Get ’em while they’re young

That old Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” is significant, although the age is arbitrarily specific. Shape them early and you can do all kinds of rotten things to the adult. Fundamentalist Christians also know this; we’ve seen the consequences here in the US, where they’ve invested a huge amount of time, money, and effort in school boards and corrupting the educational system. Creationists don’t just spontaneously appear, they are the product of years of indoctrination.

So what do we do about College Republicans? The school year has started, my university has over a hundred clubs (anyone can start one, for any cause or reason), and there are first year students signing up this week for the College Republicans, in a sincere belief in conservative values, and they’re going to stumble right into a toxic atmosphere.

Racial resentment has been a driving force behind College Republican recruitment for years, but at this point it’s really all they have left to offer. In the age of President Donald Trump, what inspires a young person not merely to be conservative or vote Republican, but to get active in organized Republican politics? Do you think it’s a fervent belief that Paul Ryan knows the optimal tax policy to spur economic growth? Or do you think it’s more likely to be something else?

Ha ha, no.

Our two-party system has us locked into this weirdly limiting binary dynamic, where power is driven entirely by the party qua party, both for the Democrats and the Republicans — we might as well rename the factions the Blues and the Greens. Unfortunately, it means party membership is driven more by gamesmanship and identity and hatred of the opposition than by policy and civil service and sensible leadership. The next generation is not looking any better, either.

Meanwhile, the only people entering the Republican Party candidate pipeline in the Trump era almost have to be allied with the alt-right, because the alt-right absolutely comprises the only effective and successful youth outreach strategy the GOP currently employs. The future leaders of the GOP aren’t the hooded Klan members or Nazi-tattooed thugs who presented the most cartoonish faces of hate in Charlottesville, but they are their clean-cut fellow marchers, and the many young right-wingers around the nation who sympathize with their cause.

Alex Pareene makes a terrifying prophecy.

This is the state of the GOP leadership pipeline. In a decade, state legislatures will start filling up with Gamergaters, MRAs, /pol/ posters, Anime Nazis, and Proud Boys. These are, as of now, the only people in their age cohort becoming more active in Republican politics in the Trump era. Everyone else is fleeing. This will be the legacy of Trumpism: It won’t be long before voters who reflexively check the box labeled “Republican” because their parents did, or because they think their property taxes are too high, or because Fox made them scared of terrorism, start electing Pepe racists to Congress.

It’s sad. There are some optimistic young people entering the university, and one of the mistakes they’ll make is to join CR and breathe the mind-rotting poison, and next thing you know, they join the staff of the Morris North Star (or its equivalent; it seems to have gone belly-up, but we’ve had a succession of right-wing rags with different names and different editors, all the same) and start writing bigoted drivel to qualify themselves for the wingnut welfare program.

And I can do nothing. The people who ought to be cracking down on this malignancy are the mythical Responsible Republicans, who believe in cautious conservative values, but who, it seems, don’t actually exist. Conservative has become a code word for racism and misogyny.


But it’s only a calculation and numbers

Richard Dawkins used his recently much calmer Twitter account to snipe at something he doesn’t seem to understand.

All humanity should be proud of Newton & the precision of eclipse forecasting (oh but surely an eclipse is only a social construct?)

The first part is true. We can predict these things thousands of years in advance; yesterday’s eclipse was announced years ahead of time, maps were produced that told everyone precisely when and where it would be visible, and presto, they were correct, as everyone rightly expected! There are brute facts about the relative movements of 3 astronomical bodies that can be calculated with impressive precision.

But why the snide remark about a “social construct”? The eclipse was also a social construct! We attach a value to witnessing these events, and also to conversing about them to our friends and families, and on social media. People felt awe when the sun was obscured by the moon. They wrote about it, they took pictures. They traveled long distances to witness it, and felt the effort was worth it. Some of us didn’t bother, because what we individually value is also a social construct. Eclipses would continue to happen if humanity managed to eradicate itself; the shadow will continue to move across a planet of smoke and ash and crumbling skeletons, but this other cultural dimension will have vanished, and we wouldn’t have science communicators feeling proud of their accomplishments, they wouldn’t be explaining how it occurs, and we wouldn’t be telling their children about it.

Did you know we can trace the path of totality by mapping the traffic jams afterwards? Newton did not forecast that. He couldn’t, despite the fact that traffic patterns are also a brute material fact. Because it was a consequence of the social construct built around the eclipse.

It was also weird to see that put-down of the importance of social structures in interpreting astronomical events because just a few hours earlier, he wrote this:

“Listening to the eclipse” I journeyed to Austria for 1999 eclipse. There was a moving wave of human yells & whoops

What? Why did he travel all the way to Austria to watch a highly predictable shadow? Why did the humans in attendance yell and whoop, when all that happened is that it got dark for a few minutes? Stay home. Run an astronomy simulation and get the numbers and parameters. The rest is only a social construct.

Scientism is also a social construct, by the way.


Mary’s Monday Metazoan: I don’t have enough appendages

They aren’t colorful enough, either.


Proof that Trump can’t take good advice

During the eclipse, the Donald was yelled at to not look directly into the sun, and what does he do?

You’d think, as a billionaire, he could afford the very best protective eyewear, and as the President, surrounded by security and advisors, he’d be informed that a squint is not going to help. What a dumbass.

Could someone please tell him that he can’t fly, and leaping off the top of the Trump Tower would be a very bad idea? Please?



I met with my first group of new student advisees this morning. I think we’ll keep them.

Also, totally irrelevant: we’re supposed to have begun the partial eclipse here in Morris, but unfortunately the sky is a uniform sheet of light gray cloudiness — I can’t even see the sun anywhere. Maybe the moon ate it.

new humanist blog

The reality of racism in modern Britain

A bold new book by Reni Eddo-Lodge tackles race and racism in Britain both past and present.

People Think Serial Killers are More Likely to be Atheist

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Allow me to pose a question to you. A child tortures animals and grows up enjoying hurting people. As an adult, he now has killed five homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement. Which is more likely: that he is a teacher? Or that he is a teacher and he doesn’t believe in any gods?

Think it over and get your answer in mind!

That question was posed to more than 1,300 people in 13 different countries on all 5 continents in a new study published in Nature Human Behavior. Another 1,300 people were asked a very similar question, but they were asked if the man was more likely to be a teacher, or a teacher who is religious.

The scientists found that people were much more likely to associate the serial killer with atheism than with religion.

The interesting thing about that question is that it’s a brain teaser. The correct answer in both cases is that it’s more likely the man is a teacher, rather than a teacher who is an atheist OR a teacher who is religious. It’s just simple logic that there are more teachers in the world than there are teachers who are atheists, and there are more teachers in the world than there are teachers who are religious. It’s called the representativeness heuristic, a kind of logical fallacy type of deal where your brain loses track of basic logic because it wants to associate a particular cause with a particular effect. The classic example of this is to describe a woman in her 30s who has dyed hair and hipster glasses and tattoos, she’s registered as a Democrat, and she doesn’t plan to have children. Is it more likely that she’s a teacher, or a teacher and a feminist?

If you have a very strong feeling of what a feminist looks like and acts like, you may be inclined to choose the latter answer despite the fact that when you think about it, it’s obviously wrong. There are far more teachers in the world than teachers who are also feminist. So researchers use the representativeness heuristic to identify people’s biases without them necessarily realizing it.

In the case of the serial killer, people were more likely to think he was an atheist. But what’s even more surprising is that atheists were also more likely to think he was an atheist. Self-hating atheists, anyone?

When reading about this study in the New York Times, I noticed a few problems with the reporting. One was the conflation of “serial killer” with “psychopath” and “sociopath,” something that the author of the study actually does in his interview despite the fact that psychopath and sociopath are never mentioned in the actual study. Not all psychopaths are serial killers, or vice versa. As an atheist, I would be inclined to think that most psychopaths are atheist as well — not because they lack morality but because they are more analytical thinkers who lack the empathy that I think is necessary to fall for religion. That’s a personal opinion of mine, by the way, not science, though there has been some research that suggests it’s true.

But thinking that most psychopaths are atheists doesn’t mean that I think most atheists are psychopaths. (And obviously, I’d still answer the question correctly regardless because I know it’s a trick question.) And I don’t think most serial killers are atheists, simply because I don’t know or even believe that most serial killers kill out of sociopathy.

This problem also comes up in the quote from the study’s author, who says, “We used this psychopathic serial killer because we thought that, even if people didn’t trust atheists enough to let them babysit their children, they wouldn’t necessarily assume them to be serial killers.”

The New York Times then adds, “But they did — overwhelmingly.” But they didn’t! People did show a bias in thinking a serial killer was more likely to be an atheist, but this study did NOT show that anyone would “assume” atheists are serial killers. They assume serial killers are atheists. That’s still a problem of bias, but it’s not a problem as bad as assuming atheists are serial killers. It may sound minor, but in the first example you’re making an assumption about fewer than 200 people from the last 40 years. In the latter example you’re making an assumption about literally hundreds of millions of people.

What we can say is that people, especially those in more religious countries by the way, are probably more likely to think an atheist is a serial killer than a religious believer is a serial killer. The fact that even atheists have that bias shows how deeply ingrained it is. Only time, and increased public recognition of non-murdering atheists, will start to change that.


Popper and the Paradox of Tolerance

In the days since the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, there has been a new addition to the online/social-media meta-discourse on the problem of protected political speech in the context of the open and ongoing resurgence of white nationalism and Nazi iconography in American politics. It is a series of memes based on Karl Popper’s idea of the “Paradox of Tolerance,” which he introduced in his 1945 work of political philosophy entitled The Open Society and Its Enemies. Most of the memes are of the usual text-on-photo style, but there is also a popular cartoon version, which I’ll reproduce below:

Most of the memes paraphrase or otherwise do not include the full text of the relevant passage for reasons of space, but since it is relatively short I will also reproduce it here:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right to not tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal. [1]

The appeal of this passage to those seeking philosophical justification for suppressing the political rights of Nazis and white nationalists (who, after all, are practically the definition of intolerance), should be obvious.

But while Popper might at first seem to be providing a clever loophole in the traditional arguments around free speech that would allow only the most dangerous ideas and ideologies to be censored or otherwise suppressed, he has in fact only managed to disguise the problem by shifting the goalposts. Even if we answer the question of “what kind of political speech should be suppressed” with “intolerant speech,” we are still left with the same old problem wherein the arbiters of what kinds of ideologies are considered “intolerant” and worthy of suppression will inevitably be those who operate the levers of state power.

Given the current political situation in the US, where Republicans control all three branches of the federal government and the vast majority of state governments, there is simply no reason to think they will use that power in ways the left find agreeable or just. Quite the opposite: right-wing critics of Islam have already invoked Popper to justify further abrogating the rights of Muslims, and Republican and alt-right media personalities and provocateurs have spent years painting the left as “regressive” and “intolerant” of other viewpoints, sometimes violently so.

The actual merits of any case for one group being more intolerant than another are unfortunately immaterial in the larger context; once the meta-argument is conceded that intolerance justifies suppression, the targets of the oppression will depend more on who is in power than how intolerant their ideology might actually be.

This is the other half of the paradox, and why Popper includes all that softening language that doesn’t make it into the memes: it is preferable to keep toxic ideas in check with argument and public opinion precisely because the last resort of trying suppress them by force can also prove very dangerous to an open society. In an important sense, once you get to the point where neither argument nor public opinion can keep a dangerous and intolerant ideology in check, you have already lost.

[1] Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, ed. Alan Ryan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 513.


Procrastinator’s Guide to the Solar Eclipse

I love to procrastinate. Actually, no. I hate it. But my brain is just SO good at getting me into that mode. So I totally understand if you are just now realizing that one of the biggest astronomical events of a lifetime is happening just a few days from now.

If you’re not already tuned in to all things astronomy, or maybe if you’ve just been super busy, you’re now getting bombarded with messages to protect your eyes for the big solar eclipse happening Monday, August 21st. At least that’s the case if you’re anywhere in the contiguous United States.

Like all good procrastinators, you went right to Amazon to take advantage of your Prime shipping, but everyone is out of stock of eclipse glasses, or they are being sold at outrageous prices.

That doesn’t mean you are out of options! When online shopping falls through, sometimes you just have to suck it up and go to an actual physical store. I know, I know, but you can totally do this. I don’t have any first hand reports of what store stocks are like right now, but I know several retailers such as Lowe’s were carrying reputable eclipse glasses. I’ve been sending everyone I know to the American Astronomical Society solar viewer resource page, so check through your local stores and see if they still have any. If they are out, it might be a long shot, but call your local libraries, as many had glasses to give out for free. NASA also has a list of a bunch of their official viewing locations that will be giving out eclipse glasses as well. But hurry… my campus library went through my stash of free glasses in less than 6 hours, and the students aren’t even back.

Why do you need special glasses? The sun is REALLY REALLY bright, and you can indeed do damage to your eyes looking at it. It’s not just visible light that can hurt your vision, but infrared and ultraviolet, too, so these films are specially made to protect your eyes from all of that. And this goes a million times extra if you plan to use any kind of magnifying device (like binoculars or a telescope) to view the event. There’s special equipment for that as well.

But here’s the thing. If you’re NOT on the path of totality, the Moon will take a good while (2 and a half hours for my friends back in New Hampshire, for example) to cross the Sun. So it is okay to share glasses with a friend if you don’t mind taking turns. While your buddy is using the viewer, you can play with one of several fun projection methods for looking at the Sun indirectly.

Another way to deal with your own lack of eclipse gear is to go to a local public event. Libraries, museums, observatories, science centers, astronomy clubs, and more all over the continent are hosting viewing parties, and you can find several maps of events here. Chances are good that at once of these, not only will you get to use someone’s eclipse gear for a quick peek, you’ll get an educational experience from a real live astronomy geek!

What if you’re not satisfied with a partial eclipse? You want FULL totality. There is a narrow band across the US that will experience a total solar eclipse, and a LOT of people will want to be on it. Towns and counties are bracing for major gridlock, and hotels have been booked for months. On the bright side, you can make a killing on Airbnb if you’re near the eclipse path. I’ve had my plans set for months, but I still plan on filling my rental car with lots of food, water, gas, and emergency supplies before hitting the road super early in the morning to get to my destination. Check out these money saving tips for eclipse travelers and driving trips from AAA if you decide to venture to totality.

At the end of the day, no one can plan the weather. I’m nervously looking at the “partly cloudy” forecast for my own viewing location, but there’s one thing to remember… make the best of the trip. There might be clouds, traffic, and equipment failures, and we can plan all we can to enjoy those few precious moments of totality. But some things are just out of our hands.

Maybe you didn’t plan for a “once”-in-a-lifetime eclipse viewing trip this time around. Well, lucky you, since the total solar eclipse will be revisiting North America in less than 7 years! Take that, lifetime. Mark your calendars now for April 8, 2024, and maybe do a bit of advanced planning for that one.

Most of all, have fun, be safe, and protect your eyes. Unless you’re a nazi…

Check out the most recent episode of “Just Admit I’m Right” where I join our fearless leader Rebecca Watson and Ken Plume to discuss eclipse plans and playlists. Also, see my earlier post of eclipse resources on One Astronomer’s Noise.

new humanist blog

British values: the autumn 2017 New Humanist

Out now - reflections on a divided society
new humanist blog

Seeking a cure for HIV

A child in South Africa appears to have been "cured" of HIV - and has lived treatment free for nearly nine years. What can this tell us?
new humanist blog

The Great Firewall

Apple is just the latest tech giant that has failed to stand up to Chinese censorship.
school of doubt

Curse of Knowledge

Regarding my previous post on the lack of accessibility of critical thinking information, even Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has this problem. Despite being hailed as supremely understandable for general audiences (both the book and the series), I found that it also posed too many challenges in its basic linguistic accessibility to be useful in my classes.

Before you point out that I gave up without actually trying it out in my class, I do have evidence that my assessment of its accessibility was proven right. After I decided not to use Cosmos in my teaching, another teacher at my school did actually use several “easy” passages from the book. Students were utterly confused by it. Some even bought copies in their native language, and despite reading it together with some of the highest-level students in their grade, they were unable to understand it.

You might be thinking that I am projecting my own students’ ability on others and you are right to some extent. But, I must point out that there’s a reason why atheists and skeptics tend to be better educated than average. Most of the arguments for critical thinking are exclusively presented at an advanced level. There’s a cognitive bias called “curse of knowledge” in which we assume that others have the same background knowledge we do. Assuming that Sagan is going to be suitable for general audiences is falling into this bias. To many, he’s just not. He is certainly accessible in terms of not needing a background in astrophysics to understand, but there is still a prerequisite of prior knowledge.

When skeptics and atheists ignore this, they are missing a huge audience. It’s the echo chamber that many in the movements talk about. We spend a lot of time interacting with people and data that are on our level, it is easy to forget that the majority are elsewhere. Most people don’t have the basic background knowledge that skeptics take for granted, and it can take years to build up.

The language issue is even larger. Though the skeptical movement is not exclusive to English, it seems to be predominantly in English. Even international skeptics groups often use English sources. (Not to mention English’s vast over-representation in scientific publications.)

There is estimated to be over a billion non-native English speakers in the world. By presenting things in the way that we do, we fall to the curse of knowledge bias and create barriers of inaccessibility to literally hundreds of millions of people who might otherwise benefit from a more skeptical mindset. By keeping the dialogue at a high intellectual level, we might actually be shooting ourselves in the foot.

However, I must address a counterargument to my position, the issue of oversimplification. In making things accessible, simplification must occur. This presents a problem with truly complex topics (which, as it turn out, almost every topic is). To be understandable, ideas need to be explained in more basic terms but in doing so, there is a risk that they could be simplified to the point of being incorrect. Which case is worse: A person misunderstands something because it was too complicated, or a person misunderstands something because it was oversimplified?

To some extent, we need oversimplification anyway. Everyone can’t know everything about every topic. But, topics can’t actually be simplified without losing their nuance. By definition, that’s what simplification does. There’s a huge problem in the skeptic movement with a lack of understanding about nuance. But a big part of this problem relates to the fundamental problem about certain information being too difficult for most people to understand.

I hear skeptics say “we need better education in critical thinking” all the time. When I try to do that for my students, I find myself on an island, surrounded by water that I can’t drink. I wind up needing to either re-create all the materials that are out there to be basically understandable, or create them from scratch. We need to rethink the concept of general audiences and start prioritizing them in our work.


Global Quickies: Zumba Dancing, #AintNoCinderella, and Making Cool Art Out of Hate

“Four boys and two girls have been arrested in Iran for teaching “western” dance moves including Zumba, a Colombian fitness routine, a Revolutionary Guards commander has said.”

“Campaigners welcome introduction of jail sentences and fines for isolating women during menstruation but warn education is needed to end stigma”

“A German-Israeli artist who accuses Twitter of failing to delete hate speech tweets has taken matters into his own hands, by stencilling the offending messages on the road in front of the company’s Hamburg headquarters.”

“A Spanish actress has publicly denounced a film she starred in due to the inclusion of a scene she claims makes fun of women being raped.”

Fishermen stop anti-migrant boat from docking in Tunisian port. C-star, chartered by far-right activists, reportedly low on supplies after being prevented from landing at Zarzis”

“A new survey shows that even when it comes to young children, boys typically get more money than girls from their parents and as gifts.”

“Women in India have been posting photographs of themselves enjoying a night out on social media in response to a politician who said a woman who was chased in her car by two men “should not have gone out so late at night”.”

“A Chinese restaurant has come under fire for offering discounts to women depending on their bra size, it’s reported.”

A ragtag band of Berlin street artists is taking aim at an urban scourge of neo Nazi graffiti, using “love and humour” to turn swastikas into colourful symbols of inclusiveness.

“A girl in the Piedmont was turned down for a retail assistant position by a shopkeeper because she is in a relationship with an African man.”

“A sports nutrition store has been a hot topic on Russian social media and LBGT forums over its feedback to an unsuccessful job applicant. Eduard Myra from Omsk, applied for a position as sales assistant at LLC Hardcore earlier this year but was unsuccessful. When he asked for feedback, he was sent a letter explaining his “feminine manner” and being “too well-groomed” suggested he was part of the LGBT community and his appearance promoted “non-traditional sexual relations”.”

Image source


How Instagram Can Tell If You’re Depressed (Kind of)

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A study has just been published in EPJ Data Science suggesting that doctors may be able to help diagnose depression in patients based on the patient’s Instagram account. As someone with crippling depression who mostly uses Instagram to post pictures of a happy puppy, I was intrigued to know more. It turns out, puppies are the #1 symptom of depression in Instagram users.

Just kidding.

Researchers at Harvard and University of Vermont teamed up to first analyze the Instagram photos of people who had depression and create an algorithm based on the trends they found. They then applied that algorithm to a new set of Instagram users and found that it was pretty good at sorting healthy people from depressed people.

I say “pretty good” while you may notice other media outlets acting like it was great. It wasn’t. But it was pretty good.

The algorithm was only able to identify ? of the people with depression. But, when it did identify someone with depression, it was right 54% of the time. Doctors are currently estimated to be correct 42% of the time when they say a patient has depression, so the algorithm was slightly better at that, meaning that there are fewer “false positives,” or people who are told they have depression when they don’t.

When the algorithm identified someone who was healthy, it was right 84% of the time. So really, the headlines should more accurately state that your Instagram can show if you’re healthy, not necessarily if you’re depressed. Confusing, I know. Statistics are weird sometimes.

So what is it about depressed people’s Instagrams that stand out? Well, the researchers found that depressed people were more likely to favor darker pictures, blue and grey colors, and low saturation. They were also less likely to use filters, and if they did use a filter it was most likely to be the black and white Inkwell filter. They also found that depressed people were more likely to have faces in their photos, but less likely to have a large number of faces in each photo. That could suggest that depressed people favor selfies, but the researchers didn’t look at selfies in particular so that remains to be seen in a future study.

Remember that the whole point of Instagram and other social media networks is to pretend like your life is way better and more interesting than it really is, which makes this a particularly interesting study. The algorithm wasn’t looking at the photo subjects to see who was posting pictures that humans would think were “sad,” which means that it may be able to detect depression in someone who is usually good at hiding it. An algorithm like this will never be perfect, but it is interesting that something so simple can, in one respect at least, be slightly better than a human doctor, especially when it comes to an illness that a patient may even lie to a doctor about to avoid being detected. That doesn’t mean that machines are ready to replace doctors, or that they ever will, but it’s worth noting as a potential new tool to help doctors diagnose an illness that can be very difficult to recognize. As of now, there’s no blood test or x-ray that will tell you someone is depressed, but maybe this is the first step toward a social media test that can at least detect some warning signs.

sam harris

The Biology of Good and Evil

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Robert Sapolsky about his work with baboons, the opposition between reason and emotion, doubt, the evolution of the brain, the civilizing role of the frontal cortex, the illusion of free will, justice and vengeance, brain-machine interface, religion, drugs, and other topics.

Robert Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. He is the author of A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

new humanist blog

The power of small acts of resistance

Q&A with Steve Crawshaw, author of Street Spirit, a book on the power of mischief in protest.
sam harris

Living With Violence

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Gavin de Becker about the primacy of human intuition in the prediction and prevention of violence.

Gavin de Becker is a three-time presidential appointee whose pioneering work has changed the way the U.S. government evaluates threats to its highest officials. He is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on the prediction and management of violence. His firm, Gavin de Becker and Associates, advises many of the world’s most prominent media figures, corporations, and law enforcement agencies on predicting violence, and it also serves regular citizens who are victims of domestic abuse and stalking. Gavin is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller The Gift of Fear.

school of doubt

An Aspect of Accessibility

Since “accessibility” has so many different meanings in education, let me start by clarifying that I am referring to students (and general audiences) being able to access the meaning of information they encounter. This seems to be a weak point in the skeptic, atheist, and critical thinking movements, and something I have failed in as well.

There are two main subdivisions of this point: accessibility in terms of having sufficient background knowledge or expertise in a particular subject, and accessibility in terms of the construction and structure of the language.

In struggling to find materials to teach critical thinking to ESL students, I have realized that the majority of the great information and arguments are completely inaccessible on both counts. For example, to explain responsibilities in giving evidence, quite a few sites directed me to this video. For me, the topic is explained clearly in an easy to understandable way. However, I am taking for granted my educational background which makes this accessible to me.

That video begins with this sentence:

“Imagine someone tells you that somewhere beneath the surface of Pluto there’s a tiny werewalrus that sends them psychic messages every midnight while juggling skulls on an indigo plinth.”

Though I teach at a school for very high-level students who specialize in learning foreign languages (and specifically English), the wording of that sentence is extremely inaccessible to them. My students, for example, mostly don’t know words like “psychic” or “indigo,” much less “plinth” or “were-anything.” These just are not everyday terms for most people.

The video also later goes on to address related problems in religious apologetics. Without any prior knowledge of these kinds of arguments, it is extremely difficult to fully grasp what the video is saying.

None of this is to say that the video is bad. I spent a long time trying to figure out how I could find a way to use it in my class because I think it is excellent. However, I just couldn’t find a feasible way to make it accessible for my students. The actual topic is fully within their ability to grasp, but the message is constructed in a way that they cannot get.

Brian Dunning’s video Here Be Dragons also came with similar recommendations. Its description claims:

“Here Be Dragons is a free 40 minute video introduction to critical thinking. It is suitable for general audiences and is licensed for free distribution and public display.”

As above, I found that “general audiences” does not include anyone remotely resembling my students. The video’s third sentence was thus:

“Hypothesized dragons seemed a good enough explanation for what would otherwise be ungraspable.”

Once again, I am not claiming this video is bad, just inaccessible. Not just in terms of vocabulary, but the actual construction of sentences like this are extremely difficult to understand to non-native speakers. Many of my co-workers, who have advanced degrees in English education, often ask me to explain sentences like this. They ask things like “how is ‘seemed a good enough explanation’ different from ‘seemed to be a good enough explanation’?”

These subtle distinctions are barriers in understanding that most students (and in fact, most people) do not cross. They think “Is it worth taking the time to really figure this out? Probably not.”

We have a situation in which there is an abundance of great skeptical material, but a dearth of truly accessible material (of which this post is certainly not).

There is more I have to say on this, but I have a hard time limit so I will have to address the counterarguments in a further post where I talk about the curse of knowledge bias.

bad science

How do the world’s biggest drug companies compare, in their transparency commitments?

Here’s a paper, and associated website, that we launch today: we have assessed, and then ranked, all the biggest drug companies in the world, to compare their public commitments on trials transparency. Regular readers will be familiar with this ongoing battle. In medicine we use the results of clinical trials to make informed treatments about […]
bad science

Meaningful Transparency Commitments: the WHO Joint Statement from Trial Funders

By now I hope you all know about the ongoing global scandal of clinical trial results being left unpublished, and of course our AllTrials campaign. Doctors, researchers, and patients cannot make truly informed choices about which treatments work best if they don’t have access to all the trial results. Earlier this year, I helped out […]
sam harris

On Becoming a Better Person

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with David Brooks about his book The Road to Character, the importance of words like “sin” and “virtue,” self-esteem vs. self-overcoming, the significance of keeping promises, honesty, President Trump, and other topics.

David Brooks is one of the nation’s leading writers and commentators. He is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and appears regularly on the PBS NewsHour and Meet the Press. He is the bestselling author of The Social Animal,  Bobos in Paradise, and The Road to Character.

Twitter: @nytdavidbrooks

sam harris

Must We Accept a Nuclear North Korea?

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Mark Bowden about the problem of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Mark Bowden is the author of thirteen books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller Black Hawk Down. He reported at the Philadelphia Inquirer for twenty years and now writes for the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and other magazines. He is also the writer in residence at the University of Delaware. His most recent book is Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam.

Article: “How to Deal with North Korea.” The Atlantic. (July/August, 2017).

sam harris


In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris and Scott Adams debate the character and competence of President Trump.

Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, one of the most popular comic strips of all time. He has been a full-time cartoonist since 1995, after 16 years as a technology worker for companies like Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell. His many bestsellers include The Dilbert Principle, Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook, and How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big. His forthcoming book is Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.

school of doubt

The Introspection Illusion

We’re great at spotting biases in others, but absolutely incompetent at finding them in ourselves. Even if we know exactly what to look for and we’ve got a ton of intellectual humility, noticing the effects of our own biases on our own thoughts is like looking for colored glasses while wearing them.

The introspection illusion is a cognitive bias in which we think we understand our own mind (and therefore find other minds to be unreliable). It’s a kind of backwards justification. We have a feeling about something, and then rationalize why our feeling would be justified. We think our intuitive and irrational impressions are things we came to by deep, reasonable thought.

When we feel like we’ve got a strong, rational argument for our own thinking, any different opinion appears to be obviously ill-reasoned, or even sinister.(1) For example, you hear a fact about a field outside of your study that sounds ludicrous to you. At this point, you don’t realize that you’re building a strawman from your own misunderstanding about the fact. Out of context, it appears to have no support and just be crazy. It doesn’t seem like a hasty generalization to assume that the whole field, believing something this crazy, must therefore be fundamentally flawed. Clearly, they have not thought this through. We, on the other hand, have.

Here, the introspection illusion took hold. It started with a gut reaction to something, and as the brain built its own support for the conclusion it had already reached, the feeling snowballed into a rationalization. Our own thoughts seem clear and justified, so everyone else must just be crazy. Perhaps we should pity them, because they are victims of this terribly devious indoctrination into this totally bogus field of Gend– *ahem* I mean, this totally bogus field in this purely hypothetical example.

Recent atheist’s missteps aside. The introspection illusion seems to be a key culprit in a number of problems that have plagued the skeptics movement for years, as well as a reason why some students reject any hint of critical thinking in the classroom out of hand. Consider the poorly constructed arguments against evolution that are repeated even to this day, like dogs turning into cats or the continued existence of monkeys. These topics have an implication that some people don’t like. That negative feeling towards that implication immediately transforms into a backwards justification, arguing against a massive strawman, and the introspection illusion amplifies this feeling that we’re right and others are wrong to the point that we can’t even begin to pick apart the tangle we’ve gotten our minds into. The worst part is that, despite our belief otherwise, we can’t actually find the starting point in all of this. Whatever started this snowball is lost so far in the middle of it that we have no way to see it.


(1) Assuming that others know they are wrong and are promoting false information because they have evil intentions sounds a lot like what religious extremists, presuppositionalists, antivax advocates, and conspiracy theorists say, doesn’t it?


school of doubt

10 Tips: How Not to Grade

Teachers get swamped several times a year with grading, often under tight deadlines. Based on some recent interactions in my life, here are my top 10 tips (that you shouldn’t follow):


1. Don’t bother assessing students on what you actually taught them. When grading time comes, look for something new you can use to arbitrarily separate the students into “good” and “bad” categories.


2. If you made a rubric, don’t follow it. Use your intuition to decide instead. When students complain, make up a reason to justify your choices.


3. If you don’t like the rubric that you made, find someone else to blame for it. Anyone who offered you any help with it would be a great target. Try telling them it was just impossible to use their rubric that they forced on you, even if they didn’t. (Blaming is a great way to make friends too.)


4. Make sure that you take into consideration what you know students were thinking. It doesn’t matter what they actually did, the only important thing is what they thought. Obviously, as the teacher you can easily know exactly what your students thoughts and motivations were when they did their work.


5. Always look at the student’s names (and pictures, if possible) while you are grading so you can remember every feeling you had about that student all term while you are objectively looking at their final assessments.


6. Look very carefully for any minuscule details (such as a single misspelling in a 3000 word essay) that you can use to base the entire grade on. Make sure this detail has more weight than anything else.


7. Likewise, if there is any bureaucratic policy you can follow to the point of giving completely unfair grades, apply that as consistently (or inconsistently) as you like.


8. Whenever you can, change the standards that you use. Grade some students under one set of criteria and other students under a totally different one. It’s fun to change things up from one class to the next or between boys and girls.


9. Don’t look too closely at student work. Just try to get the gist and make lots of assumptions to fill in the gaps of whatever you don’t want to bother reading. Grading goes a lot faster if you just skim and skip whole sections that look boring.


10. If you don’t like your final numbers when you’re done, just tweak them. Feel free to adjust lots of grades in one class so that the average is completely identical to another class, even if they performed differently. Or, if you think one class actually is not as good as another but their grades say differently, make sure their grades reflect your own beliefs.



school of doubt

The Intentionality Fallacy

If you lookup “intentionality fallacy” you’d probably find a lot of references to literature and other arts, since that is its usual context. We need to start talking about it in other things too. For example, everything.

In brief, the intentionality fallacy happens when you are trying to understand, interpret, or critique a work of art and you depend almost entirely (or totally exclusively) on “what the artist’s intention was.” I thought this book was a commentary on X, but the author said it was actually about Y so that’s the only correct way to look at it.

At first, it might not sound like a fallacy. Surely, we should consider a work’s intended meaning when we analyze it? Unfortunately, like all informal fallacies, the logic doesn’t hold up if you apply it to the majority of things, art or otherwise.

Think about those news bloopers that pop up on YouTube from time to time where a news reporter or meteorologist is drawing on a map and their drawing looks a whole lot like a penis. They were not intending to draw that, but it really looks like it to a lot of people. All of those people aren’t wrong in recognizing the same pattern, the fact that so many see the same thing indicates that there is something to see. In this case, it is pareidolia, but the fact that many people can clearly see something that was not intended to be drawn can’t be discounted. We can’t just say, “no, that’s not what your eyes are telling you because that’s not what the drawer intended to do.”

Recently, I’ve been seeing this fallacy a lot among teachers (I’m probably suffering from a version of the Frequency Illusion bias) and it seems insidious. I’ve been working with a rookie teacher a lot recently who often justifies some really bad choices with “Well, I was intending for this to…” As if a noble intention eliminates the fact that the students received no valuable development from a lesson or absolves one from criticism.

It is also a huge problem with assessment (yes I’ve made this basic point before). As an ESL teacher, I spend a lot of time looking at ESL tests. One of the biggest ones in the world is IELTS. It is intended to measure how closely to a native speaker a non-native English speaker’s ability is. However, native English speakers often struggle with it and score poorly on it. The design of it, intended for maximum fairness and accuracy, involves a listening portion which requires listening, reading, and writing simultaneously. Any problem in a student’s ability to read or write will automatically lower their listening score, as will any of a multitude of other factors that affect their ability to do this form of multitasking. The intention of IELTS doesn’t match the realities of the test. It also, despite claiming otherwise, often requires a level of background knowledge on certain (random) things and a test-taker’s score could be sabotaged by complete chance.

This problem is not unique to IELTS, and indeed may be true for most standardized tests (and most regular tests too). However, I don’t see nearly enough dialogue about the gap between intention and reality in these areas. It doesn’t mean we should disregard all intentions and always look only at the final product (that’s leaning towards the outcome bias), but we need to pay closer attention, especially in education, to seeing if effects really match intentions.

bad science

How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
bad science

“Transparency, Beyond Publication Bias”. A video of my super-speedy talk at IJE.

People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]
bad science

You should totally watch this entire day of the IJE conference

Today marks the end of an era. The International Journal of Epidemiology used to be a typical hotchpotch of isolated papers on worthy subjects. Occasionally, some were interesting, or related to your field. Under Shah Ebrahim and George Davey-Smith it became like nothing else: an epidemiology journal you’d happily subscribe to with your own money, and read in […]
richard dawkins foundation

James Shapiro goes after natural selection again (twice) on HuffPo - Jerry Coyne - Why Evolution Is True

I hate to give attention to my Chicago colleague James Shapiro’s bizarre ideas about evolution, which he publishes weekly on HuffPo rather than in peer-reviewed journals. His Big Idea is that natural selection has not only been overemphasized in evolution, but appears to play very little role at all.  Even though he’s spreading nonsense in a widely-read place, I don’t go after him very often, for he just uses my criticisms as the basis of yet another abstruse and incoherent post. Like the creationists whose ideas he appropriates, he resembles those toy rubber clowns that are impossible to knock down.  But once again, and for the last time, I wade into the fray. . .

In his post of August 12, “Does natural selection really explain what makes evolution succeed?” (the answer, of course, is “no”), Shapiro simply recycles some discredited arguments used by creationists against evolution. The upshot, which we’ve heard for decades, is the discredited idea that natural selection is not a creative process. I quote:

“Darwin modeled natural selection on artificial selection by humans. He ignored the inconvenient fact that human selection for altered traits has never generated a truly new organismal feature (e.g., a limb or an organ) or formed a new species. Selection only modifies existing characters. When humans wish to create new species, they use other means.”

This is the old canard that artificial selection doesn’t create “new features.”  His definition of a “new organismal feature” is, of course, one that hasn’t been generated by artificial selection, so it’s all tautological.  Of course we haven’t seen whole new organs or limbs arise in the short term, for people have been doing serious selection for only a few thousand years, and have not even tried to create new organs or limbs. But we can create a strain of flies with four wings, breeds of dogs that would be regarded as new genera if they were found in the fossil record, and whole new biochemical systems in bacteria.  Both Barry Hall and Rich Lenski, for example, have demonstrated the evolution of brand new biochemical pathways that have evolved to deal with new metabolic challenges. Now that is a “new organismal feature”!

Often new species are created by hybridization, but Shapiro forgets that that hybridization is often followed by either natural or artificial selection for increased interfertility of the new hybrid form, so it truly becomes an interbreeding population that characterizes a species.  And that, of course, gives a crucial role to selection, as it did in the experiments of Loren Rieseberg and his colleagues on hybrid sunflowers.

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richard dawkins foundation

Viewpoints: Why is faith falling in the US? - - - BBC News

A new poll suggests that atheism is on the rise in the US, while those who consider themselves religious has dropped. What's the cause? Two writers debate.

Thousands attended an atheism rally in Washington DC this March

Recently, researchers conducting a WIN-Gallup International poll about religion surveyed people from 57 countries.

The poll suggests that in the US, since 2005:

What's behind the changing numbers? Is the cause churches that chase modern trends at the expense of core beliefs? Or are those who have always been ambivalent about religion now less likely to identify as Christian? We asked two writers for their take.

Rod Dreher: Progressive churches fuel apathy

As a practicing Christian of the Hitchens sort (Peter, the good one), I welcome the news that more Americans are willing to identify as atheists. At least that clarifies matters.

I respect honest atheists more than I do many on my own side, for the same reason Jesus of Nazareth said to the tepid Laodicean church: "because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth".

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richard dawkins foundation

From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader - Robert F. Worth - New York Times

Late one night in early May 2011, a preacher named Jerry DeWitt was lying in bed in DeRidder, La., when his phone rang. He picked it up and heard an anguished, familiar voice. It was Natosha Davis, a friend and parishioner in a church where DeWitt had preached for more than five years. Her brother had been in a bad motorcycle accident, she said, and he might not survive.

DeWitt knew what she wanted: for him to pray for her brother. It was the kind of call he had taken many times during his 25 years in the ministry. But now he found that the words would not come. He comforted her as best he could, but he couldn’t bring himself to invoke God’s help. Sensing her disappointment, he put the phone down and found himself sobbing. He was 41 and had spent almost his entire life in or near DeRidder, a small town in the heart of the Bible Belt. All he had ever wanted was to be a comfort and a support to the people he grew up with, but now a divide stood between him and them. He could no longer hide his disbelief. He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?” DeWitt told me.

As his wife slept, he fumbled through the darkness for his laptop. After a few quick searches with the terms “pastor” and “atheist,” he discovered that a cottage industry of atheist outreach groups had grown up in the past few years. Within days, he joined an online network called the Clergy Project, created for clerics who no longer believe in God and want to communicate anonymously through a secure Web site.

DeWitt began e-mailing with dozens of fellow apostates every day and eventually joined another new network called Recovering From Religion, intended to help people extricate themselves from evangelical Christianity. Atheists, he discovered, were starting to reach out to one another not just in the urban North but also in states across the South and West, in the kinds of places­ DeWitt had spent much of his career as a traveling preacher. After a few months he took to the road again, this time as the newest of a new breed of celebrity, the atheist convert. They have their own apostles (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) and their own language, a glossary borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bible and gay liberation (you always “come out” of the atheist closet).

DeWitt quickly repurposed his preacherly techniques, sharing his reverse-conversion story and his thoughts on “the five stages of disbelief” to packed crowds at “Freethinker” gatherings across the Bible Belt, in places like Little Rock and Houston. As his profile rose in the movement this spring, his Facebook and Twitter accounts began to fill with earnest requests for guidance from religious doubters in small towns across America. “It’s sort of a brand-new industry,” DeWitt told me. “There isn’t a lot of money in it, but there’s a lot of momentum.”

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richard dawkins foundation

Does this set a record for smug nastiness? - Richard Dawkins -

Tony Nicklinson died today. His appalling suffering is now at an end, no thanks whatsoever to our judges or our parliament. Obviously all decent people will feel glad for him, but I would add sorry that he failed to win a precedent that might benefit others. Indeed, it was precisely the fear of such a precedent that motivated the High Court to hand down its callous judgment. Let’s continue his fight for a more humane approach to the right to die.

In pursuing that fight, we need to take full measure of the opposition, where it is coming from, and in some cases the sheer depth of its unpleasantness. The article posted below was written before Tony Nicklinson’s death but after the High Court turned down his request to be allowed to die. The author, Richard Carvath, describes himself as a British Conservative political activist. I have never met him and have no wish to do so, nor had I previously heard of him. But I think his article could perform a useful service in laying out, clearly and relentlessly, the full extent of the nastiness of which people of his persuasion – we inevitably get to the love of Jesus before we are through – are capable. As often on the Internet today, you have to wonder whether it is satire, but on balance I am persuaded that this one isn’t. This is the real McCoy. Read it and marvel at the depths to which the human mind can sink, when its moral sense is sufficiently disabled by religion.
Richard Dawkins

For the Love of Tony Nicklinson

Richard Carvath

Poor old Tony Nicklinson.  His wife wants to kill him, his family want to kill him, his barrister wants to kill him, the mainstream media want to kill him, the euthanasia lobby want to kill him and a vociferous mob of Twitter followers want to kill him.  It’s enough to depress anyone to the point of despair.  In a recent tweet, Cheryl Baker (yes, she of 1981 Eurovision Bucks Fizz fame) seemed to sum up the general attitude of the misguided ‘Kill Tony’ mob when she wrote: “My heart cries for Tony Nicklinson.  If he was a dog there would be no ethical or moral decision to be made, just whatever is best for him.”  But Tony is not a dog.  Tony is a human being.  Last week, thankfully, Tony failed in his attempt to change the law which serves to protect us all from murder.  The upholding of the law was applauded by champions of justice and pro-life defenders of the disabled – and rightly so.  Tony Nicklinson isn’t terminally ill; he is severely physically disabled but he is not dying; Tony has a life to live.

There are many forms of human suffering and we each suffer something at least once in our lives: severe illness; injustice; betrayal; loneliness; poverty; unemployment; crime; childbirth; bereavement; unfair discrimination etcetera.  Sometimes our suffering is our own fault and sometimes it’s the fault of others.  Suffering is inevitable and what matters is how we respond to suffering.  Do we help ourselves or are we our own worst enemy?  Do we wallow in self-pity or do we resolve to think positively? 

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richard dawkins foundation

Missionaries of Hate - - - Top Documentary Films

Thanks to Mike for the link

Correspondent Mariana van Zeller travels to Uganda, where many question whether the growing influence of American religious groups has led to a movement to make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. As an anti-gay movement spreads across the continent, gay Africans and their families face an increasingly uncertain future of isolation, imprisonment or even execution.

The film makes it much easier to understand why the general Ugandan public is so eager to send their peers to jail. If the most prominent spiritual leader in your community made it his life purpose to convince you that there were people coming to eat your poop and recruit your children, you would be against them too. They are only hearing one side of the story and it is the origin of their information that is truly infuriating.

Although Ugandan leaders are deeply offended by the notion, the facts definitively show that American evangelists have played a central role in defining the nation’s hard line against sexual minorities. The documentary focuses on American evangelist Dr. Scott Lively, who is widely credited with installing the dominant notion that homosexuals are after your children.

Read more and see the full playlist