Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Gene Roddenberry Humanist

On an unseasonably warm September evening in a basement auditorium at the University of Minnesota, Scott Lohman, president of the Humanists of Minnesota spoke before a diverse audience of people invited by Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists on Star Trek, science fiction and how the genre can provide a platform for a Humanist message.

Mr. Lohman began his presentation with a story about how he started to think as a Humanist.  It began as a child watching Star Trek and he refers to himself as a “Gene Roddenberry Humanist.”  Next, he included what every Humanist must include in a presentation, a slide called, “What is Humanism?”  He cited the following, which is from Humanist Manifesto III:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

  • Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.
  • Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
  • Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
  • Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
  • Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
  • Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

Next, Mr. Lohman explored science fiction as a genre and why it can be useful for exploring big ideas, complex concepts and attitude changing situations.  He stated that science fiction is a literature of ideas which dares to ask, “What if?”  In Star Trek, for example, writers found out how to talk about complex controversial social issues, simply by placing characters in a different planet and painting their faces blue.  As a genre, science fiction is known for taking ideas and running with them.  Through this exploration, writers have the freedom to get an audience to think of big things, such as, “What makes us human?”, “What gives life meaning?” and “Does it pay to be ethical?”

Star Trek started in 1966 and was unique on television for a number of reasons.  First, in science fiction, it had been common to change the cast of characters in each episode, such as in the Twilight Zone.  This would allow writers to convince the audience to identify with characters and that clearly worked.  After 78 episodes aired, Star Trek continues on through syndication, even today.

Mr. Lohman then walked the audience through the history of Star Trek by providing examples of episodes which feature Humanist themes.  In the first season of the Original Series Star Trek explored what makes us human in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?,” and should we live in a controlled or open society in, “The Return of the Archons.” The writers explored the concept of computer generated war in, “A Taste of Armageddon,” including this quote from Captain Kirk, “All right. It's instinctive. The instinct can be fought. We're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we are not going to kill today. That's all it takes - knowing that we won't kill today.”

Mr. Lohman continued the exploration of Star Trek and its bold themes featured through its history, from the Original Series in the 60’s to the Animated Series, the Next Generation, Deep Sapce 9, Voyager and Enterprise.  A complete episode guide for Humanists will be provided at the end of this article.

Star Trek and Humanism should serve as an inspiration for budding authors out there and even activists who want to bring a Humanist message to a larger audience.  Science Fiction, as a literary genre, can be cleverly subversive and disruptive to common conceptions.  Mr. Lohman provided an entertaining, through message.  The leadership of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists organized a successful event.  I know I heard Activities Director, Jeff Mondloch, greeting people before the meeting, even straining to remember names, which was great! (A tip to organizers, name tags can be dorky, but help new people become familiar.)

Humanist Episode Guide (Courtesy of Scott Lohman)

The Original Series

Season 1
What Are Little Girls Made Of?” - What makes us human?
The Return of the Archons” - Should we live in a controlled or open society?
A Taste of Armageddon” - What if we had computer generated war with real causalities?

Season 2
Who Mourns for Adonais?” - What if an alien thought he was the Greek god Apollo?
The Apple” - What if you lived your life with no responsibilities?
A Private Little War” - Is it moral to interfere with other cultures’ wars, as we did in Vietnam?
A Piece of the Action” - What if a culture had been contaminated by a book about gangsters in Chicago?

Season 3
Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” - What if two races hated each other because one had a half white, half black face and the other had a half black, half white face?

The Animated Series

Season 2
How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth” - What if an alien visited ancient Earth to become known as a Mayan god?
Bem” - What if an individual creature could split itself into multiple entities?

The Next Generation

Season 1
Encounter at Farpoint” - What if an omnipotent being accused humanity of barbarism?
11001001” - What if a society became too dependent on technology and only understood the world in binary?

Season 2
Measure of a Man” - What makes us human?

Season 3
The High Ground” - Is it interference to assist the wounded in a conflict?
Who Watches the Watchers?” - What if a primitive culture was being monitored by an advanced culture and became exposed to advanced technology?

Season 4
Devil’s Due” - What if an advanced species terrorized another species, posing as a god?  Is advanced technology indistinguishable from magic?

Season 6
The Chase” - What if an advanced humanoid species populated planets all around the galaxy?

Deep Space 9

Season 1
Duet” - Can an individual make a difference in a war?
In the Hands of the Prophets” - How should religion and politics interact?

Season 3
Past Tense” - What if San Francisco segregated the poor into compounds to prevent social upheaval?

Season 4
Rejoined” - Do we love a person’s personality or their body?

Season 5
Trials and Tribble-ations” - What if a television show wanted to pay homage to its history by bringing back themes from a previous episode?


Season 2
Death Wish” - How long is forever? What if a being who couldn’t die wanted to?

Season 3
Distant Origin” - What if dinosaurs left Earth and evolved in another part of the galaxy?

Season 4
Mortal Coil” - What if someone could die and be recreated?  How would that person match their experience with what they have been told of the afterlife?

Season 5
Equinox” - Does it pay to be moral?

Season 7
Workforce” - What if the crew were brainwashed to believe they work in a factory instead of on a ship?


Season 2
Congenator” - What if a species had three genders?

Season 3
Similitude” - What makes us unique?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Grassroots Anything - Lessons learned from running an atheist organization

I was president of Minnesota Atheists for only a few months. Since then, I have been happily observing other freethought groups and listening to presentations on how to make a group more effective, including developing campaigns, communication and diversity. I thought it would be helpful to detail where I fell short with Minnesota Atheists on these fronts and also what appeared to work (though the evidence is mostly subjective, since we weren't great at paying attention to metrics).


Desiree Schell, Maria Walters, Trevor Zimmerman and K.O. Myers created a Campaign Manual for Grassroots Skeptical Activism, though the lessons learned in this manual are useful for any grassroots activity, even at a small scale. The framework can be modified, depending on what you are planning on doing, for example, any activity should have stated goals, a primary and secondary objective, tactics and a post activity evaluation.

When I was running Minnesota Atheists, the main goal I had was to double dues-paying membership in a year. Looking back on that, that was really a primary objective. A goal should be something large, for example, making it more socially acceptable to identify as "atheist" in Minnesota. That is, after all, one of the mission statements of Minnesota Atheists and a campaign could be built around that, including a full scale campaign with tactics as varied as contacting media and politicians, targeting sympathetic organizations in outreach and writing letters to politicians. One way to measure the success of this campaign would be an increase in membership.


Like any organization today, a diverse range of communication is used to inform members of what is going on. When I was with Minnesota Atheists, I advocated for expanding our communication to members through Facebook and using our email list to send out newsletters. The benefit of using these sources, is the ability to assess effectiveness. When I redesigned the website of Minnesota Atheists, I wanted to be able to analyze as many metrics as possible. I wanted to know where our visitors were coming from, what they were looking at, how long were they spending on our site and how many unique visitors we received. I also wanted to be able to compare this data moth over month, or year over year. By using more online resources, we were able to see if our outreach was expanding or shrinking. By using an email marketing service, we were also able to determine, with some accuracy, if our newsletter was actually being opened. Sure, you may be sending an email out to 1,500 people, but if only 20 open it, you may need to spend some time to determine why that is.

While metrics gathered from electronic media are helpful, another piece of communication, getting feedback from members, former members, and just interested parties, was important. Since I had only been involved with the organization for a couple of years, I wanted to really reach out to as many people as possible, to find out what they thought, so I emailed out a survey. One limitation of a survey, especially with a group like Minnesota Atheists, with a diverse range of membership, including some people who do not use email, or use it very little, is that you may not hear their feedback. Looking back, I think it would have been helpful to gather these responses by calling members. Through the survey, I was able to gather some information from some people, only about 120 responses in 1,500 requests, but these responses from people have been echoed by others in the freethought community, including the charge that Minnesota Atheists is too liberal-leaning of an organization, doesn't have enough family friendly events and doesn't meet at times or places which are convenient to me. These responses helped push the expansion of Meetup events even further than we had ever before. One other interesting response from the survey, is that many people joined Minnesota Atheists because they want to meet a community of like-minded people. Many people were becoming first-time members simply because the group exists, is easy to find online and easy to join. It wasn't really because of anything specific we had done, or were currently doing. It was as simple as being there.


At Minnesota Atheists, there has always been a push to have half men and half women on the board. While this increased diversity on the board, it also felt forced, for example, only women candidates would be sought after if a woman left the board. More women have become involved with Minnesota Atheists, even though the board make up is much different now, with mostly men, which may mean that the make up of the board doesn't impact attendance at events nearly as much as the events themselves.

When I first joined Minnesota Atheists, I felt really out of place because of my age. Most people meeting at a library on a Sunday afternoon had gray hair and were men. Though I haven't been to a Minnesota Atheists event in a while, before I left, there were younger people becoming involved as well as more women. This was more due to our social events than anything else, I think. We expanded to include book clubs, pub nights, small group discussions, family events and even a debate class. It took getting women and younger people to run small activities during a month to get people like them to be more active. This diversity was organic and didn't involve a pink-themed newsletter to attract women. What I found challenging, was in making people feel comfortable running their own event. When I approached people to run a book club, if they were interested, or some other event, some people felt afraid to do so because they feared the board. Some people felt like every event must be scrutinized and vetted by the board in order to happen and felt pressure to conform to some unwritten standard which all activities should meet. Once people got over that fear, things went a lot better. Since we charged people for membership, many people who are involved with the organization are not necessarily members, which also became a challenge in finding people to run events. When I was with the board, we were never really able to settle the argument surrounding volunteers working off their membership by running events, if they wanted to. I think this would have been helpful in finding more parents of young children to get involved in running family-friendly events.

With Minnesota Atheists, I felt like we were completely neutral toward women and people of different cultural, religious and racial backgrounds, but we were not. It's a problem I think a lot of groups have, where they pretend like race and cultural identification don't matter, so activities like a presentation of privilege never come up. That is one thing I regret not working on, is in having a more diverse selection of speakers on different topics, including people from different cultural and/or racial backgrounds. While our monthly meetings were considered public outreach events, we rarely had non-atheists attend, so it wasn't really an outreach tool to non-atheists. Realizing this, would allow us to discuss more challenging issues, which may or may not have anything specifically to do with atheism, but would be more rewarding to the people participating and allow the group to welcome more people who may be atheist, but who may not identify as atheist first.


Organizing atheists is just as challenging as organizing any other group of people. People are challenging. The feedback you will get will often be from a minority of really passionate people in your group and sometimes just the loudest complainers. Most feedback about how well or poor you are doing as an organization, you will NEVER hear and much of what you decide to do will be based on either your vision for the organization or instinct, but the more information can be measured, the more feedback can be gathered, the more successful your group will be in reaching its goals. You do have goals for your group, right?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How JREF Can Become More Diverse

At The Amazing Meeting 9, a panel focused on diversity was moderated by Desiree Schell and included panelists blogger Greta Christina, Executive Director of the James Randi Educational Foundation D. J. Grothe, activist Debbie Goddard, comedian and journalist Jamila Bey and blogger Hemant Mehta. During the panel, the suggestion was raised on how to increase diversity at TAM through having a diversity of topics open for discussion, including diving into the “soft sciences” and discussing issues such as the drug war, poverty, the right for homosexuals to marry, etc. D. J. Grothe spoke with a word of caution against doing such a thing, for a number of reasons. Since I think that spreading critical thinking to the public at large is important, I thought I would present some options for JREF.

First, I will be focusing on JREF solely. In my opinion, local organizations are able to judge what to do, but JREF can be a great motivator for the direction local groups may go. Second, I have not been a member of JREF for even a year. I don’t have an understanding of the history of the organization, so my assumptions may not be correct. Third, when I speak of diversity, I will use the same categories included in the panel, which are a diversity of sex, sexual orientation, race, income, age and ideas. Lastly, with regard to opinions panelists gave at TAM, I am going on memory and notes I wrote. I will also be referring to comments made by people on Twitter, which shouldn’t be taken as representative of any particular group, but are what I gathered as feedback.

Whenever someone suggests an organization should or should not do something, I like to examine the mission statement of the organization. A mission statement is part of the organization’s legal documentation and not just some tag line. Every action that an organization takes should further the mission in some way. If an organization engages in actions which are not in line with the mission, donors could sue the organization to have funds returned. The mission statement of the James Randi Educational Foundation is:
“Our mission is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.”
Based on this mission, it appears that having a presentation on the drug war and/or other social issues would be outside of the scope of the JREF, since the focus is only on “paranormal and supernatural ideas.”

I think it would also be important to examine if the JREF has had topics on issues which may be outside of its mission, as defined. What this may mean, is that the mission statement may need to be changed and/or an event like TAM is considered to be different than an action specifically created by JREF, which would allow for more flexibility in topics. During TAM 9, most presentations can be directly tied to the mission of JREF. There are a few exceptions, however, such as Lawrence Krauss’ presentation on Richard Feynmann and Sean Faircloth’s presentation on Theocrats.

These two presentations and the theme of TAM 9 show where there is room to do what the diversity advocates on the panel are hungering to do. The concern raised, is that by limiting the focus of JREF to just the paranormal and supernatural, you are excluding others from participating. The scientific method and critical thinking are important pieces used to analyze claims regarding the supernatural and paranormal. People who value this method to prevent harm caused by people making false claims will usually have an appreciation for science and discovery in general and would trust analysis of other topics using the scientific method and critical thinking. For example, analyzing the claims made by proponents of drug control policy in the United States to evaluate whether that policy was effective in meeting its goals or not.

Here is where some concern was raised by D. J. Grothe in the discussion. D. J. argued that he goal is to make TAM welcoming to everyone, including having a diversity of beliefs represented. The challenge to that, is that you must increase the diversity of topics discussed at TAM in order to attract a diverse audience. Otherwise you will attract a group of people who are interested in Bigfoot, UFO’s, science and philosophy. D. J.’s partial challenge to that, is that the topics at TAM haven’t changed greatly. The focus is still on skepticism, debunking the paranormal and supernatural claims, yet this year saw growing diversity in attendance, with 40 percent of attendees identifying as women. It will be important to determine why that diversity is increasing and if the selection of topics has much to do with why people are choosing to come to TAM or if there are other reasons why someone is choosing to attend.

While listening to the panel, a few themes from commenters were noted. One comment raised by PZ Myers, is that D. J. Grothe is attempting to play the role as gatekeeper for allowed skeptical discussion. I would say that is a fair claim and is likely one of D. J.’s responsibilities as executive director of JREF. If D. J. allowed for a presentation on the drug war and the presentation was overly political, JREF may be blamed for it and may also be accused of promoting a political position. However, we can see that Sean Faircloth’s presentation, while not advocating for, or against any political candidate, could be seen as being overly political by some who may not view the separation of church and state as important as others do in the skeptical community.

Another commenter mentioned the concern that JREF, by focusing on social issues, could easily become a defender of the Democratic Party. I think the commenter raised this question, since, while someone can evaluate the testable claims made by legislators who created the laws which form drug control policy, it becomes easy to write the next half of the presentation, for example, Congressman Smith, while promoting legislation X, advocated that it would do Y. Since it did not do Y, legislation X is a failure, so I propose legislation Z.

Will increasing the diversity of topics at TAM increase attendance? Maybe. It would take surveys to determine why people are attending in the first place. Can JREF increase the diversity of topics at TAM without appearing to become too political? I think they can, but it is a careful process. Is it important to advocate for skepticism and critical thinking in a more broad sense than what JREF may focus on and reach out to all people. Yes. This is why I think that outreach at the local level by independent groups may lead to greater diversity at TAM.

While there were many presentations at TAM regarding the paranormal and supernatural, many were also focused on diverse topics, such as organizing, being an effective communicator, space exploration, how are minds work, including how we can be fooled and how to deal with mental illness. I see these type of events useful for inspiring an application of critical thinking across a broad range of topics since they are designed, in some way, to make you a better skeptic and a better promoter of skepticism. In this way, you become an advocate for critical thinking in other organizations you may be involved with, whether that is at work, your school, a local skeptics organization or an organization which advocates for social change. Skeptics can be seen as soldiers fighting a battle against woo using the tools of critical thinking, effective, audience specific communication and the scientific method.

Because JREF is silent on issues like the drug war, rights for homosexuals and poverty it is easy to claim that JREF is acting cowardly by avoiding these issues, or even worse, being complicit in discrimination by not acting. Though, the same criticism could be held of other organizations which don’t view themselves as advocates for broad social change. Should JREF become a leading organization, inspiring local organizations to use skepticism to tackle difficult social issues we all deal with, in an effort to increase the diversity D. J. Grothe wishes to obtain? Would or should JREF’s mission change to accommodate this change? Are there members of JREF who would rather not have presentations on “soft science” social issues and appreciate the effort to maintain political neutrality? Are there also members who will feel ignored if his or her issue isn’t discussed? These are tough questions which need answers. The leadership and membership of JREF should address them through considerate research and analysis. The diversity panel is a good start, but it is obvious that JREF will need to determine how to meet the goal of increasing diversity.

In my opinion, which should be taken with a large grain of salt, since I have not been active in the skeptic community for long, is that local groups will be the largest sources of outreach and can affect the diversity shown at JREF. Similar to the papers presentations given on the last day of TAM, a handful of local organizations can give presentations on outreach efforts they have conducted and/or be given an opportunity to give a presentation which is important to their members. If local organizations increase diversity and those local members become active with JREF, the leadership of JREF may have an incentive to expand its mission beyond its more narrow focus to include issues of importance to a wider audience.

I look forward to more discussion on this issue. I don't envy D. J.'s job of steering the focus of JREF to maintain the balance of allowing for thoughtful discussion on complex social issues with less clear methods for testing claims and avoiding criticism for being a left leaning organization without consideration for "other points of view," but I feel diversity won't increase if we don't take the time to determine how to get more people involved. It may be a complex task, but we're clever people, right? We can do this.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Campus Group Doing the Small Things Well

My first "atheist" activity was a debate which was co-sponsored by Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists, now Campus Atheists Skeptics and Humanists at the University of Minnesota. Since then, I have tried to go to events when they are interesting and financially supported the group on occasion, because CASH has some great resources available to them that other local atheist groups do not. For example, predictable meeting spaces, easy access to market ideas, a large population of people who may be primed to find an identity and/or make the world a better place, volunteers who can meet more frequently and opportunities for funding and grants which don't exist for non-student groups.

While CASH has tons of benefits available to them, the leadership has gotten off track at times. It can be easy to take all of these benefits for granted, especially getting funding from student service fees which eclipse funding other atheist student groups receive around the country. It can also be easy to fall into the temptation to "phone it in" despite working hard to organize a few larger events during the year, weekly events can be daunting and it is easy to throw another game night or pizza party, week after week, simply because of apathy. Some people are great at being accountable and others need more motivation. This should be a lesson to other student groups: non-students are watching!

Student group leadership changes each year, which I think is a great thing, even though you can be throwing the dice and having to live with whoever was convinced to devote a ton of time to the cause for the next semester or year. Since I've been following CASH, I have seen some great leaders graduate and move on, some not so great leaders thankfully moving on to things they are better suited for. Over this last year, I have seen a better focus on making CASH a great organization, rather than just a group of friends who like to hang out and use student service fees to buy pizza.

Here are the things CASH has done well over the last year:
1. Had regular communication. When CASH wasn't as great, one sign was a lack of communication. Their website or Facebook pages were rarely updated and when they were, it was often the day of the event, or the day before. For someone who isn't on campus, or for people who like to go to interesting events, it's really important to know these things ahead of time. It also shows you care about the events you're planning.
2. Had a variety of events. While I hate on things like South Park night, or game night and prefer discussion and speakers, if you only have one type of event, you'll alienate people who like the other events.
3. Supported the diversity of opinion among atheists. Atheists aren't some unified front with total agreement on every issue, particularly about what role should atheists have in making the world a better place and how to accomplish those goals. If we can't even speak with each other about things we don't agree on, how are we ever to convince non-atheists to support causes we value?
4. Learning lessons at conferences. The Secular Student Alliance holds a number of leadership conferences each year. While some students can use this as an excuse to goof off and skip speakers, CASH's leadership, at least some, got a lot of value from the speakers and talking with other student leaders.
5. Bridging the summer gap. I received an email from Jeff Mondloch at the end of June. That has never, ever happened before and was great to see. In the newsletter, he let people who live in town, or take classes over the summer, that CASH is already planning for next year (awesome) and put out a notice about am interesting non-CASH, but atheist-related event people might like to keep them interested.

From a non-student, but avid supporter of a student group, I'd like to let volunteers of student groups know that communication matters, reaching out to the local, non-campus atheist community can be a great way to get funding, if you need it, meet interesting people with different experiences. Also, know that what you do matters. If you're heart isn't in it, or your priorities are different, work as hard as you are able to, even though you may not be getting paid, because what you do matters. If you can't find that good balance, work hard at grooming someone who can help you or replace what you are doing. If you dread going to another meeting to plan the next event and you try hard to come up with excuses, think about passing the torch. Also, don't be afraid to ask community leaders for help. While non-students can be busy, they may be motivated to support your cause and ease some of your burden.

I know I usually write about things as a rant, but I'm happy to report that CASH is doing well and I look forward to the next year.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Skeptics Find Comfort in a "Cocoon of Doubt"

My father graduated Luther Seminary with a Master in Divinity this past weekend. Jeannette and I attended the commencement ceremony with a sermon provided by Rev. Craig Koester. Rather than providing a sermon full of optimism about making the world a better place through promoting peace and equality, self empowerment and freedom of all people, he seemed to be making one last ditch effort to convince graduating seminary students that they didn't waste their time and that convincing other people that the Resurrection of Jesus really happened matters.

He even went so far as to bring up doubt in the scripture he quoted:
Matthew 28:16-20
"Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.""

See? Even Jesus' disciples doubted Jesus was Jesus, even though they saw him. So, that means that God needs "faithful doubters."

Also during the sermon, he touched on the problems Christianity faces, namely Catholics, Pentecostals and Evangelicals and their scandals. "You also might overhear at the coffee shop as people crowd around their laptops and iPods, people questioning whether organized religion really matters." Skeptics find comfort in their doubt, never having to be certain about anything, he continued. Going so far as to describe skeptics as living in a "Cocoon of doubt."

Skepticism is not a negative position. It's also not a position taken for comfort. Rev. Koester mentioned that doubt is the default human reaction. It's only natural to doubt, though somehow skepticism is something to attack. I would argue that if doubt is the natural position people start with, then it takes very little convincing for most people. For example, if we take the passage from Matthew, all Jesus had to do to convince the disciples was to say God gave him all authority, the equivalent of "because I said so."

More and more people are identifying with no religion. Rev. Koester wants to blame Catholics and skeptics, rather than trying to face the reality that arcane ritual and an insistence on a resurrection are not sustainable in a modern world. That doesn't mean that the world is becoming skeptical, atheistic, or even less religious, but it does mean that Lutheranism has to compete with non-denominational Christianity, generalized spirituality and other non-traditional religions. Christians even feel more free to throw away pieces of dogma they no longer find useful, such as the threat of Hell, literal interpretations of the Bible, condemnation of homosexuals, or even the divinity of Jesus and the concept of three gods in one.

Skepticism is not nihilism. It's also not easy to simply doubt. Skeptics have no problem accepting evidence and taking a position on whether something is true or not, though skeptics are free to change his or her mind, based on new evidence. These seminary students may be presented with new evidence, but will have enormous pressure to continue to believe something they may not trust. There are few jobs available to pastors who have lost their faith, which is a shame.

Rev. Koester would have been wiser to inspire graduates to inspire congregations to make the world a better place through promotion of peace and promoting social and economic equality rather than making a last ditch effort to keep students from realizing how messy the business of organized religion is and loosing their faith. It makes me think of a graduating class of physics students being reminded that gravity is real and though you may doubt gravity is real, you just need to remember that I said it was so, and that is good enough.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Atheist smart Car: An Aftermath

In October 2009, I bought a used smart car because I've always thought they were neat. I also got a good deal on a trade in and the cost of the car was well below its Kelly Blue Book value. Also in October, I stepped down as president of Minnesota Atheists after only serving for 8 months. I did so for a number of different reasons and I still think it was the best decision for myself and for the organization.

In the spring, I decided to commission Dan Norte of Dark Dan's Window Tinting in Owatonna to cut and apply Out Campaign decals on the smart car. Since I had a Ford Focus, I've had decals on my cars. The first time I had a Pac Man decal on my hood to cover a paint chip from road debris. I figured it was cheaper than repainting and the decal would protect the metal. What I found out, was that cars with nerdy decals get a lot of attention and that was cool. It was so cool, I did it again with a new car.

August Berkshire, long-time organizer of Minnesota Atheists, owns the vanity plate, "Atheist," for the state of Minnesota. When deciding how I wanted to participate in breaking down stereotypes of atheists, I thought something similar to a license plate would be a good, non-invasive option.

Over the last 10 or so months, my car has been blazoned with giant red "A's," the website for the Out Campaign, a plug for Camp Quest of Minnesota, and a slogan, "Don't Believe in God? You are not alone." The result? A handful of conversations at gas stations and parking lots and a few thumbs up on the highway. I'm sure most of the people I work with have no doubt how I view the God issue, but no one has brought it up. My goal for having the decals was to gain awareness, just as the Out Campaign is supposed to do. I think to some degree, that happened.

So, is it dangerous to have atheist decals stuck all over your car? For me, it wasn't. Though, I'm a sample of one. It you feel compelled to wear your atheism on your sleeve, seek out your local sign maker, get a decal cut, and slap it on! Of course, anytime you wear your religious views on your sleeve, you risk being "that guy." How would you feel if someone felt so compelled to put giant Ichthys fish on their car? Even if to some people I was, "That Guy," I still think it has been a positive experience. The smart car will likely be retired in the next week for a new car.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Flu Vaccinations: A Short Lesson on Critical Thinking.

A friend recently asked me to critically review the following article on the influenza vaccine. Rather than spam my original facebook post I thought I would write my review here.

When you read an article like this it is always important to look at who is promoting or publishing the article. This is true of all scientific studies, but something I am more assiduous with in regards to vaccine literature. The study itself was done by The Cochrane Collaboration, which I don't know much about but seems pretty legit. It is basically a non-profit organization that reviews health care. I didn't do that much research on it so of course I could be wrong, but the reports produced by them seem to be evidence based with no particular bias.

However, it all depends on how the study is interpreted. You can always slant a review to meet your needs. In this case, the website featuring this article is far from unbiased. Gaia Health is very anti-pharmaceutical company and it looks like they don't care for mainstream medicine at all. The comments alone made it pretty evident that the people who regularly read this site would likely belong to the Wakefield fan club. So right of the bat I was alert for anti-vaccine sentiments.

The article isn't so much about the harm the influenza vaccine can cause, which is usually the case of people with this mindset, but with the ineffectiveness. If you are a healthy adult it may seem like the flu vaccine doesn't really have an effect at all, which this particular study proves. I don't doubt that. Healthy adults may not personally benefit from the influenza vaccine. So why bother?

We bother because it isn't the healthy people we should be concerned with. This article does little to report on the unhealthy people. Normally I would refer to the herd immunity defense, but surprisingly the article actually addresses that. It claims when given parenterally the vaccine does little to prevent viral infection and doesn't do much to prevent complications.

I believe the outcome to a degree. Do what you will with that information. However I always resort to third party resources. I am a huge fan of the Center for Disease Control. They bring up an important point. They state that the more non-specific the outcome being measured the lower the estimates of vaccine effectiveness. Also not addressed are the different population in which the vaccine is effect as it can widely vary.

With all vaccines it is important to weigh the risks vs benefits. This article did little to address the harmful side effects of the flu vaccine. If it turns out the vaccine itself was risky to the general population (there are always those that are more prone to adverse effects) and there were no real proven benefits I would say don't vaccinate. If the risks are small what is the harm of getting the shot either way. If it works it works, if it doesn't at least you tried. For me the jury is out, simply because based on this article alone there simply is not enough information. If you can take away any lesson from this, it should be to never resort to one source and to research your sources before you draw conclusions.