Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 11.07.44 AMUtah counties are evading the court’s ruling on gay marriage. Several counties are flatly refusing to issue licenses, acting in contempt of federal court. My home county of Cache has simply closed their office to all citizens in order to stall before the holiday closing — the closure is purportedly a misdemeanor offense. Update, Dec. 24: The Cache County office is open and the first marriages are being officiated on-site.

The Salt Lake Tribune is not mincing words:

Utah counties looking to the state government for clarification on whether to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples Monday were left to their own devices — and some turned couples away despite plain talk from U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby.

In essence, Shelby, who on Friday struck down Utah law forbidding same-sex marriage, said Monday that county clerks who do not issue licenses to gay and lesbian couples are violating the law.

…As of late Monday, Beaver, Carbon, Weber, Davis, Daggett, Emery, Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele, Duchesne, Uintah, Morgan, Millard, Grand, Iron, Kane, Rich, Sanpete, Sevier, Wayne, Washington and Wasatch counties were issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

Continue reading

Respecting the sacred

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 1.27.47 AMThe Hopi Tribe has been arguing for the return of artifacts considered sacred to their traditional religion. A coalition of tribes has also been fighting to constrain land use in an Arizona mountain range considered to be sacred land. What accommodations are appropriate for respecting these religious traditions?

Although I am an Atheist, I do not support gratuitous insults to rituals and traditions that are deemed sacred. As I see it, most Atheists are interested in two things: 1) Intellectual defense of science and a skeptical epistemology (usually empiricist); and 2) Eliminating institutions of religious privilege through secular activism. The concept of privilege is especially relevant for the situation of indigenous populations like the Hopi, who fell victim to colonization by outsiders who were mostly Christian. Since I am also descended from the colonizing group, I’m conscious of the need to tread lightly on matters of tribal religion.

Continue reading

Utah counties try to dodge gay marriage ruling


This sign was taped to the door of the Cache County clerk’s office as couples arrived seeking marriage licenses. They seem confused by the judge’s ruling. Other counties tried similar gymnastics to evade the ruling. But the judge’s words seem pretty clear to me:

The state’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in doing so, demean the dignity of these same sex couples for no rational reason. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional.

Where’s the confusion?

Santa, Jesus and dinosaurs

Father Christmas rides a goat

Father Christmas rides a goat

A friend of mine once shared her “skeptic origin story,” which also happens to be an amazing Christmas story. I’ll have to paraphrase the story from memory:

When I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real, I couldn’t believe so many people had been lying to me. I immediately stopped believing in God, Jesus and dinosaurs. They all sounded like made-up fantasies told by the same people who lied about Santa. I eventually started believing in dinosaurs again.

This story is both funny and thought provoking. On one hand, it exposes the plain similarity between religious knowledge and the Santa myth — the latter being a ubiquitous lie in which nearly everyone knowingly participates. On the other hand, it highlights a continual challenge for skeptically minded people: where do I draw the boundaries of my skepticism? This is sort of the amateur version of the demarcation problem: where are the lines that separate (1) total junk; (2) reasonable but wrong beliefs; and (3) questionable topics that warrant further study?

Continue reading

Quasi-fallacies: the courtier’s reply and credential mongering

Look, science!

Look at all that science!

Skeptical arguments generally live in the domain of rhetoric and informal logic. Most informal arguments hinge on the correct identification of logical fallacies. There has been a slow growth in the number of alleged fallacies since the dawn of internet debate. Novel fallacies are usually a re-branding of established fallacies, with the goal of simplified rhetorical clarity. I’m concerned that this also promotes a false confidence that leads to shallow thinking and mis-identification.To paraphrase Occam, “fallacies are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

In this post, I’m going to pick on two examples: Prothero’s observations about credential mongering, and Myer’s anti-theology “courtier’s reply” argument that has been referenced by Dawkins and others. I chose these specific examples because they seem to be shaky arguments that can be aimed against each other. I don’t disagree with the conclusions of these arguments in their original context, but these arguments are not able to live independently as authentic fallacies.

Continue reading

Migrating to a new site

I’ve decided to migrate my blog content from to this new location. I apologize for any broken links this may have created. I made this change because was starting to dominate search engine results for my name, and I wanted to direct people to my professional pages before they get lost in my personal opinions. By choosing a less personally-identifying blog name, I hope to avoid representing myself mainly through my most opinionated or controversial posts. I chose the unimaginatively mathy name “fair coin toss” because it is a ubiquitous technical phrase that no one has claimed for a blog name. I’m grateful for any readers who find their way here after the transition.

Extraordinary Tweets and the Madness of Crowds

ImageTwitter accelerates the spread old-fashioned mob thinking. Thanks to the efforts of internet skeptics, older varieties of internet noise email hoaxes seem more or less tamed. But recent blowups — from Elan Gale’s pointless Thanksgiving hoax to the more tragic terrorism accusations pointed at innocent people after the Boston marathon bombing — indicate that the skeptical culture hasn’t come to grips with the Twitter medium. With Twitter, pseudo-information spreads and evolves much faster than it can be verified or corrected, and even experienced skeptics get fooled by the noise.  
Continue reading

Choosing our Labels

What is the difference between an Atheist and an Agnostic, and does it matter?  vanquishing the devil

Atheists are stuck with a lot of nasty stereotypes. Those stereotypes are regularly reinforced by popular media and by public figures who make uncharitable generalizations. We’re fairly accustomed to the demonizing slurs coming from religious conservatives. But what’s more disappointing is when an Agnostic celebrity says something to reinforce negative stereotypes about Atheists. I wrote about this subject previously when Neil deGrasse Tyson described a nasty caricature of Atheists who “cross off the word ‘God’ from every dollar bill that comes in [their] possession.” This time Sarah Silverman has expressed the same sort of thing:

I don’t like to say “atheist” because I feel like atheists have that same chip on their shoulder that people who feel like their religion is the only right thing have. It’s to know something, to think you know something definitively that, I feel, we as mere mortal humans can’t possibly know. I think it’s just as obnoxious. I’m Agnostic. I don’t know, and neither do you!

Before continuing, I want to pause to clarify that I think Neil deGrasse Tyson is awesome and, as an axiom, Sarah Silverman can do no wrong. I’ll just assume that she missed a chance to elaborate and clarify her remarks.
Continue reading