Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rationalization and Reason in the Atheist Community

Anybody who has debated religion has seen this tactic.

The person you are arguing with takes an objection, misinterprets it to create an objection he can answer, answers his own pretend objection, and then declared victory.

Well, this form of rationalization is not just a problem for those who believe in one or more gods. It is a human tendency - something we are all prone to do from time to time. We hear an objection. We do not like being wrong. Consequently, we give the objection an interpretation that would make it consistent with the proposition that we are not wrong.

None of us are immune.

You do not acquire an immunity to this form of irrationality just by declaring that one is an atheist. There is a tendency among some atheists to think, "I deny the existence of God. Therefore, I am super-rational. Therefore, I do not make mistakes of reason. Every conclusion I adopt is adopted based on the best evidence and valid inference."

The human brain does not work that way.

What brings up this topic is the American Atheist response to objections about the sign put up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - the one that showed an image of a slave and the text, "Slaves, obey your masters."

The criticism against this sign is that it was poorly designed. In order to understand what the sign was about one had to #1# take the time to read all of the text, and #2# be fully aware of the history that motivated putting up the sign.

Against #1# - drivers are supposed to be paying attention to the road, not reading the fine print on a billboard.

Against #2# - most people cannot even tell you the name of their representative - let alone tell you what bills were passed by the legislature that year.

Face it - the authors of the billboard understood what it said precisely because they brought all of the necessary history and background assumptions with them. However, a billboard is not an instrument for writing messages to oneself. It is a tool for communicating with others. To communicate with others one MUST design one's message in a way that pays attention to the background knowledge that the READER will bring.

This is an essential part of effective communication - and it is the part that tripped up the authors of this sign.

However, the American Atheist statement answering the criticism says the following:

AMERICAN ATHEISTS OFFICIAL STATEMENT: We want to thank everyone for sharing their opinions with us about the "Slaves, Obey Your Masters" billboard. While we certainly respect the opinions of those who disagree with our tactics, we respectfully disagree with that opinion. We are unapologetic about the billboard and stand behind it 100%. There will be no apology from American Atheists for saying what needed to be said: sometimes the truth is offensive.

Note that the statement does not address the criticism in any way. The statement concerns two things. The first is tactics #putting up a billboard that highlights statements in the Bible that call into question the claim that it the work of a morally perfect being#. The second is "what needed to be said."

I, for one, have no objections to either of these things.

Neither did anybody else that I am aware of who brought in objections from the atheist perspective.

The objections were that the sign was poorly constructed so that it did not communicate the message that the American Atheists wanted to communicate. While they are perfectly within their rights to stand behind what they wanted to say 100% - and I would stand with them on that. What they did say missed that goal by a good country mile.

It was a billboard telling blacks that, as slaves, they should obey their masters - an entirely outrageous statement for anybody to make. It came out that way because of the poor communication skills of those who made it - those who designed it. The authors thought it said one thing - when in fact it said something else entirely.

But, in order to preserve one's pride, refrain from admitting to a mistake, and declaring oneself too perfect to have ever done something that might call for an apology, the American Atheists sought to twist this criticism into criticism it could answer.

The main point I want to draw from this is that there is nothing in being an atheist that makes one immune to these types of mental gymnastics - particularly when those mental gymnastics are called into play to protect the ego or to shield valued beliefs. We might have avoided those pitfalls with respect to a belief in God, but they wait for us elsewhere.

It is particularly problematic when the atheist gets self-righteous over people for pulling the same type of logical games that the atheists themselves are guilty of. That is hypocrisy. That is not a virtue.

Some might think that this discussion is "accomodationist". However, that would be a mistake. I am not saying that we should forgive the theist because we make the same types of mistakes ourselves. Instead, I am saying we should condemn ourselves when we make these types of mistakes because they are just as bad when we make them as when those we criticize make them.

We owe it to ourselves and to others to do better than this - to recognize and avoid these mental gymnastics.

In this regard, I do have more hope that atheists will take steps to combat these habits than I expect from theists. Theists have embraced the idea of abandoning reason whenever it conflicts with the ego or challenges a cherished belief. Atheists - to a large degree - hold that reason should triumph over ego and cherished beliefs.

At least among atheists there is some hope of pointing to an error such as this and having a somewhat better chance that the atheist will say, "I promised to be rational and base my conclusions on reason and evidence - not make up evidence and distort reason to shield my cherished beliefs. I guess I should be watchful of those kinds of traps and make sure that I do not run into them."

This is not a call for accomodationism. This is a call for holding ourselves up to the same standards that we demand - in a non-accomodationist way - of others.

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Speaking Up Against Irrational Policies

This week and next, I am writing in support if the Reason Rally.

I think it is important.

Imagine being in an airplane at 10,000 meters with two others who have decided, by means of a majority vote, that the three of you are going to jump - without parachutes. They claim that it is perfectly safe - the air will slow you down and you will all land safely.

You answer, "You'll hit the earth at approximately 175 kilometers per hour. That is terminal velocity. It is our lives that will get terminated."

They laugh. They say, "Approximately. See, you do not even know. Besides, listen to that emotion. You are really as bad as those religious fundamentalists - insisting that you must be right and utterly intolerant of any opinion that differs from your own. You are an arrogant bigot, Ms. Scientist. We have freedom of speech as well as freedom of religion on this airplane. This means that you must not say anything that questions or contradicts our faith. You must stay silent or, at least, give our soft-landing theory equal time along side of your terminal velocity theory which is, after all, just another theory. It's the only fair thing to do."

For centuries, we have been allowing these people to lead, politely deferring to them because - well, they have a habit of copping an attitude whenever somebody questions their judgment or beliefs. In some cases, they get violent. It is an effective defense mechanism. Our response has been to throw up our hands in surrender.

But this has gone on long enough. The time for giving a passive sigh and going along for the ride has ended. People are being killed and maimed. They are being made to suffer serious and long-term harms. They are being denied the opportunity to pursue the things they value by those whose primitive superstitious beliefs command them to stand in the way of the happiness of others.

It is time to put one's foot down.

"No! This has gone on long enough! Do the fracing math! My beliefs rest on a foundation that employs a method of making a constantly improving set of predictions about the effects of our actions. We ignore those facts at our peril."

They answer, "You have been wrong in the past. Even you admit that you can be wrong now."

Answer: "What part of 'constantly improving set of predictions' are you failing to understand? Yes, we scientists admit to the possibility of error. You cannot have a constantly improving set of beliefs without admitting that some old ones might be mistaken. You should try it."

The critic responds, "You can't prove that no God exists."

My answer to that is, "Don't change the subject. The subject is jumping out of a plane without a parachute. I can predict what will happen and it will not be pretty. Do you want to talk about God's existence? Land the plane and we'll discuss it."

They say, "There are other ways of knowing besides science."

Answer, "None of that is relevant to the prediction of what will happen if we jump out of this plane. Quit changing the subject."

It really is time to say, "Stop! This has gone on long enough!"

We really must live in a society in which everybody has a say. This is because we all gave different interests. Denying some group a say in how things are run almost inevitably turns those who do not have a say into the unwilling servants of those who do.

Furthermore, there are very good reasons to hold that the only legitimate response to words are words - and never violence. The only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign - a conflict of words and ideas rather than a conflict of bombs and bullets.

However, this civic right comes with a civic responsibility - a responsibility to think - to use one's head and the powers of reason to reach responsible conclusions. People who lead have an obligation to lead intelligently. People who vote have an obligation to vote intelligently. The people who will vote have an obligation to choose intelligent, thinking, reasonable and rational leaders.

It is not the case that the majority is always right. There is a real world out there that does not yield to our fantasies - no matter how large the majority that holds them. Convincing 300 other airplane passengers that it is safe to jump out of an airplane at 10,000 meters without a parachute will only change the number of people who die when they hit the earth.

If you are going to the Reason Rally, please take the time to think of this. You are on that airplane. You are surrounded by others whose actions - grounded on their faith - will have an effect on some that is quite literally the same as throwing them out of the airplane at altitude.

Isn't it time to say something?

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The Pennsylvania Atheists and the Makings of a Proper Apology

It appears that the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Atheists not only needs lessons in graphic design and marketing. They also need a moral lesson on the makings of a proper apology.

Hint: "I am sorry that you are all such idiots" is not an apology.

Their apology referred to a billboard they put up that showed a black slave and the Biblical command, "Slaves, obey your masters." The billboard was taken by many to be an offensive statement against blacks. In light of the controversy that followed,

I want to say that I'm truly sorry that many people have misunderstood this billboard. It was never our intention to use race as our message itself.

(See: Atheist Billboard Controversy Stirs Racial Tensions in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania)

This pretty much falls into the general category, "I am sorry that so many people misunderstood our message" fits in the category of, "I am sorry that there are so many idiots out there."

Here are the five elements of a proper apology illustrated with sample text:

(1) The apology itself.

I am truly sorry.

(2) A statement of personal responsibility. where the agent describes exactly what he or she did wrong.

We created a billboard that was so poorly designed that a casual observer could take it as an endorsement of black slavery when, in fact, it was meant to condemn slavery.

(3) An explanation as to why the action was wrong - demonstrating that the agent understands the nature of their mistake.

Slavery was a horrendous institution and the last thing we would want to do is give any impression that those horrors can be justified. That is actually why we decided to put up this sign. When the Pennsylvania legislature declared this the Year if the Bible, they effectively a book that contained this commandment to slaves, "Slave, obey your masters." They endorsed it. We opposed it.

For nearly the whole first century of this country's existence, Southern slave owners not only used this to justify slavery. They taught it to their slaves as a way of coercing those slaves into obedience even when their earthly masters were not looking. They told their slaves, "Even when I am not watching you, God is. When you do not fear me, fear Him."

We find it to be abhorrent that the Pennsylvania Legislature would make such an endorsement and sought to express our abhorrence with this sign.

However, we messed up. We messed up. We made a sign that, to somebody who encounters the sign without knowing its context, appears as an unpleasant reminder and a potential endorsement of the institution of slavery. It looks like a sign that some Southern plantation owner might have put up on the slave house wall. That is the last thing we wanted to do. That fact illustrates another fact that, in communication, context is important. We did not consider the fact that a lot of people who saw the sign would not know its context. I repeat, we messed up. I understand now - what I should have understood a month ago - how that sign might appear to somebody who saw it in a different context.

(4) A statement of the steps that will be taken to prevent similar events in the future.

We accept that it is our responsibility to make sure that our message is clearly understood. In the future, when we condemn those practices that contributed to and supported slavery - and we will continue to do so - we will make sure that we use a message that clearly condemns slavery. Unlike the Pennsylvania Legislature, we have no interest in even appearing to endorse those practices and institutions used in the defense of slavery. We will see to it that our future actions reflect that standard.

(5) A statement about how one intends to make up for the mistake.

In the light of these events, I am asking for a meeting with the leaders of the local NAACP and other leaders of the black community in order, first, to convey my apologies in person. And, second, to discuss how we may avoid similar mistakes in the future, and how we may better serve goals that are important to both of us - goals that include a fair and just treatment of all Americans regardless of race.

This is what a proper apology would look like.

Atheists are fallible human beings. We are not perfect. The practice of making an apology is well designed to reduce the damage that come from those imperfections and setting things quickly onto the right track again. When we make mistakes - as we certainly will - we should be quick to recognize them, and to put into practice those principles of apology that can quickly put things on the right track again.

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The Taliban's Ignorance of Justice

Yesterday, I wrote on the components of a proper apology.

In writing that essay, I assumed a case in which an apology is actually owed. The second and third component of a proper apology requires that the agent (2) specify what he or she did that was wrong, and (3) explain why it is wrong.

Yet, often, people are called on to apologize when they have done nothing wrong.

In some cases, it will be necessary to comply with this demand. However, this is true in the same way that it may be necessary to turn over one's wallet to a thug with a gun who might otherwise do worse harm if one did not obey.

The scope of this blog is not concerned with the practical matters of going along with the demands of evil people with power. This blog is about ethics - right and wrong. In this case, it is about the relationship between the concepts relevant to a proper apology and the more general concepts of justice – concepts that people in some parts of the world obviously do not understand.

It is legitimate to demand an apology in a case where an agent has done something wrong - that the agent recognizes was wrong - and that the agent truly cares to make amends for and to prevent in the future.

These conditions also roughly describe a case in which it is permissible to harm someone as punishment for a crime. First, they must have done a crime. Second, one must be able to describe the reasons for which punishment is justified.

The range of cases in which an apology is appropriate is substantially the same as the range of cases in which the concept of justice is applicable. An apology is often appropriate in cases when it may be appropriate to condemn and, in severe cases, to punish an agent.

I can illustrate some of the concepts and relationships that I am referring to here by pointing to a group of tribal barbarians living Afghanistan and Pakistan who have demonstrated themselves to be masters of incoherence and injustice - known as the Taliban.

This is a hypothetical case. I do not know the actual motivation for the American soldier in this case. However, neither does the Taliban. It does not seem to matter to them. As a result, examining the case in light of this hypothetical motivation makes sense.

An American soldier sneaks out of camp, kills 16 Afghans, then returns to camp and surrenders to authorities. The Taliban, then, demand revenge against all Americans.

A proper understanding of justice would tell you that the guilty should be punished and the innocent should be left alone. However, these moral Neanderthals seem to think nothing of killing innocent people - rationalizing varnishing their moral crimes with the word "justice" (because "murderer" - though it would be more honest - carries something of a social stigma).

The person who it would be appropriate to punish is one who is in a position where they owe an apology. This means that the person is one for whom it is possible (rather they do so or not) to state that an action that they did that was wrong, and an explanation for why it is wrong.

However, the Taliban are not interested in confining their violence to the guilty. By their statements, they seem willing to kill just about anybody. Personal guilt or responsibility are irrelevant - or are assumed in spite of the fact that those who are to be killed performed no action for which an apology would otherwise be due.

In fact, these Taliban have proven themselves morally worse than the soldier that they condemn.

For the sake of illustrating a point, let us assume that the soldier thought he had the right to go out and kill innocent people - including children - who are not guilty of any wrongdoing. He may have acted to punish them because some other Afghans killed a friend of his.

Even where this is the case, this soldier still recognized that his actions were one that would require that he sneak out of his camp, and one in which he would have to surrender to authorities to answer for on his return. At least he recognized that his culture was one that condemned the killing of innocent people who had nothing to do with whomever might have caused his grief.

Whereas, in the case of the Taliban, we have a group of people who condemn this soldier for his actions – yet proudly support and defend the principle that one may go out and kill innocent people in response to some (perceived) crime. They condemn the person, while they praise and threaten to practice the principle that, in this case, the soldier may well have acted on.

In the case of the mass murderer - the American soldier - we fully recognize the need to confine and punish such a person.

Well, first we recognize that it is wrong to do harm to innocent people, which is why we require that his guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. These safeguards for protecting the innocent appear to be one of the principles of civilized society that the Taliban is having a hard time grasping.

However, once it has been determined that a person is guilty, then we recognize the right and the need to confine such a person, to condemn him, and to punish him - as a way of promoting an aversion to such actions in others. These are a part of the way that civilized society maintains itself.

Now, consider this: If we have good reason to confine, condemn, and punish the American mass murderer, what does this imply about the attitudes we should have towards Taliban leaders whose attitudes towards justice are actually worse than those of the soldier who committed this crime. What should we do about Taliban leaders who promise to do the very types of actions that, in the case of the soldier, we take to provide justification for condemnation, confinement, and punishment?

Ultimately, the pre-moral culture of the Taliban is one in which they simply are not given an understanding of the fundamental rules of justice, and where reason must be an utterly foreign concept.

I have mentioned my support for the Reason Rally. I am hoping that it will serve as a tool for saving lives and reducing suffering. One of the ways that I hope that it will do this is to organize people into providing an answer and promoting alternatives to the hypocritical, violent, revenge-driven murder of innocents that seems “justified” in certain primitive cultures.

We cannot have peace where mass murderers such as this American soldier go free and unchallenged. Things are worse when whole tribes proudly, incoherently, and hypocritically boast that they embrace principles that would support the very types of actions that this soldier performed.

You cannot have peace - and you cannot maintain a civilized society - where that society is filled with people who can so easily talk about killing innocent people. There will always be unnecessary death and suffering so long as those types of ideas go unchallenged and unanswered. One of the outcomes of the Reason Rally, I would hope, is the beginnings of an organization that will seek to find ways to end that suffering.

Of course, that answer would have to be consistent with the principles described here - the very principles that the Taliban leadership apparently fails to comprehend. This is that a person is to be assumed innocent until proven guilty and that guilt requires that some action has been performed - a type of action for which a proper apology would be possible even if it is not actually given.

Where these principles are in place and enforced, civilized society is a possibility.

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Changing Definitions and Ending Civilization


Cardinal Keith O'Brien's protests against gay marriage are utterly silly and laughable if not for the fact that human beings use such a stupid argument to cause harm to others.

If same-sex marriage is enacted into law what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that marriage can only mean – and has only ever meant – the union of a man and a woman? Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed? Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

(See: The Telegraph, We cannot afford to indulge this madness.

See, not long ago the American Astronomical Union changed the definition of "planet". Under the new definition, Pluto would not qualify. There were some protests and complaints about it - particularly from people who were sentimental about the idea of Pluto being called a planet. However, I can imagine that Cardinal O'Brien must have been entirely beside himself!

If this new definition of 'planet' were to become accepted by the International Astronomical Union, what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that 'planet' has always meant - and and has only ever meant – a large ball of rock or gas orbiting a sun that is naturally round. Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed? Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

Gad! The horrors of it all! The very essence of civilization and all of our human rights are bound up in the fact that the meanings of words cannot change! Allow the meaning of a word to change, and the next thing you know you have absolute tyranny! Never before, in all of human history, has a civilization been able to survive the re-definition of a term!

Well, we will ignore the fact that 'malaria' used to mean 'bad air' - and was used to refer to a disease that people simply assume was caused by . . . literally . . . bad air. Ancient caretakers of the sick would wear these long flowing robes with hoods that had long pointed snouts soaked in perfume to sweeten the air that the wearer breathed. It was assumed to keep those who wore them from breathing in this bad air and getting sick. However, one of those midevil doctors complained that the only thing these robes were good for was to keep the mosquitos off.

Then there was the time that chemists changed the definition of "atom". In its original meaning, "atom" meant "without parts". It was thought that matter was made up of a smallest particle that, itself, had no parts. After all, you couldn't split matter indefinitely into smaller and smaller parts. It had to have an end somewhere. The name they used for this smallest and unbreakable particle of matter was "atom".

Then some people came up with this absurd theory that the particles they had been calling atoms since the days of the ancient Greeks actually had parts. The new theory said that atoms had a nucleus made up of protons and (usually) neutrols, and was (usually) circled by one or more protons. Atoms could be split!

Now, as we well know, as soon as the definition of atom changed, this brought in a new era of tyranny and oppression. Freedoms were thrown out the world over as those who once used the term 'atom' to mean 'without parts' were forced to their knees to yield their very lives and freedom to those who said that hanceforth, atoms had parts.

That era of great tyranny is now known as . . .

. . . as . . .

Sorry, I can't think of it right now. I am sure it must have happened, just as Cardinal O'Brien says.

The ability of these primative superstitious beliefs to clog rational thought on matters where people do harm to others is amazing.

I would hold that a decent, moral person gives others the benefit of the doubt. I would hold that others be given the freedom to decide how to live their own lives as they see fit - that a presumption always be given in terms of liberty - and that liberty is only to be restricted when the evidence is such strength that it compels us to remove it.

The primative superstition of the Catholic Church has brought them to come up with the most absurd and irrational defense of denying others the life those others will choose for themselves. O'Brien writes that we are about to bring down civilization itself, merely because a word changes definition and people are given the liberty to harmlessly pursue a relationship they judge to be suitable to their nature.

It does not matter that the Catholic Church declares that gay marriage is not suitable to human nature. To the Catholic Church, It is not your life - and thus not your decision to make for others. Leave these people alone.

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Military A-Week: How to put ATHEIST on your records (all branches) - Justin Griffith - Rock Beyond Belief

Added: Wed, 21 Mar 2012 14:45:36 UTC

Yesterday I told you why it was IMPORTANT to stand up and be counted as an “ATHEIST” and not a “NO-REL-PREF”. Today, I’m going to tell you how.

Army: Walk in to your unit’s S-1 office. Ask them to update your ERB or ORB. Tell them you want to fix your religious preference. Tell them you want “ATHEIST”. If they say anything about it not being an option, calmly explain that they are mistaken, and to check the list (it’s alphabetical for them.) If you still need more ‘proof’, here is the regulation: AR 680-29 (page 41). I made a cheat sheet for you.

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Bloggers and activists,

The vast majority of military atheists do not have 'ATHEIST' on their records. Most of us were told (incorrectly) that you must instead use “NO-REL-PREF” which means No Religious Preference. This hasn’t been true for over a decade. It’s time to overcome this climate of fear. The silence is part of the problem.

PLEASE help get the word out about this: < a href="">

Don’t back down brothers and sisters. Out of those closets.

You walk right in. Tell them you want to update your records. Tell them your religious preference is wrong. They will type a few things. When they get to the correct screen, they’ll ask you what you want instead of NO-REL-PREF. You look them in the eye and tell them “ATHEIST”. That’s it. Nothing else to it. It takes two minutes.

"ATHEIST" is on the list, despite what 99% of us were told at MEPS and boot camp. You can purchase dogtags to match if your unit does not have a machine. A few bucks, and again, a few minutes.

The Wiccans did it a decade ago. They used to be looked down upon as satanic puppy stabbers. Now they’re world of warcraft nerds. I’ll take that kind of upgrade. Perhaps we can be the military’s bookworms?

Whatever your fear is, it’s part of the problem, rational or not. When we come out in great numbers, we will change some opinions. More importantly, we will change the conversation. Just 18 months ago, nobody thought Rock Beyond Belief was possible (myself included). We’ve got a breakthrough on our hands. Stand up and be counted. See you at Fort Bragg.

“If you’re scared to die, you better not be scared to live.”
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Americans United's Barry Lynn interviews Sean Faircloth - Barry Lynn - Culture Shocks

Added: Tue, 20 Mar 2012 14:27:25 UTC

Sean Faircloth, with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, discusses his new book, Attack of the Theocrats, which examines the crumbling of the wall of separation between church and state—and offers a specific and sensible plan for rebuilding it.

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Book Description
Copies on sale at the RDFRS store which inlcude a free DVD
and Amazon Kindle or Barnes and Noble Nook
At no time in American history has the United States had such a high percentage of theocratic members of Congress-those who expressly endorse religious bias in law. Just as ominously, at no other time have religious fundamentalists effectively had veto power over one of the country's two major political parties. As Sean Faircloth argues, this has led to the crumbling of the country's most cherished founding principle-the wall separating church and state-and presages yet even more crumbling. Faircloth, a former politician and current executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, moves beyond the symbolism to explore the many ways federal and state legal codes privilege religion in law. He goes on to demonstrate how religious bias in law harms all Americans-financially, militarily, physically, socially, and educationally. Sounding a much-needed alarm for all who care about the future direction of the country, Faircloth offers an inspiring vision for returning America to its secular roots.



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Why I'm saying no to a smear - Dr Margaret McCartney - The Independent

Added: Tue, 20 Mar 2012 18:46:04 UTC

Renew travel card. Book haircut. Go for screening test. Buy cinema tickets. Meet friends." You may have spotted the odd one out – for this is not a list of things to do at the weekend, but the front cover of the NHS Scotland's "Cervical Screening Test" information booklet.

Here's a confession. I am a GP, and I don't go for cervical smears. Nor do I know what my cholesterol level is, and when I reach 50 and am invited to mammography screening, I won't be turning up. I haven't decided about bowel-cancer screening, but at the moment, on the evidence, I'm unconvinced.

Why? Part of the problem is the trivialisation of the choices that are offered to us when it comes to screening tests. It's important to be clear – screening tests are for people who are well and who have no symptoms for disease. So if you have bleeding between periods, or a change in your bowel habit, you don't need screening tests – you need diagnostic tests.

Screening tests are different. Because they aim to find disease you don't know about, the trade-off between benefits and harms tends to be more nuanced compared with tests done to investigate symptoms. Cervical screening does prevent deaths from cervical cancer. But to get that reduction, you have to follow up and/or treat all the women who have cell changes on their screening test. However, most cervical-cell changes found at screening will not lead to cervical cancer. The problem is we can't predict which will, so all need further monitoring or treatment. A study from Bristol in 2003 found that 1,000 women have to be screened for 35 years to prevent one death from cervical cancer; and to prevent that death, 80 women have to have further investigation, with 50 women having treatment to their cervices. Four out of five women found at screening to have "high-grade" changes in their cervix did not go on to develop invasive cancer.

Clearly, there is a benefit – but overall, it's small. That potential for good has to be weighed against the risks of treatment. It's known that having a cervical biopsy – which is done to get more information about the degree of abnormality – raises the risk of pre-term birth in later pregnancies. And the worry and anxiety that the results cause shouldn't be underestimated.

I'm not against screening, but I am against unthinking screening. I weighed up my personal risk factors for cervical screening (for example, smoking is a risk factor), threw in my own priorities – and decided not to have it. And here's the problem. The NHS persists in sending me red-ink letters despite my written declaration to opt out. I'm made to feel a risk-taker in not having cervical screening – yet I'd also be taking my chances if I had it done.

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Study reveals why our ancestors switched to bipedal power - - -

The house mouse, spe­cies Mus mus­cu­lus. Male house mice pro­­duce me­lo­di­ous songs to at­­tract mates, not un­­like many birds, ac­­cord­ing to new re­search. (Im­age cour­te­sy Maine Dept. of Ag­ri­cul­ture)

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