Sunday, October 25, 2009

Can't blog now, busy

Due to an assortment of things, including schoolwork, research, BASS issues, personal issues, and looming grad school applications, I don't have the time to write. Therefore, Skeptic's Play is not going to be updated for the next week or two. But I still keep track of comments.

If you have a reader, subscribing to this blog is a good way to be notified of updates.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A talk on Mormonism

In the last BASS meeting, we had a talk by a student here who is an ex-gay Mormon. No, wait, I got that backwards. He's a gay ex-Mormon. And he's such a great speaker, we all love him.

In fact, we were anticipating such a great talk that we took a voice recording! Go listen to it!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Marriage privatization, hate crimes

One of the interesting ideas surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage is marriage privatization. It's one of those libertarian ideas, based on the idea that the less government is involved, the better. Therefore, it would be better if the government wasn't involved in deciding what is "marriage" and what isn't. The government would provide people with the right to civil unions, or allow them to create their own relationship contracts, but that's it. This does not mean that marriage would be outlawed or anything like that. It just means that private individuals will choose for themselves whether to call it marriage or not.

I think it's not a bad idea. If it were a proposition on the next ballot, I'd probably vote for it. Of course, it's not on the ballot, not as far as I know.

What has been on the ballot is the legalization of same-sex marriage. Now, what's really strange to me is when I see it argued that we shouldn't vote for the legalization of same-sex marriage because no kind of marriage should be officially recognized by the government. That's just silly! There are two completely separate issues going on, and there's no need for conflict between them. There's the matter of private vs government recognition of the term "marriage" and then there's the matter of equality vs inequality. If we allow same-sex marriage, that is a step towards equality. It is not a step away from privatization of marriage.

I mean, it's not as if the legalization of same-sex marriage will somehow make it harder to privatize marriage. It's not as if we'll then have to pass two separate propositions, one to privatize opposite-sex marriage, and one to privatize same-sex marriage. It will be no easier nor harder if and when it happens. In the mean time, we have equality to think about.

Anyways, I was thinking about this, because I saw a very similar argument being made about hate crime laws. From this article: "Why GOP leader opposes hate crimes protections for gays". Rep. Tom Price opposes the extension of hate crime laws to sexual orientation, because he opposes even the existing hate crime laws protecting race, color, religion, and national origin. But when I see this argument, I think it's rather silly. It's one thing to oppose hate crime laws. But since we have them, why should we be unfair about them? If hate crime laws start to protect sexual orientation and other categories, this is neither a step towards nor a step away from the removal of hate crime laws.

However, if you thought that argument was stupid, here's an even worse argument from House Republican Leader John Boehner, from the same article:
In an email, Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Boehner "supports existing federal protections (based on race, religion, gender, etc) based on immutable characteristics."

Boehner's position, then, appears to be grounded in the notion that immutable characteristics should be protected under hate crimes laws. And while religion is an immutable characteristic, his office suggests, sexual orientation is not.
That's so self-evidently stupid, I don't even know if I need to comment any further.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Guess the Meaning III

What phrase is suggested by this picture?

Also see Guess the Meaning I and II. They're a lot of fun, though I find it's difficult to gauge or control their difficulty.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Spread out the sky

Most religious people do not think of themselves as antiscientific. No, they love science. They especially love it when science confirms previously held beliefs. One common argument is to point to a sacred text and say, "We know this is true now, because of science. But the ancient authors could not have known this unless they were divinely inspired. Therefore, science confirms our religion!" I've seen this same argument in pretty much every major religion. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism... But I will focus on a specific example from the Old Testament, one which I've heard more than once.

Thanks to recent developments in cosmology in the past century, we now know that the universe is expanding. The authors of the Old Testament could not possibly have known this without divine inspiration. So how is it that we have passages like that of Job 37:18? Job 37:18 says that God "spread out the skies". Clearly this is a reference to Big Bang cosmology, or maybe even inflationary cosmology (an even more recent scientific development).

While this argument is rooted in respect for science, it's so counter to basic critical thinking that it's hard to take the respect seriously. Do people who make this argument even bother to read the entire verse? Is that so hard?
Can you, with Him, spread out the skies, Strong as a molten mirror?
I mean, where does the mirror come in? Why isn't that part of the verse ever quoted in the argument? I guess it's because science has never thought of the skies, nor the universe, as a molten mirror. Quoting the entire passage would make the argument transparently stupid. I should also mention that it's not clear that "skies" refers to the universe, nor that "spread" refers to a process of expansion. In fact, I've heard that if you go back to the original language, it actually means "spread" in the sense of spreading a tent.

But even beyond that, even if we supposed that the passage was really referring to God expanding the universe, the argument is still nonsense. Suppose we had instead discovered that the universe is in a steady state. Would Christians then find a collection of passages which apparently refer to the steady state universe? I bet they could. If you throw enough vague guesses around, some of them will hit the target, no matter where that target is.

The problem is that once you already know what you're supposed to find, you will probably be able to find it. But if there were really something there, rather than just a collection of random guesses, then you should be able to pick out the pattern before you know what you're supposed to find. And obviously, this hasn't happened. No one has ever looked at Job 37:18 and decided that this means the universe is expanding. That would quite possibly be the worst piece of evidence for expansion that I've ever heard. And even if they did, "the universe is expanding" is a pretty nonspecific hypothesis, and could be right by lucky guessing. Big Bang theory is obviously so much more than just "the universe is expanding"--there also has to be some mathematical modeling for it to be specific enough to be falsifiable.

Right here is where people begin to protest, "That's not how the Bible works! You can't look at the Bible and make predictions. You can only look back at it, and see that the predictions of science were there all along." Well, let me tell you. That may not be how the Bible works. But it is how evidence and arguments work. Therefore, the Bible doesn't work as evidence, or as an argument. Stop using it as such, and perhaps I will stop attacking it as such.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why investigate?

The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) is a local organization which fights on the front lines against paranormalism and pseudoscience. That means that they're actively investigating and testing paranormal claims, and informing the public about the results. Similar to the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge, IIG offers $50,000 to people who can show evidence, under proper testing conditions, of the paranormal.

Among the people they are currently investigating is a guy who claims he can psychically determine whether there are mirrors in a covered box, and a woman who claims that she can psychically determine whether or not someone is missing a kidney. The silliness of these claims prompted a friend of mine to ask, what is the point? Why are we even bothering to debunk things that are already self-evidently bunk?

I agree, there are some problems inherent with the $50,000 and Million Dollar challenges. The vast majority of people who apply for these challenges are delusional rather than dishonest. If they were simply dishonest about their claims, they wouldn't attempt the challenge, because they already know they'd lose. In fact, this is what the big time psychics do (ie Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh). When publicly asked about the Million Dollar Challenge, they pretend that they've heard about it for the first time, and claim that they will try it at a later date. Then they simply forget that it was ever mentioned. Repeat as necessary.

Instead, the challenge applicants mostly consist of obscure cranks, the kind who mostly keep their crazy ideas to themselves. They're a particularly harmless breed of crazy. A lot of them have no understanding of how to construct a proper scientific test, and some of them just seem like they need help.
The Million Dollar Challenge solves this problem by only allowing applicants who have some media presence, but I imagine that the $50,000 challenge gets all sorts of weird folks.

But perhaps it's not quite as worthless as I've made it sound. The mirror guy is probably harmless, but the kidney woman is actually making medical diagnoses. That's not harmless at all. And though the big time psychics and woos simply ignore the challenge, it obviously puts some pressure on them. That's why they ignore it, after all.

The challenge also functions as a sort of preventive measure. Your typical scientist simply doesn't care about fringe claims. Perhaps they're justified, but it makes them appear dismissive. So unless someone takes action, the woo remains unchecked, leaving it to grow and propagate. Wouldn't it be great if we could nip the next big woo in the bud? And since we can't know which pieces of woo will go big in the future, we're going to have to debunk a lot of things which appear mostly harmless.

As for the possibility that we might actually discover something revolutionary, I do not think that is the primary reason for the challenge. As claims become more extraordinary, the likelihood that they are true decreases exponentially. Therefore, if our only goal were to discover something new, we would do what professional scientists do, and turn our attention to more reasonable things. Of course, there's still a tiny chance that the IIG will actually discover something amazing, and that's one more tiny perk to the job. But the primary purpose is to fight paranormalism, and keep woo in check.

You may still wonder about the effectiveness of the $50,000 and Million Dollar challenges, and you wouldn't be entirely alone. In fact, until recently, the James Randi Educational Foundation was planning to discontinue the Million Dollar Challenge in 2010. They eventually changed their mind, and the challenge will continue. Obviously, this is something they have thought about a lot.

And happily, it's not the only strategy employed by skeptical organizations. For instance, the IIG is currently investigating Healing Touch quackery in the UCLA hospital. They're not going to wait around for the nurses to apply for the $50,000 dollar challenge, they're actively investigating the issue and working to inform the public about it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My deconversion story

Today is a good day to write my never-written-before deconversion story.

I came from a Catholic family. Relatively liberal Catholic. Not so much in the political sense, but in the sense of being rather open and lenient about religion. I went to church every week, yes. I also went to Sunday school (except it was on Wednesday, and was referred to as CCD). But beyond that, not much was made of it. For instance, I knew how to pray, and knew I was supposed to be doing it regularly, but I never really did. It just didn't seem important.

I don't remember when, but somewhere around middle school or so, I stopped attending mass. Not because I disagreed with it. I just thought it was the most boring experience ever. It happened nearly every week, my mother would drag me to church (my father usually didn't come). Then I would sit in a pew, counting out the hour in seconds. I hardly listened to the service. I just don't have the auditory processing ability to parse more than a few words of a boring homily as it echoed across the church. I hated going to church. I didn't care if it was one of the commandments. I figured that God's purpose wasn't really to make me miserable every week. My mother was mad at first, but that quickly tapered off over time.

The next phase of my life, high school, is vital to this story. I had previously gone to public schools, but my high school was run by Jesuits. Jesuits, if you didn't know, are basically the intellectual branch of Catholicism. This was not your stereotypical Catholic school, taught by strict nuns. Only a few of the teachers were really Jesuits. And a lot of them were flaming liberals. Everyone was required to take a class called "Social Justice" in which we learned about world hunger and cultural imperialism and so forth. We were taught evolution, and regarded the Evo/Creo issue with a rather critical eye. We were also required to do some serious community service (more than 100 hours). I still have a lot of respect for the Jesuits; they are one of the few religious groups which is definitively pro-intellectual.

But I still never thought of myself as particularly religious, even at this time. For instance, I refused to get confirmed. The sacrament of Confirmation, as I understood it at the time, was supposed to be the time where a person really chooses to be Catholic, since obviously we don't choose what religion we're born into. Therefore, I refused to get confirmed just because my mom wanted me to--that would defeat the entire point! I gotta give my younger self kudos for standing up for such a noble (if hopelessly idealistic) principle.

But I was interested in some of the religious classes, because for the first time, I was getting a formal education on this thing that I was supposed to be believing. I mean, wouldn't it be good to know what it is you believe? I was especially interested in the theology classes, because they actually covered justification for belief. I was already into skepticism by that time, so I was a firm believer in having justifications for belief. If you're looking for the one thing which more or less precipitated my deconversion, this is it. I believed in justifying beliefs. Of course, I thought that my religious beliefs probably were justified, even if I didn't know the details. If there wasn't any justification, well, that would be such a tragedy, I don't even want to think what would happen.

Before we covered arguments for God and Christianity, the teacher made sure to emphasize that there is also faith. He told us to not expect much from the arguments, not to rely on them. He said that individually, the arguments are weak and disappointing. Only together do they make the case, and only with faith do they reach the goal. But of all the arguments, I found the "don't rely on arguments" argument to be the worst. That's exactly the sort of argument someone makes when they know they don't have a case.

So without going into details (which could potentially fill a blog), I was disappointed, just as predicted. I saw the merits of a few arguments, but many of were simply worthless. And when the arguments are worthless, combining them together doesn't really help. Around the same time, I also found an intriguing website (to obscure to mention) which turned a critical eye towards Catholic apologetics. I found that the website talked about the exact same things I had been learning in class, and made some worthwhile observations which even I hadn't noticed on my own. I didn't agree entirely with the writer, who was some sort of pantheist, but he largely made better points than the apologetics did.

The whole website made me feel very conflicted. I knew I was doing something wrong, without being told. Even though they always say that it's okay to have doubts, I knew I was crossing some sort of line that was not meant to be crossed. Even though I have the most open family, I was afraid. And yet, I also knew that every viewpoint needs criticism, and religious beliefs are no different.

Note that there are several things which are conspicuously missing from my deconversion story. The Bible never figured importantly one way or another. Neither did heaven or hell. I never thought of Christians as being hypocritical. Anti-scientific attitudes were absent. The problem of evil was never an issue. Perhaps this is reflected on my blog?

My last year of high school I spent in a sort of limbo. I still considered myself Catholic, and I still considered myself believing. But I knew that the floor was out from underneath me. So like many a cartoon character, I just kept on going without looking down. If I looked down, I'd fall.

It was only really in college that I considered myself an atheist. That was when I discovered the larger online atheist community (previously, labels never mattered). But I hid it in real life for over a year. I was afraid, and only told a few people. I now recognize this fear as completely silly and unfounded. I've met hardly anyone who has reacted negatively. And I'm completely capable of handling those who react negatively. It was never a big enough deal that I should have felt the need to hide it. The biggest danger, really, would be if my family reacted negatively. They found out a little while after I started blogging, through my blog. The reactions, well, weren't entirely positive, but they were largely accepting and open. I gotta say, some people at BASS have really messed up relationships with their families, but I was lucky. I have a great family. I never should have been afraid of how they'd react.

If there's one overarching theme to my deconversion story, it's fear. Why? I was never afraid of hell. My family was open enough. It was all self-imposed. Was there some sort of rule against serious doubting which I learned through osmosis? Was I simply not a very confident teenager? I don't know why I was afraid, but I know that's not how it should be. There should be no taboo against doubting, not even a little one. That's just antithetical to critical thinking. And I'm not just talking the token doubts where you are "lost" and hoping to be "found". I'm talking real doubts, where you're lost, and are willing to end up somewhere different from where you started.

Monday, October 5, 2009

My 2nd Bloggiversary

Hooray! As of today, I've blogged for two whole years! Some statistics: Skeptic's Play has over 400 blog posts and about 1400 comments. Never mind that almost half of those comments are probably my own, and the most popular post is Puppies and Kittens (it comes up in a common image search).

Now, what I'd really like to have for my bloggiversary is a site redesign. But it probably won't happen! So let's settle for a "best of the past year" link list. Lame, I know.

Bell's Theorem explained (and background)
Fractals from Newton's method
Near the speed of light

Critical thinking!
Why "pseudoskeptic" is a worthless label
What the Bleep do We Know!? reviewed
Extraordinary vs Impressive

Why I'm not an agnostic
Godel's modal ontological argument
Science meets religion

The Pill Puzzle
Guess the Meaning II
Two measuring problems

The three nihilists of Watchmen

Also see last year's bloggiversary. Note that this list is not meant to be complete, since I already have the archives for that.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I attend queer student meetings

Wow, this has been a long week. I have been working continuously to organize the officers of BASS, the Bruin Alliance of Skeptics and Secularists. I'll tell you later how that went.

At the same time, I was also attending a few queer student group meetings this week. The reasons for this are many.
  1. I am interested in how other student groups run. I've only ever really participated in BASS, and BASS is not exactly the model of organization.
  2. I want to actually join at least one group. I've decided that joining a student group can be one of the greatest joys in life.
  3. I am very interested in queer issues, and am very much in favor of queer rights. Why shouldn't I participate in groups which reflect this?
  4. I'm asexual, so in a sense I'm a little queer myself. Or does that make me an ally? Whatever.
It used to be that one of the obstacles to participating in any queer student group was fear. I think a lot of straight would-be allies have this same fear, that they might be thought gay. It's not necessarily fear of homophobia. I'm willing to stand up to homophobia. It's the fear that the opposite sex will assume that you're gay, and thus avoid you. I don't know whether this fear is justified or not, but I realize now that it simply doesn't apply to me, as an asexual. What do I care if the opposite sex thinks I'm gay? I don't care if people think I'm gay.

Anyways, there are a dozen undergraduate LGBT groups at UCLA. Most of those are part of the Queer Alliance, which is a coalition of seven different groups. I attended the main Queer Alliance meeting, a Fluid meeting (focusing on bisexuals and pansexuals), and an SCME meeting (Student Coalition for Marriage Equality). Here are my observations:
  • Ironically, first meetings are not the best way to select groups. Most of the first meeting is taken up by introductions, ice breakers, and announcements. I guess I'll be doing the same thing next week.
  • At least in SCME (which is the most politically oriented), there were actually several people I knew from BASS there. Hooray for secular support for marriage equality!
  • I was sort of worried that during introductions and ice breakers, they'd ask us to state our sexual/gender identity. If they asked me whether I'm queer or an ally, I wouldn't know how to respond! Luckily, they all know better than to do this, at least on the first meeting.
  • No, I did not out myself. Perhaps simply for lack of opportunity. I'm also afraid that either I would not have sufficient time to explain it, or I would completely derail any previous discussion. But I want to be out. Let me tell you, three years ago, when I first considered myself atheist, I was a real closet case. It was completely irrational of me. I want that to never happen again.
  • There are some interesting gender disparities going on in some of these groups. The vast majority of the bisexual/fluid group was made of women. Supposedly, most of the SCME members are either gay men or straight women. I do not know enough LGBT history to have any idea why this is. Anyways, being in the gender minority turns out to be a little disconcerting, even when I know that the group isn't doing anything wrong!
  • The bisexual/fluid group played a game called definition darts. It involved a dart board with a bunch of LGBT-related words. This dart board made me extremely happy! Why? One of the words was "asexual". Another was "LGBTQQIAA" (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally). I know that the extra A is only further encumbering an already cumbersome acronym, but it still made my week.