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

Category: skepticism (page 1 of 3)

Free de-baptisms

It was Orientation Day at UWA. Clubs (like the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society) set up booths and attract members. So do churches.

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It’s not my idea. I think I saw it here first.

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Where did I say that? Oh, yes: here. Why are atheists so rude?

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Click for larger images. Or put your favourites in comments.

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Why do skeptics have an image problem?

So I was just on a panel with author John Scalzi at Swancon. Great fun, good panel, good questions from the audience.

The panel was about skepticism and sci-fi, and one of the questions was, “Why do skeptics have such a bad reputation?” Why are they known as contentious, awful people?

John’s answer was essentially: Because they are unpleasant people. Paraphrasing: If debunking really Does It for you, then you’re probably a Stomper of Dreams.

As an unpleasant person, I have to kind of agree, but my answer went like this: There’s really no nice way to say, “Um, actually, that psychic isn’t really speaking to your dead relatives.” Saying it at all makes you the Dreamkiller, and that’s that. Either that, or you say nothing, in which case no one knows you’re a skeptic at all. Result: all skeptics are mean and unpleasant.

But I think there’s a third answer here: Popular entertainment has spent decades portraying skeptics as soulless or incomplete. Just check TV Tropes. Skeptics are Straw Vulcans — hyper-rational beings who are nonetheless incomplete and dead inside. Then they ‘come to their senses’ and become a Skeptic No Longer. Only when their character arc sees them learning to embrace at least a little unprovable bullshit do they become good and fully human. I think it’s a minor factor, but not an insignificant one.

Meeting James Randi

There’s really only one person who qualifies as a living legend in skepticism, and it’s James “The Amazing” Randi. For decades, he’s performed magic and taken the hairbrush to spoon-benders, psychics, and faith healers. A bit of background if you’re unfamiliar with his work.

He’s also behind the “Million Dollar Challenge“, in which anyone can walk off with a million bucks if they can do supernatural feats under controlled conditions.

Last week marked Randi’s first visit to Perth as part of his “An Evening With James Randi” tour with Think Inc. Since the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society was helping with arrangements, five of us took up the invitation to meet Randi at the airport.

Randi is 86 now, but he was in surprisingly good spirits despite what must be a grueling touring schedule. He was wheeled by members of his entourage, which included Richard Saunders of the Skeptic Zone podcast. With luggage collected, we headed to the nearest airport Dome café for some refreshment.

While we were chatting, Richard Saunders took a banknote (Mongolian, I believe he said) and split it up into two perfect squares. With one, he folded an origami pig with wings. Pigasus is his own creation. I hadn’t realised he was an origami expert. Very cool!

Ever the performer, Randi delighted us with some cigarette magic using the rolled-up other half of Richard’s banknote. Pretending to push the roll into his other hand, he palmed it instead, making it seem to disappear when the expected hand was empty.

This is the general idea:

I’ve always loved magic, but I’ve never done the sleight of hand. What I love is how magicians exploit our expectations, and make us realise how bad our assumptions can be. Important lessons for skeptics, to be sure, and probably the reason that magicians are the greatest skeptics.

There was a question on my mind. I asked Randi, “Have things changed? It used to be that in the 70s, we’d be fighting astrology, pyramid power, and Bigfoot. Now, we fight…”

“…pyramid power!” said Richard.

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “But now we also have homeopathy, anti-vaxxers, and Bigfoot. Are things moving?”

Randi thought not; people still believe a lot of the same nonsense they always have. Trying to quote accurately here: “If you go to some of the most backward places on Earth, you find people believing the same things that have since before I was around.”

It’s true. Psychics today use the same techniques they’ve used for a hundred years. It’s all a bit dispiriting. If we’re just confronted with more new nonsense along with the old nonsense, then what keeps us going?

Perhaps if there’s a bright spot, it’s this: We no longer fight alone. There’s now an organised skeptical movement taking on fakes, fools, and folly. And we have James Randi to thank for that.

Blackout syndrome

A new video from Mr Deity is out, and it’s a heavy hitter. It’s about the racism in the Book of Mormon, with its teaching that dark skin was a punishment from God upon the Lamanites.

When I posted this on a social media site that I’ll call “Schmacebook”, a friend of mine (I’ll call him ‘Schmavid’) asked me “What was your take on this when you were a believer?”

So I’m trying to think… and nothing’s happening.

Oh, I can think of rationales that apologists would say, like “the dark skin was just the mark of the curse, not the curse itself”, or whatever rubbish I read somewhere that I just repeated when questioned about it. But I can’t remember what I thought about it.

I wonder if I thought about it at all. I know I had this ‘blackout’ reflex — just blocking the thoughts when they were uncomfortably close to unbelief.

Or maybe I didn’t attempt to integrate the racist teaching with my desire not to be racist. I think I was happy to let the book be the book, let real life be real life, try not to blend them too much, and then try not to think too much about not thinking about it.

That’s really bad, isn’t it? I’ve wondered how faithful-but-liberal Mormons can be in the Church when they’re actually okay with gay marriage. Maybe that’s how. The Church is your philosophical bubble, and if one bit seems uncomfortable, you can float over to another part you like more, and try not to let that one part bother you too much. After all, you “feel” that it’s all true, so you just have faith that all that stuff will sort itself out someday.

So how can I avoid making that mistake now? Maybe I need to watch out for symptoms of the blackout reflex, integrate my ideas and real life, and keep trying to be bothered by things that I really ought to be bothered by.

The next level

A+

Regular readers will notice a lull in the frequency of posting here on Good Reason. Part of that is that I got a new job that’s keeping me busy, but then I have been busy before. And lately I’ve felt like I’m running out of things to say. But it’s not really that.

Something’s been paining me about Movement Atheism. Elevatorgate was an uncomfortable wake-up call, but I managed to hit snooze. The recent TAM difficulty renewed my discomfort. In both cases, a female atheist blogger expressed perfectly reasonable discomfort with unwanted sexual attention, and was met with rape threats (from the most unhinged) or self-serving counter-arguments (from a lot of atheist guys). The casual and not-so-casual sexism of atheist guys really bugged me. Weren’t we progressive thinkers? Why was this going so wrong? And then Thunderf00t’s actions on Freethought Blogs gave me a rising sense that something bad was happening to my movement. This made it easy not to blog. I was busy, after all. I had other things to do. And it hurt to watch, so I turned away. In the words of Leonard Cohen, I ached in the places where I used to play.

So I was encouraged by this blog post by Jen McCreight.

I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of equality as mission drift. I want Deep Rifts. I want to be able to truthfully say that I feel safe in this movement. I want the misogynists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and downright trolls out of the movement for the same reason I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner or to play Mario Kart: because they’re not good people. We throw up billboards claiming we’re Good Without God, but how are we proving that as a movement? Litter clean-ups and blood drives can only say so much when you’re simultaneously threatening your fellow activists with rape and death.

It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.

Ah, the Second Wave. Remember that? Coming out as an New Atheist, and not afraid to say it. Heady days. And remember how we used to feel like we were on solid ground when we said that ‘atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in gods’? Except when you looked around at other atheists, that wasn’t really true. We really did have other things in common besides just our lack of belief. We were attracted to a constellation of issues, including skepticism, secularism, science, political progressivism, and (pretty uniformly) equality for LGBT people.

I see this third wave — or as a commenter on Jen’s thread dubbed it, A+ — as a simple way of acknowledging that atheism can incorporate positive values, including social justice and gender equality. It can go beyond what I call ‘mere atheism’ and reflect the values that atheism draws us toward, but does not necessarily encompass.

An example of how this works: How do we get from atheism to respect for LGBT people? Many times I’ve seen atheists complain about LGBT posts on Reddit: “How did this get here? What does this have to do with atheism?” Well, not much to do with ‘mere atheism’, but a lot to do with actual atheism. It may be partly “the enemy of my enemy” thinking; religions have had gay people oppressed and killed, we don’t accept the right of religions to do this; ergo, we oppose it. And just as Richard Dawkins’ use of the ‘coming out’ metaphor has been apt in the case of atheists, we feel like our lack of societal acceptance and even ostracism from our families helps us make common cause with LGBT people, who endure much of the same.

So how do we get from atheism to acceptance of women as equals, deserving of respect? I see a clear line from skepticism to feminism. To be a skeptic is to constantly remind yourself that you may be wrong, that you need to keep revising your accepted beliefs, and there’s always more that you could be a little more skeptical about. Well, I’ve realised that I can do better at challenging my attitudes about sexism. Oh, but I don’t consider myself a sexist person, right? Maybe sexists never do. And if I’m truly not a sexist — if I’ve incorporated that value so thoroughly into my thoughts and actions — then why not say so?

So I’m saying so. I’m stepping beyond ‘mere atheism’ and reaching out for that third wave: A+. In some ways, it’s quite natural to do so, and in other ways, I can tell I’m going to have to do a lot of listening, thinking, and updating. But as a skeptical atheist, I can do that.

Australia 2011 Census data: ‘No religion’ makes big gains

Data for the 2011 Australian census is out. I mentioned in a previous post that if ‘no religion’ went higher than 20%, I’d be ecstatic. Well, ecstatic I am, because we’re at 22.3 percent, up from 18.7.

Here’s the graph. Notice the red line, which is the trendline for the data for 1971–2006. The data for 2011 is way above this projection.

This places the “no religion” category in second place among religions (if it were one). It’s the only major group to post gains as a percentage of the population.

As to numbers:
2006: 3,706,553 people answered “No religion”, or 18.7%.
2011: 4,796,787 people answered “No religion”, or 22.3%.
For perspective, this means we have more people than the Uniting Church, Presbyterians, Eastern Orthodox, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Buddhism, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews combined.
That’s over 1 million people who either dumped their religion since the last census, or came out as ‘No religion’ for the first time. So if it seems like small potatoes that we only got a 3.6% gain over the whole population, just remember that we’ve had a 29% increase in our numbers. We gained more than the entire population of the Uniting Church, in just the last five years.
The ‘No religion’ group does not include people who did not answer the religion question. This latter group has shrunk since 2006, so we’re likely pulling some people from there. I’ll bet the AFA’s “No Religion” campaign had some influence on this.
What does this mean for us atheists? Well, we have to be careful about these numbers — people who put down ‘no religion’ may not be atheists. There may be a sizeable proportion of ‘spiritual but not religious’ people in that figure. We don’t have (or I couldn’t find) specific breakdowns for ‘Atheist’ or ‘Agnostic’ categories. I’ll be looking forward to those (as well as smaller Christian categories like ‘Mormon’ or ‘Jehovah’s Witness’).
But this does mean that one in five of us has no religion, and it’s getting close to one in four. Doubtless some of those are newly deconverted, and they’re going to need support. If you’re one of the ‘old guard’ who’s been an atheist for a while now, get involved and get with a group or start your own, whether online or IRL.
It’s taken a while to get here, and it’s going to take a while longer to reduce religion to a minority, but the social trends are moving in our direction. This is great news! Now is the time to celebrate, but also time to keep up the pressure on religion by staying visible.
The next challenge will be to encourage critical thinking among the populace. We all know people who have deconverted from a religion, but who maybe haven’t made the move to skeptical rationalism. This means they’re still vulnerable to proto-religions like New Age woo, or other delusions like altMed. Critical thinking doesn’t happen automatically, and it’s something even atheists aren’t always good at. I’d like to encourage everyone to get informed, and get skeptical.

Red Flags of Quackery

Let me be the last to share this wonderful guide to detecting BS. It’s the Red Flags of Quackery.

Just a taste:

This may not be the last word on woo, but there will always be things missing. The artist would have needed to create a patchwork about the size of a football field to include every bad rationale that the woosters are capable of pulling out. But the one I would have included is this:

The Debunking Handbook

It doesn’t always work to debunk a myth just by presenting facts. Sometimes your careful presentation could actually entrench the wrong information. If your presentation is overly long or complicated, people may only remember the simple myth. And when you’re talking to people who are committed to the myth, your explanation may drive them further into it.

Wait — I’m doing this all wrong. I’m starting with the myth. Let me try again.

Step 1: Present the core fact.
John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky (of UWA) have released The Debunking Handbook. All science communicators need to read it, if they want to avoid reinforcing the very myths they want to debunk.

Step 2: Give the reader an explicit warning to cue them that misinformation is coming.
One incorrect perception people sometimes have is that people change their views when facts are laid before them. This is a myth.

Step 3: Now that you’ve ripped the misinformation out of the reader’s head, fill the gap with simple, correct information.
Cook and Lewandowsky suggest a few simple ways to communicate scientific ideas clearly, and avoid psychological “backfire effects”.

That’s better. Boy, this science communication can be tricky.

h/t Lara from the “exmormon-atheists” group

I sort of like “The One”.

If you’re not in Australia, you may not have heard of “The One“. It’s a TV programme on Seven, which attempts to find Australia’s best psychic. This is sort of like trying to find Australia’s healthiest cadaver.

I’ve only seen one episode — the psychics try to divine the famous owners of sporting equipment, find a boy in an underground tunnel system (without going underground), and pick out the fake fencer out of a group of six.

Can we have them take the masks off? I’m having trouble cold-reading them.

At first, I was expecting to hate it. The fact that there’s an industry of charlatans (and a culture of people that believes them) drives me nuts. Also, it seems wrong that someone will win the title of “best psychic” even if they do no better than random chance, just by outlasting the other contestants. And it was painful to see all the contestants — deluded people (at best) convinced that they had Teh Powerz. But I ended up really enjoying it, and here’s why.

First off, there’s a “skeptical judge”, Richard Saunders, who keeps things on track. At first, I was worried that he was being played by the format, and lending credibility to the silly newage nonsense. And in fact, he does make noises about being sometimes “intrigued, but not convinced”. But there’s nothing wrong with staying open minded; that’s one of the things about being a skeptic. He certainly does a better job than I would. I’d be making catcalls and rolling my eyes. He’s much nicer than I am, and he explains random chance and probability, to the annoyance of the “gullible judge”. (She’s suitably woolly-headed.)

It’s also fun to watch the contestants make ad hoc justifications for each new failure. Will the psychic-believing viewers start to notice the constant dissembling? It seems unbelievable to me that someone at home wouldn’t become more skeptical after watching excuse after excuse, though that might be offset by seeing the occasional random hit.

The thing I’m most glad about, though: While the show does give a forum to psychics, it’s also promoting the idea that it’s good to test paranormal claims in a somewhat controlled way. Does “The One” do this ideally? Probably not, but I’m glad someone’s doing it at all. Even though it’s meant to promote psychics and the paranormal sub-culture, it inadvertently sets them up so they can fail publicly, again and again.

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