Link blog: research, statistics, science, cambridge

The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang’s short about memory, time and loss. It’s also an alien first contact story.
(tags: heptapod story science-fiction time ted-chiang sci-fi language first-contact memory)
Cambridge: Poles apart Why Warsaw beats Cambridge Blog Mike Levy
“A weekend in Warsaw made me think about Cambridge at night. In Cambridge after 6pm the city centre empties ready for the only true night time economy: binge drinking. The Market Square alive with stall holders and shoppers at 5pm magically transforms into a ghostly empty space one hour later. It is a Cinderella midnight moment that never fails to astonish. By dusk the Cambridge ball is over and the Prince has gone home to watch T.V. Only a lonely burger van takes up residence creating a sad and soulless image that realist painter Edward Hopper could capture.” Yeah, it’s crap.
(tags: night-life drinking alcohol night cambridge warsaw)
Why You Shouldn’t Support Operation Christmas Child | Mymumdom
…unless you want to contribute towards evangelical Christian evangelising, of course. But apparently some schools in the UK are collecting shoeboxes of gifts for the Samaritan’s Purse organisation without fully realising what they’re about.
(tags: religion samaritans-purse christianity christmas-child christmas evangelism)
www.me.uk RevK’s rants: Censoring the Internet
Chap who runs an ISP goes to dinner with some MPs and discusses filtering.
(tags: politics uk porn filtering censorship isp internet)
Unreliable research: Trouble at the lab | The Economist
“Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not.” Talks about the problems with reproducing research.
(tags: economist journals research statistics science)
Warning Signs in Experimental Design and Interpretation
(tags: significance experiment maths probability research mathematics statistics science)

Link blog: christianity, richard-dawkins, philosophy, dawkins

What is the proper place for religion in Britain’s public life? | World news | The Observer
An exchange between Dawkins and Will Hutton. D: “That doesn’t mean religious people shouldn’t advocate their religion. So long as they are not granted privileged power to do so (which at present they are) of course they should. And the rest of us should be free to argue against them. But of all arguments out there, arguments against religion are almost uniquely branded “intolerant”. When you put a cogent and trenchant argument against the government’s economic policy, nobody would call you “intolerant” of the Tories. But when an atheist does the same against a religion, that’s intolerance. Why the double standard? Do you really want to privilege religious ideas by granting them unique immunity against reasoned argument?”
(tags: uk secularism politics religion dawkins richard-dawkins will-hutton)
The Sins of the Fathers – Richard Dawkins – RichardDawkins.net – RichardDawkins.net
Dawkins sez: “Yesterday evening I was telephoned by a reporter who announced himself as Adam Lusher from the Sunday Telegraph. At the end of a week of successfully rattling cages, I was ready for yet another smear or diversionary tactic of some kind, but in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined the surreal form this one was to take. I obviously can’t repeat what was said word-for-word (my poor recall of long strings of words has this week been highly advertised), and I may get the order of the points wrong, but this is approximately how the conversation went.” Lusher says Dawkins’s ancestors owned slaves and wonders whether D will make reparations. Bizarre and desperate.
(tags: adam-lusher slavery dawkins richard-dawkins journalism newspapers telegraph)
Stephen Law vs. William Lane Craig Debate: Argument map » » The Polemical MedicThe Polemical Medic
“there’s lots of debate over who won the Law/Craig debate. Instead of joining that, I though I’d do something niftier: I’ve mapped the whole of the debate in argument form, to give a more intuitive way of seeing how all the arguments and objections interact”. This is excellent stuff.
(tags: religion theodicy philosophy christianity atheism debate william-lane-craig stephen-law)
Evangelism, disbelief, and being ‘without excuse’ » » The Polemical MedicThe Polemical Medic
“Christians who indulge in evangelism and apologetics often hold to a thesis of disbelief as epistemic pathology – that disbelief is the result of some culpable error of judgment. Such an attitude is a poor fit for the facts and counter productive to the cause of evangelism. Ironically, the urge of these people to pathologize disagreement is diagnostic of their own epistemic pathology.” I’ve mentioned this attitude (inspired by Romans 1) before: Thrasymachus neatly dissects it.
(tags: philosophy epistemology christianity religion apologetics evangelicalism evangelism)

Link blog: mackie, phones, scientism, christianity

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club: On moral evaluations

Blackford points out that morality doesn't require anything spooky or metaphysical to be rational and non-arbitrary, so long as we're prepared to accept that "[w]hatever judgments we make do not compel all comers, regardless of their desire-sets, to act one way or another on pain of making a mistake about the world or something of the sort."
(tags: philosophy morality ethics error-theory mackie russell-blackford)

“Have friends who are atheists? Agnostics? Into Wicca? Or New Age?”

Mefi discovers "Dare2Share", which is one of those worldview based Christian evangelism things where they're training Christians to understand other people's worldviews (which is good) as a preamble to converting them to Christianity (which would be bad). I've linked to Mefi rather than the site itself as the Mefites discussion is interesting. The site has cutesy names for their examplars, like "Willow the Wiccan" and "Andy the Atheist", so the Mefi crowd have come up with a few of their own.
(tags: metafilter apologetics christianity evangelism worldview)

New Statesman – The bugger, bugged

"After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story . . . " Coppers taking backhanders from journos, oh my. No wonder the Met dragged their feet about the phone hacking case.
(tags: news journalism crime phones privacy surveillance police hugh-grant hacking)

Scientism « Why Evolution Is True

Jerry Coyne: "when used as a derogatory adjective, “scientism” means this:

the practice of applying rationality and standards of evidence to faith.

For religious people and accommodationists, that practice is a no-no. That’s why the adjective is pejorative."

I think there is something which we could validly call "scientism", namely the belief that science can answer all our questions, or that all questions reduce to scientific ones, or something. However, Coyne's point stands: "scientism" is often code for "how dare you ask us for evidence?"
(tags: scientism science religion jerry-coyne)

Link blog: theodicy, evangelicalism, comics, kirk-cameron

Who is Ray Preaching To? | Unreasonable Faith

Unreasonable Faith, via Jesus Needs New PR, present the standard evangelical gospel, "God has made you sick and commands you to be well", presentation from Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron (as a commenter on JNNPR says, Jesus likes C-list celebs, L Ron Hubbard has the A-listers). Vorjack notes Ray is utterly unconvincing wonders who Ray's talking to: my guess is cultural Christians who vaguely accept Ray's premises. Even so "Have you ever told a lie? What does that make you?" invites the response "Have you ever told the truth? What does that make you?", I suppose… Perhaps Ray needs a Bad Arguments post of his own.
(tags: evangelicalism evangelism ray-comfort kirk-cameron christianity religion sin)

On What God Would Do

A popular response to arguments which say that suffering and evil in the world is evidence that God does not exist is to say that we're not in a position to know that God doesn't have good reasons for allowing the evil/suffering. In "On What God Would Do", Rob Lovering shows that that sort of response to the problem of evil ends up creating problems for arguments in favour of God's existence, since they generally rely on claims about what God would do. Hume got there first, as usual, but Lovering makes it rigourous.
(tags: philosophy religion theodicy evil rob-lovering)

5 Amazing Things Invented by Donald Duck (Seriously) | Cracked.com

Donald Duck invented the plot to Inception and a method of raising sunken ships using ping pong balls, apparently.
(tags: comics cracked cartoons inception disney duck)

Link blog: atheism, christianity, religion, richard-dawkins

Dr. Marlene Winell speaks about indoctrination by authoritarian religion

Dr Winell speaks to Valeria Tarico. Winell's experiences and those of her clients were much more traumatic than mine, because their churches really did deserve the "fundamentalist" label, but it's still an interesting video on the psychology of leaving a religion. The part about how if something doesn't work for you it's your fault and you must try harder rang some bells. Via Debunking Christianity.
(tags: video religion valerie-tarico indoctrination hell rapture psychology fundamentalism christianity)

txt2re: headache relief for programmers :: regular expression generator

Generate regular expressions from some sample text by clicking on what you want to match. Neat toy.
(tags: programming software tools regexp regex)

‘An Apology’ by Richard Dawkins – RichardDawkins.net

Dawkins apologises for the forum drama: "I would like to start by apologising for our handling of this situation. We have not communicated well with our forum volunteers and users (for example in my insensitive 'Outrage' post, which was written in the heat of the moment). In the process we have caused unintended hurt and offence, and I am very sorry about that. In a classic case of a vicious circle, some of the responses to our announcement also caused considerable hurt and distress to us, and in the atmosphere of heightened emotion that followed, some of our subsequent actions went too far. I hope you will understand the human impulses that led to this, and accept my apology for them. I take full personal responsibility."
(tags: drama internet dawkins richard-dawkins atheism)

Fallacies on fallacies : Evolving Thoughts

"Appeal to authority is not fallacious, so long as the authority cited is relevant and reliable. A principle known as the division of cognitive labor (I think due to Hilary Putnam) suggests that we literally must rely on authorities in the absence of time, resources and cognitive capacities to rerun all experiments and observations since the beginnings of science and history."
(tags: logic fallacy appeal authority putnam philosophy rationality)

Furious backlash from Simon Singh libel case puts chiropractors on ropes | Martin Robbins | Science | guardian.co.uk

"A staggering one in four chiropractors in Britain are now under investigation for allegedly making misleading claims in advertisements, according to figures from the General Chiropractic Council." Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch.
(tags: science simon-singh chiropractor guardian health pseudoscience quackery woo-woo libel legal law)

Photographic Height/Weight Chart

Self-submitted photographs of people, tabulated by weight and height. Interesting stuff. Via Metafilter.
(tags: health photos photography images height weight statistics photo biology)

Parchment and Pen » DO WE NEED TO TELL PEOPLE THE BAD NEWS BEFORE THE GOOD NEWS?

Paul Copan has some sensible thoughts on how to do evangelism. On no account should Christians put any of them into practice.
(tags: evangelism religion christianity sin gospel)

Heresy Corner: A Reading from the Book of Dawk

This is hilarious: "And some of the disciples said, O Dawk, our anger is not mixed against thee, but against thy servant Josh, who hath offended us. But others said, Hath not the Dawk deserted us? Come, let us depart the land of Dawk and hearken unto some other prophet, for the Dawk loveth not his people."
(tags: richard-dawkins drama internet forum atheism funny parody dawkins)

“Teacher suspended in prayer row”

The BBC reports that Olive Jones, a school teacher who’s also a Christian, was suspended for offering to pray for a sick pupil. This case looks similar to that of Caroline Petrie, a nurse who was also suspended (though later reinstated) after she offered to pray for a patient.

The Daily Mail has a longer interview with Mrs Jones than the BBC. I take articles in the Heil with a pinch of salt, but I assume they wouldn’t directly misquote her, as they’re on her side. Some salient points from their story: Jones is a supply teacher who visits the homes of kids who are too ill to come to school. After a previous incident, she’d been warned before that it wasn’t appropriate to pray with her pupils. The parent who complained had previously complained after Jones gave a testimony (evangelical jargon, usually referring to a story about how someone became a Christian, told for the purpose of evangelism, though in this case it was about how God saved her from being crushed by a tractor) in front of the parent, but the complaint hadn’t reached the right people, so when she did so again in front of the parent and child and also offered to pray, the parent complained to the school. Mrs Jones is now suspended pending an investigation. It’s not clear whether the decision to investigate happened after the press got involved: it looks like Jones is a contractor who can be fired without notice, not a full time employee of the school.

Inevitably, the Heil‘s commenters, and those at Cranmer’s blog, blame Muslims, political correctness, New Labour etc. etc. I suspect that if the story had been about a Muslim or Pagan doing what Mrs Jones did, the Mail‘s take on it would have been rather different (though I hope that the school’s response would not have been).

Jones’s actions as described by the Heil seemed to me to be deserving of disciplinary action from her employers. The same would apply if a Muslim or a Pagan had done the same, or if a strident neo-sceptical toxic rationalist neo-atheist had told the kid there’s no God and no miracles. Teachers aren’t paid to give unprompted religious “testimonies”, and shouldn’t assume that they’re welcome (especially in someone’s home). If the parent or the kid had asked about Jones’s religious beliefs, it’d be different, but there’s no evidence that this happened. It’s beholden on the school to ensure they comply with employment law, and firing for the first offence seems too harsh, but if someone’s on an at-will contract and has been warned once before, I can perfectly understand the decision to fire them.

I don’t think this is a free speech issue: Jones is free to pray on her own time (which will surely be as effective as praying with the family), and indeed, she was free to do what the Heil said she did and accept the consequences.

Tom Harris, MP and Ian Dale have further thoughts on the matter.

Edited to add: Tabloid Watch has the story from the parents who complained. Their daughter is 14 and has leukaemia, and they’d endured Jones’s evangelism for a while before complaining.

Revelation: documentary on the Alpha Course

Channel 4 recently screened How to Find God, Jon Ronson’s documentary on the Alpha course. You can watch it online for a few weeks. Edited to add: Ronson also went on the Alpha course himself back in 2000: you can read about it in the Grauniad, and find some interesting discussion of his article on Metafilter.

The documentary follows one group of people taking the course at St Aldates, Oxford, a charismatic Anglican church. The group were a mixed bunch, from Dave, a psychology student who was feeling a bit guilty about drinking 12 pints in an evening; to my favourite, Ed, the unemployed freegan who liked to look for spare food round the back of supermarkets.

What we see of Alpha’s apologetics is pretty bad: there’s Josephus‘s reference to Jesus, Lewis’s Mad/Bad/God argument, as appropriated by McDowell, and what ophe1ia-in-red‘s own review (which you should also read) rightly calls a false dichotomy between a life of meaningless debauchery and Christianity. At one point, the male small group leader says that God once spoke to him in his head to tell him he didn’t have to give a talk he was nervous about. When the non-Christians ask how he knows it was God and not his imagination, his wife gets annoyed and accuses them of calling her husband stupid. A rationalist with too much time on their hands could probably have a bit of fun attending an Alpha Course, and it seems some have.

Nevertheless, I doubt that these arguments have a lot to do with Alpha’s success rate (quoted as being about 1 person in each small group of about 8). As Ronson says, “Alpha is all about rigorously structured, almost mathematical, niceness. And this structure is a huge success.” The free food (and the attractive Christian ladies serving it), friendly people and small group discussions are the most important parts of Alpha’s methods.

Despite accusations of bias from the commenters on Channel 4’s site, Ronson’s style is non-confrontational. Rachel Cooke’s review in New Statesman describes it as “like a religious version of Springwatch: instead of wondering which egg was going to hatch first, we were invited to wonder which agnostic would find Jesus first.” I found it a bit like the “who’s going to die this week?” stuff you used to get in the opening scenes of Casualty: Bob’s using the threshing machine and once felt a “sort of energy” when he was a bit down, Alice is on the motorway behind a tanker full of petrol and is unemployed and a bit directionless: who’s going to get Jesus’d?

The “Holy Spirit weekend”, where the potential converts go off on a weekend break and are encouraged to try speaking in tongues, is the most controversial part of Alpha. Indeed, it’s partly what lead the more conservative evangelical churches to replace Alpha with Christianity Explored (that and the conservatives’ feeling that more emphasis is needed on the fact that we’re all sinners who deserve to be tortured forever, and will be if we find ourselves unable to radically change our lives on the basis of insufficient evidence: this is what conservatives call “the Good News“). It certainly made for the most interesting part of the documentary.

After a few explanatory shots of the Toronto Blessing, we follow the group on to a conference centre near Oxford, which it turns out they’re sharing with a conference for Ford GT40 fans. There’s a Derren Brown Messiah suggestion session where everyone stands with their eyes closed, but alas, it’s interrupted by the noise from the GT40s outside (modern day iron chariots, as one of Channel 4’s commenters has it). They carry on, with the Christians singing songs and the pastor singing in tongues, but one of the non-Christians feels he’s been manipulated and walks out of the room. However, the beer-drinking psychology student likes the atmosphere, asks people to pray for him, and says he’ll be going on another Alpha Course. In the end, two of them walk away saying the experience has put them off Christianity, and the freegan says he respects Christians more now. I’d call it a no-score draw.

Evangelism training or I Was a Teenage Evangelical

Even the atheists agree: William Craig thrashed Christopher Hitchens in their recent debate. In The West Wing, we see Bartlet preparing for a debate as real politicians do, by practising against someone playing his opposition, presumably having studied the other guy first. Craig is formidable, but his arguments don’t change, so it’s odd that his opponents apparently don’t take advantage of knowing what he’s going to say. Transcripts and audio of his previous debates are available, and his arguments are also in his book, Reasonable Faith. Chris Hallquist responded convincingly to the arguments in Reasonable Faith: a review like that should be a starting point for anyone debating with Craig.

Anyhoo, Hallquist’s review of Craig’s book brought back some memories of my time in evangelicalism, specifically about how I was taught to do evangelism. (Reminder: Evangelicalism is a particular subset of Christianity, emphasising the inerrancy of the Bible and the need for personal repentance and faith; people who believe in evangelicalism are evangelicals. Evangelism is the process of making converts; people who try to make converts are evangelists. Clear? Then off we go.)

When I tap on the dashboard, I want you to recite “Two Ways to Live” as quickly and as safely as possible

Sometimes non-Christians are disturbed to learn that evangelicals commonly receive training in evangelism, as if such training were somehow cheating. But there’s nothing inherently sinister about wanting to be better at evangelism, especially if you value the sort of propositional consistency I’ve mentioned previously: evangelicals who evangelise are anticipating-as-if there’s a Hell, rather than merely speaking-as-if they believe it (I’ve previously mentioned an evangelical evangelist who definitely anticipates-as-if there’s a Hell).

The training provided to a typical church-goer doesn’t cover spanking ill-prepared atheists in formal debates, but rather the every-day evangelism which is the responsibility of every Christian. It might start off with overcoming the British reticence about religion to get Christians to casually mention to friends and colleagues what they do on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. The church itself would put on fun events (film screenings, dinner parties, Ceroc nights) to which you could bring non-Christian friends, and there’d be a “short talk about Jesus” in the middle. Once people know you’re a Christian, you might get to talk to them about it, so the training goes on to having conversations about Christianity with non-Christians, maybe learning some sort of salvation schema like Two Ways to Live and some answers to common questions.

What kicked off memories of this was Hallquist’s review of Chapter 1 of Craig’s book. I remember being told to try to move the conversation away from issues like theodicy or the reliability of the Bible, to personal issues of sin and repentance. If you watch the BBC documentary on Deborah Drapper, you’ll see her doing this several times, using Ray Comfort’s Are you a good person? script. If you’d like to see Christopher Hitchens win for a change, you can also listen to an unfortunate Christian trying the script on him.

Bad faith

The advice to move the argument to personal issues reflects the common evangelical belief that philosophical debates and requests for evidence are a smokescreen: the non-Christian knows there’s a God really but just doesn’t want to worship him. One Biblical source for this belief is this passage in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where Paul says that God’s nature is clear from creation, so that people who don’t worship him have no excuse (verse 20).

Hallquist quotes Craig:

[W]hen a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God. — William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, my hyperlink

Craig advises Christians to ask objectors “If I answered that objection, would you then really be ready to become a Christian?” This is something like the rationalist technique of getting to the core of disagreements by asking “Is that your true rejection?” (see also The Least Convenient Possible World). However, Craig departs from the rationalist use of this technique in that he seems to argue it cannot legitimately be applied in reverse (“If I substantiated that objection, would you be ready to leave Christianity?”). He also takes the stance that non-Christians are culpably arguing in bad faith.

Hallquist’s review does a better job of arguing against Craig than I can, so you should read that if you come across assertions that Christianity is evidenced by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, or indeed, if you should happen to get into a debate with William Lane Craig. Rather, as is traditional, let’s end by drawing out some practical applications, and then go in peace.

Evangelism training

  • One of the less memorable new phrases invented by Neal Stephenson in Anathem is Hypotrochian Transquaestiation, which means “to change the subject in such a way as to assert, implicitly, that a controversial point has already been settled one way or the other”. Watch out for this, for example, in the switch from discussion of the existence of God to whether you are a good person.
  • Cognitive biases exist, and seeking a person’s true rejection is a useful technique if the debate seems to be going nowhere. However, it cuts both ways, so…
  • Beware of your conversational role. If you’ve accepted a passive role as potential buyer and the evangelist’s active role as sales-person, there are thoughts which won’t occur to you (like the seeking the evangelist’s true rejection).
  • If you’re aiming for dialogue rather than the buyer role, it’s probably not worth discussing things with someone who sees every argument you raise as evidence of your culpable self-deception. Craig’s position on an atheist’s motivations together with his experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit serve as a fully general counterargument to anything the atheist says (but note that knowing Craig is in possession of this argument doesn’t itself invalidate his specific arguments). If you find yourself in conversation with an evangelical evangelist, it is worth asking whether they agree with Craig.
    • One exception where it would be worth arguing is if there are people watching, as in a public debate, online, or if you found yourself at one of those evangelistic dinner parties.