Sunday, January 15, 2017

Biased wedding officiant laws

By Mathew Goldstein

Maryland law grants a clerk of court, a deputy clerk of court designated by the county administrative judge for the county circuit court, or a judge, the authority to perform state recognized weddings.  Like most other states, Maryland law also gives religious institutions the same authority as the aforementioned judicial staff to perform weddings.  Maryland law says that "any religious official of a body or order authorized by the rules and customs of that body or order to perform a marriage ceremony" has this civic authority.  

Non-religious couples who prefer to have a single wedding ceremony, but do not want that ceremony to be held at their local court building, have several options.  Secularist groups can nevertheless arrange to have themselves designated as a religious organization with the state of Maryland to obtain for their members the authority to perform a state recognized wedding.  There are also several organizations that grant divinity degrees for a fee.  The divinity degree confers on the degree holder the authority to perform an official wedding on behalf of the church issuing the degree and they probably also confer a good income for the people issuing the dubious degrees.

Some of the people who are inconvenienced by the biased wedding laws make an effort to change them.  Some years ago a bill was submitted in the Maryland General Assembly to give non-religious organizations the authority to designate people to perform weddings.  The bill was quickly defeated before it had a chance to get out of committee after a group of lawyers and judges that advises the legislature criticized the bill.  They complained that allowing non-religious groups to nominate people to officiate weddings on similar terms as religious groups would result in too many wedding officiants failing to follow through and submit the completed forms.

Nevertheless, slowly, states are loosening their marriage laws to allow people who are not government employees and not religiously affiliated to officiate weddings.  The elected lawmakers of the District of Columbia enacted a law in 2013 granting non-religious individuals "civic celebrant" authority to officiate weddings.  Apparently, the non-religious folks across the Maryland D.C. line can be trusted to promptly submit the completed forms after the wedding ceremony is completed.  

The Center for Inquiry, following failures to challenge the restriction on who can officiate weddings in the Illinois legislature, went to court.  On January 4, a U.S. District Judge ruled that “marriages solemnized by Center for Inquiry secular celebrants are valid” and ruled out any efforts to preclude secular celebrants from solemnizing marriages.  In 2014 the Center for Inquiry won a similar battle in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit over the failure of Indiana law to grant non-religious individuals the same privilege to officiate weddings as religious individuals.  At a rate of one state every year or two there could be wedding officiant equality in all of the states before the start of the twenty second century.  

Maryland should be one of the early states.  We should not have to wait for a judge's order, or fifty more years, for the General Assembly to change this law.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Open letter to The Public Editor of the NY Times

Mark Oppenheimer's popular recent magazine article on an atheist preacher “The evangelical scion who stopped believing,” contains gratuitous atheist-bashing.  The article is larded with the usual attacks against atheism and atheists, including a few swipes at Richard Dawkins.  The NY Times is allowing Mark Oppenheimer to utilize the newspaper as a vehicle to promote selectively negative, exaggerated, over-generalizations that play into popular stereotypes against a disliked minority group.  Accusations like those made against atheists in this article are not well justified and should have been omitted.

It is a pejorative canard to characterize atheism as representing an "uncompromising scientism".  How about the more accurate, less nasty, "uncompromising empiricism"?  The efforts of this article's author to instruct NY Times readers to self-identify as humanists instead of as atheists because the former is more acceptable to him is misplaced personal editorializing.  

Mark Oppenheimer overlooks that Sam Harris wrote a book on morality without God, that Dan Dennett has never said that religion should be mocked or its adherents pitied, and that The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins has a positive message about how one can be moral and fulfilled without relying on a God. A main message of these books was a rejection of theism, but why is the NY Times publishing content about atheism that assumes a rejection of theism is negative? If theism is false then why is it bad for people to focus on rejecting it?  Does Mark Oppenheimer make the same complaint against theists when they opt to make adopting theism a main message in their books?  And why is the NY Times publishing content that is predicated on denying and rejecting the arguments from those same writers, and many other writers, about the advantages of living a life without gods, without requiring the effort of a point by point rebuttal of those arguments?

As for “rampant misogyny” in atheism, unfortunately some atheists, like our president-elect, express sexist attitudes or behaviors.  But an objective account of atheist gatherings will not comport with Mark Oppenheimer's depiction of atheism as rotten with misogyny.   As a group they favored Hillary Clinton to be president.  Atheists as a group are not purveyors of, advocates for, or instantiations of, a rape culture. Positive attitudes about civic equality and ethical behavior may even be more prevalent among atheists than among other groups.  

As for “exalting Darwin,” wasn’t it Darwin who weakened the hold of theistic religion over society by showing that phenomena commonly considered explainable only by God had a purely naturalistic basis?  Mark Oppenheimer apparantly dislikes the implications of modern biology, but that is his personal bias that should not be imported into NY Times journalism covering atheism.

Instead of relying on Mark Oppenheimer for articles about atheism, how about publishing someone who will not try to define atheists as people with negative character flaws?  How about publishing someone who can write about atheists and atheism similar to the way journalists are expected to write about theists and theism, without the snarky anti-atheist editorializing?  Or at least do more redacting before publishing.  This article is mostly very good. With some modifications it would have been an excellent article.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Religion and politics

Is modern knowledge a pure, stand-alone, collection of information disconnected from conclusions about how the universe functions?  Of course not.  That question is ridiculous for entertaining an obviously untenable fiction.  Yet religious believers depend on arguments that modern knowledge is irrelevant or wrong when their religious beliefs clash with modern knowledge.  This has political consequences.

Should health insurance cover contraception?  If we live in a natural universe then the answer is yes.  If we live in a supernatural universe then the answer to this question, and for that matter the best answer to almost any other question regarding government policy, and individual decisions, depends on what it is claimed a supernatural entity wants, as was revealed to us in various texts, according to the interpretations of some religious authorities.

Some people who self-identify as secularists say that because our government is defined as secular it does not matter what anyone thinks regarding deities because it is legally forbidden to even consider such claims.  After all, any claim that asserts god says such and such is automatically religious.  So there is no practical problem here.

Such secularists are wrong. There is still a problem.   One remaining problem is that the definition of secular depends on utilizing modern knowledge as our decision making foundation.  Yet this principle of basing decision making on modern knowledge is itself rejected by many religious people.  Furthermore, it cannot be otherwise.  Religious people must reject at least some modern knowledge because otherwise they cannot maintain their mutually exclusive religious beliefs.  They may deny the conflict, but the conflict is there, and their mistaken denial of the conflict does not make the problem go away.

When some secularists campaign for an end to establishment of monotheism they are criticized by some of their fellow secularists.  The criticisms go like this: There are more important issues!  We cannot win!

The "there are more important issues" complaint is bogus.  Ok, there are more important issues.  We agree. So what?  There are always more important issues.  No one claims this is most important issue.  That is not a reasonable standard or demand.  It is hypocritical.  No one can claim that they only focus on the most important issues.  The only valid standard is this:  What is better versus what is worse.  When we advocate for what is better against what is worse then we have met our civic obligations to ourselves and to everyone else.

The "we cannot win complaint" gets more to the heart of the problem.  This is all about fear.  Fear of the unknown.  And it is reasonable to fear popular bigotry, hatred, intolerance, resentment.  Hell, I have experienced this myself too much in my own life.  So what do we do?

A good place to start is to acknowledge the fact that popular opinion matters.  Then we can tackle popular opinion as the problem that it is.  The other thing we should acknowledge is that there is no easy way to do this.  We cannot tip toe around the tulips here.  Addressing the public opinion problem entails confronting it head on.  People who insist otherwise are engaging in wishful thinking.  We should get off of our high horses and engage. We should not leave the public space to conservative and liberal theists arguing between themselves.  We should actively argue against theism.  The best kind of citizen (contra Boy Scouts of America) debates other citizens to correct popular misperceptions that we live in a supernatural universe.

Debating the issues at the higher level alone is a bad strategy.  That approach simply fails to address the underlying motivations for the disagreements which are sometimes rooted in opposing understandings of how the universe functions.  It cannot be overemphasized that people who make decisions and advocate for policies that match their understanding of how the universe functions are correct to be doing that.  We should be unembarrassed about focusing on that lower level, on people's understanding of how the universe functions, and in particular on the natural versus supernatural universe disagreement.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The arguments of Christian author Timothy Keller

The NY Times columnist Nicolas Kristof turned to the Rev. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of the award-winning bestseller The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, to tell us if Mr. Kristof is a Christian.  An excerpt of the interview was published the day before Christmas.  I could not care less who the Rev. Keller claims qualifies as Christian (he concluded Mr. Kristof appeared to be "on the outside of the boundary").  The focus here is his arguments for why we should be Christian.  Let's see if the Rev. Keller's argument for why we should be Christian is compelling.

In response to Kristof saying he doubts the veracity of the Christian claim that a virgin women became pregnant and gave birth, the Rev. Keller points out that saying that climate change is a hoax is inconsistent with being a board member of Greenpeace.  Similarly, he argues, any religious faith must have some boundaries for dissent that cannot be removed without destabilizing the whole thing.  OK, but climate change is backed by empirical evidence, it is not a faith, and this distinction is important for the quality of any argument defending factual claims about how the universe functions.  Greenpeace is properly justified in claiming that climate change is factual.  We agree that boundaries are needed.  Let's begin by properly setting the boundary between justified and unjustified beliefs.  We know that women who become pregnant are not virgins.  The Rev. Keller's response here does not succeed in arguing otherwise.

Mr. Kristof points out that the earliest accounts of the life of Jesus do not mention a virgin birth and the virgin birth story in the Book of Luke was written in a different kind of Greek that indicates it was added later.  This is a reasonable, best fit with the empirical evidence, argument against the veracity of the virgin birth story.  The letters of Paul, the gospels of Mark and Thomas, say nothing about a virgin birth.  The Rev. Keller replies that dismissing the virgin birth "would damage the fabric of the Christian message."  He then argues for the centrality of belief in the virgin belief to the Christian message.  The Rev. Keller's argument here violates a basic premise of empiricism.  We do not start with a conclusion and then dismiss the counter-argument on nothing more than an a-priori, circular, commitment to retain that conclusion.

Mr. Kristof than asks if the Resurrection must be taken literally.  Again, the Rev. Keller mistakenly responds by citing the centrality of Christianity's historical doctrines to its ethical teachings.  OK, but when people die our metabolism stops, our body disintegrates, and shortly thereafter the physical damage is too substantial for any possibility of the metabolism restarting.  Gravity keeps the disintegrating body attached to the earth.  The Christian message is not empirical evidence otherwise.  The Rev. Keller appears to fail to recognize that historical assertions are factual conclusions, not doctrines, and that such conclusions can only be justified with supporting empirical evidence.  Christian beliefs are not empirical evidence for Christian beliefs.

Mr. Kristof points out that the first gospel, Mark, is "fuzzy" about the Resurrection being an actual historical event.  The Rev. Keller responds that Mark's gospel "ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us."  He then makes the argument that the fact that women who had social low status were the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection implies that their Resurrection claims are true because a fictional account would have cited men as the eyewitnesses.  He then cites "thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshipping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical."  These are empirical evidence based arguments.  

The Rev. Keller is now recognizing that empirical evidence carries weight and has a place in this argument.  But he is being noticeably selective here, citing empirical evidence only when it favors his conclusion, having abandoned empiricism altogether when it was unfavorable to his conclusion.  His arguments are weak and dubious.  The Rev. Keller overlooks that the gospels (after Mark) all included male eyewitnesses to bolster credibility, in addition to the initial female eyewitnesses.  His claim of thousands of sudden Jewish converts to Christianity is a dubious historical factual assertion.  Most of the converts to Christianity were likely polytheists.  Christian beliefs likely spread gradually, starting with small groups of people who came in contact with the first traveling evangelical, the originator of Christianity, Paul.  Out of 1-2 million Jews, maybe 1000 were Christian at the end of the 1st century, we do not know the actual number.  The Rev. Keller's claim that "most scholars" think that there is an additional final section to Mark's gospel that is missing is also dubious.  Mark, the first gospel to be written, ends where it does because the resurrection eyewitness stories were first introduced in the subsequent gospels.  We have no evidence otherwise.  I think he is defining "most scholars" as most Christian believers with a graduate degree in religious studies.  Those graduate degrees are occupational, not scholarly.  Early first century historians never mention a resurrection of Jesus  (Philo-Judaeus, Martial, Arrian, Appian, Theon of Smyrna, Lucanus, Aulus Gellius, Seneca, Plutarch, Apollonius, Epictetus, Silius Italicus, Ptolemy).

Mr. Kristof responds that, as a journalist, he wants eyewitnesses and evidence because without such skepticism we apply a different standard towards our own faith tradition than we do towards "Islam and Hinduism and Taoism".  The Rev. Keller responds that he agrees we require evidence.  He then defends the existence of a god as being best fit with the evidence, citing human consciousness, cognition, and moral values as being non-materialistic.  We disagree both that those traits are unique to humanity and that those animal traits are non-materialistic in origin.  I am convinced that best fit with the available empirical evidence favors the conclusion that those capabilities found in biological creatures are manifested physically.  They are materialistically derived via selection of advantageous changes to DNA over multiple generations of reproducing life.  Physical damage or abnormalities to particular areas of the brain, or drug induced interference with particular processes that occur in the brain, alter or undermine consciousness, cognition, and moral attitudes and behaviors. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that those are human capabilities that lack a materialistic foundation and therefore evidence supernaturalism.  We now have an argument for deism.  There is still a large distance to travel from supernaturalism all the way to a bible based Christianity.

The Rev. Keller then argues, citing Nietzsche for support, that human rights, concern for others, and equality have no basis in a materialistic universe, that humanistic values require a leap of faith for non-theists.  I am not convinced that such goals have no logical or reasonable justifications in a materialistic universe.  As temporary, fragile, dependent, materialistic beings, we do better when we cooperate together towards realizing shared goals rooted in a collective respect for our common, naturalistic, needs.  But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that Nietzsche and the Rev. Keller are correct.  Does supernaturalism avoid this leap of faith problem?  How?  God said so?  

Furthermore, how is a difficulty in justifying justice as a goal that is worthy of expending effort to try to achieve relevant to choosing between theism versus atheism?  We either live in a naturalistic or supernatural universe regardless of how easy, or difficult, it is to justify particular social goals.  These are two different, distinct, questions with the question of naturalism versus supernaturalism describing the larger context within which we subsequently tackle the second question.  The first, natural versus supernatural, question may have relevance to the second, justification for justice as a goal, question.  But the second question has no relevance to answering the first question.  The horse goes before the cart, not the other way around like Rev. Keller is trying to argue here.

Mr. Kristof responded to Rev. Keller by questioning whether holding beliefs consistent with modern science, such as supporting human rights, is analogous with beliefs "that seem inconsistent, like a virgin birth or resurrection?"  The Rev. Keller denied his Christian beliefs are inconsistent with science.  He cited divine miracles as the explanation for those two conclusions.  He pointed out that there is no possibility of proving that miracles do not happen.  OK, but we humans are not all present and all knowing (of course).  Therefore, this request from Rev. Keller for proof in this context is unreasonable.  Best fit with the available empirical evidence is the standard.  Without reliance on empirical evidence there is no proper justification for believing in miracles.  It makes no sense to claim otherwise.  Possibility alone does not justify belief that the possibility is true.  Certainly, science does not function that way.  Science depends on empirical evidence backed probability, not mere possibilities.

The Rev. Keller then asserts: "Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause."  Repeatability is a limitation.  But his claim that science must always assume a natural cause is false.  Science a-priori assumes nothing regarding whether a cause is natural or supernatural.  Science seeks out whatever is successful with regard to methods and conclusions.  The methods adopted by science are themselves conclusions derived from science.  Science adopts the methods that science concludes, based on successful outcomes, work.  For several hundred years science has relied exclusively on naturalistic methods and conclusions, not because science a-priori excludes supernaturalism, but because only naturalism is successful, supernaturalism always fails.

The Rev. Keller then argues that a one time miracle is beyond the reach of science.  OK, we agree that science can miss one time events that occurred about two thousand years ago.  But where does this fact take us?  Is this is justification for being a monotheist, let alone for being a Christian?  We all agree that we have limitations that carry over to the human activity we refer to as science.  We do not eyewitness the past or the future, for example.  Our capabilities are clearly limited, particularly without the assistance of machines that are more capable in some respects than we are.  But we have no business going from our limitations all the way to factual conclusions about how the universe works.  Ignorance is not a proper justification for beliefs.  Ignorance is a justification for not knowing, it is not a justification for knowledge.  When we lose our keys at night in the dark we may not find them without a flashlight, at least not until after day break, unless the keys conveniently lay under a street lamp.  Meanwhile, it is not reasonable to conclude that by a one time divine miracle the keys were transported to the far side of the moon.

Mr. Kristof then asks the Rev. Keller if it is OK to have doubts and struggle over these kinds of questions.  The Rev. Keller answers yes.  Quoting from the Book of Jude, he claims doubts lead to stronger faith.  We disagree.  Doubts about the veracity of factual claims should take us to skepticism and away from belief in those conclusions.  The Rev. Keller then asserts that our choice is between faith in naturalism or faith in supernaturalism.  We disagree.  The only option is the best fit with the available empirical evidence conclusion.  The available evidence decisively favors naturalism, the evidence is neither silent or neutral on this question.  The laws of physics that best describe the functioning of our universe are mathematical equations consistent with our universe being mechanical, material, and physical.  There is no astrology, or evidence for a God, in those equations.  Or in biology, or anywhere in our shared modern knowledge about how the universe functions.

Mr. Kristof then questions the Christian belief that billions of people are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian countries.  The Rev. Keller responds that the bible clearly asserts that "you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus".  The Quran makes a similar claim that Islam is the exclusive path to a postmortem kingdom of God.  Some arguments are so convoluted and parochial they can come only from the mouths of some Christians, or Jews, or Muslims.  They resort to similar non-empirical, anti-empirical, and empirically weak or dubious, circular, incomplete, biased, arguments.  Instead of asking Rev. Keller to judge if he is Christian Mr. Kristof may do better to say he has no desire to be Christian.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Better ways to select our leaders

Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by more than 500,000 votes. Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by more than 2 million. Yet she still lost the White House because Donald Trump narrowly won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania combined by fewer than 100,000 votes.

The electoral college is not neutral, it favors the presidential candidate who wins in the small states and/or the largest states over the candidate that is most popular. How should this problem be fixed? First we will identify where the electoral college goes bad.  Then we will examine whether the leading proposed electoral college reform, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, remedies the problems.

One problem is that all states get two electors for free, in addition to one elector per House district, the same way that each state gets two Senators.  This gives smaller states substantially more electors per voter than larger states.   

A second problem is that 48 states and the District of Columbia award all of their electors to the candidate who wins the statewide vote instead of awarding electors individually by each House district vote result or collectively in proportion to the statewide vote.  Although the electoral college is a federal institution, the states decide how their electors are selected.  State lawmakers assign their electors this way, despite it being unfair to their own voters who voted for the non-first place candidates, because it increases the influence of the state over the final result.  

When states select electors individually based on each House district result (as does Maine) then there is a different problem.  The drawing of House district boundaries for partisan advantage (a.k.a. gerrymandering) biases both the state and national results.

Avoiding these problems with the electoral college is the motive behind the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  It is an agreement among several U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all of their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote. Once states totaling 270 electoral votes join the compact—which only requires passing state laws—then the next presidential election will be determined by the popular vote, not the Electoral College.  As of early November 2016, 10 states and the District of Columbia have signed the compact, totaling 165 electoral votes which is over 60% of the way to 270. This approach to reforming the electoral college avoids a federal constitutional amendment that requires support from two thirds of both houses of Congress and three fifths of the states.

Under that National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, what happens if six (or more) candidates for president split the vote so that no one candidate wins more than twenty percent of the vote?  The candidate who won twenty percent of the vote would receive 100% of the electors from the majoritarian subset of the states that have adopted the compact.  Will the resulting president be the most popular candidate overall among the voters?  The popularity ranking of the newly elected president relative to the other candidates could be anywhere from first place to last place.  We do not know because the voters did not express their second (or third, etc.) preference.  This is not merely a problem of lacking information, it is a problem with the election outcome.  The election winner may, in fact, be the most disliked candidate overall who was elected by the 20% of the population that, to quote Hillary Clinton, define the "deplorables".

The only context where the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact avoids the problem of a candidate who is less preferred overall among the voters winning the election is the context where there are exactly two candidates.  The moment a third candidate draws some votes the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact makes it possible for a candidate who is not the most popular to win the election.  Our electoral college provides an imperfect mechanism for resolving this problem by requiring that the House of Representatives select the president from the three candidates with the most electoral college votes when firstly the voters, and secondly the electoral college, failed to identify a most popular candidate with their votes.  The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact subverts that mechanism by always giving one candidate an automatic majority of electors even when that candidate is unpopular nationwide.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is like a game of whack-a-mole.  It fixes a problem in one place while enabling the same problem to recur in a different place. In the short term the interstate compact could help avoid the wrong candidate winning the electoral college.  But for the longer term, fixing our 18th century method of electing people to public office will require more changes than the interstate compact would implement.

It is easy to diagnose the problems, including the problem with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  It is more difficult to design an optimal method for electing a single person in multi-candidate elections.  There is arguably no one election method that is the best method, certainly there is no perfect method.  

But it is not difficult to identify methods for electing a president that are technically better than both the existing electoral college and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Unfortunately, the better methods alter the electoral college and will therefore require a constitutional amendment to implement.  The integrity of our presidential elections is important.  The presidency of the United States is a very powerful position.  We need something better than either the existing electoral college or the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

A constitutional amendment focusing on federal elections provides an opportunity to populate the House of Representatives with lawmakers who more accurately represent the voters by including a provision that prevents gerrymandering when drawing House district boundaries.  To create election districts without gerrymandering we can rely on automated mathematical methods designed to optimize election district compactness.  This will tend to result in major changes to election district boundaries in ten or twenty year intervals.  This potentially increases the turnover of elected officials without decreasing voter choice or eliminating all of the experienced lawmakers, as happens with term limits.  

Four changes to the electoral college would render it substantially better:  Eliminate the two statewide electors, when a candidate won a majority of votes nationally then the electoral college is dismissed and that candidate is automatically the president elect, otherwise automatically assign the electors from each state to the individual candidates proportional to the statewide vote for those candidates, and automaticaly cast each elector's vote to their assigned candidate.  Two more changes that should also be considered: Give the electoral college some time, maybe a week, to try to reach a majority consensus with several more votes before the decision is turned over to the House of Representatives, and sequester the electors, like jurors are sequestered, during their deliberations to secure them from bribes or threats.  

The first four changes to the electoral college would elect the nationwide vote winner while increasing the likelihood that the electoral college winner will also be the most popular candidate.  The latter two changes give the electoral college an opportunity to select a nationally popular candidate when no one candidate initially won a majority of votes or electors. Without those two additional changes each elector is a particular vote and there is no need for any real people to serve as the electors.  But there may be better ways to elect a popular candidate than to hand the final decision over to the electors or the House of Representatives when there is no clear winner.

For more reliably accurate election results we would need to change the method of voting and tallying votes to allow voters to approve more than one candidate, or to rank the candidates, particularly in single winner contests.  This affects the electoral college.  The state electors could now be individually elected by House district provided that gerrymandering is eliminated. Alternatively, the electoral college could be scrapped because it is very unlikely that there will not be a clear nationwide winner. A constitutional amendment should therefore choose between retaining our current election method or replacing it with a better method and then modify the electoral college to match the election method.

My personal favorite methods for tallying the overall preference of the voters in single winner contests are the Condorcet methods.  Voters are asked to rank the candidates.  A complete ranking of all candidates is best, but omitting some candidates, or even voting for only one of the candidates, is acceptable.  Condorcet methods start by pairing the candidates with each other and incrementing the count for one candidate of each pair each time a voter preferred that candidate over the other candidate.  The pairs are usually ordered based on a measure of how strongly the losing candidate of each pair is defeated.  Any circular rankings within groups of multiple pairs, referred to as cycles (e.g. A beats B beats C beats A), are then resolved.   Different Condorcet methods take different approaches to eliminating the cycles.  After all of the cycles are eliminated there is one candidate that beats all of the other candidates.  Two different approaches to eliminating the cycles can be tried simultaneously by iterating through all combinations of culling the cycles using those two approaches.  The cycle culling that disregards the fewest voter preferences then identifies the winner. 

There are also non-Condorcet methods that are better at identifying the most popular candidate than the overly simplistic method of voting for one with the candidate obtaining the most votes winning. There are technical criteria for identifying good election methods.  We need to rely on mathematicians who study election methods to tell us how well the different methods comply with various criteria.  

Voter behavior also must be considered when selecting an election method.  It may require some experimentation and time to determine which methods actually work well in different contexts.  Primary elections, where it is common for many candidates to vie to be a political party's single winner nominee, are good for experimenting with better single winner election methods.  A problem with preference voting is that voters have incentive to vote strategically by ranking the candidates they do not want to win last because the polls say those candidates are among the most popular candidates instead of voting sincerely by ranking the candidates they most dislike last.  Sincere voters may be disadvantaged by strategic voters but strategic voting undermines the integrity of the election result.

Eliminating gerrymandering and thoughtful electoral college reform, with or without voting and ballot tallying method reform, can be accompanied by other steps to improve the quality of our elections. The federal government should automatically register everyone to vote in federal elections when they turn 18. Voter registration and de-registration could be automatically linked to state driver's licenses, state tax returns, post office change of address applications, and death certificates.  There should be regular auditing of the voter registration rolls.  Ballots could be mailed to all residents.  Governments could arrange free transportation to polling places and publish videos of the candidates promoting themselves on the Internet.  Keeping polling places open 12 hours every day for one week, as is done in Maryland, should be the national standard.  Election results should always be audited before they are finalized.  

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Ayana Hirsi Ali, a moderate advocate for secular democracy

Heather's Homilies defends Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Southern Poverty Law Center's false accusation that she is an anti-Muslim extremist.  Again, as with Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali justifiably thinks that Islam contains within it a supremicist, triumphalist, stream that poses a threat to justice, peace, and prosperity and whose primary victims are other people like herself who are born and raised as believing Muslims.  They are both committed to promoting a liberal, secularist, reformist movement within the Islamic world, although Ayaan Hirsi Ali, unlike Maajid Nawaz who is an Islamic theist, had the good sense to abandon religion altogether and became an atheist.  The SPLC's misdirected argument that they are extremists is weak, selective, out of context, confused, sometimes anti-liberal and anti-secularist in content, and on careful examination their argument falls apart.

The SPLC cites the leaked document "Preventing Terrorism - where next for Britain" by the Quilliam Foundation, which makes recommendations for counter-terrorism policy and was co-authored by Maajid Nawaz, as evidence that Maajid Nawaz is an anti-Muslim extremist.  That document is available on Scribd.  I read some of it and it reinforced my conclusion that the SPLC characterization of him as an extremist is deranged.  When the document was leaked it understandably made some people angry because it identified their groups as Islamist to the British counter-terrorism staff (Maajid Nawaz points out that in Muslim majority countries some of these same groups openly and proudly self-identify themselves as Islamist).  I cannot vouch that every individual and group named as Islamist actually is.  But I can say that the content of the document is thoughtful and not the writing of an extremist.  It is the writing of someone who is committed to defending secular democracy against its opponents.  I have reason to think that at least some of the recommendations in that document were subsequently adopted by the government.

Barack Obama's responses to Bill Maher's questions

I highlight sections of our president's responses and comment on them.

MAHER: Right… they’re atheists, agnostics, or they just don’t want to get up on Sunday morning.  And we have no representation in Congress. If our numbers were represented, there’d be over a hundred congresspeople who felt that way. It just seems like we are not included in the basket of diversity in America, which is odd because we are the biggest minority. That is a bigger minority than any other minority you can name. Don’t you think we should get a little more love?
OBAMA: You know, I guess — my question would be whether there is active persecution of atheists. I think that there is certain… well, I think for a candidate… I think you’re right, that  are certain occupations — probably, most prominently, politics — where there would be a bias against somebody who’s agnostic or atheist in running for office. I think that’s still true. Outside of that arena, though? You seem to have done alright with your TV show… I mean, I don’t get a sense… to the extent that they’re boycotting you, it’s because of your other wacky views rather than your particular views on religion…

My commentary: Bill Maher is asking about a tendency for non-theists to be excluded and under-represented in the political process wherein people are elected to make our laws.  The response from Barack Obama that there is no "active persecution" indicates an aversion on his part to having a discussion on the question being directed to him.  Why should "active persecution" be the standard for being satisfied that all is good in the context of a discussion on the civic standing of non-theists?  That is a rather low standard and it is not the standard that Barack Obama would set for other constituencies as being sufficient, nor should it be.

MAHER: [Laughs] What are my other wacky ideas? I usually agree with you!
OBAMA: I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody’s next to ’em, they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are. So here’s what I would say, that… we should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and agnostics, are respected. And that’s the kind of culture that I think allows all of us, then, to believe what we want. That’s freedom of conscience. That’s what our Constitution guarantees. And where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith, or the community of faith that we participate in, tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism, in which it’s not enough for us to believe what we believe, but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don’t believe the same thing. Or to treat you as somebody who’s less than I am.

My commentary: We agree that a culture in which religious beliefs are personal, like food and clothing preferences, would avoid the problems that Barack Obama correctly criticizes.  But are religious beliefs private?  Barack Obama is sidestepping this thorny question by assuming religious beliefs are private and personal.  Could it be that religion tends to resist and oppose attempts to foster a culture in which religious beliefs are personal?  Why should religious institutions want a culture where their religious beliefs have no say in public policy?  Whenever self-interested religious institutions see an opportunity to band together to form a majority to enact their religious beliefs into the public laws why would they voluntary refuse to do so?  Fostering a culture in which religious beliefs are privatized is a like fostering government without any fees or taxes, it is unrealistic.

MAHER: But we might be more pro-science in America if we were less religious, don’t you think?
OBAMA: Well… you know, I think that the issues we have with science these days are not restricted to what’s happening with respect to religion. There are a lot of very religious scientists around…

My commentary:  Bill Maher is asking if the equation "more pro-science" = "less religious" is true. He is not asking if all anti-science attitudes will disappear without religion.  We all agree that various problems we have are not restricted to any one factor.  Again, this avoidance response suggests Barack Obama is uncomfortable with addressing the question.  

MAHER: Really?

My commentary: I agree with Bill Maher's questioning Barack Obama comment that a lot of scientists are very religious.  Some scientists are "very religious", but far fewer than the general population.  There is wiggle room in the ambiguity regarding what qualifies as "a lot" and "very religious", but I think this response from Barack Obama is misleading.  The counter-argument that scientists are significantly more likely to be less religious than non-scientists is the relevant truth that Barack Obama is obscuring here. 

OBAMA: … I think the problem here is that in our school systems, and to some degree — and this is where it is relevant — with school boards around the country that are mandating curriculums and textbooks, you start seeing this weird watering down of scientific fact so that our kids are growing up in an environment — and this connects to what I was saying earlier abou the media — where everything’s contested. Where nothing is true. Because if it’s on Facebook, it all looks the same.  And if you’re reading something from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist next to some guy in his underwear writing in his basement, or his mom’s basement, on text, it looks like it’s equally plausible. And part of what we have to do a better job of, if our democracy is to function in a complicated diverse society like this, is to teach our kids enough critical thinking to be able to sort out what is true and what is false, what is contestable and what is incontestable. And we seem to have trouble with that. And our political system doesn’t help.

My commentary:  Here we go again, more avoidance and a reluctance to confront the question.  The watering down of scientific fact is indeed "weird" from the secularist point of view adopted by Barack Obama where religious beliefs are assumed to be personal and private.  But for many religious people, such as the religious people that the Republican Party has adopted as one of their main constituencies, there is nothing weird about contesting scientific facts.  They mistakenly think that they possess the faith based religious truth, and they then correctly apply their understanding of the truth to their public life.   Facts about how the universe functions are, by definition, not restricted to the personal and private realm.  From this religious point of view, the scientists are wrong because they contradict the divinely revealed holy texts.  Barack Obama sidesteps this problem, placing the blame on the media, the Internet (a.k.a. Facebook), and the political system.  But the problem here is not that everything is contested and nothing is deemed to be true.  That is merely a symptom of the underlying problem.  The problem is that religion claims to identify what is true in competition with, and contradiction with, the empirically derived facts.  The media, the Internet, the political system then amplify the prevailing public opinion because they are commercial or popular institutions.  Despite all that, he provided an appropriate answer to the question in the third to last sentence where he acknowledged the need to do a better job teaching our kids critical thinking.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Maajid Nawaz a moderate advocate for secular democracy

Here is Maajid Nawaz, an advocate for liberal, secular, democracy, speaking at the 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum.  He is the person the Southern Poverty Law Center is inexcusably slandering.  Now the SPLC is defending their mislabeling him as an anti-Muslim extremist by calling him a conspiracy monger, an accusation that has no connection whatsoever with reality.

Here is Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels explaining that the SPLC is taking critical comments made by Maajid Nawaz about Islamists (people who favor the bad idea of government implementing Sharia law theocracy) and mistakenly accusing Maajid Nawaz of making those same critical comments about Muslims generally.

As evidence that Maajid Nawaz is an anti-Muslim extremist the SPLC cites a statement by Mr. Nawaz that “the ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists.”’.  Mr. Nawz is correct, the ideology of Islamists is broadly the same and some Islamists are violent while others are not.  Yet the SPLC idiotically cites reasonable, common sense, factually true assertions such as this as evidence that Maajid Nawaz is an extremist.

Monday, October 31, 2016

SPLC's extremist intolerance of criticism of Islam

Now and then, instead of writing too much on topics that maybe I shouldn't, I will reference an article by someone else that in my judgement is worth reading.

Atheist (and ex-Muslim) Kavah Mousavi (pseudonym) accurately characterizes the Southern Poverty Law Center's unconscionable placement of Maajid Nawaz on its list of 15 anti-Muslim extremists as "atrocious" for "misusing the tragic fact of anti-Muslim bigotry in the West to silence honest criticisms of Islam by mixing internal dissidents with bigots."  He also criticizes their placing the anti-Muslim extremist label on Ayaan Hirsi Ali for some statements she made years ago that are quoted by SPLC out of context.  Read his "Shame on you SPLC" article on his blog titled On the Margin of Error.

Now I will add my own voice here.  One of the SPLC's arguments for labeling Ayaan Hirsi Ali an anti-Muslim extremist is that a film she co-produced, Submission, provoked threats against her and the murder of the other film producer, Theo Van Gogh.  By citing the murder of the film's other producer as evidence that she is an extremist the SPLC is openly and shamelessly siding with violent Islamic fascists against liberalism.  This is probably a double standard, as the SPLC does not cite being targeted for murder when dissenting from popular opinion within any other religion as evidence for the targeted individual being an extremist. 

The SPLC cited as evidence for Maajid Nawaz being an extremist that he endorsed one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons. They are wonderful cartoons, reading those cartoons is better than reading the Quran, Bible, or Tanakh.  What the SPLC is doing here is not only anti-intellectual and anti-fun, it is also crazy sick, like labeling someone an anti-Jewish extremist because they eat pork.  There is nothing ethical about requiring everyone to obey the restrictions that other people claim their version of their religion imposes.  The Jesus and Mo cartoon lampoons Judaism and Christianity together with Islam.  Therefore it cannot be the actual contents of that cartoon that is at issue here unless everyone who likes those cartoons is also an anti-Christian and anti-Jewish extremist.  But SPLC doesn't associate those equivalent labels with that cartoon, apparently because Jews and Christians have the good sense not to riot in the streets over cartoons.

SPLC's illogic appears to be a product of an unprincipled and unhinged post-modernist relativism where being extremist is misdefined as contradicting whatever the most vocal and intolerant segment of a population demands, particular if their demands are sometimes backed by threats of, or acts of, murder, regardless of whether their demands are reasonable or fair on the merits.  The SPLC actually cites the prevalence of a belief, as if that renders it unassailable in the sense that criticizing that belief becomes evidence for being an extremist.  Has it ever occurred to the SPLC that some of the ideas favored by a large number of Muslims (dare I say it, maybe even a majority of today's Muslims world wide!) could themselves sometimes be extreme and unethical and therefore openly disagreeing with that majority over that idea will be the more moderate, ethical, stance?  Can anyone who has read any history honestly think that the majority held view is always ethical?  That opposing a majority view is ipso facto evidence of extremism?

Oops, now I am an anti-Muslim extremist because I offended millions of Muslims by linking to the critical Submission film and to the Jesus and Mo cartoons.  Kavah Mousavi is correct, the SPLC has turned being designated an anti-Muslim extremist by them into an honor.  The SPLC is totally fucking up here, big time.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The unicellular origin of animals

Cell aggregation and differentiation are requisite for organisms such as animals to be multicelled.  Various biological regulatory mechanisms producing the modifications to proteins responsible for tissue differentiation have been identified and studied.  It has been known for some years now, outside of places of religious worship and "education" where knowledge inconvenient to the religious beliefs tends to be ignored or dismissed, that the same cellular mechanisms utilized for animal tissue differentiation are also present in choanoflagellates.  But it has been unclear why choanoflagellates, flagellate eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus and mitochondria) whose full life cycle remains uncertain, posses these gene expression regulatory tools.

Choanoflagellates are not the only unicellular flagellate eukaryotes.  Capsaspora is the genus of another single celled flagellate eukaryote species with a known life cycle that is closely related to choanoflagellates.  A single Capsaspora changes its cell type over time, transitioning from a lone amoeba to an aggregated colony of cells to a hardy cystic form.  A new study explored whether Capsaspora uses the same mechanisms to control cell differentiation over time as animals use to control differentiation of tissues during embryo development.

The answer is yes according to researchers at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain who collaborated with researchers from the Proteomics Unit of the Centre for Genomic Regulation and Universitat Pompeu Fabra. A press release published by Science Daily stated that the "researchers discovered that from one stage to another, Capsaspora's suite of proteins undergoes extensive changes, and the organism uses many of the same tools as multicellular animals to regulate these cellular processes."  

Without logic anything goes because the facts provide no constraints on our conclusions.  Logically, if a god created the many species of life then that god must have been willing to deceive us by leaving us with evidence that multicellular animals evolved from unicellular flagellate eukaryotes similar to choanoflagellates and that humans are primates.  But what is mere human logic as compared to a mighty god?  Gods are supernatural so they can be said to do anything.  Therefore logic no longer applies wherever a god is said to operate.  Theism thus undermines human reason and that is a big price to pay.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Blocking immigration?

Donald Trump's signature proposal on stopping or restricting Islamic immigrants is, like his other proposals, unclear because it changes and is not fully described.  Is it possible to reliably identify who is Islamic?  I am skeptical.  What is the most effective way to the vet immigrants?  Do we have good reason to think that fewer immigrants would be effective in preventing homeland attacks?  How do we measure the additional risk of threat of attacks from accepting more immigrants?   What level of risk should be required to justify an immigration shutdown?  What are the repercussions?  I do not know and it is because I am an ignoramus that I am inclined to refrain from discussing complicated issues like this.  

Nevertheless, I can say, based on what I have read, that there is solid evidence of ongoing efforts to carry out attacks in Europe, and to encourage lone wolf attacks, that rely on religious belief based appeals.  Therefore, a review of immigration policies that includes considering options to take into account religious beliefs when vetting immigrants is not automatically an example of racism, or a violation the Establishment Clause, or Islamophobia, or siding with the religious right, or whatever the hell the latest knee jerk invective is favored by those who seek to try to shut down discussion.  When we set our immigration policies we should do our best to take into account the needs of refugees in addition to the risks and try to strike a sensible balance.  If more people die in car accidents every week than are killed by immigrants every year then restricting immigration is probably not justified.  Otherwise, in the long term, if reduced immigration succeeded in preventing attacks then we could end up accepting more immigrants than we would have if we had instead experienced major attacks and reacted by shutting down immigration.

Trump is terribly wrong in so many ways about so much, which appears to tragically be an unavoidable result for any Republican presidential nominee in 2016 given how that demographic votes.  The bombastic Trump, given his populist track record, and his divisive rhetoric, taints any proposals he makes while engaging in election year posturing in front of the electorate.  A partial immigration slowdown that tries to reduce risks from accepting immigrants is not inherently crazy or irresponsible, although a policy that rejects everyone who is Islamic, as suggested by Trump, is difficult to justify.  Being Islamic says too little about the person.  But if there is a strong enough positive correlation between criminal violence and being Islamic among immigrants, or good evidence of ongoing dangerous plots and capabilities, then it may be justified to make that one of the considerations.

While Clinton currently expresses opposition to restricting immigration, if the context changed so that risks from immigration became larger in the future then I would not be surprised if she reversed course.  I would prefer that she would say now, as a candidate, that reviewing immigration policy would be one option she would consider in the event that violence by immigrants became a substantial problem. I think Clinton has a track record of being pragmatic and thoughtful with respect to policy advocacy, more so than any other candidate, including the third party candidates.  Regardless of what anyone thinks about the other candidates, this election is between Clinton and Trump.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The old Atheism of Madalyn O'Hair

Maryland is the home state of William O'Hair, a religious Baptist who is an author of an autobiography that is critical of his more famous mother (I have not read it). He is also a political activist and I watched him testify, along with clergy, at a 2016 Maryland General Assembly committee meeting in favor of a bill that proposed that the government support religion, arguing that doing so would be good for the state and country (reducing crime) and labeling secular humanism a religion while also criticizing his murdered mother and shilling for his book.  Families with some members being religious and others not religious are common.  I had a religious grand uncle (he was similar to a grandfather to me).  I also have an opinion about William O'Hair's mother.

I requested literature and an application form to join her organization.  After browsing the literature I decided not to join.  She insisted that atheism was defined as having a set of specific beliefs that went well beyond not believing in gods, or believing that there are no gods, or believing that the universe is strictly naturalistic, or believing in a set of general ethical principles.  She claimed that sharing her own conclusions on various political questions were part of the definition of atheism.  She said if you don't profess those same conclusions then you are not an atheist.  For her, atheism was a proper noun so it was capitalized.  Everyone who was an atheist was an Atheist.  Her Atheism was thus a political ideology, and it was so according to the definition of Atheism as dictated by the Madalyn O'Hair.

My reaction at the time was that if I was looking for an ideology I could join a church.  Her concept of Atheism was incompatible with my concept of atheism.  My concept of atheism was (and still is) that it is a result of abandoning ideology, it is a conclusion derived from a refusal to be ideological, it is built upon a rejection of ideology. There can be no fixed answer to most public policy questions derived only from atheism because every issue must be evaluated independently, on its own merits, to find the best fit with available evidence, and all the relevant evidence is rarely confined to recognized that the universe is strictly naturalistic.
I became an AA member years later after the organization had mostly shed its ideological narrowness, although I got the impression that some of its membership remained O'Hair Atheists and my membership did not last long. 

Nevertheless, she was smart, articulate, sharp, and she left behind some good commentary.  Reading what she wrote, I cannot help but identify with her thinking more than with that of her disaffected son.  So here is a sample from her writing from 1989:  http://infidels.org/library/modern/madalyn_ohair/fundie.html

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Street Epistemology:Slaying Dragons and Spotting Cons

This video Street Epistemology: Slaying Dragons and Spotting Cons from the "Skeptrack" of the 2016 Dragoncon conference features Atheist Alliance International president Robert Penczak, also a member of Richmond Humanists who sometimes appears on the Fairfax Virginia podcast Road to Reason: A Skeptic's Guide to the 21st Century, and WASH member David Tomayo who is president of Hispanic American Freethinkers.  It also features John Loftus, an author of ten books, whose blog Debunking Christianity is very good.   I always find myself agreeing with John Loftus when his topic is atheism versus competing beliefs.  Despite the title of his blog he tends to target theism and religion generally.

The aforementioned Dragoncon video advocates for practicing the street epistemology that is promoted in Peter Boghassian's book A Manual for Creating Atheists.  We are told that the partisan book title originated with the publisher as a marketing ploy.  I have read the book and I will say that title has some merit as a description of the book's content.  Nevertheless, epistemology is about the quality of belief justification and learning to recognize and avoid common pitfalls such as confirmation bias. Atheists are prone to employing bad epistemology.  So this topic is more general than atheism versus theism.  It is addressed to, targets, and challenges, all of us.  Atheism is merely a conclusion.  How we go about reaching our conclusions is a skill that can be honed which affects the conclusions we reach across the wider range of decisions we confront.  The web site for volunteer participants is https://streetepistemology.com/

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The essence of theism

The RenewAmerica website describes itself as having "evolved into a significant Christian political vehicle — gathering scores of talented new writers (along with a handful of well-known established ones); promoting the core issues of moral conservatism ...".  As with many such religious conservative websites there are no public comments following the articles.  I suspect that this tendency to not provide public commenting on their articles reflects an attitude that it is better to limit people's exposure to competing ideas, which is not an attitude widely shared among the authors of the U.S. constitution who these same religious conservatives nevertheless claim to be emulating.  Ronald R. Cherry, one of RenewAmerica's writers, is a board-certified specialist in lung disease who works in Tennessee.  His recent article titled The essence of atheism warrants a response.

Dr. Cherry's says that after bring raised Christian and going to a Christian University he encountered atheists in medical school.  This prompted him to consider what goes on inside the head of atheists.  He then quotes John Locke contrasting reason with various faith based religious beliefs thusly ".... These and the like, being beyond the discovery of reason, are purely matters of faith; with which reason has nothing to do."  

He then acknowledges that the assertion that an eternal God created the universe is a statement of faith.  Up to this point his article is flawless.  He then proceeds to try to justify his religious beliefs with reason by claiming his Christian monotheism is a better fit with textbook physics than atheism.  However, he omitted explaining what role faith alone should have in justifying beliefs about how the universe functions.  It is unlikely that the atheists he encountered in medical school would agree that faith without reason properly justifies such beliefs.  Maybe his reliance on arguing from reason for the remainder of his article is intended to target an atheist audience? But how many atheists read RenewAmerica?  Or maybe he is implicitly recognizing that faith alone is insufficient? 

The abandonment of justifying belief by faith alone may be attributed to the "corrupting" influence of science.  Except this is not a corrupting influence, it is a wonderfully positive influence.  By faith alone is a mistake.  Maybe belief justified on faith alone was more common in the past.  It was also more common in the past for people to live in caves.  RenewAmerica, like many conservative leaning groups, expresses admiration for the past and advocates for returning to what it claims were the principles, values, and practices of the past. This positive depiction of the past tends to be biased and incomplete.  We would not have doctors specializing in lung disease today if we were unwilling to let go of the past.  To keep living in the past, even given that the past was sometimes good, is not a positive or realistic goal.

Dr. Cherry argues that "We know from the law of conservation of energy that without outside force neither mass nor energy can create its self, nor can mass or energy be destroyed; the sum of mass and energy is always constant in any closed system including an un-created universe."  Neither of us is a physicist, and I am not a medical doctor, but I know that the last half about the sum is true.  It is the first half of what Dr. Cherry is saying above that is dubious.  It is dubious since energy is continuously bubbling in to, and out of, existence inside a vacuum.  Energy resides on both sides of nothingness, gravity is negative energy and the other forms of energy are positive.  Energy can thus newly appear in negative and positive pairs that sum to zero and then promptly disappear as the newly separated positive and negative energies recombine. 

Dr. Cherry then argues "Mass can be converted into energy, and visa-versa, so mass and energy are limited to interchangeability (E = MC2), but according to the law of conservation of energy, outside of supernatural power, only nothing can come from nothing."  This time the first half is correct and the latter half is mistaken.  It is unlikely that the conservation of energy is contradicted by quantum mechanics which nevertheless allows for an energy froth in an otherwise vacuum context.  Quantum mechanics suggests that absolute nothingness is unstable, or to put it another way, it implies that absolute nothingness may be a fiction that exists, like all fictions, only in human imagination (like the similarly imaginary concept of libertarian free will).  Zero energy is locally re-manifested as short-lived and short distanced negative and positive paired energies. When the matter and corresponding antimatter particles are paired together with gravity there are briefly three distinct energy entities instead of zero.

Dr. Cherry then asserts that "... matter-antimatter pairs do not self-generate
from nothing because they are both composed of actual mass with either positive or negative quantum numbers. The term antimatter is thus a misnomer because the mass (and therefore the energy) of matter and its corresponding antimatter is equal and additive – not subtractive."  Indeed, matter and antimatter have opposite charges that sum to zero but both will have positive energy.  While it is true that mass is a positive energy, mass is accompanied by gravity, and gravity is a negative energy.  Thus there is nothing in the law of conservation of energy that is violated by the addition of positive mass energy together with the simultaneous subtraction of an equal negative gravity energy.  Our universe, with both mass and gravity, is thought to sum to zero energy and thus is itself arguably an example of "nothing come from nothing".

Dr. Cherry then continues with the same argument, pointing out that there is no "anti-mass", that "matter-antimatter collisions produce energy", and that "matter antimatter pairs require energy to be created".  Gravity is the "anti-mass", although it is more commonly presented as a holder of debt in exchange for loaning the mass, with no need for a banker god to administer the transactions.  

If the physics Dr. Cherry asserts were factually true and complete than his argument would have merit.  His logic is good, his reliance on reason is good, and he is also articulate.  But physicists have a somewhat different understanding of what is forbidden and what is permitted by the laws of physics than Dr. Cherry does.  In particular, Dr. Cherry ignores the role of gravity (he never mentions it even though it plays a key role as the negative energy) and he discounts the full implications of all of modern physics.  Here is a quote on this topic from Dr. Stephen Hawking: "The answer is that relativity and quantum mechanics allow matter to be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle pairs. And where did the energy come from to create this matter? The answer is that it was borrowed from the gravitational energy of the universe. The universe has an enormous debt of negative gravitational energy, which exactly balances the positive energy of the matter. During the inflationary period the universe borrowed heavily from its gravitational energy to finance the creation of more matter. The debt of gravitational energy will not have to be paid until the end of the universe."