June 2008


From Meigs:

First Friday Freethinkers Group at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Saraota – All are welcome!

Due to the July 4 holiday, the meeting will take place Thursday, July 3. This discussion group has been formed with the goal of nurturing a social climate in accord with humanist, secularist, rationalist, and Unitarian Universalist principles. Both Bill Sorrell and Rick Sandler will tell us how they came to Unitarian Universalism. This will be followed by the topic: “The Battle For Your Mind: The Media’s Influence on the Public” presented by Rick Sandler. A discussion of the topic will follow. Suggested reading: “Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter,” by Rick Shenkman.

When: Thursday, July 3, 2008 (due to the July 4 holiday)
Where: Jefferson Room
Time: 10:00-11:30 am
Membership: Open to all
Questions: Call Tom Dente 921-1598

Sarasota UU, 3975 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34232

From the New York Times:

Your Brain Lies to You
By SAM WANG and SANDRA AAMODT

FALSE beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way.

The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his standing in the polls.

Even if they do not understand the neuroscience behind source amnesia, campaign strategists can exploit it to spread misinformation. They know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked. In repeating a falsehood, someone may back it up with an opening line like “I think I read somewhere” or even with a reference to a specific source.

In one study, a group of Stanford students was exposed repeatedly to an unsubstantiated claim taken from a Web site that Coca-Cola is an effective paint thinner. Students who read the statement five times were nearly one-third more likely than those who read it only twice to attribute it to Consumer Reports (rather than The National Enquirer, their other choice), giving it a gloss of credibility.

Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it.

In another Stanford study, 48 students, half of whom said they favored capital punishment and half of whom said they opposed it, were presented with two pieces of evidence, one supporting and one contradicting the claim that capital punishment deters crime. Both groups were more convinced by the evidence that supported their initial position.

Psychologists have suggested that legends propagate by striking an emotional chord. In the same way, ideas can spread by emotional selection, rather than by their factual merits, encouraging the persistence of falsehoods about Coke — or about a presidential candidate.

Journalists and campaign workers may think they are acting to counter misinformation by pointing out that it is not true. But by repeating a false rumor, they may inadvertently make it stronger. In its concerted effort to “stop the smears,” the Obama campaign may want to keep this in mind. Rather than emphasize that Mr. Obama is not a Muslim, for instance, it may be more effective to stress that he embraced Christianity as a young man.

Consumers of news, for their part, are prone to selectively accept and remember statements that reinforce beliefs they already hold. In a replication of the study of students’ impressions of evidence about the death penalty, researchers found that even when subjects were given a specific instruction to be objective, they were still inclined to reject evidence that disagreed with their beliefs.

In the same study, however, when subjects were asked to imagine their reaction if the evidence had pointed to the opposite conclusion, they were more open-minded to information that contradicted their beliefs. Apparently, it pays for consumers of controversial news to take a moment and consider that the opposite interpretation may be true.

In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Supreme Court wrote that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Holmes erroneously assumed that ideas are more likely to spread if they are honest. Our brains do not naturally obey this admirable dictum, but by better understanding the mechanisms of memory perhaps we can move closer to Holmes’s ideal.

Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton, and Sandra Aamodt, a former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, are the authors of “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.”

By Pat Condell on YouTube:

Sam Harris is looking for volunteers:

The Scripture Project
Volunteer Editors Needed

Steve Wells, the creator of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, Qur’an, and Book of Mormon, has donated the full contents of his website to the Reason Project. This is a very generous gift, as Steve spent the better part of a decade annotating these holy books and highlighted all passages notable for their historical inaccuracy, internal contradictions, scientific errors, absurdity, injustice, cruelty, sexism, intolerance, etc. (he also flagged the good parts).

At the Reason Project, we intend to refine Steve’s work in a section of our website entitled “The Scripture Project” where we will have religious scholars, historians, scientists, and other qualified people continue to annotate these texts on a Wiki. With the input of the right scholars, we are confident that the Reason Project website will quickly become the preeminent place for scriptural criticism on the internet. We are happy to say that Steve Wells will continue to supervise the Scripture Project as it moves forward.

In the meantime, however, we need help porting the full contents of the Skeptics Annotated Bible, Qur’an, and Book of Mormon over to the Reason Project website. Unfortunately, the entire process cannot be automated. We are seeking volunteers to help us edit each page of the Scripture Project Wiki to see that it correctly duplicates the parent-page on Wells’ site. This is a big job, but it will be quickly accomplished by a hundred or so volunteers. If you are familiar with adding to Wikis and are willing to donate a few hours over the next few weeks to the launch of the Reason Project website, we would be enormously grateful for your help (some knowledge of HTML would also be useful).

Instructions and relevant links can be found here.

All the best,

Sam and Annaka Harris

Interviewed by Nicholas Newman at Dawkins’ Oxford home 24 June 2008

Richard Dawkins is the well known advocate of atheism and rationalism and for his criticism of religion. He holds the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. I interviewed Richard Dawkins at his Oxford home recently.

Read the interview here.

Great headline.

From Sun-Sentinel.com:

TAMPA – Police say a man named God was arrested near a Tampa church for selling cocaine.

Authorities began investigating God Lucky Howard in April, and he was arrested on Saturday. Police say he sold the cocaine to undercover detectives in his neighborhood. When officers searched his home, they reported finding another 22 grams of cocaine and a scale.

Jail records show Howard was charged with several counts drug possession and distribution, which include increased charges for being within 1,000 feet of a church, a school and public housing.

He was being held on a bond of $86,500.

God’s charge report (with pic of God)

A new trend for proselytizing? Just brand the kids with a cross. That will “learn ’em” to be good Christians.

From AP:

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio (AP) — A public school teacher preached his Christian beliefs despite complaints by other teachers and administrators and used a device to burn the image of a cross on students’ arms, according to a report by independent investigators.

Mount Vernon Middle School teacher John Freshwater also taught creationism in his science class and was insubordinate in failing to remove a Bible and other religious materials from his classroom, the report said.

From the New York Times:

PARIS — The operation in the private clinic off the Champs-Élysées involved one semicircular cut, 10 dissolving stitches and a discounted fee of $2,900.

But for the patient, a 23-year-old French student of Moroccan descent from Montpellier, the 30-minute procedure represented the key to a new life: the illusion of virginity.

Like an increasing number of Muslim women in Europe, she had a hymenoplasty, a restoration of her hymen, the vaginal membrane that normally breaks in the first act of intercourse.

“In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said the student, perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery on Thursday. “Right now, virginity is more important to me than life.”

As Europe’s Muslim population grows, many young Muslim women are caught between the freedoms that European society affords and the deep-rooted traditions of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Gynecologists say that in the past few years, more Muslim women are seeking certificates of virginity to provide proof to others. That in turn has created a demand among cosmetic surgeons for hymen replacements, which, if done properly, they say, will not be detected and will produce tell-tale vaginal bleeding on the wedding night. The service is widely advertised on the Internet; medical tourism packages are available to countries like Tunisia where it is less expensive.

From New Scientist:

Brain scans have provided the most compelling evidence yet that being gay or straight is a biologically fixed trait.

The scans reveal that in gay people, key structures of the brain governing emotion, mood, anxiety and aggressiveness resemble those in straight people of the opposite sex.

The differences are likely to have been forged in the womb or in early infancy, says Ivanka Savic, who conducted the study at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

“This is the most robust measure so far of cerebral differences between homosexual and heterosexual subjects,” she says.

Previous studies have also shown differences in brain architecture and activity between gay and straight people, but most relied on people’s responses to sexuality driven cues that could have been learned, such as rating the attractiveness of male or female faces.

Brain symmetry

To get round this, Savic and her colleague, Per Lindström, chose to measure brain parameters likely to have been fixed at birth.

“That was the whole point of the study, to show parameters that differ, but which couldn’t be altered by learning or cognitive processes,” says Savic.

First they used MRI scans to find out the overall volume and shapes of brains in a group of 90 volunteers consisting of 25 heterosexuals and 20 homosexuals of each gender.

The results showed that straight men had asymmetric brains, with the right hemisphere slightly larger – and the gay women also had this asymmetry. Gay men, meanwhile, had symmetrical brains like those of straight women.

The team next used PET scans to measure blood flow to the amygdala, part of the brain that governs fear and aggression. The images revealed how the amygdala connected to other parts of the brain, giving clues to how this might influence behaviour.

Depression link

They found that the patterns of connectivity in gay men matched those of straight women, and vice versa (see image, above right). In straight women and gay men, the connections were mainly into regions of the brain that manifest fear as intense anxiety.

“The regions involved in phobia, anxiety and depression overlap with the pattern we see from the amygdala,” says Savic.

This is significant, she says, and fits with data showing that women are three times as likely as men to suffer from mood disorders or depression. Gay men have higher rates of depression too, she says, but it’s difficult to know whether this is down to biology, homophobia or simply feelings of being “different”.

In straight men and lesbians, the amygdala fed its signals mainly into the sensorimotor cortex and the striatum, regions of the brain that trigger the “fight or flight” response. “It’s a more action-related response than in women,” says Savic.

‘Striking differences’

“This study demonstrates that homosexuals of both sexes show strong cross-sex shifts in brain symmetry,” says Qazi Rahman, a leading researcher on sexual orientation at Queen Mary college, University of London, UK.

“The connectivity differences reported in the amygdala are striking.”

“Paradoxically, it’s more informative to look at things that have no direct connection with sexual orientation, and that’s where this study scores,” says Simon LeVay, a prominent US author who in 1991 reported finding differences (pdf) in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus between straight and gay men.

But as Savic herself acknowledges, the study can’t say whether the brain differences are inherited, or result from abnormally high or low exposure in the womb to sex hormones such as testosterone.

From Boing Boing:

“Order your Talking Jesus Doll now for only $19.99. Don’t miss this opportunity for your child to experience a direct connection with Jesus and the scriptures.”

The Talking Jesus Doll is a religious treasure that recites key verses from the Bible aloud. Just press the button and the Talking Jesus Doll speaks to your child. It’s a great way to create a personal connection between God’s word and your child.

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