Episode 143: Animal Culture

On this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn leads a discussion of culture in nonhuman animals. Laura discusses tool use, Lauren talks about crows, and Gem talks about the destructive effect humans have on chimpanzee culture. And everyone has bad opinions about sandwiches.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a podcast that delves into issues of science, critical thinking, and secular humanism.

Animal Intelligence: Episode 104: Animal Intelligence (LUEE)

Animal Culture: Culture (Wikipedia) | Animal culture (Wikipedia) | Do Animals Have Culture? (NPR) | Strongest Evidence of Animal Culture Seen in Monkeys and Whales (AAAS) | Cumulative culture in nonhumans: overlooked findings from Japanese monkeys? (Primates: Journal of Primatology)

Tool Use: Animal Tool Use (Current Biology) | Tool use by animals (Wikipedia)

Chimpanzees: Chimpanzee (Wikipedia) | Do Chimpanzees Have Culture (Jane Goodall Institute) | What do chimp ‘temples’ tell us about the evolution of religion? (New Scientist) | Wild chimps make their own “dolls” (New Scientist) | The genetical evolution of chimp culture (New Scientist) | Unique chimpanzee cultures are disappearing thanks to humans (New Scientist)

Corvids: The Cleverness of Crows (Advocacy for Animals) | An Impressive Encounter Of Cultural Learning In Corvids (Corvid Blog) | Corvidae (Wikipedia) | Crow (Wikipedia) | The Unexpected Genius of Corvids (Motherboard) | 16 Unnerving Facts About Corvids Most People Don’t Know (Ranker.com) | FAQs about crows (CorvidResearch.blog) | Crows Cope With Family Values, City Living, and West Nile Virus (All About Birds) | Marc Bekoff

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Episode 103: Worldwide Winter

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn is joined by Ian, Laura, Lauren, and Gem to talk about holiday celebrations around the world. This is also Ian’s last show!

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism that is produced by the Winnipeg Skeptics.

Links: The Rivalry Between Religions (Infidels.org) | Kwanzaa (Wikipedia) | Eid al-Fitr (Wikipedia) | Eid al-Adha (Wikipedia) | Traditional Chinese Festivals (china.org.cn) | Dong Zhi (Boston University) | Dong Zhi in Chinese Culture (mandarin.about.com) | Dongzhi Festival (Wikipedia) | Diwali (Wikipedia) | Hanukkah (Wikipedia) | Yule (Wikipedia) | Prose Edda (Wikipedia) | Haakon the Good (Wikipedia) | Mōdraniht (Wikipedia) | Christmastide (Wikipedia) | Chronography of 354 (Wikipedia) | Episode 72: The War on Christmas: A Brief History (LUEE)

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What Does Creationism Say About Our Culture?

Cross-posted from Skeptic North.

According to a 2007 Angus-Reid poll, 59% of Canadians accept evolution and common descent, while 22% are convinced that God created human beings within the last 10,000 years (with acceptance of evolution being correlated with youth and with higher levels of education, and belief in special creation being more prevalent on the prairies). While it can be tempting to dismiss those who claim that evolution is a religion or that there are no transitional fossils as backward or fringe, the truth is that the prevalence of these beliefs (even in high places) is actually an interesting phenomenon.

As any skeptic can tell you, simply correcting misinformation—supplying the relevant facts, highlighting a logical fallacy, whatever—is nearly never enough to dissuade a believer. Why? Because beliefs don’t stand and fall simply on their own merits. Understanding why people believe things that are sometimes downright odd can provide us with important insight. It seems to me that this sort of context can not only tell us how we might go about winning the argument, but it can give us insight into what the argument is really about.

Look, it can be great fun playing whack-a-mole with creationist claims (I’ve done it many times myself)—we can say that evolution is the cornerstone of modern biological sciences until we’re blue in the face—but when you get right down to it, belief in creationism seems relatively benign when compared to (for example) the conviction that lemongrass makes a good cure for pancreatic cancer. But it’s important to understand that pseudoscientific beliefs do not exist in a vacuum, that they are instead part of a larger cultural context: and that context should be of great interest to skeptics.

I’m sure that many of our readers remember that in a 2009 Globe & Mail interview Gary Goodyear (our Minister of State for Science & Technology, for those of you who were about to check Wikipedia) refused to answer a question about his stance on evolution, stating “I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.”

While many people were justifiably appalled that Canada’s Minister of State for Science & Technology confused a question about his position on an important scientific issue with a question about his religion, I’m inclined to think that Goodyear may have simply been engaging in a rather artless attempt to dodge a question that he may have considered politically awkward (recognizing that his position is probably not in line with the overwhelming scientific consensus). Regardless, countless people swarmed to Goodyear’s defence, with National Post columnist Jonathan Kay characterizing the Globe & Mail article as a “witch hunt”.

So what does the prevalence of creationism (or at the very least, the hesitation to accept the strong scientific consensus) say about our culture?

When a person finds that an opinion (even if said opinion is a deeply held religious opinion) is contradicted by the scientific evidence, most reasonable people would probably agree that this person has two real options: to impugn the evidence or to change the opinion. The choice that an individual makes may be in some sense mediated by the answer to this question: Does this person think that the evidence is contradicting the belief, or do they think that the belief is contradicting the evidence?

However, there is a hidden third option: to blithely ignore the conflict. Whether it takes the form of treating science as just another social construct, no more valid than any other, or of simply denying the necessity of basing one’s beliefs on evidence, this seems to be an increasingly popular tactic for coping with cognitive dissonance.

The fact remains that we now live in a culture in which personal opinion and scientific evidence are, in the eyes of many, given equal weight. We live in a culture in which it is commonplace for a person, upon finding that established science contradicts their personal opinion, to say, “All the worse for science!” This is troubling.

It seems that many people treat their opinions about science (or politics, for that matter) in the same way they treat their preferred sports teams. These opinions are strongly influenced by social and geographical factors, but that doesn’t prevent anyone from strongly and cheerfully proclaiming the superiority of their side of the argument—and in both cases, people are unlikely to be swayed by the evidence (sorry, Maple Leafs fans).

In fact, for people who hold strong opinions on any subject, evidence that contravenes the opinion is actually likely to strengthen the opinion, rather than erode it. This phenomenon is known as the “backfire effect“. A widely reported study on the subject (as it relates to factual claims in politics) was conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and Georgia State University in 2006, and it concluded that “corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.”

No one can be completely immune to the backfire effect (or to any other cognitive bias). But if your primary conviction is to the method rather than to the conclusion, then perhaps you will be better equipped to recognise that it is your opinion that is in need of correction.

So what does creationism say about our culture? That, at the very least, we must remain vigilant.

TEDxManitoba Favourites

All of the talks from TEDxManitoba have been uploaded and are now available for your viewing pleasure!

First, the obligatory self-promotion. As the Sirius Cybernetics Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser might put it: Share and enjoy!

Remember: The “Like” button is your friend! The full text (along with references and annotations) can be found here!

Now that that’s done with, here are a few of my favourite TEDxManitoba talks, in no particular order. The event itself was amazing, the speakers were awesome, and I got useful ideas out of every single talk, whether I agreed with the core premise or not. So watch them all!

But if you don’t have time to watch them all, at least watch these ones!

Robert J. Sawyer: To Live Forever – or Die Trying

TJ Dawe: An Experiment in Collective Intelligence

Kale Bonham: Bridging Cultures Through Community Provoked Art

Matt Henderson: Teaching Ourselves to Last Forever

Hazel Borys: Confessions of a Former Sprawl Addict

Brad Tyler-West: Opposites Distract

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2011: The Videos, Part 2

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2011: The Videos, Part 1
SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2011: The Videos, Part 3

SkeptiCamp is an open conference celebrating science and critical thinking. For more information please visit SkeptiCamp.org.

Polyamory and Mononormative Assumptions

Anlina Sheng is a freelance graphic and web designer, a feminist, and a polyamory activist. For more information about polyamory in Winnipeg, visit PolyWinnipeg.org.

Perpetual Motion and Free Energy… Science or Pseudoscience?

Javier Hernandez-Melgar is a student at the University of Manitoba, pursuing a joint honours degree in math and physics.

Evaluating Rational and Emotional Arguments

Brendan Curran-Johnson is a software developer, unrepentant geek, and incorrigible satirist.