Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fool me once

So here I am, watching "The Walking Dead" on the AMC website, and I see this banner ad on the side saying "Acai Berry 'Diet Warning'." The URL given is www ConsumerNews24 dot com. Oho, I say to myself, did some news site grow a brain and actually write a skeptical article? I've long known that Acai Berry is comparable to blueberries and strawberries for dietary antioxidants, but its marketing these days is pure rattlesnake oil.

The top of the page is festooned with the corporate logos of ABC, Forbes, CBS News, CNN, and USA Today. The header and sidebar are festooned with woo-woo, but I'm taking this with a grain of salt, since many are generated purely by keywords, and I frequently see pseudoscience advertised on Pharyngula, Bad Astronomy and Skeptoid. I begin to skim the article.

I'm left in suspense for all of about five seconds.
"Here, we are a little skeptical and aren't sure that we've seen any real proof that these pills work for weight loss...what better way to find out the truth than to conduct our own study?"
I don't know, maybe a large scale, double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial? Scroll, scroll, scroll...

"Week One--After one week on the diet using both products I was surprised at the dramatic results. My energy level was up, and I wasn't even hungry, an apparent side effect of the Acai Berry which curbs the appetite."
Sure you are, the placebo effect is a wonderful thing. Scroll, scroll...

"Week Two--After two weeks of using both supplements...I was no longer waking up during the night and tossing and turning because my body was actually able to relax (this is a result of getting rid of the toxins I think)...I must admit that I'm starting to believe that this diet is more than just a gimmick."
You know, I think this diet may work for bulimics: I just threw up a little in my mouth.

"Week Three--After 3 weeks all my doubts and skepticism had absolutely vanished!"
Warning: Acai Diet pills may cause brain damage.

"Week Four--"Everyone at Consumer News is kicking themselves for not having volunteered to be the guinea pig."
Scroll, Scroll--oh look, shopping links for Acai LeanSpa™ and Natura Cleanse™. Some comments, just like a real news story, all from happy and satisfied customers.

As is obvious by now, this faux-consumer-reports site is nothing but a front for the woo-woo peddlers. The cherry on top is when I leave the site and am tripped by a pop-up warning:
Are you sure you want to navigate away from this page?

IMPORTANT: Are you sure you don't want to take advantage of the Acai Lean Spa and Natura Cleanse Free Trial?

Don't forget - they will only be available for a limited time. Since these trials are completely free, there is not cost or risk to you. You can also give them away if you'd like. Or start on the 4 week test that Julia completed.

If you are wondering why these trials are free, the simple answer is because the manufacturers are confident that their products will help you, and that you will continue to use their products. You will probably refer friends, family and even people you don't really like that much. That's how great these offers are.

Don't miss out on these great products!

Press OK to continue, or Cancel to stay on the current page.
I'm not sure if they're dropping the act at this point or if they're just insulting my intelligence that any Consumer-Report-type organization would be so won over as to actually promote the product they reviewed by name, even.* Either way, they probably have no shortage of suckers.

What really burns me up is not that they're selling a product that doesn't do anything--as they say, a fool and his money were lucky to get together in the first place. It's not even that the "reporter" gives a bullet list of dodgy claims before even embarking upon her "research." What infuriates me is the blatant deceit in play. This crosses the line from marketing into outright fraud.


*I, on the other hand, am free to be completely won over and will happily say that The Walking Dead a DAMN GOOD SHOW that you should definitely be watching. These people GET what about horror makes for good drama—it’s not the fright, it’s the dread.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Dualism

Taken from an apologist blog, arguing whether the mind can exist without the body. I don't think context is all that necessary, I just wanted to capture some of the things I said, and anyone who thinks that the mind isn't dependent upon the brain, or that the mind can survive the death of the brain, can feel free to comment
"The mind uses the brain to operate the body, so obviously there would be correlations," you said. That doesn't address anything. Someone who has frontal lobe damage isn't trapped behind their eyes, railing against behaviors they can no longer control. Their inner life is changed. Their thoughts are changed. Their "mind" is altered.

You have no explanation for how this supposedly disembodied mind uses the brain to control the body. How does it interface with neurons? How does it carry memory? How does it regulate its emotions? Scientists have predicted with quite good accuracy (and this should be relevant to you) how closely a mother will hold her infant, how often she will check on it during the night, the amount of time she will spend gazing at it, all by measuring levels of neurotransmitters. Does a mother's "mind" hover inside her skull, saying "a little more oxytocin there, I think"?

Your explanation also doesn't address the deficits of those born with brain impairment. Mental retardation, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Down's Syndrome. One of my relatives has Prader-Willi Syndrome, which is all of the above rolled into one.

How smart will she be once she has shuffled off this mortal coil, with its 63 IQ brain?

What will her personality be, never having read a novel, fallen in love, fought for something she believes in?

What will her interests be when she is no longer compelled to sort and resort playing cards for hours, when Spongebob and Dora no longer hold her attention?

What will her desires be when she is no longer driven to eat and eat until it literally kills her?

You have no answers to these other than your own intuitive sense of cognition and a little doggerel "logic." The simplest explanation that fits the facts isn't necessarily always correct, but it would be nice for an explanation to fit *any* of the facts if we want to consider that it is, in a word, possible.
While the tone here is quite confrontational, many of these questions have been troubling me, ever since it got back to me that her mother took solace from her belief that in the next life, her daughter might be free of all that, and that (as is possible within her Mormon theology) her daughter might fall in love, marry, and have children. It is heartwrenching to me to that comfort could be had from from a belief that makes the situation so much more tragic.

She is more than just the deficits of her condition. She is a beautiful, loving person who is thriving and learning and growing as best she can. But it is unthinkable to me to imagine that there is a "normal" person trapped inside, suffering all the more.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Better Know a Pseudoscience

Science enthusiasts and critical thinkers cannot escape the reality that human culture world-wide is absolutely chockablock with fake science. The word "scientific" has a cachet that I've seen co-opted for homeopathy, energy-harmonized aluminum plates, even Biblical "scientific discoveries" (always good for a laugh.) Science seems to be all about the results, the inventions, the breakthroughs. It's never about the process, the codified critical thinking that keeps those end products from being complete hokum. We humans have a tendency to see what we want to see, to see what agrees with our preconceptions, to see what benefits us and justifies our beliefs. The scientific method is what developed in order to boil out the biases, the fallacies, the unconscious assumptions which corrupt our cognition.

Pseudoscience has been a bugbear of mine for quite some time. So, let's talk about UFOs, and why the pseudoscience of UFOlogy fails on so many counts.

FALSIFIABILITY: UFOlogy prominently displays a hallmark of many pseudosciences—it begins with its conclusion, and then goes looking for whatever disparate facts might support it. One of the most common misconceptions about science is that you start with a hypothesis—a question that you're testing, which you then gather data or do experiments to support. However, one requirement of a good hypothesis is that it is willing and able to be proved wrong. If it is not, you are setting yourself upon a primrose path of Confirmation Bias.

Without falsifiability, your so-called “research” is nothing more than a grand exercise in a fallacy called Affirming the Consequent\. It's easily represented symbolically: [If A=true, then B=true]; [B=true, therefore A=true]. "If a movie is/was shooting a rain scene outdoors, then the sidewalk is wet." The fallacy is to say "if the sidewalk is wet, then a movie is/was being filmed." How many different ways can the sidewalk be wet that don't include such a rare and unlikely event as a movie shoot? How about rain? Automatic sprinklers? The high school cheerleaders doing a car wash down the block? It doesn't follow. Let's say that unexplained lights in the sky are seen nearby, and so you take your "scientific instruments" and you go out to whatever area you believe to be nearby the phenomenon. You believe that if an advanced vehicle were there, its exotic technology would produce…well, "something." You observe that there are some unexpected readings in the local magnetic fields. This is "something," therefore some kind of UFO caused it.

The real scientific method ultimately does most of its work primarily to falsify hypotheses through experiment and observation. It took Thomas Edison years to devise an incandescent filament, to the point where one waggish reporter asked him why he had failed so many times. He had not failed, he said, he had successfully found ten thousand compounds which did not work. If a cotton filament vaporizes under current, then it’s back to the drawing board. There is no such result which would invalidate the presence of a sufficiently futuristic craft, especially when empty-handed results can be explained away as due to the stealthy capabilities of such a ship. How do you generate a well-formed hypothesis, one which has definite criteria to tell you you’re barking up the wrong tree? That’s one more aspect of the scientific method where UFOlogy completely falls on its face.

THEORY: Creationists love to say Evolution is "only a theory," as though it meant something speculative and, if you will, hypothetical. It doesn't. A theory is an explanatory model, based on observations, which generates testable hypotheses and points the way to acquire new knowledge. UFOlogy has no such thing. Going back to the Theory of Movie Production, we can generate multiple testable hypotheses from a basic model of what goes on in such an event. Our hypothetical movie shoot would not only dampen the sidewalk, you’d also find classified ads calling for extras, permits on file with the police and fire departments, a spike in bulk catering revenues, or sightings of heavily laden trucks carrying sets and equipment. Even if you missed the event itself, you’d know what to look for to see if Oliver Stone was in town. You might never know for sure—affirming the consequent prevents absolute certainty, even with a good foundation—but you’d have a start, and you’d figure out you were wrong pretty quick if that were the truth of the matter.

UFOlogy has no theoretical model. What they have instead is a grab-bag of anecdotes, recollections and speculation, and like I said above, any unexplained physical traces. UFOs can be lights in the sky. They can be flying saucers. They can be silvery wreckage entirely consistent with weather balloons known to be in use in 1947, at the time of the Roswell so-called "incident." UFOs can leave circular depressions in leaf litter. UFOs can produce magnetic anomalies. Et cetera et cetera. There is no one phenomenon, no model to provide a framework to unify and explain the observations attributed to UFOs over the years--speculation runs from aircraft as small as three feet across to more than a hundred. There are hundreds of conflicting accounts, and the presence or absence of any given aspects are almost irrelevant.

If our skies are being patrolled by advanced, science-fiction vehicles, whether of human or non-human origin, they seem to come in a dizzying and unpredictable variety, very few of which ever make any repeat performances. You can never predict what a UFO will look like, sound like, or act like. It could leave no trace, or it could scorch the ground. It could seem to be at extreme altitudes, or nearly brush the treetops. UFOs can look like anything, it seems, and if you go looking for them, you can rest assured you’ll never be proved wrong, no matter how implausible the claim. Plausibility is also key, and it’s really both the most important and least intuitive reason that UFOlogy is a non-starter as any serious explanation of strange events.

PLAUSIBILITY: Clarke’s Law, where any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, is all around us. If you showed a man from 1910 an iPhone, he’d have only the most rudimentary idea of its function and no idea at all of how it works. Heck, I don’t really know how it works. In our lives and most especially in our TV shows and movies, the fantastical is commonplace. It is becoming very counterintuitive to learn that certain areas have very real engineering challenges—where words like “inefficient” and “diminishing returns” take on inflexible, technical definitions quite apart from their everyday usage. In terms of thermodynamics, internal combustion is not very efficient, and so 100 MPG cars are not easy to build without major design sacrifices. Fuel is very heavy and gravity relatively strong, and so it takes massive rockets to lift small amounts of cargo into space. Jet packs are ludicrously inefficient, and all the fuel they can carry is used up in two minutes’ flight. Because the design envelope for a lifting body doesn’t overlap much with the design envelope for a car, any shape which can do both is basically going to stink on ice in whichever role it’s operating. Flying cars will not be filling our skies.

No matter, you say. UFOs obviously must run on technologies yet undiscovered. That doesn’t solve the problems, though. The laws of motion and thermodynamics still hold. A hovering ship must accelerate upwards at 9.8 meters per second, every second, or it will, shall we say, accelerate downwards. That takes power, reaction mass, either to use a jet or aerodynamic forces to stay aloft. No account I’m aware of ever sees a UFO slow too quickly or climb too steeply, stall, and fall to earth due to lack of lift. Nor could any kind of electromagnetic repulsion account for UFOs’ reported aerial antics. Perhaps they use something even more exotic, like antimatter. Sadly, no. The annihilation reaction of antimatter is not free energy. Energy, by definition, is the ability to do work, and flying a UFO through the sky does take a lot of both. So, whatever your energy source, you still have to power an engine—loosely enough defined as “a machine which does the work” in order to get around. That’s leaving aside that antimatter is so stupidly inefficient to obtain and store in the first place, with only a few vast facilities on the planet available to manufacture even trace amounts.

I’ve bent over backwards to avoid the word “alien” or “spaceship” thus far, but don’t really think I need to be coy. UFOlogists who hold out that UFOs may be of human, perhaps secret military origin sound like “cDesign proponentsists” who say the Intelligent Designer might not be God. Who are they kidding? But in reality, alien visitation is hardly any less improbable than the hand of God tickling our DNA. Science fiction has made us ignorant of the real limits of the universe, with hyperdrive-equipped X-Wings and antimatter-fueled starships in every adventure show ever to sew sequins onto black velvet and hang it outside the set’s window.

Space is unimaginably vast—no, I'm saying that literally, your visual cortex can’t accurately model it but I appreciate the effort. Plus, the universe doesn’t just have a speed limit, it actually cheats. To accelerate a midsized car to two-thirds the speed of light would take all the energy in all the power plants in the entire country for one year, assuming you could translate that to kinetic energy with magical 100% efficiency. Two years’ worth doesn’t get you to one-and-a-third lightspeed, because when you go very fast, you start gaining mass, so that it takes much more energy just to get you going faster in progressively smaller increments. It’s not fair! Then, when you get where you’re going, you’ve got to burn exactly as much energy again just to slow down. Your best option is to accelerate constantly to halfway, then turn around and blast your engine in reverse, so that you zero out just as you arrive. It doesn't matter what your engine runs on or what breakthrough your hive-brother Snrxlvbrrr made to build it.

Ships in science fiction don’t seem to lug around gas, either. It took a skyscraper of rocket fuel just to send three humans to our own moon, and almost all of that fuel was used just to move fuel. The more you carry, the more you need just to get what you’re already carrying in motion, for which you need more fuel, for which you need more fuel, etc. Needless to say, we have not seen any decelerating fusion torches pointed directly at our planet from deep in the sky, as city-sized ships, mostly empty fuel storage, decelerate from turnover, coasting to a stop where they detach comparatively tiny habitation modules to flit mysteriously around small rural towns. Interstellar travel is unsexy.

To sum up, we never know whether UFOs are really there or not, we wouldn’t know in advance what to look for if they were, there’s no good reason to think that there are in the first place, and no plausible technology for them to use to get here because General Relativity and the Laws of Motion just aren't amenable to large-scale space travel. I have heard one UFO enthusiast opine that perhaps the laws of relativity are wrong, and faster-than-light travel isn’t known to be impossible, and that about sums up for me that it’s a completely faith-based belief. If they’re so wedded to their preconceived desire that they’re willing to play fast and loose with the fabric of the universe, then their cognitive process is well and truly off the rails.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Moment

Today, while washing my hands, just for fun I laid my thumb and forefinger together and drew them apart until just my fingertips were touching. The film thus encircled by my thumbs and fingers fascinated me for over a full minute. Which is quite a long time, if you were to contemplate simply standing there with the water running.

I marveled at it. So much chaos! So much swirling, turbulent complexity! So unpredictable, so unrepeatable, so unique and strange. And yet a moment of beauty. I saw bands and hurricanes of color, fuchsia and teal; oxblood and goldenrod; cobalt and argent and emerald.

I mused over how such transcendent complexity emerged from such simple elements: The interaction of water and detergent, whose properties are so simple and even naturally occurring. The movement of liquids confined in two dimensions. The wavelengths of light captured from the fluorescent tubes overhead. Even as I watched, even as I held my hands at a slight angle to catch the light, I saw order emerging, after a fashion. The swirling colors differentiated, organizing themselves into bands which, though storms and vortexes troubled their borders, were nevertheless distinct. Near my thumbs, chartreuse and ruby currents danced around each other. Above them, an almost-crimson in a shade I'd never seen and didn't know existed. Above that a deep blue, and above that, a triangle of straw-colored light nestled under my forefingers.

Reluctantly, I slowly opened my fingertips. I watched the film pull on the foam that held its rim, sliding the tiny bubbles aside until they parted. And then it was gone, as though it had never been. It never needed to have been there in the first place. Its unique beauty would never be captured or seen again, and no part of it remains except the memory of a moment.

Any further implication is left as an exercise for the reader.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Dialogue

Skeptical Rationalist: So, you're a Christian?
John Doe:That's right. I believe that Jesus died for our sins.
SR: Well, that's interesting. Let me ask you this. Do you believe in heaven?
JD: Of course!
SR: How about hell?
JD: Well, I don't know. Some people say that hell is separation from god, or it's just you cease to exist. We don't know.
SR: Well, it's in the book, the everlasting fire, all that. I mean, is Hitler just "separated from God?"
JD: All right, I suppose.
SR: Hold that thought. If somebody offered to let you be on a jury for a murderer who's obviously guilty. Enough that the trial is going to be pretty short. Do you think you would, if the per diem didn't put you in hardship?
JD: Okay.
SR: And you'd send him to jail if that's what the truth was.
JD: Yeah.
SR: And he deserves that.
JD: At least that much.
SR: So, going back to Hitler, if he'd lived to stand trial for his crimes, he'd deserve to go to jail or be executed, right? And you'd be okay with it.
JD: Yes.
SR: At any rate, he died before he was captured, so let's assume Hitler's in hell, right?
JD: Sure. He started a war that killed millions, and tried to exterminate any people that weren't part of his master race.
SR: What was the death toll overall...Let's say fifty million deaths can be laid at his feet.
JD: I guess. Hell is hell, right?
SR: Well, answer me this: how many trillion years will Adolf Hitler be tortured for each single death?
JD: Forever is forever...
SR: Exactly. After a thousand thousand trillion years, after every star has burnt out, he still won't have paid for one percent of the first death on his conscience. No matter what, he will never be finished paying for his crimes, right?
JD: There'll never be a time ever when he won't have killed all those people.
SR: At least he'll have Anne Frank to keep him company. She was a Jew, right, so she's in hell.
JD: Well, no, the Jews were God's chosen people.
SR: But if you look at the Bible, that was a limited time offer. Once Jesus came, he said "no man comes to the father except through me."
JD: Well, it's really up to God, I guess.
SR: Maybe. Let me ask you another question.
JD: Okay.
SR: Do you remember that plane from New York that crashed on the Hudson River after takeoff? The pilot brought it down on its belly, and all the passengers and crew were saved?
JD: Yeah, that was a miracle!
SR: Perhaps. But the pilot was a hero, right?
JD: Sure.
SR: You ever think you would buy him a drink for that, if you ran into him and knew who he was?
JD: I might.
SR: He'd deserve it, right?
JD: Yeah, I suppose he does.
SR: Great. Now, stay with me here: I'm not a Christian. I don't believe in God, I don't believe that Jesus died for my sins. That's pretty bad, right?
JD: Well, I certainly hope that you let Jesus into your heart some day.
SR: But if I died right now, I'd go to hell, right?
JD: Well, that's up to God. It's not my place to say.
SR: But according to what the book says.
JD: Yeah, I mean, if you died today, you'd go to hell. We're all sinners, I just have Jesus to forgive me.
SR: So I hear. All right, do you see that pair of pliers there? Go ahead and pick those up.
JD: Why?
SR: Well, I want you to use them to grab hold of my fingernail, tear it back, and then pull it out by the root.
JD: No way! You're crazy!
SR: What, you don't want to?
JD: No!
SR: But I deserve it, right?
JD: Why?
SR: Because if I died right now, that would be the least of my tortures. I'd be thrown into the lake of fire just for starters.
JD: Yeah, but that doesn't mean you deserve it now!
SR: I could be dead five minutes from now. What would I have done in the meantime?
JD: But it's God's choice whether you do or not! It's not up to me what happens to you!
SR: But you'd send a mass murderer to jail. You'd hand the death penalty to Adolf Hitler. And you're okay with rewarding courage and virtue if you got the chance and it didn't inconvenience you.
JD: Yeah, why not?
SR: So, back to the pliers then. On the count of three...
JD: No!
SR: What's different? I'm a sinful person, according to your book. It says any man who is angry, has committed murder in his heart. Any man who looks on a woman with desire, has committed adultery in his heart. For my many sins, I deserve to be tortured forever, and I'm just saying to give me a bit of what I've got coming to me. Don't I deserve it?
JD: It's not my place to say!
SR: Do I deserve to have my fingernails pulled out, my skin peeled off, my flesh burned?
JD: Just stop! You're talking about what happens when you sin against God. He's the judge!
SR: Oh, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s already done. You see, he already knows everything I’ve ever done or ever will do, and whoever does not believe stands condemned already: John three-eighteen. Unless you don’t think I deserve to have my fingernails ripped out. Unless you don’t think I deserve exactly the same hell that Hitler and Anne Frank have. You might want to think about it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why I Blog [Semantics Matter]

Adam Savage of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel, this past weekend gave a talk at the Harvard Humanist Association. It was reprinted on, and I quite enjoyed reading it. Among the topics he touched on were that he was a fourth-generation atheist, that the universe is ordered and that whatever set it in motion, if anything, is unknown, and that we ought to practice mindfulness and care for one another. Perfectly reasonable positions to have, in my personal opinion.

Of course, boingboing allows comments, and where there are comments, there are trolls. No good can come of reading the comments. I wasn't a tenth through the thread before I had that familiar sensation of "I feel a blog post coming on," and I started mentally sharpening my Ka-bar while taking notes for things to hit.

We skeptics have a tendency towards specifics--that's a logical fallacy, we say, or your argument is flawed. But as my notes on topics I needed to cover multiplied, as the logical fallacies mounted, I realized that I can't deal with this in specifics. I am now going to generalize instead, and call it what it is. It's bullshit! In all its infinite variation and splendor, complete, utter, nonsensical bullshit. I realized, why would I want to go wading around in it?

I think that's what you do when you get into comment threads on blogs or websites. It's pointless, for the same reason that you don't want to mud-wrestle with pig--you get dirty and the pig enjoys it. Nobody's mind gets changed, the least articulate and least thoughtful people on both sides set the bar for the discourse.

This is a big problem for me, and I think there's a very central issue of communication right down at the "why" of it. Daniel Dennett recently published a paper titled "Preachers Who Are Not Believers." He immediately had to spend an entire page of closely-spaced type to give even a *cursory* overview of a glaring problem: the word "God" has no commonly accepted definition whatsoever. It can mean everything from an omnipotent immortal judge to the most dogmatically inoffensive poetry of the universe, and no two believers agree. (Thus, they cannot all be right, while they most certainly all could be wrong, and thus "faith" immediately fails as a source of knowledge, but I digress.)

I tear my hair out when someone says "atheists believe 'God doesn't exist.'" It's true that Existent and Nonexistent are a true dichotomy, and people always talk in terms as though it's a competition between two claims:
  • God Exists
  • God is Nonexistent
The second claim, the bucket that atheists are so commonly chucked into, immediately runs into two problems. The first claim can mean whatever you want it to, but the second is nonsensical because what doesn't exist is undefined. Semantically, it's "[_____] is nonexistent." Second, it's an indefensible position because it shifts the burden of proof to the skeptic, who is in the position of needing omniscience to say that at no time, in no place, has any God of any kind ever existed. No wonder theists love to frame the debate like this.

An atheist, by its purest definition, is someone who does NOT believe. That Greek prefix "a-" means "without." Amoral means you lack morals. Apathy means you lack sorrow. Achromatic is without color. The tattoo on my wrist means "without God," and says nothing at all about what I do, positively, believe. Belief is assent. Belief is a positive state of mental agreement. Withholding your assent, even if it's because you don't know, or think that there's no way you ever could know, is still "a-theism."

The most common way I can rephrase this is a trial by jury. The Prosecution claims "The Defendant is Guilty." The defense doesn't have the burden of proof to prove he's Innocent, they just have to establish doubt--if they do, then the jury is left in the "Not Guilty" position. You may actually believe that god is nonexistent, you may believe the defendant is actually innocent--but it's not your job to demonstrate that, it's a bad idea to let them put you there, and it's, in my opinion, foolish in the extreme to stake that out as your position, let alone make a claim of knowledge.

Someone stands up and says "God exists," as above. If your response is "I concur," even if it's your own private definition, you're a theist. Any other response means you...are...not...a...theist. "Agnostic" is a useless term to me because honestly, I don't know any atheists who do claim *knowledge* that no Gods exist. Most are honest enough to know, as I said above, that they're not omniscient. Anyone who tells me "I'm an agnostic" is actually telling me "I'm a tentative atheist" or "I'm a nonmilitant atheist." Likewise "apatheist," itself a silly neologism to say the same thing. You either believe the claim or you don't.

It keeps the burden of proof on the one making the claim--it's not my job to prove that God doesn't exist, it's not the Defense's job to prove that the defendant's innocent. If you can't demonstrate that your particular flavor of divinity is the most likely explanation, then I'm perfectly justified saying "I don't know for sure, but I'm not buying what you're selling." It's also a lot less of a conversation-stopper than "I believe that your god is nonexistent."

That's why I blog. Mixing it up in comment threads gets nobody anywhere, because the discourse is ontologically without meaning. These people are shooting in the dark, leveling rhetorical weapons at where they imagine the targets to be, and nobody understands why they invariably get told "ha ha, you missed!" in response. It's not just useless, it's actively counterproductive. Every miss makes the receiver feel more bulletproof. Every small victory makes the victor more confident and sloppy. Every comment is perceived as both based on nothing more than what side you're on. And we wonder why the conversation goes nowhere. It's this infuriating mix of both overconfidence and lazy rhetoric that makes me tear my hair out. I write blog posts because here, I control the definitions, and I have the space, the time and the word-count to articulate my points fully.

Don't misunderstand me, though: to a first approximation, the atheists are the ones who tend to be overconfident and sloppy. The theists, on the other hand, are overconfident, sloppy and fractally wrong.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Cognitive Dissonance

On Cognitive Dissonance
There once was a boy, who was given a pet box turtle. He wanted it to come out of its shell, but it stubbornly refused. He tried knocking on it, squirting water in its face, prying at the hinge, yelling at it, but only got his fingers nipped for his efforts. His grandfather, seeing the difficulty, took the turtle and put it down in the grass, with some lettuce and strawberries nearby. In a few minutes, the turtle was out and crawling around in the sunshine.

It's not a metaphor I'm going to extend very far, but it's an image I like to keep in mind as I kick around the concept of cognitive dissonance. It's a subject I find fascinating, not least because it is stupefyingly ubiquitous. Essentially it is the theory that, when human brains contain two cognitions (ideas, observations, emotions) which are in conflict, we find it uncomfortable. Like having your shoes on the wrong feet, or being hungry, or being too cold, we are driven to resolve the discomfort. We take steps to ease our mental distress, typically by rejecting, trivializing, or compartmentalizing one of the conflicting ideas.

I was listening to a recent episode of the For Good Reason podcast, with Carol Tavris, co-author of Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, which I'm currently reading as a result. She pointed out something which in hindsight is blindingly obvious: dissonance is particularly acute when one of the ideas in conflict is tied into the perception of ourselves. By and large, we all think of ourselves as reasonably smart, kind, good-looking, and above-average drivers. When we screw up in one way or another, dissonance immediately kicks in and generates excuses, dismissals, mitigating circumstances, any kind of self-justification that will enable our self-images to remain undamaged. We rarely perceive the process, because not only are we very good at it, it is entirely unconscious and can even prevent the assimilation of conflicting ideas in the first place.

I can't speak to anyone else, but I have experienced this myself, to the point where the self-justification has even tampered with my memories. I was making a right-hand turn on a rainy night, I got sideswiped by another car, and I was found to be at fault in the accident. When asked by the police whether I saw the other car before turning, I said "No." But inside of a week, after dealing with police reports and insurance agents, I had become so convinced that I had done nothing wrong that I started remembering seeing the other car's headlights in the outside lane, directly in opposition to my statement at the time. It couldn't have been me; it must have been an inattentive lane change by the other car that caused the collision. Maybe I'm right. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm more upset with myself that I was too shaken and incoherent to realize my answers to the police were going to be used against me. The memory still galls; I still see myself making mental excuses. In ultimate hindsight, I recognize the entire incident is fertile ground for dissonance-induced self-justification, and I simply try and drive more carefully.

Cognitive Dissonance and Skepticism
The issues surrounding the Skeptic and Freethought movements are an absolute carnival of cognitive dissonance and self-justification. It's difficult to winnow down, but I'll take one example. Remember, we all carry the notion that we are intelligent and sensible, and disconfirmation of that notion is a prime source of cognitive dissonance.

Some family members of mine were sold a radical, frightfully expensive diet plan by their chiropractor, which involved a 500 calories-per-day food restriction, vitamin supplements and homeopathic hormone drops. It's safe to say no element of the program failed to set off its own skeptical alarm bells, and the research I did quickly indicated that this diet was based on bad science.

I had to proceed carefully, though. I knew I couldn't stand by, because starvation diets and rapid weight loss are not without risk. But I was looking up a very steep incline--not only was I denouncing visible results of 1-2 pounds per day of weight loss, but the outlay of money and professing of belief in its success are extremely potent generators of cognitive dissonance. Every possible incentive for self-justification was in place.

I need to be crystal clear (not least because they may eventually read this) and to repeat something which is crucial to understand: The very act of doubting, of presenting new information is what engenders conflicts in the mind, whether or not I actually say, "this is quackery." I am necessarily putting my relatives in a position to think "I am a smart and responsible person...who has wasted good money on a bogus treatment." Cognitive dissonance takes place, and the coping mechanisms are both reflexive and unconscious. It was entirely possible that the reaction would even damage our relationship. If it were not for the real medical and financial risks, I would have held my peace.

Originally, I thought I'd done well--nobody got angry, nobody got their feelings hurt. Though on a practical level, since then, I think it seems to have been a draw for science. I didn't convince them to resume a reasonable diet. I didn't convince them to stop taking the supplements. I didn't convince them to demand their money back. At best, I think I managed a little education about the fraud of homeopathy, and that once they finished the six-week course, they might not repeat it a year later, if they find that they've gained the weight back. Cognitive dissonance is the reason we have a phrase about "throwing good money after bad," and so I'm more than happy to simply wait and hope.

Cognitive Dissonance and Atheism
Soon on my reading list after Mistakes Were Made is likely going to be The God Virus, by Darrell Ray. In it, he discusses how many religions can be thought of as parasitic memes which takes advantage of cognitive dissonance in order to thrive and propagate. Fundamentally, he says, religion is not about goodness, but rather is about sin.

Consider the 7 Deadly Sins: Greed, Pride, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth. They fall into two categories: First, we have five flavors of thoughtcrime over which we have no conscious control. The last three are activities which not only are pleasurable but in some degree necessary to live. You have to eat when you're hungry. You have to rest when you're tired. You have to have offspring or you go extinct. Because you cannot help but sin, the cognitive dissonance between your concept of morality and your inevitable failure creates guilt, in what Ray calls "the Guilt Cycle." The only way to relieve the guilt is to return mentally to the thoughts and devotions described by the religion, thus priming you for the next failure which simply being human will inflict. It's a great racket.

I'm not going to kick that around much more that to say I'm sure it will be interesting reading, but in light of what I've already talked about, it does raise concerns about just what I am doing with my activism in the Skeptical and Atheist communities. If dissonance from self-concepts of general good sense meant I couldn't fully succeed with my own family, about something as simple as a screwball diet plan, exactly what am I going to accomplish by telling people their beliefs about their immortal soul and hope for salvation are not justified?

I'm not the least angry atheist you'll ever meet. I have days where I agree with Dawkins, Hitchens, P.Z. Myers and I'm ready to hoist the Jolly Roger when I see Bibles being shipped to Haiti, bowdlerized science textbooks and blasphemous attacks on worldwide free speech. But Tavris did say one thing on the podcast which stuck with me: "The one sure and certain way that you will not get anyone else to change their minds is to put them in dissonance...If you threaten their fundamental beliefs or self-concept, they will cling to that belief more tenaciously and reduce the dissonance by attacking you."

We need to ask ourselves, who's listening, and who are we trying to influence? On one level, we are rationalist members of an irrational species; we are atheists and agnostics in a very religious world: we imbibe more uncomfortable dissonance than it would appear just in our day-to-day lives, and we relieve it through socializing with the like-minded. Beyond that, I have no easy answers.

I see one immediate problem: both pseudoscience and religion share a common trait. Both of them fundamentally take their conclusion first, and then self-select facts which support their preconception, whether it be homeopathy, UFOs, or creationism. Under the best of circumstances, dissonance makes it difficult for potential conflicting information to be considered—so much the worse when the subject at hand is founded on that very process.

I don't think we, as a community, do ourselves too many favors sometimes. I think we need to think long and hard about who we want to reach, how we can do that, and what compromises we might be able to live with. Human nature isn't going to change, and we are fools if we don't recognize that people don’t change their minds easily, quickly, or if they can’t save face even in their own minds. If there is a direction I’m sure of, I’m going to let Charles Darwin say it better for me:

"I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follow[s] from the advance of science.”

I'm not siding with the "concern trolls" who keep telling the freethought community how much better off we'd be if we would sit down, shut up, and yield to religion in all things. Suffice it to say, there are people we are not going to reach. Our opposite numbers are not friendly pet box turtles, they are alligator snapping turtles who do not and never will tolerate us, the more so because we aim to drain the swamps of unreason that they live in. They must be opposed, because they are playing to win, and their attempts to corrupt the education of our children is no less than an attempt to ensure that another generation of freethinkers does not take place. We would do well, though, to consider our tactics.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Public Service

I am now the insufferably pleased owner of the special (abridged) creationist edition of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," with special introduction by Ray "Bananaman" Comfort.

In a bit of irony, the local coffee shop decided to close at six due to spring break at the local university, so our freethinkers group had to meet at the backup location. I was extremely early, so I was looking at the stack of books they had in the lounge area to kill time. I saw a red cover that was oddly familiar.

Somebody had apparently deposited this little gem like the world's biggest Chick Tract. I debated what to do. Should I rip out the introduction as a public service? No, the fact that Ray Comfort deleted significant sections of the book would leave it useless. Should I steal it? After all, it would be to prevent harm to others, and was likely left here for anyone to find. No, I don't know that to any acceptable degree. It might almost be justified to myself, but I doubt everyone would affirm my actions.

So, after a couple of moments, I decide to be upright and honest. I take it up to the counter, order a coffee, a chocolate egg, and what would they accept in return for this fine volume? I'm rather pleased that not a penny of my money will find its way to Living Waters Ministries.

Monday, March 1, 2010

How to Deconvert through iTunes and YouTube

(or “Cool Resources You Should Check Out”)

I was raised in a fairly liberal Christian household—RLDS (nee Community of Christ) denomination, and while I had Book of Mormon stories in Sunday School pretty much everything you’ve ever heard about “Mormon theology” is just as strange to me as it probably is to you. My parents encouraged my love of science and evolution from an early age, and pretty much from age 6 to age 14 I avowed that I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up.

I left the “Christianity” label behind when I went off to college, got acquainted with Christian Fundamentalism through the campus IVCF chapter, and after two weeks I decided that I would never again label myself with anything that would make me a fellow traveler with those people. I spent the next ten years or so drifting from New-Age theology, to pantheism, to a fairly nondescript brand of “imaginary friend” theism.

Fast forward to 2008, when I moved to Bloomington and found that my co-worker in the cube next to me was a committed god-botherer, to the point where he went to a non-denominational church because the Baptists were too backslidden, and homeschools his four kids "so that they don’t get indoctrinated in the public schools with liberal ideas, like evolution." Yes, that’s a quote.

So, what could I do but start buying Richard Dawkins and Carl Zimmer books, leaving them out on my desk for all to see? I do a lot of what can humorously be called "iPod work" and so I naturally searched iTunes for anything science-related.

What still takes up a good chunk of my iPod is my favorite all-time podcast, The Skeptic’s Guide To The Universe. Not only was there ample science, but I didn’t know anything about the Skeptical movement and its emphasis on critical thinking, evidence, and the need to combat pseudoscience. This was amazing to me, and I quickly started following Skepticality, Skeptoid, and Point of Inquiry.

Many of these podcasts made frequent references to YouTube videos, and it wasn’t long before YouTube’s preferences steered me towards Thunderf00t’s video series, Why Do People Laugh At Creationists, which I think is ripe for follow-up with a new series called "Thunderf00t Reads the Telephone Directory."

Needless to say, you see where this is going. All this pro-critical thinking, pro-science, anti-religion media was building to something. My theism was melting away like a chip of ice in the palm of my hand, and I credit a Tim Minchin song with finally prodding me to discard it.
But what’s this other show that keeps cropping up in relation to Thunderf00t and AronRa evolution videos? The Atheist Experience? Oh wait, this show is on every week? And they podcast it? Excellent!

I’ve since broadened my catalog with podcasts such as the Non-Prophets (the other atheist-aimed podcast done by the Atheist Experience crew), the excellent For Good Reason, Irreligiosophy, and just for fun, Coverville.

I know I’ve just posted a blizzard of links, bear with me for one more. This is one of my favorite clips from the Atheist Experience, and I'm basically putting my cards on the table as to the shameless plagiarism that I've indulged in every time I've ever gotten loquacious at the Freethinkers meetings.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Faith and Knowledge

In my last post, I discussed the nature of my skepticism regarding claims of God, miracles and the supernatural. It's a response to the common theist argument that I'm being dogmatic, closed-minded, and that mine is just as much a matter of faith as theirs. Beyond the fact that this tu quoque* is not an argument, it does make me want to talk, again, about the question how do you get your knowledge?

When it comes to truth claims, again, I have two First Principles: first, that a claim should not be accepted until it has been demonstrated. Second, truth should be constant for all observers. We live in a world where journalistic balance requires two talking heads from either side of any issue to go on television and argue with each other for five minutes. We think of understanding of issues involves my version, your version, and the truth somewhere in the middle.

It doesn't always work that way, though, particularly in formal argumentation. In fact, the third of the Logical Absolutes is the Law of the Excluded Middle for statements of truth. For example, the statement "God exists" is either true, or it is false, not both at the same time and not any kind of halfway. One of the two possibilities is necessarily wrong. Theists make the claim that one can obtain knowledge through faith, and I propose that this claim is false.

What is "faith?" The apostle Paul wrote that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. I agree. Paul is saying that to have faith is to act as if your belief is true. He says "assurance," "conviction," regarding things hoped for, and not seen. He instructs us to treat hopes as certain and to use certainty as truth, without confirmation or evidence.

This is a bit of a tonal shift in the bible, and to me it is an indication that the writer of those words lived during a time when paradigms were beginning to change. If Moses ever saw a burning bush, a pillar of fire, or parted a sea, he would be past Paul’s definition – his faith would be the assurance of past experience, the conviction of things seen in broad daylight. In the Old Testament, faith generally meant "loyalty and obedience to God." The faith of Abraham was not in the strength of his belief, but in his willingness to obey God's command to sacrifice his son. This theme is lost when read with the New Testament definition in mind, as most Christians will. (I can’t speak for other religions but I note that “Islam” means “submission” to the will of Allah.)

It’s only in those writings of the first and second century that we get this notion that faith includes, even is defined by, credulity to the uncorroborated. Think about it—the early Christian writings were all both created and promulgated by faith communities organized around a single supposed miracle, that the Son of God died, and then rose again. At the time, few believed, nobody could prove, and--even though accounts of it include mentions of an earthquake, an eclipse, and the walking dead—the subject of whom had quickly vanished without a trace. The nature of this miracle was such that it was not obedience, but belief, that defined one’s faith.

Consider the miracles attributed to Jesus during his lifetime. If they ever happened, then I'd argue that the Disciples did not need purely Pauline faith. And yet, as Jesus is walking on the proverbial water, a patently undeniable display of power, the focus is placed on Peter’s doubt. The story, first written decades after Jesus’ death, says that when he tried to walk on water with Jesus, he started to sink, and Jesus chided him for his lack of faith. Was it not immediately demonstrated that Jesus had the power to keep him above the water? At that point, did Peter not possess both belief and knowledge? I’m sure it’s plausible that Peter had a Luke Skywalker moment to say “I don’t believe it,” with Jesus’ “O ye of little faith” serving as Yoda’s “That is why you fail,” but surely it is easier to accept that which you’ve seen yourself than, as Paul tells us, to believe without ever seeing.

If faith is a valid means to obtain knowledge of the real truth, then we should expect users of faith to reach somewhat similar conclusions about the important questions that go under the heading of “matters of faith.” It nearly goes without saying that this is false. We have over 30,000 different denominations of Protestantism alone, plus Catholics, Orthodox, Islam, Hinduism; the list goes on and on. We cannot even accept this as agreement on the claim "God Exists," because the attributes each faith and even each believer assign to God are mutually contradictory, and thus impossible.

It’s worse than the joke about the doting mother watching the marching band: “Oh, look at my Johnny, he’s the only one in step!” In the case of faith, not only is nobody in step, they’re playing off different sheet music, different meter, different tempo, their instruments are tuned for incompatible scales and their maps of the parade routes are wildly different. While this doesn't prove that all of them are wrong in their beliefs, we do know that if we have 100 marchers then at best 99 of them are wrong, and faith doesn’t tell us which it is, any more than you could judge the correct strain of music from the marching band cacophony.

It necessarily tells us that faith is capable of producing a false conclusion. It tells us that if we go on faith, we have no assurance we aren’t wrong, that somebody or nobody else has the right answer. This shouldn't come as a surprise--after all, we basically are talking about believing in god because you believe in god. If you accept a claim on the basis of accepting of the claim, it's circular, invalid. If you have an unsound syllogism you can "prove" nearly anything. Almost any theistic claim to demonstrate god's existence is going to begin with this presupposition that god exists, asserting that the emotion of certainty is actually real.

And as far as methodological naturalism goes? It generates internally consistent, testable, correctable models of the reality which we experience. It allows consensus to be built. If people disagree over facts, it allows for one person to be proven wrong. It generates new questions. It opens up areas about which we know nothing, giving further opportunities for our knowledge to expand. Whenever unanswered questions have begged the intercession of a higher power, further inquiry has unlocked the puzzles.

I reject the substitution of presupposition for knowledge. I have literally seen it argued that, in a non-theistic universe, trying to demonstrate the "evidence for 'evidence'" leads to infinite regress, whereas theists "know" that evidence exists because God is unchanging and thus the universe he created reflects that consistency. Note that the existence of god is simply asserted.

I'm fully aware of the limits of inductive reasoning, that science may approach truth without ever completely proving it. But on the principles that no claim should be accepted until it is demonstrated, and that truth should be constant for all observers, science does quite well. It has never even hinted at any need for a God hypothesis.

"Even if you can’t imagine the explanation, Sister, remember there are things beyond your knowledge. Even if you feel certainty, it is an emotion, not a fact."

--Father Flynn, from "DOUBT," written by John Patrick Shanley

*tu quoque: from the Latin, loosely translated, "I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I?”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Skepticism of Claims

I've decided for my first blog post to address a common argument that floats around the apologist circles: Methodological Naturalism. I've often gotten into online discussions that quickly got derailed by the accusation that I, as the skeptic/atheist/naturalist in the conversation, have a presuppositionalist, faith-based position that nothing supernatural exists.

This really does cut to the heart of the matter for me, for reasons which I'll explore in depth another time. But briefly, the apologist is attempting to frame the issue to their advantage; "Naturalism" is not a word that is used in scientific circles in the sense that theists use it. The apologist isn't saying that I'm a researcher of ecology or the flora/fauna of a given region, they are applying this "-ism" label to me to make implications about what arguments I'm necessarily going to reject out of hand for faith-based reasons. (It's the same reason that I don't think "atheism" is ever going to not be hors de combat: there's too much of a connotation that it's a dogmatic "-ism.")

I have had this accusation leveled at me in a number of ways. "You're blinded by your commitment to methodological naturalism," "you're biased against miracles," or most infuriatingly "what is your evidence for 'evidence?'" Anti-science apologists will quickly attempt to undermine the foundations of evidence-based epistemology, again as an attempt to frame the issue to their advantage.

I am not a methodological naturalist in the sense they mean it. I am perfectly willing to consider miraculous evidence for, say, the existence of God or the validity of the Bible. I am absolutely willing to hear them out the reasons to believe in a god. I love hearing arguments, evidence, apologetics, and I'm thrilled when any of them holds up to even casual scrutiny. It's not my fault that every bit I've ever been presented with has ultimately proven to be unsound, fallacious, or just flat wrong.

I have two principles that I start from, in addition to the Logical Absolutes. The first is that no claim should be accepted until it has been demonstrated. I don't say "proven." I don't say "evidenced." "Demonstrated" is a broad net, and can encompass rational argument, logic, or what-have-you. It's inclusive of naturalism, but not limited to.

On the question of god's existence, I call myself an atheist because the statement's truth has not been demonstrated to my satisfaction. I tend to believe the statement is false, but that is an induction, not a faith-based conviction. I'm open to being proved wrong, but I'll want to ask "how do you know?" It's not a glib question--I want to know how you got the knowledge.

I don't know how God's existence could be demonstrated to me. I've asked theists flat out to take their best shot, and the results are laughable. They'd much rather talk about biblical authority, or the Moral Argument, anything but what justification they have to believe that it is anything more than the house of cards it seems to be. This is invariably where they accuse me of having blinders, of being deluded, of having my own faith-based position, and I say that's bull. I'm perfectly willing to consider a miracle as evidence of the supernatural. But how does one know.

The problem comes in when talking about miracles. If I were the methodological naturalist they say I am, then I'd be explaining away, for example, the parting of the Red Sea as a combination of low tide, freak wind conditions and other ad-hoc speculation about possible causes. I don't insist on naturalistic explanations for such a miracle. But how do we know it actually ever happened in the first place? We can't discuss how it happened until we establish to some level of confidence that it did happen? Certainly the Egyptians record no series of calamities such as locusts, frogs, boils, etc, ultimately culminating in the death of their god-king and his troops, crushed beneath the waves.

Miracles have this maddening tendency to occur in times and places where we have, at best, anecdotal or textual evidence for them. I've helped cater weddings, and I can say that it took about four bushels of food to feed three hundred people, so five thousand people would be on the order of sixty-seven bushels (plus twelve--apparently omniscience has a margin for error of fifteen percent when you're breaking the laws of thermodynamics.) Getting all that from five loaves and two fishes is impressive--I have no methodologically naturalistic explanation. But all we have are copies of copies of thirdhand accounts that it ever happened at all, so it's not worth much to me. Modern day miracles are nowhere near that stupendous...somebody's cancer goes into remission, a plane crashes that only kills 99% of its passengers--these are things that don't need recourse to "it's a miracle!" Sure it could have been god, or it could have been the exhaustive efforts of pilots, engineers, officials in response to other crashes--how do you know?

My position, first and foremost, is "I don't know." I don't claim that science has all the answers; if science is good at anything it's good at showing that what we don't know is nearly infinite, what we do know is tentative, and some questions may never get good enough data to say for sure. But I'm not going to accept the claim is true unless somebody convinces me.

How do you get around the flimsiness of the arguments and evidence for miracles? The answer is, of course, faith, which deserves its own entry. As this has been quite lengthy enough, I will address that in a subsequent post, where I go over the second of my two first principles mentioned above.

"Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is closer to the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong."

--Thomas Jefferson