I’d #ShowYourCancellation, but I was smart enough to not subscribe to the NYT

After the last election, a lot of my friends told me that it was more important than ever that we support good journalism — and I agree fully. Then they told me I should subscribe to the New York Times — and I hesitated. I’ve been disappointed far too often by the NY Times. Have we all forgotten Judith Miller, and how the NY Times was the staid, sober, disciplined news source that was beating the drums for the Iraq war? OK, maybe that was too long ago. So have we all forgotten how the NY Times was constantly promoting the “Hillary’s e-mails!” story just last year?

So I didn’t subscribe. And I felt mildly guilty about it.

But now…fuck the NY Times. Once again, they decided to fill a slot on their opinion pages with a conservative ideologue, a dolt formerly of the Wall Street Journal opinion pages (and we all know what a shithole that is), and the first thing Bret Stephens writes is an embarrassingly vapid apologia for climate change denial.

I can thank Stephens for one thing, at least. I no longer feel guilty. I’m even feeling a bit lucky to have avoided one waste of money. I guess a lot of people are feeling this way now.


Does Alex Jones think Spider-Man would be a bad thing?

Oh, man, Alex Jones. I don’t listen to his show, but I caught his impromptu press conference outside the courtroom where he’d just lost custody of his kids. It’s nuts. He goes on and on about the injustice and how he’s not crazy and he’s sincere and he motormouths on to prove he’s the victim here. It’s horrible and boring.

So just skip ahead to about 17’30” where he starts talking about science, for some reason.

Take human-animal chimeras. They have jokes all over tv saying Jones thinks they’re crossing humans with pigs and cows. Well, 20 years ago they were crossing humans and animals and growing them in utero for body parts.That’s mainstream scientific journals, but this camera man is laughing right here. You can type in human-animal chimeras, get a hundred thousand mainstream articles. But still people are preconditioned to make a joke that it doesn’t exist. Like Harvard saying fluoride lowers your IQ after just 2 years on just 1.6 parts per million by at least 10 points, 12 points 15 points. People just make jokes, they don’t look at the Harvard studies. It’s all just funny, because people are followers, and it makes them feel powerful to just laugh.

That’s a somewhat inaccurate transcript, because I think every sentence ought to have ended with an exclamation point, but you get the gist. It’s all flaming nonsense.

We have not been “crossing” humans with other animals. What has been done routinely is the fusion of animal cells in culture, and the insertion of human genes in the cells of other animals. There has been no man-bear-pig, sorry to say.

The fluoride stuff is classic crankery. There was a meta-analysis of some Chinese populations that showed that elevated fluoride levels was correlated with damage to neural development — but these were in regions with extraordinarily high natural fluoride levels. Steven Novella has a good analysis of that Harvard paper, and it doesn’t show what Jones thinks it does.

In other words – fluoridated water in the US has the same level of fluoride as the control or low fluoride groups in the China studies reviewed in the recent article, and the negative association with IQ was only found where fluoride levels were much higher – generally above EPA limits.

The interview goes on, and someone shouts out “spider goats!”, and he agrees but moves on. “Spider-goats” is a thing with Jones; he thinks it’s horrible that there are these goat-spider chimerae, when all it really is is that the gene for spider silk has been inserted into goats in such a way that they secrete the silk in their milk. It’s a nice way to generate bulk quantities of spider silk.

Have you ever tried to milk a spider? It’s hard, man.

Likewise, this story is inflated into absurdity.

20 years ago they had rhesus monkeys you cd buy in Hong Kong bazaars that glow in the dark that are part jellyfish. Think that’s funny? They have horrible eyes, it’s incredibly painful for them.

Uh, no, you can’t. There is a molecule called GFP (green fluorescent protein) that is derived from aequorin, a jellyfish protein. It’s commonly used as a molecular marker because, well, it glows green under the microscope when you shine light of the right wavelength on it (note: they don’t actually glow in the dark, they fluoresce, or re-emit light at a longer wavelength). Transgenic monkeys with GFP have been produced, more as a proof of concept than anything else. They don’t have horrible eyes. They actually look like normal monkeys, unless you put them in a dark room and illuminate them with only blue light, in which case they look greenish.

Just a suggestion to Alex Jones: when you’re trying to convince an audience that you’re a mature, rational, reasonable person, don’t go off on a tangent about spider-goats, pig-men, jellyfish-monkeys, or the dangers of fluoride to your essence. It also doesn’t help to wave your hands at “Harvard studies”, because some of us can actually read them and see that they don’t say what you claim they do.


Oh, good — I’m not the only one who utterly despised this ad

Have you all seen this Heineken ad? It takes six people who don’t know anything about each other and pairs them up. On one side, a black woman feminist; a man who accepts the science of climate change; and a transgender woman. In the prelude, each makes a brief statement about their positive beliefs. On the other side, three men: one skinheadish fellow declares that feminism is about man-hating, that women are needed to have children; another rather indignant twit who announces that all those people who believe in climate change need to get off their high horse and get a job; a middle-aged guy who flatly declares that you’re either a man or a woman. Then they’re put together to assemble a bar, and afterwards drink a beer with each other.

If you must, here it is.

I’m seeing people going all goo-goo over it. Aww, isn’t that sweet? One-on-one, people can see each other’s basic humanity and get along.

Except…there’s a striking asymmetry here. Two of those people rejected the basic identity and humanity of the others. The three left-leaning people did not go into this denying the existence of the others, while two of the righties did (and the third was just an ignorant asshat). We’re supposed to feel good about it because they’re able to drink beer together, but there’s no evidence that those three men recognized their own failures, while the three on the other side just had to take it and tolerate the intolerable.

Here’s a good take on it from Mirah Curzer.

This is the danger of the feel-good “let’s just talk to each other” approach. It’s just a more cuddly version of that horrible bothsidesism that equates being called a racist with actual racism as reasons for hurt and anger. Both sides are not the same. The transphobe who agrees to have a beer with the trans woman is sacrificing nothing. She, on the other hand, is giving up a certain amount of dignity by breaking bread with someone who thinks she shouldn’t have the right to exist. She’s risking her mental and physical safety, volunteering for the hard emotional labor of arguing for her right to be a person. And with ads like this, that labor is being demanded of her with no consideration of how much it may cost. Worse, it’s heavily implied that if she were to walk away, it would make her just as intolerant as the bigot who views her with disgust.

Not all viewpoints are equal. Not all olive branches are earned. And it is not in the service of justice to demand emotional labor of marginalized people while praising bigots for doing the bare minimum to act like humans on a single occasion.

Isn’t that the way it always is? And now we’re supposed to tolerate assholes so Heineken can sell beer, too.


How did you celebrate Trump’s 100 days in office?

I went to the rally for the People’s March for Climate in Fargo. I guess 200,000 people attended the march in Washington, DC. That’s more than attended his inauguration! People are protesting all around the world.

Meanwhile, Trump has fled the capitol and all the contempt for his presidency to try and restore his confidence with another of his silly, itty-bitty rallies in Pennsylvania. Afterwards, he’ll stare into a mirror and struggle to reassure himself that he really is loved, as tears stream down his cheeks.


Welp, guess Harun Yahya just disproved the existence of gods

This is a bit of an own goal, sent to me by the Islamic creationist, Harun Yahya.

Darwinists never realize that even though it’s impossible for them to copy out a text consisting of billions of letters without errors creeping in, enzymes combine together millions of units of information as they copy DNA, without making a single mistake. This is simply more proof of the existence of God.

Except that DNA polymerase, the enzyme that copies DNA, makes errors at a rate of about 10-8 mistakes per base pair (error correction processes bring that down to about 10-10 errors per base pair). Whoops. God makes mistakes! Also, while the DNA in the background of the image is correctly exhibiting a right-handed twist, the large orangeish fragment in the foreground seems to have a left-handed coil, in addition to being drawn with a strange and incorrect stick-and-ball arrangement. Tsk, tsk. Wrong and inconsistent. Does he really think this kind of crap will persuade a biologist? Why is he sending it to me?

Although, to be fair, I don’t think most people think chemistry has to be flawless to be compatible with gods, and obviously evolution depends on variation produced by errors, so this whole line of argument is irrelevant.


Global Quickies: Fatwa Against Child Marriage, Blasphemy, and Bad Reputations

Female Islamic clerics in Indonesia have issued an unprecedented fatwa against child marriage.
The fatwa, which is not legally binding but will be influential, was issued after a three-day congress of female clerics in the country.”

“A man in Saudi Arabia has reportedly been sentenced to death on charges of apostasy after losing two appeals. […]He was arrested on charges of atheism and blasphemy and held in prison before being convicted by a local court and sentenced to death in February 2015. He reportedly lost an Appeals Court case, and a Supreme Court ruled against him earlier this week.”

“The king of Swaziland is attempting to ban divorce and has instructed religious leaders to inform citizens of the decree, according to reports.”

“This is the eighth time in the last 17 months that the Mexican FA has faced disciplinary action from Fifa on account of its fans homophobic slurs.”

“’I’m transgender’: India grapples with prejudices left over from British rule. Progress will involve not just drawing on country’s pre-colonial past but challenging it too, say backers of anti-discrimination bill.”

A short film by a 17-year-old student is being used in schools to deal with sexism.

The state of Michoacan withdrew a bill that proposed a reduced sentence for abortion if the woman didn’t have “a bad reputation”. (Google translate at the link)

“The German parliament has supported a draft law banning women working in the civil service, judiciary and military from wearing full-face Islamic veils.”

“The President of Austria has called for all women to wear headscarves in solidarity with Muslims to fight “rampant Islamophobia”.”

“The man appointed to replace Marine Le Pen as leader of the far-right Front National party has quit the job after just three days over accusations he denied the existence of gas chambers in the Second World War.”

Featured image: Mexico soccer fans by Frank


Justin Trudeau Endorses Bullshit Pseudoscience

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Sorta transcript:

As Barack Obama was ending his final term as president and we prepared for a semi-literate game show host to take the reins, US liberals looked to our neighbors to the north for a glimmer of hope in world leaders. Justin Trudeau seemed like a sexy, shining angel of liberalism when he took office and formed a bromance with our own sexy commander-in-chief, and I’ll admit, I was a bit blinded myself. After all, liberals in pretty much any other country seem a million times better and more progressive than the democrats here in the US. Hell, most conservatives in other countries lean to the left of our liberal politicians.

But over the past few months, I’ve been paying more attention and have discovered, much to my shock, that Justin Trudeau is not a perfect representation of both my political and physical desires. For a start, he applauded Donald Trump’s approval of the Keystone Pipeline, an environmental disaster pushed by the fossil fuel industry that will move oil from Alberta to Mexico through the US and various indigenous people’s lands against their wishes.

It’s kind of funny, because his hypocrisy involves him pushing for a reduction in emissions for Canada while continuing to try to suck up to the oil industry, and basically now everyone on both sides of the issue hates him as he quite obviously is speaking out both sides of his mouth.

The other day, I found a new reason to cross Trudeau off my list of sexy politicians I’d like to bonk: a photo of him surfaced showing clear bruises from “cupping.” Cupping is the practice of putting a cup over your skin and creating a vacuum inside for five or ten minutes, making a bruise. It’s been around for several millennia, and a version of it was approved by the Prophet Muhammad, making it still fairly popular in Muslim countries. It’s also become an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine.

I should mention that the “version” of cupping popular amongst the Muslims is “wet” cupping. Unlike “dry” cupping, it actually gets even grosser because the practitioner cuts the skin before putting the suction cup over the wound. Painful and pointless!

And yes, it is pointless. A few studies have been done, and a meta-analysis found that there’s no solid evidence for any of the things it’s supposed to treat, including pain relief, which only had the slightest chance of being effective. But it definitely does not help cure cancer, or any other disease, and it doesn’t make you a better athlete like Michael Phelps and other pros seem to think.

Cupping is pseudoscience, plain and simple, and it’s a danger when a powerful politician buys into that because that’s how “alternative medicine” gets sneaked into public policy.

So, sorry, but Justin Trudeau isn’t quite the science-loving political idol we wanted. Let’s just hope Angela Merkel doesn’t show up with a bottle of homeopathic pills one day.

new humanist blog

"We are familiar with the other but only in negative terms"

Q&A with sociologist Nilüfer Göle, author of "The Daily Lives of Muslims".
new humanist blog

In a word: faith

Michael Rosen's column on language and its uses

Ivanka Trump Booed while Dad Destroys Office of Global Women’s Issues

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Sorta transcript:

Ivanka Trump, braindead puppet and progeny of a bombastic racist gameshow host who is currently President of the United States, was recently invited to a women’s summit in Berlin. Why? Well, because she’s a woman! And because 36 years ago, Donald Trump ejaculated into her mother. She’s really earned this.

If you think I’m being too harsh on poor Ivanka, you’re not alone! Just as I’m not alone — when Ivanka stated with a completely straight face that her father a “tremendous champion of supporting families and enabling them to thrive,” the audience rightfully booed her. When news of the brutal booing hit the internet, men rushed to defend her — even liberal men. Especially liberal men. Take Chris Cillizza from CNN, for example, who wrote a whole article about why the booing was so, so mean and wrong. Poor Ivanka is Trump’s daughter, he wrote, so she should never be criticized for defending him. Even when she is defending his view of women, which, as a reminder, he thinks of as being sexual objects available at all times for his pleasure. Ivanka included.

Or Dr. Munr Kazmir at HuffPo, who whines that not only should we not boo Ivanka for defending her father’s views of women, but cheering her when she does that. Why? Well, his article is nearly impossible to parse because it’s a black hole of navel-gazing and hand-wringing, but it seems that he thinks that she is very progressive and is having a huge impact on her father. Even when she’s saying her father treats women just fine.

It’s a shame those guys spent so much time writing those bullshit articles, because maybe if they hadn’t have been, they would have been reading the news that while Ivanka was on stage at the women’s summit talking about how much Donald Trump loves women and about how she is “striving to think about how best to empower women in the economy, both domestically and across the globe”, someone leaked the fact that Donald Trump is planning to obliterate the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, which leads the charge to make sure American women are involved in US politics while also tackling global issues like sexual violence and gendered economic equality.

It would be ironic, if we didn’t already know that that’s exactly the kind of thing Trump would do.

So fuck Ivanka Trump. She’s a 35-year old woman, not a child, and she can voice her opinion if she wants. If she actually believed in the empowerment of women, she’d announce to the world that her father is a sexual predator who is dangerous to women on every level, and she’d lead the fight to impeach him before he can do any more damage.


Hot or Not? What Does Science Say?

The New York Post recently published an article about some guy who says he has decided to stop dating hot women and the internet is really angry about it. I can’t tell you what his reasoning was because I refuse to waste even a couple minutes of my life reading an article about a guy who treats all women as a monolith. However, Amanda Marcotte pointed out on twitter that part of his reasoning was a scientific study that supposedly proves that the sexier a person is, the worse they are at relationships.

The study in question was entitled “Attractiveness and relationship longevity: Beauty is not what it is cracked up to be” by Harvard researchers Ma-Kellams, Wang and Cardiel. Although the title seems to suggest the study was looking at relationship duration, the authors make it clear early on in their paper that their real goal is to determine how a person’s attractiveness or lack thereof predicts their relationship satisfaction. In fact, they specifically state this as their goal, writing “we focus primarily on actor effects, or the effects of a person’s [personal attractiveness] on his/her own relationship satisfaction.”  Throughout their study they will often conflate shorter relationship durations with lower overall relationship satisfaction but they will never bother to try to prove that people who are in longer relationships are actually happier in their relationships. This is one of many issues I have with this study, but I’ll get to that in more detail later.

In order to prove their hypothesis that more attractive individuals have lower relationship satisfaction, they actually did 4 very different studies that the authors contend together proves this hypothesis is true.

Study 1

The researchers downloaded copies of High School yearbooks from for two schools (one a public school in a rich Silicon Valley suburb and one a private Catholic school in a  working class midwest town) from 30 years ago. They then had two people, which they called “independent female coders” rate the photos of all the senior boys on a one to ten attractiveness scale. They used to look up publicly available marriage and divorce data that matched the yearbook students in the towns the high schools were located. They included only students for which there was at least one marriage on file in the analysis.

They ended up with a dataset of 238 men who had all been married in their hometowns. Of those men, the researchers were able to find divorces filed for 39 of them. They found that the average attractiveness rating of the 39 divorced men was higher than that of the 199 married but not divorced men. The more attractive men were more likely to have gotten a divorce.

So many problems:

It’s kind of ingenious to be able to use yearbook photos from 30 years ago to predict what happened to the people in those photos, but in this case this particular study is so flawed that I have trouble seeing how the researchers are able to make a strong claim about the entire human race (more attractive people have worse relationships) based on this very, very limited dataset.

First of all, looking at two US high schools is hardly representative. The researchers did address this issue, but proclaimed that because the Silicon Valley high school was in a rich, white city and the midwestern private Catholic high school was in a working class, ethnically diverse town, so many diverse people were represented that the results can be applied across demographics. I don’t think I can fully stress how much this is not the case. Comparing a public school in a rich white area to a private religious school in a less rich area is hardly including the breadth of the human experience. For all we know, the private religious school might be located in a working class town but may still have mostly white affluent students. Even if these schools turn out to have tons of diversity, are we really going to make a claim about all people based on 39 divorcees? How much diversity can you even get with only 39 people? Not to mention that the only data they have is based on people who married in their hometowns, so this is not counting anyone who had moved away from their hometown after high school.

Really though, my biggest issue with this particular study is the fact that they had two adults rating high schoolers on their relative attractiveness. Is it just me or is that pretty fucking creepy? If I volunteered for a research study and they gave me photos of underage boys and asked me to rate how sexy I found them on a one to ten scale, I would drop out of that study and maybe report them to the FBI. I get that these were photos from 30 years ago and the boys in the photos are adults now, but the creepy factor is still there. I certainly don’t want to imagine that my high school yearbook photos were taken without my consent and my teenage attractiveness was rated by adults, even if it was for science.

Besides, they had only two women do the ratings. So, when they say some men were more physically attractive than others, what they really mean is two anonymous adults looked at photos of some teenagers and happened to be more into some of them than others. The researchers don’t ever address the fact that attractiveness may not actually be an objective factor that you can determine by having a person or two look at some photos, but instead something that is fluid and changes by individual preference. Even if they are trying to get a measure of physical attractiveness that fits within a general cultural norms standard, they should probably have had way, way more people rate the photos and perhaps cared about the diversity of the photo raters.

What the researchers think they discovered:

People who are more physically attractive are more likely to have had a divorce and therefore have less relationship satisfaction.

What the researchers actually discovered:

Men at two high schools who got married in their hometown and were deemed attractive by two adult women were slightly more likely to be divorced.

Study 2

The same two coders from study 1 rated celebrities on a one to ten scale as to their physical attractiveness. Using publicly available data, the researchers tallied up the number of marriages each celebrity has had and determined that the sexier a celebrity is, the more marriages they have had throughout their lifetime.

So many problems:

First of all, we are talking about celebrities and only celebrities. And not only that, but we are talking about the Thems. The Themiest of the Thems. We are talking about the Beyonces and the Rihannas and the Britney Spearses and then we’re having two random people rate the relative hotness of Beyonce versus Rihanna versus Britney Spears and making broad claims about how that relates to the lives of all humans. It’s really hard for me to take seriously something discovered about top celebrities being then applied to the rest of humankind as if we’re all the same. Yes, celebrities are humans too, but their lives are so incredibly different than that of the rest of us, it seems bananas to make a claim about us based on the lives of some of the most famous people alive today.

It’s also hard to know how well this claim holds up even among celebrities. The study cares only about physical attractiveness, not overall attractiveness. Obviously, there are many things that make a person attractive that have nothing to do with physical attractiveness and in general I would bet that celebrities tend to have a lot of those non-physical attractive aspects to them. For one, they are super rich and whether we want to admit it or not, money is attractive in that it clearly helps people attract sexual and relationship partners. The top celebrities also tend to be charismatic and smart and entrepreneurial and incredibly talented, all very attractive traits.

They did ask the two independent coders to rate the celebrities on physical attractiveness, but I doubt these women were unfeeling robots (no offense to any empathetic robots out there). They surely know who all these celebrities are and their feelings about how physically attractive they find them are affected by the things they know about them. For example, if someone asked me today to rate the physical attractiveness of Johnny Depp I’d be all “ew, no. Is there a number below one?” because what I know about him in terms of being a (alleged) woman batterer changes what I see when I look at him. I know intellectually that there was a time before I knew this about him that I did find him attractive, but now I can’t even stand to look at his face. How is it possible to put what we know about Johnny Depp aside and rate his physical appearance objectively? Did these coders really rate the celebrities’ attractiveness only on their physical appearance and nothing else? Were they able to put their hates and fandoms aside and give a rating as if these were photos of anonymous teenagers rather than super celebrities? And what did they do for famous older people? Was Paul McCartney rated based on photos from his Beatles days or a recent photo? And if a recent photo was used, did the raters base their attractiveness rating on that or what they knew he looked like when he was younger or only what they saw in the photo? Also, how does any of this relate to a universal trait about humankind again?

What the researchers thought they discovered:

People who are more physically attractive are more likely to have lots of a marriages and therefore lower relationship satisfaction.

What the researchers actually discovered:

Super rich celebrities who are relatively more attractive than other super rich celebrities (based on the opinions of two non-celebrities) have had more marriages.

Study 3

The researchers surveyed a group of 134 people (combination of undergrads and paid participants in Boston) about their past relationships and relationship satisfaction, 41% of whom were currently in an exclusive romantic relationship. They were shown a photo of an opposite sex person and asked to rate that person’s attractiveness. Meanwhile, they were surreptitiously being rated themselves on their own physical attractiveness by two of the experimenters who were blinded to the answers the participants gave on their surveys. They found that participants who were in relationships and had higher physical attractiveness rated the photos of the opposite-sex person as more attractive than did the participants who were currently in a relationship but deemed to be less attractive by the experimenters.

So many problems:

Ugh, stop it with the creepy non-consensual rating people’s attractiveness. I get that a study on attractiveness needs to somehow be able to rank people by attractiveness, but the only method creepier than having adults rate how sexy they find photos of teenagers is experiments where a study participant believes they are there merely to take a survey but then is secretly being sized up as to how sexy the researchers find that participant compared to the other participants. Just hearing about this study makes me never want to ever participate in a scientific study ever again, lest I be secretly ranked on an attractiveness scale by the experimenters.

Like the other studies, we are getting into really low numbers of participants that they are basing their results on. There were 134 participants, but only 55 of them were currently in a relationship, so their final results were essentially only based on these 55 people. Plus, the researchers mentioned that anyone who left a survey question blank was removed from the analysis, though they never mention how many people were removed. So, we’re actually looking at a maximum of 55 people but possibly even less. Even more worryingly, although the researchers asked participants for their sexual orientation, they didn’t release the results in the paper. All participants got a photo of someone of the opposite sex to rate, whether or not they are attracted to people of the opposite sex.

Even with the researchers constantly conflating relationship duration with relationship satisfaction, it’s hard to see how this study has to do with any of that considering their results have nothing to do with either of those things. The way the researchers explain it is that people in relationships who are more likely to see people outside their relationship as attractive are potentially more likely to cheat on their partner or otherwise end their current relationship, thereby having shorter relationship durations and less relationship satisfaction. This seems like a big stretch to get that out of this study, but the researchers don’t appear bothered by the disconnect.

What the researchers think they discovered:

People who are more attractive themselves are more likely to be seeing potential new partners as attractive when they are in an exclusive relationship. This will cause them to have lower relationship duration and in turn lower relationship satisfaction. Therefore attractive people have lower relationship satisfaction.

What the researchers actually discovered:

Survey participants who were currently in a relationship and that the experimenters thought were hot ended up rating a photo of an opposite sex person as sexier than did participants the experimenters were not attracted to.

Study 4

Other studies have shown that when people look at photos of same-sex attractive people they tend to feel worse about their own perceived attractiveness. The researchers used this tendency to manipulate how a person feels about their own attractiveness in a survey of 139 participants (all currently in an exclusive relationship) they recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Each participant saw 5 photos of same-sex individuals. These photos came from a google image search for either “attractive female,” “unattractive female,” “attractive male” or “unattractive male,” with a portion of the participants seeing only the attractive photos and another portion seeing the unattractive photos. They were then asked to rate their own attractiveness. They then looked at three images of opposite sex people and were asked to rate their attractiveness. Finally they were asked a series of questions about their own relationship satisfaction. The researchers found that participants made to feel attractive (by looking at photos of unattractive same-sex people) were more likely to rate the photos of the opposite sex people as more attractive than did the people made to feel less attractive (by looking at photos of attractive same-sex people).

So many problems:

Can we talk about using google searches to determine attractiveness? A photo of Steve Buscemi is one of the top results when I google both “attractive male” and “unattractive male.” When I google “unattractive male” the first photo that comes up is of Leonardo DiCaprio.

photo of Leonardo DiCaprio

So obviously unattractive! How can anyone stand to look at him?

When I google “attractive female” I get mostly photos of beautiful blond women while googling “unattractive female” I end up with mostly photos of beautiful black women BECAUSE THE INTERNET IS A FUCKING TERRIBLE AND INCREDIBLY RACIST PLACE. Sorry, for the all-caps but I just cannot stress enough what a bad idea it is to determine whether photos of humans are “attractive” or not based on a google search, not to mention how difficult and fraught trying to get an “objective” measure of attractiveness is. It’s clear that there is no way the researchers just took the top photos for those google searches. They had to have used a lot of discretion in choose which photos they themselves thought were most attractive or unattractive and there is little to no visibility in how they made those decisions.

As for manipulating people to feel more or less attractive themselves, it does seem like an ingenious way to determine how a person’s feelings about themselves affects how they answer surveys, though it seems a bit wasted on these particular researchers because they used it in such an odd way. What I assumed the researchers were going to do was determine whether people made to feel attractive later reported less relationship satisfaction than people made to feel unattractive. Since this entire paper was presumably about how physical attractiveness affects relationship satisfaction, this would have made sense, but this isn’t what the researchers did. Instead, they found that people who were made to feel attractive in turn rated photos of opposite-sex people as more attractive (again presuming that everyone is attracted to people of the opposite sex) and that this implies that attractive people have lower relationship satisfaction.

I also want to put forward another theory that might explain their results. If you show a person photos of unattractive people (of any gender) and then show them photos of attractive people (again of any gender), are they more likely to rate the photos of attractive people as more attractive than if they hadn’t looked at the unattractive photos first? In other words, if you just show someone three photos of attractive people and ask them to rate them, maybe the scale they are rating them on (in terms of what constitutes a one versus a five versus a ten) is different than if they also just looked at photos of unattractive people. In fact, this cognitive bias is so well-known that it has a name: the anchoring effect.  There is a lot of evidence that the anchoring effect exists, so this seems a far more likely explanation to explain what the researchers found than does their theory that it has to do with people looking for new relationship partners.

What the researchers thought they discovered:

People in relationships that are made to feel more attractive are more likely to think people of the opposite sex are more attractive, thereby implying they are considering them as a candidate for a relationship, which will likely shorten the duration of their current relationship and therefore they will have less overall relationship satisfaction. And also, people who are attractive all know they are attractive because otherwise the entire theory falls apart.

What they actually discovered:

People who looked at photos of same-sex unattractive people rated photos of opposite sex people as more attractive.

So where does this leave us?

According to the researchers all these studies together constitutes evidence that attractive people are more likely to have less relationship satisfaction. I’m not so sure they managed to get even remotely close to proving this. Four garbage studies don’t suddenly become a great, solid study when combined. We just end up with a lot more garbage.

I have to say that the statistics the researchers used were on point. They did the proper testing before using models in order to ensure that the assumptions of that model were met and they always used the correct statistical test or model types for the situation. It’s clear these are talented researchers which is why it’s so baffling that they managed to produce such a questionable study. They had the math down pat, but the problem was that none of their studies were measuring what they claimed to be measuring.

None of these studies measured relationship satisfaction, so it’s honestly bewildering to me that the researchers were able to conclude that physical attractiveness affects relationship satisfaction. Their conflation in the first two studies of relationship duration with relationship satisfaction is a giant red flag. At no point do they attempt to prove that people who have one long relationship have more relationship satisfaction than people who have had many shorter relationships. Many people are unable to get a divorce due to cultural shame or lack of financial independence or abuse or even just lack of initiative or staying together “for the children.” This hardly implies that they then must have more relationship satisfaction than people who are more easily able to get out of marriages they are unhappy in. There is nowhere in the study where the researchers grappled with or even acknowledged this conflation. They just assumed longer relationship duration = better relationship satisfaction and plowed ahead on that assumption.

The connections between what they studied in their final two studies and what they were attempting to measure seem particularly questionable. They measured some people rating photos of opposite-sex people as more attractive then jumped from that to an assumption of lower relationship satisfaction. It’s highly questionable to assume that someone who finds a person of the opposite sex more attractive must be on the prowl for new partners and therefore will soon end their current relationship and therefore must be unhappy in their relationships. There are so many jumps from one assumption to another in order to get from the things the researchers were studying to their conclusions, and they need to do a lot more work showing data connecting each of these steps before it can be considered a plausible connection, but they don’t ever do this work except in the most shallow sense.

In the end, this study is unimpressive, but the researchers still take their small, limited studies and then use them to make a broad and universal claim which then gets reported on in the media as fact and used by New York Post bros to justify not dating attractive women. Really though, if Dan Rochkind, the NYPost bro in question, truly believes the results of this study he shouldn’t change what type of women he dates. After all, the study was about how much relationship satisfaction attractive people have, not their partners. If Rochkind wants to apply the results of this study to his life, he could get the most relationship satisfaction by making himself less attractive. After all, according to this study, the less attractive a person is, the better they are at finding true love, so stop showering and pick out the oldest, rattiest clothes in your closet to wear on your next Tindr date. If you think I’m wrong about this dating strategy, take it up with the Harvard researchers who wrote this study.

new humanist blog

Why country singers are the chroniclers of our age

A new generation of female singers are rejecting patriotic tub-thumping and documenting the dark heart of rural America.

Facebook in Talks with Pakistan to Help Catch Blasphemers

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Sorta transcript:

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is, as the full name might imply, a Muslim country. What you may not know is that it is THE Muslim country, the only one formed specifically in the name of Islam in 1947 as a Muslim homeland. Their constitution states that all laws must comply with the Quran, and like the Bible, that means whatever the party in power wants it to mean. In today’s parlance, it means that basic human rights are a huge struggle for many marginalized groups living in Pakistan.

One of those groups is, obviously, non-Muslims. Interestingly, Pakistanis inherited anti-blasphemy laws from British colonialists in the 19th century, but in the 1970s and ‘80s they were beefed up to become truly oppressive. In 1986, authorities established the punishment for insulting the Prophet Muhammad as death or life in prison. The laws are used to unfairly imprison atheists, Christians, and other religious minorities, and though no one has ever received the death penalty for blasphemy, more than 50 people have been murdered before their trials were over. Even people who speak out against the laws are straight-up murdered with alarming frequency. And just this week, a man was murdered by three women for allegedly committing blasphemy 13 years ago.

With the advent of the Internet, more Pakistanis have the opportunity to be exposed to differing points of view. Unfortunately, it also means that the government has more opportunity to catch Pakistanis blaspheming and punish them. That’s why the Pakistani government has beseeched Twitter and Facebook to actually help them find and punish people they feel are blaspheming on those social networks. Even if the Pakistanis involved are located abroad, the government would seek extradition to get them back and put them on trial for their lives.

Twitter hasn’t responded, and I hope they never do, because fuck that request. Facebook, though, is taking the request seriously and has agreed to send a delegation to Pakistan to discuss it. I don’t seriously believe that Facebook would actually help disclose the identities of “blasphemers” to the Pakistani government, especially if they know the world is watching, considering that Mark Zuckerberg is pretty obviously considering a political run in the future. But that interest in politics may mean that he’s more likely to deal with a governmental request with kid gloves, even a request as outright disgusting as Pakistan’s.

While they probably won’t actually help anyone get prosecuted for blasphemy, Facebook is considering ways to censor content according to the majority views of a particular country, and that’s dangerous — the positive power of social media is the ability to expose people to new viewpoints, and Facebook’s plan would be a huge step backward into an echo chamber, which as I’ve talked about before leads to increasing radicalization of dangerous people with dangerous ideas.

Speaking of, Pakistan’s interior minister whined that social networks tend to censor Holocaust denial while allowing people to insult the Prophet Muhammad. He doesn’t seem to realize that’s because the Holocaust actually happened, while Muhammad is a fantasy figure who never actually split the moon in half or made a palm tree stop crying because he was leaning on it. We can say that just like we can say that Yahweh never flooded the entire earth destroying all of human civilization besides one family. That might insult Jewish people who believe it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s far worse to say that 6 million people weren’t killed in the Holocaust, because that’s a provable lie with serious consequences that contributes to the rise of neo-Nazis.

In other words, stopping fake news from spreading isn’t equivalent to stopping people from pointing out the absurdities of religion. Religion is the “fake news” in that comparison. Thankfully, Pakistan won’t win this fight, and thanks in part to the Internet, more and more Pakistanis will wake up to that fact.

school of doubt

Why Schools Should Teach Critical Thinking (Part 2)

This is part two of a rebuttal to this article. Part one can be found here.

One key issue I noted in Hendrick’s article is an odd disconnect from the way he is using the term critical thinking and the way it is used by people like Richard Paul, who has written more one critical thinking than just about anyone else. I’ve written about this before, but there’s an element of metacognition involved in critical thinking which is curiously missing in Hendricks’ article.

Aside from making non-analogous comparisons between critical thinking and “brain training” games, sports, and air-traffic controllers, he gives this example of “subject-specific critical-thinking skills”:

“For example, if a student of literature knows that Mary Shelley’s mother died shortly after Mary was born and that Shelley herself lost a number of children in infancy, that student’s appreciation of Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with creating life from death, and the language used to describe it, is more enhanced than approaching the text without this knowledge.”

I would argue that this is not critical thinking. When it comes to analyzing art, it is important to look at the context from which it was created because that can provide you with an ability to understand the work that you could not otherwise have. However, there is a pitfall in this kind of thinking, it brings a lot of assumptions from the readers who try to create a convenient narrative to fit their interpretation into. It can also lead to intentionalism, the idea that the meaning of a piece of art is determined entirely by its creator’s intentions. This kind of thinking runs into a lot of problems very quickly.*

This is a ripe opportunity for your own cognitive biases to creep in. Confirmation, the mother of all biases, plays a huge role as you latch on to elements of Shelly’s life that match the narrative you are creating, and ignore anything that doesn’t fit your interpretation. There’s a “post hoc ergo propter hoc” or “cum hoc ergo propter hoc” trap as well. Just because Shelly experienced death in her own life does not automatically mean that she put that into Frankenstein. As it turns out, most people have lost loved ones. But most people haven’t written Frankenstein. Looking for specific elements in her life to match a narrative you have (or in this case, maybe the teacher has) presented is cherry-picking.

Critical thinking isn’t just looking at context, it is looking at your own assumptions about the context, looking for problems in your own thinking about it, looking for ways in which you might be reading something into it that isn’t there, looking for your own biases and underlying assumptions about how to interpret and analyze this kind of text in general. When this student learned about Shelly’s life, did she start by questioning her own reasoning about the importance of context, or just jump to a conclusion based on the apparent match between Shelly’s life and writing?

Hendricks has given an example of a skill in a specific subject, but where is the critical thinking here?

(I’ll address another of his examples in my next post. Unfortunately I am still in an extremely busy period at work and can’t write out my full rebuttal at once.)


*Imagine judging a pie competition and one of the pies tastes terrible. Its baker says, “Well, I intended for this pie to be the best one.” Are you going to judge it based on the baker’s intention, or focus on other criteria?

new humanist blog

Why do we use reason to reach nonsensical conclusions?

Q&A with Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, authors of a new book about the evolution of reason.
new humanist blog

In search of whiteness

Identity politics is back with a vengeance in 2017 – but one particular kind of identity is often left unexplored. Lola Okolosie and Vron Ware ask why.
school of doubt

Why Schools Should Teach Critical Thinking (Part 1)

There was an article that made the rounds last December titled “Why Schools Shouldn’t Teach Critical Thinking.” I read it, and saw various rebuttals online as well as some interesting discussions. I wanted to say something, but couldn’t really frame my thoughts adequately and so dropped it. However, I’ve been reading Richard Paul’s work on critical thinking and over and over, I keep finding things that rebut the whole premise of Carl Hendrick’s article.

To be clear, Hendrick’s position in this article is “Instead of teaching generic critical-thinking skills, we ought to focus on subject-specific critical-thinking skills…” At first glance, he seems to be making a good case. Most of his position is based on the lack of transferability of skills.

The transfer problem is a real one, and Paul also addresses it often when he talks about teaching critical thinking skills. I will address this more in another post because I don’t have time right now.

Unfortunately, Hendrick focuses on one particular area of research to support his position, and that research isn’t about critical thinking skills. It’s about brain training games, which is not even remotely analogous.

For one thing, most brain training games don’t make claims about critical thinking skills. They tend to claim improvements in memory, focus, speed, multitasking, and problem solving. (The research, as Hendrick points out, doesn’t support those claims.) Critical thinking involve none of those things, and instead is entirely about metacognition.

By repeatedly claiming that critical thinking skills can’t transfer, Hendrick is making the claim that people can only think about their thinking in one domain. The very existence of the skeptical movement disproves this. Unfortunately, I’m in the middle of a very busy period at work and can’t write out a full rebuttal now, so here’s a preview of what I’ll be writing in my next posts:

school of doubt

Where to Begin Thinking Critically?

I realize almost no one will read this, but for the few who do, I have question. (I’ll keep this post short.)

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the most basic aspects of critical thinking: where to start a primer for students who have never really encountered it before. While “critical thinking” is a common buzzword, most people, including many teachers, don’t seem to actually understand what it is or use the term correctly (as I’ve written about before).

When it comes to teaching students, there’s big question of where exactly to begin. Critical thinking has so many important aspects, and while skeptics (myself included) like to focus on a few specific ones, like logical fallacies or quoting Carl Sagan, there really is a whole lot there to delve into.

What interests me the most in teaching is finding ways to ignite a spark of interest in my students, but most of the skills in thinking critically are very difficult and require a lot of mental energy even at the best of times. A good starting point can help students who might not otherwise be interested, but the best I can come up with is “Some information is unreliable, here is proof of that, here is what can happen if you believe it, and here are some ways to check it.”

Do you have a better starting point for teaching critical thinking skills?

sam harris

The Russia Connection

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Anne Applebaum about Russia’s meddling in the U.S. Presidential election and Trump’s troubling affinity for Vladimir Putin.

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the Washington Post and a Pulitzer-prize winning historian. She is also a visiting Professor at the London School of Economics where she runs Arena, a program on disinformation and 21st century propaganda.

Formerly a member of the Washington Post editorial board, she has also worked at the Spectator, the Evening Standard, Slate, the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, the Economist, and the Independent. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, Foreign Affairs, The New Criterion, The Weekly Standard, the New Republic, The National Review, The New Statesman, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other journals.

She is the author of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, which describes the imposition of Soviet totalitarianism in Central Europe after the Second World War. Her previous book, Gulag: A History, won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2004.

school of doubt

Who is this music for, anyway?

Not long ago I was talking to a colleague of mine who was teaching an undergraduate course on early music, which is the term academics generally use to refer to Western European art music from before 1750. Some time previous to our conversation one of the music majors in his class, who was black and had more academic interests in popular and non-Western musics, mentioned to my colleague that the course was not “speaking” to him, because it focused almost exclusively on dead white men. My colleague rightly took this as an opportunity to think about ways in which the early music curriculum could be diversified to accommodate a broader spectrum of voices.

Thanks mainly to the efforts of feminist music scholars over the last few decades, we now have a fairly substantial roster of women who were composers, performers, or patrons of music in the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, and more are being identified all the time. Several of the most prolific and influential of these women now frequently make their way into the early music curriculum for undergraduates, especially Hildegard of Bingen, Maddalena Casulana, Barbara Strozzi, Francesca Caccini, and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre.

But, of course, these women were all white. Indeed, to my knowledge, we simply don’t have any examples of non-white composers working in the European tradition prior to 1750, and this is so for what should be fairly obvious structural reasons. The earliest composer of colour I have ever heard of is “le Mozart noir” Joseph Bologne, who was born on Guadaloupe in 1745, just a bit too late for the period under discussion.

I freely admit, of course, that my knowledge is limited–indeed, there are many thousands of documents out there in the archives that no one has even looked at in several hundred years, not to mention all the material that has been lost over the same amount of time. It is certainly possible that there is an example out there and I don’t know it. That said, I’m a Venetianist, and it seems to me that if we can’t find an example of a composer of colour in what was for many years one of the most cosmopolitan and tolerant cities in the world (not to mention the centre of the music printing industry for much of the early modern era), chances are we’ll be looking for a long time.

It’s hard to deny that our personal histories can have a huge impact on the topics that interest us as scholars and musicians. I took Italian in school largely because of my own Italian ancestry (and the related desire to be able to speak with my still-living family in Italy). My scholarly work on musical depictions of Greeks in Venice was also no doubt inspired by my own experience as an immigrant and many years living as part of a linguistic minority in my new home. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that people can and should devote themselves to  scholarly and artistic pursuits that resonate with them on a personal level.

At the same time, I now live in what is routinely lauded as the most ethnically diverse city in the world, yet the Renaissance choir I sing with is overwhelmingly white. This is a problem with “Classical” music generally, and much of it can be attributed to structural inequalities in the availability of music education and economic inequalities that reduce the ability of visible minorities to participate in the arts more broadly. Many of these factors are in play long before students get to university, and of course many of these same factors keep students from making it to university in the first place.

So what can university music educators and early music performers do to make this repertoire “speak” to a broader cross-section of society?

In terms of curriculum, while it may not always be possible to include works by members of certain underrepresented communities, it is often much easier to find works that depict members of those communities. Including such depictions can, at the very least, prompt class discussions of those (often very problematic) depictions and the cultural environments in which they were generated. There is also, of course, the role music played in early modern European projects of colonisation and conversion in the Americas, India, and East Asia.

We can also work to make students more aware of the contributions of scholars from underrepresented communities to our field. The process of scholarship and the creation of knowledge is often opaque to students at the undergraduate level. This is especially true of historically oriented disciplines, in which survey texts can seem to students like a string of dates and facts handed down from nowhere in particular. Even in more advanced courses, the authors of articles and other course materials can seem more like abstractions than real, living people with their own ideas, personal histories, and world views.

When I was in graduate school I was very fortunate to have the opportunity (and funding) to attend a lot of academic conferences, and in so doing I was able to meet and develop personal relationships with many of the leading scholars in my field. This experience is absolutely invaluable. Even at the very basic level of being able to link a name with a face, this kind of familiarity not only changes how you read, but also makes it that much easier to understand and keep track of where certain knowledge has come from. I think we can do more to provide students with this kind of familiarity. While it might be impractical to send a whole class to a far-off conference somewhere, we can certainly try to do more to humanise the sources of our class materials, whether with invited talks, Skype guests, recorded lectures, or even just personal anecdotes about the people whose work they are reading. Like most other academic disciplines, music scholarship has its own diversity problems, but at the same time many of our field’s greatest luminaries have been queer, women, and people of colour, and it certainly couldn’t hurt to make students more aware of this fact.

Lastly, early music performers of all stripes could always do more outreach with underserved communities. My own interest in early music was awakened by seeing a single performance of Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea. Early music is also uniquely accessible in the sense that there is an enormous amount of repertoire intended for unaccompanied singers. Anyone who can read music can perform early music, and in fact I make considerable use of early repertoire when I teach basic musicianship and music literacy skills to non-musicians. In an era where music education seems to be facing ever-increasing budget cuts and many public schools can’t afford expensive instruments or other specialised equipment, it may well be that all this music from hundreds of years ago could be more relevant than ever.


Featured image: Etching of Joseph Bologne (1745-1799) by William Ward (1766-1826) after a painting by Mather Brown (1761–1831)

school of doubt

Look to Labor Law to Solve Student Association Conflicts

A few years ago, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the University of Windsor was withholding the health and dental insurance money that it collects on behalf of the University of Windsor Student Alliance. Allegedly, the university was fretting about the governance of the student association.

The story sounds similar to incidents that have occurred at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, McMaster University, and Carleton University over the past decade. In each of those cases, the university administrators collected student fees owed to their respective student associations, but did not pay them out, citing governance and fiscal transparency issues. The administrators presented themselves as protecting students’ money from unaccountable organizations, but the student associations countered that the universities had no business interfering in their internal affairs. The students also pointed out that the administrators were in a conflict of interest: they were depriving the student associations of the resources that they needed to fulfill their mandate, which can include representing their student members to the university bosses themselves, who are not always sympathetic to the wishes of students.

I have not heard a story about student fees like this for some time, either in Canada or the United States, but another one is bound to come up sooner or later. They feed the media’s desire for campus controversy.

Student associations are supposed to be democratic and representative of their members, and they usually are. The larger associations are independent, non-profit corporations that add great value to the university experience. Though they rely on their colleges and universities to collect their fees for them, they are not subdivisions of those institutions. University and college administrators therefore have no right to interfere with them.

On the other hand… what happens when the student associations are not, in fact, democratic and representative? As with any other organization, things can go wrong and lead to governance crises. Surely, when these crises do emerge (however rare they may be), administrators are right to step in and protect students from an organization that they have lost control over?

There is a better solution that both sustains the independence of student associations and offers recourse to their members who feel that they are not being properly represented. This solution borrows from a model that has worked for over a century: labor relations.

There are many similarities between student associations and labor unions. They are both governed democratically by their members, they both host social events and offer services to their members, they both represent their members to powerful people (respectively, administrators and employers), and they both (mostly) rely on those powerful people to collect their dues for them. There are differences too, and the most significant of these differences is that labor unions operate under a clear and rigorous legislative framework. Unions have the legal right to fulfill their mandate without interference from employers, but they also have the legal responsibility to represent their members properly and to take good care of their money. Good labor law grants unions and employers the opportunity to resolve their differences amongst themselves, while offering a Labor Board to mediate between them.

Having a labor board or some sort of equivalent mediate and, if necessary, judge between administrators and student associations would eliminate the threat of conflict of interest. The presence of such a board would also protect students from rogue student associations: just as any union member can complain to the labor board if their union is not fulfilling its mandate, so disgruntled students could petition to this third party without relying on administrators.

A labor board model could also help with some of the conflicts between local student associations and umbrella organizations like the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). The CFS bylaws state that student associations may begin the process to disaffiliate from the federation if members of the association in question deliver a petition requesting that a referendum be held on the issue. Various associations have successfully petitioned to leave the CFS, but others (including, recently, the Laurentian and McGill graduate student societies) have sent in petitions and claimed that the CFS refused to accept them. The CFS, for its part, maintains that it simply never received the packages in the mail. The truth lies in the eye of the beholder — and that should not be the case. In the world of labor relations, disputes like this are handled by a neutral third party. It does not make sense that an organization like the CFS is responsible for documents that are arguably against its interest.

British Columbia and Quebec have legislation that enshrines protections for student associations while laying out minimum standards of governance. In Ontario, the MPP for Ottawa-Centre, Yasir Naqvi, tabled a bill (then titled Bill 184) in April 2011 that would have done the same thing, but the bill did not survive the election that year. A specific law like that suggested by Naqvi could fix the problems associated with student association governance and independence, but another option would be to create a new bill based on labor law, or even expand labor law to include students and their organizations.

Student associations (or as some call them, student unions) are a part of life at North America’s post-secondary institutions, and they deserve the legal recognition to do their job and to be protected from university administrators and from conflicts with fellow student unions. After all, it’s a deal that labor unions already have.

sam harris

Reality and the Imagination

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Yuval Noah Harari about meditation, the need for stories, the power of technology to erase the boundary between fact and fiction, wealth inequality, the problem of finding meaning in a world without work, religion as a virtual reality game, the difference between pain and suffering, the future of globalism, and other topics.

Yuval Noah Harari has a PhD in history from Oxford University and is a professor in the Department of History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specialized in World History, medieval history and military history, but his current research focuses on macro-historical questions: What is the relation between history and biology? What is the essential difference between Homo sapiens and other animals? Is there justice in history? Does history have a direction? Did people become happier as history unfolded?

He is the author of two blockbuster books, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

sam harris

Meaning and Chaos

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson discuss science, religion, archetypes, mythology, and the perennial problem of finding meaning in life.

sam harris

Living with Robots

In this Episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Kate Darling about the ethical concerns surrounding our increasing use of robots and other autonomous systems.

Kate Darling is a leading expert in robot ethics. She’s a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, where she investigates social robotics and conducts experimental studies on human-robot interaction. Kate is also a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Yale Information Society Project, and is an affiliate at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. She explores the emotional connection between people and life-like machines, seeking to influence technology design and public policy. Her writing and research anticipate difficult questions that lawmakers, engineers, and the wider public will need to address as human-robot relationships evolve in the coming decades. Kate has a background in law & economics and intellectual property.

Twitter: @grok_

sam harris

Meme #6

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 […]
bad science

An audio interview with The Conversation, on smashing the walls of the Ivory Tower

The Conversation is a great media outlet, because it’s run by academic nerds, but made for everyone. I had a nice time chatting with them last week: we discussed transparency, data sharing, statins, research integrity, risk communication, culture shift, academic activism, and why we should kick through the walls of the ivory tower. Caution: contains nerds!
bad science

Sarepta, eteplirsen: anecdote, data, surrogate outcomes, and the FDA

The Duchenne’s treatment made by Sarepta (eteplirsen) has been in the news this week, as a troubling example of the FDA lowering its bar for approval of new medicines. The FDA expert advisory panel decided not to approve this treatment, because the evidence for any benefit is weak; but there was extensive lobbying from well-organised patients and, eventually, the FDA overturned the opinion of its own […]
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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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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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.

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