Friday, October 29, 2010

I’m still doing it wrong

But this time for a different reason.

Apparently I spend too much time in meetings about being skeptical.  If I didn’t, I could spend more time changing the world.  This is due to a well-known phenomena that you can see on every single newspaper comments page in the world every single day: nobody is capable of doing more than one thing.  Governments can only help either the young or the old but never both.  Scientists can only chase funding or do science but not both.  And if the latter, they can only do useful science or useless science, with the commenter as the sole arbiter of which it is (note: it is invariably decreed to be useless).  And skeptics can either go to meetings to congratulate each other on their cleverness or they can help the children.  Isn’t it about time I thought of the children?

It turns out that people can do quite a lot of things, really.  Governments do lots of things at the same time.  Scientists chase funding for science which they then immediately do.  And skeptics can, if they wish, go to meetings and do other stuff. 

The thing is that not all skeptics share the goal of converting people, nor is there any reason why they should. Many enjoy the company of like-minded people and discussing topics relevant to their interests regardless of whether those interests include spreading a skeptical message. As it happens, I’m someone who does want to spread the message and I attend skeptical meetings partly for that reason: I've never left one without having learned something. Sometimes I learn more about how critical thinking might be spread or about causes I haven't heard of elsewhere or about new skeptical resources.  I also frequently hear inspiring stories of people who have let go of a debilitating belief and witness or hear of skeptics being thanked sincerely for their help in the coming about of an epiphany.  This is a welcome change from the very familiar charge of our being spoilsports and reminds me why I do it.

What makes Alom Shaha think that I don't leave those meetings inspired and go out and do decent skeptical work in the community?  What makes him think we can't do both?  What, especially, makes him think lots of skeptics aren't already doing good work with children or adults regardless of whether they also go to skeptical meetings? 

I'd like to think I've done a small amount of good over the years.  I could do more, but I'm not convinced I could do more by cutting down on interaction with other skeptics.  I also see people being brought together: often people who have felt isolated within their community because of their skepticism and/or atheism who are then intensely relieved to have found like-minded people. All this stuff is useful for achieving a variety of goals.

Finally, Shaha mentions the skeptical 'movement' in the context of what - according to him - it 'should' be doing.  I'm by no means convinced that there is any such movement. There's a skeptical community by definition, but a movement would seem to imply shared goals and methods and motivations that I don't think really exist.  I'm not even convinced that such a thing should necessarily exist.  While I think the world would benefit from more skepticism, there might be lots of ways to achieve that.  People going around being skeptical; showing people it's OK to criticise religion; that it's unwise to blindly accept what we're told by people anxious to sell us medicine; that skepticism is something fun rather than only pompous nay-saying.....mightn't this also help to spread skeptical attitudes? 

I think it could.  Perhaps one way to make critical thinking more mainstream is to just be increasingly cool about it.  The more familiar we get with not bending over backwards to be sensitive to people’s foolish beliefs'; the more we’re comfortable with enjoying being skeptical and interacting with other skeptics; the more fun we have in these interactions; then perhaps the more we mainstream the ideas that underlie skepticism.  Mightn’t this help create an environment where it’s easier for people to fall into skepticism as a default position?  It currently seems as though credulity or even anti-skepticism seems to be the default position of many.  Wouldn’t it be cool if just by coming together and having a laugh we could help shift the default in the other direction?

The problem with people imagining movements is that they tend to imprint them with their own goals and methods.  While I'm delighted when skeptics organise around some common goal, I prefer the guerilla approach. Pick your battles, use the skills you happen to have and by all means go to skeptical meetings to recruit or be recruited. 

And stop telling people how to be skeptical!

H/T Ophelia Benson

Monday, October 25, 2010

TAM London speaker 7: Paula Kirby

Paula is a writer and project manager.  She’s a former Christian who first appeared on the RDF forum asking good and genuine questions about atheism and faith.  After a while, she started to make insightful comments and obviously got Richard’s attention because they’ve done some stuff since: interviews, videos, articles and so on.

Paula’s talk was mostly about the racist, authoritarian, homophobic, anti-science batshit insane policies of The Christian Party.  It will probably come as little surprise that they want to reintroduce beating children as a legitimate form of learning in schools; they want to teach creationism; and they want schools to be allowed to discriminate against non-Christians in their hiring policy.  Oddly, they also want to raise the speed limit to 90mph.  No prizes for guessing what demographic they’re trying to attract with that.  Oh, and they want to ban sex education in primary schools and make them opt-in (note, it’s the parents who get to opt in, not the children) in secondary schools.  Oh, and that sex education will be strongly biased toward abstinence only.  And they want to teach that homosexual relationships are not valid family relationships.

Immigrants won’t have access to the NHS, if they’re even allowed in to begin with.  If at all possible, they’ll be frogmarched out of the country anyway.  Naturally, they’d withdraw from the EU.

They are anti-abortion to the extent of wanting to remove government funding from any organisation ‘promoting’ it (who promotes abortion, anyway?)  They are pro-war in general, but against the war in Afghanistan.  Perhaps I should rephrase that.  They are pro-war but against BRITISH troops being stationed in Afghanistan where they might, after all, get killed. 

All tax should be set – entirely arbitrarily – at 20%: VAT, income tax, capital gains tax, the lot.  Me, I’d prefer to set tax rates at what they needed to be to pay for stuff rather than pulling a figure out of my arse and declaring that all tax shall henceforth be thus charged, but perhaps that’s why I’m not a politician.

But in case you think these points are unsophisticated, the full manifesto – as Paula pointed out – is far more nuanced.  For example, while the headline points say that carbon dioxide levels should probably go down, the full manifesto reveals a concrete plan so we can achieve it.  All we have to do is respect the Sabbath and the energy saved will be enough to save the planet.  And if that doesn’t work, they might plant some trees or something.

Paula’s talk was lighthearted but dealt with some serious issues.  The Christian Party got effectively zero votes in the last election and isn’t likely to do any better next time, but its existence suggests that as atheism grows, fundamentalism switches gear to keep pace.  We have politicians in the UK who want us all to submit to a Christian theocracy. Who want to marginalise if not criminalise homosexuals, foreigners and people who want abortions.  Who want to teach children scandalously dangerous or just plain wrong things and to beat them if they don’t want to.

I don’t think there’s any need to panic just yet, but this is on the horizon and something we need to worry about.  Kudos to Paula for reading through that whole manifesto and taking the piss out of it so the rest of us don’t have to.

TAM London speaker 6: Karen James

Who’s she?  She’s a botanist who works for the Natural History Museum in London and in particular on the Beagle Project, which she spoke about.

The idea is to build a replica of The HMS Beagle - the ship that carted Darwin around the world – and recreate his voyage, doing experiments along the way.  These include a fairly awesome collaboration with the NASA and the ISS.  Science aside, it’s basically a publicity stunt, but an excellent one.  You should donate.

There’s something exciting about this.  I think it’s because the idea is so tangible. It’s a bloody great ship from another era, made out of the proper wood and everything, doing cool modern stuff.  It’s a laboratory, a library and museum all in one.

Karen’s talk was enthusiastic and funny.  She’s a great science communicator.  She also seems to be good at getting stuff done.  I wanted to speak to her about the project after the talk but for various reasons I didn’t get the chance.

Friday, October 22, 2010

TAM London speaker 5: Andy Nymon

This was a fun session, but I don’t think I was able to appreciate it fully because I haven’t seen Ghost Stories, which Andy wrote and stars in.  Sounds like a good show though.  It supposedly has skeptical elements although neither Andy nor anyone else revealed much about it.  Apparently that was planned and they’ve had a hard time keeping critics from revealing spoilers.

Andy has plenty of other skeptical credentials though.  For instance, he’s been friends with Richard Wiseman for years and indeed this segment was an interview between Nyman and Wiseman.  Also, Andy works with Derren Brown, co-writing and co-designing his TV and stage work.  This is quite interesting, but the talk didn’t cover that in much detail.  Someone asked in the Q&A about the lottery trick: specifically what they were trying to achieve.  In case you don’t know, Derren Brown did a very widely publicised trick where he predicted the lottery.  There was a big build-up to this based around the idea of the wisdom of crowds: get a bunch of people to guess the weight of a cow, average the results and you’ll get a more accurate answer.  The conceit of the trick was that the same could be true of the lottery and the prelude showed a group of people practicing(!) doing this, finally turning their attention to that night’s lottery.  This yielded a set of numbers which formed Brown’s ‘prediction’ of the lottery results.  The reveal was broadcast live at the same time as the lottery and the numbers were shown to be correct.  This was followed up with a show supposedly revealing how the trick was done.  However, that answer was the wisdom of crowds one, which was clearly not true.

The method works with guessing a cow’s weight because guesses will tend to be normally distributed around the cow’s actual approximate weight.  Most people will guess a little high or low, fewer will guess more widely of the mark and so on.  And the distribution will tend to be symmetrical.  The lottery is different because it’s random and the distribution of guesses will be random.  In fact, it probably won’t be.  Some numbers will probably be favoured more than others.  But that doesn’t help us.  The fact remains that guesses about the cow’s weight are based on our intuitions about weight, so you’d expect most of them to be in the right ballpark, whereas guesses about the lottery are not connected to the eventual result in any way.  This means that the wisdom of crowds approach isn’t applicable to the lottery case.

Anyway, much was made of this at the time.  Skeptics who didn’t accept this explanation speculated on his reasons for bothering.  Was he trying to fool people?  Was he trying to give skeptics a reason to feel smug?  Was he trying to get people to think?  It’s an interesting question.  A lot of people in the skeptical community were quite angry about it at the time.

Unfortunately, Andy didn’t really answer the question.  He said that C4’s policy is to arrange one big-headline spectacle a month and this was theirs for that month.  The question was kind of deflected and that was a bit disappointing.

But it was a fun interview that made me want to see Ghost Stories and wishing I’d gone with the TAM crowd on the Friday night.  I much prefer this chatty style of interview to the dreadful overly-confrontational type that all newsreaders (presumably at the demand of their bosses) seem to insist on these days.

TAM London speaker 4: Adam Rutherford

Sorry I’m taking a long time to get through these.  Idiotic amounts of work are getting in the way.  I’ll have to pretend I’m writing them as a guide for people deciding whether to go next year, or something.

Adam Rutherford is an editor of Nature, a science writer and a TV and radio presenter.  He’s also an engaging and funny guy.  He also managed to get a thousand skeptics to recite The Lord’s Prayer, which was quite an achievement.  He also took The Alpha Course, so that the rest of us thankfully don’t have to.  He blogged about it here at the time and he spoke about it at TAM London.

The Alpha Course is a conservative Christian marketing exercise designed to get bums on pews.  It targets what it calls the ‘dechurched’, who are those of us who grew up in vaguely or moderately Christian households but are not ourselves actively religious.  It’s not there to convert hardcore atheists or members of other religions.  Adam himself is one of the dechurched, although rather more of a hardcore atheist than the course is really aimed at.  In other words, it tries to leverage the indoctrination and guilt so many of us suffered as infants.  This is in itself a sinister agenda if you ask me.

Adam was funny and enthusiastic.  One of Alpha’s slogans, which you might have seen on the ubiquitous posters on busses, stations and trains, is “Is this it?”  In fact, one advert depicts someone who has climbed to the top of a mountain and faces a vista of unparalleled beauty and marvel, nature revealed in its glory.  And the guy is asking “is that the best you’ve got?”  Adam’s reply to this stupid and egocentric question was “YES! It’s all there is!  And it’s fucking awesome”.

This statement endeared Adam to me and he endeared himself further by describing his hatred of the loathsome and clumsy Narnia books of C S Lewis.  He blotted his copybook a bit by also disliking The Lord of the Rings, which I happen to enjoy, but at least he was funny about it “It’s a book about walking.”  The reason he mentioned these works at all is that Alpha refers to them a lot in it’s course material.  As Adam pointed out, this is cool teacher syndrome.  They are using popular culture to sell a less palatable message.  In the Narnia case, this is not unreasonable.  The entire story is a clumsy hack of an allegory so transparent that it’s hardly worth bothering changing the names in the first place.  In the LOTR case, it doesn’t work so well.  This is because Frodo taking the ring to Mordor is nothing like any of the stories of Christianity.  As it happens, Tolkein despised allegory and states clearly in at least one edition of LOTR that it’s not allegorical, as many people have claimed.  But none of this matters to believers because they can make analogies that are so mystifyingly vague that they induce some emperor’s-new-clothes-ism: nodding sagely makes you seem wise, but if everyone else is doing that, asking what the fuck makes you look stupid.

A random slide from Adam’s talk:  Its a sentiment we’ve seen many times, but not a bad rendition of it.

Adam spoke about some of the positive sides of the course.  Everyone was friendly and participants were encouraged to say what they were thinking and to argue (although presumably this was limited: it seems unlikely that continued disruption would be tolerated for long).  He met with the leader of Alpha, who was a very nice man with jam on his crotch.

But then he spoke about the darker side.  Darker even than the leverage of indoctrinated fear and guilt described earlier.  It’s homophobia.  The Alpha Course and its leader stress emphatically that the course is not homophobic.  Indeed, it states that it welcomes homosexuals…. but it also states that they can be ‘cured’.  It says that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and that gays can – and should - choose otherwise.  If this isn’t homophobia, I’m not sure what is. 

Which brings me to another point: I’ve never quite understood why everyone – believers and non-believers, homophobes and anti-homophobes alike – seems to spend so much time arguing about whether homosexuality is or isn’t a choice.  Or rather, I understand why believers do it: it’s necessary if they are to justify their actions.  It can’t really be a sin if you can’t help it.  But why do non-believers and non-homophobes engage in this argument?  What does it matter whether homosexuality is a choice or not?  Surely the issue is that it’s nobody’s business what consenting adults do with their genitals in private, regardless of whether they choose which sex they are attracted to.  The evidence certainly seems to show that homosexuality has genetic and environmental components (like almost everything else).  But I refuse to engage homophobes on this matter because it isn’t productive.  It plays into the homophobe’s hands because it confuses the issue.  It implies that if homosexuality is a choice, then there’s a right one and a wrong one.

So The Alpha Course is homophobic, although it says it isn’t.  It’s a kind of franchise model and accepts any denomination of Christianity, so every one will be different and mileage will vary.  Adam finished by saying it’s worth taking the Alpha Course for a couple of reasons: you get to learn how Christianity works and you get the opportunity to challenge them in their lair.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ophelia’s fiendish plan

Ophelia Benson says this well.

Here’s what I do say: I say 1) I want atheism to be an available option for people who want it, and 2) I want people to abandon the expectation that religious claims will be treated with automatic deference … I want, in that sense, to put religious people on the defensive. That’s aggressive, if you like.

The only people I know who are even slightly interested in converting people to atheism have an accomodationist stance.  All the aggressive atheists I know agree with Ophelia.

I don’t want people to abandon their faith because I really just don’t care what people believe.  At all.  Be as wrong as you like.  Really, it’s fine.  Don’t imagine that I won’t tell you why you’re wrong, because it’s fun, but I’m not interested in converting you.  I just don’t care about you or what you think and you won’t change your mind anyway.  It’s not worth my time. 

It’s only when you start telling me that I have to believe stupid things too that you’ll get my attention.  It’s only when you gang up with a bunch of your creepy friends to complain when I laugh at your foolishness or try to pass laws saying I can’t or try to teach schoolkids that evolution isn’t true or discriminate against or otherwise harm women or homosexuals or institutionalise and cover up widespread child abuse or demand special privileges for members of your group or that privileges be taken away from everyone else or tell me I am necessarily morally bankrupt and therefore evil because I don’t believe your particular brand of nonsense or…. It’s only then that I become angry and vocal and gnu.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

TAM London speaker 3: Cory Doctorow

Cory is an interesting chap.  I’ve read some of his books, which are smart and driven by geek culture.  He’s also a major proponent of privacy and copyright reform and an opponent of stupid digital rights management.  He’s released all his novels under a creative commons license, which means people can download and modify them providing they don’t do so for commercial reasons.  He’s also the editor of boingboing, which no self-respecting geek (if there is such a thing) can do without.

His talk was smart and a joy to hear.  I do some work in privacy too, from a computer science sort of perspective.  I’m more concerned with how privacy can be preserved when we put services together as part of e-government.  Well, to be more clear, I’m trying to work out how to write middleware to do that.  And how to work out where and why that middleware will fail.  And how we software engineers can learn to build this kind of software…

Cory’s ideas about copyright and DRM and so on are the ones I’ve been haranguing everyone I know with for the last decade or so.  However, where I complain, Cory writes (quite good) novels and edits important websites and makes an important nuisance of himself.

Thanks Cory: good talk, horrible suit.

What he said

PZ on accomodationism, in a reply to Josh Rosenau’s article.

I am unconvinced by these feeble appeasement tactics that don't really advance the ideas, but do leave people unperturbed from their comfortable positions of ignorance. But here's something else to consider, if the marshmallows of accommodationism are still committed to convincing me otherwise. Even if Rosenhouse's argument wasn't valid, if there were a thousand concrete empirical studies demonstrating that my approach was turning people into fundagelical Christians faster than a tent revival, it wouldn't matter. I'd still be me. I'd still express myself as I do, as I want, because that is all I ever do here — I have never considered myself to be competing in a popularity contest.

It's actually rather revealing that these guys would think that what their opponents say is somehow calculated to optimize positive reactions in the broadest possible demographic. They really don't have a grasp of this mysterious truth thing.

(Emphasis mine) 

Do what you do best.  Do it how you see fit.  You don’t have to be in the dubious business of counting converts to be an effective communicator or an educator of skeptical thought.

TAM London interviews

Rebecca Watson presents some interviews with people at TAM London:

The full interviews will appear on Little Atoms shortly.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Next up, Richard Dawkins.  I’ve seen a lot of talks by Richard, some live, and I doubt I’ll get tired of listening to him.  He was measured, eloquent and poetic.  If it’s not already obvious, Richard has been a hero of mine since I first read The Selfish Gene when I was a young teenager.  I had been devouring pop science books for years, but in those days they were mostly about physics.  The Selfish Gene was probably the first biology-related book I’d read and although I knew a little about evolution from the distortions I’d been taught at school and from what my parents had told me, this book really did open a door to a wider world.  The physics books contained mysteries, which I was thirsty for, and answers, which astounded me, but it placed scientists – both individual and collective – as the heroes. 

The Selfish Gene did something different.  It cast ideas as the heroes. This struck me with something that felt almost like a physical force and that feeling changed my life.  I already loved the stories of science and the feeling of mysteries that could be solved, but I hadn’t imagined how profound could be the pleasure of finding things out and that’s a debt to Richard Dawkins that I’ll never be able to repay.  I should tell him this one day.

Anyway, it’s safe to say that my cards are on the table, so you can probably tell how my review of his talk is going to go.  And you’re right: I liked it.

Richard’s talk was about science education.  He began by saying that his subject of evolution was under threat and that he wanted to come out fighting.  What followed was a beautiful piece of scientific poetry. 

What, he asked, if we substitute evolution in the place classics used to occupy in education?

Classics used to be the cornerstone of a British education.  It was thought that a grounding in classics opened doors to every other subject and every type of occupation.  I didn’t receive a classical education so I don’t have an opinion on whether this is true, but the point is well made.  Evolution is at the heart of our understanding of so much of the world that if we think of it occupying the place classics formerly did in our culture and education, then perhaps it can open doors to a better understanding of every other subject.  He went on to talk about the disciplines that could be better informed by a better understanding of evolution.  This included the obvious ones like biology and geology, but also physics, engineering, politics and my own subject of computer science.  I won’t go into his arguments here.  Some were more compelling than others. 

I’ll make a brief comment on the computer science idea, however.  Richard said (rightly) that certain fields of biology are virtually indistinguishable from computer science.  He was speaking of bioinformatics, which is largely about the manipulation of digital information (genes) in much the same way as computer scientists have been doing for ages.  In fact, bioinformatics is an area where biology has been informed by computer science.  We know how to manipulate this stuff.  Of course, in the process, computer science has learned a lot from biology too.  Many computer science departments have a bioinformatics group. 

I might have been tempted to go a bit further though.  Computer science is primarily an engineering discipline. We deal in economy and trade-off.  We strive for solutions that are elegant and we revel in the beauty of those solutions, but we’re not usually able to achieve them because of real-world economic and time constraints.  So we find beauty in the compromise instead: in understanding what forces are at work, what will happen when (inevitably) someone modifies our work too far in the wrong direction.  There’s a lot to be learned from evolution here.

As we move further into the internet age, computer science is becoming less about integration and more about composition.  We’re creating ecosystems of services and I think the analogy holds up pretty well.  We’ve got resources that are limited in different ways and competition for those resources.  We have relationships such as dependency between services and in some cases the structure of relationships in an ecosystem of services could have dramatic implications on how damage might affect the stability and function of this ‘ecosystem’.

I wish I had time to tease out this analogy further to see how well it stands up, but an understanding of evolution is certain to help in this kind of world.  It would be cool to talk to Richard about this someday when I’ve had time to think it all through a bit more.

I don’t know whether Richard was serious in his proposal (although why not?) that evolution replace classics in education and culture.  I’m not sure it matters.  I don’t think that was really the purpose of the talk.  I think Richard was delivering a piece of scientific poetry: an example of the consciousness-raising he does so well. 

We shouldn’t forget Dawkins’ humour either, which was evident throughout.  It’s an aspect of Dawkins’ character everyone seems to forget.  For example, his obvious delight at Sewell Wright possibly having erased a blackboard with a guinea pig was infectious.

Another great TAM talk and if Richard’s analogy was perhaps a little bit strained at times, I’ll forgive him.  He can set it off against that debt…

TAM London first Speaker: Susan Blackmore

The first speaker (after introductions by Richard Wiseman and James Randi) was Susan Blackmore.

Sue was a firm believer in the paranormal for much of her life.  In her talk, she explained that she had an interest in woo from an early age, was drawn into it further by the paranormal societies abounding when she started university and particularly by a certain long-haired second year who seemed to sweeten the deal.  During this period she had a profound out-of-body experience which she understates as ‘life-changing’.  It sounds like an incredible experience and it’s hardly surprising that it convinced Sue of the reality of the paranormal.  Can any of us say for certain we’d have reacted differently?

After graduation, Sue got a place on a parapsychology PhD – no mean feat in those days – and later worked as a parapsychologist for many years.  The rest of the talk was about her journey from committed believer to skeptic.  She spoke in detail about how disbelief was always around the next corner and there were a lot of corners. 

But she does herself a gross disservice here.  It took a long time to let go of her beliefs, but it happened in the end because she went about parapsychology in an effectively skeptical and scientific way.  She didn’t fool herself.  She constructed elegant and well-designed experiments and was honest about the results.  She didn’t allow herself room to wriggle out of the results and she even debunked a respected fellow parapsychologist who she caught cheating (or at least, someone in that lab seemed to be cheating). 

She went systematically across the whole field eliminating claim after claim and then finally realised that the reason she wasn’t finding anything is that there’s nothing there.  Her only mistake was to begin with belief: if her experiences had been different, she might have started with disbelief and had a very different career.  But then she might not have had such great stories to tell.

Sue ended her talk on a very personal note.  She’s angry about those years she sees as wasted, banging her head against a wall that wasn’t there.  She explained that she recently spoke about those years in public for the first time and broke down in uncontrollable anger shortly afterwards.  I sympathise.  But judging by her talk, she has a lot less to be angry about than she thinks.

TAM London part 1

OK, it’s going to take me a while to get through all this because there’s a lot to say and I’m busy.  So I’ll do it in sections.

Overall impressions

I thought both days were great.  I couldn’t fault it.  The talks were interesting, thoughtful or – usually – both.  The organisation on the day was great, but I still have some quibbles about lack of publicity and keeping people informed.  More on that later.

The vibe was as friendly as it was last year, but seemed a bit more subdued and… I’m not sure “serious” is the right word, but serious it is until I can think of something better.  It’s the wrong word because it makes it sound like a bad thing.  I don’t think it is: skepticism has changed even over the last year and I think this more serious tone reflected that.  As did the scope.  A few people complained that some of the talks weren’t really about skepticism.  I understand what they were saying.  These topics probably wouldn’t be appropriate for TAM even last year.  But things are different now.  With the rise of more vocal atheism and manufactured controversies over things like global warming and stem cell research, skepticism has become more political.  We’re still concerned about psychics preying on the vulnerable, but we also care about religions that tell everyone what to do and governments who don’t listen to evidence and discrimination across the board.

This was very much evident at this year’s TAM London.  There was a lot more talk of religion, for starters.  Going back a few years, this was almost a no-go topic for the JREF, not because it was in any sense taboo, but because it was outside their remit.  This year, hardly any speaker failed to mention it and there was much and joyful enthusiasm for humorous attacks on religion.  There was also a bit of accomodationism, but I’ll leave that until later as well.

There was also a lot of science.  Well, that’s been true in past years too and for obvious reasons: the links between science and skepticism are clear.  But there was also some politics: Evan Harris spoke a bit about this in a panel session and Melinda Gebbie spoke about sexual politics in an interview about her work.

Melinda’s talk was one of those I heard several people complain about.  They felt it wasn’t in keeping with TAM’s theme and one woman said she was annoyed by it.  Personally, I feel that if sexual politics and particularly feminism are not issues of skepticism then I don’t know what is.  Women have been abused and discriminated against throughout history. It’s still going on today, most notably – but by no means exclusively – in the Islamic world.  This is happening for no good reason.  It’s up to skeptics to raise people’s consciousness on these issues. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would argue that issues of abuse or discrimination against homosexuals or the disabled is not a skeptical issue.

If anything was perhaps a bit off-topic, it was the panel discussion on technology and new media.  I’d expected that this would be about how to best use new media to get the messages of skepticism out there, but it was a bit light on this.  But I’ve been on panels before and it’s hard to stay exactly on topic.  Plus, it became more oriented to skeptical matters when questions were taken from the floor.

So it was a great meeting, perhaps a little less lively than last year, but it seemed to have more in the way of both breadth and depth.  I was perfectly happy with this difference and I think it reflects the way the skeptical landscape is changing.

I’ll get on to some of the talks in due course.

Moving beyond words

It speaks for itself, no comment from me.



TAM London and guilt update

Hopefully I’ll have time to write it up tomorrow.  For the time being, you can see the official liveblog here:

There’s also a video there.  Apparently the whole event was streamed live.


I know lots of people who wanted to go to the event but couldn’t.  They’d have loved to have seen the live stream.  But they didn’t know about it.  This is just so bizarre.  It happened last year as well and it happened with the DVD.  The organisers have a pathological need to keep everything secret.  As great as the event was and as well-organised as it turned out to be (it was very slick without seeming overly professional), this is simply inexcusable.  I can’t stress this enough – what is wrong with these people that they won’t tell anyone about the event, what’s going to happen and what’s happening right now?

But this is the only aspect of the meeting I didn’t like.  I’ll have a lot more to say on this and the more positive when I have time.  The conference came at a bad time for me and I should really have worked this weekend, so I need to make up for it now.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Initial verdict

Really njoyed TAM London, but the vibe wasn't as lively as last year. Perhaps this isn't a bad thing in itself, but I'll expand on this later. There was a lot more there that was not pure, full on skepticism, but I definitely think this was a good thing as I'll explain when I have a proper keyboard.
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Pz did a good job of showing why wringing your hands over tone is a bit crap. I think he could have stood to hammer the point home a bit more though, my impression is that much of this crowd is not particularly following this argument about toolne. I could be wrong though.
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Saturday, October 16, 2010


More great stuff. I'm going to have to spend days writing about this stuff.

Robin Ince and James Randi up next, so that can hardly be bad.
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TAM first session

it was very good. Sue Blacknore spoke about her journey toward skepticism, Richard raised the interesting idea of evolution taking the place of the classics in culture and education, then soke good stuff about copyright from Cory Doctorow. It ended with Adam Rutherford oj the Alpua Course. Very entertaining.

I'll write more when I'm at a proper keyboard.
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looking good

The lineup for the morning looks good. Richard Dawkins, Sue Blackmore, Cory Doctorow etc.
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Waiting for TAM to start. There are surprisingly few people here yet, but that probably says more about the cost of this hotel than anything else. Actually, we got a decent enough rate for the room, then got charged 30 quid each for a bowl of cereal and a cup of tea.

Fortunately, my wife thinks they charged it to the wrong room.
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Friday, October 15, 2010

i done seed James Randi

At TAM London. I've already seen James Randi looking fit and well.
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TAM London

Off to TAM London for the next few days.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Not helping

In some comments somewhere, Russell Blackford thinks arch accomodationists like Chris Mooney see themselves as politicians: members (read “wannabe leaders”) of a political movement.  Viewed in this way, their antics make sense, or are at least consistent.  A political party has to convince as many people as possible about its message across a wide demographic range.  From this point of view, insulting one of those demographics really isn’t helping.

I think this probably sums up Mooney’s thinking quite nicely.  He’s a statesman with a steely eye on the big picture while we dissenters are politically naive squabbling children.  If we’d just stop being so silly and myopic, we could actually achieve something.  By which he means something on his agenda.  Presumably our agendas don’t count.

The problem is that I’m not a member of his party and I don’t necessarily subscribe to his message, but he still wants to tell me what to do.  I’ve seen that kind of thing before.  Didn’t much care for it.

Mooney’s cause isn’t mine and if I’m not helping his then that’s just too bad.  He’s not helping mine and you don’t find me complaining about that.

My experience of atheists and skeptics and people who generally want better science education and communication suggests that it’s less like a political party and more like a community.  We don’t want the same thing. We don’t even have the same aims, goals, motives or ideals.  We kind of live in the same sort of place, but we believe different things, we act in different ways, we club together as and when it makes sense and we argue with each other when it doesn’t.

I won’t help you, Mooney, because I don’t subscribe to your way of doing things.  But it turns out that the supposed problem is entirely of your own manufacture.  Above all, you don’t get to pretend that half the planet is on your team.  I’m not sure that’s right though.  I think many of us think you’re a dick.

Friendly Atheist still friendly, not so accomodationist

I’ve always quite liked Hemant Mehta and thought he was generally thoughtful and certainly a decent chap.  But I tired of what often seemed like a mawkishly accomodationist stance and stopped reading his blog some time ago.

He’s changed his mind though.  It’s moving stuff.

While a lot of people in my life know me as an atheist, the battle I used to fight involved getting the religious people to agree with me on other issues and finding common ground there.

I don’t have that problem anymore. Instead, a new problem has emerged.

Now, the battle is over when I should bring up religion with people who might agree with me on everything else. Do I fight with my friends over topics like religion? Should I argue with my parents about god’s existence? At least in my own life, no good can come from these things.

But I’m getting more vocal… I’m trying, anyway.

It seems so easy for PZ and Coyne to say these things because people already know them to be anti-accommodation.

It’s a lot harder when you’ve tried to build bridges with religious people and now risk tearing them apart.

I know what he means.  I think most atheists do.  It was hard for me to stop vaguely pretending to my parents that I’d become an atheist, let alone a grumpy and uncompromising one.  There’s a genuine hurdle to get over.  We’re brought up to feel bad when we don’t give undue respect to religious beliefs. But I think it’s only when we let go of that instinct that we can really start to think clearly about our lack of belief. 

For me, the change in attitude came sometime in the mid 80s.  Atheists and agnostics I knew kept saying things like “I don’t believe in any religions, but I respect them.”  This immediately seemed an astonishing thing to say.  What was there to respect?  And why were they deserving of respect?  It sounds silly in today’s climate, but I struggled with these ideas for quite a while.  There weren’t many people saying stuff like this back then.  And I was only a kid.

I really don’t want to sound patronising, but I hope that Hemant is now entering an awesome new world.  I’m sure he’ll still be friendly.  I don’t think for a moment that he’ll maraud about the place offending people for the sake of it.  But hopefully he’ll no longer pull his punches. 

The world just got a little bit more interesting. 

Friday, October 08, 2010

Who needs enemies?

Where are all these accomodationists coming from?  They’re all over the place!  Lots of them are themselves atheists.  This is not in itself perverse: wanting to play nice with people who don’t agree with you is not an unreasonable position.  Respecting things because some people cry if you don’t isn’t logical, but neither is it particularly offensive to me.  Accomodate if you must.  I find your reasons for doing so specious but each to her own.  Just don’t tell me that I have to do it too.  And this is the problem, isn’t it?  Accomodationism seems not to be about being nice to believers so much as telling everyone else that they should be nice.

So what’s the deal?  Why is the place so lousy with accomodationists?  What are they getting out of it?  I’ve no idea, of course, but it’s fun to speculate. 

Ophelia Benson says some useful things here.  For example:

Useful well-conducted dissent – accurate, careful, reasonable – is vital for getting at the truth, and that kind of dissent among atheists is of course all to the good. But the backlash isn’t like that. It’s political: it’s angry, hostile reaction to a challenge to the status quo.

The last sentence says lots.  It might help to explain why people who otherwise demand evidence for extraordinary claims feel so strongly that religious people mysteriously don’t have to.  It might explain why they use anecdotes as evidence in this one area, while calling out people who do that in others.

I’m thinking partly along similar lines.  There is anxiety to be found in upsetting both people and applecarts.  My parents were….disappointed… when I stopped going to church.  Yeah, that kind of ‘disappointed’.  I don’t think I told them out-and-out that I had become an atheist, but if it wasn’t clear to them at that moment, it must have been in the months and years to come. They certainly know it now  And it was hard.  I didn’t want to disappoint them.  I knew that if I left the church, they’d be disappointed with me for the rest of their lives.  I also knew I had no choice but to do it anyway, but it was still a hard thing to do.

Applecart-wise, I’m uncomfortable around clergy.  What’s that about?  In social situations, I find it harder to say things that might offend the religious to clergy  than to less officially religious people.  In social situations, that is: I haven’t the slightest concern about offending people of various cloths online.

This confuses and angers me and I try not to act on this impulse, but it’s there.

My anecdotes are meant to illustrate the obvious point that it’s hard to let go of religion even when you’ve let go of religion.  Other people feel different pressures, I’m sure.  Is this what’s driving accomodationism?

Possibly.  I have an image in mind of what Ophelia calls ‘status quo’.  To me it looks like a web of inhibitions that dampen desires to criticise certain things.  It’s OK to criticise science because there’s (largely) no inhibition against that.  There are all kinds of interacting and complicated inhibitions that make it difficult to criticise religion to the religious though, even when it’s easy to criticise it in a fairly anonymous way or to the irreligious alone.

This is all obvious, of course, and all speculation.  I’d love to have time to think about how to ball it into a hypothesis and think about how to test it.

But in the meantime, I think Ophelia is right, as far as she goes.  I’d love to peel apart ‘status quo’ and see what it might mean, though.

I R doin it rong

Yet another update: The article appears in full here:

Apparently the author means it. How exciting.

UPDATE: the article never appeared on the site and now it's been removed from the newsfeed. Perhaps it was posted by mistake. I must say I'm pleased that the JREF decided not to post it, not because I don't happen to agree with the article but because it shows a deplorable lack of skeptical thought.

UPDATE 2: I've pasted the full text of the article below. I don't feel entirely comfortable about it, since the original posting might have been an error, but my post doesn't make much sense without access to the original article.

So I've posted it with the caveats that:
1. The JREF didn't officially publish it so don't think of it as a reflection on that organisation.
2. The article might have been submitted in error, unfinished, and the author might not have intended for it to be read in this form.

Having said that, it did go out on a public feed and my comments stand as the article appeared.

There’s a piece on the JREF Swift feed (but it doesn’t seem to be on the site yet, I think they’ve screwed up the access control) by Maria Myrback called The Dawkins/Plaitt [sic] Dilemma. 

It presents an accomodationist view of religion (which I don’t have a problem with) and tells all non-accomodationists that we’re doing it wrong (which I most certainly do have a problem with).  It’s odd that accomodationists always seem to feel the need to do this: the over-preoccupation with tone – and particularly with other people’s tone – is quite nauseating and I wish they’d stop it.  If you must give unearned respect to silly beliefs solely on the grounds that they are silly beliefs then go right ahead.  I don’t mind at all.  But don’t insist that those of us who don’t are harming the cause of skepticism.  First, you never cite any evidence at all that this is the case and second, you don’t get to tell everyone what the atheist cause is (if such a thing even exists).  The article concerns a quote attributed to Richard Dawkins, which on the face of it seems to be urging atheists to ridicule the religious:

On Wednesday night, DJ Grothe posted the following quote from Richard Dawkins on Facebook; "Atheists should not be abusive of believers. Instead, we should ridicule them.".  I do not know the context of this quote and I would appreciate it if anyone who was actually there could expand on it. Dr. Dawkins said this during his interview with Michael Shermer at an event at Cal Tech.

I can’t find a source, but I remember Dawkins saying something similar in a talk.  He was talking about ridiculing silly religious ideas rather than ridiculing individuals for holding those ideas.  The distinction is rather important.  But out of context, it might seem like a call for Ad Hominem attack.

Myrback asks:

Does ridicule really work?

and goes on to state (without evidence of any kind) that it doesn’t.  But she misses a rather important point.  Work for what, exactly?  For convincing people who are deeply invested in beliefs?  It does indeed sound implausible that ridicule will change these people’s minds.  But who says this is the only aim of ridicule?  Who says these are the people we’re necessarily trying to reach? 

His [Phil Plait in his Don’t be a Dick speech] point was that when people feel they are being insulted, they tend to shut out logical arguments and revert to a defensive stance. Nobody enjoys being ridiculed for beliefs whether they are deeply held or not. Usually what happens is the person who feels insulted and attacked ends up clinging to that belief even harder than before. They also walk away with the idea that all skeptics are jerks. No one wins in that scenario.

Whether anyone wins depends on what the game is.  I think the believer might consider it a win: she comes away with a stronger faith than before, isn’t that a win from her point of view? 

If the game is ‘convert the believer’ then I agree that we probably won’t have a winner here.  But what if we’re playing a different game? 

In my experience, many people just don’t think about religion all that much but they are brought up in the tradition of a religion and have a tendency to respect religion, even if they don’t believe it themselves.  There are also a lot of fence-sitters who vaguely believe in religion but have their doubts.  By ridiculing religion, perhaps some of these people will think “Hey, you know what?  This stuff is ridiculous!”

Don’t we have winners in this scenario?

Also note the third sentence in that quote:

Usually what happens is the person who feels insulted and attacked ends up clinging to that belief even harder than before.

Usually?  How could any skeptic make a comment like that without evidence?  It’s hidden within some other points, so it could easily sail past the radars of those less pedantic than I, but if we strip out the context – as Myrback does with Dawkins’ quote – it’s an astonishing statement.

But not as astonishing as what she says next:

The attitude that believers should be ridiculed is divisive and harmful to our cause as a group.  If the goal is to build and expand our skeptical community, using Ad Hominem attacks only drives potential skeptics away.

First, let’s deal with the ‘Ad Hominem’ part.  I think this is a bit of a strawman.  I don’t think it’s what Dawkins is advocating and I don’t think there’s as much of it around as accomodationists like to suggest.  When they have to hunt so hard and take quotes out of context to get a borderline case, you have to wonder if something’s up.  I’m prepared to agree that Ad Hominem attacks are not generally helpful, but the question wasn’t “Do Ad Hominem attacks work?” it was “Does ridicule work?” so let’s get back to that topic and rephrase the statement as:

The attitude that believers should be ridiculed is divisive and harmful to our cause as a group.  If the goal is to build and expand our skeptical community, using ridicule only drives potential skeptics away.

There is not the slightest bit of evidence that this is true.  If it’s done skilfully, might it not show people that atheists are far from the humourless blobs they are so often made out to be?  Couldn’t it get people thinking about their tacit acceptance of religion’s role in our societies?  Couldn’t it persuade some fence-sitters to jump off in our direction?

I think it’s perfectly safe to say that it could do all these things.  Would that lead to the creation of more or fewer skeptics than a more accomodationist approach?  I’ve no idea and – crucially – neither does anyone else, including Myrback.  So it’s fairly astonishing that Myrback tosses it out as a fact.

Instead, we as a group need to consider the possibility that the person you are getting ready to call a moron may not ever have been exposed to critical thinking.

We’re all over the place here.  We’ve moved from ridiculing religion to Ad Hominem attacks to calling people morons.  Is Myrback really suggesting that Richard Dawkins urges atheists to call believers morons?  It’s nothing more than subtle straw-manery.

Education is the answer, not ridicule. Asking someone “Have you thought it could be this?” instead of calling names is so much more productive.

Again, no evidence, just a bald assertion of truth.  But what concerns me most is the idea that there is an answer.  Myrback can’t even seem to agree on a question, so a single answer seems implausible at best.  Why isn’t there room for lots of different answers?  And lots of different questions?  Why must we toe some kind of party line?  Why must we share goals, ideologies and methods?  We’re a diverse bunch and I personally consider that a strength.  A united front isn’t always the best approach.  Sometimes it’s better to divide and conquer.

Myrback does go on to concede that ridicule has it’s place, but she goes on to state – again, without the slightest bit of evidence – that the ridicule approach has only a “minimal level of success” (whatever that’s supposed to mean, surely the minimal level of success is zero) and continues:

when we go after the idea and not the person, we have the potential to create a meaningful dialog where change actually has the potential to take place.

Again, Myrback is confusing ridicule with personal attack.  I – and Dawkins – advocate ridiculing ideas rather than people.  Can you really see Dawkins saying “you’re a moron because you believe in god?”  If you can, I’d suggest you haven’t heard him talk very much or read a single piece of his writing on religion.

Some of Myrback’s points are good ones.  Understand believers.  Adapt your strategy accordingly.  Have a strategy.  All very good – and very obvious – points.  And yet she’d have us believe that some strategies ought to be off limits, that some methods of skepticism are inherently harmful and that we shouldn’t be in the club unless we toe the party line.

Maria, you need to examine your own skepticism as it seems sadly lacking.  At least, it is not evident in this article.  You’ve decided without a shred of evidence ought is is and you expect every skeptic to do the same.  Are you serious?

Full text of the article

On Wednesday night, DJ Grothe posted the following quote from Richard Dawkins on Facebook; "Atheists should not be abusive of believers. Instead, we should ridicule them.". I do not know the context of this quote and I would appreciate it if anyone who was actually there could expand on it. Dr. Dawkins said this during his interview with Michael Shermer at an event at Cal Tech.

As a stand-alone comment it, bring up an issue that has had many people in the skeptical community at odds for some time now.

Does ridicule really work?

At TAM 8 this past July, Phil Plaitt gave his now famous “Don’t Be A D!ck” speech. He posed the following question, asking for a show of hands, “How many of you came to skepticism because someone called you a moron?” A few people did raise their hands in the affirmative but it was a very small group.

His point was that when people feel they are being insulted, they tend to shut out logical arguments and revert to a defensive stance. Nobody enjoys being ridiculed for beliefs whether they are deeply held or not. Usually what happens is the person who feels insulted and attacked ends up clinging to that belief even harder than before. They also walk away with the idea that all skeptics are jerks. No one wins in that scenario.

The attitude that believers should be ridiculed is divisive and harmful to our cause as a group. If the goal is to build and expand our skeptical community, using Ad Hominem attacks only drives potential skeptics away.

Instead, we as a group need to consider the possibility that the person you are getting ready to call a moron may not ever have been exposed to critical thinking. Their ideas seem perfectly plausible to them because they may not have been taught that what they saw was really a weather balloon or that there is such a thing as sleep paralysis. They may not know what pareidolia is or that the autonomic nervous system makes them twitch when they’re dowsing for water.

Education is the answer, not ridicule. Asking someone “Have you thought it could be this?” instead of calling names is so much more productive. Engage them in conversation about their belief. Pose questions that will get them to think about other possible answers and then let them come to their own conclusion. Sometimes they come back later and thank you.

That being said, ridicule does have a place. Using humor to diffuse a tense situation can point out the ridiculousness of a belief. A joke has the potential to plant seeds of doubt in someone who is ready to hear it. A wonderful example of using humor to ridicule a belief can be seen here where people at this year’s ComicCon put on a counter-protested against the Westboro Baptist. Church protestors.

Penn & Teller have also had success with an In-Your-Face approach on their Showtime program, Bullshit. That show is one of the reasons I’m a skeptic. They have a no-nonsense tack to pseudo science and quackery. They also use tastelessness and humor to diffuse a tense situation. But lets face it; their approach is much more like a kick to the groin than a pat on the back. It can be (and has been) off-putting to viewers whose beliefs have been called into question. The difficulty with a TV show is that, aside from the P&T message boards, there is no one there to answer questions that might crop up during the show.
While the ridicule approach does have a minimal level of success, when we go after the idea and not the person, we have the potential to create a meaningful dialog where change actually has the potential to take place.

Take the time to understand, also, that everyone is at a different point in the exploration of skepticism. We’re overcoming millions of years of evolution by learning to think critically. Our brains simply aren’t wired that way. Learning new ways of thinking is difficult and when cognitive dissonance enters the picture, there can be actual, physical discomfort along with the emotional and mental stress of walking away from long-held beliefs.
Patience, education and humor are tools that we might consider adding to our skeptical toolbox. It takes patience to educate people who have not been exposed to or are new to critical thinking. Have a strategy in mind before engaging in a debate over a belief. George Hrab has an excellent one. When confronted with pseudoscience, he asks, “Really? And how does that work?”. Engage them. Get them to explain the belief. Asking for an explanation gets the person to think about what they are proposing especially if you gently point out other possibilities by asking “What if…?”. You probably won’t get them to change their mind during the discussion and that shouldn’t be the goal. Even though you’re probably right, this isn’t about being right. It’s about planting a seed.