Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Critical thinking instruction reduces belief in pseudoscience

By Mathew Goldstein

A recent study by North Carolina State University researchers, Explicitly Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in a History Coursepublished in Science & Education, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s11191-017-9878-2found that teaching critical thinking skills in a humanities course significantly reduces student beliefs in "pseudoscience" that is unsupported by facts.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Oppose Maryland tax exemption for Boy Scouts

By Mathew Goldstein 

The Maryland Senate is probably going to vote soon on HB 796, Sales and Use Tax - Exemptions - Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.  The House voted unanimously for this bill.  The corresponding Senate bill, SB 748, has not been reported by the Senate committee.  Therefore, you can send two emails, one to the committee, and another to your Senator, opposing this bill.  The email addresses of the committee members are on http://secularmaryland.org/lobbying-actions.  Below is a copy of the email that I sent to the Senate Committee which you can copy.

Budget and Taxation Committee
3 West Miller Senate Office Building
Annapolis, MD 21401

Chairwoman and Members of the Committee:

Generally, tax exempt non-profits must comply with the same laws which apply to for-profit businesses.  Churches and religious non-profits are a special case because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the government making a law "respecting an establishment of religion" and also forbids "prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  However, government cannot single out particular religious non-profits for a special tax exemption.

The policies of Boy Scouts restrict membership to applicants who "subscribe to the precepts of the Declaration of Religious Principles (duty to God), and abide by the Scout Oath and Scout Law." Boy Scouts of America, Membership Standards Implementation Frequently Asked Questions, 4, available at http://www.baltimorebsa.org/document/implementation-faq-for-unit-leaders-8-15-2013/129466.  The Declaration of Religious Principles states, in part, that "Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God and, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member," and that "[o]nly persons willing to subscribe to this Declaration of Religious Principle ... shall be entitled to certificates of membership." Boy Scouts of America, Manual for Chaplain Aides and Chaplains, 
http://www.scouting.org/scoutsource/Media/Relationships/ManualforChaplainsandAides.aspx. The Scout Oath reads, in relevant part, "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country", Membership Standards Implementation supra, 4.

Because the Boy Scouts of America Scouting program is closed to non-theists it should not be singled out for special tax exemptions.  Girl Scouts would be granted the same tax exemption but all other competing youth organizations, including Camp Fire, Navigator USA, and Baden Powell Service Association, will still be required to pay sales and use taxes.  Unlike the Boy Scouts of America Scouting program, these other youth programs do not mandate theism.

The uncollected sales and use tax problem has at least two appropriate remedies.  One is to enforce the state tax law and collect the sales and use taxes.  The other is to grant a sales and use tax exemption for all non-profit youth organizations equally.  Privileging BSA with a tax exemption is unfair and improper.  While pairing the tax exemption for Boy Scouts with the same exemption for Girl Scouts provides for gender balance, it fails to provide such balance for excluded non-theist boys and their families and for competing youth organizations.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Stephen Colbert and Ricky Garvis debate about atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

Does a recent article in the conservative online news and commentary website PJ Media titled What atheist Ricky Garvis got wrong debating God with Stephen Colbert succeed in demonstrating that Ricky Garvis is mistaken?  Few people will be surprised that an atheist such as myself concludes the aforementioned commentary for theism fails to defeat atheism.  Yet few people will understand how it fails.

The commentary for theism begins by characterizing teleology as "one of atheism's blind spots".  As shown in the video of the Colbert versus Garvis debate,  Colbert's first challenge for Garvis is the question "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Gervais dismisses the question, retorting that the better question is "How is there something?" Is Garvis wrong to scoff at the relevancy of the notion of "why"? 

The theistic notion adopted by this commentary - that there is a why question with an answer that is distinct from the how question answer - assumes more than is necessary and therefore assumes too much.  An explanation that answers the how question can suffice.  This is because the how answer satisfies the why question this way: Given that this is how that happened, that did happen.  Why did it happen?  Because of its happening being possible as demonstrated by the how it happened explanation.   In other words, in this context, an origin that can happen did happen because it could and that is the whole story.  There is literally no need to provide a separate answer addressing why it happened to have the complete explanation.

But even if a how answer does not suffice to provide a complete explanation, we then have no viable option of inventing a why answer and declaring that additional explanation to also be true to fill the gap.  This is because we know from human history that we lack the capability to correctly guess the true answer to such questions. Any true answer will be so counter-intuitive to humans that we have zero chance of guessing the correct answer merely by applying reason and logic that is not fully anchored and directed by empirical evidence. Without the empirical evidence we are ignorant.  Full stop.  Garvis emphasized our condition of being ignorant.  The author of this commentary fails to address, let alone counter, that argument.

There is another dubious assumption in Colbert's question, one that Garvis did not dispute.  The commentary puts it this way "The incontrovertible truth is that something exists and something cannot come from nothing."  This notion that absolute nothingness must be the initial starting point also assumes too much.  This is a common assumption behind theism and as such it is a weakness of theism.  We have no good reason to think absolute nothingness is anything other than a fiction originating from human intuition.  While we do not know what preceded the Big Bang, the empirical evidence that we do have favors the conclusion that absolute nothingness is not possible because nothingness appears to be an intrinsically unstable condition.  Absolutes are sometimes counter-evidenced by modern physics.  There is no absolute cold, absolute hot, absolute soft, absolute hard, absolute light, absolute dark, etc.  This may be true even when there are absolute boundaries that cannot be crossed.  For example, there is a boundary line for absolute coldness but it may not be reachable.  An object cannot travel faster than 186,282 miles per second which is far slower than one million miles per second which is a lot slower than absolute fastness (whatever that means).

The commentary then cites "the Five Ways of Aquinas" as being the basis for Colbert's next challenge to Garvis that there is a need for a prime mover.  Citing a 13th century thinker is a very weak approach to debating how the universe operates.  This is because our knowledge of how the universe operates is substantially better now than it was in the 13th century.  Aquinas did not know that objects in motion continue to move unless they are slowed down or stopped by friction or collisions because this explanation was discovered after he died.  In quantum mechanics there is no prime mover, there are events which spontaneously occur stochastically with a consistent probability frequency.   Aquinas could not imagine quantum mechanics because even after it was discovered centuries later it remains counter-intuitive.  There are forces that repel and attract which cause objects to move.  Aquinas could not imagine these forces because they are counter-intuitive and were discovered after he died.  

While it is true that naturalism imposes substantial constraints on what is possible, the constraints it imposes are not as debilitating as many theists assume.  Theists tend to rely too much on human intuition to anchor their arguments.  When we discipline ourselves with the additional constraint of depending on the available empirical evidence to direct and dictate our conclusions we discover how capable and productive naturalism is and how incapable and unproductive human intuition without the naturalism constraint is.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Constitution Center and presidential inaugural SHMG

By Mathew Goldstein 

On January 10 the Constitution Center published their 10 fascinating facts presidential inauguration.  The Constitution Center is a secular, non-partisan, federal government sponsored, organization that relies on an advisory panel of expert historians and scholars.  Therefore we have reason to take them seriously as a reliable source of information about American history.  They originally said this: 
We don’t really know who added “Under God” to the oath. Author Washington Irving claimed George Washington started the tradition of adding “So help me God” at the oath’s end. There is no direct evidence of that. Others believe Chester Alan Arthur used the words when he took the oath in private after James Garfield died.

President Arthur took his presidential oath of office twice, the first time in his apartment in New York.  A short but detailed account of that first, unplanned, oath recitation that names six participants was published the next day in the Omaha Daily Bee. That report quotes the oath and clearly states that there was no SHMG, see http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn99021999/1881-09-21/ed-1/seq-3.

After traveling to Washington D.C., Arthur was inaugurated again two days later by Chief Justice of the United States Morrison R. Waite in a larger ceremony held in the Vice President's office with invited guests. It was widely reported in newspapers, starting early the next day, that he added the phrase "so help me god" to his oath of office during that second oath of office recitation.  The published description of what happened included the who, when, where, and what details that require an eyewitness to reveal.  Participants in the second ceremony as described in the newspaper article, several dozen of whom were identified by name, included two associate justices of the Supreme Court, two former presidents, cabinet members, some Senators, and some Representatives.

I do not know who wrote the article or if subsequent accounts claiming Chester Arthur said SHMG rely on this initial report or independently confirm it. Nevertheless, the publish article is credible enough to be accepted absent any eyewitness subsequently contradicting it.  Sometimes the evidence favors a conclusion that so and so said such and such and it is misleading to suggest otherwise, even though technically it is true that we lack certainty.  

In contrast, Washington Irving's biography of George Washington fails to qualify as an eyewitness account of the inauguration.  Irving did not identify an eyewitness, he himself was too far away in the crowd from the president elect to be the eyewitness, he was six years old at the time and he published his biography over 6 decades after the fact, and his account of the inauguration was copied from an earlier account written by someone else who was an eyewitness without acknowledgement or permission [Memoir of Eliza S. M. Quincy, no SHMG in that eyewitness account].  Also, that SHMG story is counter-evidenced by a contemporaneous eyewitness account of the oath recitation written by someone who stood near the president elect on the balcony [letter of the French consul, Comte de Moustier, April 30, 1789].  If George Washington appended SHMG then not only did no one notice, but for the next ninety two years, starting with George Washington's second inauguration, no one else did that again, even though the other presidents repeated the first inauguration's public ceremony with hand on the bible followed by kissing the bible that was required by New York state law for the first inauguration held in NY.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Complain to your lawmakers about bad proposals

The misdirected tendency of Congress and the Trump administration to prioritize parochial ideology over universal evidence may be stronger than any government we have had in the past century.  We may not be able to stop them, but we can say we asked our own representatives to oppose that agenda. After reading their contents I think you will agree that the following seven emails to your Congressional lawmakers sponsored by the Secular Coalition for America are thoughtful and appropriate.

Friday, January 20, 2017

CNN's Katie Glaeser promotes misinformation

By Mathew Goldstein

CNN published an article on January 18 by their employee Katie Glaeser, an Off Programming Producer, fun facts about past inaugurals that features a drawing of George Washington's face with a speech bubble connected to his open mouth containing the words "so help me God".  The article says that "Yes, this stuff really happened." The fifth fact is titled "The 'So help me God' line was ad-libbed." It says:

During his first inauguration in 1789 in New York, it is said that George Washington added the phrase, "So help me God," and so the precedent was set that presidents follow to this day. There isn't any hard evidence of this, but even the National Archives credits him with doing it.

I contacted Katie Glaeser to inform her that the National Archive Records Administration (NARA) does not credit George Washington with "doing it".  It would be irresponsible for NARA to credit anyone with doing anything without evidence.  I would have thought that a professional journalist at CNN would respect the need for evidence and notice this inconsistency.  Journalism is not worth the paper it inks, or the screen it populates with words, without evidence to back its "this stuff really happened" presumption.  I believe that my initial two emails about this reached her but my third attempt bounced.  

The National Archives abandoned their claim that George Washington added the words "so help me God" some years ago (seven years ago?) after they determined it could not be supported.  I know this because I witnessed the conversation with NARA about it and witnessed when NARA finally revised their web site to remove it (they were one of the last federal government websites to stop misrepresenting this ahistorical claim as historical).

Katie Glaeser and CNN should publicly acknowledge that NARA does not claim that GW said SHMG.  If they are unsure they can contact NARA and ask them.  It is easy to ask NARA, they have an online form for questions and usually respond promptly.  This was NARA's response on 01-20, two days after CNN published their article claiming NARA asserts that George Washington said 'so help me god': "We do not address whether Washington added the line because there isn't an official account of the ceremony and scholarly sources about whether he said "so help me god" are inconsistent."

Indeed, scholarly sources are inconsistent.  This is because too many historians in the past mistakenly accepted the story that George Washington did it without going through the trouble of verifying the claim from primary sources.  This mistake has since been corrected and historians today are no longer repeating this false story.  But it appears that Katie Gleaser prefers the false history so much that she relied on an old, isolated, inactive backup file with ".bak." in the file name on the NARA web server that asserted GW said SHMG while ignoring the corresponding active, current web page.  NARA has now replaced their backup file so that it no longer claims George Washington said "so help me God" to protect our planet from unreliable journalists like CNN's Katie Glaeser.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Jeff Session's absolutism

By Mathew Goldstein

Senator Jeff Session, speaking to a Faith and Freedom Coalition event last year about the importance of the Supreme Court, claimed that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had what he called “a postmodern, relativistic, secular mindset” that is “directly contrary to the founding of our republic.”  He complained that Sotomayor had endorsed legal scholar Martha Minow’s observation that in the law “there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives — no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging”.  He has also identified Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan as another judge with this mindset.

Mr. Sessions then said this: “So I really think this whole court system is really important and the real value and battle that we’re engaged in here is one to reaffirm that there is objective truth, it’s not all relative. And that means some things are right and some things are wrong, and we’re getting too far away from that in my opinion and it’s not healthy for any country and it’s really not healthy for a democracy like ours that’s built on the rule of law.”  If he were talking about his boss, president elect Donald Trump, instead of the whole court system then there would be lots of false statements he could quote that support his complaint.

Mr. Sessions unambiguously links a "there is no right and wrong" attitude to secularism, saying at his recent Senate hearings for Attorney General that he "is not sure" if secular attorneys are as capable of discerning the truth as religious attorneys.  Sonia Sotomayor self-identifies as a Catholic but it appears that she, like the majority of Americans, does not go to church every Sunday.  For Mr. Sessions, a failure to visibly worship every weekend appears to suffice to characterize that person as secular.  Ms. Sotomayor, you are welcome to join WASH, we will not reject your membership if you continue to call yourself Catholic.

Mr. Session's battle in the court system between those who think "that there is objective truth" versus those who think "it's all relative" is imaginary.  Mr. Session is engaging in the hyperbole that characterizes partisan stereotyping.  Nothing in Sonia Sotomayor's or Elena Kagan's professional history supports the notion that they believe there is no right and wrong.  Saying that there are multiple perspectives, that there is no neutrality, that choice is inherent to judging, that there is no single objective stance, is not a denial that the outcome will be qualitatively better or worse as a consequence of which decision is made.  It is more likely an acknowledgement that the future consequences of today's decisions can sometimes be difficult to predict reliably, that decisions can require trade-offs between similarly weighted positive and negative elements contained in the alternative outcomes, that different types of positive and negative elements within the outcomes can be difficult to evaluate against each other.  Because of the complexities there may not be a single best choice.  For many judges the real world decisions that they are expected to make may often have complexity.

I cannot speak for Martha Minow and Sonia Sotomayor.  I am inclined to think that there sometimes is a single, most objective stance, and sometimes there is no single, most objective stance.  The details of the context matters.  It is easy to talk in generalities and abstractions.  Reasonable people recognize that generalities are rarely all inclusive and complete characterizations of every possible context, but are instead statements of tendencies that are intended to identify what is deemed to be usually true but not necessarily always true.  

If I thought our judges have a postmodern, relativistic, mindset of the untenable sort that Jeff Session complains about then I would find that to be objectionable.  But Jeff Session fails to demonstrate that there is such a problem and I see no evidence for it.  When we look at Jeff Sessions record as a prosecutor we see a rigid, mechanical, check a couple of boxes and render the verdict, inflexibility that appears to pay little, if any, attention to the possibility that a perpetrator of a crime can also be a victim of circumstances.  The result appears to me to be overly simplistic and excessively harsh.  The extent to which justice requires accounting for extenuating circumstances when implementing a punishment is a controversial topic.  However uncomfortable this may make some people, there is some room for disagreement on the best answer to such questions and the best answer is unlikely to be found in the pages of the bible.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Biased wedding officiant laws

By Mathew Goldstein

Maryland law grants a clerk of court, a deputy clerk of court designated by the county administrative judge for the county circuit court, or a judge, the authority to perform state recognized weddings.  Like most other states, Maryland law also gives religious institutions the same authority as the aforementioned judicial staff to perform weddings.  Maryland law says that "any religious official of a body or order authorized by the rules and customs of that body or order to perform a marriage ceremony" has this civic authority.  

Non-religious couples who prefer to have a single wedding ceremony, but do not want that ceremony to be held at their local court building, have several options.  Secularist groups can nevertheless arrange to have themselves designated as a religious organization with the state of Maryland to obtain for their members the authority to perform a state recognized wedding.  There are also several organizations that grant divinity degrees for a fee.  The divinity degree confers on the degree holder the authority to perform an official wedding on behalf of the church issuing the degree and they probably also confer a good income for the people issuing the dubious degrees.

Some of the people who are inconvenienced by the biased wedding laws make an effort to change them.  Some years ago a bill was submitted in the Maryland General Assembly to give non-religious organizations the authority to designate people to perform weddings.  The bill was quickly defeated before it had a chance to get out of committee after a group of lawyers and judges that advises the legislature criticized the bill.  They complained that allowing non-religious groups to nominate people to officiate weddings on similar terms as religious groups would result in too many wedding officiants failing to follow through and submit the completed forms.

Nevertheless, slowly, states are loosening their marriage laws to allow people who are not government employees and not religiously affiliated to officiate weddings.  The elected lawmakers of the District of Columbia enacted a law in 2013 granting non-religious individuals "civic celebrant" authority to officiate weddings.  Apparently, the non-religious folks across the Maryland D.C. line can be trusted to promptly submit the completed forms after the wedding ceremony is completed.  

The Center for Inquiry, following failures to challenge the restriction on who can officiate weddings in the Illinois legislature, went to court.  On January 4, a U.S. District Judge ruled that “marriages solemnized by Center for Inquiry secular celebrants are valid” and ruled out any efforts to preclude secular celebrants from solemnizing marriages.  In 2014 the Center for Inquiry won a similar dispute in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit over the failure of Indiana law to grant non-religious individuals the same privilege to officiate weddings as religious individuals.  At a rate of one state every year or two there could be wedding officiant equality in all of the states before the start of the twenty second century.  

Maryland should be one of the early states.  We should not have to wait for a judge's order, or fifty more years, for the General Assembly to change this law.