Saturday, February 28, 2015

When the Slippery Slope Argument Has Merit

When you find yourself debating with someone that fundamentally disagrees with your reasoning, there are often many arguments one can use that will get you a lot of pushback. When it comes to logical fallacies this pushback is very well deserved, they are in fact fallacies and thus should not be used to bolster any claim one has. Barring those, however, one argument that I noticed which gets a disproportionate amount of heat is the "slippery slope" argument, to the point in which it too is often labelled a fallacy.

The slippery slope argument is a very simple one which I am sure we have all heard at some point. If we allow for gay marriage what's next?! Marriage between a child and a man?! Marriage between a horse and a woman?! It is MADNESS! It is a slippery slope which should not be ventured down to begin with! While I have chosen a very pedantic example which might lead you to consider it a fallacy, there is more nuance to the argument than that.

In online discussions I have noticed that there are two very large groups of people: the fans of the slippery slope, who will pull it out at any time if for a note of caution than for a real prediction of the future, and those who hate the slippery slope, who think that by simply labeling something as a slippery slope automatically invalidates the other person's objection to whatever topic is in discussion. While I tend to err on the side of not using the slippery slope argument, I do not think that it is entirely without merit.

In many cases, the argument is completely bogus. How does, for example, allowing two consenting adults of unspecified gender to enter into a contractual agreement in any way open the gate to a contract between an adult and someone, or something, which is unable to consent? It is absolutely ridiculous. There are also other, more insidious uses of the argument as well. For instance, there is the very popular opposition to changing the language of what it means to consent from "not saying no" to "agreeing (verbally or non-verbally) to engage in various acts, which can be withdrawn at any time". Many people (I'm looking at you too, Cenk) love to make sure that everyone knows that they would be totally against it if it somehow devolved into having to sign a legally binding contract, signed and witnessed, every time you want to touch a boob or make out. It is ludicrous, it is hyperbolic, and mentioning that you are against such an inflated and unrealistic potential scenario down the line every time consent and rape comes up in the discussion detracts from the point that rape culture is a serious societal problem. All of these cases lead me to want to reject the slippery slope argument whole-cloth as a logical fallacy, but certain events have made me hesitant to do so.
The slippery slope argument does hold merit under some circumstances, and that is when we talk about legal precedent. When a legal ruling is made, which does in fact open the door to taking things further to an absurd end, I feel that criticizing such a ruling on the grounds that it could lead to a slippery slope is fully justified.
Take, for example, the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision in favor of allowing the Hobby Lobby corporation to not cover certain contraceptives in their health insurance plan for their employees, based on the sincerely held religious belief on the part of its owners that these contraceptives are abortifacients. 

Never mind the fact that their religious belief is in conflict with reality, as there is no scientific evidence that, for example, Plan B blocks implantation, but rather prevents ovulation, therefore the fertilization of the egg never occurs.

Never mind the fact that Hobby Lobby's retirement plan holds 73 million dollars in mutual funds with investment companies which produce actual abortifacients, a detail that did not lead the Supreme Court to find that this was not, therefore a "sincerely held" religious belief of theirs.

Nope. This ruling sets a legal precedent allowing for corporations to subvert US law, so long as such a law comes in conflict with its owner's sincerely held religious belief, regardless of whether or not the belief fits in with reality. Regardless of whether or not the sincerity of their claimed belief could be legittimately called into question given an inherent hypocrisy in the corporation's finances. All you have to do is claim it, and the language of this ruling would allow it.

To point out this is a slippery slope is not a fallacy, it's a fact.

Could a Christian Scientist who employs thousands of people deny them health coverage other than faith healing, because their sincerely held religious belief is that faith healing is the only thing that works, and that any other form of medicine is sinful?

Could an old school Chinese Buddhist only cover acupuncture and alternative herbal Chinese medicine, on the sincerely held religious belief that modern medicine is harmful and wrong?

If there is any language in this ruling that would prevent other such nonsensical religious beliefs from infringing on the rights of the employees the way that Hobby Lobby was allowed to do, please feel free to correct me.

Just because wingnut anti-choicers have been allowed to dominate the airwaves and normalize their opinions on contraception, that doesn't mean that this ruling applies only to them. The law is designed to be blind to popularity, blind to public opinion. The law allows any behaviour that fits within the letter of the law, not based on how many people subscribe to that belief. If someone, a member of an obscure religion from another country, came to the US and started a business, which became a corporation, and then it turned out that this person's sincerely held religious beliefs considered any kind of preventative health care (colonoscopies, breast cancer screenings, pap tests, mole checks, etc) was a sin against their god, this law would permit them to deny that coverage to their employees.

And this, my friends, is a true slippery slope, and it is called legal precedent.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How About A Belated New Year's Resolution?

This Xmas was a bit of a mess in my family. Various health problems in the family caused us to split up this year and fly to different parts of the globe to see family members in need. The relatively last minute and spontaneous nature of these trips, at a particularly high traffic time no less, caused us to spend quite a bit of money on airfare. My ticket, having to travel the farthest and the closest time around Xmas due to my job, came to a whopping 1,200 euro, nothing to sneeze at. However I am fortunate in that I have a good stable job now, so it was a cost that I could absorb without too much gritting of teeth. However, one of my family members surprised me and covered the cost, despite my protests. I realized: I am finally in a place in my life where I can absorb this cost without feeling it too strongly. So, how about paying it forward?

I've decided my belated new year's resolution will be this: donate 100 euro per month to various charities. They need it more than I do right now.

For January? It has got to be the Atheist Community of Austin. They have put out so much excellent content, for free, that has been keeping me company through my late nights pipetting and staring down a microscope.

And for February? I'll have to think about it and let you know ;)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Carnival Madness!

So today is officially the last day of Carnival, and I got to experience much of it here in one of the Carnival Capitals of Europe: Cologne.

When I first arrived here it became apparent that the Germans are not a particularly passionate people, especially from the Italian perspective, or a rowdy people, especially from the Irish perspective. Despite the fact that they love their beer, they are generally quite well behaved and contained in their emotions. However, I was told that there are two places at two times of year which represent the epitome of all of the repressed madness that the Germans have to offer: Munich at Oktoberfest, and Cologne at Carnival. Of course I had to jump all over that one, I wanted to see the ultimate in craziness that these Germans were capable of. I wasn't expecting to be shocked of course, after having lived in Dublin for five years, but I was still very curious.

So yesterday was the big Carnival celebration and parade in Cologne, where apparently everyone dresses up, fights over the candy thrown to the crowds and start drinking as soon as the parade begins, at 10 AM. Of course I had to laugh at this as typically German: they are obsessed with their Carnival, but celebrate it properly a day early, because God forbid they miss an extra day's work! Well anyway, these couple of videos give an idea of what it is like.


 Overall? I would rate it a 4/10 on the crazy scale. Definitely not the most mental celebration I have ever seen by a long shot, but good fun and a good day out for sure!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Hang On, What Was That?

First The Atheist Experience, then The Non-Prophets, and now the unfortunately defunct Godless Bitches are keeping me company as I spend 12 hours of my day slaving away in a lab. I'm properly tearing it up with the Atheist Community of Austin these days! I'm definitely donating to them for all of the entertainment they have provided.
Well anyway, the Godless Bitches Podcast shows began with snippits of various different songs. I don't usually pay much attention to songs I don't recognize, though I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that one of the songs was a rap song. Suddenly I started picking up the words... what was that? A rapper calling himself a feminist? Rapping about women's rights? Those are few and far between!
I immediately went online to try to find the name of the song and artist. Typing in various combinations of the lyrics I finally managed to track it down. Unfortunately it has been removed from YouTube, but once I managed to figure out the names of the rappers I found the song on their website. May I present:

"Personhood" by Johnny Hoax and Uncle Bungus

The guy doing the second verse isn't quite as good as the first one, but that isn't really the point of this story. The extremely ironic thing is that the only way I managed to find this site was through a blogpost of an anti-choice writer, defining her self an "abolitionist" who decided to dedicate an entire post to quoting bits of the song and bitching about it.
I was going to return the favor and quote bits of the post so that we could all have a good laugh about it, but it was such a mess of garbled idiocy that it was just too much effort and too much pain from the constant facepalming to unpack it all. Well, maybe just one little quote, so you get the idea:
"Why not just complain that no one should tell anyone else what they can do with any part of their body?
I'll tell you why - this would mean that proscribing rape and the Holocaust and might-makes-right "morality" is impossible."
If you think you have the stomach for it, you can find the whole post here.


Monday, February 9, 2015

Is Secular Humanism Only Compatible With Socialism?

I've been on a bit of a The Atheist Experience binge lately during my hours of pipetting and sitting in front of the microscope, and so I came across one particular episode in which an interesting question came up, and one that I do not think was answered or discussed in sufficient detail. The caller (watch from 38:00 of the video below for full context) basically floated the idea that an atheistic morality is only compatible with socialism as an economic structure, because it is centered around humans having inherent value, rather than capitalism, which promotes competition and stepping over your fellow man.
While the discussion travelled towards the limits of how much you can morally expect from an individual to put the needs of others over their own, the caller was steering the conversation towards economic policy, which forced Russell (much to his chagrin) even defend right-wing capitalism a little bit.

What they all failed to acknowledge is that most successful societies are based on an amalgamation of capitalism and socialism. While I agree that a pure cut-throat capitalistic society is not the best strategy, especially from a moral standpoint (what would that even look like? Pure libertarianism? More on that later) pure, unadulterated socialism doesn't work either.

Don't get me wrong, there are good reasons for socialism. The fundamental principle is to base a society on meritocracy, where every person is born equal and is not inherently superior by sole fortune of the circumstances in which they were born. Of course this is also why so many socialist countries have needed to rely on propaganda and censorship in order to convince their people that those in power actually deserve their leadership position (for an extreme example, see all of the ridiculous stories that come out of North Korea to justify the awesomeness of their leaders), but for the sake of argument lets forget about regimes which pervert the fundamental principles of their purported economic structure. Even disregarding the tendency of purely socialist states to devolve into dictatorships, a purely socialist economic structure does not take into account the fact that human beings respond to reward for their efforts.

My father tells an amusing story about when he was in Prague at the very end of the communist era. He had to travel a lot for work, and in this case he was in Prague for the first time with some colleagues which had traveled there before. They arrived late and hungry, and so they all went out in search of a restaurant where they could have dinner. When they knocked on the door of the first one they could find, the manager answered and informed them that the restaurant was completely full. While my father accepted this and turned to leave, his more experienced colleague protested and barged into the restaurant, which turned out to be completely empty. This man then explained to my father that this lie was commonly told because, since the people who ran the restaurant earned the same (and rather meager) wage regardless of the number of clients they served, they clearly preferred showing up to work and doing as little as possible. If your wages at the end of the day were the same regardless of the success of the restaurant, why bother busting your butt to serve as many people as well as possible?

Of course I also do not think that the other extreme is fair either, like servers in the States which have to basically prostitute themselves for tips because their base wage doesn't even come close to the minimum wage, let alone a living one. A healthy balance, in which people are rewarded for their hard work but at the same time do not have to worry about making ends meet at the month, is the most successful model that we have yet come across.

In my opinion, it is possible to have a healthy balance of the capitalist reward structure and basic socialist principles and safety nets. In fact, the most successful societies available today have a mixture of these two principles. Even if we are to disregard the "what makes for a successful society" argument and focus exclusively on morality, how does providing monetary rewards for hard work infringe on the morality of caring for your neighbor? How does allowing people to earn small luxuries, like a nice vacation or a day at the spa, after they have earned it with their efforts bring people to care less about their fellow man? While I absolutely concede that the US has struck the balance too far in favor of capitalism, I do not think that a purely socialist structure is the only one that is compatible with a secular morality. I think there is room for a bit of both within our moral principles.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

I Love That So Many Get This....

I'm starting to get to the age where the decision of whether or not to have kids has reached a new level of relevance in my life, and the first babies have already been born to my former high school classmates. Because of this, words cannot express how awesome it is that almost everyone I know in my age group agrees with this wholeheartedly, and are raising (or planning to raise) their kids with this basic rule as one that barely needs to be put into words for how obvious it is.

Breaking down societally-constructed gender norms FTW!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Wow! I Didn't Know That....

This is why I love skeptic talk shows, podcasts and websites. I may be a scientist but I sure as shit don't know everything about it, and I may be a vehemently anti-woo skeptic but I don't know about all of the fraudulent crap peddled out there.

While I was listening to another episode of The Atheist Experience (or was it The Non-Prophets? I'm not sure, but I think it was Russel who mentioned it) a useful website for the combating of the "why not just let people believe what they want to believe" argument came up, called Brilliant! That sounds like fun. So I clicked on it and had a little gander.

I found a lot of woo that I was very familiar with, but then I saw a subheading that stopped me in my tracks. Ear candling? Really? What is the harm in ear candling? Not that I know all that much about it, but I have seen it advertised in some waxing salons and such, I even figured I might do it sometime if I felt I had too much earwax buildup. I never saw it advertised as anything other than a way to remove excess ear wax, so it never pinged my woo-meter. The information, however, opened my eyes, and on reading further into the information linked on the page, my woo-meter went off the charts. If you don't feel like reading the whole thing, these excerpts are particularly damning:

More recently, two investigators tested candles to see whether the wax accumulated after burning came entirely from the candle or included wax that came from the ear. To do this they burned candles with the tip (a) inside the ear, (b) outside the ear, so the wax dripped into a bowl of water, and (b) inside the ear but with a tube in place that would permit ear wax to move into the tube but would block candle wax from moving downward. They demonstrated that all residue originated from the candle and that no ear wax was removed from the ear.

Since wax is sticky, the negative pressure needed to pull wax from the canal would have to be so powerful that it would rupture the eardrum in the process. However, candling produces no vacuum. Researchers who measured the pressure during candling of ear models found that no negative pressure was created. The same investigators candled eight ears and found that no ear wax was removed and candle wax was actually deposited in some of them! 

Ouch! Well, color me convinced! I'm just glad I've stumbled across this juicy bit of information before shelling out any money on a useless and potentially harmful procedure! 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Conflating Morality With Legality

I started thinking about this topic when I was discussing the legality of C-sections in Italy with a colleague of mine. I was unaware of this, but apparently it is technically illegal for a woman to give birth via C-section unless there is a legittimate medical reason for doing so. Given the rather loose language that entails, and the fact that there are far far more C-sections being performed in the South compared to Northern Italian states, leads us to believe that if a woman really wants to have one, she can find a doctor who will be willing to schedule her one. The point of disagreement between us was based on whether or not this law should exist at all.
Her perspective on this is that, while she has absolutely no problem with avoiding a vaginal birth for legittimate health concerns (a baby not turning, heart problems etc.), she believes that no woman should be allowed to simply opt for a C-section simply because of fear of a vaginal birth, stating studies that have found a correlation between cesarean births and an increased risk of certain chronic illnesses. It is her opinion that pregnancy comes with certain responsibilities, one of which is giving birth as nature intended, should you have a completely normal and healthy pregnancy. I of course disagreed, hence my writing this post.
I realized that all too often we conflate what we believe is immoral with what we believe should be illegal, and this is not, nor should it be always the case. Of course there is significant overlap between the two concepts, but there is also plenty of space for the two things to remain seperate. The problem is that morality is inherently subjective, especially when we begin to dissect these kinds of minor issues, while the law is objectively applied across the board. It is therefore important to not allow one's own opinion about the morality of something to affect a law which would be applied to everyone without good supporting reasons.

I disagreed with her reasoning because, essentially, I believe it comes down to bodily autonomy. Either someone has control over their own body, or they don't. It's the same reason why I think it doesn't matter whether or not someone thinks abortion is immoral, it should still be legal. While I concede that there is evidence that C-sections can lead to increased risk of certain kinds of illness, so can maternal obesity, gestational weight gain and, ever so importantly, drinking, but we don't go around criminalizing any of these behaviors simply because they bring an increased risk of harm to the fetus. We rely on educating women on the facts and dangers associated with certain behaviors but, ultimately, we trust them as adults to make their own decisions regarding their body and their life. To me, whether or not I think it is moral for a woman to opt for a C-section out of fear, her legal right to do so should not be in question.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Baby Skeptic Stares At The Stars...

Yesterday's post had me thinking a lot about how I formed my views on reality and the universe as I was growing up. Yesterday I wrote about how my experiences led me in the wrong direction, away from reason. However, there were other aspects of my reasoning that betrayed the skeptic that I would eventually become. One such example was my pondering on how we perceive time and space.

As an only child I often needed to entertain myself, which is probably one of the many reasons I thought about the nature of reality so often to begin with. So when we would go to the countryside I did what countless children had also done before me, and that is lay back and stare up at the stars. Staring into space gave me vertigo the way that looking over the edge of a cliff never did. It was scary, but once I assured myself that there was no danger of falling into the abyss of space it was exciting, and brought on many thoughts about how limited our understanding of space and time must be.

I realized, based on my experience of space and time, that the linear perception of time was just not going to cut it when it came to the vast universe above me. That X comes before Y which comes before Z was all well and good when looking at the timeline of my life, but I realized that this linear perception of time was very limiting. So what came before the Earth? What came before that? And before that? If time is just purely linear, where did it all start? How could something just start? Doesn't there have to be something there for it to start from? The same went for space. Beyond this field is this country, beyond that is the world, beyond that is the galaxy, beyond that more galaxies and the universe, but what about beyond that? Could there be such a thing as true, limitless space? Doesn't it have to end somewhere? But if it does, what lies beyond it? Of course, my Catholic upbringing gave me a very easy answer to these concepts: Beyond space is heaven, before time there's God.

But even that seemed like a cop-out to me. How is pondering the possibility of a timeless God any easier to wrap your mind around than a time which has existed forever? How is conceiving of an infinite heaven any easier to comprehend than an infinite universe? Despite the whole "oh well one is natural and one is supernatural" explanation, it didn't seem like an answer so much as more of the same question. Because of this I came to my own conclusion: I just don't get it. And that's O.K.

I realized that we describe what is going on around us as best we can, but we (or, at least, I) don't have the capacity to really visualize such huge concepts as the beginning of time or the ends of space. My brain can't reach that far, and that's kind of cool. Like not being able to describe colors to someone who was born blind, there could be concepts completely beyond my realm of understanding, and there is nothing wrong with that.

I think the makings of a skeptic is to let go of the fear of the unknown. There are legitimate biological reasons why we are predisposed to fear that which we cannot see or perceive, but when it comes to certain concepts there is no need to invent and answer to fill in the blanks. Not knowing, or really coming to grips with the limits of our understanding doesn't have to be scary, it can be amazing. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

How Lucid Dreaming Contributed To My Woo Thinking

So a couple of days ago I told you about how I have been a lucid dreamer for as long as I remember. I allowed myself a little back-patting with the recent study indicating that lucid dreamers are more self-aware, but now I want to revisit the subject to discuss how lucid dreaming may have slowed my progress out of woo thinking and into rational thought.

Those of you who have read this blog more frequently may remember my post on how I became an atheist, written in response to an open call by PZ Myers on Pharyngula. In it I briefly touched on my fascination with forgotten religions and all things magical and woo. I was raised by a mother who is still very much attached to her new age-y beliefs, I don't think she has stopped believing in anything from aromatherapy to crystal healing, and I know for a fact she still believes in fairies, so of course I had little hope of rejecting these ideas as a child. Plus, let's face it, believing in magic is fun! At least for a while. The fact that she encouraged this fantastical thinking definitely hindered the development of my skeptical muscles, although the tendency to do so was always in my personality. Despite the fact that it is in my nature to be a skeptic, however, I later noticed that my lucid dreaming was, in a small way, responsible for keeping me back, at least with regards to some views of the world.

I mentioned in my previous post on the subject that it is difficult for one to escape one's own context, as it was for me with lucid dreaming. So when I was introduced (by my mother, of course) to the concept of "mind over matter", everything just made sense to me. She showed me programs like What the Bleep! (which at the time I of course had no idea was pseudo-scientific drivel) and convinced me that there were many gurus who had achieved things like levitation and walking on water. Not to place all the blame on her shoulders, I took little convincing. While I was skeptical about many things in my childhood (for example, I never bought the existence of the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy for a second, no matter how hard my mother tried), the idea that matter, which was made up of mostly empty space, was only solid to the touch because your conscience expected it to be, made perfect sense to me. The reason this made sense in my mind was directly because of my lucid dreaming.

Those of you who are capable of lucid dreaming know that honing your skills at it requires a lot of concentration. It requires you to shut out that little doubting voice in the back of your mind. Let's say, for example, you are dreaming you have the power of telekinesis, which you are using to defeat the monster in your nightmare. The second there is a little doubt in the back of your mind that says "oh no! What if this power stops working?" POOF! you don't have the power any more (I also blame movies and TV shows which always put the hero of the story in a bit of jeopardy with a twist like that for those doubts.... dumb movies). Perfecting your abilities in lucid dreaming is all about mind over (albeit perceived) matter. That is why I needed to get better at flying: at first I could only jump off of buildings and soar, and if I carried anything it would weigh me down. I then managed to pump my arms like a bird and take off from the ground. It took me years to be able to soar into the sky carrying any burden at will, because I had to concentrate, convince myself it was possible, and completely eliminate any doubt or fear. It is the same reason why making things disappear in your dreams is easier than changing their appearance, unless you close your eyes or place your hand in front of them while doing so. 

Because I was so well versed in the art of this kind of concentration, the reason the "mind over matter" concept made so much sense to me was because I figured that modifying your reality was like modifying your dreams, only infinitely harder.

Although lucid dreams are incredibly vivid and, at times, freakishly realistic, they still have that "taint" of a dream. You can still tell, once you wake up, that reality just feels much more "real" than dreams do, despite how real the dreams felt at the time. Because of this, it made sense to me that "mind over matter" would be much easier in dreams than reality. It made sense to me that it would take years of the kind of concentration I had been practicing in my sleep to be able to erase every last trace of doubt from your mind that your hand will not pass through that table, or that your body will not hover a few inches off the ground. It also made sense to me that it would require an even longer time concentrating to be able to pull off such a feat in front of others, with their disbelieving huffs tainting the back of your mind. 

It was because of the fact that I could dream this way, and that I had no idea that I was in the minority, that I clung on to this particular brand of woo for the longest of all of my woo thinking. It made so much sense to my context, to my life, that it made me wonder: are the inventors, or the major proponents of "mind over matter", also lucid dreamers?