likely to yield results, already don't believe this stuff, and probably don't care as much as we think about evolution.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Last Chance - Secular Humanist Conference 15 February, San Diego

Listen up. Last chance! SoCal Secular Humanist Conference in San Diego, February 15. $20 for crying out loud. Aron Ra. Margaret Downey. All the cool kids are going! Sign up here.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Paper: The Political Economy of Science, Religion, and Growth

This is a fantastic, amazing, awesome, etc. paper from economists in Princeton; and in fact I'm actually a little "rationalist-guilty" about my excitement. Why? This seems to be confirming a whole checklist of suspicions that many of us have had for a long time about the relationship between religion and economics. It starts out: both international and cross-state U.S. data, there is a signi…cant negative relationship between religiosity and innovativeness...
DAYUM, they're not screwing around. And a word for non-economics junkies: this is an even stronger statement than it may seem. Innovativeness is crucially important to economic growth, because without new technology, the economy really does reduce to people just passing the same already-extant wealth back and forth to each other. Which tends to stay within families and ethnic power blocs, which explains the traps that a lot of developing countries get into. (And which many of them are finally getting out of.)

The authors go on to say (this is still the abstract):

the paper develops a model with three key features: (i) the recurrent arrival of scienti…c discoveries which, if widely diffused and implemented, generate productivity gains but sometimes also erode existing religious beliefs (a source of utility for some agents) by contradicting important aspects of the doctrine; (ii) a government that can allow such ideas and innovations to spread, or spend resources to censor them and impede their di¤usion; (iii) a religious organization or sector (Church or churches) that can, at a cost, undertake an adaptation of the doctrine that renders it more compatible with the new knowledge.

Really, read the paper already.

Haven't had enough? Here is a collection of posts discussing the connections between religion and economics. And for your shot of economic optimism, below you can see Hans Rosling showing the change over time in health and economics, which is (not surprisingly?) post-Enlightenment. (He has a good TED talk about women's fertility and economic development.)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

FREE - Dan Barker Speaking at University of San Diego 12 February

Did I mention it's FREE? Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and (interestingly) a former preacher. He will be debating Catholic apologist Trent Horn. I briefly met Dan a couple years ago when he was in San Diego for another event and he was an amazingly personable guy. (He later debated everyone's favorite San Diegan Dinesh D'Souza.)

If you're a USD student who has questions about religion (whether you would use the word "atheist" or "Christian" or whatever for yourself), this will be a GREAT event.

Want to learn more? Visit

Thursday, February 6, 2014

SoCal Secular Humanist Conference With Aron Ra, NEXT WEEKEND

Next weekend February 14-15: the SoCal Secular Humanist Conference in San Diego! With Aron Ra! And only $20! Register here.

Monday, January 27, 2014

SoCal Secular Humanist Conference! 14-16 February 2014

The Humanist Association of San Diego is putting on the Southern California Secular Humanist Conference, coming up in February. Among the speakers will be Margaret Downey, who became a hero in the atheist community by fighting for her son to remain in the Boy Scouts. Learn more and sign up here!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Folk Atheism" in Europe

You may have seen the Guardian article floating around that stated a 2012 survey in "was unable to find a single person under the age of 28 in eastern Germany who believed in God." Of course, this provokes discussion of how hard the surveyors looked, but the point remains that Europe is an increasingly un-religious place, and eastern Germany possibly the most un-religious part of it. Not surprisingly, either. Communism was infamous for being unfriendly to religion - after all, ideologies based on arguments from authority generally don't play well together. (Try to figure out whether North Korea's Juche is a religion or political system and you'll see what I mean.)

One immediately interesting thing about this is that this basic fact - East Germans can now choose any religion they want, yet they're choosing none - is a problem both for the rational choice theory of religion, as well as the idea that religion is the "natural" state of humans, to which societies return in the absence of some outside force (like a communist government.) And as with other strongly secular societies (also including Scandinavian countries and Japan), eastern Germany's rapidly improving development index and low crime rate are a big problem for arguments that religion is required for morality.

But most salient to me in this discussion is the idea of "folk atheism", as opposed to...what? Centralized atheism? "Folk" atheists are these modern eastern Germans who are atheist all on their own, in their own way, without a central organizing force. "Well duh," you might say (like I did at first), "what other kind is there?" Go to China or North Korea, and you will see. And the same people who are unquestioning atheists in China would probably be unquestioning Baptists in Texas or unquestioning Shi'a in Iran. Thinking about folk atheism versus official state atheism, it becomes clearer that rationalists should have a problem not just with supernatural beliefs, but with any argument from authority. Especially ones with political power. Anyway, it's a good article and worth reading.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Irony Award for 2014

It's early in 2014 but I can give the award already, because it doesn't get thicker than this:

"The American public is going to wake up and say, 'Hey, wait a minute, we're for everyone being treated right and fair but that doesn't mean you can turn around and tell people what they can believe.'"

-Rick Santorum, 2014

Read that article; it's about the social conservatives losing the culture war. Things do get better! Separate indicator, the number of books defending from atheism at the Focus on the Family bookstore in Colorado Springs.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Saturday 18 January - Sunday Assembly San Diego!

Again! The last one was fan-fricking-tastic (so everyone tells me, because I was out of town and I couldn't make it!) so I'm definitely getting to this one. This is the "event" that's been spreading around the world. Note, it is on SATURDAY 18 January, 4:15 pm.

I'll see you there! Details are here.

As a possibly interesting personal aside, I am a second-generation atheist, so this will be the first experience of this kind I've ever had. And I'm really looking forward to it, obviously.

Big 'orrah to the organizers for putting this on!

Don't Play By Christians' Rules - Or, Why Chess Players Move First

Ever play chess? White moves first. And guess what - that matters. Based on the skill levels of the players, white wins 5-10% more often than black. If you move second, you might spend the whole game responding to their moves instead of executing your own.

This is why it's so puzzling why atheists often rhetorically choose black, by starting with assumptions well into Christians' territory in debates and writing. For instance: "Is the Bible the word of God?" "Is it possible to be moral without the Bible?"

If you're trying to reach people on the fence who are already questioning, then "How do we know what the truth is?" and "How can we be more moral people?" are better places to start.

If on the other hand, you're trying to reach people deeper in Christianity, you would need to start much further into Christian territory, by phrasing things in non-threatening ways that appeal to their existing values. This is harder. For example, "Morality and the Bible" doesn't contain anything that will set their alarms off. But you also have to ask why you're spending time on Christians when there are still many, many non-religious people who don't know there's already a community out there of people with similar values. On top of that, trying to improve your arguments is not the way to reach this people, to the extent they're reachable. Social exposure to secular people who lead moral lives - is far more likely to soften theists' attitudes. Debates and writing can strengthen pre-existing values, but they usually don't change them, and almost never change them in the near-term.

Spending a lot of energy telling Christians they're wrong might make you feel better, if what you're really doing is just enjoying giving a piece of your mind to The Man. That's certainly your right, but let's not pretend it's growing the secular community. Which is what we need.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

If Placebos Are Okay, I'm Going to Use Magic Sticks From Now On. If That's Not Okay, Why Not?

To be clear at the outset: we should use those medical treatments for which there is evidence of efficacy and safety, whatever their origin ("alternative", traditional, a corporate laboratory, an academic center, etc.) - with an equal standard of evidence, whatever their origin.

Being able to discard your own beliefs when they turn out to be wrong is like going to the gym. It's not easy, and not everybody can stick with it, and it hurts at first, but then you're stronger. It's especially critical to support claims with evidence when you're providing any kind of healthcare, because of the kinds of decisions your beliefs are affecting; not to do so is unethical. If you read this and you think I've missed evidence for acupuncture (in the form of peer-reviewed studies at the same level of rigor as new medications - an equal standard) please point me to it. I will be glad to update my belief, and in public at that.

You would think proponents of alternative medical treatments (both practitioners and patients) who don't have a solid evidence base would be in favor of obtaining more evidence - because that would move these treatments into the mainstream, and help a lot more people. Yet, for some reason, very often there is a strong resistance to doing this, even among self-described rationalist alternative practitioners. And the rest of us can't be blamed for being suspicious of why this might be. (That said, when alternative medicine practitioners actively generate more evidence and then recommend modifying or discarding practices as a result, they're doing it right, and assuming they find treatments that work, they're benefiting future patients.) But there are mounting studies showing that most alternative treatments are really placebos for most of their applications - and one of these is acupuncture.

There IS some evidence that acupuncture helps with some musculoskeletal issues, but it would be interesting to do a study of this outcome, comparing against amateur massage and increased exercise (I'd bet money on equivalence here.)[1][2] Think about that for a second. For most of acupuncture's applications, it's the same as giving someone a sugar pill and saying "this will make your back feel better". And one of the curious arguments I've been hearing recently about this is that "if placebo makes you feel better, then it's okay".

That's a very, very slippery slope. For one thing, a person's comfort with the ethics of using placebo seems to depend entirely on whether that person likes the one who's providing the placebo. For example - if I start telling patients that if they buy my my magic stick, their back pain will improve - is that ethical? No? How is that different from the acupuncture evidence? (Don't be too quick to say it's because there's no evidence for my stick. You're right, there's no evidence either way. But there is active evidence of no effect for acupuncture!)

(Curiously, these conversations, even with rationalists who happen to like alternative treatments, become very like talking to religious folks. They ask you to prove negatives - "Have you looked everywhere for evidence of efficacy" - and apply different standards of evidence. Drug doesn't work in studies? It's a fake. [Fill in alternative treatment] doesn't work in studies? Western medicine can't evaluate this, or the establishment is against it, or just ignore it.)

Usually it seems people's "ickiness" with my magic stick placebo comes from two places: either 1) I don't actually believe in the magic stick; or 2) I'm the one who "made up" the magic stick. As for #1, let's say I don't believe in antibiotics, but I give them to someone based on the hospital's management standards for some infection. Does my personal disbelief in them affect how they work? (If you answered "yes", I didn't realize I was that powerful. I'm going to start personally disbelieving that Jack in the Box is bad for me.) As for #2, well, someone had to be the first person to make it up! It seems difficult to explain that it's weird and icky for me to make up a new placebo, but if someone did the same thing a thousand years ago and we've been blindly following them since then, somehow that becomes okay. Fine then, I'll start charging peopole to give them advice out of Bald's Leechbook. It's also worth asking what progress would look like in these fields. In a hundred years, based on new evidence, allopathic medicine will have more effective treatments and will certainly have discarded ones that we still haven't figured out are B.S. Will acupuncture have made similar progress?

The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus. It's 38 centuries old. The ancients used it, so our modern Western standards of "evidence" don't apply. As long as it makes you feel better, what does it matter? Now hold still while I fumigate your eyes with goose leg fat and you'll feel all better. Oh all of a sudden you have a problem with traditional placebos?

As an aside, if a branch of medicine spends more time explaining its "tradition" than its treatment outcomes, you should be suspicious. (There are many fields that do this; I'm not just picking on acupuncture here.) For example, would you really care about the ancient culture of the people that invented your HIV medicine? As a general heuristic, every minute they spend telling you about the founders or civilization it comes from is a point off its credibility. And yes, this absolutely applies to mainstream allopathic medicine. Whenever you challenge something with poor evidence but that is entrenched in practice, you're likely to hear about somebody at Hopkins or Mass General who did it, so it must be good, right? No dice pal, show me the money! See? Same standard!

If it seems like I get on a bit of a high horse about alternative medicine it's that, forgive me, I hold any kind of healthcare claims to a very high ethical standard. Part of that ethical standard is that the patient can give informed consent for their treatment, and if you're telling them things that aren't true (that's what a placebo is), you are absolutely destroying that core value of consent. So if I hurt a few people's feelings in defense of this value, I guess I'm okay with that.

To be clear again at the end: we should use those medical treatments for which there is evidence of efficacy and safety, whatever their origin ("alternative", traditional, a corporate laboratory, an academic center, etc.) - with an equal standard of evidence, whatever their origin.

[1] There is Class C evidence that cardiovascular exercise can also have benefits in depression equivalent to SSRIs like Prozac. There's even a conversion: 5 miles equals 10 mg. (Class C evidence means weight of expert opinion based on experience, rather than controlled studies.) This can and does influence practice. See? Same standards.
[2] And speaking of exercise improving musculoskeletal complaints, in a study of age- and weight-matched older runners vs. non-runners, the runners had fewer knee problems. So there, non-runners!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Clearly We Should Take Satanists Very Seriously

What's the Correlation Between Exercise and Religiosity

In the U.S., at the state level, it's a a correlation of -0.69. The more religious a state is, the less people there exercise. (Before you rationalists high five each other too much: are you getting enough exercise? You reading this. You.)

I've seen previous numbers that at the individual level, religiosity correlates with healthy weight. It's difficult to see how those can both be right.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

SoCal Secular Humanist Conference - 15 Feb 2014, now just $20!

Hey all, the conference is now just $20! Head over to Humanist Association of San Diego's Meetup page to get more information and sign up.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hot Peppers and Medicinal Chemistry: Adventures in Stupid Science(tm)

Above: pain

Trinidad scorpion peppers are the hottest peppers in the world, and will actually blister your skin if you touch the oil. They measure spiciness in Scoville units; jalapenos are 8,000 and scorpions are 1,500,000. If Clive Barker bred his own pepper, these would be it. Back in May, for some sadomasochistic reason, my friend had a party where he invited people to a feast of these Lovecraftian abominations. Surprisingly, some idiots accepted his invitation. Not surprisingly, all of them had Y chromosomes. Even less surprisingly I was among them. There were medicinal chemists in the audience, presumably because they are bad people and enjoy the suffering of other living beings. (If you're on the San Diego New Atheists Facebook group, this is the guy who put the Flying Spaghetti Monster on his garage door for the holidays. Do not under any circumstances accept an invitation from him as he makes Hans Fritzl seem like a good host.) The reason I'm posting this here is because my otherwise inexplicable behavior afforded me a chance to be a good rationalist, and put my money where my mouth was regarding a theory I had. And then change my mind if I was wrong, all to the delight of sadistic onlookers.

(If you're interested in the evolutionary advantages a plant might gain by being "hot", skip to the end.)[1]

My theory? I'd long had the idea, based partly on biochemistry and partly on personal experience, that the best way to decrease hotness would be (counterintuitively) to consume something hot, but not really hot, after the initial killer-hot food. (This is not the Homer Simpson candle wax approach.) I'd noticed this years ago when I'd put too many jalapenos on something, and then a minute later eaten some spicy but not really hot barbecue sauce, and thought I noticed that the heat abated quickly. Thus was an historic experiment in Stupid Science(tm) born!

(In my defense, prior to receiving disconfirming data, this theory might actually have made sense, if the hotness of these peppers and Tabasco relies on different capsaicinoid compounds. If you care about the science, skip to footnote [2] at the end.)

The stakes were high: if I failed, not only would my theory be disproven (in front of a bunch of medicinal chemists no less) but I would be in considerable pain. As if to highlight the risks, when I got there the host was walking around with an ice pack under his shirt, and the only guy that had eaten a whole one was actually crying from the pain. A sensible person would have noted the carnage and returned home, but in the name of science I forged on! (Warning, language. Trust me, if you did this you would have language too.) Thus I readied my last will and testament, and got the pepper and the putative Tabasco antidote ready.


Do note the cruel crowd's cackling at my failure,
not least the camerawoman,whose clear bias in her reporting
is an embarrassment to all journalists and a
likely indicator of deep character flaws

That's ice cream at the end. It didn't help either. Now of course I could have said maybe the heat in Tabasco and scorpions comes from the same compound (in which case we really didn't test the theory,[2] but it still means this trick won't work); maybe they are different compounds, and the amount of capsaicin in the pepper overwhelmed the Tabasco; N=1, p>0.05, underpowered, yada yada. We never know whether a statement is true, or (contra Popper) even false with absolute certainty (even in Stupid Science), but this obviously decreased my confidence in the spicy food partial agonist approach, enough so that I shan't be trying it again. If you disagree, I invite you to replicate the experiment! (This is a great example where the marginal value of additional certainty is also dubious.)


[1] The stuff in the pepper that burns a mammal's mucuous membranes doesn't affect birds at all. It's not that birds are specially immune to it, it's that the compound specially deceives only mammals. Why this discrimination against mammals? Probably not coincidentally, mammals have teeth that can destroy seeds, and birds don't - birds fly miles and miles, then poop out the seeds whole, as you may have noticed immediately after going to the car wash. So any plant that makes a chemical that causes birds to eat it more than mammals will spread. Now why one particular mammal deliberately eats these hot plants anyway, that's less biology and more psychology, or perhaps lack thereof.)

[2] In pharmacology, an agonist is a molecule that binds to and turns on a receptor. A partial agonist binds to the same receptor, but doesn't turn it on as much. So the partial agonist is an antidote - it competes with the full agonist, and decreases the overall response. The agonist here was the scorpion pepper, and the partial agonist (had it worked) would have been the Tabasco. (This is used in medicine, for example in partial agonists that reverse the effect of narcotics like morphine.) The chemists I mentioned expressed interest in this hypothesis, and still more interest in watching someone else test it. (Note I'm assuming the pepper's and Tabasco's hotness relies on different capsaicinoids, a critical assumption! Which from this simple one-off experiment, appears to be wrong.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Ever Wonder Why Catholic Priests Are Celibate?

Critical thinking is encouraged by noticing and thinking through counterfactuals - things which are a certain way, but which might have been another way. Lots of very unpleasant things have persisted as a consequence of people NOT entertaining counterfactuals; that status quo bias, or "that's just the way it is" is a refrain from someone who doesn't want to be troubled by something immoral that survives by dint of cultural inertia. Richard Dawkins has referred to this as "the anesthesia of the familiar".

Recently I found myself wondering why Catholic priests were celibate (and many other Christian priests are not), and if it had always been this way. An article that became popular on Reddit due to a saucy quote from Martin Luther (see below) answers the question. It seems that the adoption of priestly celibacy was mostly a political attempt to keep the priest class from accumulating more power through inheritance. No legitimate kids, no land. It's just an old-school power struggle between political classes, and that's actually how the argument began in the 10th century. It had little to do with Paul and Christ remaining single. A thousand years had transpired before this policy was adopted.

And that quote from Martin Luther? "To say it crudely but honestly, if it doesn't go into a woman, it goes into your shirt." (Note that in religion sexuality is usually viewed from a heterosexual male perspective; kind of a provincial viewpoint for the all-knowing supreme force of the universe to be taking.) After another five hundred years went by, people started thinking that masturbation was a bigger concern, and since the reformations were creating more decentralized churches, maybe the political powers weren't so concerned with priests' kids' inheritance.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Secular Ethiopian Village is Kicking Ass

Boy, talk about a natural experiment. A town in Ethiopia founded 40 years ago on non-religious values is whipping its neighbor's butts in economic success and development:
"We use all our time for work and to improve our village," he says.

One reason the people of Awra Amba are able to work so hard is that they do not follow organized religion.

In neighboring Christian and Muslim villages, residents respect the Sabbath and holidays. "They have quite frequent religious days, so on those days, they don't go to [do] farming work," says sociologist Ashenafi Alemu of Ethiopia's University of Gondar. "But for Awra Amba, this is not the case. They work every day."

The lack of religion is not the only competitive advantage for Awra Amba. The village invests a lot of energy in educating its children and diversifying its economy. It also embraces gender equality. You will see women here doing what is traditionally considered "men's work," like plowing, which effectively doubles the workforce.
Christians and Muslims in neighboring towns have reacted with anger and sometimes violence (throwing a grenade at one point.) Why? There's only one thing worse than when you ignore religious authority; it's when you ignore religious authority and you're obviously flourishing as a result. We can anticipate the reaction: "Well money isn't everything. Or sanitation. Or literacy. Or our kids getting an education." But that's obvious sour grapes when the world isn't turning out the way certain people insist it should. And it seems like a lot of their neighbors are in fact "getting it".

Important take-home that's so obvious it's often overlooked: your beliefs affect the world. Bad beliefs make it worse. Good beliefs make it better. We can measure this. So the challenge is, how (concretely!) is your life better because of your rationalism? How is your local secular community working out? I set up a friendly competition with Dallas and Denver over their meetup member numbers, but it's about something more important than that, and bravo to Awra Amba for giving us an example.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I Can't Believe It...Denver and Dallas Passed San Diego!

Look at these numbers. Just look at them. These are the membership numbers for the top atheist groups on Meetup. You can see the list of all groups here.

Group# 7/2013# TodayGrowth %Annualized %
Bay Area184217395.915.1
San Diego140413454.411.1

This is not okay. What does Dallas and Denver have (and London, for crying out loud) that we don't? Let's put our heads together. And most importantly, beat Dallas and Denver!

Satanists Are Just Heretical Christians; Plus, Let's Start Our Own Branch!

I was inspired to post this by a recent story about everyone's favorite crazy uncle with a radio show, Bryan Fischer, who argued that the first amendment of the U.S. constitution only applies to Christians. He in turn was inspired by the Satanist demand in Oklahoma City for their own holiday installation. (And as long as we're engaged in the silliness of governments putting up holiday decorations, they have every right.)

What's interesting about Fischer's statement is not that he's a dill-munch (which is, of course, clearly the case) but rather his claim that Satanism is not Christianity. It clearly is a form of Christianity, or at least Yahweh-anity, something which many an atheist has realized. Christian Satanists recognize the same deities - they're playing the same ballgame - they just follow a different team. When traditional Christians say that Satanists aren't Christians, that's like a Vikings fan saying that the Packers aren't in the NFL. (What the Satanists think they're accomplishing with their lives I'm not sure, but it doesn't seem like a good deal. Hey guys, let's buy into the same mind-clouding dogma as our sworn enemies the Christians, let's even cooperate with them on the symbolism, but not even get political power and social networking out of the deal! Somehow following Cthulhu actually seems less ridiculous to me. If Satanism seems just as silly to you, check out this video about a Satanic church from parody heavy metal cartoon Metalocalypse.[1])

So what to do?

Above: my deity. Come on, doesn't he look cooler than the Flying Spaghetti Monster? And he for sure looks cooler than that naked Santa Claus poster on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Plus Christians already believe in this guy! They just don't realize that Michael is #1 and Yahweh is the assistant coach. (Christians, you might not believe in the literal reality of angels - fair enough - but the book that you're living your life by very clearly does. If I were you I'd be asking some hard, grown-up questions about the foundations of my values.)

Alternative theology alert! (I think of it as similar to alternate history.) Alternative theology is always a fun critical thinking exercise (what if Buddhism had made it to pre-Christian Europe, what if there was no God but there is an afterlife, etc. etc.

In this case, Satanists are really just like heretical Christians, like the old Nestorians or Arianists who went extinct without descendants. (In fact there's a lot of evidence that all religions, including Abrahamic ones, were polytheistic and gradually their Zeuses got so powerful as to relegate the other gods to observer status, e.g. angels, fallen or otherwise. (For instance, when Genesis was written down, the God*S* were still plural.) So what if we start a Flying Spaghetti Monster-like cult to follow the pleasantly-named archangel Michael (or it could be Gabriel if you think I'm being self-serving. That's what the movie The Prophecy was about, with Christopher Walken as Gabriel no less.) But I like using Michael, who other Yahweh-followers already believe is #2, and was promoted to executive VP after Satan was kicked out. Fine, Gabriel has the horn, but I think Michael could create more shareholder value, what with the flaming sword and all.

So I'm going to start Michaelanity. At least it might make Christians think if I ask them why it's wrong. They don't even believe Michael is a bad guy! And after all, they and I believe in the same dieties, I just think all these Yahweh-followers have the order wrong.

Fortunately Michael is merciful. But only if you place the flaming sword on your wall to show your loyalty.

Never mind the Norse runes; in future generations we can claim that was added later by evil Yahwehists to deceive us. From the Warhammer 40k wiki.

[1] For the stout of heart, Metalocalypse made fun of atheist churches before there were any such things. This link is funny; if you haven't been, I assure you Sunday Assembly is nothing like this. I thought the South Park episode making fun of atheists was more spot-on. When you become the target of parody, that means you've arrived, and be thankful for the low price of living in a free society!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Freedom of Thought Report 2013 - Where Are Atheists Least Free?

There are still 13 countries where you officially be put to death because you're an atheist. This excellent report shows the state of affairs in 2013.

Love is Universal

Some radiologist thinks s/he is a comedian. Plus we Caucasian males are very sensitive about our heavier, more protruding supraorbital ridges:

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Year in Review: Atheist Community in San Diego and the U.S.

Two great videos came to my attention, the first from KPBS San Diego largely about Sunday Assembly and the booth in Balboa Park both organized by San Diego Coalition of Reason, the second from Dusty Smith. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Who Are the Worst Denialists?

Asking "Who are the worst denialists?" is a good question, because it makes us define what we mean by worst, and further it makes us really think about why this should matter to us. Sure, the moon-landing hoaxers are kind of fun, but are they really as bad as the anti-vaxxers? The anti-climate-change people? Physics cranks? The 9/11 Truthers?

So? Who are the worst denialists, and why?

Inspired by an article and comment section discussion at io9.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Saturday Assembly Tomorrow Nov 9th in San Diego!

This Saturday afternoon November 9th there's a secular assembly in Balboa Park, San Diego, which starts promptly at 2pm. Please attend! But also please register, and remember it starts promptly at 2!

Kudos to the folks who brought this now globally-known experience to San Diego; if you're not convinced how famous it's becoming, here's a writeup in the Washington Post.

Please note: you will find these events referred to as "Sunday Assembly" but be assured, in San Diego it is most assuredly a Saturday Assembly, on Saturday, November 9th. Also unlike previous events like the Assembly below, San Diego's assembly will be outside, and therefore even awesomer.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Craig Venter at UCSD 28 October

Craig Venter will be at UCSD Monday 28 October, talking about the creation of life and synthetic genomics. In a way Venter is a creationist's worst nightmare. He's a successful scientist AND businessman (take that, conservatives) who has put the principles of evolution to work for profit, and he's said interesting things about his work like "this is how God would've done it". More info here.

This isn't an SDNA-organized event (not yet) but if you're an organizer and you're interested in having people meet up for discussion afterward please don't hesitate to get it on the calendar. Below you can see Venter talking to Richard Dawkins.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dubious African Child Speaks Out on Vaccinations

Here about the survey? Just scroll down a couple posts, thanks!

Tim Minchin's Storm (Animated Movie)

(If you're here about the survey, comments/input/suggestion welcome! Just scroll down to the survey-related posts.)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Survey Has Exploded! Thanks Hemant

The Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta has helped out the cause by posting the formerly-religious survey. Have you taken it yet? Thanks Hemant!

And welcome, Hemant's readers, especially if you're in SoCal - come out and meet us at the San Diego New Atheists event

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sunday Assembly in San Diego

If you just want to get together, sing a few songs together with family and friends, and bond with human beings, then this is for you. It's all the community, without the superstition! This was started by by people in London but it's now been done in other cities, and they're bringing it to San Diego. It's not yet scheduled but the target is October or November. If you go to this link you can reserve a spot and show the Assembly that it's worth coming to San Diego!

This will also be a media-worthy event, and the San Diego community is still growing and the media exposure would be excellent.

(Go here to reserve your spot and help the Assembly come to San Diego.)

Sunday Assembly in London and New York.

Christians: Here Are the Steps To Convince Me to Accept Christ

Here's a road map for Christians who want to convert me. There's no sarcasm here; I mean this all quite sincerely. What I'm pointing out with all this is that going right to accepting Christ is skipping many, many steps.

First, you'll explain why I should even start thinking about such a question in the first place. Why would I even be worrying about this, more than I worry about four-sided triangles? I have other things to think about that are self-evidently much more relevant and meaningful. I would ask this same question to (for example) a salesman who comes to my door and insists that I need new windows when the need for windows is anything but obvious.

After that, you would explain how such a thing as a god CAN exist.

At THAT point, you would show that it actually does.

In so doing you would explain how you know that it actually does, in ways that are objectively measurable to everyone. (Otherwise, why should I listen to you instead of everyone else who's trying to get my attention on this and many other matters, many of whom are hucksters and don't want to give me evidence?)

You would then explain why this god has characteristic A and not characteristic B in terms of properties we can measure in ways (again) that are objectively accessible to everyone. "It came to me in a dream" or "you'll never understand until you let go" doesn't work when psychics and hippies try it, and it won't work here either.

The existence of this god must require a change in my decisions and behavior somehow, otherwise you wouldn't be talking to me about it; so once you establish the existence of a god with characteristics A B and C but not X Y and Z, you'll relate the measurable properties you established to human actions and to mine, specifically.

Importantly, I am living a good, happy, productive life now. While there's always room for improvement, it is not clear how accepting Christ would improve my values; it seems very much like it could only confuse them.

Then you'll establish why there are not other gods with different characteristics who are equally worthy of consideration. If Yahweh can be real, why can't Shiva? Hundreds of millions believe in him! Isn't Satan a god too, or at least a supernatural being, as well as angels? Why don't you believe in them? (Or do you?)

Now (and only now) are we even getting into Christian specifics. After you've done all this, if you want me to be YOUR kind of Christian, you'll convince me of the historical accuracy of the Bible (which many Christians dispute in different ways); why so many different kinds of Christians have taken the same leader and book and come away with very different teachings (even disagreeing on the order and wording of the Ten Commandments); you'll also resolve the many inconsistencies within the Bible so I know which parts to believe; and finally, explain why even though this book is very well explained by the knowledge, writing style, culture and politics of the era in which is was written, edited and collated, why it's any different from the Quran, the Diamond Sutra, or Bhagavad Gita. (In other words, if all those are just made up with tricks to keep people believing and spread themselves - which they were - why are the similar tricks in the Bible any different.)

You'll definitely explain why your understanding of morality differs so dramatically from the people who wrote the Old and New Testaments (unless you support slavery, stoning, etc.)

For most types of Christianity you'll also go through all the steps above to convince me that certain things exist that I also currently don't believe in, besides supernatural beings - things like souls and life after death.

If at any point in this process you appeal to a sense of faith or say that reason doesn't work on this, then you'll also tell me why I should listen to you instead of the Muslims and Scientologists (and many others) that say the same things to me. Or weird hippies that don't like "Western science, man!"

So before we get all the way down to "my version of the Christian God is the correct one and you should do X, Y, and Z" you have a few other steps to go through first.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What Made YOU Leave Religion?

The demographics survey for formerly religious people is up. If you once had religious beliefs, but don't any more, then take the survey! We're trying to figure out what influences people to move from religion to non-religion, because there's a surprising lack of actual data on this. And how can we help more people become atheists if we don't know what influences people to make this choice?

The movement needs your help to answer this question. The survey takes 10, max 15 minutes. With this data we'll be able to see what really makes people reconsider their religion and declare themselves an atheist (or humanist, or whatever). Most importantly, tell your friends about it! We're on Facebook too.

Monday, September 9, 2013

How to Get Religious People To Listen to Atheists

It doesn't matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice. That was Deng Xiaoping's rhetorically clever way to back into pseudo-capitalism from communism after a disastrous couple of decades for China, and (let's count skyscrapers in Shanghai) it's working. And - important! - until they started measuring development honestly and transparently, they couldn't be sure.

I often think of something similar when I see (mostly online) debates about the "purity" of well-known atheists' approaches. Sometimes the critique is that people are being too accommodationist, or they're self-loathing, or they're not consistent enough (or, most annoying, they don't agree with every last political opinion of the complainant). While discourse within the movement is emphatically good, sometimes this misses the point. A great recent example is the criticism of S.E. Cupp (picture above), a conservative TV host - and atheist - on CNN's Crossfire. Call her "self-loathing" all you want, but just by being an atheist - maybe the only open atheist in many viewers' lives! - she's getting millions of conservative Christians to respect her, identify with her and listen to her way of thinking far, far more than P.Z. Myers. I ask earnestly, who's doing a better job of getting atheism out there?

There is room in the movement for multiple approaches. PZ and the other fire-breathers obviously play a role, but there's a whole ecosystem. Cupp and Myers are just black and white cats, and arguing over color is a waste of time. Let's identify what catching mice is for us. It's not just for everybody to say the words "I'm an atheist"; it's a little deeper than that. (Everyone in North Korea says that and I think you agree they're missing the point too.) As an aside: I challenge PZ Myers fans (or any full-frontal-assault fans) to show me the data on which technique creates more rationality in the world, relative to S.E. Cupp (or other more indirect approaches). I doubt such data exists, but if it does and I'm wrong, I will gladly change my mind. If someone responds "it doesn't matter since PZ is right and S.E. Cupp is self-loathing!", then they really don't get it, and they're a good example of what I'm talking about.

What I think all of us in the atheist/agnostic/skeptic/secular/humanist/rationalist/pastafarian world want is this:

For human beings to become more rational, and less prone to arguments from authority.

The irony is that the people claiming the rationalist high ground are often clueless about whether their arguments are having any actual effects on making other people's actions more rational. It's not about purity or whether you properly declare tribal allegiance by saying you like Richard Dawkins. Atheism is part of rationalism; and there are many, many ways to get there (and probably more effective ways) aside from verbal frontal assaults. And more than anything, the first step is getting increasing acceptance of atheists as normal, respectable human beings. And the simple reality is that rational arguments often don't work on religious people. All that said, here are some points to keep in mind.

1. There's room for everyone. The PZ's and the S.E. Cupps are not at odds with respect to our goal.

2. Measure the effect. Great, you trounced a Christian in a debate. Did you collect before-and-after data on whether people's minds changed? Or were you just trying to get the name of your local organization out there to grow your group? Whatever it is, know your goal and measure it.

3. Even if you think rationalism is a package deal, don't force-feed people. That is to say: imagine a Christian that's starting to wonder if maybe evolution is true. And then along comes someone who says, "Yes, and once you believe in evolution, you have to accept atheism as well." That Christian now has an excuse to step back from (what they perceive as) the ledge. The less threatening the new information is to the established worldview, the greater the chance of acceptance. There's no magic sentence that will convert them.

4. Don't threaten identity - individual, family or ethnic. This is a big one, and it's an extension of not trying to do too much at once; and if you want someone to dig in their heels, threatening identity is the best way to do it. But there are signs that leaders of some world religions themselves, while still being religions, are moving in the right direction (the Dalai Lama has said that where science and faith conflict, you have to go with science; the Hindu Swami Muktananda, said "You mustn't believe in your own religion; I don't believe in mine". These folks are between a rock and a hard place, so let's make it easier for them to come toward reason, not harder. Not everyone has the bravery of a Jerry DeWitt or Teresa MacBain to jump directly to atheism! Do the rest of them in this list still have a long way to go? Yes; but they're going in the right direction, and in any event these aren't the people I worry about voting to force my kids to learn weird stuff in school. They're all in the process of attacking arguments from authority, even if they're starting from a sub-optimal place.

For this last point - it's not just the leaders of religions whose identities are threatened. Even where you think that religion and ethnicity are completely conflated, you would be wrong - just ask Jerry Coyne and the very many other members of the atheist Jewish community about that. For that matter, I'm a second-generation atheist but an "ethnic Lutheran" and I still put up a Christmas tree every year. Because it's pretty. (And by the way, so does Richard Dawkins.)

Direct argument is just one method to make people more rational. Measure results!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

If You Have a *Good* Opposing Theory...The Scientific Establishment DOES Listen

Are you familiar with dark matter? It's one of the biggest mysteries in science; if not, wiki is a good place to start, plus it's about all most of us can understand anyway.

(Notice that above I said "familiar" with it, not "do you understand it", because I certainly don't. I do understand that it can't just be regular non-luminous matter; e.g., gas clouds that we can't see because they don't give off light, or if you're as nerdy as me, high-Kardashev-level aliens that have made a bunch of Dyson spheres.)

So why can't dark matter just be hard-to-detect regular matter? Because various things we're pretty sure about in the universe match certain things we observe (like, the distribution of elements matches what we think would have been made at the Big Bang) but they don't match other things (like, the microwave background and the amount of gravity holding things together). And it's not just a question of rounding up to get the right answer - based on our current understanding, most of the matter in the universe must be dark matter!

My reason for posting this is that the science fiction writer David Brin points out that there's a competing theory from one group of physicists, which is that essentially macroscale (Newtonian) physics behaves differently at low forces, and voila, dark matter problem solved. This is not anywhere nearly widely accepted, but Brin's point is that while there are many crackpots railing at the establishment for suppressing their brilliance - physics crackpots, and biology crackpots (we call them "creationists") - but here we see there's a difference between crackpots and a genuine non-mainstream theory. The physics establishment isn't necessarily signing on to the new explanation for dark matter, but it's a serious enough attempt that it's being evaluated seriously. Creationism, not so much. (And again, creationists, why not bypass the journals? Why not just found your creationist biotech company and cure cancer? Somehow that never seems to happen!)

So, next time someone says "There's a conspiracy to surpress the truth, and that's why I can't get my theory published" - you can point them to this example, and tell them sorry, it's just because they're a crackpot.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Why Do Religious People Care About Scientific Validation?

Good question! Remember that neurosurgeon who wrote a book claiming he'd been to Heaven* (and, shocka!, it turned out to be B.S? Analysis of this particular neurosurgeon's psychology can be found here.)

Another writer asks this very basic question. If they really think that faith is the way to truth, why do these people have a fetish for science, and push any religious scientist they can find in front of the camera? It's almost as if what they really think is...

Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Buddhist Colony in Ptolemy's Alexandria: Alternate History #6

I'm kind of cheating with the title because alternate histories #1-5 are on another blog, The Late Enlightenment, from where I'm cross-posting this.

From the Parisian Mahayana Seminary lesson book, Year of the Buddha 2332:
'In the Gandhari original [gospel letters from the Buddhist kingdom of India] Antiochos is referred to as "Amtiyoko nama Yona-raja" (lit. "The Greek king by the name of Antiokos"), beyond whom live the four other kings: "param ca tena Atiyokena cature 4 rajani Turamaye nama Amtikini nama Maka nama Alikasudaro nama" (lit. "And beyond Antiochus, four kings by the name of Ptolemy, the name of Antigonos, the name of Magas, the name Alexander" [1]

"It is not clear in Hellenic records whether these emissaries were actually received, or had any influence on the Hellenic world. Some scholars, however, point to the presence of Buddhist communities in the Hellenistic world from that time, in particular in Alexandria (mentioned by Clement of Alexandria). The pre-Christian monastic order of the Therapeutae may have drawn inspiration for its ascetic lifestyle from contact with Buddhist monasticism, although the foundation and Scriptures were Jewish. Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have also been found in Alexandria, decorated with depictions of the Wheel of the Law.[2] Commenting on the presence of Buddhists in Alexandria, some scholars have even pointed out that "It was later in this very place that some of the most active centers of Christianity were established"'.
Alright alright, I'll give it away. This is real. Except for the attribution, this was in fact copied from Wikipedia (today, Year of the Buddha 2556.)

It's a bit odd that a Semitic religion ended up dominating Europe, and a blue-eyed Indo-European's religion ended up dominating East Asia - although oddly, not the land of his birth south of the Himalayas). But in the third century B.C., the Indian Buddhist King Asoka tried. After his conversion, he improved trade routes and sent missionaries throughout South Asia and the ancient Near East. In this he was like a Buddhist Constantine and Paul rolled into one; imagine a Buddhist New Testament with books named after letters to the evangelized city-states, like Alexandrians and Bactrians and Persians (instead of Romans and Galatians and Ephesians). The bottom image is an evangelical Buddhist inscription in Greek and Aramaic - by Asoka, from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Contact between Buddhists and the classical Near East always seem like a bit of alternate history to us modern Westerners.

Of course some of these monuments and markers have been destroyed by our throwback friends the Taliban, but they're just doing what good fundamentalists of all stripes do: think of the Spanish missionaries destroying Mayan texts, or early European Christians censoring and smearing classical materialist works, or any number of political book-burnings in the twentieth century. This brings up an obvious question: if Buddhism had its champion in a Asoka, then where are the Buddhist temples in Athens and Afghanistan today? The answer is obvious in retrospect when you consider religion as just another set of customs. If your philosophy (whether it appeals to the supernatural or not) is not traveling along at the head of a conquering army, or the merchants and diplomats of a powerful empire, the odds are against you if you don't have another trick, like getting endorsements from people in positions of power. (Scientology had the smart idea of spreading into people who have both influence, and weak intellectual immune systems.) It also helps for your philosophy to be intolerant of syncretism and pluralism, and here Asoka was too nice. He felt bad for having prosecuted a bloody war prior to his conversion, and while he did favor Buddhism, he did not punish non-Buddhists. Buddhism eventually did reach the rest of Asia - southeast Asia in Asoka's lifetime, and then China a few centuries later - by "organic" diffusion along the silk road or from missionaries sent out by the religion itself.

Again the differing history of religion in the Far East and the Middle East/Europe is interesting. It might not be anything about the pre-existing culture or geography or political systems of the regions, but rather the coincidental content of the religions themselves. Two innovations that the three Abrahamic religions happened to produce were 1) actively excluding other belief systems and 2) early in their history, successfully infiltrating existing secular powers. Indeed the Abrahamic religions got progressively better at this as time went on. The Jews kept mostly to themselves except during military occupation, then the Christians grew to dominate Rome after a few centuries, and finally Mohammed seems to have conceived Islam as a means to political and military power right from the start. Islam - Abrahamic religion v3.0 - was the best one so far. It's also probably no coincidence that it's the cultural and geographic crossroads of the Middle East where these innovations appeared. A religion that isn't a strong competitor right out of the cradle isn't going to get very far in a place like that!

So there was no Gupta army storming west out of India to force Buddhism onto the Persians and Greeks and Romans, partly because Buddhists are not required to exclude other beliefs. Fair enough; and incidentally, some of the Mongol armies were Buddhist, and some followed an indigenous Mongolian religion, but again, neither of these required conversion. If you paid your taxes the Mongols didn't care. That's why Russians today don't follow the sky god Tengri. (The euphemism "indigenous religion" just means "a religion that's not one of the few indigenous religions that escaped the ethnic group that created them and then spread globally".) But this leaves unanswered the opposite question, which is why India and China aren't Christian or Muslim today. If Alexander had crossed the Indus - or a Chinese-Turkic empire had controlled the Middle East - then very likely whatever religions appeared in this region would have spread east at least as much as they spread west. (In a stable, united post-Alexandrian Eurasia, my money is on a prophet appearing and spreading his faith a little earlier in history.) But we should also remember that we're still in medias res of the global diffusion of ideas, and it's possible that the monotheistic, active-excluding religions just haven't had enough time to crowd out the tolerant ones with tolerant leaders. That is to say, the world's gardens haven't yet all been colonized with the most hardy invasives on offer. Of course, the parts of Asia that came into contact with Abrahamism v3.0 are, in fact, Muslim today.

In closing, modern Korea is a much more interesting case. One half of it has its own brand of exclusive Korean-nationalist communism - originally a European philosophy; how syncretic - which tolerates no (other) religion - and the other half appears very much like it's in the process of becoming Christian, complete with politically ascendant creationists trying to impose restrictions on what is taught in biology classes. And all of this in less than a century.

Friday, August 2, 2013

An Evening With Dusty Smith in San Diego!

Meetup information is here; location is Balboa Park Club in the Santa Fe Room, 2144 Pan American Road W., San Diego.

Among many reasons to like Dusty Smith is the one why I like him: because, at a certain point, it's time to stop being diplomatic, and you have to call bullsh*t bullsh*t.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Canyon Cleanup

(Cross posted to my outdoors blog, MKD10 Outside.)

I'd been meaning to post the pictures from the Canyon Cleanup back in April. A few of us came out from SDNA (thanks everyone!) and joined some other teams of people - if I remember, Qualcomm was well-represented - but the coolest thing was that Dorothy and Sara got to take a kayak out to get the trash along the water to complete the cleanup on the other side. This is Penasquitos Creek, which a bit further downstream opens up into the marsh at Torrey Pines State Beach. Fun day! Next one is 21 September 2013.

Severe greenery was in evidence
but the cleaner-uppers were not dissuaded.

Intrepid cleaner-uppers scour the other side of the river.

Bumper Sticker Seen at Salk Hang Glider Port

I was watching my little cousins for the day and we were hanging out at the Glider Port next to the Salk Institute. When I saw this I told them to stop so I could take this picture; out of nowhere the driver came and said, "Which bumper sticker do you like?" I told her. She was nice.

This bumper sticker cancels out the one I saw on I-5 that I liked a lot more, which was "F I C T I O N" made out of holy symbols.

One-Beer or Two-Beers on Newcomb's Paradox

This is cross-posted to my cognition and evolution blog. It is also an inside joke for Less Wrongers, so my apologies if it doesn't make you smile.

Newcomb's Ranch is a (very isolated) bar on Angeles Crest Highway (CA Route 2) in Angeles National Forest, maybe an hour and a half from downtown LA. One might ask if I one-beered or two-beered at Newcomb's. Neither my good madame or sir! I thought I was pretty smart but at the end of the night Omega cut me off.

Well That's One Solution for Theodicy

"I am the flail of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you."

-Pagan Genghis Khan, to the many faithful he slaughtered

Theodicy is a problem that arises for people who think that God is all good, all powerful, and yet still recognize that evil exists. I very much doubt that the Muslims and Christians pulverized before the Mongol armies would have found Khan's smirking explanation acceptable, that this infidel foreign devil was actually the hand of Allah/Yahweh/etc. - yet, if these poor confused peasants thought they lived in a morally orderly universe ruled by their gods, they kind of had to. Or worse yet, a third option, that at best their god was weak or not that nice, or maybe even that it was all B.S. and they were just between a rock and a hard place. What to do!

This tasty quote is reminiscent of Jerry Fallwell's saying that the 9/11 terrorists were a punishment sent by God. Again, if you don't think Falwell was spouting offensive nonsense, then you do think that Mohammed Atta was the Lord's avenging angel, and to try to stop Atta would have been to obstruct the Lord's work. I don't know any Hindus or Christians who think that. And yet the lack of outcry about Fallwell's comment at the time from Christians who I personally knew to be decent, intelligent people was astonishing. Does nobody actually think about their moral values for more than two seconds?

According to Jerry Falwell, this man was just doing God's work.

But it turns out you can use this same logic on Hindus too. In fact it works even better there, because Hinduism claims that the law of karma is a natural law of moral balance. Here's how it works. Every time you're in a bad mood, you can get out your frustration by going for a walk and finding someone to hit in the face for no apparent reason. And to the poor person nursing the black eye and wondering why you picked them, you can say that while there was no apparent reason, there must still in fact have been a hidden reason, and this is made possible by the Law of Karma - they must have done something to deserve it! Something conveniently hidden in a past life that they can't remember, of course. (Whereas Christianity sometimes puts the hidden guilt in the actions of ancestors rather than previous incarnations, i.e. original sin.)

Hey man, don't complain to me. I didn't make up the universe's moral rules, I just work here. Now hit this sword with your neck and let's not be a whiny Wesley about it.

This is a neat trick - that is, if it doesn't matter to you that you're destroying people's sense of personal moral responsibility in the process. For people who insist on believing that they live in a universe that keeps a moral bank ledger, but meanwhile they actually live in a universe that doesn't care, when things don't add up, they can just print more moral play money for themselves (or take some away) until the numbers look how they need them to look so they can to keep believing. Imagine if banking worked this way! "Yes, I know that the statements say I still owe money on my mortgage. But in a past life I must have been a millionaire. Plus your great grandfather beat up my great grandfather once. So we're even." I'm not exaggerating. This is the Law of Karma, AND Original Sin. As always, if you read this and you think it's wrong, let's discuss in the comments.

See how nice this is for anyone that wants to avoid personal responsibility? By hitting people (or whatever) you are merely the instrument of karma. You might not know why you're the one doing the gods' work any more than the victim remembers their past lives. And, dear reader, who are you to question the workings of the universe and other people's gods? If you had not hit those people, karma would have remained unbalanced! It would have been immoral for you NOT to hit them. Or for Khan not to flail Christians and Muslims; or the hijackers not to do what they did; or anybody who ever did anything bad not to deliver god's retribution. See?

Fortunately, most people's innate moral sense isn't confused enough by these religious moral accounting frauds to distort their sense of responsibility for their actions that much. But I challenge anyone who believes that original sin or karma (especially karma) are real to explain otherwise. This is exactly what they claim to believe, and it's either childishly inconsistent, or grossly distorting to personal responsibility.

Full credit is given to my friend John (a devout Christian) for noticing this disconnect.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Judge Orders Lake Elsinore Religious Monument Down

Wow, that was fast. Appignani Humanist Legal Center has successfully argued that the Veterans Monument is religious and unconstitutional.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Hang out with San Diego New Atheists, and you will be granted powers you could only dream of. Like the power to meet the marshall of the SD Pride Parade (courtesy Rebecca; picture taken by George's husband):

Friday, July 12, 2013

San Diego New Atheists: Some Upcoming Events!

Tomorrow, 13 July 2013: the Pride Parade! And the marshall is, George Takei! Boy he's finding a lot of excuses to come down here recently...

3 August 2013: An evening with Dusty Smith and the Cult of Dusty. This is Dusty of NSFW Youtube rant fame.

These aren't the only events by any stretch - be sure to check out the calendar.

What We Do With Our Lives

"There will come a day, that you'll be sick, or someone close to you will die, and you'll look back on the kinds of things that captured your attention, and you'll think: what was I doing? You know this, and yet if you're like most people, you'll spend most of your time in life tacitly presuming you'll forever. Like watching a bad movie for the fourth time, or bickering with your spouses. These things only make sense in light of eternity. There better be a heaven if we're gonna waste our time like that."

The Monster of Lake Elsinore

There she is! Note the not-at-all out-of-place lush greenery on Lake Elsinore's shore in the background.

Yes, there really is a myth about one. (By the way, read through some of that Weird California website and very quickly you notice the patterns in all these stories. Do note that Weird California also contains an entry for the Creation Museum in Santee.) What's hilarious about the Lake Elsinore lake monster is that the lake dried up completely in 1954, and guess what? No monster! So of course the answer was "Oh the monster went up into a cave on the side of the mountains that year and waited out the drought." Uh huh.

This is amazingly similar to Carl Sagan's parable of the dragon in the garage, expanded on further by the Less Wrong community.

The question is, has anyone been harmed by this particular superstition? No one seems dead-set on forcing others to believe in the Lake Elsinore Monster, and punishing those who don't, and using your tax money to teach children about it in public schools. Maybe indirectly it does, because someone's general critical thinking ability might drop a point once they accept something like this. That said, I've never met anyone who professes belief in the Lake Monster, I just thought it was funny. Especially the lake drying up part. (Outraged Lake Monster fundamentalists: please comment. Please.)

A final comment about these ghost and monster stories, and Weird CA specifically: boy there are a lot of ghost stories on there. But always about people. Why no ghost mice? Or ghost trilobites? Ghost E. coli? I have the same question about our ubiquitous ghost ships. Do all forms of transport have the potential to enter the spirit world? Hey, I just saw a ghost Chevy the other day! And on quiet nights you can hear ghost roller's funny, but someone who says they believe this stuff and doesn't ask these questions, doesn't believe this stuff.

Betting: Using Psychology and Economics To Tax Bullsh*t

SUMMARY: People bet each other when they have different assessments about a belief. A bet is a tax on B.S. because it pins consequences onto a previously not-that-important belief or a belief that was protected from testing, so that being true becomes much more important; hence "putting your money where your mouth is". This is of obvious importance to rationalists. When you ask someone to enter into a bet - about anything - you find out what they really believe. The most interesting behavior arises when those bettors have incoherent beliefs that are exposed as having no effect on how they act, or where their stated beliefs actually differ from their actions. There are interesting concrete examples of how the tax on B.S. has been levied in some real-world situations. People can avoid the B.S. tax by refusing to bet, but they can't avoid the loss of status that comes from refusing to make predictions about something they claim to believe passionately.

Bets are a tax on B.S. To see why, it helps to understand why they can change our behavior or at least our stated beliefs. I was inspired to write this by a great series of online discussions by economists and political scientists at George Mason and Colorado (links below).

We humans "lower our standards" for having true beliefs when there's little consequence of having false beliefs. Another way of saying that is that making sure a belief is correct actually has a cost - in terms of gathering more information and critical thinking - and if the belief doesn't matter that much, it's not worth gathering much more information or thinking much more about it.

Concrete examples are useful here. Are you 100% sure that the way you drive from home to work is the fastest way, at the times you commute? Ih, probably, but even if the way you normally go isn't the fastest way, it's unlikely the different routes are different by more than a minute or so; probably not worth the extra hassle. Another example: you're playing a friendly game of bar trivia and you're asked to name all species of rattlesnakes that occur naturally in the San Francisco Bay area. You're reasonably sure you once read that there's only one, the northern Pacific rattlesnake, Crotalus oregonus. Now how about if instead, you're on a hiking trail and you were just bitten by a rattlesnake, and suddenly you're wondering if in fact you really are certain about the species distribution - or if instead you should kill the snake and take it to the emergency department with you so they can identify it and give you the right antivenin. If you think that's an obscure example, you should know exactly this happened to me, and at the time I realized what a great example it was of this principle: that the marginal value of certainty in a belief changes based on the consequences of that belief's being true or false.

And to be clear: choosing whether to trade your limited resources for more certainty in beliefs based on their importance would actually be rational and honest, if not giving a proposition much thought led us to declare "I don't know, I haven't given it much thought." (Unfortunately humans aren't good at recognizing and admitting that we don't know something.) And in fact this is (correctly) the way we allocate resources for science, both in the private and public sectors. Science is a process where we change certainty in beliefs by contriving situations with outcomes that differ as dramatically as possible, based on whether some specific belief is true or not. To contrive those situations, usually it takes time and money, which are limiting. Because there is limited time and money, but unlimited beliefs that we could be spending time and money to test, we focus on those beliefs which are deemed most likely to have some consequence in terms of money, well-being, or to further our general ability to determine which beliefs are worth testing. (To this end: every day it seems someone asks me a question about the cause of some comically minor possible medical complaint, to which I reply to my knowledge there's no research into it; and when they demand "Why not?" I say "because people are still dying of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimers, that's why.")

But that's not the only bad influence on the accuracy of our beliefs. For one thing, we often hold beliefs that are actually incoherent in terms of translating into action. Even when pressed, we can't ever give an example of how the belief will ever cause us to act differently than someone who holds an opposing belief. Such a belief-holder might insist that the belief is very important, out of all proportion to the belief ever seeming to make a difference. These "symbolic" beliefs may well serve as a sort of tribal loyalty signal. In this light, it's very interesting that Christians and atheists in the U.S. give almost identical answers to moral questions is very interesting here. This highlights a second service provided by bets, besides just the B.S. tax: bets also force us to define and agree on a real-world outcome in concrete terms.

We also damage the accuracy of our beliefs by protecting them, by deliberately avoiding any situations that dramatically highlight gaps between prediction and reality, both in ourselves and in those around us. This avoids having to update cherished beliefs or offending others. This is the exact opposite of science! Sam Harris observes the astounding difference in religiosity between scientists and the general population and concludes simply, "There is something profoundly hostile to religion in scientific thinking." (Add to that: Francis Crick said the number one enemy of effective collaboration in science is politeness.)

The last of the unfortunately numerous bad influences on the truth of our beliefs that I'll include here is that what we say we believe and how we actually act in situations described by our beliefs are often very different. This is called epistemic rationality (whether your stated beliefs are true) vs. instrumental rationality (whether how you actually behave achieves your goals). And most of us are loathe to admit that what we say and what we do are different. For instance, it's pretty easy to find young-Earth creationists receiving medical care from evolution-steeped medical doctors, or socking away retirement money in stocks of oil companies that look for deposits based on the idea that the world is billions of years old, or paying insurance premiums to companies that do not include prayer in their actuarial tables. It's not easy to find young-Earth creationists who like to talk about this gap in their beliefs and actions.

Which brings us back to betting. People bet each other when they have different assessments about a belief: the outcome of a game, the contents of someone else's hand of cards, or any other future event. And the bet is a tax on B.S. because now there are consequences pinned onto that previously not-that-important belief, and being true is now much more important. The bet also requires a concrete prediction agreed upon by all parties, so if the belief in question is incoherent, this becomes obvious. Finally, if what the bettor says they believe and how they actually act are in opposition, this also becomes obvious; the bettor must either endure a loss for the sake of preserving the appearance of their stated beliefs, or admit that their beliefs and actions are no aligned, or just refuse the bet. Because it's unpleasant to knowingly take a losing bet (and have your belief-action gap glaringly highlighted) and it's also unpleasant to admit such a gap, in these situations, people usually just avoid the bet. I'll close with some concrete situations, some of which have happened in very public ways.

Low-consequence bet: someone buys into their office March Madness pool for $5. They don't know anything about basketball but they're not motivated to improve their picks because it's only $5. There's not much B.S. here, and the tax is low.

An "honest", consistent false belief: you probably know a rabidly loyal sports fan who has made an over-optimistic bet about the performance of their team. They're "honest" in the sense that their stated beliefs and actions match. This person has a false belief ("my team is better") and they act on it. The B.S. tax may be large, as may be the humiliation of having your belief publicly dismantled. A historical example: Alfred Russell Wallace entered into a bet to (re-)prove the curvature of the Earth to a Flat Earther named John Hampden, and acquitted himself famously in this endeavor. This proved too much for Hampden, who spent the rest of his life in litigation for threats and libel he made against Wallace, so unbalanced was he by the experience: "Mrs. Wallace, Madam, if your infernal thief of a husband is brought home some day on a hurdle, with every bone in his head smashed to pulp, you will know the reason. Do tell him from me he is a lying infernal thief, and as sure as his name is Wallace he never dies in his bed." Cranks never change!

An incoherent belief: in contrast to people with "honest" false beliefs, people generally avoid betting about these because the difficulty of making concrete predictions exposes the belief's incoherence, and an openly nonsensical belief can't do its job as a tribal loyalty signal. Gay marriage opponents speak in vague terms about the degradation of marriage, but are unable to offer concrete predictions (or offer bizarre non-sequiturs). In 2009 Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune challenged social conservative public figures to give him concrete predictions (if not a bet) of what would happen as a result of gay marriage. All refused except one - because they didn't want to expose the incoherence of their claimed belief. The one who didn't refuse was the head of the National Organization for Marriage, and the list she gave was pretty much reflexive, i.e. "if gay marriage is legalized, then gay marriage will be legal". B.S. tax may be large, but it is more likely avoided - but only at the expense of a large tax on the claimant's credibility.

A gap between stated beliefs and actions: again people generally avoid betting on these, because to do so they either have to take the loss and remind themselves of their inconsistency (unpleasant), or admit there's a gap and update (also unpleasant). Running away is the least painful option. As an example, both in the build-up to the Harold Campocalypse, as well as the 2012 date, I looked online (hard!) for people who really believed what they said they did - that the world was going to end. My "bet" was this: I would give them $US1000, and they had to pay me back with 400% interest on the day after their end-date. If they were right, that's free money for them! Needless to say, no one ever took me up on it.

This post was inspired by an online debate among economists about the relationship of betting to beliefs, and other related points about betting emerged. First, to be useful, people's beliefs must make a difference without being artificially pinned to money (there's already a penalty to having false beliefs, just not an obvious immediate one); and also there is an effect of others knowing the beliefs you profess, sometimes far in excess of any financial gains or losses resulting from bets[1]. It's unpleasant to be shown that your belief was false, and you lose status in front of other people. For this reason, people often don't like bets of this sort, because it's confrontational; it "outs" bullsh*tters. (Seriously, read the article at that link, it's excellent.) Once someone is challenged to a bet or just to make a concrete prediction, there's no way out without someone losing status. The challengee then either has to accept (and risk losing the bet or losing status from making a bad prediction), or has to refuse the bet, and lose status from refusing to make decisions relating to something they claim to believe passionately. This may be why bullsh*tters often avoid bets by suddenly remembering a strong moral aversion to wagering, rather than just saying they don't want to bet. In those situations, you can charitably say "You know, I can't tell for sure that you're dishonestly looking for a way to avoid putting your money where your mouth is, but I can tell for sure that you're behaving exactly the same as someone who's doing that."

Yes, I guess that's confrontational, but I'm okay with confronting bullsh*tters. As a final remark, on issues of passionately-held and protected beliefs where word and deed conflict, or incoherent tribal-loyalty beliefs, you're probably not going to change someone's mind by confronting them this way or beating them in a bet. But you'll give fence-sitters something to think about.

Other great posts:
A Bet Is a Tax on Bullsh*t Bets and Beliefs (Alex Tabarrok, Economist, George Mason)
Bets Argue (Robin Hanson, Economist, George Mason)
Suspecting Truth Hiders (Robin Hanson, Economist, George Mason)
Why Religious Beliefs Are Irrationality, and Why Economists Should Care (Bryan Caplan, Economist, George Mason)
Why People Are Irrational About Politics (Michael Huemer, political scientist, U Colorado)

Below is a TED talk by Huemer, where he gives this useful rule for detecting bullsh*t in yourself: "If you think that the community of experts on this subject is wrong, and especially if you think that, while being unable to state their arguments, then you're almost certainly the one who is wrong."

[1]There is a recent striking example illustrating that the value of bets goes beyond their monetary value, because a bettor chose to continually take losses in order to send a signal that was presumably more valuable, in the now-shut-down prediction market Intrade during the 2012 U.S. presidential election. (A prediction market is basically a stock exchange of many people making bets, which ends up amalgamating their predictions usually into one amazingly accurate prediction.) In the days before the election when everybody but FOX pundits had called it for Obama, this market still only had Obama in the 70% range - in fact well into the night, when Ohio and Virginia had already been called, and Obama was almost a lock. As it turned out, in those final days there was one buyer who was continuously making bets on Romney, out of all proportion to others' predicted outcomes, and this kept Intrade's overall prediction tilted more in his favor than it should have been. If this bettor believed Romney would win, then this was just an honest false belief and they paid a B.S. tax for it. My guess is that this bettor (using campaign funds?) was trying to manipulate the market to keep Romney's chances high, and that the signal from Intrade's prediction was worth more to them than the money they lost. It has been speculated that Intrade, which had been operating for years, was suddenly prosecuted by U.S. agencies after the 2012 election because of people who didn't like the way it called bullsh*t on their beliefs.