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Freedom of superstition July 3, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Religion, Superstition.
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You keep using that term, “freedom of religion” — I do not think it means what you think it means. The problem is that everyone thinks their own religion is eminently reasonable and wise, while all other religions are mistaken at best. And there’s no way to ever work out which is right, since they’re all equally unsupported by evidence. So, while people shouldn’t be persecuted because of their religious beliefs, the flip side is that those beliefs don’t (or shouldn’t) confer any magical “get out of jail free” cards, either: the law must be strictly secular, with no religious exceptions. People often conveniently forget this when their own religion is the beneficiary (at the expense of those who don’t share it).

So here’s my proposition: “freedom of religion” will be renamed “freedom of superstition.” That should help clear up any confusion about what is and isn’t included. You’re free to be as superstitious as you want in your private life; it’s just that you can’t force anyone else to respect your superstitions, or expect to be exempted from any laws because of them.

Let’s give it a try: Your superstition tells you that your neighbor is a witch? You’re free to shun her, but not to burn her. Your superstition forbids contraception? You’re free to eschew it, but not to make it less accessible to others. Your superstition demonizes gays? You’re free to not have sex with people of your own gender, but not to discriminate against those who do.

What’s that? You don’t like your sacred, heartfelt convictions referred to as superstitions? Well, then, all you have to do is bring forth good evidence to support them — at which point we can all get on board, no special pleading necessary. Until then, I wouldn’t talk so loud. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts and you’re not entitled to your own laws.

Numerous heart-wrenching stories June 1, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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PETA: Hello, parent! I’m with “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”

Parent: Are you going to present an ethical argument for why eating animal products is wrong?

PETA: Well, let me ask you this: Did you know there’s a link between dairy products and child autism?

Parent: No! That’s pretty scary!

PETA: Yes, indeed. More research is needed, but scientific studies have shown that many autistic kids improve dramatically when put on a diet free of dairy foods.

Parent: Wow, that sounds serious. How many studies are we talking about?

PETA: Two.

Parent: And how many children participated?

PETA: 36 and 20.

Parent: I see… When were these studies published?

PETA: 1995 and 2002.

Parent: You weren’t kidding when you said “more research is needed.” Has any additional research been done since?

PETA: We’re just trying to alert the public to the link between autism and dairy products.

Parent: Let me check for myself… Actually, there was a systematic review of 15 articles (published in 2010), which concluded that “the current corpus of research does not support” the use of gluten-free or dairy-free diets in the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder. And another systematic review of studies since 1970 (published in 2014) concluded that “the evidence on this topic is currently limited and weak,” and recommended that restricted diets only be used if a food allergy is diagnosed.

PETA: But on the other hand, did you know that the Internet contains numerous heart-wrenching stories from parents of kids who had suffered the worst effects of autism for years before dairy foods were eliminated from their children’s diets? Would you like to hear one mother’s story?

Parent: Did you know that the world contains numerous heart-wrenching stories of kids who suffered needlessly because their parents were taken in by unscientific bullshit?

PETA: To learn more about a diet free of dairy products, order our free “Vegetarian Starter Kit” today.

Parent: Fuck you, PETA.

Fuck you, PETA.

Fuck you, PETA.

(via IFLS)

To see it as it is May 24, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Science.
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In his essay “The Place of Science in a Liberal Education”, Bertrand Russell argues that one of the benefits of a scientific education has to do with “the temper of mind out of which the scientific method grows”:

The kernel of the scientific outlook is a thing so simple, so obvious, so seemingly trivial, that the mention of it may almost excite derision. The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires, tastes, and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world. Stated thus baldly, this may seem no more than a trite truism. But to remember it consistently in matters arousing our passionate partisanship is by no means easy, especially where the available evidence is uncertain and inconclusive…

The scientific attitude of mind involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know—it involves suppression of hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the whole subjective emotional life, until we become subdued to the material, able to see it frankly, without preconceptions, without bias, without any wish except to see it as it is, and without any belief that what it is must be determined by some relation, positive or negative, to what we should like it to be, or to what we can easily imagine it to be…

The instinct of constructiveness, which is one of the chief incentives to artistic creation, can find in scientific systems a satisfaction more massive than any epic poem. Disinterested curiosity, which is the source of almost all intellectual effort, finds with astonished delight that science can unveil secrets which might well have seemed for ever undiscoverable. The desire for a larger life and wider interests, for an escape from private circumstances, and even from the whole recurring human cycle of birth and death, is fulfilled by the impersonal cosmic outlook of science as by nothing else. To all these must be added, as contributing to the happiness of the man of science, the admiration of splendid achievement, and the consciousness of inestimable utility to the human race. A life devoted to science is therefore a happy life, and its happiness is derived from the very best sources that are open to dwellers on this troubled and passionate planet.

With him or against him May 17, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Religion.
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It was sixty years ago today that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools; and it was ten years ago today that Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. Michigan courts are attempting to follow suit, and you’d think members of a minority that had previously been denied equal rights for no reason other than prejudice would be sympathetic — but you’d be wrong.

Gay marriage would “destroy the backbone of our society,” said the Rev. Stacey Swimp of Flint at a Wednesday morning rally held by African-American ministers at First Baptist World Changers International Church in Detroit…

The ministers criticized people who compare the struggle for same-sex marriage to the black civil rights movement, saying such a comparison is offensive and historically inaccurate. Noting that millions of blacks were killed by slavery and public lynchings, Swimp said that backers of gay marriage who compare their movement to black struggles are being “intellectually empty, dishonest.”

Yes, gay people should wait until millions of them have been lynched to death before making a fuss about discrimination.

By the way, what exactly is the ministers’ problem with homosexuality?

“We believe in the Judeo-Christian conception on which America was founded upon,” said the Rev. Rader Johnson of Greater Bibleway Temple in Bay City.

Many quoted from the Bible and the history of Christianity to back up their beliefs. They also portrayed themselves as under attack from a secular culture that’s hostile to religion.

“God does not agree with this kind of behavior,” the Rev. James Crowder, president of Westside Ministerial Alliance Of Detroit, said of gay sexual acts. It’s “despicable, an abomination.”

Or, as Pastor Roland Caldwell put it:

Either you’re with God or you’re against him. If you’re against God, you’re against me… Anybody that’s an enemy of God is an enemy of mine.

And that’s why religion is so pernicious: it combines the (unjustified) belief that we know God’s will with the (immoral) conviction that obeying it is a virtue. This combination can produce positive behavior when what’s attributed to God’s will is actually good (amounting to doing the right thing for the wrong reasons); but so long as obedience is encouraged and critical thinking discouraged, there is always the potential to slide into doing evil (while thinking you’re doing good) — whenever someone decides to take the Bible seriously, for instance. Because the God of the Bible is fine with slavery (as the slaveholders of the South were fond of pointing out). And genocide. And stoning children.

If that God does exist, we should all be against him.

Letter to a successful white male May 11, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality.
13 comments
Sculpture by Sergio Bustamante

Sculpture by Sergio Bustamante

Congratulations! You’re a successful white male. Or, as you might prefer to put it, you’re a successful person who just happens to be a white male — why would anyone think your gender and race have anything to do with your success? That’s textbook sexism and racism. You worked hard to get where you are. You never asked for special treatment, nor do you recall ever receiving any.

Of course, you don’t deny that women and people of color were once officially discriminated against in our society, with fewer rights and opportunities available to them as a matter of policy. But that’s all in the past. Today, the law requires that everyone be treated equally, and indeed, you yourself would never dream of discriminating against anyone, nor can you recall ever witnessing discrimination. If anything, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction: you’re always hearing about special programs and organizations and scholarships for the benefit of women and minorities, and everyone’s under pressure to increase “diversity” — who knows how many qualified white males have been discriminated against due to “political correctness”?

You naturally assume, then, that if women or minorities are underrepresented in certain fields, they must generally be less suited for them, or less interested in them, or less inclined to do the work necessary to succeed in them. Those who complain about being victims of discrimination are whiners, looking to blame others for their own shortcomings. Perhaps you yourself have suffered rejection in the past, say from astronaut school — at which point you didn’t accuse NASA of discrimination, you simply faced facts and got a different job.

Nevertheless, you keep hearing talk about “privilege” and “unconscious bias” from people who seem unimpressed by your logical reasoning. In order to silence the agitators, perhaps there is some scientific way to demonstrate the absence of discrimination in our society?

We could perform a controlled experiment. For example, we could send emails to university professors from fictional prospective students seeking to discuss research opportunities prior to applying to a doctoral program, varying only the name of the fictional student to signal gender and race — and discover that faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from white males (particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions). Or, we could send fictitious resumes in reply to help-wanted ads, varying only the name on the resume to sound either white or African American — and discover that white names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. Or, we could ask university science faculty to rate a fictional student application for a laboratory manager position, varying only the student’s name to be male or female — and discover that the male applicant was rated as significantly more competent and hireable, and was offered a higher starting salary and more career mentoring, than the (identical) female applicant. And so on.

Please understand: the fact that you are privileged does not mean you don’t deserve your own success, didn’t work hard for it, or ought to feel guilty about it; nor does it mean that you are to blame for the inequities of our society. There are, however, things you can do to help. You can support programs that encourage young women and minorities to pursue fields where they’re underrepresented and lack role models and encouragement. You can make an effort to seek out qualified women and minorities when considering candidates for a job, conference, etc. You can avoid perpetuating unjust stereotypes.

But before all that, before we can fix our society and make it more just and equitable, there’s a simple yet crucial step you can take right now.

You can acknowledge the problem.

Unsophisticated visitors May 3, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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The soon-to-open National September 11 Memorial Museum will include a short video called “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” which “refers to the terrorists as Islamists who viewed their mission as a jihad.” I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that some people are unhappy about that.

“The screening of this film in its present state would greatly offend our local Muslim believers as well as any foreign Muslim visitor to the museum,” Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, the imam of Masjid Manhattan, wrote in a letter to the museum’s director. “Unsophisticated visitors who do not understand the difference between Al Qaeda and Muslims may come away with a prejudiced view of Islam, leading to antagonism and even confrontation toward Muslim believers near the site.”

… “The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did,” [Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington] said. “But when you associate their religion with what they did, then you are automatically including, by association, one and a half billion people who had nothing to do with these actions and who ultimately the U.S. would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”

… The museum did remove the term “Islamic terrorism” from its website earlier this month, after another activist, Todd Fine, collected about 100 signatures of academics and scholars supporting its deletion.

In interviews, several leading scholars of Islam said that the term “Islamic terrorist” was broadly rejected as unfairly conflating Islam and terrorism, but the terms Islamist and jihadist can be used, in the proper context, to refer to Al Qaeda, preferably with additional qualifiers, like “radical,” or “militant.”

But for Mr. Elazabawy, and many other Muslims, the words “Islamic” and “Islamist” are equally inappropriate to apply to Al Qaeda, and the word “jihad” refers to a positive struggle against evil, the opposite of how they view the terrorist attacks.

“Don’t tell me this is an Islamist or an Islamic group; that means they are part of us,” he said in an interview. “We are all of us against that.”

The museum still intends to keep the film; and yet,

“What helps me sleep at night is I believe that the average visitor who comes through this museum will in no way leave this museum with the belief that the religion of Islam is responsible for what happened on 9/11,” said Mr. Daniels, the president of the museum foundation. “We have gone out of the way to tell the truth.”

Truly, it’s impossible to underestimate the power of denial and self-delusion. According to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, these are the goals indoctrinated into al-Qaeda trainees:

  1. Establishing the rule of God on Earth.
  2. Attaining martyrdom in the cause of God.
  3. Purification of the ranks of Islam from the elements of depravity.

Al-Qaeda’s motives are explicitly Islamist: that’s all they ever talk about. Even if most Muslims disagree with some parts of al-Qaeda’s theology, it is by no means an implausible interpretation of Islam. (It’s not as if al-Qaeda is our only example of Islam-inspired violence.) And that means that Islam is part of the problem.

Consider, by analogy, the Inquisition — which I’m pretty sure had something to do with Christianity. Why do we no longer see Christians torturing and killing heretics and blasphemers? Is it because the scripture and doctrine of Christianity provide no support for such actions, and those inquisitors were all lunatics? No: it’s because most Christians no longer believe that (those parts of) their scripture should be followed literally. On the other hand, most Muslims still believe that the Koran, which is relentless in its vilification of unbelievers, is the perfect, unquestionable, literal word of God. Anyone who lends legitimacy to that belief system, even if opposed to violence himself, helps provide a basis upon which violent groups can thrive and attract followers.

It matters what people believe. If we want to avoid future atrocities, we need to be honest about what people have done, and continue to do, in the name of faith; and we must be uncompromising in criticizing irrational beliefs. If that offends anyone — sophisticated or not — too bad.

9-11-memorial

Three philosophers March 22, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic, Philosophy, Puzzles.
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Three philosophers are sitting on a bench.

  1. The homophobic philosopher is a deontologist.
  2. The free will libertarian subscribes to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
  3. The consequentialist is addicted to heroin.
  4. The philosopher sitting next to the antisemite is a virtue ethicist.
  5. The hard determinist is sitting next to the cocaine addict.
  6. The philosopher sitting in the middle subscribes to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
  7. The sexist philosopher is a free will compatibilist.
  8. The philosopher subscribing to Bohm’s interpretation of quantum mechanics is not the methamphetamine addict.
  9. The antisemitic philosopher is not sexist, the sexist philosopher is not homophobic, and the homophobic philosopher is not antisemitic.
  10. No philosopher is addicted to more than one substance.

What is the antisemitic philosopher’s position on free will?

In return for our chains March 8, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Freedom.
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In 1890, when American women had no right to vote (the Nineteenth Amendment wasn’t passed till 1920), and marital rape wasn’t considered a crime (which remained the case in some states until 1993), Voltairine de Cleyre gave a lecture entitled “Sex Slavery”.

Let Woman ask herself, “Why am I the slave of Man? Why is my brain said not to be the equal of his brain? Why is my work not paid equally with his? Why must my body be controlled by my husband? Why may he take my labor in the household, giving me in exchange what he deems fit? Why may he take my children from me? Will them away while yet unborn?” Let every woman ask…

From the birth of the Church, out of the womb of Fear and the fatherhood of Ignorance, it has taught the inferiority of woman. In one form or another through the various mythical legends of the various mythical creeds, runs the undercurrent of the belief in the fall of man through the persuasion of woman, her subjective condition as punishment, her natural vileness, total depravity, etc.; and from the days of Adam until now the Christian Church, with which we have specially to deal, has made Woman the excuse, the scapegoat for the evil deeds of man…

At Macon, in the sixth century, says August Bebel, the fathers of the Church met and proposed the decision of the question, “has Woman a soul?” Having ascertained that the permission to own a nonentity wasn’t going to injure any of their parsnips, a small majority vote decided the momentous question in our favor. Now, holy fathers, it was a tolerably good scheme on your part to offer the reward of your pitiable “salvation or damnation” (odds in favor of the latter) as a bait for the hook of earthly submission; it wasn’t a bad sop in those days of faith and ignorance. But fortunately fourteen hundred years have made it stale. You, tyrant radicals, have no heaven to offer, — you have no delightful chimeras in the form of “merit cards;” you have (save the mark) the respect, the good offices, the smiles — of a slave-holder! This in return for our chains! Thanks!

Voltairine

Waiku February 17, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language.
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A waiku is created as follows:

  1. Start from a random Wikipedia page.
  2. Find the first hyperlink on the page that completes a five-syllable sequence of words. (For example, “the body of myths”, or “biographical”.) That is the first line of your waiku.
  3. Follow the hyperlink.
  4. On the page you arrive at, find the first hyperlink that completes a seven-syllable sequence of words. (For example, “in the Pacific Ocean”.) That is the second line of your waiku.
  5. Follow the hyperlink.
  6. On the page you arrive at, find the first hyperlink that completes a five-syllable sequence of words. That is the third and final line of your waiku.

* * *

Zeta1 Scorpii

hypergiant star
luminous sphere of plasma
gas may ionize

* * *

Agent

in economics
how economic agents
in economics

* * *

The Secret Guide to Computers

to their history
they are now, calculators
of arithmetic

* * *

Spottswood William Robinson III

an educator
sense is a form of learning
existing knowledge

* * *

Violence

suicidal thoughts
detailed planning, role playing
to assume a role

* * *

Knowledge

which can include facts
whether it can be proven
proof is sufficient

How to evaluate an argument February 15, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Reason.
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  1. If the argument’s bottom line agrees with what you already believe, go to 8.
  2. Else, begin reviewing the argument in detail.
  3. If you find anything that is just too offensive or counter-intuitive to entertain, go to 8.
  4. Else, if you find anything that could be given a label known to be bad (such as “socialism” or “scientism” or “reductionism”), go to 8.
  5. Else, if you’re able to rebut a simplistic, caricatured version of the argument, go to 8.
  6. Else, conclude there must be something wrong with the argument that escapes you at the moment. (If you’re curious, google “why X is wrong”.) Go to 8.
  7. Turns out you were wrong — change your mind! Go to 9.
  8. Turns out you were right! There’s no need to change your mind.
  9. Congratulate yourself for being rational.
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