What I learned at Skepticon 7

I just got back home from Skepticon 7 late last night, and now is the time to recover and reflect. (If you don’t know what Skepticon is, visit http://skepticon.org/what/.) This year they had lots of speakers that I had not heard before (despite having gone to plenty of atheist conventions and hearing the most famous speakers multiple times). There was a very good variety of speakers and I commend the organizers for putting together such a fantastic lineup!

Here are some of the main ideas and learnings that I took away from Skepticon 7.

I learned about Ben’s firsthand experience of a Humanist Service Trip with the Pathfinders Project. The trip included teaching kids, helping villages develop a system to access clean water, a visit to a camp for accused witches in Uganda (and the heartbreaking results of superstition), and building latrines in Haiti. Also, a dangerous bout with malaria, reinterpreted as a process of personal transformation. Honestly, I am starting to cry as I write this, it was so heartwrenching and inspiring at the same time. So go to http://pathfindersproject.com and check out what they are doing. (Ben ‘Sweatervest’ Blanchard)

I learned that experiments with rats that show them helping other rats get out of a trap show that empathy and helping are hard-wired into mammals and do not require fancy cognition or culture. (Peggy Mason)

I learned that a careful analysis of studies that address the correlation of religion and wellbeing shows that when atheists are actually included in the studies and when the survey questions are relevant to atheists, the commonly media-touted claims about the religious being mentally healthier than atheists falls apart. It is a stable worldview is correlated to mental wellbeing, not a commited faith. (Melanie Brewster)

I also learned a concept of ‘minority stress’ that can affect atheists because of pervasive religous and anti-atheist prejudices in American culture. When atheists are compelled to self-censor out of fear of social censure from religous family or neighbors, and when they are exposed to frequent anti-atheist comments, the stress can cause mental and emotional damage. This is the major reason why atheist meetups and communities are important — they are safe spaces where atheists can get away from the sources of minority stress. (Melanie Brewster)

The distinction between natural and supernatural claims — between scientific and religous claims — is an illusion. There is no good reason not to think of the ‘supernatural’ (if it exists) as a natural realm that follows rules just like the natural world that we know. This idea has interesting implications for the sorts of claims that the religous make about God. (Scott Clifton)

I learned about ‘citizen science’ and there are websites like http://scistarter.com that anyone can go to to participate in the data-gathering process for scientific experiements, and participate in a casual or commited way depending on their own motivation and time. (Nichole Gigliucci)

I learned how an outsider to our culture can give a fresh perspective on the taboos and unspoken rules of our culture. (Heina Dababhoy)

I learned that ‘genderqueer’ is a gender category. I’d encountered the term before in blogs and speeches, but I never quite had a clear idea what it actually meant. I also learned that if you see something like ‘they/them’ in an online profile that means that those are the pronouns that the person wishes to be addressed by instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Also, that it is appropriate to ask a person identifying as genderqueer what pronouns they prefer if you are not sure. (Twitter conversations in the #sk7 hashtag)

And last but not least, I learned that Skepticon organizers and participants put on the best Prom ever! XD

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Skepticon 5: Science, Atheism, and Doctor Who?

Skepticon 5: Science, Atheism, and Doctor Who?

This past weekend, I attended Skepticon 5 with my husband and around 1,500 fellow atheists, skeptics, and Freethinkers. This is the second time we have attended the free (yes, FREE), student organized conference in Springfield, MO, and we were not disappointed. For anyone reading who is not familiar with this conference, Skepticon is a free annual convention held each November in Springfield, MO and this was its 5th year running. It was started by the atheist student group at Missouri State University, and continues to be run by an entirely volunteer staff as a labor of love. If you would like to know more about the history and background of Skepticon, there is a full write-up on the official Skeption site.

So, when a bunch of atheistic and science loving folks get together, what do we like to talk about? If you have a picture in your mind of 1,500 people listening to presentations on 50 more reasons god doesn’t exists, then you don’t know us very well.

Topics of presentation included (not comprehensive, just the talks I got to see):

  • how to present atheism and the value of critical thinking to children (Phil Ferguson) *this is a clarification on Phil’s topic
  • the importance of community to atheists (James Croft )
  • how to be more rational in your everyday life (Julia Galef)
  • marriage and relationships from a rationalist perspective (panel on marriage and relationships),
  • the science and possible medical uses behind hallucinogenic drugs (Jennifer Oulette),
  • how to help atheist students thrive in high school and college environments (Hemant Mehta),
  • the different ways a genetic mutation can spread though a population over time (PZ Myers),
  • the common misuse of evolutionary psychology in popular media (especially how they perpetuate stereotypes about women) (Rebecca Watson),
  • the real history and causes behind werewolf and witch history in Europe (Deborah Hyde),
  • the basics of what the Higgs Boson is and why is it is so important (Sean Carrol),
  • basic historical methods that can be used to examine any claim (Richard Carrier),
  • how to be effective in debates (Matt Dillahunty),
  • getting over religious guilt and shame about sexuality (Darrel Ray),
  • the rights of atheists in the workplace (Amanda Knief),
  • and, of course, how to counter common religious arguments (JT Eberhard).

I’m not going to give a detailed description of each talk, since that has been done already on other blogs. Also, all of these videos will be made available on YouTube soon (I’ll post links when I find out they are available.)

Here is a sampling favorite learnings and memories from Skepticon 5:

  • JT Eberhard: “We have infinitely more evidence for love than we do for god,” just before he proposed to his girlfriend from the stage.
  • I learned from Sean Carrol’s talk that what we know of Quantum Field Theory essentially rules out any scientific possibility of things like telepathy, telekinesis, and life after death. There are still plenty of unknowns, but the possibility of there being undiscovered fields or particles that would result in those types of phenomena have been effectively ruled out.
  • Matt Dillahunty’s mix of card tricks and debate tactics. Seriously, I need to watch that again.
  • Once again PZ Myers exposes the dishonesty of creationists in misinterpreting scientific findings. Evolution, FTW!
  • I learned from Deborah Hyde about the medical, historical, political, and religious history behind the werewolf tales and witch trials (apparently there was overlap between werewolves and witches) in Europe. Did you know that supposed “werewolves” were once thought to have a medical condition called Lycanthropy and people have thought they were wolves on the inside though they looked normal outside? And that lycanthropy tales also played a role in the Inquisition and supposed werewolves were persecuted by the church just like supposed witches?
  • I learned from Richard Carrier the basics of how to apply historical methods to historical claims. And how this is important for any citizen to know, to prevent unscrupulous people from either making up history or misapplying history to promote their own ideologies (Christian nation, anyone?)
  • The Doctor made an appearance at Skepticon! Somehow, I always knew the Doctor was an atheist. (“Doctor Who?” you ask? Exactly. 😉 ). Seriously, there were Doctor Who references all over this year’s Skepticon. Even the ring that JT Eberhard used to propose to his girlfriend had a message in it in Gallifreyan. There is a great picture of it here: Gallifreyan Engagement Ring.

Oh, and as a side note, I came out with shot glasses for the 4 Atheist Ponies of the Apocalypse. Can you tell who is who?

UPDATE: The video from Skepticon is currently available on the Skepticon LiveStream channel.

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My Take on the “Straw Vulcan”

I was thinking of doing a bit of a writeup on the “Straw Vulcan” talk but it looks like Greta Christina beat me to the punch. I hate to merely regurgitate what I have read on someone else’s blog, but I do have a bit to add from personal experience. I have always been a bit puzzled and irritated by depictions of reason and logic as being cold, inhumane, and totally oblivious to all human desire and opposed to all emotion. Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek is a good example (though I think the character has improved with time), but I can think of another more recent example in the movies. I am thinking of a scene in I, Robot (2004, staring Will Smith).

The movie is not based exactly on Isaac Asimov’s book I, Robot but it does borrow from his famous “Three Laws of Robotics.” A robot in Asimov’s model must obey these laws because they are built into their positronic brains. If a robot were to somehow fail to obey one of these laws, for instance if a robot fails to prevent harm from coming to a human being, it causes a conflict in the brain that can totally destroy the robot. Most of Asimov’s stories center around robots being put into situations where they face a dilemma in obeying the Three Laws.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

To make a long story short, the society in which Detective Spooner (Will Smith) lives is manufacturing and using a bunch of pretty humanoid robots to do errands, housework, etc, for their human owners. Spooner does not like the robots, and it turns out he is right to be a bit paranoid. The robots are all hooked up to a huge super-smart, super-logical supercomputer called V.I.K.I. (acronym for something, but I do not remember what), who, after much thought, comes to the conclusion that humans are a danger to themselves and that the only way for “her” to obey the First Law of Robotics is to make all humans captives in their homes so that they cannot harm themselves or others. She claims that her logic is perfect, and no one ever challenges her on that front. (Sonny, BTW, is a robot in the story who was programmed to “evolve” by his maker and has developed human-like feeling and self-identity. For more information, just watch the movie.)

V.I.K.I.: Do you not see the logic of my plan?
Sonny: Yes, but it just seems too heartless.

Movie quotes from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0343818/quotes

This bothered me. V.I.K.I.’s logic is NOT perfect here, as it is clearly based on a two-dimensional misunderstanding of humanity. Locking up humans against their will does do them harm, but no one seems to think of explaining that to V.I.K.I. Maybe if they had, she might have frozen up from inability to obey the First Law. Her conclusions were way off, and therefore her logic was clearly not perfect.

But is this how our society views logic and reason? I should hope not.

Anyway, here is a link to Greta Christina’s blog post, and below I have also posted the video of the original talk at Skepticon. Enjoy 🙂

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Atheist Satire

I have found that the funniest comedy is subversive comedy. What I mean is that the best comedy takes the taboo, the holy, and the unquestioned and drags it right out into the open, warts and all, for everyone to see. Makes it not quite so high and mighty. And you see this in politics, from political satirists like Stephen Colbert to court jesters in times past. If you have the skill to make people laugh, you might just get them to rexamine ideas and beliefs that they would otherwise protect with an unpenatrable wall of offense.

Douglas Adams did this for me in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I was still a Christian when I first read Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I was listening to a very well-done audio book which enhanced the effect of the humor. It’s not like this is a good argument (in fact, it is totally absurd), but it did get me to laugh even if a bit akwardly at the fact that he was basically turning the “Design Argument for God” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleological_argument) on it’s head. How ridiculous to say that the unlikelihood that a creature could evolve by chance would prove that God doesn’t exist!

I didn’t become an atheist merely because of this sort of thing, but since it made me laugh by it’s absurdity it got me to lower my guard just a bit. It made the very thought (plausible or not) of God not existing just a bit less threatening to me.

BABEL FISH :

The Babel fish is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy recieved not from its own carrier but from those around it, It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. the practical upshot of this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any language.

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anhthing so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes like this : “I refuse to prove that I exist”, says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

“But”, says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? it could not have evolved by chance. it proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”

“Oh dear”, says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

“Oh that was easy” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

(Text borrowed from http://homepage.eircom.net/~odyssey/Quotes/Popular/SciFi/Douglas_Adams.html where you can find many more great Douglas Adams quotes.)

The subversive nature of comedy means, pretty much inevitably, that the best humor is going to offend someone who thinks that certain things ought to remain taboo, holy, and unquestioned. Naturally, not everyone is going to find the same things funny. In the worst of scenarios, where the freedom of speech is not recognised, it might even lead to terrorism, imprisionment, and/or a death sentence for the comedian. (I’m thinking of Dutch cartoons, though there are plenty of other examples.) After the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie came out, one of the critisisms I heard of it was that it is anti-religious. Faith does not like to be taken lightly. I have my own thoughts as to why that is, and you can probably guess what they are, but I will leave you to your own conclusions.

And with that said, I will conclude with a bit of atheistic satire that is targeted mainly at a particular audience: atheists, especially those who grew up in a charasmatic Christian religous environment. It is an atheist version of a “holly roller” revival service in which I was in the audience in Skepticon IV, which I mentioned this in my post on Skepticon from a few days ago.

WARNING: If you are of the type mentioned above who are offended when religion is mocked or satirized, please do yourself a favor and do not watch this video. Seriously.

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Skepticon Wrap-Up

This was my first year coming to a Skepticon and it was a blast! I meet some cool people, and learned a lot of great stuff. From what I had heard prior, I knew Skepticon was an skeptics convention, though I didn’t know how much it would be about atheism (which I thought was great). Then again, most of the talks had nothing directly to do with atheism–which is great if you have been doing this long enough that the basic atheist arguments and discussions are old hat.

David Silverman set the tone for the entire weekend on Saturday morning with his speech “Skepticism, Atheism, and our Common Movement.” He pointed out, and I agree, that while “atheist” is not synonymous with “skeptic,” the two categories of people have an incredible overlap of people and that skeptics play a large and vital role in the secular movement. He also encouraged the crowd at Skepticon not to be afraid to use the word “atheist” in public whenever the question of religious affiliation comes up. When friends and family know that someone they love and know personally is an atheist, it’s less likely that they will hold negative stereotypes in their minds about atheists. This has worked for other movements, and it can work for us.

Most of the talks were not directly related to atheism, but had to do with science, rationality, and clear thinking in general. There were two talks addressing cognitive biases (Eliezer Yudkowsky) and how our own thinking can go wrong (Spencer Greenberg), a couple of basic and interesting talks on molecular genetics and addressed popular misunderstandings of genes (P.Z.Myers and Jen McCreight), a speech on undercover paranormal investigations (Joe Nickell), the need for critical thinking in math education (Hemant Mehta), and the crazy history and beliefs of Mormonism (David Fitzgerald). There was also a talk on the “Straw Vulcan”–ways in which logic and rationality and misrepresented in popular media  (Julia Galef), and I may write more on that later as I have thought about this a lot before and find the topic fascinating.

One of the more unusual speeches was from Darrel Ray on “Sex and Secularism” presenting the results of a study that queried how leaving religion had affected their sex lives. I think I had even participated in that survey some time ago, but I had forgotten about it. A major theme that Darrel Ray has proposed is that religion roots itself in people’s lives by generating a great deal of guilt about normal and healthy sexual (and other) behaviors, and then also promotes itself as the cure to ease that guilty feeling. That is a bit of a simplification of his thesis, and one day I need to read his book “The God Virus” and examine his idea more throughly.

Without a doubt, the most fun presentation was put on by the “Atheist Evangelist” Sam Singleton, which was in part a parody of a charismatic style  church service, and in part a (semi) serious sermon to secular people about giving thanks to the people who deserve our gratitude. At least, I took it somewhat seriously, because I think it was a great message. Thank you Brother Sam!

The final presentation was the most powerful and incredibly personal of them all. The title of JT Eberhard’s presentation was “Why the Skeptic Community Must Concern Itself with Mental Illness.” In which he came out as someone who has struggled silently for years with anorexia. The whole experience was so heart rending and emotional I find a difficult time describing it. There is such a stigma attached both with admitting that there is something wrong with your mind, and also with seeking help and taking medication to treat it because of a fear that that means  you are weak. He delivered a heartfelt plea to the skeptical community to address the incorrect and non-scientific views on mental illness just the same way as the community exposes the frauds of homeopathy. And for those who have mental illness to come out and help remove the stigma in the same way that we are calling atheists to come out and remove the stigma of nonbelief. Mental illness is not an issue I have had to deal with personally, and he presented a view of this problem that I have never been able to see before. The reception from the crowd was also amazing. We all love you JT!

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“Give a Damn?” Documentary

Skepticon IV just kicked off last night, and in what I thought was a fairly unusual and unexpected way. There was a film screening of a documentary called “Give A Damn?” about 3 American guys who traveled across the eastern half of the US, Europe, and Africa on a very limited budget in an attempt to see and experience the poverty that a very large portion of the world’s population lives in every day. I the film was very well done, even though I have a few criticisms, and that you should go out and see it when you get a chance.

What I liked:

  • Picture of an unapologetic atheist and a couple of evangelical Christians working together to try to do something about a real world problem.
  • The idea that some fairly ordinary people can try to make a difference in the world.
  • I liked how Rob displayed how a traumatic experience can be dealt with and overcome without religious supports. (I am not saying what happened here…you have to watch the film to find out.)

What I didn’t like:

  • Even though there was an out atheist in the group, this is still a pretty explicitly Christian film. They rely on missionary contacts to get into each of the places in Africa that they visit and join them in their church services. I don’t recall from seeing the film last night if Rob (the atheist) sat in the back in any of the churches or just sat out that part or what.
  • Like just about every film about raising consciousness about extreme poverty (or whatever) that I have ever seen, I am still left with a slight feeling of “what now?” I can do the same as what I have always done before, as in give some money to a reputable charity online or participate in the micro-loan program mentioned in the Q&A. But what actually changes now?
  • I didn’t really see or learn anything in the film about third-world poverty that I was totally unaware of before.

A few neutral observations:

There was someone interviewed in the film that pointed out that these fairly rich and privileged Americans would not be able to truly experience third-world poverty because of their backgrounds. This comes out in the scenes where they realize in Europe that they will not be able to hitchhike from where they are and decide to remove “transportation” from their constraint of living on $1.25 a day and take a train. Clearly, that would not be possible if they were really living in poverty on $1.25 a day.

Also, I saw a lot in the film about how wonderfully happy and joyful the poor people in Africa and Europe are compared to the wealthy but miserable people in the United States. When I was watching Christian missionary film and reading books growing up this was a common theme, but I think it is not a fair comparison. The types of difficult life situations being faced by these people are not the same as the ones being faced by the typical American. One probably does get not get too anxious about their purpose in life and personal fulfillment when they are barely getting what they need to survive. And we know clearly that it takes more than having money and possessions to be happy–in the case of many if not most Americans that money comes at the cost of a great deal of work stress and other sorts of difficulties. You also have to take into account that the poor people in these villages were having a really unusual day or couple of days when these foreign visitors came by their village–this visit after all could be a sign of hope that their situation could change. I have to wonder what are their cultural mores regarding the display of emotion, especially to outsiders? What goes on in the village when there is not a camera present?

My thought is that if these people really were so happy the way that they are, why would we want to “improve” their situation–so that they can become miserable like us rich Americans? Of course, that is clearly a gross distortion of what is actually happening here. What I see in the film is people who could surely work their way out of their impoverished situation if only they where only provided the tools and education to be able to do so. Those of us in American would not be able to do it on our own either, but we benefit from a vast system of infrastructure and a stable economy and free education which we take entirely for granted if we are not careful. What I want to know is, what would it take to provide the same all over the world?

Film Website here: http://www.giveadamndoc.com/

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