Monday, April 1, 2013

Honorary Degrees: Neither Honorary, Nor Degrees


Getting a PhD is hard work! Of course, I don’t personally know this, as I am not getting one, but I know people who are either working on it, or have one already. You are basically a slave for the school, working your butt off, doing research, taking classes, writing papers, etc. And all the while, you are pretty much broke. Yes, some programs will pay you (a few grand per year), but others don’t.

So the fact that some schools just hand them out blows my mind. It seems insulting to the people who have actually earned them, and it seems insulting to the people who are receiving them. It also makes the school look bad, I think. Imagine if the Olympics gave out honorary gold medals, or the Nobel Prize committee gave out honorary peace prizes? It would be the most ridiculous thing you could ever imagine.

The first time I heard about some sort of honorary degree was when I was in film school. I went to Vancouver Film School (VFS), and I learned that the writer/director/actor, Kevin Smith also had attended years earlier. However, he dropped out, took his refunded tuition money and shot the movie Clerks.  Well, after he became famous, VFS decided to award him an honorary diploma. To me, the whole thing seemed like a transparent attempt to associate themselves with a successful filmmaker—to attach his name to theirs.

Now, one might be tempted to say “sure, in that case, VFS clearly just wanted to associate themselves with Smith, but many schools just give them to past alumni who have accomplished great things.” That sounds superficially plausible, but upon further inspection, it seems to be even worse. First, why give people honorary degrees if they already have accomplished so much? How could that possibly benefit the person? The late paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science, Stephen Jay Gould was one of the most influential and popular science writers of his generation. He taught at Harvard, worked at the American Museum of Natural History, and had a stunning scientific career—having published 479 scientific, peer-reviewed papers and written 22 books. Gould was also awarded 44 honorary degrees from academic institutions around the world. I have to ask, what is the point? Are his career accomplishments not enough? Is it reasonable to conclude that these universities thought “this Gould guy is pretty good… let’s honor him”? No. Obviously, he was a celebrity scientist and universities wanted to associate themselves with him in any way possible.

Likewise, Hollywood celebrities often receive honorary degrees for nothing more than being famous. Heck, even Kermit the frog has an honorary PhD from SUNY Stony-Brook. It seems that such gratuitous hand outs of degrees only water down the importance of PhDs, and make the university appear to not value the hard work it takes for its actual doctoral students to obtain one.

The most embarrassing examples of giving out an honorary PhD I have ever had the misfortune of seeing was at Colorado College (the institution I work for). What makes it so embarrassing is that unlike other schools that give honorary PhDs, Colorado College does not have any PhD programs. Not one. They have a Master’s degree program—for education, and that’s it. It’s shameful, and it’s the only thing that makes me embarrassed about Colorado College.

Now, you might be thinking “okay, sure. I get that all this is silly and seems disrespectful to people who work hard for their PhDs. But it’s just a piece of paper… a symbol of respect from the school or something. It’s not like anyone actually says they are a doctor as a result of getting an honorary PhD.”

While I suspect that that is the case most of the time, unfortunately, there are a group of people who do use honorary degrees in an attempt to make themselves seem academically accomplished, and give what they say credence. Those people are creationists. To anyone who follows that stuff, it’s not surprising. Creationism is a world where logic is cherry-picked and academic honesty doesn’t matter. Creationists have no qualms with getting honorary degrees or degrees from diploma mills if that means they can put "PhD" on their resume and refer to themselves as a doctor. They will use any tactic, no matter how low, to try and appear to have a modicum of academic accomplishment. So the argument that honorary degrees aren’t used for anything bad is no good either.

Of course, it should be noted that not all schools resort to such levels of sucking up. MIT, UCLA, Cornell, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Rice, the University of Virginia and the California Institute of Technology refuse to give out honorary degrees. UCLA actually gives out a “UCLA Medal” instead, which seems like a much better decision.

In the end, Universities, which should be bastions of academic honesty, rigor and transparency, end up looking like middle school girls with low self esteem. They want to be associated with the cool kids, with the hopes that other people will perceive them as being cool too. Schools should be judged on a variety of things, such as how well they educate students, the experience they give students, and the quality of work their students produce once graduating… not on whom they are desperately trying to associate themselves with.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Weirdest Experience Ever

The following story is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me. If someone were to tell me this story, I would surely think they were exaggerating to make the story better, or simply making parts of it up. To help convince you that it is true, I will be posting links at the end, which help corroborate my wild experience. With that...

It was 2007. I was 24, fresh out of film school, and looking for a job. I was browsing Craigslist one day and found a nonprofit company that was looking for a video editor. Apparently, it was some offshoot of a bigger company named Alaska Structures, which sells military grade tents and shelters. The job seemed like something I would be interested in, and best of all, the starting salary was listed as between $60-80,000!! I applied and was quite excited when I immediately got called for an interview. Yay!

I arrived for my interview at 7:00am. It was a nice building in Kirkland, Washington, overlooking Lake Washington. As I approached the building, I could see inside and noticed that the office was already full of bustling people. I went to open the door, but found that it was locked. As I tried to open it again, the secretary looked up and saw me. I figured she would come open the door, but instead just returned to her work. Confused, I looked around to see if anyone could let me in. I then noticed a little piece of paper taped to the bottom part of the glass window, saying “please show your driver’s license to the secretary.” I thought that was a bit odd, but whatever. I got out my license and put it up to the glass. The secretary walked over, looked at it, returned to her desk to check something, and then let me in.

I was 15 min early, so I sat down on a couch and start flipping through some magazines. All the magazines were things like Forbes, Fortune,etc. As I was looking around, I noticed that there was a security camera above the secretary, looking straight at me. I didn’t really think anything of it, and continued to just sit there, waiting for my interview.

A few minutes went by, and I was approached by a guy carrying a ukulele and a bottle of whiskey, wearing a cape and a pointy foil hat. I was thinking “wat?”, and figured that it must be the brother of the CEO or something, and being a bit slow, is just allowed to hang out. Well, the ukelele guy sits down and starts talking to me, so I respond pleasantly. Though, I didn’t want to act too nice and patronizing, since I thought it might be some weird trick to test my character.

Ukelele guy asks me if I would like some whiskey,  to which I declined, saying it probably wouldn’t be a good idea before a job interview--especially so early in the morning. He then asked if I want to know a secret. I said sure, and leaned in to hear his secret. He then screamed as loud as he could, “I AM A JELLY DONUT!!!” I was totally shocked! Flabbergasted! I had no idea what is going on, and looked over at the secretary to get her reaction to such a weird outburst, but she kept her head down, refusing to acknowledge what just happened. I could tell that she could see that I was looking at her, but absolutely would not look up.

Ukelele guy then told me that he plays the ukulele, and asked if I would like to hear a song. I said sure, and he started strumming (quite poorly) on the ukulele, singing something about how no one in Tacoma has a lawn. He then quit, and asks what I thought about the song. I said it was better than I could do, but I didn’t think that it was true that no one in Tacoma has a lawn, seeing as I knew people in Tacoma, and they definitely had lawns.

He proceeded to tell me that he got the ukulele in Hawaii, because he broke his other one when he became frustrated at not being good at it. I said that was too bad, but I didn’t think he was that bad. He accused me of lying, and insisted that I hated the song. I said that wasn’t true, because he could play better than me. He then asked if I want a drink yet, and I declined, again.

Meanwhile, I noticed that a few other employees (one who turned out to be the CEO of the company) were watching me from afar.
Ukelele guy then pulled out a VERY crumpled piece of paper. He uncrumpled it, and it had a picture of an orangutan in a business suit, looking irritated. There was a caption saying something like “I can’t get any work done when all of my employees are missing links”. The guy asked me if I thought it was funny, and I said yeah, sort of. He pressed me to explain why I thought it was funny, so I explained that it was a funny expression on the orangutan’s face, and he was wearing a suit, which was funny. And with that, just as quickly as he appeared, the ukelele guy took the paper and ran off! Leaving me with what I am sure was a look of “is this real life?” on my face.

Finally, I was called in to the actual interview, only to find that I would be joining two other guys who were applying for the same job. No big deal. The interview room was quite nice, with a large wooden table, flat panel TVs, security cameras, and pics of the CEO with President Bush. There were three interviewers: the CEO, some guy from HR and some other person. The CEO was nice, but seemed crazy and sounded a lot like Rush Limbaugh. The HR guy was super nice and seemed quite normal, and I don’t remember anything about the third person.

Anyway, the group interview starts going and everything is relatively normal, with standard interview questions. However, things suddenly got weird when we were asked questions like “out of the three of us, who would you least like to work with?” and “on a scale of 1-10, rate how nice or controlling you think each of us seem”, as well as other similar questions that were somewhat difficult to answer.

The two other interviewees tried to be polite and give answers, but also not be offensive. They would try to explain their reasons for liking one person over another with a lot of humming and hawing, “Well, I gather this from you, um, but, uhh… I am not saying this for certain about you… but…” I didn’t play into it, and simply would say something like “you”, or “4, 4, 7” without any further explanation. For whatever reason, that seemed acceptable to them, and I wasn’t pressed to explain my answers.

As I mentioned earlier, the job was going to be for a video editing position, and the three interviewers explained that they had tons of footage they wanted edited into a documentary that would “sweep the film festivals.” Though, they didn’t have a story, point they were trying to get across, or anything. All they had was footage of their company helping in some sort of disaster relief.

Their story of the footage also didn’t make any sense. They said they had filmed with 6 or so cameras for 2 weeks straight, nonstop. Though, they claimed to only have 12 or so hours of footage. This didn’t make sense if they had filmed nonstop, and one interviewee questioned the strange situation, but we never got an answer. Generally, we were just told things like “don’t worry about it, we hired the best people, and it's great.” However, we were also told that their previous editor had quit, since the he claimed the footage was terrible.

That concluded the interview, and we were told that if we were still interested, to call back. I was curious, so I called back. The lady I spoke with asked what I thought of the interview, and I said it was really... interesting. She asked to explain why I thought it was interesting, so I stated what I thought was odd about it, and then asked what the rationale behind the ukulele guy was. Unfortunately, I was told I wasn’t allowed to know. Whatever the case, they scheduled another interview for me the next morning… at 6am!

I arrived at 5:45am, again to find the office fully functional, with dogs also running around inside. There was no ukulele guy this time, and I was taken straight back to the interview room. This time, I was the only interviewee.

I sat down with three interviewers again: the CEO, the HR guy and this time, the ukulele guy! Except he wasn’t the ukulele guy anymore, he was dressed and acting totally normally! He would occasionally refer to the Ukulele guy in third person, calling him Bernie or something. There was also never a hint of irony or anything in his eye. When I first saw him, I thought there might be a wink and a nod, sort of acknowledging the insanity from the previous morning. Nope.

This interview seemed to go a lot more normally (at first). They asked about my experience, and wanted to see some of my work. I gladly showed them my demo reel, and we all discussed it. They seemed genuinely interested, and I began to think that the previous day was just some weird weeding-out technique that I wasn't aware of. But then, as often happens in so many job interviews, we started talking about God (since one of the videos on my sample reel dealt with atheism/religion). The CEO explained to me that he was religious, and explained some of his reasoning, which was terrible. I went back and forth in my head, wondering if I should point out some of his flawed logic or just let it go. I figured that since everything was so weird at this company, it couldn’t hurt to push back a bit. But after a bit of debating, I decided to just drop it.

As a result of this theological discussion, the CEO went on to explain that the reason that kids at the Georgia Tech shooting were unable to react when the shooter was in their classroom was because they were unable to recognize evil. He explained that that society isn’t teaching the difference between good and bad, and the students didn’t understand what they were witnessing. I said I disagreed, and explained that it was more likely that the kids were just frozen in fear—not that they were unable to recognize their fellow students being shot as bad.

Then the CEO left to have a meeting, and I continued to talk with the other two interviewers. While answering one question, I mentioned that I have a tendency to get really wrapped up in editing, and will edit nonstop until I get a project done. I gave the example of a 48 hr film festival I was recently in, and how I edited for basically 18 hrs straight. The interviewers didn’t even blink, and asked “are we supposed to be impressed?” I said “uuuh, not really, I was just saying that I get really into it sometimes.” They then told me that the CEO worked 18 hrs a day, for 7 years straight, without a vacation. I let out a small chuckle, because I thought they were joking. They asked why I thought it was funny, and I said I didn’t realize they were serious.

Because we were on the topic of work hours, it was explained to me how most employees work at least 100 hrs a week, don’t take lunches, etc. The reason behind this is because their work is too important, and they were saving lives (this saving lives spiel was a running theme throughout the interview). They said that some people don’t even go home, they just sleep under the desk, and their families bring them food. I didn’t know if they were serious or not, but they seemed to be.

They explained that if I were to work there, they would have me work 6 days a week, from 5am to 7pm. I asked why they start so early and they asked “why do you think?” I said, well, maybe to avoid traffic, or maybe because that’s when shipments go out or something. They said those were good guesses, but wrong. The real answer was that they wanted to start early, because they were saving lives. “We LOVE our job. Why would you go home if you could save lives?” Ukulele guy continued on about how his job brings so much meaning to his life, etc.

Having enough of this weirdness, I decided to attempt to get the interview back on track, and asked about the actual job. I inquired as to where the footage was, and where I would be working. They said I would work right out with everyone else. I laughed, saying that that wouldn’t work, because I need a quiet, neutral spot to edit. They said that was a glass ceiling, and I would overcome it. I said no, that is not how editing works. I need a quiet spot so I can hear where to make audio cuts and things of that nature. They conceded that they could get me headphones. Thanks, guys.

From there, ukulele guy went into this whole tangent about how people come to this company and they hate it, and they want to quit, and their friends and family tell them to quit. But it’s all just glass ceilings, and if you stay, you will become a better person, and see that “they” were right, and you can achieve great things. Ukulele guy went on, stating that when he started, he hated the place. But he kept coming back, and "they were right. They were always right."

After a bit more of this weirdness, the CEO came back and we talked some more. He explained that his employees had a 900% turnover rate, and most people quit within the first week, and those who don’t quit in the first week usually quit within the first 3 months. The CEO also made a big point of the fact that his company does things his own unique way. As a result, people think he is like a dictator, which he accepted.

He then asked if I believed in absolute truth. This is a trick question that Christian apologists often use when trying to convince nonbelievers of some ultimate God. The trick is that if you say “no”, they then ask “is that an absolute statement” or “are you absolutely sure?” As not to fall for this potential trick, I said yes, but clarified that whether we have the absolute truth on anything is a different matter. Whatever the case, I thought it was an odd question for a video editing job interview!

The CEO then stated bluntly that a number of people have accused the company of being a cult—but clarified that they "obviously weren’t!"I laughed, and without thinking, said “well, isn’t that exactly what a cult WOULD say?”

As my laugh subsided, it hit me. The entire time, something had been off. Granted, the ukulele guy was really weird, and the questions were strange… but something about the place… something was just off and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Having been interested in religion and cults, and how cults work, I was ashamed that I didn’t realize it until THEY pointed it out: it was DEFINITELY some sort of cult! As soon as the CEO mentioned that, it just all fell into place… sort of an “OH SHIIIIIIIIIIT!” moment. All of the basic aspects of a cult were there, and I had been too distracted (or something) to see them!

-Veneration of the leader (“he worked for 7 years straight without a break. What have YOU done??”).
-Infallible leader (crazy sales tactics that apparently no one else knows about, and are THE ONLY WAY).
-Persuasive techniques (asking odd questions, trying to get to you to crack).
-Hidden agendas (wanting me to edit a video… but wanting me to start work at 5am, and work with the sales people?).
-Belief that THEY have the absolute truth.
-Guilt trip tactics if you leave (“we are saving lives. Don’t you want to save lives?”).
-Attempts to undercut your skepticism (“your family will say to leave, but they are wrong”).
-Promise of growth, transcendence, family, etc (“you will have a family, and learn about yourself and grow like you never thought you could”).

With that, the interview wrapped up and I left. I was told that if I was still interested in the position, to call them. I really did consider going back for a third interview, simply to have another funny story to tell. But at that point, seeing as I was convinced that it was some sort of a crazy cult, and I decided not to waste my gas driving across the state for another interview at the crack of dawn. Whatever the case, it was definitely the most bizarre experience of my life. A good story though!

Evidence of the madness: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Zakie Effect: Why Less is More

In 2003, a government contracted photographer set out to take pictures of the California coastline, in an attempt to document coastline erosion. When the photographer completed the project, he put the 12,000 pictures up on his website. However, one of his pictures happened to have Barbra Streisand’s house in it. Streisand didn’t like that there was a photo of her house on the internet, and tried to file a lawsuit to get the photo removed. Now, before the lawsuit, the photo had been downloaded six times (twice by her lawyers). However, once word got out, over 400,000 more people decided to check out the photo. Streisand tried to control something, and ended up losing more control in the end.
In 1986, FOX started airing the show “Married… with Children.” The first season of the show did terribly, and was rated #142 in terms of most watched shows that year. In 1987, it did a little better, jumping up 26 spots to #116. However, during that season, one episode offended a woman by the name of Terry Rakolta. She decided to lead a boycott against the show, petitioned advertisers to drop their sponsorship of the show, appeared on talk shows and generally just went around saying how awful the show was, calling for it to be cancelled.
Before this attempted boycott, the ratings were terrible. However, after Rakolta went around telling people not to watch it, demanding it be cancelled, the ratings for the 1988 season skyrocketed (going from a rating of 4.7 to 10.5), and it went from the 116th most watched show to the 58th. Not too bad! Rakolta tried to get the few people who were watching the show to stop watching it, and inadvertently caused more people to check it out.
Several studies have taken a group of cigarette smokers, and divided them up into three groups. One group would act on any urge they had to smoke, the second group would try and suppress their urges, and the third group was the control and just acted normally. At first, it seemed that the group who suppressed their thoughts about smoking were improving. However, as time went on, their cigarette usage came back with a vengeance, and surpassed that of the other two groups. Trying to suppress the urge to smoke actually make people smoke more!
When researchers asked volunteers to hold a pendulum and keep it steady, they did alright. But when the volunteers were told “don’t let the pendulum swing left to right” they saw that the pendulum would swing left and right much more than before told not to let such a thing happen. Other research has found that trying to relax will make you more stressed. Telling yourself “don’t forget X” will make you forget it, and consciously trying to be fair will result in people being more prejudiced.
The common theme here is clear: the more control you try to exert on something, the less control you end up having. I liken it to trying to hold Jell-O in your hand. The tighter you grip it, the more it will slip through your fingers.
For years I tried to find a name for this phenomenon. I've asked psychologists, neuroscientists, searched the web, posted questions on relevant internet forums, etc. Despite all my efforts, I couldn’t find a term, theory or concept that explained this tendency. I thought it was odd, seeing as it isn’t exactly a brilliant or overly clever observation by any means. Finally, about a year ago, an ex-girlfriend of mine (who happened to call me “Zakie”) said that I should just name it the “Zakie Effect.” So, I did.1 The Zakie Effect simply states that trying to control something will often result in you having less control of it.
Though, it turns out that I am not quite as original as I had thought. I later learned that these types of phenomena are indeed known, but the terms used to explain them don’t tend to cover as broad of a spectrum as the Zakie Effect does. For example, Ironic Process Theory states that trying to suppress thoughts (and by extension, actions) will make them more prevalent in the person doing the suppressing. Now, the Ironic Process Theory accounts for things like the pendulum experiments, the smoking experiments and other such examples where the subjects are attempting to suppress and control their own thoughts and behaviors. But it doesn’t account for people tending to pursue forbidden fruits and explicitly do what they are told not to do.
Likewise, the Streisand Effect is the term now used to account for the spread of suppressed information online. When someone tries to suppress/hide/remove information from the internet, its public exposure rises, and the information spreads even more widely than before.
The Zakie Effect does have a weakness though. It’s not a theory—it doesn’t explain anything. It’s simply an observation that comes with a prediction: the more you try to control something, the less control you will have. It also predicts, paradoxically, that the best way to actually control something is to “loosen your grip”, sort to speak. Let’s look at a few examples of this prediction in real life…
In July 2001, Portuguese officials realized that their country had a drug problem. At the time, Portugal had the highest rate of drug users in all of Europe, and something had to be done. Instead of taking a page out of the American “War on Drugs” playbook, Portugal did the opposite and decided to decriminalize drugs. They didn’t just decriminalize soft drugs like marijuana, they decriminalized everything. Crack, meth, heroin, etc. Instead of drug users going to jail, they were sent to “dissuasion clinics”, where they would meet with addiction experts who were careful to never say “don’t do drugs”, but instead would explain the risks associated with the drugs, and gave info as to how the user could seek help. That is, they changed their goal from trying to get people to stop doing drugs by criminalizing drugs, and criminalizing drug users, to just educating people, and helping people get treatment.
Of course, there were a large number of people (not just in Portugal) who predicted that the decriminalization of drugs would make Portugal into a drug oasis, and usage (as well as things like HIV rates) would skyrocket. But in fact, just as the Zakie Effect predicts, the opposite happened. In just about every group measurable, drug usage rates dropped significantly. Portugal now has the lowest rate of people who have ever tried marijuana, compared to other countries in Europe (10%).3 Among 9th graders, drug use dropped from 14% to 10%. HIV infections also dropped by a whopping 17%, and drug related deaths dropped by over 50%. The amount of people who went into drug treatment rose from 6,000 to 15,000.
The evidence is crystal clear: decriminalizing drugs, and taking the “forbidden fruit” aspect of it away has been enormously beneficial. 
Back in America, many adults have worried about the teen pregnancy rates. There were two schools of thought on how to battle this problem. One school said to teach the students that sex outside of marriage is immoral, psychologically damaging, and is something to be avoided. Of course, the other side argued that students should actually learn about sex so that if they do choose to engage in it, they will make smart, educated decisions.
Of course, as everyone knows, abstinence only sex education failed (and continues to fail) miserably. States that teach abstinence only consistently have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STDs in the country. Research also found that because of abstinence only education, the percentage of students reporting having ever engaged in sexual intercourse increased for nearly all ages between 13 and 17. The Zakie Effect strikes again!
Then there are examples of sex scandals in churches which are against sex. The Zakie Effect predicts that if the Catholic Church didn’t put such an emphasis on “priests must be abstinent”, the number of sexual abuse cases would be much, much lower.3

There are also tons of anecdotal examples that I see all the time. When a girl (or guy, it doesn’t matter) feels their significant other starting to pull away, and the girl then calls more often, tries to spend more time with the guy, etc, it just causes the guy to feel smothered and pull away even more. The girl tried to gain control of the relationship, and ended up losing it. Heck, just in regular dating terms, if you want to attract a girl, you are supposed to act uninterested. Acting (too) interested will make the girl lose interest. I am sure that others can think of numerous examples of the Zakie Effect that they have seen themselves.
Lastly, the Zakie Effect touches a bit in behavioral psychology (Behaviorism). Ever since BF Skinner started training his pigeons, we have known that when it comes to controlling and changing behavior, punishment is the least effective method that exists (punishment is the giving of something adverse when an unwanted behavior occurs, such as spanking a child for misbehaving),4 and the evidence for this is clear and overwhelming. If punishment did work, we would expect most abusive parents to have the best behaved children. Obviously, this is not the case. This also relates to the Portugal drug example. Instead of punishing people and telling them they shouldn’t use drugs, they found another method and had success.
In conclusion, when it comes to trying to control something, less is more. Relax your grip on whatever you are trying to control, otherwise it will slip through your fingers. It’s counter-intuitive and it feels like you are doing exactly the wrong thing, but I think I have made the case that this is what the evidence suggests is the best course of action.


1. Of course, it's entirely possible probable that this effect is actually known and has a name, and I just haven't been able to track it down yet. 
2. Meanwhile, 42% of Americans have used marijuana. 
3. While it is interesting that so many anti-gay preachers and politicians turn out to have some homosexual scandal, I don’t think that the Zakie Effect can account for that. Simply because the cases are not common enough, and it is more likely that these people just had homosexual tendencies to begin with. You don’t turn gay by telling people not to be gay. 
4. Though, this should not be confused with extinction, which means removing something positive to change an undesirable behavior. For example, taking away a child’s video games for misbehaving.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A History of Ridiculous Ideas: I Just Want to Fly

As a child, I wanted to be able to fly SO badly! I spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out ways in which I could pull of this task. I first experimented with plastic grocery bags, and jumping off my swing set. With that being a failure, I thought maybe I should jump off something higher, like the roof. Unfortunately, my parents wouldn’t let me get up on the roof to try. So that didn’t work out.

Back at the drawing board, I thought about all the people who could fly, and how they went about it. There were only three people that I knew of who could fly: Superman, Peter Pan and angels. I realized that unlike Superman, I was not a super hero, so that wasn’t going to work. I also realized that angels fly because they have wings. I didn’t have wings, so that option was off the table as well. The last resort was Peter Pan. The good thing about him was that he was just a normal boy, but was able to fly with the help of pixie dust. This was progress! Of course, I would first have to get my hands on some pixie dust, but soon as I did, I would be golden!

So how does one go about getting pixie dust in the late 1980’s? Well, there was only one person I knew of that could help me get “hard to get things.” Santa Claus! I knew that if I asked Santa, he would definitely bring me some, and I would then be able to fly. Hooray! Unfortunately, my attention was momentarily distracted by the Christmas Lego catalog, and I ended up asking for Legos instead of pixie dust. Blast! (Though, the Leogs were glorious.)

For a child, a year is a looooong time. Christmas seems to never come, so I figured that I had blown my shot at getting pixie dust, and went back to the drawing board. I still had no hopes of becoming a super hero, so the only other option was to get wings. Unfortunately, only angels have wings... so I wouldn’t be able to have wings unless, of course, I became an angel myself. How does one become an angel? Well, in my mind, you just die and go to Heaven. At the time I figured angels were just people who were now in heaven. I figured that if I just killed myself, I would go up to Heaven, get my wings, and then I could come right back down to earth. No big deal, right? I imagined my mom in the kitchen, and me floating down through the ceiling with my wings. I imagined that she would be so pleased with me! Her little Zachary has wings and can fly, what a clever boy he is! (I imagined I would look just like this kid, but with regular clothes.)

I didn’t know how I would go about killing myself, but I had some thought about maybe wrapping a coat hanger around my head. I am not sure what I thought that would accomplish, but I was just a little kid, so give me a break. I suppose it was lucky that before I tried to do this, I went and told my mom my plan. I don’t remember what her reaction was, but I do know that she dissuaded me from killing myself by lying to me. She told me that I already was growing wings. “See those bones that sort of stick out of your back [shoulder blades]? Those are your wings… and they are growing.” My mind raced, “WHY HAD NO ONE TOLD ME THIS!!!??” Very excited about this news, I would check my shoulder blades every day, hoping to see the wings starting to pop out. Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t actually growing wings (It might have been that my parents finally told me. I don't remember). Either way, I was quite disappointed.

I only had one option left. It was a long shot, but I thought I might able to will myself to fly. I remember sitting on the side of my bed thinking, “If I just think about it hard enough, I bet I can fly.” Nope. That didn’t work either.

And with that, all my ideas were exhausted, and I was forced to accept that even though I wanted it so badly, little boys just aren’t meant to fly.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Critical Thinking: Atheists VS Theists

Whenever there is discussions on theism (in this case, I will be talking mostly about Christianity) and atheism, the opposing parties tend to claim that the other side is irrational and subject to sloppy, uncritical thinking. In this blog post, I am going to go through a few critical thinking concepts and see how each side holds up. I am going to base my assessment off one of the best critical thinking book I have read, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” by Thomas Kida. The benefit of using this book is twofold. First, it doesn’t mention anything about atheism or religion to begin with (so there can't be claims of stacking the deck). Second, it highlights six main points, which means I don’t have to go through dozens of fallacies, etc. Basically, this will keep things relatively short and simple. The six “problems in thinking” that the book discusses are:
1 - We prefer stories to statistics.
2 - We seek to confirm, not question our ideas.
3 - We rarely appreciate the role of chance or coincidence.
4 - We sometimes misperceive the world.
5 - We tend to oversimplify our thinking.
6 - Our memories are often inaccurate.

1 - Are atheists or theists more likely to prefer stories to statistics? While both sides no doubt fall for this, when it comes to the topic at hand, theists dominate. This is most easily demonstrated with the belief in prayer. If you ask a theist for evidence of prayer, you will get a number of anecdotes.1 However, what you will not get is references to studies. This is not because studies haven't investigated prayer--quite the opposite. A number of studies have investigated prayer, but every well controlled, large scale study has shown prayer to have no effect. The most recent (and largest) of these studies was funded by the Templeton Foundation (a group that seeks to harmonize science and religion), so any attempt to claim that the study was run by atheists who somehow skewed the results is no good.

I can’t think of any example where atheists tend to prefer stories to statistics, at least in this context. For myself, I have been accused of being biased to the evidence simply because I prefer the statistics. So I think the clear winners (or losers?) are the theists.

2 - Next, we seek to confirm our ideas, rather than questioning them. While atheists are no doubt guilty of this (reading only one side of an argument, for example), theists blow the atheists out of the water. For example, the Talbot School of Theology has a statement of faith that proclaims, “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind.” Incredible! And Talbot is not the only school that has subscribes to such an idea. Likewise, the father of the creationist movement, Henry Morris, stated that “When science and the Bible differ, science has obviously misinterpreted its data.” All creationist organizations would agree with both statements. 

Stating that your view is 100% true from the get go, and any appearance of it being wrong is an illusion is pretty incriminating. I can’t think of any atheist, atheist group or even science organization that dares to claim it is 100% right, and any appearance of being false is an illusion. Even Richard Dawkins stated that on a scale of 1 to 7 (in terms of certainty of God not existing), he was only a “6 but leaning towards 7.”2

So while seeking to confirm your view is no doubt a human problem, and isn’t specific to theism, the theists take it to a whole new level, and unashamedly at that.

3 - We rarely appreciate the role of chance or coincidence. Humans find patterns in randomness all the time, and it is the basis for most psudosciences like ESP and astrology. Penn Jillette has pointed out that an event that has a one in a million odds of occurring, happens six times a day in New York City! In terms of appreciating these sorts of odds, how do theists and atheists fare? Well, theist's belief in miracles tips the scales. Whenever you hear of “miracle” stories, they are almost always about something that was just too improbable to happen without the assistance of the divine. Unfortunately, these miracles (often medical) are only about things that have a small chance of happening anyway. Cancer (for example) sometimes goes into remission. It’s not common, but it does happen. I guarantee that almost everyone who has been diagnosed with cancer has had at least a few people pray for them. Of course, a large number of the cancer patients will not be so fortunate as to have the cancer go into remission. Of the lucky few who do, some may attribute their good fortune to the prayers of their friends and family. Of course, this is just a misunderstanding of statistics

The atheists, on the other hand, don’t have anything in particular that they misperceive as meaningful (in fact, they are often chided as NOT seeing things like improbable healings as meaningful). So again, the theists are the guilty party.

4 - Often, we misperceive our world. That is, we see things that aren’t there. Things like mass hysteria, hallucinations and the will to want to see something in particular are all areas of this problem. Where do theists fall in regards to these? We have to look no further than bleeding statues, faith healers and other supposed miracles. In the early 1900’s more than 10,000 people claimed to witness the sun jumping all over the sky. However, they were also told to stare at the sun (looking away will cause an after image, making it appear that the sun was moving), and reported it as a miracle. There are many stories of people wanting to see a miracle, and basically denying commonsense to hold on to the belief in it. 

If there is something similar that applies to atheists, I am not aware of it.

5 - Next, oversimplified thinking. This breaks down into a lot of areas surrounding how we are bombarded by information, which leads to either “analysis paralysis” or a false understanding of a situation. Unfortunately, as far as this discussion is concerned, none of that is relevant. And because of that, I can’t claim one party is more guilty than the other, so I am going to drop this one.

6 - Memories are not that great. Memories aren’t like a videotaped recording of what happened. They are so easily corrupted and influenced that it truly is amazing. Now, how does this relate to our topic? As for modern theists and atheists, it doesn’t so much. However, in the context of holy books, it is very relevant. The Christians believe that their holy texts are basically reliable. However, at least with the Gospels (the most important part!), they were written 30 to 70 years after the fact. And they weren’t written by eyewitnesses, or even friends of eyewitnesses. They were orally transmitted by friends of a friend of a friend of a friend, for decades, crossing over into a different language, before finally written down.3 Are we really to believe that these stories accurately reflect an event? You have to deny all of what science has taught us about how memories work in order for the gospel miracle stories to be even remotely believable.

As a close-up magician, it is truly amazing how much a trick can change in someone’s mind over the course of a few hours. Often times I would have someone come up to me, describe a trick their friend told them about (which I performed earlier), and want to see it. However, the trick described was not a trick I knew. As far as I could tell, was impossible! How much less accurate would the trick have been three decades later, being recalled by at least a fourth generation recipient of the story who speaks another language?

The fact that Christians have to base so much (all?) of their beliefs on things that are based on undoubtedly inaccurate memories means they take the cake for this final section. As far as I can tell, there is nothing regarding faulty memories that atheists would be necessarily prone to, or that they rely on.


Atheists win. Of course, I am biased and it is possible I have fallen for a confirmation bias, and can only recall examples of theists making mistakes in judgment and conveniently forgot examples of atheists doing such things. However, I have taken quite some time to write this post, racking my brain for relevant examples of atheists making one of these six mistakes in thinking. But if I have missed any, I hope someone will point it out!

Some people also might also deny my conclusions. To those who do, I ask “how do you explain other religions with similar beliefs?” For example, if prayer only really works for Catholics, why do Protestants, Mormons and even Muslims believe in it? And why is it that they all use the same rationale?

Ultimately, I think that if one truly wants to be a clear, honest and critical thinker, being religious is going to hold you back. As we can see, basically all of it rests on fallacious thinking.

1. When confronted with the results of a prayer study, Bob Barth (director of the Silent Unity prayer ministry) stated that "We've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works."
2. The God Delusion, pg. 50.
3. Jesus and his followers spoke Aramaic, but the Gospels were originally written in Greek.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

What Are You Thinking? Why I Like To Stare At Pretty Girls

I like to think about thinking. So when I was messing around with a girlfriend, and she asked “what are you thinking?” it really got me thinking. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t thinking anything! There wasn’t one thought it my head. All I was doing was acting, not thinking. How could this be? How could I be involved in something so enjoyable, and not have a single thought in my head?

The issue didn’t stop there, though. I realized that even when I look at attractive girls, there is nothing going on in my head. The idea of “men constantly try to picture women naked” or “men think about having sex with every attractive girl they see” doesn’t seem to apply to me, and I am guessing it doesn’t apply to many other guys either. When I see an attractive girl, all I do is stare. There is no thought process whatsoever, I am just looking. End of story.

Why is this? Why do I want to look at attractive girls? Why is it that when I am looking, nothing is going on in my head? And lastly, why am I so good at spotting attractive girls? I can spot an attractive girl in a large crowd basically instantly. Why? How? In this blog post, I hope to answer that question. Though, keep in mind that this theory is based on complete speculation.

There are many, many processes going on in your head all throughout the day. However, for the most part, you (meaning your conscious self) are completely unaware of these processes. You are only aware of a very few things that your brain feels is important enough to bump up to the conscious you, so that you are aware of it. Things that are often important are things that generally relate to our survival, be it food, novel stimuli, a threat, etc. Your brain directs your attention to it, so that you can take the appropriate action. Many neuroscientists think of attention as being a very big part of consciousness, so whatever your brain calls attention to, you are conscious of.

Besides novel stimuli, threats and food, the male brain is also very interested in finding reproductively fit females. Men have evolved to want to reproduce as much as possible--propagate those genes!! As a result, men are very interested in finding attractive girls (which equates to good genes).

We know why men are interested in finding attractive girls, as it is beneficial to reproduction. First, let’s define “attractive girl.” Men across cultures and decades all agree on a few very basic aspects of what makes a girl attractive. One of those features is the size of her waist in relation to her hips. Very young girls have a high hip to waist ratio, as do older women. However, girls who are reproductively fit will have a low hip to waist ratio (the wider hips are necessary for child birth, so they communicate to men that a girl is the right age where she is able to have babies). Studies have been done on this, and it turns out that 10:7 hip to waist ratio is found the most attractive. So in terms of what men are “on the lookout” for, are women who have a 10:7 hip to waist ratio.

Now, onto the question of why guys are so good at spotting these curvy girls! We know that one of the things men's brains are doing, is constantly scanning the visual plane, looking for anything that could be worth directing the conscious mind’s attention toward. And seeing how important it is to reproduce, the brain would also be scanning for reproductively fit females. I imagine that the system that is scanning for them would be very finely tuned to finding attractive girls and bringing them to the attention of the rest of the brain. It is most likely that this system is actually overly sensitive, since it would be beneficial to have a false positive (thinking you see an attractive girl, and being wrong) rather than missing attractive girls because you didn’t see them.

So in terms of why men are so good at spotting attractive girls, it is because our brain has an overly sensitive system which scans the visual plane, looking for anything that fits a 10:7 ratio curve.

That is one question down, so what about why there are no thoughts going on in my head when I have spotted one of these lovely ladies? Well, all the system in question is doing is bringing your attention to the girl—hoping other systems will take over, and you will get the guts to go talk to her or something. But seeing as reproducing is so important—nay, the most important thing an organism can do, the system exerts a lot of energy to make sure you are noticing this girl, so you don’t miss her.

Ultimately, when I am just starring, not thinking of anything, it's because my “find pretty girls” system is going crazy, and it is putting all my attention on the girl. And seeing as that is all that that system does, my brain won't be coming up with any other thoughts.

That’s all I got.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Gay Gay is Gay: Political Correctness and the Evolution of Words

Language is an amazing thing. There are many reasons that it is so amazing, but one of the more obvious reasons is because of how fluid it is. Words come into existence (email), go out of existence (affuage1), change in meaning (“awful” used to mean amazing, or “full of awe”) and can even morph to fit other grammatical categories (google → googled, from noun to verb). And as every high school English student knows, it's amazing how much languages can change over a few hundred years (Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote → When April with his showers sweet with fruit)!

Now, the interesting thing with the examples I just listed is that their changes came about completely naturally. No one ever said “okay, let’s use the word ‘awful’ in a different way!” Much like biological evolution, linguistic evolution is a slow, unguided process. Here are a few other examples of words whose meanings have changed over time...

Nice - This comes from the Latin “not to know.” Originally a “nice” person was someone who was ignorant or unaware.
Artificial - This originally meant “full of artistic or technical skill.”
Manufacture - From the Latin meaning “to make by hand” this originally signified things that were created by craftsmen.
Bad - This once meant “a womanish-man” or "hermaphrodite."

However, when you do start to notice a change in word meaning, it can be quite annoying. Over the past few years, people have increasingly started to use the word “literally” to mean the exact opposite. For example, “I literally died of embarrassment.” And while it is annoying to hear people use the word that way, it is also fascinating, since we are witnessing a word slowing changing, right before our eyes.

However, there are also many examples of words whose meanings have been reappropriated by a group, in hopes of reclaiming it, and giving the word a different spin. This isn’t as successful as people tend to think, simply because we don’t really hear about words that haven’t successfully been reappropriated. However, some words have been embraced, and given a positive spin by the group they reference, such as: Geek, Guido, Jesus-Freak, Mormon, Nerd, Nigga and Redneck. Of course, people who don’t consider themselves as belonging to one of those groups probably wouldn’t care to be called one of those things2.

That brings me to my main point, which is about the word “gay.” As most people know, it used to mean “full of joy, merry, light-hearted, carefree.” Indeed, this was the main meaning from the late 1300's up until the mid 1900's3. However, in the 1400's, it also took on a meaning of immortality. By the 1600's, it had somewhat of a meaning of promiscuity, as brothels were referred to as “gay houses”, prostitutes were “gay women”, and womanizers were “gay men.” In the early 1800's, it meant “carefree” and then started to take on the meaning of “homosexual” in the 1940s. Finally, in the 1970’s, the homosexual community adopted it, and successfully reappropriated it.

The word “gay” really is a phenomenal example of the evolution of language, and just how diverse word definitions can be over time. However, it is also ironic that since a minority group has adopted it, there now exists a social pressure that tells us that we can’t let the meaning change again.

Political correctness tells us that using the word gay to mean “stupid” or “lame” is inappropriate, mean, offensive, insensitive, etc., since it is equating something bad with homosexuals. The problem here is that this is just another example of language evolving. Just as it has done many times in the past, the word is taking on a new meaning once again. It seems deeply hypocritical for someone to say “Yes, the word ‘gay’ has meant many things in the past, and it was recently adopted to mean homosexual. However, if the word changes again, and means something bad—that’s wrong.” Sorry, but you can’t change a word, and then get upset when it changes again, especially when the change is completely organic. One might argue, “Well, it’s not fair to take a word that describes an aspect of a person, and then let it mean something bad.” Well, this happens all the time, and there are numerous examples of words that we use which were originally used to describe something about a person, but now are meant as something negative.

For example, the words “moron”, “imbecile” and “idiot” were originally terms used by medical professionals to refer to different low IQ levels in adults. An idiot was described as an adult who was so mentally incapacitated that they were incapable of ordinary reasoning. An imbecile was an adult with the mental capacity of a 6-9 year old, and a moron was an adult with the mental capacity of an 8-12 year old.

Because of this, should we throw a hissy fit and boycott Napoleon Dynamite4, simply because the filmmakers are being insensitive to adults with a mental capacity of a newborn child? No, that would be retarded5. Likewise, should we get upset when someone uses the word gay to refer to something stupid? Only, it seems, if we want to be hypocrites.

As I observe political correctness in action, it seems that the majority of it is centered around a quibble over semantics, as well as the belief that there is some deep atrocity being committed if someone is offended by something. Being offended is part of life, and no one has the right to constrict how someone speaks, simply because they are offended by it. As an atheist, I am part of the second least liked group of people in America (Scientologists are first6), and I see/hear things that potentially offend me all of the time. Should I be offended if I sneeze and someone says “God bless you”? No. I realize that it is mostly just a figure of speech, and I don’t give it a second thought. And even if it did bother me, should I really expect everyone I come into contact with to adopt a language change so as not to offend me? Of course not. To make a fuss about it would only embarrass myself and make me look hypersensitive and entitled.

Likewise, some people feel offended if they are not addressed in the proper pronoun. “Yes, my sex is male, but I identify as a woman, so please refer to me as in the gender neutral term ‘ze’”7, and feel this should be an option on legal forms and whatnot. This is simply absurd. It would be akin to me saying “don’t call me an atheist, call me a methodological naturalist” and insisting that any form that asks for your religious view have this option (as well as “strong atheist”, “weak atheist” “agnostic-atheist”, etc).

And just so people don’t think I am picking on homosexuals or liberals, conservative Christians have the same problem. Whenever a billboard goes up promoting a positive image of atheism, there is a huge uproar of people saying “I am offended by that! I don’t want to see it when I drive to work every morning”, and demand that it be removed.

The best way to deal with this is not to try and control how people use a word, (as this sort of thing tends to have the opposite effect8) but to just realize that language isn’t something you can control, and trying to manufacture linguistic changes is almost always an exercise in futility. Remember, if someone offends you, that is not a crime, and if a word offends you, it’s in your best interest to get over it. Being offended is just part of living with people who have different opinions. Deal with it.

I assume everyone will understand that the title of this blog post is a point of showing how many different meanings the word "gay" has assumed over the years. How anyone chooses to interpret its meaning is up to them.
1. It meant “the right to cut wood in a forest for a family fire," but stopped being used in the mid 1800’s.
2. This raises the question, have these words successfully been reappropriated if they are only viewed positively by the group they refer to?
3. While the origin of gay is disputed, it may originate from the 12th century, in which it meant “beautiful and well dressed.”
5. See what I did there, eh!?
6. However, it seems to depend on the options that the survey taker is given. A survey done in 2006 found that atheists are the least trusted group out of all minority groups, including immigrants, gays and lesbians, conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims.
7. There are a number of different “gender neutral pronouns” that have been introduced over the years by different groups. These terms include Ze, Co, Phe, Hy, Ot, as well as others. As you can tell by the list, none have succeeded in making a dent in popular culture. Though, trying to introduce any sort of manufactured language generally fails completely.
8. Ironic Process Theory states that trying to suppress certain thoughts just makes them more persistent!