Friday, February 24, 2012

Am I agnostic or atheist? Well I'm both and yes that does make sense...

In a recent debate Richard Dawkins (who has become a common subject on this blog) stated that he was not 100% sure that a god does not exist to the extreme surprise of the moderator. This is a position he has often stated and anyone who has read his books will know this is Dawkins' position. However, most people assume that an "atheist" completely denies the possibility of any god's existence. This is a general misunderstanding of the position of most skeptical atheists.  By skeptical atheist I mean one who comes to atheism due to scientific skepticism.

I call myself a skeptical atheist by which I mean I do not believe in god because I have never found any evidence presented to prove his existence to be convincing even in the slightest. However, at the same time I call myself an agnostic because I cannot know for sure whether or not a god exists. This is not a contradiction or a paradox though, on its face, it may seem to be one. To explain lets start with the definition of each:

  • Atheist: a person who does not believe in god.

  • Agnostic: a person who does not know whether god exists

Note the difference. Atheism is a statement of belief while agnosticism is a statement of knowledge.  There is a somewhat nuanced difference between these two terms. The difference lies in the degree of certainty we apply to each. We generally say believe when we are less than certain about the truth of an issue because we lack the evidence to really be sure we are correct. Knowledge on the other hand generally refers to ideas that are supported by so much evidence that we feel absolutely sure they are true.

Take Santa Cause for example. I do not believe in Santa Clause and most adults would say that they do not believe in Santa clause. On the other hand most children do believe in Santa Clause. But can we say that we know Santa is not real? Some people might say yes because Santa is obviously a fictional human invention. I would disagree.  Despite the fact that the modern version of Santa as a Jolly old white bearded man living at the north pole was an invention of fiction this does not mean he does not exist...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The ghost owl...

A few nights ago I awoke from a deep sleep, groggily looked around my room, and found a pair of menacing dark orange eyes staring at me from outside my window.  After a few moments it faded away. My initial thought was that I must be imagining it but when I cleared my eyes and looked again the eyes had returned, yet again they only lasted a second before they disappeared. After a few more repetitions of the disappearing and reappearing eyes occurring at regular intervals I decided it must be caused by a reflection in the window from a light in my room. So I jumped up and looked around. Immediately when I stood up the eyes disappeared yet no lights were pointed at the window so I sat, pondering for a second.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Outlandish Rhetoric of the week: Lord Carey

All week long I have been reading ridiculously dishonest, misleading, or just plain incorrect articles (such as this one) by people promoting or representing religion.  My frustration at reading these poorly thought out articles in major publications has left me wondering which ones are worse, more dishonest, misleading, and wrong. So I decided to make an award for the most outlandish rhetoric of the week to award the person who makes the most dishonest, misleading, or simply incorrect argument of the week. I know it is Monday and thus the beginning of the week but I have to start sometime so I'll start today.

Today's choice was a tough one. On the one hand there was a Daily Telegraph article trying to smear Richard Dawkins with the absurd connection that he had a single extremely distant ancestor who owned slaves.  I almost picked this one, but as absurd and dishonest as that was I have to give the award to Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey for his recent comment on the movement in the UK to legalize same sex marriage.  He says:
I was baffled because this Government’s proposal [to legal same sex marriage] constitutes one of the greatest political power grabs in history.
‘The state does not own marriage... The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way.
This trumps the misleading Dawkins slavery smear merely because of the absolute absurdity of Carey's misleading statement. At least the Dawkins smear was based in truth even if it was completely irrelevant and dishonest.

Hutton and Dawkins separated by equivocation

A recent article at the Observer covers a short debate between Will Hutton and Richard Dawkins.  The two spar back and forth (among other things) over the issue of whether secularism requires atheism. However, reading their arguments I see that they really just differ on their definition of secularism. If either had taken the time to define the word they wouldn't have had the argument.  So before I provide you with quotes from each let me show you the definition of secularism being used by each.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why do the religious think they deserve special treatment?

There's been a lot of demands recently by the religious (most recently the Catholics) for special treatment.  For some reason they do not feel the need to obey the laws of our society and think that because they have religious beliefs that they should not have to obey the law. This is utterly ridiculous. Religious belief does not and should not excuse unlawful behavior.

These ridiculous claims for special treatment have arisen today in both the UK and the US. In the UK Catholics complain that rules requiring providing of adoption services for gay couples should not apply to them. In the US Catholics complain that rules requiring provision of birth control under employer insurance plans should not apply to them. This absurd plea for special treatment should not be respected but should instead be ridiculed for the absurdity it is.

We generally do not allow special treatment based on beliefs.  A person who does not believe in taxes still has to pay their taxes (religious institutions in the US noticeably do not pay taxes but this is not due to a lack in belief in taxes but due to a belief in separation of church and state). A person who believes in free access to art is still liable for copyright violations when they illegally download movies.

Even religious belief does not grant special privileges.  Those whose religion requires the use of drugs for religious ceremonies do not get to use drugs. Those whose religion allows polygamy do not get to engage in polygamy. Those whose religion requires the stoning to death of disobedient children are still liable for murder. These things are self-evident, the mere fact that one's beliefs run counter to a law does not grant a special right to break that law because the law applies equally to all.

Laws requiring provision of birth control or provision of adoption services may seem different than laws prohibiting behavior such as polygamy. Rather than prohibiting behavior these laws require a person to behave in a certain way. But if you think about it we generally do not allow personal beliefs to be used to avoid such laws. Racists restaurant owners are not allowed to discriminate against customers and thus avoid anti-discrimination laws merely because they hold racist beliefs. We find it acceptable that society can force these owners to serve people of all races no matter if it contradicts their personal beliefs.

Imagine if we give in to the Catholics and say that a person does not have to obey the law if it runs counter to their beliefs.  First, if we allow the religious to escape the law because of the belief we must allow all to escape the law due to belief. It is unconstitutional to make a law that favors the religious. Thus, an exemption based on religious belief would be unconstitutional. The only constitutional way to allow an exception would be to allow everyone who disbelieves in a law to be exempt. When it comes to laws that require behavior this would castrate the law, no one would follow it but the people who already perform the behavior, and again racists restaurant owners would be allowed to discriminate.

This is the absurd result that the Catholics are arguing for.  Even more absurd is the claim that these laws are religious discrimination. I addressed this issue here. These laws clearly do not discriminate against the religious because they apply equally to all citizens. Discrimination requires singling out a group for special treatment. Thus, the irony is, the Catholics are actually asking for religious discrimination against all other belief systems when they demand to be exempt from the law.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A single quote does not make a conspiracy

Back in 2009 we were presented with the Climategate scandal which, at first, appeared to be a scandal involving climate change scientists but in fact turned out to be a news media scandal of poor and perhaps even dishonest reporting.  Hacked emails were released to the public and out of 3,000 documents and emails spanning 14 years the news media latched on to two or three sentences that when read out of context sounded damning.  Today the Heartland Institute (famous for fighting against global warming science) has now had some of its own documents released which are being used to imply a scandal.

The original Climategate scandal turned out to be nothing but an embarrassment for the media.  They should have been clued in by the fact that the day to day emails being sent back and forth showed no controversy and that they could only find a controversy by cherry picking a minuscule fraction of what was written. Additionally, the news media failed to take the time to do proper journalistic research and determine what the quotes meant before releasing them. Instead they promoted the idea that there was a controversy.

Thus, when the investigations into the scandal were said and done it turned out that the there was nothing controversial going at all and we learned that climategate was, as the New York Times called it, merely a manufactured controversy.  The reason this controversy existed was because people jumped on the bandwagon too quickly and assumed what single quotes meant rather than taking the time to learn what was being said.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How Buffett Rule critics try to dodge the 30% tax rate by referencing the marginal rate

One of Obama's proposed tax policies for 2013 is the implementation of the Buffet Rule.  This rule is fairly simple, it sets a minimum tax rate for those who make more than $1 Million at 30%.  The reason we need this rule is to plug up loopholes in the tax code that tax dividends and capital gains at 15%. These loopholes allow people who have massive amounts of assets to essentially pay a 15% tax rate on all of their income because these people can structure their income as capital gains and dividends rather than ordinary income.

The current tax system vastly favors investors over average workers by taxing pure investors at lower rates.  The Buffett rule tries to plug this loophole for those making more than a $1 million by requiring them to pay at least 30% of their income in taxes.

The tax foundation has an article in its Tax policy Blog with the inflammatory title: "Buffet Rule would Cause Marginal Tax Rate of 90%."  Before you become mislead by that title remember that the buffet rule actually sets a tax rate of 30%.  The use of the number 90% in the title is totally misleading because the actual tax rate is 30%.  So where do they get this misleading 90% tax rate?  Well for simplicity's sake let me dive in with a simpler example than they use that shows just how absurd their argument is.

Friday, February 10, 2012

How to debate alternative medicine

I am an outspoken skeptic and when I hear someone mention alternative medicine I have never been afraid to express my doubts about whether a particular alternative treatment actually works.  As a skeptic I generally disbelieve in most alternative medicine because most of it is at the least unsupported if not outright contradicted by evidence and research. Thus I try to show others this lack of evidence to help them avoid risks to their health and the potential waste of money and time.

However, no matter how much evidence I used to support my claims I could not change peoples minds.  I could describe cognitive biases, the placebo effect, and the importance of non-anecdotal evidence all day but even if I could manage to draw out agreement on a few points people always jumped back to "it worked for me."  I debated like this for a long time and my success rates were near 0%.  Even some people who I thought I had convinced I later heard going back to their original beliefs.

So what was the problem?  Why doesn't presenting evidence change peoples minds? Well lets go back to peoples final answer: "it worked for me."  People "knew" alternative treatments work because it worked for them.  Thus in their minds I am clearly wrong; their experience "proves" it works and no matter what point I might make there must be something wrong because they know it works.

Even worse I am attacking them personally.  They just told me that the know it works because of personal experience.  My response in their ears is "you are delusional."  Even though I might be clearly saying we all have problems with bias and perception, the fact is, I am attacking their specific belief and they will take it as an accusation of being delusional.

So who is going to listen to you when you accuse them of being delusion then refuse to listen to what they know is "obviously true?"  The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, nobody; nobody will listen to you when what they hear is an attack on their credibility and beliefs.

The reason I write this post is to explain how I have tried to get around this problem with mixed success.  There is no sure technique that will convince everyone and some people are beyond convincing.  So without further ado lets get into this...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Equivocating theories

The first step I now take when I sit down to debate a subject with someone is to define the terms we will be using.  I cannot count the times in my younger years when I debated with a friend for hours only to finally discover that we actually agreed on everything and our only debate was really over how we should define some word.  I'd like to pass this long learned lesson on to Madison Murphy who recently wrote an article entitled "Evolution: theory not fact."  Murphy here argues with scientists but does not understand what they mean when they say "theory" and thus she ends up using theory in a different sense than they do.  Murphy is equivocating here, she is shifting between different definitions of the word theory.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What is Religious Discrimination?

House speaker John Boehner apparently doesn't understand religious discrimination.  Religious discrimination occurs when someone discriminates against another person based on their religious beliefs.  Thus, if I choose not to hire someone because they are religious I am discriminating against them.  Likewise if the Federal government makes a law forbidding Jewish people from marrying then the government is discriminating.

It is not religious discrimination when the government makes laws to protect the population.  If the government says it is illegal to use drugs this forbids everyone, religious or non-religious, from using drugs.  It may have the incidental effect of preventing religious practices that involve the use of drugs but this does not mean the law is discriminating against the religious.  Any law may have an effect on the ability to practice a religion; such prohibitions are not discrimination because they apply equally to all people.

Thus, when the Federal Government requires all health plans to provide contraceptives they are not discriminating against any religion because all health plans must provide contraceptive whether or not they are run by religious individuals.  The mere fact that this law may offend Christians does not make it discriminatory.  We live in a democracy where we will not all agree on every law passed and any law may offend some.  The proper way to contest laws is to use our democracy to change the law.   However, House speaker Boehner recently complained about this new requirement saying: "This attack  by the federal government on religious freedom in our country must not stand and will not stand . . . "

The requirement to provide contraceptives does not attack religious freedoms.  The religious are still free to believe what they wish.  Religious freedom in the United States has never meant that the religious are allowed to behave in any manner required by their religion.  The Bible in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 commands parents to have their disobedient children stoned to death by town members.  Would it be religious discrimination to charge a christian parent with murder after stoning his child to death?  Obviously not, because though our society respects religious belief and the freedom of ideas we feel the right to step in and prevent behavior that we deem immoral or improper.

It appears that Boehner is really just trying to use inflammatory language to prove his point.  By invoking the discrimination gambit Boehner attempts to tap into the powerful outrage that Americans feel when confronted with discrimination.  This outrage is a crafty trick to convince people to oppose the law out of rage rather than carefully analyzing the law for what it really attempts to do.

Since Boehner likes to use inflamatory arguments let me close with one of my own.  Boehner has attacked the right of the government to make laws that protect us but also might have an effect on religious practices. Boehner is implicitly arguing that Christians like himself should not stand for State murder laws blocking their religious right to slaughter their disobedient children.  So vote for Boehner, he'll fight for your right to kill your kids.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Open debate and closed minds

I recently read an article in the Telegraph that uses logic so backwards that I had to reread it two times to ensure that I wasn't mistaken.  Even after the third read I'm not sure whether the article is sincere because the article is a textbook example of Poe's Law (that it is impossible to differentiate between religious extremism and an exaggerated parody of religious extremism).  The article discusses a recent decision of the University College of London's student union to require any presentation on the issue of abortion by student groups to invite both pro and anti-choice speakers.  Thus a pro-choice rally must invite anti-choice speakers and vice versa.

Christine Odone, the author of the Telegraph article argues that requiring every presentation to have speakers from each side will "shut down all intellectual questioning . . . ."  Odone and I must have very different ideas on what intellectual questioning is.  Whether abortion is morally acceptable is a matter of moral belief that is debatable and is a contentious issue today.  This is not an issue of fact where the evidence all stands on one side (such as the debate of whether the earth is flat or round).  It is an issue that is debatable with no clear answer.

Forcing individuals to be exposed to a differing viewpoint and step outside an insulated world of like minded individuals is a powerful tool for increasing intellectual questioning.  It is thus absurd to argue that requiring debate will stop intellectual questioning.  Odone seems to think having an open mind means being able to completely ignore the arguments of the other side.  The only way her arguments make sense is if she believes the pro-abortion stance is so much stronger and well reasoned that debate will result in conversion of all anti-choice to pro-choice thus ending intellectual questioning on the issue.

However, there is an actual issue residing in this resolution of the UCL student union.  The issue is whether forcing both sides to be presented on a contentious issue is actually an acceptable method of debate.  After all this is the same "teach the debate" technique that creationists in the US are trying to use to push creationism alongside evolution.  However, there is a big difference between evolution controversy and abortion controversy.  Evolution is an issue of fact (whether or not the evidence supports evolution) and the facts all lay on one side.  Teaching the actual evolution debate would require demonstrating to children why evolution makes so much more sense (in light of the facts) than creationism.

Abortion on the other hand is a subjective moral belief and thus there can be legitimate debate on either side of the issue.  Exposing people to the other side of an issue is a good technique for creating intellectual questioning.  However, I feel that there is something improper about limiting a resolution such as this to just abortion issues.  Thus, I can (slightly) understand why Odone feels that universities are "anti-christian" with resolutions such as this that are targeted primarily at countering religious anti-abortion beliefs.

If the student union wishes to ensure that students are exposed to both sides of an issue why haven't they created a resolution that requires all debates on moral issues to include a speaker from both sides?  As it stands, the choice of the student union to specifically target abortion and not all moral debate demonstrates a biased stance on the issue.  If the student union really wants to encourage critical thinking and debate on issues then they should require such debate on all moral issues.