A Childish Book Review: Stephanie Louise Fisher and the Travesty of Not Getting It

Another baffle clearing for today, I’m finally getting to an embarrassingly childish review of Proving History by Stephanie Louise Fisher (a doctoral student in biblical studies). Her review (published through that nutter R. Joseph Hoffmann’s website…and I’m not throwing “nutter” around lightly, I genuinely think he might be insane) is ironically titled An Exhibition of Incompetence: Trickery Dickery Bayes. Ironically, because she betrays her incompetence in logic and mathematics and reading comprehension throughout, and yet is claiming I’m the one who is incompetent. Her review is also close to libelous and on at least two occasions overtly dishonest.

The immaturity of the review, with its gratuitous insults and intemperance and slanders and complete failure to actually engage with the book, gave it a low priority for me, since it really just discredits itself to any mature reader. But now I have time to cover it. Even right off the bat, a review written like this demonstrates no sense of irony in its author who opens with the claim that they are the one “drawing attention to [my] unprofessional attitudes and prejudices.” Her absurdly repetitious claims of my alleged incompetence characterize the whole thing, despite my having a Ph.D. in the history of ancient religion and philosophy from a top ranked university, and a published background in mathematical arguments (in peer reviewed journals no less), as well as official training in statistics, calculus and electronics engineering…and despite my book having been formally peer reviewed by a professor of mathematics and a professor of biblical studies. (Note that Fisher, at present, and so far as I can discern, can claim none of these qualifications.)

Certainly, claims of incompetence have to be backed up with considerable evidence in the face of such conditions and qualifications. Fisher provides none. Let’s look at what she does argue. [Read more...]

A Well-Deserved Nod to Aviezer Tucker

Front cover of Aviezer Tucker's book Our Knowledge of the PastAfter I published Proving History a reader said I should check out Aviezer Tucker’s book Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography, since it appeared to back up the entire core thesis of my book. I am amazed and ashamed that I did not discover this book sooner. It must not have been indexed well in databases, since my searches for Bayesian historiography did not discover it. I just finished reading it, and while I wait for more opportune times to blog on other issues coming up, I thought I’d post a little about this.

Tucker is a prominent and widely published philosopher (see his bio and cv). We have at least two things in common: we both did graduate work at Columbia University, and we both think historical reasoning is fundamentally Bayesian. As some might know, the subtitle of my book is Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, and though the study of Jesus is its principle example, the overall thesis is that all history is Bayesian and all historians should learn Bayes’ Theorem and how to apply it to their own thinking to improve their reasoning, research, and argumentation.

Tucker makes the same argument. His approach is deeper and more philosophical, more about making the point that historical reasoning is already Bayesian, and that this explains everything from consensus to disagreement in the historical community. My book makes that argument, too, but is more about the practical application of this conclusion, and providing tools and advice for how historians can make use of Bayesian reasoning to improve what they do. Tucker delves more deeply into philosophy and probability theory and as such his book is essentially an extension of my sixth chapter (which goes into more depth on points made earlier in my book).

That’s why I regret not having known of his book before now. It’s a great shame that Proving History does not cite it, and I am writing this review now to redress that gap. OKP provides solid support for the core thesis of PH, and is the first book I know that makes the case I do (and thought I was alone in making). Others had discussed Bayes’ Theorem in the context of historical reasoning, but always skeptically or inconclusively (e.g. see PH, p. 304, n. 28). Tucker appears to be the first to understand that in fact historical reasoning is Bayesian, and to argue the point explicitly. It thus provides another foundation (and independent corroboration) for my main conclusions. It was also a prestigious peer reviewed academic work, published by Cambridge University Press in 2004 (I had my book peer reviewed as well, but my publisher is less known for that).

Owners of Proving History might want to pen Tucker’s name and book title into the margins somewhere (it should certainly have gotten a nod in note 3 of chapter four, on page 306, and probably in my discussion on page 49 as well, perhaps where I mention the precedents of applying Bayesian reasoning in law and archaeology).

The leading merits of OKP are that Tucker grounds you in the history of historiography and philosophy of history, he treats in greater detail the issues of historical consensus and disagreement (with many erudite examples), he addresses several leading problems in the philosophy of history, and he cites and adapts debates and discussions of Bayesianism in the philosophy of science and applies them to history the same way I do (only he again in more detail): by demonstrating that science and history are fundamentally the same discipline, only applied to data-sets of widely differing reliability.

As Tucker says in his central chapter (ch. 3, “The Theory of Scientific Historiography”), “I argue that the interpretation of Bayesianism that I present here is the best explanation of the actual practices of historians” and that “Bayesian formulae can even predict in most cases the professional practices of historians” (p. 134), and he gives good brief explanations of prior probability and likelihood (what I call consequent probability) in the context of historical thinking, and uses real-world examples to illustrate his point. His chapters 1 and 2 cover the background of the philosophy and epistemology of history, and remaining chapters apply the results of chapter three to address three major debates in that field: explaining disagreement among historians (ch. 4), resolving questions of causal explanation in history (ch. 5), and exploring the limits of historical knowledge and method (ch.6). He then wraps it all up with a conclusion (ch. 7). There is also an extensive bibliography and index. Throughout his book, Tucker aims to refute postmodernist and hyper-skeptical approaches to historical knowledge, and in that regard makes a good supplement to McCullagh (whom I do cite in PH).

For me, the most notable facts are that we did not know of each other, yet we independently came to the same conclusion that all historical reasoning is fundamentally Bayesian, and Tucker is a well-established philosopher and his book is by a major peer reviewed academic press. Both facts add weight and authority to my overall conclusion in Proving History. And that’s always nice to have.

FtBCon in July!

On the weekend of this July 19-21 Freethought Blogs is running an online conference with a rather impressive lineup. Not only is it free, but it will be all by video streaming on Google+ so you don’t have to travel or pay for a hotel or anything like that. So it’s really about as free as any such thing can get. If you can get online, from anywhere in the world, you can attend! Even from the comfort of your own home.

To learn more, check out PZ Myers’ post Announcing…FtBConscience. Speaker slots are still open, too, so as PZ says, “If you’re part of a group that you’d like to see represented, if you have something valuable to say that fits into our overall theme, contact me soon and we’ll see if we can fit you into our programming grid.” Details there.

As participants are literally all over the planet, this conference could run as much as all 24 hours of all three days. There will be talks and panels. A schedule will be posted before the event, but a list of confirmed speakers so far is available here. There will be a moderated chat room and opportunities for Q&A.

I’ve decided to speak about something deeply personal this time: What the Military Taught Me about Feminism. I’ll be telling some embarrassing and personal stories about my time in the service twenty years ago as a young naive man, and reflecting on how they changed me and contributed to what I know and how I think today. And I want to make Q&A a big part of that. I might make other appearances at the conference (on a panel perhaps). But that will be my main contribution.

I’m looking forward to seeing how well this goes. It’s a great idea and could benefit people all over the world who can’t normally travel or attend conferences in atheism and humanism. So mark your calendars and keep your eye on the developing conference schedule as it appears.

Give Just a Little to the SSA, MAAF and MRFF

I was just filling out some checks and realized I should mention what I’m doing, because I think a lot of you might want to do the same. Last month I renewed my annual support for the Secular Student Alliance. I’ve long been promoting them, as an organization making a huge difference in supporting the growth of atheism and secularism and changing the future of this country (see The SSA Is Our Future and You Should Join the SSA). The SSA only asks from supporters a minimum of $35 a year (or just $10 from students). If you haven’t become an annual supporter already, I highly recommend you do.

But today I’m sending checks to two other organizations that are literally on the front lines doing battle for atheist freedom and against real vestiges of Christian tyranny in America: the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF) and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). They each only ask for a minimum of $25 in support each year. I’m giving $35 to both. But even if you can only afford the minimum, it helps, a lot more than you might think. Not only do they do great and important things with the money (and these small donations add up to a lot, when a lot of us send them), but they also have a more influential voice the more people they can report as supporting them with actual money. So giving even the minimum is giving them a lot more power than just the dollars alone. You make a difference on very little expense.

I’ve written about the importance of such organizations before (in support of the MAAF: see Atheists in Foxholes). I’m a veteran myself, as are others here at Freethought Blogs (e.g. Justin Griffith of Rock Beyond Belief has worked for the MAAF and Chris Rodda of This Week in Christian Nationalism has worked for the MRFF). So, too, are several prominent figures in atheism and skepticism, from Harriet Hall of Science Based Medicine to Kathleen Johnson of American Atheists. The abuse of power by Christians in the U.S. military, against the rights of atheists and other religious minorities, is intense and appalling, and not many people are willing to stand up against it. The MAAF and MRFF do, legally and in every other way they can. They also provide a community, a resource for commiseration and advice, and a haven of sanity for oppressed religious minorities in the armed forces, a service much needed. Those who haven’t served or haven’t been culling the news for reports on all the abuses power by the Christian Right in our military might not realize how bad it is, and how much the MAAF and MRFF are needed (you can explore their websites to get up to speed on that, or read the many related posts here in Griffith’s and Rodda’s blogs, or get Mikey Weinstein’s book: see below).

If you don’t want the Christian Right to take over the military and influencing its procedures and decisions, if you don’t want atheists in our armed forces to feel oppressed and alone and forced to hide and put up with Christian rules and proselytizing, then you definitely should support the MAAF and MRFF. Just $25 a year for each is really affordable. The MRFF has a campaign on now that will give you a digital brick on their wall of separation between church and state for just that minimum of $25. Membership dues at the MAAF are the same, but you don’t have to join to donate every year.

The MAAF specifically serves atheists and nonbelievers and does a good job at that. Supporting the MAAF will directly benefit atheists in the military, most especially in providing them with a functioning and reliable community that can help atheists in the service in every way possible. The MRRF serves all religious minorities. They’ve fought cases against discriminatory practices affecting Jews, Buddhists, Wiccans…and they just as fiercely fight for atheists as well, not only directly, but in their general effort to promote religious neutrality and freedom in the services altogether. I’ve met Mikey Weinstein, the MRRF’s lead bullfighter, and he’s a delightfully terrifying badass with incredible principles. It’s partly due to his tenacity and unyielding fight for what’s right that the MRFF has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize–several times. His latest book No Snowflake in an Avalanche is the book to read if you want to learn all the ways the Christian Right is aiming to take over the military, and all the abuses of power they are all too often getting away with there (as well as to see how important the MRRF has been in fighting back, and thus why it definitely deserves your support).

So please join me, if you can, in sending all three organizations a little money their way each year, and give them one more person to add to their reported count of supporters. The SSA, MAAF, and MRFF all have convenient donation links on their websites.

Brown Out: A Christian Reviews Proving History

My latest book Proving History has been negatively reviewed by Kevin Brown (a Christian book reviewer [he has since deleted that post] who confesses he is “not a mathematician or historian by anyone’s standard,” although I must note that one only needs strong primary school math to understand and evaluate the concepts in the book). Although he doesn’t actually have anything bad to say about the overall thesis of the book (the application of Bayes’ Theorem to history generally and Jesus studies specifically, it’s many discussions of method, and so on, beyond vague expressions of uncertainty). His objections are more of a Christian apologetical bent: he doesn’t like certain conclusions about a few random minor points made throughout the book, which he cherry picks because he thinks they are egregiously false, and he uses this to build a comforting narrative for himself that I must not know what I’m talking about, if I don’t agree with him on those few scattered items.

You can get an idea of his bias when he tells you my other book Why I am Not a Christian is “appalling tripe” and “by far the worst book I’ve read on the subject matter of atheism” and other colorful things, all because he despises the most commonsensical of atheist arguments (that a God who wanted x would do what was needed to achieve x). Brown is not a great thinker. And his intemperance and lack of objectivity show here. So when he gets to reviewing Proving History, you can expect a less than objective approach, and a similar sense of hyperbolic contempt. Indeed, for not liking the book (for no actually good reason, as we’ll see), he appears to be more obsessed with attacking it than than with any other book he has ever reviewed (he has so far written six articles on Proving History, where his previous record for any other book is only four, and that only once in twenty or thirty titles). [Read more...]

Indelible Nirmukta

Two new blogs have launched at FtB over the past few weeks and as usual they are fascinating additions. (FTB’s front page has also been cleaned up a bit–more improvements to come).

The IndelibleAvatar for Tauriq Moosa on FTB Stamp by Tauriq Moosa [that's TAR-rik, not tar-REEK] surveys culture and ethics from an international atheist perspective, touching on all manner of issues in the area of “practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life.” See So It Begins and On the Blog’s Name, and his bio at BigThink. He is currently a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa while pursuing a graduate degree at Stellenbosch University. His bio here says it all:

Tauriq Moosa writes on ethical matters in the news. He writes a regular blog at BigThink.com [Against the New Taboo] on so-called “taboo” issues, like incest, infanticide and cannibalism, examining whether evidence matches outrage. He has tutored bioethics and critical thinking. His writing has appeared in io9, New Humanist, Skeptic, Free Inquiry, and 3QuarksDaily.com. He has been recommended by The New Yorker, The New York Times Opinionator, and the Huffington Post. He debated Desmond Tutu for a BBC documentary, but lost due to a cup-cake interception. He hates dolphins, will never have children and loves good writing – whether as a novel, comic book, or TV series.

Avatar for Nirmukta on FTB.Nirmukta on FTB, meanwhile, is a joint blog for several writers affiliated with the Nirmukta community, which promotes science, freethought and humanism in India and South Asia (see Nirmukta.com). Their objectives include “provid[ing] a platform for the freethought and secular humanist community in India and South Asia,” advancing “a naturalistic life philosophy as a moral and fulfilling alternative to religion and spirituality,” “promot[ing] secular humanism, equality, social justice, communal harmony and human rights” as well as “scientific literacy,” supporting “the fight against pseudo-science,” and “work[ing] towards building a culture of secularism” and “a secular public policy keeping with our constitution [in India].” They explain that “nirmukta” is “a Sanskrit word that means freed [or] liberated” because “we are freed of dogma, orthodoxy and prejudice” and “uphold and celebrate freedom of inquiry and expression, guided by scientific temper and humanistic principles.” Like Moosa, they will be contributing an international perspective on politics, morality, culture, and belief from a perspective of atheistic humanism, and opening another door for FtB readers to hear about the thoughts and issues of South Asian peoples and cultures.

Check them out from time to time!

 

Lindsay and WiS: Time to Be Heard at CFI

The CFI board meets in a week. The Ron Lindsay debacle should not be allowed to fall from the agenda. To make sure they hear all voices, please send your thoughts to board member Tom Flynn [at [email protected]].

I’ve discussed the outrage and disappointment felt in the community, and my own, in What Do Ron Lindsay and an Oklahoma Tornado Have in Common? which has links to several other movement leaders and writers, men and women, who have echoed much the same sentiments (from Dan Finke to Ashley Miller).

My own letter to the board read as follows:

Please forward to the board of directors of CFI.

I have voiced my thoughts on Ron Lindsay matter on my blog:

http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/3626

Though others have covered the women and feminism angle very well, I saw other problems with the way he handled Atheism+ in particular and my blog explains what I mean.

Both instances indicate Ron Lindsay doesn’t listen, doesn’t learn well, doesn’t stay informed, and doesn’t have a good grasp of how to maintain a positive rallying message for all worthwhile members of the movement. His talk could have been salvaged with diplomacy (though it did demonstrate a pervasive cluelessness), but the way he handled criticism was far worse, and far more indicative of his inability to effectively lead an organization serving the broader secular community.

There have also been several open letters with numerous signatories (and approving upvotes and comments) making the same and further points, so if you want to hear more voices before coming to a conclusion of your own to send to the board of directors of CFI, you can peruse these:

The damage Lindsay’s behavior is doing to CFI is already becoming evident as people talk about abandoning their affiliation with CFI (e.g. here). So I think the board really does need to hear as many voices as possible, so they don’t misjudge the scale of response his behavior has evoked in the atheist, humanist, and skeptic communities.

 

Attack of the Lycanthropic Transsexuals!

Every once and awhile I find myself with enough time to clear the baffles, as it were, and address a silly argument that really needs answering but I’ve been too busy with pressing stuff to get to. This is one of those arguments. About six months ago, a Christian blogger on the Triablogue network (a Calvinist creationist inerrantist by the name of Steve) reacted in horror that I would think noted transsexual Lana Wachowski was “super cute” (see Lana Wachowski Is Awesome). In fact, of course, I said she was “funny, smart, eloquent, and super cute,” but when you’re a repressed sex-obsessed Christian the only thing I guess you would notice me saying about her is that she’s physically attractive (even though those other three attributes I also find sexually attractive in women, and supercuteness is a property of personality as well as appearance, but maybe all that’s a little too advanced for a creationist, way beyond first unit in sexuality 101).

Image from comedy comic How to Fight a WerewolfThis, plus another remark by noted atheist Jeff Lowder (a founder of the Internet Infidels and frequent blogger at the Secular Outpost), got Steve’s goat, prompting him to correct this perversion in the atheist community by claiming we were being illogical cowards in accepting transsexuals (and worse even, actually liking them!) in a post Steve titled Species Dysphoria (in mockery of the condition called Gender Dysphoria…which used to be called Gender Identity Disorder, so I don’t know if Steve meant this title as a double insult, since the condition had just been renamed in diagnostic manuals earlier that year, downgrading its status from a mental disorder in need of cure to a natural condition in need of acceptance, in parallel to homosexuality in that same diagnostic manual decades ago: see APA Revises Manual: Being Transgender Is No Longer a Mental Disorder).

Steve’s principal analogy is lycanthropy. No, seriously. But we have to build up to that.

Here’s Steve’s lead-in: [Read more...]