Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Lynne Honey: Statistics

2015/10/31

(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.)

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Muslim without Islam

2015/10/30

(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

2015/10/29

(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.)

Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity

2015/10/28

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

Bradley Peter is a tall, slender man with a soft voice and a gentle, methodical manner. He is just the sort of person you can imagine being a therapist or a funeral director.

Actually, he’s a biologist.

But after witnessing his grandmother’s final weeks – where her options were to keep suffering, be drugged and “live” as a vegetable until her body expired, or to voluntarily starve to death – he found a passion for reforming our laws around death to enable people more dignity when the choice is no longer one between life and death, but between an excruciating, humiliating death and a dignified, comfortable death.

This February, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition on physician-assisted death is contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, denying people important rights. (It’s more involved than you might think. Apparently suicide itself isn’t a criminal act in Canada, but someone – including a doctor – can be jailed for up to 14 years for counselling or aiding in a suicide.) The ruling itself is here (somewhat hard to read, but it’s there), and there are many news reports and commentaries – here are some: 1, 2, 3. Their ruling, which strikes down the portion of the Criminal Code that pertains to physician-assisted death, comes into effect in 2016, on February 6. If nothing else happens, we will be left in something of a vacuum, with no prohibition and no clear guidelines on how to deal with patient requests for assistance in dying.

Our new Alberta provincial government, our new Canadian federal government, and various medical bodies all bear responsibility to prepare for this deadline by consulting with public and medical professionals and drafting legislation. Dying With Dignity, an organization which Brad is part of, is campaigning on various fronts to ensure that the rules we end up with respect patient rights, physicians’ conscience, and court rulings. We need to ensure that people are not abused – either by greedy relatives pressuring aging invalids into suicide, or by moralizing naysayers who would see suffering as some sort of heavenly gift, or anyone else.

A couple of things you can do right now from the comfort of your own browser are to complete online surveys for the External Panel on Options for a Legislative Response to Carter v. Canada (which will advise the federal ministers of justice and health – survey here) and the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (which will determine best practice in Alberta for physicians around this part of end-of-life care – survey here). I am sure the colleges of physicians and surgeons of other provinces are also working on this – if you know of them and any surveys they have going, leave a comment with links and I’ll add them to the post.

It is important to be aware that these surveys are not necessarily unbiased. Whether intentionally or not, some of the questions may be leading. Read carefully, and respond honestly and thoughtfully. At least the first one has space throughout and at the end for you to note things you think are important but were not covered in the wording or choices on the survey.

Brad’s presentation came at a perfect time to motivate many of us in the audience to take an active role in shaping the attitudes of legislators and informing our fellow citizens about the issue at stake.

There is also an upcoming National Day of Action on November 4th (Wednesday next week – there are events in cities across Canada). Will you join us, and Brad, and others who feel that the time has come for a careful, compassionate look at how we treat death and dying people in our country?

Dying With Dignity logo

None of the Above conference

2015/10/27

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.

Intelligence

2015/09/23

“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”.)

Intelligence-allthatmatters

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.

Footnotes:

* 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.

Podcast review: Quirks and Quarks / Science Friday

2014/10/04

As a kid, I remember CBC radio being a regular background in our kitchen. Particularly on Saturdays, there was always an interesting lineup. Basic Black is one show I remember fondly. The other – the one that fit with my already-healthy love of science – was Quirks and Quarks. It has gone through at least one change of hosts since then (the current host is Bob McDonald), but the same basic structure remains: a science news show with interviews and the occasional cheesy pun. There are two podcast feeds – one with the whole hour in a single download, and one with a separate download for each segment.

When I lived in Scotland, I was pointed to another show that has an almost identical format, but is based in the US: Science Friday, hosted by Ira Flatow. Its podcast feed has each segment in a separate item.

Both of these shows are essentially no-frills world-science-news digests. Each news item is normally given only a few minutes, so they are very digestible. Quirks has a slightly Canadian bias in its topics and guests; SciFri has a slightly American bias. But they are essentially the same show from different sites. And because there is far more science news than can fit into a single hour each week, they often cover completely different news items. It’s worth listening to both, if you have the time.

There are other science shows that are more … well, showy. But these two are reliable news sources which I feel I can trust to give me a relatively bias-free survey of what’s going on.

Podcast review: More or Less

2014/09/28

The BBC in general is a rich source of content – I imagine anyone reading this could benefit from a perusal of the Radio 4 offerings. Pretty much every show has an associated podcast you can subscribe to.

More or Less is unique among podcasts (or shows in general). I have listened to mathematical podcasts that were fascinating, but shortlived. Other shows have a passing interest in math, but do not regularly cover math topics. On More or Less, host Tim Harford and his colleauges not only do numbers, and do them regularly, year in and year out; they do them in a topical, fun, engaging manner. They show how important numeracy is in day-to-day life. Not only that; their focus is on statistics, one of the most-maligned areas of mathematics. The general format is to probe numbers that have been presented by prominent figures, or disseminated in the media, to see whether they stand up. Listeners will learn, almost by accident, what sort of questions to ask when someone tries to convince them of something with numbers.

 

What really matters

2014/09/25

Dug up from the draft pile – the opening is a little out of date, but the content is quite relevant.

Here is an interesting piece in the Calgary Herald on declining church attendance.

I’m going to leave aside the opening bit, which identifies “six-month-old Angus Smith” as “a devout churchgoer”. I understand the desire to pursue the human interest side of the story. I think it is inappropriate to describe an infant as “devout”, but fussing over that is not the point of this post. (See here and here for some thoughts on that.)

What I’m more interested in here is the article’s suggestion that church attendance may be the cure for today’s spiritual ennui. One Catholic bishop in Calgary, Frederick Henry, says “We’re finding out no matter how many toys and playthings you have … there’s a restlessness for something more and deeper, and I think there’s a bit of a turn to religion to try and develop a spirituality.”

Now, I don’t know about general historical trends. My experience, within my family and among my peers, is that the people around me have always been interested in keeping grounded in the deeper, important things in life. Things such as fostering community and being true to oneself. In my experience, there has always been interest in that “something deeper”.

What the article neglects is that “something deeper” doesn’t have to be “something religious”.

Humanism is a way of focussing on the important things in life without also subscribing to all the beliefs and traditions of religion – beliefs and traditions that many of us cannot honestly accept and certainly don’t identify with.

I agree with Bishop Henry that toys and playthings do not suffice for deep happiness. Oh, I enjoy my toys. The laptop that I’m writing this on, my MP3 player for podcast listening on my commute, the bicycle I often commute on, the Lego toys that my kids and I enjoy playing with – these do enrich my life in various ways. But deeper and more important than any of that is connections with people. Sometimes these toys help me make these connections – as in (responsible) use of social media. Sometimes I let the toys get in the way – I can get stuck in computer games or TV shows when there are people I could be visiting with.

I fight such tendencies in myself using the framework of my humanist values and worldview. I’m delighted that so many people can affirm their social values within their chosen religious tradition. I am also delighted that people who cannot accept those religious traditions also have a way to fulfil this very human need.

Christmas is a good yearly reminder for me – a break from routine that is filled with gift-giving and the chance to reconnect with family members that I don’t see most of the year. The gift-giving is an interesting one. When I was young, I was most focussed on getting. It was fun to get new toys. But over the years, I have learned the joy of giving. Now, the most exciting part is thinking of what gifts I can give that will most delight my loved ones. Usually, this has nothing to do with how much money I spend on them. My favorite gift to give last year was a customized version of the Phylo trading card game – a gift that, itself, encourages socializing.

The growth of humanist and other secular social organizations is beginning to offer a viable alternative to churches. I know that many people – especially but not exclusively younger folks – are looking for a way to connect with others to explore the deeper things in life, and yet do not find personal resonance in religious beliefs.

And while religious groups are, currently, better at organizing the social side of things, non-religious groups are catching up at a delightful pace. There are two families we have become particularly close to in recent years – one while we lived in Boston and one more recently in Edmonton. We met the family in Boston at a Unitarian church. While this is a church, it is philosophically closer to humanism than to traditional religion. The other family we met through a humanist meetup group here in Alberta.

We don’t currently attend regular humanist meetings or Unitarian church, but we have the resources at our fingertips to reach out when we want to find like-minded people interested in the same self-examination and reflection, interested in focussing on what really matters. The odds are that you do too: have a look around. Join a Meetup group. Start your own. Participate in online communities. Visit a Unitarian Universalist church if you have one nearby, and chat with people after the service.

I should note that we have also made friends with Christian families, Muslim families, and individuals whose religious affiliation we have simply never bothered to ask. Ultimately, most people are interested in being good people, and I would hate to limit my social circle to only people who are philosophically similar to me. What a terrible example that would set for my kids. They are growing up in an age where global cooperation and fraternity are the keys to a peaceful, productive future.

Anyway, I thought I’d put that out there. If you are non-religious and seeking a community that will help you explore what is important to you, you have options.

If you are religious and seeking a community … well, you’ve always had options, but you too are welcome at most humanist and non-religious social groups, if you would like to try something different.

And of course, religious or not, odds are you know people who are not religious. If you are able and willing to be open about your beliefs, you might be surprised at who around you is non-religious.

Podcast review: Grammar Girl

2014/09/19

As a linguist, I am trained to look at language descriptively. I am also inclined to dismiss the prescriptions of grammarians and language mavens; they often reflect a narrow view of language. I found the Grammar Girl podcast because it was given as a model of the prescriptive attitude in a colleague’s slides. In it, Mignon Fogerty gives advice about how to use words and grammatical constructions in English. I thought, “Excellent. I’ll listen, and get a window into the other side – see how the prescriptivists go wrong, and be able to formulate arguments against them.”

But Mignon Fogerty foiled my plans. Rather than advocating a blind adherence to arbitrary rules (as some prescriptivists do), She and other contributors make an effort to understand language as it actually works. They tell listeners where forms come from. They advise based on how language is actually used. They do sometimes fall back on usage guides. (See this article from a far more accomplished linguist than me to understand why “usage guides” are not held in high esteem by linguists.)

I had to listen for some time before I came to a full appreciation of the subtleties of her perspective, and I’m afraid I offered her one or two snarky tweets along the way (from my other Twitter account, @TimPhon).

I still don’t agree with everything she says, but I stay subscribed because I know there’s plenty that I can learn from her. And because the episodes are short and fun.

Anyway, here was one attempt to redeem my behaviour to her:

(Yes, someone has already pointed out my idiosyncratic spelling of “weird”. Thankyou.)