Fish in Space

A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Importance of Skepticism

One of the things I regret about my education growing up is that there wasn't any significant effort made to teach skepticism and critical thinking. These are skills I've had to pick up on my own as an adult, and it's been haphazard at best. I don't have the greatest critical thinking skills and I'm not nearly as good a skeptic as I want to be. The problem is that the more I learn the more I recognize the need for these things. I also recognize that there are a lot of misconceptions about skepticism and people who practice it. I thought I'd dedicate this post to examining the art of skepticism and how it applies to everything we do.

First of all, it helps to define what skepticism really is. As Michael Shermer pointed out, skepticism is not a position, it's a process. A skeptic isn't a curmudgeon who automatically naysays anything they hear. A skeptic isn't someone deliberately trying to pour cold water over your head to ruin your day. A skeptic is someone who follows a process intended to distinguish reality from wishful thinking. Let's face it: there's a lot of wishful thinking in the world and it creates problems we could otherwise avoid.


A skeptic is not necessarily a scientist, but a scientist must be a good skeptic. Your average skeptic isn't going to have better than a layman's understanding of things like biology, chemistry, cosmology, economics, physics or politics. They may sound more knowledgeable but that's relative to your average bloviator. A good skeptic will research a claim before deciding whether it is true or false, but there's no guarantee that the information they find will be accurate. Skeptics are just as prone to bad information and false assumptions as everyone else, they're just more likely to update their assumptions as new information becomes available. A successful skeptic is not someone who can debunk any claim they find, it's someone who can debunk their own assumptions when they're wrong.

There are so many examples of how skepticism should be an essential part of our daily lives, but I'll keep this short. There's one example that's infamous in the modern age, something everybody thinks they know to watch out for: getting conned. In the computer security world it's known as social engineering but confidence artists can be found in every walk of life. It's a profession almost as old as prostitution where someone tricks you into trusting them so they can take advantage of it to defraud you of money or property. How many times have you taken a phone call from someone offering to fix your credit problems or sell you a product that will revolutionize your life? Do you think all the email spam talking about breast enlargement pills and penis enlargement tools get sent out because it makes them giggle? The Nigerian Prince scam has been around for at least a hundred years, possibly more. Years ago I had to explain to a friend that they shouldn't go shopping for a new house just because they received an email advising them they'd won a lottery in London -- a lottery they admitted they'd never entered. These scams persists because people fall for them. Not everyone does, and not all the time, but it happens.

But before you pat yourself on the back for being a successful skeptic, take a closer look at your assumptions. Are you a fan of alternative medicine? Do you believe in angels? Are you convinced that lowering corporate tax rates creates jobs? Do you think that poverty is created by coddling the poor? I guarantee you have assumptions that you are not being skeptical about. So do I. The question is are you constantly questioning your assumptions and trying to update them with current information or are you only willing to accept information that confirms what you already know?

It's up to you to decide: are you a skeptic? Do you think skepticism is a crucial skill or is it a danger to your beliefs? Do you have the impression that a skeptical world is a cold, dark place devoid of love or meaning?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Republicans are back in power. How did we get into this mess?

Here we are in Obama's last leg in office as President of the United States, and he faces hostile majorities in both the House and Senate. The Supreme Court still has more conservatives than liberals on the bench and they're fairly unpredictable in what sweeping new legal precedents they're going to set. How did we get here? Democrats haven't done well in midterms, but they were also the majority for a while. Every party that's in the majority tends to not perform as well during midterms. This was also true of the Republicans: they lost their majorities in both the House and Senate in 2006 and Bush faced a hostile Congress, albeit a Congress who was willing to give him what he asked for. Obama won't receive that much consideration.

How did we get here? It's been suggested that the problem is with liberals, that we don't vote enough. I disagree with this. I think the liberals are the reliable voting bloc for the Democratic Party because we know we really don't have anywhere else to go. If we split away from the Democrats and head for the Greens or Socialists our first-past-the-gate electoral system will punish us for it by allowing Republicans to take the majority. We're awfully gunshy about that after the Bush years. So no, I don't think it's the liberals at fault for the Democrats' poor outcomes in 2010 and 2014. I think it's the moderates who aren't showing up at the polls during midterms. Midterm elections aren't as exciting and they don't get the same media exposure as primary seasons. It's easy to rally behind one charismatic figure or another, not so much to pay attention to "lower" races.

In addition to that I think the Democrat's main problem is that they're not simply courting the middle, they've been courting the right. They're trying to steal from the Republicans' base, which guarantees they'll continue to shift farther and farther to the right. This makes both liberals and moderates frustrated as hell with them. Stop trying to out-Republican the Republicans. Stop pushing the Third Way bullshit that Hillary Clinton is so fond of. You're not going to win elections by allowing Republicans and corporations define where the middle lies, Hillary. You're going to win by listening to the popular support behind Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The Democrats need to come back to the left, not court big money to pursue power for its own sake. Stop repeating the Republicans' mistakes.

How did we get here? Democrats didn't give us reasons to vote for them, reasons that separate them from the Republicans. Instead they've been singing that old song about "anything you can do, I can do better."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

When Freedom of Speech Meets Privilege

In the wake of the the Charlie Hedbo massacre, the always quotable Pope Francis I took the opportunity to weigh in. Did he condemn the violence and urge greater tolerance? Not exactly.
Asked about the attack that killed 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo – targeted because it had printed depictions of the prophet Muhammad – he said: “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.

“There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.”

He gestured to Alberto Gasparri, who organises papal trips and was standing by his side, and added: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

Cautioning against provocation he said the right to liberty of expression came with the obligation to speak for “the common good”.
It seems no matter how many times I point this out I always end up needing to repeat it again: "Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views." Anything else is simply not free speech.

The problem that Pope Francis has here is that his beliefs and his institution has enjoyed a position of privilege for a very long time. Oh, I grant you that they struggled for recognition in the beginning as the Roman Empire wobbled back and forth between Christian and pagan beliefs but eventually the matter was settled by law and sword that Christianity was the official religion and all others were eradicated. In its golden age after the fall of the empire the Catholic Church was still the supreme power in the Western world (and perhaps the entire known world if it hadn't been for those pesky Persians) making kings and their kingdoms dance to their tune. There was a time when even suggesting anything contrary to official church dogma could earn you a visit from an Inquisitor and if you didn't recant quick enough you'd be lucky to get away with your limbs intact, let alone your flesh unburnt.
We no longer live in a world where the Church can terrorize the average citizen with torture or death with impunity, but that assumption of privilege is still there. Today in the secular world you can criticize art, fashion, news, parenting, politics and just about anything else that we interact with, but woe betide those who dare to criticize religion or religious beliefs! "You cannot make fun of the faith of others."

Actually, yes. Yes you can, and you should. There is no idea, no concept, no institution or practice that is so sacred that it should not be held up to scrutiny and criticized. It doesn't matter if your religion is Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or Zoroastrianism, your beliefs are no better than anyone else's and if you think otherwise you are invited to show us how. We've been waiting for that evidence for thousands of years, and I'm not holding out hope that any will be forthcoming in the next few thousand years.
Christian Privilege
As an atheist, my beliefs (or lack thereof) get mocked all the time. There are sites and forums dedicated to creating extreme caricatures of who I am and how I behave, and guess what: that's fine. If you think my opinions are wrong you're invited to explain why. I will do my best to defend them and we'll see who wins in the open marketplace of ideas. What Pope Francis is declaring is that the marketplace of ideas is not open where religion is concerned, that religious ideas should be sheltered from criticism where they might be exposed as false. This tells me he's afraid of criticism, and that can only lead me to suspect that he's afraid his beliefs are false and he doesn't want anyone to admit that the emperor doesn't look good in his birthday suit.

Violence is never justified in the defense of beliefs, no matter how offensive you may think something is. Offense is not an argument, and it's not a trump card, it's censorship. If your ideas can't be defended then they don't deserve protection, they deserve to be destroyed under critical analysis. You can't bully me by crying out that you're offended. You just provoke me to insult you again.

Monday, January 12, 2015

All the gods I don't believe in.

One of the problems frequently encountered in religious debate is that everyone has a different definition of the god(s) they believe in. This creates a moving target for the atheist expressing skepticism regarding those beliefs. There are at last count something on the order of three thousand different gods that humans have worshiped; here's a non-canonical list of them. In addition, there are thousands of sects within various religions all claiming to worship the same god but attributing different personalities to them effectively creating new gods in the process. Then there are Deist gods who are undefined but nevertheless divine by nature and pantheism which holds that the universe and everything in it is some sort of manifestation of godhood. It's exhausting. So here I will go through a top-level list of gods I don't believe are real.

     1. I don't believe in any gods that are responsible for the creation or function of the universe.

If you have evidence to demonstrate that your god is the author of all and that nothing can exist with your god then show me the evidence. Your personal conviction is not evidence of anything except that you're convinced. I need more than words to believe, I need independently verified peer reviewed observation. That then brings me to my next point:

     2. I don't believe in any of the gods that must be argued into existence.

Philosophical arguments from Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways through to the modern modal ontological argument are not evidence, they're speculation. Speculation only ceases to be speculation when you can present evidence that can be independently reproduced and does not depend on a desire to believe before it can be observed. Claiming that life is dark and ugly without your god doesn't show me your god is real, it shows me you have no imagination. Invoking love and beauty doesn't prove your god is real, it proves you view life through a very narrow lens and I have no reason to limit myself like that. Threatening me with dire consequences doesn't convince me of anything except that you have no argument. Arguing for your god doesn't impress me, evidence does.

     3. I don't believe in any gods that are interested or interceding in our lives.

Gods have been depicted as everything from humans or familiar animals with super powers to a single omnimax entity greater than the whole of our universe. I could see how people might think the super-powered gods might take an interest in our affairs but the omnimax god doesn't make much sense. It would be like us focusing on a small batch of mitochondria within our bodies and declaring that everything revolves around them. But regardless of power level, I just don't see any reason to believe there are gods intervening in our lives. I get the same results praying to Zeus, Wotan, Jesus and Ganesh as I do to a jug of milk. Repeated studies find no effective change in outcomes from prayer except those corresponding with the placebo effect and you can replicate that result just by letting people know you're wishing them well.

     4. I don't believe in any gods that have the power to suspend natural laws to perform miracles.

Miracles are tricky things. They never happen when anyone can test or verify them. A discouraging number of them have been debunked, even the "official" ones. They're always held up by the faithful as evidence of their gods' power but they're rarely convincing to anyone else. I rarely hear of devout Hindus experiencing a miracle from the Christian god or devout Christians experiencing miracles performed by the Muslim god. But let's assume for the sake of argument that these miracles really did happen as claimed; where's the evidence? Even an ethereal, extra-temporal omnimax god would necessarily leave traces when interacting with our universe, also known as "evidence." The evidence presented for these miracles is always subjective and typically anecdotal. There's never any evidence that skeptical researchers can point to and say "that must be of supernatural origin, because it violates causality."

     5. I don't believe in any of the gods that have been presented to me because I've not been given convincing evidence that any of them exist.

I've said it before and I'll continue to say it as long as it continues to be applicable: I'll believe anything you tell me as long as you show me evidence appropriate to the claim. Nothing else will do, and you're only wasting your time if you think you've come up with a new argument or example for why I should believe. If your evidence wouldn't win you the Randi Foundation Million Dollar Prize then it won't move me, either.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What to do about Islamic extremism?

je suis Charlie

If you haven't seen the news today, Islamic terrorists shot and killed 12 people at the satirical magazine company of Charlie Hebdo. Their reason why? Because the magazine dared to print a cartoon caricature of the prophet Mohammad. It's not the first time Muslim terrorists have done this sort of thing, and it won't be the last. These people don't just demand unearned respect for their beliefs, they demand submission to them. The idea of civil rights and personal freedom doesn't seem to be part of their vocabulary.

This is a problem. It sets up a conflict between the Islamic world and everyone else in which no compromise is possible, it's either us or them. So far the Western world has been relatively measured in its response, which seems ridiculous considering the widespread destruction we've inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and more but that's us restraining ourselves. If we truly commit to all-out war with people who are a dedicated threat to us we can do much, much worse.

There are factions in the Western world who are screaming for us to do just that. The more Muslim extremists provoke us, the more likely it becomes that people will listen to those factions. More and more people are looking at the Muslim world as problems rather than partners. I sincerely hope to avoid this, but as I discussed previously there are Christian factions looking to use this as an opportunity to come to power.

What do we do? Bringing these extremists to heel is going to be costly and troublesome on our own, and the more trouble it becomes the less likely people are going to treat it as a cost-effective solution. The Muslim world needs to be convinced to police their own, and it doesn't seem likely that this is going to happen. We're not hearing from the moderates, only the fundamentalists. Only it turns out that isn't true either, Muslim moderates are standing up in protest of their own extremists and we're not being told about it. Did I mention the Christian factions? Christians can be and are just as extreme but we're not hearing about them, either. We're getting a very skewed view of extremism in the world and it's not helping our decision-making.

We really need to put an end to this nonsense. We have competing religions vying for dominance, both of whom are willing to be ruthless in their use of violence to achieve their ends. We have moderates who are interested in peaceful coexistence and power elites who clearly have an agenda in which the winner takes all. It's time for us to take power back for ourselves and reach out to other moderates interested in peace. It's time to stop glorifying the extremists on both sides and acknowledge the destruction they're causing. It's becoming another Christianity versus Islam battle because we're allowing ourselves to be manipulated into it, but we have the power to stop this. We just have to stop buying into the idea that one side or the other is right. Neither of them are.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Atheist Agenda Revealed

I was recently accused of harboring an agenda when I talk to people about atheism. I'm not quite sure where this accusation came from; it seems that outspoken atheists are perceived as being no different from the evangelical missionaries who knock on your door or the street preachers who accost you at intersections as you go about your daily business. And yes, I do speak up about atheism, primarily when someone else brings up the topic first. Ask me a question and I'll answer. Ask me for advice and I'll show you resources that I think will help. But the thing is, I've never heard of atheists going on a door-to-door campaign to preach the good news of no gods, nor have I heard of atheist street preachers shouting their message and harassing people in public.

atheist missionaries

However, as an atheist I concede to having an agenda: it's called secularism. In a secular state everyone is free to believe or not. There is no coercion one way or another. No one is told what to believe or how to think, because everyone is free to choose their own path. If that weren't true, if I weren't willing to let people cling to god belief then I wouldn't tell them the truth. I'd tell them whatever I thought would get the job done to shatter their faith. On the religious side that's known as lying for Jesus.

I know a lot of religious activists are threatened by secularism so they misrepresent it and fight to remove it from our laws. My old church used to wax eloquent about how secularism and humanism are against God's Will and open the door to Satan's evil. As godless people, atheists become the face of the secular movement, communists who want to take away your freedoms and burn your churches. It is not and has not been true. The military dictatorships that impose communism are not secular because they take away your choice, and that is not a secular agenda.

Personally, my agenda is that I want to see the end of religion but not by force. No one should abandon religion because they have to. The Soviet-model Communists tried that and it doesn't work, as well as being an indefensible violation of human rights. I want to see people abandon religion of their own free will simply because they don't need it any longer. I want to end the inequality and ignorance that breeds the fear religion depends on to bring in followers and keep them. I want critical thinking to be at the core of the education we give our children. My agenda scares them to death because they know what will happen if we succeed. We've seen it happen peacefully in other developed countries. They don't want it to happen here in the US, not without a fight.

That's fine with me. Religious believers brought this fight and I'll finish it; not with guns, knives or fists, but with words, passion and genuine concern for my fellow human beings. They can bring their gods and I'll bring my compassion. Let's see who is left standing.
I'll tell you what you did with atheists for about 1500 years. You outlawed them from the universities or any teaching careers, besmirched their reputations, banned or burned their books or their writings of any kind, drove them into exile, humiliated them, seized their properties, arrested them for blasphemy. You dehumanised them with beatings and exquisite torture, gouged out their eyes, slit their tongues, stretched, crushed, or broke their limbs, tore off their breasts if they were women, crushed their scrotums if they were men, imprisoned them, stabbed them, disembowelled them, hanged them, burnt them alive.

And you have nerve enough to complain to me that I laugh at you.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Religious Privilege Rears Its Ugly Head Again

Christians aren't the only one who can be obnoxious about their religious privileges. Once again making the news are ultra-orthodox Jewish men who have been delaying flights between New York and Tel Aviv because they didn't like their seating arrangements.
Many Haredi Jewish communities practice strict gender segregation and refrain from touching people of the opposite gender who are not close family members.

Haredi publications in Israel generally do not print pictures of women and girls. In 2009, the Israeli newspaper Yated Ne'eman famously doctored a photograph of the Israeli cabinet in order to replace two female ministers with images of men.

In the UK, the ultra-Orthadox Jewish community in Stamford Hill, north London, was recently criticised after signs requesting women to walk on a certain side of the street were erected, promoting segregation for a Torah parade.
I think it's time for us to draw a line here. You don't like your seat assignment? Okay, let's see what's available. If nothing is available or you don't like the options, tough titties. Sit down and shut up. If you cause a disruption you're off the plane without reimbursement.

If your religious convictions make it a problem for you to travel on public transport, it's your responsibility to make alternate arrangements. Airlines like Delta allow you to make special seating arrangements, or purchase extra seats if you don't want company. You can charter your own plane or take a boat if you're headed overseas. You can take the bus or a car if not. In any case, it is not anyone else's responsibility to accommodate your bigotry. No one else should be obligated or inconvenienced by the limitations of your religion.