Archive for the ‘skepticism’ Category

Contending with Bart Ehrman

2013/04/29

This post reviews an essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the latest installment in the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge that I undertook some time ago. This time I’m looking at Daniel Wallace’s essay “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”.

I was looking forward to Daniel Wallace’s essay, because it is the first to directly address a professional skeptic whose work I’ve seen*. Wallace speaks to Bart Ehrman’s arguments for scriptural corruption – that is, the position that the texts of the Bible as we have them are not the same as those penned by the original first-century authors. He doesn’t address Jesus Interrupted (the book that opened this Challenge), but Ehrman’s earlier book, Misquoting Jesus (MJ from here on). So I had some more Ehrman to read. I didn’t mind – he’s a clear and engaging writer, and it was nice to have an excuse for a sidetrack from the apologetics.

Interestingly, the main disagreement Wallace has with Ehrman isn’t a deep split over how to approach the problem of New Testament studies. They both appeal to the same sort of evidence. They even agree on some key conclusions: of the seven major examples where Ehrman suggests important doctrinal points depend on passages that have been changed, Wallace flat-out agrees with Ehrman on three of them. (That is, Wallace agrees that the passages as we have them were not written by the original authors. He denies that this fact undermines important doctrines.) On the other points, he disagrees in highly technical ways, so that I cannot competently referee the disagreement.

What sort of differences can I evaluate?

Well, Ehrman focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are authentic, and Wallace focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are inauthentic.

Call me conciliatory, but maybe they’re both right. Maybe the original texts of the New Testament books were fairly close to what we have today. But, using evidence available to us, we cannot be certain how close, or on what points. A belief in Biblical inerrancy seems to be fatally undermined by the evidence. But it’s likely true that the original authors of the books in the New Testament believed most of the main things Christians today believe about Jesus.

The great lesson I took away from Ehrman’s book is that the evidence that has survived is undeniably altered in some places. There’s a whole lot of evidence that has not survived. (Ehrman and Wallace both talk about “patristic” writings – by early church fathers – that talk about texts we do not have any more.) What changes may have taken place without leaving a paper trail for people like Ehrman and Wallace to follow? All of the key evidence has spent most of its history in the hands of people who were hell-bent on making sure we believe one story: the now-dominant, orthodox story. It is biased evidence. Even knowing that, I’m willing to take it as probably being fairly close to the original, for the most part. But those qualifications (“probably” and “fairly close”) stand.

So much for the philosophical differences. Unfortunately, some of the content of this article is more personal. Wallace’s rhetoric leaves me with strong doubts about his inclination to be impartial. He uses the term “radical” about any view that departs from orthodox Christianity, and anyone who promotes such a view. And he distorts Ehrman’s own claims in rather easy-to-spot ways. Here is one of his main accusations (p152):

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” argues Ehrman. Elsewhere he states that the number of variants is as high as 400,000. That is true enough but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that most variants are inconsequential – involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like – and that only a small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, less than 1 percent of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.

(As a side note, even before I read MJ, the math of this jumped out at me. Less than 1% of 400,000. Wallace is basically saying, “Ehrman exaggerates. There are only upwards of four thousand meaningful and viable variants in the New Testament texts.” Is that supposed to inspire my confidence?)

And here is a passage from Ehrman that gives the claim Wallace pounces on (pp10-11):

Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t even have dictionaries, let alone spell check).

Do you notice the immediate context of the line Wallace quoted above? The very next sentence completely undermines Wallace’s claim that Ehrman is alarmist in his rhetoric. Ehrman raises readers’ interest with an impressive statistic, then provides context, encouraging us not to over-interpret that statistic. Wallace claims that “Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm layreaders on issues where they have little understanding.” What about undermining a colleague’s credibility with selective quote-mining?

So Wallace is quite willing to use misleading rhetoric to undermine Ehrman’s credibility. But let’s return to the actual claims at hand.

I am open to the possibility that Ehrman overstates the corruption of the biblical texts. Wallace is right that Ehrman would probably sell fewer books if he put more emphasis on the uncertainty and less on the possibility that the texts are altered. On the other hand, Ehrman came to these conclusions from within an evangelical belief system. He was a believer; he learned about the texts; and the evidence forced him against his inclination to reject the inerrantist position he preferred. That gives him far more credibility as an unbiased investigator than those who believe their salvation and self-identity rely on the conclusion they defend.

The question of how unchanged our modern reconstructions of the New Testament are from their original forms is a fascinating debate from a sociological standpoint. But I think I should close by pointing out that, however this debate comes out, it doesn’t really affect the underlying question at issue in the Challenge: does a god – the Christian God or any other – actually exist? If the Greek and Hebrew texts we have today are exactly the words written by the first people to put them to paper, and if those words faithfully record the recollections of the early Christians, it would still just be a report of the beliefs of some ancient people. It would, at best, make the merest smidge of a difference in my estimate of how likely a god is, or the possibility of life after death. It would have no affect on my moral rejection of the idea of substitutiary atonement or the doctrine of infinite consequences for finite actions.

Footnote:
* Yes, a couple of the earlier essays in this book responded to Dawkins. But they were responding to Dawkins’ philosophy (an area of interest to him, but not one where he is an expert), not his science (where he is a recognized leader in his field). This essay takes on Ehrman in his home arena: New Testament studies.

Rational magic

2012/10/29

I like to think of myself as a rational person. This is an uphill battle for someone like me, a conglomerate of biological systems jury-rigged one on top of the other since my ancestors were worm-like proto-chordates. But it’s a battle worth fighting.

I also like science fiction and fantasy novels. To some, this seems to conflict with the rational, truth-seeking, reality-loving side (though in fact it only encourages and reinforces it).

Well, now both sides of my geekiness can wallow in a new realm of literary and logical deliciousness.

Imagine this: some tiny event in Harry Potter’s past means he grows up among scientists instead of among vindictive, spiteful relations. When his letter from Hogwarts comes, he responds not with open-mouthed wonder but with the skepticism of a rational materialist. (This is without changing a jot about how magic actually works in Rowling’s universe, mind you.)

This is the premise of Eliezar Yudkowski’s fan-fiction epic, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It has been underway since January last year, and is now up to 85 chapters (and counting). I blasted through them all in a dreadfully short time, and am now waiting impatiently for the next installment. I am thinking of starting at the beginning and listening to the podcast version, just to fill the time.

If you liked Rowling’s Harry Potter books at all, and seriously want to improve your rationality, then I can only imagine this will be a delightful romp for you.

But then, it is a stretch for me to imagine anyone not enjoying Rowling’s books for any reasons that are not sad and dogmatic. And I find it difficult to sympathize with anybody who doesn’t want to improve their own rationality.

Yudkowski has preserved the tone and spirit of the original books quite nicely. Anyway, I’m not going to waste any more of your time, or risk dropping any spoilers. Go, check it out. Let me know if you like it.

Skeptics in the Pub: Joshie Berger

2011/06/30

Deena and I went to the Boston Skeptics in the Pub on Monday to see Joshie Berger.

The first few minutes at our table – before Deena (my social grace) arrived – were characterized by halting attempts at conversation, punctuated by slightly less awkward silences. One of my table-mates sported a t-shirt depicting a harmonic series, with the basic wave equation “λ=c/f”. The other wore squid earrings. I thought with satisfaction: Yes. This is my tribe. These are my type of people. (I happened to be without any trappings of geekery. Well, except for the two pens stowed in one pocket, alongside a notebook. Just in case.)

(Image from SkeptiCamp 2009 site.)

The main reason we had decided to spend this rare and precious kid-free evening here was Joshie Berger. We had listened to his conversation with the rogues on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe earlier this year, and were eager to hear him talk again.

We were not disappointed. To a surprisingly small crowd (maybe 20 people, if you count the bar staff), Joshie talked about what it was like to be a Hasidic Jew. To have been one, and not be any longer. To have a sister still in thrall to that misogynistic culture (even in the heart of liberal New York). To have so many friends living a lie – disbelieving as he does, yet unable or unwilling to leave like he did.

What I found most moving was when he set aside the jokes, the laughing, the amazing, amusing exposition of human folly and ridiculous beliefs. When he vented a little bit of anger. Not at the believers (they mainly earned his contempt), but at some of the would-be peacemakers in the skeptical movement.

“How dare you tell me to make nice?” was his gist. “After all the pain and suffering that religion put me through, still puts me through, how dare you tell me not to voice my anger?”

I couldn’t help but nod. Oh, sure, I am one of the peacemakers. I try to find common ground. I read books by apologists. I seek out dialogue in university chaplaincy, or at a Unitarian church. But Joshie’s anger wasn’t aimed at me. It was aimed at those who go further, who say that all skeptics (/atheists/humanists/whatever) should be peacemakers. That we should never, any of us, publicly mock or deride believers. Which, for a community that values freedom of expression so highly, is a very odd sentiment.

I did not have a religious upbringing. I don’t have Joshie’s scars; I don’t have the ongoing pain he has of separation from his loved ones. I need people like Joshie. I need people to remind me that such cruelty exists. That there are people who, because of their beliefs, put themselves and everyone in their reach through misery.

I’m terrifically grateful to people like Joshie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christopher Hitchens, and all the rest, for reminding me that there are dangerous beliefs out there. I’ll fight bad beliefs my way – and hopefully reach some people. They will fight bad beliefs their way – and reach different people. Skepticism/humanism/atheism needs all of our approaches.

Exploring language

2010/12/20

Thanks to Steve Novella of the Neurologica blog, I have discovered a new toy to play with: the Google Ngram Viewer. I’d like to share it with you, and encourage you to play as well.

You may have heard of all the books that Google has been digitizing for their Google Books project. (It caused some stir among publishers and writers – it seems to have been sorted out now.) Well, the Ngram Viewer is a very Google-esque* way of looking at word count statistics from that huge collection of books.

Let’s say you’re curious about the relative popularity of two words – say, “humanist” and “atheist“. Well, you enter them as search terms, and voila:

humanist/atheist unigram graph, 1800 to 2000

Relative frequencies of "humanist" and "atheist" in the Google Books corpus, from 1800 to 2000.

We can watch the relative frequencies of these words over time. Unexpectedly (to me at least), we see “humanist” (blue) overtake “atheist” (red) during the first half of the twentieth century, following a couple of decades (20s and 30s) tracking together.  I’ll leave it up to readers to try to infer the reason for this inversion.

The term “n-gram” (yes, pronounced the same as “engram”, but there’s no connection to neuropsychology or Scientology) is used in corpus-based linguistics to denote sequences of words. A unigram is a sequence of 1 word; in the graph above, we compare the frequencies of two unigrams (relative to the total number of unigrams in the corpus). A bigram is a sequence of 2 words. Trigram: 3 words. From there on, it is common just to use the number: 4-gram, 5-gram, etc.

One more unigram comparison that I thought was interesting: function words. Check out this graph comparing “the”, “and”, “of”, “for”, “a”:

Unigram frequencies for selected function words, 1800 to 2000.

Unigram frequencies of "the", "of", "and", "a", "for", from 1800 to 2000.

What is interesting here is that the relative (and even the absolute) frequencies show very little change over two centuries. Think about all of the change in the language that those two centuries represent – from shortly after the founding of America to around the time of the latest millennial fever. And these five words have shown such amazing constancy. Sure, there is some change, but compare those to the changes in other graphs, and the difference is clear.

So, let’s check out a bigram comparison. Here’s a chart of “national debt” and “social security”:

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security"

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security" from 1800 to 2000.

I’m no political scientist, but it looks like interest in social security leaped onto the scene in the late 30s, and has been slowly climbing ever since, while talk about national debt (in the English-speaking world) has steadily declined basically since the earliest samples in this corpus.

I could go on all day about this, but I’d rather leave it to you now. Before you take off to do your own informal surveys of this delicious data repository, let me offer a couple of caveats.

First, the numbers are only as reliable as the sources. What are the sources? Google gives some information on this. They note some sources of error; they also acknowledge some inherent biases. For example, there are more computer books in recent years than in the 1800s. Whether this is a problem or not depends on the sort of question you’re asking, and how you are interpreting it.

Second, there are different numbers of books in different time periods. They actually go back as far as 1500, but you get problems when, say, a particular year only has one book published. (Check out the results for that nice constant graph of function words, if you go back to 1500.)

Third, always always keep in mind what it is that you’re measuring. These graphs do not measure belief (search “bigfoot, ufo, unicorn“). They do not measure popularity or approval (search “murder, charity“, or the “national debt, social security” illustration above). They simply measure how often people mention the words (or bigrams, trigrams, etc) in published books. (Periodicals are excluded.)

Having said that, it is still a delightful way to while away a day. If you’re stuck for ideas, here are a couple of classic sources of interesting patterns:**

  • What are the relative frequencies of different number words? Is there anything systematic here? Any surprises?
  • What are the relative frequencies of gender-marked pronouns (“he, she”, for example)? How about gender-marked nouns (“man, woman”)?***

Have fun, my merry scientists!

Footnotes:

* Google-esque: powerful, easy to use, with the potential to distract me from real work with its endless possibilities to explore.

** Before doing any search, see if you can guess what the results will be. Form a hypothesis, give a reason for your expectation. If the results agree with your expectation, congratulations! If not, see if you can explain why. Does this new explanation generate predictions about some other word frequency pattern that you could now test?

*** There is at least one pair of gender-marked nouns that seems to reverse the general trend. Can you find them? Why would they be different?

In the company of woo

2009/12/29

I find myself in the company of woo, and as a skeptic it is bringing me some grief.

It’s all about homebirth – planning to deliver a baby at home, attended by a midwife, rather than in a hospital.

Deena and I came to homebirth through an examination of the evidence. (Here’s a discussion I participated in on the Bad Science forums before Kaia’s birth.) We were convinced, by scientific studies and analyses, that planning a home birth here in the UK was at least as safe as planning a hospital birth, given a competent attendant and a handy hospital in the event of complications. So we went for it.

However, many people choose homebirth for less evidence-based reasons. They cite personal intuition, or the “naturalness” of it. Not just as reasons to prefer homebirth, but as evidence of its safety.

At Edinburgh’s Pregnancy and Parents Centre (a haven for various types of woo, as well as useful support groups and great toddler activities), when we went to the “home birth support group” to relate our experiences and our evidence-based approach, it was alongside others promoting woo of various flavours as part of their support of homebirth.

A recent post on homebirth at Science-Based Medicine has stirred up an epic-length discussion, with passionate defenders on both sides. I’ve participated, but fear that just being on the homebirth side has made me, in some people’s eyes, an advocate of woo.

This is the problem: I agree with the woo-birthers that homebirth can be safe, but I disagree (passionately, vigorously) about why this is a legitimate position. And the disagreement isn’t immaterial. At the homebirth meeting, someone recommended homeopathy to treat post-partem haemorrhage. One of the most serious and potentially life-threatening complications of pregnancy, and she advised drinking high-priced water. That is dangerous advice, and I wish I’d been quick-thinking enough to respond persuasively (rather than sitting like a lump and grinding my teeth).

What is a skeptic to do? On the one hand, having someone agree with me in one breath, and back me up with an appeal to intuition in the next, makes me want to revisit and question my beliefs that much more carefully. (That’s something a skeptic should be doing anyway, for all their beliefs, but who has the time?) On the other hand, to adapt Niven’s 16th law, “There is no belief so true that one cannot find a fool believing it.” Just because someone agrees with you for bad reasons doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I came to my belief about homebirth on the basis of the science, and I’m determined that only science will dissuade me.

But there’s also the whole social side. Just as many of my fellow atheists wrinkle their brows at me when I say I go to church, many skeptics seem to do the same when I talk about homebirth. Atheists often assume that the word “church” is synonymous with supernatural beliefs and submission to a holy text, things that would feel alien in our Unitarian church. Similarly, many skeptics assume that, because it’s associated with modern medicine, hospital-based birth is inherently safer.

I’m tempted to close by declaring, evangelist-style, that skeptics must beware of this tendency to take association as evidence. Its association with woo-birthers says nothing about the safety of homebirth; nor does its association with high-tech hospitals demonstrate the superiority of hospital birth.

But perhaps a more humble conclusion is in order. Here goes:

I promise to keep vigilant for evidence that might contradict my current beliefs.
I promise to honestly communicate any changes of position that such evidence might lead me to.
I promise to avoid being swayed by other people’s assumptions (whether or not they are skeptics).
I promise to make every effort to pin my beliefs to the evidence, and nothing else.

Confession of a born essentialist

2009/12/15

We have an innate tendency to psychological essentialism. Bruce Hood articulates this tendency well (see his book Supersense). His most vivid example is the serial-killer’s shirt. If you are given a nice shirt – one that fits well and suits your style and wardrobe – and told that it once belonged to a serial killer, how will you react? Most people will avoid the shirt – even avoid touching it. Of course, the shirt contains no “serial-killer essence”, but the association sparks something deep our psychology: we want to avoid objects that are associated with bad things.

This was probably hugely adaptive in our evolutionary history: if you avoid touching things that have been handled by, say, a seriously ill person, you are less likely to become infected yourself. It doesn’t matter if the reason you avoid them is rooted in an accurate knowledge of the germ theory of disease or an improbable metaphysical notion of guilt-by-association – if it saves your life and is affected by your genes, it will give you a selective advantage over people without the trait, or with a weaker version of the same trait.

Essentialist psychology provides a compelling explanation for why people would believe in certain immaterial properties of matter even if the universe is completely material. Which leads some philosophical naturalists (humanists, atheists, etc) to smugly think that we’ve risen above the illusion: we see through the illusory sense that our instincts push us into. We aren’t tricked into god-belief or imagining a life after death.

Well, it’s not that easy.

I was playing with Kaia (my 2-year-old daughter), and she told me that her doll needed a nappy change*. As an expert, I was invited to conduct the procedure. I used a nose tissue to wipe the doll’s bottom.

When I went to put the tissue back in my pocket (for future use), I was momentarily overcome by my inner essentialist. I had a strong sense that the tissue was unclean. All simply because of an act of imagination!

I quickly realized what was happening, and put the tissue in my pocket anyway. In fact, once I became conscious of the illusion, it quickly dissipated. Thank goodness for skepticism. I wonder if I would have recovered as quickly if I had not, a few years ago, attended a talk here in Edinburgh given by Bruce Hood.

Have you ever had a “silly essentialist” moment like this? How did you react? How did you feel once you realized what was going on?

* I feel I should point out that this wasn’t one of those modern imagination-free dolls that actually produce wet nappies.

Homeopathy at Boots: an open letter

2009/12/02

In a move reminiscent of the very successful Australian Skeptics open letter to pharmacists, the Merseyside Skeptics Society has issued an open letter to Boots pharmacies.

This is in the wake of a parliamentary subcommittee meeting on the status and labelling of homeopathic remedies sold in pharmacies (“chemists” in this country). If you have time, check out the transcript here – a long but interesting read. (Thanks to Mike for the heads-up.) Here’s Ben Goldacre’s summary, as one of the people who gave evidence at the meeting.Link
Boots sells homeopathic products. By association, it lends medical authority to these products – which have been demonstrated, so far as good research is able to demonstrate, to be medically indistinguishable from placebos. That is, they are not real medicine, and do not replace real medicine. The will not protect you from malaria; they will not protect you from H1N1. They won’t even cure your headache. If your headache does get better after homeopathy, there are three much more likely explanations: (1) it was a random coincidence (unsatisfying, but sometimes the world works that way), (2) it was going to get better anyway (you can’t tell this from a single case, but a large study of many people could), or (3) your belief in the treatment had a real effect on your malady (a very cool possibility – see Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science for more, or go read his blog).

Though they sell them, the Boots representative who spoke to the committee admitted that homeopathic treatments have no good evidence supporting their effectiveness in dealing with any health complaint. His best argument for selling homeopathy comes out in this excerpt from the start of the transcript:

Mr Bennett: We do indeed sell them and there is certainly a consumer demand for those products.

Q4 Chairman: I did not ask you that question. I said do they work beyond the placebo effect?

Mr Bennett: I have no evidence before me to suggest that they are efficacious, and we look very much for the evidence to support that, and so I am unable to give you a yes or no answer to that question.

Q5 Chairman: You sell them but you do not believe they are efficacious?

Mr Bennett: It is about consumer choice for us. A large number of our consumers actually do believe they are efficacious, but they are licensed medicinal products and, therefore, we believe it is right to make them available.

Q6 Chairman: But as a company you do not believe that they necessarily are?

Mr Bennett: We do not disbelieve either. It is an evidence issue.

They don’t have good evidence that they work, but people want to spend money on them. This is a disgustingly cynical attitude toward the public, and toward Boots pharmacists’ own responsibility as front-line dispensers of medicine.

I include the open letter below. I will also be contacting Boots. If you are interested in this issue, I encourage you to do the same.

An Open Letter to Alliance Boots

The Boots brand is synonymous with health care in the United Kingdom. Your website speaks proudly about your role as a health care provider and your commitment to deliver exceptional patient care. For many people, you are their first resource for medical advice; and their chosen dispensary for prescription and non-prescription medicines. The British public trusts Boots.

However, in evidence given recently to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, you admitted that you do not believe homeopathy to be efficacious. Despite this, homeopathic products are offered for sale in Boots pharmacies – many of them bearing the trusted Boots brand.

Not only is this two-hundred-year-old pseudo-therapy implausible, it is scientifically absurd. The purported mechanisms of action fly in the face of our understanding of chemistry, physics, pharmacology and physiology. As you are aware, the best and most rigorous scientific research concludes that homeopathy offers no therapeutic effect beyond placebo, but you continue to sell these products regardless because “customers believe they work”. Is this the standard you set for yourselves?

The majority of people do not have the time or inclination to check whether the scientific literature supports the claims of efficacy made by products such as homeopathy. We trust brands such as Boots to check the facts for us, to provide sound medical advice that is in our interest and supply only those products with a demonstrable medical benefit.

We don’t expect to find products on the shelf at our local pharmacy which do not work.

Not only are these products ineffective, they can also be dangerous. Patients may delay seeking proper medical assistance because they believe homeopathy can treat their condition. Until recently, the Boots website even went so far as to tell patients that “after taking a homeopathic medicine your symptoms may become slightly worse,” and that this is “a sign that the body’s natural energies have started to counteract the illness”. Advice such as this directly encourages patients to wait before seeking real medical attention, even when their condition deteriorates.

We call upon Boots to withdraw all homeopathic products from your shelves. You should not be involved in the sale of ineffective products, because your customers trust you to do what is right for their health. Surely you agree that your commitment to excellent patient care is better served by supplying only those products whose claims can be substantiated by rigorous scientific research? Or do you really believe that Boots should be in the business of selling placebos to the sick and the injured?

The support lent by Boots to this quack therapy contributes directly to its acceptance as a valid medical treatment by the British public, acceptance it does not warrant and support it does not deserve. Please do the right thing, and remove this bogus therapy from your shelves.

Yours sincerely,
Merseyside Skeptics Society

—–

Other blogs and websites have noted this, including Skepchick, The Not Quite So Friendly Humanist, Bruce Hood, Bad Science, A Glasgow Skeptic, RichardDawkins.net, Bad Homeopathy, and New Humanist.

Also, various newspapers have picked up on Boots’ strange position: The Telegraph, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Guardian (and Ben Goldacre again, and their liveblog of the meeting), Times, and Mirror.

Feel free to comment and link to any I’ve missed.

Healthy newsreading

2009/11/03

Very closely connected with humanism is scientific skepticism. I doubt there are many (secular) humanists who wouldn’t also identify with the skeptical movement, exemplified in popular science blogs like Bad Science, podcasts like the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and books by folks like Simon Singh.

Keep in mind, I’m not talking skepticism as in “kneejerk doubt”. I’m talking skepticism as in “I’ll believe it if you show me good evidence” – the definition most self-described skeptics would give. Much of skepticism involves learning how to tell good evidence from bad evidence.

One of the greatest day-to-day benefits of being a skeptic is having the skills to filter the claims we’re exposed to. Particularly those that get uncritically spread by journalists (and by friends and family). To that end, in addition to recommending the above sources, I’d like to pass on an article that was passed on by Ben Goldacre at Bad Science:

How to read articles about health, by Dr Alicia White

The most important rule to remember: “Don’t automatically believe the headline”.

Of course, there’s much more – read the full article to see what else she has to say. Skeptics will already be familiar with her points, but other people may find them useful. Pass on the link, or download and print off the PDF and pass that out.

I’ll take this opportunity to point out that it is simple little strategies like the ones Dr White outlines that make up most of scientific literacy. People often tell me that they would never be able to understand things like quantum physics, evolution, or acoustics, because they’re not scientifically trained.

Rubbish. The only barrier to most people understanding the key points of any science is lack of interest.*

And, when it comes to health, that’s a rather strange barrier to erect around yourself. What possible excuse could anyone have for cultivating disinterest in their own well-being? (I know, I know – whole psychological schools of thought are devoted to answering this question.)

Anyway, enjoy the article.

Footnote:

* Okay, that was a very strong claim. But I stand by it, with one caveat: one must have a teacher (or book) with some competence to communicate the science.

I have an idea …

2009/10/07

At work, I recently came across an amazing resource: CiteULike. It’s a free website where you can build up a list of citations. I use it to manage the long list of papers and books I read and cite as a researcher. I can label citations, like I label blog entries on this site, according to common themes.

It also has social features: sharing citations between users, getting automated recommendations based on common research interests. And there are Groups.

Which gives me an idea.

There are loads of skeptical blogs out there. There are the science-based parenting folks (such as SBP themselves, Rational Moms), the science-based medicine gang (SBM, Ben Goldacre, etc), and of course the general skeptics (Bruce Hood, Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Wiseman, and loads more).

These blogs often bring up new or interesting research that bears on our lives – as parents, as users (and taxpaying supporters) of health care, and just as people trying to navigate the modern world. But finding a particular study that I remember reading about on some skeptical blog can be a real pain.

So it occurs to me – why not set up a group, or a set of groups, on CiteULike, where skeptics could post scientific articles of interest to the community? You can put notes on each article – for example, pointing to reviews on skeptical blogs. You can talk about the articles (and the body of evidence around given topics, like acupuncture or spanking) in forums. You can associate informative tags with articles. Or you can simply hang out and see what other people have dug up. The resource could be used by bloggers who like to check original research, and also by skeptical consumers of new and traditional media claims.

It’s not something I can do on my own. I don’t have the time or the expertise to dig up all the relevant papers.

So this is a call to all you skeptics out there who have a little bit of time or expertise. Are you willing to help get things started?

I’ve taken the first step: I’ve created a CiteULike group, Skeptical Parenting, to pilot this idea. I chose parenting partly because that’s where I am closest to having some substantive expertise, and partly because my second child is due to arrive any day now.

The next step is up to you. Here is what I ask of anyone who is interested:

  • Join me as a member of the group, or start another group. “Paranormal Research”, “Science-Based Medicine Users” – whatever you’re most into as a skeptic. If you start another group, let us know in the comments here. (Do a search on CiteULike before starting the group to make sure someone hasn’t already started one.)
  • Blog about this yourself – not many people read my blog, but some of you have very widely-read blogs. The more people read about this idea, the sooner we’ll reach a sustainable number of participants.
  • Tell your friends. We don’t all have blogs, but we all have skeptical acquaintances on- and off-line that we can share cool new ideas with.
  • Comment here, so I know that I’m not just talking to myself.

I think we could build this into a really valuable resource. What do you think?

Five influential female authors

2009/09/10

Here’s an internet/blogging meme coming via Ken at C. Orthodoxy. It asks us, as the post title says, to name five female authors that have been influential to us.

As the father of a precocious almost-two-year-old girl, I make sure to celebrate female excellence as much as possible in order to counterbalance the undeniable tendency, here and now, for there to be more men than women in prominent positions – politically, socially, economically, and culturally.

So here goes: five awesome writers who happen to be women.*

Ursula K. Le Guin. Every book of hers that I’ve read has moved, delighted, and surprised me. She wrote The Dispossessed, the best argument for an egalitarian, property-free, anarchist society that I’ve come across (it’s a novel). She wrote the Earthsea books, easily equal to Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series (both of which I love) for epic awesomeness and tender humanness. She wrote an excellent version of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. (Here’s one of the verses from it, which I quoted from here.) There are more, but I think I’ll let you discover them for yourself. Le Guin’s influence has been to show me that bold ideas don’t preclude humble values like compassion and human vulnerability. Most of the science fiction I read growing up (and there was a lot – I was that kind of kid) was written by men from a particular era. At the risk of sounding sexist, it shows. Action, adventure, sex, but not much quiet humanity. Le Guin taught me that, even in genres like science fiction and fantasy, even when your characters include hermaphroditic psychics living on a planet of snow and ice or powerful wizards who can command the elements with arcane words, there is space for a fully human narrative. (There are male authors who I would rank close to her in this regard, but none quite as good at it, and anyway this post isn’t about them.)

Gloria Borden and Katherine Harris. I’m listing these two together, because they are co-authors (along with Lawrence Raphael) of the Speech Science Primer**, my first textbook in phonetics – the physical science of speech. I am now at the end of a PhD in phonetics, with a dissertation approved and bound (nice thick tome) that adds a little to the sum of human knowledge. Although the main credit for my education goes to all the in-person teachers I’ve had (several of whom were women), I have to acknowledge that this well-presented and understandable textbook gave me a level of understanding and confidence in the field that helped cement my choice, leading me into an exciting field of scientific discovery.

Marjorie Tew. We humanists pride ourselves on following the evidence. We make a big deal of the fact that modern medicine is generally evidence-based (as opposed to most types of alternative “medicine”, which are either evidence-free or based on very fallible types of evidence, such as anecdote). Tew, a statistician, followed a line of evidence in a surprising direction, and relates the story and the evidence in her book Safer Childbirth? (the question mark is in the title). In it, she presents a compelling empirical case that, in modern industrialised nations, giving birth in a hospital is not safer than giving birth at home. (For anyone interested, I related some key details of her arguments a couple of years ago in this thread at the Bad Science forums.) Her book was a large part of what persuaded Deena and me to plan a homebirth with Kaia. We are planning the same for baby #2 (due in a few short weeks). Again, there were other influences, but Tew’s approach and her arguments were an important factor in our decision.

Julia Sweeney (and here). Okay, so this may be stretching the definition of “author” a bit. I know Julie Sweeney through the audio version of two of her monologues: In the Family Way, and Letting Go of God. They are basically books, just in a different medium. Sort of. Anyway, it’s my blog, so I can choose whoever I want. Julia Sweeney’s main influence on me is through the religious monologue, Letting Go of God. In it, she recounts her journey from being a contented Catholic, through reading the Bible, encountering doubt, wrestling with it, trying out different ideas, and eventually coming out a contented atheist. It’s a fun listen. It’s also valuable because whenever she elicits laughs, they are primarily directed at her – or at ideas she entertained, or thoughts she had. Not at other people, not in a sneering “I’m better than you” way.

It is, I think, the gentlest way I have ever encountered for someone to outline why she doesn’t believe in God. Let someone laugh with you, at you, and you cease to be a threatening figure, an enemy. You become simply human, and it’s much easier to try to sympathise with someone who’s simply human than someone who is speaking as a scientist, or as a philosopher (or, perhaps, as a blogger). Goodness knows I have nothing like Julia Sweeney’s talent for humour, but whenever I think about engaging a religious believer in discussion about topics we differ on, I think of Julia Sweeney and her approach. I think she has helped me become a more friendly humanist.

So there you have it. Five women whose writing (or similar creative output) has influenced me. One author of fiction, three scientists, and a performer/autobiographer.

The five women I’ve talked about above have influenced me, but their influence pales next to that of the women I know and have known in person – family, friends, colleagues, teachers.

Also, though I celebrate these women and their influence on me, I do it because of what they have done, not just because they are women. I hope that, as she grows up, Kaia will find inspiration and perhaps role-models in women like these, but also in men who write influential, inspiring, interesting, or great things. Or even humble things that nevertheless make our world better.

* I couldn’t find photos for all five, so I’ve decided to leave this post image-free. You can see some of them by following the links provided.

** I’m linking to Amazon’s listing of the 3rd edition of the Speech Science Primer, which is the one I used. There are more recent editions that you should look at if you are considering buying the book: speech science is a dynamic field, and some of what they had to say in 1994 is out of date now.


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