Tuesday, June 27, 2006

For Shame, Gil Student

Over at Hirhurim, Gil Student halted an interesting discussion with the following explanation, after which he apparently began deleting all comments:

Sorry guys, but it is becoming too much of a skeptics gathering here. Time to end the discussion.

I am giving you the benefit of the last word not because I have nothing more to respond but simply so you don't start kvetching.

Well, I'm kvetching anyway, especially since I put some real time into researching a few comments that he later deleted.

This sort of thing is commonplace among the more religious blogs. Have you ever seen an atheistic or skeptical blogger halt discussion because too many religious people were responding?

I think it's instructive that religious ideas flourish primarily in forums where dissent is limited, while in more open forums, the trend is towards skepticism.

In response to one of my other posts, a religious commenter is spreading lies and actually advocating the execution of homosexuals, and I haven't even deleted his comments. Instead of censoring him, I'm calmly pointing out exactly why he is wrong.

Here's a hint: if your belief system can't stand up to criticism, it's probably not worth holding.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Quote of the Day: Intellectual Energy Wasted on Theology

I think a lot of intellectual energy over the centuries has gone into religious matters. Think of all the monks devoting themselves to fine points of theological doctrine -- monks and rabbis and bonzes and Moabs, imams, down through the years devoting so much talent and energy to questions of theology. In a way science provides an alternative way of using your mind. This is something else where you can use human intelligence. It has several advantages. It has the advantage that we have ways of finding out we're wrong about things. I've had that experience in my life -- most scientists have -- of having a theory that I thought was bound to right shown to be wrong by experiments -- its a very cleansing experience. (Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, Interview, via The Secular Outpost.)

Not the Godol Hador finally gets around to asking, "Is Orthodox Judaism Bad for You?" He lists several possible reasons it is, mostly about moral or ethical questions regarding Orthodox Jewish beliefs and halakha. In the comments, I added the following comment before passing along Weinberg's quote:

What about the wasting of some of the world's best minds? If a Talmudic genius were raised by atheists instead of hasidim, perhaps he would have cured cancer. Perhaps a cohen not going to medical school because of gross anatomy would have saved a thousand lives. What about all the Hasidic or RWO [right-wing Orthodox] women raising 12 kids despite having minds as keen as any man's?

Obviously, I'm not saying there's no place for Talmudic scholars or women who want twelve kids -- it should of course be their choice -- but raising another generation of Orthodox youth might have negative effects beyond the ones you listed.

More Atheist Philanthropy: Warren Buffett

Looks like we'll soon be able to say that the two largest philanthropists in the world are atheists. (To be fair, they're also the two wealthiest people in the world.)

Warren Buffett gives away his fortune.

The world's second richest man... will start giving away 85% of his wealth in July - most of it to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Buffett has pledged to gradually give 85% of his Berkshire stock to five foundations. A dominant five-sixths of the shares will go to the world's largest philanthropic organization, the $30 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose principals are close friends of Buffett's (a connection that began in 1991, when a mutual friend introduced Buffett and Bill Gates).

The Gateses credit Buffett, says Bill, with having "inspired" their thinking about giving money back to society. Their foundation's activities, internationally famous, are focused on world health -- fighting such diseases as malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis -- and on improving U.S. libraries and high schools.

Up to now, the two Gateses have been the only trustees of their foundation. But as his plan gets underway, Buffett will be joining them. Bill Gates says he and his wife are "thrilled" by that and by knowing that Buffett's money will allow the foundation to "both deepen and accelerate" its work. "The generosity and trust Warren has shown," Gates adds, "is incredible." Beginning in July and continuing every year, Buffett will give a set, annually declining number of Berkshire B shares - starting with 602,500 in 2006 and then decreasing by 5% per year - to the five foundations. The gifts to the Gates foundation will be made either by Buffett or through his estate as long as at least one of the pair -- Bill, now 50, or Melinda, 41 -- is active in it.


The other foundation gifts that Buffett is making will also occur annually and start in July. At Berkshire's current price, the combined 2006 total of these gifts will be $315 million. The contributions will go to foundations headed by Buffett's three children, Susan, Howard, and Peter, and to the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation.

This last foundation was for 40 years known simply as the Buffett Foundation and was recently renamed in honor of Buffett's late wife, Susie, who died in 2004, at 72, after a stroke. Her will bestows about $2.5 billion on the foundation, to which her husband's gifts will be added. The foundation has mainly focused on reproductive health, family planning, and pro-choice causes, and on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.


Because the value of Buffett's gifts are tied to a future, unknowable price of Berkshire, there is no way to put a total dollar value on them. But the number of shares earmarked to be given have a huge value today: $37 billion.

That alone would be the largest philanthropic gift in history.
And if Buffett is right in thinking that Berkshire's price will trend upward, the eventual amount given could far exceed that figure.
(via Slashdot.)

Buffett's atheism:
"He did not subscribe to his family's religion. Even at a young age he was too mathematical, too logical, to make the leap of faith. He adopted his father's ethical underpinnings, but not his belief in an unseen divinity."
--from Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist, by Roger Lowenstein (Doubleday, 1995), page 13. (Via Celebrity Atheist List.)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon and Littlewood's Law

I have a friend who recently became religious after becoming convinced that God was communicating with him through a series of highly improbable coincidences. He's extremely intelligent, but had recently gone through some devestating personal circumstances, which I suspect made him vulnerable to such thinking.

Anyway, I just saw this MonkeyFilter post and was interested that there is a name for this sort of thing.

Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one happens upon some obscure piece of information– often an unfamiliar word or name– and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly. Anytime the phrase "That's so weird, I just heard about that the other day" would be appropriate, the utterer is hip-deep in Baader-Meinhof.


The phenomenon bears some similarity to synchronicity, which is the experience of having a highly meaningful coincidence… such as having someone telephone you while you are thinking about them. Both phenomena invoke a feeling of mild surprise, and cause one to ponder the odds of such an intersection. Both smack of destiny, as though the events were supposed to occur in just that arrangement… as though we're witnessing yet another domino tip over in a chain of dominoes beyond our reckoning.

Despite science's cries that a world as complex as ours invites frequent coincidences, observation tells us that such an explanation is inadequate. Observation shows us that Baader-Meinhof strikes with blurring accuracy, and too frequently to be explained away so easily. But over the centuries, observation has also shown us that observation itself is highly flawed, and not to be trusted.

The reason for this is our brains' prejudice towards patterns. Our brains are fantastic pattern recognition engines, a characteristic which is highly useful for learning, but it does cause the brain to lend excessive importance to unremarkable events. Considering how many words, names, and ideas a person is exposed to in any given day, it is unsurprising that we sometimes encounter the same information again within a short time. When that occasional intersection occurs, the brain promotes the information because the two instances make up the beginnings of a sequence. What we fail to notice is the hundreds or thousands of pieces of information which aren't repeated, because they do not conform to an interesting pattern. This tendency to ignore the "uninteresting" data is an example of selective attention.

In point of fact, coincidences themselves are usually just an artifact of perception. We humans tend to underestimate the probability of coinciding events, so our expectations are at odds with reality. And non-coincidental events do not grab our attention with anywhere near the same intensity, because coincidences are patterns, and the brain actually stimulates us for successfully detecting patterns… hence their inflated value. In short, patterns are habit-forming.

But when we hear a word or name which we just learned the previous day, it often feels like more than a mere coincidence. This is because Baader-Meinhof is amplified by the recency effect, a cognitive bias that inflates the importance of recent stimuli or observations. This increases the chances of being more aware of the subject when we encounter it again in the near future.

On a very related subject,
Littlewood's Law states that individuals can expect a miracle to happen to them at the rate of about one per month.

The law was framed by Cambridge University Professor J. E. Littlewood, and published in a collection of his work, A Mathematician's Miscellany; it seeks, inter alia, to debunk one element of supposed supernatural phenomenology and is related to the more general Law of Truly Large Numbers, which states that with a sample size large enough, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.

Littlewood's law, making certain suppositions, is explained as follows: a miracle is defined as an exceptional event of special significance occurring at a frequency of one in a million; during the hours in which a human is awake and alert, a human will experience one thing per second (for instance, seeing the computer screen, the keyboard, the mouse, the article, etc.); additionally, a human is alert for about eight hours per day; and as a result, a human will, in 35 days, have experienced, under these suppositions, 1,008,000 things. Accepting this definition of a miracle, one can be expected to observe one miraculous occurrence within the passing of every 35 consecutive days -- and therefore, according to this reasoning, seemingly miraculous events are actually commonplace.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Muslim Gays Seek Lesbians For Wives

Social Pressures Push Some Into Sexless Marriage

On a Web site for gay South Asians, 27-year-old Syed Mansoor uploaded the following message last summer:

"Hi, I am looking for a lesbian girl for marriage. I am gay but I would like to get married because of pressure from parents and society. I would like this marriage to be a 'normal' marriage except for the sex part, please don't expect any sexual relationship from me.

"Being an Indian gay person, I believe it is so much worth it to give up sex and have a nice otherwise normal family. We can be good friends and don't have to repent all our life for being gay/lesbian."

Across the globe and especially in America, hundreds of other gay Muslims have started to pursue marriages of convenience--or MOC, as they are known-- in which gay Muslims seek out lesbian Muslims, and vice versa, for appearances' sake.


"Marriages of convenience are the result of gay Muslims wanting to avoid emotional and physical harm to themselves," says Muhammed Ali, a board member of Homan, a Los Angeles-based support group for gay Iranians.

Homosexuality is a crime punishable by death in much of the Islamic world. In Iran last year, two gay teenagers were publicly executed, while in Afghanistan, the Taliban government would torture homosexuals by collapsing walls on them.

Though gay Muslims in America don't have such fears, they still seek out marriages of convenience as a way of staying in the closet. Many of them worry about being ostracized from their families if their secret is revealed.


Muslim authorities around the world have repeatedly emphasized that homosexuality is not permissible. Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of North America said there is no flexibility on this topic.

"Homosexuality is a moral disorder. It is a moral disease, a sin and corruption... No person is born homosexual, just like no one is born a thief, a liar or murderer," he said. "People acquire these evil habits due to a lack of proper guidance and education."

What a senseless waste. Because of some thousands-year-old book that says homosexuality is an abomination, people in America in 2006 have to lead lives of secrecy and keeping up appearances. At least America's better than most of the Muslim world and the rule of the Bible -- we don't kill people simply for loving people of the "wrong" gender.

I'm sure this happens among "ultra-Orthodox" Jews as well.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ah, Republicans

Taking a break from their hard work in the War on Gay Marriage and the War on Flag Burning, the Senate voted against raising the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour from the current $5.15, where it has remained for nine years. More than willing to fight for the top 2% of Americans when they pushed the estate tax repeal, Republicans decided that $5.15 an hour, which hasn't even been raised for inflation in the last nine years, was fine for the poor. They even blocked a Republican plan which would have raised it to just $6.15 an hour, including "numerous sweeteners for small businesses to offset higher employment costs." The same party which passionately demanded "an up-or-down vote" for judicial nominees "indicated this week that they would not allow a vote on the issue this year." (Washington Post.)

$5.15 an hour. That's 200 dollars a week, without health insurance. The same amount they got NINE YEARS AGO. And, you may recall, housing costs and energy prices have gone up just a tad in those nine years. But the Republicans fight for the richest 2%.

But look over there!!! There are GAYS THAT WANT TO GET MARRIED!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AAAARRRRRRRRHGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Fundamentalist Jews and Muslims Unite!

Finally, something they can agree on:

Arutz Sheva: Rabbis Sit With Sheikhs to Deplore Gay Parade in Jerusalem

Stopping the Gay Pride Parade: Rabbis and Sheikhs held a joint press conference, and Jerusalem City Councilwoman Mina Fenton gathered hundreds of signatures at the World Zionist Congress session.


Rabbi Yehuda Levin, of the Brooklyn-based Jews for Morality organization, is now in Israel for the express purpose of trying to stop the parade from happening. He led a press conference on Monday, together with Israeli-Arab MK Sheikh Tzartzur, Rabbi Menachem Fruman and others, calling for a "hudna" [ceasefire] in the current Israeli-PA conflict in order to fight a common battle for traditional values.


Though several international news agencies showed up, Rabbi Levin expressed great disappointment that Al-Jazeera and others were not among them. "It's important for us to get this message out to the Moslem world," he said, "for several reasons. Their enthusiastic cooperation in this matter can be very helpful in convincing the police that there is a security risk involved in allowing the parade to be held." Rabbis from Italy, Russia and Venezuela also participated, as did Sheikhs Tamimi and Hamed Bitawi by phone.

Got to love those religious values.

(Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

Monday, June 19, 2006

Thirty Years of The Selfish Gene

I remember when I first discovered The Selfish Gene. I was browsing in a Barnes and Noble and it struck my eye. I sat down with it and started reading. A cute girl sat across from me and tried to strike up a conversation, but I was too engrossed to pay her much attention. A few hours later, and probably two-thirds of the way through the book, I finally took a break. It grabbed me like no other science had before or since.

Thirty years after its original publication, an expanded version has come out. Additionally, there's a new book of essays about Richard Dawkins and his impact on science and society by various writers called Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think which looks very interesting. Here is a review which curiously starts with a fabricated story of the reviewer's introduction to The Selfish Gene, but picks up from there:

But one part of my pretentious fantasy is not exaggerated: the impact of the first sentences of The Selfish Gene. For those sentences embody Dawkins’s entire appeal: the deep thought, the stylish expression, and the sheer self-assurance that lets you know from the outset that you are in the hands of a master.

For this is no ordinary science book. Yes, it is about evolutionary biology, but its message, that “we are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”, still resonates deeply after thirty years. It is a brilliant exposition of how natural selection works, laying out in clear and compelling detail, for both scientists and lay readers, the process that produced all of life’s diversity. Using the metaphor of genes as selfish entities, whose “motivation” is simply to copy themselves at the expense of other genes, Dawkins describes a tale of competition – of nature red in tooth and claw – but in which genes are the combatants, fighting their battles by co-opting the bodies of their carriers. It is nothing less than the story of what made us who we are.

About Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think, he writes:

The collection includes twenty-four contributions from a variety of writers and scholars, including the novelist Philip Pullman, Richard Harries (Bishop of Oxford), the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the linguist Steven Pinker and the biologist John Krebs. Their essays cover not just exegesis of The Selfish Gene, but also Dawkins’s general contributions to biology and its philosophy. The section on Dawkins and religion, though tangential to The Selfish Gene, is well worth reading given his vehement hostility to theistic belief.

While such festschrifts are usually deadly dull, designed to flatter rather than enlighten, this is a delightful exception, containing a number of thought-provoking essays that go far beyond mere appreciation of Dawkins’s book. They are in fact essential in understanding the book’s influence. The simultaneous publication of both volumes allows us to re-examine the impact of The Selfish Gene. How well has it aged? Is it still important? And did Dawkins really change the way we think?


Straddling the boundary between popular science bestseller and scientific treatise, The Selfish Gene has infused all modern discourse on evolution and natural selection, by layman and scientist alike. This fact, combined with its incomparable prose style, makes the book a masterpiece. It is one of the two books on evolution I would recommend to anyone aspiring to be broadly educated (the other, of course, is Darwin’s Origin of Species).

The reviewer goes on to discuss Dawkin's idea of memetics, which despite it's popularity hasn't turned out to be exactly... true, and also to discuss some of the troubling implications of Dawkin's ideas about evolution and genetics:

And whatever the darker implications of his work, they are more than offset by the luminosity of his prose, and by his infectious awe before a natural process that created the stunning diversity of life. Philip Pullman sums it up in his wonderful essay on Dawkins’s writing:

He is a coiner of memorable phrases; he is a ferocious and implacable opponent of those who water the dark roots of superstition. But mainly he celebrates. He is a storyteller whose tale is true, and it’s a tale of the inexhaustible wonder of the physical world, and of ourselves and of our origins.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Religious People Less Intelligent?

Half Sigma did some analysis on the General Social Survey data:

One of the clearest trends I observed is the inverse correlation between religiosity and verbal IQ (the GSS includes a verbal IQ test). In other words, people who are more religious tend to be less intelligent. [Emphasis his.]

He then goes on to compare people's belief in God, the nature of the Bible, and feelings on some church-state questions with their scores on the verbal IQ test. Although only 13.4% of all people with high verbal IQ scores (which he defines as having a WORDSUM(9-10)) were atheists or agnostics, twice as many people who are atheists, agnostics, or don't believe in a personal God fall into the high verbal IQ category than those who believe in God "some of the time," believe despite doubts, or believe without doubts.

Of the people who believed the "Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men," there were almost twice as many with high Verbal IQs as there were in the group which believed the "Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word" and almost six times as many as in the group that believed the "Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word."

In the comments, I wondered if this could simply reflect higher education levels (more education means less religiosity, on average) or racial differences (Blacks are more religious and have significantly lower average IQ scores, probably due to socioeconomic circumstances), but Half Sigma points out that the results hold even when correcting for these factors. (Ashkenazi Jews have significantly higher IQs, on average, but I suspect that we are correspondingly more likely to be atheists than most other ethnic groups. There seem to be a lot of Jewish atheists out there. Also, we make up a tiny percentage of the American populace.)

Theists will no doubt argue that people at the high end of the verbal IQ curve are simply too smart for their own good, or else are correspondingly lacking in other areas. One emailer told me he believes that atheists have something akin to a learning disability -- a spiritual disability. Others will take comfort in the fact that even among the high verbal IQ crowd, a majority believe in some sort of God. There's also the possibility that being a non-believer raises your IQ rather than the other way around, but that seems unlikely.

Still, I think the fact that atheism, agnosticism, and not-believing-in-a-personal-god-ism (Einsteinism?) are correlated with both higher verbal IQs AND more education is suggestive that maybe we non-believers are onto something. :-)

Megillat Esther: The Graphic Novel!

This is awesome.

The site's a little confusing and it's not clear how to get the complete version (one screen says "Coming in 2005!") but very cool nonetheless.

(Via BibliOdyssey.)

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Co-signer of Ten Commandments Bill Can't Name Commandments

This is hysterical.

Republican Congressman Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia was able to name three ("Don't murder," "Don't lie," "Don't steal") before giving up. This guy co-sponsored a bill which reads in part as follows:

Resolved, That if the Supreme Court of the United States holds in either the case of Van Orden v. Perry, 03-1500 (TX) or the case of McCreary County v. ACLU, 03-1693 (KY) that the display of the Ten Commandments in public places by State and local governments constitutes a violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, thereby ruling against religious freedom and diminishing the importance of the Ten Commandments to the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall provide for the display of the Ten Commandments in the chamber of the House of Representatives.

Obvious: maybe he wants them posted because he can't remember them!

Can you believe this person is a congressman? I can see blanking on one or two of them if put on the spot, but giving up after three? Hysterical.

(via Boing Boing, among others.)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

What Goes On in "Social Conservatives'" Heads

I've been having an interesting conversation with Half Sigma over the course of a few of his posts about assuming the worst about people. He assumes that liberals act out of guilt rather than caring, for example, while I argue the reverse is more often the case.

I'm often tempted to assume that the people against civil unions and gay marriage are acting out of prejudice, and I'm sure it's true for a lot of them, but not all. With the immigration issue, I'd like to believe that most who oppose any sort of amnesty are acting out of a strongly-held belief in law and order or a legitimate fear that our economy can't absorb so many immigrants.

My instincts are to give people the benefit of the doubt. As I've mentioned before, for example, I've always assumed that Bush is neither racist nor particularly homophobic. It's hard to imagine in these modern times that people -- particularly educated ones -- could still hold such hateful views.

But we must remember that it's not as implausible as you might think.

Here's Nixon on gays:

I don't mind the homosexuality, I understand it . . . Nevertheless, goddamn, I don't think you glorify it on public television, homosexuality, even more than you glorify whores. We all know we have weaknesses. But, goddamn it, what do you think that does to kids? You know what happened to the Greeks! Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo. We all know that so was Socrates.


You know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags. Neither in a public way. You know what happened to the popes? They (had sex with) the nuns, that's been goin' on for years, centuries. But the Catholic Church went to hell, three or four centuries ago. It was homosexual, and it had to be cleaned out. That's what's happened to Britain, it happened earlier to France.

Let's look at the strong societies. The Russians. Goddamn, they root 'em out. They don't let 'em around at all. I don't know what they do with them. Look at this country. You think the Russians allow dope? Homosexuality, dope, immorality are the enemies of strong societies. That's why the communists and left-wingers are clinging to one another. They're trying to destroy us. I know Moynihan will disagree with this, (Atty. Gen. John) Mitchell will, and Garment will. But, goddamn, we have to stand up to this.

But it's not just the ratty part of town. The upper class in San Francisco is that way. The Bohemian Grove (an elite, secrecy-filled gathering outside San Francisco), which I attend from time to time. It is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine, with that San Francisco crowd. I can't shake hands with anybody from San Francisco.

This is Richard Nixon, as president, not that long ago, in 1971, talking about "Negroes" and Mexicans:

And let's not forget his anti-semitic rantings:

NIXON: "What about the rich Jews? The IRS is full of Jews, Bob."

HALDEMAN: "What we ought to do is get a zealot who dislikes those people."

NIXON:"Go after them like a son of a bitch."

Washington "is full of Jews," the president asserted. "Most Jews are disloyal." He made exceptions for some of his top aides, such as national security adviser Henry Kissinger, his White House counsel, Leonard Garment, and one of his speechwriters, William Safire, and then added:

"But, Bob, generally speaking, you can't trust the bastards. They turn on you. Am I wrong or right?"

Haldeman agreed wholeheartedly. "Their whole orientation is against you. In this administration, anyway. And they are smart. They have the ability to do what they want to do--which is to hurt us."

What goes on in today's closed-door meetings? What do current "conservatives" say when nobody's listening? It's impossible to know what goes on in people's minds (unless they're dumb enough to speak their darkest thoughts on tape.) But I think that any African-Americans, Jews, Latinos, homosexuals, or White Christians who aren't racist or homophobic, do a dangerous thing in trusting that social conservatives' motives are pure. Today's Federal Marriage Amendment is yesterday's Anti-Miscegenation Amendment. Today's homophobia is yesterday's racism. And much of the anti-immigrant movement is today's racism.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Deeply Disturbing: A New Generation of Praying Children

Wow. At first I thought this was an over-the-top parody. But it seems genuine. It was originally created and posted by a woman going by the name of Hidden in Him. I don't know who the preaching child is, but I'm scared for her. And of her.

Says the creator of the video:
I got the mp3 of the children praying on Fire on the Altar.....I used the mp3 to make the video....These children possess a complete abandonment to Holy Spirit....A passion and a fire to run into the arms of Jesus without dely....They are zealous for more of him....This is what true worship is all about....This is worshipping in spirit and in truth...This is what loving your enemies, neighbors, brothers and sisters, the lost, dying is all about.....Who will stand in the gap? Who will cry out for the lost? If we won't, he will find someone who will....even if it is a two year old, a four year old, an eight year old, or a twelve year old.....Isaiah the prophet told us...."And a little child will lead them all." Let's take their lead and follow them on this journey of pouring ourselves out in intercession before the Lord of Glory!

Religion can be a scary, scary thing.

(via Religious Freaks, via Bacon Eating Atheist Jew.)

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Danger of Religious Thinking: American "Treatment" of Addiction

William Miller and Reid Hester, editors of the most comprehensive and most methodologically sound evaluation of treatment methods ever published, state that, "We were pleased to see that a number of treatment methods were consistently supported by controlled scientific research." But they continue, "On the other hand, we were dismayed to realize that virtually none of these treatment methods was in common use within alcohol treatment programs in the United States." (Source.)

I've previously written positive things about some aspects of twelve-step programs. However, despite some things they do right, twelve-step programs in America may serve as the prime example of the danger involved with religion and religious thinking.

What separates religious thinking from scientific thinking?

1) The reliance on faith.
2) The trusting of authority.
3) The reliance on anecdotal data.

For example, Christianity places great emphasis on faith, while Catholicism maintains that the Pope is infallible, and Orthodox Judaism maintains that the great sages of previous generations were closer to the truth than we can be today. Anecdotal data is used quite often in support of religion, describing personal visions, near-death experiences, unlikely coincidences, faith healings, and alleged conversations with God Himself.

Scientific thinking recognizes none of these methods of argument. With regard to faith, science doesn't ask us to believe anything because it "feels" a certain way. (The closest thing is the assumption that empiricism is rational, but even that is somewhat self-evident.) Regarding authority, no-one is infallible, nor is anyone trusted on their word alone. Although Einstein was a luminary, he was wrong about quantum mechanics, and science moved on without him. Although Newton was a scientific giant, he also believed in all sorts of bizarre alchemy, which science has since rejected. Finally, science completely rejects anecdotal data, which is why most scientific thinkers still disbelieve in UFO abductions, telekinesis, and faith healings.

Instead of faith, authority, and anecdote, science relies on testable, repeatable experimentation. It is this experimentation which has led us to discover many of the secrets of gravity, relativity, intertia, medicine, and astronomy. Science's record of success is unparalleled by any other system of thought or investigation.

As Carl Sagan asked,

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy... Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?

So how does this all tie in with Twelve-Step Programs (TSPs?)

Well, I argue that the phenomenal popularity of TSPs despite evidence that they are ineffective is due to the prevalence of religious, rather than scientific, thinking.

First, the evidence against TSPs' efficacy. Here are a few sources:

The National Longitudinal Alcoholism Epidemiological Survey was de­signed and sponsored by the NIAAA and was conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. It was notable both for its size (4,585 subjects) and its study period (20 years). Its subjects were divided into a treated group and an untreated group. All of the study’s subjects “had to have satisfied the criteria for prior-to-past year DSM-IV alcohol dependence by meeting at least 3 of the 7 DSM-IV criteria for dependence: tolerance; withdrawal (including relief or avoidance of withdrawal); persistent desire or unsuccessful attempts to cut down on or stop drinking; much time spent drinking, obtaining alcohol or recovering from its effects; reduction or cessation of important activities in favor of drinking; impaired control over drinking; and continued use despite physical or psychological problems caused by drinking.”xxxiv

The study’s findings were surprising: At 20 years after onset of symptoms, 80% of those who had undergone treatment were either abstinent or “drink­ing without abuse or dependence.” But those who had never undergone treatment were doing even better: 90% of them were either abstinent or drinking nonproblematically. That is, 10% of those who had never been treated were still drinking abusively 20 years after the onset of symptoms, as were 20% of those who had been treated. In other words, twice as many of those who had undergone treatment were drinking abusively as those who had never been treated. (Source.)

There have been at least three randomized clinical trials that studied the effectiveness of AA. Specifically: Ditman et al. 1967; Brandsma et al. 1980; Walsh et al. 1991.

* Dr. Ditman found that participation in A.A. increased the alcoholics' rate of rearrest for public drunkenness.[1]
* Dr. Brandsma found that A.A. increased the rate of binge drinking. After several months of indoctrination with A.A. 12-Step dogma, the alcoholics in A.A. were doing five times as much binge drinking as a control group that got no treatment at all, and nine times as much binge drinking as another group that got Rational Behavior Therapy. Brandsma alleges that teaching people that they are alcoholics who are powerless over alcohol yields very bad results and that it becomes a self-fulfilling prediction -- they relapse and binge drink as if they really were powerless over alcohol.[2]
* And Dr. Walsh found that the so-called "free" A.A. program was actually very expensive -- it messed up patients so that they required longer periods of costly hospitalization later on.[3]

While AA acknowledged in the foreword to the second edition of the Big Book that "we surely have no monopoly", one of the stories following the main text of the book still claims that AA is "the only remedy" to alcohol abuse (BB, pg. 259. Emphasis added.), despite some current research which shows that high percentages of alcohol abusers recover without medical treatment (Treatment of Drug Abuse and Addiction -- Part III, The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Volume 12, Number 4, October 1995, page 3.). Another study suggests that AA may be "no better than the natural history of the disease" in keeping people alive and sober (The Natural History of Alcoholism: Causes, Patterns, and Paths to Recovery, George E. Vaillant, pgs. 283-286.)(Source.)

So why is AA so popular? Because most Americans put their trust in faith ("Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity," "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him") authority (the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is treated as a Bible,) and anecdotal data ("but these people are sober and they've done it through AA!")

I wonder how many lives we could save, of alcoholics, of victims of drunk drivers, of victims of the War on Drugs, if we were more scientific than religious.

Some theists fear an atheistic world without meaning. I fear a theistic one without knowledge.

Friday, June 09, 2006

More Moral Bankruptcy from the Religious Right

DEATHS from cervical cancer could jump fourfold to a million a year by 2050, mainly in developing countries. This could be prevented by soon-to-be-approved vaccines against the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer - but there are signs that opposition to the vaccines might lead to many preventable deaths.

The trouble is that the human papilloma virus (HPV) is sexually transmitted. So to prevent infection, girls will have to be vaccinated before they become sexually active, which could be a problem in many countries.

In the US, for instance, religious groups are gearing up to oppose vaccination, despite a survey showing 80 per cent of parents favour vaccinating their daughters. "Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

"Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus. (New Scientist, via Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

When I read something like "girls will have to be vaccinated before they become sexually active, which could be a problem in many countries," I think of countries like Saudi Arabia or the Sudan, not the freaking U.S. What a disgrace.

The Estate Tax, Part II

Although the repeal was defeated yesterday, I posted a follow-up about who would have benefited from proposed repeal of the estate tax. (Short version: the richest 2% of Americans. You know, the people Republicans care about.)

Check it out.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Reward for the Hereditary Elite . . .

My new post at JAJC, about the insanity of abolishing the estate tax.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Who's Behind the FMA?

Evangelical leaders insist they know how gay marriage affects their voters—they'll stay home if politicians don't push for the FMA. "It's the one issue I have seen that eclipses even the abortion issue among Southern Baptists," says Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Last month James Dobson, the influential founder of Focus on the Family, met privately with key Republicans, including Frist, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader John Boehner, to warn them about the political consequences of failing to promote issues like marriage. "If you forget us, we'll forget you," he said, according to a GOP House leadership aide who was briefed on the gatherings, but declined to be identified discussing private meetings.

Though Bush himself has publicly embraced the amendment, he never seemed to care enough to press the matter. One of his old friends told NEWSWEEK that same-sex marriage barely registers on the president's moral radar. "I think it was purely political. I don't think he gives a s--t about it. He never talks about this stuff," said the friend, who requested anonymity to discuss his private conversations with Bush. White House aides, who also declined to be identified, insist that the president does care about banning gay marriage. They say Monday's events with amendment supporters—Bush will also meet privately with a small group—have been in the works "for weeks" and aren't just a sop to conservatives. MSNBC, via Andrew Sullivan.

I've never believed that Bush is racist (as claimed Kanye West) or even truly homophobic. Bush's "old friend" seems to confirm that suspicion. I don't know if that makes it better or worse that he's willing to publically push an anti-gay Amendment to appease his base. Better, since at least he's not necessarily a true homophobe, but worse, because he's doing something even he doesn't believe is right. Has the man no scruples?

And what the hell is wrong with the Southern Baptists? They believe that millions of babies are being murdered every single year, but keeping gay couples from marrying "eclipses even the abortion issue?" Explain to me how that's not pure homophobia.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Federal Marriage Amendment

President Bush will promote a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on Monday, the eve of a scheduled Senate vote on the cause that is dear to his conservative backers. (CNN)

Nobody seriously believes it will pass. They can't even get 50 votes in the Senate and they need 67. So what's the point?

They're simply pandering to the Christian Right. They're willing to stand up and argue that we should enshrine discrimination into the Constitution just to shore up the base. You Republicans who oppose the Amendment (and most of you should) should be outraged and ashamed that your representatives are doing this in your name.

This is not some small issue that you can look the other way on, like the insipid Flag Burning Amendment or campaigning against violent video games. Those are pandering to essentially well-meaning people with perhaps misplaced priorities.

The Federal Marriage Amendment is not. It's pandering to the worst among us. Those who will turn out on voting day just to vote -- symbolically, mind you -- against the gays. Abortion, taxes, the war, terrorism, immigration -- none of these issues are enough to get these voters to the polls. (Remember, the purpose of the FMA is to bring out voters who otherwise would stay home.) Only the specter of big, bad, scary Gay Marriage will get them out.

When your grandchildren are your age, the failed Federal Marriage Amendment will be looked at the way we look at the proposed Anti-Miscegenation Amendment of 1912:

Intermarriage between negros or persons of color and Caucasians ... within the United States ... is forever prohibited.

What will you tell them when they ask you how you could have voted Republican? What will you say when gay marriage is as commonplace and accepted as Black-White intermarriage is today? Will you pretend that you always supported it or will you be like the older racists still alive today and continue to oppose it? Will your children and grandchildren wince when the subject comes up in your presence?