Friday, December 19, 2008

Musings on Milgram

I was just reading about the replication of the Milgram experiments, which show that people are surprisingly obedient to authority. The majority of subjects will deliver painful shocks to others when a researcher instructs them to do so. This of course has broad implications in any situation involving authority figures, particularly in regards to all the torture controversy of late - who is really responsible?

A couple of thoughts came to mind.

I would love to see a follow-up, similar to my suggestion for acupuncture research, to study whether the obedience to authority is any weaker for subjects who know about the Milgram experiments. I'm not so naive to think that I'm fundamentally more benevolent or resistant to authority than average, but I would like to think that in the same situation, knowing about the Milgram experiments would help me overcome the effect. My guess is that it would, in the same way that knowing about common logical fallacies, susceptibility to illusions and false pattern recognition, etc. help me avoid falling for pseudoscience and hoaxes.


This got me thinking about psychological studies in general. In the interest of proper blinding, test subjects are almost always mislead regarding the true nature of the experiment (and filled in afterwards, of course). Milgram told test subjects they were testing shock aversion in a learning experiment.

If you know this is standard practice, and you suspect that you're actually participating in a different test than the one overtly described, won't that alter your behaviour? You'd be on your guard, suspicious of everything. Like a suspect being interrogated, you won't be fooled by the big mirror on the wall. To what extent does that invalidate the experiment? How do you filter that out? As scientific literacy increases in society (fingers crossed) will this become a major problem for psychological and behavioural research? How might they overcome or work around the problem?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

One of these stupid things

(via Oot and Aboot)

To make up for the dearth in posts here recently, I've done this crap!

(Bold is what I've done, my notes in red)

Are You a Hardcore Atheist?
1. Participated in the Blasphemy Challenge.
2. Met at least one of the “Four Horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett,Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) in person.
3. Created an atheist blog.
4. Used the Flying Spaghetti Monster in a religious debate with someone.
5. Gotten offended when someone called you an agnostic.
6. Been unable to watch Growing Pains reruns because of Kirk Cameron.
7. Own more Bibles than most Christians you know.
8. Have at least one Bible with your personal annotations regarding contradictions, disturbing parts, etc.
9. Have come out as an atheist to your family.
10. Attended a campus or off-campus atheist gathering.
11. Are a member of an organized atheist/Humanist/etc. organization.
12. Had a Humanist wedding ceremony.
13. Donated money to an atheist organization.
14. Have a bookshelf dedicated solely to Richard Dawkins.
15. Lost the friendship of someone you know because of your non-theism.
16. Tried to argue or have a discussion with someone who stopped you on the street to proselytize.
17. Had to hide your atheist beliefs on a first date because you didn’t want to scare him/her away.
18. Own a stockpile of atheist paraphernalia (bumper stickers, buttons, shirts, etc).
19. Attended a protest that involved religion.
20. Attended an atheist conference.
21. Subscribe to Pat Condell’s YouTube channel.
22. Started an atheist group in your area or school.
23. Successfully “de-converted” someone to atheism.
24. Have already made plans to donate your body to science after you die. Better, I donate it while I'm alive.
25. Told someone you’re an atheist only because you wanted to see the person’s reaction.
26. Had to think twice before screaming “Oh God!” during sex. Or you said something else in its place.
27. Lost a job because of your atheism.
28. Formed a bond with someone specifically because of your mutual atheism (meeting this person at a local gathering or conference doesn’t count).
29. Have crossed “In God We Trust” off of — or put a pro-church-state-separation stamp on — dollar bills. Doesn't count - I'm Canadian. UPDATE: I found an American single and completed this one.
30. Refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Or any oath to God or country.
31. Said “Gesundheit!” (or nothing at all) after someone sneezed because you didn’t want to say “Bless you!”
32. Have ever chosen not to clasp your hands together out of fear someone might think you’re praying.
33. Have turned on Christian TV because you needed something entertaining to watch.
34. Are a 2nd or 3rd (or more) generation atheist.
35. Have “atheism” listed on your Facebook or dating profile — and not a euphemistic variant. I have a dysphemism, in order to be more offensive. I'm counting this one.
36. Attended an atheist’s funeral (i.e. a non-religious service).
37. Subscribe to an freethought magazine (e.g. Free Inquiry, Skeptic)
38. Have been interviewed by a reporter because of your atheism.
39. Written a letter-to-the-editor about an issue related to your non-belief in God.
40. Gave a friend or acquaintance a New Atheist book as a gift.
41. Wear pro-atheist clothing in public.
42. Have invited Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses into your house specifically becauseyou wanted to argue with them.
43. Have been physically threatened (or beaten up) because you didn’t believe in God.
44. Receive Google Alerts on “atheism” (or variants).
45. Received fewer Christmas presents than expected because people assumed you didn’t celebrate it.
46. Visited The Creation Museum or saw Ben Stein’s Expelled just so you could keep tabs on the “enemy.”
47. Refuse to tell anyone what your “sign” is… because it doesn’t matter at all.
48. Are on a mailing list for a Christian organization just so you can see what they’re up to…
49. Have kept your eyes open while you watched others around you pray.
50. Avoid even Unitarian churches because they’re too close to religion for you.

So that's 35 officially, plus one for #35, and one that doesn't count because I don't have God on my money.

36/50

31-40: You are the 5th Horseman! Congratulations!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Them Sneaky Catholics

I'm watching the Richard Dawkins interview with George Coyne right now*. 'Father' Coyne comes across, as many Catholics do, as quite sophisticated and scientific in his treatment of evolution. There's a particularly pernicious kind of dishonesty there though - it's often seen in supposedly liberal Catholics who purport to be rational and scientific.


The argument goes like this:
Certainly evolution by natural selection is the best scientific explanation available for the origin of all the various forms of life on earth, I wouldn't dispute that. What I take issue with is the scientist's presumption that there is nothing more to humanity than chemical reactions. Simply look at the glorious works of art, music, and emotion, blah blah blah, there must be something more. That is all I am proposing, and if you allow, I prefer to call that something 'God'.
Sometimes the full thing is articulated in so many words, and sometimes the latter part of the argument is simply implied, but that's the long and short of it.

There are some subtle but venomous logical fallacies in that. I think the major one is the straw man - assuming that science puts a period after the word 'evolution', in ink, then closes the book. No biologist has ever said that evolution as we currently understand it is absolutely the last word, and we are not accepting any new ideas. They leave it at the first bit: that evolution is the best explanation we have right now. If anyone has any new ideas, we'd love to hear them. Bring us your evidence.

Then there's the argument from ignorance. They say "well I can't see how evolution explains the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, so I believe there must be a greater explanation." Really, that's not so terrible. We all do this every day, none of us is perfectly philosophically scientific about everything, we'd never get anything done if we were. The problem arises when you try to use this argument to convince others, even when someone is offering a perfectly good explanation for exactly how evolution explains art, or whatever.

There's also an equivocation problem, when they say "all I mean by 'God' is the mystery in nature" then turn around and talk about a virgin birth, a ressurection, and mass produced, bite-sized wafers of man-god-flesh. I don't want to get into all that right now.

In the end, this kind of argument boils down to the God of the Gaps. It's not sophisticated, and most certainly not scientific. It is an outright rejection of Occam's Razor and the null hypothesis, the foundational principles of science. There is never an alternative theory presented, it is merely stating "I don't accept this is all there is (which no one ever said), so I'm going to go ahead and believe whatever I want anyways, with no rational basis for doing so."

This type of argument is perhaps more dangerous than that of creationists and Intelligent Design proponents, because it appeals to the fence sitters. It is likely to attract people with enough sanity to see the Ben Steins and Ken Hams are lunatics, but not enough intellectual sophistication (or courage) to carry their reason to its natural conclusion - that we must accept the simplest explanation that accounts for all the observable evidence, and, for now, leave the rest with an open-ended question mark until we figure that out too.

*I paused it during part 1 to write this, so forgive me if Dawkins addresses all of these arguments later in the interview!

EDIT:
Ugh. Ok, I've watched more of the interview now. Turns out Coyne wasn't really making the argument I thought he was at the beginning (although all of the above still applies!). His view on evolution, as far as that goes, appears to be absolutely correct. At the end, when Dawkins backs him into a bit of a corner, he admits that his belief in God is fundamentally irrational. He uses the word superfluous, that is to say, not necessary to explain anything we can observe. Well again, this is an outright rejection of Occam's Razor. It's also a bit of a conversation stopper, because if you are having a rational debate based on logical arguments, and one person's position comes down to "this has nothing to do with logic or rationality" then there's nowhere to go.

Except possibly to say this: if you are admittedly and happily irrational in even one aspect of your belief system**, then why would you choose to restrain yourself to science and reason in all others? I suppose the answer is "that's something else I'm irrational about" and again, it takes you nowhere. Seems to me that a small willing rejection of reason is no different from an abject total rejection of reason.

** Only in regards to facts! In cases of emotion or aesthetics, I think irrationality is perfectly acceptable for reasons I may or may not explain some day.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Australia loses their god damn mind

An Australian judge has ruled "that an animation depicting well-known cartoon characters engaging in sexual acts is child pornography."


Aparantly there's no distinction between abusing, raping, and hurting real children, and drawing silly pictures of fictional characters with their clothes off. Doesn't that just serve to trivialize cases of real abuse? If the label of "sex offender" can apply to anyone in possession of cartoon nudity, won't that take away from the severity of the label when applied properly to actual criminals?

If you have the same reaction to actual pictures of child abuse as you do to the images below, you have some serious mental problems. Problems that you share with the Australian judicial system.

And I guess you can lock me up for creating these horrific images:






P.S.
I wonder if Australia will use this ruling to ban books like Lolita. The rationale for the conviction was

...that the animated cartoon could "fuel demand for material that does involve the abuse of children,"
In that context, is the distinction between text and image that important?

Monday, December 1, 2008

An Honest Religious Man

Penn Jillette has a question for religious people:

If your God (however you understand him/her/it to be) communicated to you (in a way that you clearly understand) a command to kill your own child, would you do it?
If the answer is no, he says, you are an atheist. If the answer is yes, stay the fuck away from me and my family.

I like it. I can't really imagine a situation where it wouldn't apply. I suppose there could exist a non-benevolant God, but on what basis could a true believer question its motives or disobey its commands?

Anyways, here is an example of a true believer. This guy is what he says he is, and at least I can respect that. He's clearly insane, profoundly mistaken, and a danger to society, but he's morally consistent and honest. Which is more than can be said for most "religious" people I've met.

P.S.
Jesus, I missed this at first. Read the ridiculously ironic lines from the idiot sherrif's office:
"God must have been with [the victims], 'cause any other time, the severity of this crash, it would have been a fatal."
Then the last line of the article:
A psychiatric evaluation has been ordered for [the] man.
I don't have to point out the irony do I?