Questionable Motives

October 6, 2012

What’s the harm of a little religious belief exercised in the public domain?

Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia) is member of the Science Committee of the House of Representatives and chairs the House Science Committee’s panel on investigations and oversight. He claims to be a scientist because he’s a medical doctor, which reminds me to remember that half of all medical doctors graduated from the bottom portion of their class.

April 1, 2012

What’s the Tennessee ‘Monkey Bill’ and why does it matter?

“I ain’t kin to no damn monkey,” is a stereotypical religious response to the very notion of evolution by natural selection. But this isn’t the main reason for the stalwart position taken against the scientific consensus that we share common ancestry with other primates. The reason is religious.

As Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Society, explains,

The theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ even as it is in direct conflict with any faithful reading of the Scriptures. (E)volution and Christianity are incompatible.

The explanation of common ancestry is incompatible with any religious belief that tries to suggest that humanity is somehow a special creation of a god… a god that can be ‘known’ because it/he/she has bestowed special gifts and favours and privileges to the human branch of the primate family and is therefore clearly deserving of our obedience to him/her/it… as it has been opaquely revealed in various scriptures (Creationism 1.0). In effect this assumption means that, to the faithful who presume special creation and/or divine intervention for humanity without evidence, we are to assume these different and mutually incompatible scriptures are actually divinely inspired science textbooks… textbooks that fail to adequately explain the overwhelming evidence for natural selection we find throughout reality – a reality that has revealed no compelling evidence to indicate any such divine interference anywhere in the chain of evidence for natural selection.  In spite of soothing words from the science organizations like the NCSE and religious organizations that support the  Clergy Letter Project that if one squints just right there is no compatibility issue between creationism and evolution, the fact is that there is no scientific basis on which hang a creationist hat, meaning that to maintain a belief in some kind of creationism relies not on evidence from reality but a faith-based belief alone. Those who wish to insist that humans have been POOF!ed into existence or that at some point somewhere some divine agency intervened in natural selection fail to appreciate that key word: natural. To be clear, one can sometimes find religion without creationism but you will never find creationism without religion.

Why does this matter?

As Mohler quite rightly points out, accepting the scientific explanation for evolution – a foundation upon which all modern biological sciences are built – causes an exodus of evangelical young people. Although Mohler references these effects on his own preferred religion, the point he raises is also true for any religious tenet built on a divine role in human development for which there is no evidence in support and much against (the latest being genetic evidence that clearly indicates no original human couple like the fictional Adam and Eve – which is explained in simpler language here). As the PEW forum on religion and public life notes,

All but a small number of scientists regard Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection as an established fact. And yet, a substantial majority of Americans, many of whom are deeply religious, reject the notion that life evolved through natural forces alone.

In other words, evolution is a very real threat to this creationist tenet regardless of which religion attempts to maintain it.

What’s a creationist to do but find some way to counter this scientific knowledge… but without any science to back it up?

Enter the Wedge Strategy, designed (pun intended) to “defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies and to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God“.

Theists have been repeatedly thwarted by the courts in the US from including the creationist tenet in science class. The latest (Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover) directly addressed creationism in its most modern evolution, namely Intelligent Design (Creationism 2.0). The conclusion was clear: ID has no scientific merit so it doesn’t belong in the science classroom.

Oh dear.

Those who thought that perhaps this ongoing battle had finally reached a conclusion were premature; let us now be properly introduced to Creationism 3.0: Academic Freedom! Strengths and Weaknesses! Promote Critical Thinking! This – not scientific evidence – is the next evolution in the Wedge Strategy, brought to us from the Discovery Institute along with a standard petition on how to best promote it without being accused of promoting religion in the public domain.

In 2011, eight states considered bills to include ‘academic freedom’ into the science curriculum, as if this freedom rather than religiously inspired creationism was in some immanent danger of extinction. As Lauri Lebo so eloquently describes – revealing the common language source for all these state bills –

educators may not be prohibited from “helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

Isn’t that grand? What’s so wrong with more critical thinking? What’s wrong is that the problems inherent in evolution – like any science – are trivial in comparison to the robustness of the general explanation. Trivial problems in fully understanding and describing human reproduction is not an invitation to bring Stork Theory into the science class. Somehow this point is missed when it comes to promoting the equally unqualified notion of creationism.

This language of academic freedom helped bring in the Louisiana it’s-okay-to-teach-creationism-in-science-class law (SB 733, LA Science Education Act) and is the template for the Tennessee Monkey Bill – coined accurately to be more  ‘stealth creationism’ by the indomitable Barbara Forrest who works tirelessly to show how this creationist influence remains dedicated to inserting faith-based belief into the science curriculum. This continues now in Tennessee in spite of student complaints and a dedicated campaign supported by 75 Nobel laureates by a Louisiana student Zack Kopplin showing how creationist dogma harms his educational standing for advancement and employment.

Note that as in the Louisiana law, those theories protected under ‘academic freedom’ can include “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning,” tying in very nicely with the stated aims of the Wedge document. This is stealth creationism in action in spite of the ridiculous instructions to future judges contained in the bills that these religious-only, non scientific ‘strengths and weaknesses’ talking points are not “to be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.” As the Sensuous Curmudgeon points out, this is comparable to saying

“Hey, Judge: Here’s how to construe this law” to a suicide-bomber’s explosive-laden vest being sewn with a tag saying: “Attention Bomb Squad Coroner: The deceased wearer of this garment should not be construed to be a suicide bomber.”

All of this legal and legislative and advocating aside for the moment, the real effect described by Dr. Paul Gross from this agenda driven religious attack against the cornerstone of the biological sciences is this:

(It) discourages teachers from teaching evolution, or from giving it proper emphasis—if only by signaling that it’s a highly controversial subject. Teachers, understandably, fear controversy and potential attack by parents. Meanwhile, for this and many other reasons, science performance of our children against their overseas peers remains average to poor.

Really? Science education can be affected when so many attack it as ‘just another way of knowing’? And that affect produces poor student achievement results? Who could have possibly predicted this?

So just how poor is scientific literacy? Read it and weep.

This is the real cost all of us pay to keep creationists in business. Belief in creationism – no matter what form it may take – creates no new knowledge, opens up no new avenues of inquiry, produces no practical applications, and advances our understanding of the world we inhabit not one bit. It is a dead end resulting in thwarting, stymieing, and impeding real science, real progress, real technologies, real knowledge advancements. Seeing this pernicious religious effect in real people, who are convinced creationism deserves a passing nod of approval and wider public acceptance as a quaint alternative to contrary hard science, perhaps we can begin to better understand why biologists like Dawkins, Coyne, and PZ Myers spend so much time and effort counter-attacking this particular ignorance called religiously inspired creationism… for there simply is no other root cause for it.

Religious belief empowers creationism and it is religious belief that motivates its promulgation to infect and distort science. Some people will think themselves justified to doubt evolutionary science while accepting other branches like physics and chemistry conveniently forgetting that all are a single methodology. (But what can we expect with such poor scientific literacy?) Choosing to believe the physics of gravity here but not there to suit a religious belief about the aerodynamics of a flying horse for certain self-proclaimed prophets of god is as incoherent as accepting evolutionary biology within the framework of genetics here but not common ancestry there.

These kinds of Monkey Bills in public legislation matter a very great deal to all of us because they represent superstitious nonsense promoted and legalized and inserted under false pretenses in the public domain under the excuse of words that mean nothing more and nothing less that unsupported religious belief in divine POOF!ism. Rather than gain political capital from promoting poisonous religious beliefs imposed on the public domain, these politicians should be penalized by all of us even if some of us choose to remain privately dedicated to belief in creationism. Our future scientific literacy depends on it and all voters share in this current dismal failing grade we have achieved when we allow religious belief to have such a deleterious effect in our educational system. All of us need to smarten up and start complaining much more loudly and boldly whenever faith-based beliefs dare to enter the public square and demand effect.

January 16, 2012

What’s the harm in believing vaccinations are too risky?

In 2002, the World Health Organization declared measles eradicated from the Americas. In 2011, 763 cases were reported in Canada’s province of Quebec – including 30 children and adults who had been previously vaccinated against the disease – with 89 requiring hospitalization. The cluster was centered in particular schools in Drummondville, with a student population of about 11,000. Some adults were incapacitated for over four months during their recovery and others recovered but with hearing loss. And all of this was preventible.

About 4% of the infected students who had been vaccinated in the outbreak schools contracted measles. Of those children who had not been vaccinated, about 82% contracted the disease which can disfigure and even kill. Of all the students, about 85% had been vaccinated but as we can see, once the vaccination rate falls below about 95% of all children, we start to lose the ‘herd’ immunity (where isolated cases of highly infectious disease do not spread) and all of us – vaccinated and not vaccinated – become endangered.

Why do parents opt their children out from receiving vaccinations? Well, because they would prefer to not run the risk of exposing their children to unnecessary harm from vaccinations. What is this risk? Fevers from the MMR shot (measles, mumps, and rubella) run about 1 in 168 that result in a hospital visit. About one in a million will develop encephalitis (a potentially deadly inflammation of the brain). About one in a thousand with measles will develop encephalitis. The means that the risk for this potentially deadly result is thousand times greater for children exposed to highly contagious diseases whose parents decided vaccinations were too risky.

Let’s look for a moment at the numbers of children who contracted highly contagious and common childhood diseases PER PEAK YEAR before and after vaccinations became standardized prior to 2011 (from the Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness and Promotion):

Rubella: 69,000 cases compared to 9

Polio: 20,000 cases compared to 0

Mumps: 52,000 cases compared to 32

Measles: 300,000 cases compared to 7

Diptheria: 9,000 cases compared to 1

Obviously, parents who decide the risk is too high from vaccinations are not balancing that risk with what’s true in reality, that the risk from getting these common diseases is not only vastly greater but far more deadly once contracted.

So which parents aren’t vaccinating their children? The poor? The uneducated? Those from broken homes? Those from minorities?

Nope.

Today’s non vaccinated kids are most likely from white, affluent, with a married mother and father with a college education. These fine upstanding folk are more likely to seek alternative healthcare and use the internet more as an information source. They also tend to live closer together with like-minded people, usually drawn together by some alternative school, church, or politician. This is why outbreaks of preventable diseases usually occurs in geographical pockets (New England journal of Medicine, 2009).

Now let us consider Tajikistan in 2010, previously declared polio free in 2002, with a vaccination rate for polio at about 87%. Now they have a polio outbreak that has no cure, causes paralysis, and often ends in death. In an editorial from the Canadian Medical Association Journal about the similar risk we face in Canada, it tells us:

“We are only one asymptomatic infected traveller away from an outbreak because of low vaccination rates.”

We know vaccination rates are too low. We know that we put EVERYBODY at greater risk for these highly contagious diseases when the rate falls below a minimum of 90% (current estimates put the rate in Canada at about 62% for two-years-olds up to date for all standard vaccinations). We also know outbreaks can and do happen and these risks of not vaccinating everybody are vastly greater than complications from the vaccines themselves. So what is stopping responsible parents from not only protecting their children but doing their civic duty to the rest of the nation?

In the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick (health care is a provincial matter), children must be vaccinated to attend public school. But parents are allowed to (and do) opt out based on medical concerns. Unfortunately, parents can also opt out for religious beliefs as well as matters of conscience! So although there is a legitimate reason for medical considerations backed up by excellent evidence of harm, there is no equivalent evidence on which to base religious or conscience matters.

Matters of conscience are based on a belief that the correlation of childhood health problems stemming from autism, learning disabilities, asthma, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, allergic and anaphylactic disorders, neuroimmune and autoimmune disorders and other chronic diseases indicates causation with vaccinations.

This belief is wrong. It is dangerous. It is woo. There is no good evidence to back up these claims but exhaustive evidence that they are not causally linked. The conclusion is clear:

There is no excuse for maintaining such willful ignorance and blind stupidity for  not vaccinating children today (with an exemption for medical reasons) except by elevating a trust in faith over and in conflict with evidence from reality… which is yet another in a long list of examples of private faith being exercised in the public domain that causes very real harm to very real people.

January 11, 2012

Why is being called an ignorant creationist redundant?

I like the Catholic Encyclopedia definition of ignorance in the sense I am using here, namely, a lack of knowledge about a thing in a being capable of knowing rather than the standard notion of it meaning merely a lack of knowledge, education, or awareness… for which one may not be responsible. Creationists here in the West have no such similar excuse; instead, they are perfectly capable of knowing why genetics and the geologic time scale and evolution are not just true in some theoretical sense but true in the fact that they inform our technologies and practices that work consistently and reliably well for everyone everywhere all the time. We are populated by large numbers of people who doubt specific scientific inquires in order to maintain a belief in some kind of religiously motivated ‘creative’ agency… something I call divine POOF!ism. This is intellectually bankrupt and teaching it is as if it were compatible and supportive of science is simply not true. It is religious selfishness in action.

What excuse beyond selfishness do we find for so many Protestant pastors from this Southern Baptist Convention survey? Consider the following:

America’s Protestant pastors overwhelmingly reject the theory of evolution and are evenly split on whether the earth is 6,000 years old, according to a survey released Monday by the Southern Baptist Convention.

When asked if “God used evolution to create people,” 73% of pastors disagreed – 64% said they strongly disagreed – compared to 12% who said they agree.

Asked whether the earth is approximately 6,000 years old, 46% agreed, compared to 43% who disagreed.

A movement called Young Earth creationism promotes the 6,000-year-old figure, arguing that it is rooted in the Bible. Scientists say the earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

The Southern Baptist Convention survey, which queried 1,000 American Protestant pastors, also found that 74% believe the biblical Adam and Eve were literal people.

“Recently discussions have pointed to doubts about a literal Adam and Eve, the age of the earth and other origin issues,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, a division of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a report on LifeWay’s site. “But Protestant pastors are overwhelmingly Creationists and believe in a literal Adam and Eve.”

Not only do so many of these people not keep their bizarre beliefs private but actually promote them through congregational teachings. And what many are teaching, even though they are beings quite capable of knowing differently, is if not factually wrong then grossly misleading because it is incompatible with what we do know based on what works consistently and reliably for everyone everywhere all the time. In addition, these teaching are pernicious in that they cause intended harm through the promotion of willful ignorance contrary to the teaching of knowledge.

How can I say such things?

Well, consider the incompatibility of belief in an historical and literal Adam and Eve. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understanding of genetics. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about how genetics work in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand heritable diseases and crop sciences, as but two examples. In fact, this belief is in direct and uncompromising conflict with our understanding of genetics that works for everyone everywhere all the time. There is very strong genetic evidence unaccounted for by such a belief that the smallest human population from whom we come was no smaller than about ~10,000.  To believe in a literal and historical Adam and Eve means that believers really do reject this part of science we call genetics.

Consider the incompatibility of belief that the world is fewer than ~10,000 years old. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of the term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understanding of geology. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about the age and formation of rock strata and the forces that have affected them over time that works in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand resource exploration and extraction and erosion and tectonics, as but four examples. In fact this belief in young earth creationism is in conflict with our understanding of geology (and radioactive decay) that works for everyone everywhere all the time. There is very strong geological evidence unaccounted for by such a belief that we live on planet that has undergone significant change over a great deal of time. To believe in a created earth means that believers really do reject this part of science we call geology (and, by extension, the age of other planets).

Consider the incompatibility of belief that our biological heritage is from divine creation by an interventionist agency. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of the term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understand of evolution. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about biological development and change over time by what is known as natural selection (it would not be ‘natural’ if traits were selected by some interventionist agency) that works in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand biology and medicine, to name but two. There is very strong evolutionary evidence unaccounted for by such a creationist belief that life on earth is related yet differentiated by natural selection over a great deal of time. To believe in creationism means that believers really do reject this part of science we call biology.

So what’s the harm maintaining such a dismissive belief? After all, we are assured repeatedly by many earnest religious believers and apologetic accommodationists that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are actually compatible… and even mutually supportive! So my question is – as always – Is this claim true?

I need to divert for a moment and look at ‘science’ in the larger sense and understand why this argument about creationists respecting science – but not these specific scientific avenues – is just not true.  Science, let us recall, is a METHOD of inquiry and not the results of an inquiry. In other words, exactly the same METHOD is used to investigate, say, genetics as it is germs, aerodynamics as it is astronomy. It makes no sense to suggest that it is somehow compatible and supportive to reject that METHOD here but not there in order to privilege some prior religious belief. It’s actually dishonest. It is neither compatible nor supportive to suggest that the belief in geocentrism does not stand in contrast and competition with heliocentrism when the two notions are incompatible – they are necessarily in conflict – any more than it does to suggest biblical inerrancy should be granted to the story of Adam and Eve but not biblical inerrancy to the sixty some odd reference to the earth as the center of the universe. To reject the specific science that informs genetics and geology and evolution to privilege religious beliefs incompatible with them is contrary to being supportive of the METHOD of science used to inform all other scientific inquiries. It is that identical METHOD that shows us that the geocentric model fails where the heliocentric model succeeds for everyone everywhere all the time. It is that METHOD that informs all these practical applications and technologies that work for everyone everywhere all the time derived from the specific scientific inquiries so vilified by supporters of creationism. By rejecting genetics and geology and evolution to favour and prejudice some holy scripture, creationists are rejecting the METHOD of science used to inform not just these specific scientific inquiries but ALL OF THEM.

This has a pernicious effect… especially in medicine.

Evolutionary theories are critical for understanding human disease. They are used to understand the origins of cancer and to better design therapies, which directly help our understanding through evolutionary history to explain modern health problems (such as type-II diabetes and obesity). It is upon these evolutionary theories that we have learned to appreciate viral evolution, which is used to design safe and effective vaccination strategies that work. For example, an evolutionary viewpoint is the only way to understand the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and to develop effective methods for stopping or slowing it. Defining the evolutionary process of cancers is leading to new, more targeted approaches in cancer treatment. How we incorporate these evolutionary ideas into medical education enhances the education of health professionals, which is in stark conflict with creationist belief (that usually blames sin for our earned deaths… such a cheerful and optimistic bunch). Our biomedical science gains from understanding human evolution and allows us to design and implement solutions to our vulnerability to disease. The evolutionary approach to medicine and public health is enormous, informing areas of research and providing predictions and guidance for novel interventions.

All of this medical knowledge and its pursuit is at dire risk when we continue to pretend that teaching creationism is somehow compatible, somehow a legitimate and equivalent alternative, with the scientific quest to know.

It isn’t. At all.

Now consider the incompatibility creationism presents as an alternative to the benefits from informed medicine and how many future doctors and medical researchers are turned away from this pursuit in the name of honouring the religious beliefs of their parents and pastors about creationism. Think of how many students are affected when creationists in all their various lying for Jesus and Allah guises try to insert this theology into science classrooms or religious students who do everything they can to remove specific scientific inquiries like evolution from their educational curriculum.

All of this medical knowledge and its pursuit is at dire risk when we continue to pretend that teaching creationism is somehow compatible, somehow a legitimate and equivalent alternative, with the scientific METHOD. It’s simply not true.

Creationism – and its gaggle of handmaidens of other necessary beliefs contrary to specific scientific inquiries – is in direct conflict with the METHOD of science that produces what works for everyone everywhere all the time. This is why such belief that sidelines legitimate and honest inquiry into reality is not a ‘different way of knowing’ or some separate but equivalent Magesterium. Creationism is a turning away from honest scientific methodology (methodological naturalism) and insisting on a return to ignorance. Ignorance is the real alternative people are choosing when they reject and ignore knowledge we have that works for everyone everywhere all the time, knowledge upon which companies invest trillions of dollars, knowledge that has the effrontery to work consistently and reliably well in reality over time. By staying faithful to beliefs that are wholly inadequate to reveal what works in reality by comparison, people are choosing ignorance over knowledge to maintain their religious belief. The sacrifice costs. Yet still many are teaching  creationism to their kids and want it taught to the general public. They want respect for this ignorance established in law and want to base public policies on extensions of it in areas like research and human reproduction and foreign aid. It’s ignorance in action, what we atheists like to call ‘turtles all the way down’. It’s a ruse, a lie, an intentional deception, a willful disregard for what is true in reality to pretend creationism is an equivalent and respectable alternative to specific scientific inquiries rather than the ignorance in action it honestly is.

It’s high time more of us reminded creationists determined to insert their beliefs into the public domain of this brute fact, that being an ignorant creationist is in fact and deed redundant.

(h/t Pandasthumb)

December 20, 2011

Is the Higgs boson really a particle of faith?

Alister McGrath would have you believe it is.

In this article he writes about equating the Higgs bosun particle (a link here for people unfamiliar with what the Standard Theory is and what carrier particles are) – scientists hunting the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider have revealed the first tantalising glimpses of the mysterious particle –  to a similar kind of belief in the causal agent for the order we find in the universe he calls god. I’ve added some bold type for emphasis:

Lederman (Nobel Laureate Leon) invented the name the “God particle” because it was “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.” Nobody had seen it back in 1994. And they’re still not sure whether they’ve really seen it today. Yet this isn’t seen as a massive problem. The idea seemed to make so much sense of things that the existence of the “God particle” has come to be taken for granted. It has become, I would say, a “particle of faith”. The observations themselves didn’t prove the existence of the Higgs boson. Rather, the idea of the Higgs boson explained observations so well that those in the know came to believe it really existed. One day, technology might be good enough to allow it to be actually observed. But we don’t need to wait until then before we start believing in it.

McGrath is saying we can start believing that the Higgs boson really does exist as a causal agent because it’s a really good explanation that fits the available evidence even if it’s invisible. And note that he equates an ‘explanation of observations’ with ‘making sense’. In fact, maybe it seems odd to McGrath that there is such an exciting kerfuffle over the same bumps in mass measured by two different research teams at the Collider – a mass between 124 and 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) – which shows strong evidence that the same thing is being measured, and that same thing may be a Higgs signal. Why be excited at all if simply believing something is true is adequate and equivalent?

Obviously, belief alone – meaning trust and confidence that something is true – in NOT adequate proof, which is why we call such a belief in scientific terminology an hypothesis… a potential explanation that may or may not be true and in need further empirical inquiry and stronger evidence. McGrath knows this but it it doesn’t suit his purpose here because he has no intention of suggesting god is merely an hypothesis in need of further empirical proof – like the same kind of dedicated search for empirical evidence of the Higgs boson. So we know he is being intentionally dishonest in the sense he wishes to misrepresent trust in the existence of the Higgs boson with the same kind of trust in an invisible, intervening, creative, sky daddy.

So what is his real purpose for this intentional misrepresentation between trust in the existence of the Higgs boson particle and trust in the existence of god?

There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic.

Is this “parallel” similarly reflected in the search for the Higgs boson? Do most of us think it is unrealistic to demand empirical evidence of the Higgs boson particle? Of course not. In fact, such evidence is exactly what is being sought, and rightly so, to INCREASE the confidence that the particle does in fact exist, for without it the Higgs boson remains only an hypothesis regardless of its explanatory power. That’s why these are not equivalent kinds of faith in action here and McGrath knows this. But it doesn’t even slow him down when he makes his final pitch:

Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus. As the Harvard psychologist William James pointed out years ago, religious faith is about inferring “the existence of an unseen order” in which the “riddles of the natural order” can be explained.

Is McGrath being honest here? Does he hold his faith in god to be an equivalent hypothesis of inference in need of better evidence to INCREASE his confidence that it may be true? (I see no evidence for this.) Or is he, like religious apologists everywhere, merely cherry picking bits and pieces of scientific endeavors to misrepresent his faith – his certainty that his god is an active and causal agent in the universe and exists in reality – to be equivalent to honest scientific inquiry? (I see nothing but strong evidence for this cherry picking.)

When religious apologists stoop to misrepresenting the method of scientific inquiry to be equivalent to how they inform their religious faith, they show their intellectual dishonesty. They have no desire, no willingness, to search for explanations to the riddles of the natural order from the natural order itself but that if we order now, we can have this answer called god. But wait! There’s more! If we call right now, we can also get – absolutely free – an answer that can safely and without compromise be our final answer to whatever questions we have of this natural order! It’s so easy, anyone can do it, but don’t delay; call today! As a bonus, we’ll throw in the old canard that this one-answer-fits-all and call the ‘results’ equivalent to honest scientific inquiry… merely a different and compatible way of knowing.

It’s an absurd and obscene pitch McGrath is making, knowing full well that such snake oil trust he’s peddling in faith-based rather than reality based claims offers us nothing but turtles all the way down and answers nothing with reliable and consistent knowledge. All we have to do to gain access to this one answer for all questions about the natural order is to exchange our intellectual honesty and curiosity and demand for empirical evidence for the kind of empty confidence we can have in the final answer of godidit. That’s why it’s a toll free call. And McGrath would have us think that this is a legitimate and valuable exchange. I think it’s clear that his argument is, metaphorically speaking, no different than a crock of shit.

December 19, 2011

“Can we trust the science?”

I come across this little gem of a question all the time when discussing why religion and science are incompatible methods of inquiry. Accommodationists and apologists for religion raise the specter all the time that many scientific results are later altered or overturned, which indicates to them that we can no more trust ‘science’ than we can trust claims in Oogity Boogity (they use different words, of course). This reveals a fundamental and widespread misunderstanding of what science is: a process of disciplined inquiry (using methodological naturalism) into mechanistic causal effects. The evidence is ubiquitous for establishing just how effective a process this is; we are surrounded by effective technologies based entirely on our understanding of causal effects that work for everyone everywhere all the time.

So how is it that many results arrived at through the use of the scientific method change?

Well, from the theistic perspective, such change in results is bad. It indicates a degradation in trustworthiness. In comparison, the certainty of unchanging faith produces a superior result in trustworthiness. In what, however, is not open to any equivalent inquiry, but holding hard and fast to such an a priori conclusion is assumed in religious terminology to be a virtue: faith.

From a scientific perspective, such change in results shows that the process is is working marvelously well! And it is working because all results are tentative, meaning that results are open to revision from having to account for new evidence from reality. If the results were not open to revision upon encountering new and contrary evidence from reality, the integrity of the inquiry process itself would be undermined, replaced as it would be with a dogmatic and inflexible a priori conclusion based only on first results assumed to be final results. This same assumption that supports theistic belief, namely faith,  in scientific terminology is considered a vice.

So the confusion between understanding ‘science’ representing a method or process of inquiry and representing fixed results reveals the confusion about the compatibility of science and religion. In both cases when compared honestly – scientific method with religious method, scientific result with religious result – we find them incompatible. Only by ignoring the glaring incompatibility in both cases can we keep a straight face and pretend they are like supportive siblings who get along famously. They don’t.  And this is obvious when we look at the contrary claims made about the universe not just between religions and science but by various religions in conflict with claims made other religions! If we are concerned about our inquiries into the universe and everything it contains being the same for everyone everywhere all the time, then we need to be honest in our comparisons between them. As Jerry Coyne clearly observes,

Science and religion have different methods of “knowing” (science depends on reason, observation, doubt and replication, religion on dogma, authority, and revelation); science and religion arrive at different conclusions about the world (e.g., the existence of Adam and Eve or of a sudden creation); and while there is only one form of science that transcends ethnicity or faith, different faiths arrive at different conclusions, so that the idea of religious “truth” must differ from that of scientific “truth.”

The appreciation we hold for the scientific method producing applicable and reliable knowledge needs to be moderated by a better public understanding of why the method is not equivalent to its results. Media – just like each of us – could do a much better job expressing the necessary tentativeness-as-a-virtue of scientific results rather than contribute in such liberal doses to promoting this confusion that the surety of results are equivalent to conclusions of faith… but not as trustworthy.

A perfect example of how poorly served we in the public are by media intent on sales by hype can be shown with gross mishandling of the CCSVI treatment for multiple sclerosis and the political pressures brought to bear on the medical community in response to a badly misinformed public. In contrast, we have an excellent example of good science working its way through an interesting link between the disease and vitamin D. Steven Novella explains the effects of the difference:

The story of vitamin D and MS is a good illustration of how science is supposed to work. A new hypothesis was introduced, which made some sense, and so investigators did preliminary research (observational studies) showing that there was a potential correlation. As the evidence grew, scientific interest grew, and researchers started to look at the question from multiple angles.

So far the hypothesis is holding up under scrutiny, but is far from proven. So researchers are working their way toward large definitive experimental trials. Each step of the way we see that scientists are cautious, thoughtful, skeptical and yet curious and willing to investigate a completely new idea.

Contrast this story to the one of CCSVI – the notion that MS is partially caused by blockages in the veins that drain the brain. Here the plausibility is low, but not zero, warranting some follow up research of the original observation. The follow up research so far is largely negative – the closer  we look at this possible phenomenon the more it seems that it probably does not exist.

So scientific interest in CCSVI is rapidly dwindling, but researchers will likely put a few more nails in that coffin before they are done with it, just to be sure. Meanwhile, there is a huge public controversy over CCSVI – not because of the science, but because of unwarranted hype.

When religious believers hold their faith conclusions to be tentative and subject to revision based on mind-independent evidence from reality, then and only then will science and religion finally arrive on mutually compatible grounds. Until that day arrives, religious belief is not an intellectual stand compatible in any way with scientific inquiry… either in method or results. And we know we can trust the science…


 

November 30, 2011

Is atheist anger necessary?

Filed under: anger,Atheism,faith-based beliefs,Religion — tildeb @ 10:43 am

Yes. And it’s important to realize why.

Greta explains why atheists speak anger to power: because we have compassion, a strong sense of justice, deep concern for suffering, because there is something right with us.

(h/t deadwildroses)

November 1, 2011

Of what value is atheism?

If you happen to respect what’s true in reality and how we can know anything about it, then the value of atheism is pronounced.

How so? Well, reader Joshua has asked me the following questions:

Where’s your positive case for atheism? Why is it a superior worldview? What explanatory power does it have for anything? What has atheism contributed to the advancement of the human species? Those are questions I want you to address. Not here, but on your blog.

Okay. Let’s take a look at these one at a time.

1) Where’s your positive case for atheism?

My answer to this is two-fold.

In the first case, atheism in regards to religious claims means non belief. The question is the wrong one in this regard to establish good reasons for not believing. This becomes apparent if we test the same question against, let’s say, non belief in the Easter Bunny. Where’s your positive case for non belief in the Easter Bunny? It’s a silly approach to understanding the role atheism plays in finding out what’s true in reality. Non belief is a negative claim, meaning that because there is no positive evidence for the positive religious claim that it is true, non belief is reasonable alternative. We do this all the time in the face of every absurd claim that has no reasonable case in its favour. Because there are no good reasons to believe in the religious claim based on evidence available to all, there is no reasonable case to be made in its favour. The default, therefore, is non belief in exactly the same way the questioner does not demand of himself a positive case to be made for not believing in faeries, not believing in wood sprites, not believing in Zeus, and so on.

In the second case, my answer is that non belief in the absence of good reasons to believe something is true provides us a tangible benefit, namely, a healthy dose of scepticism to protect one’s self from being foolish and gullible. The shell game, played by religious supporters who cannot provide coherently good reasons independent of their favoured beliefs to make a positive case for their positive religious claim, becomes in this light rather obvious: they believe the religious claim because they have had to elevate belief itself to be a good enough reason in the absence of good reasons based on independent supporting evidence. And here’s the problem: once you accept belief itself as the benchmark for establishing the validity of a truth claim about reality, you have fallen into a rabbit hole of foolish gullibility. There are no longer any belief claims that can be ruled out as false because one has already capitulated any means to establish and inform what’s actually true in order to maintain the validity of holding the religious belief.

2) Why is it a superior worldview?

Atheism itself is not a worldview. It is non belief in religious truth claims. How is one’s worldview altered, for example, by not believing in the literal truth of the Tooth Fairy? The absence of the Tooth Fairy doesn’t alter anything; again, it’s the wrong question. Believing in the Tooth Fairy, however, most assuredly does alter one’s worldview. Accepting the belief itself as valid means one has accepted the reality of the supernatural, and has accepted this double blueprint of a singular reality. That’s why religious believers have to compartmentalize religious beliefs in reality over here and reality as it is over there. We get evidence of this intellectual duplicity all the time with phrase like, “I’m a great fan of science, but…”, and “Religious belief is compatible with science because science doesn’t know everything…” This belief in belief stands in stark contrast to the lack of positive evidence for this positive claim. But the believer has already isolated the religious belief from legitimate critical review not vbecause it isn’t deserving but because what’s true in reality doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters in faith-based beliefs is the application of faith itself, which is why only in religion is faith considered a virtue. This worldview is a distorted worldview because it accepts belief without evidence as the arbiter of what’s true in reality.

Compare the products of belief in the supernatural with the products of methodological naturalism. Belief in the supernatural produces easy pseudo-answers to whatever questions about reality one has; when in doubt, pretend that the supernatural is just as likely a cause and look at what is produced: superstition and ignorance and all the negative effects these produce. Why is the sky blue? Because god made it that way. Where do we come from? We come from god because he created the heavens and the earth and everything in it. These aren’t answers; these are childish pseudo-answers that cannot withstand critical scrutiny. This is why no useful and practical applications have ever been produced by elevating belief to be ‘another way of knowing’. It doesn’t produce knowledge. That’s the brute fact believers don’t care to face. It doesn’t produce consistent explanations of cause and effect that are in any way useful, practical, or reliable because it cannot reveal an understandable mechanism by how it works to cause effects. It’s magic, you see, done by critters that leave no evidence of their time spent among us. It’s intellectual hand waving, a rationalized sleight-of-mind that produces nebulous terminology to infuse the beliefs with the appearance of meaning. But let’s be honest: behind such an appearance we find that belief produces no new knowledge. As ‘another way of knowing’ about anything other than the imagined, belief is an abject failure. Atheism, if understood to be a worldview that simply respects what’s true by allowing reality and not belief to arbitrate our claims to knowledge, is superior because it does produce the intellectual ground for knowledge to be honestly extracted from the universe we inhabit…knowledge that translates into reliable and consistent applications that work for everyone everywhere all the time. That’s not a trivial achievement.

3) What explanatory power does it have for anything?

Atheism as non belief doesn’t try to explain anything because it makes no positive claim. But the mindset to respect reality’s role in arbitrating what’s true about it has the benefit of clearing the table of our preconceived notions and biases and prejudices and allows us to respect a method of inquiry  that we know produces consistently reliable and practical results for everyone everywhere all the time that works… regardless of our beliefs. When one starts with an open mind that doesn’t have to filter incoming information through a belief screen first and judged to be friendly or hostile to the belief, one can allow an epistemology to prove itself, to yield to its own judgement of real value in this universe. This has the immediate benefit of keeping one’s mind sceptical about all claims until the preponderance of evidence from reality lends its weight. Claims about stuff outside of reality with no way to test them have no business being presented as if true in this one without this preponderance of evidence. Those dishonest enough to pretend this drawback to the veracity of  supernatural claims isn’t really much of problem to being compatible with the scientific method are absolutely wrong. Truth claims of supernatural causal effect are a priori statements of belief only, equivalent to making shit up. To consider these supernatural belief claims are in any way compatible with claims derived post facto  from our scientific method are without merit… regardless of how sophisticated and nuanced the belief claim may sound to the uncritical mind, the willingly deceived, the defenders of the faith, the pretenders of respecting what’s true in reality. These religious claims remain solely a belief only… equivalent to and indistinguishable from a delusion.

4) What has atheism contributed to the advancement of the human species?

Non belief – and not respecting the beliefs of others as equivalent to knowledge – has freed our minds to pursue what’s true in reality. The advancements in our collective knowledge over the past two hundred years are directly attributed to developing applications that have greatly enhanced every aspect of human life in every appreciable way. From healthcare to technology this increase in knowledge has yielded tangible and practical benefits. In addition, the reasoned-based approach to political expression and governance derived from Enlightenment values has come unprecedented advances in recognizing human rights as the foundation for our freedoms from the indifference and mindless cruelty of a brutal world. Although we still have much to achieve in respecting equal rights and freedoms of all the world’s citizens, we are on the right path. The evidence for this is overwhelming.

But like anyone trying to reach the age of maturity, we have to face the difficult task of letting go of our childish need for parents as well as letting go of our adult children from our desire to over-nurture so that they can find their own way. Faith-based religious beliefs stand opposed to this letting go, insisting that we need to rely on some authority other than our own because we just can’t be trusted. One of the most common comments from theists who have become atheists is facing this fear of independence and finding liberty as well as responsibility. Autonomy and responsibility go hand in hand and it can yield many results both good and bad. But at least both outcomes are personally owned rather than attributed to some oogity boogity. It is a recognition that the world’s problems are our problems to be solved by us who must live with the consequences of our collective actions. Maturity in this context is recognizing the need for each of us to find that balance between human needs and wants and what the world is willing to tolerate. Atheism means the opportunity for intellectual maturity and intellectual honesty, to grow up and leave the belief-feathered bed of wishful thinking and childish dreams behind, to realize the truth in reality that irresponsible actions will not taken care of by some concerned sky daddy, to become fully human in the here and now with all its personal foibles and take ownership of how we live our lives as well as we can under whatever circumstances in we may find ourselves, all the while working towards helping others achieve their own birthright of intellectual independence from the ancient ignorances and false idols of that are the foundation for all faith-based beliefs.

It’s time to let go of faith-based beliefs and grow up. Reality beckons and we have one shot at it. Let’s grab it, respect what it offers, and live a life worth living.

October 24, 2011

Why do atheists comment about religion?

A writer for the Religion section of the Huffington Post is surprised by the number of atheists reading and commenting on his posts. He asks: why are atheists visiting the Religion section?

This is good question.

My favourite answer is from JohnfromCensornati who writes:

You’re selling a defective product. Atheists are consumer advocates warning others about those hazardous defects.

I think this encapsulates why atheists bother: they are trying to fix something in need of fixing. I know that I comment elsewhere when I am trying to correct yet another intentional misrepresentation, introduce what I think is a better idea, or offer an argument not previously considered,  but mostly because there is a need to point out that faith-based beliefs are not equivalent to what’s true in reality on the merit that they are simply believed to be so.

I constantly ask myself, “Is this claim true, and how do we know?” When it comes to religious claims, the answer is very clear: the claim’s truth value  has no merit derived from reality but from faith alone… usually faith that some literal scripture or scriptural interpretation is an authority that can be trusted to be true. This is a problem when these claims from scriptural authority – that supposedly describe reality (and yet are filled with plenty of examples where they got it factually wrong) – is the basis on which we are told are worthy of our intellectual respect, that the liberal use of a blanket faith based on this authority is actually an intellectual virtue.

This is the path to elevating ignorance and superstition to be equivalent to knowledge, this trust in a dubious authority, and it is dangerous to leave this notion lacking proper public criticism. After all, when we respect another’s beliefs about reality to be equivalent to reality, we have gone along with the charade to forfeit reality’s role to be the final arbiter. This is identical to pretending it’s okay to let stand the assumption that faith-based beliefs – indistinguishable from delusion in every way – and reality are really the same thing… willing to pretend that there is no reliable way to tell them apart.

Well, there is a way and it starts with some honesty about what we know and how we can trust what we know. It’s called methodological naturalism and it demonstrably works for everyone everywhere all the time. No trust in faith-based claims is needed to find out what’s true in reality when we trust reality to be the authority for claims about it. And more people need to know this and have their beliefs held to account when there is a discrepancy.

It is this willingness of the faithful, the apologists, and the accommodationists to capitulate the value of honest knowledge on the altar of religious respect that needs to be confronted in public. Furthermore, the conclusions about reality reached by those who assume some faith-based authority need to be challenged when they stand in conflict with knowledge extracted from reality. Faith-based beliefs are not equivalent to knowledge but stand contrary to it, and this fawning faux-respect for the faith-based claims made by others should be criticized for the negative effects it has on more of us trusting the method of inquiry that does in fact yield practical, reliable, and consistent knowledge we can (and do) trust for very good reasons. Those who respect faith-based claims require more, not less, public criticism – not necessarily for the benefit of the person willing to reject reality’s role in arbitrating what’s true about it (and the knowledge we gain from inquiring honestly into its workings) but for those whose minds are still capable of being swayed by better reasons than what the faithful can offer. This has to played out in public view and all of us have a stake in it, which is why places like the widely read religious section of the HuffPo are an important venue to make the case for reality. Certainly the religious aren’t going to promote reality’s importance, nor those who are willing to apologize and accommodate faith as an equivalent kind of knowledge when that obviously is not true in fact. That leaves us atheists to do the job: consumer advocates for respecting what’s true.

And it’s working (see the evidence through the additional links in the body of the text here).

October 14, 2011

Can we know what’s true in reality?

I keep coming across this notion that all truth is relative, so that scientific findings accomplished by man should be understood to be less reliable that the certainties that can be assumed deduced from faith-based beliefs.

I admit, this argument drives me nuts. The latest was from reader Daniel who argues that Truth is a being with whom we can have a personal relationship, and that atheists lose effectiveness in theistic discussions when they fail to appreciate this special relationship the faithful have with their ‘truths’ cum manifestations of various gods. One responder wrote:

In a life filled with people whose individual realities depend on their personal perceptions instead of the true unprejudiced reality, our belief systems…our truths, if you will, are definitely biased. Everyone’s reference points are based on their perceptions of their experiences. Even our perceptions of the truths […] are subject to unreliability because we are who we are and our eschewed views. Only one who has the life of God in him can hope to taste of truth and only as we constantly examine ourselves and stay in fellowship with Him can we hope to interpret that truth correctly.

So I responded:

I think Feynman’s quote here is apt when it comes to trusting beliefs and perspectives:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

How do we not fool ourselves? Respecting the method of science – by using what is known as methodological naturalism – is an excellent starting point. The products of this method speak for themselves: so far, they work for everyone everywhere all the time. How is that ‘relative’ just because it always maintains room for doubt?

This notion – that what is true is somehow relative to one’s subjective experience and beliefs – is probably one of the most common yet odious opinions bandied about as if it were widely accepted as correct. It’s not. It’s an epistemological placebo for the intellectually lazy.

Yes, Virginia, there is a reality, and we can actually know something about it if we choose to make the honest effort. Pretending that our subjective faculties prohibits this discovering of reality is the worst kind of apologetics because it assumes we cannot know without certainty… and confuses anything less than certain with something less than what’s true in reality. This little shell game of substituted word meanings tries to make anything less-than-certain equivalent – and that’s where it veers off the twin paths of reason and reality and inserts the term ‘relative’ as if that were appropriate answer to this warped thinking. It’s not. It’s dishonest.

The physical laws of nature are not relative just because someone is so intellectually impoverished that they can only appreciate probabilities of P=1 to equate with what’s true and knowably so. It does not bolster this misunderstanding to pretend that all other and lesser probabilities are equivalently ‘relatively true’. That’s absurd and demonstrably so. To assume that anything less than certain means it is equivalent to something unknown is ridiculous by all practical measurements unless someone is honestly and equally surprised each and every morning that the sun rises. Such a person isn’t intellectually lazy but brain-damaged. Even so, few people are actually so dull and unimaginative that patterns in nature are either unrecognizable or equally untrustworthy.

To call anything less than certain ‘relative’ is a gross distortion of how much we can know and trust about that knowledge of reality we have gained. Relativism is an intentional and misleading excuse to try to make equivalent faith and fact, as if Ergo Jesus is a legitimate answer in place of I don’t know because I have some element of uncertainty. Relativism argued on the basis of this subjectivity is just broken thinking petrified into ignorance by a lack of intellectual honesty.

Any thoughts?

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