Monthly Archives: November 2011

Never Take Your Education For Granted: Why You Should Teach for China

This Thanksgiving, I would like to tell you a very special story from 2005 about an amazing teacher in China. As of now, I cannot find an English version of this story, but it was been widely reported in China and the Chinese blogosphere.

Mr. Nianyou Liu taught primary school in a rural village in Chongqing for over 28 years. Throughout those years, he has sponsored many of his own students financially. Many decades ago, he paid for many of his students with a part of his 6.5 yuan (<$1) monthly salary, and his wife also prepared lunch for many of the students who had to travel far. Mr. Liu also lives in a spare classroom right next to the one he teaches, which serves as his bedroom, office, and kitchen.

For about three years, he told his closest friends, family, and colleagues that he was regularly going away on long weekend trips to “play cards”. It was quite a mystery as to what he was really up to. However, people knew he often returned covered in soot, and many were wondering why.

After repeated questioning, people eventually found out that he was working in one of the most dangerous industries in the world. He spent his weekends coal mining, forgoing any rest and risking his own life, to make some extra money, so that his own students wouldn’t have to drop out of school. This is in addition to the children he had to support at home.

His students say that Mr. Liu’s lunch is almost always worse than theirs. It consists regularly of just rice and a pickle. More importantly, Mr. Liu owes over 15,000 yuan that he is working to repay. This is debt that he took on for his own students.

When the story broke out, Mr. Liu’s daughter came back in tears, finally understanding why his father lived like that for so many years.

So don’t take your education for granted. Don’t be proud that you “don’t know any math” or that you aren’t “good at art”. Thank the people who make your education possible. Keep learning, and don’t stop. And help those people who can really benefit from your support.


Eight Reasons Why Skepticon 4 Rocked

1. It was better than going to church.

Sure, there was plenty of music and dancing and feel-good stuff, and yes, there was even a mock church service by Sam Singleton. But this was first and foremost an amazing educational event where people learned about things like molecular biology, Baye’s theorem, math education, rationality experiments, Solomonoff induction, poker strategy, as well as hot political/social issues like death, Hollywood rationality, sex positivity, atheist anger, and mental illness. Come on, when was the last time church-going challenged anyone to think this deeply, or to think at all?

2. The speakers were absolutely incredible.

Simply the best and brightest in their particular fields. Many, like PZ Myers, Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson, Hemant Mehta, are wildly popular bloggers. Eliezer Yudhovsky is the author of the most popular Harry Potter fan fiction in world and an artificial intelligence researcher at the Singularity Institute. Dan Barker was a former preacher who now works with the Clergy Project, a group that helps closeted atheists in the church. Spencer Greenberg is a mathematician who founded Rebellion Research, a company that develops machine learning technology for investing. There were so many amazing speakers there that it would take too much time to talk about them all!

3. Too many people showed up.

Skepticon started as a small event a couple of years ago with merely two speakers. It has grown exponentially since, and this year, we nearly filled one of the largest theaters in the city. Who would have thought that people would actually show up in the middle of nowhere in America?

4. It was so far away.

Road-trips are fun, and nine-hour road trips are even better! Well I kind of cheated and flew to St. Louis, but we drove back to St. Louis and took Megabus back to Chicago. Thanks to SA-ers Chana Messinger and Brian Green (no, not the physicist) for an unforgettable time.

5. We stood up against atheist discrimination.

The owner from Mio Gelato, a gelato vendor right next door to the Skepticon event, thought that skepticism was limited to questioning the existence of UFO’s or disproving astrology. So he unknowingly walked into the Sam Singleton event (an amazing comedic event, btw) and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. In response, he posted a sign on his window that said “Skepticon people NOT welcomed to my CHRISTIAN business.” Soon enough, people were taking picture of this sign, and his Yelp score took a nosedive, and this was all reported in the local media as well as the blogosphere. Afterwards, the owner posted a quick apology, and, after more public pressure, finally issued a long, thorough apology.

Two things to say about this: first of all, yes, discrimination against atheists is so not fucking okay. This case is no different than posting a sign that says “Blacks not welcome to my white business” or “Jews not welcome to my Islamic restaurant”. Giving excuses like “I was offended when I voluntarily walked into a black church” or “Hamantash and Latke made me throw up last night” is NOT okay.

Secondly, I’m glad we stood up as a community. Two decades ago, this kind of bigotry was not only common, but also occasionally supported by popular figures like the President. Since then, we’ve made a lot of progress. I’m also glad that the owner learned his lesson and that he has apologized publicly for his indefensible actions. I do not think we should excuse him. I do not think we should forget. But I hope we can, instead of holding grudges, move on and learn collectively from this experience.

6. I met unbelievably smart and talented people.

Skepticon is a spectacular social event. I remember meeting wonderful student skeptics from KU, MSU, UofI, Depaul, and an engineering college in Indiana that I can’t remember the name of.  I also met many non-student skeptics not just from the Missouri area, but also from places like Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, etc. I met people from CFI, Unitarian Universalists, and other skeptics/freethinkers. I met Jesse Galef who works at the national SSA and co-writes Measure of Doubt. I also had the amazing opportunity to have dinner with several speakers from the event, namely Eliezer Yudhovsky, Spencer Greenberg, and Julia Galef. During dinner, we talked about game theory, the infinite hat problem(s), the axiom of choice, Godel’s incompleteness theorem, etc. etc. It was super!

7. We had an influence on Springfield, MO.

Besides the Mio Gelato incident, the experiences I’ve had with people from Springfield were overwhelmingly positive. The Christian activists outside our event did not cause any trouble at all. Also, many restaurants in Springfield opened early on the weekends just to accommodate us! One even gave us a special menu (I ordered a Skepticon salad, for example, but wasn’t sure if it was really a salad). In return, some of these businesses had one of their best weekends ever in terms of sales!

8. It made me proud to be part of this movement.

What more can I say? America is changing, whether you like it or not. Religion is losing its grip on the human mind, and especially with the advent of the internet, it now has to compete, for the very first time in history on such a large scale, in the free marketplace of ideas. Wherever skepticism leads us, there is no doubt that this movement has already had a profound effect on American political and social thought, and it will continue to do so. There will be a time in America when Christians (and religious people in general) will be a minority, and if the current trend continues, that day is approaching very quickly. I left Skepticon 4 with a great sense of optimism and a sigh of relief that we really are a movement that continually questions itself, continually tests itself, and continually tries to improve itself. We’re skeptics, we’re proud of it, and we have no apologies.

Why Carl Sagan Matters

On November 12, 2011, a large theater in Northwestern’s downtown campus became packed with Chicagoans who came to honor the life and legacy of Carl Sagan. The event featured apple pies (made from scratch apparently), flying spaghetti monster cupcakes, COSMO[S]politians (for those 21+), and lots and lots of people from the skeptical/secular community. Jen Newport from Chicago Skeptics gave a talk on Sagan’s contributions to skepticism, and Dan Abramov from Northwestern talked about the enormous strides in space exploration since Sagan’s death. There was also a screening of an episode of Cosmos.

So who was Carl Sagan, and why, more than a decade after his death, does he matter so much?

Carl Sagan, an alumnus of the University of Chicago, was an astronomer who made the Universe come alive in the human imagination. He had a vision of human flourishing, of human solidarity, and of peaceful space exploration that transcended tribes, races, nations, and religions. He was a great communicator and teacher. He was a skeptic and a philosopher who articulated the benefits of science and the dangers of superstition. He connected to the hearts and minds of people around the world. He was “the people’s scientist”.


Inspirational Thank You to Mr. Hitchens

In the rigorous pursuit of truth, atheists love to argue and debate with each other. Yes, there are many issues in the emerging secular community that still needs to be worked out. Whether we agree with each other or not, we often forget to take a moment and say “Thank You” to the people who have given a voice to those who have no voice, who have made it their life’s work to pave the road for secularism so that we could be here today.

Rused Into Accommodationism

Michael Ruse paid a short visit to the University of Chicago on Thursday at a small meeting full of graduate students and Jimmy John’s sandwiches (which was a slight disappointment considering the overwhelming superiority of pretty much anything from Potbelly’s).

I normally show up to events like these to take advantage of an opportunity to ask armor-piercing questions. But this was more of a listening event. I first became interested in Prof. Ruse the person by reading The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw, and I realized I really wanted to see the guy in person. It’s an excellent book by the way, and I recommend that anyone who really wants to understand the history of scientific progress to read it.

Michael Ruse has done wonderful work of not just advancing science, but fighting against creationism and its Trojan horses like intelligent design. He’s a leading scholar on the philosophy of science, and his coverage of the evolution/creationism debate has been followed by many around the world.

But of course, Michael Ruse is the Great Accommodationist. He has written articles on how the “new atheists are a bloody disaster,” and he has a new book on how science and faith are compatible. His positions, consequently, clash violently with my worldview. The utter incompatibility between scientific ways of knowing and faith-based ways of knowing are as clear to me as any basic proof by contradiction.

But I was listening, and he was speaking. As Chana Messinger from the UChicago Secular Alliance noted, Prof. Ruse, on multiple occasions, just loved say that he was a “conservative Protestant nonbeliever” who took the Bible more seriously than a lot of other Christians. Of course, in light of the prevalent relativism and intellectual dishonesty of many so-called modern-day “liberal Christians,” I couldn’t help but agree with Prof. Ruse on this one. People who claim to be Christians but don’t believe in the Resurrection, or in salvation by faith, or in Original Sin are as useless to serious intellectual discussion as non-chess-players are to chess theory. It’s a shame, unfortunately, that Prof. Ruse is only marginally better than these pseudo-Christians.

Prof. Ruse’s ultimate thesis is that because there are questions that science cannot touch—questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?” and “does a God love us?”—it is therefore perfectly alright for faith-based beliefs (like Christianity) to enter the discussion so long as they don’t blatantly trespass on science (in the form of creationism or the insane belief that Adam and Eve were actual people). His position seems at a two-second glance to hold some water, but once he gets questioned, one can clearly see the falling scenery behind his little show. One audience member noted that the Apostle’s Creed sums up Christian belief very well. Why then is Prof. Ruse so offended at the idea of a literal Adam and Eve but not at the idea of a human Resurrection or a virgin birth?

Prof. Ruse’s answer was that as long as Christians don’t try to make it a scientific claim, then it does not trespass on science. But a historical resurrection IS a scientific claim. There were physical cells and proteins involved in death and revitalization of a living body. A virgin birth is likewise a scientific claim. There are natural materials involved in the spontaneous fertilization of a female’s eggs. Prof. Ruse then tried to escape by citing Hume, who must have been rocking rather than rolling in his grave at that moment.

The overall problem is not that Prof. Ruse gives too much credence to religion, even though he does. The problem is that he knows and believes very much that religion and faith are incompatible in many ways. He even said very clearly that he thinks anyone who believes in a literal Resurrection is nuts and that “if science and religion are indeed incompatible, science will win every time.” It’s quite unfortunate that he holds these views but still doesn’t have the guts to go one deductive step further.

“Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.”
– Bertrand Russell

It is almost Carl Sagan Day

And a new video has surfaced. His voice, his message, his dream lives on.