How not to stage an atheist debate, part 2

To set the scene: I showed up with Ben at around 6:30 to pick up my tickets from Matt, and ran into Annie. She was already engaged in conversation with a guy in some kind of usher capacity, where he was saying “All I’m saying is, we both see things like the complexity of the cell, we both have the same evidence, but we just arrive at different conclusions.” Never one to waste time on the subtle approach, I jumped into the conversation: “That’s right. One of those conclusions is based on actual scientific analysis of the evidence, and one is not.”

We bantered like that for a bit longer before going in. As I said, the entrance was absolutely jam packed with tables selling, or perhaps giving away, copies of books by Hugh Ross, Lee Strobel, and that crowd. Ben (age 6) got a little green pocket edition of New Testament Psalms and Proverbs shoved into his hand by a guy lurking by the entrance. I told him a lot of people in the room were hoping that they could make him a Christian, and I said we could read the book later if he was interested.

The inside was similar… I found Don Rhoades to sit with, and he introduced us to the very Christian old couple on his other side that he got acquainted with. From behind me I caught a snatch of discussion: “Well I believe in the big bang… God said it and BANG, it happened.” No, seriously. Somebody thought that joke was clever enough to say out loud.

After the lights dimmed and introductions were made, Ross launched into his presentation. Hugh first made the very lofty claim that he had come up with a scientific, testable, and falsifiable model of creation. Hugh Ross first announced that he was not a young earth creationist, as the evidence points to a billions of years old universe just as science said. He also specified that he would not be defending Intelligent Design that evening… as we all know, ID scrupulously tries to avoid the mention of a God, and Ross wants his Christian deity front and center at all times.

Here’s a summary of Ross’s debating techniques:

  • Extremely cutesy PowerPoint transitions. I swear, every single page of his presentation involved a different wipe, fade, cut, 3d foldout, etc. I found it annoying, but an excellent foreshadowing of the total emphasis of style over substance.
  • Lots and lots and lots of quote mining. At every possible opportunity, Ross loves to quote an atheistic scientist who has said one or two lines that says something about the appearance of design. It happens all the time. Dawkins put it on the first page of Blind Watchmaker. He said biology is the study of things that appear to be design but aren’t, but then spent an entire book responding to how nature produced this apparent “design.” Ross, of course leaves out the book and uses the quote to make it sound like Dawkins is a design advocate. Similar atrocity committed against Lawrence Krauss. You have to wonder, if his case is so scientific, why can’t he quote some real, published scientists who actually believes in design, rather than faking it?
  • Steal credit from real science. As far as I can tell, Ross has never done any original scientific research. Here’s what he does instead: Cite a particular scientific discovery that has already been made, and then declare that this is a test of your creation model, which predicts it. Never mind that the people making the discover completely fail in every single instance to recognize the ramifications of their own theory as a point for design. Sure, they’re smart enough to actually do the science, but after that they’re too blinded by ideology to understand their own research.
  • Make one kind of prediction over and over again, which largely takes this form: “I predict that more evidence will be found to support my theory.” Wow, how specific!
  • That old Muslim apologist trick of claiming that your holy book anticipated the discoveries of science. Lots of Bible quotes. In most places he doesn’t put the actual verses on the slides, because then he might have to actually defend some extremely nonspecific language. Instead, he just throws up a page with 10-12 chapter and verse citations, and asserts that those verses were uncannily accurate. Don’t worry, who’s gonna cross-check in the middle of a debate anyway?
  • Tons of big numbers, very little justification. Ross says that there are a large number (let’s say it’s 547, because it doesn’t matter) of features of the universe that require a designer to account for. Like the Bible verses, certainly no one is going to look them up during the debate. In many cases, he uses the “creationist stand-up comedy” technique that I so love, of explaining how big a number is. “Boy I tell ya, that number was big!” “HOW BIG was it?” “Oh, it was SO BIG that…” In one place he announced a number in scientific notation and then said that it was more than a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. Confirming my suspicion that Ross relies on his ability to play to a largely innumerate audience, who don’t understand big numbers otherwise.

Anyway, in the end Ross’s “testable predictive model” boiled down to the fine tuning argument. That’s it. Take away the power point transitions, the big numbers, the Bible verses, the phony quotes, and you’re left with a series of claims that there is no explanation for feature X of the universe, therefore Magic Man Done It. As you would expect, he didn’t ever attempt to justify how Magic Man came to be, just asserted that it was the only alternative.

We know this as “God of the gaps” of course, but Ross was ready for that too: he said that BOTH sides have gaps, therefore it’s acceptable. Oh sure, nobody has complete knowledge; it’s just that Ross argues in a total knowledge vacuum, and then wants to say that this is equivalent to proving something with evidence.

I was already thoroughly irritated, and there was still another full creationist presentation to go. Why, Michael? Why did you agree to this format? First of all, I don’t see all that many other live debates where ANY participants is allowed to speak uninterrupted for thirty minutes to an hour. Usually there’s a back and forth exchange every ten minutes or so.

Second, if your opponent controls the format, and he tells you “Okay, MY side gets more than an hour, you get half an hour” you have an alternative. You threaten to walk. Will your opponent taunt and mock you, call you chicken? Yeah, but he’s going to taunt and mock and declare victory anyway, and he’s going to come off looking like he won even with the bullshit set of rules. If you owned a professional football team, would you sign a contract agreeing to a game where you only get the ball on 1/3 of the plays? No. That’s not brave, it’s gullible.

Let Ross preach to a room full of choir. He practically did that anyway… on the whole I think the debate gave him free publicity with not much down side for him.

To be continued.

How not to stage an atheist debate, part 1

As Martin announced on Sunday, last night at the UT campus Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things, among other things) held a debate against Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, authors of sever old earth creationist books and proprietors of reasonstobelieve.org. There were some other guys on Michael Shermer’s side too, UT Philosophy of Science professor Dr. Sahotra Sarkar and Biomedical Engineering chair Kenneth Diller. However, they did not do a full presentation, but were apparently only there as backup for the Q&A portion.

I took my son Ben to the debate, not because I thought he would get much out of it, but because I had him for the evening and I figured it couldn’t do him any harm. I gave him a six year old eye view of the creationism controversy, building on stuff I already told him about Galileo about religion’s frequent stance against science, and touching on the Scopes trial as well as talking about the evolution controversy today. Matt D. was in attendance and so were at least two other ACA members that I’m aware of, Don Rhoades (not Baker) and Annie.

In my perception, the debate was an unmitigated disaster. The debate was a prime example of everything I’ve been saying in these posts about how atheists and science defenders continually get suckered into debates where the theist controls the format, the topic, and the crowd. It’s almost enough to make me give my unconditional support to Eugenie Scott when she warns that you should seriously consider not debating at all.

When I talked to Matt last night he seemed to disagree, and if he doesn’t chime in we’ll be discussing it on The Non-Prophets this weekend. I plan to write several posts in this series, so you can see the updates quickly but still get around to all my notes eventually.

For now, here’s a quick list of grievances:

  1. Turnout. It was very clear that churches hyped the hell out of this. This was a big gymnasium filled with folding chairs; in the lobby there were at least three tables loaded with Christian apologetics books, and none on the atheist side. Without exception, every conversation I heard that did not involve an ACA member was dismissive of evolution.
  2. Format. Oh my dear FSM, what happened? Ross and Rana both got to speak uninterrupted back to back before Michael Shermer got up. Between them — I timed this — Ross and Rana clocked in at an hour and fifteen minutes, while Michael Shermer got just over thirty. The other two members got face time, but no presentation. By the time Shermer was done, people were already starting to leave anyway.
  3. Topic. Was there one? The proposed topic going in was “Was Darwin Wrong?” which is bad enough. (Yes, of course Darwin was wrong. Duh. Evolution isn’t wrong but Darwin was wrong about a great many aspects of it.) However, they didn’t make any pretense of discussing this topic. The opening PowerPoint slide said “Evolution & Intelligent Design,” then Hugh Ross proceeded to say he was not going to talk about Intelligent Design because he would be promoting a Christian “testable theory.” Any kind of constraints on the discussion were thrown out the window from the first minute.
  4. Sponsorship and moderation. The debate was sponsored by one or several Christian groups, and some guy from the UT Engineering department announced at the beginning that the department had also sponsored it, although this didn’t imply that they condone anything that was said. But rather than moderating, the chair introduced the speakers, and then two hours later used some Q&A time to further bash the evolution side and speak about the importance of mixing some religion in your science. (Matt was actually under the impression that he was billed on the creationist side. I looked up the fliers. He was not.)

That’s enough for now; expect more posts as the day goes on.

How to Stack a Deck

Last night I watched three episodes of a program called “Paranormal State.” It is billed as “true stories of a team of paranormal researches from the Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society.”

One episode was of the variety I find most disturbing. It involved a young autistic boy. I won’t examine that particular episode, but I’d like to offer the following:

Note to wack-a-loons: If you live your life in a state of paranoid freakout because you believe paranormal entities are trying to “get” you, don’t infect your kids with that fear. It’s not just a disservice, it’s mentally abusive to turn them into frightened little people who jump at shadows and every creak of an old home. If you’re truly that far out of touch with reality, do yourself a favor and buy new, because every pre-owned home or commercial building is going to come with some creaks and groans. A talk with a structural engineer, instead of a psychic, might do more good for you that you can imagine (even with your extreme level of fertile imagination). Freak yourself out till the ghosts come home, but don’t burden your kids with your personal, dysfunctional, mental baggage. I get that you “believe” it; that doesn’t make it sane.

In one of the episodes, I recall a woman was sleeping at her sister’s “haunted” house. She was in the haunted bedroom and felt a “presence” come out of the closet, approach the bed, and put pressure on her chest. She also heard toys moving in the closet.

Two words: Sleep Paralysis. It’s a condition, caused by a known malfunction of chemicals in the brain that are normally used to help regulate sleep and waking. It can cause, not surprisingly, feelings of a person/people in the room, auditory and visual hallucinations, and feelings of pressure on the chest, along with fear. It’s a common event, but it is not unheard of for an individual to have episodes only rarely. I have had episodes. And before I learned what it was I just called it that “thing where you can’t wake up.” The majority of the people I’ve mentioned it to respond with “Oh yeah, I think I’ve had that.” I’m guessing that this particular woman probably had her first episode (or first memorable episode) in this house, and due to the stories she’d heard, misattributed the incident to ghosts.

It was the final program, though, that really left me slack-jawed.

It was a historic Gettysburg home in a state of disrepair when it was purchased by a couple who intended to use it as a bed and breakfast. They put a lot of money into renovations, but didn’t really provide a detailed run down of what work had been done—what had been replaced, updated or renovated, and what parts of the home were still original. This information, I thought, should be significant if I’m investigating possible causes of unexplained noises in a home. Gettysburg, in case anyone isn’t familiar, was the scene of a lot of historic bloody battles and death. So, no surprise there are local tales of hauntings. And no surprise that the “psychic” who was brought in felt pain in his gut, saw blood and death, and believed someone there might have suffered a gunshot wound. Impressed?

Other than the minor creaks and cricks that any older home would produce, there were two really great clues that went negligently uninvestigated, which might have resulted in some solid answers and helped these homeowners out significantly. (Or, if they were investigated, the show failed to demonstrate it or mention it.)

First of all, this house presented the paranormal team with a tremendous opportunity to figure out what was happening—whether ghost or not. That opportunity was blown, blown, and blown again. But here’s what happened: Every morning at 3:02 a.m., on the money, the entire house “shudders.” This was caught on both video and audio. The concierge was the one who pinpointed the consistency of the event, and sure enough, 3:02 a.m.: brrruuumpty-bumpity-brump went rolling through the rooms.

Let’s be real here for a moment: It takes a bit of force to shake a house. If the supernatural manifested consistently (every night at 3:02 a.m.) with enough force to shake a house, it wouldn’t be so commonly considered as being in the realm of mental instability. That house shook in reality, not in somebody’s mind. But the type of force that shakes a house should be identifiable and measurable and, with an opportunity to observe it with nightly regularity, shouldn’t be any mystery. If your house shakes at the same time every night, that’s not a job for an exorcist, it’s a job for a structural engineer—the kind that inspects homes and can work with the city to figure out what’s happening with your house and your area that could cause such an event.

My first recollection was of being in a house when an aircraft flew overhead and created a sonic boom. It was extremely similar. Someone else I mentioned it to asked me if there were any trains that ran nearby? I have no idea, because that wasn’t investigated (or, again, if it was, it wasn’t presented).

Is there a train track nearby? An Airforce base? Any city pipes or lines under the street? Do the neighbors feel this tremor as well? Did anyone think to ask them? If they do, we know we’re not looking for a house ghost but something area wide that is impacting the neighborhood at large. If not, do they have the same sort of historic foundations and structural issues a restored historic building would have, or are they rebuilt as entirely new?

This house is a “historic” home—which means that there are restrictions on the types of upgrades and renovations the owners can apply to the home, unlike other structures in the neighborhood that may not be labeled “historic.” This house shudder is a consistent event that lends itself perfectly to easy and accurate identification. But if this team called the city or checked area municipal facilities, talked to a single neighbor or called an engineer to do an evaluation (which isn’t very expensive), they never showed it. And so it’s fair to say that it appears they’re completely negligent when it comes to investigating the most simple and obvious sources of things that can, and do, impact houses in the way these owners described.

If a ghost is the cause of this house shaking, and it shakes every night at 3:02 a.m. on the dot, that would be the single most credible and easy-to-confirm ghost event ever identified. It’s open to investigation by anyone, because it’s an undeniable, predictable, measurable manifestation. The first step, though, would be to actually do the leg work and hire the necessary credentialed professionals, outside the psychic community, to demonstrate the event defies natural explanation. I can’t express enough how disappointing it was that they bailed on even trying to find a mundane cause of this event before calling in the paranormal “experts.”

But the next event was just as much of a blown opportunity. The house “moans.” I’m not talking about a moan that can only be heard by audio taping in an empty room and then torturing the feedback on some machine that does nothing but distort the results until you get something akin to a moan. I find it interesting that in these voice recordings made in shows like this, the moment the “researchers” find any sound whatsoever, they go immediately to work on manipulating the ever-loving-heck out of the indiscernible noise until they get the result they want. Then they stop distorting the sound. It would appear that the sound they actually recorded isn’t what it was supposed to be. And all the variants that weren’t something that sounded like a voice saying whatever they wanted to hear, aren’t “right” either. The only “right” result, it seems, is when they get it mastered exactly to a point where, if the listener turns their head to just the right angle and strains sufficiently, it says
“get out” or “I am here” or some other such ghost movie dialogue. That’s how such sounds are “meant” to be perceived, and paranormal researchers know this because that’s precisely the sort of result they’re seeking.

So, they actually get three pretty solid “moans” on their audio/video tape. Impressive. Not just impressive, though, also somehow familiar. Familiar, as in I’ve-hear-this-sound-before familiar. My house makes this same sound. It happens whenever I forget to shut off the outside water, and then use water in the master bathroom. It’s a “sign” alright. It’s a sign I need to go back outside and shut off the outside water valve. What’s even funnier is that my house isn’t the only structure that makes this noise. At work, our office building makes the exact same “moan” on the sixth floor when the outside irrigation is running. Again, no exorcist required, just a certified plumber. Old pipes + restrictions on updates = a moaning house.

What else can I say? The other “evidence” is pretty obviously garbage:

“I feel a presence.”
“I saw a shadow.”
“I felt the room get cold.”
“I smelled perfume.”
“I heard a voice.”

I rely on my perceptions as much as the next person. But I would be the first one to admit that I’ve seen and heard things before that simply weren’t there. Ever seen a mirage on a hot road? Human perception is pretty good, but definitely imperfect. And the perceptions of a very frightened person are arguable even less reliable than those of a person that is not in a state of “you’re-in-grave-danger” brain chemical overload. Magicians and illusionists thrive on the fact that our brains can be easily misdirected. They do it on purpose for entertainment, but it can also happen quite naturally in mundane situations where nobody is actively trying to fool us.

Additionally, we don’t always understand what sorts of things might be in our environment that we’re completely unaware of. For example, electromagnetic energy can be found sometimes at high levels in homes with faulty or substandard electrical wiring—the sort of wiring you might find in an older home, especially one that has existed long enough to have a “history.” This energy has been demonstrated in controlled circumstances to cause anxiety and hallucinations—even (the perception of) OBEs. It affects your brain and your perception.

In my own home, after we’d moved in and lived there a few months, I decided to adjust the air vents in the ceiling to alter airflow in the house. When I got up close to the vent in our living room, I saw “something” blocking the vent. My husband removed the vent, and removed a bag. It was filled with potpourri. It turned out there was one of these bags of potpourri in every vent in our house. We had no idea.

We also have wild birds that crack bird seed on our roof, one especially likes to do this on our outside chimney. In the house, it sounds like something knocking/banging in our fireplace.

I have decorative “light catchers” in the trees in my backyard. They reflect lights and shimmers not just around the yard, but also in the house at different times of day. I put them in the yard, but my point is that reflections can create odd light and shadow, from across a street or from a neighbor’s yard.

There are no end to unusual things that can make smells, sights, sounds, and even feelings that we can’t immediately explain. But assuming a cause and then “investigating” only in ways that are most likely to give us the answers we prefer, rather than explain what is really happening, is something we have to work hard to avoid if we value a handle on reality over subjective prejudice.

If I want to know why my house shakes, and I call paranormal investigators, psychics and ghost energy specialists—and I don’t bother to call a structural engineer to come out and do an evaluation, no one should be surprised if I find out that ghosts are the cause of the events. I did everything in my power to ensure the results correlated to my desired outcome. I used only those tools prescribed to find a “ghost” and did not use any of the tools that might have found a more mundane (and reasonable) explanation—which might have proven to also be the accurate explanation.

While ghosts are like souls and souls relate to religion and god in the great majority of cases, and while credulity is something we examine at this blog, that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing this because a 14-year-old girl contacted the TV list recently to say that she wasn’t sure if there was a god or not. In order to find out, she read her Bible and prayed really hard. In the Bible she found a verse that said that whatever she prayed for, she’d get. So, she prayed for a “sign” from god—nothing spectacular, just something meaningful to her personally. She read and read and prayed and prayed and never got her sign. So now she thinks there is no god.

Then, just a few nights later, at the AE after-show dinner, I met someone who told me that when he was in elementary school, he can remember lying in bed, praying and crying, trying hard to believe because he was afraid that if he didn’t he’d burn in hell forever. He never got his sign, either. And eventually he told me, as he got older, the fear faded away.

I, personally, recall being about 15 when I prayed and prayed and read my Bible and begged in earnest for some “sign” to confirm god wanted me to believe and that he was there and willing to meet me halfway and help me, since I wanted so much to believe.

Unfortunately, for me, I got my sign. I won’t bore anyone with details (they’re at the ACA site in the Testimonials section if anyone cares), but I spent the next several years as a fundamentalist Christian, devoting my life in service to “Jesus.” Eventually I finally began to research the claims I’d accepted (most specifically from Josh McDowell) without examination, and I found I believed a load of indefensible false assertions. I went on as a theist, although not a Christian, for many more years, until I ultimately came to understand what I meant by “god” was just a metaphor. But for my years as a Christian, I can honestly say my life was not my own (as any good servant of the Lord will tell you—“not my will, but Thine…”) as I fervently devoted myself wholly to a fantasy. Years down the drain that I will never see again. Next time a theist tells you that if they’re wrong they lose nothing—feel free to tell them they’re wrong. If they’re devoted to their beliefs in the way the Bible demands for salvation, they’ve lost their very lives.

Meanwhile, the common thread in these tales is that we three (me, the girl, and the man at dinner) all used the methods prescribed by the church to figure out if what they were telling us to accept as true was valid. We let them stack the deck just as surely as the men and women on Paranormal State stacked the deck by not calling an engineer, but a psychic. We prayed and read the Bible and begged the very god we were supposed to be verifying. We used only those methods that would most likely yield the desired result of belief; and, in my case, I was willing to subjectively interpret just about anything as the “sign” I was seeking. Just like the homeowners on Paranormal State, we were motivated by fear. Unbelievers don’t pray and plead to the air and devote themselves to Bible study, to find answers upon which, in their minds, nothing rides. But stressed and terrified children do.

Children are convinced they’ll suffer horribly and eternally if they choose disbelief rather than belief. Then they’re told that the only way to know if it’s true is to read the Bible and pray and trust and dispel doubts. That is why, funny as many adult theists might seem, a part of my heart will always be reserved for compassion toward them because I u
nderstand firsthand the force it takes to brainwash a child and keep them that way long into adulthood. It’s quite a trick. You actually beat the child up so badly mentally that even when you’re not around, they keep beating themselves up for you.

I know that for every wingnut fundamentalist, someone’s life has been hijacked. Having lived it myself, I can’t help but feel a desire to see these people happy and well again. I want to give them back that understanding that every child deserves—that they are worthwhile and valuable as human beings—completely as they are, “imperfections” and all, without some supernatural fantasy to provide them with the sort of validation their parents and community should have provided them, but didn’t, because they participated in a religion that dehumanizes us and degrades us and teaches us to feel guilt and guile toward our very nature—with which there is nothing demonstrably wrong. Some of life is wonderful. Some of life is horrible. It’s a lot of different things rolled up into an existence that is part circumstance and part what we make it. To every child who has been or is being told that they need forgiveness for being human, that telling a lie or doubting justifies their condemnation and eternal torture, or that their will doesn’t matter, I say, “You are fine, just as you are; and if others can’t see that, it’s not your problem or your fault. The people trying to make you believe you’re nothing may have their hearts in the right place, but their heads are on completely backwards. Don’t let them tear you down and doubt yourself until you’ll trust anything except your own ability to make a judgment for yourself.”

I wrote back to the 14-year-old. I told her to consider something beyond the fact that she got no sign. I told her to ask herself what she would do if she wanted to learn about black holes. Would she sit in her room and think very hard about black holes and ask black holes to reveal themselves to her so she could know all about them? Or would she read about the data collected on black holes and the research and findings and evidence for them? What is the best way to find out if any Claim X is true? Certainly it’s not to immerse yourself only in the writings of those making the claim you’re trying to evaluate, and then repeatedly take part in a mental ritual where you pretend you believe the claim and keep beating yourself up for not believing it while you beg, tearfully, for any reason to accept it as true.

Surely anyone can see the problem with praying to the god whose existence I’m attempting to evaluate? Such a maneuver requires a presupposition that the god is actually there to begin with. That’s stacking the deck. That’s manipulating the sound byte results until I hear “get out,” or only having a psychic, not a plumber, assess the “moaning” in my house. It’s not a way to guarantee I’ll find what I’m looking for; but it’s a incredibly good way to strongly and favorably influence the possibility of a positive outcome in finding that a god exists. When I “find god” under such circumstances, it should be no more of a surprise than the psychic finding that a spirit, and not a stressed water pipe, is causing the moan.

Today’s pareidolia

“People think I’m some holier-than-thou person trying to get rich. I’m not,” Grayhek said. “The purpose is to spread the story of God and eBay is just a vehicle.”

No, the purpose is to bank some extra cash during hard times by pandering to the stupidest demographic in America, whose numbers are sadly vast. Is this a great country or what?

This week in Austin: yet another evolution/ID debate

Christians still don’t seem to have gotten the memo from Dover that ID is dead deader deadest, and they’re still trying to find public forums in which to flog its corpse. I’m not sure they should be accorded the courtesy of a debate by legitimate scientists any more. More and more I tend to agree with the views of those who say these debates, by virtue of occurring at all, send a message that ID must have some scientific legitimacy, otherwise why would major universities be hosting the debates in the first place.

That’s not the case, of course. Any student group can book facilities at their university, and so another one of these debates is taking place this coming Tuesday at 7. Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer will be one of three folks on the pro-science side, taking on two creationists, Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, of Reasons to Believe. These guys, like Behe, have scientific backgrounds, and I know Shermer and Ross have debated before. Despite Ross’s CV’s, though, I must say, I’ve seen some episodes of the Reasons to Believe show on TBN, and was, let us say, amused. On one episode as I recall, Ross tried to answer one aspect of the problem of evil — that of “natural” evils like earthquakes — in this way: that God needs earthquakes because that his way of moving minerals through the Earth’s crust.

I wish I could make stuff like that up, people.

As for Shermer, well, here’s the deal. I like the man, like what he does to promote skepticism, have liked some of his books. I also worry about how he’ll handle himself in this debate, because he’s the kind of guy who — well, I don’t know if it’s too strong to call him a “Neville Chamberlain atheist,” but he is inclined towards trying to find a conciliatory middle ground between religion and science that I just don’t think works. I’ll post a review of his book Why Darwin Matters soon to explain what I mean.

Whatever Shermer ends up saying, I know we won’t have to worry about such “we are the world” namby-pambiness from another of the pro-science debaters, Sahotra Sarkar. This guy takes the gloves right off. In early 2002 he debated that supreme nitwit Kirk Durston at UT, and utterly shamed him. I suspect Ross and Rana will be licking their wounds after a few rounds of Sarkar’s debate-fu.

Of the third pro-science debater, Kenneth Diller, I know nothing. I don’t know if he’ll be moderating the debate and the CFI site has him mis-listed as a participant, or what.

Now here’s the sad bit: I’ll be out of town for this. So we’ll have to rely on a report from Kazim or Matt or someone else on the crew. But I’m sure it will be a night to remember.

One complaint a lot of us have already made: The title of the debate is “Was Darwin Wrong?”, which is a fine example of that problem Kazim has discussed here, which is that so many of these debates — planned as they tend to be by the religious side &#151 come front-loaded with assumptions favoring the religious position. Was Darwin wrong? About what? There were several things Darwin was wrong about. But evolution by natural selection isn’t one of them, as 150 years of solid science have shown. A better title might have been “Which has greater evidence, evolution or intelligent design?” But that would put poor Reasons to Believe at a serious disadvantage, I suppose, and reveal their reasons to believe are fragile things indeed.

Patriotic irony

A few recent commenters asked what we thought about our idiot governor deciding that it’s okay to threaten to remove our state from the United States.

In case the adjective immediately preceding “governor” didn’t clue you in, let me elaborate. I may not speak for everyone here, but I think it’s ridiculously ironic. For most of the last administration, atheists, war dissidents, and other groups to which I do or don’t belong, have been casually tarred with epithets like “unAmerican” and “traitors” for criticizing a political administration, organizing protests, and mocking the president.

Yet now what have we got? We’ve had a new president for all of four months, and an extremely high profile Republican threatens an obviously, literally treasonous act, and tries to incite a do-over for the Civil War.

Ron Paul also also weighed in with his own inane contribution. Paul says:

“Well, they don’t know their history very well, because if they think about it… it is very American to talk about secession. That’s how we came in being. Thirteen colonies seceded from the British and established a new country. So secession is a very much American principle.”

Um, yeah. You know what? When America “seceded” from their status as a colony, it was because they hated Great Britain. In starting a revolution, they were most definitely committing treason against that country. They were traitors to Great Britain.

That’s not to say that I disagree with their actions, that’s just a fact. They made a political calculation that they could spit in the eye of their political leaders and win, and they did win.

But come on, let’s call a spade a spade. When a small minority of my state’s leadership declares that they want to leave America, they are actually, explicitly saying that they hate America, and they would like to commit treason against this country, in exactly the same manner as the founding fathers committed treason against King George.

And hey, if that’s what floats your boat, go ahead and hate America. Unlike some pundits, I’m not calling for anybody’s execution. I’m just saying, FUCK all of you people who ever accused some group or another of hating America and are now calling for a revolution against my country. Hypocrites.

Anyway, the governor of Texas doesn’t even have the authority to make us leave. The governor doesn’t have unilateral powers to decide what the state will do. So when the legislature starts passing stuff other than finger-wagging, then we’ll worry.

No, we haven’t all died

I know, a week and a half without a new post is a long time for any blog to go, especially one with a pretty strong readership we’d like to keep. (Hugs!) It’s just one of those times when real life intrudes, I suppose, and none of us has found the time to work blogging into our schedules. I’ll do my best to improve that situation for my own part. Everyone else, well, they post rarely enough as it is, so they’ll drop by when they see fit, I’m sure. (Condescending snicker.)

I must say, it has been kind of nice to take a breather, away from the daily cataloguing of the absurdities of the righteous. Still, there are some things going on, and so it’s a good time to haul my fat ass back up into the saddle and get this old nag back on the road again.

The biggest news down Austin way has been the confirmation hearings for that assrocket Dan “Stand Up To The Experts” McLeroy. Our bold and equally rebellion-minded governer Rick “Secede!” Perry reappointed McLeroy to chair the Texas State Board of Education in 2007, but his reappointment requires the Senate Nomination Committee’s approval, apparently, and today, his confirmation hearing was held. The Texas Freedom Network liveblogged it, and they have a high old time unpacking all of Mac’s prevarications as he was up at the mic defending himself and the SBOE. It sounds as if McLeroy did an absolutely awesome job of digging his own grave today. I hope the Committee realizes that statements like this…

5:37 -McLeroy says almost everyone in his church rejects evolution and supports creationism. He describes himself as a young Earth creationist. He says he tells reporters that he wants to be up front and honest about his beliefs. “I think it’s a pretty rational view.”

…are tantamount to the man just standing up and shouting “Disqualify me!” I mean, cripes, this is like asking General Motors shareholders and board of directors to appoint as CEO of the company a man who says, “Well, I’m pretty sure that cars are powered by a combination of giant wound-up rubber bands and a couple dozen hamsters on treadmills concealed within the engine block. I think that’s a pretty rational view.”

I mean, here’s a man boasting of how totally uneducated he is, and he’s expecting Senate confirmation?

McLeroy really does appear to have been grilled. At least one senator has stated his intention to oppose Mac’s confirmation, and other senators on the committee don’t sound terribly sympathetic to him. Let us hope that the vote goes the right way, and Texas will finally start back on the proper path in how it educates its students, without extremist religious ideology and the personal beliefs of SBOE members constantly setting up roadblocks that unnecessarily impede the whole process, solely for the gratification of the egos of McLeroy and his idiot YEC posse.

Reflections on a lazy Sunday

Apparently the Christians had some big holiday today. I thought today would be a good day to gaze upon all the signs and wonders in this big wide world of ours and make an assessment of just how vividly their God is — um — making his presence known. Or not.

  1. Well, somebody must have pissed the Big G off in New Hampshire. While worshipers at the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center were celebrating Zombie Jesus, a fire broke out that eventually barbecued 52 of the center’s buildings. All I could think of here was, “They had 52 buildings? Whatever for?” Maybe God was wondering the same thing, and this little conflagration was by way of being a friendly suggestion they ought to consolidate. Or at least, add fire extinguishers to the budget next time.
  2. Now, here’s the kind of article one has to be careful with, because it can come across as making fun of death and misfortune, which I’d only ever do if the person in question was Ann Coulter or Garth Brooks. In this case, a retired priest in Pennsylvania plowed his car into a group of worshipers following a Good Friday service, killing one, 89-year-old Madeline Romell. My response to this is a combination of “Poor lady” and “What a dumbass!” Yes, I’m sure he’s horrified about the accident and all. But the elephant in the room no one’s discussing? Why, the fact that God did nothing to prevent this unnecessary tragedy, even something small and entirely within the skillset of an all-powerful being, like causing one of the car’s tires to blow out, or the fuel line to be clogged. Christians offer comfort to themselves by claiming God allows these kinds of tragedies as a way of sending us a message or teaching us some obscure lesson. What will they say it was in this case, I wonder? Stupid accident, some poor old woman dead, other people hurt, and all they’d been doing was praising you, God old boy. So, you know. WTF? Oh yes. You’re imaginary.
  3. And last but not least, our latest bout of criminal Christians, including the Sunday School teacher who has been arrested and accused of the murder of that 8-year-old girl in California, and the 42-year-old Focus on the Family employee charged in Colorado Springs with attempting to solicit sex online from what he thought was an adolescent girl, but was actually — what will they think of next!? — a cop posing as an adolescent girl! D’oh! Insert obligatory “Bubba’s bitch” jokes here. Funnily enough, this later arrest came on the day James Dobson was giving his organization his farewell address, bemoaning that the Christian Right had pretty much lost the “culture war” and that we were all “awash in sin.” Thing is, the “sin” he’s thinking of was not in reference to the actions of his own employee, but seems to be limited to Bill Clinton and the internet. Hell, if that’s all it took to beat you guys, you really weren’t trying. Then again, Jim, if, as you claim, “God is in control” still, then you might want to consider what that means for His opinion of you, considering your bleak admission of defeat, eh?

And in other news, Jesus and Generalissimo Francisco Franco are still dead.

Religion fails to provide believers with sound epistemological tools

Wow. That original correspondent from the email I dissected in Wednesday’s post, whose name I now know but will not reveal out of courtesy, has replied. She’s written a very lengthy, sincere, eloquent, and almost entirely misguided letter in which she basically confirms an opinion I’ve held for a long time (and one which I share with blogger Dawson Bethrick): The reason religious people so readily accept the silliest beliefs, and defend them so earnestly even when they are shown to have no sound basis in fact for holding their beliefs, is that religion in general and Christianity in particular fail to provide believers with the right epistemological tools for distinguishing fact from fantasy. This is all over this correspondent’s latest letter, to which I’m replying in parts due to its length. Here’s the first bit. Hopefully you’ll find some of this an interesting insight into the believer’s mind, and my replies to be worthwhile explanations as to how and why they get so much so wrong.


She begins:

Thank you for writing. Do you mind if we continue? I’m going to assume you are okay with that. I really do enjoy a good debate. It does not threaten my faith at all. I have walked this road already. I have demanded God tell me, show me and some things He has and sometimes He has said, No, just like any good father who really knows what his child needs.

I would not continue this debate if you were not a man of reason, but you are, and so…

1. “Whether this god that believers wants us to believe in is wise, creative, loving, vengeful, long suffering, or however (and one thing we always see is that believers define God in a way that makes God most appealing to them personally, which is why your God is kind and long suffering and the God of, say, Donald Wildmon is a total homophobe and the God of white supremacists is a racist), none of God’s supposed character traits matters. Describing a being for which we have no credible evidence in appealing ways is not in and of itself evidence. It doesn’t make the being more worthy of belief just because it’s a really really nice being.

There is only one true God and so just like your belief that there is no God discredits the one true God so does anyone else’s false beliefs, such as the man-made God of the white supremacists or Donald Wildmon’s (don’t know who he is) homophobe god. These false gods do not cause the one true God not to exist they simple muddy the waters. Let’s say an car accident happens. There are five witnesses. Each gives a different testimony because of their vantage point at the time of the accident, maybe because of their selfish desire to gain from the accident, etc. Did the accident still happen or do we say the accident didn’t happen because all five testimonies are different?

This is what is known in military terms as a “target rich environment.”

My replies:

It’s going to take a while to respond to your latest email, since it’s lengthy and will require a lot of detail. It’s nice of you to write, and I enjoy these debates too. What I will say, and in the friendliest possible way, is that, like most other believers who contact us or call our show, you seem to confuse and conflate a lot of issues. You seem to think emotion is a cognitive tool, when it isn’t. You don’t really seem to know how knowledge works; you confuse knowing something with pretending to know something. You also take for granted the existence of your God, which I’d expect you to do, but then you use this as the basis for a number of your arguments (relying on “God of the Gaps” in many instances), which is the wrong way to go about things completely, because you need to realize that before you can base an argument on “God says…” or “God wants…”, you have to prove your God’s existence first. Arguing with a nonbeliever from the assumption that God exists means you’re going to be talking past one another the whole time.

I’ll start with the first couple of questions, do the rest in a second email. I’d appreciate it if you’d hold your responses till I answer all your questions, because otherwise I’m put in the very time-consuming position of replying to your next set of replies as well as the rest of the first set.

There is only one true God

See, here you go with your first mistake right out of the gate. You have NOT established this claim as factual. I understand about your faith, and how believing this has given you emotional fulfillment, and all that, and you have taken those personal and subjective feelings as some sort of validation of the truth of your beliefs. Yes, that’s how religion works. It bypasses the rational mind, goes straight to the limbic system, and confuses the irrational and the rational in believers’ minds. But we need to cut through all that here, and just stick to basic fact finding. As I said in my last email, a fact is a fact regardless of how you feel about it.

So, in order to establish the above as factual, you need to:

A) Define what you mean by God. What kind of being is this? Is it bigger than a breadbox? Does it have metabolic processes? Does it eat and sleep? However you answer those questions, you have to then explain HOW you know, and present me with means by which I can independent verify your answers. (Hint: “Prayer” doesn’t count.) This is called testing a claim’s falsifiability, and it’s a key factor in determining scientific truths. And whether you like it or not, the claim “there is one true God” is one entirely appropriate to examination by the scientific method.

B) Define what you mean by “one true God.” Once we establish what a God is in the first place, how do you arrive at the distinction between a true one and a false one? What you don’t understand is that you only happen to think the Christian God is “true” because you grew up in a Christian culture. If you had grown up in a Shintoist culture you’d have a very different idea of what “true God” meant, and you’d be just as devout and insistent about that as you are here. I’ll go into more detail below.

and so just like your belief that there is no God discredits the one true God so does anyone else’s false beliefs, such as the man-made God of the white supremacists or Donald Wildmon’s (don’t know who he is) homophobe god. These false gods do not cause the one true God not to exist they simple muddy the waters.

Again, what epistemological tools are you employing here to determine that their gods are false and yours is “true”? Shall I give you a hint? You’re not employing any. This is a perfect example of what I was trying to explain to you, when I said that emotions do not help you determine facts in any way, nor are they something you “have to” bring to bear when faced with gaps in your knowledge.

Now, you might offer such “evidence” as “God has spoken to me” or “God has answered my prayers.” But here’s the kicker. All those people you think worship false gods come back at you and say the same thing! Uh oh! Now where are you? Will you continue to insist that their gods are false, and therefore any message these people may have thought they heard from their gods are merely demonic deceptions, or simply those people talking to themselves? Whoops! Here they go again, saying the same thing about you! Dangit!

This is a serious problem you’ve got here, and I think you need to take time to think it over. From what I’m reading here, and from (many!) similar conversations I’ve heard from other believers, my conclusion here is that your religion (religion in general, actually) does not provide its followers with the right tools to tell facts from comforting fantasies. You certainly don’t seem to have those tools.

I’m not trying to be mean, just honest. In order to get past this problem (and this will be difficult for you), you real
ly need to ask yourself how you would explain to someone like me, for instance, how it is possible to distinguish that your god of choice is the “true” one and their god of choice is the “false” one. And (here’s the difficult part) you need to divorce your emotional commitment to your beliefs from the process, because the methods you provide need to be independently verifiable by pretty much anyone, especially people who have a far different emotional history and character than you. So strip away the subjective and concentrate on the purely objective.

Let’s say an car accident happens. There are five witnesses. Each gives a different testimony because of their vantage point at the time of the accident, maybe because of their selfish desire to gain from the accident, etc. Did the accident still happen or do we say the accident didn’t happen because all five testimonies are different?

You do love your analogies, don’t you? :-) Just make sure the one you’re employing is an appropriate fit for the argument you’re making. This analogy fails on a basic point.

In a traffic accident, there will be physical evidence of the event. Eyewitnesses my be interviewed, but ultimately, their testimonies won’t have to be the only things relied upon to determine the facts of the accident.

And this is your big stumbling block: Your religious beliefs have only testimonies and unsupported claims backing them up. Determining whether they are true or false is just about as opposite a process from investigating a traffic accident as you can conceive. Like, 180 degrees the other way.

Her next point:

2. “See, you might as well ask, “Why wouldn’t you want to believe in a loving and sweet magical pink flying unicorn who will give you rides to the Candy Mountain?” The same answer applies: What is the sense in embracing such a belief?”

We both know that comparing God to unicorns or fairies is like comparing Christopher Columbus to bugs bunny. There is real credible testimony or proof for magical pink flying unicorns. There is credible testimony and proof for God. Creation is proof and Jesus is testimony, to name just two examples. Yes you have to believe his testimony and the testimony of his followers just like you have to believe the testimony of the witnesses at a trial and Jesus already told us that there will be some who refuse his testimony and the testimony of his followers and Jesus knows there is nothing that will change their opinion in heaven or under the earth. Free will has a way of doing that. Have you ever been a witness to something? Have you ever had your testimony refuted. Did it make your testimony false just because that person wouldn’t believe you. Or on the other hand, did your testimony become true just because someone believed it?

Creation offers proof everywhere. From the magic of new life to the decay of the old and how it all works, from the earth’s exact position from the sun and it’s revolution. Where does all the energy from the sun come from? We know that energy naturally slowly depletes. And if we really need to go back to the beginning to find out how God came into creation then you need to use that same argument for your belief. Where did the first primortal sludge or neutron or gas or whatever you believe was the first thing to start evolving, come from?

Don’t you love us here at AE for dealing with this stuff? Here are my replies to #2.

We both know that comparing God to unicorns or fairies is like comparing Christopher Columbus to bugs bunny.

No, it’s like comparing Bugs Bunny to Daffy Duck. Christopher Columbus was a real historical figure, for whose life the evidence is sound. There is no good reason to think of God as any less a fictional character than unicorns or Bugs. (Certainly none that you’ve provided.)

There is real credible testimony or proof for magical pink flying unicorns.

Uh, I’m going to assume you meant “There is NO real credible testimony or proof for magical pink flying unicorns.” Otherwise, I’d really start to worry about you.

There is credible testimony and proof for God. Creation is proof and Jesus is testimony, to name just two examples.

Nope, and here’s why. We have no verifiable, extra-Biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. (The passages in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews are widely held to be later insertions.) Personally, I happen to think the character was likely inspired by a real person. But beyond that, we have no way to verify any of the claims concerning Jesus, particularly the supernatural claims, as conveyed in the NT.

Since I know how you’ll probably respond to this, let me save you trouble. How can we decide not to trust historical claims about Jesus, and yet accept them about other historical figures, like George Washington or Julius Caesar? The basic answer is we cannot take all those at face value either, and historians know this, which is usually why a number of sources are pooled in order to get to any kind of approximation of truth about historical people and events.

In the case of Washington, we can pool a great number of direct records about his presidency, but then we get to dismiss the popular myths, like chopping down the cherry tree, when we realize they’re not supported and are extremely fanciful anyway.

In the case of Jesus, even if we had ironclad evidence of a real person’s existence right now, how do we confirm the supernatural claims? (Hint: “The Bible says…” doesn’t count.) Walking on water? The virgin birth (borrowed from at least two previously existing religious traditions at the time of Jesus)? The 500 witnesses? We only have Paul’s word about them. Why didn’t he give us their names, allow them to write their own accounts? The resurrection, which all four Gospels give a radically different account of?

Without any possible way to verify these things independently, we have to bring in our understanding of myths and legends of the time. People routinely created these kinds of stories about prominent figures in those days. Supernatural stories about the gods anointing Roman generals before battle were told, and fervently believed, by Roman legionnaires. All throughout history, certainly long before the development of the scientific method, people have sought to explain what they otherwise cannot through the creation of myths and legends.

Your beliefs are no different.

Yes you have to believe his testimony and the testimony of his followers just like you have to believe the testimony of the witnesses at a trial and Jesus already told us that there will be some who refuse his testimony and the testimony of his followers and Jesus knows there is nothing that will change their opinion in heaven or under the earth.

All of this is hopelessly wrong.

I don’t have to believe a thing that isn’t supported by credible evidence. There is no requirement for a jury to believe the testimony of witnesses at a trial, because witnesses can lie, just as in the traffic accident analogy you gave above. Eyewitness testimony is, in fact, not held to be reliable on its own in court, and is called “hearsay” for that very reason. (Actually, I made a slight error here — see addendum for details.) It’s the physical evidence the prosecutor is going to have to show, if he wants to win his case. You’re insisting I have to accept your religious beliefs on hearsay. Sorry, no sale. No more than I would simply rely on hearsay to send a guy to jail for life.

So what if Jesus is supposed to have warn
ed that people would not believe him? This fact alone does not establish the truth of anything. I could say right now, “Yesterday I flapped my arms and flew to Mars, but most people will say I’m crazy and nothing on earth will change their minds.” That still wouldn’t prove I actually flew to Mars.

I’m trying to explain to you how we know things, and how we differentiate that what what we only think we know, or from what we simply believe or want to be true. I don’t if it’s sinking in, but I hope I’m being clear all the same.

Free will has a way of doing that. Have you ever been a witness to something? Have you ever had your testimony refuted. Did it make your testimony false just because that person wouldn’t believe you. Or on the other hand, did your testimony become true just because someone believed it?

You’re kind of confusing your argument here, because it’s no longer clear whether you’re arguing that testimony alone should be good enough (which is what you started arguing), or if you’re suddenly agreeing with me that it isn’t, and that evidence also must play a role. I’m going to take a wild guess and continue here on the basis of the former.

If I were in a situation where it was my word against someone else’s, I would have to realize that 1) I may be right or I may be wrong, and 2) even if I’m confident I have my facts straight, I will NEED TO PROVIDE STRONG EVIDENCE IF I WISH MY TESTIMONY TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY.

I hope you’re noticing that every example you give comes back to this: eventually it all comes back to evidence. You are trying (very earnestly, I’ll give you credit for that!) to construct an argument in support of the position that in the absence of evidence, it’s right and proper to fall back on emotions and faith to determine the truth. What you are in fact doing is presenting me with examples that always have me leading you back to evidence, regardless of whatever your emotional investment in the outcome might be.

Since you are fond of analogies, let me give you one relating to your courtroom example: Let’s say you’re on a jury where a guy is on trial for murder. Let’s say the crime scene was compromised and there was no good physical forensic evidence pointing to the accused. But there are several witnesses on the stand, and boy, they’re all very sympathetic. They’re crying a lot, and they really seem to be decent, upstanding, sincere people. They may even go to church! And they go on and on about how they always knew the accused and the victim really didn’t like each other, and had had loud arguments in the past, and so on. And so based on this very sincere and heart wrenching testimony, you vote to convict the guy, even though all the prosecutor had was hearsay. Five years later he’s put to death.

A few years after that, it turns out that DNA evidence is recovered from a weapon belonging to another person entirely, and both that person’s DNA and the victim’s DNA are on the weapon. Furthermore, more physical evidence has arisen that puts the poor chump who just got executed 20 miles away at the time of the killing. It’s official. All that emotional testimony, sincere emotional testimony from decent people, was horrifically wrong. And now an innocent man has been executed for it, for which you’re partly responsible.

This may seem an extreme example. But situations like it have happened. And I hope, if nothing else, you can see just how wrong you are to insist anyone “has to” trust eyewitnesses in a trial, because without real confirmation, the results can be wrong, and have horrible consequences. Emotion is clearly not the bridge we must use to cross gaps in our knowledge. It can lead us astray in the worst possible ways!

Creation offers proof everywhere. From the magic of new life to the decay of the old and how it all works, from the earth’s exact position from the sun and it’s revolution. Where does all the energy from the sun come from? We know that energy naturally slowly depletes. And if we really need to go back to the beginning to find out how God came into creation then you need to use that same argument for your belief. Where did the first primortal sludge or neutron or gas or whatever you believe was the first thing to start evolving, come from?

Since I don’t have time to run you through a full battery of remedial science courses, I’ll simply mention that there are very highly developed fields of scientific endeavor, peopled by well educated professionals with a true sense of awe about the universe and everything in it, who have dedicated their lives to the study of these questions and what evidence might point to.

Do we know everything there is to know about the universe? Not even close. But that is the greatest strength of the scientific method. One must always be open to new ideas and see where the latest evidence takes you. Sadly this is an openness you have closed yourself off to, since you opened this letter with the statement “It does not threaten my faith at all,” which is pretty much an admission you aren’t willing to accept the possibility you might be wrong. (And the irony of your demanding that I be “open minded” to belief in God while in the same letter boasting of your own closed-mindedness has been noted.) I will say in all confidence that, yes, I and every working scientist alive are a lot more open minded to new evidence and answers than you are, by your own declaration. The thing is, it has to be evidence in the first place.

More replies later, maybe tomorrow. Remember, do me the favor of holding off replying until I get them all in, so that I’m not backtracking and having to keep track of two sets of replies at once.


Her email had a whopping 15 numbered points. I probably won’t have to time to do each and every one, but I’ll continue with the salient ones soon enough.


Addendum: Actually, uncorroborated eyewitness evidence presented in court is not quite what’s defined legally as “hearsay.” That term refers to statements made outside of the court that one side or the other is attempting to present, without the speaker having been under oath when the statement was made.