Book Review: Jen Hancock’s Humanist Approach to Happiness

(x-posted from SheThought)

Jennifer Hancock, from her website

Jen Hancock was kind enough to reach out to the SheThought writers and offered me a chance to read and review her book, The Humanist Approach to Happiness: Practical Wisdom. The book is aimed at teens and young adults as a way to teach ethics, critical thinking skills and decision-making to young people. If you’re more interested in the book than anything I have to say, just scroll to the end and there’s more information on the special deal she’s offering SheThought readers.

This is perfect for me because, as someone who automatically hates everything and thinks grown-ups are stupid, I am exactly the right audience for a book aimed at teenagers.

So I suppose that’s a good place to start. I didn’t totally hate it, but I didn’t love it either. Some parts of it were really good, and some parts really rankled. It is written in an easy to understand way with plenty of examples and metaphors that are appropriate to a younger readership. The writer clearly has a very keen memory of her teenage days and isn’t afraid to mine them for engaging examples.

One of my bigger problems with the book came from formatting choices. There seemed to be some errors with the margins, which is fairly minor, but the author also made the decision to pepper the book with quotations from famous speakers. Now, I’m not against quotations, but giant quotations in between connected paragraphs makes me feel a little bit off kilter. When the quotes intrude, I feel the need either to read the quote and then re-figure out what I was reading or to skip the quote entirely.

Sort of like how you’re engaging with this picture right now

There’s a lot of great stuff, however, on what makes people “good” people, and what makes people not so good. Her three required traits are compassion, ethics, and responsibility, and these seem pretty accurate to me. She’s also happy to list bad people as well, people who generally don’t follow those three guidelines. She’s neither pro or anti-religion, at least not explicitly, and simply says that people can be good or bad regardless of faith and the only real caveat she gives in the book is that if you or someone you know is grieving, don’t assume your faith is the way they want to deal with grief. And be skeptical about supernatural claims, because that stuff is ridiculous and can get you killed!

My favorite part is where she insists that everyone is a dork. Because we all are dorks, and the sooner we embrace it, the sooner we can move beyond lame attempts at being cool. She also thinks we should be more eager to engage in lifelong learning and learning from our elders. Amen to that. We are all dorks who should hang out with old dorks.

And then she starts wandering a bit away from things I agree with into territory I feel a little confused about. She insists that people should aim for simplicity generally, including in their diet. Now, I’m all for simple tastes and simple lifestyles, but I am always skeptical about diet claims of any kind. Insisting on food simplicity strikes me as faddish and there are no references that make it seem like she’s making scientific claims, just personal ones. Why is a drink with chemicals worse than a drink with no chemicals? Am I really to believe that natural means healthy? I mean, arsenic is natural.

And she goes on to really discourage people from indulging in “sinful” pleasures (her quotes). Now, I appreciate that a book aimed at a young audience isn’t going to say go try drugs and sex and rock and roll because they’re interesting and part of the human experience… except that’s exactly what I think it should say. This is clearly just a difference of opinion between the author and myself, but I feel a little confused as to how her view is the only one justified by humanism, though perhaps it isn’t trying to claim to be the only point-of-view.

And then there’s sex. The author and I are clearly coming from totally different worlds on this one. Her advice to play the field while dating and wait for sex are things that I don’t personally find compelling, but I don’t think it’s necessarily bad advice. But when she says things like women who hate their dads transfer that hate to all men; and people who dated can’t really be friends and shouldn’t contact one another for at least a year; and, no matter what they say, women who say they’re OK with a solely sexual relationship are really just looking for an emotional relationship, whether they know it or not; and people who watch porn lose sense of reality and it’s a catalyst for bizarre violent activity and it’s addictive… when she says things like that, it is all I can do not to punch the screen. Where are the citations? Why on earth does she think this stuff?

The book ends, however, on a high note, in a sense, about grieving. This is the best part of the book and speaks from personal experience and love. I’ve never seen much literature on the humanist perspective on grief, and this handles it gracefully.

So, there are good and bad bits and, if you rip out the section on relationships and sex, I think the book is a great read for young adults. I think few adult readers would find it challenging, but there are still some enlightening moments to it.

More information from the author:
Even though the book is explicitly Humanist, I’m finding that moms of different stripes and interestingly enough, religious folk who work with teens, are interested in the book.  My book is currently in the curricula for the Royal Military College of Canada to teach cadets critical thinking and decision-making skills. It’s also going to be in the new curricula for the UUA for youth education in the areas of critical thinking and character development.  Oh, and it’s enjoying its third month atop the Kindle best seller lists for Parenting/Morals&Responsibility and Parenting/Teens.

For a copy of the book go to: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/22621  20% off both the ebook and the paperback formats, Coupon code: UT36F – Price will be $4.80 instead of $6.00 – this coupon expires Oct 1st 2012.

For the paperback go to: https://www.createspace.com/3463716 and use the discount code: 2SV7A43M  20% off the list of $12.98 – so the price will be $10.38

The book is also available at whatever online book retailer you might prefer to use.

PS – I’ve also got a new little e-book out – Jen Hancock’s Handy Humanism Handbook – I’m giving that away free to people who sign up for my email list and the Humanist of Florida Association are giving it away free to anyone who donates to them or becomes a member.

Those Darn Young Atheist Messing Up the Skeptic Movement

I want to like Barbara Drescher’s blog, and I really try, because she’s really smart and usually makes solid arguments and we’re FB friends. She is generally quite knowledgeable and I agree with her a fair amount — perhaps my difficulty is a generational thing, because where I disagree with her, it always feels like a personal attack from her. Her recent series of posts really rankled, despite the fact that I don’t feel like I am accurately described by her general complaints of the new kids in the movement. I really tried to see her point of view, and I just cannot, and reading them just makes me feel irritated and insulted.

My trouble with Drescher is, and always has been, her constant dismissal of anyone who doesn’t have credentials that live up to her personal standards. Anyone who is too young, anyone who doesn’t have the right degree, or a high enough degree, or enough time devoted to the movement, or hasn’t read enough of the “right” books doesn’t have the right to be a part of the movement. It’s academic elitism at its very worst, and if her approach to skepticism was the only one, we’d lose a lot of voices, and with them a lot of people who are interested in the movement.

It’s as though she wants to be the self-appointed arbiter of who should and who shouldn’t be allowed to speak. And, admittedly, wouldn’t we all like to have that power? Perhaps the “old guard” thinks of skepticism as their baby, so when it changes or has an influx of numbers, that change is scary, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. Growth is healthy for a movement, but it also means that it changes in ways that are unpredictable and difficult to navigate — perhaps we’re in second or third wave skepticism.

And this is where it seems the “old guard” should step in and be mentors for new members, to reach out to them, to include them — to educate them about the movement in a way that doesn’t seem to say “I’m better than you, you should shut up.” Hey! Tone! Maybe she thinks being elitist will make people want to be part of the elite too? That sort of makes sense in my mind. Or maybe she’s trying to get people to stop contributing without getting a PhD in Skeptology? I’m not sure what her goal is. And perhaps that is intentional, I am not part of her “we”, I am part of the influx of new people from the atheist crowd who are taking over skepticism for our own nefarious purposes.

She seems to operate under a wish for the movement to remain small, both in number of contributors and in size of impact. Does she dislike the idea of a big movement? I don’t understand it at all. I can’t fathom why someone would want to denigrate the young contributors who are the people most likely to ensure the future promotion of skepticism.

And I literally cannot comprehend, in a way that makes me feel like I must be missing something, this tendency for the “old guard” to want to keep skepticism away from subjects that impact people’s daily lives in massively important ways. I just don’t understand intentionally limiting the scope when doing so keeps skepticism from being relevant to most people.

Maybe this is the crux of the issue. Skepticism to me is an approach to improving the world, a thought process that can be applied to everything, and that should be applied to much more of what happens around us every day. I suspect that Drescher feels the same way, it’s just that we differ on what we think is appropriate to skept.

I am angry because an influx of people who have stumbled upon or been recruited to the work of Skepticism are making it much more difficult. We’re moving backwards. This is happening, in part, because some of these rookies insist that their understanding of that work is as good or better than the understanding of people who have studied and worked in the field for years. Many have little or no education in the basics of science or the scientific process. Some claim to follow the teachings of people whose works they have never read. Some believe that the ‘old guard’ have more to learn from them than the other way around. These people voice their opinions on blogs and in talks, discussing topics about which they consider themselves competent after reading a couple of blog posts, listening to a podcast, considering their own limited experiences, or MAYBE reading a book or two on the topic.

What’s worse, they argue about details with little or no understanding of even the big picture. They believe that their understanding is complete and, therefore, requires no study, no thought beyond the surface features, and certainly not time or mentoring.

And I skept at her claims. I mean, I believe she’s angry, I just don’t believe that we’re moving backwards, that rookies are a bad thing, or that they’re as uneducated as she claims, nor that they are any more convinced of being right than anyone else in the movement — there are a lot of hardheaded people in the movement, including just about everyone in the “old guard”. I also think that the old guard could always learn something from the new kids, because they have a different perspective, and shutting yourself off to that makes you irrelevant quickly. Why is it that people forget what it is like to be young, to be passionate, to want to effect change? Why do they constantly try to bridle that with insults instead of trying to help?  I am really bothered by the dismissal of young people, as though they are not fully-formed people who deserve respect and consideration.

TAM Friday

First up this morning was a marginal breakfast.  I don’t understand this — why do people put cooked fruit into things that don’t need cooked fruit.  Cooked fruit is not chocolate.  It does not make things better.  It makes them measurably much worse.  Croissants don’t need jelly on the inside.  It’s gross.

George Hrab opened the conference with a brilliant song, the best part of which was the direction to make sure that any questions you direct at a speaker are actually questions, not opinions, speeches, or comments on the speaker.  It was pretty funny.

Michael Shermer was first up and I literally don’t remember what he talked about.  I was not awake and not that interested, so I guess it just didn’t stick.

Then there was a panel, Skepticism and TV.  I got over the fact that *I* wasn’t on the panel, but I have to say it is really hard to look at these panels of old white guys and think that they’ve made the effort to get more than one point of view.  When they found out Adam Savage wasn’t coming, they had the opportunity to try to get a minority or a woman on the panel, and they didn’t.  Which was a shame because everyone on the panel agreed with one another and didn’t have a lot of useful advice on how to get more skepticism on TV.

Here’s the thing, when you don’t have young people talking about what’s going on, you miss stuff.  If you don’t have women, or mothers, or people of color, or people from different socio-economic levels, you don’t hear about whether people are actually being exposed to skepticism on TV.

Did the old white men mention any of the children’s programming out there?  No, not at all.  And that’s probably the place where you see the most skepticism incorporated into fiction storylines.  Look at Dora the Explorer, or any of the other investigative type shows that are aimed at kids.  Those teach critical thinking and why don’t they think that that qualifies as skepticism on TV.  Yes, you watch Bones or whatever and it’s absurd and not related to real critical thinking, but prime time adult television is not the only thing on TV.  There’s more than the Discovery Channel.

They also talked a lot about editing and how to get around being edited in ways they don’t want to be.  I’ll just say that it’s almost impossible to get by a determined editor.  They’re tricksy people.

*deep breath*

Yes, so I took some issues with that panel.

Next up was Lawrence Krauss.  A few months ago, Krauss made some statements in support of his friend who was an admitted rapist of underage girls.  There was a fair amount of backlash, and threats to walk out on him at TAM.  If that happened, I couldn’t tell.  There’s so many people in and out of the room anyway, it wouldn’t have been noticed, but also I think that elevatorgate has so overshadowed this that no one quite cared as much.

He gave a history lesson on Richard Feynman, which was OK, but I wasn’t that interested in a biography.

Then Jamy Ian Swiss led James Randi and two others in a recap of Project Alpha, which was when two magicians pretend to have Uri Gelleresque powers for several years and the lab believed them despite the fact that it was very obvious what they were doing.  Embarrassing for science, but kind of hilarious for magicians.  It shows how lame psychics are.

Eugenie Scott was up next, but I didn’t listen to that talk, I looked at books and walked around.  I wasn’t very interested in Climate Change Denial and I was tired and wanted to move around.  I’m trying to get over feeling guilty for not going to every talk, but it’s uncomfortable to sit all day.

And then it was lunch — I sat with the amazing Greta Christina and several other really cool people.  Elevatorgate was the primary topic, but what I liked that we talked about was how the movement needs to be getting people in disadvantaged circumstances involved.  So many people who are in the movement are there because they are the ones who can afford it.  If you look at where the large populations of black people are, they are also poor places with strong religious communities.  South Carolina and Mississippi have huge percentage of black people in their population, and those are places where being an atheist is not necessarily safe but more importantly, these are places where there are problems facing the community that are so much more pressing than religion.  Teen Pregnancy, education, jail time.  These are problems that the skeptic community should be working on, because we can’t get people to participate if they’re struggling to live.  Let’s get people in better life circumstances so that they can spend time on education and learning to be scientifically literate.  And it’s not just the South, of course, it’s inner city, it’s Detroit, it’s Compton.

Ok, sorry, off the soapbox.

After lunch, it was just pure uninterrupted awesomeness.

Jennifer Michael Hecht spoke first, and she decided she was going to try to talk about everything that ever happened ever and that she would accomplish this by talking super fast.  She talked a lot about the history of skepticism, which is the focus of her very excellent book Doubt, A History.  She was fantastic.  She talked about the movie The Road to Wellville, and said that a lot of people who go to quacks do it because, essentially, they want the attention.  Though she also implied that women could get a happy ending from a chiropractor.

They had to cut her off before she was finished, and then it was time for PZ, who was hilarious.  Every slide had a picture of either squid or octopi, which I feel is necessary.  He was talking about the biology of aliens.  I think his most interesting point was that there are several highly intelligent animals on earth that are self-aware that we still don’t know how to communicate with, yet we’re seeking out aliens.

He was awesome, and was followed by Pamela Gay, who I didn’t particularly like.  Not that she wasn’t good, she was calling for more funding and emphasis on science.  What I didn’t like was her criticism of the skeptic movement as scattered, as though the emphasis of everyone on the movement should be on science.  The fact of the matter is that not everyone can care a lot about every cause — outrage fatigue.  Science education is important, and I’m for it and happy to support it, but it’s not what I’m particularly interested in.  It’s not the cause that I’m going to spend time on.  That’s not because I’m scattered, it’s because my time is spent elsewhere.  I appreciate her enthusiasm for the cause, but it’s not a very useful criticism.

And then it was time for the best thing I’ve ever seen ever.  I can’t wait for it to be on YouTube, because I want to watch it again.  It was a panel on the future of humans in space.  It was moderated by Phil Plait, and had Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss.  NdGT started off real quiet and then he jumped in like a ninja and started kicking ass.  He thinks that we don’t spend enough money on science and we should double NASA’s budget and do everything.  The bank bailout was more money than everything we spent on NASA in its fifty year existence.  Lawrence Krauss sort of poo-pooed the idea of humans in space, and Neil deGrasse Tyson bitch slapped him, with major assistance from Bill Nye.

NdGT totally dominated, and I didn’t want it to ever end.  I would say it was impossible to follow, except it was Tyson himself who was following it up, so he was fine.  He is a great speaker — he’s funny, he’s passionate, and he knows what he’s talking about.  Once again, it was simply so amazing that it’s difficult to sum up.  His focus was on stupid things that people believe that aren’t true.  I told Jarrett that Bill Nye and NdGT should be in a buddy cop movie together, he tweeted it, and the Jen McCreight saw that NdGT in his talk was going to go on his Twitter feed and she quickly posted it AND he read it outloud.  Hysterically funny.  I want it to happen.

And when NdGT was finished, that was it for the day.  I went back to my room for a while, came back up while Jennifer Michael Hecht was doing autographs.  I sat in a throne-like chair beside her while she fielded people who wanted her signature on her books.  It was entertaining sitting on that side of the table.  After that, I went down to eat.  Saw Heidi Anderson briefly and then got ready for Penn’s Party.  I hung out with Jen McCreight and some people before the party and then it was time for Donuts and Bacon.

Penn has a band called the No God Band — they’re decent, and the party was essentially a concert for them.  They did a lot of covers and some original songs as well.  I ended up hanging with Jen some more, as well as Hemant and a few others.  I saw Christina Rad briefly, and that was fun.  It was really loud and I was really tired, so I ended up bailing after about an hour and a half.  Then I collapsed in exhaustion because my legs could no longer hold me up.

AND THAT WAS FRIDAY!

Wow, Richard Dawkins is Clueless

I love Richard Dawkins.  I like his books, I love watching him read his hate mail, I loved listening to him talk at TAM last year, I loved watching him smirk about everything, I loved his documentary and I just like him in general.

But he doesn’t get what it’s like to be a woman.  Not that one would expect him to have a total understanding, he is not a woman, but you would think that he’d be able to empathize just a little with women.  Apparently not.  Apparently if your genitals aren’t being mutilated and you’re complaining about creepy behavior from men at conferences, you’re just complaining about nothing.  Wow, that’s great PR from a movement trying to get more women involved.

Have some background:

  1. Rebecca Watson was part of a panel about feminism.
  2. A stranger followed her into the elevator at four in the morning, waited for the doors to be closed, and tried to get her to go back to the room with him.
  3. She was creeped out majorly by this behavior. And was bothered that her talk had apparently made no difference and that her wish to go back to her room and sleep, which she said to a large room of people that included the stranger, was being ignored by someone who thought it was his right to hit on her regardless of what she wanted.
  4. Another female blogger, Stef McGraw, said she was overreacting.
  5. Rebecca Watson mentioned Stef, by name, in another panel.
  6. Stef then said it was abuse of power for Watson to call her out in a panel.
  7. A bunch of guys in the movement started protesting that if you can’t approach a stranger in the middle of the night (in an enclosed, inescapable space) then how will you ever meet anyone in the movement??? Plus, Freedom of Speech!
  8. PZ posted about it, which garnered much response and vitriol from various people.
  9. DAWKINS came into the comment thread and said basically that it was OK for guys to be creepy because some women get their genitals mutilated. That the creepy behavior was NO DIFFERENT from someone chewing gum on an elevator. Richard Dawkins said this, PZ confirmed it was actually him.
  10. My head exploded

Here’s some advice for guys: If a woman, particularly a complete stranger, can literally not get away from you, that’s not a good time to proposition her.  If you’ve got her trapped in a small space or are between her and her escape route, don’t imply, on any level, that you’d like to do things to her body.  Just don’t.

Why?  Because she doesn’t know if you’re a good guy or not and she’s trapped in a space suddenly with someone who doesn’t care about how safe she feels, and in this particular case, has already intentionally ignored her stated wishes.  Why on earth would she think you’re not going to ignore it when she says NO?  There are lots of opportunities to express interest in ways that don’t feel incredibly dangerous to a woman — if you put yourself in her shoes and think, “Would this seem safe if I was a woman who might get raped by a strange man?”  If the answer is anything but, “Yes,” DON’T DO IT.

Here is an amazing post about how not to make women feel scared shitless when you try to hit on them.  Don’t act like a threat!  Don’t ignore what people say!  Don’t ignore body language!  And don’t accuse women of complaining about meaningless crap when they’re afraid for their safety because some people have it worse!

Skepticism: Tits or GTFO*?

Originally posted at SheThought.

I hate writing about feminist issues, because every time I do I get accused of being a feminazi or caring more about women than men, or of buying into victim culture, or any number of accusations that come with the territory.  Feminism isn’t generally my main issue, and so I’m always hesitant to distract from all the other things I care about by getting into knock down, drag out fights about why should I care about how women are treated or how they’re portrayed in the media.

Occasionally, of course, I do write something about feminism, because I’m upset enough to ignore the warning lights in my head that say I’m going to have to deal with a lot of BS because of it.  As you might imagine, this post is me ignoring those warning bells.

Skepticism has a woman problem.  It’s been said more than once, it’s been pointed out countless times, and it’s being addressed in a lot of positive ways that should absolutely count in its favor.  I don’t want to dismiss or underplay the fact that there are a lot of men in the movement who care a lot about this issue and are actively working to fix it.

That said, the amount of privilege and harassment I see coming from a number of the powerful men in the movement is really distressing.  The assumption that young women are taking advantage of older men or that men have the automatic right to presume sexual interest and the right to sexually harass young women is a problem, and it’s a problem within this movement, not just outside of it.

This problem came up today, because Lawrence Krauss, a respected scientist and one of the featured speakers at TAM9, defended his buddy Jeffrey Epstein, a man who plead guilty to hiring underage girls, some as young as 13,  to have sex with him.  Krauss is skeptical of the claims because he always thought the girls around Epstein were 19-23 and apparently thinks it’s ok to have sex with a 13 year old so long as you think she’s 18.  He also doesn’t seem to understand that a 13 year old having sex with a powerful, rich man has been coerced into it, no matter what.  Ignorance is no excuse there, it’s rape and it’s taking advantage of a child.

He is also skeptical of the claims made by the prosecution, despite the fact that Epstein plead guilty and they did an 11-month sting operation documenting his activity.  And they have his, apparently horrific, diary.

It gets worse.

DJ Grothe, on the Skepchick article about this, comments , saying basically that he doesn’t know anything about the situation, but he lied about his age when he was under 18 so that he could get laid, so maybe underage prostitution isn’t that bad.  I appreciate that he’s not saying that sex with a 13 year old is OK, he specifically says it isn’t, but since that’s what actually happened, I’m really not sure why he felt the need to defend Krauss.  Nor do I understand how he is also missing the power play aspect of this.  Epstein took underage women who were not prostitutes and coerced them into sexual acts, using money and power.  This is not acceptable behavior, even if you’re OK with prostitution and 16-year-olds having sex.

This isn’t a question of the legality of prostitution or what the age of consent should be.  This is a question about abuse of power, non-consensual sex and sex trafficking of minors.

I wish I could tell you that this blindness to abuse of privilege and power existed only in response to this one issue, but it permeates the skeptic movement.  Many of the men in this movement are guilty of abusing their power to take advantage of the women in the movement or to hurt them when they won’t agree to sex, or turning a blind eye to the behavior or other men who are guilty of similar behavior.

If I could tell you all the horror stories I’ve heard, all the individuals who have been mistreated, insulted, taken advantage of by men in this movement, you’d be shocked.  If I told you the number of men I’ve been told that I need to be careful around because they have a “problem with young women”, you might not believe me.  Unless you’re a woman, and then you’ve probably heard some of it yourself.

I believe these stories because I’ve been at the receiving end of some egregious behavior and I’ve seen a lot of it with my own eyes.  The women in the movement ignore it because it’s less important to us than our desire to be part of a community that matters to us.  Hell, I don’t even feel comfortable talking about it because I know it’s going to make me unpopular, I don’t want to list anyone’s name because I just don’t feel comfortable with the backlash that would come with it.  I can’t bring myself to do it and I feel absolutely ashamed for that.

When a powerful scientist asks a young women who is trying to be taken seriously in the sciences if she’d like to be his next mistress after meeting her once,  that’s an abuse of power.  When a powerful man implies he’ll help a woman out if he sleeps with her, that’s an abuse of power.  When a powerful man implies he will blackball a woman if she doesn’t sleep with him, that’s an abuse of power.  When a powerful man dismisses or insults a woman because she doesn’t want to sleep with him, that’s an abuse of power.  There’s a word for coercing women into having sex.

I doubt this will be read by powerful men in the movement, but if it is, I just want to say that you have a responsibility to set an example as to how women should be treated and where their value should come from.  If you think women are only sex objects and you only care about the young, pretty ones who don’t seem too frigid, how on earth are we going to be taken seriously by everyone else?

Why is it that when I go to conferences I have to be hyper-vigilent to the behavior of men whose opinions I respect?

*http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=tits+of+gtfo

EDIT: I would like to say a special thanks to the men who have reached out to me, male support on these issues helps make sure we know it’s everyone’s problem, not just a woman problem, and also reminds women that there are a lot of guys who’ve got our backs.

Children and the Supernatural

I read this really fascinating article about children and the ages at which they are prone to believing in the supernatural.  So often we think of faith as childlike, and no matter what religion or superstitions you hold to, those of other people always seems silly and naive.  Something a 4 year old might believe in, but not an adult.

Now, I know one study doesn't prove anything, but there are some interesting conclusions.  The younger a child is, the less likely they are to believe that a supernatural being is trying to communicate with them.  And, without being primed with information, children aren't very likely to believe something supernatural is causing events.  Very young children are the most skeptical of all!

The researchers gave the children a game to play and during it knocked pictures off the wall and made the lights flicker — the control group wasn't told anything about it and the experimental group were told there was a friendly ghost in the room ahead of time.  The control group didn't make anything of the supposed signs, but the way the children reacted was sharply different between age groups.

The eldest children (7-9) got the idea that the spirit was doing those things to signal them and responded accordingly.  The middle group (5-6) thought that it was the spirit, but didn't or couldn't make anything of the intention behind the behavior, she was "like a mischievous poltergeist with attention deficit disorder: she did things because she wanted to, and that’s that."

But the youngest children (3-4) simply thought that the picture wasn't stuck to the wall very well or the light was broken.

So, it seems that believing in magical beings who can communicate with you through the real world is an acquired cognitive skill or requires some development that doesn't happen until you're a bit older.  

Skeptical Baby is Skeptical

skeptical baby is skeptical

How Atheism helps Skepticism

I have heard from many people, and have been told what’s truly at the heart of the debate between Atheism and Skepticism is that talking about religion at skeptic conventions drives people away.  It drives religious people away, people who might otherwise have stayed, learned about skepticism, and then gone on to become non-believers.  The general point here is that if atheism will just back off of skepticism a little, skepticism will help fill the ranks of the atheist movement.

It’s a compelling argument, and I do think there should be skeptic forums for people who are religious.  I certainly know people who didn’t start skepticism as atheists and ended up there.  But they aren’t the majority of people that I know, by any stretch.

The other fear is that, not only do you drive away the religious, but you also marginalize the skeptic movement by letting it be too atheist.  The point here being, I guess, that atheism is such a toxic subject that no one wants to be associated with it.

I don’t think that skepticism marginalizes itself by associating with atheism, for a couple reasons. One, I think that skepticism and non-belief are too closely intertwined for skepticism to not be associated with atheism regardless. Two, I think that the recent increase in interest in skepticism and the swelling of numbers at places like TAM and Skepticon comes from a new interest from “new” atheists.

I, for example, would never have heard of skepticism as a movement or known about things like homeopathy if I hadn’t first been an atheist.  Dawkins (and others) involvement on both fronts has, in my opinion, meant that a lot of people who just didn’t like religion have discovered this entire community centered around rational thought.  I wonder how many droves of people have found skepticism because they were confronting their religious beliefs.  And I wonder why welcoming these people into the skepticism fold is less important than making the religious comfortable.

Maybe atheism isn’t as popular as religion, but I think that there’s a huge groundswell of atheism and backlash against the religious right that skepticism would be well-served to be a part of.

Skepticism VS Atheism: The Stupid Fight

I’m not sure why this is, but there seems to be a faction of Skeptics, not all of whom are religious, who have a problem with Skeptics who like to talk about Atheism. They are concerned that people conflate Atheism and Skepticism. I’m not sure who these theoretical people are, but let’s assume that this is a real concern and not one just made up.

Skepticism is just a way of thinking, sort of a “Well, then prove it” attitude towards life and knowledge. There have been people who claimed to be skeptics who believed in God, and who believed that global warming wasn’t real for that matter, so there’s no litmus test for being a Skeptic, it’s a goal to strive for. Most people don’t actually achieve Skepticism towards everything in their lives.

Why, just the other day I refused to click on a link because it was going to disprove some something or other, some story that I preferred to believe was true because it was a really nice story. Now, I don’t remember what it even was, so undoubtedly I’ll continue believing it was true. That would be a SkepticFail on my part.

Some people will claim that God is not a testable hypothesis, and these people are sort of right. The deistic god that doesn’t do anything so might as well not be there, that god is an untestable claim — the Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Whatever Religion’s God is a testable claim because those religions claim that their God can *do* things. A skeptical approach to religion leads you directly to the conclusion that no religion has a god that exists as they describe it. This is agnosticism if not atheism.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be a skeptic and also believe in God, you absolutely can.  You can be a skeptic and believe in homeopathy, or UFOs, or be a Birther, or a 9/11 Truther, or any number of things.  It just means that you aren’t applying good thinking to one or another of your worldviews.  I believe people are fundamentally good, that’s probably also a testable claim that I’d just as soon not see the results on.

Here’s what I don’t understand: how is saying “skeptics should be skeptical of religion” is the same as saying “skepticism and atheism are the same thing”? Who are these mysterious people who assume that skepticism and atheism are the same thing?  It’s not the people who want to talk about atheism at skeptic conferences, they think that skepticism should lead to agnosticism.  In case that isn’t clear, that’s not the same as saying “Skeptic = Atheist”.

I don’t know that anyone is arguing that deism or agnosticism is a bad thing, but there are many bad things that religions do. Perhaps the thing that ought not be conflated is belief in a god and belief in a religion.  Atheists who speak at Skeptic conventions want to encourage Skeptical thought towards religion and towards religious beliefs that hurt people.  How many lives have been ruined by believers in UFOs?  How many lives have been ruined by believers in religion?  Or, to be even less confrontational, how many people believe in UFOs and how many believe in religion?  Is it really unreasonable to spend some time throwing Skeptical thinking at such a large and pervasive target?

If you had a skeptic conference that focused on disproving homeopathy rather than disproving religion, would calling it a “Skeptic Conference” be wrong? Are we only arguing about this because some people are afraid that offending the religious is going to scare people off? Are we so concerned with religious people’s sensitivities that we’d compromise our own willingness to tell the truth and ask questions?

I will say that I’m highly skeptical of this claim that Atheism is not an important part of the Skeptic movement.

Economic Incentive

Today’s XKCD is making the rounds — it’s not only hilarious, but an incredibly devastating way to look skeptically at the world.

A lot of things obviously cannot be debunked using economic incentive, but looking at who is making the money from something and how they are doing so is an interesting way to see through problems.

For example, when you look at homeopathy, who actually is profiting from it? Companies that don’t have to bear the onerous financial burden of proving anything to the FDA. This is potentially going to cost them in the UK, where their nationalized health service is no longer going to cover homeopathic medicine, but the companies are still allowed to sell what is essentially water as honest to goodness medical cures right alongside real, actual medicine.

Would they make more money if homeopathy actually worked? Of course they would, governments and insurance companies would make a killing. They’d just go to their local tap water and add a molecule of arsenic, and bam, millions of lives saved.

Then, there are individuals who make money from various made-up powers: psychics, tarot readers, and religions. How do they make their money? From gullible believers who give it to them. Would a psychic make more money if they were genuinely psychic than if they were tricking gullible people? Yes, they’d constantly be winning lotteries or finding buried treasure or controlling people’s minds to get into their Last Will and Testament. “I, the Queen of England, leave all of my money and property to David Blaine.”

Would religions make more money if they were selling a God that was real and as advertised? If prayer actually worked, everyone would be religious. If God really did smile on the faithful, the faithful would be rich as hell. And if he really smote the non-believers, Norway would have burned to the ground by now and secular Europe would have found God. How much money would the Vatican make if they could sell limb regrowing and cancer cures?

Can you imagine a world where there was no dissembling and these things could just point us to an actual track record of recorded miracles? Miracles that actually mattered, too, not just Grilled Cheesus or Bleeding Statues.

Economic incentive is complicated, of course. One of the anti-vaccine arguments is that Big Pharma is selling vaccines to make a big profit and that doctors push them on patients to get bonuses. But, there’s an even bigger profit motive from the government and insurance companies to keep people from getting sick. Blue Cross is more likely to get insurance payments from someone who lives past the age of 5, Kaiser is going to pay a lot less for a kid who doesn’t get paralyzed by Polio, and the government is going to get a lot more productive work hours out of kids who haven’t been permanently damaged or killed by preventable diseases.

And then there’s Andrew Wakefield, who started the anti-vax movement. He had a profit motive — he wanted to sell his own vaccine instead of the one that was popular at the moment. If that doesn’t discredit a movement, I don’t know what could.

So economics is a powerful tool in debunking, but you definitely need the whole picture — it’s easy to twist one incentive into the only incentive. Of course, most of the people who believe aren’t going to be dissuaded by the economic argument, but it’s certainly one that people innately understand. Money, as they say, talks.

(x-posted from shethought.com)

Blame Jen McCreight

I’ve been reading fanfiction for the first time in several years and it’s all Jen McCreight’s fault.

The premise for this fic is that Harry Potter is hyper-rational and it is, essentially, pointing out how logically flawed the Harry Potter books are.  With love, obviously.  It’s surprisingly enjoyable, so if you’re a skeptic and an HP fan, I recommend it.  I’ve gotten to Chapter 19…

Now, for the first time, he was up against the prospect of a mystery that was threatening to be permanent. If Time didn’t work by acyclic causal networks then Harry didn’t understand what was meant by cause and effect; and if Harry didn’t understand causes and effects then he didn’t understand what sort of stuff reality might be made of instead; and it was entirely possible that his human mind never could understand, because his brain was made of old-fashioned linear-time neurons, and this had turned out to be an impoverished subset of reality.