Movie Friday: What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

I occasionally make reference to my life and work as a scientist when discussing the various skeptical topics that come up on this blog. I’ve been told that approaching some of these topics with a scientific eye helps make them more easily comprehensible to those of us who are more academically-minded, rather than invoking legal or emotional rhetoric to make my arguments. For me, science is the filter through which I see the world – I try to approach all things analytically and apportion my belief in them to the evidence. It’s not surprising to me that this colours my blogging, although it is certainly not something I make a concerted effort to do.

What I don’t talk about much is the other part of my life. I have a pretty cool Clark Kent/Superman thing going on, wherein I am a fuddy-duddy glasses-wearing nerd by day, and rock star by night. In addition to being a classically-trained viola player, I have been dabbling in guitar since I was in high school, and have been singing since I was old enough to carry a tune. My music is perhaps not as big an influence over my writing and daily life as my scientific background is, but music still plays a big role in my life.

I do have a band here in Vancouver called CROWN, in which I play a number of instruments and sing. It’s a cool thing to be part of a collaboration between a number of great musicians, and we have what I think is a pretty unique sound.

Here’s us doing a cover of “Steal My Kisses” by Ben Harper with me on vocals:

Covering Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game” with Paul on lead vocals and me on viola:

And doing an original tune called “Never Let You Go” with Stuart on vocals:

We play down at a pub called the King’s Head in Kitsilano on Fridays and Sundays, which is a lot of fun. Of course none of this has anything to do with the usual fare of this blog; we just happen to be playing a gig for New Year’s Eve tonight so I thought I’d let you know what I was up to.

What are you doing tonight?

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Something cool happens in Poland

As you’re reading this, my vacation time is officially over. I’m back in Vancouver, and depending on what time it is right now I’m either having breakfast, sitting at my desk working, or at band practice getting ready for CROWN’s New Year’s Eve gig in Kits.

At the time of writing this, however, I am sitting at the kitchen table in my parents’ condo in Toronto, happily digesting a turkey sandwich and frantically typing out this week’s posts. I am a bad blogger, in that I write in fits and starts rather than putting up fresh stuff every day. I’m a good blogger, I think, in that I haven’t yet missed a post. It’s a trade-off for me between consistency and timeliness – I am satisfied to err on the side of consistency.

The reason for this personal disclaimer is that I’m basically just posting this stuff without what I feel is my usual level of comment. This story probably deserves a fuller discussion than it’s going to get today:

John Abraham Godson, a Polish citizen born and raised in Nigeria, has been sworn in as the first black member of Poland’s parliament…

It is still quite rare to see black people even in the Polish capital Warsaw, Poland’s most cosmopolitan city, the BBC’s Adam Easton reports. Racism is still a problem in Poland, where it is not uncommon for well-educated people to make racist jokes, our correspondent says.

I roll my eyes whenever someone invokes the “we have a black president now, therefore racism is over” argument. It’s almost completely without merit – one high-level appointment does not negate the entire history of a struggle. However, there is some good that can come as a consequence of electing a black public figure, particularly to such a visible position.

Black office-holders help erode stereotypes about black people, by providing a conflicting narrative about the black experience. All of a sudden everyone in Poland, even those who have never met a black person before, has a ready example in their mind of a black person who doesn’t conform to the misconception about what it means to be black – he’s a well-respected member of parliament rather than a gang-banger or an illiterate hood rat, or whatever the stereotype is there.

However, this is a double-edged sword for many black people. If Mr. Godson succeeds, he will be described by some as being “not really black”, or as succeeding despite of his blackness. However, if he fails, he will be described by those same people as failing because of his blackness. His failures will be seen as emblematic of all black people, whereas his success will divorce him from that same group. It’s a common problem facing high-profile black people, one that certainly moves many to try and hide their ethnicity by taking on the characteristics and mannerisms of the majority group.

Of course the real answer is to do the exact opposite – wear your race on the same sleeve as your successes, wedding those two things together to such an extent that they are impossible to separate. Of course, you’d better succeed, otherwise you risk doing much more harm than good.

All that being said, I’m glad to see when things like this happen, even when they’re not in my own country.

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And sometimes racism isn’t subtle

I have, on occasion, waxed on at great length about how most racism in society today operates behind the scenes. While we’ve pictured it in our minds as flaming crosses and jackbooted police officers beating up black men on the freeway, it usually tends to happen in much more insidious ways, percolating behind the veneer of our arch-liberal “treat everyone equal” mantras. Of course when the more “classic” examples of racism manifest themselves, it shocks everyone except those of us who have been paying attention.

But those of us who are not particularly sensitive to this new definition of racism can rest a bit easier knowing that the old type is still very much alive:

A sign excluding black people from a future Abbotsford, Wisconsin business is enraging some people in the small town. It’s a sign generations of people may have never seen, yet Mark Prior says it’s his right to discriminate. “If I’ve got a problem with you it’s going to be on the front of my store,” says Mark Prior. Prior posted his ‘No Negros Allowed’ sign after he says he had some problems with black people in the past and needed to make a policy against them.

Wait wait wait… did he actually post a sign that says ‘No Negroes Allowed’?

Yep. He did.

There is a particularly odious argument out in the ether that people should be allowed to serve whoever they want, regardless of what kind of systemic prejudices such a policy props up. On the surface of it, the argument appears to have some validity. After all, if you open up your own business, who is anyone to tell you that you must cater to people you don’t like? Your individual rights of autonomy are being violated, dammit!

“I’m going to stick to my guns because I think I have the right as a business owner to reject service to anyone. It’s not all the black people there are just a few bad ones,” Prior says of his problems in the past.

Of course this is an argument that, like many conservative calling cards, has its basis in the idea of “I got mine, Jack!” So what if the autonomy of others is violated? So what if that pattern of violation fertilizes a de facto second-class citizenship for people based on something completely trivial like skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, or religious belief? As long as I don’t get trampled on, the other stuff doesn’t really matter.

There’s another fun thing that happened in there. Did you catch it? “It’s not all black people, there are just a few bad ones.” Aaaaaand that’s why all of them are banned? It’s one of those cognitive dissonances that reveals the depth of Mr. Prior’s racism – the troublemakers are causing trouble because they’re black. It’s the colour of their skin that’s making them cause trouble, right? Otherwise why specify that it’s “Negroes” that aren’t allowed in? Of course the fact that the guys are causing trouble is not causally related to their ethnicity, but it sure is fun to stereotype.

I’m not a fan of strip clubs. I don’t think anyone should go to them, but people do, so whatever. I’m even less a fan, however, of telling a specific group of people “you’re not allowed in here because of what you are, nothing to do with anything you’ve done”. For nostalgia purposes, it’s nice that folks like Mr. Prior are still around to remind us all that we’re not done dealing with racism, no matter how much we might like to pretend we are.

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Awww… adorable!

From time to time I like to post pictures of otters. There’s no good reason, I just think otters are cute. This is cuter:

Young Andrew Pendergraft is playing in the sprawling grounds of his family’s country home. Like any other active ten-year-old, he loves running through the fields and splashing about in the river. But later he will appear on internet TV and – clearly reading from a script – he will solemnly share his bigoted views on the supremacy of the white race with potentially thousands of other children online. Andrew may be only ten but he is the face of youth within America’s Ku Klux Klan, the most infamous hate organisation in the world.

Aww… look how cute that is! His parents taught him to hate black people and Jews!  That’s just so cute I could spit.

Take a moment right now to grab a piece of paper and see how many of the items in the rest of the story you can predict without having to read another word. Just take some guesses as to how this kid’s life might be a little different from yours. While you wait, here is a video of some otters playing with a little girl:

I know, right? Adorable!

Okay, let’s see how you did…

He has been indoctrinated into the ways of the Klan – famed for its burning crosses, lynch mobs and attacks on black people – by his mum Rachel at their home in Harrison, Arkansas, deep in America’s Bible Belt.

If you said “lives in the American south”, then give yourself one point. That one was kind of obvious though: the Klan doesn’t really have much presence anywhere else.

We film White Pride TV on Sunday after church and I have my own spot, The Andrew Show.

If you said “religious upbringing”, give yourself one point.

“I thought the film Avatar showed white people as destroying the rainforest, which we don’t do, and I like to talk about that.”

Give yourself one point if you wrote down that the kid clearly has no grasp of what corporations are doing in the world, as well as a bonus point if you wrote that everything is about white people, even the stuff that isn’t (there were lots of black marines in Avatar, and also the protagonist is a white guy).

Robb’s extremism originated with his own parents. The 64-year-old – Rachel’s father – claims to have “become awakened” to many of his views from the age of 13.

Give yourself a point if you guessed that his parents aren’t exactly bastions of a multi-cultural liberal philosophy.

Although 40-year-old Rachel claims the Klan has changed since its violent heyday, she has home-schooled all three children at the family ranch to prevent them absorbing views from other children.

One point for home schooling (I can hear Scary Fundamentalist tut-tutting in the background).

Daughter Charity says: “What role did black people play in the history of America? I mean no offence, but none. None at all. They were here but they didn’t build the country. They didn’t sign any of the documents of the Declaration of Independence.”

One point for revisionist history.

“There is growing oppression against white people around the world. The greatest endangered species to fight for is the white race, and as a white person I don’t want to see the end of my people.”

One point for “growing oppression of white people” privilege statements. Thanks, Mr. Limbaugh, by the way.

And award yourself bonus points if you picked up the rhetorical tools in the comments (“it’s not technically ‘hate’ per se”, “it’s just one family”, “they should be allowed to teach their children what they want”).

How did you do?

Oh, and in case we forget, this is a ten year-old kid. I don’t have any particular animosity to Andrew, I rather pity him for having been born to such asshole parents. Then again, it’s hard not to laugh when he says shit like this:

Have you seen the new Disney Princess movie? It’s called The Princess And The Frog. The Princess is black, so that is good for all the black kids out there. But the Prince is white. Race-mixing is wrong. If all other people mix up there won’t be any more white kids. So don’t race-mix. There are lots of people against white people and Christians in the movie. The good guy is a voodoo witch doctor. He does spells and has magic potions. Voodoo doctors worship the Devil so it’s a pretty bad movie for kids, especially white kids. Voodoo is the religion that lots of blacks used to have but white people taught them about God. So don’t race-mix. Well, I’ll see you next week.

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What would happen if… (evolution vs. creation)

I sometimes forget that not everyone gets into fights on the internet about stuff. While I’ve been observing the debate over climate change and evolution and the existence of God and alt-med pseudoscience and any other number of skeptical hot topics for a while now, I often make the faulty assumption that other people are a) as interested and b) as skeptical as I am about these things. As a result, I tend to regard people who believe in astrology, or ghosts, or biblical creation,  as being curious oddities when they are in fact, more often than not simply people who aren’t particularly experienced in skeptical inquiry.

It is for this reason that this blog has, from time to time, become a dumping ground for my handful of skeptical tools, thought experiments, critical arguments, and whatever other devices I use on a day-to-day basis when I’m trying to navigate the morass of contradictory claims that are at the heart of most of these “controversies”. Today will be another one of those.

Whenever I am confronted with a new idea or a theoretical framework, I like to ask myself the question “What would the world look like if this were true?” It’s a useful thought experiment in which you are invited to re-start the world from scratch and, while keeping all the other variables the same, imagine what the outcome would be if a certain rule were true. It’s the inverse of the usual scientific process wherein we look at the evidence in aggregate and then try to figure out what the rules are; in this thought experiment we assume the rule to be true and then imagine what the world would look like as a result.

Rule #1a: Creationism – the Earth was created by a supernatural force in (more or less) its present form about 10,000 years ago. Current geological and geographical features that appear to be due to the effect of much more than 10,000 years of time are in fact caused by a massive flood.

What would the world look like if Creationism was true?

It is entirely possible that different species were created using the same set of rules, so the existence of a single mechanism underpinning living organisms (DNA/RNA transcription) is neither ruled out or necessitated by this rule. Types of animals (called “kinds” in Creationist jargon) would not show anything but trivial similarities in terms of their underlying physiology, microbiology, genetics, since they have all been created separately and are not designed to interbreed. There would be no need for wasted or vestigial organs, since these organs would only waste energy. A consistent fossil record would exist that shows only superficial changes over time, consistent with the observed rate of change in physiology in the current time (within reasonable error bars). Species would show evidence of physical migration from a single point of of origin (in the Middle East), spreading out to their current locations, and the same types of animals would occupy ecological niches everywhere (birds are the only ones that fly, fish are the ones that swim, etc.) since there is no reason to change a working pattern. Species would not acquire new characteristics over time, since they were created perfect the first time. Floods would exhibit similar effects (albeit to a smaller degree) on geology that can be observed and extrapolated.

Rule #1b: Evolution – all existing life has a common origin, having reached its present form via a process of change due to a combination of genetic mutation and changes in environment that favors certain trait changes over others.

What would the world look like if evolution were true?

Different species would have many genetic commonalities – no species would use a completely unique process of gene replication, and similarity between different types of species would be on a gradient rather than randomly distributed. Similarities would also be seen in embryology, comparative physiology, and microbiology since they all came from a single source rather than being created different. There may (or may not) be gene sequences and organ systems that are completely useless or have trivial utility in one species, but have working analogues in other species – these would be caused when two different species diverge from a common ancestor due to environmental differences. Fossil records would show animals that are similar to a number of different species but are no longer in existence, as well as some that are still in existence (since environmental changes happen with different frequency and magnitude). Species would exist only in certain areas, while there would be no evidence of them in others, as their ancestors might have had common habitat but have left that area, went somewhere else, and adapted to the change in environment. By the same token, ecological niches would be filled by many different kinds of animals – there would be mammals that fly and birds that swim, plants that eat flies and insects that fertilize soil. Species would, if given sufficient time and divergent enough environments, gradually change and become different enough as to be considered two different species.

The last step of this process is to look at the world that exists and decide which rule best resembles our observed reality. If the rule is in conflict, there are two possible explanations: 1) the rule is false, or 2) there are other forces at work underlying reality that are not fully caught by observation, and further observation will expose them. Of course creationists are loath to accept #1, and will rush to find exceptions and “explanations” for why the rule is still valid (Ken Ham’s floating log bridges, for example). This, however, is simply back-filling – throwing up hastily-assembled assertions to prop up a preconceived conclusion rather than following the existing evidence.

I was going to do a few more examples, but I’m on vacation and I’m coming dangerously close to my 1000 word limit, so I’ll do another one of these another time.

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Movie Friday: Merry Christmas!

There is, underneath all the eye-rolling stupidity, a point to the annual debate in the atheist community about the celebration of Christmas. Yes, it has become so mainstream as to have its religious significance diluted. Yes, it is so pagan in its celebration as to strip it almost entirely of any overt Christianity. Yes, it can be (and has been) rebranded as a holiday celebrating humankind’s ability to be at its best in the way it treats other humans, regardless of any person’s beliefs about a supernatural force.

However, the celebration of Christmas does reinforce the false equation of Christianity with goodness – as though Christianity is a moral system (it isn’t) or that Christians are better people (they aren’t). Christianity may offer opinions on good and evil, but can claim no monopoly of either understanding or execution when it comes to questions of morality. However, thanks to centuries of religious domination, we in the west subconsciously equate Christianity with righteousness (“it’s the Christian thing to do”, “we’re God-fearing people”, “WWJD”).

Celebrating Christmas, no matter how secularly we try to do it, requires the inclusion of Christmas songs. Some of them are simple winter ditties (Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland, Jingle Bells), others are secular (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas), and a great many are explicitly religious (O Holy Night, Away in a Manger, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing). By flipping through those messages interchangeably, we prop up the notion that Christmas is explicitly religious, which in turn equates all the virtues of Christmas with the religious celebration.

Luckily, there’s guys like Patton Oswald who ask us to maybe think about things just a little harder:

Whether you’re celebrating a secular, egg-nog-filled Yule or a Jesus-heavy Christ-mas, I hope you enjoy yourself. Remember, I’m off my vacation starting the first weekend after the New Year, and I look forward to seeing you all in 2011.

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Vancouver does something good

I was poking around the archives from the past few weeks, as I do from time to time, and I realized I haven’t done a “good news” segment in a while. I started hunting for good news segments after it got back to me that a friend of mine thought the blog was too ‘ranty’. While I am inclined to think that anyone who puts their beliefs forward without apology will be accused of “ranting”, but in the interest of maintaining a sense of balance, I throw out stories like this from time to time:

Vancouver’s mayor Gregor Robertson and police chief Jim Chu announced Monday the launch of the Sister Watch program, designed to make the Downtown Eastside safer for women. Chu said police were targeting “predatory and violent drug dealers” who were responsible for attacks against women. “The levels of violence against women in this community must not be tolerated. We must work together to reduce [them],” he said.

One of the things that politicians like to do is legislate larger punishments for crimes. This is a quick and easy way to gin up votes without having to commit any money up front to solve a problem. The logic behind such legislation is that if punishments are high, it will deter would-be criminals from committing the crimes. The problem is that, despite what the rational agent theory within economics would have you believe, there is a ceiling for such disincentive, beyond which the magnitude of the disincentive is immaterial. If, for example, someone threatened to stab you if you didn’t do something, would it make any difference to you if they said they were going to stab you and then punch you in the face? The addition of the face-punch is not the point – if you’re willing to risk getting stabbed then you’re probably hell-bent on doing the thing anyway.

It is for this reason that I favour programs that actually do something rather than just assuming something will be done by a policy. Those of you regular readers who are not from the Vancouver area may not know much about Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Imagine it like a much whiter (and more Native) version of Compton or Harlem – this is the “rough part of town” in Vancouver. There is a great deal of drug use and abuse that happens in this area, and a lot of associated assault and violent crime. Passing stricter drug laws and proscribing harsher penalties for possession and distribution have not deterred crime in the area. Nor, sadly, has increasing police presence (although there is a caveat here, since increased familiarity and rapport between police and DTES residents has led to greater reporting of crime).

Of course, women in the DTES are particularly vulnerable, as with the regular risk of muggings, assault, and the hodgepodge of random crimes that anyone is at risk of, there’s a whole slate of sexual crimes that women are particularly targeted for. Putting a service like this in place is actually two things – first, it is the recognition of a particular problem affecting a subpopulation of Vancouver residents, and it is a policy targeted at community involvement. This serves the purpose of both protecting women and raising the consciousness of the community at large. This will hopefully result in a sea change in which people are more aware of the issues surrounding violence against women, and will reverberate through the city of Vancouver outside the specific issues related to the DTES.


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Israel doesn’t have a race problem

Okay, this one is admittedly stretching it a bit

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has criticised rabbis who issued a statement saying it is a “sin” for Jews to rent or sell property to non-Jews. About 40 rabbis, many employed by the state, signed the statement, citing concerns about potential mixed marriages and falling property values.

I have purposefully avoided commenting on the situation in Israel/Palestine. Setting one foot in that conflict is opening myself up to a whole host of criticism, which I do not have enough factual background to defend myself against. There exists in that region a maelstrom of political, historical, religious, and racial narratives that are so intertwined that I find it impossible to come down on one side or another of an issue. However, in this case I am happy to suspend my cautious equipoise and dive into this one as a clear-cut situation where there is a clear right and clear wrong.

Any time anyone uses the word “sin” in an argument, they’re wrong. The concept of “sin” makes a whole host of assumptions for which there can be no evidence whatsoever:

  1. That there is a supreme being
  2. That the supreme being is consciously aware of human activity
  3. That the supreme being cares about human activity
  4. That the supreme being has a list of “naughty” and “nice” human activities
  5. That this list is available to humans
  6. That your particular list is the correct one

None of those assumptions can be demonstrated with any kind of compelling evidence. To an independent observer, there is no good reason to assume the truth of any of those claims, let alone all six of them in succession. While it may be overwhelmingly true that the speaker doesn’t like the activity in question (whether that’s buttsecks or pork or renting to people of a slightly different ethnicity), it does not necessarily follow that partaking in the activity in question is wrong in and of itself. What is required is a discussion of the necessary consequences of that action; I make that specification to separate it from people who make ridiculous claims like “homosex is wrong because some gay men are promiscuous”.

This one hits home for me particularly, since race-based housing discrimination is one of the primary reasons (in my opinion) that racism persists today. The problem with the conservative approach to race is that it wants to skip right to the end. To be sure, the liberal approach to race skips a bunch of intermediate steps too, but in a different way. Conservatives make the assumption that once you remove legal barriers to access, then all the work is done; consequently, any continuing problems experienced by a formerly-oppressed group are their own fault. After all, once you take your foot off of someone’s neck, it’s his own fault if he doesn’t immediately leap to his feet. Or, to put it another way:

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, `You are free to compete with an the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” – Lyndon Johnson

Of course conservatives disagree with the idea that a) human beings should be in the business of creating fairness, or that b) there is any unfairness to begin with. However, when we look at the consequences of housing disparity, we see that de facto segregation necessarily has negative consequences in terms of income inequalities and a persistent attitude of “us” and “them” that starts in the schools and lasts through generations.

This seems to be what is happening in this Israeli case. These rabbis have a hate-on for Arabs (for reasons that I’m sure don’t stretch credulity) and have cobbled together some post-hoc justification for their hatred, branding the practice as “sin”. Unlike yesterday’s example, however, these religious leaders don’t have much influence outside their own conservative community, and cannot claim any sway over state power:

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has called on Mr Netanyahu to take disciplinary action against the chief municipal rabbis on the list, whose salaries are publicly funded. Religious edicts are often ignored in predominantly secular Israel.

However, this edict is perhaps a useful red flag for the simmering racial climate that defines much of Israel’s domestic policy (and a great deal of its foreign policy too). It also serves an example of how a country that is essentially founded on religious grounds can still model secularism and restraint from going full-on God crazy.

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Why separation of church and state is important

Canada does not have an explicit legal separation between religion and government, which is obviously cause for concern for me as an atheist. However, whatever your beliefs, this kind of thing should concern you too:

A senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, has suggested that opposing the country’s supreme leader amounts to a denial of God. Correspondents say the unusually strong comments appear to be aimed at silencing internal dissent over the leadership of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Sometimes in our more contentious debates, we are tempted to accuse political opponents of being heartless, or say that a position we hold is what God wants. I’m not sure how much anyone actually believes that God cares about politics, but the rhetoric definitely gets amped up at times. However, that’s (mostly) harmless talk; we don’t hear that kind of stuff from our political leaders. This is a good thing, because both of those arguments (liberal and conservative respectively) are thought-stoppers – no reasonable conversation can proceed once we start building our house on the sand of emotion or in the cognitive quagmire of faith.

However, Iran has no such restraint:

The latest comments were made by conservative cleric, Ayatollah Jannati, who heads Iran’s powerful Guardian Council, which oversees the country’s elections and the constitution.

Analysts say the unusually strong demand for public loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader is an attempt by the influential cleric to liken political dissent to religious apostasy – a crime which carries heavy punishment under Iran’s strict Islamic code.

The danger of such statements, especially when backed by state power, is fairly obvious. When the religious establishment controls the state power, and opposition to a political leader is tantamount to a religious crime, then any political opposition is, as a result, a crime. If the leader is corrupt, if the leader abuses his power, if the leader violates the rights of the people, the people have no recourse. Political speech is blasphemy, subject to severe punishment. Forget the idea of an opposition party, forget the idea of free speech, forget the idea of fairness or justice under the law.

Obviously nothing about this particular story will be surprising to anyone who’s been paying any attention at all to the situation in Iran. I only began paying attention in the wake of the election madness a couple years ago, but since then I’ve seen nothing but repeated arrogance, stupidity and evil come from this religious republic. However, abstracting a general rule from this specific case may be possible – it is to everyone’s benefit to have religious power separated by law from state power. The only people who would benefit from an erosion of state sovereignty by the religious establishment is those who agree completely with the leading class’ views. History shows us again and again that fractions will appear within religious communities as they grow larger and more powerful. There is no long-term benefit to the rule of religion – there will always be a group that is seen as heretical until there is only one absolute ruler. Religion knows no satiety in its appetite for power.

So regardless of your religious beliefs, a separation of state power from religious influence is to your benefit. Eventually your beliefs will come into conflict with the ruling party’s, at which point you will find the religious/state power directed at you. The solution, of course, is to wall off religion – allow people their individual rights to believe as they want, but to ensure that state power flows from the people, not from the whims of a capricious God.

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Backfilling – when to ignore someone (pt 3)

Back in September I unveiled my first takedown of arguments that I see popping up in online discourse – namely, appeals to “my own research” and “common sense”. I followed that up by expressing my scorn for any assertion that begins with “I believe…”, a statement that is simply a declaration of personal preference and that has no bearing on anyone else. Today’s post continues this series, albeit with a slightly different, more subtle spin.

Have you ever noticed that your nose is the perfect size and shape to hold up a pair of glasses? Isn’t it remarkable that the placement of the ears relative to the nose support the arms of the glasses? How wonderful is the design of the face! Surely this is proof that the human face has a designer.

Of course you’re smarter than that. You know that it’s exactly the other way around – glasses were designed to fit the face. If our noses had been on our foreheads, we’ve have designed glasses to be an entirely different shape. Of course, this says absolutely nothing about the shitty “design” of the eye that makes us need glasses in the first place.

This practice of assuming the truth of your premise and then cherry-picking and distorting facts to fit that premise is a practice I call “backfilling”, although I am sure it has a real name. I use a creationist example here not because it is used exclusively by the religious, but because it is perhaps most obviously and conspicuously on display when people attempt to bully facts into a literalist biblical account of creation. To be sure, everyone (myself included) uses this tactic from time to time. The psychology behind it is pretty obvious – you believe something to be true, and when it is challenged your mind looks for a rational basis for that belief.

This is similar to appeals to “common sense” or statements of belief – we as listeners are exhorted to believe an asserted statement that strains credulity. The important difference between this tactic and the aforementioned fallacies is that at least the veneer of evidence is presented. That is, we are given something that looks like evidence, provided we don’t take too long to actually look at it critically. Sometimes this comes in the form I have presented above, where cause and effect are reversed. Other times it comes from ignoring or failing to recognize confounding factors and thus jumping to an erroneous conclusion (black people must be more prone to commit crimes – look how many of them are in jail!).

The most frustrating form of this tactic I encounter happens when people make statements and then staunchly refuse to define their terms. Not too long ago, I butted heads with one of the other authors at Canadian Atheist, who seems to have some kind of unhealthy obsession with haunting my posts and writing ridiculous nonsense. One of his favourite tactics is to make some blanket statement, and then when you ask him to define what he’s talking about, he retreats into some mushy nonsense that bears a slight resemblance to the word he’s using, albeit a definition that nobody else would agree with. Thus swimming in the water of muddy incomprehensibility, he is free to make ridiculous and unsupported statements to his heart’s content.

There is a danger in using backfilling to support an argument, namely that unless someone already agrees with your premise, your argument will fail to persuade others. It’s easy to find things that will confirm your own beliefs, but as soon as you step outside a sympathetic audience, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to convince all but the most credulous listener. This is why skepticism is such a useful tool to have – it requires someone to actually define their terms rather than just getting away with blanket nonsense and vauge “well everyone knows what X is” statements.

Because it is so tempting to use this technique in an argument you’re not prepared for, we have to be particularly wary of it when we’re talking outside our depth. Similarly, it might require us to go a bit easier on someone when they’re using it. Unless they’re like Joe and they do it on a repeated basis whilst simultaneously accusing everyone else of being ‘irrational’. Then you know you’ve found a professional idiot, and you should adjust your debate style accordingly.

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