Happy Christmas!

After 4 days of being stranded in London due to Heathrow’s inability to deal with winter (more on that in the future post, perhaps), I am now safely and happily back in Vancouver to visit family and friends for Christmas!

This occasion brings with it the dubious opportunity to deal with family members as stubborn as myself in their ways, leading to much butting of heads and wailing “Why can’t we just have a NORMAL Christmas like everyone else?” when I fully suspect that we are doing just that.

An example (which prompted this blogpost after a horrified dash upstairs to get my shiny new christmas netbook): my brother. We both grew up in BC in a Polish, Roman Catholic family and as such spent time in our childhood going to church. I didn’t mind it (and, if you can believe it, up til grade three or so wanted to be a priest. Seriously.), while my little bro hated it and vehemently vocalized his atheist leanings ever sunday morning when mom would try to get us out of bed.

Anyways, long story short, he’s gone off to medical school in Poland, and I got involved in the skeptical and scientific community. I’m an atheist, but Daniel (ah yes, that’s his name) appears to have gone through a most remarkable change: he now wears glasses, smokes, and plays the piano. Oh, and he’s a devout Christian.

What follows is a wholly biased recounting of what just happened at the Christmas breakfast table.

After the usual preliminaries (coffee, bread & jams, fried eggs & bacon), the conversation had come round to Christmas Mass. In my usual manner, I remained carefully silent while Daniel and mom discussed when to go. Under the flimsy excuse of “oh, don’t you want to hear the monks sing?” (for it’s a proper Abbey that they were thinking of going to), I declined and then my little bro started orating about choice.

“We all have personal choice, you know. Everything comes down to it.” “I don’t think I agree,” I said. Daniel interrupted and continued, “No, people have free choice. Don’t tell me any of that research stuff about advertising, even if they try to influence you it comes down to your personal choice.”

“Well, sometimes people don’t have a choice, even when they feel they did.” At this point, that may have been a calculated attempt to garner support from Mom and Dad, who had both seen me giving a talk in which I discuss choice blindness.

“Well, that doesn’t work with everyone,” says Mom. Damn. “Well, yes, there’s people who detect something fishy on the part of the experimenter – but it’s the cases where no detection happens that are interesting here.” Daniel, of course, knowing nothing of the study, ventures an opinion anyway. “Those people who it didn’t work for, they had free choice! They chose to do things their own way.”

“Look, research done since the 70s,” and I really was going to bring up Ben Libet’s research and conveniently ignore the problems, so sue me, “strongly suggests that people -believe- they’re making choices, without actually having much personal control over the outcome.” I stood up from the table in my zeal to discuss, drawing a look of exasperation from Mom (who really doesn’t like it when people disagree), and active annoyance from Dad, who just wanted to eat his damned breakfast.

My comment appeared to stick in my bro’s craw a bit. “You can reduce everything to math if you want, but really..” and here, -I- interrupted in a state of some irritation, “These are behavioural studies, not mathematical models.” “Whatever, research is all probabilities and statistics and doesn’t get what’s real.”

Hm. “So, wait, you’re rejecting careful, structured observation in favour of your personal beliefs?” I paused for a moment to let this sink in, going in for the kill. “People need to proportion their beliefs to the evidence.”

He brightened up, and I thought I’d reached some sane corner of his brain. “Proportion, yes, that’s the important thing! You need to keep things in proportion, in balance.” Oh no. “What do you mean, in balance? You can’t mean giving equal time to claims even when the evidence isn’t equally in favour. That’d be like the creationist vs evolution ‘debate’.”

“Oh you’re not going to talk to me about Darwinism now are you?” Warning bells went off in my brain. Only a certain kind of person calls evolution ‘Darwinism’. ”Wait, you deny Darwinian evolution?”

“I’m just saying that it can’t all be right. There’s no way it could explain human intelligence.” I’m flabbergasted at this moment. Finally Dad is engaged enough to contribute, “Didn’t you once tell me that it was more likely that a windstorm blowing through a junkyard could make a 747 than evolution getting to intelligence?”

“No Dad, that’s a thing that creationists say, and it’s probably not true. Nobody knows how likely intelligent life is..” and I thought, okay, I can recover here and talk about Drake’s equation, but no. “Exactly!” shouts Daniel, “nobody really knows! Evolution is just as likely as God-”

“It’s not! One has a massive amount of evidence in favour of it, and creationism has basically none! There’s a ton of research that gives evidence for a coherent story from the creation of amino acids in ancient earth’s atmosphere..” yes, RNA World, surely he can’t disagree with that!

“That’s way long before humans, or even anything like us.”  Oh boy. Maybe I should stick to the basics. “Do you know how long evolution’s had time to work? I mean, the Earth’s been around what, 4.7 billion years?” “No way, it’s just not complex enough to explain it-”

“You’re in MEDICAL SCHOOL! You’ve -seen- evolution! BACTERIA! Why do you think there’s a new flu vaccine every year!?” I’m actively fearing for the safety of his patients now. And he just makes it way, way worse: “That’s not evolution, that’s pharmaceutical companies.”

“Oh my God.”

“They’re just making a profit, you know, on vaccinations.”

“Oh My God.”

“You don’t believe that H1N1 was -real-, do you?”

“OH MY GOD.”

It was at this point that I ran out of the kitchen to write this down.

So, everyone, enjoy talking with your family at this special time of year. If you’ve had a similar experience, do share it in the comments!

Oh and, Happy Christmas!

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