Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Sarkeesian and statistics

I have had a lot of training in statistics as part of my degrees. A tedious amount. It helped me to understand about when it is or is not valid to draw conclusions. This brings me to the subject of people like Anna Sarkeesian receiving threats of violence and death. Such threats are disgusting and must be terrifying, but what do they actually mean? What is the problem that these threats highlight? Unless some data is provided, it's just not possible to come to any general conclusions, bad though the situation is. It's not possible to say "women are hated on the internet", or "gamers are misogynistic bullies". These statements might be true, but you can't get to their truth from the receiving of threats unless some hard statistics are provided.

What the threats do show is that the Internet often allows instant access to anyone. There's no security barrier - cranks, nutjobs and bullies can walk right up to you on social media and email. But what does this mean? It means that visible people on-line get crazy and vicious people sending them crazy things. There is no doubt that this situation can make the on-line experience bad for some people, but the problem can't be said to be the nature of people on-line.
Unless you expect all of any group of a million people to be utterly sane and reasonable, then the nature of the Internet is that if you are visible you are going to come across frightening nutters. This may have no more meaning than the fact that nutters exist.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Ideas and Mother-Lodes: Should we care about holy books and doctrines?

I'm sure just about everyone knows about the Affleck vs Maher and Harris battle recently.  A particular phrase Sam Harris used stirred things up: "Islam is the mother-lode of bad ideas".  I'm not going to agree or disagree with that phrase, instead I'm putting forward the suggestion that it might be an interesting and perhaps useful strategy to sometimes leave religion out of discussions of the consequences of religion, paradoxical though this may seem.

What do we really want most of all in the world?  Peace, equality, fairness, freedom.  That's a reasonable list, I think.  Does removing religion appear in that list?  Should it?  (A believer might ask the same about removing atheism!)  If you believe that some aspects of religion get in the way of those ideals, it might seem like a good idea to attack religion, and yet religion has considerable privileges and protection within our cultures.  Religion is precious to many people, and so there is understandable defensiveness when religious beliefs are challenged.

So, how about not challenging certain religious beliefs - not by ignoring those beliefs, but by putting aside the fact that those beliefs are religious in origin?

Suppose someone says that a woman's opinion is legally worth half that of a man's opinion, and they say that it is because of religious law.   How about responding that you aren't going to talk about religious law, you are going to talk about principles of equality?  Nothing strident, simply a statement like this: "Sorry, but I'm not going to discuss supernatural beliefs".  

You see, if you allow religion to come into things, you are allowing a barrier to be put up, a source of immediate conversation-stoppers.  So:

Don't talk about Christianity, talk about science and evolution.

Don't talk about Islam, talk about the equality of women.

Don't talk about Islam, talk about the importance of legal equality for same-sex couples.

Don't talk about Christianity, talk about the importance of stem cell research.

And, controversially, don't talk about Islam being full of bad ideas, just talk about the bad ideas.  If someone wants to mention Islam.... "Sorry, but..." etc. This is absolutely not a criticism of Sam Harris - it's only a suggestion for a parallel strategy for dealing with bad ideas.  

Who knows?  By not allowing the defensiveness that can appear when religion is mentioned, we might change more minds, and if someone believes in evolution and yet thinks they are still a Biblical literalist, do we care?

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Evidence for belief

I'm sure you have come across the insistence that religious people don't have evidence for their beliefs; that their beliefs are faith-based.

I don't think that is generally correct, or at least it's useful to consider that it might not be.  Speaking from personal experience and from what others have said, it seems to me that quite a lot of believers think that they are rather good evidence for what they believe.  Here are some examples:

1. The Bible.  The Bible is a book that has been carefully handed down through the millennia, and considered an highly important (to say the least) source of facts about reality and moral guidelines.  That this book remains highly regarded by many is evidence for something, and for believers it can be evidence of it being a source of truth, at least in parts.

2. The universe is here.  When I was a believer the existence of creation seemed to be good evidence for some creative force, which I considered to be "God", although in a mostly deistic sense.

3. Our moral feelings.  Where does our desire for goodness come from?  Clearly, from the goodness of some creator.  The existence of these feelings must mean something, and that something could well be "God".

4. Reports of miracles.  There are plenty of these reports.  How do we explain them?  It makes sense to invoke a deity.

Now, I hope I don't need to make it clear that I don't agree with any of the above examples.  But, what I disagree with is the reliability of this evidence as indicators of religious truths.   But, I can't deny that these are evidence - just not for the beliefs of believers.

As for faith, I had none and I didn't know anyone who considered their beliefs as faith.  Our beliefs were based on what we saw of the universe around us and what it felt like to be a human.  We didn't struggle to believe, there wasn't a daily battle with the dark forces of reason.