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.

WTF do they know?

“As Deepak Chopra taught us, quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason.”
– Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth

My fiancee and I watched What the Bleep Do We Know? Why? Because it was there. By reputation it is a terrible new-age movie that claims to be about science. The film makers attempt to explain quantum mechanics and neurochemistry, in the service of a general squishy feel-good message similar to “The Secret” implying that if you send positive energy to the universe, good things will happen to you.

Some of the movie kind of, sort of, almost conveys some important ideas of science successfully. They describe the double slit experiment; they take a stab at chaos theory, in which small random interactions affect macroscopic objects. They also, unfortunately, attempt to have a plot. I want to focus in on that, since it doesn’t seem to be discussed in many reviews.

Early in the movie they introduce a lady who is a deaf magazine photographer. She is portrayed as a severe grouch, so I pegged what this character was for right away. “Aha,” I said. “I’ll bet this character is going to be initially skeptical of whatever claims the movie is trying to make, and then she will be won over in the end.”

It’s a lazy technique that yields a required character in many styles of evangelistic tract: the converted skeptic proxy. It operates under the same principle as the old “I used to be an atheist” claim. The message is: “This character is you, skeptic. She has been where you’ve been, and she was convinced. If you are reasonable like her, you will be convinced too.”

I say it’s a lazy technique because the writers are not attempting to win you over through the legitimate strength of their arguments; instead, they want to lower your defenses by getting you to identify with their position. Last week on the show I mentioned that it’s like a car salesman telling you “I’ve driven every car, and this one’s the best.” Oh, okay! No need for me to do my own comparison shopping then. This salesman seems like a reasonable and completely unbiased chap. (Analogy gratefully borrowed from Slacktivist — Thanks, Fred!)

So yes, this lady does not believe in quantum mechanics or love or happiness, and sure enough, her life suffers for it. And when I say “suffers” I mean she appears to be experiencing a buffet table’s worth of unintentionally hilarious mental disorders. She screams “I hate you!!!” at herself in the mirror. She suffers Vietnam-like flashbacks to her past bad relationship when a guy starts coming on to her. Later, while drunk, she starts to hallucinate her mental hangups as tiny computer animated blobby monsters. You see, reasonable people don’t disagree with the movie’s thesis. Only sad, sad individuals with massive emotional baggage. You aren’t that kind of person, are you? I sure hope not! Now, about that car I’d like to sell you…

The first sign that this movie was going to infuriate me came when one of the Very Serious Narrators explained with a straight face how the minds of Native Americans operated when the Europeans arrived to conquer them. It turns out that they couldn’t see the ships coming. I don’t mean they were distracted and didn’t happen to notice them. In a dramatic reenactment, the tribe’s shaman was staring directly at the approaching ships, and he literally could not see anything. You see, explains the Very Serious Narrator, these massive ships were so far outside the normal day to day experience for these natives, that their minds refused to process them. Eventually, the shaman points out the ripples on the water, and as everyone tries to figure out what’s causing them, POOF — suddenly there is the ship, plainly visible to all, thanks to the magic of camera tricks.

This is, of course, straight out of Douglas Adams.

“Can you see,” said Ford patiently, “the SEP?”

“I thought you said that was somebody else’s problem.”

“That’s right.”

Arthur nodded slowly, carefully and with an air of immense stupidity.

“And I want to know,” said Ford, “if you can see it.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“What,” said Arthur, “does it look like?”

“Well, how should I know, you fool?” shouted Ford. “If you can see it, you tell me.”

Arthur experienced that dull throbbing sensation just behind the temples which was a hallmark of so many of his conversations with Ford. His brain lurked like a frightened puppy in its kennel. Ford took him by the arm.

“An SEP,” he said, “is something that we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.”

There is, of course, a subtle difference between that scene and this one: Douglas Adams was deliberately writing comedy.

So naturally, while we were heckling this movie, the question that immediately came to mind was: “How The Bleep™ do they know that?” I mean, it’s not like you can go back and question the natives about their experiences. They didn’t leave a lot of written material about it either; and even if they did, how would you really know that the ships were actually invisible to them, and the shaman wasn’t just covering his ass out of embarrassment?

This is a place where we can ask the film makers, because the question is right there on the official What The Bleep™ web site. You’re going to think I’m making this up but I’m not, so prepare to be astounded.


My mother is stuck on the question of where the information on Columbus and the Native Americans came from. She can’t seem to get past the part where the shaman ‘showed’ them the ships, and then they were able to see them. Where did this story come from?
Thanks,
Amy Proctor

[Good question, exactly what I was thinking. Thanks, Amy!]

The story of the Native American’s inability to see the clipper ships from Europe has two aspects to it: physiological and anecdotal.

[Ummm… evasive. Bad start.]

Any journalist is familiar with the phenomenon of asking three different people to relate the “facts” at an accident scene, only to receive three different versions of the “facts.”

[Yeah, people have bad memories. So… you’re saying that the cars are invisible to some of them? Let’s skip past this, seems pretty empty.]

Pattern recognition depends on familiarity. An example of this is experiments done by Colin Blakemore and G.F. Cooper in the 1960s…

[Blah, blah, blah, not answering the question. Skipping…]

I have personally experienced this
as a truth, raising two wolves from 6 week-old pups. Frankly, I thought the male had brain damage. For months he never looked at me directly

[WHAT THE BLEEP™ HAS ANY OF THIS GOT TO DO WITH HOW YOU KNEW ABOUT THE INDIANS???]

Now for the more anecdotal origins of the story,

[Oh good, FINALLY they’re going to answer the damn question.]

which Candace Pert refers to as “A wonderful story I believe is true…”

[Aw, crap.]

Co-writer and producer Betsy Chasse says, “Other scientists related the same story to us.” And, apparently, there are references to the tale in an historical document made by an early missionary in the South Americas. This document, unfortunately, has not yet been found.

So now you know as much as we do about the origins of the tale!

[Are you bleeping kidding me?]

So that’s it, right there, in their own words. The story is made up. They have a flimsy tale, told twelfth hand, and they have no source for it whatsoever. But they decided to treat it as fact in the movie in service of their point.

Elsewhere in the movie, they use more Very Serious Narrators to great effect, in one case citing the works of one Dr. Masaru Emoto, whose experiments in the exciting field of writing words on glasses of water have revealed that water can read and respond to English phrases by forming crystals that are “beautiful” or “ugly,” depending on the sentiment behind the words. This is explained via an intellectual sounding museum tour guide, while soft classical music plays. That’s how you know it’s gotta be true.

In case you haven’t got the point, someone bonks you over the head with it: “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? If thoughts can do that to water, imagine what they can do to us.” And then that phrase returns through echoey aural flashbacks about five more times throughout the movie, as our deaf photographer skeptic proxy is sitting around wallowing in her own inadequacy and thinking about what a shallow, emotionless bitch she’s been.

One of the worst scientific atrocities the movie commits is constantly confusing “subatomic particles” with “mental processes.” Heck, they both involve little tiny things, and all little tiny things are the basically same, right? So they’ll say something true (“The state of an electron changes when you observe it!”) and something else true but completely unrelated (“Your brain is made of neurons!”) and then they’ll draw a nonsensical parallel from it, sounding superficially plausible but abandoning any pretense of anything you could actually research or falsify (“Therefore, if you imagine something existing, on some level it really does exist!”)

The woman’s story has a happy ending, of course: She scribbles little hearts all over her body with a sharpie, causing an instant attitude adjustment. People who knew her when she was one of those horrible skeptics come away reeling in shock because she was nice to them for a change. Or perhaps, based on her newly acquired facial expression of pure bliss, she is just intensely stoned.

The Very Serious People who explain things throughout the movie are a mish-mash of folks who are often bearded and are never identified until the credits are rolling. Some of them appear to be actual experts in real scientific fields, which explains why the movie occasionally manages to briefly make sense before cutting away from those people. Of course, the most sensible of the scientists is David Albert, who publicly disassociated himself from the film, saying:

“I am, indeed, profoundly unsympathetic to attempts at linking quantum mechanics with consciousness. Moreover, I explained all that, at great length, on camera, to the producers of the film …Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed.”

And then, of course, there’s Ramtha.

Apparently this is common knowledge among aficionados of crackpottery, but I honestly had no idea that there was a sixty-something year old middle American lady who, since the late seventies, has been going around claiming to channel a 35,000 year old warrior from Atlantis. I found this out on the internet in between my first and second sittings (what, you think I could watch this drivel in one go??). Before I knew who she was, all I could think about her was: “Who is this ridiculous lady and why are they expecting me to take the stuff that’s coming out of her mouth seriously?” After I learned more about her, my reaction was more like “OH GOD, OH GOD, THAT STUPID ACCENT, MAKE IT STOP.” I guess my brain filtered out the crummy accent that she was putting on before, because it was outside of my normal experience and so I could not hear it. (“I thought you said that was somebody else’s problem!”)

Anyway, like Stephen Colbert, apparently Ramtha only speaks to the cameras “in character,” which is why she is credited at the last minute, not as “JZ Knight,” but as: “Ramtha, Master Teacher – Ramtha School of Enlightenment. Channeled by JZ Knight”. Woohoo! Who needs scientific credibility when you have a Master Teacher at your disposal?

It was a terrible, terrible movie. Not terrible like a hilarious Mystery Science Theater target. Terrible like “If you locked prisoners in a room and forced them to watch this movie, you would be violating the ‘cruel and unusual’ clause.”

Beatdown! Fractally-wrong altie pulls a Yomin over losing Twitter “award”

This post wins the internet!

A little context: Recently an alt-med wackaloon called Mike Adams — who runs the antiscience site NaturalNews.com and calls himself the “Health Ranger” — was in the lead for something called the Shorty Award. It’s the sort of thing where people vote for their favorite person in a certain category, by tweeting. It’s not an actual award, just a Twitter popularity contest.

But to Mike, it must have been like the Nobel. Because when he lost the award to DrRachie, an actual cell biologist, he also totally lost his shit!

There are awesome articles by PZ, Orac, and Phil Plait discussing the side-splitting melodrama. (For one thing, it was found that Mike was violating the Shorty rules by getting votes from brand new Twitter accounts created just to tweet a vote for him. However it was done, by Mike himself sockpuppeting or some of his fans doing it too, it was against the rules, and didn’t help him in the end anyway.)

Mike has just been “pulling a Yomin” over and over at his site. In addition to threatening to sue people, he’s now posted an absolutely hilarious “exposé” of skeptics. Apparently we’re “agents of death” who don’t even believe we’re alive. I won’t link to the article, because there’s no need. The very first link in this post goes to a magnificent demolition of Mike’s endless rant over at Dubito Ergo Sum. It’s truly epic in every way. Mike Adams is a person so completely divorced from reality it’s a wonder he can tell up from down. He doesn’t build a straw man in his lunatic screed. It’s a whole straw army. Mike Adams makes Ray Comfort sound sensible. Think about that.

Hey, wasn’t the Institute for Creation “Research” suing Texas or something?

Yeah, they were, weren’t they? So what’s become of that? Well, it would appear that, like all lawsuits, it’s becoming the usual drawn-out exercise in paperwork-generating tedium. But the ICR did, amusingly, recently file a motion for summary judgment, before the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board even managed to complete discovery for their defense. Basically the ICR’s argument is a variant on the tried-and-true “Waah we’re Christians and rules don’t apply to us!” whine creationists typically rely on. You can read the motion, the burden of which is that, because the ICR doesn’t take state money, the THECB has no jurisdiction over them. The THECB responds by saying, well, yes we do. Ah, it’s never a dull moment dealing with entitled creationists who feel they can “educate” without any oversight.

Wait, what am I saying? It’s nothing but dull moments! Criminy.


From the ICR motion:

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (“THECB”), to the extent that it claims any jurisdictional or regulatory authority over ICRGS’s academic liberties under the Texas Education Code (e.g., under its Chapter 61 or otherwise), does so improperly, because ICRGS is statutorily exempt from the Texas Education Code’s application, as the fairly simple text of said §1.001(a) clearly shows.

From the THECB’s response:

Plaintiff’s contention purposefully and improperly ignores the remainder of the Texas Education Code…. Chapter 61 of the Texas Education Code — the Higher Education Coordinating Act of 1965 — includes a subchapter which expressly authorizes the Higher Education Coordinating Board to regulate private postsecondary educational institutions.

Wow. Quote-mining the law now? How very creationist of them.

Ah, the righteous arrogance of crackpots

It all started when the Everything Else Atheist posted a somewhat scathing exchange between herself and a professor at her college. This professor had been bringing in students to participate in “psychology experiments” which were actually efforts to identify psychic premonitions.

EEA wrote to him with some extremely reasonable concerns about whether proper scientific rigor had been followed in a domain that is traditionally overrun with pseudoscientific hacks. Among other suggestions, the professor responded by asking EEA to read The Conscious Universe by Dean Radin. At that point there was another, somewhat more frosty exchange of emails.

It gets fun here, because Dean Radin apparently googles his name every single day to see who might be talking about him. A commenter found the Everything Else Atheist blog because Radin descended from his ivory tower to dismiss EEA on his blog for being an uppity atheist.

Of course, responding to clueless broadside rants against atheists is what us Tiggers do best, so away we go!


I remember

Ah, the righteous arrogance of youth.

Wait wait, stop right there. Oh, this is going to be too much fun.

So right away after just one sentence, Radin telegraphs his compulsion to latch on to superficial personal aspects of his target… the very definition of an ad hominem. We have a long way to go before we reach the end, but I want to point out that not once in this entire post does Radin ever actually respond to her criticism.

I remember what it was like to feel intellectually superior to my college professors, many of whom seemed to be dullards who understood nothing. I grew out of that phase when I started to apply genuine skepticism, not just to others’ beliefs, but to my own.

Radin mocks the temerity of those who would criticize a college professor, thereby offering an argument from authority, since those in high academic posts must never EVER be challenged. Which is a weird position to take, considering that Radin himself frequently has to explain that the scientific community doesn’t take him seriously because of a massive conspiracy against him. Uh, what is it that he grew out of, exactly? Beats me.

Here is a good example of a young person who fits the profile of adolescent certainty (some people never grow out of this stage). Once a Christian, she lost her faith, followed by a commonly observed flip-flop — she became a fervent atheist.

Atheists, especially young ones in the midst of existential crisis, do not yet appreciate that their strong stance against religious faith is just faith of another color (i.e., scientism). They are also unable to distinguish between beliefs based on empirically testable ideas vs. beliefs based on faith. And like most true believers in scientism, they become very concerned that one might conduct experiments where the underlying mechanisms are not yet understood. I wish I could say that most students grow out of an over-reliance on the certainty of prevailing theories, but as I mentioned in my previous post, unfortunately many don’t.

Oh, this is rich. First, like many apologists for woo striving to assert themselves as Real Intellectuals, Radin performs a little armchair psychology. His hypothesis is that nobody EVER disagrees with his point of view unless they are undergoing some sort of “crisis.”

Then he launches into a tirade about “scientism.” Now I don’t know about you folks, but the only context in which I ever hear this is from smarmy post-modernists who wish to appear clever by deriding science as a legitimate means for finding things out. Wikipedia helpfully supplies:
“The term scientism is used to describe the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences.”

Okay, so here’s Dean Radin, exuding scorn for EEA because she applies the concepts of science to a realm in which he implies that it does not belong, since presumably it is information of a “philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic” nature and not science at all. And you know, that’s cool with me. Radin’s under no obligation whatsoever to care in the slightest about silly concepts like “scientific method” and “peer review” and “academic honesty” or anything like that.

But wait a minute, let’s remind ourselves of the context which brought about this exchange. A professor in EEA’s science department was attempting to perform a science experiment in which he proved that precognition has scientific merit. And as support for this position, in lieu of offering up scientific research, he helpfully steered EEA towards Radin’s book. Gee, I think somebody might want to notify this professor about how Radin really feels about science.

Her angst centered on an experiment studying precognition. Impossible! Violates natural law! Must be pseudoscience! With that attitude, any evidence offered, however obtained, can only be fraud, or worse.

Of course precognition is not prohibited by physics. The laws of classical and quantum mechanics are time symmetric, and there are many serious articles (this link has just a few examples) available on the topic of retrocausation, which is far more interesting and complicated than a superficial scan might suggest.

I’d just like to point out that at no point in EEA’s post did she actually say any of this nonsense. She didn’t say “ZOMG precognition that’s like totally against the laws of NAYCHER!!!” Those hysterics are entirely from the voices in Radin’s head. What she said, rather, was that (1) parapsychology is not taken very seriously among the scientific community; (2) it’s had a really long time to produce the kinds of results that would make it worth taking seriously; and (3) the professor’s techniques are riddled with holes that even an undergrad can see.

What does Radin do to respond to these charges? Well, he makes fun of her, and simultaneously manages to confirm her issues by blowing off requests for scientific rigor as “scientism.” Good job, Dean.

Besides my own books (The Conscious Universe is finally in paperback!), I recommend Larry Dossey’s new book to get a feel for the art and science of precognition.

But doing one’s homework can be so taxing….

Hey, remember earlier when I said that Radin never bothers to actually address EEA’s arguments? Maybe I should apologize for that because here’s where he…

Oh wait, no. No, he’s just trying to peddle his books.

I remember the sanctimonious pride that accompanies feelings of certainty, and I’m glad I outgrew it.

Thank goodness Dean doesn’t have any lingering sanctimonious pride or feelings of certainty, because otherwise his post would have been really hard to read.

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.

Crippled dogs and one-trick ponies

I’ve just returned from the Texas SBOE hearings on Science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) standards, and I’m so full of disgust and dismay that I’m at a loss for words to express it with enough rancor. You can, however, expect me to go on at length anyway. The whole thing was such a goddamn farce from the outset that I’d had more than enough after only one hour, at which point I could only roll my eyes and walk out the door. If you haven’t encountered the gall and dishonesty of creationists on their own turf before, and even if you have many times, it’s always the kind of experience that leaves you feeling worse about humanity in general.

As I write this, people are still speaking, and will be for a few hours yet. I saw no point in sticking around, but for all I know there could be, at any time, a real first-rate speaker who could get across the points that needed to be gotten across, and who would call out the creos on the disingenuous rhetoric they repeatedly spewed. As it is, I left the whole charade with two key observations: 1) That the big pitch the creationists are using isn’t merely the weasel phrase “strengths and weaknesses,” but their defense of that phrase as an expression of support for “academic freedom” that the scientific community apparently opposes; and 2) that the pro-science side, at least as I saw it today, is singly unaware of how to respond to that rhetoric properly and forcefully.

This cannot be understated: Just as the anti-gay contingent of the Christian right sells its opposition to gay marriage as a “defense” of “traditional” marriage that can in no way be compared to opposition to interracial marriage or anything of that sort, so too are the creationists now abandoning the overt, lawsuit-bait language of “intelligent design” for “academic freedom” language that makes them seem like the ones encouraging students to use their minds to think about and evaluate ideas that are presented to them in class on their merits. Conversely, the pro-science side wants to shut this kind of inquiry down, and just require students to be obedient little sponges soaking up whatever the textbooks say.

Why this is a misrepresentation and gross misunderstanding of the opposition to such terms as “strengths and weaknesses” was, to his credit, appropriately explained by Texas Citizens for Science spokesman Steve Schafersman. But he didn’t make the point forcefully enough, and even he seemed taken aback when challenged by one of the creationist board members after giving his alloted three-minute address. I’ll discuss that last, because it was after Schafersman spoke that I ducked out. After all, if a veteran front-line soldier in the science education wars like Schafersman falters when some creationist puts him in the hot seat, it’s clearly time for the pro-science side to step back and understand just how dishonest the rhetoric is, and how it has to be addressed in a no-nonsense manner, calling bullshit bullshit, and stating the pro-science position with sufficient force and clarity that no sleazy creationist ideologue can sit there lying about it and sounding smug and reasonable while doing so. I don’t see that the pro-science speakers today fully appreciated the ideological scrimmage line they were going up against, nor the fact that the game plan was going to be offense all the way.

A quick rundown of some of the speakers I did see.

As I had a number of errands to run early in the day, I was worried that I may have missed a lot of the good stuff. I didn’t end up getting downtown to the Travis State Office Building until about 3:30. But as the TFN announced that the hearing itself wouldn’t start until likely after lunch, and as I recall the last set of hearings I attended in the same building five years ago went on until well into the night, I figured I hadn’t missed too much.

Turned out my timing was excellent. The hearings on the science standards started right around 3:55. That must have been some sheer pain for those folks who’d been there since 9:00 AM.

As the title of the post indicates, what ensued was the kind of dog-and-pony show where the dog has only three legs and all the pony knows how to do is turn in a circle. The first speaker was a dignified and well spoken older gentleman named Dr. Joe Bernal, who was himself an SBOE member in the 1990’s, and who spoke eloquently on the need to keep science scientific and avoid the pitfalls of allowing room for non-scientific ideas. He stated that it was the duty of parents, not schools, to determine a student’s religious instruction. He also reiterated the support among the scientific community for evolutionary theory.

Now, after a speaker has done his three minutes, board members can ask questions of that speaker if they wish. I saw it coming even before it started. The instant the bell chimed on Dr. Bernal’s address, creationist board member Terri Leo leapt out of the phone booth with her Supergirl costume on and hit the ground faster than a speeding bullet.

Her first agenda: discredit the recent survey, cited by Dr. Bernal, that showed 98% of biologists and science educators in Texas support evolution. “Who funded that study? Wasn’t that study funded by the Texas Freedom Network?” Dr. Bernal admitted it was, but stated calmly that whoever funded the study was beside the point. He actually got in a good comeback to Leo, noting that even the science teachers selected by the SBOE to review the science standards voted in the majority. But Leo wasn’t finished. “I always thought that taking polls wasn’t how you do science.” Well, of course not, and the poll wasn’t an exercise in doing science. The science is already done. The point of the poll was simply to get a show of hands among professionals in the relevant fields as to what theory is appropriate to teach in classrooms. But this is the kind of dishonest rhetoric that creationists will throw out there to get the pro-science side on the defensive.

The thing about Terri Leo is, she’s so dumb and sleazy that she cannot resist overplaying her hand. And she did it right away by using shameless creationist language while simultaneously denying any creationist agenda on her or the SBOE’s part. Note that Dr. Bernal only brought up religion in passing in his speech, pointing out that it’s a private family matter and not fit for science class. Leo leapt on this like a hungry tiger, railing that the phrase “strengths and weaknesses” was not religious language, and that the only people making a big deal about religion supposedly being shoehorned into science curricula are “militant Darwinists.”

I am not shitting you. She actually used that term, out loud, in front of a packed room, in her questioning of the very first speaker of the day.

I couldn’t stop myself. I laughed out loud, loud enough for her to hear. (“Hey…sorry, but…”) That was when I knew that the whole day was going to be a complete joke.

Dr. Bernal responded quite impressively by bringing up — and I’m so glad he was the first speaker, which is when it needed to be brought up — that the SBOE had themselves enlisted known anti-evolutionists affiliated with the Discovery Institute, who have not exactly been secretive about their own religious and creationist agendas, to be among those assigned to review science standards. Specifically he asked (to the delight of the crowd), “Why is someone from an institute in Seattle being asked to review Texas science education standards?”

And here we saw, for the first time, the depth of the SBOE’s egregious dishonesty they were going to display today. The presence of the DI’s Stephen Meyer, and creationist textbook writers Charles Garner and Ralph Seelke was brought up many time by many speakers, and no one on the board would defend or even address it. They simply were not going to justify their actions in this regard to the public, or at least, they didn’t in the hour I was there. If anyone reading this stayed through to the end, and he
ard anything from Dan McLeroy or Terri Leo about why these men, with their overt ID affiliations, were asked to review the Science TEKS standards for Texas, do let us all know in the comments.

Unlike 2003, when Terri Leo (working hand in hand with the Discotute) front-loaded that day’s speakers with creationists, I only heard one creationist speak today, some idiot who sleazily brought up the DI’s long-ridiculed “list of 700 dissenting scientists” as if it represented some kind of major controversy within science over Darwinian evolution. (As Ken Miller pointed out hilariously in his talk back in the spring at UT, this number represents barely a single-digit percentage of the total number of professionals in the relevant fields, and the list includes a number of names of non-biologists and similarly unqualified people who happen to have Ph.D.’s.) This guy then shamelessly rushed headlong into Godwin’s Law while the audience groaned, averring (after supposedly having watched Expelled too many times) that by refusing to allow ideas to be questioned in class, we were doomed to be heading down the same path those poor misguided Germans went down.

This inspired such derision from the crowd that Terri Leo — shocked, shocked at just how “rude” people were being in response to the entirely reasonable comparison that had just been drawn between themselves and Nazis — exhorted everyone to be more “respectful” of this poor man, who had taken valuable time out of his day to come down here to call everyone Nazis, and would the board please be more diligent about controlling such inconsiderate and shocking outbursts.

I can’t really put into words the atmosphere of disbelief that circulated around the room at this point. People were being calm, but among the audience and people waiting for their turn to speak (and I saw a very reassuring majority wearing “Stand Up for Science” stickers on their lapels), there was a definite vibe of “Just how much bullshit are we expected to endure?” Well, people, that’s what we all have to remember about creationists and religious ideologues: they are a Perpetual Motion Machine and Bullshit Factory all rolled into one, unleashing an unstoppable deluge of bovine feces that would even make Noah throw up his hands and say, “Fuck it, no ark is gonna save us from this one.”

Finally I come to Steven Shafersman, a man I admire and whose work in battling creationism over the years and fronting Texas Citizens for Science is unimpeachable. I had already made up my mind to disembark this ship of fools, but when I heard Shafersman’s name announced I stuck around, deciding he’d be the last guy I’d hear.

Shafersman did well, but unfortunately his talk left an opening for one of the creationist board members (a portly man whose name I didn’t catch, but who’s been identified by a commenter as Ken Mercer) to pounce on. See, Shafersman’s main point was that the reason it was inappropriate to have language like “evaluate strengths and weaknesses” in scholastic standards is that it requires activity on the part of the students they haven’t got the expertise for. Mercer tried to obfuscate this by making it seem as if Shafersman and the pro-science side didn’t even want students to be allowed to raise their hands and ask questions in class. This is emphatically not the case, of course, and Schafersman explained that, going on to say that in science, theories are critically evaluated in the field by working professionals, not by students hearing the theories for the first time and lacking the proper expertise and frame of reference to do a “critical evaluation” in the first place.

But Mercer kept hammering the false point repeatedly. What about errors and hoaxes in the past? What about Piltdown Man? What about Haeckel’s inaccurate embryo drawings, that were in textbooks for years? If people weren’t allowed to question these things, wouldn’t these errors and hoaxes have gone unexposed, and wouldn’t students be learning misinformation today? Why try to stifle the sort of open inquiry that led to these very necessary corrections?

Here is where Shafersman fumbled the ball, because there was such an easy and obvious response to this that it was all I could do to hold my tongue and not blurt it out as loudly as I could shout. I just wanted Shafersman to say one simple thing, and he never said it, because I think he was so flummoxed by the aggressiveness of Mercer’s questioning that he allowed himself to fall into the trap that had been set for him, forcing him to go on the defensive. (“Why, as a matter of fact I was one of the scientists instrumental in getting Haeckel’s drawings out of textbooks!” To which Mercer simply replied, “Right! So why then…”)

Here’s what I think Shafersman should have said in reply to Mercer:

“Sir, your examples support my point. The Piltdown Man hoax and Haeckel’s drawings were both shown to be false by working scientists, not students. It wasn’t as if some 14 year old in 9th grade biology class pointed to those drawings and said, ‘I don’t know, teacher, those just don’t look right to me.’ Because that student could not have done that. He would not have had the knowledge and expertise. And that is why requiring the analysis of ‘strengths and weaknesses’ is inappropriate language, as it requires students to do something they’re not equipped to do. Imagine a history class where you’re teaching about Alexander the Great. Then you say to your students, ‘Okay, kids, write a critical analysis of Alexander’s battle plans against the Thracians.’ How can they do this? They aren’t generals, they’re teenagers. They aren’t qualified. First, you have to teach them the facts. Then, later on, if they pursue this field as a vocation they may gain the expertise to critique ‘strengths and weaknesses.’ But for now, they just need facts. And that’s why we’re opposed to this language in the TEKS. Our opposition is not a synonym for stifling all academic inquiry or even simple questions, and to claim that it is is an extremely dishonest red herring.”

That’s how he should have shut Mercer down. And to his credit, he did make some of these points. But Shafersman was never as forceful as Mercer was. The best Shafersman could do, it seemed, was feebly try to regain control of the questioning with very weak-sounding responses (to the effect of “We don’t really need to go into the details of Haeckel right now…”, which embarrassingly sounds like an attempt at dodging the issue).

I simply could not handle any more. I bolted.

It was clear that the creationist contingent knew that the pro-science side was going to show up in force at these hearings, and they came loaded for bear with every bit of disingenuous rhetoric in their how-to-play-dirty playbook. You’ll recall in Kazim’s recent critique of the “rumble in Sydney,” in which Alan Conradi debated a minister, that Kazim made a very important point: ultimately, public debates are a matter of the performance, not the content. While these hearings were not a debate in the formal, forensic sense, they were an informal public “debate” not unlike that which goes on in The Atheist Experience and similar live venues, where topics are argued, often skillfully and often not, in an off-the-cuff manner with minimal prep.

The hearings today were that kind of thing, just an extremely farcicial parody of it. In one corner, a sincere collection of educators and science activists simply trying to ensure that the state’s educational standards aren’t diluted by trojan-horse language that, while non-inflammatory on its face, still leaves room for religious teaching to be slipped into classrooms by unscrupulous teachers (like, oh, John Freshwater); in the other, a board dominated by ideologues who aren’t the least bit interested in understanding the views presented to them (all the while hypocritically claiming to promote freedom of inquiry), and who made every effort to obfuscate, mi
srepresent, and lie about those views.

In other words, a joke. A complete and utter joke.

And they wonder why people say Texas is a laughingstock.

Two more observations before I sign off (and remember, this whole epic-length post was simply my report on viewing one hour of this rubbish today):

  1. I would have liked to have stuck around to hear the woman speak who showed up dressed (quite attractively) as if she’d stepped off the set of Little House on the Prairie. I imagine she was going to make some point about 19th century education being unsuited for a 21st century world, but there’s no way I could have endured more of Terri Leo and Ken Mercer’s verbal diarrhea while waiting. If any of you did hear her, tell us what she said, please.
  2. The pro-science side does seem to have one solid ally on the SBOE, in the person of Mary Helen Berlanga. Ms. Berlanga was very polite and thanked all of the pro-science speakers, including Steve Shafersman, for their hard work and efforts. But that just made me want to hear more from her. Why not be as aggressive with the questioning in the way Bradley and Leo were? Why not be the one to answer the repeated queries about why known ID-supporters and anti-evolutionists were allowed to review the Science TEKS this year?

Addendum: Made corrections once Ken Mercer was identified in the comments.

Dan McLeroy: stupider than you thought

It’s physically painful to realize that someone this thoroughly idiotic is in charge of the Texas State Board of Education.

If science is limited to only natural explanations but some natural phenomena are actually the result of supernatural causes then science would never be able to discover that truth — not a very good position for science. Defining science to allow for this possibility is just common sense. Science must limit itself to testable explanations not natural explanations. Then the supernaturalist will be just as free as the naturalist to make testable explanations of natural phenomena. The view with the best explanation of the empirical evidence should prevail.

People, that’s thermonuclear stupidity!

Precisely how does McLeroy propose we test for those supernatural causes? Is he implying that supernatural explanations are testable but natural ones are not? How does he propose to differentiate the supernatural from the natural when testing it? Hell, how does he even define the supernatural in any context? Isn’t the word just a sockpuppet for “God”? Of course it is. Seems to me the last sentence of the above quote completely negates all the blather that preceded it, because like it or not, the natural explanations science presents us with are the ones with the best empirical evidence behind them. It’s hardly science’s fault if brainwashed, asstard ideologues like McLeroy just ignore evidence that doesn’t flatter their belief in their sky-fairy-of-choice. (Oops, there I go again trash-talking. I guess I’m due for a Kazim finger-wag.)

McLeroy raises these questions, to appear as if he’s actually intellectually engaged in the issue, but he provides no answers, of course, because he cannot answer. He isn’t interested in explanations for anything, anyway. Life to him is about belief, not knowledge. He’s just looking for a legal strategy, as are all these Liars for Jesus, by which he can shoehorn his religious beliefs into public school classrooms and help throw an entire generation of students back into the 18th century, while the rest of the world barrels along into the 21st. There simply cannot be any limit to the public ridicule these people deserve.

Honesty? From creationists?

Here’s a photo from Jason Rosenhouse’s Evolutionblog, where he’s been covering his visit to the Sixth International Conference on Creationism. Yes, they have those.

And if Jason’s photos from the closing presentation here are any indication, the upshot of the conference this year was, “We got jack!” A rather bold admission, you might say, but since these are people whose principal goal is the validation of religious beliefs and not the pursuit of knowledge, I don’t suspect they’ll do anything with these conclusions other than continue to bring the fail, year after year. I see some bullet points missing from these slides, such as, “We’re promoting an idea with an unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific premise,” and, “We’ve never had a peer reviewed paper,” and, “We’ve never given any examples of how creationism constitutes a theory with predictive power.” You know, little details like that. For all the problems they admit to, they’re still clueless as to the biggies.

Go have a read through Jason’s reports. Pretty interesting stuff.

Just how silly are they over at RememberThyCreator.com?

Young-earthers are just about the most reality-challenged folks around. But over at the RememberThyCreator.com site — you know, the one with the silly poll that got spiked recently by Pharyngulites, hopefully teaching the RTC team a thing or two about what and what not to do on the intarweebs — they have just about the silliest set of reasons why people should “not accept millions of years,” but rather, presumably, 6000 years, as the proper age of the Earth. “Wow!” you must be thinking, “you mean they have actual evidence the Earth is young?” W-e-lll, no, not exactly. What they have is simply a list of indignant assertions that accepting an old Earth contradicts Biblical myths, and thus must be rejected out of hand. Here’s a sample:

The Bible clearly teaches that God created in six literal 24 hour days a few thousand years ago.

The Hebrew word for day in Genesis 1 is yom. In the vast majority of its uses in the Old Testament it means a literal day and where it doesn’t the context makes this clear.

Similarly, the context of Genesis 1 clearly shows that the days of creation were literal days. First, yom is defined the first time it is used in the Bible in its two literal senses: the light portion of the light/dark cycle and the whole light/dark cycle (Gen 1:4-5). Second, yom is used with “evening” and “morning”. Third, yom is modified with a number: one day, second day, third day, etc., which everywhere else in the Old Testament indicates literal days. Fourth, yom is defined literally in Genesis 1:14 in relation to the heavenly bodies.

You see the unimpeachable brilliance of their scientific methodology here: if the Bible says it, it’s true, full stop. Boy, and here we all were thinking that knowledge about how the world works took a lot of hard work and study. You know, decades of research, learning, field work, experimentation, trial and error, cataloguing your findings, revising them, publishing them, have them peer reviewed, going back to the drawing board when it’s been shown some of your findings are wrong and need further study.

Nope! Don’t have to do none o’ that! As the intrepid Dr. Terry Mortenson reveals over at RTC.com, all you have to do is check what’s written in a book of Bronze Age myths and legends, and voila, all you ever need to learn about anything is right there, and unquestionably true!

“But what about all that doggone pesky evidence we have that the earth is, in fact, billions of years old?” you ask? Never fear. It’s denialism to the rescue. Mortenson writes:

The idea of millions of years did not come from the scientific facts.

It was developed by deistic and atheistic geologists in the late 18th and early 19th century. These men used anti-biblical philosophical and religious assumptions to interpret the geological observations in a way that plainly contradicted the Biblical account of creation, the Flood and the age of the earth. The “deep time” idea flows out of naturalistic assumptions, not scientific observations.

Radiometric dating methods do not prove millions of years.

Radiometric dating was not developed until the early 20th century, by which time the whole world had already accepted the millions of years. In recent years creationists in the “RATE project” have done experimental, theoretical and field research to uncover … evidence and to show that decay rates were orders of magnitude faster in the past, which shrinks the millions of years date to thousands of years, confirming the Bible.

Mortenson’s bio tells us he has a Ph.D. in the “history of geology” from Coventry University in England. I’d very much like to know what Mortenson has published professionally. That he has retreated to the AiG stable indicates that his academic or scientific career has not been especially impressive, at least in terms of achievements as a working geologist. Mortenson’s achievements as an evangelical are not in dispute, as Googling him reveals nothing but page after page of creationist, Christian, and conservative sites, and nothing from any mainstream scientific source to show that the man has done anything in the way of field work at all. And the only papers Mortenson seems to write have titles like “Boundaries on Creation and Noah’s Flood: Early 19th century scriptural geologists,” and are presented exclusively at religious seminars and similar forums.

Given Mortenson’s lack of post-collegiate work in his field (he went to get a doctorate in “divinity,” so it seems clear he’s been focusing on that), it’s still kind of surprising he would collapse into a life of anti-science so completely. But what’s funny about the things he says regarding radiometric dating above is what immediately precedes it. He launches into a deliriously silly conspiracy theory, naming no names and citing no sources, that the notion of “deep time” was in fact concocted by “deistic and atheistic geologists in the late 18th and early 19th century” (!) with an agenda to discredit the Bible. All their scientific work was just in aid of promoting a predetermined agenda.

Can you say, “Project much?” It’s a common character flaw of creos that they project all their own least commendable traits onto those of us they hate. But this takes the cake. Who is this sinister cabal of Regency-era atheists and deists? Why would deists and atheists work together anyway? And how did it come to be that they gained such control over the geological sciences? Maybe Mortenson learned all this while getting his doctorate in the history of geology, and his dissertation is a blistering exposé of these people. But we certainly can’t know from reading this little article, and frankly, I have no interest in donating to AiG to get Mortenson’s full “brochure” promising further details. (Another blow against peer review! Brochures! The vanity press of the evangelical anti-science movement!)

We know, on the other hand, that YEC’s and other creationist “scientists” do all their work in the interests of furthering a predetermined ideology and shoring up preconceived dogmas. And if we didn’t know it before, we would now. Because the Wedge Document tells us so, and this little article of Mortenson’s tells us so. If it contradicts the Bible, throw it out. It’s wrong. Mortenson’s scientific “objectivity” could not be clearer, could it?

The RATE project itself was one of those desperate creationist “research” projects whose participants had decided in advance what results they would collect and accept. Far from debunking the validity of radiometric dating techniques, its methods were deeply flawed — not the least because, as J.G. Meert has pointed out, none of the project’s members had any expertise in experimental geochronology, nor had they published anything involving radiometric dating in the mainstream scientific literature. (Oh yes, but there’s that horrible Big Science cabal with their secret decoder rings and handshakes who expel these noble Christian scientists from their august pages. I forgot. Thanks, Ben.) ICR’s Grand Canyon Project has been taken apart on TalkOrigins, as well.

“Science” that is done to validate an ideology, whether extreme examples like Adolf and the boys looking for “racial purity” through eugenics, or merely pathetic examples like creationists hoping against hope for a 6000-year-old Earth (which they seem to think is the only kind their omnipotent God is capable of), always crumbles into chaos and confusion. Shoehorning the supernatural into the natural never explains anything, and always muddies the waters. Lately, we’ve had another creationist troll pop up here flogging the usual foolish notion that any “gap” in scientific knowledge is necessarily filled only by his God. But what’s at the heart of this isn’t science, let alone the spirit of curiosity and pass
ion that leads to scientific inquiry and the knowledge gained thereby. It’s merely the insecurity of the religious mind, seeking, in Isaac Asimov’s words, “a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold.” The idea that the universe might not be all about us is still deeply, existentially terrifying to most people.

But trying to cloak that insecurity in pseudoscience to validate it does no one any good. Better to admit — as so few fundamentalists can — that maybe you’re wrong, an attitude indispensible to any real scientific mind. And from that point, to see where the evidence actually leads you, which can often be in surprising and fulfilling directions.

There’s a gag from an old Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode that I’m reminded of here. In one dreadful movie, there’s a white-coated scientist working late in his lab, and one of the ‘bots riffs, “Wow, what a day! I invented Gaines Burgers and I didn’t even mean to!” Silly as that is, it does sum up what happens in real science, as opposed to the dogma-bound pseudoscience of the YEC’s. Often unexpected results lead you down entirely new and undreamt-of paths of inquiry. How tragically sad that there are those out there who think themselves scientists, may even have a shiny Ph.D. saying they’ve got the training for it…and who choose to throw all that away in favor of hiding behind the skirts of religion’s insecurities, and the lies that must be told continually to keep the rents in those skirts patched.