Category Archives: Atheism

Web breaks echo-chambers, or, ‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’ – my remarks at #AAASmtg

As you probably know, I was in D.C. last week, attending the annual AAAS meeting. This was my second one (funny, back when I was a member of AAAS I was still in grad school and I could never afford to go – now that I am out of science, invitations are finally happening). It is an enormous meeting (about 8200 people this year, I hear) and I missed even seeing some of the friends as the space was so enormous and the program so rich.

Unlike last year, when I was in a session that made quite a splash, this year I was a part of a much more academic panel on Social Networks and Sustainability.

Organized by Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University, the panelists were Mrill Ingram (University of Wisconsin), Ken Frank (Michigan State University) and Adam D. Henry (West Virginia University). These are people from areas like sociology, people who make graphs like this one and understand how to properly interpret it:

My role on the panel was as a ‘discussant’, i.e., someone who does not give a separate talk but comments, at the end, on what the other panelists have said.

I am glad I got the materials from the panelists in advance as this was quite dense stuff.

Every scientific discipline invents new words – the terminology (or jargon) with precise meaning that is necessary for practitioners to talk to each other. For the most part, natural sciences tend to stick to agreed definitions, and counter-examples are relatively rare thus usually quite well known (e.g., the different use of the term “gene” by population geneticists vs. molecular geneticists).

Social sciences, on the other hand, tend to appropriate words from the existing English vocabulary and give those words new, precise definitions. Thus, possibility of misunderstanding by non-experts is greater. Also, some of the terms are defined differently by different sub-disciplines, research communities or even individuals, which makes it even harder to be sure one got the meaning correctly.

This all made reading the materials, as well as listening to the panel, quite challenging for me, the outsider in this field. I am also not a researcher of social networks – I am a user and observer, perhaps an amateur student of them. My thoughts could not be supported by numbers and graphs, but had to, by necessity, be more impressionistic – what I learned from my experiences using, living in, and running online social communities.

As all the speakers went substantially over their allotted times all I had left was seven minutes. Fortunately for me, I had all seven (not 3.5) as the other discussant’s flight into D.C. was canceled. Also fortunately for me, this was the very last time-slot of the meeting, so nobody was in a rush to go to another session and thus everyone let me talk a few minutes longer and then remained in the room asking even more questions.

As I tend to do, and in this case particularly, I decided not to prepare too much (OK, at all) in advance. Instead, I listened to the panelists carefully and made the decision what to say only once I climbed onto the podium in the end and knew how much time I had at my disposal. I decided what to say in the first couple of sentences – the rest came out on its own, pure improvisational theater.

As I was reading the materials and listening to the talks, I realized that a couple of examples were clearly discussing real-world, meat-space, offline social networks, but that all the other examples were ambiguous: I could not figure out if those were online, offline, or combined/hybrid social networks.

So, I decided to use my seven minutes to compare and contrast online and offline social networks, how they differ (more important than how they are similar, which is the default thinking), and how they interact and potentially strengthen each other due to such differences.

This is, roughly, what I said – or at least what I meant to say but had to speed up, i.e., this is an (very) expanded version:

Social norms build and enforce echo-chambers

You want to remain in a friendly relationship with the people you see (or potentially can see) often: neighbors, family, colleagues and friends. Nothing makes for a more unpleasant interaction than discussion of politics, ideology or religion with the people you disagree with.

Thus, there is a social norm in place: politics and religion are taboo topics in conversation. It is considered bad manners to start such conversations in polite company.

This means that most people are not exposed to views other than their own in their day-to-day interactions with other people.

In a small tightly-knit community where everyone’s politics and religion are the same (and people tend to move to such places in order to feel comfortable, on top of most likely being born in such a community to begin with), there is no need to discuss these topics as everyone already agrees. If the topic is discussed, there are no other opinions to be heard – it’s just back-slapping and commiserating about the evil enemies out there.

In mixed communities, the taboo against discussing politics and religion is strongly enforced. Again, as a result, there is not much chance to hear differing opinions.

There is no more airtight echo-chamber than a small community which interacts predominantly within itself, and not so much with the outside world.

Mass media builds and enforces echo-chambers

If you are born and raised by parents with a particular set of beliefs, you will also inherit from them the notions of which media outlets are trustworthy. If you were raised in the reality-based community, you are unlikely to waste much time with the media of the fantasy-based community (and vice versa). If your parents read Washington Post, you are unlikely to read Washington Times. You’ll prefer New York Times and not New York Post. MSNBC rather than Fox News. NPR rather than Limbaugh show on the radio.

But it is even worse than that – the choice is really not as broad. The media shapes the public opinion by choosing what is and what is not respectable opinion, i.e., ‘sphere of legitimate debate’ – what opinions to cover as serious, what opinions to denigrate and what opinions to ignore. There are many ideas that people hold that you will never see even mentioned in the US mass media and some of those are actually very legitimate in the Real World.

Furthermore, the press then divides the ‘respectable opinion’ into two opposites, gives voice to each of the two, and will never actually tell you which of the two is more reasonable than the other – “we report, you decide”, aka, He Said She Said journalism.

By presenting every issue as a battle between two extremes (and the fuzzy, undefinable “middle” is reserved only for them, the wise men), the mainstream press makes every opinion something to be sneered at, both those they deem worthy of mentioning and the unmentionable ones.

By refusing to acknowledge the existence of many stands on any issue, by refusing to assign Truth-values to any, by looking down at anyone who holds any opinion that is not their own, the mainstream press fosters the atmosphere of a bipolar world in which enmity rules, and the wagons need to be circled – the atmosphere that is so conducive to formation and defense of echo-chambers and yet so devoid of airing of any alternatives.

The Web breaks echo-chambers

When an individual first goes online, the usual reaction is shock! There are people in the world who believe what!?!?

The usual first response is anger and strenuous attempts at countering all other ideas and pushing one’s own.

But after a while, unbeknown to the person, all those various novel ideas start seeping in. One is not even aware of changing one’s own mind from one year to the next. Many ideas take time to process and digest and may quietly get incorporated into one’s gradually enriching and more sophisticated worldview.

We all learn from encountering all those other opinions even if we vehemently disagree with them. And we cannot help bumping into them all the time. There are no taboo topics online, no social norms preventing people from saying exactly what they think.

Forming, finding or defending a vacuum-sealed echo-chamber online is extremely difficult, if at all possible.

Your Facebook friends will post stuff that reveals their politics is different than yours (and you did not even know that about them before – they seemed so nice in real life!). By the time you get around to blocking them…it’s too late – the virus has already entered your head [this one sentence added 2-27-11].

People you follow on Twitter because of some common interest (e.g., food or knitting or parenting or technology or geographic area) may be very different from you when concerning some other interest, e.g., religion, and will occasionally post links to articles that contain opinions you have never heard of before.

If you are, for example, a liberal and tend to read only liberal blogs, you will constantly see links to conservative sites that are being debunked by your favourite bloggers – thus you will be exposed to conservative ideas daily.

If your interest is science, you are even luckier. The mainstream media, if it links to anything at all, tends to link either to each other or to governmental sources (e.g., CDC, USDA, etc.). Political bloggers link a lot more, but again the spectrum of sources is pretty narrow – they link to MSM, to governmental pages, and to each other (including the “opposition” bloggers).

But science bloggers link to a vastly broader gamut of sources. If mass media is linked to at all, it is usually in order to show how bad the coverage was of a science story. Linking to each other is important (and that includes linking to anti-science sites when needed to counter them), but what science bloggers do that others do not is link to scientific papers, documents, databases, even raw data-sets (including some Open Notebook Science bloggers who pipe data straight from their lab equipment onto the web).

What echo-chamber? Contrary to what some uninformed op-eds in the mass media like to say, the Web breaks echo-chambers that the social norms and mass media have previously built.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically to affect real change

Many curmudgeons like to say that the Web does not do anything on its own. They (unlike behavioral biologists) do not understand the distinction between Proximal Causes and Ultimate Causes. Web is a tool that allows, among other things, many more people in much shorter time to organize to do something useful in the real world.

Release of Tripoli 6 was an instance in which massive outpouring of support online forced the mainstream media to cover the story which then forced the hand of politicians to do something.

Likewise, in the case of resignation of George Deutsch from NASA, it was investigative work by a blogger, Nick Anthis, that energized the blogosphere, which pushed the MSM to finally report on the story, which forced the event to happen.

PRISM was an astroturf website built to counter the pro-open-access NIH bill in the US Senate. Outpouring of online anger at the tactics by the publishers’ lobby inundated the senatorial offices – as a result the bill passed not once, but twice (GW Bush vetoed the first version of the large omnibus bill it was a part of, then signed it with no changes in the language on this particular issue) and the Senate is now educated on this issue.

But probably the best example is the Dover Trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) that made Intelligent Design illegal to teach in US public schools. The ruling by Judge Jones (pdf) is one of the most powerful texts in the history of judicial decisions I am aware of.

There are anti-evolution bills popping up somewhere in the country seemingly every week. But because of the Dover ruling, they are all illegal. Most don’t make it to the committee, let alone to the floor of the state legislatures. Others are soundly defeated.

Before Dover, both Creationist sites and pro-evolution sites, when linking to me, would bring approximately the same amount of traffic to my blog. After Dover, getting a link from PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Larry Moran or Jerry Coyne brings substantial new traffic. Links from Creationist sites? Essentially undetectable by traffic trackers – I discover them only when I search my blog URL to specifically see if there are new links out there. Creationism, while still popular with the people, is politically essentially dead. The Dover ruling castrated it.

But Dover Trial would not have gone that way, and would not result in such a gorgeously written document by the Judge, if it was not for a small army of bloggers who contribute to the blog Panda’s Thumb. A mix of scientists from different disciplines, lawyers, etc., this group has been online – first on Usenet, later on the blog – for a couple of decades before the trial.

This is a group of people who battled Creationists for many years, online and offline, in courtrooms and political campaigns, in classrooms and in print. They know all the characters, all the usual creationist “arguments” (and provided all the answers to them in one place), all the literature, etc.

It is one of them who discovered that the new Intelligent Design “textbook” is really just a reprint of an old Creationist book, in which the word “Creationists” was replaced by “Intelligent Design proponents” throughout the text….except in one place where they made a typo: “Cdesign proponentsists”.

Ooops – a huge piece of evidence that Intelligent Design Creationism is just a warmed-up version of the old-style Creationism masquerading as something new. The Panda’s Thumb bloggers were at the trial as expert witnesses who provided all the expert evidence that Judge Jones needed to make his decision. People who organized on the Web have helped a meatspace history come to pass.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically if the ecology is right

When looking at the role of online communities and networks in meatspace events, counting the numbers of networked citizens (or ratio of networked to non-networked citizens) is not sufficient – one also needs to know their geographic distribution, and their connectiveness with non-networked citizens. The most fresh example are the so-called “Twitter revolutions” in the Arab world.

There are at least two possible scenarios (or thought experiments) that demonstrate the importance of ecological thinking about social networks:

1) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. All in the same city, all in the same college dorm, good friends with each other. No communication with other people. No Twitterati in other cities. Nobody knows that other people in other cities have the same negative feelings toward the government.

2) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. One each in 10 different cities. They communicate with each other via social networks continuously. Each is also a center of the local community of thousands of non-networked people using offline methods of communication. Through this connection, they become aware that there are millions of them, all over the country, and that a revolution is feasible.

In scenario 1, there are 10 buddies dreaming of revolution. In scenario 2, there are thousands of people in ten cities organizing revolution. In both, there are only 10 people on Twitter. Yet, the outcome is likely to be very different.

Thus, the ecology of the networkers, their spatial and temporal distribution, and their effectiveness in informing not just each other but many non-networked citizens, are important data one needs for this exercise.

‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’

I shamelessly stole this sub-heading from someone on Twitter (let me know who said it first if you know). Edit: Thank you – it was Chris Rowan,

A great example of a case where the Web produced a community (aka echo-chamber) but that was a good thing, is the case of American atheists.

Before the Web, each atheist in the USA thought he or she was the only one in the country. The social norms about the impoliteness of discussing religion, as well as the real fear of reprisals by the religious neighbors, made atheism completely invisible. No need to mention that the media never mentioned them – they were outside of the “sphere of legitimate debate”.

But then the Web happened, and people, often pseudonymously, revealed their religious doubts online. Suddenly they realized they are not alone – there are millions of atheists in the country, each closeted before, each openly so after! It is not a surprise that “no belief” is the fastest-growing self-description in questions about religion in various nation-wide polls and censuses.

President Bush Senior, himself not very religious, could say that atheists are not real American citizens. A decade later, his son GW Bush, himself a fundamentalist, could not say that any more – his speechwriters made sure he mentioned atheists in the listings of all the equally American religious groupings.

Not all online communities need to be politically active. Discovering people with the same interest in knitting is nice. Exchanging LOLcat pictures is fun. But such interactions also build ties that can be used for action in the real world if the need arises.

Without the Web, I would not know many people whose friendship I cherish. Without the Web I would not have this job. Without the Web, me and many of my friends would have never gone to a meeting like AAAS. There would be no such meetings as ScienceOnline, Science Online London, SciBarCamp, SciFoo, and others.

Every time I travel I make sure that people I know online – from blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. – know I am traveling. I say on which date, at which time, I will be in which restaurant in which city. Twenty people show up. Most I have never met in real life before. But after sharing a meal, a beer, a handshake and a hug, our weak ties become strong ties. Superficial relationships become friendships. If there is a need to organize some real-world action – we can rely on each other to participate or help.

I have a separate Dunbar Number in each city I visited. And I try to connect them to each other even more than they are already connected via online communication. Which is one of the reasons we organize conferences and one of the reasons I am online all the time.

Related:

As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For? by Emily Anthes.

Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber? by Ed Yong.

What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?

If a publisher offered me a contract to write a book under a title that would be something like “Unscientific America”, how would I go about it?
I would definitely be SUCH a scientist! But, being such a scientist does not mean indulging in Sesquipedalian Obscurantism. Being such a scientist means being dilligent, thorough and systematic in one’s reasearch. And then being excited about presenting the findings, while being honest about the degree of confidence one can have in each piece of information.
I was not offered a book contract, and I do not have the resources and nine or twelve months to write such a book. But in the next couple of hours days I will write a blog post (this one, I am just starting) thinking through the methodology I would use for such a project, musing about difficulties, jotting down notes and – this being a blog – asking readers for links to information that can either reinforce or challenge my hypotheses. So please follow me under the fold…..

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Attenborough makes sense (video)

Atheists – the last U.S. minority that can be openly maligned without consequence

I am sure that you have already heard about the despicable TV ad that Elizabeth Dole aired against Kay Hagan. You probably heard about it online, perhaps on Twitter or FriendFeed or blogs. Here’s a quick selection:
My godless money. Take it or leave it.
The Worst Insult of All?
Thou shalt not bear false witness
NC: Hagan responds to ‘Godless’ ad; Dole’s immigrant bashing
Elizabeth Dole ad falsely suggests opponent Kay Hagan is ‘Godless.’
North Carolina Senate Race Degenerates Into Shouting Match About Atheists
GODLESS AMERICANS.
Sen. Liddy Dole (R-NC) attacks Sunday school teacher: ‘There is no God’
Sen. Dole vs. the atheists
With friends like these…
Also, we aren’t tax exempt, so: Vote Obama
You Know Your Senator Is Getting Desparate When…
North Carolina Watch
Don’t you call me an atheist, you
There is No God!
Is Elizabeth Dole Godless?
Elizabeth Dole accuses her opponent of atheism!
Will Elizabeth Dole Ad Have A Subliminal Effect On Young Viewers
Liddy Dole is an asshole
Calling someone an atheist is apparently slander
A pox on them all
Liddy Dole’s Desperate Bigotry
Godless isn’t immoral (a letter to Raleigh News & Observer)
….and many more….
But, if this happened four years ago, you would not have heard about it in the mainstream media. This year, you do:

What changed in four years?
Ari Melber thinks it’s the Web: blogs, social networks, YouTube:

Everyone can hear it now. This Internet-driven, hyperactive presidential race is forcing accountability on two of the oldest tricks in politics: dog whistles and secret smears.
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Partisan and muckraking bloggers now fight political operatives’ efforts to keep unseemly attacks below the radar. Take automated “robo” phone calls, which often deploy the sharp attacks that campaigns don’t want exposed in the mass media. Previously, the calls were obscure, rarely drawing major media coverage, let alone sustained criticism. Now they can be recorded, uploaded and dissected in a single news cycle. Sites like TalkingPointsMemo and Daily Kos use crowd-sourcing by readers to track the attacks and pin them squarely on John McCain. Insider political sites, like Ben Smith’s Politico blog, also disseminate the audio recordings to media and political elites, converting a “targeted” message into a mass broadcast. And organized campaigns like the National Political Do Not Call Registry use the web, Twitter and e-mail to track and map every call.
————————–
Once exposed, McCain’s robocalls were unpalatable even to his allies in the party and the media, adding another “Hey, Rube” squabble to his already contentious campaign. Republican senators condemned the calls. Fox News’s Chris Wallace pressed McCain on the issue, reminding the senator that he once denounced such tactics. Even Sarah Palin felt compelled to respond to criticism of the campaign’s robocalls, telling reporters that while she did not renounce them, she would prefer to do personal and retail campaigning instead.
————————-
All this online activity has been amplified by the rapidly shifting landscape of political television. The increasingly opinionated cable news programs, always in search of conflict and fresh content, now treat debates over these tactics as a major campaign issue. This emphasis is bleeding into the broader campaign discourse, which includes minute dissection of attacks that were once considered unmentionable. A whole range of smears against Obama, for example, have been exposed under the glare of nationally televised debates. Sometimes that process has angered his supporters–as when the ABC News primary debate focused on smears regarding “patriotism” and Islam. In one of the general election debates, CBS moderator Bob Scheiffer was credited for playing a corrective role when he pressed both candidates to answer for attacks from their supporters. That is a stark contrast to the previous two presidential races, when even the most incendiary attacks drew scant calls for accountability at the candidate level.
————————
“Thanks to YouTube–and blogging and instant fact-checking and viral emails– it is getting harder and harder to get away with repeating brazen lies without paying a price, or to run under-the-radar smear campaigns without being exposed,” contends Arianna Huffington, whose website pulses with a constant, two-way debate of news and opinion. “The McCain campaign hasn’t gotten the message,” she added, “hence the blizzard of racist, alarmist, xenophobic, innuendo-laden accusations being splattered at Obama.”
———————————-
This new media environment undermines political attacks that turn on coded meanings and hidden messages, because now anything can be exposed and cheaply disseminated. Observers used to worry that the web would fragment our media consumption into private little silos–that famous “Daily Me.” Yet in presidential politics, an inverse dynamic is emerging. Small groups of people are using the web to expose the targeted appeals of the analog world, and then injecting them into the mass media for the whole nation to assess. And many voters do not like what they see.

Perhaps Liddy Dole, by airing this TV ad, provoked exactly the kind of storm that, amplified through both the New and Old Media, will lead to a public shift in perception of atheists. If everyone and their grandmother starts talking about it and seeing this ad as despicable – not for tainting Hagan but for denigrating atheists (sorta like what Colin Powell did to the idea that calling someone a Muslim is a smear) – then we as a society have just made another step in the right direction.

Door To Door Atheists Bother Mormons

Silly, but funny to see how people react when treated to a dose of their own medicine:

“Australian filmmaker John Safran is so fed up with mormons ringing his doorbell early in the morning that he flies to Salt Lake City Utah and tries to convert Mormons to atheism. Needless to say, the locals were not pleased.”


[Hat-tip: Tanja]

When religion goes berserk!

I guess it is unlikely you have not already heard about the big brouhaha that erupted when Bill Donohue targeted PZ Myers for showing disrespect towards a belief that made some religious nuts go crazy and violent against a child (yes, Eucharist is just a cracker, sorry, but that is just a factual statement about the world). If not, the entire story, and it is still evolving, can be found on PZ’s blog so check out the numerous comments here, here,
here, here, here, here and here.
Also see what Greg Laden and Tristero say. [Update: see also John Wilkins and Mike Dunford for some good clear thinking on the issue.]
Of course, since it is Bill Donohue, everyone’s favorite douche-bag, I went to see what is said on the blogs of my other two friends who, quite recently, had to survive the army of ogres that Donohue can send to make good people’s lives miserable – Melissa and Amanda.
On Shakesville, Jeff Fecke wrote about it.
On Pandagon, it is Jesse Taylor (yes, he is back there on his old blog) who wrote about this today (as Amanda is in a middle of a move and offline).
Both posts also triggered an interesting round of comments.
So, go and check out all those links, spend several hours immersed in this topic, and you’ll both learn a lot and get really, really angry (at whom? That’s your choice).
But while I was at Pandagon I also saw that Amanda started reading (and blogging about) Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” (I never wrote a real book review of it, but most of what I intended to say found its way into some posts of mine, e.g., here, here, here and here). The initial post triggered an interesting discussion in the comments, so Amanda added some clarifications which triggered another round of interesting comments.
The main question in both of those Pandagon thread is how to define religion. The focus is on what people believe, thus there is a lot of parsing the words going on, trying to define “God”. “personal god”, “supernatural”, etc. This is important as the second recurring question in those threads is if Stalinism/Maoism is a religion or not.
If you have been reading my blog for a very looooong time, back at the time when I used to write about religion (and politics) much more often, you may recall that I think of religion in somewhat different terms. I think that the main reason religions evolved is to ensure group cohesion. In other words, I think that the social aspect of religion is the most important one and that other aspects – beliefs, canonical works, behavioral rules, priestly hierarchy, ceremonies, etc. – are additions that in some way help ensure the group cohesion. This is why I was really mad at both Dawkins and Dennet for their outright dismissal and refusal to even consider the group-selectionist ideas of David Sloan Wilson whose book, Darwin’s Cathedral, although thin on data, is in my mind the best-laid-out hypothesis and the most promising avenue for future research on the evolution of religion. For the same reason, I think that Dawkins’ and Dennett’s infatuation with memes is misplaced and that the memetics will be pretty useless in this endeavor (or in any endeavor for that matter – it is an immature photocopy of sociology and linguistics with new terminology).
What does it really mean “group cohesion”? In the olden days, this was a feeling of belonging and loyalty to one’s own tribe – obviously maladapted to the modern world of multicultural societies, global economy, fast travel, instant communication and overpopulation. The inevitable result of group cohesion is the division of the world into an in-group and out-group. Members of the in-group are friends to be defended, while the members of the out-group, barely human, are to be detested and, when possible, killed.
For the group cohesion to work, one HAS to, by definition, feel that one’s group is superior to all other groups. This sense of superiority is enhanced by the additional “attachments” that may differ between different religious traditions, e.g., the belief in an inerrancy of the leader who gets orders directly from the group’s omnipotent god(s), various trance-inducing chants and dances, behavioral rules, sacred books, etc. All of these also promote internal policing by the group – those of “weak faith” are detected and punished mainly by other members, not necessarily by any kind of official armed forces, though some groups may use the latter as well.
In many religious traditions, the group cohesion is further enhanced by the sense of insecurity as “the other” is portrayed as much more dangerous than reality warrants – this persecution complex is a great way to ensure that all group-members “stick together” and severely punish the members who question the wisdom of the leaders, beliefs and behaviors.
In many religious traditions, the group cohesion is also enhanced by adding another layer of personal sense of insecurity – the strict sexual norms render both men and women insecure: the men do the macho man-bonding stuff in order to keep each other courageous (those who survive wars will get to breed in the end, after all), while women try to find security by exchanging sex for protection with powerful men.
To go back to the question of Stalinism/Maoism as a religion, if one looks at the religion as group coherence mechanism detached from what people believe, then the answer is Yes – those were religions (and so is being a Republican, for what that matters). But I will try to support this statement with the example I know best – that of Yugoslavia:

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The age of the machine


Via