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Posts Tagged Harvard University

Fluoridation – the IQ myth Ken Perrott Sep 18

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fluoride_kills_test (1)Some of the myths promoted by anti-fluoridation activists really are of the “unsinkable rubber duck” variety. No matter how many times they are debunked they keep being repeated.

If you follow the fluoridation debate at all you will have come across the “Harvard Study” “proving” fluoride makes you dumb. It is often associated with the claim that the Nazis used fluoridated water supplies in their concentration camps to distract the inmates. Some will even claim that this is the purpose for fluoridation in the US!

I haven’t dealt with this particular myth yet, but really can’t do better than repeat this post from the US Life is Better with Teeth web site. (By the way, this is an excellent source of information on the fluoridation issue). The article is Fluoride and IQs


In July 2012, anti-fluoride activists circulated an article from a journal called Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) to support their claim that fluoride lowers IQ scores in children. There are several reasons why the claim being made by opponents lacks credibility.

  • The EHP article reviewed studies on IQ scores for children living in areas of China, Mongolia and Iran where the water supplies have unusually high, natural fluoride levels. In many cases, the high-fluoride areas were significantly higher than the levels used to fluoridate public water systems in the U.S. In fact, the high-fluoride areas in these countries reached levels as high as 11.5 mg/L — more than 10 times higher than the optimal level used in the U.S.
  • This article offers a meta-analysis, and its credibility hinges on whether good-quality studies are reviewed. Yet the article’s co-authors admit that “each of the [studies] reviewed had deficiencies, in some cases rather serious, which limit the conclusions that can be drawn.” Although the studies compared high-fluoride with low-fluoride areas, the authors acknowledge that “the actual exposures of the individual children are not known.”
  • The two Harvard researchers who reviewed these studies have distanced themselves from the way in which anti-fluoride activists have misrepresented their article. After contacting these researchers, the Wichita Eagle newspaper reported, “While the studies the Harvard team reviewed did indicate that very high levels of fluoride could be linked to lower IQs among schoolchildren, the data is not particularly applicable here because it came from foreign sources where fluoride levels are multiple times higher than they are in American tap water.”
  • The Harvard researchers wrote in their article that the average standardized mean difference (0.45) in IQ scores “may be within the measurement error of IQ testing.” Despite web pages claiming that the article ”confirms” that fluoride reduces IQ scores, the Harvard co-authors did not reach a firm conclusion, writing instead that “our results support the possibility of adverse effects …” Indeed, their article called for more and better-quality research, including more “precise” data on the children involved and assurances that other factors have been ruled out as reasons for the IQ differences.
  • Given the small difference in IQ scores, it’s possible that arsenic levels, school quality, nutrition, parents’ educational levels or other factors could have shaped the results. The authors also added that “reports of lead concentrations in the study villages in China were not available”— another factor that could not be ruled out. A Britishresearch team reviewed similar Chinese studies, found “basic errors” in them, and reported that “water supplies may be contaminated with other chemicals such as arsenic, which may affect IQ.”
  • Between the 1940s and the 1990s, the average IQ scores of Americans improved 15 points.  This gain (approximately 3 IQ points per decade) came during the same period when fluoridation steadily expanded to serve millions and millions of additional Americans.

See also:

Similar articles on fluoridation
Making sense of fluoride Facebook page
Fluoridate our water Facebook page
New Zealanders for fluoridation Facebook page

Waking up to morality Ken Perrott Oct 27

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I have come to the conclusion that a lot of what is said and written about morality is rubbish. So I am pleased to see that, at last, science is opening up to the idea that it can investigate this area of human interest.

Part of that rubbish has been the idea that morality is “off limits to science.” That it is ring-fenced. I think this attitude partly explains the hostility we see expressed towards the scientific study of morality and scientists speaking out on the topic. And this hostility is coming from some scientists, as well as theologians and philosophers.

So I am looking forward to any debate resulting from the recent New Scientist opinion special “Science Wakes up to Morality.” (See October 16 issue No 2782).

This includes short articles by eight scientists, philosophers and journalists. Well worth reading.

Fiery Cushman, a moral psychologist at Harvard University, writes in Don’t be afraid — science can make us better:

“We have long thought of moral laws as fixed points of reality, self-evident truths rooted in divine command or in some Platonic realm of absolute rights and wrongs. But new research is offering an alternative, explaining moral attitudes in the context of evolution, culture and the neural architecture of our brains. This apparent reduction of morality to a scientific specimen can seem threatening, but it needn’t. Rather, by unmasking our minds as the authors of morality, we may be better able to bend its narrative arc towards a happy end.”

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, writes in Beyond intuition:

The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume pointed out long ago that no combination of statements about what “is” the case could ever allow one to deduce what “ought” to be. After all, in deductive arguments, the truth of the conclusion is already contained in the premises. But when scientists deal in morality, deducing an “ought” from an “is” is often precisely what they attempt to do.”

And:

“So let’s assume that we have instinctive moral responses to a variety of situations of the kind encountered by our ancestors throughout our history, though modified by our culture and upbringing. What would follow from this about what we ought to do?

It certainly doesn’t follow that we ought to do what our instincts prompt us to do. That might have enhanced our survival and reproductive fitness in an earlier period, but may not do so now; even if it did, it could still be the wrong thing to do. Consider the ethics, for example, of having a large family on an overpopulated planet. Rather, by undermining the authority that some philosophers have given to our intuitive moral responses, the new scientific lines of evidence about the nature of morality open the way for us to think more deeply, and more freely, about what we ought to do.”


Singer’s most recent book is The Life You Can Save: How to Play Your Part in Ending World Poverty.

Paul Bloom, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, writes in Infant origins of human kindness:

“A theory of human kindness needs two parts. the core of our moral sense is explained by our evolved nature, but its extension to strangers is the product of our culture, our intelligence and our imagination.”

Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher at Yale University” writes in Our hidden judgements:

“It seems that our whole way of thinking about phenomena that appear to lie outside the bounds of morality may actually be rooted in hidden moral jusdgements.”

Pat Churchland, a philosopher of neuroscience at the university of California and the Salk institute, says in Brain roots of right and wrong:

“Morality seems to be shaped by four interlocking brain processes: caring, rooted in attachment to and nurture of offspring; r4ecognition of others’ psychological states, bringing the benefit of predicting their behaviour; problem-solving in a social context, such as how to distribute scarce goods or defend the clan; and social-learning, by positive and negative reinforcement, imitation, conditioning and analogy.

These factors result in a conscience: a set of socially sanctioned responses to prototypical circumstances”

And:

“The interplay of our neural and cultural institutions comprises our moral history.”

Martha J. Farah, Director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, argues that we will be required to rethink our sustice system to take into account how morality is linked to brain function (see My brain made me do it).

Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, is interviewed by Amanda Gefter.

I like his comment rejecting religious notions of morality:

“Consider the Catholic church. This is an institution that excommunicates women who attempt to become priests, but does not excommunicate priests who rape children. This church is more concerned about stopping contraception than stopping genocide. It is more worried about gay marriage than about nuclear proliferation. When we realise that morality relates to questions of human and animal well-being, we can see that the Catholic church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology. It is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.”

Having just started reading his book, I am going to write more about Sam’s ideas later. Some early reviews are in and he is certainly getting some debate going.

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Fallout from Hauser affair spreads Ken Perrott Sep 01

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For background to the scientific misconduct charges circulating around Marc D Hauser have a look at A paper by Marc Hauser retracted — Harvard Magazine, A sympathetic take on Marc Hauser and the ’scientific misconduct’ issue, Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement, Marc Hauser replies — acknowledges mistakes and The myth of the noble scientist.

While Hauser’s acknowledgment confirms the eight misconduct charges mentioned by Harvard University’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts Sciences there is concern that the misconduct will taint the rest of Hauser’s work and publications.

It’s probably understandable that full clarity must await the final conclusions of US federal investigative agencies but inevitably there will be speculation. Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal Cognition, posted a statement on his blog saying that his own review of information provided to him by Harvard has convinced him that fabrication is the most plausible explanation for data in a 2002 Cognition paper. This is the paper that is being retracted. (Two other published papers are being corrected and the other five incidents did not result in publications or were corrected before publication).

In his statement Altmann says:

I am forced to conclude that there was most likely an intention here, using data that appear to have been fabricated, to deceive the field into believing something for which there was in fact no evidence at all. This is, to my mind, the worst form of academic misconduct. However, this is just conjecture; I note that the investigation found no explanation for the discrepancy between what was found on the videotapes and what was reported in the paper. Perhaps, therefore, the data were not fabricated, and there is some hitherto undiscovered or undisclosed explanation. But I do assume that if the investigation had uncovered a more plausible alternative explanation (and I know that the investigation was rigorous to the extreme), it would not have found Hauser guilty of scientific misconduct.

The speculation and concern threatens to taint others in the areas of research Hauser has been connected with. Already some are questioning the reliability of his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. His planned book, Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad, may not sell well, or may not even be published. Pity, as it sounds interesting.

A recommendation from Hauser for Sam Harris’s new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, appears to have been removed. Now the edge web site for the THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY seminar has deleted the video of Hauser’s contribution. It briefly explains:

EDITOR’S NOTE: Marc Hauser, one of the nine participants at the conference, has withdrawn his contribution.

A revision of the Edge seminar presentations?

On the surface this appears similar to Stalin’s habit of removing his opponents from photographs and there is no indication that Hauser had a choice. It also raises the question of to what extent the work he included in that particular presentation is questionable.

While I can understand why the organisers of this seminar may wish to protect its authority by removing Hauser’s contribution it does indicate the current dilemma for people working in this area. And for lay people like me who are interested in the field.

The sooner the details and extent of Hauser’s misconduct are reliably reported and the final conclusions of US federal investigative agencies made public the better.

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Marc Hauser replies — acknowledges mistakes Ken Perrott Aug 21

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Here is Marc Hauser’s response to the charge of scientific misconduct (from USA Today Updated: Harvard says Marc Hauser guilty of science misconduct). Hopefully we are seeing an example of science correcting itself.

I am deeply sorry for the problems this case has caused to my students, my colleagues, and my university..

I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes and I am deeply disappointed that this has led to a retraction and two corrections. I also feel terrible about the concerns regarding the other five cases, which involved either unpublished work or studies in which the record was corrected before submission for publication.

I hope that the scientific community will now wait for the federal investigative agencies to make their final conclusions based on the material that they have available.

I have learned a great deal from this process and have made many changes in my own approach to research and in my lab’s research practices.

Research and teaching are my passion. After taking some time off, I look forward to getting back to my work, mindful of what I have learned in this case. This has been painful for me and those who have been associated with the work.

See also:
Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement
Harvard Finds Scientist Guilty of Misconduct

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Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement Ken Perrott Aug 21

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Well, we now have an official statement from Michael Smith, the Harvard dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, on the Hauser “misconduct” affair. It’s an email sent to Harvard University faculty members. It was also sent to New Scientist by Harvard’s press office (see Harvard Dean Confirms Misconduct in Hauser Investigation). I have quoted the full text of the email below the fold.

The email confirms that Marc Hauser “was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty member investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards.” As a result three papers are either being retracted or corrected. The five other issue did not result in publications or the ropblems were corrected before publication.

Harvard has now completed its investigation. However, the email is unclear what disciplinary action will be taken against Hauser. In fact, its description of options (involuntary leave, oversight of research labs, restriction on applying for research grants and supervising student research) seem rather mild. To me this is an indication that the “misconduct” in querstion relates to poor scientific method, subjectivity in collecting data, over-riding fellow researchers, etc., rather than outright fraud.

Marc Hauser has apparently made a comment to the New York Times which has yet to be published. It will be his first comment on the events.

So all rather sad, but perhaps not a case of outright fraud.

Full text of email

Dear faculty colleagues,

No dean wants to see a member of the faculty found responsible for scientific misconduct, for such misconduct strikes at the core of our academic values. Thus, it is with great sadness that I confirm that Professor Marc Hauser was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] standards. The investigation was governed by our long-standing policies on professional conduct and shaped by the regulations of federal funding agencies. After careful review of the investigating committee’s confidential report and opportunities for Professor Hauser to respond, I accepted the committee’s findings and immediately moved to fulfill our obligations to the funding agencies and scientific community and to impose appropriate sanctions.

Harvard, like every major research institution, takes a finding of scientific misconduct extremely seriously and imposes consequential sanctions on individuals found to have committed scientific misconduct. Rigid adherence to the scientific method and scrupulous attention to the integrity of research results are values we expect in every one of our faculty, students, and staff.

In brief, when allegations of scientific misconduct arise, the FAS Standing Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) is charged with beginning a process of inquiry into the allegations. The inquiry phase is followed by an investigation phase that is conducted by an impartial committee of qualified, tenured faculty (the investigating committee), provided that the dean, advised by the CPC, believes the allegations warrant further investigation. The work of the investigating committee as well as its final report are considered confidential to protect both the individuals who made the allegations and those who assisted in the investigation. Our investigative process will not succeed if individuals do not have complete confidence that their identities can be protected throughout the process and after the findings are reported to the appropriate agencies. Furthermore, when the allegations concern research involving federal funding, funding agency regulations govern our processes during the investigation and our obligations after our investigation is complete. (For example, federal regulations impose an ongoing obligation to protect the identities of those who provided assistance to the investigation.) When the investigation phase is complete, the investigating committee produces a confidential report describing their activity and their findings. The response of the accused to this report and the report itself are considered by the dean, who then decides whether to accept the findings, and in the case of a finding of misconduct, determine the sanctions that are appropriate. This entire and extensive process was followed in the current case.

Since some of the research in the current case was supported by federal funds, the investigating committee’s report and other supplemental material were submitted to the federal offices responsible for their own review, in accordance with federal regulations and FAS procedures. Our usual practice is not to publicly comment on such cases, one reason being to ensure the integrity of the government’s review processes.

A key obligation in a scientific misconduct case is to correct any affected publications, and our confidentiality policies do not conflict with this obligation. In this case, after accepting the findings of the committee, I immediately moved to have the record corrected for those papers that were called into question by the investigation. The committee’s report indicated that three publications needed to be corrected or retracted, and this is now a matter of public record. To date, the paper, “Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins,” Cognition 86, B15-B22 (2002) has been retracted because the data produced in the published experiments did not support the published findings; and a correction was published to the paper, “Rhesus monkeys correctly read the goal-relevant gestures of a human agent,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274, 1913-1918 (2007). The authors continue to work with the editors of the third publication, “The perception of rational, goal-directed action in nonhuman primates,” Science 317, 1402-1405 (2007). As we reported to one of these editors, the investigating committee found problems with respect to the three publications mentioned previously, and five other studies that either did not result in publications or where the problems were corrected prior to publication. While different issues were detected for the studies reviewed, overall, the experiments reported were designed and conducted, but there were problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results.

Beyond these responsibilities to the funding agencies and the scientific community, Harvard considers confidential the specific sanctions applied to anyone found responsible for scientific misconduct. However, to enlighten those unfamiliar with the available sanctions, options in findings of scientific misconduct include involuntary leave, the imposition of additional oversight on a faculty member’s research lab, and appropriately severe restrictions on a faculty member’s ability to apply for research grants, to admit graduate students, and to supervise undergraduate research. To ensure compliance with the imposed sanctions, those within Harvard with oversight of the affected activities are informed of the sanctions that fall within their administrative responsibilities.

As should be clear from this letter, I have a deeply rooted faith in our process and the shared values upon which it is founded. Nonetheless, it is healthy to review periodically our long-standing practices. Consequently, I will form a faculty committee this fall to reaffirm or recommend changes to the communication and confidentiality practices associated with the conclusion of cases involving allegations of professional misconduct. To be clear, I will ask the committee to consider our policies covering all professional misconduct cases and not comment solely on the current scientific misconduct case.

In summary, Harvard has completed its investigation of the several allegations in the current case and does not anticipate making any additional findings, statements, or corrections to the scientific record with respect to those allegations. This does not mean, however, that others outside Harvard have completed their reviews. In particular, Harvard continues to cooperate with all federal inquiries into this matter by the PHS Office of Research Integrity, the NSF Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.

Respectfully yours,

Michael D. Smith

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

See also:

Harvard says Marc Hauser guilty of science misconduct
Harvard Find Psychology Researcher ‘Solely Responsible’ for Scientific Misconduct
Harvard dean: Hauser guilty of scientific misconduct
Hauser found “responsible’ for eight instances of misconduct
Harvard to recify journal works
Document Sheds Light on Investigation at Harvard

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A sympathetic take on Marc Hauser and the ’scientific misconduct’ issue Ken Perrott Aug 13

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Marc Hauser

Greg Laden has provided a sympathetic take on the news of the scientific misconduct investigation of Marc Hauser (see What I know about Marc Hauser, the recently ‘investigated’ Harvard primatologist). He doesn’t have any more specific information on the alleged misconduct than the rest of us, unfortunately. However, he has worked with Hauser.

Greg says: “I know Marc Hauser, and I trust him.”

But then he is forced to speculate. He discusses what he calls “The Hauser Effect.” This refers to Hauser’s ability to discover certain capacities in New World monkeys which had previously only been found in Old World primates like chimpanzees, baboons and macaques. This may result from Hauser’s acknowledged experimental skills But one also could imagine effects due to the subjects picking up cues from the experimenter.

Laden has speculated on the “Hauser effect” in the past. But, he says: “Fraud or misconduct never crossed my mind.”

“I’m like the neighbor who is interviewed after the spectacular arrest of the guy down the street for some over the top crime.

‘Marc kept to himself, in his lab. He produced his papers, got on with his job. Nobody ever thought he would carry out misconduct. He wasn’t the type. I can’t believe this is happening.’

That’s what I think.”

Harvard really should provide more information about their inquiry and its findings. Uninformed speculation could undermine the credibility of really good science.

My interest in Hauser’s work relate to the science of morality. He is author of the book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. And currently he is working on a new book to be published by Viking Penguin. It has the intriguing title  Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad .

See also:
The new science of morality
Is and ought
Misconduct found in Harvard animal morality prof’s lab: New Scientist
Inquiry on Harvard Lab Threatens Ripple Effect

UPDATE: Harvard has responded (see Harvard Confirms ‘Hausergate’) to reporters inquiries with “carefully worded statement to a few reporters:”

“Harvard has always taken seriously its obligation to maintain the integrity of the scientific record.  The University has rigorous systems in place to evaluate concerns about scientific work by Harvard faculty members.  Those procedures were employed in Dr. Hauser’s situation.  As a result of that process, and in accordance with standard practice, Harvard has taken steps to ensure that the scientific record is corrected in relation to three articles co-authored by Dr. Hauser.

While Dr. Hauser (or in one instance, his colleague) were directed to explain the issues with these articles to the academic journals that published those papers, the University has also welcomed specific questions from the editors involved. We will continue to assist the editors in this process.  In these types of cases, Harvard follows federal requirements for investigating alleged research misconduct and reports its findings, as required, to the appropriate federal funding agencies, which conduct their own review.   At the conclusion of the federal investigatory process, in cases where the government concludes scientific misconduct occurred, the federal agency makes those findings publicly available.”

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A paper by Marc Hauser retracted — Harvard Magazine Ken Perrott Aug 11

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Well, this could be embarrassing. But I hope not.

Marc Hauser, who was one of the participants in the “New Science of Morality” seminar (see The new science of morality and Is and ought) is under a cloud. His Harvard laboratory has been investigated for the last three years because of charges of scientific misconduct. (See Psychologist and author Marc Hauser takes leave of absence as paper is retracted.)

Information is still rather vague and there is no indication yet of his own degree of culpability. However, as research leader he has had to take responsibility and one of the papers he is a joint author of is being retracted (Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins). Two other papers are also being questioned- one because of incomplete video records and field note taking by a co-author of Hauser.
Retraction Watch has some details, inclkuding an email response from Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal concerned, Cognition. (See Monkey business? 2002 Cognition paper retracted as prominent psychologist Marc Hauser takes leave from Harvard). The play on the word monkey abviously relates to Hausers work with monkeys and other primates.

Science self-correcting

On the surface this news looks bad for science. However, we should hold our judgment until there is clearer information. Particularly on what specific role Hauser played in the misconduct and the degree of awareness he had of it at the time. There is no indication at this stage that Hauser’s leave from Harvard should be interpreted as a disciplinary action.

More importantly, we should recognise that we are seeing one of the methods science has for self correction. The science community treats deliberate distortion of evidence, poor record keeping and biased interpretation of results very seriously.

There are going to be people who use this news to attack science. But we should ask them if they are prepared to submit their beliefs, ideology or claims to such scrutiny? And are they willing to be disciplined if an investigation finds that they have made distorted or false claims?

Human morality research

My interest in Hauser relates to his ground breaking work on human morality. He is author of the book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. There is no suggestion at all that this current issue discredits the book in any way. Particularly as it is largely a description of research performed by large numbers of different people.

Edge has videos from the New Science of Morality seminar. One of these is of Hauser’s presentation. Go and have a look. There are also a number of other videos of his presentations on line. The three below are to a lecture he gave last November.

Human Morality Part 1

Human Morality Part 2

Human Morality Part 3:

See also: Reading the Coverage of a Retraction: Failure to replicate is not evidence of fraud

Thanks to HENRY (Marc Hauser on leave — investigation uncovers scientific misconduct).

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No gods required Ken Perrott Jan 15

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Book Review: Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (October 27, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061670111
ISBN-13: 978-0061670114

With this title the book is obviously going to discuss morality. Fortunately it quickly disposes of the question of ’whether we can be good without God’ early in the introduction. As the author, Greg Epstein, says the empirical evidence is irrefutable ’Millions and millions of people are, every day. The answer is yes. Period.’

But, of course, he devotes the rest of the book to explaining and recommending how the one billion ’non-believers’ of the planet are, and can be, good. On how they do and can deal with social organisation in suitable ways.

Proud humanist heritage

Epstein explains that humanism, atheism, agnosticism, etc., is more than ’non-belief.’ That in fact humanity has a rich and proud heritage of thought and contribution to society, of ’seeking goodness and wisdom without a God.’ Humanism has its roots in the wisdom of the past, in the East as well as the West. This heritage includes also figures like Isaac Newton ’who even given his Christianity could be considered a precursor to modern atheism and free thought because his discoveries helped lay the groundwork for some current beliefs.’ This approach appeals Rather than being outsiders to our culture, society and history, we humanists can legitimately claim to represent so much that was positive in human history, despite the religious mystical and superstitious beliefs common at the time.

Part of the problem with attitudes towards ’non-believers’ is that while we often consider the religious as a group this is usually not the case for ’non-believers.’ Epstein says: ’We may be a diverse group But no more so than others.’ Epstein demands that society should stop assuming non-believers have no beliefs. ’It’s time to recognise that non-believers are believers too: we believe in Humanism.’

Of course the book discusses the nature of humanism in several places, but I like some of the short definitions. Humanism is ’above all an affirmation of the greatest common value we humans have: the desire to live with dignity, to be ’good.’’ ’Humanists believe in life before death.’ Humanism provides ’a place where family, memory, ethical values, and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with intellectual honesty, and without a god.’

Humanist community

Well, perhaps not a ’place’ yet — more a possibility. And this gets to Epstein’s major preoccupation in this book. The need for humanists, atheists, freethinkers, etc., to recognise the human need for community with its attendant trappings of ritual, ceremony, meeting places and maybe even its own teachings. I believe he has some important points here — but I don’t agree with all his solutions to these problems. However, they are important issues which non-believers need to discuss and find solutions for — and Epstein’s thoughts are a welcome contribution. But we should recognise that one size doesn’t fit all — different communities in this diverse group will find different solutions that they are comfortable with.

Greg Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, USA. Humanist Chaplaincy is relatively rare and this position reflects both Epstein’s personal history and the solutions to the human problem of community that are comfortable for him. He is an atheist but has graduate degrees from both the University of Michigan and Harvard Divinity School and was ordained as a Humanist Rabbi in 2005. This background may influence him to see strong parallels between the humanist community he wishes to promote and existing religious communities.

Expanding the vision

Personally, I would expand that vision. I think we should also look to the present and future when considering community. The world is changing and even some religious organisations recognise this. While many churches are tradition-bound, many have also adopted new methods of community and worship. ’Supermarket religions,’ meeting in buildings that look more like malls than churches, charismatic emotional experience and less emphasis on dogma. These churches show their recognition of modern community needs by providing social services like childcare and counselling.

Some religious organisations have recognised the opportunities provided by the internet and invest much of their time and effort in ’internet evangelism.’

So, in considering how we can fulfil human needs for community Humanists shouldn’t just ape the church experience. We should be recognising the old weekly meeting format does not necessarily accord to modern methods of socialising. Today people have so many more modes of contact with work, profession, sport, hobbies, travel and internationally. The internet has opened radically new ways of interacting, often rapidly and internationally. So modern communities, and community building, must reflect this.

If teenagers can socialise and people can search for life partners by internet interaction, why can they not get much of their community and ethical satisfactions, and learning, on-line? I believe that this is already a reality. Internet communities are already forming naturally —especially for young people. And unlike the old-style communities these are international in scope.

Surely the internet has contributed strongly to the current widening of interest in atheism and humanism at a grass-roots level?

Ritual and ceremony

Epstein discusses why humans find ritual and ceremony important. These mark significant life events like birth, naming, coming of age, marriage and death. Then there are the traditional holidays, usually of pagan and agricultural origin but now often taken over by religions.

In my lifetime I have seen society wrench many of these rituals and ceremonies back from the hands of religion. Non-religious marriages and funerals are now common — and excellent and refreshing they are too. Christmas is largely a secular event, devoted to families rather than spirits.  Tim Minchin’s song White Wine in the Sun is a moving example of secular family Christmas in our Southern hemisphere climate.

While many non-believers may be enthusiastic about ideas of organised secular communities, others are clearly wary. Many of us recognise that problems of dogmatism, authoritarianism, blind followers, etc., are not unique to religion. Even without the authority of gods it is possible for secular organisations to show such negative features. Perhaps this is why we say organising atheists is like organising cats. We value our independence of ideas, as well as lifestyles, too much to replace one dogmatic ideology by another possible one.

Epstein warns against the idea that humanists should create their own holidays. He thinks it better to take the ones we have but give them their original or modern secular meanings. He even favours using some religious ceremonies themselves, largely unchanged but imbued with new meaning.

There is also a need for secular alternatives in other areas.  In many societies, but not all, we do have this for education and medical care. Religious organisations dominate social services — partly because they use them as another source of tax-free income from the state.

The current emergency in Haiti also highlights the need for clear secular alternatives for charity and relief donations. There is a huge, mainly secular, response and wish to help but many people are confused about the best agency to donate to. There is a clear need to identify aid agencies which won’t divert funds into proselytizing. I have discussed a new development in this area in an accompanying post Secular Charity.

This is an excellent book for anyone thinking about these issues — the secular origins of morality and ethics, the proud traditions of humanism and free thought, and the problems of human communities in a modern secular and pluralist society. Many will find Epstein’s ideas appealing. Some of us will be wary — preferring less rigid and more modern forms of community.

So Epstein has made a valuable contribution with this book, even though it is still partial. I just wish that other humanists, atheists and freethinkers would contribute their ideas to a wider discussion of these subjects.

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See also: Defending The Faith, And Morality, Of NonBelievers

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No gods required Ken Perrott Jan 15

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Book Review: Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (October 27, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061670111
ISBN-13: 978-0061670114

With this title the book is obviously going to discuss morality. Fortunately it quickly disposes of the question of ’whether we can be good without God’ early in the introduction. As the author, Greg Epstein, says the empirical evidence is irrefutable ’Millions and millions of people are, every day. The answer is yes. Period.’

But, of course, he devotes the rest of the book to explaining and recommending how the one billion ’non-believers’ of the planet are, and can be, good. On how they do and can deal with social organisation in suitable ways.

Proud humanist heritage

Epstein explains that humanism, atheism, agnosticism, etc., is more than ’non-belief.’ That in fact humanity has a rich and proud heritage of thought and contribution to society, of ’seeking goodness and wisdom without a God.’ Humanism has its roots in the wisdom of the past, in the East as well as the West. This heritage includes also figures like Isaac Newton ’who even given his Christianity could be considered a precursor to modern atheism and free thought because his discoveries helped lay the groundwork for some current beliefs.’ This approach appeals Rather than being outsiders to our culture, society and history, we humanists can legitimately claim to represent so much that was positive in human history, despite the religious mystical and superstitious beliefs common at the time.

Part of the problem with attitudes towards ’non-believers’ is that while we often consider the religious as a group this is usually not the case for ’non-believers.’ Epstein says: ’We may be a diverse group But no more so than others.’ Epstein demands that society should stop assuming non-believers have no beliefs. ’It’s time to recognise that non-believers are believers too: we believe in Humanism.’

Of course the book discusses the nature of humanism in several places, but I like some of the short definitions. Humanism is ’above all an affirmation of the greatest common value we humans have: the desire to live with dignity, to be ’good.’’ ’Humanists believe in life before death.’ Humanism provides ’a place where family, memory, ethical values, and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with intellectual honesty, and without a god.’

Humanist community

Well, perhaps not a ’place’ yet — more a possibility. And this gets to Epstein’s major preoccupation in this book. The need for humanists, atheists, freethinkers, etc., to recognise the human need for community with its attendant trappings of ritual, ceremony, meeting places and maybe even its own teachings. I believe he has some important points here — but I don’t agree with all his solutions to these problems. However, they are important issues which non-believers need to discuss and find solutions for — and Epstein’s thoughts are a welcome contribution. But we should recognise that one size doesn’t fit all — different communities in this diverse group will find different solutions that they are comfortable with.

Greg Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, USA. Humanist Chaplaincy is relatively rare and this position reflects both Epstein’s personal history and the solutions to the human problem of community that are comfortable for him. He is an atheist but has graduate degrees from both the University of Michigan and Harvard Divinity School and was ordained as a Humanist Rabbi in 2005. This background may influence him to see strong parallels between the humanist community he wishes to promote and existing religious communities.

Expanding the vision

Personally, I would expand that vision. I think we should also look to the present and future when considering community. The world is changing and even some religious organisations recognise this. While many churches are tradition-bound, many have also adopted new methods of community and worship. ’Supermarket religions,’ meeting in buildings that look more like malls than churches, charismatic emotional experience and less emphasis on dogma. These churches show their recognition of modern community needs by providing social services like childcare and counselling.

Some religious organisations have recognised the opportunities provided by the internet and invest much of their time and effort in ’internet evangelism.’

So, in considering how we can fulfil human needs for community Humanists shouldn’t just ape the church experience. We should be recognising the old weekly meeting format does not necessarily accord to modern methods of socialising. Today people have so many more modes of contact with work, profession, sport, hobbies, travel and internationally. The internet has opened radically new ways of interacting, often rapidly and internationally. So modern communities, and community building, must reflect this.

If teenagers can socialise and people can search for life partners by internet interaction, why can they not get much of their community and ethical satisfactions, and learning, on-line? I believe that this is already a reality. Internet communities are already forming naturally —especially for young people. And unlike the old-style communities these are international in scope.

Surely the internet has contributed strongly to the current widening of interest in atheism and humanism at a grass-roots level?

Ritual and ceremony

Epstein discusses why humans find ritual and ceremony important. These mark significant life events like birth, naming, coming of age, marriage and death. Then there are the traditional holidays, usually of pagan and agricultural origin but now often taken over by religions.

In my lifetime I have seen society wrench many of these rituals and ceremonies back from the hands of religion. Non-religious marriages and funerals are now common — and excellent and refreshing they are too. Christmas is largely a secular event, devoted to families rather than spirits.  Tim Minchin’s song White Wine in the Sun is a moving example of secular family Christmas in our Southern hemisphere climate.

While many non-believers may be enthusiastic about ideas of organised secular communities, others are clearly wary. Many of us recognise that problems of dogmatism, authoritarianism, blind followers, etc., are not unique to religion. Even without the authority of gods it is possible for secular organisations to show such negative features. Perhaps this is why we say organising atheists is like organising cats. We value our independence of ideas, as well as lifestyles, too much to replace one dogmatic ideology by another possible one.

Epstein warns against the idea that humanists should create their own holidays. He thinks it better to take the ones we have but give them their original or modern secular meanings. He even favours using some religious ceremonies themselves, largely unchanged but imbued with new meaning.

There is also a need for secular alternatives in other areas.  In many societies, but not all, we do have this for education and medical care. Religious organisations dominate social services — partly because they use them as another source of tax-free income from the state.

The current emergency in Haiti also highlights the need for clear secular alternatives for charity and relief donations. There is a huge, mainly secular, response and wish to help but many people are confused about the best agency to donate to. There is a clear need to identify aid agencies which won’t divert funds into proselytizing. I have discussed a new development in this area in an accompanying post Secular Charity.

This is an excellent book for anyone thinking about these issues — the secular origins of morality and ethics, the proud traditions of humanism and free thought, and the problems of human communities in a modern secular and pluralist society. Many will find Epstein’s ideas appealing. Some of us will be wary — preferring less rigid and more modern forms of community.

So Epstein has made a valuable contribution with this book, even though it is still partial. I just wish that other humanists, atheists and freethinkers would contribute their ideas to a wider discussion of these subjects.

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See also: Defending The Faith, And Morality, Of NonBelievers

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