Saturday, November 20, 2010

Skepticon III: Day 2

Apologies if this seems a bit incoherent. I wrote most of this while the talk were going on with only minor revisions. After everything going on, I've been too tired to really sit down and edit it. As such, due to the need for sleep, I missed the first talk Saturday about sexuality in atheism.

The first one I made it to is DJ Grothe's talk. I wasn't sure what the talk was focusing on since it didn't have a title. But as I walked in, he was talking about what skepticism is. He claimed it should be applied to anything and every thing: from religion to politics to consumer products. But while skepticism should be broadly applied, individual groups should be narrowly defined.

Yet while narrowness provides focus, it can also cause stagnation. After all, "How many times do you want to look at Bigfoot."

Turning that to look at whether Skepticon is misnamed, he concluded it wasn't since atheism is applied skepticism (sometimes) on one topic.

There seems to be a "MENSA effect" in which the speaker says, "I'm smart. I'm right. You're smart, so you know I'm right." This can lead to a hierarchy which can lead to a zealotry. While this philosophical back patting can be fun and soothing to those involved, it's not really productive. The result becomes infighting (see: accommodationism). We should go full throttle after the woo peddlers who cause harm, but let slide the infighting. While those that are not skeptical in one regard can't help there, they can in others.

Religious believers get offended more because life after death has more of an emotional impact than disproving dowsing and we need to respect that. Don't go overboard in coddling beliefs. Have "tender hearts" in caring for people. Too much nay-saying makes you a crotchety curmudgeon. Too much tenderheartedness "makes you lax about the truth." Just being wright is not going to cut it. We have to be right and good and effective. Thus, there should not be any purity tests, and nothing out of bounds in skepticism.

The third panel of the day (2nd I attended) was Joe Nickell, a former detective and magician and now works for Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He made it clear that he's an atheist for the reason that there's no good evidence, but he concentrates on claims for which there can be evidence.

"Let us not be a 'dubunker'," he said. He objects to the term because it implies we start knowing the answer. Sure, there may be no ghosts, but what's more interesting is what is causing the phenomenon that people call ghosts.

Joe wrote "The Mystery Chronicles" and was promoting his book. One example he discussed (presumably discussed in the book) was a young black brought up on charges of murder before finger printing was common. At the time, they took detailed measurements of the body for comparison with records. When the records were ran, a near exact match was found of someone in a prison. The two looked nearly exactly the same.

Ultimately this could be resolved through fingerprinting, hopefully. Yet the fingerprints were strikingly similar as well. The obvious conclusion was that they were identical twins.

Good story.

But what of the Amityville Horror in which Ronald Buch Defaile murdered his family. A year later the family that moved into the house claimed demons. But the events there were significantly different than the normal claims for haunted houses. So Joe investigated.

"Devil's footsteps in the snow" "doors and windows ripped off" "police called to counsel the family".

But the records showed the police were not called. The doors had never been damaged. On the date with the snow, there had been no snow. The story fell apart. The family's attorney admitted that the family made up the story to try to get a new trial for the murderer by claiming demonic possession.

Liberty hall is another supposed haunted house. Yet the curator admitted to having made it up. When the later curator decided against ghosts being good for business, tour guides stopped telling people and the sightings mysteriously disappeared.

On UFOs, Joe had investigated those as well. In 1952, Flatwoods apparently had an alien sighting on September 12. A group of children and a woman and a dog had an encounter. They saw a bright light across the sky and thought it landed in a nearby field. They grabbed a flashlight and investigated finding creature with glowing eyes and "terrible claws".

Other reports showed the light over several states and as such, was likely a meteor. Another person living there encountered the kids and confirmed they were genuinely scared. He went to investigate in his pickup and left skid marks and oil which was later interpreted as a UFO evidence. Yet no one would listen.

Mothman was another case Joe investigated. The key description was that of ruby red eyes which is characteristic of bard owls. Joe also looked into alien abductions and concluded it was waking dreams and hypnosis.

Spontaneous human combustion was another topic. The main case involved a woman who took sleeping pills while smoking in a flammable chair and nightgown. Joe implied the wick effect in which human fat burns well containing the flames and making the burning efficient.

Faith healing, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, were other topics Joe covered with a critical eye.

I was a bit late getting back to Dan Barker's talk thanks to lunch and a lack of parking.

As I walked in, Dan was talking about him, while religious felt himself receiving instructions from God to sit in the middle of a corn field. After sitting around he felt stupid.

He then started discussing the National Day of prayer being ruled unconstitutional, "pending appeals." In response, conservative groups have filed amicus briefs arguing the National Day of Prayer is not religious. Heh.

(Additionally, clergy in tax codes, excludes house payment or rent as rent. This is also being challenged as well.)

1952, Billy Grahm had a 6 week revival meeting encouraging the National day of prayer and a bill was put forth by Pat Robertson's father. Truman quickly signed it. Some presidents were slow about it which made it hard for the religious right to build an event around it. Thus a bill was passed to lock it on the same day in deference to religious groups.

A lawsuit was formed and eventually won, even though the judge generally disagrees in a strict separation. The day or prayer was directed outwards to the people. The Marsh decision says such cases can only be directed internally.

Richard Carrier was next up. His talk was regarding a book called "The Christian Delusion". The book is a response to the challenge that Dawkin's "God Delusion" was unscholarly. His talk outlined the possible positions of Christianity and addressed each one. He talked really fast so the rest of this summary is going to be more along the lines of an outline.

Are Christians Delusional? This requires a definition of "delusion"
1. Colloquial: A false belief
2. Psych: A false belief based on an incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained (a) despite what almost everybody else believes and (b) despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof.

Delusion consists of certainty (absolute conviction), incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary), impossible of falsity.

Different kinds of delusion("Official Dr. Carrier scale")
1. Mildly delusional - men overrate their looks, women under
2. Majorly Delusional - only concentrating on this today
3. Worrisome
4. Crazy
5. Batshit insane

Modern Christianity drops Eve, but sill has an imaginary friend who magically manipulates the world for me and he also magically impregnated a woman two thousand years ago and she bore him a son who underwent ....

- nominal/apathetic
- dunno/metaphoric
- It's true as told (and Jesus is coming from outer space to kill you soon (40%)

The happy split:
- Personal theism + Jesus was cool (mildly)
- Jesus is truly the Son of God and Whatnot (majorly)

What if someone came up to you and said
- Friend name Zalmoxis
- Is real
- Never dies
- Ancient Demigod
- Cleansed soul with blood sacrifice
- Grants them power of living forever
- Lives in magic place
This religion actually actually existed in 425 AD

EX: Heaven's Gate
Get new bodies in alien spaceship flying by vs. Get new bodies in a magical alternate universe

Quantum teleportation and neural engineering vs God needs blood sacrifice

Carrier proposed the first was more realistic since spaceships, quantum teleportation and the potential to modify brains actually exist where as there has been no such evidence for spirits in heaven or the power of blood sacrifices.

He then discussed part 2 of the book (skipping part 1) entitled "Why the Bible is not God's word" which had a few chapters in it:
Cosmology of the Bible (Ch 5)
The water globe was by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians, and Bible

Bible is not reliable source (Ch 6)
1. Inconsistent with self
2. Not supported by archaeology
3. Contains fairy tales
4. Failed prophecies
5. Many forgeries

Part 3: Why the Christian God is not Good
Ch 8: Yahweh is a moral monster
Ch 9: Darwinian Problem of Evil

BONUS: "The Will of God" Richard Carrier

Part 4: Why Jesus is not the risen son of god
Ch 10: Jesus: Myth and Method
Ch 11: Why the Resurrection is Unbelieveable
Ch 12: At Best Jesus was a failed apocalyptic Prophet

Christianity is Implausible, Bizarre and Patently Untrue.
Richard's intent was to show how the parts discussed so far refuted the various forms of Christianity:
Bible is God's word (Part 2)
Jesus is the Son of God (Part 3)
God is Good (Part 4)
This refutes most Christians.
Part 1: "I don't need evidence Christians"
Part 5: "But we need it Christians" - Society needs Christianity
Ch 13: Christianity does not provide basis for morality - Christianity is one among many, and not even good

Ch 14: Atheism was not the cause of the holocaust - Darwin or Martin Luther
Ch 15: Christianity was not responsible for modern science
BONUS: Christianity was not responsible for American Democracy

Part 1: Why Faith Fails
Ch 1. Cultures of Christianities
Ch 2: Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science
Ch 3: The malleability of the human mind
Ch 4. The outsider test for faith revisited

Outsider test for faith - You must test your own religious claims and texts by the same standards you apply to other religions. If your religion's claims and texts fare no better, then your religion is just as wrong as theirs is.

Choice of religious belief is positively correlated with cultural and geographic familiarity and access (science is the same everywhere).

Religious belief is negatively correlated with intelligence, education, and self-esteem.

Hyperactive Agency Detection (David Eller, Valerie Tarico, Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, etc....)

Jason Long
- fear based messages suppress critical reflection
- time increases confidence faster than evidence
- rationalization is an autonomous instinct
- instinctive false generalization (as soon as we find one argument is found flawed, we toss the whole thing out even if the rest are good)
- confirmation bias is innate (only see/seek support)

Pscyhology trumps reason: This is bad news
- Face to face vs. indirect communications
- Avoidance behavior
a) swallowing lousy argument
b) avoiding exposure to opposition
- Fallacy of poisoning the well actually works

Why no outsider test
1. We don't have to test our faith by the same standards
2. Our religion passes the Outsider test because we have evidence

Sam Harris, Moral Landscape
- Belief is an emotion
- we have located it in the brain
- Can misfire like any other emotion
Ex: Phobias

Pscyhology trumps reason: good news
- The more someone is forced to defend a belief, the more you have to think about it and can counteract everything else
- Cognitive dissonance increases the starker (and more important) are the options/contradictions
- Combine and sustain both = effective @ deconverter

Book is meant to be a toolkit

Again, I arrived somewhat later on James Randi's talk. In it, he discussed his experiences in promoting skepticism and debunking woo.

He discussed Peter Popov's story, the "faith healer" who Randi became famous for catching in his act, calling out people to heal by name with the aid of God his wife and a radio transmitter.

He addressed how to get critical thinking in school. He claims parents would be very leery of it since they wouldn't be able to control the content directly and students could (and would) ask the wrong questions. To illustrate this, he discussed an experience which he declined to talk at a school because parents had told the school they didn't want him to address religion and he wouldn't guarantee he wouldn't respond to a question.

The 7pm talk was PZ Myers (yeah, I know how to spell it!) After lamenting that he wasn't invited to take his clothes off for the calendar, he reminded us that he's one hell of a drinker.

His real talk was on science education. Much of his job is pedagogical concerns and he started with the analogy of a poker game being like evolution in that
- A deck of cards is a great symbol of chance and variety
- It illustrates of the power of combinations
- It's a game with winners and losers, like selection.
- Everybody understands poker.

However, it has problems.
- It's a freakin' analogy, people!
- As the concepts get more specific, it falls apart.

But where the concepts fail can also be illustrative. He selected a volunteer and played a single hand. Neither got a royal flush but the lesson was that you don't have to be "perfect" to win.

The second lesson was that you can discard and draw which is analogous to mutation. The difference is that mutations are random. Mutations are also 0.000004% of the genome. 1:5 cards is 20%. Bit different.

A bigger difference is that one life = one hand. The only way to possibly change is to have children which is mostly a clone.

This illustrates Weismann's Barrier.

His next point was most of our cells aren't involved in reproduction. The only ones that are are the germ cells. In his life, he has "ejaculated three cells into the next generation". And that's it. The comparison was to that of a rocket: Something giant and lumbering with a grand fireworks show whose only "purpose" was the small capsule at the top.

To PZ, he didn't define himself by 3 cells. He defined himself by the fireworks and that next generation's job is to produce their own.

Coming back to poker, he discussed various types of mutations and how they could be approximated with cards. Additionally, if the deck is cut, a change in the pattern can show where it was.

Another comparison was wild cards to something known as reaction norms, which is how things respond to certain environments.

The last point was the problem of sex. One of the explanations for the reason of sex is the red queen hypothesis. This states that parasites are constantly adopting to eat us, so by randomizing our hand, it makes them harder for them next time.

Of course, the question all this poker talk begs is what the dealer must be like? By looking at the genome, we can figure out how the dealer must operate. These evidences are things like "junk" DNA. We know it's junk because
- These regions accumulate variations far faster than coding regions of the genome. They are not constrained by functional selection.
- We understand the mechanisms behind the generation of most of it: retro viral insertions, for instance, are random.
- Variations can be induced in experimental animals. Point mutations, deletions, duplications, and frameshift mutations within the "junk" does not seem to affect phenotype in most cases.
-The most striking example: Fugu
FUGU: tiny genome 390Mbp vs 3,300Mbp for humans, 20,000+ genes, relatively small amount of junk; <15% repetitive sequences, and make good sushi (

So what can we infer about the dealer?
- He lacks foresight
- His major concern is the fidelity of reproduction
- All creativity is product of chance
- Lots of mistakes
- He's no more interested in humans than he is in Fugu or fruit flies or sponges.

This implies that "God" is DNA Polymerase. Or the FSM.

The last speaker for Saturday was Rebecca Watson. Her talk was on "How to Ruin Christmas (For Pretty Much Everyone Involved)".

After talking for 15 minutes on how much she abused her handler, she finally got around to starting.

An example of a typical letter she gets around the holidays:
Dear Atheist Abby: My children believe in Santa and at this point I'm happy to let them enjoy this fantasy as I do think that some moral lessons of living and appreciation can come out of it.

But I began wondering what do you do about the Christmas conundrum... If you really are skeptics to the core....

Rebecca called this "Santa Morality" If you're good you get toys. But you get nothing if you're bad ... or if you're poor.

Complaints with Santa:
Encourages materialism
Causes psychological damage
discourages skepticism
forces parents to lie

Does it really cause psychological harm? Science says 90% of all death row inmates believed
1100% of children in Santa studies died (or will eventually)

Srsly: Santa does not screw you up. Most were happy when they figured it out.

preschoolers with imaginary friends are more creative, more social, and more empathetic.

The Candy Witch (Wooley et al. 2004) Introduced kids to myth of candy which (made up). The candy witch comes on Halloween and leaves candy. Some kids got candy, others didn't. Older kids believed more than younger kids because they used logic and evidence. Younger couldn't interpret candy as being evidence for premise.

Which is more helpful: telling kids to ignore the evidence, letting kids continue to puzzle it out?

In that context, Santa is a rational belief. Presents appear. Cookies are consumed. I sat on his lap, FFS. Strong anecdotal evidence.

As such, encouraging kids to puzzle it out, absolves the charge of discouraging skepticism.

As far as lying is concerned: Lying teaches kids to be skeptical of authority. "I'll know I succeeded as a parent when my kid says, 'Bullshit mommy'."

Rebecca's talk was absolutely hilarious and was probably the best of the entire con.

The afterparty was in a room with horrible acoustics so we didn't hang around. Regardless, my friends and I stayed up far too late having our own party. As such, we completely missed Day III.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Skepticon III: Day 1

Today started far too early. The first panel was at 11:30 and for some reason, we decided to get up around 9:30... after being up talking with old friends until nearly 5am. Oops.

We were a few minutes late to the first panel on Skepticism on sexism which was essentially a review of all the bad reasons people are sexist. The speaker noted that those against women's reproductive rights are "mostly Christian". It's the new focus of conservative groups formed in the 1960's to oppose desegregation.

But aside from the blatantly religious motivations for sexism, she noted that there were several pseudo-scientific reasons people bring up to justify their sexism. It often attempts to justify sexism by implying that it's not truly present and simply a result of unequal abilities in the first place or that people want it. They claim women are genetically inclined to be nurturing. It just so happens that men's "natural" abilities tend to be for high paying fields.

She argued that sexism hurts women by allowing them fewer opportunities, gives them socialized reasons to have low self-esteem and fear of being assertive, and burdens them with lower incomes, more depression & more likely to be abused.

It hurts men by forcing them into a constant battle, encourages "emotional stunting" (like in Jackass), and lowers their lifespan.

It also hurts society because we lose out on half the human race's talents. Investing in women also pays more because they tend to invest more in families and their economy.

Overall the talk was pretty good.

The second talk was by David Fitzgerald, pimping his new book, "Nailed" which reviewed the historicity of Jesus. It essentially had 3 main points:
1) No contemporary sources of Jesus' life mention him. The ones that are cited were well after Jesus.
2) The Gospels are mostly plagiarized and contradictory.
3) Other sources have no corroborating evidence.

His conclusion: There's no reason to believe that Jesus really existed.

David was a hilarious speaker and went ~15 minutes over time, but no one seemed to mind.

The third talk was by Debbie Goddard regarding diversity in the skeptical movement. In general it was a large recap of much of the discussion on Blag Hag with Ms. Magazine.

It also examined differences in minorities and beliefs. It found many superstitions fall off with age. Exceptions were religion, ESP, communication with the dead, ghosts, and aliens.

The skeptic community tends to attract people with high levels of educations, leisure time, no young kids @ home, some disposable income. Blacks don't have disposable income and are most religious. Surprised?

Not really. But should we care?

Debbie says yes. Otherwise we'll be laughed at in the same way we laugh at the Tea Party for lacking diversity (heaped with their rather blatant racism). Additionally, critically thinking is improved by diverse ideas, diversity breeds diversity (like biodiversity), and humanism, skepticism and critical thinking should be universalizeable, good for all. Getting young people is also important since young people are the future of the movement.

Debbie seemed pretty disorganized as a speaker and it wasn't especially engaging. Sadly, it was the lowlight of the day.

Fourth was John Corvino speaking on the parallels between the gay movement and the atheist/skeptic movement and coming out in both.

John said coming out isn't an event; it's a process and often has to be repeated. In his experience, coming out as an atheist has been harder than as gay since the gay movement has gone public in a far greater respect than atheists have for a good while now.

The response from the religious right hasn't been a real argument, it's been a panic. Skepticism, John says, is a methodology by which forces people to calm down and look at the facts. All in all, he found 10 parallels between the two forms of coming out:
1.Deep personal significance
2.separate “mental book”
3.possible bad reaction
4.Marked as “flawed”
5.need for community: We cant' count on parents for wisdom and support if parents aren't gay/atheist
6.“Dumb” questions
8.“dropping hairpins” - letting out hints
9.confidence matters

John also touched on the accommodation discussion stating "I cannot remain silent because I cannot forget what happens when they think they have infallible backing for their fallible prejudices."

The last two segments were discussion panels. The first was on accommodation.

In general, the panelists were pretty unified. Accommodationism is worthless. While it may score some quick points, the idea that we can cut out any of our points is to sacrifice the principles on which skepticism as a movement has been founded.
As John put it: " Integrity means being true to yourself but not necessarily saying it every time you can as loud as you can."

While de-emphasizing portions may be a tactical choice in some situations, that's not what accommodationists are calling for.

John told a good story in which a theist wrote Dan Savage regarding how to help with the recent spate of gay suicides without having to respect being gay because being told to would hurt the writer's feelings. Savage's response was "Fuck your feelings."

John said this wasn't his style and he wouldn't have responded the same way, but I think Dan had it exactly right: When it's someone's life and liberty vs. your feelings, based on lack of critical thinking and superstitions, your feelings should get no respect. If people think they should, they're not really working to treat the problem, merely treating a symptom. On the gay suicides, while downplaying the criticism of the religious bigotry might get us allies to find a few bullied kids helped, it doesn't fix the problem of why they're bullied in the first place.

Another sub topic that kept coming up was whether or not the NCSE actively pushes theism. PZ claimed it does. John disagreed but couldn't explain why. PZ meanwhile, noted that the NCSE only has material that supports the notion that religion and evolution are compatible, but not that evolution can be compatible with religion, thereby lending its credibility only to the fuzzy sort of watered down theistic evolution.

Regardless, we can accommodate somewhat on some issues, but to sacrifice integrity for some quick victories is folly.

The last panel was on whether or not skepticism leads to atheism. Again, the panelists were pretty agreed: Yes.

It's not a 100% guarantee, but if you're honest about skepticism, then it should.

The only even remote bit of dissent came from James Randi who said he didn't have much of a problem with a friend of his who, being skeptical in every regard, still consciously chose to believe in theism because it made him feel better, yet still admitted that he had no evidence or logical reason to do so. Randi accepted this because the person was at least intellectually honest enough to admit it was an irrational position and it was based solely on utility and didn't harm his critical thinking in any other regard.

Overall, it was a good day of talks and I'm looking forward to Saturday.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Skepticon III

I leave to head to Skepticon III this evening. Details to come.