“50 Popular Beliefs” now available

If you enjoyed our interview with Guy P. Harrison last weekend, why not show him some support and pick up the new book?

Harrison’s new book challenges popular beliefs

Author Guy P. Harrison, a former Grand Cayman resident now living in southern California, has written a new book that is attracting high praise. 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think are True is a skeptical grand tour of extraordinary claims and unusual beliefs, including UFOs, psychics, near-death-experiences, ghosts, intelligent design, alternative medicine, alien abductions, conspiracy theories, faith healing, astrology, doomsday predictions, Atlantis and more.

Why is pseudoscience so appealing?

This weekend I borrowed Beth’s copy of The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. Lynnea and I sometimes read to each on car trips, and neither of us have read it in several years. Since Lynnea has been watching “Cosmos” on Netflix, it seemed like a good book to revisit. Also, one of the most common questions we at the Atheist Experience receive is: “As a new atheist, what books should I think about reading?” I always, always recommend Demon Haunted World first. It’s not a book about atheism, it’s a book about critical thinking, and in my opinion that is the first tool that recovering theists need to have no matter what their ultimate philosophical bent will be.

It’s fun to revisit an old favorite. Reading chapter one, I read Carl Sagan’s story about meeting a taxi driver who was full of wonder and enthusiasm in learning about the natural world… but unfortunately it was all misdirected into pseudoscience. Crystals, Atlantis, horoscopes, faith healing…he believed it all. Sagan suggest s that the man’s passion for pseudoscience could have been — should have been — channeled into scientific curiosity from an early age. But unfortunately, his teachers failed to inspire wonder and excitement for science, which ultimately led him to swallow all these nonsensical claims in the thirst to feed his quest for “knowledge.” Sagan waxes poetic about astronomy and biology, and he wonders why the driver hadn’t ever managed to get so turned on by these real scientific subjects

Of course I love Carl Sagan’s work and enjoy hearing his thoughts again, but after so many years of dealing with callers’ misconceptions about science on a one-on-one basis, I was surprised to find the question a little bit naive. Actually, I think that it’s easy to understand why pseudoscience beats real science, if you just think about the two concepts as competing memes.

Like all memes, concepts within both science and pseudoscience are in constant competition for brain space, and “try” (in a metaphorical sense) to infect as many minds as possible, and to stick in those minds in the long term. But the strategies they use are different. Science has one set of rules for survival, and pseudoscience has a different set. To put it another way, their fitness algorithm is different.

On one hand, a scientific meme lives or dies based on how closely it matches reality. If the meme is untestable, or if it directly conflicts with some known principle of reality, then it dies a gradual death. Researchers don’t find it useful; don’t propagate in their work; don’t refer back to it in other peer reviewed papers; don’t insert it as a critical fact in textbooks; and it is eventually forgotten (or else, like Lamarckian inheritance, it is remembered as a contrast to a meme that won).

On the other hand, a pseudoscience meme does not have any such restriction. Since there is no peer review in the world of pseudoscience, the concepts can only survive based on how many people like them. In other words, they survive solely by being compelling and interesting to a lot of people. So in the battle for headspace in the “wow that’s cool” part of the brain, science is not going to win.

Of course I’m not saying that real science can’t be exciting and interesting. Once you have a grounding in scientific inquiry, the process of measuring things against reality and studying all the complex information about the world we’ve accumulated can be very appealing. But I am saying that being exciting cannot be the criterion for judging science. if we threw out all the science it wasn’t sexy then we’d lose a lot of important discoveries. Science is in the business of figuring out what’s true, regardless of whether the facts are fun or not.

By contrast, pseudoscience is free to follow what TV Tropes calls “The Rule of Cool.” If you are writing a novel, a show, or a movie, you create your own reality. In this reality, it doesn’t matter whether something is scientifically accurate or not. All that matters in your own universe is what looks good on screen or in readers’ heads. That’s how you sell more books, tickets, and advertising space. Fake science is the same way.

How does this tendency to obey the Rule of Cool show up to the average follower? One thing that I notice about pseudoscience is that it personalizes concepts which, in science can be very difficult to relate to:

  • Astronomy allows you to chart the positions of the stars, painstakingly mapping their locations with mathematical formulas applied over centuries of data collection. Astrology tells you that if you know what month somebody is born in, you can know more about the personal qualities of yourself and your friends!
  • Evolution tells us that life, including human life, evolved due to complex but consistent patterns which only emerge after studying thousands of generations. Creationism says that a magic man in the sky created you special, because he wanted to love and care for you for ever and ever!
  • Neurologists study the movement of neurons and synapses on a microscopic level. Sylvia Brown says that I can talk to my dead love ones, even though their brain activity stopped decades ago!
  • A novel about what life was like in Atlantis? Cool! An investigation of the Mediterranean Ocean Sea showing that there was no such place? Not so cool!

I hope you see the point. Science can be cool, and often is cool. But pseudoscience has to be cool, or else it has no other reason to exist.

I’m not just trying to be negative. I think learning should be fun. I admire what Carl Sagan did in bringing real science to amateurs like us, and I think that education is always more effective when it’s entertaining. At the same time, I think we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what science is up against. People like to feel special. They like to feel connected. And for many people, it’s much easier to believe in an exciting falsehood than in a less exciting well-tested theoretical framework.

Edit: In this post, I may have conveyed the mistaken impression that the ideas brought up were mine alone. This was clearly a case of my runaway ego. In reality, many of the points about the survival qualities of science vs. pseudoscience were brought up originally by Lynnea, without whom this post would not have been possible, as we discussed the book. In writing this, I may have unintentionally pre-empted a similar post that she was planning to put up on her own blog, which undoubtedly would have been excellent.

Philip Pullman’s newest isn’t likely to end up a fundie favorite

If Christians had a rough time with Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, I don’t quite see them lining up to buy the latest from Golden Compass author and staunch heathen Philip Pullman. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, releasing May 20 in the US, is described thus:

…the remarkable new piece of fiction from best-selling and famously atheistic author Philip Pullman. By challenging the events of the gospels, Pullman puts forward his own compelling and plausible version of the life of Jesus, and in so doing, does what all great books do: makes the reader ask questions.

In Pullman’s own words, “The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.”

Written with unstinting authority, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a pithy, erudite, subtle, and powerful book by a controversial and beloved author. It is a text to be read and reread, studied and unpacked, much like the Good Book itself.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, depicting a war against God, is a modern fantasy classic, and if your only exposure to it is the well-intentioned but murkily executed Golden Compass film from a couple of years back, you owe it to yourself to check out the books themselves. They’re very much the anti-Narnia. In this video clip, Pullman responds with simple honesty to a question about Christians finding his new book offensive.

I’ll be putting my pre-order in.

Ray Comfort odds and ends

There seems to be a lot of Ray Comfort related stuff on my radar lately, so I’ll dump it all in one post.

  • Sam, a grad student in New Zealand, debated Ray for $100.  Considering all the sneaky tricks regarding format, and Sam’s status as a novice speaker, I would have asked for a lot more.  But according to people I’ve heard from, Sam made a surprisingly good showing, and Ray turned out to be incredibly bad at it.  You can judge for yourself by reading Sam’s post, and there are even audio files attached.
  • Everything Else Atheist mocks a recent blog post by Ray for his very, very bad understanding of sex and relationships.
  • Guy P. Harrison, author of 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, made us an interesting offer.  He wanted to see a good takedown of Ray Comfort’s new book, You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think: Answers to Questions from Angry Skeptics.  But he didn’t want to read it himself, so he sent it to us instead.  I’ve read it, and now Matt’s reading it.  At some point in the near future, the plan is to either appear together on Atheist Experience or do a Very Special Episode of Non-Prophets that will give this, ah, very enlightening book the attention it deserves.

Don McLeroy’s idea of a real science book

The intrepid crew at the Texas Freedom Network inform us that the reliably moronic Don McLeroy, the creationist dentist who’s devoting his career to painting a bullseye on the educations of millions of Texas students, has found a worthy book on the subject of evolution. What might it be, you ask? The Ancestor’s Tale? Why Evolution Is True? Or Ken Miller’s perennially assigned Biology textbook?

Uh…no. How about: a book-length histrionic rant self-published by a frothing anti-evolution crank named Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr.

Johnson is a wackaloon’s wackaloon, a West Point graduate whose pet projects have included tortured reinterpretations of Greek mythology in an effort to show they’re simply variants of the Adam & Eve story. Yes, it’s bizarre to try to prove your myths have some veracity by referencing other myths; seriously, the guy’s position is that Athena is really Eve, therefore, the Bible is true! But that’s how nutcases like Johnson think. And nutcases like Johnson think the same way monkeys drive trucks.

Johnson’s “thinking” on evolution, which impressed that cretin McLeroy enough for him to refer to the book as “unique,” “insightful” and “important,” includes such gems as the following.

Creationists do not want to bring religion into the classroom… Creationists simply want the God hypothesis brought back into the science classroom, and recognized for what it is—a scientifically valid hypothesis.

What are they doing coming into all of our elementary schools, all of our junior highs, and all of our high schools with a disguised demand that our children embrace their evoatheism? What are they doing teaching our children that they are descended from worms and reptiles? What are they doing imposing their atheistic religious faith on our children when we’re not around? What are they doing sowing atheism in our schools?

The obvious problem here is that it is simply not possible to be a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word, and at the same time, embrace the tenets of atheistic evolution.

What kind of monster parents teach their children that they’re descended from rodents and reptiles?

Come on in, everybody, especially you kids, and join the great evolutionary festivities! Learning about your descent by chance from worms and reptiles will strengthen your faith in “a creator,” with a small “c,” whoever he is.

So you see the kind of “science” textbook McLeroy thinks “deserves a hearing”: a bombastic, hysterical, spittle-flecked tirade by a throughly scientifically illiterate moron, who, like Ben Stein, bases his whole overwrought screed on selling the idea of “Big Science” as some monolithic entity with stormtrooper-like enforcers (the first chapter literally opens with an absurd men-in-black scenario) out to quash dissent.

The egregiousness of all this cannot be condemned forcefully enough, and I encourage everyone far and wide to shine as much light on McLeroy and his pet cockroach Johnson as possible. Bring the absurdity and emotionalism of the creationist anti-science crowd right out into the open, and correct their angry lies with calm, sober scientific facts (which, contrary to Johnson’s ravings, do exist to support evolutionary biology in its totality). Let ridicule and derision drive them back into the obscure darkness of their own superstitious fears, where they belong.

Can’t we kick Cynthia Dunbar to the curb yet?

Good grief. If it weren’t bad enough that this woman is a far-right wing space muffin who actually thinks Barack Obama is in league with terrorists, now we find out that this person who sits on the Texas State Board of Education, for fuck’s sake, has actually written a book (I hope she got a lot of use out of her Speak & Spell) excoriating the very concept of public schools as “unconstitutional,” “tyrannical,” and “a subtly deceptive tool of perversion.”

If this isn’t putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, I don’t know what is!

I’ve always been both amused and bemused by the way in which right-wing Christian fundagelicals not only actively resist knowledge and education, but take bizarre pride in their own intellectual and educational deficits. Fine, let them live out their lives as clueless idiots. But when they have the power to influence the educations of an entire generation of students, potentially derailing the future of the entire country as a consequence, that’s going just the teensiest bit too far, is it not?

Please, write the governor. This cannot stand.

Ken Follett on secular ethics

On page 426 of Ken Follett’s latest novel, World Without End, I came across a neat quote. The story, which is a sequel to Pillars of the Earth, takes place in 14th century England, in a town that is mostly managed by monks from the local cathedral. A monk named Godwyn has devised a scheme to bilk the townspeople out of a bunch of money.


Caris wondered whether he believed that any deceit was pardonable provided it was done for the sake of God’s work. Surely men of God should be more scrupulous about honesty than laymen, not less?

She put the point to her father, as they hung around the court, waiting for their case to come up. He said: “I never trust anyone who proclaims his morality from the pulpit. That high-minded type can always find an excuse for breaking his own rules. I’d rather do business with an everyday sinner who thinks it’s probably to his advantage, in the long run, to tell the truth and keep his promises. He’s not likely to change his mind about that.”