2010

Here are what I think are my best posts of 2010:

As I hinted at in that last post of mine, this has been a difficult year for me, culminating in my ongoing divorce proceedings after my then wife unexpectedly told me that she considered that whole “forsaking all others” thing as less of a solemn vow and more of a guideline. I’ve taken a long look at my priorities as a result, and resolved to spent less time arguing with idiots on the Internet (so, if you see me back on the Premier Christian Radio forums, remind me of my resolution) and more time going out dancing. There’ll probably be fewer posts of substance from me in 2011; however, I’m perfectly happy to argue with sane and sensible people, and I doubt I’ll be able to resist that urge entirely.

Thanks to my friends and family for all their support, and to the strangers who wrote to ask where I’d gone during the hiatus in my postings. May 2011 be a better year for us all.

If you do this in an email, I hate you – The Oatmeal

Via matgb
(tags: email funny internet humour)

Killing Elvis – David Hines (hradzka) – Alien series (1979 1986 1992) [Archive of Our Own]

"Aliens" fanfic. Good fun.
(tags: aliens alien fanfic humour)

Football Mascots, English Democrats And Shadow Mayors | MetaFilter

"Some council leaders and their new powers under the Local Government Act 2000 ("LGA"): – Councillors of the Borough of Telford and Wrekin have the power of flight (section 2 of the LGA)."

Light Blue Touchpaper: The Gawker hack: how a million passwords were lost

The security group at Cambridge on how the Gawker hack occurred.
(tags: security hacking gawker passwords)

Epiphenom: The cult of Theoi: sacrificing to the god of uncertainty

"What this study shows is that these students seem inherently resistant to learning that the forces at work are random. They started off with the assumption that Theoi would reward sacrifices, and they just didn't seem able to shake that assumption, despite all the evidence."
(tags: randomness religion science psychology)

Schneier on Security: Close the Washington Monument

"Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears."
(tags: security terrorism politics government washington tsa bruce-schneier)

Oxbridge isn’t racist – but it’s failing the working class | Liberal Conspiracy

Someone on Liberal Conspiracy actually looks at the stats behind the recent non-story. It's always a bit odd when the newspapers decide it's the responsibility of Oxford and Cambridge to carry out social engineering in a belated attempt to fix problems which occurred earlier in the system.
(tags: cambridge oxford racism education uk)

I’m back, bitches. I’ve been roused from my slumbers by a friend’s link to the Not Ashamed campaign against the marginalisation of Christianity in the UK. It’s fronted by George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

A great cloud of witlessness

Apparently, it’s getting harder to be a Christian in this country. So, what’s the problem? The campaign’s choice of heroes of the faith makes it clear that the essence of Christian practice is stopping gays getting the same rights as everyone else, getting yourself special exemptions from workplace dress codes (keeping up with the Muslims, I suppose), and proselytizing on the taxpayers’ time. The Ministry of Truth examines these bold martyrs in detail (I’ve previously discussed the cases of Olive Jones and Gary MacFarlane myself) and concludes that they probably should be ashamed, really.

Now, I’ve had a rough time over the last few months, hence the lack of posting, and some Christians have been very kind to me (as well as some non-Christians, of course). So I’d formed a different view of the essentials: I had thought they were things like kindness and goodness, those things against which, as St Paul says, there is no law. But who am I to disagree with the former Archbishop of Canterbury?

I imagine Carey would say that if you can’t spurn the gays or wear a silver ring to school, you can still be a Christian, but well, it just wouldn’t be the same: hence the campaign’s description of the heroes as “those who have suffered”. It must have been awful for them.

The grand metanarrative

Some time ago, Weeping Cross (who is one of those moderate religionists of the sort that never gets enough publicity for condemning the extremists: glad to help) wrote that

the narrative of persecution is a terribly comforting one for many modern Christians, and is to a great degree generated by them. It’s a way of taking cultural marginalisation and making it a sign that they’re getting something right: people don’t like the truth, so the more truthful we are about the Gospel, the more disliked we will be.

Someone called JPea commented on Heresiarch’s latest, informing us that all this is part of the cosmic battle between good and evil which will soon culminate in the kind of end of series finale where they blow the entire special effects budget. Luckily, Rev Cross was around to tell them not to be so silly: “Try looking at what’s actually happening and not trying to fit it into a grand metanarrative.”

I’m not sure that’s a realistic instruction for most of the Not Ashamed types: the whole point of that style of religion is to be part of the big story (I’ve just discovered Greta Christina had my idea first, curse her). The mundane facts that Christian observance is on the decline in this country and that more and more people won’t put up with discrimination against gays must be invested with cosmic significance: there is a conspiracy of “strident” atheists and “politically correct” bureaucrats, with the Dark Lord behind it all. If the meteor that flew by last night wasn’t a special signal to me on whether I should buy a new car, then how terribly shallow it all is.

Edited: One of my nice Christian friends didn’t like the Advice Dog image which was attached to this posting, so I removed it.

Less Wrong: Five-minute rationality techniques

Reader Digest rationality. Some good tips there.
(tags: rationality psychology less-wrong)

Kill or cure?

"Help to make sense of the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it." Marvellous. Now there's no need to read the Heil.
(tags: cancer science health funny daily-mail journalism)

Hitchens: ‘We’re all dying, with me it’s accelerated’ – News, People – The Independent

Video and article. Martin Amis comes in carrying a bottle of beer half way through. We'll miss Hitchens, and no mistake.
(tags: hitchens cancer religion atheism christopher-hitchens)

Cult Divided On Whether To Let Women Become Telepathic-Vision Clerics | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

Not the Church of England, this time. Via andrewducker.
(tags: funny onion religion telepathic cult)

Charlie Rose – Author Christopher Hitchens

The full interview with Hitchens (video, 1 hour long)
(tags: video christopher-hitchens cancer hitchens)

Hitchens Speaks Of God And Death During Interview | The New Republic

Commentary on Hitchens's statement that we should not believe any reports of a deathbed conversion, because even if it occurs, it would be because his mind had gone: "What is it, finally, that divides the believer from the atheist? … Levi and Hitchens imply that a person’s capacity to determine the truth depends on his or her ability to think calmly, coolly, dispassionately."
(tags: religion atheism death philosophy cancer hitchens christopher-hitchens primo-levi auschwitz)

TTA Press – Interzone: Science Fiction & Fantasy – Crystal Nights by Greg Egan

An Egan short story I'd not seen before. "You know what they say the modern version of Pascal’s Wager is? Sucking up to as many Transhumanists as possible, just in case one of them turns into God". Nice.
(tags: sci-fi ai sf science scifi fiction egan artificial-intelligence greg-egan)

Verbal Judo: Diffusing Conflict Through Conversation

An ex-English Professor and ex-Cop, George Thompson, who now teaches a method he calls "Verbal Judo", a primer on communications techniques, focusing on defensive & redirection tactics. This is a link to the Less Wrong thread where there's a comment giving a summary, though the video is good too (but long, as 1:30).
(tags: language psychology rationality video lectures negotiation persuasion)

YouTube – What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement :: 2010 Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference

Greta Christina gives an hour long talk, which is pretty interesting. One thing I learned was that I probably wouldn't want to live in America, if atheists there have it as bad as LGBT people, though I suppose a lot of it depends on where you are and who you mix with. Interesting bit at the end on how if atheists "win", atheism won't mean you're special, super-rational or whatever: I think we can see that in this country, certainly.
(tags: homosexuality lgbt atheism greta-christina video youtube)

NEVER WAKE UP: THE MEANING AND SECRET OF INCEPTION

Seems to make sense. Obviously, contains huge spoilers. Via Penny Arcade.
(tags: inception film movie science-fiction sci-fi dreams)

The slow, whiny death of British Christianity : Johann Hari

Johann Hari gets all strident neo-toxic sceptical neo-atheist (you missed "shrill" – Ed.): "As their dusty Churches crumble because nobody wants to go there, the few remaining Christians in Britain will only become more angry and uncomprehending." He's right about "whiny", though.
(tags: christianity religion atheism secularism uk hari johann-hari)

Don’t Be Ugly By Accident! « OkTrends

OKCupid, the dating site, took data from uploaded photographs and used it to work out some interesting stats. The better the camera you use for your pic, the hotter you look. iPhone users get laid more. Using a flash makes you look older. And so on. Interesting stuff. Via Mefi.
(tags: photography statistics research dating iphone okcupid sex relationships)

Battleground God is doing the rounds on Facebook. It’s a quiz on God-belief. It doesn’t try to argue for theism or atheism, but rather, checks whether your beliefs about God are consistent. I think I did the quiz a few years ago, but I did it again, and found I’m still a logically consistent atheist (at least as far as a quiz which asks a few True/False questions can tell), which was nice.

You’ll never find a Nessie in a zoo

There was some debate over these two questions:

Q10: If, despite years of trying, no strong evidence or argument has been presented to show that there is a Loch Ness monster, it is rational to believe that such a monster does not exist.

Q14: As long as there are no compelling arguments or evidence that show that God does not exist, atheism is a matter of faith, not rationality.

If you answer True to both, you get “hit” (which is bad, because you’re on a philosophical battlefield, remember). The site says:

Earlier you agreed that it is rational to believe that the Loch Ness monster does not exist if there is an absence of strong evidence or argument that it does. No strong evidence or argument was required to show that the monster does not exist – absence of evidence or argument was enough. But now you claim that the atheist needs to be able to provide strong arguments or evidence if their belief in the non-existence of God is to be rational rather than a matter of faith.

The contradiction is that on the first ocassion (sic) (Loch Ness monster) you agreed that the absence of evidence or argument is enough to rationally justify belief in the non-existence of the Loch Ness monster, but on this occasion (God), you do not.

On Facebook, AH (and perhaps RH) said that the cases were different because of the “years of trying” part: Nessie is supposed to live in Loch Ness, so a thorough search might be enough to convince us that she’s not there. If we cannot find God, however, maybe we just haven’t looked everywhere yet.

I think the “years of trying” thing is a red herring here, so the question is badly phrased. The FAQ for the Nessie question explains that in both cases, you’re presented with a lack of positive evidence that something does exist, rather than a positive evidence that it does not (edit: as I said below, on some definitions of evidence, this is a distinction that makes no difference, but it’s one the site seems to make, so we’ll run with it). If you propose using sonar to search Loch Ness, a true Nessian will not be moved: didn’t they mention that Nessie is undectable to sonar? You might find it suspicious that the Nessian knows in advance what experimental results they’ll need to excuse, but that’s merely a demonstration that the Nessian doesn’t believe in Nessie but rather believes in belief in Nessie. It’s not an argument that there’s no Nessie.

The FAQ adds that the Q14, the God question, doesn’t actually specify our current knowledge level about the universe: if we found explanations for the universe’s existence which did not involve God, this would not show that God does not exist, in the same way that the sonar survey wouldn’t show that Nessie didn’t exist, but the question is whether it’s rational to conclude that Nessie and God do not exist merely because of a lack of evidence that they do. Again, I think the “years of trying” in the Nessie question confuses things here, because it puts us in mind of the current state of affairs.

PH objects that the empiricists who wrote the quiz have assumed that God is the same sort of thing as Nessie. But the FAQ points out that the Nessian could say that, while of course Nessie and God are very different, they still assert that Nessie has the ability to evade detection. The atheist could then legitimately wonder why the theist gets to make the “you can’t disprove God” move while the Nessiant can’t make a similar move.

Edited: simont makes the point that we pretty definitely know what we mean by “Nessie”, and there aren’t in fact Nessians making clever claims that Nessie just isn’t the sort of thing that can be detected, whereas this isn’t the case for “God”. The fact that the FAQ has to go into it that particular “hit” in such detail means they could have done it better. A more obviously supernatural belief which doesn’t entail theism or atheism would prevent some of the arguments about those two questions. So, I’ve now concluded that it is fair to object based on the usual meaning of “Nessie”, and that Q10 should probably be about the existence of ghosts.

Bayesian homily

This talk of absence of evidence and evidence of absence reminded me of the appropriate Less Wrong article. I think the FAQ has confused evidence and proof. Absence of evidence for Nessie is evidence of absence of Nessie if that evidence would even slightly make us believe more strongly in Nessie (assuming the evidence is the sort where you either see it or you don’t, rather than having several possible outcomes: I’ve not worked out what happens in that case). This is just the same as the healing prayer case we mentioned before. Many Christians claim that their God’s existence is so obvious that anyone who doesn’t accept it is culpably deceiving themselves. I think this must mean that they would agree that we should expect to find evidence of the Christian God, in which case, if we don’t, that weighs against his existence.