A delicate exercise

It must be tricky to critique flat Earth stories, which are risibly goofy and in defiance of the evidence, when you personally believe in young Earth stories, which are just as idiotic, but Danny Faulkner of Answers in Genesis tries. He attended a flat earth conference, and what’s remarkable about his essay is how gingerly he treads. Make no mistake, Faulkner does not believe in this flat earth crap, he gives a few specific criticisms of some of their rationalizations, and it is not currently the policy of Answers in Genesis to support flat earth claims (they say the Bible does not claim the Earth is flat), but give them time — if flat-earthers become numerous enough to be fleeced, expect even more niceness from AiG.

It’s just the irony of it all. Faulkner was getting a little taste of how loony these fringe Bible kooks look to the rest of us, with their weird claims that flout all the evidence, but are fervently held solely because they connect them to their religious beliefs. No, the Bible doesn’t flat out state that the Earth is flat, but it is a reasonably inferred part of the mythology, and there are all kinds of hints that the ancient authors modeled the world that way; it also doesn’t come right out and say that the Earth is only 6000 years old, but it is also clear that the ancient authors had no concept of deep time, and so AiG has inferred and imposed a set of interpretations on the Bible that bolster their preferred preconceptions. There is no difference between flat-earthers and young-earthers in their methodology or their biases or their abuse of science.

There’s also the lack of perspective. I’ve attended creationist events, and this is exactly what they sound like: disappointingly vague, reliant entirely on religious testimonies and that damnable Christian persecution complex.

I was a bit disappointed by the content of the conference. I had expected that I would hear and see information about flat-earth that I hadn’t encountered already, but that wasn’t the case. Many of the presentations largely were personal testimonies of how people had come to believe in flat earth. Hence, I didn’t learn much about the flat-earth model that I didn’t already know. However, I did learn much about the flat-earth movement itself. In conversations and in the presentations, I learned how people came to lose jobs, friends, and even family members once they, in their own words, “came out of the closet about flat earth.” Therefore, many of the people in attendance clearly viewed the meeting as a safe refuge where they could meet ostracized people like themselves. This clearly brought joy to many attendees, and I suppose the last thing these people would do would be to castigate someone in their midst who isn’t a flat-earther, provided that person behaved as a guest.

I’ve never seen a creationist talk that wasn’t thickly larded with personal testimonies about their religious beliefs, that didn’t end with pious ranting about Jesus, and that wasn’t full of offended indignation that those wicked seculars wouldn’t let them preach the Gospel in public schools.

If you want some real fun, Faulkner mentions this nice flat-earther he met, named Noel Hadley. He’s a hoot. He thinks Francis Crick learned about the structure of DNA from LSD-fueled sex parties, Peruvian shamans, ancient Egyptians, and snake myths.

But let’s not forget, the Egyptians also had a part in Crick’s discovery. Did Pharaoh not wear a cobra on his crown as a symbol of the divine word and third eye—the pineal gland—by which true hidden knowledge might be discovered to the devoted initiate? In his book, The Secret in the Bible, author Tony Bushby suggests the capstone of the Great Pyramid was once a clear crystal or glass that produced a visible beacon of light from its apex. He writes: “Whenever a light is shone down into a glass pyramid in exact scale or proportion as the Great Pyramid, a ‘Rainbow Serpent’ is created. The light provides a type of force or energy that, in turn, creates the vertical spiral of light, a serpent upraised, invisible in rock, but visible in a clear substance. That is what the Ancient Egyptian Priesthood meant when they said, ‘A serpent lies coiled in the Great Pyramid.’” Bushby’s conclusion is as you might now suspect. The Rainbow Serpent, directly referenced by the priesthood, was a double helix like representing Francis Crick’s strand of DNA.

Every continent seems to have a role in ancient serpent worship. Claude Lévi-Strauss writes of the Aztecs: “In Aztec, the word coatl means both ‘serpent’ and ‘twin.’ The name Quetzalcoatl can thus be interpreted either as ‘Plumed serpent’ or ‘Magnificent twin.’” Throughout shamanic religions, from Australia to Tibet and eastern Asia, back into Egypt again, throughout Africa, and finally North and South America, visions of “spiral ladders” or “braided ropes” cannot be overlooked either. Authors Mircea Eliade, Willard R. Trask, and Wendy Doniger write in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, “the symbolism of the rope, like that of the ladder, necessarily implies communication between sky and earth. It is by means of a rope or a ladder (as, too, by a vine, a bridge, a chain of arnyaw, etc.) that the gods descend to earth and men go up to the sky.”

Right. The guy who illustrated his article with this abomination knows a lot about DNA.

Danny Faulkner, meet Noel Hadley. You two are indistinguishably crazy twins, and you don’t even know it.


It all depends on how you define “success”

Sergio Canavero has been blustering for years about how he’s going to do a complete human head transplant. His most recent shenanigans was the horrible two-headed rat, in which he decapitated a little rat, killed a big rat, and stitched the two circulatory systems together to allow the big rat’s heart to keep the little rat’s unconscious brain alive for a few hours. It was a stupid waste; the big problem is and always has been to reconnect a nervous system in a functional way, and he’s not even trying to do that.

But now he has announced that he has successfully transplanted the head from one human being onto the body of another. Successfully. What does he mean by that?

He has successfully transplanted the head from one human cadaver to the torso of another human cadaver. No word yet on whether the patient has recovered consciousness or how he is feeling.

Are you impressed yet?

What will impress me is when these gullible newsrags wake up and realize that Canavero is a fraud, and they stop giving him free press for every ghoulish act of necrophilia he commits.


How Google is Spreading Fake News about an “Antifa” Killer

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A few years ago, I started doing a talk about using social media to advance skepticism, though in reality it was also a talk about how hard it is to stop misinformation from spreading on social media.

I talked specifically about a few studies, including a paper from 2010 titled “From Obscurity to Prominence in Minutes: Political Speech and Real-Time Search.” Researchers at Wellesley examined the political race between Scott Brown and Martha Coakley, who ran against each other for Senate in Massachusetts. Coakley was the heavy favorite right up until election day, when Brown suddenly rocketed ahead of her. The researchers identified the primary culprit as Brown’s very successful social media campaign using bots on Twitter. The bots all followed one another and continually retweeted a link to a website smearing Coakley with lies. Not only did this cause more people to see the smear campaign on Twitter, but Google had at the time just introduced social media results into its results page, placing them prominently at the top. That allowed people who weren’t even on Twitter, who just happened to search for information about Coakley or about Brown, to see the smears as the first result.

The researchers concluded that Google’s actions provided “disproportionate exposure to personal opinions, fabricated content, unverified events, lies and misrepresentations that otherwise would not find their way in the first page, giving them the opportunity to spread virally.”

I bring all this up because despite their findings, Google still incorporates social media in results and it still has a negative impact, exposing people to misinformation. On Twitter (ironically?) I saw Justin Hendrix point out that Google is spreading misinformation about the recent mass murder of churchgoers in Texas. If you search “Who is Devin Kelley?,” you can see what’s “popular on Twitter,” and what’s popular on Twitter is a whole lotta bullshit.

Much like with the conservative “Twitter bombing,” staunch conservative conspiracy theorists have hijacked this story on social media. Before the news broke that the murderer was a white man, Redditors were already convinced it was a Muslim immigrant. Once that turned out to not be true, they decided the white man must be a Bernie-loving socialist and even an Antifa, which of course means “anti-fascist.” None of those things is true, and can be attributed to fake Facebook pages or just Tweets that state it as though it’s a fact with no actual evidence to back it up.

In fact, Kelley was exactly the type we have come to expect to commit horrific crimes like this: an angry white man with a history of domestic violence and a love of guns.

People using Google, though, may never realize that. To make matters worse, Google’s autocomplete feature jumped into the fray by offering up “Antifa” as the third option when people search for Devin Kelley (and yes, that’s logged out, incognito mode, so it’s not based on the individual user’s previous searches).

These are basic features that Google has installed to make it a more pleasant user experience, but the result is reinforcement of “fake news,” and dangerous news at that. It’s hard enough to get any kind of solutions to the rampant gun violence happening in the United States right now, without rumors proliferating about gunmen killing because they are antifascist. Don’t get me wrong — people do kill because they’re antifascist, but traditionally those people were your grandparents and they were actually killing fascists. When people in the US commit mass murder, they traditionally do it because they’re violent people with easy access to guns. Understanding that might help us stop it.

The post How Google is Spreading Fake News about an “Antifa” Killer appeared first on Skepchick.


Friday Cephalopod: Where you lead, I will follow!

It’s been one of those weeks, so I’m glad someone knows where I’m going.


To all you men: could you please stop embarrassing the rest of us?

Jen Gunter, gynecologist extraordinaire, had written an article about how a former boyfriend had tried to control her by constantly criticizing her appearance, which got picked up by the NY Post as a story about how she got dumped because of her smelly vagina…and then the men got ahold of the story. They assumed, of course, that the criticisms by the controlling, negging boyfriend were all true, so she got all kinds of mansplaining mail, which she has now written about in the NY Times.

And then the men came. They came to share their opinions regarding my vagina, writing on my blog and at me on Twitter. They flocked to my Instagram and my Facebook. One group of gentlemen, in at least their 40s, even decided that this story of me being dumped supposedly because of my vagina was worthy of a laugh on their podcast.

This rash bombarded me in both public and private comments. Men wondered if I had washed “that thang yet?” One man wrote that I “must be INTO smelly ones! How nice for you — we prefer FRESH as a daisy ones!” Another man warned me that “We men had a meeting, all 3.5 billion of us.” At the meeting they had apparently decided to “double down on calling out” my smelly vagina.

A man said I should call my ex and thank him “for alerting me to my smelly vagina.” There was also the #notallmen contingent, who felt it was impossible that my personal experience and 25 years as a gynecologist could offer any evidence that men ever try to control women by preying on insecurities. Obviously it was just my vagina that stank.

More men sought me out to explain vaginas to me. They gave me false information on how to clean and prep them (for men, of course), and told me how gross my vagina must be, and hurled insults that I cannot print here.

This has not been a good day to be male, but then, I guess it’s only fair — men have been making women’s lives miserable for millennia.

I was not invited to that meeting of 3.5 billion men, and I suspect most of us weren’t. It’s time to fire that committee chair and sweep the conference room free and get some non-assholes in there.


Crap, no, not Al

Now it’s Al Franken’s turn. He treated a broadcaster, Leeann Tweeden, with gross disrespect on a USO tour.

Then, on an airplane flight, Franken snuck up on her while she was sleeping and groped her breasts, she writes. Franken even had someone snap a photo of him doing it while he looked at the camera with a big smile on his face.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she writes. “He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep. I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated. How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?”

Franken told Raw Story in a statement: “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann. As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”

I have some expectations of what ought to happen when someone is caught in this kind of behavior. 1) Apologize, 2) Admit that it was wrong and inexcusable, and 3) Explain what you’ll do to make amends and correct the behavior. Franken has done #1 and #2, at least, but #3 is just as important and remains to be done. Tweeden makes it clear that he treated her poorly multiple times, which is disturbing — are there going to be other women stepping forward with similar stories about him?

Does every man who comes into a little power immediately turn into a crude, abusive asshole? In my despair at this constant problem, I thought that maybe this means that we should only elect women…but then I remembered Ann Coulter and Katie Hopkins. And Margaret Thatcher. And Jill Stein.

OK, next election, write in a vote for A Bag of Spiders in every position. It can’t be worse. These hu-mans are not to be trusted.

You should also read Tweeden’s account. It’s distressingly awful.

And now…Leeann Tweeden takes the high ground and accepts Franken’s apology.

new humanist blog

Capitalism: the winter 2017 New Humanist

Out now - how the system shapes the way we think.

Trump Nominates Ghost Hunter to be Judge

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The Trump administration has made a lot of kooky appointments, and by “kooky” I mean “oh god we’re all going to die.” A man who has sued the EPA several times now runs it, the woman in charge of our schools thinks bear attacks are a good reason to arm teachers, and of course our attorney general has admitted to lying under oath about knowing about attempted links between the Trump administration and Russia.

So really this is a minor point, but considering how long I’ve been on the skeptic beat I feel I have to alert you all that Donald Trump has nominated to the Alabama Federal District Court an honest-to-God ghost hunter. Brett J. Talley also, for the record, has never tried a case in his life and failed to disclose to the Senate that he is married to a White House lawyer, but come on. He’s a ghost hunter.

If you were alive in the early 2000s then you’ve seen the TV shows and you know the type — it’s a bunch of mostly white dudes who think they’re smarter than they are, who go into old houses late at night and get scared when they hear noises they can’t immediately explain. Then they use devices that measure electromagnetic fields because they think that’s what ghosts are, and they mysteriously get readings in areas where there are wall sockets.

Talley was in a group like that in Tuscaloosa, and then he went on to write several books about how ghosts are real, including “Haunted Alabama Black Belt.” I read the first few chapters of that book and I have to say that at least Talley and his co-author open it by admitting that the Civil War was fought over slavery and that slavery and Jim Crow were bad things. I know, it’s 2017 and that’s considered good news for a presidential nominee to federal court. “This judicial nominee is a ghost hunter who has never tried a case before but hey, at least he doesn’t hate black people so much that he ignores and distorts basic facts about recent American history.”

Talley has also written several fictional books about ghosts and things, which is great for him, really. But again, he has never, ever tried a case. He’s been a lawyer for three years. His website hocking his books is titled “The Site That Should Not Be.” He thinks ghosts are real and can be detected using electromagnetic field detectors and tape recorders.

Look, I’m not saying that judges should always be 100% rational and serious individuals in all aspects of their lives. I’m not even saying they should all have “extensive trial experience,” as Republican senator Charles Grassley complained when defending Talley to the Washington Post. I’m just saying that maybe they should have, I don’t know, some trial experience, and maybe, let’s say, more time as an adult spent in the courtroom learning the law than in a graveyard trying to find a Dracula.

But hey, at least he’s not a pedophile, right? 2017!

The post Trump Nominates Ghost Hunter to be Judge appeared first on Skepchick.

new humanist blog

An attack on free speech in Malta

The murder of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has worrying implications.
new humanist blog

Fighting for abortion rights in Northern Ireland

50 years after the 1967 Abortion Act was passed, women in Northern Ireland still has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
sam harris

Meme #14

sam harris

American Fantasies

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Kurt Andersen about the American aptitude for unfounded belief, the religious lunacy of the Puritans, populist mistrust of authority, the link between postmodernism and religious fundamentalism, the unique history of American religious entrepreneurship, the Trump phenomenon, the effect of fame on politics, and other topics.

Kurt Andersen is the bestselling author of the novels Heyday, Turn of the Century, and True Believers. He contributes to Vanity Fair and The New York Times, and is host and co-creator of Studio 360, the Peabody Award–winning public radio show and podcast. He also writes for television, film, and the stage. Andersen co-founded Spy magazine, served as editor in chief of New York, and was a cultural columnist and critic for Time and The New Yorker. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon. His most recent book is Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History.

Twitter: @KBAndersen

new humanist blog

Why does psychoanalysis use the couch?

Q&A with Nathan Kravis, author of "On the Couch: A Repressed History of the Analytic Couch from Plato to Freud"
new humanist blog

The weighting game

Laurie Taylor takes a trip to the gym.
school of doubt

Pros of Participation Grades 1

I’ve written a series of posts addressing some common criticisms of giving grades for participation in class. For each of those criticisms, there was a strong rebuttal. Basically, they can be summed up as “this isn’t a problem if you do it right.” Now I’m going to go over some of the arguments teachers give in favor of participation grading, and try to include weaknesses of these arguments as well.

1. It can positively contribute to socialization.

This is not a universal benefit; I am only arguing this point as it applies to some implementations of participation grades in some subjects and circumstances. For example, this “pro” would not apply to a math teacher having students shout out their answers to the homework for “class participation” purposes.

This argument is based on a function of schooling. There are many different reasons people cite for having an education system: economic benefits, successful democracies, etc. One of these is also to help promote socialization. One might try to argue that this is only really important for younger grades (like kindergarteners learning how to share and not to hit other kids) or even that this isn’t necessary in school at all. After all, there are plenty of homeschooled children that grow up to be perfectly functional adults. Then again, as the recent “metoo” trend of publicizing sexual harassment which had been going on for years and years has shown, maybe a lot of people need more help being socialized, not less.

Regardless, one of the functions of school is to be a tool for socialization. Students need to learn a multitude of cultural norms to function well and fully participate in their societies. A mismatch between a student’s actual behavior in the world and their expected behavior can be devastating, as this can make them seriously struggle to succeed. Of course, there are certainly downsides to socialization: many norms can be illogical or even unethical (though that depends on whether you subscribe to a more relativistic or objectivist view of ethics).

Additionally, in some subjects, social interactions are a part of the actual content of a course. For example, in art, the students are not only learning about artwork itself, but how to talk about art and how to give and receive criticism. It turns out that there are, in fact, better and worse ways to give someone a critique. In these circumstances, grading participation is not just about checking off that students spoke in class, but considering if they have actually learned how and why to speak in a particular way. There is constructive criticism and nonconstructive criticism. Students can defend themselves with reasoned responses or with defensiveness and counterattacks. These skills are a part of a good art class, and they relate to having successful social interactions in life as well.

When students do not participate in a group critique, they are not demonstrating that they have some of the actual skills required to interpret art. That is, failing to participate means they have failed in a typical grading sense. It’s not an arbitrary extra criterion that the teacher has just lumped on top of the assessment plan, it is a basic and useful part of the actual subject. In this case, participation and student behavior is something worth grading.

In other subjects, particularly in the humanities, group discussions can play a key role in class and are often the focus of participation grades. Here, socialization may be a teacher’s motivating factor. Group discussions don’t just teach students about a particular subject, they teach students how to behave in a group. Giving peer feedback, either verbal or written, can help teach the idea of a social obligation. Reading the material in advance (another item that is often found on some teachers’ participation rubrics) can relate to the idea of an expectation for preparedness. Not only can this show students how to show respect (whether genuine or not) for their teacher, it can also demonstrate a kind of work ethic. All of these things are aspects of socialization.

These are social skills that people need to function well in society, and they are not the kinds of things we could teach well as isolated subjects. The best bet is to integrate them into other subjects, where appropriate. Assessing these skills is typically done though assessing participation. As in the art example, this isn’t a huge leap away from the purpose of a particular class. Students don’t just talk about Shakespeare to learn Shakespeare, they talk to learn how to talk about Shakespeare, and that includes a variety of general participatory behaviors.

As I have brought up before, there are some problems with this socialization argument. It doesn’t apply to all situations. It’s probably a better argument for younger grades, and post-secondary educators need to be very careful that participation really is a part of mastering their subject.

There is another criticism of this reason that is worth addressing. Even granting the importance of socialization and it being a function of schools, why does it need to be graded? Why not just have a behavior policy that is enforced through other means? Aside from this sometimes being impossible (at some levels, a teacher’s grading policy may be the only behavioral enforcement they can do), it meets the purpose of grading in general. Grades are assigned as a reflection of assessment. Assessment is meant to be a way to measure if students have certain knowledge and skills. The knowledge and skills taught in schools are meant to serve particular social functions, and socialization is one of those functions. In this way, grading participation is totally appropriate within the context of schools.

Still, if this was the only benefit cited for grading participation, it would not be a very strong case. However, there are a number of other “pros” I will break down in the following weeks.

The post Pros of Participation Grades 1 appeared first on School of Doubt.


Shocking Report: The Bible is a Myth

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Okay look, I’m going to need you to take a seat. If you’re already sitting, you may want to lay down, or stand up and then sit back down again. That’s how big the news is that I’m about to share.

Alright, ready? Here we go: after a long, intensive investigation on the part of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, researchers have determined that the Bible’s story of creation is a made-up fairy tale.

I know, I know. It’s hard to hear. All this time, you, an adult human, thought that the Bible was scientific fact, despite the fact that it includes two contradictory creation stories in the first two chapters. They’re not even long chapters, you can go read them right now and it will only take you a few minutes. They’re both stories about god creating the universe, but in each one he has a different name and there’s a completely different order of operations. But god can do anything! He’s a supernatural being! So he could probably create the universe and everything in it twice, in two different ways. Why not?

And you, an adult human, thought that that supernatural being (in one of the two creation stories) did everything in six days (before there were “days” because he didn’t make the sun immediately) and then you thought that god, a supernatural entity who created the universe (twice) needed a nap afterwards.

And you, an adult human, thought that the first man was made of mud and the first woman was made out of his rib (in one of the two creation stories) and that a talking snake made the lady eat an apple.

You thought all that happened, but now the newspaper is here to tell you that it did not. An exhaustive search has found no evidence of any talking snakes anywhere, let alone talking snakes with the persuasive skills to make anyone eat an apple. Well, I guess that’s it for Christianity, then. Let’s take a look at the comments, where surely we will see Christians offering their Bibles and baptismal pools for sale:

Davy Sikazwe of Zambia says, “No amount of reseach will disapprove the Biblical account. Science does not have all the knowledge about our world. We know even this report is subjective. The so called scientists deliberately agree on a certain position and that is what they project even though they know that it is not true.”

Ah, that’s a good point actually. This report might just be so-called “scientists” agreeing on the position that all the evidence we have shows that the Universe is over 13 billion years old and that talking snakes don’t exist.

Mark Machado writes, “That is nice. Evolutionists have yet to prove their theory also. I’ll be standing by for when they can prove to me how life was created. Till than Evolution is just as questionable.” Man, I didn’t think of that. I mean sure, the theory of evolution has been proven to be true millions of times over as it’s the basis for our understanding of all living creatures, and sure, it doesn’t deal with the creation of life, but…wait, I guess what I’m saying is that he doesn’t have any point and is just trying to ignore the fact that the Bible makes no sense as a literal historical document by throwing vague insults at evolutionary theory.


Paul Kizanis writes, “I believe the Bible is the word of God and everything in it the is true. Several years ago I seen a miracle happen at a church i was attending. There was a lady that we were praying for whos one leg was shorter then the other. We laid hands on her and started praying for her and i looked down at her leg and i could see it stretching.”

Okay, I have to drop the act at this point. That’s an old parlor trick where you can make it look like a leg is stretching out. Also it has fucking nothing to do with what the Bible says about the creation of the universe.

You guys, I don’t mean to be pessimistic here, but is it possible that this newspaper article won’t convince anyone that the Bible is, at best, a confusing allegory?


The post Shocking Report: The Bible is a Myth appeared first on Skepchick.


Why Steven Pinker is Wrong About Violence

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In 2011, celebrity psychologist Steven Pinker published the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, putting forward his theory that humans are becoming more alturistic and less violent as we become more rational and form nation states based on reasonable rule of law. The book was an immediate bestseller, especially among that group of people who love the idea of science if not the exact reality of how good science is done. He gave a TED talk about it, where those sorts of people gather. Pinker’s conclusions became an accepted dogma among this group, including other luminaries like the equally media-friendly philosopher Peter Singer. They believe that humanity is entering the Long Peace, an era of previously unknown cooperation.


All of this happened despite an almost immediate refutation of most of Pinker’s points from other scientists, who criticized aspects of his book such as a giant statistical screw-up that means Pinker pulled his theory from nonsensical noise in the data. There are also more nuanced discussions that question whether he considers, for instance, the deaths of refugees in total war deaths, or the early deaths of raped women, or the death of children exposed to Agent Orange. And there’s the issue of Pinker dismissing the idea that several nations have not gone to war not out of altruism but due to the threat of nuclear weapons completely destroying them in a counterattack.


So there are problems with his data, and there are problems with his conclusions from that data even if the data are correct.


A new study, though, puts yet another nail in the coffin holding the final remains of the Long Peace. Anthropologists at Florida State University and the Washington University Medical School studied wartime deaths in 19 countries that fought in World War I, 22 that fought in World War II, and 24 “nonstates” (so less “advanced” non-democratic groups like hunter-gatherer cultures).


They did find that the percentage of a population who died in warfare decreased over time — however, that number was inversely proportional to the total population. The researchers found people haven’t evolved to be less violent — they’ve simply collected in larger populations that protect most people from the horrors of war. There are safety in numbers, and thanks to evolving military weapons there are fewer soldiers needed to be sent to war. Also thanks to those evolving weapons, the total number of war deaths does escalate as the population increases.


Interestingly, the researchers also examined eleven chimpanzee communities, since chimps exhibit the same kind of warlike behavior as humans. While they found that chimps are less violent than humans, they found exactly the same trend in those communities: as the population increased, the total percentage of war deaths in the community went down. And trust me, the chimps weren’t out there building democracies and sharing rational philosophies.

So it appears from this research that Steven Pinker is wrong, again. But like the many previous times he’s been shown to be wrong, there’s little chance that that message will get out there to all the people buying his books and watching his TED talks. All the hard science in the world can’t compete with the pure PR potential of that gorgeous grey ‘fro.

The post Why Steven Pinker is Wrong About Violence appeared first on Skepchick.


White People Get Better Plea Bargains Than Black People

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Here in the United States, we have a pretty clear problem with race and law enforcement. The Black Lives Matter movement has helped turn the nation’s attention to the fact that black people are being murdered by cops disturbingly often, and that’s in addition to the fact that though the majority of our prisoners are white, black people make up 37.9% of the prison population while only being about 13% of the general population. Past research has shown that African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5x the rate of whites, due to “harsh sentences that disproportionately affect African-Americans; implicit racial biases that affect judges; and structural disadvantages that affect African-Americans before they enter the criminal-justice system.”


Now we have a new study that reveals even more criminal justice bias, towards black Americans who may not even see any prison time. Plea bargains are what happens when the prosecutor offers the defendant a deal (like avoiding or reducing prison time) in exchange for the defendant pleading guilty and avoiding a costly trial. A researcher at Loyola Law School examined more than 30,000 cases in the state of Wisconsin and found some stark differences between how black and white defendants were treated.


His most stunning finding was that as a group, white people are 25% more likely than black people to have their charges dropped or reduced down from a felony to a misdemeanor. So white people are significantly less likely than black people to be convicted of a felony at all, and when it comes to misdemeanors, white people are much more likely to not be convicted at all, or to only be convicted of crimes that don’t carry any potential prison time.


The only time race didn’t seem to matter was when the defendants had past criminal records or if the crime was a more severe felony, suggesting that in those cases prosecutors have more information to go on and causing them to lean less heavily on race. But when it’s a minor felony or the defendant has no prior criminal history, the result was clear: black people got harsher deals while white people tended to get off scott free.


This is one of those research papers that seems so obvious to anyone who has been paying attention, but it’s crucial science for those people who are working hard to reform the criminal justice system to be less biased. There are people out there who truly believe that black Americans are just genetically programmed to be criminals rotting away in prison, and some of those people are in positions of authority. They need to be ousted or convinced to drop their pseudoscientific bigotry, and research like this can help us do it.

The post White People Get Better Plea Bargains Than Black People appeared first on Skepchick.

sam harris

Meme #13

sam harris

Is Buddhism True?

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Robert Wright about his book Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

Robert Wright is the New York Times bestselling author of The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, The Moral Animal, Three Scientists and their Gods (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the widely respected and He has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Time, Slate, and The New Republic. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton University, where he also created the popular online course “Buddhism and Modern Psychology.” He is currently Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York. His most recent book is Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. 

Twitter: @robertwrighter

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Meme #12

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Cons of Participation Grades 5

Continuing my previous post (which I unfortunately must do in installments due to my schedule) here is another common criticism of grading participation.

5. It is not fair.

This is the last of the “cons” of participation grades I often hear about. The unfairness aspect of participation is typically linked to student personalities, particularly in the case of shy students with “speaking in class” as the measure of participation.

As a former shy student and current shy adult, I can speak to the feeling of unfairness that I must speak out in class. But once again, this objection falls apart with counter-examples. For instance, public speaking classes, which are often required in both secondary and post-secondary education, are no less anxiety-inducing than being obligated to occasionally speak out in class, yet we do not suggest that we shouldn’t have speech assessments.

Furthermore, while the following is a purely anecdotal experience and is in no way intended to be presented as representational of most students, I think my own story is worth mentioning in this context. I hated being forced to speak out in class. I could study well and succeed on essays and tests, demonstrating my mastery of the material in these conventional ways.

Having to speak in class felt completely unnecessary and unjustified. Each class became an exercise in anxiety. I was constantly worried that I wouldn’t be brave enough or find the right opportunity to speak in every lesson.

When I did speak up, I would go red in the face as everyone looked at me. I’d break out in a cold sweat and my heart would race. Every single time. I would dread going to those classes and I still question some of my teachers’ policies to this day (both their motivations for doing so and their “consistency” in grading).

Looking back over my career as a student, I can recall many of these horribly uncomfortable situations, and I am incredibly grateful for them.

I can’t imagine what kind of person I would be if I hadn’t been forced to learn how to interact in group discussions. If I was left to my own devices, I would have sat silently and not had such valuable practice in social interactions and having my ideas directly challenged. I learned that school is supposed to push students outside of their comfort zones, that is what real learning is.

When educators point out that assessing participation is unfair for the shy kids, they are losing sight of some of the purposes of education. It’s not supposed to be easy, comfortable, and un-challenging. Students are supposed to actually learn new skills, and speaking within a group is one of the skills that students are expected to have by the time they finish their schooling.

Of course, my whole story might be irrelevant considering another point. Participation doesn’t have to have anything to do with “speaking in class” at all. There are a variety of other ways that participation can be assessed and very useful purposes it can serve. Now that I’ve covered the cons of participation grades (and briefly touched on how they’re not really cons if the teacher does it right), it’s time to take a look as some of the arguments why the “never grade students’ participation in class” rhetoric might be totally wrong. Let’s look at the pros.

(In a follow-up post.)

The post Cons of Participation Grades 5 appeared first on School of Doubt.

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On the Market VII: Job Candidates Are People Too

Another year, another job season. Sigh.

I’ve been on the market for several years now, and regular readers may remember that in that time I have applied to many, many, many jobs. The positions I’ve applied for since finishing my PhD have represented a generous sampling of nearly all that our glorious neoliberal economy has to offer, from tenure track academic posts to generic office drudgery to unskilled minimum wage-slavery. One might think that applying to such a wide variety of jobs might lead to a similarly wide variety of experiences, but this would be wrong. Aside from the fact that the application process for academic jobs is significantly more onerous than it is for most other kinds of work, the overall experience of looking for work is, as it turns out, strikingly, dispiritingly, and resolutely uniform across all sectors.

If there is one thing that seems to unite prospective employers of all stripes, it is a profound lack of what one might euphemistically call “professional courtesy.” One might more directly call it “basic human decency.”

Such lack of courtesy can take many forms. One academic job I applied to asked applicants in the second round of the search to send them a sample syllabus–not in itself an uncommon or particularly onerous demand, except for two additional factors: it had to be tailored to the very unusual and specific nature of their program (and therefore essentially needed to be designed from scratch), and applicants were given only one week to turn it in. Now, for those of you who may not be aware, designing a good upper-level undergraduate course takes quite a lot of work. Even when you are familiar with the material, it takes many hours to search out and sort through potential readings, making sure they are at an appropriate level for the class. Music history courses also require sample pieces that not only fit the reading, but also have scores and recordings available for the students to consult. Assignments and other evaluations need to be designed. And, of course, the whole thing needs to fit a standard 13-week semester with 2-3 class sessions per week. All in all, it’s a good few days of work, assuming you have nothing else going on in your life.

Oh, did I mention the request was sent out on December 22? Just in time to ruin my one week back at home with my family for the holidays.

By far the worst offense in my mind, however, is the now common practice of failing to notify applicants of their rejection in a timely fashion. And I’m not just talking about the now-common boilerplate in most job ads that says they will only contact applicants in which they are interested. While this too is gross, it is at least somewhat understandable in instances where organisations expect to receive many hundreds of applications for a position (although, really, how hard is emailing a form letter?). In academic hiring at least, the community of job seekers has managed to find a workaround for this problem through the many Academic Job Wikis, where applicants who advance in searches can anonymously let everyone else know that the committee has gone forward without them.

Much more painful is advancing in a search and still being left in the dark.

I recently applied for a non-academic job with a large cultural organisation, and was absolutely delighted to be called in for an in-person interview. I thought the interview went quite well, and they seemed impressed with my references, one of whom they knew personally. They even asked by how soon I would be able to start! I was told to expect a decision on a specific day the following week, and I left feeling positive and hopeful.

The following week, I spent that entire day glued to my email, waiting to hear back. Nothing.

I spent the entirety of the next day waiting to hear back. Still nothing.

Not wanting to have to wait a whole weekend to hear back, I finally wrote to them myself to see if there had been a delay in the selection process. Imagine my surprise to receive a rejection not ten minutes later! Clearly they already knew I was not getting the job, but couldn’t be bothered to inform me on the promised date. I later heard from my references that they never even got a call.

Here’s the thing.

Being on the receiving end of this kind of treatment is painful, nerve-wracking, and humiliating. But when it comes to things like employment, applicants have a lot more than self-esteem on the line. We’re talking about people’s lives and livelihoods. People who are looking for work almost by definition are in a period of financial difficulty and distress. Getting a particular job might even mean the difference in making their rent that month, or even affording food. Their immigration status may depend on it (as mine did and does). Finding new employment is a huge, profoundly life altering process. It is anything but another day at the office.

So here is my plea to those of you who are ever in a position to hire someone else, whether in academia or not: Job applicants are people too, so please treat them as such. Communicate with them in a timely fashion, keep your promises, and don’t make unreasonable demands on people who are almost certainly already having a difficult time of it, especially since they are not being paid for any labour you demand of them.

Here’s hoping part VIII will be a little more positive. Until then, keep on doubting.

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Cons of Participation Grades 4

Continuing my previous post (which I unfortunately must do in installments due to my schedule) here is another common criticism of grading participation.

4. Classroom management shouldn’t be a part of grading.

This view is quite common among teachers who follow certain schools of thought in teaching. It has three assumptions built in.

First, that things related to class management are clearly distinct from other things we grade.

While this is sometimes true, there are many subjects and situations in which classroom management and curriculum overlap. Let me highlight a clear example of this very situation. In the aforementioned article, the author even agrees with a comment describing this very thing, with neither person realizing it undermined the argument it was presented to support.

Bogatz states in his article (titled Can We Please Stop with the Participation Grades?) “Student behavior is a classroom management issue, not a grading issue. You should never find management strategies and solutions in your grade book.”

One of the comments (sandra) describes her role as a music teacher “I can’t know how well they understand a new concept if they don’t demonstrate how much they know. If the student shows the skill we are learning (“active participation”), and makes noticeable effort to achieve and improve, their grade will be absolutely satisfactory. Sitting motionless when asked to move, chatting or playing with trinkets, or refusing to sing, play games, or instruments will be considered less than satisfactory. […] Do they need to comply and follow instructions? Yes. But not “because I said so,” because that is how you demonstrate the acquisition of skills in the performing arts.”

Bogatz replied that he loved the story and comparison, but both of them seemed to have missed the implication. In cases such as this, “participation” and classroom management were directly related to the subject skills the teacher needed to assess. Refusing to participate in a music class is simultaneously a classroom management issue and a grading issue, for the simple reason that participation is the only means through which certain skills can be assessed.

A second assumption that is built into this claim (we shouldn’t grade participation because classroom management shouldn’t be a part of grading) is the idea that participation always relates to classroom management.

Similar to the example above, in the case of a performance-based class, participation is tied in with the skills involved in the subject. Even if one agrees with Bogatz’s claim, there is no reason why a participation grade must be a tool of management.

The third assumption is the statement itself.

I did not set out in this post to debunk Bogatz’s blog post, but it happens to exemplify the very things I aim to discuss here. When he made the claim “Student behavior is a classroom management issue, not a grading issue,” he did not go on to provide evidence or reasoning to support it. It was presented in the same way that I usually see teachers present it, as if it is an obvious statement that does not warrant any argument or justification.

In my own experience as an education student, my classes on assessment addressed including classroom management. Largely, it’s a matter of individual / local school policy. My professors discussed better and worse ways to go about it, in case it came up in our future practices. My classes on classroom management likewise included ways in which grading could be used as one element of a well-managed classroom.

It turns out that there are some good reasons why some classroom management issues should be included in grading (which I will give in a follow-up post).

Finally, there is one more main argument against grading participation that is often brought up:

5. It is not fair.

(Yes, this must also unfortunately be addressed in a follow-up post.)

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Cons of Participation Grades 3

Continuing my previous post (which I unfortunately must do in installments due to my schedule) here is another common criticism of grading participation.

3. It is misused to justify bias.

As I’ve mentioned before, some teachers use participation grades to justify using their like or dislike of students as a part of their grades. This is clearly a problem, but once again, not one of participation in itself. The real issue here is educators grading based on their own biases. This can happen with any sort of assessment. A teacher, upon seeing the name at the top of the paper, could overlook mistakes or grade more strictly because of a subconscious bias.

I don’t think most teachers mean to grade in a biased way, but that’s the insidious way that biases work. We don’t even know it is happening, even when we are aware that such biases exist.

Following a rubric carefully and consistently (and taking active measures to avoid biases, such as obscuring student’s names beforehand) can work as well with a good participation rubric as with any other rubric. Many of the arguments against participation grades that I have seen take this for granted and equivocate grading participation with changing students grades arbitrarily, like this blog. This article also repeats another key issue with participation grades:

4. Classroom management shouldn’t be a part of grading.

(Yet again, this must unfortunately be addressed in a follow-up post.)

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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 […]
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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 […]
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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 […]
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“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 […]
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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 […]