Update on Andrew Wakefield

In an earlier post, I drew attention to the anti-vax hero Andrew Wakefield. Today’s Austin American Statesman reported that Wakefield has left his executive director position at the Austin-based Thoughtful House Center for Children that he helped found. It’s possible that they can rehabilitate their reputation without him. Late last month, Wakefield was found “irresponsible” by the British General Medical Council for performing unnecessary invasive tests on children. He also “flouted the rules in pursuit of his theory – and profit”. A hearing in April will determine whether he is guilty of misconduct. If he is found guilty, he could be stripped of his medical license.

Darwin Day 2010

Aaaand I hope you’re having a nice one.

Apropos of Don’s post below, I can only reiterate the threat to science education (as well as to civics/history education, and anything else the wingnuts don’t feel meshes with their ideological “white Christians did everything!” talking points) by the current SBOE. So in that spirit I direct your attention to Teach Them Science, a website dedicated to fighting the wingnut agenda.

This isn’t a perfect meeting of the minds. For one thing, it’s a joint project between Center for Inquiry and The Clergy Letter Project. The latter is a group of religious leaders promoting positive science education and resisting creationist ignorance. Now, that’s a good thing. But I can sympathize with PZ’s wariness of the group and the way they try to pretend science and religion can somehow be simpatico. Still, I can see that perhaps such a stance is a PR necessity at present. With the vast majority of the public still clinging to religion’s skirts, good science education would be a hard sell if it came with the message that “Now you can dump all that stupid God bullshit!” There’s a whole page on the Teach Them Science site that addresses the question of whether you can accept evolution and still believe in Sky Daddy, and I admit it kind of makes me cringe. But I have to remember that’s because I’ve evolved beyond superstition, and most people aren’t so lucky. So, you know, baby steps. Sure, a person can be scientifically literate and theistic all at once, though I still don’t understand why they’d want to (lookin’ at you, Ken Miller). But the point of proper scientific education first and foremost is to fill people’s heads with facts — something the currently SBOE is fighting tooth and nail — and let them draw conclusions about worthwhile philosophies on their own after they have all the facts. It’s the SBOE that wants to deny students that freedom of choice, and impose upon them not merely a Christian philosophy, but a specifically conservative American fundamentalist Protestant one.

So, mindful of the fact that sometimes war makes for strange bedfellows, I think movements like Teach Them Science stand to do more good than harm, and that the anti-science agenda of the far right needs to be fought by any means necessary.

Science Works, Albeit Slowly

This month, the British medical journal Lancet retracted a peer-reviewed study done by Andrew Wakefield. The paper was retracted because Wakefield apparently provided false information in the study and perhaps tried to cook the numbers to promote his cause and his career. He’s also under investigation for serious professional misconduct.

Who is Andrew Wakefield and why was this paper important? He claimed that there was a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. This paper served as the cornerstone of an anti-vaccination movement here and in Briton that has caused many parents to not vaccinate their children, leaving them vulnerable to a host of serious, but easily preventable diseases. The harm he has done is immeasurable.

On the plus side, science is working. His study drew skepticism and further scrutiny. His co-authors asked to have their names removed from the paper as a means of protecting their reputations. His results could not be replicated and they were refuted. The editors of the journal made a difficult decision to retract the paper, thus keeping their integrity from being taken down with the junk science paper. Retractions like this are rare, fortunately, but they serve as a housecleaning mechanism to purge the literature of truly bad publications. The machinery of science got the right answer. It’s a shame that the machinations took 12 years.

The popular press is still full of anti-vaccination material and the harm won’t be fully addressed for years, but the process has finally got moving. Meanwhile, true scientists can get back to the serious business of understanding and someday preventing or curing autism.

BTW, Andrew Wakefield now lives in Austin Texas where he runs a clinic called the “Thoughtful House Center for Children.” I wouldn’t recommend taking your children there.

Ill-educated fools in charge of education

Yes, it’s another Don McLeroy post. This Washington Monthly piece is currently making the rounds. If you haven’t seen it, you aren’t aware of just how bad things are in Texas.

Seriously, this will make you ill. Is there no depth to the ideological delusions cretins like this want to enshrine in our schools? Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical.

In honor of McLeroy, and inspired by one of PZ’s headlines today, I thought I’d create a little article of anticreowear, for all your scientifically sartorial needs. I plan to wear mine proudly. Those of you obsessed with the whole “civility” thing will clutch your pearls and admonish me sternly about it, I’m sure. Go ahead and take your concern as noted in advance. Read the attached article — shit, just read the first two paragraphs — and you’ll understand, I hope, why I’m beyond any pretense of civility with the likes of McLeroy.

Scientist portrayal in Avatar

I’ve seen Avatar twice now. I already reviewed it on my personal blog. I didn’t love it exactly, but I had to see it a second time because, despite its flaws, I knew my seven year old would think it was awesome. He did.

However, I do want to add one quick thing about it. In the past, I’ve complained often about the way movies portray scientists as closed minded eggheads who don’t understand the way the world really works, and skeptics are regarded as blind fools who wouldn’t recognize evidence that’s whacking them over the head with a cricket bat. For more of this discussion, see the Atheist Experience archive, episode #530 about “Skeptical straw men in fiction.”

One thing that Avatar really has going for it is that the scientist characters were clearly right. The military wanted to charge in with guns blazing; the scientists just wanted to study the planet’s ecosystem and establish diplomatic relations. The scientists emphatically were not egotists filled with hubris who were tampering with forces of nature they did not understand. And when they talked nerd talk, it’s presented as charming. They got geeked out and excited about the stuff they were seeing, and this was treated with affection for new discoveries. When Grace visits a new part of the world in order to try to treat her serious wounds, the first thing she says is “I have to take some samples!”

So the movie itself was thoroughly implausible all the way through, and the political aspects were annoyingly oversimplified. But treating scientists as real good guys and giving them believable reactions counts for something in my book.

Email: Why can’t science ever prove God?

Andrew writes:

I’ve stumbled across your show and personal beliefs aside, I just have to say that people are really stupid. As a Catholic, I’m ashamed of the logic of Christians trying to prove the existence of God as it presents itself on your show. I do have a question which I don’t get about what atheists state: God can never be proven through science. If something exists, it can be proven. Yet with the logic that the Christians use, they change Christian belief and twist it into personal assumptions rather than going by fundamental doctrine. I guess my questions are: 1) Why can’t science ever prove God? ; 2) What, besides God walking up to you, can be proof for the existence of God?

And by God, I mean a physical entity that can come down and walk amongst us, wrestle with us and looks like us. Basically, if you stood next to God, you’d see that humans were created to be in the image of God. I know how you love to get definitions of God.

Andrew,

You have to understand that we can only respond to claims that we are offered about God, and there are thousands of conflicting versions of God. I know many atheists have put forth the case that God should be possible to investigate through science, and have suggested specific ways that the claim could be testable.

However, to understand how much the waters have been muddied, you ought to familiarize yourself with the history of the creationism movement. A hundred years ago, it was illegal to teach evolution in schools at all. By the 1960′s, evolution was accepted as standard science. However, there was a movement to demand that creationism must be taught as science by law. This was finally rejected because creationism, at the time, was considered purely religion with no scientific merit.

So in the mid 60′s there was a push to create “scientific creationism.” At the time, creationists still attempted to make testable claims, generally centered around a literal interpretation of the Bible. For instance, they attempted to prove that the global flood was real. But the problem with such specific claims is that science can not only test them; it can prove them wrong. And it did, which eventually led to more legislative defeats for creationists.

Since that time, creationists have gotten a lot more crafty in trying to advance a watered down form of creationism in schools. The 1990′s saw the rise of “intelligent design” which, while heavily borrowing elements of traditional creationism, made the definition of “the designer” continually more vague and without specific testable claims. In their effort not to be labeled as yet another drive to teach religion in schools, they refuse to say anything specific about God. They just say “we logically infer that there must be a designer” and they don’t propose any claims about what the designer is like or how he could be tested.

This achieves the objective of being harder to counter with observable facts, yes, but it also renders meaningless any efforts to actually investigate “God” or some other sort of designer.

So can science investigate God? It depends, of course. If the concept of God is attached to specific claims about the way he interacts with the world, then yeah, you’re right, that God should in principle be testable. Of course, no scientific investigations have ever revealed anything like the God of the Bible.

But on the other hand, when people propose a God that is deliberately made vague, that is untestable. An amorphous “intelligent designer” can’t be investigated, and as I’ve explained, that is pretty much on purpose. Likewise, vague claims like “God is love” or “God is a universal consciousness” don’t lend themselves easily to testing. If we ever said that God is not a scientific concept, you can bet that we were probably responding specifically to a person who was advancing this kind of nonspecific notion of God.

As for your second question: “What, besides God walking up to you, can be proof for the existence of God?” Well, I mean, God walking up to me would be a pretty good one. It’s not even all that outlandish a request. After all, according to the Bible, God used to appear to people all the time. He talked to Moses in a burning Bush, he showed his puncture wounds to Doubting Thomas, he dropped in on Saul of Tarsus, he told Abraham to kill his son (before going on to say “just kidding!”).

If God is bothered by the existence of atheists, then clearly he knows how to fix that. What’s weird is that God is seemingly so selective. A few scattered people get to have a fireside chat with God. The rest of us apparently have to make do with clearly apocryphal stories about the appearances, and believe blindly with no such concrete evidence whatsoever. If this is the way God works, then either he enjoys playing mind games with the millions of atheists on the planet, or else he really does want them to remain atheists.

As for me, I don’t think there is a god. If it turns out I’m wrong, he knows where I live.

Happy 150th, Origin!

Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, and, reports have it, the mainstream media has decided, in its infinitely misguided goal to be “fair and balanced” about things, to give publicity to ignoramuses. So, I’m told, Stephen Meyer spouts his usual string of canards on CNN, and Time has apparently weighed in by interviewing some dimwit named Dennis Sewell on Darwin’s “Dark Legacy” (ooooooo!). You know, the usual Godwinning, “evilushun is to blame for school shootings oh noes!!!” feces. Well, I choose to ignore ignorance. And I’m not linking to it, because blithering anti-science idiocy does not deserve to be rewarded with links. Instead, I’ll simply raise a toast to one of the greatest and most important works of science of all time. Long after Christianity — and indeed, the human race — has settled into dust, whatever living things remain on this earth will continue to evolve, and the panoply of life will continue. Which is the reason Roger Ebert has described evolution as the “most consoling of all the sciences.” Because it not only tells us that life will find a way, but it tells us how. All thanks to Chuck D. Well done, sir.

Oh, the Irony

I had to chuckle when I read about the recent study that investigated the alleged link between homosexuality and pedophile priests, only to find no connection. The Catholic Church has been blaming gays, pop culture, and even the victims for their problems. Now, it seems they have one less group to blame. (Don’t hold your breath on them stepping up to the responsibility plate, though.)

What made this study even more delicious is that the Catholic Church funded it. It reminds me of the 2006 intercessory prayer study that the Templeton Foundation funded that showed that nothing fails like prayer. I’m willing to bet that in both cases, the funding agency thought for sure that their world view would be vindicated. Both groups each had millions of dollars riding on the bet.

Reality bites, sometimes.

I think these are both excellent uses of religious funds.

What’s So Good About Being Wrong?

If you’re like me, you couldn’t wait to see that six-mile plume of debris kicked up on the pole of the moon recently when the NASA rovers dove into the surface of our most famous natural satellite.

And, if you’re like me, you were totally disappointed by what you saw on NASA channel, or, I’m told, through your telescopes at home—even with a clear sky.

A brilliant explosion of dust and ice was predicted. It didn’t happen.

Again, if you’re like me, you immediately thought something along the lines of “What happened?! What went wrong?!”

NASA, however, announced it was a great success. Data began streaming immediately. And they expect to be analyzing it for weeks to come. Maybe it wasn’t a glorious sight, but certainly we’ll learn something from the voyage. In fact, the failure of our prediction has already taught us something: It taught us that some prediction and some part of the model that NASA attempted and anticipated was wrong. Observably wrong.

When we make a prediction about reality, and our prediction clearly fails, we would do well to go back and rethink our assumptions. I’m sure NASA will be doing just that. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if one of the most burning questions they’re asking is why they didn’t get that plume they expected (and even computer generated). The truth is, when life goes on as predicted, we learn very little. When life throws us for a loop—if we’re so inclined, we have an opportunity to learn a bit more about ourselves, our assumptions, and, most importantly, about the reality around us.

Can you imagine a NASA engineer watching the plume fail to rise, who insists his assumptions cannot be flawed? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt that even in the sciences, there can be such fools. But generally speaking, most average people, and most scientists as well, understand that when assumptions fail, we have an opportunity to learn something. And we ignore such opportunities, generally, at our peril.

And yet, I can recall time after time in my former fundamentalist life, when I insisted it was simply a mystery when my beliefs, or what I read in the Bible, failed to correspond to reality. Why does the Bible say this if it doesn’t make sense? Well, it does make sense, I was taught to insist—it’s just that I can’t understand it with my human mind. And if you think you can—well, you’re just arrogant.

I know that wine doesn’t turn to water. I knew it then. I know a man can’t survive for days in the belly of a fish. I knew it then. I had never seen such a thing. I had never heard of any such things having ever been verified. And yet, the fact that these stories failed to correspond to reality hindered me not at all from accepting they were true and that reality was not to be trusted in these cases. What I observed in reality didn’t matter. This was “different.” This was “god”—residing in a compartment in my brain that reality could never taint.

Recently I heard of something called the Correspondence Theory of Truth—which is just a fancy way to say that if I believe I can run through a concrete wall, and I try, and I bust my head and fall on my ass instead, I would do well to question my assumptions, rather than the wall.

All of us use this method of getting by in life all the time. When you sit in a chair, you believe it will hold you. If it does, your belief has been verified. If it doesn’t, your belief has been demonstrated to have been wrong. When you fall to the floor, it is nothing more than folly to insist the chair really did hold you, exactly as you said it would. The children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a cautionary tale about Correspondence Theory, in fact, that any child can comprehend: A person who can be separated from reality and reason, is an easy mark.

Undermining our reliance on how reality corresponds to our mental models divorces us from the most basic means we have of testing our beliefs against reality as a means to differentiate true beliefs from false beliefs. It is just one way religion can damage a person’s reasoning ability. Getting an adherent to doubt a method of validation he must use day-in and day-out as the basis for how he learns and survives with any modicum of success in this life, is a monumental accomplishment. Shameful—but monumental. The fact that religion accomplishes this on such a grand scale should cause everyone to take notice.

If you’ve never suffered indoctrination, it probably seems ridiculous to you. How could I ever, for example, get you to believe reality is not what is clearly demonstrated before you? How could I convince you, through unverified claims alone, that I knew a guy who flat-lined for three days, and has recently been brought back to life? How could I convince you that moral knowledge is gained by eating magical fruit? How could I convince you that angels can make donkeys speak? That the planet is 10,000 years old? How could I convince you mass infanticide can be a good thing sometimes?

I understand how easy it is to think Christians are merely stupid. When judged from the perspective of a person who has never suffered the indignity of having his own reasoning skills utterly gutted and discredited as a child, it will probably only ever be understood as “stupid.” Honestly, I really can’t defend otherwise. I was stupid. But today, at least, I know why.

Some of you will never understand the sick depths of indoctrination and what it can do to the mind of a child. I am sincerely happy for those of you who never knew, and will never know, what it’s like to have come to recognize that a group of people, including those you loved and trusted most, convinced you for many years to doubt your own ability to think and reason, and to doubt the most basic, objective reality that surrounds you.

Reintegrating into reality can be a chore, a process that can take, literally, years. I cringe each time I see a letter on our list from someone going through this who writes to ask “When will I stop being afraid? Does it ever go away?” or “When will I stop feeling like I’m so stupid? Will I ever learn to trust myself?”

And where am I going with this? I guess on the one hand, if you’re not familiar with anything like this, try to empathize, even if you can’t actually sympathize. Consider mercy sometimes when you feel like being sarcastic or cruel. These are abused people. The fact some of them don’t yet realize it doesn’t alter that fact.

And if you know exactly what I’m describing, know that you’re not alone. Know that you will get better. Know that what was done to you was abusive and wrong—even if it was done by misguided people who thought they were doing the right thing. Forgive them for your own peace of mind. And work on getting past this and finding some way to reintegrate with your humanity and to celebrate the fact that imperfection isn’t something for which you need to continually denigrate yourself.

Remember that being wrong, and recognizing we’re wrong, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s OK to be wrong. It’s an opportunity. It’s how we learn and grow as human beings.

10/14/09: Addendum
Today we received a letter on the AE TV list. It was from a Christian, imploring us to reconsider our atheism. I wanted to share this quote as a demonstration of the harm caused by childhood indoctrination. It was just such a sterling example of my point:

“So, you are going to live in fear and doubt until you deal with the question of whether Christianity is true or not.”

When I was an adolescent, I prayed long and hard for something to help me to believe. The idea that a vengeful god existed and that he required a belief I might fail to provide was terrifying. At the time, I don’t think I would have recognized I was in terror, because I was so used to that level of fear
. Today I know that there is nothing to be gained by “fearing” ignorance. And the cure for ignorance isn’t prayer–it’s investigation. While I’m not immune from fear in my life, I can honestly say I no longer fear in the sense that I “doubt” my choices about god and religion. I don’t lose any sleep over the thought “what if god exists and I don’t believe?” I recall the day I realized that if I researched as much as I could, and honestly concluded there was no god there, god would be an absolute ass to torment me for an honest, heartfelt effort, which his what I gave. And if god is such an ass, I don’t want to worship and obey him anyway–even if it means eternity in Hell, in the same way I wouldn’t want to follow orders from Hitler, even if it meant firing squad.