Archive for the ‘people’ Category

On citizenship

File:Loz takei 2015 side.png

George Takei at Columbia University, image credit Alex Lozupone

I’ve just started listening to the audio version of George Takei’s autobiography, To the Stars. I got it out of the library on his Trek creds, but already it is more compelling than I had naively expected.

He has just finished talking about his early childhood in Japanese internment camps (yes, plural) during the Second World War. Now, George has asked his father why he was applying to become a naturalized American citizen – after all the government-mandated xenophobic crap they went through during and after the war. Here is his father’s response:

If people like me aren’t willing to take a chance and participate, America strays that much further from its ideals. My choice is to help America be what it claims to be.

Wow. Still processing that.

I feel like that should be my motto for dealing with politics here in Canada:

My choice is to help Canada be what it claims to be.

What a profoundly responsible and positive response to things like Truth and Reconciliation, like squabbling over carbon taxes, like the xenophobia that is creeping through western societies today.

(I encourage anyone who doesn’t already to follow George on Twitter – he is stellar!)

Keynote address: Matt Dillahunty


Matt Dillahunty, our master debater of the night before returned to close out the conference with a keynote address.

Matt Dillahunty

He started by saying it sounds very fancy and formal to call it a keynote, and it would really just be some stuff he thinks, shared in his typical casual style.

Honestly, I think it was both. Matt is one of those people who is capable of communicating important, even profound ideas in an accessible, informal way that feels like (that is) just him shooting the breeze with you.

So here’s the general idea. When you’re in a debate situation – whether it’s a formal debate or a casual conversation between folks who simply disagree over things – try to keep some things in mind.

  • Pick your strengths. Don’t try to go head-to-head over the philosophy of religion if what you know is psychology, or history, or education. Work to your strengths.
  • Find the core of their argument. Not the fluff. Not the Gish gallop of zingers they’ve recited to swamp you. Find the centre of their case – whether it’s personal experience, an appeal to Biblical authority, or whatever – and deal with that. Don’t get distracted or side-tracked.
  • Be yourself. Whether you’re speaking in a public debate or one-on-one, do it as you. That’s the best way to come across knowledgeable and genuine. Share what you know. Be honest about what you don’t know. (Remember that “being comfortable with ignorance” thing from Greg Hart’s talk!)
  • They are trying to sell you something. Let them try. You don’t have to sell anything back. You just have to discuss whether their offering is worth buying, and why. Ask questions. Once again, be comfortable not knowing.
  • Review how things went after the debate. What did you do right? What did you do wrong? What did your opponent do right? What did your opponent do wrong? What will you do differently next time?
  • Care about truth, not about winning. If you are trying to win, you will be tempted to take shortcuts. To set good reasoning aside in an attempt to score easy points. But if you are trying to get at the truth – if you are willing to revise your own beliefs on learning new things – then you will always win, no matter whose position turns out to be right.

I can’t think of a better way to close out this series on the conference than with the following quote – something I’ve heard Matt say other times in podcasts and videos. It captures not only his own main point, but one of the recurring themes of the conference. It is a principle at or near the core of most secular people’s worldview.

I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

Shelley Segal: Atheist music


(This is part of a series of posts about the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

Shelley Segal

After the talk about critical thinking, we had an amazing musical interlude from Shelley Segal, a musician whose music includes a number of explicitly atheist titles.

I could say much about this, but I think her music speaks for itself. (Also, as a non-musical person, I don’t really have the vocabulary. Ask Dale for an intelligent analysis.) Let me just point out that music can provide an expression of ideas and feelings that just text or speech cannot. Shelley puts a beautiful voice to some of the feelings of awe, frustration, and indignation that atheists experience which cannot be captured by religious music or generically “agnostic” or religion-free music.

One more thing. We bought some of her music at the conference, and I’ve been listening especially to “An Atheist Album” in the car. Yesterday, on the way to and from dance class, my eight-year-old daughter and I sang along a bit, and talked a bit about the lyrics. She doesn’t understand all of the words, or all of the concepts, but it seems like having them in music offers a comfortable, casual way to introduce these ideas.

Anyway, here is her song “Saved” (one that Kaia especially likes singing along to):

Seriously, watch/listen to this and the other songs on YouTube. Treat yourself. Then support that beautiful art:

Lynne Honey: Statistics


(This is the fourth in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

Lynne Honey

I enjoyed Lynne Honey’s presentation. It could have been a presentation in a university classroom. Perhaps it is – she teaches Psychology at a university here in Edmonton. Many of the tricks and ideas she presented – ways that people mislead you by distorting the numbers or presenting them in a skewed way – were familiar to me as a trained scientist. Some were not.

I took two things away from this. One is that there is hope, with people like her presenting this stuff, that students (and possibly people more broadly) can get inoculated against the misdirection that so many people think is an inherent part of statistics. (Stats don’t lie. People lie.)

The other is that I want to be able to do for linguistics (my field) what she does for statistics. I want to be able to distill all that I think is awesome about the scientific study of language into a forty-minute talk that can engage, educate, and maybe even inspire a room full of people who haven’t given a thought to linguistics before. I’ll let you know how I get on with that.

(Several people at this conference inspired me not just to think about things, but to do something about it.)

Muslim without Islam


(This is the third in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)Ali Rizvi

Ali Rizvi is Muslim who no longer believes in Islam. Does that mean he’s no longer a Muslim? In one sense, yes of course it does: a Muslim is someone who adheres to the religion of Islam.

But in another sense, no.

Former evangelical Christians often suffer from nightmares about hell and eternal torture for years after extracting themselves from those beliefs. Ali faces similar issues – one vivid example he shared was his first encounter with someone from Israel after leaving his Muslim family.

And there is the social side of things. Ali is not a Muslim, but people – Muslim and non-Muslim – who see him often assume, by his visible ethnicity, that he shares a raft of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes connected with Muslims and Muslim culture. Imagine if you will what it might have been like after the September 11 attacks in 2001, being a Muslim in America. Now imagine you are receiving all that vitriol but don’t actually believe in Islam. You’re just getting it because of assumptions people are making from the way you look.

But it’s not just the beliefs he rejects, or the identity that people falsely impute to him, that he talked about.

He also talked about those things he keeps. My family celebrates Christmas and Easter, as primarily secular festivals that reflect, in part, the religion-steeped heritage of my grandparents and ancestors (and some of my contemporary extended family). Secular Jews often celebrate secularized versions of the traditional Jewish observances. In the same way, Ali enjoys the celebrations he grew up with. While he no longer imbues them with the religious significance his family does, they still have emotional and personal meaning for him.

I would love to see “secular Muslim” emerge as an accepted identity, alongside secular Jew and secular Christian. It is absolutely not necessary to reinvent our culture entirely in order to live authentic lives as nonbelievers. We are free to do so, but we are not obliged to. That’s the main thing I took away from Ali’s talk.

Secular in the media


(This is the second in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)
Rob Breakenridge

Rob Breakenridge is a media personality. He co-hosts a daytime radio show and hosts an evening radio news show (also heard here), as well as being a regular columnist in one of the province’s main newspapers.

He talked to us about being openly secular in the media. I did not take many notes – mainly because he is an engaging speaker, but also because there were no action points – things he was encouraging us to do to follow up on what he talked about. So this is a short post.

My main takeaway from his talk was twofold. First, his experience is that it is possible to be blunt and honest about what you do and do not believe, without suffering in the media. He does not feel editorial pressure to present a particular message or gloss over things or any of that. Second, that sort of pressure is more likely to occur in some places (small, local outlets in predominantly religious areas) than in others (larger media outlets and those in more diverse communities). As consumers, we should be aware of this, and not be afraid to let media outlets know when we feel they are taking a biased or unprofessional stance against our community (or any other group).

(If anyone from the conference is reading this, I would be grateful for comments to fill in the gaps – I know Rob talked about more, but as I said, I didn’t take copious notes.)

None of the Above conference


Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above

Earlier this month, on October 17 and 18, Deena and I attended our first ever secular conference: “None of the Above”. Around a hundred people, variously identifying as humanists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers – the usual spectrum of labels you get in this community – came together in Red Deer. (For non-Albertans, Red Deer is a delightful small city, about equidistant between Alberta’s two larger cities, Calgary and Edmonton.)

If you’re not an active member of the community, you may expect we spent the time congratulating ourselves on escaping the “delusion” of religion, and whingeing about how religious people make everything worse.

Yes, there was a bit of self-congratulation – though it was tempered with the knowledge that all human understanding is fallible, and we might be wrong.

And yes, there was some complaining – though it was focused and action-oriented rather than just self-pitying.

There were several social action issues raised that are important, not just for non-believers, but for anyone interested in having a tolerant, open, free society.

And then there was the whole social side of it: meeting people (some local to my own city) who I had never seen before, but who hold similar values and beliefs to me. It reminded me that I’m part of a larger community.

The fact that the conference was immediately before our federal election gave it an interesting tenor, especially when we were discussing politically potent topics.

So what did we get for our delightfully modest attendance fee? Here is a quick rundown of the schedule. I will be posting a series of short articles over the coming days on some of the talks and discussions.

Day 1:

Opening remarks. The MC for the conference was Karen Kerr, president of the Society of Edmonton Atheists, one of the conference’s two sponsors. (The other was Atheist Alliance International.) She set a nice tone – neither too formal nor too loose.
Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity. Canada is on the verge of a shift here, as a Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing physician-assisted death will come into effect in February. What things will look like after that will depend on how legislators prepare for this shift. How legislators prepare will depend on what they hear from constituents. Now is the time!
Rob Breakenridge: Openly Secular in the Media. An Alberta radio and newspaper personality, Rob talked about the issues faced by public personalities around their beliefs and identities.
Lunch. Not really relevant to a summary of the conference’s events, you say? Of course it is! This is where the ideas are digested, batted around, and where the human connections are made. People differed on the gastronomic value of the food on offer, but the opportunity to break bread together and share our thoughts was a crucial part of the whole conference experience.
Ali Rivzi. A Muslim who no longer believes in Islam. This was a compelling presentation on the difference between culture and beliefs, and on the danger of conflating the two, especially in areas of the world where democratic freedoms are still tenuous at best.
Lynn Honey: Statistics. Oh, to live in a world where every community of belief spent some of their time together talking about how to critically examine the numbers that wash over us in the media. And oh, to live in a world where Lynn Honey can teach these things to everyone!
Nathan Phelps: Son of Westboro. This presentation moved through Nate’s childhood in one of the most poisonous and hateful churches on the continent, through to a call for action and encouragement to vigilance. Not all religion is bad, but too many people use religion as a cover not just to be assholes, but to actively harm others in many ways.
Debate: Matt Dillahunty vs Jon Morrison on whether science points to God. An atheist heavy-hitter with dozens of debates behind him, against a Christian with no debate experience. This debate turned out much more engaging and worthwhile than I had feared.

Day 2:

Greg Hart: Critical Thinking. The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1, this talk wound through several pitfalls of critical thinking. Just to reiterate: this wasn’t a talk about how we do it so much better than them, but about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.
Shelley Segal. A musical interlude with a thoughtful, expressive artist whose songs, often, express feelings and experiences in the world that no religious singer can capture, but which are central to the experience of an atheist life.
Panel discussion: Education in Alberta. Three panelists, with experience and knowledge about different aspects of education as it is influenced by religion: prayer in schools, creationism, and sex-ed. Enlightening, rather horrifying at times, and well-articulated.
Keynote: Matt Dillahunty. A wonderful, personal call to action – Matt responded to some of the things he had learned about “Canadia” during the conference, and gave a talk that left room for everyone – from a timid, closeted agnostic to a brash, letter-writing, sign-toting activist – to do their bit in making the world a better place for us all to live.

Deena and I left this conference energized, motivated to do a little bit more to engage with our atheist community and to push against infringements on our rights and values. In the posts to come, I will dive down a little deeper and give you a more complete recap of the message I took away from each presentation and event at the conference.

This was not just our first secular conference. It was Alberta’s first secular conference. There is already a plan afoot to hold another, to make it a recurring event in the province, rotating between the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer (at least). Things are looking up!

If you are in the area next year, I hope you will join us.



“I assume most of the people reading this book are more intelligent than a sea slug. The interesting question is why.” – Stuart Ritchie, Intelligence: All That Matters, opening lines of Chapter 4.

I seem to be coming to a new era in my life, where instead of reading books that are recommended by my friends and family, I read books that are written by my friends and family. In the last couple of weeks, I have put three on my reading list. Here, I will review the first one.

The author is Stuart Ritchie. Doctor Stuart Ritchie*. Here he is:

Stuart Ritchie

He is a psychologist who studied at Edinburgh while I was there. I like to think that he was a student of mine, but the full truth is that I first met him when I was a PhD student, running a tutorial session for introductory linguistics. Stuart was one of the students in my tutorial section. So in a sense, he was kinda-sorta-maybe my student. I remember that several times he managed to almost set off explosive and controversial discussions in the group. As someone who enjoys debate, I found it entertaining. As someone trying to help teach linguistics and get through the set material, I found it frustrating.

A year or two later, another friend and I founded the Humanist Society at the University of Edinburgh, and guess who showed up? Stuart quickly became a prominent member of our little group, holding office and being vocally involved in most discussions. He also wrote one of several blogs that were started by members of that group (including the one you’re reading right now). His most recent post is four years ago, so I guess he has moved on. As an increasingly active academic whose own personal blog is languishing, I completely understand.

All of this is to say that I know Stuart as a nice guy to have a chat with in the pub, and someone with a sharp and unapologetic wit. And as a friend.

He was studying for a psychology degree back when I first knew him. I remember him selecting term projects designed to test controversial and unlikely claims made about learning and other psychological phenomena. Now he has a PhD, and his research is primarily in intelligence research – including the much-maligned area of IQ tests. This is what his book is about. (He also gives popular talks on the topic and maintains an active Twitter account – an excellent practice for a modern scientist.)

The book is called Intelligence: All That Matters. (The “All That Matters” bit is a series name imposed by the publisher – after reading the book, it’s clear that Stuart doesn’t think intelligence is all that matters. Perhaps it’s best to read the title as “All That Matters About Intelligence”.)


I’d love to walk you through all of the interesting points, but the whole thing is interesting and I am not inclined to regurgitate the whole thing. I got an electronic version from Google for $11**, so it’s easy enough to get it yourself. And the point of this post is to promote my friend’s work (and, ideally, encourage some royalties his way). So I’ll just hit the high points, by way of a brief summary of the chapters:

  1. Introducing intelligence, in which he identifies why we might be interested in intelligence, gives a quick history of intelligence testing, and even throws in a bit of light statistics that will help the reader’s follow the talk of correlations throughout much of the rest of the book.
  2. Testing intelligence, where we learn about what types of questions and exercises really show up on intelligence tests, how the “IQ” number is determined, and what this general intelligence thing (the “g factor”) is. We also learn a little about how people’s intelligence changes and doesn’t change over their life.
  3. Why intelligence matters, a thorough and careful chapter that goes into detail about all of the things that correlate (and seem to have causal relationships) with intelligence. This is mainly positive, but there is one negative correlation – something that intelligent people have more of and may wish they didn’t. Read the book to find out what it is.
  4. The biology of intelligence, a topic that can be wildly controversial. A more timid or less articulate author might pussyfoot around it. Not Stuart. In a fearless and sensitive manner, he discusses the obviously genetically-determined intelligence differences between species before getting into the subtle matter of variability in human intelligence and genetics. He doesn’t come across sexist or racist – not because he’s dancing around the matter, but because the evidence doesn’t point that way. Having read this, I feel that I have a solid grounding to discuss these issues with folks I know.
  5. The easy way to raise your IQ. In this chapter, we are led through various popular ideas, from the “Mozart effect” to “breastfeeding”, which people think can raise IQ, and what the evidence says about it. Stuart describes two ways that definitely work, from long and established evidence, to raise average population intelligence. What are they? You guessed it: read the book to find out!
  6. Why is intelligence so controversial? This book is not an evasion. Stuart has been in the field long enough to have confronted many forms of opposition, from quarters both within and outside of academia. This chapter confronts several of the dark episodes in the history of intelligence testing. He doesn’t make excuses for them; he acknowledges the racism, sexism, and even the eugenics. And he returns to the untarnished core of empirical evidence and the legitimate motivations for wanting to study intelligence – not just for the pure love of knowledge (though that is, of course, important), but for the social and economic benefits that we have reaped and may continue to reap through responsible research into the biological, sociological, medical, and other things related to intelligence.

Along the way, he answers many burning questions, such as:

  • Does intelligence testing reveal anything important? Yes.
  • Don’t they just test your ability to take a test? No.
  • Do we really want to reduce people to a single number? No, and no responsible psychologist would ever want to do that anyway.

(For deeper answers, go buy the book.)

I really enjoyed reading this book. It has been several years since I’ve seen my friend in person, and this book is so clearly in his style that I could almost hear his delightful Borders Scottish accent coming off the page. I hope Stuart will not mind if I say that his active wit seems to have been tempered and seasoned a bit. He still has a sharp and delightful style, but some of the wild reactionism of youth has been replaced with the thoughtfulness of … slightly less youth.

This is a great read. It’s fun, and it will help you understand your own brain – your own mind – a bit better.


* Stuart, I’m sorry, mate. It’s awesome that you got your PhD, but it’s just too hard to consistently refer to you as “Dr Ritchie”. In my heart, you’ll always be “Stuart”. (If it helps, I still find it hard to believe that have a PhD too, and it’s weird that people call me “Dr Mills”.)

** Well, $10.99 Canadian. That works out to what? $5 US, probably two quid in Britain? I don’t know – go figure it out yourself.

Secular parent advocacy in Alberta


This is just a quick cheerleading post. I want to highlight a rather cool Facebook group: Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning. That’s “A PUPIL” for short.

They’re not new, and I’ve been a member of the group for a little while now. But as I become slightly more active on Facebook, I’ve become aware of how active the group is at alerting people to issues coming up across Alberta – not just around school prayer, but around sex education and other issues that bear on that idea of unbiased and inclusive public education in our province. (Most of those links are to newspaper articles that have been posted on the group.)

They also have a Twitter account, but it seems to be dormant right now.

Kudos to the group’s organizers and its over 200 members for keeping these issues visible and injecting some secular sanity where, sometimes, either populism or the spirit of compromise are taken too far, and allowed to swallow up basic principles of equality and good education.

Rant of a *real* fiscal conservative


Greta Christina has managed to do one of the most annoying things someone can do on the Internet.

She has taken a position that I thought was rather sensible, a bridge between supposedly irreconcilable camps, and exposed it as a sham. A farce. An illusion.

Dammit, Greta, is nothing sacred to you? Oh, right. Anyway, the position in  question is that of the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative”. I had begun to identify tentatively with the label myself.

Her thorough and well-referenced take-down points out that most of the fiscally conservative positions defended by those who like this label are inherently antagonistic to social liberalism. Cutting taxes, shrinking government, deregulating business – all of these have the effect of marginalizing the marginalized, of deepening the social fissures in society (almost all of which have a huge economic angle).

I can’t think of anything to refute the substance of her message.

And yet … there is a linguistic mis-step that irks me. I don’t know if this is a quibble worth clinging to, or if I should just let it go, adapt my vocabulary. Let me know what you think.

You see, what I think when I hear the words “fiscal conservative” is that the government aims to conserve spending – to find the most economically efficient way to achieve a particular goal.

Let’s take health care as an example. The fiscally conservative position would be to use whatever system results in spending the least per procedure, so that more could be achieved with less. Now, the analyses I’ve seen [1,2,3] show that socialized health care is actually more financially efficient than private health care. The first of those points out that per-capita spending on health in Canada in 2009 was about 55% what it was in the US that year.* The most obvious difference between these systems is that we have a health care system in Canada that is more publicly funded than the American system. I can hear the right-wingers crying out that this is obviously false – there must be some mistake. But I don’t hear them offering actually actual evidence-based rebuttal. Instead, they are relying on their ideological commitments.

So, for health care, the fiscally conservative solution is also (happy coincidence) the socially liberal solution. Cool.

Now, I confess that I haven’t worked through all of the issues out there. I suspect that some issues, such as same-sex marriage, have little to no fiscal angle at all. Okay, legalizing it avoids costly human rights trials, and opens up economic niches that are otherwise unavailable. But really, it’s largely an economic non-issue. And other issues, such as tax regimes designed to reduce income inequalities, are not transparently fiscally conservative. So it’s at least plausible that social liberalism and fiscal conservatism occasionally come into conflict.

I guess my big issue with the approach Greta Christina takes is that it grants the self-proclaimed conservatives too much. A government that chooses expensive wars, or criminalizes so many behaviours that it can’t keep up with the self-imposed demand for incarceration space, should not be allowed to label itself “conservative” without eyebrows being raised. The Republican Party in the US is not fiscally conservative. The Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta is not fiscally conservative. At least, not in the ways that are important to the lives of average citizens.

I suspect that, on substance, Greta Christina and I would not disagree about much here. What I’m not sure of is whether we could agree on the appropriate use of the language. I feel the same way about this as I do about religious folks trying to “own” the language of morality and family values: they don’t have the corner on that market, and often the people they oppose are doing the real thing even better than they are.

What do you think?


* Yes, I know there are many potential confounds in that data. Maybe Americans are less healthy. Maybe things are more expensive there. But for the cost to be almost double what our Canadian system is, you would expect there to be profound and obvious evidence of such things. And I don’t see it.