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Another snippet on dickishness

Comment from m5 in reply to this blog entry on Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

I’m pretty sure THIS guy and his ilk are the ones Phil Plait was talking about in his Don’t Be a Dick speech, and I wish certain people would stop insisting criticism of THIS sort of shit is the same as accommodationalism (sic).

Yes, I think so.  Aside from the arrogance and rudeness “THIS guy” displayed toward Ed Brayton, a good friend of mine who is the blogger behind Dispatches, intentionally using a quote out of context because it appears to support your position is a good example of intellectual dishonesty, and being intellectually honest is the best way possible to avoid being a dick.  Check out this post and thread for a discussion on what exactly intellectual honesty is, and how it differs from regular honesty.  To put it briefly, honesty is about telling the truth.  Intellectual honesty is about how you prioritize which truths to seek, know, and share with others.

Atheism and (not) being a dick: a belated rant with copious footnotes

The “What would convince you that there is a god/supernatural/really weird thing out there?” argument continues. I didn’t read the whole thread.  I’m feeling fatigued on the subject, honestly.  It’s easy to demonstrate the existence of weird things (even really weird ones), rather more difficult to prove the supernatural (depending on how you define it), and impossible, so far as I’m concerned, to prove the existence of a god.  There.

A few months ago the discussion was raging over what it means for a skeptic to be a dick, after “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait gave a talk entitled “Don’t Be a Dick” at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas.  You can read Daniel Loxton’s* summary of the situation on Skeptiblog here.  He and P.Z. Myers had quite a lot of back-and-forth during that time, both on Skepticblog and on Twitter,** which was definitely interesting to read.  But it was disenchanting as well, because it’s always disenchanting to see (or be one of) people who are part of a group defined as much by the perception of outsiders as by those of insiders disagree dramatically about what that group represents, and how much they should care.  I’m trying to describe this without portraying it as if there are only two sides, because there never are.  There are not simply a) those people who tell it like it is, vs. b) those people who accommodate.  There are also people who think they are “just telling it like it is” but are actually dicks, and people who are perceived as accommodating but are actually just telling it like it is according to them rather than those accusing them of accommodation.  And, of course, other people in between those groups.  If you’ve taken part in any ideological group’s discussion concerning “strategy,” “message,” or “framing,” you probably know what I’m talking about…especially if there were scientists involved in the discussion, as scientists are notorious for not giving a damn about how their revelations are perceived.  That’s not their job– they do the work and report the results.  How you think about the results is your problem.

I’m sympathetic to that position, but it’s also terribly naive when it comes to communicating to the public.  People, including scientists, are susceptible to scores of biases and information filters they’ve never even heard of.  Studying these biases and filters is fascinating and I’ll never tire of it, but thinking that it will somehow cure you of having them yourself is a little like thinking that if Data from Star Trek: TNG learned enough about emotions, he could somehow acquire them.***  Your nature won’t allow that to happen– the best that will happen is that occasionally you will be able to catch yourself exercising a bias and make some effort to correct it, or feel the discomfort of cognitive dissonance at times when it would otherwise have passed you by and allowed you to comfortably maintain mutually exclusive views in peace.  People react differently to the same information depending on the source, language, time of day or year, and so on.  Context matters.  If you have a specific message you want to get across, paying attention to the context in which you express it is essential, and it doesn’t require dishonesty either to yourself or to your audience despite what is claimed by those who refuse to pay such attention. 

Sometimes, by contrast, being a dick involves dishonesty.  Or at least, it involves misrepresenting the truth when you really should know better, such as saying that people are religious or have different political beliefs than you because they are idiots.  Gah.  People who actually do think that don’t need a lesson on framing or strategy; they just need to look around once in a while.  Francis Collins is religious, Ken Miller is religious, Justin Barrett is religious….these people are not morons.  Every member of my immediate family, which includes four people with the title “Dr.”, are religious.  They are not morons.  Nor are they insane, or evil, or any of those facile explanations so often used by a different kind of “new atheist.”****  Such is the language of people who are eager to embrace an “us vs. them” mentality and have no interest in promoting understanding– having an opponent, and feeling like you’ve trounced them, is so much more satisfying.

And it’s so much more understandable in a country like America, which cherishes freedom of speech and has the luxury of mass communication but also includes a number of people convinced that they live in a Christian nation whose laws should reflect those in the Bible (the one in their heads at least).  Copenhagen was an interesting location at which to hold an international atheist conference this year, given that Denmark is generally acknowledged to be one of the most secular countries on the planet.  This country, in which I spent three years working on my PhD, has an official state religion– the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark.  By law, its monarch (currently Margrethe II) is required to be a member of that church.  But like the U.K. which has its own established church, there is little inclination in the country’s government to pay lip service to religious beliefs themselves or to compel the people via legislation to do so by word or deed.  Hence there is a large population of nonbelievers who nevertheless should probably not be considered atheists at all,***** let alone angry ones.  When the conference was announced, a Danish friend of mine commented on Facebook that (I paraphrase) while he doesn’t believe in a god, he finds the idea of gathering specifically for atheists mystifying and unnecessary at best and downright obnoxious at worst.  I can entirely understand that sentiment from his perspective, but from mine it’s very different.  People who perceive themselves as oppressed, rightly or wrongly, will attack the ideology of the perceived oppressors vociferously and actively.  An atheist group in Denmark, in spite of (or perhaps because of?  I pondered this in England too) its state religion, is about as subversive as opting to have chicken rather than beef at a barbeque.  It’s not that European countries don’t have their own very heated conflicts about religion– they obviously do, as the Muhammad cartoon controversy reveals to this day– it’s just that the right to be a secular person is not nearly as much in question as it is in the U.S., and that can throw anyone who has such desires into defensive mode.  I just wish that didn’t translate into the kind of culture war we’re seeing now.

All of this is at the top of my mind at the moment because next week I’m off to Missouri to attend Skepticon 3, which might as well be called Atheistcon judging by its schedule.  That in itself does not bother me– I’m really looking forward to it, actually– but I’ve never been to a skeptical or atheist conference in the U.S. and am not quite sure what I signed up for at this point.

* Daniel’s the guy who produces the Junior Skeptic feature in Skeptic magazine and recently published his first book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, an evolution primer for kids.  It’s a beautiful book and well-written, worth checking out even if you’re well past your years of being “junior” anything.  

** If you’re one of those who– like I used to– think that Twitter is just a place for people to compare what they had for breakfast and write in abysmal grammar about who they hooked up with last night and what they watched on TV…’re wrong.  Or at least you’re following the wrong people. 

 *** Yes, Trekkers, I know…..Data did exercise emotion on several occasions on the show.  I also know the problems inherent in postulating a consciousness, even an artificial one, that tries to function without emotion.  Do not try to think this example through past the intended meaning. 

****People apply the term “New Atheists” to those like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.  They should be applying it to people who have recently concluded that they are atheists, especially in America, because it would be a much clearer usage.  People who think Dawkins is strident should talk to a 22-year-old in a chat room who refers to the “holey babble” and all religious people as “god-botherers.” It’s a phase….at least for most.  

***** I don’t share the definition of “atheist” Phil Zuckerman uses.  To me the label for a person who won’t necessarily say they believe in a god but nevertheless believes in “something” (as did the majority of interviewees described by Phil in a talk he gave to us in Aarhus, as I recall) is not properly “atheist.”

What would convince you that God exists?

This isn’t a new question, that’s for sure.  I’ve been asked it more times than I can recall, starting roughly ten years ago when I thought it would be fun to go online and argue at length with strangers about whether it makes sense to believe in God or not.  But apparently it has become a hot topic of conversation in the atheist blogosphere recently.  Let me explain.
No, there is too much. Let me sum up:

  1. P.Z Myers wrote a post in response to something on the Richard Dawkins web site, saying that there is no evidence that could convince him of the existence of a god, mainly on the grounds that the concept is made so nebulous (by design, in his view) as to be indemonstrable.  And the only proper response to indemonstrable claims is unbelief. 
  2. Jerry Coyne replied by suggesting a hypothetical scenario in which P.Z. encountered someone who could do really cool and mysterious things and goes by the name of Jesus. Would that convince him?
  3. P.Z. responded to that by elaborating on his argument from incoherence.
  4. Coyne then detailed the difference between intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN) and provisional/pragmatic methodological naturalism (PMN).  Methodological naturalism is the term for what science does in refusing to invoke supernatural explanations for the phenomena it studies.  IMN, as he explains, is the “a priori philosophical commitment to not even consider supernatural explanations.” PMN, on the other hand, is an approach which does not automatically discount supernatural explanations, but basically says “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  A practitioner of PMN would not simply assert that ghosts, for example, can’t be studied scientifically, but would also not be willing to shut the door on inquiry and just accept truth claims about ghosts without investigation. Coyne said that IMN “appears to be the official position of the National Center for Science Education and the semi-official position of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences” and also P.Z. Myers, whereas Coyne himself agrees with PMN.  
  5. Then yesterday Greta Christina weighed in on Coyne’s side of things, though she sees P.Z. as making some good points.  She asks: 1) if there is, or should be, anything which convinces atheists that they are mistaken about the non-existence of gods, and 2) if not, does that mean they are closed-minded and dogmatic?  She agrees with P.Z.’s argument from incoherence that religious believers do not have a clear and sturdy hypothesis, let alone evidence to support it, and do not generally make falsifiable claims.  She declares that “in order to persuade me that it was probably true, a religion would have to do more than just provide some decent evidence for its hypothesis. It would have to provide a decent hypothesis in the first place. It would have to provide a hypothesis that explains existing evidence, makes accurate predictions about future events, can be tested, can have those tests replicated, is consistent with what we already know (or provides a better explanation for it than existing theories), and is internally consistent. What’s more: This hypothesis would have to do more than just explain whatever new evidence might appear to support it. It would have to explain the utter lack of good supporting evidence in the past. It would have to explain why, in thousands and thousands and thousands of years of human history, supernatural explanations of unexplained phenomena have never once panned out…and a natural explanation has always, always, always turned out to be right.”  If a religion could do that, Greta Christina says, she would cease to be an atheist.   

Okay, there’s a lot going on there. There are multiple questions flying around in this conversation, and they deserve to be teased apart and addressed separately.  So:

Q: Is atheism falsifiable?
A:  Not unless by that question you mean “Is the existence of atheists falsifiable”?  Yes it is, and yes atheists exist.  But atheism itself is not a truth claim– it’s an epistemological position people take in relation to the proposition of at least one god existing.  All a person need do to be an atheist is be unconvinced of the existence of any gods.

Q: What is the appropriate view for naturalists to take of claims for the supernatural?
A:  I’m with Jerry Coyne on this one.  The statement that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural” is, so far as I can tell, either so obvious as to be tautological or so flimsy as to be like a Jenga tower contructed by toddlers.  Science studies the natural, and insofar as claims about “supernatural” entities are natural claims (praying cures cancer, for example), they are within the bounds of scientific inquiry.  As Greta Christina points out, every time science has investigated something claimed to be supernatural, it has revealed it to in fact be natural or non-existant.  The existence of ESP is something science can study, because it posits a falsifiable event– people reading the minds of others.  Even if the mechanism could not be verified just yet, a scientist can test whether it is actually possible to know exactly what someone is thinking without using cues from their behavior, your familiarity with their character, being told by someone else, and so on.  And if such a capacity were confirmed to exist, I can guarantee that scientists would not rest until they discover the mechanism, and furthermore that they would eventually find it.  And if scientists can find it, it is natural.

Q:  What would convince you that the supernatural exists?
A:  The answer to what would make me say “Wow, that’s really strange and amazing and I have no idea how it happened” is trivially easy.  Any number of magic tricks would accomplish the job.  But that hardly means those amazing events have no explanation, does it?   The only difference between a magic trick and “real” magic is the matter of how many people know what’s actually going on.  In the former case the at least the magician him/herself knows, and in the latter case he/she doesn’t.  Meditation wasn’t magic when even its practitioners didn’t know how it worked, and it isn’t now that we do know (at least somewhat).  Claiming that magic and/or the supernatural are things we cannot explain is simply begging the question– why can’t we explain them?  By what justification would you say “can’t” to mean “can’t ever” instead of “can’t just now”?  If we’re talking about an observable event, an event detectable in any way by humans, then the former position is thoroughly unscientific.  A scientist who looks at something strange and mind-boggling and says “We can’t ever explain that” has abdicated thinking like a scientist with regard to that thing.  Wearing the scientist hat means refusing to ever close the door on inquiry and hang a sign on it that says “Keep Out: Mystery Inside.”

Q: What would convince you that a god exists?
A: Nothing, and there is no conflict between that answer and what I’ve already said, nor does taking that position make me closed-minded.   “It could be aliens” is not at all a cop-out when it comes to that question, because it points to the ever-present problem that we have no way of distinguishing between that which is infinite and that which is really, really, really impressive.  Arthur C. Clarke’s law declaring that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic could without any loss of significance be modified to say that any sufficiently advanced agency is indistinguishable from deity.  Finite beings cannot comprehend, much less confirm, the nature and existence of infinite beings.  I could be wrong about that, and if so by all means feel free to point out how.  But I’ve thought on this quite a lot and can find no way around it.  Could you convince me of the existence of aliens?  Yes, pretty easily.  But the gap between aliens and infinite beings is…..well, infinite.  “Almost infinite” is a nonsensical concept, and the frequency with which humans seem to forget this is a testament to our lack of imagination.  As is, for that matter, the tendency of humans to describe supernatural entities as thinking, behaving, and often looking uncannily similarly to humans.  The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie proposed decades ago that religion is essentially systematic, codified anthropomorphism.  I’m highly skeptical that it could be anything else.

The trickiness of characterizing empathy in politics, part 1

So as mentioned, I’m working my way through Frans de Waal’s book The Age of Empathy.  On my drive I also listened to the audiobook of Michael Shermer’s The Mind of the Market, and it was almost comical to expose myself to both at the same time and read/listen to how both drew on the same research to reach radically different conclusions about how empathy works in American economics.  de Waal maintains that Americans practice little empathy toward their fellow man (which, in his eyes, would entail mandating the government to take better care of people) and believe that the free market will take care of everyone.  Shermer, by contrast, maintains that Americans trust the market barely at all and expect the government to make things fair for everyone.  Shermer is an American with a doctorate in the history of science, whereas de Waal is a primatologist and Dutch by birth though he has lived in the United States for almost thirty years. 

I couldn’t tell you whether or how much life in America has affected de Waal’s politics, but his book does contain the following passage:

Europeans are far more divided by rank and class and tend to prefer security over opportunity.  Success is viewed with suspicion.  It’s not for nothing that the French language offers only negative labels for people who have made it for themselves, such as nouveau riche and parvenu.  The result, in some nations, has been economic gridlock.  When I see twenty-year-olds march in the streets of Paris to claim job protection or older people to preserve retirement at fifty-five, I feel myself all of a sudden siding with American conservatives, who detest entitlement.  The state is not a teat from which one can squeeze milk any time of the day, yet that’s how many Europeans seem to look at it.  And so my political philosophy sits somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic– not too comfortable a place.  I appreciate the economic and creative vitality on this side but remain perplexed by the widespread hatred of taxes and government.  

 So to be fair to de Waal– he clearly has a mental boundary at which government taking care of people ceases to count as compassion and becomes pampering, and draws that line far in advance of where he sees other Europeans– mainly the French– drawing it.  But I would pay good money to put him and Shermer in a room together and see how they manage to resolve what constitutes “hatred of taxes and government.” I’m guessing Shermer would be incredulous at that characterization of Americans, as am I.  I don’t think that description even fits Tea Partiers (although putting one of them in a room with a French student might cause the heads of both to explode).  de Waal describes Americans after Katrina as expecting the market to take care of disaster relief, but also becoming angry about FEMA’s ineptness at tackling the problem quickly and efficiently.  Which is a head-scratcher for me– if they trusted the market to take care of it, why was their anger directed toward FEMA?  Wouldn’t that rather be a sign that they thought the government should handle the issue and felt cheated when it didn’t? 

Shermer, for his part, characterizes the American view of economics as analogous to how many of its population view evolution– with a conviction that there must be a top-down designer. Opponents of evolutionary theory claim that the environment could not exist with the species in it today without a designer, whereas Americans in Shermer’s view believe that the market could not function without economic disaster without its own designer: the government.  Shermer says this is false, but at the same time is not willing to advocate for no regulation, just much less.  He compares the free market to natural selection– not a process, but an emergent property.  A term for what happens when some species and products or serves are selected for or against in their given environment.  With evolution the environment is primarily physical, consisting of weather, geographic location, predator and prey relationships, and so on.  In economics, the environment is the market, consisting of incentives and psychology.  Shermer doesn’t just use evolution as an analogy, but actually discusses dispositions people have about economics as having been adaptive in our evolutionary past.  He and de Waal would have much to discuss in this regard as well. 

What does this have to do with empathy, now?  The answer is that as scholars who are fully aware that Adam Smith wrote his Theory of Moral Sentiments before his more popular book The Wealth of Nations, both Shermer and de Waal are convinced that empathy, or lack thereof, is at the root of economic beliefs and practices.  What’s revealing is that even with this as a given, they still reach near-opposite conclusions about how empathetic Americans would behave in an economic context.

Let’s check quickly on what the term “empathy” is supposed to mean.  In the common understanding of scientists who study it, there are two primary forms.  The first is affective, or emotional.  This can also be called “sympathy,” because it involves physically imitating the object of your empathic response, and often isn’t voluntary.  Emotional contagion, the act of yawning when someone else is yawning, or imitating the body posture of someone you’re talking to, are forms of affective empathy.  The second form is theoretical, reflective, usually deliberate.  It’s also called “perspective-taking,” because it involves consciously stepping into someone else’s shoes and trying to see the world through their eyes, to mix the most common metaphors.  These two don’t always go together, as exemplified by a sadist who can understand someone’s state of mind and uses that information to figure out how best to torture them.  Using one’s understanding of someone against them has been called the “dark side of empathy.” 

Now from what I can tell, trying to apply understanding of how empathetic someone is to what their political/economic philosophy will be is rather like trying to envision what Jesus’s political/economic philosophy would be today– everybody seems to have an opinion which is easy to reach, but is also inevitably diametrically opposed to someone else’s.  That’s because compassionate people, people who are not only strongly prone to affective empathy but are also compelled by it to help others, can have markedly different views on economics and politics.  How can this be?  Well, because there’s a difference between being nice to others and having the government do it for you.  I highly doubt that de Waal, for example, would want to claim that the French are kinder than he is.  Shermer’s primary argument for free market economics rests on the data he compiles to show that empathy and altruism are evolutionarily adaptive and that people feel and practice them without requiring any outside compulsion– that is, that America doesn’t need a big government because humans are empathetic.  I’m not entirely sure yet where de Waal is going to end up with his use of research on altruistic tendencies in non-human primates, but would make a good bet that it won’t be in Shermer’s land of the free market since that certainly isn’t where he started.   The main thing I am wondering at this point, actually, is whether it’s even possible for people who study human nature to divorce their own political views from it when it comes to discussing empathy in that context. 

This post is “part 1” because I discovered that one of my favorite psychologists Jonathan Haidt has been doing work on Libertarian morality using empathy as a primary factor, and libertarian magazine Reason has its own interpretation of it.  I want to discuss both of those, but need to do some more reading and thinking about it first.

The trip home

Our session at AAR yesterday was really interesting and I’ll try to post about it later, but don’t really have the time right now.  I’m just waking up in Oxford, Alabama, and will be driving through that state and Mississippi today listening to In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan.  Most likely flagrantly ignoring the advice of that book in my dining choices along the way.

Edited to add: That is an excellent book, one that I might be interested to hear rather than read even if I weren’t traveling because Scott Brick does such a good job as reader.  Definitely recommended. 

Tea Party leaders v. O’Donnell the fire-breather

Last night I couldn’t get to sleep right away, and stayed up watching Lawrence O’Donnell eviscerate some Tea Party leaders on his MSNBC show “The Last Word.”  I don’t know their names or those of the particular groups they represented, but that was one thing about which O’Donnell made a big issue– the fact that they were all separate groups with separate leaders which he seemed to view as strange and problematic.  They didn’t, insisting that they collaborated and had similar goals in mind but different areas of focus, which seems reasonable for a grass-roots movement to me.  What caused the interview to turn into a blood bath was when O’Donnell asked each of them to define what “socialism” means and ask what specific socialistic programs they would chooses to eliminate.  Naturally he asked specifically about Medicare and social security first, because those are two programs which are a) federal and b) healthcare, supposedly the things that tea partiers on the ground have been complaining and waving signs about most.  None of the four leaders said they would eliminate either of those programs given the choice, though one said he would dramatically overhaul social security.

On the “What is socialism?” question, nobody came up with a good answer– one said “the re-distribution of wealth,” which would be ridiculous even if that were a comprehensive definition as so far as I know, the tea partiers are not anarchists.  They all support government existing in some sense, and in order exist government requires taxation, otherwise known as redistribution of wealth.  Saying that you want x,y, and z government programs to continue but you oppose all taxation is like saying you want to mow the lawn but you refuse to put gas in the lawn mower– good luck with that.  And that’s not an argument along the lines that if want something done, it has to be done by government….it’s an argument that if you want the government to do something, you have to give it the funding to do so.  These two should not be confused.  One of the tea party leaders being interviewed, for example, said that given the choice he would scrap the Department of Education and have public schooling be handled at the local level.  Whatever you might think of this plan, that does qualify as a significant measure to make government smaller and reduce taxation!  For tea partiers, however, my overwhelming impression is that those aren’t the reasons they want to eliminate federal control over public schooling– the real reason, quite simply, is that they don’t like national standards for education.  They want “local communities” to be able to decide that their children don’t have to learn about evolution, can be forced to pray in school, and probably any number of things that the Supreme Court has decided are unconstitutional.   To give them credit, however, these particular tea partiers being interviewed did, when asked, all acknowledge that there is such a thing as a separation of church and state in the U.S., though a couple of them stipulated “according to the Supreme Court,” as though the First Amendment should only be interpreted as supporting such a concept because SCOTUS has said so. 

They did do– or attempted to do– quite a lot of fudging and dodging, however, but O’Donnell would have none of it.  I hadn’t seen much of him on TV before aside from little snippets from time to time, so I had no idea this was his “thing.”  I don’t know if it’s supposed to be his “thing” for “The Last Word,” but now I’m curious to see a few more episodes to find out.*  He actually put the female tea party leader on “time out,” effectively, because she couldn’t or wouldn’t spit out a specific government program she would eliminate.  He told her to think of an answer and he’d get back to her at the end of the show.  Damn.  That kind of thing reminds of me of what I so admired about television and radio news reporters on the BBC– they’re merciless.  They don’t allow interviewees to simply decide to answer a question other than the one the reporter actually asked.  If they try, the reporter will forcefully remind them of what the question is and demand that they answer it.  That’s what O’Donnell was doing, and I almost felt sorry for the people being interviewed.  But you know, “What do you consider socialism” and “What would you cut, if given the opportunity” are not exactly “gotcha” questions for tea party activists!   The “Last Word” was followed on MSNBC by Keith Olbermann rattling off a list of complaints against tea party candidates for office all over the country.  And those are horrible and reason enough to not support any of them, but my bigger grievance with the Tea Party is reflected in this interview with O’Donnell– none of them were clearly able to articulate what exactly they’re trying to eliminate, and none of them had an immediate answer of a part of government they would cut to significantly reduce the debt and the degree of unwanted control that government has over their lives.  The obvious answer if you think about it for half a second would be the defense budget, which is larger than that of every other country in the world combined.  But because these activists are really disenchanted Republicans, that’s not what they’re advocating for cutting– no, it’s all about Obama and healthcare, and not the trillions of dollars being poured needlessly into two “wars” with no reason and no end.  Sigh.

Anyway– it was a good interview, and I’d like to see more like it even though it makes me cringe to see people embarrass themselves.  I debated changing the channel a few times because it was becoming unbearable.  But it’s either this or allow the tea party candidates to just keep spewing nonsense and thinking “WTF?” which doesn’t do anything to highlight their hypocrisy or the frightening implications of a lot of their ideas.  These things need to be doggedly dragged out into the light by people like O’Donnell, so I’m glad he’s doing it. 

*If it seems odd that I’m wondering about this, bear in mind that I don’t have TV at home.  We have television sets, but they’re used for Netflix/DVDs and video games and that’s about it.  And for the most part this is fine, but I do miss out on a lot of political/news commentary, which is sometimes a detriment and sometimes a bonus.


When visiting a place that has a reportedly good aquarium, I can’t not go and check it out for myself.  For someone born and raised in Kansas, I have a strange thing for deep water and its inhabitants.  Going to visit the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta on a Sunday which also happens to be Halloween might not have been the best idea, but it does allow for the opportunity to get a lot of photos like this:

This aquarium is large and has much to look at, but is also a little too Disney-esque for me.  Yes, yes, I know..children are the life-blood of aquariums, zoos, and any other place where there are animals to be seen.  They have to be kid-friendly, or families just won’t come.  But I could really do without the loud music, flashing fluorescent lights, and announcers on loud speakers.   The main hall is like a movie theater, casino, and kid’s museum all rolled into one.  That’s not to say that the place wasn’t impressive in other respects, though– it’s reportedly the largest aquarium in the world in terms of sheer gallonage: “more than 8.5 million gallons of marine and fresh water housing more than 100,000 animals of 500 different species.” 

The majority of that is in their 6.3 million gallon salt water tank, which houses four whale sharks and four manta rays along with hammerheads, tiger sharks, and all kinds of other fish.

Giving TV a run for its money

Another tank houses two beluga whales, which I was happy and disappointed to see all at once– happy because belugas are just amazing creatures…they look like muscular slabs of marble.  Disappointed because their tank really did not look big enough.  I’m not actually sure what “big enough” would be– no tank at all, probably, because I really think it’s better for sea mammals not to live in captivity.  The whale sharks don’t bother me so much, partly because they have a lot more room, partly because these specific sharks were taken from Taiwan’s fishing quota and apparently would’ve been eaten if they weren’t sent to the aquarium, and partly because I perhaps incorrectly assume that as fish they are not as intelligent as the beluga whales are and therefore not as likely to feel frustration about their limited surroundings.  The two belugas seemed to me to be pacing restlessly in their tank, accompanied by a few seals who zipped around on their backs. 

Highlights for me included a big tank of cichlids from Lake Malawi in African Great Rift Valley, beautiful and colorful and numerous, and a tank containing weedy sea dragons, a relative of seahorses native to the southern coast of Australia who, like their cousin the leafy sea dragon in my profile photo, are classified as “near threatened.”  The Dallas World Aquarium has a few of the leafy variety, which is how I discovered them and later found out that they have their own festival in South Australia.  How cool is that?

In case of fire

Here’s an excerpt from the list of very detailed instructions about what to do in every kind of emergency posted on my door:

Attention-drawing red ellipse added by me

Most of these instructions make pretty good sense, but the “DO NOT JUMP!” in all-caps is a little boggling.  As mentioned previously, I’m on the 20th floor.  I’m pretty sure that jumping is something that wouldn’t even occur to me unless I were absolutely convinced that agonizing fiery death was, at maximum, about two seconds away.  You might as well instruct me “DO NOT FILL TUB WITH WATER AND THEN SUBMERGE FACE IN IT UNTIL ASPHYXIATION OCCURS” or “DO NOT INSERT HEAD INTO DRAWER AND SLAM IT SHUT REPEATEDLY.”  Okay, that last one would actually take a long time to kill me, if it’s even possible to die that way.  Plus it would probably require outside assistance.  But you get the idea. 

I like that the placard informs the hotel guest to “keep firefighting,” though.  It feels good to be proactive in an emergency– gives you a sense of purpose and reduces stress.  It might even elevate the person’s self-esteem.  If they’re very good at it, there might be a career opportunity waiting there…who knows?

AAR 2010

Thousands of smiling, mild-mannered people with blue tote bags have descended on the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta.  This is the 2010 American Academy of Religion conference.  I’m posting from my room in that hotel, using the wireless internet that they made me pay for on top of the room rate.  Why do expensive hotels do that? Oh right, because they can.

My spiffy bag

Anyway– I’m here because I’m on the steering committee for the cognitive science of religion consultation this year, and hopefully will be next year and as long as they’ll have me after that.  Even though the vast majority of panels at AAR aren’t for me, I just love academic conferences and the enthusiasm from all of these people– some wearing suits, some that look like hippies, some wearing Buddhist saffron, some in leather– is palpable.  And though the cognitive science section is just getting off the ground, it’s doing so fast.  Attendance has been really good in the past two years, which was a hard thing for me to imagine when searching almost in vain for science-related sessions prior to that.  In 2007 I was excited to attend a special session in an enormous ballroom dedicated to discussion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, only to find when I arrived in the heavily populated room that the talks would primarily be about the FSM’s status as a “new religious movement” and virtually nothing about evolution, intelligent design, or church and state issues.   Sigh.

This year, on the other hand, is a different ballgame.  A few hundred people attended a plenary talk by Frans de Waal, a noted primatologist based at the Yerkes Primate Center here in Atlanta.  He has been researching the capacity of chimpanzees and bonobos (and sometimes other animals) to practice empathy for decades, and based his most recent book, The Age of Empathy, specifically on that subject.  I haven’t gotten through the whole thing at this point so won’t review it yet, but I can say that it should be an easy and engaging read for a non-specialist.  If you’re interesting in hearing about the impressions of ape capacity for reciprocal exchange, altruism, and love from a person who spends virtually every waking hour around them, this book would probably be a good choice for you.  Be aware, however, that this is a contentious subject and de Waal definitely has his detractors.  For more on who they are and why, you might want to pick up Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved.

Oooh….TV.  Georgia TV

This morning’s session was on scientific approaches to religion and reductionism, which is going to be a topic that keeps coming up so long as there are people who don’t understand that reductionism is what science does, and that it’s necessary.  The third speaker gave what I considered the most interesting talk, making a case for something similar to what psychologist Bruce Hood calls “supersense”– the religious sensibility being something that views ordinary objects and behaviors as special for unseen reasons.  A believer who nonetheless devours scientific explanations for religion, he referred to the different kinds of knowing about religion: a) knowledge of the facts about religious beliefs and behaviors, b) introspective knowledge of what it feels like to believe, and c) a scientific understanding of the “how” of religious and behaviors.  The “insider/outsider problem” is a well-known one in religious studies, and people will always be asking whether a believer or a disbeliever is in a better position to give an authoritative description of a religion.  The answer, of course, is that it’s similar to asking whether something is nature or nurture: it’s both, depending on what you want to know.  However empathetic a person you are, empathy relies to an incredible degree on having experienced something like that which your subject is experiencing, or as close to it as you can get.  A person who has never believed in God is just not going to understand what it feels like as well as someone who believes or someone who used to believe and has the memories of that to draw on.  Our memories aren’t anywhere near infallible– it’s not like we have VCRs in our heads, let alone Tivo— but an edited and interpreted memory still beats no memory at all.     

20th floor balcony.  Taking this gave me vertigo.

(I’m working on very little sleep right now…probably should’ve mentioned it earlier, but didn’t because lack of sleep made me forget to do so.  Apologies if I’m not making much sense.)

So that’s the first day, and it has been all about empathy for me.  The bits of political commentary that have eked their way into the Q&A sessions on some of the talks irritate me, but I suppose it’s to be expected at this point– a conference full of herpetologists would probably find a way to work in some snark at some party/candidate or another at this point.  Our section still has some sessions to go, but luckily I have a bit more discretion over what to do tomorrow. I think the aquarium might be calling my name, and I can never pass up an aquarium that can speak.

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