Because credit cards are probably symbols of the Papacy or something

On the off chance that anyone you encounter over the course of this holiday season should happen to mention the “War on Christmas,” and go on to complain that political correctness has stifled the celebration of real, American traditions, the appropriate response is to nod in vigorous agreement and say, “I know! And the worst part is, who has five shillings to pay the fine these days?”

Have a merry Foolstide, everyone!◼

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Science and morality

NDU stained glass detail Photo by jhritz.

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, Amy Dapper takes a look at a new study suggesting that thinking about science might promote moral behavior.

In all four experiments, the authors found exposure to scientific thinking led to more moral behaviors. Study participants that were exposed to the scientific priming (or in the first experiment, that had greater previous exposure to science) reported date rape as being more wrong, were more likely to report that they would participate in prosocial behaviors and divided the $5 more evenly between themselves and the anonymous participant.

Of course, I’m flabbergasted by these results, because all of the scientists I know are selfish, amoral hedonists—that’s why we’re all clamoring for cushy, overpaid jobs on the tenure track. But maybe you should go read the whole thing and see what you think.◼

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: God’s AIC score

The creation of Adam. Image via Web Gallery of Art.

This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! Noah Reid takes a cue from Bill Nye the Science Guy and applies information theory to test whether a model of divine intervention fits a simple phylogenetic dataset.

Without getting into the details, we can think of information theoretic criteria for model selection as formally implementing Occam’s Razor: the simplest model with the most explanatory power is to be preferred. By preferring simple models, you guard against overinterpreting data, a pitfall that can make models poor predictors of new observations.

So, I realized as long as we can formulate any mathematical model of “The Hand of God”, rejectable or not, we can compare it to an evolutionary model in this framework. If, as Nye suggests, evolutionary theory is simple and powerful, and creationism is a model of fantastical complexity that doesn’t much improve our understanding of the data, information theory would help us sort that out.

If you want to settle the whole evolution-versus-creationism thing once and for all (okay, not really), or just learn how biologists use information theory to select models (really!), go read the whole thing.◼

Be advised

It is mean and insulting and completely outside of the realm of polite behavior to ask that fundamentalist Christians explain why the “plain text” of the book they use to justify treating queer people as second-class citizens is different from the plain text of the same book that enthusiastically endorses slavery, genocide, and apalling mistreatment of women.

Especially when, as Dan Savage did, you have the nerve to call that hateful interpretive double-standard “bullshit.”

Dan’s apologized exactly to the extent he ought (which isn’t much) and come out with guns a-blazing against the fundamentalist fish in the theological barrel that is modern “Biblical literalism.”

Of course, the point of all this is not that it was rude for him to use the word “bullshit,” or even to describe those poor, defenseless Christian teenagers who walked out rather than engage with a perfectly legitimate theological question as “pansy-assed.” It was rude of Dan to confront those kids—and, now, the universe of fundamentalist offense-addicts who are giving him their undivided attention—with the fact that no matter what they claim, their “literalism” is a tangled mess of specific interpretive decisions that have nothing to do with the “plain text” of the Bible. It’s never been about adhering to the superficial meaning of the King James (or any other) text; it’s about putting their own mean little prejudices in the mouth of an unassailable, inaccessible, invisible Creator.

In other words, Dan told those kids that if they’ve been mean to gay people, it’s because they wanted to be mean to gay people. And they didn’t have a word to say in their own defense.◼

Almost immediately updated to add of course Fred Clark and John Shore are all over this.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: The link between science and religious (un)belief

The Thinker. Photo by marttj.

This week at the collaborative science blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, guest contributor Amy Dapper takes on a recent psychological study showing that people prompted to think analytically were subsequently reported less likely to report religious belief.

Their first study establishes a correlational relationship between analytic thinking and religious belief by asking participants to answer three clever questions that have an immediate intuitive, but incorrect, answer and a correct answer that requires deeper analytical processing. These questions, and their answers, can be found in the table below. The study participants then answered a survey about their religious beliefs. The results show that participants that arrive at the correct, analytical answers to the first set of questions also tend to exhibit more religious disbelief in their responses to the survey.

The results would seem to confirm the experiences of many of us working in science: when you think analytically Monday through Friday, it can be difficult to stop thinking that way on Sunday morning. For more detail on the experiments, go read the whole thing.◼

Excuses, excuses

Separating the sheep from the goats. Original photo by Nick in exsilio.

I’m not a believer, but I reserve the right to appropriate the religious literature with which I was raised for my own ends. That’s pretty much what Jesus and xkcd did, anyway. And once I thought of this one, I had to write it down.

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, with all his holy angels, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory.

And before him shall be gathered all nations, and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

For I was hungry, and you gave me no food; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink;

I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me.”

Then shall they answer unto him, “Lord, we did indeed see you hungry and thirsty, a stranger, naked, and sick and in prison. We’ll totally cop to that.”

And the Lord shall say, “Wait, that’s not in the script.”

And he shall look on them in great vexation and ask, “If you saw me, why in my name didn’t you help me?”

Then shall they answer, “But Lord, we had perfectly good reasons! Behold:

When you told us you were hungry, we were pretty sure you could stand to lose some weight.

We saw that you were thirsty, but we were afraid that digging a well for your village might distort your local economy and stunt its development.

Some of our best friends are strangers, and we would have been happy to invite you in, but there were other folks inside with us who have old-fashioned ideas about that kind of thing, and we didn’t want to make them uncomfortable.

We saw you needed clothes, but if we just gave you clothes, wouldn’t it undermine the profits of clothing manufacturers? And aren’t they the real job creators, after all?

And, we totally wanted to come visit you in prison, and while you were sick, but you would not believe what a lot of bureaucratic hoops you have to jump through if you want to visit someone in prison or in the hospital. There are forms you have to fill out, and you have to come at a specific time.”

And the Lord shall say unto them, “I liked it better when you pretended you didn’t even know I needed help. Go to hell, the lot of you.” ◼

An important distinction

Courtesy Slacktivist:

Here I would remind us, again, of Wendell Berry’s distinction between religion and superstition. Religion, Berry said, is belief in something which cannot be disproved. Superstition, on the other hand, is belief in something that has been disproved. The former can be reasonable, the latter cannot. For all of Bill Maher’s railing against religion as “mere superstition,” it seems he doesn’t understand either of those ideas. His latest anti-vaccine, anti-medicine, anti-science crusade is superstitious nonsense. It’s religulous.

The benefit of the doubt

Regarding Sunday’s shooting of abortion-providing doctor George Tiller, in the lobby of his church, by a professed pro-lifer, Slacktivist says it best, reflecting on a similar shooting, and the similar responses it elicited, in 1994:

These were groups that routinely spoke of abortion as “murder” or “mass-murder,” and that routinely spoke of legalized abortion as an “American Holocaust.” They had, for years, been using precisely the same rhetoric and making exactly the same arguments that Paul Hill was now using to attempt to justify his [1994] double homicide.

Those groups’ condemnations of Paul Hill then — like their condemnations of [Tiller’s alleged killer] Scott Roeder now — ring hollow. Such condemnations seem to be self-refuting. How can they condemn men like Hill or Roeder just for taking their own arguments seriously?

Thought experiment: if anti-abortion groups were Muslim and said the things they said, and a professed Muslim followed through and shot someone, would it even occur to the American political classes to take said groups’ word that they never meant to call for actual violence?

Biologists aren’t the least-religious academics

At least, that’s according to a survey cited by epiphenom. The least-religious professors at U.S. universities are, in fact, the psychologists — almost 50% are atheists, and about another 10% are agnostic. Biologists are close behind, actually, but are more likely to be agnostic (about 35%) than out-and-out atheist (about 25%).