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That One Spooky Thing (part 3.2) July 17, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Continuing on…

I’ve been writing on the topic of how to think about that one thing lingering in your mind that might still make you wonder about the supernatural. As before, the possibilities that I have thought of are these:

•It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you
•It’s technological
•It’s somebody deliberately tricking you
•It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above
•It’s “supernatural”

So this time I’d like to talk about memory.  We like to think of our memories as video recorders, perfectly recording what happened and playing it back the same way every time.  But, sorry to say, this is not the case.  Our memories are buggy, subject to change, and just not very reliable, especially about details.

As I discussed in the last two posts, the first problem with memory lies in perception.  If we have misunderstood what we saw or heard, then we are remembering it incorrectly from the start.  So that’s one strike against us to begin with.  Let’s try a simple memory exercise before you read the rest of this post; take a pencil and paper and draw a simple line drawing of a bicycle.  Should be easy right?  Take a minute and give it a try.


10 Questions for Every Atheist July 16, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Responses.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This list has been floating around the internet for a few days.  I did a response to a similar list of 15 questions awhile back, and you can find my answers to that one here: 15 Question Atheist Challenge (Edit – and another fairly stupid 10-question set I answered here.)  But I suppose I’ll join in and answer these too.

The list recently appeared here: http://todaychristian.net/10-questions-every-atheist/#_

But was lifted from a post by Robert Neilsen, an atheist, here: http://robertnielsen21.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/10-questions-for-atheists/

The first thing that caught my eye is this lead-in on the TodayChristian website:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

And you will never hear any of those conclusions from their website, because commenting was not allowed on that post.  Because throwing out an assertion like that wouldn’t be any fun if the real atheists were actually allowed to show up and refute it by truly and honestly really answering them.  So here’s my shot at truly and honestly really answering them.  I’ll try to keep each answer succinct, since I tend to ramble sometimes.

1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?

Short version: I read the bible, just like my youth leaders said I should.  Twice, cover to cover, two different translations. And then in college, I ran headlong into people who were crazy fundamentalists of one sort or another, and the nutcase preachers like Brother Jed, each totally certain that they were right and everybody else was going to burn in hell.  And I started thinking about whether it made sense to believe any of this, and I realized that it didn’t.  And I thought about whether the stuff I had been taught had any more solid basis in reality, and it didn’t.  By the end of college I was functionally an atheist, but didn’t adopt the word until later.  That was around 30 years ago now, and I’m still not believing any of it.

2.       What happens when we die?

We decompose, and the brain that produces the activity that we call our “conscious mind” stops doing that.

3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

Then I’ll have a wonderful time at the Beer Volcano, while all you christian infidels have to settle for flat beer and ugly strippers down in Hell Lite.  Oh, did you mean YOUR version of heaven and hell?  Why are those any more likely to be true than all the other versions?

4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?

Same place everybody does.  My own sense of empathy and compassion, plus rules devised from the need to live together with other people in groups.  By trial and error over thousands of years, we’ve worked out some pretty good rules for co-existing.  Not that there still isn’t room for improvement.

Some people think they get their morality from ancient books or supernatural beings.  But I think that’s just religion taking credit for something it didn’t invent.

5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

How would there being a god make you not free to do those things?  Plenty of religious people do those things all the time, the fact that they think there is a god watching doesn’t stop them.

But I’m not free to murder and rape if I want to live as part of a community of other people.

6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

I create my own meaning in life.  Being told what my life is supposed to be by some superbeing would be awful.

7.       Where did the universe come from?

I don’t know.  But we are developing some good ideas about what happened right at the start, and those come from looking at the evidence and following where it leads.  I don’t pretend to know stuff that I don’t, that’s what religion does.

8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

Look up confirmation bias.  Humans are really good at paying attention to the things that match up with their preconceptions and ignoring everything that doesn’t.  And we’re really good at fooling ourselves.

9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

You left out Dennett!  I agree with some of the things they say, and disagree with others.  There are other atheist writers and speakers I find more often in line with what I think, including Greta Christina, Matt Dillahunty, and Hemant Mehta.

10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

If there were a god, then why do we have thousands of mutually contradicting religions?  If there were an all-intelligent super-being who wanted people to know what he wants from them, why has he done such a lousy job of communicating it?

People are superstitious, due to patternicity, agenticity, confirmation bias and credulous childhoods.  From that beginning, religions coalesce and grow and compete for followers, and those that are the most successful endure and spread.  (OOOOH- there’s that Darwin again!)  The other, less successful ones die off, which is why nobody is still worshipping Marduk or Osiris anymore.  Nowadays most people are stuck with some form of the mental malware of religion, but some of us are recognizing it for what it is and getting rid of it.


There, that’s enough for now.

That One Spooky Thing (Part 3.1) April 7, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: , , , ,


Continuing with the way our brains impose patterns on random noise…

I want to discuss an important idea called “priming”

First, fill in the blank to make an English word:  S O _ P


That one spooky thing January 14, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Olympic Blimp UFO

This is in response to several comments by Wylekat on Ex-Christian.net on this thread: http://new.exchristian.net/2013/05/why-do-most-people-easily-trust.html

Ordinary claims require ordinary evidence, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  That’s a really straightforward guideline.  It’s really useful for evaluating claims of things that supposedly happen or should happen predictably.  Things like whether intercessory prayer can heal people, whether homeopathy works, and whether psychics can actually talk to the dead or read minds.  It’s doable to set up a carefully controlled study to see if the effect that’s claimed is really there.  (James Randi has $1,000,000 waiting for anybody that can reliably demonstrate a paranormal ability under  conditions controlled to eliminate confirmation bias and cheating.  Nobody’s won it yet!) (more…)

Extraordinary event, extraordinary evidence September 9, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants.
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve been thinking lately about standards of evidence.  I see a lot of people make colossally outrageous claims (usually religious or pseudo-scientific), with little to nothing to back them up.  And they are taken aback when challenged that an ancient book or a feeling in their “heart” doesn’t suffice to convince anybody else.

So I wanted to look at an actual extraordinary event, and the evidence pointing to it having happened.


After TAM, back to the land of Woo-Woo July 19, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Rants.
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After a great weekend at TAM2013, my spouse and I extended our weekend with another couple of nights on the main Vegas strip, specifically the Excalibur hotel.  The first night we headed up to their steakhouse for dinner, and lo and behold, look at what was just outside the door.

Xtreme Energy Bracelet Kiosk in Vegas

Yes, its the same “energy bracelet” scam that the skeptical movement keeps fighting.  (Richard Saunders recently got these things banned in Australia.) But like a whack-a-mole game, this keeps turning back up.  The two guys in the picture are apparently Russian, and they will come right up to you as you walk by, waving a bracelet at you. They were doing the same tired old balance tricks as “evidence”, the same tricks I have been teaching my RE class for years.   This first night I showed them the bracelet I was wearing, a “Placebo” bracelet made by the same company in China that manufactures all the others.

They had no idea what “placebo” meant, and thought it might be “spaseebo”, which they said was Russian for “thank you”.  I told them that it meant that energy bracelets were fakes, including theirs.  They protested that they wanted to show me their “ion-meter” and show us their “science”.  I was tired and told them “no way” and my spouse finally had to tell them to stop following us.

Here’s  the website for their company, showing that they charge $39.00 and up for these things.     http://www.xeband.com/shopxe.php

I had  talked to a member of Granite State Skeptics earlier that weekend, who are the group responsible for having the Placebo bracelets made.  He said that the Chinese company charges in the range of $0.85 to $1.00 each for them in the small quantities that they order.  A company buying a huge order would pay rather less.  That’s quite a markup!

By the next day I was ready to pry a little more into what they were claiming, so I headed back there with my camera, and fortunately found two different salesmen on duty, again Russian.  I spoke to a very blond woman who was ready to show me just how wonderful her bracelets were.

She boasted that older hologram bracelets didn’t actually work, that it wasn’t the hologram that did anything.  (Of course, their current bracelets also have holograms, which she didn’t explain.)  But she said that their bracelets were made with Tourmaline in them, which produced negative ions, which were beneficial for your bloodflow, health and energy.

I started prodding her further:  “What kind of ions does it make?”

Negative ions,” she replies.

“Yes, but ions are atoms or groups of atoms that have lost or gained electrons. There are lots of different kinds of ions.  What kind are these?”

Negative ions produced by the tourmaline in the braceletThe Tourmaline is a mineral, and it makes negative ions.”

“Yes, but what type of negative ions are they?”

Tourmaline ions.”  Yes, she really said that.  I asked her to show me this ion meter that they had.  Here’s a photo:

"Ion Tester" vegas

She first measured what she said was a fake bracelet they had there, which appeared to be a power balance bracelet with the hologram removed.  I didn’t press her on why it was necessary to have the hologram removed, given her earlier claim that it wasn’t the hologram that did anything.  But she used her meter on it, and it registered “3”.  (She pressed the bracelet against a disc on the back of the meter, and a number read out on the front.  I didn’t have a chance to try this myself, to see how it would read some other object, or whether the pressure applied affected the readout.)

“3 what?” I asked.  “What are the units here?”  “3 ions,” she replied.  “3 IONS????”  “Yes, 3 ions.”

She measured one of their bracelets, and it measured quite a lot of “ions”, over 1700 I think.  I then produced my Placebo bracelet, and asked if she could measure it.  It read 81 “ions”.

I asked her what the benefit of wearing this bracelet is supposed to be.  She said that the negative ions increased bloodflow, and that this produced the beneficial effects.

“Really, so how do negative ions do that?”

Well, you know, a lot of people say that it makes them feel relaxed.  For instance, how do you feel when you go to the ocean or a lake?”


Well a lot of people say it makes them feel relaxed.  The negative ions produce relaxation.”

“Oh, you meant how I feel when I go near and ocean or lake!” (This woman was so clueless, I couldn’t help trolling her a bit.)

She also pulled up a bunch of woo-woo on the internet on the computer she had nearby, to show how true this all was.  I asked her if I could take some photos, and got this photo of the claims they are making.

Xtreme Energy Bracelet Health Claims

Later, I looked up whether Tourmaline has ever been shown to actually have any of these health benefits, and found this:


Which concludes that there are no studies that show any benefit from this kind of stuff.

In the same shopping area as the energy bracelets we also found an “Oxygen Bar”.  And there was also one on the casino level as well.

Oxygen Bar Sign


15-question Atheist Challenge September 17, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Rants.
Tags: , , , , ,

I found this list of questions on Everyday Infidel, and liked them much better than the usual accusatory questions coming from theists.  So I’ll give these a shot.

  1. At what point did you know you were an atheist? Why did you become one, what were the factors leading up to the decision, if you weren’t always one?
  2. What religion did you grow up with? Did you have positive or negative experiences with religion?
  3. Are you a more outspoken or more apathetic atheist? Why?
  4. Do you think religion is obsolete and should be wiped completely off the face of the Earth, or does some good come out of it?
  5. Did you lose any friends because you decided to be an atheist? Did your family flip out?
  6. How do you feel about so-called “militant atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris?
  7. Except for God, do you believe in anything supernatural or pseudoscientific? (Ghosts, alien abductions, spirits, souls, demons, psychics, magic, Harry Potter, etc.)
  8. What’s your political alignment? Does your atheism influence how you vote and how you feel on issues?
  9. Even though you’re an atheist, have you ever experienced a moment that could be called “religious?” Like an epiphany about the world or complete peace?
  10. Are you spiritual, or are your feet always on the ground?
  11. Do you have/plan on having a career in the sciences? Alternatively: which branch of science intrigues you most?
  12. What happens when we die? Do you fear death?
  13. Would you ever date/marry somebody who follows a religion? Be honest.
  14. On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you with life at this moment, and why?
  15. Recommend a book. 🙂 (Doesn’t have to be relevant to atheism, just any good book.)

1.  I can’t pinpoint a specific moment, because it was more like a long slide.  Tons of chuch as a kid, but also tons of Carl Sagan, Jacob Brownowski, and science fiction.  In college I encountered more varieties of religious craziness than I had seen before, while also stuffing my head full of math and physics and great books.  Finally it all started clicking.  If the fundies and Brother Jed were believing in something ridiculous, how was the stuff I supposedly believed not ridiculous?  Did I even really think any of it was true?  I was religious when I started college, and mostly an atheist by the time I finished, although I would have probably said “agnostic” at the time, because that “atheist” word was scary.  More reading and study solidified it from there.  I didn’t really become active about atheism until my children started encountering harassment in school for not being religious.  That ticked me off, and the internet was becoming a real resource for me right about then, so things just clicked.

2. Raised Presbyterian, and pretty much nothing but positive experiences.  I did all the things a good church kid was supposed to do:  Sunday school and church services and bible school and youth groups, and retreats, and conferences, and youth choirs (I was a soloist) and regular choir and handbells and potlucks.  It was a great community full of lovely people. Some years back we had a reunion for the youth group.  It was great seeing them all again.  Then they sat down to have prayers and a bible study and I just wanted to scream.  (I was nice and didn’t say anything.  But I have not done any further events with that group, either.)

3. Online I’m outspoken, and increasingly so, but on the job that would be problematic, so IRL I’m pretty closeted, or at least tactful.  My colleagues and my chorus (except for one singer) have no idea I’m an online atheist or that I blog. My RE class knows I challenge them on critical thinking, but since its a UU class I don’t try to push my own views on them, nor do I tell them about my blog.  My immediate friends and family know, in my extended family a few have some idea, but they don’t know about the blog either.  Spouse and Kids read the blog, but they’re used to me, and my kids are more outspoken about non-belief than I am.

4. I think that any of the good that comes “from religion” comes from good people who are doing good things, often in spite of their religion.  Religion can provide an organizational structure for some good works, but I don’t think that religion is overall a net positive for humanity.  “Wiped out?”  Religion is a really pernicious infection, and all past attempts to “wipe it out” by force have been miserable failures, or simply were replacing a repressive religious ideology with a repressive political ideology.  I’d like to see religion collapse because people, as individuals, realize they don’t need or want it anymore.  When that happens, humanity will have finally grown up.

5.  I have not lost any friends, because I’ve been away from religion for over 25 years, and my current friends all know me as a non-believer.  There are people from my churchgoing days that I have not reconnected with, and that’s deliberate.  People tell me “Facebook is great, you can catch back up with all those people you grew up with and haven’t seen in years!”  One of the reasons I’m not on Facebook is that I’d rather not catch up with some of them.  I do have a Fundie brother-in-law who flipped out just a few years back.  I’ve talked about him elsewhere on this blog.

6. I think applying the term “militant” to anyone in the current atheist movement is a huge misunderstanding of what the word “militant” means.  Terrorists who blow up people are militant.  Rebels who form militias and overthrow governments are militant.  The most agressive thing any of the current famous atheists have done is write a book, and disagree with people in public.  That’s not militant.

As to the contributions of those mentioned, they have been very valuable in helping to “break the spell” (as discussed by the fourth of the four horsemen, Dan Dennett).  Up until recently, there has been a taboo against criticizing religion at all, it had this special and undeserved protected status.  How can we even suggest to somebody that they should discard faith, when the value of “having faith” is a subject that we cannot even discuss?  The books that have come out in recent years have gone a long way towards opening up this conversation.  While I don’t agree with their positions on every issue, they have helped many many people discard superstition, and I thank the authors heartily for their contributions.

7.  The only non-scientific belief that I hold that I can think of is a general feeling that things are generally going to work out OK for me.  And maybe that I have too much confidence in the ability of human beings to work together to fix their own problems.  But woo-woo thinking drives me up a wall.  For instance, I was at the UU where I teach RE, and they were kicking off the year by having the kids start in the service.  One of the pastors told the kids that love is a literal “force field” surrounding them.  I tried not to show my frustration too much, because I want to continue to be welcome as a teacher, but UDK#2, who was standing next to me, just facepalmed.

8.  My political alignment is somewhat to the left of most current Democrats, but I’m not an extremist.  I also happen to think that the conservatives often have some good tools, but which could be put to much better use.  Financial incentives are a very powerful way to get people and corporations to do what you want.  But the right wing appears to be completely ignorant of the idea of “the tragedy of the commons”, or how interdependent our world has become,  and most of the time are just behaving selfishly and irresponsibly.   I vote in favor of science, reason, compassion and integrity, and against theocrats, whenever possible.  Since, with our current structure, voting for a third-party candidate is effectively not voting, sometimes I wind up voting for who will do the least damage, rather than who I think is really great.  I always vote, though.

9.  Sure, like everybody else, I sometimes have feelings of overwhelming awe, or connectedness with the universe, or a huge emotional response to someone or something.  I would not call these “religious” or get them confused with anything “supernatural”.  They are just something really cool that brains do.

10.  What does “spiritual” even mean?  I hate that word, because everybody throws it around like it’s a great thing to be, but nobody can adequately explain it.  Some people boast “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual!”  Well I’m not spiritual, thank you very much.

11.  Well, I majored in physics, but did not wind up managing to make a career in the field.  So since then, I’ve simply been intensely interested in everything happening in science, and in recent years I’ve had a special interest in cognitive biases.  And I guess it’s all paying off a little now, since I’m teaching RE to 6th graders, and I can bring large dollops of science and critical thinking into the curriculum.

12. When we die, we decompose and our consciousness does not exist anymore.  The only part of us that remains behind is the effect we had on other people, and our descendants .  If there’s some sort of afterlife or reincarnation, I suppose that would be cool, but I don’t have any real evidence to think that this is the case.  If it were true, I am very confident that it would not resemble any afterlife as imagined by any human religion.  (As an aside, if reincarnation worked, it would not be following known physical laws, so I don’t see any reason why it would be restrained by linear time either.  So you might reincarnate as someone in the past.  Or as someone you know right now.  Better be nicer to everybody then, just in case!)  I don’t find not existing scary, I did it for a long time before I was born.  Now dying, that part’s scary, because it’s often painful and prolonged.  Not looking forward to that.

13.  Would I ever date or marry somebody who follows a religion?  I’ve been married to my spouse for over 25 years, and we’re both non-believers, so that really has not been a question that I’ve thought about.  So let me phrase it as ‘How would I feel if my daughters wanted to date or marry somebody who follows a religion?”  I think I’d be upset if either of them fell for a religious fanatic.  I’d also be highly surprised if a religious fanatic were interested in dating them, because both of them tend to be very blunt about what they think of religion. The only way I could see it working is if they were dating someone who was technically religious, but mostly an apatheist.

14. Scale of 1-10?  Hmmm.  7?

15.  I can’t keep it to just one book.  There are a couple that were the “Wow, that changes everything!” kind of books for me:  The Selfish Gene (Dawkins) and Godel Escher Bach (Hofstadter).  I also just read Don’t Believe Everything you Think by Thomas Kida.  I resent this one a little because I had been thinking I should write a book, and now he’s gone and written pretty much exactly the book I was planning to write.  But go read it, it’s got good summaries of a lot of the stuff I tend to talk about.

Catholic Fidelity Oath July 13, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants.
Tags: , , ,

Recently the catholic church has been cracking down on another group of pesky independent thinkers: their own Sunday School teachers:


The bishops are calling for the teachers to take an oath in front of a priest (not just sign it) containing the nicene creed, but also this language:

With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.

I also firmly accept and hold each and every thing definitively proposed by the church regarding teaching on faith and morals.

Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.

So, basically, the church is asking these volunteer teachers to swear to shut off their brain and believe everything they are told to believe.

I’m torn on this.  I want people everywhere to be as good critical thinkers as they can be.  But on the other hand, the Post story was about two teachers who had resigned as RE teachers over this oath.  Which is great!  So maybe the bishops should crack down on this more, so more of the staff will quit and be unavailable to indoctrinate children with religious nonsense.  As Princess Leia so wisely said:

  The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

The pope may look just like the evil emperor from Star Wars, but I don’t think he has a Death Star available to maintain control over his increasingly rebellious flock. But what I don’t understand is, why do any of them stay?  Especially the liberal catholics and more especially women – why do they stay in an organization that treats them like this?

Tragedy of the Commons July 6, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: , , ,

Every time I hear some tea-party bloward spouting off, every time I hear someone speak with admiration about Ayn Rand, and every time I hear the right wing going on about how government regulation of anything is evil, I realize that the lesson of the tragedy of the commons has just not gotten through to people.  And it needs to.  Along with confirmation bias, I think this is one of the more important basic concepts that get skipped over in most people’s education.

The classic example, and this is lifted straight from Wikipedia:

 …involving medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the quality of the common is damaged for all as a result, through overgrazing. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.

The only real solution in this example is if there is a central authority over the herders who makes all the herders operate within rules, and that also has the ability to enforce the rules.  If we make a rule that we simply ask people to follow, with no penalty for cheating, then the only way that the rule works is if everybody both is willing not to cheat, and also has confidence that nobody else is cheating either.  A person who is convinced that all his neighbors are cheating will feel at a disadvantage if he does not also cheat, which leads to everybody cheating and the problem still remains.  Even if nobody really wants to cheat, everybody feels like they have to cheat.

This idea obviously applies to any situation where there is a need to share a limited resource.  Land claims, fishing, petroleum, forests, water for irrigation.  It also applies to situations where we’re not looking at consuming a resource as much as ruining a shared resource for others, such as air or water pollution, and especially global warming.

But it goes farther than that.  Anytime someone faces a situation where there is a change they would like to make that would benefit them in some way, but also carries a cost that would make them less competitive, this idea also applies.  For instance: bike races.  Once, no bike racers wore helmets.  Helmets were certainly a safety improvement, but also added weight and drag.  Even if one cyclist wanted to wear a helmet, being the only one doing so would slow him down enough to put him out of competition.  The only way to wear a helmet and still be competitive is if all the cyclists wore them, and the only way that would happen was if they were required to. Even if everyone had wanted to wear a helmet, no one would, because one racer could always take off his helmet and jump ahead.  Fortunately, there are racing organizations that can and do enforce rules, and now cyclists all wear helmets.  Many of our modern rules about safety and fairness are like this: things most or all people agree we should do, yet no one can realistically do them on their own unless it’s required of everybody.

A complete absence of regulation means we are left with a kleptocracy, in which everyone has to grab everything they can get, because if they don’t everything will be taken by others grabbing everything they can get.  And everyone will take unfair advantage of other people, because it they don’t, everyone else will still be taking unfair advantage of them.   I’m all for minimizing unnecessary rules, but the idea that fewer rules is always better is just not workable.