Open Thread on #698

The CNN article I talked about during the show is here: Patricia Sawo Article.

To summarize my brief introductory discussion, Ms. Sawo’s religious beliefs taught her that HIV infection was a curse from God, inflicted on those who were disobedient. Those so afflicted could be healed if they prayed and repented. Then one day Ms. Sawo tested positive for HIV, and her prayers didn’t heal her. Her first-hand experience with the climate of fear and loathing of HIV’s victims changed her views. Now she runs a facility that cares for those suffering from AIDS and their children. Unfortunately, she only changed some of her superficial views of HIV. She hasn’t abandoned the underlying beliefs from which those views were derived. In fact, she doubled down on them – she’s now an ordained minister.

Ms. Sawo’s religious beliefs robbed her of part of her humanity. Empathy should have allowed her to put herself in another person’s position and see a situation from their perspective. Instead, her religion shut her off from this ability. She only developed compassion for HIV-sufferers after she became one herself, and after she had made a substantial contribution to the toxic climate of fear and condemnation of people with HIV. I find her story to be doubly tragic – first because there’s now another human being on the planet with HIV, and second because it took infection with HIV for her to use an ability that most children first manifest at 10 months of age.

Anyway – open thread on episode #698. Have at it!

Why is pseudoscience so appealing?

This weekend I borrowed Beth’s copy of The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. Lynnea and I sometimes read to each on car trips, and neither of us have read it in several years. Since Lynnea has been watching “Cosmos” on Netflix, it seemed like a good book to revisit. Also, one of the most common questions we at the Atheist Experience receive is: “As a new atheist, what books should I think about reading?” I always, always recommend Demon Haunted World first. It’s not a book about atheism, it’s a book about critical thinking, and in my opinion that is the first tool that recovering theists need to have no matter what their ultimate philosophical bent will be.

It’s fun to revisit an old favorite. Reading chapter one, I read Carl Sagan’s story about meeting a taxi driver who was full of wonder and enthusiasm in learning about the natural world… but unfortunately it was all misdirected into pseudoscience. Crystals, Atlantis, horoscopes, faith healing…he believed it all. Sagan suggest s that the man’s passion for pseudoscience could have been — should have been — channeled into scientific curiosity from an early age. But unfortunately, his teachers failed to inspire wonder and excitement for science, which ultimately led him to swallow all these nonsensical claims in the thirst to feed his quest for “knowledge.” Sagan waxes poetic about astronomy and biology, and he wonders why the driver hadn’t ever managed to get so turned on by these real scientific subjects

Of course I love Carl Sagan’s work and enjoy hearing his thoughts again, but after so many years of dealing with callers’ misconceptions about science on a one-on-one basis, I was surprised to find the question a little bit naive. Actually, I think that it’s easy to understand why pseudoscience beats real science, if you just think about the two concepts as competing memes.

Like all memes, concepts within both science and pseudoscience are in constant competition for brain space, and “try” (in a metaphorical sense) to infect as many minds as possible, and to stick in those minds in the long term. But the strategies they use are different. Science has one set of rules for survival, and pseudoscience has a different set. To put it another way, their fitness algorithm is different.

On one hand, a scientific meme lives or dies based on how closely it matches reality. If the meme is untestable, or if it directly conflicts with some known principle of reality, then it dies a gradual death. Researchers don’t find it useful; don’t propagate in their work; don’t refer back to it in other peer reviewed papers; don’t insert it as a critical fact in textbooks; and it is eventually forgotten (or else, like Lamarckian inheritance, it is remembered as a contrast to a meme that won).

On the other hand, a pseudoscience meme does not have any such restriction. Since there is no peer review in the world of pseudoscience, the concepts can only survive based on how many people like them. In other words, they survive solely by being compelling and interesting to a lot of people. So in the battle for headspace in the “wow that’s cool” part of the brain, science is not going to win.

Of course I’m not saying that real science can’t be exciting and interesting. Once you have a grounding in scientific inquiry, the process of measuring things against reality and studying all the complex information about the world we’ve accumulated can be very appealing. But I am saying that being exciting cannot be the criterion for judging science. if we threw out all the science it wasn’t sexy then we’d lose a lot of important discoveries. Science is in the business of figuring out what’s true, regardless of whether the facts are fun or not.

By contrast, pseudoscience is free to follow what TV Tropes calls “The Rule of Cool.” If you are writing a novel, a show, or a movie, you create your own reality. In this reality, it doesn’t matter whether something is scientifically accurate or not. All that matters in your own universe is what looks good on screen or in readers’ heads. That’s how you sell more books, tickets, and advertising space. Fake science is the same way.

How does this tendency to obey the Rule of Cool show up to the average follower? One thing that I notice about pseudoscience is that it personalizes concepts which, in science can be very difficult to relate to:

  • Astronomy allows you to chart the positions of the stars, painstakingly mapping their locations with mathematical formulas applied over centuries of data collection. Astrology tells you that if you know what month somebody is born in, you can know more about the personal qualities of yourself and your friends!
  • Evolution tells us that life, including human life, evolved due to complex but consistent patterns which only emerge after studying thousands of generations. Creationism says that a magic man in the sky created you special, because he wanted to love and care for you for ever and ever!
  • Neurologists study the movement of neurons and synapses on a microscopic level. Sylvia Brown says that I can talk to my dead love ones, even though their brain activity stopped decades ago!
  • A novel about what life was like in Atlantis? Cool! An investigation of the Mediterranean Ocean Sea showing that there was no such place? Not so cool!

I hope you see the point. Science can be cool, and often is cool. But pseudoscience has to be cool, or else it has no other reason to exist.

I’m not just trying to be negative. I think learning should be fun. I admire what Carl Sagan did in bringing real science to amateurs like us, and I think that education is always more effective when it’s entertaining. At the same time, I think we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what science is up against. People like to feel special. They like to feel connected. And for many people, it’s much easier to believe in an exciting falsehood than in a less exciting well-tested theoretical framework.

Edit: In this post, I may have conveyed the mistaken impression that the ideas brought up were mine alone. This was clearly a case of my runaway ego. In reality, many of the points about the survival qualities of science vs. pseudoscience were brought up originally by Lynnea, without whom this post would not have been possible, as we discussed the book. In writing this, I may have unintentionally pre-empted a similar post that she was planning to put up on her own blog, which undoubtedly would have been excellent.

Brief swagination update

And now a word from your sponsor: you guys. Daniel looks cheerful, George looks vaguely threatening, and I just look like a hobbit as usual. As fun as the AXP hoodies were to do (international peeps, yours are in transit), I’ve put off plans for a second run in favor of new T-shirts instead. Same logo, any color and sizes up to 6XL, tall sizes too, and only $20 (for most sizes) with fwee shipping in the USA. (America, fuck yeah!) Email me at mw_director[at]yahoo[dot]com for full details. Will be funneling cash from sales to the group and the show, using clandestine mail drops and shell corporations, just because it sounds cool. Current pre-orders at 7 of the desired 150, which I believe can be met, eh?

Now, back to your regularly scheduled blag.

Fan mail…oh the irony…

I wont bother ripping this to shreds, because the author doesn’t care to hear from us (yet we’re the closed-minded ones)…so, enjoy:

I am not Theist.

I have never seen a bigger bunch of Cop-outs and evangelists such as yourselves. You feed on the blood of the ignorant with your rediculous commentary and outdated science and philosophy. Why not just state that you people are MAterialist, or naturalist, perhaps even objectivists ect. I have listened to the numerous arguments you have with believers, and your rediclous attitude gets worse as the shows go on. You people DO NOT have open minds, nor do you get your science correct.

This show, more-so these two idiotic hosts can be likened as the Alex Jones of Atheism. But it is not Atheism you people subscribe to, its naturalism, or at least in my opinion. One moment you make remarks, which are only half theories about Quantum mechanics, and then have the gaul to tell a caller that everything is made of Atoms? From which ERA were you people born into? Or from which era are you getting your scientific explinations. On top of which, you interperate this information as poorly as the man who said there was a God because a banana fits in your hand!

I could not care less what your response is, because you will speak more bullshit to me than you have anyone else. Your method is distasteful, your ideals are shallow, your science is dated and your philosophy is mangled. You only appeal to more ignorant fellows who are atheist rather then theist. Like a damn buzzard picking the eyes out of a half dead human. You are both the kind of people who believe the conversion to Atheist is the release of Ignorance. You only consider anti-materialists to be ignorant.

I wish you both the Utmost shame. You can wave the magic in your response to me, if any, but the issue remains in the back of your mind, and I hope these words haunt you forever.

I am not a Theist, but you both make me sick to my stomach, like a news reader using authority to establish truth, rather than the exposition of truth. Like a child wanting to be a rock star, you want to be Richard Dawkins, the copout version beta’s!

Enjoy your wasted time on Earth, preaching about humanity and REligion, when you have not even taken the time to study any of the scriptures. Your take on history is utterly bias, and I have yet to meet an educated fellow who takes this show seriously.

Kind Regards,
Someone much smarter than to abide by this crap.

P.S. You should become street preachers, so we can finally regard you as completley insane. Perhaps I will drop a coin into your hat.

Facebook friends…not always friendly.

I’m currently unable to add any new friends and that turned out to be a pretty good thing. Beth and I both received friend requests from a “Michelle Kay”. We noticed that she didn’t have any mutual friends, but Beth went ahead and accepted the friend request after noting that she listed herself as a fan of The Atheist Experience.

This evening, Beth got a message from this person which confirmed our suspicions:

Anonymous, Westboro and free speech.

UPDATE: Anonymous isn’t going after WBC

Or are they? That’s the problem with anonymity and a free-form organization that isn’t an organization…how do we know which announcement represents them or if there’s a ‘them’ to represent? It’s pretty silly, really.


Let me be perfectly clear:

The activities of the Phelps family and their Westboro Baptist Church are some of the most vile, repugnant and disgusting exercises of free speech in history.

That said, they’ve recently been warned by Anonymous that:

“ANONYMOUS cannot abide this behavior any longer. The time for us to be idle spectators in your inhumane treatment of fellow Man has reached its apex, and we shall now be moved to action. Thus, we give you a warning: Cease & desist your protest campaign in the year 2011, return to your homes in Kansas, & close your public Web sites.
Should you ignore this warning, you will meet with the vicious retaliatory arm of ANONYMOUS: We will target your public Websites, and the propaganda & detestable doctrine that you promote will be eradicated; the damage incurred will be irreversible, and neither your institution nor your congregation will ever be able to fully recover. It is in your best interest to comply now, while the option to do so is still being offered, because we will not relent until you cease the conduction & promotion of all your bigoted operations & doctrines.

The warning has been given. What happens from here shall be determined by you.”

Even some of my friends are rooting for Anonymous…after all, the Phelps clan is beneath contempt.

I’m not rooting for Anonymous, and I’m shocked that any thinking person is.

Despise the Phelps’ protests all you like, but they are operating within the law and have repeatedly gone to court to protect the freedom of speech that we all enjoy. Anonymous, on the other hand, seem to have appointed themselves as the moral conscience of the planet and have decided to dictate what sort of free speech should be permitted.

This group of anonymous hactivists are not only breaking the law, they’re attacking free speech while claiming to revere it. They’ve taken it upon themselves to be the sort of Orwellian authority that one would presume they’d be opposed to.

They’re hypocrites – and dangerous ones.

I really don’t like coming to the defense of the Westboro Baptist Church and yet I’m forced to do it over and over again because well-meaning but misguided people stupidly attempt to attack them for exercising the same freedoms that the rest of us are exercising.

Now, this blog may vanish tomorrow – but I won’t be cowering to terrorist threats just because they’re made against someone I despise.

God, $20, Skepchick, Dickishness …

This is long, has quite a few links – and I’m going to call some skeptics out for being decidedly unskeptical…

The Religious Antagonists, Mike Lee, posted a new video on January 25th and the response has been mixed.

The short description is that he offers a homeless couple $20 to remove the word “God” from their sign.

Hemant Mehta, at Friendly Atheist, offered his thoughts.

Mike and I had a private e-mail exchange where I pointed out that I’m on the fence about this particular video.

I wrote:

“I’m somewhat torn. On the one hand there’s a very important point made in that video. On the other hand, it seemed like a bit of a lose-lose. You’re going to appear overly antagonistic as it’s hard for a homeless couple to appear anything other than sympathetic especially when they have a kid and especially to the majority of Christians who would probably be cheering them on.

I’ve been thinking about it off and on all day – which is great – but I don’t know who the target audience is and whether or not they’d give it the same thought. To someone like my parents, you just look like a dickish, agent-of-Satan who is harassing homeless Christians. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like the AFA used your video to drum up more donations.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used many of my videos to drum up donations and my parents think I’m a dickish, agent-of-Satan…so we’re in the same boat.

I’m still completely undecided on this. It’d be hypocritical of me to complain about Christian homeless ministries who offer food in exchange for a sermon while endorsing your actions. Right now, the only thing that might trump that issue is that you were making a point and aren’t (as far as I know) starting a campaign with this as the default reaction to homeless people with religious messages on their signs.

The commentary certainly makes me favor the video a bit. The more I think about it, the more I’m leaning that direction…but this one is still far from settled, for me.”

Mike responded and I asked him to sit in on a future episode of The Non-Prophets so that we could openly talk about all aspects of this, including the response.

And then, just a short while ago, Masala Skeptic from Skepchick posted her thoughts on the video and I had to wonder if she actually watched the video and thought about it for a few minutes before posting.

As I started reading the comments, hoping someone would point this out, what I saw amazed me. Several of these skeptics simply refused to watch the video and made up their mind based on Masala’s comments.

So, I’ll point out the problems with her commentary, in the hopes that discussions about this video (about which I am still undecided) might be a bit more thoughtful and relevant to the content.

– doesn’t seem to understand that Mike flatly acknowledged he was being a jerk.

– discusses the video with no acknowledgement of the clarification and commentary that Mike added.

– doesn’t seem to get the important meaning behind this (that religion encourages poor decision making – to the point that a starving family will turn down money)

– doesn’t seem to realize that Mike never asked them to stop believing (she wrote: “Mike tries to get the couple to give up their faith in a higher power for the temptation of $20.” Mike specifically states the opposite. Did she watch the video?)

– doesn’t seem to realize that they acknowledged that they weren’t putting their soul on the line. (She wrote: “An offer of $20 simply isn’t going to make someone put his eternal soul on the line if that is what they believe is at stake.”…when it was made clear in the video that this wasn’t REMOTELY the case. Did she watch the video?)

– doesn’t seem to realize that those people got the money and got to keep their “god” at the end of all of this

– doesn’t seem to think that Mike would say that he believed in god for $20 – I would if it was obvious that I was just uttering words to get cash, rather than stating my honest beliefs. I suspect Mike would, as well. If I was homeless, I most definitely would.

– takes an irrelevant and silly shot at Mike’s sweater

– completely misrepresents the video as if it were intended to be a “funny” video.

– pulls the passive-aggressive ‘probably can’t see the irony of thinking he’s right’ bullshit while explaining why Mike is wrong and she’s right…

As I said, I’m still torn on the video and I’d like to see more discussion about it, but I’d rather discuss it with people who have actually seen the video and with people who are open to fairly and intelligently representing it. People who refuse to watch it, or watch part of it only to rely on other people’s commentary for their unskeptical dismissal aren’t helping the discussion. People who misrepresent the video definitely aren’t helping the discussion.

The knee-jerk, “don’t be a dick” crowd annoy me – mostly because they’re hypocritically and blindly being dicks about not being dicks. (And almost exclusively on the subject of theism/atheism…)

Make no mistake – Mike is being a dick and he acknowledges it. Masala isn’t.

I do like Masala’s suggestion for alternate ways to handle this situation, but she doesn’t seem to realize that Mike isn’t advocating his method as the new de facto standard, it’s a single incident constructed to highlight an issue. How can it not be an important issue?

So, what’s your take on the video?

In which Mike demonstrates once and for all the proof that God exists

Having some problems with the blog comments on this post and hoping that starting a new one will fix it.

Please direct your attention to the comments section, where MikeAdAstraSmith shall valiantly demonstrate to us poor, benighted sinners that God irrefutably exists.

[Edit: Actually we traced our problem to an overzealous spam filter, which probably thought that some comments looked too much like the work of a certain D**** M****. We’re retraining it as fast as we can, but in the meantime, please do enjoy the thread.]