On the show today: Bias

I’d like to say a few words on the Atheist Experience today on the subject of bias.

I’m for it.

I’m going to be talking a bit about how religious people think that science is biased against them. What I want to talk about first is how science is inherently biased towards empirical evidence, and toward things that are testable and can be shown to be true with a high degree of confidence.That’s not just about the bias of scientists, it’s how we find things out with any kind of accuracy.

Then I will be shifting gears and talking about the media, and how, at their best, they are supposed to have the same biases as science. They are supposed to check and verify claims and report things that are accurate and important to the best of their abilities.

Here are some links that I plan to refer to in the course of the show.

News posts from my blog, which will be mentioned in a discussion of the way the media covers news.

Update: Watch this show now at Google Video

A sterling example of the moral bankruptcy of religion

Recently, Richard Dawkins wrote a piece called “Logical Path from Religious Belief to Evil Deeds.” In it, he proposed that the reason religionists can consider themselves morally superior to absolutely everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs is that religious belief “changes, for people, the definition of good.”

This is how, for example, the 9/11 terrorists were able to do what they did, and still believe themselves and their actions to be as “good” as it was possible to be. This is how psychotics like Fred Phelps and Donald Spitz can do what they do — the former staging his unspeakably vile protests and the latter claiming to be a “pro-life” champion while lionizing a murderer of an abortion doctor on his website as an “American hero” — and think they are the paragons of all that is good in the world. If there’s one concept religion — especially as practiced by Christians and Muslims — perverts beyond all hope of recognition, it’s the rational understanding of good and evil. To a believer, if you’re doing it for your God, it’s good, even if it’s the most backwards and disgraceful of bigoted beliefs, or the most inexcusable of crimes, including mass murder. It’s classic Orwellian doublethink.

This fact has been made clear once again by the latest blatherings of the mentally ill Ann Coulter. Yes, I’m sure all of you are poised to roll your eyes and go “come on!” at my choice of such an easy target. After all, Ann has never said a sane (let alone sensible or remotely factual) thing in her entire manufactured career. Isn’t pointing to her idiocies like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel?

Well, maybe. But that doesn’t invalidate the basic point, which is this: Ann is a deranged and hate-filled individual. And yet, she embraces Christianity quite fervently, a religion whose proponents repeatedly insist is all about love. But notice: Christianity, contrary to another claim of its adherents, does not in fact give Ann a foundation from which she can understand just how vicious and ignorant her beliefs are, and change them for the better — which is what it would do if it were a belief system founded upon sound moral precepts that provided comprehensible moral guidelines for living. Rather, it simply gives her a comfort zone from which she can continue to hold those beliefs, and then label them moral.

Look at this truly bizarre exchange between Ann and CNBC host Donny Deutsch. On Deutsch’s show last Monday, Ann made some of the most outlandishly anti-Semitic remarks to be publicly aired since April of 1945. And yet, with all apparent sincerity, she insisted that these statements were in no way anti-Semitic or the least bit hateful.

COULTER: Do you know what Christianity is? We believe your religion, but you have to obey.

DEUTSCH: No, no, no, but I mean –

COULTER: We have the fast-track program.

DEUTSCH: Why don’t I put you with the head of Iran? I mean, come on. You can’t believe that.

COULTER: The head of Iran is not a Christian.

DEUTSCH: No, but in fact, “Let’s wipe Israel” –

COULTER: I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention.

DEUTSCH: “Let’s wipe Israel off the earth.” I mean, what, no Jews?

COULTER: No, we think — we just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.

DEUTSCH: Wow, you didn’t really say that, did you?

COULTER: Yes. That is what Christianity is. We believe the Old Testament, but ours is more like Federal Express. You have to obey laws. We know we’re all sinners –

DEUTSCH: In my old days, I would have argued — when you say something absurd like that, there’s no –

COULTER: What’s absurd?

DEUTSCH: Jews are going to be perfected. I’m going to go off and try to perfect myself –

COULTER: Well, that’s what the New Testament says.

Wow, huh? Now, keep in mind, as part of the very same exchange, Ann is able to say this with perfect conviction.

DEUTSCH: You said — your exact words were, “Jews need to be perfected.” Those are the words out of your mouth.

COULTER: No, I’m saying that’s what a Christian is.

DEUTSCH: But that’s what you said — don’t you see how hateful, how anti-Semitic –

COULTER: No!

DEUTSCH: How do you not see? You’re an educated woman. How do you not see that?

COULTER: That isn’t hateful at all.

DEUTSCH: But that’s even a scarier thought.

Once your brain stops reeling, you may be given to wonder just how a person can hold such 1984-ish, contradictory attitudes and not have one’s head explode from cognitive dissonance. The answer is: religion. Religion redefines “good” to accommodate, legitimize and justify whatever the believer already believes. It is not a rational process in the least. If it were, then yes, it would impossible to make the pronouncement that, compared to you, an entire race of people is imperfect (and, by unavoidable extension, inferior), and simultaneously think that that is not only not a hateful comment, but one that embraces diversity. The moral and intellectual wasteland that is religion is never made more clear than when some religionist openly and proudly espouses these “war is peace, freedom is slavery” attitudes, and then gets all agog with confusion and denial when someone points out just how demented and hateful and just plain wrong they are.

If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times: religion provides no basis for a system of morals. It simply provides a smug sense of superiority for its adherents, in which the word “moral” is applied to the flock, and “immoral,” “imperfect,” “sinner,” and other divisive and harmful sobriquets are applied to everyone on the outside, irrespective of actual deeds.

Faux News goes berserk over atheism show

We atheists have finally found ourselves under the hyperbolic propaganda radar of Fox News. It seems Air America Radio has picked up Freethought Radio, that long-running internet atheist program, for nationwide broadcast. Ever quick and desperate to manufacture controversy that the evil lib’ruls are going to throw all True AmeriKKKans into the gulags, Fox News breathlessly reported this development with screaming headlines that Air America has declared “War on God”!Lawks!

Allow me to declare myself thrilled with all this free publicity for Freethought Radio. I can remember years ago, hosting The Atheist Experience, being a bit melancholy over the fact that while the delusions of Christianity were being promoted nationwide on half a dozen 24/7 cable channels, the best atheists were able to muster was an hour and a half on local access. And even then, we’d get callers outraged we were on the air. Now, three years after I left the show, we’ve got several New York Timesbestselling books, and our first nationwide radio show. And the Christian Right is freaking. Well, good.

Of course, this “War on God” language is the same kind of button-mashing hysteria that Fox employs every year when they dredge up their “War on Christmas” rhetoric, scaring the base into thinking Christians are all about to be lined up for the firing squads simply because some clerk at a retail store tells customers “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Baby Jesus’s Birthday, My Dear Beloved Brother in Christ”. But hopefully, it will have the effect of getting thousands of curious visitors to tune in to Air America and Freethought Radio, where one or two of them may actually learn something. With books by Dawkins and Hitchens excoriating religion still impacting public awareness, the time is ripe for a radio program that, at long last, views the delirium of religion through the calming lens of reason.

I know, you’re shocked, aren’t you?

Word is getting around about the stupefying level of corruption and sleaze over at Oral Roberts “University”. You know old Oral. He’s the con man who told everyone God would kill him if he didn’t raise $8 million, and got the money, demonstrating conclusively that when it comes to getting filthy rich, there’s no sleaze so great it won’t sell. Well, the sleaze just got sleazier.

The internal document was prepared by Stephanie Cantese, Richard Roberts’ sister-in-law, according to the lawsuit. An ORU student repairing Cantese’s laptop discovered the document and later provided a copy to one of the professors. It details dozens of alleged instances of misconduct. Among them:

  • A longtime maintenance employee was fired so that an underage male friend of Mrs. Roberts could have his position.
  • Mrs. Roberts – who is a member of the board of regents and is referred to as ORU’s “first lady” on the university’s Web site – frequently had cell-phone bills of more than $800 per month, with hundreds of text messages sent between 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. to “underage males who had been provided phones at university expense.”
  • The university jet was used to take one daughter and several friends on a senior trip to Orlando, Fla., and the Bahamas. The $29,411 trip was billed to the ministry as an “evangelistic function of the president.”
  • Mrs. Roberts spent more than $39,000 at one Chico’s clothing store alone in less than a year, and had other accounts in Texas and California. She also repeatedly said, “As long as I wear it once on TV, we can charge it off.” The document cites inconsistencies in clothing purchases and actual usage on TV.
  • Mrs. Roberts was given a white Lexus SUV and a red Mercedes convertible by ministry donors.
  • University and ministry employees are regularly summoned to the Roberts’ home to do the daughters’ homework.
  • The university and ministry maintain a stable of horses for exclusive use by the Roberts’ children.
  • The Roberts’ home has been remodeled 11 times in the past 14 years.

Tim Brooker, one of the professors who sued, said he fears for the university’s survival if certain changes aren’t made.

It’s hard to imagine which of these is the most meretricious. That Mrs. Roberts appears to be a closet pederast? (What is she texting underage males in the middle of the night for, anyway? Football scores?) That the Roberts family shows their dedication to quality education at their “university” by forcing employees to do their own kids’ homework? That the place even has a “university jet”? Or, echoing the amusing remarks I’ve seen from women in other sites’ comment threads, why, if Mrs. Roberts was going to piss away 39 grand of misappropriated funds buying clothes, she’d do it at a place like Chico’s?

I personally hope Tim Brooker’s fears are realized, and that these revelations finally shut down the farcical ORU for good. Now if we could only unearth similarly scandalous behavior over at Liberty “University” and Bob Jones “University”, we could start to put a serious dent in the plague of fundamentalist miseducation and influence in this country once and for all.

I wonder…

…what John Terry thinks about this guy?

After all, aren’t we the ones who, “without restraint,” are most likely to become murderers? John said so himself, remember?

So how is this possible, John? How?

Could it be that reality doesn’t jibe with your ignorant prejudice?

Or maybe John Ashley just wasn’t a True Christian™. Yeah, that must be it.

The word “reality” applies only loosely here

Introducing the most pointless “reality show” ever: America’s Psychic Challenge!

America’s Psychic Challenge pits amateur psychic from around the country against each other in a series of challenges to see who will be “America’s #1 Psychic”.

Yeah, I have a few predictions to make myself.

  1. Out of all the competitors, somebody will win.
  2. The name of the winner will have some vowels in it.
  3. It will also have consonants.
  4. Being “America’s #1 Psychic” is about as impressive as being “America’s #1 coin flipper.” Somebody can win the competition by winning the most consecutive coin flips. But it doesn’t mean that they can actually do anything — apart from maybe cold reading in this case.

The Impact of Explanatory Function on Existence: Show #520

For some time I’ve been considering the idea that Christian apologists argue both sides of any issue and call it proof of god or of their doctrine’s validity. Examples would be “faith” versus “reason,” or “god answers prayers” versus “sometimes god answers prayers ‘no,’” or “the world is perfectly suited to human life” versus “the world is an awful place to live because of the horrors we face due to the infiltration of sin via Adam’s disobedience,” and so on.

These no-lose situations reminded me of a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that I have come to refer to as “Brian’s Dilemma.” Here is how it works: Brian is trying to convince the masses he’s not the messiah. He says something like, “I’m not the messiah.” And someone in the crowd replies that, “Only the true messiah would deny his own divinity.” Then Brian says, “OK–I am the messiah.” And someone else in the crowd shouts, “Behold! The messiah!”

If everything is proof of X–no matter what the situation or outcome–then nothing can compromise my belief in X. There is no argument or evidence that can penetrate that. But I have to accept the absurdity of my stance that Y=X and –Y=X.

Brian understood that, logically, if only the true messiah would deny his own divinity, then the crowd must reject him as the messiah if he made then made the claim that he was, in fact, the messiah. But Brian overestimated the logical capacity of the masses. He was in a surreal, absurd no-lose (or, in his case no-win) situation–exactly the same situation apologists set up to prove the existence of their god and the validity of their doctrines.

But beyond this absurd apologetic setup is an interesting segue into explanatory power and what X “accounting for” something actually means to the existence of X.

Around this time, I came across two items that also noted the significance of this idea:

http://atheism.about.com/b/a/194807.htm

Austin Cline wrote (regarding parapsychology–not religion): “Hyman’s Categorical Imperative states: Do not try to explain something until you are sure that there is something to be explained. (Quoted from Ray Hyman) Unfortunately, parapsychology appears to be one massive violation of what Hyman advises. There is no particularly good reason to think that there is anything “paranormal” to explain in the first place, much less that parapsychology has anything substantive to offer in terms of explaining human experiences or the universe.”

George Smith, in his book “Why Atheism?” wrote (quoting Thomas Aquinas): “What can be accomplished by a few principles is not effected by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle, which is nature, and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle, which is human reason or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.” (From Summa Theologica).

Just to clarify, Aquinas is simply restating a counterapologetic in this passage and not putting forward this argument himself–as he was an apologist.

Smith considers this as a rephrasing of Occam’s Razor. However, he finds it an odd thing, to imply “that Occam’s Razor, when used to argue that ‘there is no need to suppose God’s existence,’ is relevant to the claim that ‘God does not exist.’ In other words, if there is no cognitive reason to posit the existence of God, if what needs to be explained can be explained by more economical means, then we may conclude that God does not exist.”

Of course, Smith understands that “failure to justify the need for God as an explanatory principle cannot prove his nonexistence,” and “the real existence of a being…does not depend on whether our concept of that being is necessary for explanatory purposes.”

Smith describes belief in Santa. Santa’s main explanatory function is that he is the cause of the many presents under our Christmas trees on Christmas morning. And there is a huge conspiracy one has to overcome to overcome belief in Santa–not just mom and dad, but commercial outlets, media outlets, TV weather tracking (the sleigh’s flight), the postal service (not returning mail to the “North Pole”), and so on. Everyone at every level of our society seems to be a conspirator. And yet one glimpse of those presents in our parents’ closet from “Santa,” and no authoritative claims can hold us to that belief any longer. We don’t rationalize that Santa must simply be using our parents as a means to deliver the presents. (But we do tend to do that for god. And I’m not sure why.)

Smith addresses logical versus material “possibility”–mainly to explain that “logically possible” has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not a thing actually exists–which cannot be too strongly stressed. Both Santa and god are logically possible. But just as the packages sitting under the tree don’t need Santa in order to exist, neither has anyone shown that nature requires god as an explanation. In fact, “nature exists” provides just as much information as “god causes nature to exist,” since nobody has provided any specifics on what “god” is or how exactly it created the cosmos. The answer amounts to “it all got here by some sort of mysterious magic.”

What does it say about the existence of Santa or god if there is no perceptual difference whether either exists or not–if they serve no explanatory function? Once we know the presents will appear with or without Santa–what does that mean for us, intellectually? What would be our reasoning behind assuming X exists, if we perceive nothing of X?

I refer anyone to Carl Sagan’s “The Dragon in My Garage,” if you aren’t already familiar with it, as it beautifully illustrates this point:

http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/Dragon.htm

What Does it say about the existence of X if the world would operate in exactly the same way with or without X? What would be the reasoning behind a claim that X exists? Are we actually using god as an explanation for things that require no explanation? I reviewed the concept of “god answers prayers” that I found at this site, which breaks “how god answers prayer” into categories:

http://www.god-answers.org/Online_Tools/Sermons/PRAYER.htm

I addressed how these “answers” are identical to the results one would get without prayer. In the first category, “god answers prayer through his inspired word,” Christians would find comfort in reading their Bibles whether or not there was any divine intervention, because they believe in god and find comfort in that belief–whether it’s true or not. In the second category, “god answers prayer through natural law,” if natural law is an answer to prayers, it’s fairly obvious that a natural result would occur whether or not one prayed. In the third category, “god answers prayer though people and situations,” it’s very similar to the second; people help one another out all the time–whether or not prayers are incorporated. The fourth category was interesting, as it presumes both a dilemma and a solution, neither of which are not observable or verifiable: God answers prayers “in his own mind” by forgiving sins. Finally, in the event that the prayer is not answered, the Christian should presume god answered “no.” And the Christian is further advised in all prayer situations to “pray like everything depends on god and work like everything depends on you.”

But, if I work to achieve my goals as though I’m completely on my own–how does that differ fro
m how I’d work if I actually was completely on my own? Isn’t the underlying theme in both scenarios simply that “the harder I work to achieve my goals, the more likely I am to actually achieve them”? Does that require a supernatural explanation?

But even with all my hard work, in both scenarios, I still can fail. Remember: Sometimes god answers “no.” Sometimes I get what I want or need, and sometimes I don’t. Interestingly, this is exactly the case for those who do not pray. Why employ a divine explanation for an event that works the same way without divine intervention? Are we simply using god as an explanation for something that requires no explanation?

Creationism/ID also lacks explanatory function while additionally presenting Brian’s Dilemma; however, Brian’s Dilemma, in this case, isn’t even necessary–as Creationism presumes a dilemma that does not appear to even exist (much like the “forgiveness of sins” prayer scenario described earlier).

Creationism/ID posits that the universe, in all its precision, is proof of an intelligent/divine creator who built it for the sole purpose of creating a haven for perfect human existence. But if we point out what would count as flaws in that supposition–such as birth defects, plagues, or tsunamis, we’re told that flaws do indeed exist, because of sin. Ironically, the Creationist and the atheist agree the universe is not a utopia–that it is not perfectly suited to solely and completely benefit humans. Creationists, however, put forward that it was utopian at an earlier stage. Is it necessary to posit that the universe used to be utopian–but later fell into sin and fault–when we could, more easily, acknowledge that universe has probably never been ideally suited to sustain utopian human existence? Aren’t we, in the Creationist scenario, simply using god as an explanation for things that don’t require an explanation?

By making the first unfounded assertion, that the universe should be utopian, we then create the need for the additional explanation for why it’s not utopian. But why claim it was ever utopian in the first place?

If no god had a hand in the formation of this universe, it would make sense that some parts would suit some life–but other parts would not. It makes sense from a naturalistic perspective that when any sort of life arises in this huge, broiling, mostly inhospitable cosmos, that the environment would have to be at least somewhat hospitable–but necessarily utopian? I see no basis for that assertion. And, coincidentally, we all seem to agree that “suitable,” but not “utopian,” is exactly what we’re dealing with in observable reality. But, to support the explanatory need for god, Christians must assert it necessarily used to be utopian.

I also briefly addressed the ID claim of “specified complexity.” One site called it an “unambiguously objective standard” put forward by William Dembski:

http://www.origins.org/articles/indesignfaq.html

“Instead of looking for such vague properties as ‘purpose’ or ‘perfection’–which may be construed in a subjective sense–it looks for the presence of what it calls specified complexity, an unambiguously objective standard.”

I looked up “specified complexity” to see whether or not I agreed it was an “unambiguously objective standard”:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specified_complexity

“Dembski argues that it is impossible for specified complexity to exist in patterns displayed by configurations formed by unguided processes. Therefore, Dembski argues, the fact that specified complex patterns can be found in living things indicates some kind of guidance in their formation, which is indicative of intelligence.”

So, we first assume pattern X cannot naturally occur. We then find pattern X in nature. And rather than acknowledge that, “Well, I’ll be dogged–it does occur in nature,” we simply say that what we’re observing is not possible–even as it sits right before our eyes–and that it actually has to be the handiwork of a god–since our original assumption that this can’t occur in nature can’t possibly be incorrect.

Not only is that not objective, it’s poor, poor science. If a scientist hypothesizes X cannot do Y, then observes X doing Y, he must acknowledge his hypothesis is in error. For example, if I hypothesize that no animal can exist without a brain in nature, and I then discover jellyfish, is it more reasonable for me to assume that my original hypothesis was incorrect, or that jellyfish are unnatural divine manifestations?

Holding to what we believe in the face of independently verifiable, observable facts to the contrary is not an admirable character trait in anyone, but it is most especially egregious for someone commenting in the field of science.

All roads will necessarily lead to god when we start out with the presupposition that the proposition “there is no god” is an absolute impossibility. To such a Christian, there is simply no way the universe can exist without a god; and so, to this Christian, the universe requires a god–no matter what happens in the universe or in what state the universe exists. But even if the Christian could be presented with a universe scenario that would exclude the possibility of an existent god, it’s highly probable that this scenario would simply be set aside as a “mystery,” to be explained later, after we’re all dead—like so many other Christian “mysteries.”

When god becomes the default plug-in explanation for “whatever it is–however it is,” then god can no longer be differentiated from “whatever is.” And god is rendered, in such a case, as serving no explanatory purpose of any kind, exactly like Santa and Sagan’s Dragon, except that god has managed, somehow, to avoid their fate as recognized nonexistent items. Perhaps that’s a mystery that will be explained later, after we’re all dead?