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Ben Schweitzer
Human-Computer Interaction Researcher
Human-Computer Interaction Researcher

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On Betrayal by the Left – Talking with Ex-Muslim Sarah Haider

"I ask Haider how she feels when those purporting to be on the left attack her as promoting racism or “helping the Trump narrative.”

"The betrayal of the left has really hurt us, because in principle these people should be on our side, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us in our efforts to reform Islam and bring human and women’s rights to Islamic countries. But they’re barring the gate, telling us we’re ‘Islamophobic’ or spurring hatred toward Muslims or contributing to a hostile atmosphere for them. They even say we’re contributing to Western imperialism. This is nonsense and is appalling to us.”


Haider is a liberal, in the classic sense of the word. She tells me that, “the political right is not our friend. We don’t have allies on the right” because EXMNA is an “atheist or non-theist” organization. “Muslims who convert to Christianity can be comforted by Christians. But those of us who become atheist have nowhere to turn.”

I asked why she believes so many leftists reject ex-Muslims, who should be natural allies.

“They paint us as a self-hating, traitorous group of people,” she responds. “They believe religion’s inherent to Muslims, so they think insulting religion is like ridiculing their skin color. They’re racializing religion and conflating people with their religion. This idea will come back to hurt Muslims, since you can end up saying ‘this religion has issues that don’t mix well with modernity, so these [Muslims] need to go!’ And they think women’s rights and civil liberties always belong to Western culture. They subordinate women’s rights to cultural rights. They’re saying non-Western women have no need of human dignity. Now that’s true racism.”

Haider also posits an ulterior, if easily discernible, motive. Those on the left “ignore multitudes of human rights abuses, and especially women’s rights abuses, in order to ally with a more politically convenient group, Muslims.”

This makes sense: behind American Muslims stand a number of well-funded organizations – of which the controversial Council on American-Islamic Relations is only the most prominent – that denounce critical speech about Islam as “Islamophobic” and employ legions of lawyers to represent Muslims in court. In fact, what amounts to a campaign to win special privileges for Muslims has at times succeeded even without going to court – and this is worrisome to all who value secularism."

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Why Our Truths Don't, Often, Reflect The Facts


Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows:

Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate.

Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.

Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford. For this experiment, researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. Half the students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime; the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.

The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies—you guessed it—were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.

If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be dinner.

To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats—the human equivalent of the cat around the corner—it’s a trait that should have been selected against.

The fact that both we and it survive, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive function, and that function, they maintain, is related to our “hypersociability.”

Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.”

Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.


This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group.

Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave.

There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

Among the many, many issues our forebears didn’t worry about were the deterrent effects of capital punishment and the ideal attributes of a firefighter.

Nor did they have to contend with fabricated studies, or fake news, or Twitter.

It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us. As Mercier and Sperber write, “This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.”

Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, are also cognitive scientists. They, too, believe sociability is the key to how the human mind functions or, perhaps more pertinently, malfunctions.

They begin their book, “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” (Riverhead), with a look at toilets.

Virtually everyone in the United States, and indeed throughout the developed world, is familiar with toilets. A typical flush toilet has a ceramic bowl filled with water. When the handle is depressed, or the button pushed, the water—and everything that’s been deposited in it—gets sucked into a pipe and from there into the sewage system. But how does this actually happen?

In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again.

Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped. (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

Sloman and Fernbach see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at.

We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.

“One implication of the naturalness with which we divide cognitive labor,” they write, is that there’s “no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge” and “those of other members” of the group.

This borderlessness, or, if you prefer, confusion, is also crucial to what we consider progress. As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance; if everyone had insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.

Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)

Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem.

If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration.

“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe. The two have performed their own version of the toilet experiment, substituting public policy for household gadgets. In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like:

Should there be a single-payer health-care system?

Or merit-based pay for teachers?

Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.

Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”


One way to look at science is as a system that corrects for people’s natural inclinations. In a well-run laboratory, there’s no room for myside bias; the results have to be reproducible in other laboratories, by researchers who have no motive to confirm them. And this, it could be argued, is why the system has proved so successful. At any given moment, a field may be dominated by squabbles, but, in the end, the methodology prevails.

Science moves forward, even as we remain stuck in place.


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This is not a joke. This is the honest-to-Cthulhu name of the "health care" law the Republicans want to replace the ACA with.

"The World's Greatest Healthcare Plan of 2017."

I mean, maybe it is a joke, and having come to the conclusion that they can't actually think of a law better than the ACA -- it having been a tough compromise as it was, and largely been stolen from Republican ideas in the first place -- the best they can do is offer a law that's strictly worse across the board, as an opening move to trying to negotiate to put in actual fixes to the ACA.

(Which, I'll note, every single major government program in history has required. The odds of getting a complicated thing perfectly right on the first shot are zero; but the ACA hasn't been able to get any of the obvious patches, because ever since it was passed, Congressional Republicans refused to consider any patches other than repeal. They had banked so heavily on opposing it that the only viable political option was for it to fail, and so they tried to make it do so. When it stubbornly refused to -- when a lot of Americans started getting access to health care for the first time, and people were no longer having nightmares about their spouses dying of cancer because they were forced to change health plans and it was now suddenly a non-covered "pre-existing condition" -- they were stuck with the fact that they actually had to make it work, or they would have some seriously pissed-off constituents. But they've been promising to destroy it for so long that they seriously don't know what to do.

And apparently, having run out of other ideas, they've turned to simply trolling the public with the World's Greatest Healthcare Plan of 2017.)

Full text of the bill:

My earlier notes on what you need to know to understand health bills:

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In sooo many ways this is such a great reflection of the current administration. And with that I'm going to go cry myself to sleep. Good night.

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Some simple thoughts for people who blame Muslims.

As usual, I'm consistently impressed with Trump's character and class when dealing with people who disagree with him, like Sally Yates.

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Can't wait to see President Twitler's tirade when he finds out his EO got blocked (at least temporarily) within just over 24 hours. #FakeCourts

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"This is not just a Muslim ban.  This is a breach of America's contract with all the immigrants in the nation.

This administration has already shown that they are not particularly impressed by the first amendment, and that they are interested in other anti-immigrant action.  So we must object, or our inaction will send a message that the administration can continue to take away our rights.  

In doing so, we should not demonize Trump voters—most of them voted for him for reasons other than the promise of a Muslim ban.  We need their eventual support in resisting actions like these, and we will not get it if we further isolate them. 

If this action has not crossed a line for you, I suggest you think now about what your own line in the sand is.  It’s easy, with gradual escalation, for the definition of ‘acceptable’ to get moved.  So think now about what action President Trump might take that you would consider crossing a line, and write it down.  

Almost every member of the GOP I have spoken to knows that these actions are wrong.  Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Kevin McCarthy and James Mattis said so themselves when Trump first proposed his Muslim ban.  We need to remind anyone involved in this administration that, for the rest of their lives, they will have to explain why they were complicit in this."

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Some people were saying Trump can't possibly follow through on his campaign promises. Well so far he's checking of boxes rather rapidly, and the consequences will hit everyone before we realize it. Today's executive order will directly affect people inside and outside of the US. People who call the US their home and spread its message of equality and freedom far and wide, and are now being betrayed by their trust in this country.

Combined with Trump's deceptive claims of voter fraud, and the scenario laid out in the post below, in one form or another, Trump and his team are setting everything up to illegally disenfranchise tens of thousands, if not more, voters in future elections. He's following "how to be a fascist for dummies" step by step. The only thing missing so far is the use of ,or threats of, violence against dissenters but at his pace who knows how much longer that will last.

We must not give in to his hate, and we must not accept his actions, or those of his administration. They must be held accountable, and I sincerely hope enough people in both houses if Congress will see the light and put their country and the ideals it stands for before their own self interest.

Today, Donald Trump marked Holocaust Remembrance Day with an order against refugees, and a statement that pointedly didn't mention Jews. It talks about horror inflicted on "innocent people;" it makes no reference to how those people were chosen, or why.

And given the executive order of the day, that omission seems far clearer of a message. Among other things, it bans all refugees for the next 90 days (at which point it may be renewed); bans all Syrian refugees indefinitely; and most significantly, bars all nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States, regardless of their visa status, for the next 90 days – the time required for the DHS to make a longer-term decision about this.

To clarify what this means, it means that anyone from one of those countries who is living in the US legally, even as a permanent resident, who was outside the country today cannot return for an as-yet indefinite period. (It may also apply to dual citizens, or to US citizens who were born in those countries; the text of the order is very unclear) I am personally aware of a few hundred people who are directly affected by this, at this stage: people who were out of town for one reason or another and are now separated from their homes and families. From some back-of-the-envelope guessing, I would say that there are at least 5,000 people who were affected today, possibly much more.

Rather impressively, even Dick Cheney described this as "[going] against everything we stand for and believe in."

On the radio today, they were talking about how Muslim communities are concerned about possible "civil rights issues" going forward, but they were rather limited in the concerns they raised. Korematsu is still the law of the land; never overturned, it held that the Japanese internment camps of the 1940's were legitimate exercises of executive power. Those won't happen tomorrow, because there's no extra PR vim in it, and it's still too soon; many people would remember and object. But two years from now, or three, when elections are starting to come up? Internment of nationals of various countries doesn't seem so far-fetched.

After all, Wednesday's orders around building a wall between us and Mexico included provisions to build and staff large detention centers next to them.

And both today's order and Wednesday's instruct the DHS to publish regular reports of crimes committed by immigrants, to remind us all of what we're being protected from. If you haven't read a report like this before, and your German is OK, look up back issues of "Der Jude Kriminell;" I added a scan of one below, although it's grainy.

Oh, the other picture? Those are eyeglasses. You can still see some of that pile at Auschwitz-Birkenau; they didn't keep all of it, they didn't have room. It's next to the giant pile of human hair, and the giant pile of baby shoes.

I just want you to remember what this day remembers.

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