Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: memes (page 2 of 3)

Why abstinence doesn’t work

We already knew that abstinence doesn’t work, and virginity pledges are particularly ineffective. There’s a new study that bears out this result, but it highlights a new problem: kids who take virginity pledges are even less likely to use birth control and condoms. So abstinence education is not just useless, it’s worse than useless.

Why might this be? One idea going around:

Virginity pledgers may be less likely to use condoms and contraception because many abstinence programs cause participants to develop negative attitudes about their effectiveness.

Maybe program leaders are saying this, but I don’t think we need to resort to this idea to explain what’s going on. My experience as a horny teen in the Mormon Church has provided me with a hypothesis.

When you do something wrong, you need to pray for forgiveness from your sin, right? And Mormons regard sexual sin as particularly grievous. Consider:

• Mormons think that doing the horizontal mambo with anyone other than your husband or wife (or wives) is the worst thing you can do, second only to “the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost“.

Oh, wait. I knew there was something I forgot to do today.

I deny the Holy Ghost.

That’s better.

• An LDS General Authority (can’t find which one — someone help me here) told a story of his father seeing him off at the train station for a mission, and telling him that he’d rather the boy come back in a coffin than having had sex. And get this — my own father told me that story approvingly when I went off to BYU. He’d have preferred me dead than to have made a mistake. Then again, maybe I could have come home at the end of the year on a Greyhound Bus — alive — but in an actual coffin. It’d be a fun way to break the news.

But seriously, folks: this is a fact worth repeating. As with all authoritarian movements, Mormons hate sex. No, they don’t. They are willing to put up with sex, as long as it makes more little Mormons. Let’s just say that Mormons love sex, but they don’t like anyone else having any. Which makes perfect evolutionary sense. If you have sex, but repress everyone else from having any, there’s less competition for your genes.

Anyway, the main point here: Mormons regard unhallowed bonking as Very Serious. It involves prayer and contrition, as well as confession to The Bishop, which is very embarrassing because he’s just another guy in the community.

So Mormon youth, when faced with temptation, are unlikely to buy condoms or use birth control. That’s premeditated! That’s like planning to sin! How are you going to be forgiven from a sin you’ve been planning to do? What they do, since they’re Good Kids, is try to Be Good and abstain. But hormones being what they are, it frequently fails, and then you get pregnant teenagers.

(I don’t know if this line of thinking holds outside of Mormondom, but I bet it does. Non-Mormons: does this match your experience?)

The take-away here is that having stupid starting assumptions (a god wants you to abstain) leads to unwanted outcomes (riskier sex than normal). A better starting assumption would be: some kids are going to do it, and you can’t watch your kids 24 hours a day. Parents can encourage them to have sexual relations responsibly, if they must. Better to be immoral than to be immoral and pregnant.

Zombie meme alert: the Great Microsoft Email Hoax (yes, again)

Some memes just won’t die.

I’ve just been emailed my 1,000th iteration of the Microsoft email hoax. You know the one.

Microsoft and AOL are now the largest Internet companies
and in an effort to make sure that Internet Explorer remains the
most widely used program, Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test.
When you forward this e-mail to friends, Microsoft can and will track it (If you
are a Microsoft Windows user) For a two weeks time period.
For every person that you forward this e-mail to, Microsoft will pay you $245.00
for every person that you sent it to that forwards it on,
Microsoft will pay you $243.00 and for every third person that receives
it, You will be paid $241.00.

I used to be nice about this kind of thing, emailing just the sender privately, not wanting to embarrass them, explaining how to Google for scams, hoping — just hoping — that people would learn how to exercise a bit of caution and critical thinking so as not to waste everyone’s time. And do they learn? They do not. I think this might be the third time with this very same email from the very same person.

So now I’m a jerk about it. I replied to all, and sent this link, which you might want to try on your addled n00b loved ones.

Anyway, this meme has been around a while, and so more people are aware of it. That means that it has to evolve some pretty tricky defenses if people are going to propagate it. Here they are, all from the same email.

1. The veneer of authority.

I’m an attorney, And I know the law. This thing is for real.

2. A bit of phony skepticism.

Thought this was a scam myself, But two weeks after receiving this e-mail and
for warding it on. Microsoft contacted me for my address and within days, I
received a check for $24, 800.00 .

3. Testimonials! They get us every time.

My brother’s girlfriend got in on this a few months ago.
When I went to visit him for the Baylor/UTgame, she showed me her check.
It was for the sum of $4, 324.44 and was stamped “Paid In Full’.

But for me, the most interesting thing was the addenda from the most recent senders of the message. They show the thought processes of what finally tipped the balance to convince them to hit ‘send’. Here they are.

Hey, we all need a little extra money, might as well try it out and see if we all gain a bit$$$$… he he.. It would be a nice Christmas present…. hugs…
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Hummmm, not to sure about this one but I thought I’d just see what happens within the next two weeks….
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
What do we have to lose by trying – Right?
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
What have you got to lose other than time by sending the email on.

The way I see it, these memes thrive under three circumstances:

1. The potential benefit of perpetuating the meme is high
2. The potential risk from the consequences of perpetuating the meme is low
3. The cost or effort of actually sending on the meme is low

All three of these conditions are present in the Microsoft email hoax. Notice that the amounts of money offered are moderate, but the low payoff is offset by the ease of forwarding the message. If you had to send $1,000 cash to participate, the meme would have a harder time propagating. It would have to offer higher returns to compensate (as is the case with MLM scams). Similarly, if there was some risk attached (perhaps arrest for sending chain emails), people might think twice.

As it is, people shrug and send it on. Critical thinking faculties are put safely back to sleep and the meme continues once again across the world.

Terrorism has no religion?

Here’s a meme to watch, and it’s been popping up pretty frequently lately: “Terrorism has no religion.” People mean different things by it, so let’s scan some news stories.

Meaning one: People in religions should not be persecuted for the actions of their most violent minorities.

This article is from 2002, and the quote is from Iqbal Sacranie, Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, talking about 9/11.

For me and many of my colleagues in the MCB, there is no such thing as family life any more; we are under so much pressure. It cannot be right that an entire civilisation is tarnished because of the actions of a few. Terrorism has no religion. We must not fall into the trap of responding with anger and hate. Our emphasis should be on justice, not vengeance.

Okay, scapegoating sucks. And in many of the news stories that contain this phrase, they’re trying to tamp down religiously-motivated violence between Hindus and Muslims. A real nightmare scenario. I get that.

But here’s the other reading, and it’s this one I object to:

Meaning two: Extremists are not members of any religion.

Senior Congress leader B. Janardhan Poojary has said the terrorism has no religion and this has been revealed in the arrests of alleged Hindu extremists in connection with the Malegaon blast case.

Mr. Poojary condemned the Malegaon blasts by the Hindu community and said the “People who commit acts of aggression in the name of Hinduism are not Hindus. People who take to violence in the name of Islam are not Muslim.”

Does he mean they’re not good Hindus or Muslims? No, he’s saying they’re simply not Hindus or Muslims at all, which is untrue.

About one instant before 5 guys stopped being Muslims, protecting Islam from criticism.

Here’s another recent article on the same theme.

Bollywood star Aamir Khan wrote on his blog on Friday that politicians may try to use the Mumbai terror attack to their own advantage and stressed that terrorists have no religion.

“I dread to think of how various political parties are now going to try and use this tragedy to further their political careers. At least now they should learn to not divide people and instead become responsible leaders,” wrote Aamir on his blog.

“When will these politicians realise and admit that terrorists have no religion. Terrorists are not Hindu or Muslim or Christian. They are not people of religion or god. They are people who have gone totally sick in their head and have to be dealt with in that manner,” he added.

Does he mean that terrorism is not confined to one religion? No, he’s saying that a religious person in the midst of committing a terrorist act ceases to be a member of that religion.

This seems like an attempt to shield religions from criticism by performing ad hoc disavowals of anyone who commits a terrorist act. But this is irresponsible. You can’t raise someone in a faith, tell them the doctrines are literally true and must be obeyed, tell them that they must always be true to their faith, teach that they must sacrifice for the cause, and then cut them loose when they sacrifice their lives in a mistaken effort to promote their religious ends. Religions are responsible for the consequences of their doctrines.

I wish people in religions could honestly confront the possibility that they enable terrorism by promoting unquestioning faith as a virtue and holding out the hope of an eternal future of happiness if followers obey the commands of a god. But I suppose that’s too much to ask.

Meme war: religion and family

Memeplexes are groups of memes (or ideas). They do the same kinds of things that organisms do: they survive when people believe them, they reproduce when people spread them around, and they die when people stop believing them. Religions are memeplexes (though there are others), and we can learn a lot about them when we examine the memes (sort of like genes) that help them survive.

One good strategy for a successful memeplex would be to have some way to fight off rival memeplexes — an immune system, if you will. A religion that has a ‘we’re the only true church’ meme is using this kind of strategy. But the struggle isn’t just between rival religions. Another formidable rival memeplex is family. To pass on their genes, people spend lots of time and energy raising families; time that won’t go to supporting and propagating the religion memeplex. Accordingly, many religions have evolved memes that serve to reduce the influence of family.

Here’s one from that peaceful fellow Jesus:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

In other words, if you have to choose between supporting the religion memeplex and the family memeplex, the religion says (surprise!) choose the religion memeplex. Well, it wouldn’t be a very robust memeplex if it didn’t assert its superiority. People who draw a distinction between cults and religions say that cults attempt to isolate the believer from family. This meme is a rather primitive attempt, probably a holdover from when Christianity was a Jewish ‘cult’. The memeplex has gotten more sophisticated now; this meme’s something of an embarrassment.

Another strategy: Religions can set themselves up as substitute families. In the LDS Church, it’s not uncommon to hear people speak about the ‘ward family’. Many religions borrow kinship terms, such as calling a priest ‘father’, or (going LDS again) calling fellow congregants ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister So-and-So’. In my mission field, elders would sometimes jokingly refer to their first companion and trainer as their ‘dad’.

But if religions are trying to subvert the family, how do we explain the rise of ‘family-friendly’ religions, like the Mormons, who elevate the family to primary importance, seemingly at the expense of the religion memeplex?

Well, outright suppression is only one way to compete. Another is to be a parasite, and feed off the energy of the host. By attaching itself inextricably to family rituals like birth, death, and marriage, the religions effectively run off the power of the family. If the two are sufficiently tightly connected, it becomes difficult to imagine having a ‘proper family’ without the religion. With all the rituals under its purview, as well as, say, Christian parenting tips, religion harnesses the power of family, and uses it for its own ends. And so now we see religion trying to claim the family for themselves, with names like ‘Focus on the Family’ or ‘Family First’.

This explains why religions resist any attempts to redefine rituals that (they imagine) belong to them: placing ‘marriage’ or ‘family’ outside of their control separates this parasite from its host. It also explains why religions that already carry anti-gay memes need to oppose gay marriage. It would sanction marriages the church doesn’t approve of, driving a wedge between the religious memeplex and its source of power.

Note also that you can’t get a sensible answer out of a religious believer when you ask why they oppose gay marriage. They quickly dwindle down to twaddle about ‘definitions’ or ‘slippery slopes’, and they can never ever say how exactly this will be bad for ‘the family’. They’ve likely never considered the issue from a memetic perspective, and so they only have shadowy feelings that this must be bad for the religion somehow. And they’re right about that.

How things look from Wingnuttia

I’m a liberal, so I try to see things from the other guy’s perspective. (I know, it’s probably not fixable. Useful anyway.) But even I’m having trouble digging down to the mindset that would enable a rational human to think the things they’re thinking in Rightistan these days.

They think Sarah’s tops.

They really don’t think she was a drag on the ticket at all.

Sixty-nine percent (69%) of Republican voters say Alaska Governor Sarah Palin helped John McCain’s bid for the presidency, even as news reports surface that some McCain staffers think she was a liability.

Only 20% of GOP voters say Palin hurt the party’s ticket, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Six percent (6%) say she had no impact, and five percent (5%) are undecided.

Lots of chatter about Palin running in 2012, too. Man, I hope that works out for her. She’d be popular with the know-nothing Christian base, and precisely no one else. It could be the opportunity to extinguish the Republican Party for good.

Republicans lost because they weren’t conservative enough.

Please, let this meme take.

Moderates to blame for GOP losses, conservative leader says

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council told CNN that conservatives need to take back control of the GOP if the party is to return to its winning ways.

Normally as a campaign goes on, you need to play to the center to attract the moderate voters. The 2004 elections were a bit anomalous, in my view. It was the one time when playing to the base was more successful than playing to the center, probably because the uncertainty of the Iraq war kept enough voters holding to the status quo. McCain’s campaign team apparently thought this was going to be a pattern, but no. People like Perkins either don’t realise this, or they’re just trying to grab some power within their party. It’s not a good long-term strategy.

The gay marriage issue is a winner

Given the success of Prop 8, I can see where this is coming from:

GOP leader: Rebuild party based on ‘sanctity of marriage’

When asked by Chris Wallace what “conservative solutions” the GOP would bring to their current minority-party status, Pence said social issues like “the sanctity of marriage” will remain the backbone of the Republican platform.

“You build those conservative solutions, Chris, on the same time-honored principles of limited government, a belief in free markets, in the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage,” Pence said.

The Indiana representative cited the ballot measures against gay marriage that passed on Election Day as evidence of the continuing presence of conservative values.

Okay, short-term I can understand this. Long-term, it’s got no future. It will look worse and worse as younger voters with more liberal social values come down the pike. Obama’s win in the election happened in spite of the GOP throwing up all this culture war stuff. That kind of stuff is so 90’s. (Or else the economy took precedence, and the culture war b.s. will work again when things improve. I hope the former.)

Evolutionarily, this is an interesting time for right-wing watching. They’re generating memes at a furious rate, and it’ll be interesting to see whose version of the Republican future will win. But these memes are losers. If they settle on them, Democratic leadership will likely continue uninterrupted.

The memes of Real Virginia

Sorry I’ve been away. I’ve been thesis-ing, and when you get into a writing spate, you look around and say, “Oh, it’s Wednesday now.”

I confess I’ve also been following the US election obsessively. There’s just too much to say about it. I have sent back my absentee ballot (registered in Washington), marked for Obama and any other downticket D’s I could find.

It’s been so interesting to watch the slow movement across the Democratic parts of the map. The blue started at Minnesota and Michigan, and since then it’s spread to states I didn’t expect. North Dakota’s in play? North Carolina? Virginia! Did you expect Virginia to go for Obama? Even ‘real Virginia‘.

My favourite political ad this year is this radio ad, that aired in Virginia, where bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley describes Obama as a ‘good man’. I really enjoy Stanley’s phonology — the [t] in ‘the’, the elided [l] in ‘help’, the dropped participial ‘g’, the slower, more deliberate cadence — but what really stands out here is the memes he hits. You can infer a lot about a community by their memes:

  • Nobody’s lookin’ for a handout. They value independence and take pride in standing on their on two feet.
  • Barack’ll cut taxes for everyday folks. The Plainfolks strategy runs right through this ad.
  • Our kids shouldn’t have to leave our communities to find work. The brain drain must be ripping these communities apart.
  • He values personal responsibility and ‘family first’. A dog whistle for Republicans. Not sure I like to see it co-opted by Democrats, but perhaps subverting the meme is the first step to dismantling it.
  • Describing Obama as a ‘true friend of the people’. This really sounds old-style populist. Doesn’t it sound like it should be said from off the back of a train, maybe 100 years ago?

This article from the LA Times was interesting too. (I know it’s old.) It sounds like a lot of folks would like to vote for Obama, but it’s making them confront their inner racist. The article concerns the strategies that Obama supporters are using to convince their friends and neighbours.

When Cecil E. Roberts, president of the coal miners union that shapes politics in much of this mountain region, talks to voters, he tells them that their choice is to have “a black friend in the White House or a white enemy.” When Charlie Cox, an Obama supporter, hears friends fretting about Obama’s race, he reminds them that they pull for the nearby University of Tennessee football team, “and they’re black.”

Union organizer Jerry Stallard asks fellow coal workers what’s more important: improving their work conditions or holding onto their skepticism of Obama’s race, culture or religion. “We’re all black in the mines,” he tells them.

If I had to summarise these memes into one, it might be: Reducing the distance between black and white. You’re closer to black folks than you realise, so it’s okay to vote for one.

If the map is any indication, this is working. has Obama up by eight, and I hope it holds. I’m really encouraged to see the nation sort itself out on this issue. I think this means good things.

Calm down, all of you.

The scripture of the day:

“We’re sensitive to the fluid dynamics of the campaign, but we have a game plan and a strategy,” said Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe. “We’re familiar with this. And I’m sure between now and Nov. 4 there will be another period of hand-wringing and bed-wetting. It comes with the territory.”

Democrats last week were in a panic over Palin, prompting the run on adult diapers that reverberated through the economy, inadvertently destroying Lehman Brothers, fomenting global warming, and hastening the eventual heat death of the universe.

I admit to indulging in a bit of the panic. One night I woke up at 3, worrying that Obama was going to lose this thing. Another night I dreamed that McCain had asked me to be his running mate. There I was thinking, “What am I doing on the Republican ticket?” (It has occurred to me since that I’d be a stronger running mate than Palin. I don’t have any foreign policy experience, but I do have a degree in International Relations.)

We Democrats do this. We fret and fume, and watch helplessly as the worst people in the world control the dialogue and capture everyone’s attention with the dumbest things. And we worry that, yet again, the scumbags will win.

And every time the polls show the race to be closer than we’d like, we get people telling us that there’s something wrong with what we’re doing. It always seems to be about… the good people. Yes, those simple humble folk who bow their heads and pray around the dinner table every night (with no fancy lettuce, mind you). They’re founts of wisdom, these common decent souls, issuing simple homilies as they hook their thumbs into their armpits and rock back and forth. And we Democrats abuse them mercilessly as we look down our urban noses at their pious ways. We’re losing… (wait for it!)… people of faith.

Here’s a prognosticator now. Scott Atran.

I’m an atheist liberal academic who strongly leans Democrat. But I’m stunned at how blind so many of my colleagues and soul mates are to the historical underpinnings of American political culture and the genuine appeal of religious conservatism for so many of our fellow citizens.

Among many Republican conservatives, one factor strongly correlates with patriotism and national security, is of even more overriding concern in daily life, and stands inseparable from love of country. Religion.

Well, it’s one thing to understand the appeal religion has for people, and quite another to be infected with it yourself. I only wish Democrats were more immune to it — they’re nowhere near as secular as Atran is suggesting.

Or this article from Jonathan Haidt. I’ve linked to him before.

When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label “elitist.” But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?

Now, how is this view different from the “Democrats need to learn some respect” meme seen here? Only in tone, not in substance. If we don’t tell the believers (you know, the ones who are trying to block certain kinds of marriage and birth control) that their views are perfectly valid and very nice, they’ll never vote with us.

As though they ever would. When did Republicans ever concede any ground to us? Now that they’re down in the popularity polls, are they abandoning parts of their social agenda? No-sirree! Are the radio hate jocks acting more conciliatory? With rare exceptions, no. Do we hear Republicans saying that they need to reach out to secular Americans and try to understand us? No, they still think we’re vermin, and they wonder whether we can have any sense of morality at all.

But that could be the point. The antagonistic approach (surprise!) doesn’t win friends. So the question Haidt, Atran, and other concern trolls pose is: Do you want to win elections or don’t you? It’s all very well for you to be right, but do you want to be president?

Well, I understand the concern. I’ve seen the disaster that political and religious fundamentalists have wrought and I’m not anxious for more. But I am not certain that it is worth winning elections at any cost, if part of that cost is abandoning rationality and sinking into the mire of fuzzy-headed spiritism. That’s an approach that’s guaranteed to make the problems we face worse, not better.

And suggesting that Democrats need to mend their ways is silly. How do conservatives magically know what individual Democrats think? How do they know your individual views? Have they asked you? Or are we just being stereotyped — again? I think the latter, and if you feel like modifying your behaviour so others won’t stereotype you, frankly you need to grow a set. If we all changed our ways tomorrow and acted like Atran, Haidt, et al wanted, how long would it take hardcore conservative fundamentalists to even notice? They haven’t yet noticed that Bush is an incompetent liar and they still think Iraq was a fine idea. The reality lag for these people is measured in geological time.

So don’t wait for them. Have your facts straight, pick your battles, and tell people (politely but firmly) when they’re wrong on factual matters. Realise that it may not be possible to be ‘right’ on moral matters — they often won’t be good at realising this — so you may need to state your values clearly, and stay open to change.

Sam Harris’s response to Haidt is my favourite:

How should we live? Is it wrong to lie? If so, why and in what sense? Which personal habits, uses of attention, modes of discourse, social institutions, economic systems, governments, etc. are most conducive to human well-being? It is widely imagined that science cannot even pose, much less answer, questions of this sort.

Jonathan Haidt appears to exult in this pessimism. He doubts that anyone can justifiably make strong, realistic claims about right and wrong, or good and evil, because he has observed that human beings tend to make moral judgments on the basis of emotion, justify these judgments with post hoc reasoning, and stick to their guns even when their post hoc reasoning demonstrably fails…. This reliable failure of human reasoning is just that—a failure of reasoning.

Haidt often writes, however, as if there were no such thing as moral high ground. At the very least, he seems to believe that science will never be able to judge higher from lower. He admonishes us to get it into our thick heads that many of our neighbors “honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats.” Yes, and many of them honestly prefer the Republican vision of cosmology, wherein it is still permissible to believe that the big bang occurred less than ten thousand years ago. These same people tend to prefer Republican doubts about biological evolution and climate change. There are names for this type of “preference,” one of the more polite being “ignorance.” What scientific purpose is served by avoiding this word at all costs?

And second is Roger Schank.

It is all very nice to come up with complex analyses of what is going on. As is often the case, the real answer is quite simple. Most people can’t think very well. They were taught not to think by religion and by a school system that teaches that knowledge of state capitals and quadratic equations is what education is all about and that well reasoned argument and original ideas will not help on a multiple choice test.

We don’t try to get the average child to think in this society so why, as adults would we expect that they actually would be thinking? They think about how the Yankees are doing, and who will win some reality show contest, and what restaurant to eat it, but they are not equipped to think about politics and, in my mind, they are not equipped to vote. The fact that we let them vote while failing to encourage them to think for themselves is a real problem for our society.

Republicans do not try to change voter’s beliefs. They go with them. Democrats appeal to reason. Big mistake.

Well, that’s pretty dark. But maybe (just maybe!) this time the good guys will win. I think so, but I’m an optimist. Obama beat the Clintons, he can beat McCain. Even if he doesn’t, you have to live with yourself more than other people do. So quit your hand-wringing and your bed-wetting. You’re already part of the community on the Web that’s waging the battle of opinions, and setting the agenda for the next Information Age, comment by intelligent well-supported comment. Take heart! Be your own freaky self. Vote.

That is all.

Zombie memes and the ‘backfire effect’

Some memes just don’t die. Okay, memes about McCain and Palin stay alive because they repeat them even after they’ve been debunked. But what about Obama being a Muslim? What about that creationist on your blog who gets slapped down every week, but who keeps coming back with the same arguments?

There’s an interesting study out of Duke University (PDF here) about how some people resist correcting bad information.

They gave some conservatives and some liberals bad information about politics, and saw how it changed their opinions. When they then gave correct information, liberals adjusted their opinions back, but never quite all the way back to their former level.

When conservatives got the facts, however, they didn’t adjust their views at all. In fact, they actually believed the wrong information more.


Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

False ideas spread quickly when people like them, and they’re incredibly difficult to quash.

Since conservatism is currently the view of choice for the most extreme reality-denying Christianists, I think it’s fair to say that religious (non-)thinking bears more than a smidgeon of the blame for this. Religious thinkers (with whom I have had many discussions) don’t change their minds easily. They think it’s good to live in a fantasy world, and anything that would dissuade them from it is actually a trick from the Crafty One. Add in all the good ol’ folks who don’t trust those fancy-pants ‘experts’ who ‘know things’ and present you with ‘facts’, and you’ve got a sizable group of conservatives.

I find this result unsurprising, but incredibly depressing. How can we have government and consensus in a country where half the people in it won’t accept accurate information, and insist on remaining delusional? And I’m not too sure about you guys in the other half, either.

Thank goodness our Democratic candidates are aware of science and reason, and aren’t trying to pander to the… the… um…

Never mind.

Biden veep pick

So Obama has chosen Joe Biden as his running mate. Everyone go ahead and add him to your spell check dictionary. I’ll wait.

I didn’t know a lot about Biden, so I headed over to (where else) the Wikipedia page about his political positions. He seems sensible enough in most ways. He’ll probably make a good Vice President.

But here’s what occurs to me. Yes, the bolus of infection that is the American Republican Party will explode in an ugly geyser of pus come November. We’ll probably never be rid of it entirely, but it is struggling, and its influence will be greatly diminished in the next election cycle. Even so, the goals of movement conservatism have largely been met. We can understand the effects of a movement by what it leaves behind when it inevitably dies, and movement conservatism has pushed things really far to the right. You can now support abstinence education, Israel, a same-sex marriage ban, and building a wall on the Mexican border, and still be thought of as a reasonably moderate liberal.

Don’t get me wrong — I like his positives, which are many. But remember the lesson of the Overton Window: extremists in a movement defend the indefensible, and thus make the unthinkable thinkable. It’s worked. Some of Biden’s views are out there. Like crazy grandpa out there. Just sayin’.

Shermer lecture: How do we influence others?

Michael Shermer gave an engaging lecture Wednesday night at UWA’s Octagon Theatre. Since it was Science Week, he spoke on the scientific method, and the need for skepticism in evaluating ideas.

And I got to ask him a question. I mentioned in this post that I think he’s backed the wrong horse on the science v. religion question. In ‘Why Darwin Matters’, he seemed to lean toward the ‘Non-Overlapping Magesteria Argument’ — that science is science and spirituality is spirituality, and science can’t examine spirituality. Besides the gaping holes in the argument, it’s just an unscientific view. How can you falsify it?

But I didn’t want to fight over that — I’m sure he knows the terrain. No, I was more curious about the strategy of it all. Here was my question:

Me: I’ve enjoyed reading “Why Darwin Matters.” You give three possibilities for the relationship between science and religion. One is the Conflicting Worlds model, the Same Worlds model, and the Shared Worlds. You seem to reject the idea that science is right and religion is wrong, as an extremist position. Instead you seem to say that God is somehow outside of science.

I was wondering if that’s really your view, (audience laughter) or is this some kind of tactic that we use to lull the religious to sleep so that the grown-ups can do their work?

Shermer: A sop (unintelligible), yes. No, I do think it’s important to strategise how to interact with other people. And if you tell somebody that their most cherished beliefs are bullshit, (bright tone) and now let’s go to the ball game and have fun together! (audience laughter) You know, that isn’t probably the best way to win friends and influence people. It’s always good to try to be polite and respectful and whatever — you’re more likely to change their minds. That’s isn’t necessarily why I do it; that’s the way I am.

But the argument I make is that — that’s why I went through that whole business of aliens and Shermer’s Last Law and all that stuff. You can’t possibly find a god. Most people think of god as this supernatural being, that isn’t just some garage tinkerer, that isn’t just a genetic engineer who’s really good at it. That somehow that isn’t going to fulfill what people think when they think about god. So I really don’t… I can’t possibly imagine any experiment that any scientist could ever run and go, “Oh, look! There is a god! Wow!” Or “Nope! There isn’t, ’cause look. Failed the experiment.” Something like that. I just don’t think you could do that.

Now Dawkins makes an interesting argument in ‘The God Delusion’ about probabilities, that, you know, on a range… a scale of one to seven, what’s the likelihood? No, we can’t say for sure that there isn’t a god, but there probably isn’t. That’s a reasonable argument. But there you’re not using science directly to test the godly probabilities. It’s something slightly different than that.

Did he answer my question?

In a way, kind of. I was left with the feeling like he’s just being nice and giving religious folk on the edges a way to accept Darwin and science. Off the point, he argues that you can’t falsify the supernatural, to which I readily agree.

But this touches on what should be a major issue among atheists: How do you change people’s minds? Shermer’s right: confronting people directly about their beliefs won’t change their minds. You know what else doesn’t change people’s minds? Not confronting them directly about their beliefs. Thinking back to my days as a believer, if you’d said that I could keep my beliefs, that they were perfectly good, but that science is good too, I’ll guarantee you I’d have left the discussion thinking exactly what I was thinking before.

So what does change people’s minds? Well, in many cases, nothing. If people really want to believe in ghosts or UFO’s or Reiki, no evidence will shift ’em. But there are a certain number of smart people who are in a belief system, and eventually they’ll notice the contradictions and feel enough cognitive dissonance to reach escape velocity. For these people, we need to foster a climate where science and evidence are regarded as authoritative and where disbelief is supported (intellectually and socially), until they’re ready to make the jump. Shermer’s certainly doing his part in this by giving lectures about science and scepticism, with intelligence and good humour. I’m doing my part in this by pointing out firmly (and repeatedly) that no evidence exists for the supernatural, and inviting people to show me some. I don’t sugar-coat my point of view, but I don’t think that’ll turn anyone off; the deeply committed won’t listen anyway. And I think it’s important to be direct with people.

Education is one way of promoting good views. Ridicule is one way of discouraging bad views. I do both. If you can’t manage it, you’re only using half the tools at your disposal. But do what you’re comfortable with. I’ll be over here holding the Overton Window on my end. Go ahead and slag me off and call me a militant atheist and an extremist, so you can look moderate by comparison. That’s absolutely part of the strategy. I don’t mind; I’ll take it for the team.

Just please remember that the forces of anti-science are not content to just believe what they believe. They want to influence what everyone believes. Religions constantly expend a great deal of energy in proselyting. They send missionaries around the world, they build publishing factories, and they go about promoting their memes in an organised way. So let’s not kid ourselves that they just want to play softball.

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