Sunday, May 18, 2008
It is sad that while science moves ahead in exciting new areas of research, fine tuning our knowledge of how life originated and evolved, creationists remain mired in medieval debates about angels on the head of a pin and animals in the belly of an Ark.
This is a debate featuring skeptics Michael Shermer and Allison Smith against true believers Patrick Burns and Graham Watkins. Watch and see what happens to the claims of the supernatural when pressed for evidence.
Of particular note, is when in part three Watkins - a believer - pointedly notes that the "voices" recorded by ghost hunters are done so poorly using such poor methods he says "The whole set up is a model for accidental fraud." Sorry ghost busters!
Also worth noting is how often the believers are forced to admit their evidence is lousy.
Janine Melnitz: Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?
Winston Zeddemore: Ah, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say.
Ah, what happens when you rattle the cages the bit eh?
If you been reading the Handbook lately, you'll have noticed some rather angry ladies blasting me for a column I wrote at the newspaper I work for, in which I took their Niagara Area Paranormal Society's "ghost hunting" activities, and the credulous reporters in some area media who took their dubious claims at face value, to task. The column also gave me an excuse to chat again with James Randi, who is always fun to interview.
Carol Taylor and Shannon Delury took great exception to my piece, claiming I just don't know enough about the "field" of ghost hunting to really criticize it. Also, they don't much like James Randi. Other members of this ghost hunting cabal took to sending hate mail to my Facebook inbox, rather than send in letters to the editors or even to my work email. These folk just think I suck and really, REALLY wanted me to know it.
Now, generally speaking the reaction from this fine folks are up there with the threats of Bible thumpers and angry Muslims who often write to tell me, at great length, that I will be burning in hell for all times because of my blasphemy, and how much they will enjoy that. Nice people. Really. Now, the ghost hunters haven't threatened my eternal soul, but they do think I am "ignorant" and that I clearly don't know jack about science. You know, "science" where you don't follow the actual scientific method, and use anything you don't fully understand as "evidence" of your pre-determined conclusion. Like ghosts whispers in the dark.
Now, Carol Taylor is the founder of the local paranormal society and in her rather lengthy correspondences insists that her "field" is on equal footing with any scientific dispcline. She writes: "The protocols we have in place are comparable to those that are used in other scientific fields of study." In other words, her ghost hunting is just as scientific as the disciplines that send men to the moon, cure fatal illnesses, mapped the human genetic code, created super computers and can see out into the vast, trackless ink of deep space. I am sure the folks at MIT are really impressed.
She also writes that "With so many misconceptions out there in the media, I am appalled to see this sort of ignorance firsthand from someone within my own community." Oddly, she has no complaints about the credulous reportage of other outlets who accepted her claims about spirits in the Welland Museum with nary a skeptical thought. Of course, she is appalled that someone in "her" community would take their pseudo-scientific nonsense to task. For the groups entire existence no one in the news media has bothered to call them on their mumbo-jumbo. In other words, she wants reporters to simply accept what she says and proclaim as truth.
Miss Delury, whose Facebook page features applications about "crystal healings" and the like, simply calls me a "closed minded bigot," for not accepting their claims of spooks. She, along with Carol, both ask me to disprove their ghosts exist.
*sigh* And people wonder why our society is so scientifically illiterate? As I have discussed before, asking someone to disprove a faith a claim - or any claim for which there is no evidence - is the logical fallacy called "proving a negative." It is like trying to prove that Zeus doesn't exist. Or the Loch Ness monster doesn't exist. There isn't any evidence to prove that either does, but the true believers want their claims to be taken as fact in that vacuum of evidence. When I wrote about this particularly symptom of true believerism before I said:
It's called "proving a negative." Essentially they are saying this: "X is true (X in this case being the existence of god) because you cannot disprove X as false." You should already see the massive problem with his argument. What it means is that you can essentially make any claim about the universe you want and then say that because no evidence exists to disprove it, it must be true. The fact that you have no evidence to support your claim is, in this line of unreason, seen as a proof you're right.
I attempted to illustrate the point by using a variation on Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot. In this case, riffing off a joke earlier in the discussion about the universe being run by a cosmic platypus:
Of course, the true believer has to go at science from the ass end because its the only way they can make their claims. Like the intelligent design crowd, they want to try and turn science on its head and have their faith claims - and that is what they are - taken as fact right out of the gate. And heaven help you if you question their methods or conclusions! Don't you know when they claim to have recorded the voice of a ghost its true and that's that?
For instance, to use a tongue in cheek example, if I said that the entire universe was created and governed by the Cosmic Platypus, and the only way to save our immortal souls was to make making offerings of frog eggs to the Cosmic Platypus. Further, the commandments of the Cosmic Playtpus, as laid down in the Texts of the Oracle of the Venomous Mammals, are prefect in every detail and cannot be questioned. Also the Cosmic Platypus, living in a river outside of time and space, cannot be seen or touched or otherwise detected, but I nevertheless claim the Cosmic Platypus, in his all beaky glory, is as real as the nose on your face.
Now, even though that is a farcical example, the fact is you cannot disprove the existence of the Cosmic Platypus, can you? Really, you cannot. Show me the evidence that the Cosmic Platypus doesn't exist.
So if I was seriously making the above claim about the Cosmic Platypus, his slappy tail be praised, would it not be reasonable for you to demand evidence? And would it not be unreasonable for me to be insulted by your request?
That is all the atheist is saying. The theist is making an extraordinary claim about the universe, and therefore the atheist wants to see evidence to support those claims. That is not an act of faith, it is a demand for fact. And if no evidence is forthcoming, there is little reason to believe said claims are true.
If we worked the other way, we would have no choice but to accept all claims about, well, anything to be true if there is no evidence to demonstrate it is not true. Like the Cosmic Platypus. You cannot disprove it, therefore it can be regarded as true. Clearly, that is a cart before the horse methodology that gets you nowhere.
And like the intelligent design crowd, they dress up their belief in the supernatural in sciency sounding talk in order try and give it the appearance of being scientific.
Still, I could be wrong couldn't I? Maybe there are ghosts lurking about in the Welland Museum. Maybe Taylor and her syntax and logically challenged friend are right. And if they were ever proven right I would happily admit so, both here and in the paper. In fact, I am willing to put a wager on it.
Look again at Carol Taylor's claim: she says ghost hunting is a real science like any other, using solid scientific "protocols" that demonstrate their belief in ghosts is justified by facts. Ok, there is a VERY easy way to prove this.
My challenge to the Niagara Area Paranormal Society is this: Write a scientific paper on your "findings" presenting your "evidence" that the voices you recorded at the Welland Museum are in fact the voices of dead people. Then submit that paper to a credible scientific journal - like Nature for example. Let your paper be vetted through the regular scientific peer review process (this is standard for ANY scientific paper to be published in a journal.) If it passes the muster of the rigors of scientific peer review and gets published, I will be more than happy to concede the point.
So there you go Carol and Shannon. Don't give us the tired clap trap of doing this for yourself and helping people in "need". (They offer their hunting services for free, but charge for "courses" on ghost tracking. I wonder if those courses are taught at MIT? Can I get a science credit toward a Bsc?) If you want your claims of being real science taken seriously, then step up to the plate, write a paper and present it to real scientists and see what happens. Surely, if your claims are as true as you say they are, this should be a simple matter shouldn't it?
For the rest of us concerned with that little thing called reality, I suggest you watch Richard Dawkins brilliant documentary titled "Enemies of Reason" which examines the kind of junk science ghost hunters are up to. It's well worth the watch. Here is part one as presented on Youtube, but I strongly suggest you order the disks from RichardDawkins.net. It's great stuff:
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Sunday, May 11, 2008
That's where science in my opinion, this is just an opinion, that's where science leads you. Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place. Science leads you to killing people.
- Ben Stein
Oh it all reeks of desperation doesn't it?
Remember that line from Raging Bull when Jake LaMotta takes a vicious beating at the hands of Ray Robinson. His blood drips from the ropes and his face looks like he kissed the express train. And despite the one sided, brutal ass whupping he took, he walks up to Robinson and says "You didn't get me down, Ray. You never got me down, Ray."
That's the creation science movement, or as it likes to call itself today while dressed up in drag - Intelligent Design.
For anyone who is keeping score, the movement has been doing the Jake LaMotta - with all that former fighter's, er, charm and, uh, grace - for more than a decade now. Having not produced a single shred of evidence for their claims (they still haven't figured out that declarations of faith that an ancient religious text is perfect, a scientific theory does not make.), having been told by the Supreme Court of the United States that they cannot violate the establishment clause of the constitution by teaching the Bible in science class, and having lost yet another high profile court case two years ago in Dover, creationist blood is all over the ring.
And still they say "You didn't get me down, Ray. You never got me down, Ray"
Battered, bruised and bleeding, the 21 century dress up version of creation is called Intelligent Design (This is the creationism redux that was used as a speed bag during the Dover trial) and its has decided to risk its remaining brain cells with yet another trip into the ring - this time as a documentary with a tenuous grip on facts called "Expelled." I'm not going to review the film here. It's been so completely ripped to shreds by reviewers like this one, or this one by Richard Dawkins called Lying for Jesus, that there isn't any need for me to go on about it other than to say if you do go see it, be prepared for an assault upon your higher reasoning centers the likes of which you have not seen since the Y2k panic.
What I want to talk about here is the utter dishonesty of the entire ID scheme. You see, there is a myth, largely propagated by the poorly named Discovery Institute in its own hilariously bad videos that are more devoid of fact than your average Access Hollywood episode, that ID came about because some cutting edge scientists got together and realized that Darwin was wrong and really some "unnamed" supernatural designer created all life.
The reality is that ID is the brain child of a Christian apologist lawyer who wouldn't know good scientific thinking from a hole in the ground. Goes by the name of Philip Johnson. Johnson, uh, designed the whole ID thing as a way to get around pesky Supreme Court rulings that said no Bible in the science class. Now, when asked for TV cameras about ID, he will contend there is a real controversy among scientists about about ID. (This is a lie. Only members of the tiny but loud ID creationist movement say there is a controversy. And in any case "teach the controversy" is one of their transparently bad back door attempts to slip god into science class.)
But when speaking to fellow believers, the truth comes out. The idea behind ID is to change science so that it accepts untestable conclusions about supernatural causation. Then, once that is accepted, you just push people toward believing that causation is the Christian god and Shazam! Christian utopia!
Johnson called this Trojan Horse approach to evangelism "the wedge strategy" and it so impressed the good folks at the Discovery Institute, that they founded their entire ID strategy upon it, as laid out in the infamous Wedge Document - something the institute still tries to distance itself from even though it lays out their wishful thinking and near theocratic plans in detail.
Anyway, when before the right audience Johnson drops all pretense about being scientific and admits the bait and switch he wants to pull off:
The objective (of the wedge strategy) is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to 'the truth' of the Bible and then 'the question of sin' and finally 'introduced to Jesus.
- Phillip Johnson
Right from the horse's mouth. These people have no interest in science. They want to convert people to their version of their religion. Period. It would be funny if these folks were not so serious about it. LaMotta took a huge amount of punishment, but that didn't make him less dangerous in the ring. Johnson et all are very serious even if they keep on losing and losing big.
So what has this to do with Expelled? Well, Stein and the gang want us to believe two things about their film. First, it is a movie about academic freedom and attempts to crush a rival theory to evolution by "expelling" pro-ID scientists. Or as Stein puts it, to keep science from ever touching god. The other thing is that Darwinism is evil because it promotes atheism and thusl created Adolf Hitler.
Both claims are just plain false, and if you read the reviews I linked to above, they are both dealt with well enough. What interests me is the first claim. (I've discussed the bizzaro claims that Hitler's actions were the result of atheism elsewhere in the Handbook.)
While Stein blathers on about defending academic freedom in the film and in SOME interviews, in others he is more candid about his reasons for making the film. Like Johnson, when in front of the right audience (read creationists) he is more than happy to detail his true beliefs.
Check out the clips in this Youtube video by way of an for instance. In it Stein says two very revealing things. First, and I quoted him above, that science leads to killing people. Not science cures illness, feeds the hungry, sends humans into space, creates technology we use everyday, but to killing people. That is what science is to him - the road to murder. The other comes when asked why he thinks its important to see Expelled. And he says its because he wants people to believe they are god's creation. No talk about academic freedom or expanding the frontiers of science. But because he wants to covert you. Period. It's about religion. It's always been about religion. Like every other high profile member of the ID community, Stein reveals his true purpose - its not about science, its about religion.
And its only about their version of Christianity. The producers of Expelled would not include biologist and Catholic Ken Miller in the film because, they said, he would confuse the issue. Miller actually disproves Expelled's entire premise - that "Big Science" is hunting down scientists who believe in god and kick them out of the club. Miller, who helped bury ID at the Dover trial with his brilliant explanations of evolution, is a well known Roman Catholic. The very fact that he, and the rest of the 40 per cent of the National Academy of Science that do believe in some kind of god, even exists blows the movie's entire premise to, if you will excuse the expression, kingdom come.
But fortunately Expelled isn't getting much traction beyond those to whom the film is preaching what they already believe. It has been widely panned. Its box office returns were actually pretty good its open weekend when believers put down their money to see it. After that, the returns dropped like LaMotta should have. Bottom line, however, is that the creationists lose. Again.
However, this won't stop them. Already we are seeing the next strategy. Infantile "academic freedom" bills are before several states and are being used as a way to try yet again to creep creationism into the class room through the back door. These bills will likely be demolished when the court challenges come.
But for now the Ben Steins and Phillip Johnson's of the world can stand there bleeding after another beating and say "You never got me down." Some pugs just never know when the fight is over.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
It goes without saying, I think, that atheism - the intellectual position that one does not accept claims about the nature of life and universe without evidence - is in the midst of something of a revival. Just run the words "Atheist" or "Atheism" through Google news and you'll a host of articles and blogs. These days most are broadsides fired by believers disquieted by a growing number of people who dare not believe. But you'll also find commentary by the Four Horsemen - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, the authors of the books which energized the surge in atheist conviction we see in public.
The most common feature of this so called "New Atheism" is a slashing critique of religion, rooted in a demand for evidence, and those of us inspired by the horsemen have followed their lead. Having dispensed with the supernatural claims of religions, particularly the assumed but unsupported by evidence claim of a god, this critique turns to the moral and ethics of religion - morals and ethics which, more often than not and particularly in the Jewish/Christian/Muslim mode, are found wanting in the extreme.
Believers often rail against this approach. We often ignore their complex and arcane theology, and they see this as a fundamental weakness. If we only understood the 21st century theological views of why god is a loving god, we, the growing legion of new atheists, would understand our arguments are weak. If only we spent more time discussing Aquinas and Augustine, we would see our demand for evidence isn't important.
Nonsense. All the theological gymnastics are fairly useless if evidence,( and by this I mean scientific evidence) the first question, the most important question, cannot be answered. As Cicero put it: the first question in this subject of the nature of the gods is do the gods exist or not? If we conclude, and we do on the basis of evidence, the gods do not exist, then need we worry about god as love, or god as father or god as source of morals? Surely not. What matters is what do those beliefs lead people to do, good or bad.
We need not go upon bended knee and only face the theological questions on the terms believers would have us use. If evidence matters, and we are told we must have regard theological "truths" and statements about the nature of reality, then we can hold those claims up to science, to reason and demand meaningful evidence. And where evidence is lacking, the claim can be (at least provisionally) put aside.
This is what the believer objects to the most. Ironically, they will often (as a scan through google blogs and news will attest) claim that new atheists use a "scientific dogma" and that atheism is a religion.
It is, to be sure, a curious claim. Atheism has no codes. No creeds. No commandments. No pastors, priests or popes. It has no holy texts. No churches, temples or sacred grounds. It has no punishments, real or imagined, for not being an atheist. So where exactly is the "religion" of atheism? I've asked many a believer this question and have yet to hear a reply. I wait still.
And this business about "scientific dogma"? It is an even more through the looking glass argument. What is dogmatic about asking for evidence about claims about the nature of reality? What is dogmatic about requiring evidence to make a conclusion? Surely, there are atheists who do not believe in a god because, well, they just don't. But it is the thrust of the "new" atheism that conclusion is the child of evidence. And it is the evidence that fuels disbelief. To say there is no god simply because you don't believe in one is as empty a statement as a declaration of faith. An examination of evidence is required either way.
And so the screeching apologists attempt to claim that atheism is a religion, making silly references to "secular gods" (again what is a secular god? I've asked this of apologists and never received an answer either.) in an attempt to redefine what atheism is. If they can - as the ill named Discovery Institute and its vapid Intelligent Design movements try to do - define atheism as a religion then they can say "Well see? You have no more evidence than we do! Atheism is just like religion. QED." Unable to face the stark fact that their faith claims exist in a vacuum of evidence, they try this transparent slight of hand to make their case.
Many of us new atheists take some joy in this. And I must confess to enjoying an argument where a theist is left with no recourse but to try and change the definition of science, or ignore logic and evidence when making assertions. But as much as their discomfort might appeal to some our darker impulses, we should temper our glee.
The fact of the matter is that while we argue, some of us with a particular almost evangelical passion, more often than not we are making a case about why religion fails. That is, we are largely anti-theist in our approach. To be sure this is a necessary part of the argument. If one regards religious claims on their own merits, that is to say they are claims about the nature of reality - and claims so powerful we ought to obey the religion that makes them (often with a big OR ELSE attached to it), then we can and should examine said claims through the lens of evidence. If someone says "Gay people should not be allowed to marry because God says so in the Bible," we can see what evidence there is said god exists. If there isn't any, the claim can be dismissed.
However, that only gets us part of the way. Because, like it or not, religion has been a vehicle for morals and ethics for a very long time. This does not mean morality comes from religion. Indeed, one need only point out that what a Christian believed to be moral 300 years ago and what they believe in to moral in 2008 shows the transitory nature of the moral zeitgiest, even among believers who like to imagine their morality is immutable. Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and other moral and ethical systems change with changing times. As Richard Dawkins puts it in the God Delusion:
Slavery, which was taken for granted in the Bible and throughout most of history, was abolished in civilized countries in the nineteenth century. All civilized nations now accept what was widely denied up to the 1920s, that a woman's vote, in an election or on a jury, is the equal of a man's. In today's enlightened societies (a category that manifestly does not include, for example, Saudi Arabia), women are no longer regarded as property, as they clearly were in biblical times. Any modern legal system would have prosecuted Abraham for child abuse.But if it is indeed true, as I have argued before, that morals and ethics are largely what we say they are at any given point in time and place - our own evolved moral and ethical leanings notwithstanding - and if it is true that religion has been a delivery system of ethics and morals, and if we say that the metaphysical claims of religion are false, then what kind of morality do we want? What kind of ethics do we want? What kind of society do we want?
You see the point. The revived atheism largely lashes out at religion. However, we aren't doing nearly as good a job at talking about the way things ought to be. If we reject, for very good reasons, the morals of the Christian bible, what then do we accept?
The problem, as I noted above, is that atheism is barely a thing at all. It has no rules, or commandments. And I for one certainly do not think some moves to create atheist "churches" are a good idea. Institutionalized atheism is likely to become the very thing we rail against. Nevertheless, I believe we have to stop allowing the theists to frame moral and ethical arguments for us and start to try to discuss where we think the moral zeitgeist should go.
Most of the time we deal with theists, like Dinesh D'Souza, who blather on about "if there is no god then anything is permissible." This is a rhetorical trick that sets up a false zero sum game of either/or with no other possiblities. For example, one can say that not everything is permissible if we as a society say it isn't. Or that moral standards are set by social contract. The point is, the kind of shallow thesis the likes of D'Souza present limits the entire discussion. And for the most part we allow this to be the way the argument is framed rather than define our turf for ourselves.
So if morality and ethics is what we say it is, then I think its high time we moved beyond mere atheism and say!
So that is what I hope to explore on this blog in the next several related posts, (all to be titled "Beyond mere atheism") and during my Youtubery, in the hopes of engaging others in this discussion. Please feel free to join in.
By way of a short introduction, I think the general guiding principle of a post-Christian, non-theistic morality, should be a kind of utilitarianism that has regard for reducing human suffering while increasing human happiness. This could be, ironically enough, part of my past Buddhist training speaking, but I think we should be advocating the ideas of Epicurus and John Stewart Mill and Jeremy Bentham as both atheistic and necessary modes of moral and ethical thinking.
In the first part of this series of essays "Beyond Mere Atheism" I will start to look at these ideas more closely.
Friday, May 9, 2008
Sir, there is a distinct difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out.
The following appeared in my column fro the St. Standard on May 8.
But, alas, the titanic challenges of today, which can only really be grasped with a degree of scientific literacy, aren't good enough for some who would rather retreat into the mush-headed world of angels, ghosts, goblins, the Fort Erie cougar and gasoline under a buck a litre.Consider, for example, stories about a local teen competing on YTV's Ghost Tracker. It blurs the line between real science and new-agey nonsense as teens are judged on their "skill" at tracking ghosts. The producers even use made-up technobabble to make it all sound scientific. (The Keefer Mansion apparently rates high on the "paranormal index," whatever that is.)
Even more insulting to the intelligence are recent reports about the efforts of the Niagara Area Paranormal Society. They don't have positron gliders or the ECTO-1, but like the Ghost Trackers, they have a heap of impressive-looking equipment. You know, microphones, cables, cameras. The entire Radio Shack-does-Ghostbusters ensemble.
So these, uh, "investigators" recently visited the Welland Museum to hunt down some ghosts. No one was slimed, but they claimed to have recorded mysterious voices emanating from the ether - evidence, they say, of the kin of Casper lurking in the museum.
I don't want to vent about this, but given the uncritical reporting on these things, consider this column the rational response.
Ghost hunting as a scientific endeavour is on par with holistic dentistry, tarot card reading, past-life regression and intelligent design. Fortunately, amid the throngs of the credulous are those willing to strike back with a dose of scientific skepticism. Like James Randi by way of a for instance.
Randi, a Toronto native who lives in Florida, is North America's top gun when it comes to debunking the claims of paranormal, um, "detectives."
He doesn't say the supernatural is impossible, but rather there isn't a shred of evidence to back up claims of seeing dead people or UFOs or reading the future in tea leaves.
"If these people want to make claims about paranormal phenomenon, they have to prove it," he told me in a recent interview.
Randi put forward a million-dollar prize to anyone who can prove it using rigorous scientific testing. To date, every attempt has failed miserably.
So what about these "voices" recorded at the museum? It might seem impressive at first blush. A faint murmur emanating from the dark. But when it comes down to it, either they are the voices of spirits or they are not. Period. And Randi says there is nothing supernatural in what the society found.
We live in a soup of electro-magnetic signals, he says. Cellphone traffic. FM radio stations. Disembodied messages are literally all around us all the time.
"You don't need to be near a powerful signal to pick this stuff up," he says. "It's everywhere. Any good soundman knows how to filter it out."
Even the equipment these, er, "sleuths" use is suspect. Many like to use the Panasonic RR-DR60 audio recorder that was discontinued because it is particularly vulnerable to FM radio transmissions.
So the voices they record could be real - but they belong to radio DJs and cellphone users, not Sir Isaac Brock complaining about a sharp pain in his chest. Ockham's Razor wins again.
Of course, it doesn't help that news outlets often report the claims of these Edgar Cayce wannabes without so much as a critical thought, giving them undeserved credibility.
" 'There are no ghosts' doesn't make a very good story," Randi says.
But that is the story. As Carl Sagan used to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If the local paranormal society had actual evidence of spirits they would have uncovered an entirely new field of science. I'm sure the Nobel folks would be interested.