Questionable Motives

April 13, 2010

Why is denying science the same as denying freedom?

Filed under: Argument,belief,fear,Freedom,Science,Skepticim,TED,Truth — tildeb @ 8:53 am

Michael Specter explains why: because denying science is denying truth, and we need the truth to set us free.

April 9, 2010

Are religious beliefs and scientific knowledge compatible?

Absolutely not. And this incompatibility has direct and dire and very real negative consequences on scientific literacy – a fundamental component necessary for a country to remain competitive in a technological and knowledge based world economy.

We are often told by well-meaning people that science and religion are compatible, that each ‘magisteria’ offers us a different way to know, and that each deals with different but equally important questions while providing us with different kinds of answers about human life. It is no wonder, then, that public education must tread a careful path keeping science and religion relegated to their separate spheres of influence.

As we are well aware, science and religion often are in conflict when their truth claims are in direct competition, and nowhere is this conflict more prevalent and rancorous than when religious belief in special creationism comes up against the theory of evolution that informs the biological sciences. The notion that we are dealing with different kinds of knowledge is simply not true. We are dealing with one kind of knowledge only, the kind that is informed by evidence or uninformed, either true or not true, right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, probable or improbable. It is no wonder, then, that one of the main battlegrounds between knowledge informed by evidence and religious belief informed only by faith begins in the biology classroom (See the latest biology text book banning story here.)

How do American students compare in academic achievement with students from other countries? You know these studies; advisory panels and boards distribute and then gather the completed surveys and tabulate results which are then used to provide the evidence for educators and their political overlords to measure and compare and contrast how effectively we are passing on knowledge about the world to our children through the curriculum of our education system.

This year (2010) has seen a rather remarkable and intentional omission in the United States: the survey questions about evolution and the Big Bang have been pulled. The National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), says it chose to leave the section out of the 2010 edition of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators because the survey questions used to measure knowledge of the two topics (evolution and the Big Bang) force respondents to choose between factual knowledge and religious beliefs. (Source)

What are we to make of this problem? To start with, if science and religion were truly compatible, no “choice” would have have to be made because each kind of knowledge would be separate. But they are not separate at all. They are in direct conflict. Why does this matter?

Well, if knowledge is based on what is true and truth matters, then only one approach – either science OR religion – yields ‘true’ knowledge. It is this ‘true’ knowledge that informs not only the technologies and medicines that work in the world but the moral and ethical framework in which they take place, and science has a solid track record of yielding exactly this. Religious belief, in stark contrast, yields no new knowledge and informs neither workable technologies nor medical practices in all the various fields of human endeavors, although the religious make claims to hold the higher ground in ethical and moral questions.  But rather than face this blunt problem of allowing competing factual truth claims to both have recognized merit in spite of a revealed averaged knowledge deficit by all, the NSF has decided in its wisdom to avoid presenting the data that informs this evidence altogether by intentional omission.

Previous data clearly shows that Americans are far less likely than the rest of the world to accept that humans evolved from earlier species and that the universe began with a big bang and the reason for this lies squarely at the feet of religious belief. We know, for example, that  science knowledge scores vary considerably across the EU-25 countries, with northern European countries, led by Sweden, recording the highest total scores on a set of 13 questions. For a smaller set of four items that were administered in both 1992 and 2005 in 12 European countries, each country performed better in 2005. In contrast, the U.S. data on science knowledge do not show upward trends over the same period. That lack of progress is alarming, which raises the question why not?

We know that in international comparisons, U.S. scores on two true or false science knowledge questions – “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” and “The universe began with a huge explosion” – are considerably lower than those in almost all other countries where the questions have been asked. In the United States, 45% of respondents answered true to the first question in 2008, similar to other years when the question was asked. In other countries and in Europe, the comparable figures were higher: 78% in Japan, 70% in Europe, 69% in China, and 64% in South Korea. Russia and Turkey were the only countries where less than half of respondents responded correctly (44% and 27% respectively) (Gokhberg and Shuvalova, 2004; EC 2005). Similarly, Americans were less likely than survey respondents in South Korea and Japan to answer the big bang question correctly: one third of Americans answered this question correctly compared with 67% of South Korean and 63% of Japanese respondents . (The deleted text is here.)

In other words, basic scientific knowledge in biology and cosmology informed by overwhelming and mutually supportive evidence shows by this data that the US has been drastically influenced by religious truth claims that compete directly with scientific truth claims informed by enough valid evidence to establish scientific consensus. And that competition has a negative effect on passing on this foundational scientific knowledge to our children.  Clearly, religious belief is not a separate but equal ‘magisteria’ from the findings of science nor a different kind of knowledge; religious belief is a direct competitor that is neither informed by evidence nor a consensus of knowledgeable opinion.

From a recent national survey of high school biology teachers in public schools we find it shows that there is a large variation in how teachers approach the topic of evolution. How they teach evolution, in turn, affects public knowledge. High school teachers who completed the most number of college-level credits in biology and life science classes and whose coursework included at least one class in evolutionary biology devoted 60% more time to evolution than teachers with the fewest credits in these areas. More specifically, teachers who expressed the religious view that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” devoted 35% fewer class hours to evolution than all the other teachers.

This data reveals quite clearly cause and effect: those teachers who hold religious beliefs that compete with scientific knowledge have a direct and negative effect on the quality of teaching that scientific knowledge within the public education system. That is a very important finding. For whatever excuse and rationalization the National Science Board cares to drape over their decision to omit that data from its advisory report to the White House, it is highly unprofessional and, in the words of Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that has fought to keep creationism out of the science classroom, “Discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice” that “downplays the controversy” over teaching evolution in schools.” I will add that it also downplays how that controversy between scientific knowledge and religious belief regarding truth claims affects in a negative way the scientific literacy of the general population.

So next time you hear that well-intentioned person argue that religious belief and science are compatible but different ways of knowing, remember that such a claim is wrong, and the data to prove it is wrong is available to all.  Such an unfounded assumption of compatibility is doing real harm to the next generation by disarming them of the foundational knowledge necessary to compete in a technological and knowledge based world economy. Unequivocally, religious belief and science are in direct competition, and when all is said and done, I think the words of Matthew Cobb and Jerry Coyne shall prove to be prophetic:

“In reality, the only contribution that science can make to the ideas of religion is atheism.”

And, I will add, the only contribution religion can make to the ideas of science is to actively impede the acquisition of knowledge in all areas of human concern.

Update: there is another terrific post with a slightly different take about this over at Why Evolution Is True by Greg Mayer.

April 3, 2010

How can Anglicans tolerate such drivel and lies from their leadership?

Ah yes, anglicanism: catholicism without the fun.

Granted, sometimes certain atheists speak and write in derogatory terms about the thinking ability of religious believers that may seem at first blush to have gone too far. But now I am thinking that atheists as a whole may not have gone far enough in their criticisms. To whit…

From the Sydney Morning Herald comes this article from which I have taken excerpts and added bold face:

Several church leaders have used their Easter sermons and messages to condemn the increase in atheism, with Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen on Friday describing non-belief as an “assault on God.”

The problem here is how can one assault something that does not exist? Dismissal does not have the same meaning as assault. Atheists dismiss notions of god as empty assertions. By twisting this dismissal by atheists of a central tenet of religious belief to mean the same thing as assault of that central tenet, Jensen has intentionally not only misrepresented atheism but applied a hostility to non belief as a necessary condition. The thinking here by Jensen is dishonest and dangerous and serves only to vilify atheists. As an atheist, I am having difficulty feeling the love.

“Atheism is every bit of a religious commitment as Christianity itself.

No. It is not. Atheism is non belief. Period. End of description. Different term altogether. The absence of belief is not another form of belief… hence the different words. It’s a give-away that we’re talking about two different things. But if non belief was, in fact, belief, then guanocephalic Jensen would be a believer in thousands of beliefs he does not hold. And because he doesn’t hold them, by his own admission he would be hostile to all of them and guilty of assaulting every central tenet of beliefs he does not share.

Maybe even he could appreciate why his assertion here is such sheer nonsense. But failing that – and I suspect he would fail to follow his own line of thinking – I suspect Jensen’s lobotomy must have gone too far into his cerebral cortex, and thus turned his ability to follow his own reasoning into a mushy goop that produces this kind of intolerant drivel. Because that describes what his line of thinking here is: drivel.

But wait: there’s more.

It (atheism) represents the latest version of the human assault on God, born out of resentment that we do not in fact rule the world and that God calls on us to submit our lives to him.”

And what might the ‘earlier’ version be? Giving women the vote? Freeing the slaves? Not stoning to death disobedient children? Oh, the humanity! Oh, the loss of virtuous morality sanctified by Jensen’s god!

Dr Jensen went on to say in his sermon that religion can be an “even more dangerous” form of idolatry than atheism if incorrectly interpreted.

And the correct interpretation is…?

Oh, that’s right: competing religious truth claims are simply a matter of establishing which interpretation is the correct one. But because truth does not matter to those who hold religious beliefs but only faith does, then figuring out whether the mystic elephant or Isis or Jesus is god incarnate really boils down to a matter of correct interpretation. We should have known!

What a load of lies Jensen is spewing. He has no more seriously interpreted Gilgamesh as a possible true god any more than he has seriously considered the theocratic truth available through the correct interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Jensen rejects all these beliefs as false and did so long before he decided to spout his  nonsense regarding correct interpretation. This makes Jensen a liar, but he has the temerity to accuse those who do not believe nor worship in any god at all as a terrible danger because non belief apparently  promotes worship of something other than any god. Better to worship Muk Muk of the Volcano who feeds on virgins to stay dormant than dare not to believe in Muk Muk at all, according to Jensen; non belief is too idolatrous in comparison!

This assertion of idolatry against atheists is incoherent, to say the least, and is an assault against rationality.

What do you think? Was the lobotomy performed by a blender, a large bore drill bit, or perhaps a fence post digger? I’m leaning towards the blender.

“Here, too, religion can simply be the power game under a different guise … Atheist or religious person – we all need to be reconciled to God and give him our lives,” he added.

Even if one is an atheist, Jensen thinks that one must avoid the abuse of power that accompanies idolatry by giving our lives to something we honestly think does not exist… like Muk Muk and his unfailing appetite for human sacrifice. There’s a solid bit of convincing.

Is it just me, or has Jensen lost the ability to reason altogether? Can religious belief really screw this much with your mind or must there be some biologically explainable deficit? I think it’s brain damage, myself.

And as for the people who grant this man’s pronouncements with any serious respect at all? Maybe it’s time these folk decided to be re-baptized… along with their favorite plugged in electrical appliance in hand.

March 29, 2010

Is the tone of religious criticism important?

Richard Dawkins has written a short article answering the question, “Should the pope resign?”

As an atheist, Dawkins is often vilified as too strident, too aggressive, too unqualified about sophisticated theology to speak to the nuances of religious belief. His tone, in other words, is all wrong to be effective, we hear from so many ‘I’m an atheist, but…’ apologists.  Clearly, Dawkins has no respect for beliefs that are not concerned with what is true, and that central tenet of Dawkins’ philosophy must be kept in mind if one is to appreciate what the man brings to the discussion table regarding religious belief and its effects in the world. You may not appreciate the messenger, but the message is clear and truthful.

So when he Dawkins is asked to give his opinion, religious moderates and apologetic atheists need to gird their loins for what is to follow because they are about to hear the truth without the sugarcoating niceties so favoured by the apologetic faint of heart set.

“Should the pope resign?”

No. As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly – ideally – qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice – the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution – while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

The tone? Short, to the point, in your face, here’s the truth, now deal with it, kind of tone.

Shocking? So what? Is it true?

Now let’s look at what criticizing the tone really means.

Greta Christina has written a lovely response to those people who troll their concern about this very issue: tone.

Dear Believer:

Thank you for your concern about the well-being of the atheist movement, and for your advice on how to run it. I appreciate your concern for the image of the atheist movement, and I appreciate you taking the time to give us advice on how to get our message across more effectively.

In particular, I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of their religious beliefs are often seen as rude or offensive — along with your suggestion that we therefore should stop making our case altogether. I have also received your suggestion that, if we do feel it necessary to point out the flaws in religion, we do so gently and diplomatically, making the avoidance of any possible offense or hurt feelings our absolute top priority. I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of religious beliefs can be divisive, possibly alienating the progressive ecumenical religious community — and I have received your suggestion that we should therefore concentrate entirely on anti-discrimination and separation of church and state issues that we have in common with progressive believers, and abandon any focus on pointing out the flaws in religion or the harm done by it. And I have received your suggestion that we avoid any use of anger, humor, mockery, passion, and other traditional methods of drawing attention to controversial ideas, and that in the future we make our case soberly, moderately, and with little fanfare. These suggestions are certainly interesting, and I will give them all due consideration.

However, while your concern for the well-being of the atheist movement is certainly appreciated, I can assure you that it is unwarranted. rates of religious non-belief are going up at a substantial rate — a rate that even surprises many of us — all over the United States and all over the world. This trend is especially true among young people… arguably the most important demographic for any social change movement. What’s more, I personally have been told by several people that they left their religion and became atheists, in part, because of things I’ve written. And I know that I left my own religious beliefs, in large part, because of things that were written by people in the atheist movement. Clearly, we are doing something right.

It is difficult to avoid the observation that, whenever believers give advice to atheists on how to run our movement, it is always in the direction of telling us to be more quiet, to tone it down, to be less confrontational and less visible. I have yet to see a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately; to make our arguments more compelling and more unanswerable; to get in people’s faces more about delicate and thorny issues that they don’t want to think about; to not be afraid of offending people if we think we’re right. I have received a great deal of advice from believers on how atheists should run our movement… and it is always, always, always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

You’ll have to forgive me if I think your suggestions on making our movement more effective would, in fact, have the exact opposite effect. What’s more, you’ll have to forgive me for suspecting that this, however unconsciously, is the true intention behind your very kind and no doubt sincerely- meant advice.

And you’ll have to forgive me if I am less than enthusiastic about taking advice on how to run the atheist movement from the very people our movement is trying to change.

And that’s the key point: the New Atheist movement recognizes the global danger unjustified religious beliefs that is organized and political brings to the world and is trying to do something about it not by violence or imposition but by discourse. The various styles and tones by which this is done are not the issue and never shall be; the issue is whether or not religious belief is justified to have say about anything. If we are concerned about what’s true, then we need to be very concerned with popular beliefs that are not.

And at the top of that list is religion. It is the criticism of unjustified beliefs that is important if one thinks that what’s true actually matters more the tone by which it occurs. Those whose opinions are more concerned with tone than what’s true are simply an impediment to meaningful discourse.

March 22, 2010

Can science answer moral questions?

Filed under: Harris,Morality,Neurology,Science,Truth — tildeb @ 2:36 pm

Sam Harris, second from the left, answers the question here.

March 7, 2010

Does understanding and applying genetics dehumanize us?

Filed under: belief,Evolution,Genetics,Religion,Science,Templeton,Truth — tildeb @ 4:04 pm

Excerpt from When Science and Poetry were Friends by Freeman Dyson:

An important step toward an understanding of the genome is the recent work of David Haussler and his colleagues at the University of California at Santa Cruz, published in the online edition of Nature, August 16, 2006. Haussler is a professional computer expert who switched his interest to biology. He never dissected a cadaver of mouse or human. His experimental tool is an ordinary computer, which he and his students use to make precise comparisons of genomes of different species. They discovered a small patch of DNA in the genome of vertebrates that has been strictly conserved in the genomes of chickens, mice, rats, and chimpanzees, but strongly modified in humans. The patch is called HAR1, short for Human Accelerated Region 1. It evolved hardly at all in three hundred million years from the common ancestor of chickens and mice to the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, and then evolved rapidly in six million years from the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans to modern humans.

During the last six million years, eighteen changes became fixed in this patch of the human germ line. Some major reorganization must have occurred in the developmental program that this patch helps to regulate. Another crucial fact is known about HAR1. It is active in the developing cortex of the embryo brain during the second trimester of the mother’s pregnancy, the time when the detailed structure of the brain is organized. Haussman’s team found another similar patch of DNA in the vertebrate genome which they call HAR2. It is active in the developing wrist of the human embryo hand. The brain and the hand are the two organs that most sharply differentiate humans from our vertebrate cousins.

The discovery of HAR1 and HAR2 is probably an event of seminal importance, comparable with the discovery of the nucleus of the atom by Ernest Rutherford in 1909 or the discovery of the double helix in the nucleus of the cell by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953. It opens the door to a new science, the study of human nature at the molecular level. This new science will profoundly change the possible applications of biological knowledge for good or evil. It may give us the key to control the evolution of our own species.

In response to this insightful commentary by Dyson that offers us a glimpse into why biology may soon become the dominant science, an execrable response come from Rod Dreher at BeliefNet, who argues that advances in biology and technology must be counterbalanced by religion, that belief in the supernatural is a necessary counterbalance to understanding the natural. To ‘inform’ this view, Dreher calls our attention to an experiment that involved the mixing of very specific parts of the genomes of pigs and humans, which Dreher takes as an example of how this pursuit of knowledge in the biological sciences ‘dehumanizes’ us and will inevitably lead us into holocausts and totalitarianism without the proper moral compass we can only get from religion.

Enter PZ Myers, who first explains what the experiment was actually about and how it was done and makes the following points:

Anyone who thinks tinkering with the sequence of a few genes “eliminate[s] what it means to be human” has no place talking about what it means to be human at all. It’s always the people who know the least about biology who make these naive and sweeping claims that humanity is defined by the arrangement of our chromosomes or the order of our nucleotides, failing to appreciate the variations in those attributes already present in our population — variations that do not diminish our humanity in the slightest. Dreher invokes the specter of the Holocaust to argue that we’re on the slippery slope to dehumanization, but I’d argue the reverse: that nightmares like the Holocaust arise when people fail to see that the nature that deserves respect and protection is in our minds, our culture, our interactions, not in our lineage or our genes.

There will be a New Age of Wonder brought in by a coming century of biology, but it won’t be because it changes a few physical properties of our bodies. It will be because, if it lives up to its potential, it will liberate us to some degree from the tyranny of our native biology. It does not make me a better person that I’ve probably inherited my father’s propensity for heart disease; it does not make a woman stronger to carry a familial pattern of breast cancer; no child is enlightened because they are born with a birth defect. We’ll have an Age of Wonder if we can get beyond Dreher’s way of thinking that our body is ourselves, to a better way of thinking of the body as a vehicle for our minds, and that that vehicle can be improved without making us subhuman.

Pz’s not done, of course. Dreher concludes:

What troubles me, and troubles me greatly, about the techno-utopians who hail a New Age of Wonder is their optimism uncut by any sense of reality, which is to say, of human history. In the end, what you think of the idea of a New Age of Wonder depends on what you think of human nature. I give better than even odds that this era of biology and computers identified by Dyson and celebrated by the Edge folks will in the end turn out to have been at least as much a Dark Age as an era of Enlightenment. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t think I will be wrong.

In response, PZ states with refreshing accuracy:

Excuse me, but after writing a long piece in which he wallows in his religiously-motivated darkness, in which he demonstrates that he knows nothing about the biology he is decrying, I don’t think he gets to accuse these “techno-utopians” of lacking “any sense of reality”. Religion is the darkness, and knowledge is the light — it’s no accident that the era when religion ruled Europe without question is called the Dark Ages, and that period when a new and secular way of looking at the world began to glimmer is called the Enlightenment. So no thank you, please crawl back into your dim cathedral of the superstitious spirit, and don’t even try to pontificate on the consequences of knowledge. You never had any, so your advice on the matter is about as relevant and informed as a celibate making recommendations about my love life.

Oh, wait…you’ve got that covered, too. I see — it’s a tradition.

One last fact that nobody reading this will find surprising. That arrogant ignoramus Dreher is employed as the director of publications for the Templeton Foundation. They really do aspire to quality at that institution, don’t they?

March 6, 2010

What is the matter with atheists?

Other than causing unnecessary conflict and division by failing to support and daring to criticize those who wish to create a theocracy, probably everything. This Just In:

Monash University Professor Gary Bouma says people without a specific faith are fuelling sectarian conflict and cause division in society.

“Conflict comes up when groups vilify, deny the right to build the mosques,” he told the Studies of Religion in Focus conference in Sydney today.

“Or when the ‘nones’ – those who are anti-theist – [say] ‘You’re stupid’, that religious voices should be driven out of the public policy area, that religion shouldn’t be in schools, etc.

“That is conflict, and that is highly divisive in this society.”

Professor Bouma says a growth in religious diversity in recent years has created problems for Australian schools.

He says schools have to work out to how to encourage respectful engagement between students and teachers of various religions.

“Schools have a whole variety of competing loyalties within the teachers and within the students,” he said.

“It can sometimes go to conflict if there’s a viewpoint that some don’t want expressed.

“But how is it that you accommodate the diversity? How is it that you develop respectful engagement between diverse groups?”

Yup, those atheists sure are trouble. First they take away your rights by supporting your rights above the religious beliefs of the supernaturally informed righteous believers and then they dare stand by their convictions. How pathetic.

Don’t atheists know that “respectful engagement” means keeping one’s mouth closed and remaining silent when secular rights are undermined and religious folk implement their beliefs in the public domain using public funds? Can’t they see that by respecting what’s true over respecting unjustified supernatural claims, daring to suggest that the rights of all need to be respected equally, these poor misguided non believers are solely responsible for creating the ensuing conflict and division? I mean, really; what’s wrong with atheists?

February 28, 2010

A creationist that admits evolution is true?

Filed under: creationism,Evolution,Religion,Science,Truth — tildeb @ 3:34 pm

From Todd Wood’s blog post, bold included:

Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.

I say these things not because I’m crazy or because I’ve “converted” to evolution. I say these things because they are true.

If only he had left it there, but alas.

Todd is clear about one thing: although he recognizes what is true, he chooses to believe that it is not ultimately true.  I’m not quite sure how something true cannot be true – ultimately or otherwise – but cognitive dissonance hasn’t slowed down many intelligent believers yet and I suspect it won’t start anytime soon. Believing that something is and is not comes with the territory of holding fast to religious faith. But at least such an admission about evolution from a creationist is a significant step up in the intellectual integrity ladder. It’s a start.

Tip to Panda’s Thumb under the heading Creationism really is a science stopper. Enjoy the comments.

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