Archive for May, 2011

I saw Dan Pink’s TED talk a while ago, and just recently finished reading his book Drive. They’re both about the “science of motivation” – research into what tends to influence our behaviour, what makes us more or less driven to be creative or productive, that kind of thing.

It’s fascinating stuff, but I’m trying to bear in mind that it’s also important. This research into human motivation is stuff that matters, as well as being full of quirky and interesting results you can amuse people with briefly in conversation at a dinner party.

For instance, there are some types of work that people will get done slower if you offer them a financial bonus for it. If they’re doing something creative simply for the challenge, they’ll tend to do better than if they were doing it for extra cash.

The whole book is full of interesting and odd pieces of data like this, which make people laugh in intrigued bafflement when you explain it to them.

But it also seems like it ought to change the way we do everything.

And it’s sort of beginning to, slowly. There are some stories in the book about businesses that are starting to let their workers have more autonomy and more of a chance to find purpose in their work, and are realising the benefits of not crushing their spirits with deceptively inefficient drudgery.

A lot of the ideas are quite wonderfully anarchistic, in a way. It gives me a little hope, anyway, to think that we might finally be starting to understand that making lots of money isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be really happy, even if it’s what you really want.

Because it’s true. There’s actual science backing this up. People whose goals involve things like creativity and spiritual wellbeing and becoming part of a greater purpose and all that wank tend to be much happier, when they achieve those goals, than other people who just wanted to get rich, even if those people achieve that too. Scientists have looked at how happy people are and actually figured this out. It’s not just a hippy truism. It’s happening in the real world.

But, of course, understanding that what you want might not be the best thing to want isn’t enough to make you stop wanting it. A yearning for something is a drive to action in itself, regardless of any posited future end result.

You can reason it through, and take action based on the conclusion “If I have lots of money then I will be happy” (and simply ignore the contrary evidence). But even that’s not necessary; a compulsion can simply be for its own sake, without any particular goal in mind. Then you’re not even indulging in the urge to make more money because you think money will make you happy – you’re just indulging the urge because it’s there. That’s how urges work. And they’re tricky to escape from.

I hope we really are getting closer to understanding ourselves. I wonder what that would look like, if we reached a point where we truly believed that non-materialistic fulfilment really would be nice, and knew how to persuade ourselves to attain it. We’d have cured the human condition. And we’d have to start coming up with new and more imaginative ways to fuck things up.

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Brain Gym is some pretty kooky nonsense, and kids should be allowed to call out the bullshit their schools are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on. Some of them are pretty good at it.

– I haven’t written a whole lot about the “genderless child” story, but I’m not crazy about the idea. It seems oddly oppressive in its own way somehow. Societal gender expectations do deserve to be addressed, but this might not best be done by ignoring them and expecting everyone else to do likewise.

– An atheist in Louisiana has responded to the inclusion of an official prayer in his graduation ceremony by sending threats of violence and death to those in support of it. Nope, wait, sorry, I got that backward. He pointed out, correctly, that government-sponsored prayer in state schools is against the law, and he was the one who got harassed and threatened by fellow students and teachers, and kicked out of his home by his parents. The Friendly Atheist has an interview with him, as well as news on how fantastically generous that blog’s readers have been in supporting a scholarship fund for him.

– Despite certain tabloids’ obsessions, the list of things worse for the economy than benefit fraud continues to grow.

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Jamie Bernstein has a two-part report of her recent experience at an AutismOne conference, over at Skepchick and Friendly Atheist. Both parts are really worth a read.

The first part is mostly a write-up of the rather unsettling package of speakers and other happenings lined up for the event, including a speech from fraudulent non-doctor Andrew Wakefield about how cruel the rest of the world is to conspire against them by, y’know, pointing out they’re endangering countless lives by distorting science. There was also some pretty kooky self-help psychobabble, and some booths offering a variety of wacky stuff like homeopathy, which you might think should be wholly unrelated to either autism or vaccines, but which probably all tend to appeal to people of a certain frame of mind for the same sorts of reasons.

Part Two is sad in a whole other way. Jamie went along to this thing with a guy called Ken Reibel, who’s an active and somewhat well known part of the reality-based side of the online autism community. At some point in the day, it seems like someone on the staff organising the conference realised who he was – and things suddenly start getting tense.

In short: they were thrown out, despite not really doing anything wrong or being disruptive in any way, and it was pretty clear that the only reason for it was that they knew that Jamie and Ken were not reliable followers who could be trusted to toe the line and stick to the mandated set of beliefs.

Now, these people don’t have to be thrilled to have someone around who they know has written extremely antagonistic things about them in the past. And it seems to be within their accepted policy to be able to refund a visitor’s entrance fee and ask them to leave the premises at any time. But even if they’re legally within their rights, it displays an impressively determined closed-mindedness, to evict someone on no other grounds than that they are known to hold a contrary opinion. These visitors weren’t kicking up any kind of a fuss, and had given no indication that they would do so.

You do only tend to find this fragile, defensive, and rather pathetic attitude in isolated pockets of woo. I’m not aware of any skeptical or rationalist event where somebody has been thrown out on such tenuous grounds. In fact, when believers turn up at skeptical events, it can lead to some interesting conversation – the first instance that springs to mind is when Hayley Stevens and Rose Shapiro were questioned about homeopathy during a Q&A session following an interview. The guy was a little insistent, and eventually they had to just move the discussion on, but he was never deemed unwelcome simply for holding alternative views.

On the other hand, anti-science campaigners have something of a track record of this kind of thing, such as when a student was kicked out of the Creation “Museum”, or when PZ Myers was pulled out of the line to see a film that he was in.

It seems to say something about whose aims include open debate, and whose are more focused on self-confirmation and ignoring dissent.

There’s more on this from Orac and Ken Reibel himself.

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Yeah, let’s go with that. It doesn’t seem to mean all that much.

– It’s not like men shouldn’t be interested in trying to address sexism if it was only women that ever suffered for it, but it’s really not. (via Feministing)

– Another Christian nutcase admits intent to massacre people, on the grounds that they’re “killing babies”. PZ puts this down to the “power of faith”, but I wonder how much of this is really down to the misunderstanding of science. The anti-abortionists’ outrage might make some sense if they actually knew what a baby is.

– Speaking of dead babies, there’s no doubt they’re still a great political opportunity, but one particular piece of scapegoating over the death of “Baby P” has been successfully appealed.

– And I’m pretty sure Rand Paul is still primarily a douchebag, but nobody else in American politics seems to be saying sensible things about the Patriot Act.

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That’s how they always put it. You just have to have faith. You gotta. All you need to do is believe.

It’s usually an imperative, an instruction. But it’s not generally meant in a pushy fashion. There are some people out there who really will command that you have faith in God, and will consider it utterly impermissible that you do otherwise, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I just mean people who phrase it this way when explaining why they believe what you do.

They don’t literally mean you have to have faith, in the sense that there’s some logical obligation there. What they mean is, for their belief system to make any sense, you have to have faith.

You have to just blindly accept it, if the structure of your religion is going to survive.

The only way it’s possible not to realise that it’s unsubstantiated nonsense you’d be better off not wasting your time with, is to have faith.

You gotta have faith… Or you’ll have no reason to believe.

It only recently struck me how clear this is as a tacit admission that there’s no good reason to believe at all. Unless you just arbitrarily decide to believe in it anyway, it’s saying, then there’s simply no connection between religion and reality.

Okay, it’s not as profound a thought as all that, but hey, it’s the weekend.

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I should warn you up front that if you don’t agree with everything I’m about to say then I’m going to call you a racist.

Why yes, it is quite unusual to have planned in advance to deflect any criticism against me by ignoring the facts and bringing up irrelevancies in the hope of turning the mood of the debate against you. But apparently that’s just how some people roll.

In particular, homeopaths.

The original link to where this all kicked off is broken, as the post itself has apparently been deleted, but it’s been saved for posterity in various places. On May 12th, someone called Sue Trotter posted on a homeopathy message board, outlining a cunning strategy.

We can play the race discrimination card if we get this right. Please bear with me whilst I explain.

If we can find some British Indians/ Pakistanis or Bangladeshi’s they can complain to the ASA explaining that homeopathy is a prefered system of medicine in their countries of origin, used to treat a wide range of illnesses. The current wave of complaints against homeopaths would therefore seem to be an attack on their culture and beliefs and therefore discriminatory.

Wow. Let’s see if I can translate the subtext here:

These skeptics keep demanding evidence that we can’t provide, and complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority when we make unsubstantiated medical claims. But dodging the facts is getting tiring, so let’s find some brown people to throw at them and call them racist if they dare to keep criticising us.

I think I captured the essence of it there.

I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but this strikes me as being perhaps most offensive to the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis themselves. The most useful thing Sue Trotter seems to think they can contribute to the discussion is simply whatever controversy can be manufactured from their skin colour and ethnic background.

And QueenGoriana said to me on Twitter: “I’m sure my scientist Indian cousins missed the memo which told them evidence-free magic is a defining part of their culture.”.

Sue admits that her plan isn’t necessarily foolproof, and that they “would need to get a smart lawyer to draft the letter”, tacitly confessing that the whole point is to be sneaky and manipulative, and to discourage any sort of honest discussion of the evidence.

It’s not an unprecedented tactic, either. British MP David Tredinnick has previously complained that scientists who criticised healthcare systems that use astrology or phases of the moon were “racially prejudiced“.

Because if you ever say that something lots of Chinese people believe is incorrect, you must hate foreigners.

Read more on this from le canard noir, Sceptical Letter Writer, Brian Hughes’s Storify, Skepticat, and Skepchick.

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This article from TIME begins with the phrase “The latest sex-abuse case to rock the Catholic Church”.

After checking the date and seeing that it was posted just over a week ago, I still wasn’t sure if this was going to be actual news, or just yet another in a long list of old stories I’ve already heard about.

A headline about a sex-abuse case that rocked, say, Microsoft, would be an eye-catching novelty. The slightly exciting and immoral sex lives of footballers are still making massive news at a time when nobody could possibly be surprised by something as dull as celebrity infidelity.

But the Catholic Church being involved in the institutional molestation of children? Eh, I heard about that already.

Father Riccardo Seppia was allegedly recorded on tape saying the following words to a Moroccan drug dealer:

I do not want 16-year-old boys but younger. Fourteen-year-olds are O.K. Look for needy boys who have family issues.

He is also said to have traded cocaine and money for sexual encounters with boys.

This is all particularly embarrassing for the Cardinal of Father Seppia’s archdiocese, who has recently been working with the Pope on “reforms to respond to prior scandals of pedophile priests”.


I think for something to invoke outrage, it needs to be somehow shocking. And this just isn’t, these days. Which is sad.

But don’t let’s get sidetracked from the important issues here. There are some monasteries out there were the monks and nuns are said to engage in regular sessions of dancing. Now that’s the kind of ungodly abomination that the Pope needs to put a stop to immediately. It’s a matter of priorities, people.

And remember the advice of Bill Donohue of the Catholic League: what really matters is that it’s not technically pedophilia, because many of these victims were post-pubescent.

Just in case you were forming an unfairly low opinion of the Catholic priests who’ve been using drugs to pay for 14-year-olds to have sex with.

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This still needs a new name. I’ll keep trying until I find one that fits.

Here’s some stuff I saw that was worth a glance.

Americans don’t go to church as often as they say they do. Reported attendance beats actual attendance everywhere, but most sizeably in the US – and, oddly, Canada. (via Check Your Premises)

– If you let gay people into the Church, they might explode in your face!

– Labour camps for prisoners are moving with the times. Being forced to play computer games for hours a day as a punishment? Less of a cushy deal than it may sound. (via Boing Boing)

– Science is finally catching up with Lewis Carroll’s imagination. Maybe they should work on Dali’s next.

Full post tonight.

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I don’t have kids, and I wouldn’t know what to do with them if I did.

I suppose it could happen someday, in the distant future, when I’m actually a grown-up. I can’t really imagine it now. I could vaguely muse on all the wonderful ways I’d be sure to raise my offspring to be kind and happy and curious and functional and diligent and marvellous, but I’d probably end up far too tired to do any of that.

But there’s a few things I can think of which I’d wish for my unlikely future children.

I’d want to read a big, bright, colourful, fascinating book of science with them from a young age, and hopefully show them Cosmos a little further along.

I’d like them to be able to make creative use of advancing technologies in ways that I can’t keep up with.

I’d do my best to instill in them a universal respect for other people and a healthy disrespect for authority.

And I fervently hope that they look back on the historic idea of treating same-sex affection and partnership as being inferior to its opposite-sex counterpart with bewilderment and alienation.

It’s the year 2011, and news stories are still circulating about politicians wanting to ban gay kissing on TV before the 9pm watershed.

Normal kissing is fine, of course. And there’s no problem with murders at any time of day, so long as there’s not too much blood.

But children need to be “protected”, after all. Some things just aren’t “appropriate”. Letting gay people get all gay is just so “sexually suggestive“.

In fact, David Cameron has recently denied having any such plans to introduce this particular legislation. But it’s sadly all too plausible, and it’s not the only similar instance of its kind. Tennessee is currently facing a potential state law which would forbid teachers from discussing or even mentioning homosexuality with students. Hetero is the only type of sex that can be talked about prior to ninth grade.

I don’t have kids, and don’t have plans to. But if I ever do, I hope they find this whole debate impossible to understand.

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In addition to the (currently) regular evening posts appearing here, I’m going to try starting an afternoonly habit of providing some very quick links to things that interested me in passing, and which I can’t be bothered writing about properly.

As you can probably tell, I gave it the first name I could think of. It’s fun to say, but may need a change. Anyway. Onward.

– Like all the magically magnetic headline-grabbers who crop up now and then, this kid’s probably just sticky.

Goldfish shoals nibbling at your toes might be a recipe for geek nostalgia, but may not be medically advisable.

– Obama’s visiting my homeland at the moment. I hope the PM’s making him feel welcome.

– The triangle you’re seeing isn’t really there. Which is just as well because it can’t possibly exist.

So, there’ll be a proper post tonight, and maybe another one of these tomorrow. That’s the plan.

Feel free to make suggestions below, of stories you think I might be too lazy to cover in more detail than a sentence or two.

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