January 31, 2012

NASA | Temperature Data: 1880-2011

Global temperatures have warmed significantly since 1880, the beginning of what scientists call the "modern record." At this time, the coverage provided by weather stations allowed for essentially global temperature data. As greenhouse gas emissions from energy production, industry and vehicles have increased, temperatures have climbed, most notably since the late 1970s. In this animation of temperature data from 1880-2011, reds indicate temperatures higher than the average during a baseline period of 1951-1980, while blues indicate lower temperatures than the baseline average.

Data source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Visualization credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Note: For more information, see NASA Finds 2011 Ninth-Warmest Year on Record.

January 17, 2012

President Obama Asks to See Betty White's Long Form Birth Certificate

President Obama at least has a sense of humor. ;)

Dear Betty,

You look so fantastic and full of energy. I can't believe you're 90 years old. In fact, I don't believe it. That's why I'm writing to ask if you will be willing to produce a copy of your long form birth certificate. Thanks, and Happy Birthday, no matter how old you are.

The Joy of Books

Let's see your silly e-readers do this! :)

January 16, 2012

James Balog: Time-lapse Proof of Global Warming

Let the global warming deniers refute the evidence!

This first video is a TED talk by nature photographer James Balog, who has set up a project called the Extreme Ice Survey to record, through time-lapse photography, just how much (and fast) glaciers are retreating in various parts of the world.

This second video is a promotional video EIS created showing how the project is being done.

January 8, 2012

The Water

This is a rather beautiful and peaceful video to watch of land and water in western Norway.  The music is Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.  Enjoy!

The Water from TSO Photography on Vimeo.

January 3, 2012

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 6)

This is the sixth and last post in a series commenting about The Debunking Handbook from the perspective of debunking the myths about Islam and the Muslim world.

Anatomy of an Effective Debunking

This last section of the Debunking Handbook is a summary of how an essay or article exposing a myth should be written, section by section. The graphic below is the example given in the handbook, using a myth regarding global warming.

Bringing all the different threads together, an effective debunking requires:
• Core facts—a refutation should emphasize the facts, not the myth. Present only key facts to avoid an Overkill Backfire Effect;
• Explicit warnings—before any mention of a myth, text or visual cues should warn that the upcoming information is false;
• Alternative explanation—any gaps left by the debunking need to be filled. This may be achieved by providing an alternative causal explanation for why the myth is wrong and, optionally, why the misinformers promoted the myth in the first place;
• Graphics – core facts should be displayed graphically if possible.

January 2, 2012

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 5)

This is the fifth post in a series commenting about The Debunking Handbook from the perspective of debunking the myths about Islam and the Muslim world.

Filling the Gap with an Alternative Explanation

The previous three posts focused on various backfire effects that may occur when trying to debunk misinformation. In this post, we look at how to provide the correct information to the misinformed.

When people hear misinformation, they build a mental model, with the myth providing an explanation. When the myth is debunked, a gap is left in their mental model. To deal with this dilemma, people prefer an incorrect model over an incomplete model. In the absence of a better explanation, they opt for the wrong explanation.

For many non-Muslims, this situation, opting for the wrong explanation, is not only all too commonplace, but is very frequently the preferred situation. Many non-Muslims want to believe the misinformation because to believe the correct information is too threatening, especially to their worldview.

The most effective way to reduce the effect of misinformation is to provide an alternative explanation for the events covered by the misinformation.

For the alternative to be accepted, it must be plausible and explain all observed features of the event. When you debunk a myth, you create a gap in the person’s mind. To be effective, your debunking must fill that gap.

From an Islamic perspective, what we must do is provide a new orientation to non-Muslims when discussing Islam and the Muslim world. We must cast a new light on these topics. With respect to discussions about the Qur’an and ahadith, we must explain this information with respect to the contexts that are most applicable, whether they be theological, historical or linguistic (in my experience, these are the three most important contexts to understanding Islam). With respect to the Islamic world, we must explain as best we can the cultural contexts that shape the Muslim world and the non-Muslim’s interpretation of our world. For example, back in December 2007, I wrote a post about a picture of an Afghan wedding.

At the time of this picture, the girl was eleven-years-old and the man was forty. Here’s what I wrote about this photo:

The problem I have with this photo in that, without context, the image may lead to wild conjecture. What is the man's motive for marrying this young girl? We don't know. I'm sure most Westerners would focus on the sexual aspect. I think this is what most Western men would first think of if they were given the chance to marry someone as young as this girl. That being what they would do, they ascribe this motive to the Afghan man.

But we don't know what's really in this man's heart, and his having sex with her may be years away. In a country where the average life expectancy (for both men and women) is less than 44 years (CIA World Factbook), the chances of him surviving much longer are not too good. Is she an orphan and he's providing a stable home for her? Does she come from a poor family and marrying her is a way for him to help provide for her now and later, after death, through an inheritance? Allahu alim.

Unfortunately, people often judge other cultures through their own cultural biases and, all too often, find the other culture wanting, even though they rarely have enough information to make an informed judgment. This is culture shock, no different than if a person went to Afghanistan and witnessed this scene him or herself.

We Muslims know there are alternative explanations that are perfectly logical and feasible to explain this type of situation; the thing we must do is make the explanation, to fill the “gap” in the non-Muslims’ minds.

One gap that may require filling is explaining why the myth is wrong. This can be achieved by exposing the rhetorical techniques used to misinform. … The techniques include cherry picking, conspiracy theories and fake experts.

We Muslim writers do this to a degree, especially when pointing out that various verses in the Qur’an either have been taken out of context or that they are only a partial answer provided by the Qur’an (meaning only part of the verse has been shown, or the following verse or verses have been conveniently ignored because they show the proper way in which the verses are to be understood; for example, verse 9:5, in which the second half of the verse is often ignored (…but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.)

Another alternative narrative might be to explain why the misinformer promoted the myth. Arousing suspicion of the source of misinformation has been shown to further reduce the influence of misinformation.

What we Muslims should work harder at is to expose the conspiracies and the fake experts (the two go hand-in-hand). Fortunately, much of the dirt on the fake experts has been gathered by others, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for American Progress. Frauds like Brigitte Gabriel, Pam Geller and Robert Spencer need to be exposed to the general public again and again, showing that for them, Islamophobia is a get-rich-quick scheme. (Follow the money.)

Another key element to effective rebuttal is using an explicit warning (“watch out, you might be misled”) before mentioning the myth. Experimentation with different rebuttal structures found the most effective combination included an alternative explanation and an explicit warning.

Now this is something that I had not considered before, but I think the use of an “explicit warning” is great advice.

Graphics are also an important part of the debunker’s toolbox and are significantly more effective than text in reducing misconceptions. When people read a refutation that conflicts with their beliefs, they seize on ambiguities to construct an alternative interpretation. Graphics provide more clarity and less opportunity for misinterpretation. … If your content can be expressed visually, always opt for a graphic in your debunking.

I am not sure just how relevant this suggestion will be for Muslim writers. When we discuss Islam we are dealing primarily with concepts that may or may not be well-presented graphically. This may be easier to do with respect to the Muslim world, where we can deal with people and different aspects of culture, such as food or clothing. Once again, however, if you incorporate the technique into your writing, go for it.

Next: Anatomy of an Effective Debunking

January 1, 2012

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 4)

This is the fourth post in a series commenting about The Debunking Handbook from the perspective of debunking the myths about Islam and the Muslim world.

The Worldview Backfire Effect

The third and arguably most potent backfire effect occurs with topics that tie in with people’s worldviews and sense of cultural identity.

Of the three backfire effects mentioned in this handbook, I would consider the worldview backfire effect to be the most difficult for Muslims to overcome. Many non-Muslims treat Islam as a threat to their worldview on a number of different fronts: religiously, culturally, racially, linguistically, and so on.

One cognitive process that contributes to this effect is Confirmation Bias, where people selectively seek out information that bolsters their view. … The study found that even when people are presented with a balanced set of facts, they reinforce their pre-existing views by gravitating towards information they already agree with. The polarization was greatest among those with strongly held views.

This should not be surprising. We Muslims frequently see this reaction from non-Muslims, and Americans see this from a political perspective as well (liberals vs. conservative). It is the extremely rare – and brave – non-Muslim who is willing to research Islam from genuine Islamic resources and not just regurgitating the lies and half-truths presented by the Islamophobes.

What happens when you remove that element of choice and present someone with arguments that run counter to their worldview? In this case, the cognitive process that comes to the fore is Disconfirmation Bias, the flipside of Confirmation Bias. This is where people spend significantly more time and thought actively arguing against opposing arguments.

For non-Muslims this is par for the course. But I say this from the perspective that virtually all non-Muslims go through this stage at some point. The key difference is in the attitude they have toward Islam and the Muslim world. At one extreme are those people who hate Islam and argue constantly against Islam. Their minds are not open and they have no interest in learning about Islam; they argue for the sake of arguing. They are ignorant time-wasters and they are best left alone. (I have dealt with more than enough of these people myself.) At the other extreme are those people who have an open mind toward Islam and are willing to learn. They may never become a Muslim, but they tend to be respectful and ask questions in a positive way.

If facts cannot dissuade a person from their preexisting beliefs - and can sometimes make things worse - how can we possibly reduce the effect of misinformation? There are two sources of hope.

First, the Worldview Backfire Effect is strongest among those already fixed in their views. You therefore stand a greater chance of correcting misinformation among those not as firmly decided about hot-button issues. This suggests that outreaches should be directed towards the undecided majority rather than the unswayable minority.

It is keeping in mind these potential reverts to Islam, those who are genuinely interested in learning about Islam and the Muslim world that we Muslim writers need to focus our efforts on. The haters will continue to hate, and there is little if anything we can do about them. But we can present our message to everyone else, those whose minds are more open. So if you are not responding to a specific person (or people) in mind, make your target reader those people who are potential reverts. Make your essays dawah-oriented. In this way we will also be following the Qur’an’s advice:

Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance. (16:125)

Second, messages can be presented in ways that reduce the usual psychological resistance. For example, when worldview-threatening messages are coupled with so-called self-affirmation, people become more balanced in considering pro and con information.
Self-affirmation can be achieved by asking people to write a few sentences about a time when they felt good about themselves because they acted on a value that was important to them. People then become more receptive to messages that otherwise might threaten their worldviews, compared to people who received no self-affirmation. Interestingly, the “self-affirmation effect” is strongest among those whose ideology was central to their sense of self-worth.

We Muslim writers are not going to be able to ask our readers to go through the self-affirmation exercise the authors of this handbook mention above. But what we can do is to focus our writings, when possible, on the common values we Muslims share with non-Muslims. Remember, we’re not focusing on countering the myths about Islam, but to present the facts. Non-Muslims share many of the same values Muslims have, but perhaps the non-Muslims don’t understand this as well as we would like them to. So stress the commonalities we have with other non-Muslims, regardless of whether they are of the People of the Book or not.

Another way in which information can be made more acceptable is by “framing” it in a way that is less threatening to a person’s worldview. For example, Republicans are far more likely to accept an otherwise identical charge as a “carbon offset” than as a “tax”, whereas the wording has little effect on Democrats or Independents—because their values are not challenged by the word “tax.”

This goes back to the idea of how we choose to write our essays, what terminology we use. In the simplified form, we may benefit from not using our terminology so as to increase understanding. The preconceived notions non-Muslims have about various words of ours (e.g., jihad, shari’ah, etc.) may distract the non-Muslims from understanding and accepting the message we wish to share with them.

Next: Filling the Gap with an Alternative Explanation