Quote of the day

“Does anybody think Donald Trump is a racist? I don’t. I mean, I really don’t. I don’t know of anything in his life that indicates that this man has racist tendencies.”

— Mike Huckabee, a man who thinks the world of Ted Nugent, makes derogatory jokes about Asians, and insists on derailing Black Lives Matter discussions with “All Lives Matter”

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Quote of the day

Review: Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

I’ve decided to do some reviews of books, movies, and video games relevant to atheists. Without respect to timeliness. So to start things out, I cracked open Greta Christina’s Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless.

Greta is focused like a laser. With incredible clarity, she makes the case for what we should be angry about, which is available to read for free on her blog. That part is inspiring and rousing on its own, but Greta also makes a perfect case for why anger is the appropriate response to injustice. You may already be persuaded on the efficacy of anger, but this is not true of the general population. When I posted Greta’s talk about the subject, the reaction I got from a lot of people was revulsion. Not at the crimes she lists in her Litany of Rage, but at the idea that anger is a useful or even acceptable reaction to those crimes. I was told that the way to deal with these religiously-based problems is with “respect.” Not just by criticism-shy theists, but atheists also had a problem with anger. This is of course absurd on the face of it. I’ve never once seen someone stop persecuting gay people because someone was respectful to them. Rather, such respect validates their beliefs and encourages more bad behavior.

The case for anger is one of the most important ones we can make. Not only is it useful and appropriate, but in a conflict averse society we need anger to wake us up enough to take action. When good people stay silent, the bad people get to do what they want.

Greta spends the rest of the book demonstrating that the fault for these problems belongs to irrationality. Whether it’s fundamentalist religion, “nice” Christians, or free-range-crystal-worshiping Wiccans with fully balanced chakras. Not caring about whether something is true is always a recipe for trouble, no matter how nice you are about it. The cultural norm is to give people a wide berth with their pet beliefs, and it’s seen as rude to correct someone. Greta does an excellent job of articulating why we should take ourselves out of that comfort zone and point out that the emperor is buck naked.

Not only is Greta one of the best communicators I’ve come across, she’s also damn funny(I’m a comedy writer, I have my biases). Throughout this book about anger, I found myself disturbing my coworkers in the lunch room with my guffaws. I particularly enjoyed this line from the chapter “Why This Really Is Religion’s Fault” pointing out that she isn’t placing the blame for all evil in the lap of religion:

“I’m not arguing that a world without religion would be a blissful utopia where everyone holds hands and chocolate flows in the streets(and then we would all die, because the chocolate is drowning us and we can’t swim because we’re holding hands).”

I’m not by nature an angry person. When my old apartment manager tried to scam me out of several hundred dollars, my wife said it was the first time she’d seen me mad. I don’t debate about religion at work, I tend not to talk about it with my religious family members, and I take great pains to criticize ideas and actions rather than people. However, all of this is often unnoticed by the religious and I am still considered “militant.” As much as we may may not want to rock the boat, we’re already considered disruptive and mean just for disagreeing with them about magic being real. For out atheists there isn’t a social benefit to not rocking the boat, but there is a net downside to letting irrational beliefs go unchecked. Because of that, I’ve been trying to be more outspoken. It’s very difficult for me, but often the most important things we can do in this life are. And this book has helped nudge me in that direction.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? was a great read and I recommend it to any atheist or to any theist who is curious about us. It’s available in ereader and dead tree format. If you already have a copy, check out her sexy time stories in Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Review: Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

Trump worries

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Photo by Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA

In politicians there are a lot of crucial factors you have to consider.

Without looking into the specific issues that matter, there are some general categories: ideology, campaign skills, and competence level.

Sometimes these overlap, but I think it helps to weigh each one independently. Sometimes I agree ideologically with a candidate, but think they couldn’t possibly perform the day to day duties.
Maybe they’d be great at the job, but wholly unelectable.

What this election cycle seems like to me is a D&D game and Donald Trump has allocated all his character points to campaign skill and despite an increasingly frustrated GM, is winning.

I’m a bit worried about a Trump presidency becoming a reality. But what worries me more is, whether he wins or not, he’s let everyone with an ounce of media savvy see that this game can be won by just bullshitting your way through.

So while I wouldn’t have voted for Jeb Bush in the general election… I can’t help but feel like his inability to win is a rejection of competence as a worthwhile concern. Me and him sharply disagree ideologically, but I would feel comfortable hiring him as a general manager if I owned a chain of restaurants. He wouldn’t burn the country down for the insurance money at least. Each time that a competent candidate is driven off, future competent ones are incentivized to focus on wooing the crowd over touting their skill. Which will make it even harder for those voters that do care about competence to make it out in a crowd of awful showmanship.

It’s easy enough to say, “Good. Hand the Democrats an easy win each time.” But that isn’t how it works out in practice. One Trump we can probably handle. But what do we do when these tactics become textbook down ticket? How many Trump brand Senators and Representatives can you fight off each cycle?

Even if these toxic candidates lose, the damage done by having that kind of bigotry and bullshit given a megaphone and free publicity will set us back in ways we can’t even calculate yet. And that’s saying a lot given that this is already talking about the Republicans.

Maybe I’m overthinking this. I hope so.

Trump worries

What do colanders accomplish?

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Photo by G.dallorto

Yesterday my sister sent me a story about a man being allowed to wear a colander as a hat for his driver’s license photo. It’s not an isolated incident. I tend to enjoy stuff like this because I think the world could stand to be more fun and whimsical.

But I have to put on my buzzkill pants for a minute. Is the goal of this exercise to be silly? Is it to say “I’m an atheist”  in a public way?  Those don’t bother me.  But if the goal is to mock religious exemptions for what you wear in official photos, it seems petty.

Certainly there are plenty of examples of people claiming a right of religious exemption that aren’t reasonable. Like people refusing to do their job because they want to discriminate. But wearing something that doesn’t hide who you are doesn’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t interfere with the purpose of an ID.

I don’t really know if this was the goal. I haven’t seen any of these stories list a reason beyond membership in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So I suspect it’s just whimsy. But it wouldn’t be the only valid criticism of the whole FSM thing. And even the funny bits of the FSM have gotten played out about as much as the “Atheists eating babies” jokes.

What do colanders accomplish?

Atheist parenting

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Not long after my first kid was born, people began asking me for input on parenting as an atheist. When they did, I always answered that they’re too young for it to be an important issue yet.

For whatever reason, I only processed the situation as a function of their understanding of the concepts and their interactions with religious institutions.

But that ignores the interactions between the parents and religion, which definitely informs how they’re raised. So, even though my kids are one and three, religion and atheism do matter. Here’s a few of the differences in atheist parenting.

We don’t hit our kids
Our arrival at this decision was informed by the findings of psychology indicating that physical harm and pain don’t get the desired result. You’re more likely to end up raising someone who avoids coming to you when they need help… and who’s internalized the idea that violence can solve conflicts. (We also don’t, ya know, want to inflict pain. They’re kids for fucks sake)
There isn’t anything about being an atheist that necessarily leads you away from hitting kids. You certainly don’t have to look far to find ones who do. But atheists aren’t beholden to religious direction on how to discipline children. This frees us to look for alternative approaches.

We don’t really care about nudity
Without any religious beliefs telling us it’s inherently dirty, we’ve felt comfortable letting our kids run around naked as needed. It makes potty training a bit easier. And sometimes they just don’t want pants. I can relate. *shrugs*

There is a smaller or nonexistent support community
Anyone who is a parent knows that childcare is not cheap. It’s important for daycare workers and babysitters to be fairly compensated of course, but that doesn’t mean that most parents have access to that much money.
Churches often offer daycare that is cheaper than the market value of the service. There are reasons to avoid this as an atheist. Some states have lax safety regulations for religious daycare, they might be teaching your kids harmful ideas, and you might not be eligible without lying about what you believe. But it’s impossible to discount the boon to families struggling to make ends meet.

Family may not be as helpful
Thankfully, our family is awesome and religious disagreements have never overshadowed our love for each other or the kids. But not everyone is so lucky. Some atheists are disowned by their parents and siblings entirely. And that level of support towers over anything a church offers. Not just the cooperation on raising the kids, hand-me-downs, and financial help, but the moral support of family is crucial when dealing with stressful parenting.

I can’t help but think that the local skeptic and atheist groups could, eventually fill some of the support roles that atheists sometimes lack. Of course I know from having been an organizer for one that the operating budget is approximately $0 and it’s the size of religious organizations that allow them to extend that kind of help. It’s a worthy goal to shoot for though.

This is an incomplete list of course, and I’m sure as my kids get older there will be more we can talk about on the subject.

Atheist parenting

De-platforming and free speech

It’s incredibly hard for me to feel sympathy when someone like Richard Dawkins is disinvited from a keynote speaker slot because of the way he behaves (the conference rescinded, but that’s beside the point).

The theme of attacks on his critics is that such disinvitation represents harm to his freedom of speech.
The man is a bestselling author, has numerous TV specials, is a frequent talk show guest, established speaker, and has over a million followers on Twitter. His free speech rights and ability to exercise them are utterly unassailable.

This did get me thinking about how and when a disinvitation could potentially be harmful to free speech. What kept coming to mind are activists from nations with severe restrictions on speech and Internet use. If your government is telling you what not to say and preventing you from taking the obvious route to publicly disagree, there is an obvious free speech problem. So, maybe if the speaker you’re considering disinviting fits into this scenario it would be a bad move to remove a platform. This is obviously a simplified approach to what is a real life problem too big to solve with a speech at a conference. But it’s worth looking for how and to what degree you may be wrong.

But what if we took the free speech claim at face value, but we took it a bit father and looked at who we invite to speak and not just who we ask not to. If our goal is to use our platform to advance free speech, why not give speaking positions to people of color and trans people? Or members of minority religions that Donald Trump wants to deport? Hell, if GamerGate showed us anything is that cis women are often silenced by threats and harassment. Maybe we should not invite cis men to speak until we resolve the disparity in who can speak without fear.

Some of this makes sense to weigh in the decision making process. Some people are poorly represented in public life, or are vilified. If we are going to worry about the free speech of a rich guy with a large and devoted audience, why aren’t we worried about people who are prevented in one way or another from having a platform?

De-platforming and free speech

5 logical fallacies that aren’t always fallacious

As skeptics, we strive to be as logical as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to learn what logical fallacies are and avoid using them. This is an excellent thing to do, however there is a problem: Many skeptics have diligently learned what the fallacies are, but end up incorrectly identifying them. These false positives are understandable, but we would all benefit from putting some extra effort into our analysis. Here are a few of the fallacies that I think fall into this trap.

No True Scotsman

What it is:
Someone commits this fallacy by shifting a definition of something in an attempt to side-step a counterexample that doesn’t support their conclusion.
The term derives from an example put out by Anthony Flew in which a Scotsman denies that a rapist could be Scottish because Scotsmen don’t do such things. No True Scotsman is a very tempting fallacy to fall prey to because we want to be the good guys. We want our team to be the one helping people, so it’s only natural to want to exclude people we disapprove of from our group.

What it looks like in the wild:
“The guy killed 70 people in cold blood, he clearly isn’t a True Christian.

When it isn’t a fallacy:
If you are arguing a position that is tightly defined, an example deviating from that is fair to say is not applicable. When I pontificate about the awesomeness of triangles and someone says the worst kind of triangle is a circle, it’s fair to say they have it wrong. If the Christian you are talking to defines “Christian” in a particular way that excludes all murderers, that’s fine if they spell that out. But you are then free to point out that they are using a narrow definition that you haven’t seen before. Or you could ask them to define “Christian” from the outset.
It’s also not a fallacy if you have access to a Scotsman Detector or some kind of Scotsman centrifuge that can sort out the actual Scotsmen.

Ad Hominem

What it is:
An ad hominem attack is when you disparage a person’s character rather than the argument they made and infer from this that the person’s position is false. Suppose you are arguing with a believer in alternative medicine who is claiming that acupuncture cures deadly brain tumors. In a situation like that you should be addressing whether or not their claims match reality rather than their goofy haircut, even when it’s a really goofy haircut.

What it looks like in the wild:
“Don’t listen to Jenny McCarthy when she talks about vaccines. She’s just a dumbass.”

When it isn’t a fallacy:
Disparaging the character of a proponent of pseudoscience who is also a bad person, such as Stanislaw Burzynski, in addition to criticizing their faulty arguments is not a fallacy at all. Ineffectual treatments are one issue to criticize him on, but his lack of morals is another one that also needs to be addressed. A good rule of thumb is to see how the sentence works with “therefore” added to it. “Burzynski is a maggot infested ghoul who bullies teenagers, therefore don’t trust his claims about antineoplastons and cancer” doesn’t work but “All the scientific evidence and the consensus of the medical community goes against Burzynski’s claims, and he’s a shitty person to boot” works just fine.

In some debates the character of the participants is the very heart of the issue. Being patient and charitable with disagreements on values is a useful approach for some circumstances, and with some people, but there are occasions where you will meet people who are not deserving of a hand-holding, charitable walk-through of the issue. If someone is saying a bunch of racist garbage, sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to point out that their behavior is racist. This is a character flaw that they should be fixing. If you call them on it, you will be accused of using an ad hominem attack. But when the question is actually about the morality of that person, it is justified.

Argument from Authority
What it is:
Whenever someone invokes an expert to trump the analysis of their opponent.

What it looks like in the wild:
“My pastor said that evolution is a lie from Satan.”

When it isn’t a fallacy:
The problem with rejecting all arguments from authority is that we run the risk of falling into anti-intellectualism or becoming self-important know-it-alls. The fact is, there are people who know shit that you don’t know. I can read about medicine all damn day, but if an M.D. tells me I got it wrong, it may be reasonable to ask for a second opinion, but it is not reasonable to utterly reject their opinion as an mere argument from authority.
The easiest way that I’ve found to defer to people with expertise while not accepting claims on faulty grounds is three fold:

1. Make sure that the person is an expert on the subject in question. Don’t take an English professor’s word on whether or not the Big Bang was a thing. If that professor has opinions about semi-colons though…

2. Make sure that the field they are an expert in is a real thing. Alleged psychics are “experts” on talking to dead people. Is there a good reason to think that their field of expertise is describing something real though? This is actually a difficult task to do on the fly, but a shortcut could be to see what the experts in related fields think. For example, do the experts in the field of psychology or neurology tend to believe in psychic powers? Their fields would be impacted by such a thing being real. I’d go into more detail on how to determine the validity of a field, but that could easily become another post. Or even a full book.

3. Look at what the plurality of experts in that field think about the subject. You can find two or three geologists who think Noah’s Flood explains the Grand Canyon. Do the majority of other geologists share this view? (Hint:Fucking of course not) You will find that there are circumstances where a genuine field of study does not have a consensus on a subject. When this happens, the wisest thing to do is to remind yourself not to invest too much in any one conclusion. Then make some popcorn and watch the scientific process sort it out. This may take several years, so I would advise making at least two bags of popcorn.

Just remember that your entire life is full of claims that require you to–at least provisionally–accept the conclusion of experts.

Godwin’s Law

What it is:
According to the Mike Godwin, who coined the term, “As the length of an online discussion increases, the probability of a Hitler/Nazi comparison approaches 1.” As an informal fallacy, it is used to show that someone is using extremely hyperbolic comparisons and is in fact a common example of the aforementioned Ad Hominem.

What it looks like in the wild:
Pretty much every sentence about President Obama on World Net Daily and Breitbart.

When it isn’t a fallacy:
If the person in question is 1. Named Adolf, 2. Advocating for policies that that are very similar to that of Hitler’s, or 3. Currently invading Poland.

The Straw Man

What is it:
Mischaracterizing your opponent’s argument so that it’s easier to argue against.

What it looks like in the wild:
“You atheists are all a bunch of baby-eating communists who want to put Christians like me in prison camps!”

When it isn’t a fallacy:
Sometimes your arguments will aren’t so great. And I don’t mean “you” rhetorically, I mean that you, the reader of this sentence, will have terrible arguments. You’re human, that happens. If someone repeats your argument back to you, there can be a tendency to think, “But that’s just a Straw Man, my real opinion is way cooler than that!” If you have that reaction, take a moment to re-examine your position and make sure that the characterization is not valid before dismissing the criticism as a Straw Man. If you’ve ever seen a debate between a believer and an atheist, you’ve seen this fallacy announced inappropriately, probably from both parties at various points. I remember arguing with my best friend after Skepticon 2 about whether or not the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn were Straw Men. The only real difference between those views and real religious views is the tone. If people talked about the beer volcano in FSM heaven with the same seriousness of the boring alcohol geology-free Heaven, you’d see that as truth claims they are on equal footing. If you point out that the concepts within a religion are absurd, that isn’t a Straw Man, it’s perspective.

The takeaway from this is that enumerated fallacies are a great heuristic and can show you the flaws in your reasoning as well as the reasoning of others, but they are not a replacement for critical analysis nor are they a set of commandments handed down from Lord Planet-Maker.

5 logical fallacies that aren’t always fallacious