when skepticism fails

A terrible tragedy took place today in Arizona, followed immediately (as tragedies nowadays are wont) by a deafening crescendo of voices calling out for various entities to be held accountable, whether or not they actually bear any accountability. And as much as it pains me to defend some of the entities I am about to defend, I find it is the rational, and therefore the correct thing (for me) to do.

This article on Politico sums it up best for me:

A few days, or at the very least, a few hours – in an earlier era, people would have taken a breath before plunging into a remorseless debate about the political implications of an obscene act of violence.

Not in this era.

Within minutes after a gunman’s shots—bullets that killed a federal judge, a nine-year-old girl and four others, and left a congresswoman clinging to life—activists of all stripes were busy, first on Twitter and blogs, then on cable television, chewing on two questions that once would have been indelicate to raise before the blood was dry: Who in American politics deserves a slice of blame for the Tucson murders? And what public officials find themselves with sudden opportunities for political gain from a tragedy?


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opinionated consumption

I consider myself a very conscious, informed consumer, but I have always been very pragmatic about my purchase decisions. I can be swayed against a company if they are engaged in egregious ethical or human rights violations, but for the most part I’m willing to overlook many of the reasons that cause more ideologically-driven shoppers to boycott. As my former boss, Gunther H. Zimmer used to say, “business is business and schnapps is schnapps.” I’m not completely sure what he meant by that, but judging by the context in which he would utter that phrase, it described his philosophy on the separation of business and personal life.

But people keep and consult lists that identify businesses and brands based on their perceived ideology, and conscientiously boycott the products and services they offer when the company’s public position on issues differs from their own. And this, I confess, puzzles me a little.

For one thing, I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to business, because I know that branding is an art and a science, and that it is almost always driven primarily by the bottom line. A few companies are well-known for applying their brand principles at all levels, but for the most part, a decision to identify or disassociate with any ideology is likely a cold, calculated decision based on vast amounts of data about the target demographic. And even if it’s a personal agenda put forth by the CEO himself, the only reason the company is still in business is that it wasn’t a bad decision, target market-wise.

Now, let’s take lists like the American Family Association’s War-on-Xmas-themed “naughty or nice” list. They’ve put a lot of effort into analyzing not only the Christ-related content of a retailer’s message, but the context of and frequency of the Christ-iness. And people are using that list while making purchase decisions — lots of them.

Tonight on Facebook I happened upon a post identifying a local snack manufacturer as bad, because they openly promoted religion on their packaging. Several others joined in the discussion, where I found this list of companies for atheists and freethinkers to avoid, based on their affiliation with, or promotion of, religious (Christian) values.

This is all well and good, and gives consumers the feeling that they are truly making a difference when they shop. But what if it’s only that — a feeling? What if the businesses in question are very aware that lists are being made, and have endeavored to align their marketing and ad copy in order to be included or excluded from these lists, based on whether or not they feel that the list-watching folks fit their target market? I remember once, while waiting for my tires to be replaced, I found a local directory of Christian businesses, and thought (cynically) wow, all you’d have to do to get in with these folks is slap a Jesus fish on your work truck and say Amen and Bless You a lot, and you could walk allll over those sheeples. Not that I wanted to do that myself, I just knew that in this world, there would be plenty of people who would.

Let me put it this way: if I were to base my purchase decisions on such idealistic things as whether or not I think the management shares my lack of religious views, theoretically, I’d be willing to put up with lower quality, slower service, higher prices, a less-friendly returns policy, any number of inconveniences, just so I could spend my money thoughtfully and with a purpose. And even if I did this, and sacrificed many consumer comforts in order to make my point, there is a very significant chance that the company’s public image was just that — an image, carefully crafted in order to appeal to me, the target consumer — and I’m not comfortable with that. It makes me far too easy to manipulate if I’m willing to overlook basic principles of service, value, and quality just because I think you agree with me.

We can insist upon a separation of church and state, but is it practical to expect separation of business and religious opinion? We are a world of many disparate faiths (or the lack thereof), and it seems impractical to insist on dividing ourselves rigidly along those lines in social and economic terms. No government agency should favor a particular religion in its activities, but can we really expect that all privately-held businesses must meet those same standards?

As far as I’m concerned, In’n’Out Burger can continue to hide tiny little bible passage references (just name of chapter and number of verse, no actual bible words) on the inner lip of the bottom of their soft drink cups, and I will continue to feel deliciously happy when eating their amazing, fresh, reasonably-priced food, rather than going a half mile down the street to McDonalds, no matter how many bible verses they omit from their wrappers.

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and the geek shall inherit the earth

I don’t expect non-programmers to get much out of this list of the top ten things that annoy programmers, but if you’re into free thinking and science, you might like this bit — it’s the number one annoyance, “Your own code, six months later”

Ever look back at some of your old code and grimace in pain? How stupid you were! How could you, who know so much now, have written that? Burn it! Burn it with fire!

Well, good news. You’re not alone.

The truth is, the programming world is one that is constantly changing. What we regard as a best practice today can be obsolete tomorrow. It’s simply not possible to write perfect code because the standards upon which our code is judged is evolving every day. It’s tough to cope with the fact that your work, as beautiful as it may be now, is probably going to be ridiculed later. It’s frustrating because no matter how much research we do into the latest and greatest tools, designs, frameworks, and best practices, there’s always the sense that what we’re truly after is slightly out of reach. For me, this is the most annoying thing about being a programmer. The fragility of what we do is necessary to facilitate improvement, but I can’t help feeling like I’m one of those sand-painting monks.

Frustrating? Sure, sure. But then again, it is utterly delightful to be able to look back on yourself six months ago and think, what was I thinking? I know so much better now! Fixed, unchanging knowledge is one of the most devastating intellectual afflictions known to humankind. Do you really want to be absolutely sure of everything, and stay that way? What happens to your poor brain when all it can do is mull over the same things, over and over and over? It atrophies into so much grey jell-o, that’s what happens.

If you aren’t regularly stricken by how much more you know now than you did six months ago, what’s the point? If your life isn’t a constant series of epiphanies followed by epiphanies that make those prior epiphanies seem quaint and lame by comparison … well, why bother?

Eleven years or so ago, I got my hands on a computer that was connected to the internet for the first time. I had to know how this thing worked, so I began obsessively taking things apart and breaking them until they worked again. Six months later, in spite of the fact I was just a dangerous newbie with a copy of FrontPage and a lot of nerve, I had a job with the title of webmaster, and I never looked back. I have no formal education in this, of course, I can’t be taught, I can only learn, and not from people who are involved in the process of teaching, unless they are also involved in the process of being and doing — even then, I don’t learn from the instructions, I learn from the stuff the instructions are about. I take it apart, I beat on it incessantly (i am known at work for wearing out keyboards), and eventually, I understand. Then I go find something else I don’t know, and bang on it until I do.

Nothing will make you feel stupider on a regular basis than web programming, since no matter how much you know at any point, new stuff needing to be known makes it impossible to ever be complacent — but that feeling of stupid is actually the thing that makes you smarter.

Geek out on whatever knowledge makes your synapses zing, is my advice. The more you know how little you know, the more you are driven to learn.

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the tyranny of lazy-mindedness

I cannot abide lazy-mindedness. This makes me a really, really lousy tech support person (or really good, depending on how you look at it.) I tend to answer questions by alluding vaguely to how such a thing might be figured out, rather than, you know, give an actual answer. Godlizard helps those who help themselves, in other words. If questions persist after I’ve suggested a number of avenues for figuring it out, I generally refer the asker to this, or possibly this, because the only reason I would know the answer would be from doing those things and figuring it out, so I can’t help but think you’d be better off if you also figured it out.

But figuring it out isn’t immediate, and it does not carry with it the same air of authority as knowledge that you receive from asking someone you consider an expert (whether they are or not). In order to believe something you are told without figuring at least some of it out yourself, you must invest a significant amount of mental energy in that belief in order to own the knowledge, thereby making it your own. The price of not engaging in any search for knowledge beyond accepting what you’re told can be quite high; lazy-mindedness doesn’t relieve you of the need to think, it just changes the nature of those thoughts from a search for rational answers to a search for rationalizations.

Humankind is by nature fiercely curious, and terribly impatient. In a discussion not too long ago, this argument in support of religion was put forth:

Throughout all history, through every age, as long as we know of, people have believed in something supernatural, and in almost every culture, tribe and group apart from in the West, people still do. They even claim to talk to their gods, their spirits and their deities. So I ask the question; may our “enlightened” scientific mentality prevent us from understanding something other people always have understood? A world without the people believing in the supernatural has never existed, so how is it possible to imagine one? You don’t know what it is!

My answer to that has to do with curiosity, and impatience. The variety of supernatural beliefs is as diverse as the cultures who embrace them, but the source is always the same: the desire to know why, and the need to know it right now. The intensity of this desire is, for the most part, unbearable. It drives the quest for knowledge, but it also drives the blind acceptance of answers presented as absolute, unassailable, and derived from a higher authority. It creates a willingness which religion was designed to exploit in order to satiate this curiosity and, in doing so, establish itself as that authority.

In order to achieve this blind acceptance, it is necessary to accept on principle that absolute knowledge is somehow a requirement, and that anything less is unacceptable. You hear this again and again in creationists’ arguments, the petulant (and ultimately impossible) demand that science provide definitive, complete answers that wrap everything up in a neat little package. Once an impossible standard like this has been accepted as a reasonable thing to demand, the only acceptable response must include a degree of certainty which is impossible. Once relieved of the burden of existing with in the realm of possibility, this opens up a limitless array of potential answers, each of which represents an end to exploration. Once an absolute solution is presented, one can safely stop wondering and do whatever it is one does when one stops wondering. One can, for instance, take up the hobby of interpreting everyday events as evidence of the correctness of one’s beliefs, which, in spite of the certainty with which they are presented, cause most people who accept them to engage in a constant search for reinforcement. I suppose this search is what takes the place of wonder; rather than trying to find answers to questions, one must search for questions to which their beliefs are at least one possible answer.

In the above-quoted discussion, another argument was presented which claimed that blind faith was not necessarily blind, since it often came out of life experiences that were identified as miracles:

Of course there might be a high probability that the miracle is just a trick, but shouldn’t he also be open to the possibility that it actually is from God? If a person actually takes his religion seriously he usually doesn’t do this in blind faith. Take the situation in Nepal for example where I work. Approximately 60% of those who become Christians choose this new belief because either they themselves or somebody close to them get healed (or so it is claimed).

When humans experience an improbable event or outcome of a situation, there is an overwhelming tendency to interpret it as a miracle, and call it evidence of the supernatural. This tendency tends to annoy me greatly, and by way of explanation I will offer this video, because it explains things so much better than I could:

Between 1914 and 1998, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences showed a marked decline in the percentage of members believed in a personal god, or in immortality. So, any time you cite the predominance of religion throughout ancient history, you need to consider that modern science has only had a small fraction of that time to dispel the primitive superstitions and myths. Looking at the progress of science in the past century, it’s obvious the pace of the advancement of knowledge is picking up, and among those who are paying the most attention to this, religous beliefs are becoming more and more rare.

    BELIEF IN PERSONAL GOD          1914   1933    1998
    Personal belief                 27.7    15       7.0
    Personal disbelief              52.7    68      72.2
    Doubt or agnosticism            20.9    17      20.8
    BELIEF IN IMMORTALITY           1914    1933    1998
    Personal belief                 35.2    18       7.9
    Personal disbelief              25.4    53      76.7
    Doubt or agnosticism            43.7    29      23.3

It’s about patience, and not being lazy-minded. It’s about not making irrational demands that an answer be provided right now, or that it must be absolutely 100% complete with no margin for error. But mostly, it’s about not being lazy-minded.

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debate fail

It started out innocently enough. Coworker A comes back from session with chiropractor/massage guy, starts telling me funny story about how he did this test where he pressed down on her arm and told her about her past lives. We were sharing a good laugh about 187 past lives (about average for his clients) and I noted how unfair that would be, with a limited number of souls available due to vast population increases, and Coworker B comes trotting over and says, “wait, I hear some faulty logic here”. Oh crap, I’ve not ever debated this form of woo, I don’t even know how they argue it. I mention increases from hundreds of millions to billions and he counters, “How do we know there weren’t billions and billions of people back then?” Oh CRAP. (more…)

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trust the wisdom of children

I raised my children with the choice of any faith available, and provided them with the means to explore the options. My daughter and youngest son are atheists, my middle son is a Christian (he is a gentle, kind young man who would never hate or exclude anyone from anything, and he likes science).

In fact, on any issue, I always found my absolute best response to my children was “I trust your judgment”, rather than to lay down strict rules — it made them think about the consequences of their actions from a position of ownership of those actions — and it was remarkably effective.

Australian student Dylan O’Beirne is the sort of young man whose judgment is imminently trustworthy:


Dylan O’Beirne is open to finding out whether there is a god.

But the 16-year-old hasn’t yet seen strong evidence.

“If there was evidence to support a god, then I would believe in it,” he says.

“I choose not to believe, but I’m not going to dogmatically reject it.”

Dylan is in year 10 at Kingswood College in Box Hill.

He was never baptised and says his parents were happy to allow him to decide whether or not he believed.

“Mum and Dad raised me to know it was my choice,” he says.

Religious education classes in year 5 first prompted Dylan to question the matter.

He asked to be excluded because he found the classes boring.

But a Muslim student, also excluded, had him thinking.

“I thought, if she believes something else, why aren’t we taught about that?”

In year 8, Dylan’s mother presented him with the best-selling book, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

“Everything came out with such clarity. But I didn’t just take his word for it; I started investigating what sceptics and atheists believe.”

Dylan says a visit to his school by the Jewish Christian Muslim Association revealed many of his peers are quite religious, but most rarely discuss it. He enjoyed the visit and has no intention of pressing his views on anyone.

He see Christmas as time for a family celebration.

“It’s not around messages about Jesus Christ, but more a time to get together and for Australian society to get together. Most of my family are somewhat religious.”

Teach your children to think and make informed choices, and trust their judgment, unless of course they demonstrate an inability to make good decisions — but if you start with love and trust, chances are, the decisions will be good ones.

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asking the right questions

First of all, fantastic and thought-provoking post on Scienceblogs, “Creating God in one’s own image“, about a study which concluded that God is a sockpuppet (see illustration) — and this does appear to have a scientific basis in fact, not based just on the answers, but on the methodology of the study. It’s all in how you ask the questions.

with thanks to jesusandmo.net
with thanks to jesusandmo.net

What fascinated me most about the study was the methodology, and the changing of minds.

And as better evidence of causality, Epley showed that he could change people’s views on God’s wills by manipulating their own beliefs.

He showed some 145 volunteers a strong argument in favour of affirmative action (it counters workplace biases) and a weak argument opposing it (it raises uncomfortable issues). Others heard a strong argument against (reverse discrimination) and a weak argument for (Britney and Paris agree!). The recruits did concur that the allegedly stronger argument was indeed stronger. Those who read the overall positive propaganda were not only more supportive of affirmative action but more likely to think that God would be in the pro-camp too.

In another study, Epley got people to manipulate themselves. He asked 59 people to write and perform a speech about the death penalty, which either matched their own beliefs or argued against them. The task shifted people’s attitudes towards the position in their speech, either strengthening or moderating their original views. And as in the other experiments, their shifting attitudes coincided with altered estimates of God’s attitudes (but not those of other people).

He “asked people to write and perform a speech” — he asked them to think. Thinking changes minds, and believing involves being taught to obey rather than think. This study involved more than just surveying the respondents and recording their answers, it explored the way their brains worked, and in doing so demonstrated that it’s not terribly difficult to change minds. It starts with asking the right questions, and providing an atmosphere in which it is not a threat to one’s belief to think about the answers (for instance, consenting to a study they felt would help demonstrate their godliness).

This tends to reinforce Michael Shermer’s view that talking to theists can and should be done in ways that do not threaten their faith, if only because of the importance of educating people that science is not the enemy and should not be attacked. And the methodology used in the study could help inform conversations with the faithful.

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