Skeptical Humanities

I’ve found several websites dedicated to applying the principles of rational and evidence-based skepticism to subjects in the humanities. I’m looking for more. I’d like to expand the following list with any website that is worth bookmarking in this area, so everyone, please feel free to make recommendations in comments. I’m only looking for sites that regularly do this, and meet roughly the same criteria of utility and standards as those in the following list, and that are broader than single-issue sites.

Of course everyone knows Snopes.com. You might not think of it as a skeptical humanities site, but what Barbara and David Mikkelson do there is address journalism and urban folklore and history, which are solidly in the humanities.

And everyone knows FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com (and its related PunditFact). They apply skepticism to journalism and advertising and propaganda, which is again skepticism in the humanities, yet often overlooked because we tend to compartmentalize politics as its own animal.

But fewer know about BadArchaeology.com. Run by archaeologists Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doeser, they also have an affiliated blog. I don’t consider this a single-issue site, since archaeology is broad enough in scope to make bookmarking the site in general worthwhile.

Similar to that is PaleoBabble, a prolific blog by Mike Heiser (a doctor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies) addressing bogus claims in archaeology and ancient history, mostly in relation to ancient aliens and other conspiracy theories about antiquity, but it ranges widely in that area. [Be aware that Heiser’s position on traditional biblical religion might be less skeptical, though he does write skeptically about such fringe subjects as bible codes and apocalypticism.]

And in a different vein is Jourdemayne, by Skeptic magazine UK’s current editor Deborah Hyde, which applies skeptical analysis to folklore and legends (from vampires and werewolves to witches and whatnot).

But even broader is SkepticalHumanities.com. This ranges all over the humanities, from linguistics to art, philosophy, history, literature, rhetoric, aesthetics, literary criticism, pop culture, folklore, and cultural studies. Its many contributors (currently Bob Blaskiewicz, Eve Siebert, Mark Newbrook, and Jenna Marie Griffith) are doctors in English, Linguistics, and Visual Arts (or almost a doctor in that last case).

Are there more out there like this that I’m missing? Let me know!

Since my original post, here are my favorite additions from commenter recommendations:

Slate Star Codex. Applies skepticism to claims in and about “cognitive science, psychology, history, politics, medicine, religion, statistics, transhumanism” but also subjects like feminism and sociology. Which reminds me to also add our own…

Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men. Applies skepticism to both feminist and anti-feminist claims and rhetoric, and to claims about sociology, economics, and other related subjects in the study of gender, culture and justice.

Evidence Based EFL. Applies skepticism to all kinds of claims about language, education and the use of words. (See a recent post there about the reason for the blog. The author remains anonymous, but is clearly an expert in language instruction, and if I were to guess, they are an English teacher in Japan.)

JasonColavito. Applies skepticism to claims in history and folklore, from ancient aliens to psychic history to other fringe claims about the bible (like “Was Noah a Merman?” which is a really good example of the depth of historical context Colavito provides in his analysis of these fringe claims). Colavito is an author and a distinguished double-major in anthropology and journalism, and uses this background expertly to explore “the connections between science, pseudoscience, and speculative fiction.”

The Renaissance Mathematicus. Applies skepticism to claims in the history of science and mathematics (mainly 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, but occasionally ranging more widely). This blog is full of great skeptical writing on a large range of subjects and claims within its purview.

New at LacusCurius & Livius. Applies skepticism to claims about ancient history (principally Western, sometimes biblical). Has a handy list of common errors well worth exploring. But everything there should be used with caution. I found problems with some of the entries I looked at, generally key information is omitted that would qualify what is claimed. For example, on the flat earth myth, it’s true most educated elites in antiquity knew the earth was a sphere, but the masses often did not or even rejected the idea, and some of the most highly educated elites, like Lactantius, outright opposed the idea, calling it ridiculous (and Lactantius was and remained a revered Christian author throughout the Middle Ages). Accordingly, it’s entirely plausible that the illiterate crew of Columbus thought the earth was flat, but not likely that his financial backers did. This is the kind of information this site should be including. But as long as you are aware that its entries might not be complete, they have a lot of useful discussion and sourcing.

FiveThirtyEight. Nate Silver’s column for the New York Times online, which has many contributors besides himself, a decent example of explaining mathematical results to humanities folk, often applying fact-based “mathematical” skepticism to topics in politics, journalism, and economics, with a touch of history. Good one for dissecting opinion polls and their use and abuse.

 

Two Bayesian Fallacies

At INR3 in Kamloops I spoke on applying Bayesian logic to the study of Jesus along with the same principles we apply to dead religions (so as to avoid the “don’t offend the Christians” reaction to controversial claims…claims that would not be controversial if Jesus was not the object of worship of billions of loud, influential people). In Q&A philosopher Louise Antony challenged my application of Bayes’ Theorem to historical reasoning with a series of technical complaints, especially two fallacies commonly voiced by opponents of Bayesianism. I was running out of time (and there was one more questioner to get to) so I explained that I answered all her stated objections in my book Proving History (and I do, at considerable length).

But I thought it might be worth talking about those two fallacies specifically here, in case others run into the same arguments and need to know what’s fishy about them. [Read more…]

What Do Ron Lindsay and an Oklahoma Tornado Have in Common?

Besides raging over the same weekend? Both are ignorantly destructive blowhards, apparently. At least Lindsay didn’t kill anything (except his own common sense, and maybe his career in secular leadership).

Lots happened while I was away at the fantastic Imagine No Religion conference in Kamloops, BC. I recommend it for next year, it has been by all accounts great every year, and this year was no exception. But while I was nestled safely up there enjoying good scotch and martinis, a tornado ripped apart a community in Oklahoma (I guess by Pat Robertson’s logic, it must have been full of feminists), and charity aid is much needed (atheists can help: please donate to Humanist Crisis Response through the Foundation Beyond Belief, an umbrella charity organization specifically geared for nonreligious donors).

And over the same weekend at the Women in Secularism conference in Washington, DC (where a zillion feminists actually were…evidently your god’s aim sucks, Pat), the president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, Ron Lindsay (the sole male speaker), opened the conference by complaining about a campaign to ask men to listen to women before complaining about women, by telling women to stop telling men to listen to women before complaining about women…at a conference for women, funded by hundreds of women (since attendees forked over the registration fees, they actually paid for the conference). And then he acted like a stock sexist man and hysterically defamed the woman who criticized him for this rather than responding to her actual (calmly presented) arguments. Thus becoming the poster boy for a man who doesn’t listen.

I couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s stranger than fiction. Anyway, I needn’t blog about the Lindsay Faceplant because that has already been excellently done. If you want to get caught up on this debacle, I highly recommend, first, Jason Thibault’s brief live description of what Lindsay said at the conference and how obviously wrongheaded it was, and then Amanda Marcotte’s Open Letter to the Center for Inquiry, and then An Alternative Universe by Stephanie Zvan, Taking It Personally: Privilege and Women in Secularism by Ashley Miller, and The Silencing of Men by Rebecca Watson (the tone and quality of which has to be compared to the garbage Lindsay wrote in response: Watson’s World and Two Models of Communication…a title whose irony was completely lost on Lindsay, considering that he decided to respond to a reasonable and ultimately correct argument by hysterically accusing its author of “the most intellectually dishonest piece of writing since the last communique issued by North Korea” and then proceeded to pick at irrelevancies in her case and straw man what she said and ignore her every substantive point…nice).

[Since I first published this article, a really excellent analysis has also come from philosopher Dan Finke: Feminism, Civility, and Ron Lindsay’s Welcome to Women in Secularism, which reinforces many of the points well-made earlier by Adam Lee in Some Sadly Necessary Remarks on the #wiscfi Intro. Subsequently, Lindsay has since issued a lawyerly quasi-apology for comparing Watson to North Korea, yet in the very same remark treats her with veiled contempt by referencing the least relevant remark in her article and still ignoring her every substantive point, and all her evidence, and refusing to retract or apologize for any of his more substantive errors. This appears to be a trend with him. See the bemusing analysis of Nancy McClernan in Ron Lindsay’s Non-Apology Apology over His Non-Welcome Welcome.]

Lindsay on Atheism+

One thing I’d like to add to these critiques is his equally-ignorant treatment of Atheism+… [Read more…]

Appearing in Vegas and DC

This June I’ll be speaking at the SSA conference in Las Vegas and for CFI in Washington D.C.

CFI DC LogoFirst stop is CFI DC (June 9): I’ll be the guest speaker for the Voices of Reason lecture series for the regional CFI affiliate in D.C. from 5-7pm on Sunday, June 9 (2013). Price of admission is reasonable but varies, and can include a purchase of my book Proving History, which I’ll sign afterward. Full details at the CFI DC Website. Event is at Busboys and Poets on 14th & V, in the Langston Room (2021 14th St NW, Washington, DC).

Topic: Why Would We Think Jesus Didn’t Exist? I’ll explain the best case made so far that Jesus might not have been a historical person, and why that might be correct, examining the sources we have and the context of original Christianity, as drawn from my latest book Proving History and its forthcoming sequel On the Historicity of Jesus Christ.

Picture of the UNLV student unionNext stop is SSA Las Vegas (June 21-23): I’ll be one of many great speakers on all manner of awesome topics at the Secular Student Alliance regional leadership conference in Las Vegas, Nevada at the University of Nevada (Las Vegas). The conference is being held in the campus student union. I’ll be speaking in the Philip J. Cohen Theatre at 8pm on Saturday, June 22 (2013). Registration and accommodations vary in price. Full details at the SSA Conference Site. Some of my books will be sold at the venue and I’ll certainly sign anything you bring me. There are going to be three concurrent sessions. But I’m one of the keynote speakers so mine will be in a plenary session (along with Greta Christina, Nate Phelps, and Brian Keith Dalton, aka Mr. Deity; the previous night, there will be plenary session keynotes by David Fitzgerald, Sikivu Hutchinson, and Dan Barker, too).

Topic: Logic and Critical Thought in the 21st Century: What’s New and Why It Matters. I’ll be briefly summarizing new developments in our understanding of critical thinking (including cognitive science and Bayesian reasoning) as important additions to the old standards (logic and fallacies and the axioms of a skeptical stance).

 

How to Be Skeptical of a Technological Singularity

Chris Hallquist has hosted a guest post on his blog by Luke Muehlhauser, whom some of you might remember as the brilliant and balanced author of Common Sense Atheism and Worldview Naturalism, and who is now executive director of MIRI. As Hallquist describes the post, “Luke does not intend to persuade skeptics that they should believe everything he does about the technological singularity. Rather, he aims to lay out the issues clearly so that skeptics can apply the tools of skepticism to a variety of claims associated with ‘the singularity’ and come to their own conclusions.”

The description is apt. Luke’s article is a bookmarkable cornucopia of references and links and brief discussion of each, for anyone who wants to know what all this “singularity” business is about–or who know at least what it used to be about, but want to know what it has evolved into. Basically, if you were to read only one thing on the subject, it should be this. Luke’s article is “What Should Skeptics Believe about the Singularity?” Go give it a look. It’s fascinating, not only on it’s intended subject, but as a model example of how to approach speculative claims like this generally.

Two New Awesome Bloggers

FreethoughtBlogs has added two new fascinating bloggers, both from the UK: Ally Fogg and Yemisi Ilesanmi. These will really get the hackles up of the anti-feminist crowd, since one is a card carrying feminist (And black. And a woman. Chicken littles, begin your rant…) while the other is a voice of reason in the same debate, taking no label but soundly and prolifically defending gender equity and exposing and combating sexism of all stripes (from the innocent to the malicious). They both blog well on a variety of interesting topics from an atheist perspective; I’ve often found their articles a good read. And their values are largely on par with mine. For example, Yemisi is a major advocate for sex workers and legalization of sex work, and Ally is a firm believer in applying compassion, skepticism and critical thought to both feminism and the “Men’s Rights Movement,” and he actually practices what he preaches.

Photo of Ally FoggAlly’s blog is Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men (tagline: “splashes of mud from the trenches of the online gender wars”). His introductory post is Hello, Hello, Is This Thing On? And he explains what his blog is all about here, which is a brief but crucial read. His profile description is great:

Ally Fogg is a UK-based freelance writer and journalist, whose day job includes a weekly column on Comment is Free at www.guardian.co.uk and miscellaneous scribbles elsewhere, mostly on issues of UK politics and social justice. This blog is dedicated to exploring gender issues from a male perspective, unshackled from any dogmatic ideology. Ally is often accused of being a feminist lapdog and an anti-feminist quisling; a misogynist and a misandrist; a mangina and a closet MRA, and concludes that the only thing found in pigeonholes is pigeon shit. He can be contacted most easily through www.allyfogg.co.uk or @allyfogg on Twitter.

Photo of Yemisi IlesanmiYemisi’s blog is YEMMYnisting (tagline: “proudly feminist, proudly bisexual, proudly atheist”). She is a Nigerian lawyer and human rights activist and author of Freedom to Love for All: Homosexuality Is Not Un-African. She has a Masters of Law in Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights and is presently based in the UK. Yemisi is also a trade unionist, a poet, a plus size model, and “a passionate campaigner for equal rights, social justice and poverty alleviation.” Not only her blogging but her background exemplifies that: she holds or has held positions in several Nigerian political organizations and international trade unions. To learn more about her you can check out her introductory post, Welcome To My World! (and more on the about-page of her website).

Yemmy also has a YouTube channel and has done some great videos on Atheism+ (e.g. Is the Atheist+ Label Really Confusing? and What Are Anti-Atheists+ Afraid of? — don’t worry, that groovy Nigerian accent might bewilder some at first, but not for long!).

So welcome Ally and Yemmy and check out their blogs from time to time!

 

Help a Library in Pakistan

This is an opportunity to do something cool. I was contacted recently by a library in a predominately Hindu region of Pakistan, asking if I’d be so kind as to send them some free copies of my books (which they even knew and requested by name). My books. Books with titles like Sense and Goodness without God and Why I Am Not a Christian. They had no problem with receiving atheist literature, and even wanted some. I asked them about their safety in receiving it, and they reported that they are in a more liberal district, largely Hindu, and were quite happy to receive literature from all points of view.

I researched them and found several others had obliged and were glad of the results, including Naomi Wolf and Tony Buzan (follow both links to learn more about the library and its aims and goals and tribulations). They are driving a literacy program in the region and undertaking other educational initiatives. Though they are Hindu, they are clearly ecumenical in the kind of literature they are willing to make available. So I sent them some of my books. And asked if they’d like me to ask my readers for more. They said yes.

This is their original letter to me, similar to what they sent a lot of other authors and organizations, seeking what they can (I’m sure they expected a lot of these requests to be a long shot):

With profound regards we humbly request you that we are a voluntary organization which sets up work in Indus Valley Sindh, the southern part of Pakistan our project is to help and facilitate a libraries program in Sindh, with the name of “Mother of Civilization Library” … [And need books] due to lack of resources and fundamental facilities of libraries, and … [a] big catastrophe of supper flood which hit the large part of population of this province in which all educational institutions and libraries infrastructure has been destroyed.

Your donations of books can do much to stimulate and encourage the growth of learning, especially among the young generation of Sindh about it. Therefore we appeal your great institution to make a little contribution of … books on compassionate and humanitarian ground; the result would be the placement of new books (or equivalent educational materials) into the library for needy and destitute students.

Hope you will consider our humble supplication with the glance of appreciation and make small numbers of books donation for this libraries program. In case, you wish to know more about our libraries program and various facets associated with it, please free to contact our office on all the days.

Thanking you.

Yours Sincerely

Rashid Anees Magsi

Project Manager

This is the letter of response I included with my shipment:

Mother of Civilization Library

Sobho Khan Magsi

Radhan Station, Dadu

Sindh Province, 76310

Pakistan

Phone: 009-2300-360-9982

 

Greetings! I Enclosed are one or more copies of my books Why I Am Not a Christian, Not the Impossible Faith, Proving History, and Sense and Goodness without God, plus one copy of The End of Christianity, which has many valuable chapters, some by me. I no longer have any copies of its prequel, The Christian Delusion, but hopefully someday you can acquire a copy to add to your collection.

I think you are doing a brave and valuable thing, and I am happy to help you promote knowledge and learning, religious freedom, and the exchange of information and ideas.

I wish all good fortune to your library project and for your own safety and success as well as that of everyone involved.

Be well and enlighten many!

 

Richard Carrier

California

United States of America

If you are able and interested in sending them some books, use their address above in my letter of reply.

I asked what they were looking for in general, and it’s the same as you can imagine any library wants: stuff on science, philosophy, history, how-to books. Presumably some educational children’s books. They didn’t mention fiction, and I imagine fiction might be problematic, for various reasons. But if you stick to good educational materials you can’t go wrong. Obviously used books in good condition will be fine.

Just think, you can get rid of some books in your home library that you like but don’t need anymore, or ship things to them direct from Amazon (presumably; I haven’t checked if Amazon can do that). Just don’t send them stuff you think sucks. You’ll want to send them the best, most readable, informative works on various subjects, or any good book or textbook on a subject. It costs a significant bit of money to ship to Pakistan, and it takes time out of your day to pack books and go to the post office to have them sent. But it was doable. There are places in the world I often assume just aren’t getting things like this, and I could afford the money and time to remedy that in at least this one case. Maybe you can, too. If so, go for it!

P.S. If anyone has a spare copy of The Christian Delusion to send them, I’d appreciate that. Then they’d have the complete set.

 

You Should Join the SSA (At the Very Least!)

The Secular Student Alliance is one of the most important organizations atheists have in their corner. It’s doing some of the most important work there is, answering Campus Crusade for Christ (and its various incarnations and emanations) by establishing and supporting (in many brilliant and valuable ways) secular student clubs on college campuses and American high schools.

They provide money, resources, training, how-to kits, legal and organizational advice, and more, to existing clubs, and actively work to create new clubs, and (most of all) keep them going (since continuity is a major difficulty as student club leaders graduate and leave). They are creating opportunities and maintaining a visible presence for atheists, actual and potential, to plug themselves into a valuable information and social support network, which increases the amount of atheist activists and supporters not only in schools, but then beyond.

Being an annual supporting member of the SSA does give you some voting power, but it mostly just keeps their coffer filled. It’s very affordable to sign up for an automatically-renewing annual membership ($10 for cash-strapped students, $35 for anyone else, or more if you want) and I can’t think of any reason an atheist in the U.S. shouldn’t sign up for this, and give SSA more numbers and more dollars, at very little cost to yourself. They are doing great work. And valuable work.

I blogged about this last year, and you can read that for more backstory if you want (The SSA Is Our Future). But you can also just go to the SSA Supporters Page and sign up for an annual membership. Now is also a good time to send them a special bonus donation: as they have a matching offer in play once again this year, until May 6: all donations (and memberships) clocked before then will be doubled! For details (and how to give a special one-time donation to grab more of those matching funds) see SSA Week 2013.

 

Zindler-Price Anthology: Contra Ehrman

Frank Zindler and Bob Price have edited their own anthology of “responses” to Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? For this project Zindler bought the rights from me to include a special summary edition of my blogging on the same subject (see Ehrman on Historicity Recap). This anthology is now available through American Atheist Press as Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (also available on kindle).

The rights to my contribution were procured through a single-payment contract, so I won’t be getting any royalties from the sale of this book (if you want to buy it and still want me to get a cut, then you can buy it through the above link, which is to the respective sales page in my Amazon store, where I get a kickback on any sale). I also had (and have) no editorial control over this book or its publication. My contribution does contain some new material not included in my blogging, but the most important addition (quotations from the Egyptian Pyramid Texts) will be included in my next book, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, and the rest is pretty much already what’s available online (either in or linked from Recap), although I made various improvements in wording throughout.

I required a disclaimer to be included (in the Foreword generally and in the first paragraph of my chapter specifically), since I do not endorse much of what gets said elsewhere in this book. I was sure of this even before I read it, but having at last read it I can now confirm my expectation was correct. In fact, I consider much of it terrible. But it is fair enough to say that each chapter represents the best of what you can expect from each contributor of late. So if you want to see what each mythicist author is most often like in their manner of argumentation and quality of research, this is the anthology for you, although at 567 pages from disparate authors, it can be a challenge to get through.

That’s the sum of it. But those who want to know more can read on… [Read more…]