Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Atheist Article Roundup: Space, Society and Your Brain

Links build up on my smartphone from surfing and I can't always blog them.  Here then is a cornucopia if you will of stimulating atheist content!

First, if you can, support the Foundation Beyond Belief's Colorado wildfire fund.  Colorado badly needs support for firefighters and aid workers, not prayers.


- I'm curious what the Higgs boson announcement will mean to people's reactions, although I expect mostly lots of Christians hearing "God particle" and asking atheists if we'll finally accept Jesus.

- Interested in astrobiology?  Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, is in the running for most likely location of life elsewhere in the solar system - because it spews water crystals from what looks like a sub-surface ocean.  Cassini even flew through the plume of material not long ago and picked up some nifty organics.  A creationist did some calculations about the volume loss from the current plume activity compared against the volume of Enceladus, and guess what?  (According to him) it disproves an Old Universe!  Same old same old - something appears not to add up according to a layperson's simple calculations, therefore God.  If you miss something, why automatically God and not, I don't know, dividing wrong?  And just as important, why that specific god?  And as always, when has creationism ever answered an outstanding question - I don't know, explain the microwave background?  Find a new boson or something? - rather than just try to cram current observations back into a Middle Eastern origin story?

- Some people liked the Alien prequal Prometheus.  I did not.  There have been many, many posts around the blogosphere discussing this.  One I found interesting was one on the role of religion in the movie - my complaint against which was not that it was there, but rather that it wasn't really developed.  It's more rewarding to appreciate but disagree with an artistically formulated position than not really get what they were driving at, although it's hard to say Scott was being complimentary, since the religious character does end up coming across as a bit clueless and naive.


- Are religiously-motivated ethics even possible? Julian Sanchez thinks not.

- The religious are outbreeding us. There's a certain Mike Judge movie that comes to mind and the scary thing is, I can't argue against why his satire doesn't accurately predict the future.  The good news is increasingly it seems the secular control the memesphere, but you still need hardware to run the sofware on.

- "Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise."  Who said that?  Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

- You know those neat-o parts of the Bible where it says your wife or mom or sister can't leave the house when she's menstruating (like Leviticus 15:19)? Turns out customs like that may not be accidental - they're a way to ensure paternity certainty. Genetic anthropologist Dienekes covers a paper by Strassman et al in PNAS: "Our findings...shed light on the reproductive agendas that underlie religious patriarchy." Earlier in the paper: "When a woman resumes going to the menstrual hut following her last birth, the husband's patrilineage is informed of the imminency of conception and cuckoldry risk." Menstrual hut? Yikes! Now I'm going to think of that every time I go to Pizza Hut. (And so are you. You're welcome.) Religious people may object that we can't know the function of God's laws, but it's pretty strange that they so closely imitate the behavior of a system that IS designed for that.

- Did organized religion precede the appearance of intensive agriculture?  It appears so, at least in the meso/neolithic Middle East.  The classic Mayan city-states also seem to have been largely religious in function, without the same degree of intensive agriculture found elsewhere later on in the New World.  But it would be interesting to ask the same question for East Asia.  (If you have a theory that explains history except for China, then you don't have a theory.)  It could be that any time agriculture is possible with organization-intensive efforts, either because of marginal environments requiring exact timing of planting (i.e. the Mexican steppes or the Middle East), or the domestication of an innately labor-intensive crop (East Asia) states emerge - and that the development of people-organizing cultural technology (religion or statecraft) allows this.

- Have you ever noticed how some people can't just do things because they feel good, period?  That is, they go to spas and have hot rocks put on their backs but it's because that's how the ancient Mayans aligned their chakras (or something like that.)  Not because that feels really good.  Or, they eat a certain honey for the health benefits or get massages or go to a certain resort on a mountain in the wilderness for any reason other than it's fun and feels good.  I can't believe I'm about to sound like a hippy, but I'm here to tell those people:  doing things because they feel good is okay!  I speculate that this is what happens when people in a wealthy society like ours feel unchallenged on some level and so they have to add a superfluous work ethic onto things that just feel good.  On skepticblog there's a post about the Esalen Institute, which is in an absolutely beautiful part of California's Central Coast and where you will meet lots of great, fascinating folks, even if most of what they're up to is rationally dubious.  (News flash:  hot tubs feel good.  Healthy food improves your body chemistry.  No magic needed!)


- The Backfire Effect - when being confronted with evidence contrary to current beliefs causes someone to dig in their heels even more strongly.  Here's a longish paper on the persistence of false political beliefs.  This is one reason why full-frontal attacks on people's values rarely work, and framing things in terms of their current beliefs is a more effective approach.  To some of us this can seem dishonest or patronizing but it's really about paying attention to what's important to the people around you, and to ignore effective rhetorical tactics merely out of distaste isn't very rational.  (See what I did there?)

- Those who have worked with Steve Jobs claim he had a "reality distortion field". This wasn't some kind of quantum physics thing, but rather his way of ignoring insurmountable challenges, focusing on the goal (and you) and making things happen. Did you know that depressed people are more realistic about their abilities than non-depressed people? This highlights the difference between epistemic and instrumental rationality: epistemic rationality is your verbalizable belief system, while instrumental rationality is what you actually decide and do. (To contrast, dogs have little epistemic rationality, but nonetheless, are actually more rational on average than humans on some tasks, in particular around sunk cost fallacies.) So Jobs had poor epistemic rationality, but excellent instrumental rationality.
The relentlessly optimistic entrepreneurs of the world are kind of like bipolars who never have a depressive phase. This is an excellent example of a principle of positive psychology: for decisions with high potential benefit but low-cost consequence, however unlikely success is, it's better to have an overoptimistic person trying to do it, because their at-first inaccurate epistemic rationality is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. (See discussion between Danaher and Stich here.) For things like surgery, nuclear engineering, and rock-climbing, not so much.

- You are superstitious.  Really?  You're not?  So I can replace that precious heirloom from your dead grandmother with a duplicate?  And you never kicked a vending machine?  It's okay, we all are.  The point is to identify the tendency and try to be better today than we were yesterday.

Did you go to the Foundation Beyond Belief's wildfire support fund?

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