Monthly Archives: November 2011
Kerrie comments on my Robert M. Price post that she’s taking a look at her beliefs and has added Price to her reading list. It made me think about atheist writers and that there is quite a bit out there that isn’t nearly as confrontational as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens.
First up, Daniel Dennett. He’s lumped in with Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens to make the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” but I think his style is radically different. Breaking the Spell is musing, philosophical look at religious belief that is very sympathetic toward the human impulses and needs that give rise to religion. True, its premise is that religion does come from purely human sources, and it could be an uncomfortable read for a believer in some ways, but I’d hardly classify it as “in your face.”
Carl Sagan is known in atheist circles for soft-pedaling his disbelief so much that some got the impression he was a believer. He eloquently uses both scientific and spiritual language to express wonder at the universe. Still, The Demon Haunted World is clearly about skepticism of religious belief as much as scientific thinking. What is a god but the invisible dragon in Carl’s garage?
Bart Ehrman is actually an agnostic. His books take apart the Bible and analyze it in its historical context. Misquoting Jesus discusses how the Bibles we know today came to us through the ages, and how error, philosophical editing, and outright interpolation may have altered it from its ancient origins. Jesus, Interrupted describes how the different gospel writers viewed Jesus’s identity and purpose differently, and thus tailored their narratives to support their perspectives.
I also need to put in a plug for the podcast Reasonable Doubts. While the guys aren’t what I would call gentle, they approach religious philosophy and history with both humor and great research, and have a great conversational style that I find really listen-able.
I’ve also got some freethinking authors in my reading list, who I haven’t gotten to yet. John Loftus and Dan Barker both used to be preachers, like Price. I know Barker doesn’t pull many punches, but he always comes across very personable when I hear him speak. I’ve also got Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism, by Dianna Narciso in my Amazon list, and Victor Stenger seems like an interesting and intelligent guy. Oh, and don’t forget Hemant Mehta – he is The Friendly Atheist after all! Bottom line: there’s a LOT of reading out there that doesn’t necessarily include the Big Names you usually hear.
Oh, and if you want some classic literary disbelief, it’s hard to go wrong with Twain and Vonnegut.
Robert Price may just be the coolest person on the planet. I first encountered him through his book, The Reason Driven Life. It’s a direct response to the wildly popular Christian book, The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren. I really enjoyed it, especially how he directly addressed Christians, and somehow managed to be gentle and empathetic without pulling too many punches.
Years later, I heard Price on several freethinking podcasts, including as host of Point of Inquiry. He is a pleasure to listen to, and is obviously brilliant and incredibly well-read. Yet he’s not the slightest bit stuffy, and seems like a really fun person – someone you’d like to gab with over coffee. Also on Point of Inquiry, they ran a recording of a talk he did called “Is the Bible Mein Kampf?” Contrary to what you might expect from a famous nonbeliever, his argument was that the Bible is a highly valuable cultural document, and that freethinkers who assume the Bible is as evil as it’s made out to be by literalist believers are doing everyone a disservice. It was thought-provoking. I’ve also discovered that he is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar and runs a show called The Bible Geek.
So, OK, he’s a freethinker, a really smart and educated guy, fun to listen to, and a great writer.
But today I found out something that catapulted him right onto my All Time Favorite People list. Not only is he all those things – he’s an H.P. Lovecraft scholar and himself a writer of weird fiction! To give you an idea of how much I love Lovecraft, I keep abreast of everything the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society is doing, I own a copy of their silent film The Call of Cthulhu, and needless to say I own several compilations of Lovecraft fiction, as well as many literary homages. I also listen to Lovecraft-related podcasts on my iPhone. This morning I was on the treadmill, listening to The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. They were doing their wrap-up show on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and they said they were having Robert Price as a guest. I figured that’s not such an unusual name, surely this was some other Robert Price. But no, it was THE Robert M. Price I already knew! I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to the whole show yet, but I was equal parts pleased and amazed when I realized it was him.
It’s also interesting to me that S.T. Joshi, perhaps the preeminent Lovecraft scholar, is also a prominent nonbeliever. I wonder if there’s something about Lovecraft’s work that appeals to us nonbelievers in particular – the confrontation with an indifferent or even hostile universe, and the inability of the human mind to grasp the vastness of time and space are constant themes. Lovecraft himself wrote,
All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.
So maybe we sense a kindred spirit when we read him. Of course, he appeals to a huge audience, so it could also be coincidence. In any case, it’s fun to find out that one of my freethinking heroes shares my obsession with Cthulhu and company.
Yesterday my husband said to me, “The difference between you and the people who drive you crazy is that your beliefs about the universe are malleable.” I’m completely serious when I say that this made my heart flutter a little. Not only does he really get me, but he expressed it in a way that would be a huge compliment to anyone who considers herself a skeptic.
(Just a little snippet I had to share. Normally I won’t be posting on the weekends. It’s when I get a lot of work done around the house. Also, well, Mass Effect isn’t going to play itself. Regular posting will resume tomorrow!)
Sure, science can inform parenting, but a huge proportion is pure art. What are the personalities of all involved? What is your parenting philosophy? How does your household work? We all just feel our way with most parenting decisions.
I’ve got a three year old and an eight year old, and I’m usually putting them to bed by myself. How does one accomplish such a thing? One thing I learned quickly was “Cooperate in getting ready so I can put you to bed” is the worst gambit since, “Tell us what we want and we’ll burn your house down.” Rare is the child who looks forward to going to bed. So of course they resist, dawdle, and attempt to work up some adrenaline so they won’t have to go to sleep.
My three year old in particular is tough. She is very physical, and instead of getting sleepy when she’s tired, she revs up, becoming what my husband calls “untired.” She becomes a manic superball, bouncing off everything in sight and giggling maniacally. She also hates the idea of bedtime, so she will refuse to cooperate with pajamas, brushing teeth, and so forth. If I try to read books with her, she gets up and runs in a circle, ignoring me with all her might.
Finally, I decided Mary Poppins was right, and I needed a spoonful of sugar. Here’s our new routine. About an hour and a half before Target Unconsciousness Commencement, we go upstairs. Claire needs to try to pee, let me brush her teeth, floss, and use fluoride. She has to cooperate with diaper and pajamas. Then we turn the lights out, snuggle on the couch and watch a show of her choosing. If she doesn’t cooperate in getting ready, she loses minutes off the show. If she tries to get up and run around like a cracked-up jackrabbit, I fast-forward the show. This has finally, finally gotten her to sit still long enough for her to start feeling sleepy. It also gives me great leverage to get her cooperation in getting ready for bed.
Since we established this routine, she typically cooperates happily. When the show is over, she likes to turn off the TV, then she picks out a book for us to read in her room. By then she’s settled enough to sit still and pay attention. We like to play a game: I pretend that I want to turn out the light, but I’m really incompetent in getting over to it, and she beats me to the switch and turns it out herself. We nurse and snuggle and sing a lullaby. These days I usually just stay till she falls asleep, because it only takes about 5-10 minutes after all that setup!
Meanwhile, Chloe can get herself ready while I deal with Claire, and when I take Claire into her room, Chloe gets her turn to start watching a show. When I come out, we finish watching together. Hopefully someday Claire will be as easy as Chloe, but for now our (admittedly somewhat lengthy) routine is really working. I would much rather invest time than endure stress and struggles.
How do you make sure bedtime goes smoothly at your house?
(Fridays we’ll talk about tips and tricks that have worked for our kids. Clever ideas and novel approaches for common problems. They certainly won’t work for everyone, either philosophically or practically, but they still might offer ideas to explore. This is where one of the wisdoms of La Leche League really applies: Take what works and leave the rest.)
I know from watching Trading Places that swanky private schools teach people how to talk about tennis in a posh, clenched-jaw accent, and how to shun friends who fall on bad luck. But do graduates of private institutions have a claim to academic and intellectual superiority?
This is a contentious issue, and you can probably find a study to support whatever side you choose. But from my brief review, it looks like the short answer is “no.”
First, private schools don’t necessarily make kids smarter, but smarter kids might be more likely to go to private school. In this case “smarter” isn’t referring to native IQ alone, but to circumstances and opportunities that are correlated to higher scores on aptitude tests. Things like having highly educated parents, having a higher household income, and living in a nicer neighborhood. As you can imagine, private schools, which require parents to pay for admission, are likely to have a higher proportion of kids set up to achieve.
Second, private schools may have some obvious advantages over public schools (e.g., small class size) but they also have weaknesses, which can result in private schools making a poorer showing on standardized tests. They don’t necessarily keep up with the most up-to-date techniques and may have fewer certified teachers. They tend to invest in professional development for teachers at a lower rate. And religious schools have to factor in how well a teacher conveys the school’s philosophical stance, so they may pass up teachers who are more qualified in their subject, but who don’t have the right beliefs.
Third, private schools may be thought of as shi-shi, but sometimes they don’t have the same resources as public schools, especially when it comes to special education (for both gifted and special needs students) and extracurricular activities.
Now, private schools do have better SAT scores and college admission rates. Even when we control for socio-economic status. Do they teach more critical thinking, rather than barf-it-back memorization, as hypothesized in this article? That would certainly dovetail with the smaller class size typical of private schools. It may also be that a more homogeneous, wealthy student body allows teachers to cover basic skills quicker, and move on to higher-level skills. Or maybe private schools coach more for the SAT, and have more social connections with ivy league schools.
One thing is sure – the differences between individual schools is more significant than the general differences between public and private. Students will achieve more at a well-run public school that works on continuing education for its teachers than students at a private school whose first priority is teaching religious beliefs, rather than hiring certified teachers. (N.B., in one study Catholic schools run by religious orders* outperformed all other schools, so I don’t have in for religious schools in general. But conservative Christian schools may have as low as a 50% certification rate among teachers.)
For instance, to be in the gifted program at my daughter’s public school, a child has to score in the 90th percentile on both an aptitude test and a skills test. Guess what percentage of students are in the gifted program?
Half. Half the kids at our school score better than 90% of students their age country-wide. Add in our income, my husband’s engineering degree, my law degree, our involvement in our kids’ education, our voracious reading habits, and so on, and my kids will have a very good chance at an excellent education and entry into a good college, without us forking over tens of thousands of dollars along the way! It’s sure good enough for me.
(It should be noted that at least one private school offers an extraordinary education, beyond anything that can be achieved at standard schools, but also involves a non-trivial risk of death, poisoning, possession by evil wizards, and other dangers.)
*My guess is their secret to success is their teachers literally have no lives outside of school!
(Another busy day today! I look at it as an opportunity to recycle – an oldie but a goodie.)
Immersed in the world of breastfeeding and attachment parenting as I am, I am unfortunately bombarded with loads of alternative medicine hogwash. As I dutifully (and usually futilely) research and dissect the latest advice from someone’s naturopath, or the information they got from their chiropractor, I have noticed certain signs that will cause my bullshit meter to bury the needle. What follows isn’t a detailed discussion of why altmed practices are unscientific, or how to decide if a research study is reliable, or a treatise on the philosophy of science. It’s just a quick and dirty list of features that anti-scientific quackery tends to share.
1. Most of the hits on Google are sites that promote or sell the product in question. Typical site names are phlebotinum.com, phlebotinum-advisory-group.net, drlaceyunderall.net, yournaturalhealth.com, and so on. Many strive to look like health information sites, but if they have only good things to say, and an easy link to purchase the product, you can bet it’s just a commercial site shilling. If you get a high proportion of hits like Webmd, Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health, and maybe stuff like CNN or ABC stories, it has a much greater chance of being a real thing.
2. The remedy is promoted as a solution for vague and ubiquitous maladies. Usual suspects are fatigue, insomnia, body aches, headache, mood problems, low sex drive, weight gain, nausea, and constipation. Now these can be real symptoms of real problems. But when you see a product promoted as solving a long laundry list of these issues, it’s time to raise an eyebrow. These symptoms are typically experienced by most people at least some of the time, especially in a culture plagued by poor diet, low rates of exercise, too little sleep, social isolation, and chronic stress.
Most of these symptoms are self-limiting, or can be alleviated by lifestyle change. But most people don’t relish a prescription of “eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, and get 8 hours of sleep a night.” Lifestyle changes are difficult to initiate, harder to maintain, and are frankly a total drag. But give us a pill, a cream, or someone waving their hands over us once a week, and we perk right up – seems easy!
3. Self-diagnosis is encouraged. Whether it’s checking off the laundry list of vague symptoms, or buying a test kit you can do at home, do-it-yourself is the name of the game for quacks. And if you did get tests at the doctor’s office, they encourage re-interpretation. Doctor says your thyroid levels are fine? Well check your number against this web site’s “more accurate” scale. Doctor says your hormone levels are healthy? Take a saliva test to find out more!
5. Proponents laud how natural the remedy is, and decry the toxins in the environment and/or conventional medicines. Arsenic is as natural as it gets – it’s an element! Hemlock is a plant (make sure you get organically grown). Meanwhile insulin for diabetics is synthetic. Using “natural” as a synonym for “good” doesn’t make sense. (Also look for the keyword “allopathic” to describe conventional medicine.)
6. Relies on testimonials, anecdotal evidence, appeals to authority. Approaches that work don’t need this type of weak support, because they have strong scientific evidence – the kind that attempts to sweep away all the human foibles that can prevent us from seeing what’s really happening, and determine if an intervention has a real effect.
7. Provides citations as though they refer to peer-reviewed scientific journals, but the cited material is actually a book, presentation, or web site of an individual proponent of the remedy. It doesn’t matter how many letters are after your name – just because you say it doesn’t make it reliable. Publication in a respected journal indicates your claims have been examined and probed for mistakes and found robust. Publication on a website means you successfully Googled GoDaddy.
8. Users respond to skeptical inquiry and questioning of the evidence by saying, “I KNOW this works – it worked for me.” When the people trying to sell you on something have no clue about placebo effect, confirmation bias, coincidence, self-limiting conditions, and general methods for removing human perceptual bias, you can dismiss pretty much everything they say.
9. Praises or demonizes according to fad. Acai berries are magically delicious, but
VDTs, power lines, electrical transformers, cell phones, Wifi is evil.
10. Invokes the Pentaverate. Promoters wave away criticism as the result of wide-reaching conspiracies involving doctors, pharmaceutical companies, the CDC, and other entities.
11. The remedy is said to have no possible side effects or risks. Generally if something can have an effect, it can have a side effect. If it can change your body in some way, that change might turn out badly for you. Even such benign and universally prescribed practices as exercise and high fiber diets have risks and side effects.
I won’t have much time to do a lengthy post today, because I’ll be too busy being a wonderful human being. I’m taking care of a toddler whose mom is pregnant and on bed rest, and babysitting the children of a friend who has to deal with some serious family business. This is a great example of why being out about your non-theism is helpful. People know I’m not a theist of any stripe, and they see me doing good. It normalizes nonbelief and helps people see that we all have more in common than one might think.
Now, I’m not going out of my way to do nice things for others just so I can say, “Look, look, over here, an atheist doing good! SEE?” Like most people of any belief, I like to help out my friends. And that’s the point: people like to help out others in their monkeysphere, and nonbelievers are just people. The more of us who are open about our beliefs, the more believers will see we’re pretty much just like them. And eventually maybe we’ll be accepted as just another ingredient in the melting pot.