Skepticon 9: The Mourning After

This post was written by Diogenes.

Skepticon (subtitle: The Ninth) was November 11th-13th. Thus it was pretty obvious that the election would be a subject of discussion and, one thought, of excitement, hope, maybe some cynicism, etc. After November eighth, however, it was clear that it would be more. With apologies to Karl Marx, there was a spectre haunting Skepticon: the spectre of Trump.

This was my first Skepticon, and first such conference in general, so I can’t say personally how it differs from others. I spoke to others who can, however. As one with much experience summarized it, the social justice is strong at Skepticon. This is apparent in the line-up: there were as many, maybe more, talks on issues in sexuality, gender, race, and similar topics (including panels on polyamory, sex change, racism, Black Lives Matter, and more) as on science or activism. It wasn’t that way in early Skepticons, I was told, but Skepticon has consciously moved to become an inclusive conference that represents groups not otherwise given a vocal hearing.

This has led Skepticon to the fore in, for example, harassment policies that protect women, and including diverse speakers that might not otherwise get a large audience. It also shapes the character of the conference, who goes and the atmosphere. The atmosphere was incredibly friendly, welcoming and thoughtful throughout, and that was perhaps the best feature of the conference. On the other hand, if one was expecting lots of hard-hitting skepticism, strong atheism, and heavy science, though they were present one might be left expecting more.

Another result is having, in one place three days after the election, many of those most devastated by the election. Greta Christina’s talk functionally served as the keynote—it was dark, impassioned, highly personal, and made no pretense of moderation. Christina read the election as a direct attack on those who were present. She received a standing ovation.

Christina’s talk was the darkest, but she was hardly alone in referencing the election. Rebecca Hensler discussed how students in her Diversity Club processed the results (apparently with gleefully foul language); Rebecca Watson, whose talk on skeptical advocacy in social media I found the best among presentations I saw, interspersed cat pictures into her slides–in this case, she said, to distract us from other things.

Darkness was an overtone, but there was also much good to be found. Casual drinks with new friends. Talks that were sometimes funny and frequently heartfelt. Skeptiprom, where geeks and nerds danced put on their best or worst and the bar had a drink called the red (or was it purple?) stegosaurus. The unique community that’s formed around Skepticon provides its strength, though perhaps that has come with less focus on standard pillars of the ‘movement’. How Skepticon will continue to develop this dual role, and what place it will have under the shadow of a Trump presidency, are questions yet to be answered.

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At Last, We Must Walk Together

Many years ago, I read the book Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. (I agree with Happy Skeptic’s assessment: Best. Book. Ever!) Just a few years ago, I finally got into Pratchett’s Discworld series, which I am really enjoying. He pokes a lot of fun at the concepts of religions and gods, but his satire is so gentle that his work appeals to religious and nonreligious readers alike.
Unfortunately, Terry Pratchett died this month. Sad news for those of us who felt like we knew him.
Here are a couple of links to Pratchett explaining his beliefs: an article (ignore the title, it’s just wrong), and an interview.
A few other links for inquiring minds:
Above All, He Was Funny
Interview with Neil Gaiman — this video includes some details of the writing of Good Omens

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Some Drive-by Blasphemy

So, I’ve finally gone back to finish watching the last two seasons of Stargate SG-1. I’m three episodes in, and at the very least it’s given me a little food for thought. By the way, to those who have anaphylactic shock reactions to spoilers—this stuff aired five years ago.

Following the downfall of the obviously false gods of the Goa’uld—immortal aliens whose empire-building gave rise to the various mythologies* of the ancient world—the series needed a new villain. Enter “The Ori.” Apparently becoming ascended beings of pure energy doesn’t cure chronic inferiority complex. In their efforts to be worshipped by all lesser beings, they send out “Priors,” super-powered missionaries who preach the religion of “Origin,” work miracles, and smite unbelievers. Rather a lot of the latter, I’m going to guess. They claim to have created all human life, which is clearly false, but they have a certain way of making Pascal’s Wager…well, more immediate. “Hallowed are the Ori, or we’ll kill you all.”

I’ve had Christians ask me what I’d need to believe in their god—I don’t know, but let’s take it as read that if god wanted to demonstrate itself empirically, it clearly could. A trickier prospect is whether the self-aggrandizing claims of such a being could be verified, and whether it is worthy of worship. I’m not taken with Christianity’s setup—a Father who is infinitely loving but also infinitely just, and we’re all covered in sin. So, he sacrifices himself to himself, thereby providing a loophole for his fallen children to escape damnation. Continue reading

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One of These Things is Not Like the Other

http://pewforum.org/Religion-News/Fla-church-plans-to-burn-Quran s-on-9-11-anniversary.aspx

A Florida church with “Islam is of the devil” signs in its front lawn plans to host an “International Burn A Quran Day,” on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks this year…In response to the posting of the event on Facebook a little more than a week ago, Jones said that people have been mailing Qurans to the church to burn. He said organizers got the idea, in part, from another Facebook page, called “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”

The event’s Facebook page says its purpose is “To bring to awareness to the dangers of I and that the Koran is leading people to hell. Eternal fire is the only destination the Koran can lead people to so we want to put the Koran in it’s [sic] place — the fire!”

This story troubles me on several levels, not least because it holds up a mirror on several levels to my own participation in Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. Let me start out by saying these Christians have every right to burn whatever books they please. Hate Speech is still speech, and therefore it’s protected. I had to stop and think, though, whether what these people plan to do is different than drawing Mohammed in kind or only in degree. Continue reading

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The “militant” atheists are guilty of … poor etiquette?

Lately there’s been an issue rising to the surface of atheist thought, and that issue is tone.  Are Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett actually being militant in their assertions?  Should they be toning down their messages?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and will continue to do so, but my answer right now is no.  No.  I completely reject and deplore the accusation of militancy leveled at “the new atheists.”  Sure, Harris et al. are making points that are provocative.  That’s just it: there is no “kinder, gentler way” to say, “You guys are confused by millennia of indoctrination and your thinking is wrong-headed, which is bound to lead to disastrous results for our society and our world.  Please stop deifying and demonizing, worshipping and praying, because we urgently need you to snap out of it and help us evolve our species and take care of our planet.”

Religionists don’t think they’re indoctrinated, don’t believe they’re confused.  They don’t get it.  Why?  Because up to now our social handbook has encouraged everyone to tiptoe around the obvious and try to not let on that many of us hold an alternative viewpoint that isn’t very flattering to believers.  Our handbook is going through a revision, this social etiquette is changing, and I say good riddance to past standards.  I hope the enabling of irrationalism goes the way of allowing smoking in the office, ignoring evidence of child abuse and taking picnics to slave auctions. Continue reading

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The art of Emily’s words

One of my favorites poets ever is Emily Dickenson.  I’m not sure why she was considered so ‘dark’.  She wrote beautifully of a complicated world.   She spent some time writing about the fear instilled in everyone about hell and her own fear of eternal life or, at times, her longing for it.  Maybe it was this common curiosity about living forever that drew me to her.  Much like the beauty Vincent VanGogh found in the Starry Night or Sun Flowers, she seemed to see beauty in everyday things.  The poem that shows this best and I love the most, is about the color yellow in nature.  Seriously.

Nature rarer uses yellow
Than another hue;
Saves she all of that for sunsets,–
Prodigal of blue,

Spending scarlet like a woman,
Yellow she affords
Only scantly and selectly,
Like a lover’s words. Continue reading

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Better Know A Pseudoscience

Science enthusiasts and critical thinkers cannot escape the reality that human culture world-wide is absolutely chockablock with fake science. The word “scientific” has a cachet that I’ve seen co-opted for homeopathy, energy-harmonized aluminum plates, even Biblical “scientific discoveries” (always good for a laugh.) Science seems to be all about the results, the inventions, the breakthroughs. It’s never about the process, the codified critical thinking that keeps those end products from being complete hokum. We humans have a tendency to see what we want to see, to see what agrees with our preconceptions, to see what benefits us and justifies our beliefs. The scientific method is what developed in order to boil out the biases, the fallacies, the unconscious assumptions which corrupt our cognition.

Pseudoscience has been a bugbear of mine for quite some time. So, let’s talk about UFOs, and why the pseudoscience of UFOlogy fails on so many counts.

FALSIFIABILITY: UFOlogy prominently displays a hallmark of many pseudosciences—it begins with its conclusion, and then goes looking for whatever disparate facts might support it. One of the most common misconceptions about science is that you start with a hypothesis—a question that you’re testing, which you then gather data or do experiments to support. However, one requirement of a good hypothesis is that it is willing and able to be proved wrong. If it is not, you are setting yourself upon a primrose path of Confirmation Bias. Continue reading

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Confessions of the newly Geeked

Let me begin by saying, I have fallen in love with Dr. Who, but things weren’t always this way. Growing up we were not really allowed all that much SciFi except when my mom would watch Star Trek. As I got older Star Trek continued to be the sum total of my SciFi experience, even though I did not follow it in any sort of regular way. By time I got to college I decided to major in Theatre. While we do have some geeks in our midst, the dynamic is really more pretentious than anything. At the same time, many of my friends would be considered in the geek category, including things like D&D, Magik, comic books, and SciFi. I just never crossed over.

While living in CA I found more of the similar comic book friends, but still resisted, then I met someone. He has a huge comic book collection, loves SciFi, but doesn’t do dressing up for things if it’s not Halloween. I started reading some graphic novels and I was off. Next it was “Good Omens” (Best. Book. Ever!) then everything else available by Gaimen and Pratchett. There was no way to know where this would lead. Continue reading

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I. Pea Freely

Having gone back through all of the blog posts BNFree has produced so far, I realized something: we have yet to have a blog about Freethought. Since BNFree (think Bein’ Free) stands for Bloomington/Normal Freethinkers (not Pee Drinkers, FREE THINKERS, sorry I had to shout, but I just wanted to be clear for my readers who are hard of hearing), I thought, freely I must admit, that it would probably be a good idea to actual do a blog about free thinking.

So, what exactly is a free thinker? Someone who thinks freely. That explains that. OK, that wasn’t very helpful, but in my defense, when has a blog I wrote ever been helpful? A freethinker is basically someone who is an agnostic, atheist, humanist, skeptic, and/or a deist (in some definitions). Freethought/freethinking is a kind of catch-all name that encompasses many different groups. From the fifteen seconds of research I did (this is the second most research I have ever done in a blog), I found that freethinking is basically adogmatic with a strong scientific bent. Freethought is based on following where the evidence leads. Continue reading

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Zen and the Art of Critical Thinking

I had a little trouble when I went to write my rent check last month. My wife and I had some one-time expenses in our budget for May, and so as I watched my weekly paychecks come in, it was evident that the month-end total was going to be a tight squeeze in the checking account we use for it. To top it off, my direct deposit didn’t hit my checking account when I was used to seeing it, and it was the last one for the month. So I sent an email to the home office, asking whether there were any trouble signs. The reply, from a clearly frustrated HR rep, was that many people had inquired, technically it didn’t have to be there until tomorrow, there weren’t any problems she could see, and she didn’t know anything else.

I thanked her, reassured her I wasn’t going to be a jerk about it, and it got me thinking, that “I don’t know” is a perfectly honest answer. In any area of inquiry, our available pool of facts is limited, and nothing is ever known to an absolute certainty. (Unless you’re going on faith, in which case you’re taking “belief” and counting it as “knowledge” which is, at the very least, dishonest. More on that later.) Based on the HR rep’s reply, I was at least able to eliminate some hypotheses: that there wasn’t an error in my time reporting or in the payroll submission. Anything else is left to the vagaries of the electronic banking infrastructure, which I know from professional experience to be arcane and impenetrable–the money gets there when it gets there. Continue reading

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