Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Higher Power" is not inclusive

In an effort to be inclusive of non-religious people, some people and organizations use deliberately vague language like "higher power".  The specific example I have in mind is Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs, though I am sure these are not the only examples.  Here are a few:
  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
The idea is that even if atheists don't believe in God, they must believe in some sort of higher power.  Maybe they believe in Science, Reason, Humanity, or The Universe, they must believe in something!

It just doesn't work that way, not for everyone.  Some non-religious people would be okay with that, but many others would not.  I suppose it could be said that I believe in the value of science, reason, and the universe, but I certainly do not have the same attitude towards these that religious people have towards God.  Science and reason, as important as they are, are just ideas.  I just don't think of them as "higher powers", in much the same way I don't consider literature, cooking, or the great outdoors to be higher powers.

More concretely, they aren't things I pray or meditate to.  Maybe some atheists do that, but I bet most don't.  It also doesn't make much sense to ask these "powers" to remove defects of character, or to confess our wrongs to them.  I don't think I could turn over my will to them.  I might agree that critical thinking helps me become a better person, but only in limited situations and through a completely different process.

And this is not just a matter of poor translation.  I feel that even the most charitable atheist, who is trying to interpret the words as they are intended, might still have problems with it.  Sometimes there is no translation.  Just like there is no one-to-one correspondence of words between languages, there are some concepts in religion that just can't be translated to a secular worldview.  "Higher power" is one of those.  "Faith" is another.  "Sacred" is another.

Or maybe there's a translation, but it's strained and uncomfortable.  I can see some atheists being comfortable with "higher power" language, but I wouldn't bet a reputation for inclusiveness on it.

While we're at it, this is also true between different religious traditions.  There's not always a good translation of concepts.  Even things like "faith" or "god" are only approximate translations between religions.

That said, I have nothing against Alcoholics Anonymous.  I think it is entirely possible that it is inclusive of non-religious people.  If this is the case, then I merely argue that this is not by virtue of their "inclusive" language.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I see Greta speak

I saw Greta Christina give a talk yesterday called "Why are you atheists so angry?" hosted by the East Bay Atheists.  It was about how people tend to perceive more anger than there really is, but also why atheists have damn good reasons to be angry, and how this anger is in fact essential to the movement.

I don't have much to say about the talk itself (having been familiar with her ideas previously), but I will take any excuse to link to the essay on which her talk was based, "Atheists and Anger".

Greta is a bit of a hero to me.  (All my heroes are bloggers of course.)  Perhaps it's the fact that she was the only queer blogger I was reading at time of my own coming out.  Or perhaps it's because several of her writings were key to subtle but important shifts in my perception.  The best example is "Getting it right early: Why atheists need to act now on gender and race", which motivated me to care a lot more about intersecting experiences and minorities within movements.

That's probably what I was thinking about when I asked her to compare "angry atheists" and "hypersensitive feminists" (implicitly referring to this fiasco).

Whenever atheists are perceived as angry, several things happen.  First people assume it's part of a pattern, as if atheists were just going around their daily lives with torches and pitchforks.  In reality, it's more comparable to being outraged at a political party; that doesn't mean that you're an angry person in general.  Second, people try to find internal causes of anger.  Third, people get defensive, saying that true religion isn't at all like that.  Anything to distract from the issue that atheists are actually angry about.  People are just making the "Shut up, that's why!" argument (which is the topic of another essay by Greta).

And so it was upsetting to see some atheists using the same tactics against feminists, calling them hypersensitive.  Some atheists need a little more self-awareness.

Greta is a very passionate speaker, and her talk was very enjoyable despite my being familiar with her writing already.  But I get kind of annoyed at these Q&A sessions where no one actually asks questions.  Most people responded with these rants that went on long after it became clear that they did not have any particular question in mind, except maybe, "Could you comment on this so I feel validated?"  This happens at every single talk ever, so maybe I should just concede that that's how it's supposed to be.  It showed that the audience was pumped, at least.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Million dollar sex challenge

Last week I linked to a guest post on Blag Hag about sexism at an atheist conference.  In that post, there was a deleted section about the Million Dollar Sex Challenge, because there was a lot of dispute over whether it was accurately portrayed.  Obviously, I wasn't there and don't know what happened, but I just read a favorable portrayal by Richard Dawkins... and I am appalled!
A lecturer offers all the male students in the audience the following wager. You undertake to pay me a million dollars if, by the end of the day, you fail to find a woman who, having never met you before and knowing nothing about you, will consent to have unbribed sex with you. If you succeed, I pay you a million dollars. The lecturer then offers the corresponding bet to all the female students in the audience. The empirical result is that men almost always decline to take the bet. Women almost always would accept it.
The point is simply that we all have the same folk psychology: everybody knows that there is a huge sex difference in willingness to have sex with a previously unknown partner. Women are far more likely to be choosy. Men far more likely to be a pushover.
Why does the recounting of a fact give offence, if it is true? Part of the reason seems to be the old fallacy that if something is 'biological' it is inescapable and can be used to justify bad behaviour.
It's not even so much that I'm offended as a queer or on behalf of women.*  This offends my skeptical sensibilities!

The problem is not in recounting fact.  The problem is in recounting fact, and then offering an unsupported interpretation as if it were the only one.  Dawkins is fine when he described the empirical results.  But then he interprets it as a simple confirmation of what "everyone knows": women are choosy, and men are pushovers.

It's great that Dawkins understands that biology is not destiny, but who is to say that biology is even the biggest factor here?  The first explanation that jumps to mind is not that the folk psychology is true, but that people buy into the folk psychology, and make their decisions as if it were true.  Or perhaps they are making rational decisions based on a social and cultural environment which enforces the folk psychology.

Dawkins also cites an experiment by Clark and Hatfield, where they compared male and female responses to invitations to sex.  That sounds like a very different experiment than the million dollar sex challenge, with different possible explanations.  Also, if you read the discussion in the paper, they don't quite agree with Dawkins:
Of course, the sociological interpretation - that women are interested in love while men are interested in sex - is not the only possible interpretation of these data.  It may be, of course, that both men and women were equally interested in sex, but that men associated fewer risks with accepting a sexual invitation than did women.
This isn't a case of Dawkins seeing the truth and accepting it.  This is a case of Dawkins grabbing upon the one explanation which confirms his preexisting beliefs, and forgetting all alternative explanations.  And those preexisting beliefs aren't exactly making Dawkins look good.  Well forget him.  I always liked PZ Myers better anyway.

*Though there is something to be said on this front too.  I am all for spreading truths no matter how uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean that you should subject your audience to social experiments, especially one as ill-conceived as this.  When you do real science, there are ethical guidelines...

(I never thought I'd say this, but thanks to the swarming pharynguloid masses for bringing this topic to my attention.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Is this data snooping?

Do you read oktrends?  It's a funny blog about statistics gathered from okcupid... How can you lose?

In their most recent post, they attempted to find the best casual questions to ask someone in order to determine something deep.  They found that "Do you like the taste of beer?" was the best question to determine if a person would have sex on a first date, and "Do you like horror movies?" is one of the questions that couples agree on most often.

That's all quite amusing, but this was ringing skeptical bells for me.  They tested over 50,000 questions, and tried to correlate them with several things.  With that many questions, I think some of them will show good correlations just by random chance.  This is called data snooping, when you test so many different hypotheses that some of them are bound to be false positives.  At the very least, I think it would exaggerate any results.

On the other hand, okcupid is a pretty large data set, numbered in the millions.  So what do you think?  Data snooping, or no?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Atheist men talk about sexism

At the American Atheists Southeast Regional Atheist Meet (SERAM), there was a panel discussing submitted topics. One topic was about the treatment of women in the freethought community.

I don't think I have anything especially insightful or persuasive to say about this, but I will express my opinion that the whole panel was deeply disturbing.  The panelists seem to think sexism is some kind of joke.

There's a big fuss in the blagotubes over this incident, spawned by a guest post on Blag Hag. Opponents are complaining that the guest post exaggerates some things, but I think that's missing the forest for the trees.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Asexuals are hiding; also, they don't exist

Dan Savage is a sex advice columnist known for his snarky responses.  He also created the "It Gets Better" Project, if you've heard of it.  In the past he's had a few encounters with asexuality, which might be summarized as "problematic".  But this is not a retrospective, nor is it even about how Dan Savage is wrong.  This is about how Dan Savage is right, and how he and others undermine their own interests.

Recently, Dan got a letter from someone who called themselves Not Sexual, Not Asexual.  In other words, NSNA is a gray-A like me, though he used the phrase "minimally-sexual".  Savage's response:
Why not go find another minimally sexual person? You’ll be doing your minimally sexual self a favor, you’ll be doing your future minimally sexual partner a favor, and you’ll be doing all normally sexual persons everywhere a favor by removing two minimals—you and your future partner—from the dating pool.
The central theme in Savage's responses to asexuality is that people with different levels of sexual interest should avoid dating each other if possible.  Sexuals should date sexuals, asexuals should date asexuals, and minimally-sexuals should date minimally-sexuals.  I think Dan thinks compromise is really difficult because he's always getting letters from people who are having trouble compromising.  I think compromising is much easier than he makes it out, perhaps because I myself feel happy with a wide range.  But that is another discussion.

As Dan has said himself in the past, this requires that people be upfront about their asexual orientation.  Well let me tell you, that is sort of what asexuality is about.  I don't even know what purpose an asexual identity serves if you don't even think your partners need to know about it.

Maybe some demisexual or gray-A people wouldn't say, but only if they feel that their orientation only affects their experiences outside of a relationship.  Do I have any asexual readers who want partners but would not tell their partners?  Why?

And yet, Dan gets all these letters from people who feel dissatisfied with the level of sexual activity in their relationship.  Is it because asexuals and minimally-asexual people are somehow hiding themselves and infiltrating the "normally sexual" dating pool?  Obviously, the majority of cases have nothing to do with asexuality.  But let's imagine a few common scenarios involving asexuality.
  • A sexual and asexual person date, but the asexual person is not aware of their own orientation.  This leads to problems with sex in their relationship.  This problem could be avoided if asexuality were common knowledge.
  • A sexual and minimally-sexual person date, but unexpectedly run into problems with sexual compatibility.  This problem could be avoided if the asexual spectrum were common knowledge, and the couple knew to be aware of differences from the start, and what problems this can create for both parties.
  • A sexual and asexual date, but the asexual is hesitant to come out.  This problem could be avoided if asexuality were not seen as shameful or invalid.
  • A minimally-sexual person is open about their orientation, but runs into sex-related problems in their relationships anyway.  This problem could be avoided if society accepted asexuality to the degree that it created effective dating spaces and other social structures for people on the asexual spectrum to find optimal partners.
My point is that all these problems are mitigated if asexual activism succeeds.  And it does not help to tell asexuals that they are not really asexual.

And yet, that's pretty much what Dan Savage suggests in the next line:
Unless you’re more interested in sex than you let on, NSNA, and you find the idea of a normally sexual partner appealing because a normal might be able to help you build your confidence and learn to enjoy sex.
NSNA said that he lacked confidence, but Dan kinda took that and ran with it.  But that's not nearly as bad what Dan's readers are saying:
I just didn't think the guy sounded like an asexual. When you cite lack of confidence or stamina as your reasons... that's a mental/physical health issue. [Cue the defense that they are not attacking asexuals as a group, just one person who did little more than claim to be minimally-sexual.]

You seem to think that "asexuals" are some kind of oppressed minority. Bullshit. Victorian prudes are plenty empowered in our society. [Asexuals = victorian prudes?]

I am not denying that there are real, honest and honorable asexuals out there who really think that sex is boring as all hell and don't want anything to do with it--those people deserve respect and dignity--but I'm sure that there may also be some young, inexperienced people out there who are reaching a little too eagerly for a label to put on themselves so they can shoehorn into a community.  [This person does not appreciate the sheer amount of self-doubt that is involved in identifying as asexual.]

A lack of confidence or stamina aren't necessarily reasons to give up on sex. I'd advise him to get in touch with his body through exercise, and to get evaluated for depression. Not to pathologize people who are actually asexual or minimally sexual, but I'm not sure NSNA truly belongs to that group. [Yay for armchair psychology! Anything other than taking self-identity seriously!]
Of course it is true, at least some self-identified asexuals are "wrong" about themselves.  But this fact is trivial, and doesn't need reinforcement.  Instead it is over-reinforced, brought up whenever an asexual says the least bit about themselves.  If they mention a lack of confidence, that's what it really is.  If they mention being young, that's what it really is.  If they mention being old, that's what it really is.  If they mention having past trauma.  That they're asocial.  That they're female.  That they're religious, or used to be religious.  That they're depressed.  That they have a disability.  And if none of the above are mentioned, there must be something, and you just need to quiz them to find it.

It's okay if people wrongly believe they are maladjusted sexuals, but God forbid that they wrongly believe that they are asexual!

I'm getting mixed messages here.  You should say that you're asexual upfront so we can avoid you.  Also, don't kid yourself, you're not really asexual.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Heaven and Hell

Oooh, with a title like that, some people will be confused about this post's purpose.  This is a puzzle.

There once was a man who saw heaven and hell, but found they were nearly the same.  Each one consisted of a group of people sitting at a round table with food.  But their chopsticks were way too long to eat with!  The difference was that people in heaven were always full and happy, while the people in hell were always hungry and unhappy.  Why?

This puzzle comes from Stories to Solve, which is the other book I found from my childhood.  However, the book takes this story from an older tradition, so I don't feel I am stealing it.  Some people might categorize this as a lateral thinking puzzle.  I generally don't like lateral thinking puzzles, but I like this one.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Solutions to circular cutouts

See the original puzzle

Above, I've highlighted several regions which we will use as intermediate steps to find the area of the center.  The letters A through D represent the area of that region.  I'm taking the square to have unit length sides.

A is a sixth of a circle.
A = 1/6 pi

B is an equilateral triangle.
B = sqrt(3)/4

C can be found by combining A and B.
C = 2A - B = 1/3 pi - sqrt(3)/4

D is a quarter of a circle.
D = 1/4 pi

By tinkering around with C and D, we can find the area of the center region.
Area of center = 1 - 4D + 4C = 1/3 pi + 1 - sqrt(3)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dream: monkey men

I dreamt that I was watching a preview for a movie.  It was based on a book written by Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park.  It was about an alternate history where instead of humans, evolution produced a very violent and sexual race of monkey men.  Michael Crichton said that it was not meant as an attack on evolution, but just about the moral depravity that evolution allows for.  But I thought this statement was disingenuous.

In the real world, Crichton is a climate change denier, not an evolution denier, but in my dream I forgot this.  My dream self really doesn't like Michael Crichton, huh?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Astrology: a different nonsense than you thought

Some weeks ago, major news media reported that Earth's precession has shifted all of our astrological signs, and also added a thirteenth sign, Ophiuchus.  I wrote on the subject, focusing on the physics of precession.  This time, I will focus more on the nonsense side of things.

I will preface this by noting that astrology is a big deal.  Sometimes people criticize skeptics for focusing on the harmless crazy fringes.  Silly fringe beliefs are things like UFOs, bigfoot, and JFK conspiracies, but astrology is not one of those.  It has a section in nearly every newspaper.  Think about the wasted time and money implied by that. 

When I did research for my post on the physics of precession, I learned two new things that the original media reports got wrong.

I had heard that Ophiuchus should be added to the zodiac because of precession.  But this struck me as wrong, because precession does not change the sun's path through the sky, it only affects its timing.  So I researched and found that Ophiuchus is technically unrelated to precession.  The addition of Ophiuchus is based on the Astronomical Union's conventions for constellation boundaries.  The IAU's conventions are arbitrary, but they more reasonably align with the constellations than do the boundaries drawn by astrologers, which don't even account for precession.

It also struck me as strange that professional astrologers would be ignorant of precession, as assumed by the media stories.  People who just read their horoscopes may be ignorant, but professional astrologers have probably heard it many times.  Professional astrologers also tend to know a lot about the mechanics of observational astronomy, and precession is right up that alley.

So I looked it up and found that most western astrologers consciously use "tropical astrology" which is based on seasons rather than stars.  Their problem is not one of ignorance, but one of irrationality.  There just isn't any rational basis to think that tropical astrology, is any better than sidereal astrology, is any better than assigning horoscopes randomly.

Therefore, it didn't surprise me when astrologers started "debunking" the story, talking about how they knew about precession all along and simply chose to ignore it.  Here is a sample of what they're saying:
The signs of the Zodiac are merely symbols and metaphors that divide the year into 12 different and equal "seasons."
There is no real ram in the sky when Aries begins on March 21st. Wise ancient women and men chose a Ram to symbolize Aries because it represents the initiation of spring.
Astrology is a system of symbols and metaphors designed to help us connect to the universe, just like the words and metaphors found in the various spiritual texts from around the world.
The last point about comparing astrology to religion is a good one.  It's sometimes said that you can distinguish between skepticism of pseudoscience and skepticism of religion, because religion is all about metaphorical and nonscientific truth.  Such a simplistic distinction fails because pseudoscience will also frequently resort to metaphorical and nonscientific truth.  Well I don't know about religion (because I have my skeptic hat on now, not my atheist hat), but when astrology does it, it's rubbish.

And here's a writer who is skeptical of astrology, but calls for a more careful criticism.
While I agree with the best skeptics that “astrology is rubbish”, this is because there is no evidence that celestial objects can affect our lives, events and emotions in the way that is claimed, not because practising astrologers don’t understand basic celestial mechanics and positional astronomy.
I suppose, in the scheme of things, precession is not a significant piece of evidence against astrology.  The real lines of evidence are physics and empirical studies.  Although, empirical studies are problematic to cite, especially on a blog.  Not only am I too lazy to find and cite such a study, it would take a lot more work to verify that it has good methodology, and even more work to avoid cherry-picking.

So I prefer the line of evidence from physics.  There isn't any known force that could possibly allow planets to affect personalities without having a vastly larger affect on things like weather.  But people tend to remember the hits, forget the misses, and think that vague and flattering descriptions of themselves are highly accurate.  The effects of these biases look an awful lot like astrology.

But even though precession is not the major line of evidence against astrology, I still think it's a good story.  Despite being ancient news, it was still interesting enough to bring attention to the question of why we as a society accept this astrology nonsense.  Is it because we think that we're influenced by the stars, or by the position of the earth?  No, even most astrologers think that's nonsense.  Instead astrologers believe in an equally nonsensical system of dividing the seasons into twelve parts, naming each part for a constellation that was not quite behind the sun 3000 years ago, justifying this by giving the names additional symbolic meaning, and then making daily predictions based on people's birthdays.