Recent Links and Comments: Do You Believe in Blue?

Catching up on three weeks of content, having been preoccupied by personal projects and various life changes. Divided into groups.


Fascinating speculation by Steve Pinker on the evolutionary significance of music

Pinker argues that in fact that music is not an evolutionary adaptation, but a spandrel: a pleasurable byproduct of some other adaptation. What’s the “enabling” adaptation? In Pinker’s view, it’s language, which makes possible the production of music. (Reading is another such spandrel, another byproduct of language that simply couldn’t have been the direct object of selection.) Music is simply lagniappe from language: “auditory cheesecake.” He and host Dean Olsher then discuss, without resolution, whether music is a kind of language, or even a thought process.

Unfortunately the speakers aren’t working with my current laptop setup, so I can’t actually listen to the podcast at the moment.

Daniel Dennett about free will — a contentious issue among philosophers and neurologists in recent years. (E.g. Sam Harris.)
The Morality of Brain Science

It doesn’t show that we don’t have free will, but it does show something interesting. And that is: An important element of free will, not often publicly and articulately or explicitly discussed, but an important one, is that we keep our thinking to ourselves. We want to have certain privacy about our thoughts, because if we wear our hearts on our sleeves all the time, then people will exploit that.

Publishers Weekly review of a book, Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds by John Pickrell (published by Columbia University Press), that is another example of how our understanding of evolution continues to deepen as new evidence continues to be found. (There are several books like this every month. One reason I skim PW reviews every week is just to maintain an awareness of the kinds of topics people publish books about. Lots more books about religion every week than science, I notice.)

I clicked on this link — Why you should stop believing in evolution — not sure what I would find, but the subtitle gets it right: “You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t”

So if someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution,” they are framing it wrong. That’s like asking, “Do you believe in blue?”

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t. But pretending evolution is a matter of faith can be a clever way to hijack the conversation, and pit it in a false duality against religion. And that’s how we end up with people decrying evolution, even as they eat their strawberries and pet their dogs, because they’ve been led to believe faith can only be held in one or the other.

But there’s no reason for people of faith to reject the mountains of data and the evidence of their own senses. Reconciling is easy: Believe, if you want to, that God set up the rules of evolution among His wonders, along with the laws of physics, and probability, and everything else we can see and measure for ourselves. But don’t deny evolution itself, or gravity, or the roundness of Earth. That’s just covering your eyes and ears. And only monkeys would do that.

No surprise here: Right-Wing Backlash Against ‘Smartypants’ Like Neil deGrasse Tyson

Leadership on the right has very good reason to believe that if their followers actually engaged with the arguments being offered by those evidence-loving, reality-based liberals, they might start finding those arguments persuasive. So the key is to head it off at the pass, convince their audiences not to listen to the arguments in the first place. You can’t actually hear the evidence for global warming if you’re too busy slagging on the messenger for thinking he’s so smart with his PhDs and his facts.

This reminds me of the observation “Reality has a well-known liberal bias”, because conservatives — far moreso than liberals or progressives — place their faith in ideology, never mind the evidence about the real world. Too many examples.

Andrew Leonard at Salon also responded to this, in National Review declares war against the nerds, a piece that ends on this nerdish, inspirational note:

Nerds love science fiction, in part because we love the promise of the future, a promise of Star Trek abundance and material prosperity for everyone. We look at the past, at centuries that included slavery and child labor and infant mortality and Inquisitions and the lack of female suffrage, and we think, we can do better than that. We can progress.

That’s why we like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Because we believe that civilization is going somewhere, and that if the future isn’t better than the past, then we’re just wasting our time on this planet.

Greta Christina spells out The truth about science vs. religion: 4 reasons why intelligent design falls flat

No evidence for, lots of evidence against, and “If it were true, God would either be incompetent or malicious”.

Human Nature

Jerry Coyne displays a pointed cartoon: The Outsider’s Test for Everything

It keys off John Loftus’ “outsider test for faith”, which is the question of how you would convince an outsider (e.g. an intelligent alien with no knowledge of our world) why *your* particular religion is the right one, and all the others are wrong to some degree or another.

The post links to this simplified explanation: It’s Time Once Again Boys and Girls for The Outsider Test for Faith

This data is undeniable, noncontroversial and obvious. We must think about the implications of what these undeniable facts tell us about who we are as human beings. If we were raised as Christians then we seek to confirm what we were raised to believe because we prefer that which we were raised to believe. If we were raised as Muslims then we seek to confirm what we were raised to believe because we prefer that which we were raised to believe. If we were raised as Orthodox Jews […]

And so on.

The Outsider Test for Faith is the best and only way to get at the truth if you want to know the truth.

This is something I did not realize, or at least fully appreciate.

The Atlantic: The Evangelical Persecution Complex

Christians apparently *need* to feel persecuted, because the Bible told them so.

The problem is that for most of U.S. history, Christians haven’t been persecuted—at least not in comparison to early believers or even what Christians in places like Iraq face today. So, the question for American Christians is what to make of the Bible’s warning that we will be persecuted. For many evangelicals, the lack of very public and dramatic persecution could be interpreted as a sign that they just aren’t faithful enough: If they were persecuted, they could be confident they are saved. This creates an incentive to interpret personal experiences and news events as signs of oppression, which are ostensibly validations of our commitment to Christ. The danger of this view is that believers can come to see victimhood as an essential part of their identity. 

Salon: Secrets of the right-wing brain: New study proves it — conservatives see a different, hostile world.

Conservative fears of nonexistent or overblown boogeymen — Saddam’s WMD, Shariah law, voter fraud, Obama’s radical anti-colonial mind-set, Benghazi, etc. — make it hard not to see conservatism’s prudent risk avoidance as having morphed into a state of near permanent paranoia…

This isn’t news, exactly; Chris Mooney wrote a whole book about it: The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality. (And in fact, Mooney responded to this study here.)

As I’ve said before in this blog, my fascination with topics like this isn’t to bash those who have different views than I do, but to wonder about how human beings perceive reality — to what extent they do or don’t perceive and respond to reality, accurately. Is it true that conservatives can be defined by their adherence to ideology over facts — which may in fact be, ironically, an evolutionary advantage, in the sense that it promotes species survival (our religion is the one true one! have more kids! kill the infidels!) — or is it true that *all* of us view reality through filters based on our experience and environment? Offhand I would guess, both.

Along the same lines as the previous post, this by Donald Prothero: The Mind of the Science Denier.

Again, this is not news, but this is a relatively concise summary of the conclusions many have reached in the past couple decades about the psychological biases that affect how people think about the world. It echoes many comments I’ve made on this blog. And he addresses the quandary I mentioned above. I will quote at length:

This was just the opening salvo in two centuries of trying to bring logic and rationality to human thought and culture. Sadly, it goes against the basics of the human brain. We are not rational computers, but “belief engines”, who form a “world view” or “core belief” early in our childhoods, and then fit everything we see or hear or read to conform to our pre-existing beliefs, or deny or ignore it if we can’t.

These habits of the brain are known as “motivated reasoning.” They include cognitive dissonance (when we find a fact that clashes with our deeply held beliefs, we find some way to rationalize it away or deny it, rather than accept it and change our world view), tribalism (our core beliefs are largely inherited from our family, friends, community and local culture, so they are an artifact of these things, not rationally choosing what to believe), confirmation bias (our brains remember the hits and forget the misses, so we can hear important facts that contradict our core beliefs and ignore them), cherry picking (where we pick a tiny fact or quotation out of context that seems to support our beliefs, and ignore the rest that doesn’t), and other kinds of motivated reasoning. From this, it’s clear that in most cases, bringing facts and evidence to the attention of a believer does no good whatsoever, since they cannot allow it to change what they want to believe. After all, what are scientific facts to a creationist, when they believe that eternal damnation would be the price of accepting these facts? No wonder debates and arguments with them are wastes of time, because you cannot change their minds by evidence alone. In fact, what often happens is the well-studied “backfire effect” where the true believer becomes even more adamant and entrenched when you threaten their core beliefs.

So if human brains are so biased and fallible, how do we know that the scientific view of the world is not just one more fantasy of the brain, as some deconstructionists argue? I maintain that it is because science has a very different approach: we try to prove things wrong, not right; we accept science as tentative, provisional, and not the final truth; we don’t “believe”, we test and corroborate. In addition, science in the only system with rigorous quality control and cross-checking in the form of peer review. Bad ideas do appear in science and even get published sometimes, but over the long run, there are enough critics among our peers that they get weeded out—unlike any other field of human thought. And finally, I would say to the deconstructionist who claims it’s all fantasy to look around them: cell phones, cars, airplanes, their extended health and life span–SCIENCE WORKS! As Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, “When different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science. It’s true, whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.

The reactionaries and the wingnuts

Dan Savage spells it out for Brian Brown

Brian Brown Slams Ronald Reagan’s Definition of Marriage

(The title refers to the fact that Reagan, not to mention Gingrich, Rove, and Limbaugh, have violated the standards for what BB now claims is the only true definition of marriage.)

First: the definition of marriage has changed and evolved over the centuries millennia. Here’s an article about it, Brian. And here’s a book. Read up.

Title says all: For Conservatives, Boycotts Are Noble Efforts When They Support Them, Otherwise It’s ‘Economic Terrorism’

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern on how The Surrogacy Debate Is About to Break the Christian Right Wide Open

The irony is that while conservatives, especially Catholics, disapprove of anything that doesn’t align with pure, animalistic reproduction, the disapproval of surrogacy targets not just the few gays who take advantage of it but also the greater number of straight couples who do.

…their hostility to the practice is tethered to their broader enmity toward modern conceptions of sexual autonomy.

This animosity toward sexual liberty is the barely stifled undercurrent of pretty much every anti-surrogacy article out there. For a fringe group of conservatives, gay marriage and abortion are just the tip of the iceberg. What truly disgusts them is the whole array of modern sexual and reproductive practices, from egg donation and IVF to divorce and remarriage. To orthodox Catholics, the widespread acceptance of assisted reproductive technologies and non-traditional families is a grotesque violation of natural law and the start of a horrifying brave new world in which technology trumps humanity.

These terrors, of course, aren’t novel; they’re just a repackaged version of the same old anti-modern crusade conservatives have been waging since time immemorial. By capitalizing on our natural fear of the new, the right wing has been able to beat back advances in gay rights and women’s sexual autonomy for decades.

Salon: The shocking discovery about evangelical Christianity that I made after becoming a father

A man who grew up indoctrinated into his faith starts actually thinking about it once he adopts a child; and becomes horrified by the ‘Good News Club’ lessons he absorbed in his childhood.

Almost every GNC lesson intones that sin—“anything you think, say, or do that breaks God’s laws”—must be punished. The worst sins, of course, are thought crimes: doubt and unbelief. The punishment for sin is death and eternal separation from God. The lessons repeatedly admonish children that they deserve death. One typical GNC lesson text states: “God hates the sinful things you do, like pouting and complaining, or hitting someone. He says you deserve his punishment, which is separation from Him forever in a terrible place called Hell. Have you been set free from the death you deserve for your sin?”


Also Salon (a site that posts its share of articles lambasting atheists, too; Salon is more deliberately provocative than, say, Slate): I’m raising my kids atheist in a God-obsessed culture: How I learned to parent godless children

Offhand, I would say the best strategy would be to teach a child, matter-of-factly, about *all* religions, and let the child reach his own conclusion, which should be obvious enough. (Pending romantic conversions and local groupthink.)

David Barton: ‘How Can You Be A Christian’ And Be Gay Or Have An Abortion?

David Barton provides an example of the No true Scotsman fallacy. Which is to say, he presumes to define what a proper Christian is — one whose beliefs about gays and abortion align with his own. Despite the obvious fact that there are many people who claim to be Christians and who have different views than his about gays and/or abortions.

(Remind me anyone, what did Jesus say about abortion and homosexuality? A quick Google search turns up lots of Christian apologetic sites trying to explain this away.)

Salon: Fox News’ No. 1 fear: Atheists

Just another reason to disrespect Fox News, where anyone who is not a right-thinker is demonized. Fox isn’t about journalism; it’s about profits.

Why does the network engage in such negative spin against atheists? Like every business decision, it’s profitable. It pays to sell what your customers will buy. The network’s customer base is afraid, and nothing in the news business sells faster than fear. What is their audience afraid of, other than everything? They’re afraid of an America they no longer understand. They’re afraid of the rapid deceleration of church attendance, the increasing secularization of millennials, the acceptance of same-sex marriage, the refusal of school boards to teach biblical creationism, and the dwindling influence of religious-conservatives on the body politic.

On Fox News, Obama is coming for your guns; Madonna is coming for your straight kids; immigrants are coming for your jobs; liberals are coming for your way of life; and atheists are coming for your Bibles.

These aren’t *all* the links I’ve captured from the past month.

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