Conservatives Are More Likely to Believe Falsehoods If Told They Are False… And Why That Might Be Sensible Of Them

September 15, 2008

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone versed in psychology, but more and more research is supporting the idea that political falsehoods are effective: even if they are later exposed as false. Whether you be Democrat or Republican, the emotional effect of a compelling narrative or juicy smear seems to remain even if its decisively debunked. While we all seem to form knee-jerk attitudes initially because of certain claims, but we don’t base the attitude on the continued veracity claims: the attitude stands on its own with out without the survival of the supporting claims.

But in some cases, it’s even more bizarre than that. As political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler discovered, conservatives are especially prone to a sort of backlash effect: being given evidence that a claim is false seems to make them more likely to believe it’s true:

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.

Kevin Drum thinks that this effect may have something to do with the carefully celebrated disdain many conservatives have cultivated for experts and media sources in general, and there may be something to that. Drum also notes that the source of the refutation didn’t seem to help either: conservatives seem more likely to believe a politically convenient falsehood even if it’s FoxNews that’s trying to correct the misinformation.

Liberals will no doubt find this research as yet more evidence that their counterparts are indeed stubborn science-haters who prefer ideology to reality (conservatives may, ironically, respond by denying the science behind this study). But before we go whole-hog down that route, I can think of one major explanation for the results that Drum might have missed, and for obvious partisan reasons.

Simply put, this research might not be evidence of conservative pigheadedness: it could just as easily be taken as evidence of legitimate conservative cockiness in the face of consistently lousy critics. That is, it could be that, in the actual real-world experience of most conservatives over the past few decades, prominent “refutations” of ideologically pro-conservative claims really have turned out to be wrong a lot of the time. Perhaps even so much that encountering strong objections to such claims is itself a good statistical predictor of their veracity.

This isn’t necessarily a rational reaction on a case by case basis; it doesn’t have to be. Like any Pavlovian mechanism, what matters is simply its general effectiveness as an association over time and experience. A knee-jerk “backfire effect” response may not make conservatives look very good in a controlled situation in which the claim is already known to be wrong. But it might be a reaction that’s served conservatives pretty well in everyday political life.

Thus, what may be at work here is simply a difference in actual historical experience. Refutations of claims that liberals like may simply have turned out to be valid more often than the refutations of claims conservatives like. And because each group has had different experiences, they’ve developed different knee-jerk mechanisms for how they process a refutation of a politically convenient claim.

Of course, this explanation would require you to basically accept that, in practice, conservative claims really are right more often than liberal ones. Or, at least, that critics of core conservative claims tend to be a lot sloppier and untrustworthy than critics of liberal claims. As someone that leans towards the liberal side of things myself, my own knee-jerk reaction is to find such possibilities absurd: how could our “reality-based community” be less reliable than… than… them?!

The problem, of course, is that I’m obviously too biased to subjectively sum up such a broad and comprehensive balance sheet of overall trustworthiness. Nor can I think of any immediate way to test a partisan bias in “accuracy” empirically.

But I do know that it’s at least a possible explanation for the highly partisan nature of the “backfire effect” that the researchers observed; it’s one which I can’t, as a good social scientist, immediately discount just because I happen to get all worked up about McCain’s latest campaign ads.

And it is an intriguing thought in any case: that the individually irrational behavior of a certain group towards criticism could itself be evidence that their ideological red meat is generally more accurate in the face of criticism.


Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

July 29, 2008

Via Hemant at Friendly Atheist comes a story on the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her research has shown that the concept of God is essentially endemic to toddlers, while atheism has to be learned later on. She bases her conclusions on several cross-cultural studies, primarily relying on Japan as a cultural foil to Western theism. Since Japanese culture (by her characterization) “discourages” metaphysical speculation and the idea of a God as a creator, finding children instinctively leaning towards a God-like being as the cause of natural things supposedly implies that children instinctively believe in a God.

As one blogger puts it: Atheism is definitely an acquired position.

Or is it? The main problem I have with her reasoning is that Petrovich seems to conflate the idea of “inherent belief in God as a developmental stage” with “an idea that’s very likely to occur to someone if they are confronted with a particular question.”

That is, she doesn’t actually present any evidence that most, let alone all, children who are not exposed to theistic beliefs as a normal practice, go around regularly and actively believing in God (i.e. seeing a dog, and always then thinking “oh, God made that”) Rather, her research seems to imply that many children will, when presented with the question of ultimate origins, eagerly jump to the offerred conclusion that a powerful, psychological entity would be behind otherwise inexplicable events and causes.

That’s not really the same thing at all.

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Wafer Desecrated: PZ Myers Makes Good on His Threat & More Besides

July 24, 2008

Well, for better, and probably for worse, PZ Myers has done as he promised and treated a communion wafer in a manner unbecoming of the sacred, all to definitively demonstrate that, indeed, he doesn’t think these things are sacred. For good measure, he trashed not only the wafer, but also some torn pages of the Koran, and even torn pages of Dawkins’ writings.

This is one of those odd situations in which I know what other people will likely think far better than I know what to think.

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When Theism Cannot Explain Anything (Origins Especially)

July 24, 2008

In having a bit of a debate with blogger Eric Kemp, we hit an impasse at which he declared that “God” is a sensible explanation for an otherwise presently inexplicable event (in this case, the nature and/or origin of the universe). It seems like as good a time as any to explore what I see as the intellectual impotence of theistic “explanations.”

Just what is it to explain something, anyhow? It is to come away with more information than you began. To have a set of distinct causes, effects, and overall processes, in place of what was once complete ignorance. It means being able to state what needs to be done for some event to happen: what specific capacities are necessary for something to do it.

To say that the standard theistic God has caused phenomenon X is essentially to say that it was done by a being that is hypothetically capable of doing anything. In short, it is a truly ingenious means of avoiding having to give any specific explanation for how X happens. No ignorance is dispelled.

Using God in this way is much like answering a multiple choice question by filling in every option, and then claiming that you have answered the question correctly. But while you are indeed sure to have filled in the correct bubble at some point in the process (unless of course, we’ve tricked you by simply not offerring the right answer there at all), your “answer” doesn’t actually tell you or anyone else which option was the correct one.

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James Carse: Yet Another Atheist Who Just Doesn’t Get Atheism

July 22, 2008

Yesterday, Salon featured an interview with James Carse, longtime Religious Studies director at NYU, covering his new book The Religious Case Against Belief.

Now, a lot of what Carse has to say about religion is interesting and engaging, if not always convincing. But when it comes to the now-standard near-content-free dismissal of the “New Atheists,” Carse falls flat:

In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that’s left out is the sense of religion that I’ve been talking about [i.e. being endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human]. Instead, it’s an attack on what’s essentially a belief system.

Well, pardon me sir, but duh. Carse acts as if Dawkins, Dennet, and all the rest are somehow honor-bound to a) care about Carse’s obscure religious mysticism b) oppose it as a matter of principle and yet c) fail to justify their opposition. But Dawkins, Harris, and Dennet explicitly say that Carse’s sort of “religion” is not the sense of the word “religious” that’s in their crosshairs.

In other words, they’re focused on a specific target. That’s a good thing, not a failing.

So the fact that Carse uses a far broader definition of “religion” than the New Atheists is no excuse for holding them to that broad definition, let alone then claiming that they sloppily miss the mark and that not all “religion” is susceptible to their critiques. Of course it isn’t.

And while Carse absolutely refuses the word, it’s pretty plain that he’s an atheist himself:

Salon: And yet, you’ve just told me that you yourself don’t believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.

Carse: The difference, though, is that I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That’s a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them.

I’ve got some bad news for Carse: if he actually sat down and read their books, he’d find that he’s got exactly that in common with them (Dawkins and Harris in particular)… plenty of atheists. You think I’m not stunned and humbled by the mystery of things? That not a single atheist ever walks about in wonder about the universe? These are mere childish stereotypes of atheism: the old equivocation that because we don’t believe in metaphysical souls that we don’t have soul, baby.

Now, Carse is welcome to think that his own critique of modern religion is “deeper and much more incisive,” but that’s clearly in part because he happens to be very interested in religion (nothing wrong with that), and wants people to get more out of it (good for him). In fact, I think there is plenty of synergy between his feelings and mine in regards to even liberal theologies not taking things far enough, not leaping full bore into the sort of poetic innovation that built their traditions in the first place.

But the New Atheists are specifically concerned primarily with the perniciousness of faith beliefs, and there’s simply nothing wrong with having that focus either. Outside of that focus, they really don’t have much beef with Carse or anyone else wandering around in his secularized state of agape. So why is he so eager to pick fights with them, when he seemingly can’t even be bothered to raise a single substantive criticism against their specific arguments, or a single substantive difference between their position and his?

The best he musters is to claim that the New Atheists have their own belief system to offer in place of religion: one that is just as dismissive of ignorance and mystery as religious dogma. But this is surely a cheap shot. All of the people he talks about have all written tons of material on science as a neverending, never-certain method, not a dogma. Carse is basically attacking people like Dennet for trying to explain things like consciousness and “free will” that Carse, perhaps, thinks should not be explained, but doing it under the guise of falsely accusing Dennet of arrogantly thinking that he can solve or answer every question. That’s just a low blow.

And then there’s clueless claims like this which make me wonder if he’s ever really thought about atheism much at all:

To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you’re not believing in. Therefore, if you don’t have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily…

This is like saying that to not be a platypus, you have to have a deep and well-developed understanding of platypi. Nonsense. To be an atheist, all you have to be clear about is that there is no concept close to or akin to ANY sort of God belief inside your head. You don’t have to know every possible deep insight into what a god might be to know that you’ve yet to happen upon a convincing reason to believe in God, period.

And Carse seems no different on this point anyway. His answer as to whether he believes God exists is “[Laugh] Frankly, no.” So if even Carse, supposedly deeply steeped in theistic understanding hasn’t found anything to convince him to believe (and Carse pretty much rejects the entire “belief claim” side of religion), why should atheists who don’t happen to be interested in religious studies in the first place worry their pretty little heads about it?

A lack of deep insight into theology is neither laudable nor contemptible, any more than a lack of deep insight into botany is necessarily a gaping hole in your life. You can’t appreciate or be interested in every single subject equally deeply, and everyone has their favorite subjects. Carse enjoys religion even without the belief claim side of it, and good for him. But without compelling, universally relevant belief claims at stake, and lacking much other than subjective appreciation, Carse hasn’t made any sort of case as to why atheists, or people in general, must care about appreciating the poetic side of religion.

Of course, I just so happen to have a taste for religious studies. And for all my carrying on over this particular point, Carse’s book sounds like one I’ll be adding to my already bulging reading list. I just wish people that celebrate the mysterious and unconventional sides of life would stop pushing such conventional and dogmatic slanders of non-belief.


Your Brain Makes Its Decisions Without You: More on Free Will and Identity

July 2, 2008

There’s little doubt that conscious experience is one of the most perplexing phenomenon that… well that it has ever encountered. Not only do we not know what our inner “observing” subject is, we don’t know how to even think about what it is. Why am “I” (whatever it is that’s experiencing anything at all) linked to not just to a body, but to a specific body? Why aren’t “I” someone else? Why is it “like” anything to be a human being, rather than our brains simply carrying out choice and action without any seeming internal passenger?

Philosophers and Theologians have long tried to lay claim to the mystery with concepts like “Soul” or “Free Will” that purport to explain conscious experience or the nature of willed choice, but their attempts have never delivered any actual tangible, additional insight into the phenomenon. Later attempts like “qualia” have only put more names to things we still do not understand. And perhaps it’s no surprise that these attempts have been so unproductive: their ultimate aim has always seemed less about increasing our knowledge, and more about a turf war over which school or ideology can assert exclusive right to this most precious of philosophical possessions.

But while there’s no guarantee that science can ever fully explain consciousness, there can also be no doubt that if you want to learn at least something about it, rather than merely discover new names for things you still don’t understand, neurologists have far more to offer than most traditional philosophers and theologians at this point. And, indeed, what science is revealing is far weirder than we could have ever imagined from any armchair.

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NRO’s Mary Eberstadt Pouts in the General Direction of Atheism

June 24, 2008

Thanks to Ed Brayton, I’ve recently been made aware of a rather sad spectacle. Apparently National Review scribe Mary Eberstadt has been laboring away in obscurity for the last month or so, penning what her editors seem to think is a clever take on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (in which a demon instructs his nephew in the business of inspiring human sin).

I’m not a fan of Lewis’ quaint, preening writing style to begin with, but at least the man gave off the air of erudition (even if he did indulge in embarrassing apologia like the “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” gambit). Eberstadt, on the other hand, very literally (perhaps even intentionally) writes like a gossipy teenage girl from the 80s gushing about Corey Haim. Except of course, that she employs hip-to-be-square terms like “BFF” and “Oh snap!”

Lewis’ Letters worked because he employed the creative conceit of professional demon tempters to expose and explore universal human failings… and, by amusing proxy, revealed how human beings could actually avoid the demonic designs on their souls. Screwtape, the narrative voice of the tale, was a master manipulator. It was a satire, to be sure, but Screwtape himself was not played as a fool: he was meant to illustrate precisely how dangerous sin and temptation could be.

Eberhardt, on the other hand, has no higher purpose than to first pretend to be an atheist then act as mindbogglingly stupid as possible. It’s the literary equivalent of a schoolyard “you’re all like this: duhhhhhh.”

Like Brayton, I feel compelled by my profession to dissect the sorry affair point by point, but I can’t quite bring myself to actually read more than a shuddering gasp at a time. What few coherent points she does appear to be making are either trivial straw men, endless harping on substance-free matters like “Brights,” or bringing up classic controversies to which she adds nothing new. So if anyone can please extract a coherent argument from this right-wing bestseller-to-be so that I can address it directly, I’d much appreciate the service.

And while I won’t have much credibility in saying so, I honestly don’t see any comic wit or incisive satire at work here. Maybe someone a little more patient than I can point some out. Because here’s an example of the sort of stuff you have to endlessly wade through in search of a point…

I’m not even sure why I still feel them myself, so long after my own Turn to atheism. It’s true that when my ex-boyfriend, Lobo, got stoned, there was nothing he liked better than opening all his Dad’s coffee-table books on Renaissance art and eyeballing the paintings and sculptures. And it’s true that this was one of the few things Lobo did that I enjoyed doing with him when I wasn’t stoned myself. That was before his Dad kicked him out and we moved to Portland, You know. I’m not saying Lobo was all bad, by the way. Just mostly. That’s what happens when You pick up Your boyfriend in rehab I guess!

Whooooaaa! Girlfriend went there!

And it just goes on and on like that: in this case, pages of that sort of stuff all essentially to make the single, exceedingly bland non-point that believers have made a lot of great art and that Sam Harris (a non-artist) hasn’t. Great. Thanks for the five minutes worth of literary agony.

I’m honestly embarrassed for her. If this is really a “serious work of Christian apologetics” then atheists have quite little to fear.

Christians often complain that atheist critiques of religion are simplistic and carelessly dismissive. But as Eberstadt aptly illustrates, atheists are a model of polite, interested commentary compared to how they are often treated in return.


Jesus Was Wrong: Give Charity in Public, And Don’t Diversify

June 22, 2008

Peter Singer is the sort of philosopher that everyone feels free to sneer at and denigrate… all without ever actually reading his actual writing or seriously addressing his arguments. Which is too bad, because he’s one of the few ethicists out there that sincerely treats moral inquiry as an exercise in figuring out what’s actually right to do, as opposed to simply finding ways to better justify what we already do… or at least already believe is right (our moral habits, as it were).

Along these lines, Singer has recently challenged Biblical instruction of Jesus to give charity in private.

Singer doesn’t deny that the abstract idea of some person anonymously giving large sums of money without any hope of thanks appeals to our sense of what true altruism entails. But the reasons that we find that image so appealing and the actual good that the ideal accomplishes simply may not match up.

The abstract nature of the image the core of its virtue: it’s nice an clean and untroubled in our minds. It allows us to conceptually rule out all possible suspect motives from the person’s action other than either true concern for others and secretly feeling good about oneself. Thus, in our minds, we can be certain that the person’s act was pure and saintly. This was the ideal Jesus was so approving of: an otherwise reasonable disgust with people who give lavishly to impress others rather than to actually help them.

But as Singer argues, people in the midst of disasters don’t need anonymous saints, or require some level of purity in motive. What they need are actual people with faces to help and comfort them and as many charitable resources as possible applied to their problem.

And here’s the key point: everything we know about human behavior implies that people respond to peer pressure when it comes to charitable giving: if they see their neighbors giving, they’ll be more likely to give, and give still more. Thus, the good that setting an example does by far outweighs whatever secret motives someone might have for doing it. Those motives remain as mere thoughts in the head. The aid is still aid, and public knowledge of it sets and example that can be followed.

Singer doesn’t deny that a lot of lavish giving and “nameplate” philanthropy is contaminated with bad motives. But that’s largely because those bad motives lead people not to think very seriously about what charities are really the most important, not because the public nature of giving is itself bad:

Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor’s name is chiseled into the marble faade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

On that note, economist Steven Landsburg has even more interesting advice about charitable giving: if you want to do the most good, it rarely, if ever, makes sense to diversify the recipients of your charity.

His argument is deceptively simple:

You might protest that you diversify because you don’t know enough to make a firm judgment about where your money will do the most good. But that argument won’t fly. Your contribution to CARE says that in your best (though possibly flawed) judgment, and in view of the (admittedly incomplete) information at your disposal, CARE is worthier than the cancer society. If that’s your best judgment when you shell out your first $100, it should be your best judgment when you shell out your second $100.

So why is charity different? Here’s the reason: An investment in Microsoft can make a serious dent in the problem of adding some high-tech stocks to your portfolio; now it’s time to move on to other investment goals. Two hours on the golf course makes a serious dent in the problem of getting some exercise; maybe it’s time to see what else in life is worthy of attention. But no matter how much you give to CARE, you will never make a serious dent in the problem of starving children. The problem is just too big; behind every starving child is another equally deserving child.

That is not to say that charity is futile. If you save one starving child, you have done a wonderful thing, regardless of how many starving children remain. It is precisely because charity is so effective that we should think seriously about where to target it, and then stay focused once the target is chosen.

And, through, the suspicious sorcery of economic theory, he even translates his argument into mathematics. Landsburg also makes the case that diversification may be a far better gauge of selfish motives than mere publicity:

People constantly ignore my good advice by contributing to the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, CARE, and public radio all in the same year–as if they were thinking, “OK, I think I’ve pretty much wrapped up the problem of heart disease; now let’s see what I can do about cancer.” But such delusions of grandeur can’t be very common. So there has to be some other reason why people diversify their giving.

I think I know what that reason is. You give to charity because you care about the recipients, or you give to charity because it makes you feel good to give. If you care about the recipients, you’ll pick the worthiest and “bullet” (concentrate) your efforts. But if you care about your own sense of satisfaction, you’ll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, “I gave to all those!”

The lesson here is clear: if you want to do the most good, give a lot of money to a single cause (one whose problem is huge relative to your contribution, and the one you think most objectively worthy), and tell everyone you know. Maybe they’ll conclude that you’re a bragging, self-aggrandizing sociopath. Who cares? The research shows that they’ll still be shamed into following suit. And for desperate people in need, the issue of what a bunch of first-world philanthropists think of each other is laughably irrelevant.


“Theophobia” in Academia and Elsewhere

June 19, 2008

A number of thoughtful interchanges today between Rick Hills at Pawfsblog and the Volokh folks.

Hill starts everything off by recounting an exchange with a former colleague that disturbed him: his colleague seemed shocked to hear that a mutual friend was a Christian. The friend goes as far as to worry that “if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything — attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.”

Hill thinks that this reaction is a sign of, well, mental illness:

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Ok Skeptics: What’s Next? Immodest Proposals For Political Activism

June 15, 2008

If you haven’t noticed the rising cultural tide of skeptics and non-believers, then maybe we still haven’t made enough of a nuisance of ourselves. Just you wait!

Me, I’d like to take some time to think about where this is all going. What do we want?

Mostly, it seems, just to talk. And that’s a good thing: the subjects we’re interested are abstract: they’re debates about ideas first and foremost. Skeptics have always been the traditional first-line defenders of free inquiry, and we’re not about to give up that role anytime soon.

Still, we seem to have all these people with so many common interests and values. We have conventions. We should, I think, consider having some more concrete goals. Some specific issues we have on the table every election season. And I’m not talking about amorphous things like “better funding for science” and so on. I’m talking about very specific policy proposals: specific enough that some friendly Representative could introduce them as numbered bills on the floor of Congress.

So what should these be? Getting a consensus is always difficult, but other interest groups do it. Skeptics may be, by our very nature, hard to herd, but it’s not impossible. I think most of us could, for instance, get behind a proposal to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which used to helpfully advise Congress on all sorts of complex scientific issues that Congressman and their staffs, rarely have much depth of knowledge about. And if you have your own suggestions, I welcome them in the comments, or on your own blogs (let me know and I’ll link to them at the end of this post).

Here’s my proposal though: that we reform public education. And I don’t mean weigh into issues like vouchers, funding, teacher unions, or any of that. What I mean is that we lobby for a particular set of concepts and skills to become a central part of state and/or federal education standards: a theme that runs through what and how we teach kids to write and reason. Subject disciplines like history, math, biology, English, and so forth, are all important. But it’s just as, if not more important to prepare children to be critical thinkers, to be intelligent and skeptical consumers of mass media, political appeals, and even commercial advertising. To understand logical fallacies. To know how to read an argument and set about responding to it. To appreciate the basic principles of statistics, independent of math level, and the basic pitfalls of interpreting scientific results (regression to the mean, sampling error, etc.) We need civics courses for a new age.

American students have always held an economic edge when it comes to creative, independent thinking: even when our students lag far behind in brute force effort and devotion to studies. I think playing on these strengths is a winning economic and social strategy. I’m not entirely sure yet on how best to sell it to the public, but that’s what Public Relations geniuses are for.

However, we’d also have to be very focused and restrained about how we go about it. All of us skeptics have our favorite sacred cows that we love to target. But in the bitter, rough and tumble world of curricula debates, most of these line-item punching bags are also going to be non-starters. Few of the players and factions necessary to win political approval are going to trust our proposals if they think we’re using them just to smuggle in our partisan views.

I recently scoffed at William Dembski’s petty hopes of trying to cram Intelligent Design down kids throats. There’s a real danger of any effort too similar to his, one that focuses on what to believe, rather than how to think, will get scoffed at, and for much the same reasons.

Just to highlight one example of how skeptical teaching can quickly become politically objectionable, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid fame has a great new educational video out called “Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking” I’m a fan of Dunning’s work, and this video is definately a worthy skeptical teaching tool.

But like it or not, a lot of the specific topics he covers are, sadly, too controversial for a public school. Maybe not scientifically, but politically. Panning over the countless nutritional supplements on store shelves and questioning their efficacy has great scientific and skeptical merit. But in practice, the owner of the drug store that makes big bucks off this stuff sits on the local school board.

And, right or wrong, many of these sorts of interested parties are going to give something like “Dragons” a big thumbs down when it comes to showing it in the classroom. Just to pick another example, the orange-grower lobby is not going to take too kindly to coursework that poo-poos vitamin-C’s cold-fighting powers. By the same measure, as silly as it all is, you can pretty much forget about the State of Florida ever endorsing such a course. Honestly, we’re lucky enough that there isn’t much economic force behind creationism or science education would really be in trouble.

But it’s not that we have to toothlessly stand down on everything just to play nice. That’s not the point. It’s just that in politics, everything has a price. Every issue has an interest group, every interest group is loyal to a faction, and every lost vote means having to scrounge up some more from somewhere else. Eventually, you price yourself right out of the market. So you have to be very realistic about how much you can do at any one time, with any one policy proposal.

And in this case, getting into those fights is ultimately unnecessary. If we focus on the core skills in question, it really doesn’t matter what examples we happen to use in the process of teaching them. And if we can lobby for school curriculums that do a good job of teaching kids how to critically analyze any and all claims, we won’t have to single out any specific targets for them.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too, politically. But we can serve students some cake, and then be pretty darn certain that they’ll eat it at some point, on their own initiative.

Anyway, I welcome constructive criticism on this, or any other policy idea you think would make a good centerpiece platform for skeptics. Is this something you think we could all rally around? Can we flesh it out sufficiently and seriously lobby for it? Or if not this, then what?

What’s next? And who’s up for it?


Liberal Christianity vs. The Bible: Why a “Bible” at All?

June 8, 2008

I’m going to pose a question here, and hopefully not in the spirit of impertinence, but rather in sparking discussion and illumination.

My question: why would so many liberal Christians and their denominations (very broadly defined to include those Christians who do not acknowledge there being any unified canon of beliefs about God or exactly how God communicates textually: even those Christians that reject the idea of a traditional theistic god entirely), continue to retain and use the Bible in its (relatively) traditional form as a centerpiece of worship?

I’m not asking this rhetorically, quietly snickering at the idea or accusing liberal Christians of being inconsistent. But I do want to present it as something of a challenge, because I think there is a real choice to be made here, and not an easy one. Having the Bible as the Bible remain unchanged and/or at the center of worship inevitably means giving up other spiritual options, other theologies.

Let me try to explain what I mean in more detail, and indeed, make a sort of case for “breaking” the Bible:

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The New Age “Secret” in Hawaii: You Created Your Cancer Circumstance!

June 8, 2008

In my opinion, Hawaii is the best and most beautiful of our 50 states. But while I was down there blissfully schooling with reef fish, I also happened to notice that the local media seemed saturated with the New Age/New Thought nuttery known as “The Secret.” Many of its luminaries were offering talks, conferences, and workshops throughout the summer, with tickets that ran as high as $250 for “V.I.P.” seats.

For those not duly acquainted with this stuff, it’s essentially a self-help/motivational speaking movement that has proudly leaped off the deep-end with mystical pronouncements about the nature of thought and reality. Namely, they claim that the entire universe is shaped by people’s thoughts, and that a “Law of Attraction” allows you to draw the things you want to you just by thinking about them. The whole shebang is, in the end, pretty standard pseudoscience: lots of very vague claims, few falsifiable, coupled with the attitude that any skeptics are party-poopers messing up all the magic with their negative nancyings.

Wishing got me this hatAnyway, one of Hawaii’s local papers featured an interview with one Mike Dooley “former Hawaii Marine brat,” former tax accountant, T-shirt salesman, and now multi-million dollar motivational mufti for the Secret movement. His trademark idea is that “Thoughts Become Things.” He even, without any sense of self-parody, has some sort of super-adventure club called TUT.com to promote it.

How did he come to conclude that he (and maybe you, if you can afford the 130$ workshop) could recreate reality with his mind?

Not finding answers in the mainstream, including the religion I belong to [I was] a good old Catholic boy. I was left to draw conclusions–deductive reasoning. For instance, [that] we’re powerful, loved, eternal, that time space must be illusions. These were my inner suspicions. We are divine creators. What we focus on, we ultimately manifest. Books helped me confirm my inner suspicions about life.”

I’m not sure how or why “deductive reasoning” got downgraded to “inner suspicion” halfway through this paragraph, but the idea that time and space are “illusions” is a pretty darn extravagant claim. And it’s one that I’m not so sure you can use an “inner suspicion” to discern the truth of. Entirely within the confines of your own mind, it’s perfectly possible to think of the universe, and everything that happens in it, as illusion. That’s because it’s the ultimate in unfalsifiable beliefs: any possible evidence to the contrary can simply be classified as part of the illusion.

But what does it really mean to assert that time and space are a mirage… and then try to simply move on from there as a being within that false reality? If everything is fake, what’s real, and how does Dooley know?

Worse still, Dooley promotes his approach by insisting that his method can deliver all sorts of material wants: money, cars, worldly success. But that’s bizarrely out of step with his own philosophical assertions. If reality is a distracting illusion, then all these physical goodies would themselves also be a distracting illusion. What sense does it make to declare reality a complete fantasy and then spend so much time demanding cold hard cash out of it? At least when most Buddhists tell people to let go of any attachment to existence, they mean it whole-heartedly: not merely as a means to a materialist payday.

So, while Dooley calls his insights a philosophy, insisting that what he’s selling is neither religion nor a cult (and thus wonderfully compatible with either), it’s a woefully incomplete and vague sort of philosophy. This is especially so when he runs up against the obvious problem with his few coherent claims: if people create their own reality, then why would anyone choose to suffer? Wouldn’t this mean that individuals are all 100% to blame for any circumstance they find themselves in? When you get sick, is it merely because of a lack of will? Are cancer patients to blame for their colon killing them and their chemo treatments torturing them?

Well, according to Dooley, in addition to the Law of Attraction, there are “other parameters, none of which take away our power, but do explain the disparity we see in the world.” He doesn’t list any, or explain them further. Instead, he sort of slides around the implication without really answering it:

“Fault is not a word that would be used spiritually. We choose our lives, the stage, knowing ahead of time that there could be hardships. Irrelevant of the circumstances, we are creators. Why was such a circumstance created. Every person that has cancer has it with their own intents, rationale, and motivation. To say “Is it their fault?” is taking the whole thing out of context. They are master creators. There are reasons. Whether or not those reasons can be pinpointed doesn’t take away our ability to recognize that we are creators and that things do not happen to us by chance or accident.” (emphasis added)

“There are reasons”? We have cancer with “our own intents”? I’m not sure what the heck that means, but it sure sounds like cancer patients are indeed due little sympathy for their self-inflicted sufferings.

Give me old-time theodicy any day of the week. It doesn’t make any sense either, but at least it isn’t quite as vague and off-the-cuff.

Why isn’t “fault” a word that can be “used spiritually” anyway? We’re back to my usual complaint here: tossing the word “spiritual” or “supernatural” into a concept does not magically alleviate one’s need to explain what the heck you’re claiming is going on. Or, in this case, why a concept like “fault” can’t apply to the idea of people apparently choosing their circumstances. And it doesn’t explain how Dooley can know or “recognize” that nothing happens by “chance or accident.”

Traditional motivational speakers don’t dabble in metaphysics like this: they teach people how to improve on their circumstances, find explanations for things after the fact, repurpose lemons into Fruitopia. They teach positive thinking because it can help lead one to more positive behavior, not because it’s some sort of magic incantation.

I know enough about even the traditional “self-help” methods and movements to be highly skeptical of them, and advise the same skepticism for others. But the kooky claims of this Secret stuff positively scream “scam.”