Thursday, September 15, 2016

Women Beyond Belief

By then I had finished a college degree, and for a while I taught in a Christian primary school. The science workbooks promoting Intelligent Design to children just made it more clear to me that Christian beliefs were holding on to ignorant ideas of the past. The workbook actually used a butterfly as an example that one kind doesn’t change into another. It proclaimed that butterfly eggs always hatch butterflies. Of course they do; no organism ever outgrows its ancestry. For example, humans still have ancestral traits all the way to Eukarya, as all our cells still have nuclei. So we are still eukaryotes. Evolution isn’t metamorphosis. It’s gradual change at the population level. There is no such thing as a taxonomic "kind" either. That is a pseudoscience term. Evolution never allows for one "kind," like the dog example, to produce a different "kind." Every organism that ever evolved is just a modified version of whatever its ancestors were.

A butterfly is a species that actually undergoes a startling metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a winged butterfly in its own lifetime. Nature is not fixed and immutable, requiring a deity to tinker with it. Butterflies aren't poofed into place by a god for the purpose of being pollinators with all the biological traits designed to do that. Neither is there this cosmic creator that decided to make butterflies colorful to delight people in the Garden of Eden. Different butterfly colors are various adaptations to attract mates, scare away predators, and camouflage depending on the environment of that particular butterfly species. It angered me that creationists often are successful in inserting their agendas into textbooks, deceiving young minds into being incurious about the way nature works through evolution. Using the simplistic explanation that god created it that way kills inquiry into finding out why nature actually is the way it is.

-Lilandra Ra
Lilandra Ra was raised Catholic and Baptist. Her role as a science teacher led her out of religion. She's just one of 22 authors who wrote an essay about her journey away from religion (excerpted above). Karen L. Garst has compiled these essays into a book entitled "Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion," which can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Dr. Garst (former executive director of the Oregon State Bar) became incensed when the U. S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in 2014. This decision said that because of its religious views, Hobby Lobby, a craft store, would not be obligated to follow the dictates of the Affordable Care Act and provide certain forms of birth control to its employees. Of course all manner of tribal irrationality can "infect us in our most basic integrity", as Hitch said for religion, as we also see in just one example of anti-vaxxers; but politicians the world over appeal consistently and uniquely to religion in attacks on women's health, supporting restrictions on abortion, banning funding for Planned Parenthood, and a host of other issues. Atheists, rationalists, skeptics: this is where the rubber meets the road. This is where our actions matter most. Not about Flat Earthers, not about 9/11 Truthers,but about the effects of irrational beliefs that are causing immediate harm to people right now.

The first leaders of the New Atheism movement that arose after 9/11 were men: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. They came with backgrounds of science and philosophy. They launched a renewed effort to show people how destructive religion can be and how all Abrahamic religions are based upon an Iron Age mythology, borrowing from other mythologies of the time.

Dr. Garst wants to add a focus on women and the role this mythology has played in the culture of many countries to denigrate and subordinate women. She states that "Religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality." And she is right. More and more women atheists are speaking out. And as we all know, if women leave the churches, they will collapse.

She has received support with reviews by Richard Dawkins, Valerie Tarico, Peter Boghossian, Sikivu Hutchinson and other atheist authors.

I encourage you to check out Dr. Garst’s blog at and to pre-order this excellent book.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Old Hags and Jaguars: Is This Reality? If Not, How to Explain the Experience?


Sleep paralysis is scary. While we still don't understand the neurology of it, it appears to be that the switch gets stuck and these folks wake up, but can't get out of normal REM sleep paralysis (it makes sense to have a cut-off switch like that, otherwise when you run or scream or punch in your dreams, you would do the same thing in real life, and that might not be so good.) In addition, they have terrifying psychosis-like perceptual distortions. Sometimes they awaken, and report seeing shadowy figures just out of the edge of their vision, and they're paralyzed, so they can't turn their head to see. Or sometimes, the hallucination - the being that they perceive - appears immediately in front of them, with every detail available for scrutiny. People thus affected often don't know that they share their problem with other humans, and haven't communicated about it or searched online - and yet, their hallucinations are similar. They hallucinate a hideous old woman.

People who have used DMT, particularly in its plant-derived form of ayahuasca, commonly see jaguars.

I was watching a pretty sensationalist (and creepy) documentary about sleep paralysis. Implying that there must be some external reality (external to the person's brain) causing these experiences, people repeatedly ask, "how can these people be seeing the same thing?!" How they can be seeing the same thing is that our nervous systems break in the same way, and we have similar perceptual disturbances - even if we don't understand it completely yet.

I'd like to ask theists, especially educated Westerners, what they think about this. Are these things real? Or tricks our brains play on us?

You see the rub here.

Some theists would undoubtedly say, "Yes, they're real. The jaguars, the old hags, even the voices that psychotic people hear, those are all demons." (Some of them do think that. That's why the Virginia Tech shooter's parents didn't get him psychiatric help.)

Other theists would hesitantly offer an explanation of misfiring nervous systems misrepresenting reality. But that's dangerous...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

I'm *Pretty Confident* In the Laws of Physics

Watch the video below for a little bit, and you'll see a physicist testing himself in front of the class: does he really believe in the laws of physics?

Indeed, without considering risk:benefit and ever-present uncertainty, can we really get information about someone's beliefs?

(Here I mean actionable beliefs. The interesting thing about many irrational "beliefs", religious, political, or otherwise, is that very often the beliefs are contentless tribal cheers that have no measurable effect on the believer's behavior. Tellingly, pointing this out or putting the believer in a position that requires an explicit choice based on the belief is seen as offensive; see people's responses to betting.)

Many physics lecturers have done the exercise above with their students, and occasionally people in the rationalist community will post these videos. Here I show you why, if someone moves away from the pendulum, she's not necessarily making a strong statement about her belief in the laws of physics.

I like this demonstration of principle in the sense that the point of beliefs is to make good decisions. If your claimed beliefs don't affect your actions, or you're behaving contrary to your claimed beliefs, you have to ask whether they're really your beliefs, or what good they're doing in your head.

But there is always uncertainty, and the degree of uncertainty, as well as the consequences of a decision, should affect your risk:benefit and your decision. In fact, asking people to behave as if they are absolutely certain shows a poor understanding of Bayesian reasoning! Bad rationalist!

In this case, assuming you believe in the laws of physics, your risk:benefit goes like this. "I want to prove that I believe in the laws of physics. If I don't stand my ground when the pendulum swings back, it will look like I don't; my peers will doubt my belief and my ability to behave according to that belief. Even worse, *I* may doubt it.

"On the other hand, the pendulum hitting me in the face will hurt and may injure me, unlikely though I think it is. And there are reasons this might happen without the laws of physics being violated. There might be something that affects the setup, e.g. an air vent is blowing that is normally not on, and this will accelerate the pendulum enough in its return to make it whack me. My a-hole friends might be playng a joke on me (actually, not unlikely at all). And finally, maybe I *don't* 100% absolutely understand the principle, which is important in situations where I can get injured (this would qualify as not believing, at least in this law of physics).

So your utility equation, to get you to stand still, would look something like:

gain from proving to peers you believe in principle

must be greater than

(embarrassment/pain/injury)*(uncertainty about principle)*(general uncertainty including a-hole friends)

But wait, there's more! If this risk:benefit were all that the nervous system was doing in this situation, what we would see is not people stepping up to the pendulum and then flinching as it swings back. They would say no way Jose right from the start. But flinching is a reflex, and it's very difficult to argue that it's subject to belief in the same way as your decision to participate in the exercise. Case in point, I really am quite certain that contact lenses won't hurt me (I don't wear them normally, just for Halloween costumes) but I have great difficulty keeping my eyes open to put them in. Notice, by the way, that the gentleman in this video closes his eyes and makes jokes revealing anxiety about the process, even after (probably) years of doing this very demonstration.

In all decisions, the likelihood and magnitude of the reward and consequences make a difference, even in something so simple as this. Optimism is a good outlook for modern life where at most you risk social rejection - constantly try to do things that are out of your league, and you'll fail most of the time, but by dumb luck you'll score occasionally. (This is why learning to tolerate failure and rejection is so important.) On the other hand, when you're rock-climbing or flying a plane, the consequences of failure are massive. Then, it pays to be pessimistic. And finally, everyone's utility equations are a little bit different. Why is it so important to get people to swear their loyalty to physics? In my case, in this situation, not that much, and the factor that figures heavily in my decision is concern about the utility function of my a-hole friends.

From XKCD.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Ken Ham: Without Biblical Literalism, People Will Stop Wearing Clothes

Creationists and social conservatives in the U.S. have created a bit of a cottage industry of making ridiculous claims about the effects of gay marriage - and other outcomes of secular morality that they don't like. Most recently, everyone's favorite creationist Ken Ham says that if we stop accepting the Bible as fact, this will lead to people not wearing clothes anymore. Compare to previous claims about gay marriage making people marry their dogs or legalize pedophilia.

It's very important not to be distracted by the individual issues where the social cons insist you listen to them. These claims (about gay marriage, teaching evolution, etc.) are distracting symptoms of a much more important central process, so my advice to fellow rationalists is that we shouldn't waste our time wading into the details of these sideshow debates, but rather confront them on their central complaint (which I'll get to in a second.) But the complete lack of interest in the actual outcomes is a huge hint. If you look at the way these claims come up in discussion with social cons, you can tell they're not at all central. I'm pretty sure Ken Ham didn't call conservative talk radio stations and say "Hey, I need some airtime so I can tell everyone about how lack of Biblical literalism will lead to mass nudity." Another great example: in 2009, a reporter challenged social conservatives to make concrete predictions about what would happen when gay marriage was legalized. None of them except one were able to tell us how the world would end. (As for the one that did, here we are six years later, and you can check out how well she did for yourself. Amazing! Many of these people were fighting against gay marriage as their full-time jobs, and they're not interested in telling us about the coming evils that they otherwise seem so invested in fighting.

Are they just dumbasses? Or do are they just not saying what's really motivating all of their whining? What's going on is all of their anger - against evolution, against gay marriage, against birth control and the right to choose - is really one big fear of theirs, taking different forms. It's not about evidence, you goofs! That's why when a rationalist argues with a theist about these things with evidence relevant to that particular disagreement, you're playing chess against a football team. It's not even about the outcomes of these things, or at least not the ones the social conservatives are willing to say out loud. That's why, when you can get these people to actually say what they think is going to happen (which is rare!), they quickly mutter something weird about bestiality or nudity (or something outright false and easily disproven), and then go back to complaining about how terrible it is that people won't listen to them anymore - which is actually what they're worried about.

What Ken Ham, and all the rest of them, really should say is "If you doubt my authority, and the authority of others like me, on matters of our origins or on sexual morality, then I will lose further control over people's behavior." That's it. This is how those who argue from authority behave when they're finally dragged out into daylight. And if these discussions run in circles, it's because their foundation for morality is "What's good is what Ken Ham says is good." But they can't say that out loud and expect people to take them seriously. So when pressed they flail apocalyptically and say "bestiality! Nudity! Et cetera!" (That said, Ham is more pin-downable than most, and he even uses the phrase "absolute authority" at the end of this bit.)

So let's try this: instead of giving someone statistics about how kids in same-sex households do, ask social conservatives "You have trouble saying what the bad outcome is that you're so worried about. This is really just about you trying to control people's behavior." Of course they'll sputter and object, and then you can ask them how a Muslim trying to do the same thing would act any differently from them.

*Note: for some time until a few years ago in that den of sin San Francisco, it was not in fact illegal to be naked, or at least not enforced. There were a handful (less than 10 in the whole city) of people who regularly took advantage of this. Somehow it didn't blow up into mass nudity. Interesting experiment, and relevant to this argument.

**As usual, there is a whole non-Christian world out there which is neglected in Ham's particular monologue. Somehow billions of people figured out clothing and marriage without the Bible.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tornadoes and the Lord

"I was scared. I was mortified. I just kept praying, 'Lord protect us. Protect us,'" said Linda Johnson, a kindergarten teacher who lives two doors down from the Seventh-day Adventist school. (From an article about the tornado in northern Berks County, Pennsylvania, which messed up a school pretty bad.)

Many people will no doubt be thankful that no one was hurt in the incident - but hey, for a Guy who claims to be in charge of the universe, how about not hitting your school with a tornado at all!

Also apparently He does not have a good sense of timing: "Linda said her classroom just got brand new carpet Thursday morning, and the gym just got a new roof last week." Sad trombone!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Instrumental vs Epistemic Rationality and Depressive Realism

An unintentional koan for rationalists from Razib Khan, in a post comparing the paths (so far) of European and Chinese economic development:

"What drives growth? Innovation. How do we get innovation? By investing in crazy projects whose payoffs we can't calculate rationally and whose outcomes are not foreseeable."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Was St. Paul Epileptic?

I have to admit I have a bit of an obsession with the Apostle Paul (scroll down in this post and you'll see). I had heard speculation before from various neurologist types that Paul (Saul) of Tarsus had temporal lobe epilepsy. Why? If you know the story of Paul, think about it - he sees a flash of light, falls down in a fit on the road to Damascus, and can't eat, drink or see for 3 days afterward, which sounds very much like a (bad) post-ictal state. Then, if you believe the book of Acts, he goes on to fit a classic profile for Geschwind personality syndrome (which results from poorly controlled temporal lobe epilepsy), writing a quarter to a half of the New Testament (hypergraphia and hyperreligiosity) and showing humorlessness and disinterest in sex on top of it.

If you're still not asleep, then you may be as interested as I was when I ran across the article which crystallized this speculation in 1987, and a follow-up in 2012. The second one goes beyond just Paul.

Landsborough D. St. Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 1987;50:659-664

Murray ED, Cunningham MG, Price BH. The role of psychotic disorders in religious history considered. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. 2012 Fall;24(4):410-26. doi: 10.1176/appi.neuropsych.11090214.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Would This Be An Acceptable Alternative to Abortion?

Arguments over social policies often take place over superficial, concrete positions that don't really get at the positions of both sides. To this end: there's a feeling people often get that anti-abortion, anti-birth control "arguments" aren't really about protecting babies per se, but rather controlling women's reproductive freedom. (For example, male birth control is getting closer to reality and I haven't heard a single peep out of the usual concerned parties about that...)

So here's a thought experiment for you to find out what people are really after here. Let's make two changes to the world of our thought experiment. First, assume that there are medical discoveries made so that now, we can extract a fetus from a woman at any stage of development without harming the mother or the fetus - and have artificial wombs that can keep the fetus healthy and growing until "delivery" at 9 months. Second, assume that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett donate their every last cent to a fund to get adoptive parents to house, feed, clothe, raise and educate these kids, so they're taken care of after their artificial births. They'll have lives just like any other adopted baby.

If this became possible, would this be morally preferable to making women who don't want their baby carry the fetus to term? If not, why not?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My New Hero: Tracy Jones

He stands up to say what's what at a city council meeting in Chester, PA. (Doesn't hurt that he's a Pennsylvania boy like your blogger, but I'm sure that's not influencing me at all.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Two Functions of Beliefs: Meaning and Group Affiliation

Stated beliefs usually have multiple functions, and nowhere is this more obvious than in beliefs related to identify and group membership. The two functions below are not the only two functions but they're important ones, and they sometimes conflict, between an individual's beliefs or even the same belief statement.

There is the obvious, contentful function of a stated belief: saying "I believe X" means the person believes concretely that X, and will make concrete measurable decisions in alignment with that belief. This function of the belief is a truth claim in its most mundane, practical sense. "I believe it's going to snow tomorrow," a person might say, and get out their snow boots and set their alarm a half hour earlier because of the snow. Let's call this the simple content function. A naive and superficial approach to understanding human belief claims assumes that the only thing worth paying attention to is the semantic content.*

But there is another function, which is to reinforce one's own identity, as well as to declare an affiliation with a group of people, or separateness from a group you don't like. Maybe the same person might say "Snow tomorrow or not, global warming is real, and people who accept global warming - like me - are intelligent, informed citizens, and people against it are mindless idiots." This will make the person feel better about him or herself, and will let their social circles know they're "right-thinking". (Note: there's no argument here that people are doing so consciously or intentionally. The crux of the ideas is that people do this automatically.) Let's call this the group affiliation function. It often seems that the majority of stated beliefs are mostly exclamations of group-affiliation.

Stated beliefs are often weighted toward one or the other of these functions, and oftentimes, the more important the group affiliation function is, the less important the simple content is. That is, the more important the group affiliation function is, the less important it is that the belief is coherent, accurate, and actionable. That said, just because a given belief contains a large component of group affiliation, that doesn't necessarily mean the belief is not justified. In the text that follows, I'll refer to contentful beliefs and group affiliation beliefs, but in reality most beliefs have components of both and just lean one direction or the other.

People declare group affiliation in myriad ways (clothing, accent, diet) and sometimes, utterances that aren't even language. Confederates had the Rebel Yell, conquistadors "¡Santiago!" These are the human equivalent of territorial barks and howls. In other cases, "stated beliefs" do us the favor of being clearly incoherent, showing that they're more wordless war-cries than truth claims, not really even being sentences or at least being repeated so much that they're reduced to mantra-like reflections of solidarity and fervor, rather than having semantic content. Examples: Go Chargers! Allahu aqbar! Sieg heil! Are people really commanding football players to run, making a theological claim, or praising victory when they shout those things? No, they're saying "Hooray for my side, in a way that only my side says!"

Interestingly, when people are asked about "beliefs", we're much more likely to think about expansive, identity-defining, high-group-affiliation-component beliefs, rather than mostly mundane and actionable ones. That is to say: someone might tell you "sure, I believe that the big oil companies will keep making money and finding oil, but that hardly rises to the level of a 'belief'. The world was created 6,000 years ago, now I believe that!" But not many of those same people reallocate their retirement accounts when reminded that those oil companies look for oil based on an old-Earth materialist/evolutionary model. That is to say, when you find conflicts between pragmatic/actionable/contentful beliefs and group-affiliation beliefs, people become uncomfortable.

Sometimes these two functions of belief statements fail to connect. For instance, many Americans who are passionate about their political ideals are really just passionate about being a member of the liberal or conservative tribe; when they get involved with the actual nuts and bolts of voting or working in a government, suddenly everything seems very mundane and fuzzy and not painted in ideological colors at all. (This gives rise to the old political smartass question of how you pave a street in a Republican way versus a Democratic way.)

Sometimes these two functions of belief statements do connect, and they collide head-on. An interesting exercise is trying to turn group-affiliation beliefs into pragmatic ones by attaching a consequence; a quick-and-dirty way to do this is by asking people to make a bet. If the world really will end on a certain date, I'll loan you money you don't have to pay back until the day after (I tried this one a few years ago with Harold Camping crowd; amazingly, no one took me up on it). If gay marriage will destroy America, you pick the consequence and date it will be realized, and we'll make a bet on it. When you do this to people's group-affiliation beliefs, people either a) change the subject, b) tell you that's offensive (betting or indeed attaching any practical consequence to their tribal-affiliation belief, even though these are often claimed to be the most important beliefs in their life!) or c) come right out and tell you there's really no way to verify or test what they're saying, but insist that what they're saying is still true in some special way or magical other realm (or that they can just tell it's true even if you can't, poor soul). But keep in mind: when you demand verification of an incoherent group-affiliation belief, you're attacking someone's group, and in so doing making a full frontal assault on their identity. Of course they won't like it.**

Sometimes people manage to package a mostly-group-affiliation belief into a complete sentence. Fans holding up their index fingers and shouting "We're Number One!" at a sports upset usually don't believe they're really number one, if you insist on asking them in the moment of their elation. And in fact, we have whole books containing group-affiliation belief statements with the explicit claim that they can't really be verified, but are still somehow true. (Razib Khan excellently describes what theologians do in interpreting these texts as intellectual foam, because the exegesis and even the core text itself usually has very little to do with the religions they catalyzed. The same could be said of most political movements.) Of course, if you're a member of some religious or political ideology and you think I'm talking about you, then assume that I'm talking about those other weird religions or political groups, but do be sure to explain in the comments why your own special club is different and doesn't suffer the same problems.

Group-affiliation is a component of all our claimed beliefs and sometimes (usually?) overwhelms the truth value of those beliefs. And this is not some problem with the influence of Christianity, or modern consumer capitalism, or anything so provincial. It appears quite universal, stemming from the genetics and neurology of humans, and it wouldn't be a matter of education but rather full-on genetic engineering to do away with it. The key is when those incoherent group-affiliation-overloaded beliefs are carried forward by institutions with political power, they often do have effects, and begin impinging on other people, now we have a problem. Case in point: one of my cousins thinks I'm kind of fruity for not caring about pro football, but he doesn't think I'm a bad guy and definitely doesn't consider me a source of family shame for it, or think I should be kept away from children, or anything like that. Another of my cousins thinks that I should have to leave America, or be quiet - interestingly, because he says the majority of America is Catholic (which is even funnier than you think, because our family is Lutherans all the way down.)

You may have noticed the frequent referral to sports fans, because they are a (mostly) harmless manifestation of tribal identification and group-affiliation distorting the truth-claim aspect of not just belief statements, but human cognition itself. You may also have noticed that on average, atheists tend not to be fans of team sports. (I looked for data, but just found other people making the same anecdotal observation.) Why might this be? It may be that there is something cognitively different about people who choose atheism against a background of religion - that as Pascal himself said, we were made in such a way that we cannot believe. We like to pat ourselves on the back and say it's because we're more rational, and without excluding that, it seems very likely that we are atheists in part because we just can't as automatically absorb group-affiliation, through language and otherwise. (Turkish sociologist Fehmi Kaya once implied that atheism was a form of autism. Of course this is incorrect and he later apologized, but you can actually see what he was getting at.) Consequently, in a culture where atheism is not the norm, atheists would also not be likely sports fans. (In China or Scandinavia where atheism is more common and therefore less informative about the person, I would expect there not to be a weaker correlation.) If atheists in general think (and communicate) in terms that more heavily favor the contentful component over the group-affiliation component, then team sports would seem a strange world indeed. It also explains the frustrations that atheists often experience in talking to strongly-identifying religious and political group members.

In closing: it's worth repeating that all these group-affiliation-laden belief statements aren't conscious clever ploys of scoring status points with your favorite in-group. If it was a conscious decision, why would you have a favorite in-group in the first place? They're part of our actual beliefs, to some degree in all of us, and we believe them to be "true". Our need for solidarity dramatically affects our cognition. A recent paper in Psychological Science looked at how extremeness of political beliefs relates to the anchor bias. The anchor bias is simple. If you take two groups of people, and tell group A, "New York and San Francisco are at least 2,000 miles apart; try to guess exactly how far apart they are?" and group B, "They're at least 2,500 miles apart...", guess what? Group A will on average give a smaller number, because they have a smaller anchor. (If you think this is B.S., marketing professionals don't, and they have your money to prove it.) Interestingly, political extremists are less affected by this bias than people closer to the center - they are less influenced by external cues. My prediction is that they would also be less affected by other tests of conformity (the famous Milgram experiment, or standing in elevators facing the back or saying a shape is a different length than it actually is). To be clear that I'm not scoring an own-goal for theists on this one: the point is not that extremism is good, but rather that humans adjust their perception of reality to group norms, and that atheists (in the U.S. anyway) are people who are less likely to do this, and you could likely measure it in these experiments.

*This is a descriptive rather than normative statement. When people state their beliefs, they are mostly not actionable, coherent, accurate beliefs. If robots followed people around trying to translate their belief claims into executable code, most of what they said would have to be non-runnable comment, and the rest would probably kill the person and/or make the world end.

**In 2010 the San Diego Coalition of Reason put up an atheist billboard along an SD freeway. A close friend who is now atheist but was still at the time Christian told me that when she saw it, she experienced it strongly as a personal attack. For atheists who have never so strongly identified as a group I think it's very hard for us to viscerally understand this. This kind of bees-swarming-from-the-hive response is a weapon that organized religion (and any programmed-in-childhood argument-from-authority ideology) has and that we atheists don't have. Consequently any frontal assault should be undertaken only after carefully calculating the risk:benefit.

Monday, December 8, 2014

An Answer to Anti-Natalism in the Talmud

As I understand it, anti-natalism is the position that no more humans should be born, because suffering outweighs happiness. If you think suffering is bad and that suffering outweighs happiness, then it follows that to create a new life is profoundly immoral. What's more, the act of creation is necessarily done without consent for the created. I'm putting this post on this blog because the only anti-natalists I've met in person have been people I met through the atheist movement.

For several obvious reasons anti-natalism is not a philosophy that's about to sweep the world. But it's interesting nonetheless as a vehicle of inquiry. Anti-natalists, it's possible that many or all of the questions/objections I'm about to record have already been addressed, but bear with me (and as always, your comments are appreciated).

My first counterargument is that in at least one case, myself, the happiness has outweighed the suffering, and had I been able to give my parents consent, I absolutely would have. I really, really like being alive; in fact being alive is one of my favorite things to do. And how I imagine an anti-natalist responding is: of course you say that, because you're the product of evolution, as such trapped by the cognitive distortions that make minds make genes spread. (See depressive realism.) Yes, that is almost certainly true. But the subjective equals the objective in affective states with only slightly less certainty than consciousness itself. In other words: if I think I exist, I do. Similarly, if I think I'm happy, I probably am. Whether my certainty that this state will continue is accurate, or whether it's appropriate to the situation that obtains in the external universe, is a separate question much more open to debate.

I was prompted to post this here after finding this passage in an article about John Updike and his biography; specifically about his religious concerns. It looks like the Talmud got to this question a while ago:
The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) similarly recounts how for three years the sages debated whether humanity would have been better off had the world not been created. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court of antiquity) "ruled" that humanity would have been better off had the universe not been created, but now that we do exist, we should at least "examine our behavior" (i.e., now that we’re here, we might as well try to make the best of things). Updike’s Bech seems to reach a similar conclusion, absent the moralistic caveat: "the void should have been left unvexed, should have been spared this trouble of matter, of life, and worst, of consciousness." The entire universe, Bech believes, is merely a "blot on nothingness."
If all anti-natalism did was complain that we exist, that would be pretty pointless, but it does bear on ongoing decisions (i.e., don't reproduce). I find it interesting that the Talmud agrees broudly with anti-natalism! But the key is always what knowing the truth should make you do. Beliefs are arrangements of neurons, the purpose of which is to make muscles contract.

On a littriture note: I increasingly assume that Bech is Updike's fictional stand-in for Philip Roth. I've also begun to wonder if Updike was a well-organized pro-social psychopath (cool interests in general, predisposed to narcissism, difficulty making lasting romantic attachments and impulse control issues in the same arena, concerns with feelings of emptiness).

Friday, November 7, 2014

How Can You Get Meaning Out of The Bible? (or Koran?)

Muslims have an interesting solution to the translation problem: you don't translate the book. You read it in the original medieval Arabic. Christians don't do this. For English-speaking Christians - is your English version the most correct one? Or are the original Greek (and Hebrew) versions more accurate? How could the English version (and Spanish, and German, etc.) NOT corrupt the original meanings somehow?

The interesting implication: if you can assure us that the English translation has exactly the same meaning as the Greek+Hebrew, then can't we use the correlations as a translation standard? Isn't there a whole field of semantics that we can generate from knowing that this particular translation is perfect? This would be incredibly useful!

I think most Christians either wouldn't care, or would say that the question is offensive, very much like someone would (say, a Muslim) if they didn't want to think about the implications of their beliefs.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Apple CEO Comes Out as Theist; Investors Troubled

Can you believe he actually said this? "I'm proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me." (From Businessweek.) It's brave of him to admit that in the technology world!

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Victorious Football Player Gives Thanks...

Of course they need a punchline at the end, but come on, relax.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Creflo Dollar and Megachurches

Yes, there really is a megachurch preacher known as Creflo Dollar. He sounds like a villain from a Marvel movie or something. But this Guernica Magazine piece about African-American megachurches as institutions is pretty interesting.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Christians, Is This Placebo Effect?

I would just call it another support for the broken windows theory, but I don't have to explain why some deities are real, and other's aren't but for some reason still have the same effect as the real one(s). Briefly: someone (an atheist as it turns out) placed a Buddha statue in a bad part of Oakland, and crime and littering in the area dropped quickly and dramatically. Christians and Muslims, is this proof of the power of the Buddha?

"Question posers and agenda setters have great power"

"All praises of democracy must be embedded in a broader understanding that a) formal questions can be destructive, and b) we cannot be allowed to pose questions without limit, at least not questions which require explicit, publicly verifiable, and commonly observed answers."

That's from economist Tyler Cowen, on the Scottish independence referendum, and more broadly the dangers of rocking the coalition-boat when we ask explicit questions about resource distribution, which highlight the sacrifices various factions are making.

What can we generalize about this to cooperating groups of humans in general? What are the implications for living life in cooperation with others based on explicit rationality and constant questioning of authority? If this presents problems, what are the solutions? (Hopefully, besides regressing to "argument" from authority.)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

To San Diego New Atheists: Thank You!

It's been a challenging, fun, and all around great year. Now that my residency has taken me away from San Diego (temporarily, I hope?) the baton has passed back to the man I think of as San Diego New Atheists' own Thomas Jefferson, Pedro Sousa.

As always:

- Come to Meetups! SDNA doesn't exist without its members! (If you're an organizer: do more, and more kinds of meetups!)

- In San Diego, but haven't checked us out? Now's the time!

- SDNA is about positivity and inclusivity. Have suggestions for how the group can be even better? Find an organizer and let them know, they listen!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Questions to Ask People Who Want You to Believe Them

...and of course, questions you should be able to answer if you expect other people to listen to you about something:

Why are we talking about this, i.e. why does this matter? Why does it matter to you? What are the concrete ways it will it affect future decisions I will make?

How, specifically, do you know this? How does anyone? Did you see it? Talk to an expert? Believe an authority figure?

How certain are you? Why?

If something different were true, what would happen? How do you know that?

Why are you telling me? What do you get out of my knowing this, or changing my mind?

So far I haven't been able to come up with a good mnemonic.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Saturday, June 21, 2014

John Oliver on Religion and the World Cup

H/T D.A.M. When the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, I found myself in John Oliver's shoes. I don't even give a damn about sports or Penn State but my dad was an alum and as I was growing up, every autumn Saturday all household activity would cease during the game. When the scandal broke I found myself saying things like "Well, but Penn State football does so much good in the world...some of those families are probably making it up for the pay-out...your organization isn't spotless either..." and fortunately, finally I heard myself. No one is immune to in-group distortions like this, including you.

The Overwhelmingly Most Likely Kind of Outcome For Pascal's Wager

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!