A somewhat baffling result: atheists are like aspies, but not?

I’m really confused by this psychology study — the problem is that I’m getting it second-hand, and the source is a poster at a meeting. It’s interesting, but I want to know more.

Bethany T. Heywood, a graduate student at Queens University Belfast, asked 27 people with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild type of autism that involves impaired social cognition, about significant events in their lives. Working with experimental psychologist Jesse M. Bering (author of the “Bering in Mind” blog and a frequent contributor to Scientific American MIND), she asked them to speculate about why these important events happened–for instance, why they had gone through an illness or why they met a significant other. As compared with 34 neurotypical people, those with Asperger’s syndrome were significantly less likely to invoke a teleological response–for example, saying the event was meant to unfold in a particular way or explaining that God had a hand in it. They were more likely to invoke a natural cause (such as blaming an illness on a virus they thought they were exposed to) or to give a descriptive response, explaining the event again in a different way.

I’m liking the aspies here — they sound so much more rational than the neurotypical people, who invent magical explanations. But then an additional experiment with a twist comes along:

In a second experiment, Heywood and Bering compared 27 people with Asperger’s with 34 neurotypical people who are atheists. The atheists, as expected, often invoked anti-teleological responses such as “there is no reason why; things just happen.” The people with Asperger’s were significantly less likely to offer such anti-teleological explanations than the atheists, indicating they were not engaged in teleological thinking at all. (The atheists, in contrast, revealed themselves to be reasoning teleologically, but then they rejected those thoughts.)

I’m liking the atheists, too, and I’m not at all unhappy with being compared to people with Asperger’s. What I’m mystified by, though, is how they classified non-teleological vs. anti-teleological statements, and how they came to the conclusion that atheists are reasoning teleologically, since that doesn’t really follow from the description above. When I’m dealing with those neurotypical religiots, I am aware that they will ascribe divine planning to events…so it’s not necessarily that I am thinking teleologically, but that I’m aware that I need to short-circuit a logical leap they routinely make.

Oh, if you’re put off by the comparison of atheism with Asperger’s, don’t be: aspies aren’t that bad, are often difficult to detect, and besides, the article compares religious thinking to schizophrenia.

Anyway, one of the authors of the work has a blog, maybe there will be some clarification there sometime.

No, not the Jains!

A curious phenomenon has struck me a few times: in response to my criticisms of religion, someone will bring up the Jains. It’s a peaceful religion, they’ll say, that promotes kindness to all living beings, therefore my arguments are all invalid. Even more strangely, every time this happens, my interlocutor is not a Jain, which always leaves me wondering why, if this faith is so wonderful, they haven’t converted. Besides, my main gripe with religion isn’t that it makes people evil (the overwhelming majority of believers, whether Christian, Muslim, or whatever, are peaceable, cooperative, normal human beings), but that it’s a petrified clown turd of foolishness that convinces people that it’s OK to be a credulous git.

And Jainism is no exception.

Prahlad Jani, the Indian fakir who claims to live on nothing but air and sunshine, is a transparent fraud with gullible friends in a high places. Indian skeptics have found obvious flaws in the ‘testing’ that has been going on.

While the test was running, I exposed some of those loopholes in a live programme on India TV: an official video clip revealed that Jani would sometimes move out of the CCTV camera’s field of view; he was allowed to receive devotees and could even leave the sealed test room for a sun bath; his regular gargling and bathing activities were not sufficiently monitored and so on. I demanded an opportunity to check the test set-up with an independent team of rationalist experts. There was no immediate reaction from Ahmadabad. But a sudden call from Sterling hospital invited me – live on TV – to join the test the next day itself.

Early morning, ready to fly to Gujarat, we were informed that we had to wait for the permission of the “top boss” of the project. Needless to say: this permission never came.

Similarly, we were unable to attend Shah’s first Jani test in November 2003 (that was financed by Dipas too). Shah has a long record of conducting these studies, which up till now have never been discussed in any scientific journal. They merely try to prove his strange sunshine theory: that humans can stop eating and drinking and switch to “other energy sources, sunlight being one”. Prahlad Jani is not Shah’s first poster child. In 2000/2001, he tested one Hira Manek for more than a year and confirmed his claim that he was feeding on sunshine only (and sometimes a little water). The idea that Shah’s research was investigated by Nasa and the University of Pennsylvania was officially denied by both the misrepresented parties.

So…he’s a complete phony, and the fellow running the tests, Dr Sudhir Shah is either incompetent or a conspirator. Guess what Shah’s religion is?

Shah is a deeply religious Jain. As the president of the Indian Jain Doctors’ Federation (JDF), he proposes that via research, the still imperfect science of medicine is to be brought in line with the Jainist ‘”super-science” as revealed by the omniscient Lord Mahavir. We can only wonder whether his researcher eyes are sometimes clouded by religious zeal. Interestingly, many members of his team are Jains and his partner in the Manek test was a former president of JDF too.

I’m sure they’re very nice people who wouldn’t harm a mouse, but they’re kooks, plain and simple.

But…but…everyone knows The Bird is The Word!

What did America do to deserve this? Nancy Pelosi exposed her vacuous brain at a conference.

At a May 6 Catholic Community Conference in Washington DC, Speaker Pelosi openly touted Jesus Christ, “The Word Made Flesh”, as the inspiration for her public policies. CNS News reports a couple of her more powerful statements:

“And that Word,” Pelosi said, “is, we have to give voice to what that means in terms of public policy that would be in keeping with the values of the Word. The Word. Isn’t it a beautiful word when you think of it? It just covers everything. The Word.”

“Fill it in with anything you want. But, of course, we know it means: ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.’ And that’s the great mystery of our faith. He will come again. He will come again.”

I swear, there has got to be some kind of natural law that makes sure airheads float to the top, because I don’t understand how leaders on both sides of the aisle in congress can end up being such dimbulbs.

Yeesh. It was captured on video. It’s so sad to see the consequences of lobotomies.

Tony Perkins weeps for benighted chaplains

Tony Perkins, president of the Patriarchy Research Council (wait — they don’t do any kind or research, so maybe Patriarchy Propaganda Council would be better) is very upset that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the US military might be repealed. This would cause terrible suffering for military chaplains, compromising their liberty to be bigots.

This means that all 1.4 million members of the U.S. military will be subject to sensitivity training intended to indoctrinate them into the myths of the homosexual movement: that people are born “gay” and cannot change and that homosexual conduct does no harm to the individual or to society.

Anyone who points to the mountain of evidence to the contrary – or merely expresses the personal conviction that sex should be reserved for marriage between one man and one woman – runs the risk of receiving a negative performance evaluation for failing to support the military’s “equal opportunity policy” regarding “sexual orientation.”

Oh, I believe you can change how people behave sexually, and this policy change won’t change that at all. Of course, forcing people to act sexually in ways which bring them no joy is also a great way to cause deep misery. I just look at all the tightly puckered smarmy jiveweasels inhabiting right wing Christian think-tanks, for instance, and see a horde of frustrated, tightly-wound self-flagellators — it’s no wonder they so look forward to an afterlife in their death-cult, because this one is giving them nothing but priggishness.

For no other offense than believing what all the great monotheistic religions have believed for all of history, some service members will be denied promotion, will be forced out of the service altogether, or will simply choose not to reenlist. Other citizens will choose not to join the military in the first place. The numbers lost will dwarf the numbers gained by opening the ranks to practicing homosexuals.

Those “great” monotheistic religions also teach that women are inferior, that slavery is a respectable institution, that to kill and be killed for your god is a virtue, that homosexuals are to be stoned to death. Don’t try to tell me that because a centuries-old book of tribalism and superstition says something is so, it deserves respect. It does not. It has earned contempt and dissent.

These same kinds of bigoted remarks were made when the executive order to integrate blacks and whites in the military was made, which wasn’t actually that long ago…before 1948, military units were segregated.

Many white Americans (especially Southerners) responded with visceral revulsion to the idea of close physical contact with blacks. Many also perceived racial integration as a profound affront to their sense of social order. Blacks, for their part, often harbored deep mistrust of whites and great sensitivity to any language or actions that might be construed as racial discrimination

So his holy book and ignorant superstitions are not cause to continue a policy of discrimination, we have a history of similar arguments being made and being proven wrong…what about his claim that this change in policy will drive out good god-fearin’ gay-hatin’ soldiers and chaplains?

Screw them. Let ’em go. We’re better off without those fundagelical frauds in the military anyway. And just think how much this will hurt their efforts to infiltrate and take over our military forces!

And in case you’re feeling some pity for good ol’ boys with a hatred for gays who’ll be forced to change their professions and leave a military career because they feel so deeply that the faggots need to be caged, don’t. Martyrdom is a very Christian ideal.

Of course, they only like the pseudo-martyrdom of being compelled to tolerate others. Voluntarily quitting a career isn’t quite a sacrifice on the scale that Matthew Shepard made, or comparable to the kind of persecution they’ve been perpetrating on gay citizens for a long, long time.

Oh, here’s a site that promotes discrimination against gays. Take a look at this lovely argument:

We Must Protect Our Military

Our military exists to fight and win wars, not engage in radical social engineering. Forcing soldiers to cohabit with people who view them as sexual objects would inevitably lead to increased sexual tension, sexual harassment, and even sexual assault.

Hey, that sounds familiar — isn’t that the same claim Muslims use for swaddling women up to protect them from the uncontrollable lusts of men? I guess the US is in big trouble — our soldiers are so weak and undisciplined that they’ll simply lapse into gay orgies if ordered to exercise tolerance.

Even smart professional people are victimized by anti-vaxers’ lies

A pediatrics resident wrote an excellent op-ed on vaccination in the LA Times. LA has seen its first outbreak of measles in four years there, and it’s something to worry about.

A study published in the April issue of Pediatrics examined a 2008 measles outbreak in San Diego. The index case was a 7-year-old unvaccinated child who was exposed to the virus while abroad. This case resulted in 839 exposed persons, 11 actual cases (all in unvaccinated children) and the hospitalization of an infant too young to be vaccinated. In total, the outbreak cost the public more than $175,000, which would have covered the costs of measles vaccinations for almost 180,000 children.

You skip out on giving your kids a cheap, easy, routine shot, and this is what you can do: harm hundreds. Measles is also the kind of disease people can die of, too, so there’s an even greater risk than making a lot of people miserable.

But this next bit was the most compelling part of the story. How can smart people be so stupid?

And yet, many parents continue not to vaccinate their children. I see such children frequently. Last fall, when I entered an examination room, a 5-year-old patient loudly yelled “Get out!” Her mother apologized, then explained. “Sorry, she’s never gotten S-H-O-T-S before.”

Confused, I looked down at the chart to confirm that the patient was in for H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines. Seeing that she was, I seized the opportunity to offer her catch-up vaccines as well, but her mother declined. She explained matter-of-factly that it was because the flu was “going around” whereas the other vaccine-preventable diseases, she said, were no longer a threat.

She went on to tell me that she was a lawyer who had grown up in a country where measles is still endemic. Since moving to the U.S., she had never known anyone to suffer from measles, but she did know several children who had autism. So, while she understood that vaccinations had not been definitively shown to cause autism, she felt that, here in America, the risk of autism was a bigger threat than that of vaccine-preventable diseases.

No longer a threat? That’s awfully short-sighted. This clever lawyer moved to this country from a place where the disease was endemic…does she think there is a super-duper barrier around America now so no more people and diseases can move here from her native country? And there is no risk of autism from vaccinations that has ever been demonstrated.

I suppose I could make a few jokes about selfish lawyers here, but since there are lawyers reading the blog, I’ll wait until they leave the room. Ask me later, kids. Or invent your own!

The Discovery Institute is desperately patching Meyer’s mind-numbing magnum opus

As you’ve probably heard, Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute published a book last year calle Signature in the Cell. It stunk, it got virtually no reviews from the scientific community, although it was avidly sucked up by the fans of Intelligent Design creationism. One curious thing about the book is that it has sunk out of sight already, which is a bit peculiar and a bit disappointing for an explanation that was promised to revitalize ID.

Remember Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box? I’ll give Behe credit, that one was well-marketed and got the brief attention of many scientists, who read it bogglingly, recognizing quickly that it was poor fare written by someone with no idea of what was going on in evolutionary biology and genetics. But at least it was quick and punchy, and had some great PR slogans that still get thrown around — ‘irreducible complexity’, anyone?

Meyer’s book had none of that. It’s a bloated paperweight, full of self-indulgent preening by Meyer, and without a single novel idea in it — it’s simply the most unmemorable, uninteresting pile of schlock the DI has turned out yet.

And I think the DI knew it. As mentioned before, the marketing was awful — they worked hard to keep it out of the hands of scientists who might review it ahead of time, which was an awful mistake. Even if we were pretty much guaranteed to trash it, it would be publicity — look again at Darwin’s Black Box. If there was even a hint of controversy in the text, the best move would have been to fan it. But no…it is the most boringly tedious mess, and the only stories they got were scientists rolling their eyes in boredom.

Recently, reviews have trickled in…all negative. So what does the Discovery Institute do? Would you believe they have published a whole book titled Signature Of Controversy: Responses to Critics of Signature in the Cell? It’s only 105 pages long, so it’s a more digestible read than Meyer’s book, and it’s also a free download.

It’s impressive. It’s a bad idea to spend too much time responding to criticisms, but the staff at the DI have been so peevish that they’ve written an entire book in an angry tone (hah! Tone!) in ineffectual reply. Here’s an example of their cranky wit, from an introduction in which they classify their critics as either “distinguished scientists who haven’t read the book” or “pygmies who populate the furious, often obscene Darwinist blogs”.

For example, Jerry Coyne is a University of Chicago biologist who lately seems to spend most of his time blogging. Yet he clearly belongs among the ranks of the more distinguished writers who bashed Meyer’s book without reading it or reading about it. On the other hand, such an individual as blogger Jeffrey Shallit, mathematician at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada–not to be confused with the University of Wallamaloo of Monty Python fame–may object to being classed as a pygmy. Oh well. Sorry.

That’s fairly typical of how they handle their critics: if they’re a big name in the field, claim that they’ve never read the book; if they’re less well known, point out that they aren’t associated with the big name universities like the University of Chicago or Harvard. I even get this treatment in their brief section on me, who gets both barrels of their dual strategy:

All the people who hate Meyer’s book appear not to have read it. So too we have the complaint of Darwinian-atheist agitator P. Z. Myers, a popular blogger and biologist. Myers explains that he was unable to read the book, which he slimes as a “stinker” and as “drivel,” due to his not having received a promised free review copy! But rest assured. The check is in the mail: “I suppose I’ll have to read that 600 page pile of slop sometime… maybe in January.”

Dr. Myers teaches at the Morris, Minnesota, satellite campus of the University of Minnesota, a college well known as the Harvard of Morris, Minnesota. So you know when he evaluates a book and calls it “slop,” a book on which he has not laid on eye, that’s a view that carries weight.

In all seriousness, what is this with people having any opinion at all of a book that, allow me to repeat, they haven’t read and of which, as with Jerry Coyne, they admit they haven’t so much as read a review?

It’s true that I hadn’t read the book when I wrote that, and it’s also true that they had pre-empted many of their potential critics by promising a review copy and never delivering. They still haven’t sent the promised copy, but I did buy one — used, for cheap — and actually did read it last January. I’d also seen the reviews and found the absence of any substantive content in the descriptions telling. Since reading it, which was a genuinely agonizing experience since Meyer is such a pretentious writer who goes on and on at painful length about nothing at all, I have to tell you that my summary was spot-on.

I haven’t posted a review because, honestly, it’s a book guaranteed to inspire nothing but ennui. There isn’t one solid nugget of substance or even sharply defined ideas, no matter how wrong, in the entire pile of sludge. I can, however, pull up a summary from near the end of the book, in Meyer’s own words. This is the logical edifice on which his story is based. See if you can spot the flaws.

  • Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

  • Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

  • Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for information in the cell.

You’ll notice the key phrase in there is “specified information”. I looked through the whole book for a definition. There is none. Well, that’s not quite true: I did find this sentence:

The term specified complexity is, therefore, a synonym for specified information or information content.

Whoa. One vague tautology is all he’s got to back that up. Notice how revealing that is about his first point above: his entire book peddles this idea that no one has demonstrated a natural mechanism for producing specified information. But of course, any one with any competence in this subject can tell you all kinds of ways a genome can produce increases in information, the kind that has a few mathematical definitions and is measurable, so Meyer tosses in that magic modifier, specified, to throw away a big chunk of the literature that troublingly contradicts him.

If it helps to grasp the rhetorical game he’s playing, just substitute the word “magic” for “specified”. It’s perfectly equivalent.

  • Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of magic information.

  • Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of magic information.

  • Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for information in the cell.


In those terms, his first point is correct but uninteresting. Material causes do not produce magic information, but so what? They do produce mundane information, and that’s all we need to describe a cell. Meyer also fails to demonstrate that cells contain any magic information in the first place.

Now, though, it also ruins his second point. I would cheerfully concede that intelligent processes can change the information content in a cell, and would have agreed with him on one third of his syllogism…but, unfortunately, I know of no way to produce magic information, since Meyer hasn’t bothered to define it.

And his final point is both nonsense and dishonest. Note that he has left the specified magic qualifier off the word information this time; it’s a cheap sleight of hand. Even so, though, to accept his conclusion requires accepting a false premise, that natural process have not been demonstrated to produce new information, and therefore we have to accept his claim that ID is the best explanation around.

Really, that’s all there is, that’s the core of that 600 page behemoth of noise. It is most unpersuasive. Perhaps that’s why they’ve had to produce a lengthy, carping criticism of their critics.

But don’t let me give you the wrong impression: they only mentioned me in a few paragraphs, and you’ve just seen everything they had to say about me. The bulk of the book is dedicated to a few people who have made some telling criticisms: Francisco Ayala, Darrel Falk, Jeffrey Shallit, and Steve Matheson (I must also mention AG Hunt, who also has some great critiques…but got ignored by the DI). In particular, I recommend Shallit as someone who actually knows information theory well and does a fine job describing how Meyer butchers it; I also have to recommend Matheson’s amazingly thorough chapter-by-chapter dissection of the book. If anything should be published, it’s those blog entries, which neatly expose the dishonesty and ignorance that permeates every page of Meyer’s hackwork. I don’t know how he did it, because Signature in the Cell was exasperatingly boring to me, and after reading it twice I never want anything more to do with it ever again. Maybe Matheson has discovered one virtue to religion (he’s a Calvinist biologist, by the way): it teaches one how to pore over meaningless, badly written texts without lapsing into a coma.