In a world dominated by magical thinking, superstition and misinformation, give yourself the benefit of doubt. This is one skeptic's view of the Universe.

"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

-George Carlin

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

-Albert Einstein

“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

-Carl Sagan

The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

-Christopher Hitchens

 

thenewenlightenmentage:

Human brain subliminally judges ‘trustworthiness’ of faces
Finding from brain scans adds to evidence that we make spontaneous, largely unconscious judgments of strangers
The human brain can judge the apparent trustworthiness of a face from a glimpse so fleeting, the person has no idea they have seen it, scientists claim.
Researchers in the US found that brain activity changed in response to how trustworthy a face appeared to be when the face in question had not been consciously perceived.
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thenewenlightenmentage:

Human brain subliminally judges ‘trustworthiness’ of faces

Finding from brain scans adds to evidence that we make spontaneous, largely unconscious judgments of strangers

The human brain can judge the apparent trustworthiness of a face from a glimpse so fleeting, the person has no idea they have seen it, scientists claim.

Researchers in the US found that brain activity changed in response to how trustworthy a face appeared to be when the face in question had not been consciously perceived.

Continue Reading

wildcat2030:

The social origins of intelligence in the brain
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A study of brain injuries in vets showed that brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning are also vital to general intelligence and emotional intelligence
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By studying the injuries and aptitudes of Vietnam War veterans who suffered penetrating head wounds during the war, researchers have found that brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning are also vital to general intelligence and emotional intelligence. This finding, reported in the journal Brain, bolsters the view that general intelligence emerges from the emotional and social context of one’s life. “We are trying to understand the nature of general intelligence and to what extent our intellectual abilities are grounded in social cognitive abilities,” said Aron Barbey, a University of Illinois professor of neuroscience, psychology, and speech and hearing science. Barbey, an affiliate of the Beckman Institute and he Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, led the new study with an international team of collaborators.

Studies in social psychology indicate that human intellectual functions originate from the social context of everyday life, Barbey said. “We depend at an early stage of our development on social relationships — those who love us care for us when we would otherwise be helpless.”

Social interdependence continues into adulthood and remains important throughout the lifespan. “Our friends and family tell us when we could make bad mistakes and sometimes rescue us when we do.

“And so the idea is that the ability to establish social relationships and navigate the social world is not secondary to a more general cognitive capacity for intellectual function, but that it may be the other way around. Intelligence may originate from the central role of relationships in human life and therefore may be tied to social and emotional capacities.”

(via The social origins of intelligence in the brain | KurzweilAI)

3 Inherent Human Traits that Religion Exploits

Whether religion is overrated or underrated is difficult to answer. But it’s intensely important to the personal lives of billions of people. I thought for a while about why this might be, and came up with three inherent weaknesses in human beings that religion exploits.

1. Fear

Probably the most basic emotion of all life on Earth. We’re no exceptions. If there is one thing that unites us all, it’s the fear of death – or more precisely, the state of ‘not living’. Religion gives us deliverance from that fear. Nothing to worry about, it says, your time here on Earth is nothing more than a prelude to eternal life in a different plane.

What evidence do we have of this? Absolutely none. But we believe, because for most of us, it’s unimaginable that our consciousness will one day cease to exist. Even though we only have to think of the vast stretch of time before our births to realize that it’s not only possible but is the norm.

2. Pattern and meaning seeking

Human beings are meaning-seeking animals. All external evidence suggests that the universe is essentially meaningless, and yet our minds tell us that there must be something to it after all. We think our lives follow a narrative, that everything happens for a reason, that there are such things as fate and destiny, that the future can be altered and controlled.

So we pray to our gods to keep us safe. We bribe them to make us richer or more successful. We thank them for the good things in our lives. We cajole, chide and blame. We worship.

3. Territorialism

To put it kindly, we’re natural classifiers. In this we’re no different to other primates, but thanks to our larger brains, we’ve taken it to a whole new level. Country. Skin colour. Gender. Appearance. Self versus the other. My kind of people versus your kind of people.

There are evolutionary reasons for this. In a hunting-gathering world where tribes often competed fiercely for resources, people had to be segregationist in nature. Brotherhood towards members of your tribe. Enmity towards members of the other tribe. We did it to survive. It’s built into our genes.

Religion stokes this trait by preaching universal love and unspeakable violence in the same sentence. The former is for within the group. The latter is reserved for the other groups.

A couple of quotes

I will leave you with two quotes. One by Epicurus:

‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?’

And another by Voltaire:

‘Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.’

Source

There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the virtually inescapable conclusion that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different. This research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety.

Social Psychologist John Jost (and fellow scholars)

(Source: alternet.org)

Religious Children Struggle To Separate Fact From Fiction

The ability of young children to distinguish fact from fiction varies considerably with exposure to religion, two new studies have found. Children who did not attend parochial (religious) schools or church were significantly better at identifying characters in religious or fantasy stories as pretend than those who did. The studies have been published in Cognitive Science.

Why we should celebrate the rise of atheism and secularity

Yes, the growth of atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, humanism, and other various manifestations of secularity in both the USA and around the world over the past 25 years is a decidedly good thing, for the following reasons:

1. We need more humans guided by reason rather than faith. We’re facing serious problems in the world today: global warming, increasing inequality, growing forms of fundamentalism, extensive human enslavement, international sex trafficking, impending genocide in places like the Central African Republic, corporation-led corrosion of democracy, violence against women, depletion of the rain forest, human rights violations, etc., etc. — and all of these problems can only be solved through rational understandings of their causes, solutions based on unbiased data and empirically-sound mechanisms, human creativity and compassion, international cooperation and willpower, and smartness, ingenuity, and know-how.

Ten million people praying ten million hours won’t do shit. Pleading to magic deities and invisible gods, or beseeching the spirits of dead ancestors, or fondling rosaries and misbaha, or anointing with oil and lighting candles, or performing exorcisms and slitting the throats of goats, or driving away the devil and ostracizing witches won’t help at all. Not one bit. So the more people we have who live their lives without such notions or entanglements, the better.

We need a humanity that relies most readily and most heavily upon scientific understanding, rigorous/critical thinking, and utterly sound reasoning, not faith. Now don’t get me wrong: religious faith has its place; it comforts many who have nothing else to rely upon, and it infuses the world with a mystical, spiritual, or, at least, quaint vibe. But it doesn’t help address social problems. For that, we need clear thinkers who don’t look to imaginary gods for assistance.

2. We need more cosmopolitansim and less tribalism/factionalism. Cosmopolitanism is the unflinching ideology that we are all one — that all racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, and other such groups actually belong to one single whole: humanity. And we are all bound together by a universal human morality. Secular humanism is deeply rooted in, and intractably wedded to, such cosmopolitanism. And this cosmopolitanism lends itself to a universalistic, global orientation that cannot divide between black or white, Brahmin or Dalit, Hutu or Tutsi, Turk or Armenian, Arab or Kurd, Thai or Hmong, male or female, etc., etc.

Religion — as history as well as today’s newspaper reveal — often divides humanity, unnecessarily and often savagely. Religion, more often than not, establishes deep us-vs-them fissures. Religion is truly one of the greatest creators and sustainers of in-group/out-group orientations. Christianity divides the world between the saved and the un-saved, those that believe in Jesus and those that don’t. Muslims are dangerously divided between Sunni and Shiite, and many believing Muslims consider all non-Muslims as something different (usually much lesser) than Muslims. Many devout Jews consider all non-Jews little more than, well, insignificant white noise.

Secular humanists, on the contrary, emphasize that we are all human, and that’s why it is more readily and logically cosmopolitan than religion.

Again, don’t get me wrong: many religions certainly seek to unify humanity (Bahai’ism is especially insistent on the one-ness of all humanity), and many secular movements have been far from humanistic or universalistic (hello Pol Pot) – and yet, the bottom line is that we need more humans who are not tied to the tribalism, particularism, and sanctimonious “we possess the Holy Truth and you don’t” embedded in most religious systems.

3. We need more humans who embrace the “here-and-nowness” implicit in atheist/secular consciousness. For those of us who don’t believe in heaven or hell, spiritual realms or magical kingdoms, past lives or planet Kolob, this world and this time constitute reality, in toto. This planet is our only possible home. This time is all we’ve got. Such an orientation fosters a deep attachment to and appreciation for the things of this world, and a hearty love for other people and other life forms sharing this blue orb along with us. Those who believe in or yearn for other realms (like the celestial kingdom) do not care as much about this earthly realm, which they see as merely transitory at best, or merely illusory, if not downright fallen. Such beliefs are certainly not helpful, and may in fact be quite harmful.

* * *

As a direct product of human culture, human psychology, and human experience, religion contains much that is noble, altruistic, just, and inspiring. It reflects many of humanity’s best aspirations and hopes. And the rituals, music, holidays, social bonding, family traditions, and all around heritage that one finds within religion are often wonderful, enriching, and enjoyable. But the actual tenets of faith of most religions — the supernatural beliefs, the gods, the messiahs, the prophets, the miracles — the sooner these wither and fade, the better. And so the fact that we see this happening today, in varying degrees, is a really good thing.

Memetics

Meme: an information pattern, held in an individual’s memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual’s memory.

Memetics: the theoretical and empirical science that studies the replication, spread and evolution of memes

Psychology explains why people are so easily duped

The science of “Truthiness”

True or false: “The Eiffel Tower is in France.” Most of us can quickly and accurately answer this question by relying on our general knowledge. But what if you were asked to consider the claim: “The beehive is a building in New Zealand.” Unless you have visited New Zealand or watched a documentary on the country, this is probably a difficult question. So instead of recruiting your general knowledge to answer the claim, you’ll turn to your intuition. Put another way, you’ll rely on what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” — truth that comes from the gut, and not books.

As a cognitive psychologist, I study the ways that memory and belief go awry: How do we come to believe that things are true when they are not? How can we remember things that never actually happened? I am especially intrigued by the concept of truthiness — how smart, sophisticated people use unrelated information to decide whether something is true or not.

For instance, in a classic study by Norbert Schwarz and Rolf Reber at the University of Michigan, people were more likely to think a statement was true when it was written in high color contrast (blue words on white) as opposed to low contrast (yellow words on white). Of course, the color contrast has nothing to do with whether the claim is true, but it nonetheless biased people’s responses. The high color contrast produced a feeling of truthiness in part because those statements felt easier to read than the low color contrast statements. And it turns out that this feeling of easy processing (or low cognitive effort) brings with it a feeling of familiarity. When things feel easy to process, they feel trustworthy — we like them and think they are true…..

How Astrology Is [kinda] Like Racism

Both astrology and racial stereotypes are based on a framework of belief that basically says: “Without even meeting you, I believe something about you. I can expect this particular sort of behavior or trait (stubbornness, laziness, arrogance, etc.) from members of this particular group of people (Jews, blacks, Aries, Pisces, etc.).”

When an astrologer finds out a person’s astrological sign, he or she will bring to that experience a pre-existing list of assumptions (prejudices) about that person’s behavior, personality and character. In both cases, the prejudices will cause people to seek out and confirm their expectations.

Racists will look for examples of characteristics and behaviors in the groups they dislike, and astrologers will look for the personality traits that they believe the person will exhibit. Since people have complex personalities (all of us are lazy some of the time, caring at other times, etc.), both racists and astrologers will find evidence confirming their beliefs.

Of course, astrologers are not racists. But the belief systems underlying both viewpoints are identical: prejudging individuals based on general beliefs about a group. If we do not assume that African-Americans are lazy, Arabs are terrorists, or Asians are scholastic geniuses, why would we assume that Cancers are emotional, Aries are born leaders, or Geminis are optimistic non-conformists?

Why Believing In Astrology Is Not As Harmless As You Think

From io9:
People who diligently follow their horoscopes may claim that it’s all just good fun. But on closer examination, this claim falls flat. Here’s why astrology is potentially damaging to our understanding of science, relationships — and even our place in the universe itself.

Astrology, though discredited for centuries, still remains wildly popular. Scarcely does a day go by when we’re not told of how our astrological sign is supposed to govern our behavior or predetermine the day’s events. Yet no explanation has ever been given — nor is one forthcoming — that can adequately explain the mechanism for which the alignment of the planets can influence our psychologies or the unfolding of the universe.

It didn’t help the astrological cause back in 2011 when an entirely new version of the zodiac was proposed, thus shifting everyone’s sign from its mythical original position. Indeed, the whole premise behind astrology is predicated on some rather flimsy parameters; what we call “months” are actually cultural — and not cosmological — constructs. Moreover, our expanding universe, and all that’s within it, is in a constant state of flux.

Anyways, I’m not going to waste your time by debunking astrology right now. For that I highly recommend Phil Plait’s comprehensive take-down, which you can read here. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to explain why astrology does you no good — and why putting any credence into your sign or horoscope is not just misguided, but potentially harmful.

Bad For Science, Bad For Women

A recent poll by the National Science Foundation showed that more than 40% of Americans think astrology is a science — a rather shocking result (and no, it wasn’t because respondents were conflating astrology with astronomy). Equally as frustrating is the news that it’s at its highest level since 1983. The NSF uses this survey as a kind of metric for “the public’s capacity to distinguish science from pseudoscience.”

Demographically speaking, and in the words of Chris Mooney, much of the blame belongs to “younger Americans, aged 18 to 24, where an actual majority considers astrology at least ‘sort of’ scientific, and those aged 35 to 44.”

Other surveys have shown that women are more drawn to astrology than men. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 28% of women believe in astrology, compared to 23% of men. In Canada it’s even worse, where 33% of women buy into it.

But as York University sociologist Julia Hemphill tells io9, there’s more to this statistic than meets the eye: women are specifically targeted by the popular media.

"Astrology is an unempirical epistemology that’s peddled to women as a way of understanding themselves and the world," she says. "All you have to do is open a ‘women’s magazine’, and you’ll inevitably see at least one or two pages devoted to astrology.

The same pattern, she says, is evident in television programming for women.

"While shows about ‘mediums’, and other supernatural phenomenon can be found on virtually any network whose mandate is to attract and keep the viewership of women, such shows are a rarity, if utterly nonexistent on the schedules of ‘men’s’ networks," she says. "These networks are more likely to air shows that tend to focus on actual science."

Hemphill says it’s reasonable to question the degree to which women are ultimately deterred from learning about and engaging in genuine science — particularly when they’re aggressively offered pseudoscience in its stead.

'A Dangerous Fatalism'

Astrology also gives rise to uncritical thinking. Astronomer Phil Plait puts it best when he says that

The more we teach people to simply accept anecdotal stories, hearsay, cherry-picked data (picking out what supports your claims but ignoring what doesn’t), and, frankly, out-and-out lies, the harder it gets for people to think clearly. If you cannot think clearly, you cannot function as a human being. I cannot stress this enough. Uncritical thinking is tearing this world to pieces, and while astrology may not be at the heart of that, it has its role.

Continued

Thirteen Common (But Silly) Superstitions

If you are spooked by Friday the 13th, you’re in for a whammy of a year. And it would come as no surprise if many among us hold at least some fear of freaky Friday, as we humans are a superstitious lot.

Many superstitions stem from the same human trait that causes us to believe in monsters and ghosts: When our brains can’t explain something, we make stuff up. In fact, a 2010 study found that superstitions can sometimes work, because believing in something can improve performance on a task.

Here, then, are 13 of the most common superstitions.

Despite how studies on the genetics of sexuality are represented in the popular press that either decry or redeem the genetic basis of sexual orientation, none of the research to date that espouses to have found the “gay-gene” (or, more recently the “male-loving gene”) are actually supported by a claim that one gene, and one gene alone, determines sexual orientation. Sexuality is complex, both as a biological component and a political identity. Our genes do not define who we are, and while certain genes may indeed be present, they may or may not be expressed depending on a whole spectrum of environmental and biological circumstances.

- Orphan Black Science Consultant Cosima Herter, “Variability and Perturbations of the Spiral Universe Inside Us” (x)

(Source: orphanblack)