'When the facts change I change my mind' and so should you.

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It’s finally over now.

Again, I say thank you to everyone for all your support and interaction over the years, it’s been fun and engaging.

I should also note that at some point in the future, when the time is right, I plan to return to the world of blogging but until, and unless, we meet again I say keep learning, push back against nonsense wherever you find it and try to be rational.

Skeptically yours,

- Marcus

Game Over Man, Game Over!

This blog has ended.

I’ve been dreading this day for some time now but the time has finally come.

Truthfully, this end is long overdue as for well over a year, but particularly in the last 6 months, health problems and my interests have converged to make my contributions here quite infrequent.

However, I’m not going to delete this blog and it will stay in all its flaws in perpetuity (or at least until Tumblr shuts down). I’m keeping the account as a passive medium for reading Tumblr. I will leave my inbox open for questions for one week and will answer every question I receive in the time. After that time I will make my very final goodbye.

Thank you to everyone who has read and shared my posts with others over the years. Hundreds of you have liked and reblogged my thoughts, dozens have sent me personal messages of appreciation and I even got to know a few of you personally, all of which made my stay here well worth it. I’ve grown and learned quite a lot since I first started this as an aimless adventure but it’s just time for me to do different things.

 - Marcus

Hidden Gods and Billionaire Bachelors

For millennia humans have pondered the most profound of all questions: What do Bill Gates and god have in common? If you, like me, guessed being a retired monopolist then according to Michael Rea, and cosigned by Victor Reppert, you are wrong:

Suppose Bill Gates were to go back on the dating scene. Wouldn’t it be natural for him to want to be with someone who would love him for himself rather than for his resources? Yet wouldn’t it also be natural for him to worry that even the most virtuous of prospective dating partners would find it difficult to avoid having her judgment clouded by the prospect of living in unimaginable wealth? …But, of course, Bill Gates’s impressiveness pales in comparison with God’s… Viewed in this light, it is easy to suppose that God must hide from us if he wants to allow us to develop the right sort of nonself-interested love for him.

You see, god can’t make it too obvious because we might all be golddiggers. The problem with this analogy, other than Gates generous philanthropism making god look bad, is that it conflates believing in god and accepting god as just or worthy of worship. Rea highlights Biblical passages supporting his cause while ignoring that, depending on a believer’s individual theology, Cain, Lucifer, demons, etc. knew of god but chose not to obey even in the slightest way. Clearly then these are these are separate issues.

Besides making for easy bad jokes, arguments like this reveal the ubiquitous plague in theology that is failing to think probabilistically. Rea argues divine silence isn’t a problem because divine silence “might just be an expression of God’s preferred mode of interaction” which could actually be true. Accepting for the moment that Rea’s version of god is possible, it could be true that such a being exists, wants us to love it but refuses to provide substantial evidence but if you are being rational you can’t just assume that because it’s possible it’s true.

You must weigh this “or else it wouldn’t be true love” response to divine silence against competing hypotheses like a god exists but doesn’t want a relationship with humans and—gasp—that no gods exists so divine hiddenness is really just an expression of there being no gods. Without a strong reason to believe Rea’s counterfactual is true, divine hiddenness must lower the probability of his particular god hypothesis in relation to these alternatives because his theory doesn’t predict that evidence and other theories are far superior at accounting for this evidence.

I am a Simpleton, Therefore Your Argument is Invalid

Shorter Hans-Hermann Hoppe: “If you feign ignorance of basic economic concepts you can win debates by appealing to the stupidity of the audience.”

This is (dated) via Noah Smith who explains the the economic problems with Hoppe’s tactic but belief in the prowess of ignorance to win an argument is not exclusive to Hoppe and certainly not to economics. Normally though this type of ignorance isn’t advocated by a professor emeritus rather it’s shouted by heckling creationists saying “If evolution is true how come you can’t put a gorilla in a cage and turn it into a person?” (Which, by the way, I was once asked by a relative).

As Smith points out if all knowledge must conform to common sense you could also say:

"Explain how you can possibly float just by heating up the air in a balloon. If this were the case, couldn’t our tea kettles levitate?"

"Explain how you can possibly stay healthy by washing your hands with water. If this were the case, wouldn’t people who drank out of rivers never get sick?

This is a similar to the often deliberate misunderstanding which leads some people to conclude we must accept arguments with intuitive premises. It’s as if some people think “If a child wouldn’t believe it, then reality can’t be that way.” is a valid argument.

The Self-Defeating Nature of Modern Conspiracism

The first rule of the conspiracy theories is you need neither expertise nor information to jump to incorrect conclusions. So it comes as no surprise immediately following the first reports of explosions in Boston some conspiracists, including infamous radio host Alex Jones, began claiming it was a false flag action.

Just as the last time a national tragedy sparked the conspiracists to claim nonsense, I have no intention of debunking the individual claims of these conspiracists (though Snopes is already on the case) but rather I think it’s worth highlighting a glaring flaw in their worldview which even I usually overlook. If these people think essentially all tragedies are today are part of a conspiracy what about historic acts of terrorism and mass violence?

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Terrorism Makes Us Irrational

In the wake of yesterday’s bombings the tendency of terrorism to exploit our cognitive biases is worth examining. Though frightening, terrorism is quite rare but like state lotteries, it exploits our tendency to think in possibility instead of probability. We just don’t scale our emotional response to danger based on the actual frequency of casualties but rather are greatly influenced by the availability heuristic. If it’s easy to think of examples of some event we tend to judge its frequency as higher than it is in reality.

Because of this tendency to overestimate the likelihood of high-profile events, as terrorist attacks tend to be, we can have significant distortions in our decision making. In one famous study participants were asked how much they were willing to pay for insurance coverage of death by terrorist attack and it was more than how much participants were willing to pay for it is for insurance which covered death by any cause, which necessarily includes death by terrorist attack. Obviously, this is irrational and highlights the need for calm reflection when considering the response to highly emotional and vivid events like terrorist attacks.

In fact, if you live in the U.S. the chance of dying by lightning strike is similar to the chance that you’ll die in a terrorist attack and, a case could be made, it is only because terrorism plays on some of our greatest cognitive failures that we pour vast resources into preventing the latter but not the former. This is not to say we shouldn’t devote significant resources to preventing the risk from terrorism, only that we are likely to systemically overcompensate for that risk because of the shocking nature of such events.

We Are The 88%

…who do not believe shape-shifting reptilians taking the form of humans secretly control the world. That is according to a PPP poll out this week on conspiracies which revealed uncomfortably high levels of belief in conspiracies on everything from JFK’s death to belief in chemtrails.

However, because of the substantial list of totally unsupported claims needed to believe in David Icke’s theory of shape-shifting reptilians, that 4% of respondents think it is actually happening was most surprising to me (7% comically said they are not sure). Admittedly, this is just one automated poll of voters but I would have wagered a significant amount that such belief was less than 1% of the population (and thereby may have demonstrated the overconfidence bias). I’d thought these were outcasts among outcasts as even “THE FEMA DEATH CAMPS ARE COMING NAO!!!” radio host Alex Jones once belittled such claims as “asinine.”

To even begin to give credence to such claims first you must accept an Illuminati type conspiracy which would itself require tens of thousands of people to keep complete silence. Check. Then, despite there being no credible evidence for such creatures, you must accept either terrestrial or alien shape-shifting reptilian beings exist. Double check. Finally, you must believe, for reasons unspecified, that these creatures are using their, literally, comic book powers to control Earthly politics and as opposed to, say… you know, simply profit. Quadruple check.*

Admittedly this poll uncovered absurd levels of credulity and doublethink among the voting population—according to this data some of those who thought Obama was the anti-Christ still voted for him!—but to think that 1 in 25 people who actually vote are so far removed from reality should be terrifying for American democracy. At least you could say this about Icke’s followers, unlike most other conspiracists they may have come to the realization that the Cthulhu meets a Bond villain evil claimed to be behind these international conspiracies doesn’t exist among humanity. They just missed a bit on the conclusion that follows from that fact.


*Only an exponential scale could hope to keep up with the crazy here.

This Just In: Sky is Blue; Sam Harris Promotes Islamophobia

I didn’t realize Sam Harris’ blatant Islamophobia was still being disputed but, among others, Glenn Greenwald has stirred up a ruckus on the interwebs by pointing this out again.* Admittedly though I probably didn’t realize this because I long ago ceased caring about anything Sam Harris has to say about anything.

Nevertheless, the central point that Harris promotes an irrational levels of fear of Islam is one worth highlighting. Though I disagree with the Al-Jazeera article overt comparison between historical scientific racism and “new atheism” acting as a cloak for Islamophobia, there is little doubt that Harris advocates hysterical hatred for Islam. As Greenwald notes, position for position Harris aligns himself with the worse kinds of discriminatory policies against Muslims from banning the construction of mosques, to torture, to profiling, to gratuitous war (which he thinks Muslims should be grateful for!) and he even goes so far as to say the people making the most sense about Islam are fascists.

On a similar note, I’ve long since stopped paying attention to Richard Dawkins, and though much in the recent Salon article on the thinking “new atheists” is utter trash, pointing out, among other central signs of irrational hatred, Dawkins support for the reactionary site Islam Watch and far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders is lends heavy support to Dawkins as in the same camp with Harris.** Still, I hate to repeat the old cliche but such political views are not a consequence of atheism but stem from an independent understandings of morality and politics which every atheist must determine for themselves.

The only way this is a issue for atheists as a whole then is because Harris and Dawkins have quite a following so such views get more time and respect than they otherwise deserve. The problem is, much like the efforts to explicitly define the morality within atheist circles for the better, other than separation of church and state it makes no sense to declare atheist values. Being an atheist just doesn’t commit one to being a liberal or reactionary, so any effort to make all atheists, or at least organized atheists, shun someone for such political views is likely doomed to failure.


*Yes yes I know “Islamophobia” isn’t an optimally constructed word however “religionist against Islam” which would have been semantically more accurate sounds far more absurd and at this point it makes no sense to fight words well within common use.

**The last line is particularly laughable “Proving that a religion — any religion — is evil, though, is just as pointless and impossible an endeavor as trying to prove that God does or doesn’t exist. Neither has been accomplished yet. And neither will.” Ironically only someone who doesn’t understand reasoning or morality at all could advocate either position he triumphantly declares. This is nothing more than anti-intellectualism cloaked in the cover of emphatic agnosticism.

Appeals to a Tradition of Bigotry

When you are a jaded old, young person like me you learn to appreciate a novel argument and John Holbo has one with regards to same-sex marriage:

Grant, for argument’s sake, that contemporary arguments against same-sex marriage have been scrubbed free of bigotry. Doesn’t it follow that these arguments must not be traditional but, somehow, quite new?

All the old arguments were steeped in bigotry, after all. We can hardly maintain that anti-homosexual attitudes 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, were always already scrubbed free of bigotry to the high standards of “Will and Grace”. It’s hard to see how any argument against same-sex marriage that is genuinely traditional will not be a bigoted one, since it’s hard to believe it could be utterly disconnected from our traditions.

His logic is fairly straightforward, if the traditional reasons for position X is bigotry, then if you claim such tradition is the core of your position your position must then also be one of bigotry. However, if you reject the charge of bigotry, or irrational animus as the courts might call it, you also give up any right to claim your position is based on tradition as that was the defining feature of the tradition.

In other words, even ignoring the flaws with appeals to tradition, you can’t simultaneously claim an explicitly bigoted tradition as grounds for your current position without accepting such bigotry as normative but if you want to divorce yourself from such prejudice you also divorce yourself from the tradition you wish to invoke. This, I think, is an insightful observation and with implications far outside the realm of same-sex marriage. With a few nouns changed this argument could also apply to a range of social issues from sexual, religious and racial discrimination and even, as a commenter pointed out, to the current use of the Confederate flag.

So what to do when the tradition you are defending is one steeped in bigotry? You can 1) Own that bigotry or 2) Stop appealing to that tradition as a legitimate (let alone legally binding) reason to enact or preserve your chosen policy.

The Easter Truth Hunt

Every year on Easter I follow a bit of a ritual. First, I forget it’s Easter. Then, I am reminded of painting eggs as a child and finally I remember the Easter Challenge. In previous years I’ve been tempted to actually apply the Easter Challenge—an effort to try to get Christians to tell a coherent, sequential and complete narrative of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection without excluding anything from any of the four gospels—but now it seems I’m jaded on the point of the challenge.

While it’s usually worthwhile to point out obvious shortcomings, it seems to me that attempts at reconciliation for the Easter Challenge, and many other challenges presented to religious and pseudoscientific, miss the point of how we determine truth. Going from impossible as stated, and therefore extremely improbable, to possible as stated but still vanishingly improbable isn’t really an accomplishment . Still, some believers seem content in doing just that and those who would challenge them also seem to fail to realize determining truth needn’t be done—and normatively shouldn’t be done—solely in absolutes.

Imagine a prosecutor saying “The defendants stories flatly contradict on what happen and in the timeline of events. Therefore the stories can not all be true.” only to be challenged by the prosecutor who argues “I object! If you make highly improbable assumptions and selectively interpret their words it isn’t strictly speaking impossible, only highly improbable that their stories are all true.” No reasonable jurist would then think “…well so long as it’s not impossible that their stories are all true that’s a good reason to believe they are indeed true.”

Yet this exact game seems to play out, on repeat, for a plethora of unlikely claims. So instead of focusing on what is or is not possible (which is really only a nonspecific declaration that something fails to meet a certain probability threshold) when you explicitly think about the relative probability of claims harder to let proving the impossible get in the way of highlighting a claim is extremely improbable. When you do this, the point of the Easter Challenge fades away as proving something is not a billion to one odds against but a million to one still means there’s a 99.9999% chance that it didn’t happen and means, frankly, that it isn’t even worth considering seriously.