Ironic Imaginary Conversations

Photo credit: leafar. via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard reports on research that shows how animosity toward nonbelievers can be reduced by the religious having an imaginary, positive conversation with an atheist. And most of the subjects said they didn’t know any atheists personally:

Those who engaged in the imagined conversation “expressed significantly less distrust toward atheists” than those who simply ruminated about the subject. The researchers conclude this more positive attitude was driven by “more comfort with atheists, and more willingness to engage with atheists.”

Moreover, a reduction in distrust, which the researchers call “the central component of anti-atheist prejudice,” was even found among religious fundamentalists. Perhaps they enjoyed the imaginary give-and-take.

This is encouraging, but just soak in the irony here.

Talking to an imaginary atheist makes a person who normally talks to an imaginary superbeing feel better about atheists.

We’ve been doing this all wrong this whole time. Think of all the social advancement we could have already made if we’d just been make-believe.

Atheists, Ever Shall You Blog

I have a longish piece up at Friendly Atheist today on the future prospects for blogs as a prime medium within the atheist movement. I am bullish on the form. A pinch:

Will skepto-atheists still be relying so heavily on blogs in ten years? I’m guessing yes. The main reason is that we are a movement and a community based largely on proving Some Big Point that most or far too many people still don’t agree with. To be extremely general, let’s say the Big Point is that magical thinking is wrong, and lots of times really bad. You can apply that to all sorts of things, from religion to alt-med to The Secret to UFO conspiracy theories and so on. And blogs are still the best way to make that Big Point.

And I go on. I’d really appreciate it if you gave the post a little Reddit love, keep it afloat and away from the jackals there.

In Which I Read the Sam Harris-Bruce Schneier Debate So You Don’t Have To

Long story short: Sam Harris said that we should specifically profile Muslims at airports, not grandmas in wheelchairs and 4-year-old girls, because if someone’s going to try to crash a plane in 2012, it’s almost certainly going to be a radicalized Muslim. 

Liberals went insane, calling Harris a racist and other terrible things, atheists disowned him, and I think somewhere Gandhi cried. Harris said, okay, then let me debate it with a security expert. He nabbed security bigwig Bruce Schneier, and they had at it on Harris’s blog.

I begin this as a huge fan of Sam Harris. He has helped me find so much clarity on a enormous range of issues, that he’s something of an intellectual role model for me. Even if I disagree with him, the path he takes to his positions I find extremely admirable. 

On this question in particular, I had a lot of cognitive dissonance. My cold, atheist brain said, “Oh right, that makes total sense.” My bleeding, liberal heart went, “But profiling is evil, it casts everyone in the same criminal net!” So I felt quite torn, but unlike many in the atheosphere, I was not willing to toss Harris out with the bathwater, as it were, even if he was wrong. I at no point believed that he came from a place of bigotry or racism or what have you. Others of my atheological ilk did not give him that benefit of the doubt, which I think was a mistake.

Anyway, Harris and Schneier debated at length, and it was a fascinating discussion — often prickly, but always substantive. I chose two pull-quotes that I felt encapsulated the two arguments.

From Harris:

Ordinary bank robbers and murderers are not united by an ideology that they are aggressively seeking to spread—and are spreading, in a hundred countries. They don’t have large networks of support and a larger population of people who sympathize with their basic motives, if not their methods. We do not have charitable foundations and academic departments devoted to promulgating a sympathetic understanding of bank robbery and murder.

In other words, these aren’t lone crazies who could be anybody. There is a specific population that is at the center of this crisis. And there are some people who are so obviously not of this population, that to waste time and energy and money scooping them up is absurd and probably counterproductive.

Here’s Schneier:

It doesn’t matter how effective al Qaeda leaders are at recruiting Muslims who don’t fit the profile. It doesn’t matter what the intelligence says, or who’s right and who’s wrong. By employing a simpler security system, the whole potential avenue of attack—not meeting the profile—disappears.

The wide net is necessary on a utilitarian level, not necessarily on an ideological level in service of the cause of liberal, pluralistic tolerance. Schneier also seems squeamish about profiling in that vein, but his case is technical: The simpler the system, the more bad guys we’ll catch. Sorry, grandma.

And I find that, if nothing else, very compelling. A lot of folks were trumpeting the idea that Harris had been “pwned” by Schneier, and I think that’s stupid. What Schneier did was point out that even if Harris is correct in his rationale, it didn’t make sense when applied practically to the task of weeding out malefactors. 

And this is what I loved about the exchange. It wasn’t a zero-sum, one-guy-is-right-and-the-other-guy-is-an-asshole game. Harris is right: The people trying to bring down planes are radicalized Muslims. It sucks that this is true, and it may not always be true, but it is true now, and all the more pernicious because of the instructions issued to these radicals from their holy book. And Schneier is (I presume) right: A too-nuanced system of profiling turns out to be far more burdensome, expensive, and time-consuming — and therefore less effective — than the simpler system he espouses. 

Hemant gets why this was such a good project:

There’s something to be said for a debate that’s not done in front of a crowd, where emotions and sentiment can get the best of the audience and the debaters end up playing to the audience instead of to each other. Here, both sides are laid out — very fairly, I believe, to Harris’ credit — and we can decide for ourselves which side makes a better case.

Exactly. I challenge my atheist and liberal friends who are hopping mad about Harris to adopt this attitude and tone, resist the knee-jerk reflex to oust him from our intellectual lives, and evaluate the claims calmly and rationally. Like he and Schneier just did. They didn’t wind up agreeing, but they also did right by the issue at hand.


My Treatise on Atheists in Politics is Now a Kindle Book

I know what you want. You want a heavily footnoted, yet deliciously readable academic tract on the plight of American atheists in the contemporary political environment. But you don’t want it to be too long — 50 pages or so will be fine, thank you — and you don’t want it to be so tied to bleeding-edge current events that it has no lasting relevance. Oh, and you’re only interested in reading this tract in an electronic format.

What a coincidence!

In 2008, I wrote a master’s thesis on the above subject, and I recently decided to clean it up, get it all good and formatted, and publish it as an ebook…and a dirt-cheap ebook at that, at 99 cents. So today I published on Amazon’s Kindle Store my once-thesis-now-book, Under the Stained Glass Ceiling: Atheists’ Precarious Place in Modern American PoliticsHere’s my description from the Amazon page:

Being atheistic defines what a person does not believe, but it may not sufficiently describe what one does. This is one of the central sticking points for atheists who hope to make their voices heard in American politics: deciding what those voices should be saying, and then, how best to say it.

For some nonbelieving Americans, the goal is simply to be left alone, free to refrain from worshiping any gods, and have religious Americans keep their supernaturalistic beliefs out of government. For others, there is a feeling that nonbelievers have been champing at the political bit for too long.

This book will explore atheists’ precarious place in American politics, both in terms of their potential for impact and the harsh realities of their station in American society. We will examine the oft-conflicting goals of the nonbelief movement and take a critical look at the dominant strategies for achieving those goals. And in the light of their failures and successes, their public image and their political potency, we will evaluate the prospects for atheism in electoral contests and for mainstream social acceptance. Feeling a renewed sense of purpose, and sensing a rare opportunity, atheist Americans are preparing to mark their territory in the political arena. As has always been the case, however, there is little consensus as to what victory looks like.

The preface covers most of the necessary context (how the content was written in 2008, but now in 2012 there’s little changed in the most important areas), but the long and the short is that I am releasing this somewhat on a whim, mainly to get the material out into the hands of those who might find it of interest. I really do think it’s quite accessible and a genuinely enjoyable read, and it seemed absurd that after so much work put into it that it should simply gather electron-dust on my hard drive. I hope to get it to the iBookstore as well, but that has proven more difficult than I expected, despite the release of iBooks Author.

So, if you have a buck to spare, perhaps you’ll give it a download and check it out. If you like it, I hope you’ll bestow some Amazon love on it in the form of a positive review. Most importantly, if you don’t like it, well, pretend you do and don’t tell me.

Save Science by Not Talking about Science, Ctd.

Side note: My dad actually bought me this shirt. I love it, and my wife hates it when I wear it. She just thinks it makes me look stupid. I don’t think she cares about the rabbit.

John Timmer at Ars Technica places a plague o’ both your houses when it comes to the convenient rejection of scientific fact. And he’s right.

For many in the US, expertise has taken on a negative cultural value; experts are part of an elite that thinks it knows better than the average citizen. (This is accurate, for what it’s worth.) Very few object to that sort of expertise when it comes time to, say, put the space shuttle into orbit, but expertise can become a problem when the experts have reached a consensus that runs against cultural values.

And, for many in our society, scientific expertise has done just that. Abstinence-only sex education has been largely ineffective. Carbon emissions are creating a risk of climate change. Humanity originated via an evolutionary process. All of these findings have threatened various aspects of people’s cultural identity. By rejecting both the science and the expertise behind it, candidates can essentially send a signal that says, “I’m one of you, and I’m with you where it counts.”

This is not some purely partisan phenomenon. On other issues, rejection of scientific information tends to be associated with the political left—the need for animal research and the safety of genetically modified foods spring to mind. These positions, however, are anything but mainstream within the Democratic Party, so candidates have not felt compelled to pander to (or even discuss) them, in most cases. That’s created an awkward asymmetry, one where a single party has a monopoly on public rejection of scientific information and certain kinds expertise.

It’s not really symmetrical; there can be little doubt that the right’s repudiation of reality is far worse than that of the left’s. That said, most of the false panic about vaccinations causing autism, for example, is fomented on the left (and sometimes even aided by left-leaning publications like the Huffington Post). And when nonbelievers who tend toward the Democratic Party make their views known, they often accused not of being too left-wing, but too right-wing, as though their confidence in the nonexistence of a magic super-being (which is based on science, fact, and reality) is somehow equivalent to the right’s zealous insistence of the opposite (which is not); it goes against the more mainstream left wing value of tolerance and diversity for their own sakes.

But to Timmer’s point, a lot of this organized willful ignorance is abetted by a general American distrust of experts and intelligence. It seems to threaten people when it’s not fully graspable immediately. (Note the different attitudes to expertise in athletics or business, which I think doesn’t seem as arcane to the general public.) Which is why, politically, I think these arguments for now need to be framed not in terms of which academics agree with what proposition, but what is simply true, like gravity makes things come down, like fire burns and ice is cold. It’s probably our only shot.

First post on this topic here.

Save Science By Not Talking about Science

 ”At last! I have discovered the formula for making the uneducated feel even MORE inadequate!”

I almost wasn’t going to read the recent Paul Krugman column on the proud anti-science stance of mainstream Republican thought. You know, “this also just in: Fire is hot.”

But it got so much attention in my social media circles, that I decided to read it anyway, and I’m glad I did, if only for the closing paragraph:

Now, we don’t know who will win next year’s presidential election. But the odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.

“Anti-knowledge” is the key. I’m going to put my political communications hat on here, and dissect what may be one reason why this issue doesn’t get as much traction as it ought to.

To folks who are into science or are a part of the secularist/atheist movement, the word “science” means something big, important, and fundamental about human knowledge. We (usually) understand that when we talk about science, we’re not necessarily talking about the products of science, but the act of science: exploring questions, testing hypotheses, developing theories, all based on observable data. We know that to be “anti-science” means what Krugman says it means, to be anti-knowledge.

But I think that when the general public hears the word “science,” something different is evoked. They think of dudes in lab coats, robots, medicine, eggheaded professors pontificating with polysyllabic words. And that’s the best case scenario. Cassini scientist Carolyn Porco has addressed the strong cultural bias against science and its practitioners, and I reported on her address to the 2009 Atheist Alliance International convention thusly:

The hurdle, according to her, was the deeply ingrained image of scientists and technology as negative, the near-universal portrayal of scientists and intellectuals as villains, as cold, or as socially inept. Often set up as archetypes to be ridiculed, hated, or feared, Porco said that popular culture usually associates science with disasters, “Frankensteins”, and people who are “too brilliant for their own good.”

“It is not uncommon for people to respond [to scientists and science] with ambivalence,” she said. “To see the evil scientist receive his or her comeuppance is soothing.”

In other words, the term “science,” and all of its associations, carry far too much baggage to be politically useful. For too many Americans, the notion of being hostile to science is not only acceptable, but validating of one’s own ignorance.

This is why we in the reality-based community should, for now, abandon the term when dealing with deniers of climate change and evolution, and the conspiracists who foment anti-medicine paranoia (such as those opposed to vaccinations). Instead, we should talk about folks like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann as anti-knowledge, anti-progress, anti-reality. (We should not bother calling them “anti-intellectual,” because if the general public is uneasy about scientists, imagine how hostile they feel toward “intellectuals.”) These fools and frauds should be called out for living in a fantasy world, for hawking nonsense that would get snake oil salesmen run out of town, and for dragging our society back to the Bronze Age.

But at this time in our rhetorical history, we should stop talking about “science.” As the hubbub over Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape shows us, even we skeptics and allegedly pro-knowledge folks can misunderstand what the word “science” means in certain contexts.

Given all this, let’s surrender the word for now in this political debate. Let’s talk about being against facts, against the truth. Science itself will be better off for it in the long run.

The WTC Cross: Like it or Not, It’s a Piece of History

Among the many government-funded museums of New York, Washington, and other cities across the country, there are historical artifacts and pieces of art that are significant to their creators and to their later admirers for their religious meaning. From ancient Egyptian idols and glyphs, to Renaissance paintings of Christ, from the religious trinkets of concentration camp victims in the Holocaust Museum, to Bibles owned by American presidents, all these items have a place in our national memory and deserve to be housed and protected at taxpayer expense, not because they are religious, but because they help tell the story of who we are, and who we were. Regardless of our religious or nonreligious affiliation, they are part of our human story.

That is why that even as a hardliner secularist, even as an evil, arrogant, militant, fundamentalist New Atheist, I believe that the so-called World Trade Center cross belongs in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. American Atheists, a group with whom I have worked and whose leader, Dave Silverman, I know and deeply respect, is suing to keep the cross — two steel girders which emerged from the smoldering wreckage of Ground Zero in a cross shape — from being displayed in the museum on mainly constitutional grounds, lest it be accompanied by religious and nonreligious symbols from all sects that wish to have their point of view represented.

I think this is the wrong fight. As with the examples I mentioned in the opening of this post, the cross is a part of the story of the attacks and their aftermath. It so happens that we live in a predominantly-Christian country, and in the event of such a trauma, there will be a lot of meaning that surrounds the accidental appearance of such an object, and events will coalesce as they will. Yes, it’s meaning is religious, but its existence is historical.

Here’s a piece of American Atheists’ argument:

[Plaintiffs] find the cross, a symbol of Christianity, offensive and repugnant to their beliefs, culture, and traditions, and allege that the symbol marginalizes them as American citizens.

[ … ]

Plaintiff American Atheists opposed inclusion of a cross on the grounds that other religious groups were not given the opportunity for a similar faithbased memorial at the site of an American tragedy.

It would be different if a Christian-themed display were being constructed out of whole cloth just for the purposes of the museum. That would be a clear violation of the Constitution, and I would join American Atheists in opposition. But this is akin to suing to hide away Lincoln’s Bible. It doesn’t matter that Abe’s book was a Christian tome. What matters is that it was Abe’s. If he were also leafing through his own copy of On the Origin of Species, I’d want that saved, too.

To get a clearer picture of the intent, read the museum’s own description of its mission, and it’s idea of what the cross represents:

The mission of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, opening in September 2012, is to tell the history of 9/11 through historic artifacts like the World Trade Center Cross. In the historical exhibition, the Cross is part of our commitment to bring back the authentic physical reminders that tell the story of 9/11 in a way nothing else can.

In addition to the Cross, other religious artifacts that will be displayed in the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s historical exhibition include a Star of David cut from World Trade Center steel and a Bible fused to a piece of steel that was found during the recovery effort.

In everyday context, these things are purely religious. In the context of the events of that day, as the American Jewish Committee’s Mark D. Stern told the New York Times, “It’s a significant part of the story of the reaction to the attack, and that is a secular piece of history.”

And so it is. I don’t like the idea one iota that in a time of great tragedy, people find their hope not necessarily in each other’s goodness, but in the notion that an invisible sky-emperor took the time not to save lives or change hearts, but to stick a couple of pieces of debris in the shape of a T. I wish with all my heart that people did not waste their energy and emotions on a being that is not really there and never will or can do anything for them.

But I don’t have to like it. The World Trade Center cross was there, and the people of New York divested it with meaning, and thus it became a character in the story of the 9/11 attacks. Its placement in the museum is not an endorsement of Christianity, it’s a page in that story. Whether I like that part of the story or not.

Update: Katherine Fellows makes an excellent point on Twitter, one which I wish I’d made myself.