They must like me in Ohio

I seem to be flying there a lot in coming weeks. I’m going to be at The 2011 Humanism Award Banquet, honoring Page Stephens for his work in skepticism, on 30 September (Friday! Soon!).

Then I’m flying down again on 15-16 October for the Free Inquiry Group 20th Anniversary Celebration in Cincinnati — although it looks like the actual event will be in Kentucky.

I don’t know what I’m going to say at either of these events yet. I better think of something quick.

Faster than predicted

Good news, everyone! The dire predictions of the IPCC about the effects of CO2 have been found to be wrong. (I expect that’s all the denialists will tell you.)

The bad news is that the actual observations are showing that the IPCC predictions were too conservative, and that the pace of climate change is faster than predicted.

It’s Monday, so you’re probably already depressed, and a little more pessimism won’t make you feel much worse…so watch the video, have a cup of coffee, despair.

(Also on Sb)

Andrew Brown has really put his foot in it this time

This is some unbelievably obtuse commentary on creationism from Andrew Brown. After noting that the proportion of creationists in the population is very large, and that many people will assent to the proposition that the earth is around 10,000 years old, he proceeds to place the blame.

This is quite clearly not a problem caused by religious belief. Even if we assume that all Muslims are creationists, and all Baptists, they would only be one in 10 of the self-reported creationists or young Earthers. What we have here is essentially a failure, on a quite staggering scale, of science and maths education. The people who think the Earth is 10,000 years old are essentially counting like the trolls in Terry Pratchett: “one, lots, many”. Ten thousand is to them a figure incalculably huge.

We’re to excuse religion when people dumbly parrot religious dogma? That number of 10,000 years isn’t just a random choice; it’s not arbitrary; it’s not a familiar, convenient, nice round number (why don’t they say it’s a million, or a billion, if it’s simply an ignorant guess?). Somehow, large numbers of people echo the specific claims of a narrow religious belief — a young earth, a worldwide flood, a six-day creation, and all that other foolishness — and somehow they just spontaneously, out of some peculiarly synchronistic ignorance, tend to give just these answers…and it’s not religion’s fault? This is an amazing example of plagiarized errors — if two students turned in exams with wrong answers that were identical to this degree, I’d nab ‘em for cheating.

It also ignores the reality of the responses. It’s not just ignorance, I’ve seen that plenty of times, and usually when you teach a student something they didn’t know before, they react with please surprise — the lightbulb goes on above their heads. When I teach genetics or physiology, for instance, there’s hard stuff to master, but the students aren’t closed off to it: they’re signed up to learn it. Evolution is different. There are always some students who hear you tell them the earth is 4½ billion years old, we’re descended from other apes, we have fossils of intermediate forms — all wonderfully cool stuff that they should be thrilled to learn about — who resist and deny.

That’s the unique thing about evolution and a few other subjects. It’s not just that they’ve been in the dark about these controversies, it’s that they come into the classroom preloaded with dogma in opposition. Where does that problematic opposition come from?

Religion.

I really don’t mind and I certainly don’t belittle students who come in to the classroom unaware of the science they’re being taught — that’s the whole raison d’etre of having the classroom in the first place! What Brown is missing is the qualitatively different nature of the creationism argument: it’s an active and malicious anti-science promulgated in defense of religious myths. It clearly is a problem caused by religious belief.

(Also on Sb, and also Why Evolution is True and Butterflies & Wheels)

I knew it all along

Hey, it’s sure been quiet around here. I just got back from Fargo and the Project 42 conference where, most unfortunately, my hotel room’s wifi was abominable and intermittent. I figured you’d all be able to cope without me for a day, right? No panicky withdrawal symptoms, no rioting, no furious outrage and decisions to become a Christian because I wasn’t entertaining enough?

I just started sucking in the mountain of email that came in, so don’t expect much from me for a while. As a sop, you might be amused by this story out of Bay Minette, Alabama: they’ve decided that as an alternative to jail, people convicted of misdemeanors can opt to go to church instead. Didn’t you just know it all along? Church is the equivalent of prison, and attending church is a punishment.

The magic of denying reality

Ophelia deals with a review of Dawkins’ new book, The Magic of Reality. The reviewer makes a common accusation that atheists everywhere have heard a thousand times before: if we believe that the universe is nothing but matter and energy, then what about love? Usually about this time they acquire a triumphant tone of voice — they have backed us into a corner in which we have to confess to be soulless automatons, or we must recognize that there must be something more, something…spiritual. It’s these wacky woo-peddlers, though, who are shoehorning the universe into a tidy black and white box where either love is unreal and doesn’t actually exist, or love is real and therefore, God exists! Presto!

So this reviewer paints a stark picture of Dawkins denying love.

Thus he tells us that “reality is everything that exists” – and “exists”, he makes clear, means whatever we can see or stub our toes on, albeit with the aid of telescopes and seismographs. Everything else – including things we might think exist, like jealousy and love – derive from that material base and are to a large extent illusory. This, he implies, is what emerges from science, and science is true.

Ophelia is rightly skeptical, and doubts that Dawkins actually denies the existence of love, but she doesn’t have a copy of the book yet — it’s not going to be released in America for a couple of weeks yet.

But, aha, I get to have a McLuhan moment. I have a copy! Richard Dawkins’ publisher sent it to me, and it arrived just this afternoon, so I can pull it out right here on the spot.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read it all myself. Like I said, it just arrived today, and I’ve been bogged down in grant writing all day. And then, when I took some time over lunch to savor it, I got distracted — man, this is a gorgeous book. I just leafed through it, savoring the illustrations and dipping now and then into the text. It’s really lovely and going through it is an esthetic experience (oh, are atheists allowed to have those? I think so.)

But fortunately, the reviewer didn’t dig very deeply either. The source of his accusation is in the very first chapter, on page 19, and it’s all so well laid out it was rather easy to almost intuitively flip to the right page and find where Dawkins called love and jealousy “illusory”. Oh, wait…he didn’t.

Does this mean reality only contains things that can be detected, directly or indirectly, by our senses and by the methods of science? What about things like jealousy and joy? Are these not also real?

Yes, they are real . But they depend for their existence on brains: human brains, certainly, and probably the brains of other advanced animal species, such as chimpanzees, dogs, and whales, too.

OK, I put the emphasis in there myself, because obviously religious apologists need all the help they can get. A simple four word declarative sentence isn’t plain enough for them, I guess. I also added the bright red arrows. I’m afraid they’d miss it otherwise. Propriety forbade me from using the blink tag. Should I have put in a 72pt font?

It’s amazing, though. The reviewer practically quotes Dawkins on love and jealousy, and then suggests an interpretation that is directly contradicted by a short plain English sentence in the next paragraph.

The Fox Effect

What a curious phenomenon: this is a video of the notorious Fox Effect, in which an actor pretended to be an expert and babbled fluff and nonsense at an audience of psychiatrists, and they sat and swallowed it and came away with an impression that the speaker was competent. I knew the content was going to be garbage, but I have to wonder if my prior knowledge colored my perception, because listening to it now, it all sounded immensely vacuous — I kept trying to catch a cogent or useful point, and he never delivered any.

I wonder if this could be pulled off in front of an audience that deals with more concrete data than psychiatrists — could an actor speak in the language of gels and in situs and sequences and fool an audience of molecular biologists? I don’t think so; it’s too specialized and specific. But I could be wrong, somebody ought to test it.

The video makes a point that this effect could be important in teaching — it strongly affects student evaluations. All you have to do is go to the “Rate My Professor” site and discover that one of the categories for evaluation there is whether the professor is “hot” — and, dammit, I think I’ve failed on that parameter for my entire life (I haven’t actually looked, though: I shudder at the prospect of seeing those weird reviews full of disgruntled students who didn’t pass one of my courses).

(Also on Sb)