CONvergence – Evolutionary Psychology panel audio

Okay, this is not the greatest recording in the world. As it turns out, a Google Nexus 4 appears to only be able to record at 8000Hz mono. If I’m going to keep doing this, I’ll have to invest in a better sound recorder. Or maybe use my old iPhone, because that’s literally the only thing the iPhone has that my Nexus has not been able to duplicate or improve upon.

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(download mp3)

Panel, left to right: Amanda Marcotte, Greg Laden, Stephanie Zvan, PZ Myers, Indre Viskontas

Panel, left to right: Amanda Marcotte, Greg Laden, Stephanie Zvan, PZ Myers, Indre Viskontas. Photo by Anne Sauer of Mad Art Lab.

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News from down under: the TRUE skeptical women side with the guys!

Something funny happened in my and Stephanie’s trackbacks today. On Adelaide Atheists’ Meetup group, one of their male members wrote up a post asking women to endorse the Skeptic Women petition. The thread was titled, “I wish to promote the statement below issued by a group of women atheists/(true) skeptics and ask women to consider supporting their position.”

Let’s ignore the “no true skeptic” for a brief moment here, and the fact that the two women replying both strongly disagreed — and that the poster and two other guys argued with them, explaining to them why they’re wrong.

Stop laughing.
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How many times ’round this particular bush must we beat? The latest spate of intentional misunderstandings about what privilege is and is not has spurred me finally to post my thoughts on this matter, though to be quite honest I’ve made a false start at this particular post about a dozen times now.

Privilege as a term used in social justice circles is fairly well understood. In fact, it strays not one whit from the dictionary definition, regardless of which dictionary you use:


  • a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people

– Oxford English Dictionary

Definition of PRIVILEGE

: a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor : prerogative; especially : such a right or immunity attached specifically to a position or an office

- Merriam-Webster (presently 19th most popular word on online lookups!)

And even law dictionaries, referring to specific legal privileges, scan in plain english:

A particular and peculiar benefit or advantage enjoyed by a person, company, or class, beyond the common advantages of other citizens. An exceptional or extraordinary power or exemption. A right, power, franchise, or immunity held by a person or class, against or beyond the course of the law.

- Black’s Law Dictionary

The concept is a solid one in sociological circles, describing existing behaviour. There are books of essays by sociologists, books by sociologists exploring how privilege interacts with viewpoint, and books of theory by sociologists who are cited often in religious discussion — it’s not exactly fringe science, and it’s certainly better supported and better explored than the present state of evolutionary psychology. It involves no just-so stories, it describes reality as observed by impartial observers, and provides an explanatory framework for how these power imbalances aggregate and perpetuate themselves without any necessarily immoral behaviour by any individuals. It is a powerful framework and it is well evidenced by thousands of years of recorded history aggregated across all our cultures.

The objections to the use of the word “privilege” are once again coming from the same quarter of our community that regularly forestalls progress (and, honestly, even discussion) with regard to social justice causes. Once again, a “leader” of our respective movements has spoken up against the terrible feminists who are “silencing dissent” with our horrible bullying tactics like “blocking people on Twitter” or “disagreeing with them on their own blogs” or “asking them to kindly stop actively talking for just long enough to hear someone else’s perspective”. This leader, and the people rising up to support and defend said leader’s words, fight tooth and nail against these feminists. By attempting to poison the well for this concept, by attempting to sap away our ability to use the concept to describe reality as it exists, they are attacking by extension everyone who happens to think that women are in a disadvantaged position in our society as a whole, and therefore by extension every woman, whether they recognize or do not recognize same.

Some of this leader’s defenders are motivated reasoners; some have a skeptical blind spot when it comes to the possibility that our communities could reflect the same background levels of misogyny and bigotry. Some are Men’s Rights Activists, who run around attacking feminists under the guise of working for the same men’s disadvantages which feminism also addresses by undermining patriarchy (while, naturally, largely ignoring men’s disadvantages altogether). Still others are onlookers, fence-sitters, people who don’t care to attempt to sort out the competing claims, people who’d really rather we return to the very serious work of being rude only to Ray Comfort and Sylvia Browne.

You’ll note I haven’t stated exactly whom I’m talking about yet. There’s a reason for that.
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Evolving pseudo-creatures in computer simulation to run a short course

I love the idea of simulating evolution through computer models. The purpose of such an exercise is not so much to prove that evolution happened, or to prove that complexity can evolve from simple rulesets (though that’s certainly important), but to show that randomness and flexibility in solving tasks can create novel approaches that are more creative even than anything that intelligences like ourselves have worked out.

This particular example shows some behaviours from creatures built out of four types of blocks that emulate hopping, running and dragging themselves along a course, in a simulation where creatures that make it across a trial field quickest are rewarded by having more offspring in subsequent generations.

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Saw nothing at all like this on my flight to Minneapolis

They didn’t seat me in row 666, there were no pamphlets on salvation, and the seats — cramped though they were — were a hell of a lot more comfortable than those pews look. And frankly, the pilot’s rapping wasn’t nearly good enough to cause the spontaneous generation of breakdancing angels.

Via Everything Is Terrible, where they know their quality whargarbl.

Staver/Barbar: California law turns sexual abuse victims into gays and transgender

The specific laws they’re talking about, that are preventing kids from receiving counselling? The “change therapy” laws of course, which forbid religious “therapists” from trying to un-gay-ify kids. Their reasoning is that children who are predated upon by pedophiles have no recourse but to go with any gay feelings they have thereafter.

The premise that gays and transgender folks end up “that way” because of abuse as kids is patently wrong. And even if it was right, it is no justification for subjecting children to the mental and emotional abuse that reparative therapy represents.

I especially like that they’re trying to change the name “reparative therapy” to “change therapy”. It ain’t going to work. We already know that it doesn’t work [pdf], and we know what appropriate responses are to homosexuality.

It’s an incorrect and damaging response to a problem that’s entirely fictional. We don’t even have to get into the motivations these people have to attack homosexuals for their orientation — yes, the thin and threadbare rationale they have for their judging homosexuality as a problem is, of course, their religious beliefs. Otherwise they wouldn’t have called the ban “bullying and abuse” — devaluing both words, in the face of the very real abuse they’re being told they can no longer perpetrate.

Baby turtle eats raspberry

I’m posting this to prove a point, on top of the obvious squee and funny factors.

That point is, human beings can be complete monsters sometimes. Treating cute little turtles as sport, as though there was any contest between the turtle and an automobile. For shame. Look at that turtle, having trouble eating a raspberry! Look at its raspberry beard! They are adorable and nigh helpless and people still swerve to hit them.

Maybe humanity doesn’t deserve to survive this global warming nonsense we’ve brought on ourselves. Bah.

IQ test exposes the myth that is ‘g’

The idea that there’s a single scalar value that measures anything like “general intelligence” (“g”), commonly known as “IQ” or “intelligence quotient”, has been pretty much blown out of the water by this comprehensive study by the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute.

Our attempt to answer [the question of how to quantify relative intelligence] dates back more than five years, when Roger [Highfield] encountered work that I had conducted with Adrian [Hampshire] at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge on a reliable way to carry out cognitive tests online so we could monitor rehabilitation after brain injury, the effect of smart drug trials and so on.

Roger wondered if we could use this test to carry out a mass intelligence test. Drawing on earlier data from brain scans, Adrian and I came up with a series of tests which we knew would trigger activity in as much of the brain’s anatomy as possible, combining the fewest tasks to cover the broadest range of cognitive skills.

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Animation student’s thesis: Pale Blue Dot

Adam Winnik produced this lovely animation for Carl Sagan’s poetic musings on our place in the cosmos, as his school thesis. From his video’s description:

I’ve been enrolled in illustration at Sheridan College for the the last 4 years and this is my final thesis project. I have always thought of Carl Sagan’s writings as “scientific poetry” since they lack the cold touch that science is often cursed for having. I think Sagan’s words resonate more than ever, and will continue with each generation until the human species “wakes up”. The first time I heard this excerpt from his book “Pale Blue Dot” it literally changed my life, and I hope it does for you too. Enjoy.

Pale Blue Dot – Animation from Ehdubya on Vimeo.

I was especially amused by the “derp”‘s all over the holy man’s holy book.

@Felix3333 pointed out something I missed though — if this was the only example of human culture you saw, you’d think the human endeavour is mostly only man’s domain. This picture shows why you might get that impression.

Tryptophan isn’t to blame for your food coma

Even at Thanksgiving, even as a child, I was always “that kid”, who couldn’t leave well enough alone when someone said something blatantly false, or worth questioning and examining further. My father kept admonishing me to be on my best behavior for company, which invariably meant not challenging unevidenced or ridiculous beliefs.

This was one of the ones that filtered into my subconscious and I even caught myself thinking this very thing a few years ago, til I was corrected on it. All because I was asked to turn off my skepticism as a child.

I guess I’m posting this to tell you not to squelch people’s skepticism of strange unevidenced beliefs even if those beliefs are seemingly harmless.

Unless you know there’s absolutely no goodwill to burn, let the walking Snopes database do their thing, because as annoyed as the person may be who is corrected, they’ve actually had a valuable service done to them even at the cost of a little holiday peace. A service that helps insulate people from making mistakes, and having factoids filter into their brains as though they were facts, which might introduce errors in their reasoning later in life.

And if there’s absolutely no goodwill to burn at the Thanksgiving table, and you must suffer the tyranny of someone spewing factoids, both harmless and harmful? Well, consider a smaller and more intimate Thanksgiving meal next year.

But yeah. Sorry for the tangent. Turkey doesn’t cause food comas. And I wish I could spend the American holiday with my American friends and family, so enjoy your time with them. And I hope you find a balance between the factoid-spewers and the fact-checkers so you can all enjoy your meal.