Monday, November 30, 2009

Paranormal investigation and kidneys

I don't know if any of the regular readers noticed or remembered, but over a month ago I wrote something about the Independent Investigations Group (IIG), and the reasons why we need to investigate paranormal claims. And then I removed the post. But now it's up again. There's a funny story behind this.

Back in October, I sat in on an IIG meeting. One of the things they talked a lot about was this woman, Anita Ikonen, who was flying in from North Carolina next month to have her ability tested. Her claim? She can tell whether someone is missing internal organs by just looking at them. So IIG proposed the following test: Given six people with eleven kidneys, determine which person is missing a kidney, and also determine whether it is the left or right kidney. Perform this test three times. If she gets all three correct, she would move on to formal testing for the $50,000 prize. If she gets one or more incorrect, she fails the test.

It may seem like a simple enough test, but there are all sorts of things that could go wrong. For example, if people lost their kidney through disease, this might change their smell or skin color slightly. Therefore IIG only used kidney donors. What if the kidney donors have scars? Let's give all the subjects identical clothing which would hide those scars. At the IIG meeting, they were talking about bunny suits, but it seems in the end they just used t-shirts, jeans, and straw hats. with sheets covering their hair. Also, they all have their back facing Anita, to reduce the possibility for cold reading.

Furthermore, the audience should not know beforehand who is missing their kidney. We didn't want Anita cold reading the audience. Nor should the experimenter know. And ideally, nor should the test subjects themselves. The test subjects would be told: "Each of the other five people are missing a different internal organ. Anita will be looking for one particular missing organ. You are the control group, without any missing organs." Or that was the plan, anyways. I'm not sure whether they were able to pull it off, or if information leaked to the test subjects.

At the IIG meeting, I pointed out that the test subjects could determine that she was looking for kidneys if they just looked at the IIG website. It was in the public meeting summary from the previous month. They agreed that they should probably remove that information. Actually, I don't think they ever did remove the information. Oh well.

Anyways, I remembered that I had mentioned the kidneys on my own blog. So I decided to take it down. My blog is probably too obscure to really leak the information, but I figured that there was no harm in taking it down to be safe.

The post has been put up again because Anita Ikonen has already been tested on November 21.* The results? You can see a video of the entire test on UStream. She got one trial correct out of three. Therefore she failed. End of story.

Or not. As Jim Underdown said, "If there’s one thing more frustrating than trying to get paranormal claimants to prove their abilities, it’s getting them to admit they failed after flunking a legitimate test." Though Anita Ikonen admitted that she failed the test, she felt still felt as if she probably had something special. After all, she did get that one trial correct, and supposedly that was the one trial she felt sure about. She also got the correct person and wrong kidney in another trial. So as she put it, it's like she got half right.

I think it's very human to cling onto closely held beliefs as Anita is doing. I don't blame her for it. But she's still wrong.

Getting "half correct" does not mean there is a 50% chance that she still has some ability. By pure guessing, getting half correct is exponentially more likely than getting all correct. By pure guessing, there's a 23% chance of getting at least one trial correct. There's a 1/1728 chance of getting all three correct, which sounds small, but IMO is not nearly small enough. It's an acceptable false alarm rate only because this is the preliminary test.

And furthermore, she did not get half correct. She got one third correct. If her claims really were true, we would expect her to get the right person and right kidney. If anything, the fact that she got the right person but wrong kidney suggests cold reading. Cold reading is much more effective at determining the correct person than it is at determining the correct kidney. For example, you might be able to guess the right person by their fidgeting (one audience member claimed to have guessed two correctly based on fidgeting), but fidgeting probably tells you very little about which kidney is missing.

And there is another caveat. Most kidney donors donate their left kidney. Anita guessed the left kidney every time.

Note that cold reading is possible even if the reader is unaware of it. For example, when she guessed the left kidney every time, was this because she was intentionally playing the numbers, or because experience had taught her intuition to expect missing left kidneys?

So looking at the results, I think it's quite likely that she got one just by chance. It's also possible that she was doing cold reading. Either way, she failed to pass the test. End of story.

*See the IIG website for more information on the Anita Ikonen test. Regrettably, I was not available to see the test myself, though I did skim the UStream video. I was otherwise occupied.

Friday, November 27, 2009

I go to a conference

The other day, I attended an undergraduate research conference. Fun! I made a presentation on my summer research on classification of gravitational wave candidates. I try to make at least the first few slides very easy to understand, and here's a little peek.

This is a basic picture of what my research was about. You have a bunch of events, some of which may be spiraling binary black holes or neutron stars, and some of which may be noise caused by something entirely different. Each event has multiple associated parameters (such as "x" and "y" shown in the diagram, but there could be many more). So to classify them, we need to choose some dividing line. In two dimensions, finding a dividing line is easy. In twelve dimensions, not so much.

Anyways, that's just the introduction to my presentation, and there's obviously a lot more to it than that.

Funny thing about research, often the topics can get mind-numbingly specific. When people ask me what I did research on, I tell them, "gravitational waves", but of course that couldn't really have been my research topic. There's far too broad a subject for just one research project. If I want to elaborate further on my research, I explain that I worked on data analysis for LIGO. Still too broad. I could explain that I worked on the classification of candidate gravitational wave events for inspiraling compact binary systems. Still too broad, but now also incomprehensible to a general audience.

It makes me think of how pseudosciences often try to imitate science's use of complicated technical words. In my experience, the abstruseness of science and scientific language isn't placed there to provide an air of authority, it's there out of necessity.

Ironically, the presentations at the conference that interested me the most were not in my own field, physics, but in pure math.

In a strange coincidence, I encountered a poster all about a two-player game that I had once posted on my blog, Puppies and Kittens! Apparently the game is known to mathematicians as Wythoff's Game. The poster was about a generalization of Wythoff's Game, called Linear Nimhoff. The game starts with a set of vectors, such as {(1,0),(0,1),(1,1)}. There are two piles, which will be henceforth referred to as puppies and kittens in a pet store. (1,0) corresponds to buying one puppy; (0,1) corresponds to buying one kitten; (1,1) corresponds to buying one puppy and one kitten. During each player's turn the player selects one of the vectors, and buys an integer multiple of that vector. Whoever buys the last pet wins the game.

If you mathematically analyze the game, you find that there are "winning" and "losing" positions. If, for example, you are able to leave one puppy and two kittens in the pet store at the end of your turn, then you have won the game (provided that everyone plays the game perfectly). If you can determine what all the winning and losing positions are, then you have solved the game!

If you start with the vector set {(1,0),(0,1),(1,1)}, then it is called Wythoff's Game. But in general, you can have any set of vectors. Wythoff's Game is solved, but the general game is not solved. The poster did not have some amazing new general solution, but it was able to characterize the solution. Apparently, all the winning positions lie "near" one of several lines in the plane. The slopes of these lines can be determined from the initial vector set. Sounds pretty exciting if you ask me. But don't ask me what the practical applications are. I have no clue.

Another cool coincidence was that I saw a presentation on intrinsically knotted graphs. It's a coincidence because a fellow blogger (hi Susan!) did undergraduate research on the same thing, and had named her blog Intrinsically Knotted. Click the link for an explanation of what that is. The presentation I saw was about proving graphs to be "minor minimal"--that is, removing any edge of the graph will remove the intrinsically knotted property.

In summary, research in physics and math are a lot of fun. And if you like, you can extrapolate this hypothesis to other fields represented at the conference, like chemistry, biology, or even the social sciences.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron visit UCLA

As I wrote before, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron were planning to distribute their "special" edition of Origin of Species to universities across the country. This special edition came with a special intro to refute evolution, and explain how Darwin was responsible for Hitler, etc.

Here's what happened. We knew for a long time that Ray Comfort was planning to distribute the books on the 19th of November. But on the morning of the 18th, I woke up and read this: Ray has a change in plans. Ray Comfort announced the morning of that he was coming in a day early! So we had to change our plans too. The original plan was to have volunteers hand out counter-flyers and bookmarks from the NCSE, while simultaneously holding a table on Bruin Walk where we would offer free t-shirts, stickers, and discussions. But given the sudden switch, we were just going to hand out counter-flyers and bookmarks.

I had classes all day, so I actually didn't get to see most of it myself. But I had a one-hour break. During my break, I found that Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron had shown up on Bruin Walk personally. How flattering! I thought they were planning to go to Berkeley. I didn't ever get to speak with Ray Comfort, but I did get to speak with Kirk Cameron.

Kirk Cameron and me (on the edge in green)

Kirk Cameron expressed a bit of disappointment that there weren't more people protesting them. So asked him why they changed the day. Apparently, they were afraid of huge protests and book burnings. Apparently Dawkins had suggested one time burning the books. Silly Dawkins! I told Kirk that his expectations were silly. Really it was just our group and these bookmarks. I don't understand how they, on the one hand, want to get lots of attention, but on the other hand, want to avoid attention by switching the day at the last minute. Kirk Cameron was unable to clarify this for me.

He was also unable to satisfactorily explain why they had originally removed four chapters from the book. Apparently, including all the chapters would be too expensive and make it too daunting to read. He basically said they were waiting for people to call them out on the missing chapters. I told him that he should have foreseen that people would think it's dishonest to remove chapters.

Ray Comfort had actually chosen a really terrible day to distribute books, because the entire campus was thinking about the UC Regents' proposed mid-year tuition fee hike. There was a huge student protest on the 18th, with more than 500 demonstrators and fourteen arrests, but they were against the UC Regents on the other side of campus. In fact, if they had stuck to the 19th, they might have seen an even bigger demonstration against the UC Regents with about 2,000 protesters. I've been told that the reason the demonstration on the 19th was bigger is because that's when they were originally planning to vote on the fee hike. They were busing people over from other campuses and everything. However, they rescheduled the vote to the 18th, supposedly to avoid the big protest.

I told Kirk Cameron that the way they rescheduled the book distribution drew a very unfortunate parallel between them and the UC Regents. In retrospect, I don't think Kirk Cameron had any idea what I was talking about, since I'm not sure they were even aware of what was going on on campus. Also in retrospect, if there is a parallel between Ray Comfort and the UC Regents, it's probably the Regents who come out looking worse, not the other way around.

I also asked Kirk Cameron if they would be distributing books again on the 19th as originally planned. He said they would. But he lied. I didn't see them anywhere the next day. Too bad, we were distributing the free t-shirts that day, and he might have gotten one. Now we ran out. Oh well.

Spencer (left) and Ray Comfort (right) with a bookmark in his pocket

Ray Comfort soon stood on a soapbox and gathered a crowd around a mini stage that had been chalked on the ground. He asked people to come up to "home plate" so he could have an "open discussion" with them. This open discussion involved Ray Comfort yelling questions at them while his own crowd cheered at him. He asked "Have you ever lied in your life? ... What do you call a person who lies? ... Have you ever stolen anything in your life?" I think the idea is that we're all liars, thieves, and adulterers, and we need Jesus to save us. Unfortunate implication: it's okay to lie if, like Ray Comfort, you've accepted Jesus' forgiveness. If you're familiar with Ray Comfort, you know that this whole routine is the one bullet in Ray Comfort's toy gun; he has to collect it back every time he shoots because he has no other bullets.

That whole spectacle made it clear that Ray Comfort was more concerned about evangelism than about evolution, whereas our group cares more about how stupidly anti-evolution he is. When he asked each person on home plate, "Are you an atheist?" I wanted to ask him "Are you a Young Earth Creationist?" but I've been told that if I were actually up there, he wouldn't have given me a chance to ask any questions.

I had to go to class, so I'm not sure what else happened. However, I note with some amusement that Ray Comfort offered to pay the printing costs for the bookmarks. Ray Comfort, we are not the Secular Student Alliance (though we are affiliated), we are the Bruin Alliance of Skeptics and Secularists. Furthermore, I don't know how much the bookmarks cost because they were created and paid for by the National Center for Science Education. I don't know about the NCSE, but our group would happily accept any donations. Our treasurer would get a kick out of that.

I think the idea is to make up what he lacks in honesty with generosity. And make no mistake, Ray Comfort can be very generous. I've heard that he once visited the Atheists, Agnostics, and Rationalists at UC Irvine, and paid for their entire dinner. On the other hand, he seems to be less generous with his fellow Creationists. Though Creationists across the country were distributing his books for free, I heard that many of the distributors themselves had to buy them off of Ray Comfort.

But this is all my perspective. There were plenty of other BASS members who showed up. Here are a few other reports:
Spencer (from whom I stole the photos)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Countering Comfort

Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron... Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron...

They are two evangelists who always make me want to face palm. I am of the opinion that there is no clear dividing line between reasonable and unreasonable opponents. And yet, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron manage to place themselves firmly in the realm of the completely ridiculous. They are best known for presenting the Atheist Nightmare. It's a banana. Atheists have no way to explain why the banana fits so perfectly into our hands with a non-sl... oh, just watch the video.

People have asked me if they were serious about the banana argument. Yes, I think they were, for the most part. They may have been slightly facetious. But sadly, the banana is representative of their level of arguments (though with more than the usual innuendo). They're also known for arguing that evolution would predict the crocoduck as a transitional species, and that if evolution had happened, male forms would have had to wait millions of years for the female forms to evolve.

I mean, seriously, how did he manage to find arguments which are worse than the standard Creationist ones?

Guess what Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron are doing now? They're printing a special edition of Origin of Species, with a fifty page introduction written by Ray Comfort. They will distribute these to universities across the country, including my own, on this Thursday, November 19th. See Kirk Cameron explain. The introduction will be full of standard Creationist arguments and misrepresentations of Darwin, science, not to mention history. Comfort believes that Darwin caused Hitler, basically.

In a US News blog, there was a bit of "debate" between Ray Comfort and Eugenie Scott about the book (see Ray, Scott, Ray, and Scott again). Among other things, Eugenie Scott revealed that Ray Comfort's edition of Origin of Species would not only have a special introduction, but also be missing four crucial chapters. Ray Comfort responded that he was putting the four chapters back in. Eugenie Scott's response:
In his response to my post, Comfort strangely failed to explain why he expurgated that material from the first version. Elsewhere he wrote that it was "abridged because it was too many pages (too expensive) for a giveaway." But now he's going to try to give away even more copies of this more complete version? I'm glad I'm not his accountant.
Zing! Sadly, these tactics are representative of Ray Comfort's intellectual integrity. It's also been alleged that he plagiarized part of his introduction.

Happily, the above quote is representative of how awesome Eugenie Scott is. I was so pleased with Eugenie Scott's responses that I contacted NCSE (the National Center for Science Education, headed by Eugenie Scott) to ask if they would help us respond to Ray Comfort on our campus. They invited me to a google group for just that purpose, and pointed me to their website, Don't Diss Darwin. And they have counter-flyers and bookmarks ready to print out.

This is great, because the initiative required to design our own flyers is a precious commodity in BASS (the skeptical student group on campus). A few people criticized the flyer on various points, but I challenged them to make their own. If they could do that, I would pass the flyer on to NCSE, and distribute copies on campus. No one was up to the challenge.

The best part is, NCSE mailed us a box of free t-shirts donated by Sweet! I'm wearing one right now. The nice thing is, even if we can't find Ray Comfort's distributors, we can still give out this pro-evolution stuff to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the publication of Origin of Species! I think I love the NCSE.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The quantum mystic's paradox

As explained in a previous post, quantum mechanics allows for particles to be entangled. Basically, that means that the quantum state of two particles must be described together; they cannot be described separately.

A concrete example: Two electrons, which we'll name A and B, are emitted from a source in opposite directions. We can use a magnet to measure whether each electron is spin up or spin down. After repeating this experiment many times, we determine that 50% of the time, A is spin up and B is spin down. The other 50% of the time, A is spin down and B is spin up. This is because, before any measurements are made, A and B are in a mixed state of 50% (A up and B down) + 50% (A down and B up). They are entangled.

This basic idea of entangled particles led Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen to formulate the EPR paradox in 1935, which argues that quantum mechanics cannot be a complete theory. Imagine that A and B are entangled as above, and sent to opposite sides of the galaxy. Then I measure the spin of A. Before my measurement, the spin of B was undetermined, in a quantum mixed state. After my measurement, the spin of B is known, even though I never touched it, never even got close to it.

The problem is that it seems the state of B is affected instantly even though it is a hundred thousand lightyears away. Was there some sort of signal sent from A to B faster than the speed of light? If there were such a faster than light signal, this would not merely be strange and counterintuitive, but also paradoxical. According to Relativity Theory, if something travels faster than light, then there exists a reference frame in which it is traveling backwards in time. So now we have a signal traveling backwards in time, violating causality. What's to stop us from sending a message back in time to tell our past selves not to send the message?

The resolution: if there is indeed a signal traveling faster than light, this signal could not possibly transmit any information. If you can't transmit information, you can't send a message to your past self, and you can't violate causality.

Let's say I wanted to send a faster-than-light message across the galaxy. A message is basically composed of zeroes and ones. So let's try to send a short message across the galaxy, a single "1". When I measure A, I have a 50% chance to get spin up and 50% chance to get spin down. From this information, I can know the state of B. But I don't choose the state of A or B. So how can I choose to send a "1" rather than a "0"? I can't send any messages this way. The only thing I can send is random noise, which is exactly what my colleague across the galaxy would have gotten even if I had made no measurements at all.

Of course, I am greatly simplifying the EPR paradox and its resolution. This is all just to say that quantum mechanics escapes paradox by the skin of its teeth. Its position is delicate. And most forms of quantum mysticism just trample all over it.

More specifically, it's said in quantum mysticism that quantum mechanics is non-deterministic, and that we affect outcomes by observing them. Therefore, as the argument goes, observers can choose their own reality. And that's why thinking positively causes good things to come your way, and thinking negatively causes bad things to happen to you. It's not because positive thoughts lead to positive actions. It's quantum mechanics. (Implication: the positive actions themselves are unnecessary.)

From a common sense perspective, the quantum mystic's argument is just riddled with flaws. But as if that weren't enough, there is another flaw from a physics perspective: the EPR paradox returns! If I could in fact choose the outcome of a measurement, then I could use this quantum psychic ability to send coherent messages faster than light. All I have to do is choose to observe electron A as being spin down, and electron B is guaranteed to be spin up. I've just sent a single "1" across the galaxy instantaneously. Repeat the experiment many times, and I could send a bunch of zeroes and ones backwards in time.

It turns out that quantum mysticism doesn't just violate common sense, it violates causality too. So now it's just that much more of an extraordinary claim, and requires just that much more extraordinary evidence.

Mind you, I wouldn't recommend actually using this argument against quantum mysticism, since the target audience probably doesn't understand a word of it. It's all in good skeptical fun to think about it.

An inappropriate time to bring up this argument

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Planting seeds

One of the more egregious abuses of the idea of open-mindedness is when people say, "If you were more open-minded, you would have changed your mind already." Whenever I hear this, I just look down and shake my head. For one thing, it's begging the question--would I in fact have changed my mind by now? But the much deeper error is the unrealistic expectation of how easily people change their minds. You can't entirely change a person's point of view with just one conversation. And if you expect to change everyone's mind so easily, you will be disappointed in all your rhetorical endeavors, and become a bitter cynic.

I suppose this is why people say, "You're not there to change people's minds, but to plant seeds of doubt."

I am not a fan of this metaphor. It makes it sound as if all you need to do is go up to people, ask a provocative question, and then leave. You've planted a seed, so your job is done! Because you already know how great your own arguments are, there's no need to listen to any responses, or to make sure that you've really conveyed your point. It sounds an awful lot like trolling.

Perhaps it would be better to say that you're not just planting seeds, but also watering the plants. But I'm still not a fan of the metaphor. It makes me imagine trees growing in people's brains.


But there's an important point behind by the "planting seeds" metaphor. People really don't change their minds after just one conversation. They may be corrected on facts, and they may concede smaller points. But on larger issues, it simply doesn't happen quite like that. More often, people change their minds through several conversations with different people. By reading many different articles with different points of view. By doing a bit of introspection on top of all that. At least, that's how I do it.

And so, in any single conversation, you can't expect to make major changes in a person's point of view. That doesn't mean they're close-minded, it just means they're normal. Nor does it mean that discussion and persuasion is completely futile. You can persuade people, it's just not easy, that's all. It's probably better this way, since you wouldn't want people to be persuaded by every huckster they come across.

But the tricky thing is, that means that whether you make good arguments or bad arguments, there will be little observable difference. If you never succeed in persuading anyone, is it because persuasion is a slow process, or is it because your arguments just suck? How do you tell?

Personally, I try to distinguish between good and bad arguments by examining their logical soundness. Use some critical thinking to see if the conclusion really follows. Also, listen to other people's responses, see if they find any flaws that you've missed. Just because an argument is logically sound doesn't guarantee that it is effective at persuading people, but it's a fairly good start.

I'm curious if my readers have any other answers to the question: How do you know whether your arguments are effective?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Matchstick puzzles

Four matchsticks form a glass, as shown above. By moving only two matchsticks (and without moving the cherries), get the cherries out of the glass. You don't want to break the glass, so it should be in the same shape when you've finished.

Fourteen matchsticks are arranged to create four squares. Move only three matchsticks so that there are six squares. The matchsticks may not cross each other, and they cannot be broken. Every part of every matchstick must be part of a square (ie no loose ends).

Solutions have been posted

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

For the Bible Tells me So

I saw a documentary called For the Bible Tells Me So, which is about how the religious right is breaking families apart with their homophobic rhetoric. It was really good, but really depressing. I was tearing up.

It followed a bunch of families in which the parents were really religious and conservative, and one of their children turned out to be gay. It was rather heartbreaking to watch all these really nice people go on to reject their children. Eventually, many of them came to accept their children, and some go on to be activists. Others never fully accept it, or accepted it too late.

One of my friends said it was really hard to watch, because it showed what he wished would have happened with his parents, but didn't. Awwwww

This movie made me feel grateful that I left religion years before I ever started thinking about my sexual identity. The two issues for me are completely disjoint in time. Good thing too, because together they'd make quite a tangled mess. Separately, they're still tangled messes, but together they are a bigger tangled mess. It's so much simpler to just think about what's good and bad, rather than think about what a omnipotent omnibenevolent being thinks is good and bad. With all the back and forth about what the Bible says about homosexuality, it's nice to be able to just say, "The Bible is not a moral authority. The end." Being an atheist has definitively improved my life.

Did you know that the Catholic Church accepts homosexual tendencies, but believes that acting on these tendencies is a sin? I think I knew this before, but the movie made it hit home. It's unacceptably regressive to insist that a certain group of people never ever act upon the feelings of love they experience. Dear Catholic Church, this displeases me with you in a way that leaving your religion did not. You suck. You, and Maine.

After the movie screening, someone came up to the front and told us, "If you left the church, but want to return, know that there are options." I hope this doesn't sound too strange for an atheist to say, but I think it's great that there are options, that there are queer-positive religious communities. I think it's terrible that people have to leave their church just because of their sexual orientation. I think people should leave churches, yes, but I don't think anyone should be forced out. People should be leaving because they want to.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I vicariously write a letter

Remember how, some months ago, I promised I would one day write a letter? Because writing letters is one of the easiest ways to be an effective skeptical activist? Yeah, neither do I. Forget I mentioned it.

Well, I haven't done that. I have written exactly zero letters. Not once have I read an article which was totally wrong or inaccurate, and then sent off a critical e-mail to the news source. Not once have I read an article which promoted skepticism, and then sent off an e-mail to thank the writer. I suppose you could say I opted for the harder way to be an activist, which is to keep a skeptical student group organized. Naturally, as an organizer, my job isn't to write these letters myself, but to delegate that job to other people.

Anyways, on October 21st, the Daily Bruin featured two articles in its Science and Health section which were sympathetic to Integrative Medicine. “Integrative,” if you weren’t aware, is one of those buzzwords of alternative medicine.
Wellness remedies can work best in tandem
UCLA Center for East-West Medicine fuses integrates alternative, conventional medicine for better treatment
I told people in BASS (the aforementioned skeptical student group) that if no one responded to this article, they would make the sad panda sad. Fellow BASSier Daniel rose up to the occasion, and sent the following letter, which was published in the Daily Bruin yesterday.

Alternative medicine requires scrutiny (scroll down to second letter)
It's a start. I should definitely vicariously write letters more often.

Monday, November 2, 2009

More on hate crime laws

Speaking of hate crimes, Barack Obama recently signed into law the Matthew Shepard Act, which expands hate crime laws to include gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

Actually, in my experience, a lot of people in the atheist community tend to oppose hate crime laws. A crime is a crime, they say, whether it is motivated by hate or not. The dividing line between a crime and a hate crime is basically a belief or idea. Should we really be punishing people more harshly just because they hold a particularly hateful belief? Doesn't that come dangerously close to punishing beliefs, infringing on free speech?

As for myself, I will tentatively come down on the side that is supportive of hate crime laws.

Laws and law enforcement should be pragmatic. Laws are not about punishing people for actions they've already done, but preventing them from doing those actions in the first place. When we make a punishment harsher, we're making a trade-off. On the one hand, we're further discouraging the crime from happening in the first place. On the other hand, we're being a little more unfair to the people who end up committing the crime anyways.

I like to think of the benefits of a law being a smooth function of the harshness of the punishment. Somewhere in the middle of that function, there exists a maxima, where the derivative of utility with respect to harshness is zero. Okay, I'll stop with the math now. The point is that there is some happy medium where the law is neither too lenient nor too harsh.

However, this happy medium exists at different places for different kinds of crimes. For example consider the insanity defense. The insanity defense is where the defendant admits the crime, but claims to have been in a mental condition which prevented them from distinguishing right and wrong. When someone makes an insanity defense, they tend to receive softer punishments. Or rather, they get committed to a psychiatric institution, which is just a different kind of "punishment" altogether. Now, I know very little about law, but the rationale seems obvious to me. No matter how harshly you punish the insane, you will never discourage them from being insane. Whatever part of the brain it is that responds to the threat of punishment, that's not the part which causes legally insane people to break the law.

Now contrast with hate crimes. Hate crimes are done willfully, perhaps more willfully than typical crimes. If someone hates a group so much, is normal law going to effectively prevent them from committing crimes against that group? No, because their motivation goes beyond fear of simple legal punishment. Sheer force of will is not so easily stopped. Furthermore, hate crimes typically cause greater damage than the mere actions would indicate. They inspire fear in the entire group, and can have huge negative effects on an entire community. Therefore, the happy medium for hate crime laws is a little more on the harsh side than you would otherwise expect. And that's why it's justified to have harsher laws against hate crimes.

But this is all politics and law, of which I admittedly know very little. I'd be happy to hear opposing points of view, and we can argue about it a bit.