Monthly Archives: March 2012

Reason Rally Report

We did indeed drive to Washington for the Reason Rally, and I think it worked out pretty well.  I wish the weather had been better – we wound up leaving before PZ, Randi, Dawkins, and Eddie Izzard were up because it was just too cold and miserable.  But I was satisfied that I got to go and be counted among the crowd, and it was especially great to see Adam Savage, Greta Christina, and Tim Minchin.

The crowd was impressive for such a rainy day.  I’ve seen estimates ranging from 8,000 to 30,000, and we’ll never know for sure, since they couldn’t get a satellite image through the cloud cover, plus the length of the event (9 hours or so) and the weather meant people came and went.  But it was definitely crowded, as well as diverse – families and young adults up through senior citizens, and a pretty good mix of ethnicities – which is a great improvement over the mostly-old-white-guys demographic of the Godless March a few years ago.  The camera people really seemed to enjoy getting shots of little kids and grandmas while Tim Minchin was singing “The Pope Song” (comprising at least 50% foul language).

Most importantly, the crowd was happy and upbeat.  There were a couple of negative opinions voiced onstage (including Dawkins’ unfortunate exhortation to publicly ridicule and mock religious people, rather than frankly questioning religious ideas and institutions), and a few cranky protest signs, but the event mostly stuck to David Sliverman’s expressed purpose of “Yay us!”  I was also moved by the appeals to be as out as possible.  I confess, as out as I am, I tend to avoid the subject in casual conversation, even if it naturally comes up.  I’m now inspired to be more open about my participation in the non-believer community even with people who don’t know me well.  It would be nice to believe that I could be totally out and open, even when the time comes for me to look for employment again, but I don’t think I’m that bold yet.

For those who couldn’t be there, here are some highlights:

Adam Savage’s speech, which culminated with the outstanding, much-quoted sentiment,

And finally, I have concluded through careful empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I am capable of. I believe they know everything that I do and think, and they still love me. And I’ve concluded, after careful consideration, that this person keeping score is me.

Tim Minchin’s performance, including Confessions, If IDidn’t Have You, Thank You God, The Pope Song, and Storm (all of which are so, so, not safe for work, in case you couldn’t guess).

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I’m alive, but crazy

Hey all.  I’ve had a relapse of my depression, and just running the essentials of my life and the kids’ has been overwhelming lately.  I just got back from the drug store, where I obtained Prozac, organizing supplies, and ice cream, so hopefully things will be improving.

Not to worry, I will be posting soon.  The Catholic church has been doing too much evil and disgusting stuff for me to miss the chance to discuss it.  Hopefully I’ll get into it this week; if not, then next week, when I will also be sharing my experience at the Reason Rally.

Some off-topic Mass Effect fan fiction

Nothing to do with skepticism or mothering, but what the hell.

I’ve been consumed with Mass Effect 3 since its release last week.  The ME series is phenomenal, and my hat is off to the writers and artists who created it.  At the same time, I’m part of the huge cadre of fans who hate the last few minutes of ME3, not because it doesn’t end the way I wanted, but because it really fails on a storytelling level: it is disconnected from the wonderful complex web of decisions and repercussions that make the games so distinctive.  It’s also incoherent, and unsatisfying.  I am enjoying the different fan offerings for alternative endings though.  There’s so much creativity and passion out there, even if Bioware never tweaks the ending (as they are unlikely to do), it’s fun to watch the movement.

WARNING – Slight spoilers begin around here.

For my part, I was very dissatisfied with the explanation of the Reapers’ motivation.  The story seems to be that they preserve organic life by “harvesting” it, but that hardly fits with their malicious and relentless push to destroy every vestige of intelligent species each cycle.  So I crafted my own bit of fan fiction that indicates where the Reapers might have come from, and why they do what they do.  I’m not much of a fiction writer, so it’s probably pretty crappy, but I take comfort knowing that it can’t be as crappy as the nonsensical explanation offered in-game.

The First Cycle

“This machine will outlast everything!”

The salesman patted the demo model affectionately.  “And this isn’t just the most reliable piece of farming equipment, it’s the most advanced.  Fully automated, with the new long-life battery, plus solar panels integrated into the surface.  She’s even got a revolutionary laser cutter, doing away with the wear and tear you get on physical blades.  Once you turn it on, it’ll practically run your operation for you.”

Neela saw her husband nodding and staring at the harvester, his tail lowered in wonder, but she said, “How does it manage that?  It may look lifelike, but it can’t be that smart.”

The salesman ably maneuvered to the appropriate talking point: “Ah, this has the most advanced A.I. available.  Based on the platform that runs military drones, updated with biomimetic neurological circuits.  This unit can gather data and extrapolate from it to cope with novel situations.  It can care for your crops virtually unsupervised, from planting to harvest.  Then when there’s no work to be done, it automatically stores itself and goes into sleep mode to conserve energy, leaving some low-drain sensors up to detect when it’s needed again.  It even has a rudimentary thought-sensing capability – it doesn’t approach our telepathic communication, but it can get the gist of what you want it to do.”

Sinec nodded again in appreciation.  “Amazing!  And it’s cute, too.  Almost looks like a little robot kid.”

It did in fact have some childlike qualities.  Its wide-eyed look evoked the large eyes of children, while its elegant contours and stylized shape made it seem non-threatening, even endearing.  Neela had read that the company wanted it to resemble a living farmhand, without being so lifelike as to be uncanny.  She thought they’d hit the mark pretty well.  

“Oh yes, some people get downright attached to them,” the salesman informed them.  “I hear there’s a sweet old lady in the next town over who chats with hers!  Spends the evening reading The Scriptures to it, if you can believe that.  I don’t know if she’s just lonely, or she thinks it’ll get religion!”  He began to laugh, but trailed off as he looked up at Neela.

“Oh listen to me, talking nonsense.  Of course there’s no possibility of the A.I. understanding such things.  Very strict controls put in to limit any, ah, evolution in undesirable directions.  They think well enough to sort out problems, much like your shuttle integrates GPS info and collision avoidance data to get you through traffic.  A far cry from philosophy, am I right?”

Sinec chuckled dutifully, waving a foreleg as though dismissing the whole line of thought.  “The real issue is the price,” he said.  “You’ve got to demonstrate that this will repay the upfront cost, and pretty quickly too.”

“Of course,” the salesman’s eye opened wide as he saw the sale coalescing.  “Now, it depends on the model you choose.  Most people go for the Regent model, but I really recommend the Sovereign.  It’s more of an investment, but it also pays back faster.  I’ve got the paperwork that lays it all out – maybe we could go inside and go through it.”

As Sinec ushered the salesman toward the house, Neela followed slowly.  She looked back at the machine hovering in the yard, its tail held high to capture solar energy, while its large red eye stared blankly out at the horizon.  She realized she was holding her breath.  She gave herself a little shake, and then went inside.

Were we unaware that Kirk Cameron is an idiot?

I understand that his statements about gay marriage are ridiculously inaccurate as well as hateful, but why is this news?  Why are people shocked?  Years ago I filed Kirk and his buddy Ray Comfort in the same mental Pendaflex with Time Cube and David Icke.  They’re loony cranks with a tenuous relationship to reality, and I only pay attention to them when I need a laugh.  These are the people who declared that the (heavily selectively bred and cultivated) modern banana was “an atheist’s nightmare” because it so obviously had been intelligently designed by Yahweh for human consumption.  I mean, really, I’m not sure they aren’t just a stealthier satire than Landover Baptist.

And I am sure that Piers Morgan asked the question hoping for furor to attract attention to his show, while Cameron was happy to provide the controversy since it also drives traffic to the new movie he’s promoting.  Everyone wins!  Except fans of reasonable discourse.

It’s a relief to know that soon homophobes will be relegated to the status currently enjoyed by overt racists and sexists.  Society at large will know that they exist, but will generally dismiss them as crackpots stuck in a benighted, outmoded set of beliefs that are irrelevant to our general culture.  I suppose during the death throes of their era of social influence, there will be a lot of arguing and sensationalism over the topic.  But I’m to getting to the point where I just want to ignore them already. (And yes, I recognize there’s a bit of hypocrisy in writing a blog post about someone, asking if we can please ignore him.  I mean of course, let’s ignore him starting . . . now.)

(If you don’t recognize the Holy Watering Can up there, please do check out the brilliant little video here.)

Please remain calm! Tips for staying rational during emotional discussions.

[Guest Post by theskepticalhippy]

I consider myself a skeptic.  I also consider myself a bit excitable.  These traits, however adorable, can work against each other.  Getting emotionally worked up during a discussion can completely color your point-of-view and remove you from logic.  I will, almost unexpectedly at times, attach myself firmly to a POV with very little information and often for motives that go well beyond “learning”.  My emotional charges into discussions are exhausting at times and I have learned that being involved in a discussion (and by “involved” this can simply mean observing the discussion) is much more rewarding when I leave my emotions and preconceived notions at the door.

I am not entirely to blame for my biases.  Neuroscience and psychology have shown that decision making is an emotional process.  Jonah Lehrer (Journalist with a BS in Neuroscience) presents evidence in his book “How We Decide” that in order to make effective decisions, we have to listen to our emotions.  Basically, the consequences of our choices make an emotional “imprint” by giving us constant feedback.  This creates an expectation.  When the expectation is fulfilled, we get positive feedback in the form of a dopamine release.  This is what many would call our “gut reaction”.  Despite the negative connotations gut reactions can have, these emotional reactions to events can be quite wise and learned.  Lehrer presents several examples of how a well-trained individual can readily rely on their emotional reactions to novel events.  However, it is this strong emotional  connection to decision making that can also make for bad decisions and set us up to continue making bad decisions.

No matter how highly evolved our brains are, they were shaped within an environment that made it impossible for humans to spend a good deal of time on every decision that is to be decided.  Those who could quickly decide were the ones who successfully propagated.  However, this quick-thinking can lead to a variety of bad decisions and erroneous conclusions.  We tend to bias our first experience with the subject/event/whathaveyou with more weight than subsequent experiences.[1]  We pay less attention to opinions that do not support our own.[2]  Dozens of logical fallacies have been identified (Michael LaBossiere has two books on logical fallacies, one book lists 42 and the other book lists another 30).  And, not surprisingly, the environment itself can lead a person to chose “left” when they should have chosen “right”.  All of these decisions are driven by emotion.  It can leave us stubbornly attached to a point-of-view even when presented with evidence that strongly suggests (or outright proves) our opinion to be incorrect.

Being aware of all of this can definitely help but it’s of little consolation when a conversation leaves you feeling stabby.  So, what is one to do?  Well, you can pick up the book, A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston, but that won’t help you later today when a Facebook status compels you respond provocatively.  Luckily I have some tips to keep you emotionally level and rationally sharp when conversing.  [You may notice a slight internet-centric theme.]

1.    Survey Your Environment – Are you feeling hot, cold or hungry?  Are your children screaming in your face or pulling at your hem?  Did your husband just tell you his parents are staying the week?  Before engaging in a conversation that could turn into an argument (I’m using the word ‘argument’ to mean: discourse intended to persuade), first decide if the environment is conducive to proper, logical, discussion.  If not, see if you can change your environment.  If you cannot do that, it would probably be best to refrain from the discussion until the environment improves.

2.    Allocate Appropriate Time – This is tied closely to the first tip.  Do you have the time to explain to your friend that acupuncture has, in fact, been properly studied and found to be no more effective than placebo?  If not, you may not want to invest the emotional energy into the discussion, especially if these kinds of discussions are known to raise your blood pressure.

3.    Assume The Best Of Your Audience – So, let’s say that you just put the kids to bed, have a glass a wine in your hand, a warm soft blanket on your lap and have a good two hours to dedicate to lively discourse.  To prevent strawmen from escaping from your fingertips and other such logical fallacies, one must assume the best of their audience.  I recently read a Cracked.com article that summoned up my thoughts on this fairly well::

“In many ways, everyone who is different from us is a bewildering, inexplicable enigma. They arbitrarily hate the things we like and like the things we hate, and behave in ways we can’t predict. That makes us hate them a little. We end up concluding that these people (members of the opposite sex, opposing political party, owners of a rival video game system) are just one-dimensional stock characters placed as obstacles or foils in the movie that is our life.
…it’s all due to the fact that we not only do not understand each other, but don’t even try.”

It reads like a bummer but it goes through and lists ways in which we can better understand each other.  For instance, not just picturing yourself in their shoes, but picturing THEM in THEIR shoes:

“Instead of learning two or three facts about people in a different situation and trying to fill in the rest by picturing ourselves if those two or three facts were true about us, you get a lot further much faster by just putting yourself away for a bit and maybe asking, or reading about, what a typical day for the other person is like.”

It boils down to assuming that those with a differing point-of-view came to their POV honestly and with at least some logic and rationality.  I believe this approach encourages the “why” and “how” questions that lead to a productive discussion.

4.    Does This Really Matter? – If you find yourself going ‘round and ‘round about whether or not Bigfoot is a mammal or some type of mammalian/reptilian hybrid, ask yourself if the truth of that particular discussion really matters to your day-to-day life.  If not, take a deep breath and reconsider furthering the discussion.

5.    Treat Differing Opinions As Learning Experiences – I find this useful in spirited exchanges.  Become observant, like Jane Goodall, just watch the behavior of those gentle apes so you can simply learn from them.  Not only can this distance yourself emotionally from the discussion (“I’m only here to observe!”) but you can take that opportunity to review your own behavior (“Am I being an asshole?”).  Pragmatically, the best way to properly engage with someone in a polarized discussion is to honestly and openly accept their views and then build from them.

6.    Don’t Assume You’re Right – Many times we enter into a discussion with some level of confidence that we are correct.  If you enter into a discussion without this assumption, you are less likely to get yourself emotionally attached to whatever opinion you happen to have.  Like tip #5, removing this assumption can leave you more ready to possibly change your mind, or at the very least, keep the discussion rational and respectful.

Discussions can be difficult but if you keep your emotions in check, even the most trying discussion can be a productive one.  I hope you find my tips useful the next time you contemplate tackling a topic that needs your rational and skeptical input.

Footnotes::
1.  Hoeffer, S., Ariely, D., & West, P. (2005). Path Dependent Preferences: The Role of Early Experience and Biased Search in Preference Development. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 101, 215-229.

2.  “Confirmation Bias.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 05 Jan. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias&gt;.

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