24 November 2015

ISIS support in Muslim countries

A recent Pew poll shows little support for ISIS in Muslim countries. I don't know whether I should take heart from the low numbers. I'm a bit gobsmacked that around ten percent of many populations have somehow formed a favorable opinion of this group that kills virtually anyone outside their little community of psychopaths and cowed followers. Of course, the radical fringe in the U.S. and elsewhere believes all sorts of nonsense, which is all dandy if they confine their craziness to gazing at their smartphones or Internet porn all day without venturing out into meat-space to actually act on their warped world views. Watching the biographies of some of the key ISIS figures, I can't quite grok the typical jihadi narrative, these people who were, only months before, drug addicts and pimps and have suddenly seen the way and believe that become an Islamic knight in shining armor (with accompanying suicide vest) will somehow wash away all the puerile peccadilloes. I guess we humans, in the face of the immense suffering and transitory nature of life, can sometimes--in our weakest moments--grasp at anything that promises us an escape, whether it's a drug or utopian fantasy.

21 November 2015

Atheists in the U.S.

The Pew Center has an interesting report on the attributes of atheists in the U.S. Atheists tend to be young, white, liberal, Democrat, and (as one would expect) pro-science. Their numbers, albeit small, are also growing, rising from 4% to 7% between 2007 and 2014.

20 November 2015

18 November 2015

The magic megaphone

Tokyo Airport is apparently testing the Megahonyaku--a megaphone that translates Japanese into three languages (Chinese, English, and Korean).

16 November 2015

A comic plug

Existential comics is especially brilliant these days.

11 November 2015

Dennett, Pinker, and Harris on free will

Dennett, Pinker, and Sam Harris have short talks on free will.

Dennett and Pinker have some insightful clarifications of the issue. Harris is probably influenced here by Buddhist ideas about the skandhas but his ideas are hopelessly muddled as he adopts the dualism that he rails against. (You get the feeling of physical causes of mental states--a very naive view of science: psychological processes are simply an explanation of the same processes which can also be explained in terms of physical processes.) Pinker even falls into this briefly if we consider his language (his wording that psychological processes are "the product" of physical processes.)

I think a good place to begin with this question would be to start with a phenomenology of free choice. If we do that as the first step of a scientific investigation and then go on to investigate these processes with all the methodological tools are our disposal, we'd find that it makes perfectly good sense to talk about human choice, that there are physical correlates to psychological processes involving choice, that these correlates (along with the psychological processes) are bound up in cause and effect, and yet, from a phenomenological perspective, these processes are exactly what are involved when we experience choice and freedom.

Boycott Starbucks until they recognize Festivus!

4th GOP debate

Rubio memorizes his entire speech beforehand so he always sounds like an old-fashioned orator. It’s going to be hard for establishment politicians like Rubio, Bush or Kasich to get traction since the wacky “outsider” candidates (Trump, Carson, and Fiorina) are all following the conservative meme of trickle-down economics—the notion that cutting government and drastically cutting taxes (mostly to benefit the wealthy) will magically make the economy grow at remarkable rates lifting all in the economy.

There was a good exchange between Paul and Rubio when Paul attacked Rubio’s tax plan that offering tax-cuts for childcare.

The Fox News moderators point out the obvious that the tax plans would send the deficit skyward, but they should have worked harder to hold their feet to the fire. No sensible economist predicts the type of growth needed to offset the reduction tax revenues.

Fiorina gets the history of the bank-bailout right—explicitly blaming both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Trunp had a good screed on letting others police the Middle East. Fiorina and Bush both did their best to go after him. Paul’s line that it’s possible to be strong without getting involved in every civil war in the world was right on. He also accurately pointed out that America’s current batch of villains were people the U.S. formerly supported, and made the link (that's universally ignored) between high military spending and less security (due to increased federal debt).

One major gaff if the debate occurred when Trump ranted about China in the context of the latest trade pact, only to have Paul quietly point out that the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal doesn't even involve China. 

SC Democratic forum

Watching the first part of the Democratic forum in SC last night (I didn't make it to Hillary), the candidates were impressive, especially in contrast with the nuttiness of the Republican field. I always find Sanders likable in every way. Especially impressive is the fact that he's held smart positions on virtually any issue long before the position was popular. O'Malley made a number of good points and appears to have an impressive record as Maryland Governor. While comfortable in front of a camera, he comes off as a bit glib--body language that may turn off a lot of voters. Polling after the forum suggests that he didn't get as much lift from the debate as the other candidates. Of course, he's much younger so maybe the thought is that he'll run again later, having gained some national name recognition.

6 November 2015

Religious kids (especially Muslims) cast first stone

A paper that just came out in Current Biology suggests that children in nonreligious households are more altruistic and are less likely to judge wrongdoers harshly.

Summary: Prosocial behaviors are ubiquitous across societies. They emerge early in ontogeny [ 1 ] and are shaped by interactions between genes and culture [ 2, 3 ]. Over the course of middle childhood, sharing approaches equality in distribution [ 4 ]. Since 5.8 billion humans, representing 84% of the worldwide population, identify as religious [ 5 ], religion is arguably one prevalent facet of culture that influences the development and expression of prosociality. While it is generally accepted that religion contours people’s moral judgments and prosocial behavior, the relation between religiosity and morality is a contentious one. Here, we assessed altruism and third-party evaluation of scenarios depicting interpersonal harm in 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa), the religiousness of their household, and parent-reported child empathy and sensitivity to justice. Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies. Together these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior.

Looking at the paper's methodology, it isn't very convincing. There doesn't seem to be any attempt to factor out the effect of region as a moderator variable.