Believers who distrust atheists – a job for the police?

If you needed any more evidence that atheism is on the upswing, last week’s Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne was apparently a rollicking success. I was otherwise engaged, but would have loved the chance to hear some of the most provocative thinkers of our time.

Despite this progress and their much-better-than-average behaviour, atheists continue to suffer the widespread distrust of the devout. Those who believe an ever-vigilant deity keeps tabs on and judges their deeds have trouble comprehending how anyone can be “good without god” (as the Sydney Atheists‘ motto goes).

But a new paper published in Psychological Science shows that the mistrust with which believers tend to view atheists isn’t set in stone. A simple reminder about the secular authorities that actually do monitor human behaviour and punish transgressors was enough to significantly reduce subjects’ distrust of atheists.

The results weren’t a mere byproduct of a drop in general prejudice against or distrust of outgroups. It seems that a simple reminder about the police successes or the existence of courts and juries can ease the most harmful misapprehension many believers hold against atheists.

The results may explain why countries with effective and and competent secular peace-keeping and justice institutions are also characterised by low religiosity and a more trusting attitude toward atheists.

It would be interesting to see how this finding might be applied. I’ve long been impressed at the dignified honesty with which our Prime Minister admits to her atheism, even joking with Barack Obama (for whom even a sniff of atheism would be political hemlock) about how much it might cost her.

But she’s got nothing to lose from talking up the achievements of Australia’s police and justice system.

The Global Atheist Convention video tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens. Watch for his thoughts on a watching, judging deity at 3:25.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Little China girls: how history’s worst famine shifted the sex ratio

First published in The Conversation 10 April 2011


We might expect dramatic sex ratio fluctuations when a whole population experiences extreme food shortages.

People often ask me whether natural selection continues to operate on modern humans in industrialised societies, even though technology has liberated so many from hunger and early death. My answer is always an unambiguous “Yes!”.

A recently published paper illustrates a dramatic episode of selection that happened in China a mere 50 years ago, the effects of which continue to reverberate through Chinese society. It’s an example that further illustrates how selection in the sex ratio is always happening, even in the most privileged modern societies.

A dramatic graph (see below) from the paper caught my attention. It shows the sex ratio of babies to women in China between 1938 and 1982. The data came from a massive retrospective survey of the fertility of 300,000 women.

What staggered me, as it did Shige Song who wrote the paper in which the graph appeared, was the massive drop in the proportion of male births. Something happened in China in the early 1960s that massively changed the sex ratio.

That “something” was a famine – probably history’s largest. Between the end of 1958 and the start of 1962, the ill-conceived economic initiatives of the Great Leap Forward led to a China-wide famine that killed 20-30 million people.

The famine also caused a precipitous drop in the number of births (see figure below), as women of child-bearing age starved and were unable to conceive or carry their foetuses to term. Continue reading Little China girls: how history’s worst famine shifted the sex ratio

Dolphin sexual politics gets the tabloid treatment

First published Friday 30 March 2012 in The Conversation as part of Natural History of the Present.

My UNSW colleague Bill Sherwin just sent me a cautionary email. He’s part of an international team that studies the bottlenose dolphins of Shark Bay, Western Australia. Over the years their research has changed many people’s minds about dolphins – usually for the worse.



Dolphins live a life of constant drama, according to Professor Richard Connor Morton S Wildlife Photography



Some of their earliest studies showed that (1st order) alliances of two or three males work to cut females off from the pod in order to mate with them – often forcibly. Bigger (2nd order) alliances of 4 to 14 males cooperate to attack other males or alliances, and defend against similar attacks. And some 2nd order alliances band together in bigger “super-alliances” in conflicts over access to females.

Yesterday, they published their latest findings in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Their main message: dolphin social life can be really really complex. Bottlenose dolphin societies are “open”, meaning there aren’t rigidly defined boundaries.

It’s the kind of paper that builds the foundations of science, but that doesn’t translate easily into soundbites or headlines. But dolphins are smart and sleek, and folks love a story about Flipper and his little mates.

So the paper made a big splash.

It didn’t hurt that there was a line in the paper’s introduction that bottlenosed dolphin societies are characterised by “bisexual philopatry”. Continue reading Dolphin sexual politics gets the tabloid treatment