Sunday, September 10, 2023

Postmodern epistemological relativism found to be destructive

By Mathew Goldstein

A recently published pair of studies, one from Sweden (Study 1, N = 1005) and the other from the UK (Study 2, N = 417), focused on truth relativism [Julia Aspernäs, Arvid Erlandsson, Artur Nilsson, “Misperceptions in a post-truth world: Effects of subjectivism and cultural relativism on bullshit receptivity and conspiracist ideation”, Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 105, 2023, 104394,

ISSN 0092-6566,

(]. The study did not investigate causality (as is often the case with such studies since evaluating causality is more difficult than evaluating correlations). The researchers identified two types of truth relativism. One that consists of people who believe that truth depends on which culture or group you belong to, known as cultural relativism. The other consists of people who say they primarily rely on their own gut feeling to determine what is true and false. They are convinced that what they personally feel to be true is true, that is to say, that truth is subjective, henceforward referred to as subjectivism.

This study found that subjectivism was correlated with endorsing conspiracy theories, with holding on to beliefs even when faced with facts that contradict them, with claiming to find profound messages in nonsense sentences, and paradoxically, with rejecting the right of others’ to have their own beliefs. The study concluded that subjectivism remained an independent factor for these correlations after controlling for multiple plausible alternative factors, including analytical thinking ability, political orientation, age, gender, and educational level. These same correlations were not found among those who believe that truth is culture-bound. Cultural relativism was, however, positively correlated with “bullshit receptivity”.

"I think many people who emphasise a more relativistic view of what truth is mean well. They believe that it's important that everyone should be able to make their voice heard. But these results show that such a view can actually be quite dangerous," says PhD student Julia Aspernäs at the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning in Linköping.

I have seen a video of a local church service where they sing in celebration of “faith facts”, undeterred by the self-contradiction. Our experiences can qualify as evidence provided they are experienced objectively from outside of oneself. Although the theologian advocates and non-theologian practitioners of Reformed epistemology characterize it as experiencing god, it is actually subjectivism in practice because what they characterize as “experiencing god” is more accurately described as some combination of feeling, imagining, overgeneralizing, over-interpreting, and the like, rendering it a subjective experience that resides primarily inside the head of the person with that experience.

Monday, August 21, 2023

The World Health Organization promotes quackery yet again

 Mathew Goldstein

David Gorski, a veteran commenter on the Science Based Medicine web site, has published criticism of one of the bigger purveyors of homeopathy and other crank products and treatments for illness, the World Health Organization. Faculty from the University of Maryland, ‘an institution that has featured in this blog many times before since very early on for the uncritical promotion of “integrating” quackery into science-based medicine by its Integrative Medicine program’, participated in that travesty. I recommend his article The World Health Organization promotes quackery yet again

This long-standing problem appears to draw too little attention and criticism. Among the few others criticizing WHO for their brazen endorsement of bad healthcare practices is Jonathan Jarry, who has a Master’s degree in molecular biology, writing for McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, whose motto is “Separating Sense from Nonsense” in an article titled The  World Health Organization Has a Pseudoscience Problem, and a pair of right wing media publishers, the Spectator in the U.K. and Fox News in the U.S.

Medicine is licensed, insured, and regulated while the supplements business is weakly regulated. If you opt for trying to improve your health with natural substances then you may want to consider subscribing to Consumer Labs. They report on what evidence there is regarding various plant, vitamin, and mineral based approaches for addressing various health concerns and which supplement products actually deliver what they claim to provide (for example, they have an article “Do any supplements help prevent or improve cataracts?”). 

There is biology based evidence that high doses of some anti-oxidants via supplements increase the risk for some cancers by stimulating the growth of new blood vessels that feed the cancer cellsStudies show that high levels of vitamin A, C, and E as supplements increases cases of gastrointestinal cancers (stomach, colon, and/or esophageal) in some people, and beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor) supplementation is similarly positively correlated with lung cancer. Other cancers rely on the same underlying mechanism to form blood vessels, including kidney, skin, and breast cancers.

Saturday, June 03, 2023

Physics has ruled out free will

 By Mathew Goldstein

There are very smart people who claim we have free will (or who claim there is a need to claim that we have free will). They cite unpredictability of outcomes, emergent properties from large quantities, human psychological dependency on ideological pre-commitments, and the always available option of changing the definition of the concept so that it becomes impervious to criticism. In this ten minutes video, Has Physics Ruled Out Free WillSabine Hossenfelder does a good job of explaining why the conclusion that there is no free will has the most integrity. A modern understanding of how the universe operates rules out life after death, talking serpents and donkeys, an Eve created from the rib of an Adam, a flying winged horse, etc., and free will (contra-causal, libertarian free will because these traits are generally considered central to the free will concept). 

Having said that, I need to back peddle some and concede that it is possible to get free-will within the constraints set by physics via strong emergence. However, most physicists reject strong emergence. Sabine Hossenfelder defines strong emergence as “the hypothetical possibility that a system with many constituents displays novel behavior which cannot be derived from the properties and interactions of the constituents.” She states that although this is logically possible, there is not a single known example for this in the real world. She also states that strong emergence is “incompatible with what we already know about the laws of nature” and that strong emergence is “in conflict with the standard model in particle physics.”

One of the biggest problems humanity has are the myriad problems we ourselves create by our tendency to selectively toss out facts about how the universe works when we consider those facts to be inconvenient. We desire to achieve particular outcomes, or avoid particular outcomes, and there are other people who can interfere with realizing that goal. Our desired goal may be idealistically motivated. For what may be good reasons, including this tendency for people to disregard, or deny, inconvenient facts, we distrust others to share our goal or we are cynical about the willingness or ability of others to adjust their attitudes and behaviors so as to realize the preferred goal. We place ourselves in the role of manipulator, saying and doing whatever we think is most likely to achieve our goals (“motivated reasoning”). Argument is not for the sake of respecting and recognizing what the relevant facts are. Argument is instead for the purpose of convincing others to believe what we want them to believe for the sake of achieving or avoiding some particular outcomes (“confirmation bias”). We are competing to have power, because either power is ours and we win, or it is someone else’s and we lose. We then see how dysfunctional this is and become more cynical and distrustful. This takes us in an authoritarian, ideology over facts, power over truth, downhill spiral. 

The way out of that spiral is for humanity to favor a facts first orientation that is rooted in a competent, empiricist epistemology. To favor a commitment to undertaking the effort needed to suss out, and reject, non-factual ideology. To favor objectivity more than doxastically closed faith, cynical manipulation, or partisan advantage. With this context it becomes more honorable to accept compromise in the face of sincere disagreement whenever the result moves us forward overall, without holding out for nothing less than unachievable victory now. That is a practical way towards an uphill spiral of more mutual understanding, trust, and progress. 

“A lot of people seem to think it is merely a philosophical stance that the behavior of a composite object (for example, you) is determined by the behavior of its constituents—that is, subatomic particles. They call it reductionism or materialism or, sometimes, physicalism, as if giving it a name that ends in-ism will somehow make it disappear. But reductionism—according to which the behavior of an object can be deduced from (“ reduced to,” as the philosophers would say) the properties, behavior, and interactions of the object’s constituents—is not a philosophy. It’s one of the best established facts of nature.”

— Existential Physics: A Scientist's Guide to Life's Biggest Questions by Sabine Hossenfelder

Sunday, April 30, 2023

AA report on Maryland laws commentary

 By Mathew Goldstein

American Atheist’s report on Maryland state laws covers the state government issues of concern across the nation. American Atheists did a good job overall. They grouped the laws into subcategories under four major categories, and I will attempt to retain that organization. The focus here is to identify some Maryland state law issues that are not mentioned in the American Atheists report. Maybe some of these additional issues will be added to their future reports. See Secular Maryland issue statements Register to join the Secular Maryland email list from

But first, some general comments. The laws of concern are categorized by AA as negative, anti-secular laws, we oppose and positive, pro-secular laws, we support. Some of those issues are correlated with our two party duopoly partisan divide. Because Maryland has a Democratic Party majority in both the House and Senate, negative law bills that correlate with a Republican agenda are either not submitted, or when submitted repeatedly fail to reach, let alone pass, a floor vote. Nevertheless, Maryland has negative laws that are supported, or at least not challenged, by lawmakers, and is lacking various positive laws. To some extent both parties exhibit a pro-religion bias (many lawmakers are religious clerics), and to some extent a secularist perspective is not on the Maryland General Assembly agenda because as a community we do not prioritize lobbying Maryland state government. 

Having said that, Secular Maryland was joined by all of the national secularist organizations, and the ACLU, in submitted testimony this year on behalf of the bills proposing amending the state constitution to remove the unenforceable, offensive, and archaic provisions excluding ontological naturalists (a.k.a. non-theists) from holding government office, being jurors, or testifying in court. The Attorney General’s Office submitted testimony favoring the bills. For the first time this bill was submitted twice, once in each chamber (HB0872 and SB0932 “Declaration of Rights - Religious Freedom, Religious Tests, and Oaths and Affirmations”). The first time Senate sponsor, Senator Muse, is a Pentecostal Bishop, the repeat Delegate sponsor is Delegate Hill. Neither copy of the bill was reported out, favorably or unfavorably, by the assigned committees.

Our agenda should not be limited to what is popular, what is high priority or most important, or what is most likely to be accepted and implemented. Nor are laws the only issues of concern. Sometimes the issue is government actions, or non-actions. The AA report does not cover government sponsored religious displays. Maryland continues to display the Bladensburg Peace Cross. That the Supreme Court endorsed government sponsorship of this religious display does not obligate Maryland to continue to sponsor it. Maryland government would be more inclusive, not less inclusive, without this, or any other, government sponsored crucifixion cross.  

Under the subcategory religious exemptions to enforcement, AA says we lack negative laws for each of four subcategories. The report does not mention that there are religion based exemptions from insurance regulations, health care sharing ministries, and contraceptive insurance coverage. There are also exemptions from cemetery laws. 

The AA report does not mention religious holiday observance as a subcategory. Here we have commercial activity restrictions (Blue laws), Sunday recreational activity restrictions, and government closure laws (Christmas and Friday before, and Monday after, Easter). Omitted from the report is the theistic pledge of allegiance mandate (for public schools, with no opt out for teachers and with self-contradictory language regarding student participation). There is government sponsored prayer during government meetings. When the public is invited to give invocations we (probably?) can volunteer to give an explicitly ontologically naturalist invocation. At the same time we should not shy away from asking that prayer not be on the agenda of government meetings even if people respond with frowns, eye rolls, and falsely accuse us of being “angry” or “militant”. Again, just because the Supreme Court says prayer can be on the agenda of government meetings does not obligate government meetings to do that. Government meetings would be more inclusive, not less inclusive, without prayer on the meeting agenda.

The AA report lists four denial of care laws. Maryland fails on two of them - it has negative refusal laws for abortion and sterilization. Omitted from the report are negative religion based exemption laws for Syphilis screening, vision and hearing screening, and congenital heart disease screening, all of which are tangibly harmful to innocent children.

An important issue that is missing from the AA report is medical treatment refusal right to know laws. I know AA supports such right to know laws so maybe this issue will eventually be added to their report. Maryland lacks such a law (as do the other states). A national lobby is needed for this, similar to the national lobbying groups for state end of life laws. Ideally, medical facilities would be required to provide the full range of medical treatments that they are qualified to provide. Given the absence of this mandate we are entitled to know which particular treatments are not being provided by those medical facilities that refuse to provide them, invariably because of non-medical, religion based, edicts.

I think secularists should actively oppose laws supporting so-called “alternative medicine”. Maryland licenses practitioners of naturopathy who are allowed to sell so-called “treatments” such as homeopathy. The Center for Inquiry has been actively opposing bogus medical treatments. There is a lawsuit against CVS, Walmart, and Amazon for selling junk homeopathic  “medicine”. They should win. However, when a religious institution claims that their freedom to exercise their religious beliefs is being infringed we cannot rely on our federal government to consistently uphold common sense, particularly now that Supreme Court has abandoned the wrongly disparaged Lemon Test (which should be reinstated).

One more comment. Some of the issues surrounding transgender issues regarding sports participation and medical treatment are multi-faceted. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, the ACLU, and American Atheists, among others, tend to address transgender issues from the point of view of supporting “affirmative” medical treatment and participation in sports aligned with gender orientation without restrictions. I confess that I am more cautious here. Skepticism is an important component of proper medical treatment, there is some evidence that younger people in particular who seek medical transition are likely to have subsequent regrets, and puberty results in physical changes that impact sports performance (for many sports) and persists. These are real complications that should not be disregarded. Facts are neither left wing nor right wing. An eagerness for equity and diversity, should not override a commitment to policies that balance all of the relevant, available, evidence derived, facts.  To understand this issue properly I recommend Sabine Hoffensteder’s recent commentary Is being trans a social fad among teenagers? This General Assembly session passed an affirmative transgender care bill.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers

 By Mathew Goldstein

This recent article in Tablet Magazine, Atheists in Foxholesdiscusses the military chaplaincy which, in practice, exhibits a bias against non-Christians, especially non-theists, and favors evangelical Protestantism. The Religion Support Office refuses to provide its services to soldiers who reject worship. There is a sizable contingent of elected lawmakers in Congress who openly pressure federal institutions to discriminate against non-theists. If you are not doing so yet, you may want to consider adopting a secular spiritual ritual of donating to MAAF.

Monday, January 23, 2023

American Atheists on The State of the Secular States

As many of you know I feel that democracy itself is at risk in this country. January 6, 2020 was but one tiny but very threatening example of that risk. I think that democracy has a decent chance at the national level, but at the state level not so much. Some states are turning into right wing Hell holes of theocratic repression. The nuts and bolts of the American theocratic assault on democracy needs to be analyzed in detail across all states.

The American Atheists do precisely this both in their day-to-day operations and in their annual State of the Secular States reports. The second sentence of the introduction to that document cites “…a network of extreme, well-funded, and well-organized groups aligned with the white Christian nationalist ideology.” Project Blitz was also cited as a prime example of these groups. Blitz focused on creating very innovative model legislation making sure that fundamentalist Christians have a radically greater share of the political and cultural power throughout many of our social and governmental institutions.

Obviously special privileges for religion, limitations on health care and reproductive rights, LGBTQ issues and control of schools have been areas of primary focus for theocrats. AA does not include many issues that I see to be central to the assault of the Christian far right on democracy and simple human decency. This includes opposition to immigration, gun control, mask-wearing, vaccine requirements or support for punitive policing, mass incarceration, capital punishment, gerrymandering and other opportunities for voter suppression. Any vote by anyone not supporting their extremist agenda must be avoided if they can find any way for law to select only voters supporting white Christian supremacy. The war on drugs was conceived by Nixon as a mechanism to minimize minority and liberal votes. Christian theocrats love their very incoherent notion of ‘guilt.’ There is the regrettable fact that selective gerrymandering can give a minority of a state’s voters a super majority in a state legislature. And do not forget the lowering of taxes, cutting of spending, and deregulating the economy. A public social safety net would obviously limit the theocrats desire for the church to be seen as central in the fulfilling of social needs. These last issues are not tracked by AA.

They do track all laws that either specifically undermine or protect religious equality. Last year they tracked 557 such bills undermining religious liberty and 141 that supported it. Of those undermining, 78 passed and positive legislation had 24 passed. This is roughly three to one in favor of bad legislation. The report has a complete profile of existing legislation for each state. They separated have an on-line list of proposed and possibly pending legislation for each state. I highly recommend that people download the report for last year and consider supporting this superb work by the American Atheists.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Thomas Jefferson 2nd inaugural book

 By Mathew Goldstein

The National Archives has a “Founders Online” web site that focuses on “CORRESPONDENCE AND OTHER WRITINGS OF SEVEN MAJOR SHAPERS OF THE UNITED STATES” one of whom is Thomas Jefferson. A section titled “Second Inaugural Address: Editorial Note” cites “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 45, 11 November 1804 to 8 March 1805, ed. James P. McClure et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021, pp. 625–638.” The first sentence of the eighth paragraph describes his second inauguration thusly “On finishing the address, Jefferson kissed the Bible, swore the oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Marshall, and bowed.” 

In 2010, the National Archives entered into a cooperative agreement with The University of Virginia Press to create the Founders Online site. David Sewell, Manager of Digital Initiatives and the Rotunda Imprint at the University of a Virginia Press, contacted James P. McClure, General Editor, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, to verify his source for this. It turns out that the source cited for "kissed the Bible" is private correspondence written by British diplomat Augustus Foster in a 1 July 1805 letter to Frederick Foster, his older brother. A. Foster was writing a few months after the event. The contents of the letter imply that he attended the inauguration, but the phrase he uses in his letter is "kissed the book". This claim is not corroborated by any other witness.  

McClure acknowledges that Foster wrote “book”, not “Bible”. He explains why he changed “book” to “Bible” as follows: “… but I cannot come up with any other book that would fit the bill. It was established English (and by then American) custom to swear oaths on the Bible in such settings. Jefferson respected those traditions and did not reject the Bible. I assume that the Bible would have been used for the swearing-in by Marshall as a matter of course. As for Jefferson’s kissing of the book, the fact that no one commented on that makes me think that it may have been customary and not out of the ordinary. It is possible too that Jefferson wanted to make a point by demonstrating that he was not in fact an atheist despite opponents’ attacks on him with reference to religion.”

The Bible in American Law and Politics: A Reference Guide, 2020 - Page 389 ( contains a section titled “Presidential Inaugurations” with the following second paragraph: “In 1969, the National Cathedral displayed all known presidential inaugural Bibles. They were unable to locate inaugural Bibles from [GW’s 2nd inauguration, &] Presidents John Adams through John Tyler or from Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, or Franklin Pierce (Presidential Inaugural Bibles 1969, 7). John Quincy Adams noted in his diary that Chief Justice John Marshall had brought a volume on laws on which to take the oath, and Marshall might have done so for the  previous presidents as well (Presidential Inaugural Bibles 1969, 7).” The wording “on which to take the oath” above is a little sloppy, the oath was actually read from the book, and there was no other book, thus no Bible. John Marshall, a Federalist, was nominated to be Chief Justice by President John Adams and was confirmed by the Senate in late January 1801. His tenure as Chief Justice lasted 34 years. President John Quincy Adams was John Adams’ son.

A description of J. Q. Adam’s inauguration appears in the March 12, 1825 Niles Weekly RegisterJohn Quincy Adams said that he thought the Bible should be reserved for strictly religious purposes. Four years earlier, he attended James Monroe‘s inauguration with Chief Justice Marshall administering the oath of office. J. Q. Adam’s diary for 6 March 1821 noted that the previous day “At this Ceremony the Chief-Justice merely held the book, the President repeating the Oath in the words prescribed by the Constitution.” The context implies there was only one book (“the book”) and that book was a law book from which the oath of office was read by President Monroe. So J.Q. Adams inauguration subsequently followed the same law book reading protocol, without a Bible, that he had previously witnessed.

A recent search of the Library of Congress newspaper databases found, unsurprisingly, no evidence that there was a Bible at Virginian Thomas Jefferson’s second inauguration. Such a no-Bible-is-evidenced result is par for the course for the first six presidents, with an exception for the first inauguration because it was conducted under New York State law that mandated a Bible. Kissing the Bible persisted among northern states after the revolution as a legal requirement that they inherited from the legal framework set in place by Royal Governor Sir Edmund AndrosOver time those states changed course and followed the lead of Virginia and the federal government in rejecting the authoritarian and discriminatory theocratic Bible mandates. The last president to kiss a Bible at their inauguration was Truman in 1949.

The Bible kiss seals the promises just made and as such occurs after the oath recitation, whereas Foster says the book was kissed before the oath recitation. One of the purposes of the British legal mandate to kiss a King James Bible was to publicly demonstrate fealty to the same British monarchy that was militarily defeated by the recent armed rebellion against its rule. The failure to repeat that British legal mandate in U.S. federal law implies somewhat less than full respect for that particular British tradition. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson’s redactions to the Bible imply a less than full acceptance of the Bible on his part. And relevant to the governmental business context of a presidential inauguration, Thomas Jefferson endorsed the phrase “separation of church and state” which links individual freedom of conscience to secular government. One of his projects was creating the University of a Virginia, the first public university in the country. He fought to retain a ban on teaching religion there against the lobbying of evangelical churches and the Federalists.

Foster was clearly aware of the nationalist perspective that favored a religion attached monarchy. In an April 19, 1802 letter to his mother, discussing “… the great ceremony celebrating the peace and establishment of Religion” in Paris the day before, Foster wrote: “Mounier, Camille Jourdan [a French writer], and most of that set consider it a deathblow to the hopes of Louis 18, who is now called Le Pretedant, as he went till now hand in hand with religion, and as religion was the principle link which linked his interests to the interests of the Honettes Gens [honest people] of France, because Atheism was encouraged and Piety laughed at. Now that the government proclaims Liberty of Conscience, … and that they see they may pray without the aid of Louis, it will weaken his interest very much in the country.”

Foster’s letter is not only silent about the type book, it is also silent about whose book it was, where the book was located, the size of the book, who was holding the book, etc. The simplest explanation for why Foster said “book” is that he did not know what type of book it was. People who are honest tend to refrain from unnecessarily adding assertions that are beyond their knowledge. The law book likely provided to the president elects by Chief Justice Marshall for them to read their oath of office from was characterized as “small” by a witness at Jackson’s second inauguration [THE SALEM GAZETTE (Mass.), Mar. 12, 1833: “ John Marshall rose, ascended the steps, was received by General Jackson standing, to whom he presented a small book with his right hand, containing the oath, and with his left, the Bible. The General took hold of each, and having read the oath, kissed the book and Mr. Van Buren did the same. Here the ceremony ended.”]. During the 1800 election campaign Thomas Jefferson was characterized by some of his opponents as a radical Jacobin who, if elected president, would unleash a lawless reign of terror on the nation similar to what recently transpired in France. Maybe Jefferson kissed a small law book, provided to him by Chief Justice Marshall, that contained a copy of the constitution, sometime prior to reading the oath from that same book, to emphasize his respect for those laws?

A conclusion regarding what type of book he kissed at his inauguration can go either way when it is based on nothing more substantial than biased cherry picking of conjectures regarding the possible motivations of the president elect and the Chief Justice with assumptions to fill in the gaps. Furthermore, people are not always self-consistent. Jefferson was critical of slavery, which fundamentally conflicted with some of his expressed values, yet he relied on slave labor. Accordingly, unless some heretofore unknown eyewitness account that there was a Bible at that inauguration is found, notwithstanding the editorial note published on the National Archives web site and The Jefferson Papers claiming he kissed a Bible, there is room for doubt that there was a Bible. The only reliable way for us to know is for someone who witnessed the event to tell us. We lack sufficient justification to declare there was a Bible as an established historical fact without a witness from the past telling us there was a Bible. Anyone, regardless of their credentials or authority, who claims otherwise is overstepping, and should be called out for doing so.

Founders Online is funded, in part, by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a statutory body affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration whose mission is encouraging the use of documentary sources relating to the history of the United States. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson is also partially government funded by the NHPRC and by the National Endowment for the HumanitiesJames Sewell averred that the “opinions and interpretations in the notes to documents in Founders Online are those of the editorial projects that created the original editions, and do not represent official views of the NHPRC or National Archives.” However, such a disclaimer does not appear on Founders Online.

British commentary on U.S. atheism taboo

 Mathew Goldstein

The Economist newspaper’s explanation for why Atheism still a taboo for American politicians: Members of Congress are far more religious than their constituents (