Questionable Motives

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.

February 15, 2012

What is the Heartland Institute and why should we care how it gets its funding?

The Heartland Institute is supposedly a non profit think tank whose self-described mission is to “discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” Finding solutions for problems? That sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it? The problem is, that simply isn’t quite true; it’s goal is to lobby for corporate concerns regardless of the problems caused by these activities.

It’s major area of activity is to influence the The United States’ 8,300 state and national elected officials and approximately 8,400 local government officials in ways agreeable to its sponsors over issues it deems important… such as sustained criticisms against legitimate climate science and public education that attempts to deny parents the right to public money to pay for private schooling… schooling that includes altered curriculum to favour the corporate message.  As they explain:

people devote time to learn about subjects only if they believe acquiring specific knowledge will benefit them personally. Often, this seems unlikely. Consequently, most people choose rationally to remain ignorant about many public policy issues. The Heartland Institute has overcome the problem of ‘rational ignorance’ by inventing publications busy elected officials and the public will actually read and come to trust. Our publications are highly effective and inexpensive vehicles for communicating messages on public policy.

One might be tempted to think that a non profit doesn’t have any major sponsors so it would be less likely to follow a corporate, for profit, mission against governmental oversight and regulation wherever it may be found. One might be right… except this certainly doesn’t pertain to the Heartland Institute. It’s funding has been revealed at desmogblog to be very much a public relations arm of specific corporate interests.

According to its website, its mission is “to discover and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems”. Sourcewatch tells us that the Institute campaigns in support of:

  • “Common-sense environmentalism”, such as opposition to the the Kyoto Protocol aimed at countering global warming
  • Genetically engineered crops and products;
  • The privatization of public services;
  • The introduction of school vouchers;
  • The deregulation of health care insurance;

and against:

  • What it refers to as “junk science” (science that that could indicate a need for regulation);
  • Tobacco control measures such as tobacco tax increases (the Institute denies the health effects of second-hand smoke);

Regarding its current funding and responding to that assigned mission, Heartland’s central concerns are about disseminating anti-climate science messages and funding anti-climate science contrarians:

We expect to push up their level of support in 2012 and gain access to their network of philanthropists, if our focus continues to align with their interests. Other contributions will be pursued for this work, especially from corporations whose interests are threatened by climate policies.”

Heartland’s influence can be heard in misleading soundbites issued by legislators over climate science findings, which explains why it is commonly referred to as a global warming denial machine working hard to find funding for high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the ‘alarmist’ AGW (anthropomorphic global warming) message.

Forbes Business magazine and other business press are favored outlets for Heartland’s dissemination of climate denial messages, and the group is worried about maintaining that exclusive space. They note in particular the work of climatologist Dr. Peter Gleick:

Efforts at places such as Forbes are especially important now that they have begun to allow high-profile climate scientists (such as Gleick) to post warmist science essays that counter our own. This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out.”

The Heartland Institute has a corporate sponsored agenda to fool people into supporting bad public policies by undermining good science to promote short term, short-sighted, unsustainable, harmful corporate interests. That – and not solutions to social and economic problems – is its real mission.

(h/t Cedric)

February 3, 2012

What does accommodating religion and science mean?

Filed under: accommodation,Critical Reasoning,Religion,revelation,Science — tildeb @ 10:45 am

It means we must suspend our confidence in the scientific method. Temporarily, at least.

It means we must put aside how we know anything about the reality we inhabit, put side our technologies that work based on this knowledge, put aside our trust and confidence in explanations about how reality operates, and politely make room for these conglomerations of fear and ignorance called religion to be welcomed guests on the stage of knowledge about reality.

It means we must conveniently forget that religious belief produces no equivalent knowledge itself but mounts whatever favourable notion is handy, rides piggyback, and claims this notion  – love, beauty, justice, fairness, altruism, compassion… you get the idea – as a causal effect of some divine source. In many religions, whatever notion is unfavourable – hate, ugliness, unfairness, selfishness, yada, yada, yada – is attributed to be a causal effect of man’s undertaking to live without divine guidance. Yet left to its own metaphysical devices, religious belief alone produces no insightful knowledge about reality and by no stretch of the imagination any equivalent knowledge about it.

Religious belief is saddled with a problem too many ignore: it produces no library of knowledge about reality’s workings… which is a clue that may explain why religious belief produces no practical applications that work. Its parasitic function is to assert, attribute, assume, and make truth claims about reality… claims that we are asked to politely accept, based on some other standard than on applicable and testable knowledge, by allowing these inspired and revealed claims to be immune from any reasonable equivalent requirement to produce equivalent evidence to link this believed-in cause with a believed-in effect. To do this, we are asked to put aside the method of science for these specific religious claims, receive a metaphorical pat on our head for being good little boys and girls for doing so, and expected to silence our critical faculties and keep our collective mouths shut in order to be considered polite. Anything more makes us angry, shrill, and militant.

That’s what accommodationism means in action: an intellectual capitulation that making shit up in the name of religious belief is to be privileged, held to a different standard, than the made up shit from other sources. We are to assume, assert, and attribute that doing so shows tolerance and respect for others (under different names, of course, like cultural traditions, ethnic sensitivities, worldview perspectives, etc). We are told by accommodationists that it is tolerance in action to allow others to believe these unfounded and untrustworthy truth claims without criticism because the metric for determining what is true through religious belief is necessarily different… but an equivalent way of knowing, to be sure.

This is simply a lie.

Accommodationsists fail to acknowledge that we gain no equivalent knowledge from inquiries that include supernatural and paranormal speculations equivalent to made up stuff… speculations which have a very long and ‘rich’ theological history of claims about reality being startlingly inaccurate, unnecessary in complexity, untrustworthy in results, and claims assumed to be true but without any means for independent verification. In fact, we gain zero knowledge once we accept causal effect from the supernatural. But this sad fact doesn’t seem to matter to accommodationists. We are to respect and tolerate without sustained criticism these non-knowledge producing faith-based beliefs to be imposed on the reality we share and, furthermore, to consider this imposition an equivalent method of inquiry to the scientific method that extracts evidence from reality to inform truth claims made about it, that produces knowledge, that informs practical applications that work for everyone everywhere all the time.

And when the inquiries from science and religion yield incompatible conclusions, what then? When among different religions comes opposing conclusions, how do we arbitrate? Easy! To the accommodationist, this is the icing on their cake: we throw away the notion that what’s true actually matters, that the foundation for knowledge requires one and only one coherent and consistent and reliable base! Everything’s equivalently true under the accommodationist’s tent, you see… relatively speaking. Incompatible conclusions are all equally true. Contrary conclusions are equally true. Knowledge plays no role here because belief alone is sufficient for respect.

If we have already rejected reality’s role in determining what is true about it in favour of respecting whatever made up shit people wish to believe about it, then what do we have left?  We have relativism. The price we pay for attaining this enlightened relativism comes directly from respecting both what is demonstrably true in reality and what can be demonstrably known about it. This is the sacrifice mewling accommodationists wish all of us to make in the name of religious tolerance and acceptance, and they want us to accept that the exchange for this ‘other way of knowing’ is peace in our time. But it’s not. It is the opposite. It is a way to guarantee the continued promotion of superstitious fear and ignorance under the religious label.

This is what accommodating religion and science means in practice: undermining what’s true and what’s knowable in exchange for protecting the sensitivities of those who like to believe in made up shit. I’m not willing to pay that price and I think those who are willing should be reminded of the final cost their Chamberlain-esque appeasement policy can bring about. That’s why accommodationsits need to be soundly and roundly criticized for their short-sightedness because at the end of the day what is true does in fact and practice matter more than offending people’s religious sensitivities.

January 9, 2012

What are the beer goggles of medicine?

Filed under: CAM,Medicine,placebo/nocebo,Science — tildeb @ 11:11 am

In a word, placebo.

As the slang term indicates, the more one drinks in claims of complementary and alternative medical efficacy through the ‘power’ of placebo, the less inhibition and discretion one seems to exercise in critical thinking, making the blurred claims of alternative ‘therapies’ seem all the more attractive.

We describe this power of placebo by a common term: the placebo effect. So let’s take a moment and review what that effect actually is:

changes in how pain or subjective symptoms are perceived, not any physiological change that concretely affects the course of a disease.

Does this mean we can control health outcomes with our minds through belief? No. Placebo effects do not shrink tumors or change the underlying pathophysiology of disease. To be clear, there is no good evidence for any objective responses due to placebo; the placebo effect is the change of a patient’s subjective perception to his or her symptoms. Note the emphasis on perception and not on any change to symptoms themselves. This is the repeated mistake people make about understanding the placebo effect: all we are talking about when we talk about the placebo effect is the change to perceptions.

The CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) schtick is to pretend that the substances and treatments being sold cause symptomatic changes through the placebo effect. There is no good evidence to back that up and much good evidence contrary to it. To be clear, the efficacy of CAM rests not in the treatments but in the beliefs of its patients.

In medicine, when a treatment performs no better than placebo, it means that treatment doesn’t work.

Got that? Placebo means it doesn’t work.

Believers and practitioners of CAM, however, forget – and often intentionally – that placebo treatments are physiologically inert and present them to patients as if they were real efficacious medicine. But they know it’s not. And yet we in the public continue to be inundated with messages that they do. Obviously, something here is out of whack, and it rests with the CAM crowd.

The underlying assumption associated with CAM products and treatments that the use of placebo causes no harm is just as risky as my pathetic little beer goggle analogy; one may think one is going home with a fox (of both genders, let me be clear) but wake up to a coyote ugly morning. The same is true with CAM: that patients are going home with a placebo but wake up to a nocebo ugly morning. By this I mean that promoting belief in placebo efficacy also means promoting belief in nocebo efficacy, which refers to harmful, unpleasant, or undesirable effects a subject can also manifest through perception.

The sum total of the medical efficacy complementary and alternative treatments and many nostrums pretends to have (with the exception of herbal substances that possess chemical properties that can interact with our biology in both positive and negative ways), rests not on the treatments themselves but on the double edged sword contained within the beliefs of its patients. Seeing the world through such faith-based beliefs is not an inherently good, positive, or even neutral perspective but an inherently dangerous one.

How so?

Well, the very real side effects of investing faith in such subjectively sensitive beliefs and acting on them as if they were true in reality can be life-altering when a negative drug interaction occurs because a patient forgets to tell a doctor about some CAM herbal nostrum, or postpones  (like Steve Jobs) real medical intervention in favour of trying out some naturopathic treatment first, mistakenly hoping that wishful thinking through investing in faith-based belief will cause symptomatic changes, or that not vaccinating children will protect them from a perceived inoculation danger far smaller in reality than the very real and larger danger of an actual and highly contagious disease. These are some of the very real dangers faith-belief in CAM promotes. We need to take off our belief-based beer goggles before we do something stupid based on misunderstanding what placebo effect really means.

(h/t SBM)

December 28, 2011

Why would the relatively stable elements of Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen and Hydrogen form themselves into a Professor of Organic Chemistry?

Filed under: Dark matter,McGrath,NOMA,Physics,Religion,Science,Sean Carroll — tildeb @ 12:22 pm

Such powerful questions reveal the majesty of religious belief to provide us with meaningingful ‘answers’. Yes, Alister McGrath is at it again, this time comparing belief in god to belief in dark matter.

As Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, once pointed out, science takes things apart to see how they work. But religion puts them back together again to see what they mean.

If science is about explanation, religion is thus about meaning. Science helps us to appreciate the wonder of individual aspects of the universe; religion to see, however dimly, the “big picture” of which they are part.

Yes, McGrath assures us that religion and science are indeed compatible ways of knowing. That’s how we know we can turn to religion to answer the title question about meaning and purpose for Alister McGrath. As you can see, it’s an empty claim… the kind you can fill with all kinds of Oogity Boogity purposes and meanings. That doesn’t make it a compatible way of knowing but a sure way to fool yourself that you have, in fact, found an answer rather than just made shit up and slapped it in its place.

Some atheist scientists ridicule Christians for believing in a God whose existence cannot be proved. Yet science regularly posits the existence of things whose existence cannot be proved to make sense of our observations.

Thus we infer the existence of dark matter from observations that would otherwise be puzzling. We can’t see it, and we can’t prove it’s there. Yet this doesn’t stop most leading astronomers from accepting its existence.

We can’t see it; we can’t touch it; we can’t smell it; and we can’t hear it. Yet many scientists argue that it’s the only meaningful explanation of observed gravitational effects. Where the naive demand proof, the wise realise that this is limited to logic and mathematics.

McGrath, as a professor of organic chemistry, knows perfectly well that scientists don’t demand proof; they demand well-supported answers that are held to be provisional. This he presents as a Bad Thing:

Christians have always held that their faith makes sense of the enigmas and riddles of our experience. It’s not about running away from reality, or refusing to think about things (to mention two shallow popular stereotypes of faith). For Christians, faith is not a blind leap into the dark, but a joyful discovery of a bigger and clearer picture of things, of which we are part.

The Christian tradition speaks of God as someone who makes sense of the puzzles and enigmas of life, illuminating our paths as we travel. This does not detract from the wonder of the universe; if anything, it adds to its beauty and grandeur..

You see how he misrepresents science – as if it were about proof rather than a method of inquiry – to make room for religious compatibility? We still face the question of how do we know this christian tradition “makes sense” when its claims are held to be “a joyful discovery” when the method of making shit up and slapping it in place of knowledge under the banner of religious belief is kept immune from the naive insistence of the unwise that it falls to the religious to provide well-supported answers that are held to be provisional beyond their personal religious beliefs?

We don’t know. We must take it on faith. That’s why physicist Sean Carrol writes

If you wanted to highlight the intellectual superficiality of how modern theologians talk about God, you could hardly do better than to contrast it with how modern physicists talk about dark matter. For one thing,  science never “proves” anything at all (as I talk about here).

And that’s the kind of honesty that undoes the apologetic religious scientists like the Alister McGraths of this world trying to make compatible the incompatible.  In spite of his assertions to the contrary, McGrath’s faith does not “illuminate” anything we can know anything about… except where it meshes with good evidence gathered from the method of science. And that’s how belief in god is different than any kind of similar belief in dark matter: we continue to seek direct evidence for the provisional hypothesis in dark matter compared to the incompatible assertions about reality made by people like McGrath comfortable in the certainty of their faith… busy pretending it offers us bullshit ‘answers’ that are in reality nothing more and nothing less than empty assertions divorced from knowledge.

(h/t WEIT)

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…


 

December 18, 2011

Is religious revelation trustworthy?

Filed under: Neuroscience,Religion,revelation,Science,Supernatural — tildeb @ 11:34 am

Absolutely not.

I have written quite a bit about how holding faith-based beliefs can and usually does adversely affect one’s ability to perceive reality as it is, confusing attribution with causation. This problem of perception – of what comes from where – is nothing new, nor are faith-based beliefs the only guilty party. The tremendous success of consumer marketing, for example, relies on exactly this confusion: convincing consumers that values they themselves already hold come from, or can be enhanced by, owning the objects or ideas being offered for sale, values which are not inherent in these objects or ideas – in the thing itself – but can be experienced as if they were… by a process of attributing what we believe to the object.  For example,

We want to believe that pleasure is simple, that our delight in a fine painting or bottle of wine is due entirely to the thing itself. But that’s not the way reality works. Whenever we experience anything, that experience is shaped by factors and beliefs that are not visible on the canvas or present in the glass. (From the article, How Does the Brain Perceive Art? Wired)

These factors reside in the person doing the attributing and can be rather complex:

Our findings support the idea that when people make aesthetic judgements, they are subject to a variety of influences. Not all of these are immediately articulated. Indeed, some may be inaccessible to direct introspection but their presence might be revealed by brain imaging. It suggests that different regions of the brain interact together when a complex judgment is formed, rather than there being a single area of the brain that deals with aesthetic judgements.

In other words, we may not be aware of what it is within us that is influencing our value judgements and associated beliefs about the source from where that assigned value actually resides.

With this in mind, let us visit the central tenet of religious faith relied upon by so many christian writers on the web: revelation… a transforming personal experience that connects the person to the ‘reality’ of god, what the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as the disclosure of divine or sacred reality or purpose to humanity. My question returns, as always, to the central point made by those who use revelation as evidence for god: Is it true and how can we know?

I find it really interesting that no one I’ve come across claims to have had a revelation of divine reality from Nergal. Why is that? Well, I’ve had theists explain to me that Nergal is a false god, you see, so it’s perfectly understandable that no one would have such a revelation; there is no Nergal. Well, duh. That no one has ever heard of such a god, aka Erra aka Meslamta-ea, doesn’t even merit any consideration when one is already sure that such a god is false. But is the god false because it doesn’t exist or is it false because I don’t believe it exists? This is not a trivial question and bears an important consideration for gods that people do believe exist, believed to be the very source of their revelation. Can one still have a revelation from a god that one does not believe exists?

The god that is revealed to christians just so happens to be the very same one inculcated throughout their culture. What are the chances that this god – and not an obscure Sumerian one like Nergal – just so happens to be the very one revealed? Might there be a better understanding of what it is that is actually being revealed than to assume a personal disclosure by an cosmic agency hiding in the supernatural? By golly, maybe there is! Maybe – just like is revealed in marketing – the source of this divine disclosure is in fact ourselves, which may explain with – with no need for supernatural personal visitations – why the best predictor of which particular religious belief an individual identifies with is geography. And history. And familiarity.

Whodathunk?

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.

Why is John Haught an intellectual coward?

Filed under: accommodation,Debate,Jerry Coyne,John Haught,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 11:51 am

Back on October 12, 2011, Dr. Jerry Coyne debated theologian John Haught at the Gaines Center. Coyne describes it here. Prior to the event, both agreed to have it videotaped by the University of Kentucky where the debate was held and many of us have been waiting to see and hear it for ourselves. That’s not going to happen. No, Haught is refusing to release this tape and the Gaines Center is being particularly helpful in going along with Haught’s change in mind to have it suppressed from the public domain. This raises the question of why. Coyne has responded to this, as has PZ Myers, MacDonald, and Benson. By the few accounts I have read of the debate, Coyne who was well prepared was particularly effective in dismantling Haught’s accommodationist position that science and religion are compatible methods of inquiry by using Haught’s own words against him. Haught in contrast seemed to give a standard talk and was very ineffective addressing Coyne’s pointed criticisms.

It is perfectly understandable for someone not to want to advertise a debate in which they have done so poorly. But to change one’s mind after the fact and censor the publication of the videotape is intellectual cowardice and for the Gaines Center to go along with this cowardice is ethically shameful.

UPDATE (Nov 2): after much activity and a cascade of emails, Haught has allowed the video to be released here.

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