Questioning our Stories

I’ve always been a tester as long as I remember. When someone tells me something out of the ordinary … well, it’s not that I don’t trust your judgement or anything but I would like to know if there are facts to back that up. Even though I must admit that at first I would only look for confirming evidence (before I knew about confirmation bias), but if I could not find it I would get suspicious. Even if someone is honestly telling you what they believe, they can still be wrong. That’s how I’ve always felt about a family claim of Cherokee ancestry — especially since the details seemed lost to time. Not a name, not even a certain spot on the family tree. Grandpa’s grandma … or great grandma … or maybe great-great grandma? In search of evidence, I got a DNA test with one of the commercial providers which showed that there is negligible trace of Native American DNA in my genome, and even that is speculative.

It’s not just me being skeptical. I’ve always thought it was fun to tease out the details of a claim and see what I can find. Even finding out for sure something is not really true is a discovery. I forget sometimes that not everyone feels this way. I showed my results to some family members, and they seemed put out by the result — even digging in their heels. I felt a little bit guilty about that. I’d heard it so much from my family, not just my parents but from aunts and uncles too, that it feels a bit like I am smearing my family’s narrative about its history.

It reminds of the way that humans — ever since language was invented, apparently — have made up stories to not just entertain themselves but to bolster ideas like national identity and family claims. Even much of the things we are taught about our national histories fit into a narrative. What I learned as American history in school turned out to be not lies, really, but often selected truths and perspectives. The narrative supported by the powerful — what they wanted children to know. (This applied to both the public school and homeschool history.) Textbooks talked about Pilgrims and Indians getting along as equals, the overriding importance of religious freedom (though there seems to have been little of that early on), and about something called ‘manifest destiny’ in spreading across the continent. Today I have books on history that show different perspectives — perspectives of ordinary people, of workers, of the underclasses — and the idealistic narrative of American exceptionalism crumbles. I still respect the “Founding Fathers” but I no longer idolize them. They used elegant rhetoric about how “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” while still using slave labor to build America and ignoring the voice of anyone who was not a white male property owner. It was pretty rhetoric but it was never reality.

It’s not just the past, but current events too. Some news stations are known to slant towards a liberal or a conservative bias. I think what that really means is that they are both pushing their own particular narrative. Not outright lies (at least I HOPE not) but selected truths and assumed half-truths and never the whole story. That’s why I no longer trust the corporate-owned media. There is always someone behind the scenes determining what should be published or not based on reasons other than whether or not it is true and whether or not the public should know. There is an audience to cater to, and advertisers and shareholders to please. They tell the stories they want us to hear.

And, of course it makes me think of the myths of the Bible. Those old stories that were passed down by oral tradition over the generations before they were ever written down. The details of the actual events — if they happened at all — are lost to time never to be subject to fact-checking. They were ancient stories intended to bolster the national identity of Israel and to encourage devotion to a national god. In that context, claims that the Bible is ‘historical’ make sense — but as nationalistic mythmaking, not as an unbiased record of what happened.

People’s whole lives and realities are built around stories. It’s never really considered polite or patriotic to call nationalistic, family, or religious narratives into question. I think it’s important to question those stories to make sure they are true. Our questioning can at least help us bring our beliefs into better alignment with reality. On the national scale a willingness to listen to competing narratives could even stop wars.

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SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012, part 2

SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012, part 2

Continuing with the speaker summaries and reviews from part 1…

Brian Barnes

Brian Barnes spoke about a model for critical thinking provided by the Foundation for Critical Thinking. Most people do not closely examine their own thought processes and rather blindly adapt them from others in their social groups. A main point in his presentation is that we need to examine our own thought processes to ensure that we are not being blinded by our own biases and missing the truth. Using a model such as what is provided by the Foundation for Critical thinking can help to accomplish this goal.

Ed Hensley

Ed Hensley’s presentation was titled Evidence of Evolution for Non-Biologists and focused on pictorial evidence that points towards the common ancestry of all life on Earth. Such examples included the movement of the blowhole in fetal dolphin from the front of their face (as in other mammals) to the back of their head, humans with tails or multiple functional breasts, and the strange path of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in mammals which is explained by their commend ancestry with fish.

Why would cave fish have non-functioning eyes unless they descended from fish that could see?

Carla Bevins

Carla Bevin’s presentation was titled the Humanities’ Contribution to Skeptical Inquiry.

Skepticism normally focuses on the hard sciences crowd. Carla asks “What do the humanities have to do with skepticism? Skeptical humanities study the human experience.

Carla demonstrates how this works by examining the this statement: “Faith is like wifi–it is invisible but has the power to connect you what you need.”

Stop and examine the idea. It may sound plausible on the surface, but when you dig in deeper:

WiFi is invisible? It is invisible, yet unlike faith we have evidence for it.
Wifi is unseen but unlike faith understandable and predictable.
But faith is belief in something that is unknown. We know wifi exists.
And what does “connect us to what we need” mean?

Like that statement, often the things that resonate the most are the things that seem the most “simple” common sense but rely on a lot of untested assumptions.

We respond viscerally when a new idea either
-Fits easily in an existing schema that we are familiar with.
-Confounds us by not fitting anywhere into our existing way of thinking.

To critically engage a text or statement is to engage in the humanities.

Carla and Robert Bevins concluded the presentation with a  bonus powerband demonstration.

To be continued…

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Skepticamp Kentucky 2012, Part 1

Skepticamp Kentucky 2012, Part 1

Here is the promised post from three weeks ago about SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012. I will be reviewing the speakers that I heard, though unfortunately I wasn’t feeling well that day and missed the last four talks.

First, an explanation of what a SkeptiCamp is. These are small mini-conferences put on by skeptics groups all over the country. Rather than calling in big names from out-of-town for speakers, the organizers of these conferences call on local volunteers who would like to research and present on a topic of their choosing. As a result these conferences are very low-cost to host, and attendance is typically free. For more information on SkeptiCamp, and to see if there are any in your area, visit the SkeptiCamp Wiki.

SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012 was the second annual SkeptiCamp hosted by the Louisville Area Skeptics. Local guest speakers presented on topics including how to think clearly, global warming, parasites, and the challenges faced by atheist kids in southern Indiana schools.

Darshwood the Conjurer

The first speaker was Darshwood the Conjurer, and the topic of his speech was “Making the Impossible Possible.”In his talk, he explains how anyone can accomplish seeming impossible tasks using the MUST system: Motivation, Understanding the problem, using a system System, and having Time to prepare. He demonstrated this principle by reciting the alphabet backwards fluently, and then showing how it could be done using a story about a “Man named ZY who is an X Warrior Viking…” and so on. It went a bit too fast for me to get the whole story in my notes. Anyway, the idea is that if you could remember how the story went (and stories are always easier to remember than a string of numbers) then recalling the story in your head would allow you to recite the alphabet backwards with no mistakes.  A volunteer from the audience accepted the challenge and did succeed in using the story system to recite the alphabet backwards from the stage.

Darshwood Handing Out Cards

Darshwood Handing Out Cards

Christopher Graney

Next in line was Christopher Graney, who spoke about a classroom study of climate change in Kentucky that was conducted using basic data analysis from physics to analyze climate science data.

Christopher Graney

Students checked for trends in temp and precipitation in Frankfort, Bowling Green, and Williamstown though they found no major overall changes in temperate over 120 years. The practical conclusion from this is that the average Kentuckian has no personal experience of climate change within their lifetime. Most people either accept or reject climate change based on the authority of scientists or media (mostly media).

Christopher also had a point to make about passion and data. While the experiment was in progress, both a student who is a climate change denier and one who strongly supports climate change stated that they would not change their opinions regardless of what the data says. I would understand anyone thinking that the results of this experiment would not be conclusive either in favor or not of the existence of climate change, so some skepticism of the results as expressed by these students is understandable. However, it would be hard to deny that there are political and social factors that play a huge part in whether anyone accepts or denies climate change regardless of what the scientific data actually says. This is a bias that we all need to be aware of.

Shelly Henry and Sarah Henry

Shelly and Sarah are a mother/daughter pair who gave the next presentation for the day. Their talk was on countering religious bullying in public schools.

They started off with a brief history of court cases that touch upon the question of the separation of church and state in public schools such as

  • Engel v. Vitale (1962)
  • McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)
  • Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)
  • Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001)
  • Ahlquist v. Cranston (2012)

After the brief history lesson, they came to what I found to be the most interesting and engaging part of their presentation: Sarah’s own experiences of being an atheist in a Floyd County public highschool. In one incident, Sarah got a “letter from god” in her locker which was targeted at her as a atheist. School administrators would not consider it as bullying even though such religious bullying is acknowledged in school policy. The person who did it was caught on camera, but the school administrators ignored the incident because it was not done with “malicious intent.”

The discussions of Sarah’s experiences lead to a discussion among audience members about what does and does not count as religious bullying. It was generally agreed that merely discussing religion and religious belief is not bullying. Sarah even mentioned having mutually respectful discussions about religion with Christian classmates on her track team. However it does cross the line into bullying when the offender tries to force a discussion, makes threats like “you’re going to hell,” or covertly leaves religious artifacts or letters in the atheist student’s locker. Basically, whatever leads to a chilly or threatening environment for the atheist (or other minority) student counts as bullying.

At the end of their presentation Shelly and Sarah offer advice to parents and students for dealing with religious bullying:

  1. First know the bullying policies of your school.
  2. Then make the schools comply with the bullying policies, even though religious administrators may not understand why students pushing religion on a non-believing student would be a problem.

More on SkeptiCamp Kentucky coming up in my next post!

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Upcoming Women in Secularism Conference

Next weekend I will be attending the Center for Inquiry’s Women in Secularism conference in Washington DC.  I’ve been to multiple atheist conventions in the past, including the American Atheists Convention and Skepticon, but this will be the first time I’ve been to a conference focusing on the contributions of women to the secular movement.

Up to this point the secular movement has been focused mostly on single, individualistic, people who do not have children. This has been a setup that caters mainly to the needs of singles seeking a social scene, people who are willing to go to events alone, and people who are old enough to attend events in bars. And senior citizens and retirees, especially at meetings that have the word “Humanist” in the title. Unfortunately, many women though their 20’s-30’s have the brunt of child care responsibilities, and for social support and safety reason may not want to go alone to events with a bunch of strangers. And some women whose stories I have heard have not wanted to attend atheist meetups for the same sort of reason they might not want to step foot into a comic book store…there is the potential of meeting a bunch of geeky guys who see an unclaimed women in the room mainly as a potential date. (Just tread carefully here guys…) Or who could hear a great discussion points by a woman but can think of nothing but her appearance. (“You’re beautiful” is not an appropriate response to a woman who has just made an intellectual point.)

Fortunately as the secular movement has grown larger, there has been more focus on community building and issues that affect women have been brought more to the forefront. At the most recent American Atheists Convention, there was child care was provided by a local licensed nanny service. Other conferences, including this one, are having childcare expenses funded by the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Women’s contributions are being talked about more frequently. Convention organizers are making more of a deliberate effort to enlist women speakers.  And outspoken women leaders in the secular community have raised everyone’s consciousness about sexism among otherwise rational people.

It’s a step in the right direction.

For more reading on women and women’s issues in the secular movement:

Where are all the atheist women? Right here!

More Women in Skepticism Blog: This blog addresses myths and questions regarding sexism in the secular/skeptical community. I have learned quite a lot from following this blog.

SkepChick Blog: Not exclusively women’s issues, but a quick search of the site will find relevant posts.

See more information about the Women in Secularism Conference at

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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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