Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Some Truth about Truthy

by Gary Berg-Cross

Republican FCC member Ajit Pai had an Op-Ed in the Washington Post the other day (10/18/2014 _ called  'Truthy' project is unworthy of tax dollars. Essentially this seemed to me to be something of an unjustified and/or confused attack on a bit of NSF funded research.  Here is the way the posting started off:

If you take to Twitter to express your views on a hot-button issue, does the government have an interest in deciding whether you are spreading "misinformation"? If you tweet your support for a candidate in the November elections, should taxpayer money be used to monitor your speech and evaluate your "partisanship"?

Sounds ominous and Ajit went on to warn of NSF funding an Indiana University project to “collect and analyze your Twitter data.”  It's called Truthy and you can check out the site yourself.

What analysis do we find there? Well the aim is to detect what the researchers deem "social pollution" and to study what they call "social epidemics," including how memes -- ideas that spread throughout pop culture -- propagate. I think that Ajit alarm bells went off because the types of social pollution targeting included "Political smears," (aka "astroturfing") and other forms of "misinformation."  To Ajit this effort might be the beginning of a government effort to monitor and control social media.

Really he may been building on a scare rumor scary seems to have started with a discredited and disingenuous article at the Daily Beacon. . As noted in the Columbia Journalism ReviewConservative media’s reaction to an Indiana University project shows how shoddy information can quickly become an online narrative.”  And we actually know, due to analytic studies how the rumor meme spread:

The Free Beacon’s article was shared about 4,000 times on Twitter and 10,000 times on Facebook, according to Muck Rack analytics. It was crossposted on the next day, garnering an additional 2,000 shares on Twitter and 15,000 shares on Facebook. And it was quickly picked up by a handful of other prominent right-wing websites, becoming fodder for paranoia-inducing analyses by The Week, Reason, and “Other blogs twisted the meme and mutated the meme until it became completely outlandish,” Menczer said. “I don’t think there’s anything we can say to change that.”  - See more at:

I like knowing something about this meme contagion.  Groups that get smeared unjustly and are interested in the truth can profit know transparency.  If you go to the site you can see and read about different types of social networks and patterns. 
Social Network

Really, one thinks of outlets like the Drudge Report that have been accused of planting stories and in other conservative media. And indeed
Twitter Spam
campaign or partisan groups tweeting under the guise of grassroots activity.  Seems worth knowing and the Truthy study does not look only at conservative sources it looks at liberal ones to.

I was annoyed enough by the lack of good arguments in Ajit’s article to send a letter to WAPO which was later published as this:

It is important to remember that the study is by the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research. While it is government-funded, it is not a government project. The study aims to understand Twitter activity, such as how sentiments change over time in response to events, including political ones. Its results are published
on its Web site.

Truthy is not aimed at controlling tweets. It analyzes tweets to determine things such as, "Who are the most influential users and which are most popular over time?" It analyzes both liberal and conservative political issues and seeks to show how information spreads in the social network.

Seems like something the public would like to know."

Indeed invisible influence peddlers may be the ones who should be worried here.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

We cannot choose our conclusion

By Mathew Goldstein

Our modern picture of the world counter-evidences the religious conviction that our universe has a transcendent aspect or purpose.  Epistemic humility mandates the conclusion that our picture is incomplete.  We all operate under conditions of irremediable uncertainty.  We are not following out a proof.  But when it is proposed that proteins fold into their three-dimensional configurations under the direction of ghostly beings, the proper reaction is to reject the proposed explanation.

We must reject interventions by ghostly beings because we do not need to know everything with certainty from proof to know enough to confidently conclude that our universe operates within the physical constraints of indifferent natural laws.  To reach this conclusion we need a commitment to truth and a recognition that the only reliable way to discover what is true about how our universe functions is to follow the empirical evidence.  We are compelled to the recognition that we are dependent on empiricism by tallying the historical success versus failure ratio of various methods of finding the truth.

Rain and war dances, prayer, meditation, incantations, voodoo, fasting, hallucinatory substances, exorcism, seance, astrology, tarot cards, tea leaves, crystal balls, worship, faith, intuition, imagination, divine revelation, are among the multitude of non-empirical methods that people have turned to resolve problems and obtain answers.  These methods have an unbroken track record of failure.  The only method of finding the truth about how our universe operates that has a consistent track record of success is a skeptical empiricism.  A nutritious meal, a sound sleep and a mid-day nap, some physical exercise, good music, meditation, maybe even a hallucinatory substance, etc., can all contribute, but only empiricism rejects what is fake and connects us to what is real.

The available empirical evidence is sufficient to speak decisively against our universe possessing transcendence or purpose.  Contrary to what agnosticism claims, the evidence is not silent on this question.  Every area of human inquiry that speaks on this question speaks consistently, unanimously telling us that our universe operates mechanically and is indifferent to our fate.  To continue to believe in a universal transcendence or purposefulness or higher power is to refuse to confront what the evidence says.

The unavoidable need for interpretation to get from the evidence to any given conclusion is sometimes cited as justification for accepting a wide range of conclusions.  However, skeptical empiricism connects the evidence to a particular conclusion by best fit.  Best fit discards unnecessary accouterments and attaches itself to the most economical conclusion.  Equality and pluralism are important and valuable social principles, but they are counterproductive as principles of rationality.

All conclusions are not equally good.  For those of us who are committed to responsibly matching our beliefs to the evidence, any religious belief, from the most literalist to the most metaphorical, has ceased to be a live option.  It would be otherwise only if our universe was different.  We did not choose the universe we were born into and therefore we cannot choose our conclusion.  Atheism is the best fit with the available evidence conclusion given our universe as it actually is and therefore we are atheists.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Interfaith on Campus

by Gary Berg-Cross

The British Religion in Numbers website is an online resource of survey and other data. You can see charts on church numbers and belief such as:

 It useful since many religious debates get down to questions of how many or how large or is this typical?  And of course trends are important.
And one trend at least has gotten some recent attention based on results from the first stage of the 2015 British Election Study.  This is a survey of more than 20,000 people conducted by a team of academics from Manchester, Oxford and Nottingham universities.. Apparently, as reported in Christian Today, the results show that in roughly the last five decades, the number of people reporting no religion in Britain:
 “has grown from just 3 per cent of the population to nearly half, according to a new survey. “
It’s roughly a 1% change a year going from 3 to 50% in 40 years.  Similar trends are reported in the US and even in the US South there is movement.  The Public Religion Research Institute's recent report noted that 14 percent of Alabamians describe themselves as "religiously unaffiliated." That’s a long way from Britian but as a local paper worried “In a state that put the King James Bible in "Bible belt," that's downright shocking.”  Let's see 30 years of 1% for Alabama would put them up to Britain.
And it is more of a trend for young adults aged under 25. In Britain nearly two-thirds define themselves as "nones", or people with no religious affiliation.
Part of the turn off is attributed to disgust with male-dominated church leadership who’s orthodoxy abides traditional discrimination against women and homosexuals.  One notes that Pope Frank and others are on to this issue and searching for ways to mitigate the orthodox image at least.  One worries that this is just a kinder, gentler form of orthodoxy. After all if its God's word and you're infallible.  Well there may be a ceiling effect.
Another  reaction was noted on NPR with a segment by MONIQUE PARSONS (October 16, 2014) called: Interfaith Chaplains Revitalize An Old Role On College Campuses.

The broadcast started by noting that a third of young Americans report no religious affiliation – well behind the Brits, I guess, but hope still bubbles in chaplain's offices according to the report. And why not? There was free pizza for the casual drop in!  The real innovation noted was the pull and soft sell of the new, trending Interfaith Councils aspect. “Come in and shop.  Try on my religion.  It goes well with your hair color.”
At USC's interfaith council there was a noted a mix of Muslim students, Catholics, a Sikh, an agnostic and a few unclassified or hybrid identities.
VARUN SONI provided examples of some hybrid ID :
·       I'm a Zen Christian,
·       I'm sushi. I was like, what's sushi? Oh, my mom is Sunni and my father is Shia, so I'm sushi.
·       I'm a Hin-Jew,
·       I'm a Jew-Bu.
These may evoke a degree of tolerance mixed and respect for difference, win-win overlap with occasional bumps into ritual, observance conflicts & paradox. We do know that interfaith marriages, which in part produce these hybrids, are on the rise in the U.S. but there seems to be a wrinkle. According to one study, interfaith couples are more likely to keep their separate religious affiliations than ever before (40% keep there's compared to 20% 40 years ago - gee, less
compromise and more stick). So there is a practical limit to this blending. Sill I've long become familiar with the Atheist-Unitarians (AUs) blend that may be more tolerant than some mixes. Exposure to, and experience practicing, different religious faiths may breed some tolerance and put people on a better path.  I generally feel that way about AUs. There is even some Humanist hybrid possible -AHU is quietly in the mix.
But what about the professionals?  The chaplains and the organizations that employ them. Are they bystanders, facilitators, and participants with their own agendas?  Hard to say. Certainly they continue to churn out graduates who then seek jobs.   And the show made clear that campus chaplain offices are dynamically reconfiguring their approach to connect with those trending hybrid identities. 

I don't know if this is as much of phenomena in Britain, but the Chaplin at USC is an interesting example. Hi is named Soni.  Turns out he is not a trained clergyman. He's a Hindu with a law degree and a PhD in religious studies.  Well at least he’s found a career path. Indeed as reported, he is not the only one on the new Interfaith chaplaincy cruise path:
“In a way, chaplains like Soni are more like interfaith cruise directors than traditional pastors. Soni oversees 100 student religious groups and 50 chaplains of different faiths, including a new atheist chaplain to serve secular students. At Yale, a Catholic laywoman runs the religious life office. At Emory, in Atlanta, a school affiliated with the Methodist Church, an Imam recently made the shortlist for chaplain. Seminaries are taking note. At the Claremont School of Theology in Southern California, a student practices piano inside the chapel. There's a big cross up front, but also symbols from other faiths. The school has partnered with local Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish seminaries. It's also created new degree programs to reach millennial's interested in ministry.”

Some of the activities at USC mentioned included invites to star athletes to talk about spirituality or actor Rainn Wilson to give a lecture on his Bahai faith. There's also a popular lunch series with professors called "What Matters To Me And Why?"  Sounds like it could be a mix of Philosophy and Psychology, but Interfaith offices lay some claim to that turf too now less oriented around God and more around the big, existential questions of meaning and purpose, of significance and authenticity.  
Religions have historically crafted simple memes to appear to address these Big Questions and in the process pull shop-oriented people into a religious, cultural identity . That’s evolving and perhaps there will studies of where the interfaith path takes us.  In the meantime it is a bit of an opening for the Humanist message about life's big questions.  Along with the free pizza some humanist teachings seem like a good addition to the interfaith discussions.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Visit with Mark Twain

By Gary Berg-Cross

The end of Summer and the beginning of Fall is a good time for people in this area to visit and roam the Freethought Trail in upstate NY.  This Trail for Freethinkers is a smart collection of places in West-Central New York, roughly the Finger Lakes area, that is historically rich in the development of freethought in the 19th century. Last year I visited the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, where you can  spend a little time with that exceptional mind thanks to the efforts of the  Council for Secular Humanism and its Tom Flynn.

This summer I was back in the trail with a visit to Mark Twain’s Elmira locations. Twain (aka real name Samuel Clemens) married Elmira native Olivia Langdon, and spent significant time in the area from the1870s to 1889. When married the couple lived in Buffalo and Hartford, Conn., for 20 years, but Twain and Olivia spent every summer in the peaceful setting of Olivia’s sister’s Elmira home. That home, called Quarry Farm, was located at the top of East Hill, which provides the geographic advantage of a stunning vista, removed from Elmira’s downtown. It now owned by Elmira college and you can see some wonderful things associated with Twain’s life on that campus. You can spend the day with Twain's thoughts by your side.  You can see some of the places he chose to be with the people that were special to him.

It was in Elmira that Mark Twain was married and afterwards penned many of his finest works. His daughters were born Elmira and it is where he entertained some notable guests. You can visit Twain’s study that is featured as a small building on campus. The study was moved from its original location, overlooking the Chemung River on Quarry Farm, to the Elmira College campus in 1952. Twain famously said of it:

“The three months which I spend here are usually my working months. I am free here and can work uninterruptedly.”

And in 1886, Twain penned a more detailed picture to the Chicago Tribune of it as a birthplace for ideas:

“The study may be called the home of Huckleberry Finn and other books of mine, for they were written here.”

This octagonal building was one of Twain’s favorite places  wrote major portions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Prince and the Pauper, A Tramp Abroad, and many short pieces. In 1952 the Mark Twain Study was moved from Quarry Farm to the Elmira College campus. The Study is staffed by trained student guides daily throughout the summer and by appointment in the off-season.

You can see  a twain statue on campus along with memorabilia and associated material at the Mark Twain Exhibit in nearby Cowles Hall which houses photographs, stereoscopic views, and items from the summers Mark Twain and his family spent in Elmira. I loved the Exhibit which dresses up Twain and Olivia's life with association furniture and clothing. We were entertained by one of the student guides who are on hand daily throughout the summer and by appointment in the off-season. They can answer questions about Elmira's role in Mark Twain's life. I could spend a day just on the various quotes of Twain.  Some are displayed on the walls of the Hall or in the books for sale.

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
— Mark Twain

My Dear Sir:

But you are proceeding upon the superstition that Moral Courage and a Hankering to Learn the Truth are ingredients in the human being's makeup. Your premises being wild and foolish, you naturally and properly get wild and foolish results. If you will now reform, and in future proceed upon the sane and unchallengeable hypothesis that those two ingredients are on vacation in our race, and have been from the start, you will be able to account for some things which seem to puzzle you now.

Sincerely yours,
Riverdale-on-the-Hudson, Dec. 21, 1901.

"What is it that confers the noblest delight? What is that which swells a man's breast with pride above that which any other experience can bring to him? Discovery! To know that you are walking where none others have walked; that you are beholding what human eye has not see before; that you are breathing a virgin atmosphere. To give birth to an idea -- an intellectual nugget, right under the dust of a field that many a brain-plow had gone over before. To be the first -- that is the idea. To do something, say something, see something, before anybody else -- these are the things that confer a pleasure compared with other pleasures are tame and commonplace, other ecstasies cheap and trivial. Lifetimes of ecstasy crowded into a single moment." - Innocents Abroad

If you are lucky you may run into events sponsored by Center for Mark Twain Studies and you can ride a “Trolley into Twain Country” tour which brings Clemens’ biography to life, and also provides a glimpse into the history of Elmira itself.

The tour includes a stop at Woodlawn Cemetery where Twain and his wife, children and her family are buried.  It’s such a special place evoking deep feeling and many, many people have tried to capture it in video.  You can see one of many here.

A day with Twain is a day with a noble mind.  It makes one think freely and feel deeply. It is sad for the feeling of loss but it may send you back to the pleasant times with your favorite thinkers and their works. I don’t know exactly with Twain would say today, but it would likely be a memorial mix of his ironic wisdom and sadness about our wild and foolish ideas.  The saf fact that folly, rumor and ignorance still reigns despite his warnings and encouragements to the contrary.

More at
Footage of Twain in the last year of his life

Friday, October 10, 2014

A motherlode of bad ideas

By Mathew Goldstein

Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health by Ron Hubbard is a motherlode of bad ideas.  The Westboro Baptist church is a motherlode of bad ideas.  Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy is a motherlode of bad ideas.

Anyone angry at me yet? Most of us do not want other people to be angry with us.  We could avoid criticisms of all ideas, or confine our criticisms to generalities that no one self-identifies with.  Then we would be more likely to get closer to our goal of having no one be angry at us.  Yet that should not be our only goal.  We also have good reason to share our thoughts for the purpose of improving our collective thinking, and some of our thoughts are likely going to be critical of some of the ideas that other people self-identify with.

Fortunately for me, Scientologists, Westboro Baptists, and Christian Scientists are few in number and they are not provoked to acts of violence by public criticisms of the bad ideas that they subscribe to.  There will be no riots, I will receive no threats, and the people I interact with will not now become rude towards me.  But what happens when we criticize ideas that many people self-identify with and that some of those same people think should be defended by force?

In at least five countries, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Jordan, a majority of people think that anyone who is born into an Islamic family must profess Islam.  They think there is no option to profess any competing belief and those that leave Islam are guilty of such a serious offense that they should be killed.  This may also be true in Saudi Arabia, but no polls are allowed in that country, and it also true in the Palestinian territories, according to a 2013 Pew forum poll.  Every Arab country that was polled had a majority that either supported a death penalty for apostasy, adultery, or both, except for Tunisia.  Under Shari'a law a Muslim can testify in court against a kafir, but a kafir may not testify against a Muslim and, more generally, there is not equality before the law for non-Muslims.  These are bad ideas and not moderate ideas.  Even among those articulate, well groomed Muslims who are repeatedly cited by non-Muslims as being reassuring spokespeople for moderate Islam, there are those who endorse at least some of Islam's motherlode of bad, non-moderate ideas, like the notion that the entire contents of the deeply flawed Quran flawlessly communicates divine revelation.

There are apologists for religion who say bad behavior has nothing to with religion.  They say religion is about peace, harmony, justice, and love only.  They say Islamic State, and any other militants who claim they speak for Islam, actually have nothing to do with Islam.  They say that all bad behavior is a product of poverty, imperialism, colonialism, injustice and never a result of religion.  Do not believe them.  Religion is surely not the only factor, but when a religion promotes bad ideas it also promotes bad outcomes.  Religion sometimes does contribute to making things worse, even much worse, than they otherwise would be.  Religiously motivated, violence prone, illiberal extremists sincerely take their religious beliefs seriously.  They really believe that it is good to kill kafirs, and they are actually acting on their triumphalist religious belief when they behave badly.

More than a few liberals bend over backwards in an effort to convince the public that the threat from radical Islam is no more, or less, serious than the threat from radical Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion, or even from "militant" atheists. Indeed, radicals are a potential threat no matter what their ideology. Yet not all ideologies are, at any given time in history, equally threatening. Currently, more people are killing in the name of Islam than in the name of any other religion. Currently, illiberal ideas are more popular among Islamic populations than among Christian or Jewish populations and these illiberal ideas function as fertilizer for radical Islam. If we as liberals really favor liberal ideas then we should be willing to criticize illiberalism wherever it appears. We fail to do that when we selectively hold different people to different standards.

So let's say it: The Hebrew Tanakh, the Christian Bible, and the Quran, are all motherlodes of bad ideas.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all motherlodes of bad ideas.  Chris Hayes, Ben Affleck, and other such liberal apologists for religion can bang their heads against the wall and say that we are being gross, bigoted, racists.  Their false ranting won't change the unpleasant facts and refusing to face the facts will not move us forward.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Who me? I’m not responsible. Why do those things happen?

by Gary Berg-Cross

Flight from responsibility with its resulting dilemmas is nothing new, but it confronts us in a variety of ways across the country, globe and culture.  It is difficult not to think of the reign of unintended consequences of irresponsibility as we are showered with 21st century news.  This ranges from the responsibility of deaths from police such as in Ferguson, Missouri; to epidemic deaths in Africa; to thousands and millions in conflicts around the globe.  No one thing seems responsible, although you can find attempts to simplify it down to a target cause.  Policemen are only doing their duty and protecting themselves.  They are not responsible if someone gets shot.  Riots break out as unintended consequence of that action.  Are the police, the community of the media responsible for that?  It’s just an unanticipated consequence of a diffuse system where it is difficult to locate one single, intended, responsible cause.  But a multi-causal/many hands explanation might mean that I, as a citizen, share some of the responsibility.  No, not me.  Society says that a crime and such must be intentional.  It's not my intent.  It must be them, or whatever, but not me.

So an easy, religio-cultural defense is that “I didn't intend for this to happen” any more that an anthropomorphic God intended bad things to happen.  Of course, social science suggests that "actions" are generally performed by some human or animal for some purpose.  Certainly we have things discussed in business, law, government, economics that depends on goals or purpose. It’s just that these or a person's model of what will happen based on some intended action may not be what will really happen. Our models are imperfect.  So we have the famous" unintended consequences" and a search for someone/something responsible to blame.  It is a difficult causal analysis and one can understand why we tend to avoid the complex explanation for the simple. Indeed it is a general phenomena that we may recognize which problems are significant, but they are often difficult and so we drift sideways on easier problems and topics that provide more immediate pleasure and conversation.

Fox News is blaming President Obama for being indifferent to the threat of terrorism.  He's an easy target of the focus of who is responsible for all that goes wrong in the Near East.  Who’s responsible for these deaths?  We want a simple answer.  Of course there is a history here and other players with various intentions.  But there is one model to analyze all of this, so as beings with limited analytic ability, we simplify with rules of thumb and biases.  It’s hard for most of us to believe that the President intends things to go wrong, but in politicized times we look for a simple agent explanation.  It’s a very natural way of thinking. But is can be dangerous.  Things happen for a “reason”, but if it is something I don’t like it makes sense to find a cause external to one’s self and group to blame.  And blaming can make enemies of lead to the gridlock of two 6 year olds fighting.

Why are there high divorce rates, the spread of venereal disease, troubles in our schools, and increases in teen suicide, along with alcohol and drug abuse among the poor?  A simple answer is that it’s their culture (see The Poverty of Reason by Glenn C. Loury) .  They are responsible, not the larger society in which poverty is created.  So if "they" rather than "I" are responsible I don't have to do anything about this problem and its unintended (by me at least) consequences.

I can ignore social sciences understanding of dysfunctional behavior patterns adopted by people in poor communities. It’s just too complicated for me to understand and this support broad solutions. 

A worrisome, perhaps central, example of this fight from responsibility is the creeping impact of climate change. Why aren't we taking action? Sure there are scientific warnings about what is happening and why. We  don’t want the anticipated climate changes let along unanticipated ones.  But since they are part of a very complex natural system, coupled with human institutions and power centers beyond my control, it seems to say that “things just happen”. Someone responsible will have to deal with that. 

As passengers on planet earth we can say “I don’t intend that the seas warm and polar bears die off.  My conscience is clear and my moral principles say that I am not to blame.  And thus we drift to unintended consequences unless we see some shared responsibility. As noted in the lead up discussion for the recent UN climate summit:

“...stating that nobody is responsible for climate change leads to paralysis. Second, empirical evidence of public and private initiatives in distant corners of the world ... suggests that both individuals and groups are actively taking responsibility for climate change mitigation.
Climate change can also be approached as a problem of collective moral responsibility. “

Who Has Moral Responsibility for Climate Change?


Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Unacceptable words and tone according to CBS

By Mathew Goldstein

CBS rejected broadcasting the following Freedom From Religion Foundation advertisement with any of their TV shows on the grounds that the words and tone are unacceptable.  This video is 30 seconds, so take a look and see if you can detect the strident militancy and offensive disrespect in the FFRF's Ron Reagan ad. Is declaring oneself an atheist, or declaring oneself not in fear of spending an eternity in hell, or both, unacceptable, or is the problem elsewhere? Would the ad be acceptable to CBS if Ron Reagan, instead of looking upbeat, appeared pained by existential angst?