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THE NO. 1 SHOW in the world? March 21, 2018

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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I received an advertising flyer at my office a few days back.  This is nothing unusual, I get stuff like that all the time – restaurant menus, computer sale flyers, postcards from one particularly pushy dental office.  But this time I got something different – a large ten-page full-color glossy brochure on heavy paper, advertising one theater production:

 Holy cow.  Everything about this ad is over the top with “this is the most wonderful show you will ever see in your whole life ever”.  It’s full of lush photos in brilliant color of dancers in front of vivid Chinese backgrounds.  Like this:

Testimonial after testimonial after gushing review from random celebrities and officials.  They are trying really hard, and have certainly sunk a lot of money into this ad campaign.  So what’s up with this?  Who are these people really?

The answer was in the return address: Falun Dafa.  Otherwise known as Falun Gong, a group that originates in China, but the Chinese Government considers it a cult and has outlawed it.

So I went looking to see what regular people had actually said about this performance, to see if it was overtly a push for their religious cult or was actually a nice cultural event.  When I first googled “Shen Yun” all that came up were ads for it and gushing articles raving about how wonderful it was.  Likewise, a search on YouTube comes up with trailers and other videos that are either direct advertisements or full of glowing praise for them.  So, in addition to the slick glossy brochures, this group has obviously put a lot of effort into doctoring their internet presence, and removing anything negative from the first few pages of search results.

But then I tried looking specifically for Yelp reviews.  Oh, boy, was that ever a different perspective!  I found some reviews from people who liked it, but others were so disappointed that they had walked out of the show in the middle of it.  They wrote that it was pretty, but not nearly as impressive as the advertising had let on, that many of the dances were overt pushes for their cult beliefs, that the singing performances were religious propaganda songs with lyrics like “The heresy of evolution now eclipses the Divine word.”  It wasn’t a spectacular cultural event, it was mediocre evangelizing.

How, then are they funding all this?  The brochure I got was just addressed to “postal customer” so it’s a sure bet that they mailed out massive numbers of these ads.  And the effort required to make sure that every google search returns only positive things about the group for the first few pages can’t be cheap either.  Where’s the money coming from?  Here’s one answer:Even the nosebleed seats on a weeknight will set you back $80, and the good seats are $250!  (For comparison on seat prices, the New York City Ballet is at the Kennedy Center in this same hall this weekend, and the best seats can be had for $99.00.  I didn’t find any nearly comparable prices for seats in this hall until I looked at the prices for Hamilton.  And I’m pretty sure that the audience for Hamilton won’t be disappointed by bait-and-switch preaching.)

I’ve scanned the entire brochure to a .pdf file, so if you’d like, you can get a look at all of the hype in its full glory:

Shen Yun Flyer – click here



You won’t believe the BEST reason for being an atheist! February 5, 2018

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
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A while back Jim posed a question on his blog, The Common Atheist.

His request was “If each of you would share right here one of your best arguments for atheism…”

And I replied with one of my best reasons, but since it was in a comment thread I tried to keep my answer brief.  However, I think the point I was making deserves a more careful discussion.  So here’s a full post about it. (more…)

Amazing Graphic – All the Biases October 4, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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My spouse put me on to this image:

This is a chart of ALL the known cognitive biases, grouped into rough categories.  This is one of my favorite subjects to learn about, because it really helps me understand why people do inexplicable things.

What are cognitive biases?  (I also like to call them “brain glitches.”)  They are the ways humans mess up when thinking, making consistent sorts of mistakes and being illogical in predictable ways.

In a way, it makes sense that we have some of these glitches. We simply do not have enough brain capacity and brain power and speed to completely think through everything in our lives.  We can sit down and ponder through a few things logically, but that’s tiring and often too slow.  Most of the time we function on “rules of thumb” and mental shortcuts, and for most of human history those worked well enough, usually.  But maybe not so well in our complicated modern world.

But some of these just seem to be idiosyncrasies of the way our brain is wired.  And we are all subject to them, to some extent.  But understanding these has certainly been helpful for me, both in catching myself thinking sloppily, or understanding why other people behave the way they do.

To see a full size image that you can actually read, please go here.

(And once I finish with sporking the Mormon guidebook, I think I might start a blog series based off this graphic, looking at sets of biases in the way they are grouped together in the chart.)

Box of Apologetics June 8, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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Every Monday I listen to the previous Sunday’s broadcast of The Atheist Experience.  And generally the show is a lot of fun, lots of promotion of critical thinking and jousting with theists.  My favorite host is Tracie Harris, who just hits it out of the park, and it’s pretty satisfying when Matt Dillahunty hangs up on an annoying troll.  But lately I have been getting frustrated when some apologist calls in with their favorite clever twist on some tired old apologetic, and they proceed to argue in endless circles, because they just have to “get the atheist to admit that they are right”.  These calls tend to go on way too long and almost never accomplish anything.

I’ve realized that if I were hosting the show and one of these guys got going, that there is something specific I would want to say to them.  But since that’s unlikely ever to happen, I’ll just say it here instead:

“Hey Mr. Apologist!  Before you begin on whatever clever argument for god you are about to present, I need to ask you three background questions.  So, for the time being, instead of discussing it right away, we’re going to put your apologetic in a box.

This Box.

“We’re not going to unpack it just yet.  Not until I find out a few things about the person I am talking to.  First I need to ask you when you first started believing in god.”

(A typical theist will probably tell me that they have been a believer their whole lives, or from when they were very young.)

“OK.  And when did you first learn this argument you are about to present?”

(Let’s assume they tell us about the book they read in high school, or the class their church had recently, or some such.  It’s not likely that they learned a complicated argument in their earliest Sunday School classes.)

“All right.  And finally, suppose that your apologetics teacher (or Pope, or whoever is an authority for your sect) came to you and said ‘Dude, we found a flaw in this particular argument.  It doesn’t actually prove the thing it’s supposed to prove.  You have to stop using it.’  If that were to happen, would you still believe in god?  Would you have to reconsider anything about what you believe, or would you still believe exactly as you do now?”

(I would expect that a typical True Believer™ would declare that their faith would continue to be steadfast in that case.)

“OK, so let me review what we’ve learned about the argument in this box.

  1. It’s not what initially persuaded you to believe, because you didn’t have it at that time.
  2. It’s not what’s keeping you in your faith, because you would still be a believer even if you lost what’s in the box. 

SO, what that tells me is that we don’t actually need to open this box at all!  The question for callers is “Tell us what you believe and why.”  And we have just established that the argument in this box is not really part of your “why“.  So we can throw out this box unopened.  It’s not relevant.

“Here’s the box we ought to open up:

“What we should be talking about are the real reasons that you believe.   What initially persuaded you to start believing?  What things are so central to your beliefs that you would have to rethink your entire belief system if they were discredited?   I don’t know what’s in this box for you.  Maybe it’s things like ‘trust in your teachers,’ ‘personal experience,’ ‘clerical authority,’ or ‘biblical infallibility.’  Maybe it’s something else.  We won’t know until we start unpacking it.” Those are the interesting and useful discussions to have, not these circular apologetic word games.

If I ever were in the position similar to the hosts on TAE, I think that I would have to label some real boxes to use as visual aids.  Because, unless a caller says that their argument was specifically why they started believing, or that their faith would collapse without it, there’s no way that I would want to waste my energy listening to their endless philosophical wanking.  I have better things to do, like watching paint dry.

Inner Demons January 19, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Brain Glitches, Responses.
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Still reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.  I’ve just finished the chapter on what it is about human brains that leads us into violence that ought to be avoidable.  Again, this chapter really could be a whole book on its own.

He sums up at the end of this chapter by re-listing five “inner demons” and I think his list is a good summary.  He didn’t number the list, but I’m going to here:

  1. People, especially men, are overconfident in their prospects for success; when they fight each other, the outcome is likely to be bloodier than any of them thought.
  2. People, especially men, strive for dominance for themselves and their groups; when contests of dominance are joined, they are unlikely to sort the parties by merit and are likely to be a net loss for everyone.
  3. People seek revenge by an accounting that exaggerates their innocence and their adversaries’ malice; when two sides seek perfect justice, they condemn themselves and their heirs to strife.
  4. People can not only overcome their revulsion to hands-on violence but acquire a taste for it; if they indulge it in private, or in cahoots with their peers, they can become sadists.
  5. And people can avow a belief they don’t hold because they think everyone else avows it; such beliefs can sweep through a closed society and bring it under the spell of a collective delusion. (pg 570)

The chapter has a really detailed examination of each of these points.  This is a really interesting book, and I wish it was required reading for every politician before they were allowed to take office.

Self-delusion January 14, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Questions, Responses.
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I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.  It’s an enormous and thorough work on the decline of violence.  Each chapter could really be a book on it’s own, and it’s taking me a really long time to work through it.

A day or so ago, though, this sentence jumped out at me.  It’s in a section where he’s discussing why humans tend to think they are more competent, smarter, and luckier than they actually are:

“… Positive illusions are a bargaining tactic, a credible bluff.  In recruiting an ally to support you in a risky venture, in bargaining for the best deal, or in intimidating an adversary into backing down, you stand to gain if you credibly exaggerate your strengths.  Believing your own exaggerations is better than cynically lying about it, because the arms race between lying and lie detection has equipped your audience with the means of seeing through barefaced lies.” (pg 512)

Hmm.  I’ve been looking for reasons why humans tend to be so good at self-delusion, and this idea could factor into the explanation.  But its validity would hinge on humans being reasonably good at detecting lies.  I’m not convinced that they are, especially given recent politics.

What do you think?

Wealth Inequality – the real picture October 15, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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This video was posted by Nan over at Nan’s Notebook, and I thought it was important enough that I should post it also.  Regardless of what you think the solution to wealth inequality is in our country, it’s important that everybody have a good understanding of what the problem actually looks like:

(Nan reports that the source of this information is Michael I. Norton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. The information was originally published in the Harvard Magazine in 2011.)

Answers to “A Question for Atheists” August 14, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Questions, Responses.
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Godless Cranium linked to a post at flyinguineapig, with two longish questions for atheists. Flyinguineapig appears to be a strongly christian blogger, but these questions aren’t really the typical “gotcha” questions that I would expect to see on a blog of that sort, so I’ll go ahead and tackle them. Rather than try to answer in the comments at either of those blogs, I’ll post my answers here, and link back to them.  Also, I prefer to write my own answers before I read through everybody else’s answers.

My first question is more general. I see this among atheists and my agnostic friends. People deny the possibility of any deity’s existence because of the lack of some kind of proof. It occurred to me that I have no idea what kind of proof you’re looking for. Furthermore, it seems to me that, in many cases, not just in the case of spirituality, what constitutes proof is at least somewhat subjective. I would love to get a few different perspectives, so my question is, what would prove to you that God exists?

Let me start with this part of the question: “People deny the possibility of any deity’s existence…”  Most atheists I know don’t actually do this, so the question is starting out with rather of a strawman assumption.

The difficult part of this assumption is – how do you define a god?  It’s a really nebulous term.  I know what the christians mean when they talk about their god, but the question here is “any deity”.  What characteristics would a being need to have in order for us to consider it a god?  Let’s look at a few examples: (more…)

Women in Secularism 4 April 20, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events.
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I have not seen much buzz about this event yet, but I got an email about this and want to do my part to make sure word gets around.

CFI has announced that there will be a Women in Secularism 4 conference this fall, September 23-25, in Arlington, VA.  I had been concerned that Melody’s leaving the DC office might mean that this conference would end, so I’m very glad it’s continuing.

I’ve been to all the past versions of this conference, and they’ve all been thought-provoking, spawned important conversations, and let me hear other voices that I otherwise might not have known about.

Speakers for this conference include Julia Sweeney and Rebecca Goldstein.  I’ll plan to be there!

48 Sure-Fire “gotcha” questions for Atheists! (part 6) June 22, 2015

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Questions, Responses.
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Previous post in this series

One last set and we’re done.

41. How did the moon form?

Finally, one question that is not stupid!!  Congratulations!!

One hypothesis is that the moon formed early in the formation of the solar system.  Most likely the newly forming earth was struck by another very large body, and the debris from this collision coalesced into the moon.  This explanation fits a lot of the things we know about the moon, but not everything.

There are other possibilities:  Perhaps the Earth and Moon formed together out of the same part of the original accretion disc.  But that leaves open the question of why Venus does not have a similar moon, or why our system has so much angular momentum.  Or perhaps the moon formed separately, and was captured by earth’s gravity.  We are learning more all the time



42. Did you know that famous scientists like Newton, Sir Richard Owen, Einstein, Galileo, and Copernicus were creationists?

Einstein was certainly not a creationist.  He said, in a 1954 letter “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”  So it’s a really bad idea to lump Einstein in with the others.

Each of those other men were raised in religion-soaked atmospheres, and despite that each discovered an important part of how the universe works.  (In the case of Copernicus and Galileo, the church did everything they could to put a stop to their work and suppress their results.)   Newton invented calculus but also believed in alchemy.  Does that mean we are under an obligation to believe in alchemy too?  These were brilliant men, but they weren’t prophets.

43. Why do we not see black people come from white people?

Because evolution only moves in small steps and takes a long time.  We’ve gone over this before.  Isolate a population for thousands of years, in an environment where darker skinned people have better reproductive success than lighter skinned people, and when you check back their descendants  will probably have generally darker skins.



44. Why are fruitflies still fruitflies in the lab experiments if they are claimed to prove evolution?

Sigh.  Again, because evolution only moves in small steps and takes a long time.  We haven’t been at the lab experiments long enough.

45. Did you know that the Piltdown Man was a hoax used for Darwinist propaganda?

No, because it wasn’t.  Piltdown man was a hoax perpetrated on scientists by people who wanted the evidence to show that humans had evolved in Great Britain instead of Africa.  (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a strong suspect for being one of the perpetrators.)  And it was the scientists who exposed the hoax, by doing science the right way.  They collected actual evidence from many places, evaluated all of it, and realized that Piltdown didn’t match anything else they had found, not by a longshot, which was suspicious.  Once they developed the tools for dating bones, they quickly determined that it was not an ancient skull but a modern fake.


The Piltdown bones, a medieval cranium and a stained orang-utan jaw.

The Piltdown bones, a medieval cranium and a stained orang-utan jaw planted in a quarry. Scientists exposed it as a forgery in 1953.

46. Why do we not see frogs turn into birds?

One more time!  Because evolution only moves in small steps and takes a long time!  The last common ancestor of birds and frogs was over 300 million years ago (and was neither a bird, nor a frog).  Both lineages have been adapting in different directions ever since then.  The amount of difference between the anatomy of a bird and a frog is so large that you are unlikely to see something of that magnitude happen again unless you are willing to wait hundreds of millions of years.

47. Why is Fox News dishonest if it is a network run by truthful Christians?

You’ve already stated the problem right there. You are assuming that being christian makes one more likely to tell the truth, whereas this is not the case.  Christians have a vested interest in never having to change their minds about anything they believe.  So if truth is getting in the way of faith, it’s the truth that has to go, not the faith.  So Fox is the channel of self-deception and confirmation bias.  They don’t tell it like it is, they tell it like they want it to be, and trust that their viewers will never bother to check on the facts.

48.  Why did Hitler fail to make a superior race if evolution is true?

Triple Facepalm

Triple Facepalm

Now you’ve invoked Godwin’s Law, which I suppose is as good a way as any to conclude a really long list of stupid questions.  Hitler was not using natural selection, he was trying to use artificial selection, which has been known and used for thousands of years by farmers.  And that kind of selective breeding doesn’t make plants and animals superior, it makes them different.  We breed in traits that are useful to us, but that comes at a cost of the change or loss of other traits.  Bananas are lovely and seedless, but that has resulted in all our banana plants being grown from shoots, and so they are genetically identical and a blight that kills one plant will kill them all.  Wheat and corn can no longer reproduce without human assistance, sheep must be sheared because they no longer naturally shed their winter fleece, and most of our domestic animals are now too stupid to be able to avoid predators.  

If Hitler had had enough time (which he didn’t because humans breed so slowly,  and also because we rightly put a stop to it) he might have produced people that were different, but could not have created the supermen he envisioned.


Finally done!  Has anybody else out there been asked any questions that are worthy of a list like this?