How to Raise a Rationalist Kid

In honor of Father’s Day, I talk about the things Jesse’s and my parents did that helped make us intellectually curious and interested in rationality.

Pick a name for a rationality non-profit!

ImageMy new job is basically my dream job: I just moved to the Bay area to help launch a non-profit devoted to teaching rationality.

But we need your help settling on a name. We’ve got it narrowed down to three contenders; click here to vote for your favorite. Thanks!

The Simulation Hypothesis and the Problem of Evil

ImageIn this special live episode recorded at the 2012 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, Massimo and I discuss the “simulation argument” — the case that it’s roughly 20% likely that we live in a computer simulation — and the surprising implications that argument has for religion. Our guest is philosopher David Kyle Johnson, who is professor of philosophy at King’s College and author of the blog “Plato on Pop” for Psychology Today, and who hosts his own podcast at Elaborating on an article he recently published in the journal Philo, Johnson lays out the simulation argument and his own insight into how it might solve the age-old Problem of Evil (i.e., “How is it possible that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and good God could allow evil to occur in the world?”). As usual, Massimo and I have plenty of questions and comments!

Rationally Speaking Episode #59

My kind of protest sign

Via Occupy Sanity, on Facebook:

And how about a: “Two, four, six, eight! And if you could please register your studies ahead of time to combat publication bias, that would be great!”


Thoughts on science podcasting: A dispatch from ScienceOnline 2012

I’m in Raleigh, NC this weekend for the sixth annual ScienceOnline un-conference, a gathering of 450 scientists, writers, bloggers, podcasters, educators, and others interested in the way the internet is changing the way we conduct, and communicate, science. My contribution was this morning — I moderated  a discussion on science podcasting with Desiree Schell, the eloquent host of Skeptically Speaking. We made a nicely complementary team. Her podcast is live, whereas mine is pre-recorded; hers is solo; whereas mine is a dialogue with a co-host; hers focuses on the practical applications of science to people’s lives and pocketbooks (e.g., the common cold, the claims of the cosmetics industry, etc.), whereas mine is more abstract and philosophical. So our combined perspectives overlaid together created a kind of podcasting guide in 3D.

A few highlights:

What’s your niche? There are a lot of science and skepticism podcasts out there already, and Desiree and I both agreed that you need a well-defined “niche” in mind if you’re going to start your own. Maybe it’s a topic  you think isn’t being covered enough, or it’s not being covered the way you think it should be, or maybe it’s a group you want to give a voice to. But there should be some reason your podcast exists other than the fact that you want to do a podcast.

For example, I consider Rationally Speaking’s niche to be in the philosophical implications of science. So instead of just covering topics like irrationality, or the science of love, we also try to hash out questions like, Why should we try to overcome irrationality? Does it actually make us happier, and what are the ethical implications of trying to make other people more rational? And if we understand the science of love, does that change our experience of love?

And then our other niche is the question of what constitutes good evidence for a claim: To what extent do fields like evolutionary psychology, string theory, and memetics make testable predictions, and if they don’t, can we have any confidence in their claims? Can we ever generalize from case studies? How do we know which experts to trust?  A lot of skeptic podcasts and blogs highlight claims that are unambiguously pseudoscience, but I think Rationally Speaking specializes in the murkier cases.

The outline versus the map: Desiree and I talked a lot about how to make podcast interviews and conversations go smoothly. When I first started doing Rationally Speaking, I would come into our tapings with a mental outline of the topics I wanted to cover, arranged in a nice order that flowed well… and as it turns out, that’s fine for when you’re giving a lecture, solo, but it just doesn’t work when you throw other people into the mix. You don’t know what topics your guest is going to bring up that call for follow-up, and I never know what direction Massimo’s going to take the conversation in. And the problem with  having an outline in your head is that once you diverge from that outline, you have no instructions for how to get back onto it.

So what I’ve settled on instead is more of a loose, web-like structure in my mind, where the topics aren’t in any set order, but for each topic, I’ve thought about how it connects to at least a couple of other topics. That way, wherever the conversation ends up, I have this map in my head of where I can go next.

Why a podcast at all? For that matter, you should really have a reason to do a podcast rather than write a blog. Podcasts have some significant downsides, compared to blogs. On the production end, they’re a hassle to record and edit, compared to writing a post, and they commit you to a specific length and schedule. On the consumption end, they’re inconvenient in that you can’t skim them at your own pace, you can’t skip down to another section, and you don’t get links or pictures to supplement the content.

But sometimes they really are better than a blog post. I think that’s especially true for treating controversial or multifaceted topics, the kind we look for in Rationally Speaking – hearing people debate a topic is far more engaging than reading one person’s point of view. Also, as Story Collider’s Ben Lillie pointed out during the conversation, listening to a science podcast creates an intimate connection to the scientist – when you’ve got headphones on and you’re hearing the scientist’s voice as if she’s right there with you, it takes barely any time to get a taste of her personality. And science could always use a little more humanizing.

RS#40: Q&A with Massimo and Julia

The latest episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast is a special one-hour Q&A, in which Massimo and I answer selected questions from our listeners. In this installment the topics include: What would we teach in a class on critical thinking? What are our views on on analytic vs. continental philosophy? Is it ethical to take advantage of a drought to sell water at marked-up prices? How do we compartmentalize our rationality? How does modern technology affect the way we think about things? What is, or should be, the primary purpose of our species? And is there really a rational argument to prove the divine origin of the Bible?

The Ethics of Paranormal Investigation, Part 2 of 2

A continuation of my discussion about the panel I moderated at The Amazing Meeting, on the ethics of paranormal investigation:

The Ethics of Paranormal Investigation, Part 1 of 2

Today we end our first hiatus (which turned out to by much longer than we’d planned — apologies, dear readers!) with the first of a two-part video blog. It’s a discussion of the panel I moderated at TAM9 this year, titled “The Ethics of Paranormal Investigation.” Topics include: Is it acceptable to use deception in the course of unmasking someone else’s deception? What do you do when the person claiming paranormal powers is a child? How much do you feel obligated to ensure the confidentiality of the people you’re investigating? And do you have any responsibility, as a mentalist or magician, to make sure your audience understands what you’re doing isn’t real?

I feel ya, Gureckis

I’m feeling a deep sense of camraderie right now with Todd Gureckis, a psychologist at NYU. That’s because a couple of weeks ago, senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a report titled, “Under the Microscope,” scrutinizing the funding decisions of the National Science Foundation and complaining about what he felt was a waste of taxpayer money on many frivolous research projects — one of which was Gureckis’. “Armed with a $1 million grant from NSF,” Coburn wrote, “researchers at Indian (sic) University-Bloomington and New York University analyzed baby names to determine trends in parents’ naming decisions.”

The paper in question, co-authored with Rob Goldstone, is called, “How You Named Your Child: Understanding The Relationship Between Individual Decision Making and Collective Outcomes.” Gureckis was surprised at Coburn’s criticism, and responded on his website:

“The Coburn report makes it seem as though this research spent money to determine the frequency and popularity of names… Had those developing this report actually looked the research paper they were criticizing, they would know that we were not specifically interested in baby names except in so far as they offer a unique opportunity for studying such the impact of social influence on decision making. We all know that iPhones are popular but the underlying reasons for this cultural success is distorted by the role that advertising budgets and existing computer technologies play in determining which ideas win out and which die off in the consumer marketplace. In contrast, the popularity of names is more organically determined by processes of social influence (there is no company out there trying to convince you to name you child something in particular). Baby names thus represent an important and relatively “pure” empirical test of theories of cultural transmission and social influence in large groups.”

Now of course, I’m not an NSF-funded researcher being criticized for frivolity. But the reason I felt so much camraderie with Gureckis after reading about his situation was because this sort of thing happens to me all the time — I’ll bring up a particular case as a way of shedding light on a general principle, and the people I’m talking to focus on the particular case and ignore the general principle.

For example, I’ve tried a couple of times to start a discussion about the difficulties of measuring happiness, and I’ve begun by citing the fact that most parents claim to be very happy that they have children despite the fact that research shows parents are less happy, on average, than non-parents. So that points to this really interesting tension between two ways of measuring happiness (how satisfied are you when you consider your life overall, versus how happy do you feel on a moment-to-moment basis) that apparently can contradict each other, and raises the question of whether one is “wrong,” and if so, which?

At least, that’s the discussion I keep wanting to have. But I never get to, because the thread always turns into a debate about having children, with commenters testifying about how happy they are that they had kids and how the parenting-skeptics are missing out.

“They love it when you shuffle the words around.”

The TV show “Community” is set among the goof-offs and layabouts of the fictional Greendale Community College, but each individual episode uses that setting to stage a high-concept satire or parody, of anything from conspiracy theories to narcissistic directors to mafia movies. One of their recent episodes satirized political elections — an easy target, admittedly, and one that’s been shot at plenty already, but I thought Community’s take was a particularly fun one, because of the silly heights to which they took things.

Briefly: the school dean has just learned that vice president Joe Biden is coming to visit Greendale that afternoon (as part of his folksy-yet-progressive “Biden’ Time Talkin’ ’bout ‘Teachin’” tour around America’s colleges), and that Biden wants to meet with the student body president. Greendale has none, because no one ever bothered to elect a student government, so the dean decides to hold some last-minute elections.

Annie Edison, the fresh-faced idealist, jumps at the chance to run for student body president so that she can make some much-needed changes around the school, like cleaning up the black mold that’s been taking over the stairwells. In response, cynical Jeff Winger decides to run against her — not because he cares about politics, or about Greendale, but simply to prove to her that politics is a charade.

The campaign scenes will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a political debate.

Annie: “I just want to clean up Greendale.
Jeff: “Are you saying Greendale is dirty?”
(audience boos at Annie)
Annie: “Well — of course it’s dirty. Everyone knows that.”
Jeff: “I don’t, Annie. I think it’s clean. I think it’s the cleanest school in the entire country.”
(audience cheers for Jeff)

Eventually, the debate degenerates into two candidates trading catchphrases:

Magnitude: “Pop-pop!”
Leonard: (blows a raspberry)
Magnitude: “Pop-pop!”
Leonard: (blows a raspberry)


Not a bad representation of the elevated level of political discourse in our country, really.

Anyway, one of the jokes that struck a chord with me was something Jeff says when the candidates are asked what they’ll do if elected.

Jeff: “What will I do if elected? Well, Dean, these people don’t want me to say what I’ll do. (dramatic pause) …They want me to do what I’ll say!”
(cheers from the audience)
Jeff (smugly, to Annie): “They love it when you shuffle the words around.”

I’ve long been suspicious of rhetorical devices. Of course, just because someone uses one, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re trying to pull a fast one on me, but it does instantly put me on my guard. And the swapping-words trick is one of my particular pet peeves. I’ve noticed it not only in speeches, but in idioms in general, which serve as a kind of folk-wisdom for our culture.

You might assume that the fact that certain idioms get passed on time after time might constitute some evidence for them being true — it’s not unreasonable to imagine a kind of Darwinian selection of idioms, in which the accurate idioms survive and get passed on, while the inaccurate ones die out. But the picture becomes more complicated when there are other factors influencing an idiom’s survival besides its accuracy. For example, whether it sounds good.

And there is something about that word-swapping pattern that mimics the sound of wisdom. I can think of a number of other examples off the top of my head — for example, “It isn’t about the size of the dog in the fight. It’s about the size of the fight in the dog!” Or, “Happiness isn’t about being with the one you love. It’s about loving the one you’re with.” But of course, mimicking the sound of wisdom isn’t the same as being true. So it’s helpful to learn to recognize the sound of mimicry, and take an extra hard look at the statements it’s coming from.

In closing, I also have to include this bonus clip of the election coverage from this episode of Community. Troy and Abed provide a pitch-perfect satire of the fast-paced but inane patter of news networks covering the electoral race:

Troy: This election’s becoming a real horse race! According to our polls, the campus is almost evenly divided. Now keep in mind, the margin of error on this thing’s about 98 percent.”
Abed: “Could be higher. We don’t even know how to do margins of error. We talked to two people at a vending machine.”


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