Monday, 30 May 2011

Hit and Myth

R. Joseph Hoffmann has been making a lot of news in the blogosphere recently, through his intemperate attacks on gnu atheists - consider this comment highlighted by Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels:
There are no butterflies there [at B&W] anymore just gasbags like the seminally under-qualified Eric McDonald and clowns like PZ Myers, who could benefit from a reading comprehension course with an emphasis on analogies.
Calling Eric Macdonald 'seminally under-qualified' is indicative of a critical faculty that has become unhinged, and now Richard Carrier has cause to question Hoffmann's sanity:
But in private conversations about some of the problems I had with the book, Hoffmann was a complete dick to me, and wouldn't own up even to the mistakes I had actual proof he had made.
Thereby tempting me to conclude that he [Hoffmann] must be a lunatic.
This all comes in an analysis of Hoffman's book, Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth. Sadly Hoffmann also supports the view of Jacques Berlinerblau that new atheists think that:
Unless you as an atheist are willing to disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced, then you must be some sort of deluded, self-hating, sellout, subverting the rise of the Mighty Atheist Political Juggernaut...
A straw man of dickish proportions, to be sure. I don't know what's happened to RJH, but it's worth reading about Carrier's concerns for his editorial skills. Despite that, the book's still worth purchasing, apparently!

UPDATE: Hoffmann has replied to Carrier's criticism, including this paragraph:
Hoffmann, probably
I am still not sure what “mistakes” he’s referring to other than his own, which were as substantial as his contribution was irrelevant, a long discursus on Bayes’ theorem that never once budges above pedantic lecturing to engage the literary material – the New Testament – to which its application is implied to be relevant. A cautious, or less sympathetic editor would have cut it eo ipso as being totally to the left of the topic, though Carrier shows a fleeting acquaintance with some of the methods (and limits) of conventional New Testament criticism. It does not rise to the level of convincing expertise.
One wonders why he included Carrier's chapter, in that case! He displays little sympathy, so maybe he was just being incautious.

And Carrier's reply.

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Monday, 23 May 2011

The Power of the Bible

After the predictable failure of Biblical predictor Harold Camping, we are now witnessing the ability of the human mind to rationalise its own credulity.

Here is a remarkable example: Peter Lombardi is a 44-year-old from Jersey City, N.J. who had had taken an "indefinite break" from his job in April to preach about May 21, and John Ramsey is a N.J. resident who had rearranged his life in recent months to devote himself to spreading the news of the Rapture.
Followers like Ramsey and Lombardi said they had few hard feelings toward Camping and still agreed with some of the self-taught preacher's views, such as one that says all churches and denominations have been corrupted.
"I have learned to study the Bible really well. This guy has opened my eyes to a lot of truths," said Lombardi.
"If he makes another prediction, I can't tell you what I am going to do," said Ramsey. "But I've really taken an interest in the Bible. I know it's the word of God. And I've been reading into more parts today."
He quoted Mark 13:22: "For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall [show] signs and wonders, to seduce, if [it were] possible, even the elect."
Despite the apparent stupidity of thinking some nut with a radio station can predict an event that is, in any case, a fiction, these guys still think the Bible's worth reading. One of the master-strokes of early Christianity was its forging of a range of old stories and texts into a whole that makes no sense but can be utilised in the service of any agenda that one wants to push. I've spent my life listening to sermons and preachers, Thoughts for the Day and miracle stories, and they've all found something in that hotchpotch of platitudes to support the view they're pushing.

With a text as full of contraries as the Bible, it's easy to make it fit any narrative that arises, and Ramsey manages it here. Oh yeah, shit, that Rapture prediction culled from the Bible was wrong, and here's the Bible telling me why. Here's the Bible telling me the Bible's wrong. But there really aren't any contradictions in the Bible, in the philosophical sense of jointly exhaustive but mutually exclusive stories and morals; it's too complex and incoherent for that. If the book wasn't 'Holy', everyone who used it would be slapped into prison for deception. For nefarious politicians with an agenda, or just for mad old millionaire radio evangelists, it's the Book that keeps on giving, and keeps those who believe in it giving.

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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Orders must be followed, however evil

A New York Jewish newspaper is banned from publishing photos of women by rabbinic authority, so when it printed the White House situation room photo it naturally removed Hilary Clinton and Audrey Tomason from it.

It's the blithe disregard for what this actually means that shocks. Sexism is prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex, according to the online OED. Here's some snippets from the statement issued by Der Tzeitung, the offending rag:
Our photo editor realized the significance of this historic moment, and published the picture, but in his haste he did not read the “fine print” that accompanied the picture, forbidding any changes.
Yes, the 'fine print' is more important than the equal standing of women, apparently.
The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office, is a malicious slander and libel.
Of course! Air-brushing women out of important historical photographs is in every way consistent with respect for them, isn't it?
The Jewish religion does not allow for discrimination based on gender, race, etc.
Well, you just did, and do, discriminate based on gender because, as you go on to say:
In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women...
See. Not, you do not publish photos of men, or children, but women. That is discrimination based on gender.
...which in no way relegates them to a lower status
Again, of course not! Air-brushing women out of important historical photographs is in every way consistent with granting them equal status, isn't it?
Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board.
That is a surprise.
Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention.

So the argument goes, it's not sexist; they're not doing it because they're women, but because the Rabbis tell them so.

They're only following Holy Orders.

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Monday, 9 May 2011


Chris Mooney has been posting some excellent pieces recently, thankfully avoiding (mostly) his accommodationist nonsense. At Mother Jones he wrote The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, detailing many studies exploring our cognitive problems. It's well worth a read to get acquainted with some of the studies exercising psychologists at the moment. In it he talks about how emotion informs and, to a degree, poisons one's pre-existing beliefs and affects how one argues.
And that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.
This is his standard retort to gnu atheism. But it's quite modest, and doesn't do the work he wants it to. I mean, obviously on many (most?) occasions people are persuaded by evidence and argument. What he means to say is that this may not be the best way when the issue under discussion triggers deep emotions. Later he says:

If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.

Again, this, I presume (!)  is the reason for his tone trolling, but it's not doing the work he wants. I don't think any gnu denies that tone is important, and these studies indicate some reasons why a sympathetic context can work. But that doesn't mean it's the only way to get results. Ridicule also generates an emotional reaction, and that may produce results too, without evidence and argument. I can remember being persuaded as a child not to do certain things by the ridicule heaped on me by my brothers when I went wrong. There was precious little evidence and argument presented.

More recently he's blogged about a study relevant to that article, calling it Is Reasoning Built for Winning Arguments, Rather Than Finding Truth?. That title's not really accurate, as a read through uncovers. It's based on a study by Mercier and Sperber, called Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Mooney sums it up better in the final line:
When it comes to reasoning, then, what’s good for the group could be very bad for the individual–or, for the echo chamber.
An interesting finding. We have an imperfect reasoning tool in our locker. If we just reason our way around the world as individuals, disaster can strike. So, an example in the comments, the Unabomber living alone in the woods can easily go crazy because no one is there to say, “Whoa, where’d you get that idea?” A better evolutionary survival tactic is to introduce some argument. This, I guess, moderates some of the flaws in our thinking, such as cognitive bias, and is more likely to produce a better result for the genes (this is an evolutionary psychology argument). In the comments it's also made clear that like-minded groups are a problem too. Hugo Mercier pops up to confirm what he thinks the solution is:
What we’re suggesting is that in a normal debate, you try to convince the other guy when you produce arguments, but you’re mostly objective when you evaluate arguments (after all, if you’re better off changing your mind, you’d rather know about it). So a normal debate is the solution, and it has worked very well for ever. There is no need for any new thing really, just fixing institutions that don’t rely enough on genuine debate.
A pretty good addition to the argument for freedom of speech, I think. Further, it counters the accommodationist position that gnu atheists shouldn't confront the moderately religious and dismiss their beliefs. Genuine debate is what gnus demand, and these studies suggest that if moderate religionists aren't challenged, they will operate in an echo chamber that may end up radicalising their views.

No doubt accommodationists can accuse gnus of operating in their very own echo chamber, but this chamber rings very hollow indeed. In a world where atheists are outvoted and outprivileged wherever one looks, it will be a long time before it becomes a dangerous in-group. But one would have to concede that it may happen one day. O, frabjous day!
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