Link Parade 6/30/13

Here’s a collection of things I wanted to talk about but don’t have a full post in me for.

1. Apparently, Ohio is also passing an abortion ban, presumably to create the jobs they keep saying is their priority. Miri has the details and is encouraging people to call John Kaisich and tell him to line-item veto that provision from the budget bill. I encourage you to go over there and get the details on how. I just did, and I don’t even think modern Republicans ever give a shit about public opinion, but it didn’t hurt me. The part that gets me, however, is this bit:

Doctors must inform patients seeking abortions exactly how much money the clinic made from abortions within the past year, and how much money the clinic stands to lose if the patient chooses not to get an abortion. In case it’s unclear, the point of this is to warn patients that there is a “conflict of interest” involved in providing abortions because clinics can make money from them. This is ridiculous because any medical procedure can make money for doctors and hospitals.

You’ll notice that with the advent of 501(c)4s and the GOP’s favorite Court ruling, Citizen’s United, that the opposite is true of them. If I were a principled Democrat in Ohio, every bill will have a proposed amendment that you cannot submit a bill in the state legislature without it saying how much you have received from the relevant special interest group and how much you stand to lose in campaign donations if the bill doesn’t pass.

2.Will Wilkinson talks about why Republicans would bother standing against immigration reform when it’s clear that even 86% of Republican voters think a “pathway to citizenship” is a good idea. And the answer is that they have a hard core base that really is dedicated to identity politics.

The energetic ideological base of the Republican Party is a nationalist, identity-politics movement for relatively well-to-do older white Americans known as the “tea party”. The tea party is interested in bald eagles, American flags, the founding fathers, Jesus Christ, fighter jets, empty libertarian rhetoric, and other markers of “authentic” American identity and supremacy. That America is “a nation of immigrants” is a stock piece of American identity politics, but the immigrants that made America America were, well, not Mexican, and spoke English, or at least Pennsylvania Dutch. Sorry Mexicans! Even if each element of immigration reform, taken in isolation, is agreed to be a good idea by a solid majority of Republican voters, Republican politicians must nevertheless avoid too-enthusiastically supporting this package of good ideas, lest they fail to project sufficient appreciation for the importance of keeping America American and putting Americans first.

This is where I think there is an element of cognitive dissonance present in a lot of GOP voters. They don’t think of themselves as hurting immigrants, they don’t want to hurt anybody, but they also want to feel more authentic, more American than somebody, and immigrants are a traditional target. They prioritize their desire to feel superior, better than, over their desire to help people who may have been raised in this country, entirely unaware that their parents brought them here illegally as babies. They aren’t entirely unfeeling toward other people, which is why they support parts of the bill, but a whole bill threatens their feeling of supremacy and that cannot happen.

3. This is the boy I wish I was when I was 13. In fact, this is the boy I wished I was when I was 13. Will Phillips has been a social justice activist since he was 10 years old. Matt Barber has questioned his motivations and suggested he’s been “brainwashed” (which is wingnut speak for “taught that other people matter”). He initially got famous for refusing to say the Pledge because he didn’t feel that we did have “liberty and justice for all.” Most recently, he spoke at the Northwest Arkansas Pride Parade. This kid is amazing and has a bright future ahead of him. Go read about him now.

4. TW: cults, murder, homophobia. “Lord” Pete Moses is the leader of a Judaism-based cult. And he has just been found guilty of murdering two of his followers, one of which was a 4-year-old boy who was killed because Moses thought he was gay. At the very least he will be going to jail, the sick fuck. Sentencing is next Friday.

5. If you have small children, you should fill out this form saying you would be interested in getting them this awesome toy to teach your youngsters about evolution. Even if you don’t have kids you should fill it out. This is not buying the product, they are gauging interest in it, and filling out the initial form will not ask you for credit card information, but will give you an opportunity to give comments.

6. If you remember me talking about Joe Klein and how he apparently doesn’t understand that atheists help people, there have been multiple updates. First, Klein himself tried to weasel his way out of his comments by claiming that he only meant organized atheist groups, which is still incorrect. Now Time has come out with its own statement, and basically they’re supporting Klein, which is why I highly suggest that you contact Time and let them know that this is utterly unacceptable, that inaccurate reporting has no excuse, and that you intend to cancel your subscription if you have one.

On a side note, I was helping my friend with her baby yesterday. Funny how Joe Klein wasn’t there to help.

7. This baby duck was born with a deformed leg. So, rather than give him a peg leg or letting him suffer, science has found a solution. Using a 3D printer, people made a mold for a silicone prosthetic leg and foot for Buttercup. All the feels for this one.

8. I was torn about this for a whole 3 seconds before recognizing the problems with it. Basically, it’s a website that is encouraging a movement for “Christian Domestic Discipline” which we are told is a consensual arrangement that includes male domination and punishments like spanking.

Christian Domestic Discipline is not BDSM. It is not a game. While we do not deny its sometimes erotic nature, it is ultimately not for erotic purposes. It is often much different than the domestic discipline you will find outside of the Christian faith.

The thing is, it sounds a lot like BDSM. However, my experience has taught me that I can’t trust that Christianists aren’t lying when they say stuff like “consensual”, and there is a question of whether a lifetime’s worth of being told that this is the natural order of things leaves a person in a position to meaningfully consent or not. However, giving the women involved in this the benefit of the doubt, I see nothing on their website about wives who want to exit this “consensual” arrangement, or merely drop that aspect of it without getting a divorce. I also see no mention of safe words and very little in the way of safety instructions to keep husbands from going too far (I suppose god will stop them?), which means it is very, very, very not BDSM. Essentially, as a Dom/sub relationship with a religious play component, this could be really hot. As a lifestyle with no escape routes, no safety instructions, and no apparent care for the lives of women who get into this other than value paternalistic nonsense, it sounds both dangerous and abusive, despite claims that it is not (because saying that something is not abusive/racist/homophobic/otherwise awful totes makes it true).

9. #4 on this Fred Clark link list. Just go read it.

I think that’s everything for now. Oh, if you haven’t, please go vote on my new tagline. It’ll only take a second and be really helpful.

Confronting the “Best Arguments”

Most people are pretty sure they’re right. Not necessarily about everything, but there are a few things they feel absolutely confident about. I know that I feel free damn confident about most of the stuff that goes up here, and when I’m not I will say so. However, there are two implications to this confidence: either I am really, truly amazing and right about everything I believe, or I am wrong about some things and haven’t heard the right argument yet.

It’s the latter that I find people banking more more and more. Let’s look at some examples:

What are marriage advocates to do? How can marriage—a thorough defense of which requires deep theological reflection or the complex natural law web of anthropological, historical, social, and scientific ideas contained in [Robert George’s] What is Marriage—compete with “all you need is love”? – Eric Teetsel, “On Winning the Marriage Debate


Not for Hitchens the rich cross-cultural fertilization of the Levant by Helenistic, Jewish, and Manichaean thought. Not for Hitchens the transformation of a Jewish heretic into a religion that Nietzsche called “Platonism for the masses.” Not for Hitchens the fascinating theological fissures in the New Testament between Jewish, Gnostic, and Pauline doctrines. – Curtis White, “Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheism no favors


“Either this group is completely ignorant of arguments for and against God’s existence or they’re ignorant of the best theistic scholarship.” – Anugrah Kumar, quoting William Lane Craig, “Christian Philosopher William Lane Craig Calls Atheist Hotline a ‘Wrong Number’” (warning that the Christian Post is particularly annoying with its ads, with video ads that keep restarting if you pause or mute them)

We often see this regarding religious or theistic arguments, but it’s becoming quite popular among people who continue to put forward bad arguments: simply claim that the person who doesn’t buy into them hasn’t heard all the really good reasons why we should buy into what they’re saying. I think it’s a variation on The Courtier’s Reply.

I’ve encountered this before with theists and when I ask them to actually present those really good arguments, I will generally get a form of Pascal’s Wager. Occasionally I will get the Kalam Cosmological Argument and very rarely anything different. Unfortunately, both Pascal and Kalam are very easily debunked. In fact, I took a look at Craig’s (which is not as cool as a reasonable conversation, let me tell you) and it’s almost all Pascal and Kalam. You don’t have to believe me, go check it out yourself. I fact, if you check out his “The New Atheism and Five Arguments for God,” (for example) you can see that he brings up Kalam, but also the Thomstic Cosmological argument, the Moral Argument, the Teleological Argument (which is by far the most ridiculous and easy to argue against, as far as I’m concerned), and the ever absurd Ontological Argument, which is really just such a joke on the face of it that I’m going to assume it was developed by Dr. Frank-n-furter. Though I will point out that he forgot the Argument from Tigers.

I’ve looked at that site for a while now and see very little that isn’t a variation on these five, so I can’t help but ask Dr. Craig…where are you hiding these “best arguments”? Because the ones you presented are all childishly simple and only really convincing to people who want to agree with the premise.

Oh, and there’s the very popular “it’s a mystery“. That works for a lot of things.

Going to the Teetsel piece, we see basically the same argument being made for conservative principles. The problem is that people just don’t understand the wealth of thought and philosophy that goes into being a conservative, and are instead distracted by pop culture and celebrities. Liberalism, according to Teetsel, is the result of an abandonment of thought to shiny entertainment.

This is even more absurd than the Ontological argument. Teetsel is trying to tell us that the ideology that aligns itself with people who think somebody rose from the dead (several people, actually), the ideology that consistently denies the findings of science, the ideology that has never been right about a social issue since the founding of this country (and not too often before), is the thinking person’s option?

As David Sessions points out in this article for Patrol,

So Teetsel can’t pretend that the gay rights movement won simply by circumventing an intellectual debate. They had the intellectual debate when the religious right so took its own position for granted that it thought it didn’t need to argue; when the right finally started playing catch-up, even the most sophisticated versions of its ideas were too far outside the mainstream for a secular democracy. The right didn’t lose because of the “packaging” of its ideas, it lost because those ideas themselves were defeated in battle. (Similarly, Romney lost the election not because he didn’t get the conservative message across, but precisely because he did.)

This is also a lot like Penny Nance’s preposterous assertion on Mike Huckabee’s show that conservatives on college campuses are being “bullied” because they can’t explain their opposition to things like same-sex marriage. The sad truth is that they are able to articulate their positions just fine.

So, here’s the deal: we’ve heard your arguments, and they suck. I’m sorry, I don’t know if you’re just really invested in these things being true that you miss the obvious flaws in what you’re saying or what, but these arguments are truly awful. Fortunately, you don’t have to feel awful for having had them: you can change your mind. In fact, that would be great.

But if there are arguments that you’re hiding from me, ones that suddenly make it plausible that a wizard who lives on a cloud is up there mucking about with our lives, or that magically makes welfare queens a reality, or that convinces me that I’m a bad person for a propensity to not only be attracted to men but also act on it, now’s the time to break them out. Seriously, I don’t know what you guys are waiting for. Isn’t it time, after all this joking around, to break out the real “best arguments”? These are the gag arguments, right?


CFI Shows Zero Backbone

I’m a liberal Democrat, so I’m rather used to the leaders that ostensibly support the things I care about backing down in the face of a fight. It’s frustrating as all hell, but you eventually come to expect it, at least politically.

Still, I am fairly new to the wider atheist/skeptical movement, and I’m still getting used to which groups hold the same values that I do. I remember when the Secular Coalition of America (what I call the “other SCA”) hired a Republican lobbyist who basically spent her career up to that point getting people elected that stood against everything the other SCA does to run the organization…and that hasn’t turned out horrible.

CFI originally attracted me because I thought that Melody Hensley and Debbie Goddard were pretty damn awesome. Michael De Dora does a really tough job as well, and so do many of the other staffers who work there. In fact, though people will say otherwise, there has been very little blowback against the Center for Inquiry since its CEO, Ron Lindsay, decided to lecture a bunch of feminists on what feminism is and isn’t.

That is until they released the result of their discussion on the matter which is…less than stellar.

The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

The Center for Inquiry, including its CEO, is dedicated to advancing the status of women and promoting women’s issues, and this was the motivation for its sponsorship of the two Women in Secularism conferences. The CFI Board wishes to express its unhappiness with the controversy surrounding the recent Women in Secularism Conference 2.

CFI believes in respectful debate and dialogue. We appreciate the many insights and varied opinions communicated to us. Going forward, we will endeavor to work with all elements of the secular movement to enhance our common values and strengthen our solidarity as we struggle together for full equality and respect for women around the world.

I’m sorry, but this is a fucking joke. Seriously, what could have possibly been going through the heads of the board of directors when they drafted this? Did they think that it would be accepted?

The fact of the matter is that they are making it perfectly clear that they have no interest in maintaining the confidence of the social justice-minded among the atheist movement. This is a shame since Women in Secularism is a great idea and one that can really do a lot of good for the movement, but not if it seems as if they’re doing this to check off a box. I believe that members of the staff are passionate about getting women involved in secularism, but it seems like the leadership sees it as a nuisance.

Greta Christina and Rebecca Watson have both pulled their support from the organization, which probably means very little to those in charge. We’ve also started to see the emergence of the predictable distortions, such as this signable open letter which reads in part

We are aware that the silencing tactics, accusations, shaming and/or smearing campaigns employed by influential representatives of the Atheism Plus movement – particularly certain bloggers and speakers associated with Skepchick and Freethought Blogs – have included calls to interfere with the careers and personal lives of valuable contributors to the secular/atheist/skeptic movement. We are witnessing an effort to purge supposed undesirables from the movement, based on personal and political agenda. We do not condone this. Some of us have been directly targeted by these tactics, and others of us are afraid to use our real names online, let alone attend conferences, because we fear we may be targeted next.

We are aware of a campaign, headed by Amanda Marcotte and others, to remove Ronald A. Lindsay from his position as CEO of the Center for Inquiry. We do not support this effort.

Where? Where has anybody, Amanda Marcotte or otherwise, lead a “campaign” for Ron Lindsay to be fired? Everybody I have read has asked for an apology, either from him or on his behalf. And who is calling to interfere with the careers of people? This is completely made up nonsense, a collection of hyperbolic ghost stories told by anti-feminists to justify their harassment tactics. The point of this letter is just to tell the world that the undersigned don’t have any problems with people treating others horribly. They’re fine, so why should they give a shit about anybody else?

Basically, this is weapons grade projection.

The thing is, I am entirely unsurprised by this. Seriously, I’ve already seen how this mythology is built. First the statement comes from CFI that is so ambiguous that it says absolutely nothing but tries to shift blame away from itself and its CEO, then people pretend that there is some horrible campaign to get people fired (that they will refuse to support or support with comments on blogs that go against the things the blogger has said), then it’s all about how hateful we A+ers are because we’re stifling free inquiry and a false equivalence is made between the right to free speech and the fictional right to be given a platform.

This is an old script. We have new elements (let’s see how long it takes the Vacula to get Ron Lindsay on his radio show), but ultimately it’s the same thing. Anti-feminists will pretend that they care about free speech so long as you’re loud enough to yell over them and embellish the truth because that’s how good skeptics win arguments, apparently.

*sigh* At least there’s still American Atheists. Dave Muscato and Dave Silverman seem to understand that just because something doesn’t make you personally uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean you should stand by and let other people be harassed. That’s really what this boils down to: CFI has stated clearly that they’re good, so what does it benefit them to be concerned with somebody else? That’s a sad attitude to have.

Paying Attention to the Experts

In March 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary invented the following words: boccio, podium, and whip-smart. They also created an entirely new definition of the word “blue,” so you may want to consider looking it up so that you don’t mis-use it.

What’s that you say? The OED didn’t invent those words? Well, my good fellow or female version of the word “fellow”, you would be mistaken. You see, Richard Dawkins is quite emphatic on this point, though I’m not sure he understands that implication of his recent Twitter-splosion.

Ok, first thing’s first. Can somebody, anybody, when speaking to Richard Dawkins in person, try to talk him out of his weird insistence on trying to discuss deep, meaningful questions in 140 character bursts? I mean, this seems like a lot of fun at a party of philosophers (especially if you add a strip component), but when you are looking to actually address a situation, the intentionally limited nature of Twitter makes for more confusion than anything else. If it were simply useless, that would be one thing, but it is actively confusing, and that can be a problem.

What Dawkins actually did was claim, essentially, that it’s so unfair that people who point out white male privilege aren’t consider racist or sexist because of it.

Now I will give him some credit, this didn’t come out of nowhere. He started by talking about what had happened in Woolwhich and discussing the murderer’s words, specifically how he both seemed to consider the British to be Other to him and how he considered Britain to be “our land”. It’s a weird dichotomy that I think bears exploration.

Then somebody said this.

NadiaNouiMehidi Nadia Noui-Mehidi
@RichardDawkins you do the insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers thing well, but maybe stick to biology.
I’m not quite sure where this came from, but again, Twitter. Context is the first thing to go. However, I don’t think that can explain Dawkins’ response.
  1. @NadiaNouiMehidi Why is it permissible to be racist & sexist, just so long as you attack white males?
  2. “insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers.” Racism & sexism are fine, so long as they point in the right direction!
OK, what the fuck just happened there? Suffice it to say that it goes on and Dawkins continues to insist that pointing out his privilege is racism and sexism because the dictionary says that that’s what those words mean.
Richard Dawkins
Some people here think you can’t be racist against white people! Look it up in dictionary. Needless to say, no power asymmetry is mentioned.
Richard Dawkins
@rachelmack @CabbagetownMatt Really? By whose dictionary? Certainly not the Oxford Dictionary. Dictionary of sociology perhaps? Ah yes.
This poses two major problems.
The first is his immediately going to the dictionary, which is where I started this blog. Dictionaries are not authoritative arbiters of words and their meanings, they are reflections of the state of language. The writers of the Oxford English Dictionary did not invent a single word placed in it, and when they change the meaning of words that’s not where the change originates. The words that are added and the changes made reflect a long-term change in how a word is used in actual conversation for a long period of time.
The last part is key. It takes quite some time for dictionaries to update their definitions of things, because they’re trying to reflect an accurate and stable definition of words. It’s part of the reason why the definition of “radical” didn’t change to “expressive of the best potential in life; awesome; gnarly; tubular” in the 1980s and early 90s. This was unquestionably what a huge proportion of the population (myself included) used the word to mean during the period, especially with the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but OED is careful about changing the definition of words in their publication to avoid fads. However, that does not change that that is precisely what that word meant in certain contexts during the time, even if the OED says that “radical” means, “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.” I suspect that’s not what Raph was talking about, at least.
The second problem is that Dawkins shows a pretty extreme contempt for sociologists throughout this exchange. This is absolutely baffling, since sociologists are the people who dedicate their lives to studying this sort of thing! For a guy who spends a good portion of his life arguing with people who think they know more about biology than him despite having never studied biology, you would think that he would be a little more accepting of other people’s expertise in various fields. To quote Aoife over at the Tea Cozy,
People who have never taken a sociology class in their lives, who know nothing about social theory, research, methodologies (and the reasons behind them), who figure that they somehow know more about it than, well, the entirety of sociology and sociologists. And anthropology and anthropologists (lovely bunch).
I think what Dawkins is saying here is even worse than just that sociologists aren’t qualified to talk about society and social science. He is actually saying that while sociologists aren’t qualified, dictionary writers are. Seriously, he’s saying that the definitions of racism and sexism that were written at the OED offices are somehow more accurate than the one used by people who spend their lives advancing scholarship in the field that studies those phenomena. It’s one thing to entirely dismiss a field of study with centuries of research and data that accurately predicts societal trends and advancement, but it’s quite another to say that the people who figure out how to explain the way that people use certain words should be more trusted to answer questions related to that field.
Today, wrote a followup to John Scalzi’s famous “Lowest Difficulty Setting” post, which was reposted at Kotaku. Basically, Luke McKinney went into the comments of that Kotaku post and found examples of exactly the kind of privilege that Scalzi was talking about. Dawkins fairly often exhibits four out of five of the ones McKinney points out, but #1 is the most applicable to this situation. Let me quote, emphasis his.

Apparently, being a straight white male is actually the hardest difficulty because of political correctness. People can’t mock anyone else, so they mock the poor straight white man! Listen: If the people victimizing you are affected by political correctness, you have never been victimized.

Political correctness only stops the kind of people who use a thesaurus to get away with being snide. “Political correctness gone mad!” is how you announce to the world that you have no real problems but don’t appreciate the fact and should be harvested for organs as soon as possible.

Dawkins has a habit of digging in and dismissing expertise that isn’t his own. Basically, unless you happen to know a lot about things Richard Dawkins knows about, your knowledge is considered useless. I think part of this is that Dawkins has a lot of respect for his field, and part of it is that because he knows so much about evolutionary biology, for example, he is less inclined to be hyper-skeptical because he can more readily evaluate the worth of a given argument.

This is important. It’s pretty easy for me, with a degree in English, to determine whether a given interpretation of a text is valid. I’ve had years of training to be able to do so. Even if it’s an interpretation that goes against what I would normally consider to be correct, I am able to, with the knowledge and resources I have readily available, determine almost instantly whether I should give it credence, so I’m less inclined to be hyper-skeptical about it because I have a basis on which I can make a determination. This wouldn’t be true of evolutionary biology, which I know very little about, especially in comparison to somebody like Dawkins.

However, what often ends up happening is that Dawkins will hear something that violates his pre-conceived notions of a subject he knows very little about, and when somebody who knows more than him points out that he’s saying something entirely incorrect, he’ll dismiss the more experienced and knowledgeable person because… he knows a lot about evolutionary biology, I guess. It’s like when he had an argument over Twitter with Ana Mardoll in which he claimed to know more about the purposes of gene testing embryos for IVF (i.e. it’s about testing for potential to survive pregnancy, not for creating designer babies) than she did, despite her having done so and he having not. Mardoll clearly knows more about this than Dawkins, yet he refuses to accept that, so much so that at the end he points out that he always says exactly what he means, and people who misinterpret his words are the wrong ones, basically insisting that language is a solitary activity, not the most efficient way of transferring data between two or more parties that we currently know.

Dawkins has always had an ego. Some people consider it charming, I find myself more and more irritated by it every day. It’s not that Dawkins is a bad guy and I recognize his contributions to atheism as a movement, but given the choice I would rather hear Julia Galef, Melody Hensley, Dave Silverman, Darrel Ray, Jen McCreight, or JT Eberhard speak than Dawkins. I can be sure with them that they haven’t stopped exploring a topic because they think they have an answer, that they recognize the world is more complex than can be expressed in 140 characters, that they are willing to listen to people who might know more than them about a given subject, and, most of all, that they know how dictionaries work.

Quantum Palaver

I spend a lot of time ranting here about the religious right and their absurd ideas about the universe, but make no mistake, I am just as hard on the new age left when they try to pull those sorts of stunts. It’s only that they have little to no power to affect the lives of others (or even themselves) that keeps them out of my writing. That being said, sometimes something so profoundly stupid is said, I have no choice but to respond.

Several days ago, a number of pseudoscientific frauds, including Deepak Chopra, wrote a letter to TED complaining that they’re being censored, something about freedom of ideas, upset that what they do isn’t considered real science, etc. The reason for this is that  TEDx talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, two people who have done legitimate work early in their careers but somewhere along the way abjured science for endless “what if” games, we not posted on the main TEDx site, but rather on a site for talks that don’t really meet the criteria of advancing legitimate ideas for real discussion that TED tries to promote.

For the most part, Jerry Coyne has fun reveling in the fact that such a celebrated con artist as Chopra is upset by the militant atheist bloggers like himself who helped convince TED that they didn’t want to be involved with parapsychologists and people who spend their time searching for mythological items. I can’t blame him, that’s a pretty high honor. How many people must be trying to point out that Chopra and his ilk are full of shit on a daily basis? It would be like Timmy Dolan complaining about attractive, young, long-haired bloggers making life difficult for him.

But here’s the part where I lost it.

The reason becomes clear when you discover that non-local consciousness means the possibility that there is mind outside the human brain or even outside material reality, that a conscious mind is in some way intrinsic to the quantum universe, and that we all are quantum entangled.

Ok, stop right there. No. No, no, no. That’s not what that means. At all.

Which is why we’re going to discuss a little quantum physics. Don’t worry, I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.

“Quantum physics” does not mean “mind over matter.” That is the first thing that we need to understand before moving forward. You will hear a lot from new agers about how quantum physics suggests that good, happy, fuzzy feelings make the world an objectively better place by altering the fabric of existence with your mind. But let’s examine what they mean.

To start with, this is going to be difficult because while both sides of this debate use the terms of quantum physics, only one side actually employs the math of quantum physics, so I can’t show you where Chopra and Co. (which would be a great name for a rock band) got their math wrong. They have no math. And I struggle with math, so I wouldn’t be the best person to find their mistakes. But at least we can look at claims and see what they really mean. There will be a Tl;dr summary at the end of the big section, for those who don’t love physics.

Heisenberg and the Observer Effect

The first thing that you will notice about the claims of people like Chopra is that much of their nonsense stems from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says that we can never know the exact position and velocity of an electron at the same time, and the Observer Effect, which says that the act of measuring something that exists in a quantum state (one that is undetermined) will actually make it deterministic. Here’s a good explanation of what quantum is examining:

In quantum mechanics we learn that the behavior of the very smallest objects (like electrons, for example) is very unlike the behavior of everyday things like baseballs. When we throw a baseball at a wall, we can predict where it will be during its flight, where it will hit the wall, how it will bounce, and what it will do afterward.

When we fire an electron at a plate with two closely spaced slits in it, and detect the electron on a screen behind these slits, the behavior of the electron is the same as that of a wave in that it can actually go though both holes at once. This may seem odd, but its true. If we repeat this experiment lots of times with lots of electrons, we see that some positions on the screen will have been hit by many electrons and some will have been hit by none. The observed “interference pattern” for these electrons is evidence of their dual wave-particle nature, and is well described by thinking of each electron as a superposition of two “states”, one that goes through one slit, one that goes through the other.

Chopra argues that because we can’t know where electrons are and where they’re going at the same time, and because the act of observation seems to make it so that one “state” is “chosen” over the other, then that means that we can choose the direction of electrons and, if we observe really, really hard, get enough electrons to go our way and therefore change the whole universe.

The problem with this is so manifold I hardly know where to begin. The first is that, as was pointed out in the quote, electrons don’t behave the same way as larger objects. Just because larger objects have electrons in them does not mean that making a bunch of electrons move in a certain way makes the object do that, and even if you could control the direction of large objects via their electrons, that doesn’t mean that the universe can be bent to your will.

The second problem is that there is no way to “choose” a direction for an electron to go. Ideas like The Secret try to push this idea that just expecting something to be true will make it true by “magnetically” pulling what you want to you via the concept of “like attracts like.” They even got Fred Alan Wolf, an actually physicist, to throw his support to this notion, but as is the case with most woo-ish nonsense, Wolf lends his pHD to those pushing the “quantum means like attracts like” crowd to make ridiculous and unsupported statements, then hides behind the training he isn’t using to come to those conclusions. If a medical doctor did the stuff Wolf does, they would be sued for malpractice.

Finally, even if it meant something to determine the direction of electrons, and even if we could specifically determine what direction they would go in, most of us have no way of doing so. This is where the woomeisters really try to pull a fast one. This is the informal logical fallacy known as Equivocation, which is using a word with two definitions to mean one thing when you actually mean the other. In this case, the word is “observer.”

The “Observer Effect” does not mean that when you look at an electron, it goes from being in multiple, quantum states to only being in one state. If that were the case, we wouldn’t know they were even in multiple, quantum states to begin with. What “observe” means, in this case, is to take scientific measurements of, not just to look at. The reason why electrons go from being in multiple states to just one is that the act of measuring forces that to happen.

Think of it like this: imagine you have a large bowl of water with a bullet vibe on the bottom. The surface of the water is calm, but you know that if that vibe is going, the water could be shaking like crazy down at the bottom, and you want to know whether the vibe is on or not. So you, like the good scientist you are, get some measuring tools to put into the water to see if it’s moving. However, by putting the measuring tools into the water, you’re disturbing the water, making sure that it’s moving. Whether the bullet vibe was on or not, the water is now in motion because of your attempt to measure. Before that, however, we couldn’t know whether it was in motion or not, and no amount of staring at it would have changed that.

Wave Function Collapse

Another thing that you’ll hear from Chopra is that “consciousness is a series of wave function collapses”. Basically, the argument seems to be that since there seems to be no physical “seat of the soul” or observable (using the scientific definition) evidence of a spirit or consciousness, that that clearly means they exist in a state of being that is superimposed on the material world and the act of looking around us makes the infinitely possible state of the universe collapse into a single one that we see via the above-mentioned observer effect. This is known as “quantum consciousness”, I believe, but it’s hard to tell for certain as people like Chopra excel at saying absolutely nothing at length.

Let’s do some math.

 | \psi \rangle = \sum_i c_i | \phi_i \rangle .

That equation above represents a wave function. I know it looks complicated, but it’s not that bad. The phi i at the end there represents all of the possible “alternative” states, which could be denoted as phi 1, phi 2, phi 3, etc. These each represent a different eigenstate, which basically is just the value around which other things change. For the math to work, an observable aspect of any given eigenstate is picked (either position or momentum, remember Heisenberg) and assigned an eiganvalue, ei, of the system.

So, what we have here is a bunch of possibilities and an equation to describe (not predict) them. We also have a hypothesis that if an electron is at a specific place, it will match at least one of the observations that we gave an eiganvalue to. So now we can test to see which one it is. The problem is that when we test it, we jostle and shake those electrons in the process, so like the slit experiment quoted above, we take something that behaves like a wave (going through both slits at once), and “collapsing” it so that it only behaves like a particle (goes through one slit in the metal or the other).

None of that has anything to do with consciousness. The “consciousness” bit was tacked on by a man named Roger Penrose who suggested that since the brain runs on electrical impulses, then it must exist in a probabilistic fashion like other electrons do. Therefore…somehow this means that consciousness exists in some superposition to our perceived position because of reasons. As a result, there is a whole cottage industry of people who push the “quantum consciousness” idea and extrapolate it to mean things it doesn’t.


Tl;dr Summary

We’ve gone into a lot of detail here, and there is so much more that we could go into, but the basic argument of Chopra and Co. is that because the brains are run on electricity, and because electrons behave as waves before they’re observed, then start acting like particles, that means that consciousness exists outside of the body and by thinking at things really hard, you change the way the electrons move, which means you can CONTROL THE UNIVERSE WITH YOUR MIND!

This belief rests mostly on misunderstanding what certain words mean and making logical leaps that aren’t supported by the evidence.

The reason why what Chopra and his gang does isn’t considered real science is because the only way it works is by assuming a very specific spiritual component to everything (i.e. they “know” there’s a soul, but there’s no physical evidence in the body, so clearly this quantum stuff explains where it is because where else could it be?). It makes no predictions that can be tested via experiment, it plays word games to sell books to people who really wish they could alter the universe with their thoughts (which, to be fair, is almost everybody) and think that there’s some secret that con artists like Chopra have because they’re calm and use big words.

I am remarkably happy that TED has decided that woomeisters shouldn’t be a part of the discussion that they’re trying to have. At least, they shouldn’t be taken seriously until such time as they can produce ideas that stand up to legitimate scrutiny. In much the same way that when theology tries to make scientific claims (age of the Earth, whether resurrection is possible, whether humanity as we know it could have descended from a single family, etc.) it should answer them scientifically, when new agers make scientific claims, they should also have to answer them scientifically. Word games and vague associations don’t count as evidence in a scientific context any more than Roberto Benigni’s 1998 Oscar acceptance speech is evidence that he wants to sleep with me (and you).

Literary criticism is very good at playing word games, because authors often play word games. I love doing it because I can tease out meaning from diction and syntax. However, scientists do not use diction and syntax to implant meaning into their work. They are concerned with observation and the implications of what they see. Chopra and Co. keep wanting to find hidden meaning that simply does not exist, and TED has no obligation to continue to allow them to embarrass themselves in front of audiences that know better.

Clorox 2 Stain Fighter and Demon Expeller

Regular readers of this blog know that it’s very important to me that people are aware that there are no such things as demons. They don’t exist. They are mythical creatures that are used to explain bad behavior and, historically, mental illness.

That’s why I get upset when people ask stupid questions on the presumption of demonic existence and, instead of being gently corrected away from it, are given re-enforcement.

I buy a lot of clothes and other items at Goodwill and other secondhand shops. Recently my mom told me that I need to pray over the items, bind familiar spirits, and bless the items before I bring them into the house.

Is my mother correct? Can demons attach themselves to material items?

So asked a caller into Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club. Now, questions like this are fairly common in that venue, but then again, so are answers like the one Robertson gives.

Can demonic spirits attach themselves to inanimate objects? The answer is yes. But I don’t think every sweater you get from Goodwill has demons in it. [Laughs] [KN: Because that would just be ridiculous! How many demons do you think there are?]

… It isn’t going to hurt you to rebuke any spirits that happen to have attached themselves to those clothes.

No, it isn’t going to hurt to rebuke any spirits that happen to have attached themselves to those particular clothes in much the same way that it doesn’t hurt to warn your dog not to buzz air traffic control towers while flying (“…and he never has. Good dog!”), but what happens when she starts trying to “rebuke” the “demons” in the store (I mean, what’s wrong with showing up every few days to proclaim to the store that you cast out any demons in Jesus’s name?), or “rebukes” the demons in other people’s clothes, or starts to see that cute pair of jeans possessing a friend or classmate? Let’s ask Daphne Spurlock or Bradie Simpson what that feels like, shall we?

No, I’m not saying that everybody who believes in demons is likely to slit their child’s throat. I am saying, however, that encouraging people to live in paranoid fear of their second hand clothing does start to re-enforce the “demon around every corner” attitude that so many of the most extreme elements have.

You want to believe in demons, fine, but stop telling ordinary people that they could be hiding in cookie jars and capri pants, your friends, your neighbors, your sex toys, and, of course, your government. If, and this may be the biggest “if” I have ever ifed, demons do exist, they have managed to leave nothing but second and third hand accounts of their existence as evidence, usually in unreliable books, with known frauds, or with people who have other serious mental issues. They are clearly not very effective. So it makes just as much sense to pretend that we live in a world where they do not exist, since this one looks a whole lot like that.

(via Friendly Atheist)

Body Types and Arbitrary Hierarchies

Body type is something that we rather obsess over. Much like other distinctions we tend to make, it is often used not necessarily to be descriptive, but rather to be restrictive. I have an example.

A friend of mine is a very talented dancer. It’s what she does, it’s what she spends most of her time doing, and it’s where her heart is. She is also, I should note, not huge by any stretch of the imagination. I would even qualify her as somewhat fragile-looking, if you weren’t aware of her training and the underlying muscle.

Suffice it to say, Tiny Dancer just got her mid year evaluation from ballet and it said that she needed to improve her “body type”. Fortunately, she recognizes what a ridiculous idea this is (she would have to remove bones or have an eating disorder to be any thinner), but can be look at what they’re really asking here?

“Body type” is a descriptive. It tells us a little about how a person looks, how they carry their weight, and generally what one can expect from their physical makeup (“one” being the owner). How does one “improve” that? I may as well as you to improve the color of an apple.

This demonstrates a problem that we have in that we assign moral or normative qualities to wide arrays of descriptive agents. Ballerinas look a certain way, therefore those with bodies that don’t match a traditional and somewhat arbitrary ideal by which ballerinas are measured can be told to “improve” their appearance to put it more in line with that ideal.

Many of our social issues can be traced back to this normalization of a specific (generally majority) set of otherwise descriptive traits. What is gender essentialism other than the prescriptive application of gender norms across a wide-range of people, regardless of their individual talents, interests, and predilections? If we see feminism as, at least in part, the ability for women to choose to do something other than match a very limiting “ideal” devised by a strong majority, then this applies there as well.

LGBT rights? Listen to the rhetoric of those who oppose them and you will quickly see that they find heterosexuality to be objectively normal and any other sexual orientation to be a departure from that, making any move toward that “ideal” an “improvement”.

Let’s put it another way: there is no reason I should have to be an atheist activist. None whatsoever. My lack of a belief in the supernatural is purely descriptive, not a trait listed someplace on a spectrum that places all belief and non-belief closer or further from perfection, nor does it occupy some place on a hierarchy. However, the pointless desire to place beliefs in order of best to worst means that I need to struggle just to demonstrate my own normality.

This is not to say that I don’t think that some ideas and opinions are right or wrong. Obviously, I think everything I believe to be right is right, by definition. The issue, however, is that I think things are right or wrong based on evidence, not based on my perceptions of how things should be. It’s a matter of thinking of things the other way around, presuming that my observations lead to a descriptive rather than that my prescriptive label should translate into observations. If I see a little girl playing with an Avengers action figure, I can draw the conclusion that she is a fan of the franchize, I don’t presume that she is playing with a “boy’s toy” and this is somehow a problem. The same is true for an Easy Bake Oven.

To “improve” immediately makes a value judgment. Tiny Dancer was told, not in so many words, that there is something wrong with her body. Maybe I am not educated enough in ballet to understand how this is an objective problem rather than a case of her not meeting a traditional ideal, but I cannot imagine how anything short of being physically unable to perform makes body type a useful measure of skill.

If we want to see more justice in the world, if we want a world in which people are more widely accepted, then we must stop attaching moral judgment to descriptive qualities. How a person looks, their hobbies, their orientation, their skillsets, and a whole host of other qualities have no effect of the quality of a person, and setting up normative ideals does nothing but encourage us to assume a person’s abilities in absence of evidence.

UPDATE: Want to see what I’m talking about? Take a look at professional moron Charlotte Allen’s doubledown on her “Sandy Hook would have been fine if there were more men on premises” article.