Skepticism, Religion, and Strawmen

Daniel Loxton has a post up at Skepticblog today titled “‘Testable Claims’ is Not a ‘Religious Exemption’“. Although the article doesn’t specify or provide any links, it is, in large part, a response to PZ’s recent “divorce” from the organized skeptical movement and the arguments leading up to it. From Loxton’s article:

What are we to make of accusations that skepticism’s “testable claims” scope is a cynical political dodge, a way to present skeptics as brave investigators while conveniently arranging to leave religious feathers unruffled? Like the other clichés of my field (“skeptics are in the pocket of Big Pharma!”) this complaint is probably immortal. No matter how often this claim is debunked, it will never go away.

Nonetheless, it is grade-A horseshit. It’s become a kind of urban legend among a subset of the atheist community—a misleading myth in which a matter of principle is falsely presented as a disingenuous ploy. There is (and this cannot be emphasized enough) no “religious exemption” in skepticism. Skeptics do and always have busted religious claims.

Loxton sounds a bit frustrated, and well he may. He’s said this sort of thing plenty of times before, but it hasn’t settled the claims. Of course, there’s a reason for that. Loxton is completely missing the point. [Read more…]

I Get Email: fMRI and Autism

I did receive one response to my talk at SkepTech that wasn’t entirely positive.

Good afternoon Stephanie,

I was one of the attendees at skeptech in Minneapolis last weekend, and had asked you a question as to whether MRI’s have contributed to discovering autism in children at a young age (or at all, for that matter). I remember your reply, where you said that MRI’s weren’t advanced enough to make those kinds of detections without the need for physically splitting someone’s head open and investigating.

Curiousity got the best of me, and I decided to look around on the internet. I found the following scientific paper, “State-dependant changes of connectivity patterns and functional brain network topology in Autism Spectrum Disorder” on, a reputable source containing a library of scientific papers available to the public. Within this paper, another paper in 2007 by Alexander et al. discussed that “structural MRI studies have reported abnormal developmental trajectory of brain growth, with evidence of poorly organizated white matter”.

My questions to you are:

  • What is your reaction to this new information?
  • Given that your website shows no credentials of neuroscience or anything related to which you may have degrees in, why would you attend a conference and answer questions so confidently without knowing more about these subjects and the science behind these matters?

Thank you for your time. I hope you have a great week!

All right. Let’s go through my mental processes on this one, shall we? [Read more…]

The Use and Abuse of Psychometrics

I had a very short time slot for my solo talk at SkepTech, so I decided to use it to give a very brief, simplified look at how the process of developing measurement tools in psychology limits what those tools can tell us.

The talk has made my fellow psych people happy, which means I didn’t get anything glaringly wrong. I haven’t yet heard much from people outside psychology, so I have no idea how this plays as an introduction to the topic.

Things I Learned: YouTube Edition

It’s good practice to say very publicly from time to time when you’ve gotten something wrong. I did that earlier today.

Thunderf00t has a new YouTube video up about how feminism is destroying all that is unholy. Ophelia has a bit of discussion of the details here.

When I clicked through to YouTube I saw something that made me laugh. The video showed 301 views and 1,798 upvoted.

I took a screen capture (which WordPress doesn’t want to load) and tweeted the picture, along with a comment about people evaluating the merits of the argument. A few people commented. A few people retweeted me. We all thought it was bizarre.

Then Rebecca let me know that YouTube just does that. Something about that many views triggering a review. (I’m paraphrasing, so any additional errors are mine, not hers.) The correct number won’t show up for several hours.

That’s both non-obvious and not nearly as funny.

So I took down the tweet and let the people who had retweeted it know what was going on. And now I tell you as a reminder (to myself as well) that there’s nothing wrong with being wrong as long as you own up to it and learn.

But Men Work More Hours

Jason’s back at blogging again, after a bit of a break to get all credentialed up. Easing back into the swing of things, he put up a post pointing to the “11 Signs You Might Be an MRA” t-shirt that was going around. As the first one of these “signs” is “You have no problem with the gender wage gap. But you hate having to pay for dates”, it of course brought out the standard reasons why the pay gap is totes not discriminatory. For example:

It’s not that we don’t have a problem with it, it’s that we’re aware that when you account for factors such as that men work for longer hours, it almost disappears. If women want a higher wage, they should make choices that will bring them a bigger paycheck.

Both the idea that the pay gap “almost disappears” and the question of choice have already been more than ably handled in the comments at Jason’s. I want, however, to pull apart this idea of working hours.
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The Evolution of Creationism

PZ’s talks on biology are okay and stuff. I mean, they’re educational and all, but…don’t tell PZ, but bio just doesn’t sing to me the way it does to a lot of people.

I just like this talk better. I saw it at the Midwest Science of Origins conference in Morris this past March. He’s been giving it locally but not at conferences, to the best of my knowledge. Luckily, he’s been captured on video.

It’s fascinating to watch how what were once fairly reasonable ideas, given the state of knowledge at the time, became sacred and entrenched. It’s appalling to see how contorted thinking became so that people could hold on to those ideas. At its root, creationism is like any other pseudoscience that grew out of ignorant beliefs too important to be shed, but it’s rare to get to see a history this complete.

Portrait of Deceit

A long time ago, James Randi did something rather important for me. He lied. He didn’t lie to me, but he made it clear he would if it would help me sort out the truth. I’ve written before about how important this was to me.

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was young and somewhat naive. Libraries had always been very good to me, sometimes when no one else was, and I trusted them. See, they had these sections labeled “nonfiction,” where I found confirmation that the world was a weird and wonderful place. Parapsychology, ghost stories–all of them had to be true because the library told me they weren’t made up stories. They weren’t fiction.

A high school psychology class reinforced that belief, talking about J. B. Rhine’s experiments. Experiments! Science confirmed what the library had told me. And as I went through college and learned more about science and experimental design, parapsychology garnered more legitimacy.

Then a friend gave me Flim Flam.

The experience was formative, but it isn’t something I share with enough other people. Get someone to read a book telling them that this sort of faked wonder is a business and that we’re all very good at fooling ourselves? Well, it’s hard enough getting people to simply read any book these days.

However, a small group of documentary filmmakers are working to bring Randi’s story to a broader medium–the big screen. They’ve set up a Kickstarter for the funds to help them complete their film An Honest Liar, which is already in progress. After just two days, they’re more than a quarter of the way to their goal.

I’m not the only person Randi’s lies have reached or helped. If you’re one of them, or if you just want to help them reach a broader audience, you may want to help out.

Readings in Evolutionary Psychology

I know you’re all still very interested in the subject of evolutionary psychology. Given that, I’ve collected a short selection of readings that may interest you. First, we start with the incomparable Scicurious and her Friday Weird Science feature.

The handsome stranger clutched her shoulders, supporting her as she swooned. The suddenness and violence of the robbery and her rescue disoriented Beverlee, and for a few moments she did not know where she was. But as she began to be conscious of her surroundings, she was increasingly aware of the tall, firm man she leaned against, of his  big hands clasped around her shoulders, warm through the thin linen of her chemise.

She looked up hesitantly through her lashes, and into the dark, deep eyes of her rescuer. As their eyes met, a shock seemed to pass through them both. He leapt backward, and for an instant Beverlee felt the loss of his touch, the coldness where his hands had touched her.  But the moment passed, and gathering himself, her rescuer spoke.

“Christmas” he said, flatly. “Bride baby cowboy doctor secret lady.” And each word sang deep in Beverlee’s spirit, tapping something deep in her she hadn’t known existed: the desire to find a long term mate that would provide food and shelter while she had loads of babies.

-from the romance novel I will someday write.

Sci takes a look at the methods behind a study purporting to show that inherent tendencies in female mating strategies are reflected in Harlequin romance titles. Hey, now, come on. They looked at 15,000 titles. How can a sample size that large not represent good science? I doubt I’ll spoil much to let to you know that Sci will tell you. She’ll also be hilarious as she does it. 
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In a Violent Context

In light of the discussion on Kate’s post about assuming mental illness in the case of a mass murder, this post and, particularly, Daniel’s are extremely relevant again. It really shouldn’t be that hard to think about why people who are not mentally ill might do terrible things. It happens all the time. Shootings like these are just one of the less typical ways it happens.

When the incomprehensible happens, we are much happier if we can reduce the event to a single cause, put it in its little pigeon hole where it can’t disturb us as much. Attributing mass violence like the shooting in Aurora, CO to mental illness fits this bias of ours very comfortably. Of course, that doesn’t mean that mental illness really is the answer–or the only answer.

Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology started a discussion on this topic when Jared Loughner shot Gabby Giffords and several others. With this new act of mass violence that we are attempting to explain away instead of understanding in all its dimensions, he’s focused his thoughts more. The questions he prompts are fascinating, particularly for those familiar with how much cultural context–what we collectively accept and reject as civilized behavior–determines diagnoses of mental illness.

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