Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An Interview with Cubik's Rube

The following is an interview with Writer James of Cubik's Rube.

Have you always been a nonbeliever? If not, what were you before and what was most influential in your change? If so, has anything ever tempted you to believe in a deity?
I grew up in a fairly typical wishy-washy Anglican environment. It never meant a lot to me, but I definitely believed in a lot of the fairly general god stuff for a while. Many years of religious schooling were enough to make belief the default, without ever being so authoritarian and intolerant as to make me resent and reject it. I don't recall any particularly pivotal moments in my conversion to atheism; as far as I remember, I just grew out of it as I started actually thinking about it, in my late teens.

The closest I can remember to a single influential moment was when one of the satellite TV channels was showing an all-night marathon of early episodes of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, which I recorded and watched intently over the next few days. It wasn't that the show deconverted me exactly, but the episodes on creationism and Biblical literalism in particular tapped into something I was already starting to feel, and encouraged my spark of interest. It might be largely down to P&T that I first began to take an active opposition to certain religious ideas, rather than just drifting away from my own beliefs and becoming a half-hearted atheist by default.

You take on a variety of religions, pseudosciences, and related woo as part of your site’s “Skeptictionary.” Which false belief is the most ridiculous and which is the most harmful in your opinion?

Although they're not one of the most commonly covered topics on my blog, ineffective "alternative" medical treatments are probably a contender for the most harmful. The Jenny McCarthy Body Count has a tally of deaths from conditions which could have been prevented by vaccination, and it stands at over a thousand in the last five years. I suspect this is a conservative under-estimate, and it doesn't even touch on what's happened to, say, people taking bleach to cure their cancer, or abstaining from useful treatments because they've placed their faith in homeopathy.

More than any one belief, though, it's a lack of knowledge about what to *do* with our beliefs which I think is really harmful. If you don't understand why personal anecdotal data is a poor foundation for a firmly held belief, or how a scientific consensus is formed, or why double-blinded controlled trials are often important, then there's no telling what sort of dangerous and false things you might end up thinking are true.

As for the most ridiculous... Well, it's hard to pick just one. It's pretty bewildering how much the Mayan apocalypse has taken off, given how little it's based on anything factual, but then it's not like young-Earth Creationism has anything more going for it, scientifically speaking.

Largely in the US, faith is seen as a positive trait while skepticism is branded as cynicism. How do you think we can “flip the script” and promote critical thinking?

Hmm, I'm probably supposed to have more profound thoughts than I do on the whole "outreach" thing, but it's never really been my specialty.

I think anything which publicly and openly reinforces the idea of a feeling of community and positivity among people identifying as skeptics, or people for whom critical thinking and science is an important and central part of their identity, is a good thing. The most I can really think of is to keep making sure that skepticism and rationality is a part of the public conversation, to make sure it's a side that's voiced as much as possible so that it seems less foreign, less threatening, less unapproachable.

Even among people who don't accept much of the mainstream scientific consensus, science itself has a lot of credibility - creationists have had considerable success promoting their ideas by claiming to be scientific about it, even while they have to weave grand conspiracies which misunderstand how real science is done. I think most people appreciate the basic idea of a systematic, rational understanding of how the world works, based on evidence - and so the more they understand about the notions of applying critical thinking to our beliefs, cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and so forth, the more likely they are to appreciate the value of such things in their own lives.

It is easy to be skeptical of information that doesn't fit within our own biases and conflicts with our worldview. How can we remember to question possibly wrong information that seems “too good to be true?”

There is a tendency to look harder for logical flaws in a report, or other reasons to be doubtful about its validity, when its conclusions go against something we're already fairly certain we believe, or want to keep believing. No skeptical mindset is complete without some understanding of the way we can make mistakes and be unconsciously biased in our conclusions - it's not just about the ways *other* people can get things wrong.

It's easy enough to go through the motions of saying the right words - science should always be willing to adjust its conclusions in the light of new evidence, and so forth - but there's no simple way of making sure you're actually acting in the most rational manner you could be. The best summary of the ideal attitude to take that I can remember (I forget where I heard it first) is to try to make sure that what you're personally invested in is the *process*, not the results or any individual facts. If you become emotionally committed to the notion that, say, homeopathy does or doesn't work, it'll be harder for you to take any new evidence on board appropriately which might change your views, without either immediately finding excuses as to why it's not important, or uncritically accepting any results as further proof of your own beliefs. But if the only thing tied up with your ego and sense of identity is the process of applying critical thinking and arriving at the truth as best you can, then it becomes much less of a wrench to change your mind when you realise you were wrong about something, and there's less likely to be any internal torment driving you to dig your heels in as the logical opposition mounts up.

As atheists, we often talk about the harm caused by religion. What do you see as the primary benefit of religion, if any?

I think a significant part of what religion means for a lot of people is the sense of community, of being part of an in-group. I was talking to someone recently whose friend became a Mormon, after that church's members were the ones who took her in and gave her a great deal of support at a time in her life when she really needed it. Now, if she'd just sat down and looked closely at all the claims made by any half-dozen or so different religions beforehand, or even different denominations of Christianity, there's no way she'd have picked Mormonism - but, as it is, she's stuck with it for years.

Religion allows people to feel like part of a group and a community in a way that provides a comforting level of inclusion and security - and in a way that's entirely unconnected to any supernatural claims about any gods. I don't think this is an inherent advantage that religion is always going to have over secular institutions, but it's got a headstart of several centuries.

Who is your atheist or skeptical role model? Why?

Idolising individuals is another thing that skepticism is meant to make disapproving noises about, but that doesn't mean I can't admire people greatly for what they do. Carl Sagan always gives me a certain warm glow when I see or hear clips of him speaking about anything. I'm continually impressed by Steven Novella, of the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast and several blogs - he knows what's what on numerous subjects, and can be relied on for a clearly articulated but perfectly measured response to any scientific news or announcements.

And I can't not mention Eliezer Yudkowsky, who seems to be significantly less known among the skeptical community but is something of a guru of the Art of Rationality over at lesswrong.com. I can't recommend strongly enough exploring some of the Sequences on that site. (He also writes epic science- and rationality-themed Harry Potter fanfiction, if that's more your thing.)

Is there anything that would convince you that there is a god? If so, provide an example.

I'm not entirely sure that any set of experiences, even in principle, would make belief in any particular religion's god the most rational option.

Say Yahweh decided to make himself known to humanity in a way which couldn't *possibly* be explained by mundane phenomena and coincidence. He appears in person, as a fiery vision in the sky, delivering a message about how we should behave, and demanding obedience and worship. Everyone on the planet seems to have an identical vision at the same time, and they each report being addressed personally by God, in their own language, and that he knew every detail of their thoughts. (Everyone who was asleep had the most vivid dream imaginable, blind people have visions they can't adequately describe in words, you get the idea.)

There's no way this is pareidolia. It's not even some unknown event which *could* have a natural explanation. It's a JREF prize-winner, no question.

But is God the only or best explanation? Even with this overwhelming evidence, is it more likely that Christianity is true than, say, that hugely technologically advanced aliens have provided us with this shared delusion, for reasons known only to them? Or that someone's typed a cheat code into the Matrix?

Anything which seems god-like to us might not be distinguishable from the work of some other hyper-advanced intelligence. It's a weakness in the god hypothesis, resulting from the limitations of human perception. It can't even really be scientific, because we can't ever know enough to make testable predictions about the future which would be true if *and only if* the hypothesis is true.

So, an obviously supernatural occurrence like the one described above would certainly be enough to convince me that I don't have a damn clue what's going on, and that God might be as good an explanation as anything else I can come up with. But convincing me that God exists is a whole other matter.

(The same caveats might continue to apply even after I'm dead. Or maybe my perceptive abilities would be different outside of this body. Who knows.)

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