Embrace Your Inner Skeptic 5: Evaluating information in the internet age

This is a partial transcript of the talk I gave at St. Charles Community College on December 2, 2014.

  1. Amazing news!
  2. Nobody loves a critic
  3. Why skepticism is healthy
  4. What about religion?
  5. Evaluating information in the internet age
  6. Is Skepticism Right For YOU?
  7. Some advice on community building
  8. Q&A

To discover a solid truth, you need careful investigation and analysis. Believing something just because of blind trust takes no time at all. Mark Twain once said: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Urban legends and rumors appeal to people. Claims that speak to our secret prejudices, that confirm things we want to be true, spread quickly and efficiently through gossip, and at any given time there are thousands of things that “everybody knows” which aren’t actually true.

We live in an interesting time. It’s only since I was a computer science undergraduate that the internet stopped being a weird hobby for mega nerds, and started being used by everyone everywhere, to transmit information as fast as we can think about it. We all carry magic boxes in our pockets that we can use to immediately tap into the largest repository of knowledge in human history.

But a lot of it is lies.

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Salon reviews The Atheist Experience, gives us a thumbs down

Hey, good news everyone! The Atheist Experience got reviewed in Salon!

Well, okay, it was not the most complimentary review we’ve ever received.

Well, okay, it’s called “I spent a day watching AtheistTV — and it was horrifying”. The review was set up as a general overview of the new Roku channel from American Atheists, but it also devoted a plurality of its copy to describing scenes from our show, and the cover photo was of Matt and Jen.

salonreview

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Creationists say the cutest things

Guy P. Harrison sent me this:

22 Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In Evolution

Here are my answers.

  1. Of course.
  2. No.
  3. Almost completely.
  4. No.
  5. Rotation of the earth.
  6. They don’t.
  7. What about them?
  8. Deriving meaning is up to the individual.
  9. No: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abiogenesis
  10. That’s pithy and dumb.
  11. Who embraces it?
  12. Wrong.
  13. Sure, but tangentially.
  14. Because it’s been observed.
  15. I don’t think that word means what you think it means.
  16. Genetic variability.
  17. See #8.
  18. Fossilization is rare.
  19. Yes.
  20. Easily.
  21. It wasn’t a star, but don’t have enough data.
  22. If Americans come from Europeans, why are there still Europeans?

You’re welcome, creationists!

FTBCon 2 round up

For those of you who weren’t able to watch the live panels this weekend, here are all those in which ACA members participated.

Beth Presswood and Martin Wagner joined in the “Artistic Secularism” panel, with Amy Davis Roth, Ryan Consell, Ashley Hamer, and Lauren Lane.

Jen Peeples and Russell Glasser did a parenting panel with Dale McGowan and Elyse Anders.

Russell and his son Ben, a three year veteran of Camp Quest, briefly dropped in on the Camp Quest panel with David Diskin, before it was cut short by technical difficulties.

Russell was in a “Counter-Apologetics” panel, with Justin Schieber of Reasonable Doubts, and Dan Linford.

A few other panels you might enjoy checking out:

There are plenty more, so please check out the full schedule for many other great videos.

Evolution question

Email:

Hello, I am from Dallas and I go to a southern baptist school. Recently I had a project in my Logic and World Views class were I had to debate with another classmate on a controversial topic in today’s society, I choose the existence of god because I am an atheist and I wanted to try to convince my classmates that there is not supernatural being. After my debate my schools head master asked me “since evolution proposes that the fittest will survive and the week will die off, is it a good thing if a bigger boy was beating up a small boy?” I responded with no and said that his question was not relevant. But what is the right answer to this question or is there one?  Thought you could help,  Thanks!

Reply below.

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Explaining scientific understanding to a creationist

Got this email:

 

My biggest question for you guys is…
How do you believe that we (and by we, I mean the entire earth and all of its contents) are here? Of course Christians, like myself, believe in the 7 Days of Creation.
I’m watching your television show (your showdown with Ray Comfort) and I see the fallacies in his argument and the unwillingness to address your valid points. He also did not question you to the extent that I would have liked to if that were me. Somewhere in there, I came up with the question, “How do they think we got here?”
Do you accept the Big Bang/Point of Singularity or do you believe that the universe is ever-existent in itself? If it is the former, I’ve always wanted an atheist view on it. I watched a piece that Steven Hawking endorsed that was something along the lines of “Does God Exist.” He “proved” that God did not create the universe because time did not exist in which God could have created it. However, I cannot/refuse to believe that the amount of force needed to create that explosion could have been self-existent.
It would be awesome if y’all could address this question. I do not have a lot of free time, as I am a college student working 24 hours a week. Therefore, I can’t really turn on the tube and watch the show. Even if I could, I don’t think I have that channel. What I’m wondering is, if you could address it through e-mail or if you could address it on the show and send me a link where I can watch it on the internet.
I believe it will be fascinating to see a new view, as I live in a religiously-dominated area and differing opinions are few and far between.
I appreciate you guys taking the time!
[Name withheld], Freshman at [University withheld]
My reply is below.

Scientific cluelessness and idle threats

That’s what we are getting with a recent string of emails from a fellow who signs off every message as “Kevin the Creationist.” Apparently Kevin called the show in 2012, and since then he’s periodically been sending us email trying to tell us about exciting new evidence for a young earth. The latest round began two days ago.

I decided to answer him, but I hate talking into a fact-vacuum, so I figured — hey, it’s been a while since we had a creationist exchange on the blog, right?
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Creationists, watch those sources!

Excerpt from an email:

…your very disrespectful and hateful approach to theism in general is entirely unnecessary, especially since much of the opinion you provide is a result of misinformation. For instance, Matt Dillahunty once laughed at a creationist when he pointed out the fact that the big bang theory supports the idea that, essentially, everything came from nothing. You told this man that idea was false, when in fact, big-bang-theory.com clearly states:

“Prior to the singularity, nothing existed, not space, time, matter, or energy – nothing.”

That is just an example for you.

I never heard of big-bang-theory.com before, but after skimming it, it was more and more obviously not a science site. As advertised, the site did make the oddly specific claim that nothing existed prior to the singularity, even though this is just one of several working hypotheses about the initial conditions of the universe, and scientists generally don’t try to assert with certainty what happened before the Planck horizon.

Suspicious, I followed the link at the top of big-bang-theory.com, which redirected me to another site called allaboutscience.org. That site contains articles like: Intelligent Design vs EvolutionWho Made God Video; and various poorly written articles and videos that focus almost exclusively on evolution and cosmology. You would think that a site claiming to be all about science might actually consider touching on a few other topics in the Bill Nye repertoire, like electricity or light or momentum. There are lots of other interesting science topics.

Back at big-bang-theory.com, after getting several details flat out wrong, the concluding paragraph begins: “Any discussion of the Big Bang theory would be incomplete without asking the question, what about God?” What? It would?

It then links to http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/does-god-exist-c.htm, which promotes various creationist claims, and finally that page links to http://www.allabouttruth.org/holy-bible.htm which goes into full blown preaching mode.

Of course we can clear this up easily by seeing who has registered the site.

http://www.networksolutions.com/whois/results.jsp?domain=big-bang-theory.com


Administrative Contact:
Outlaw, Greg greg@allaboutgod.com
All About GOD Ministries

“We write compelling websites that reach out to skeptics, seekers, believers, and a hurting world with powerful evidence for God and the Good News of Jesus.”

You have to marvel a bit at the chutzpah of these folks, no? Design a series of fake but authoritative looking science sites, using inaccurate information to blatantly construct the straw man version of the argument you’re trying to discredit.

We get email: The difference between being unreliable and 100% wrong

Last week, Matt and Tracie got in a brief argument with a caller named Charles before hanging up on him.  Charles has continued to email us, and although Matt has decided that he’s a fake, I usually feel that genuine stupidity is the less extraordinary claim.  Anyway, I’m going to excerpt selected parts of this exchange, because it illustrates a couple of principles.

First, there is this perenially weird argument that if any one thing is found to be true in the Bible, then the whole thing must be true.  As I mentioned on the latest Non-Prophets, it’s as if fundamentalists live in this sharply divided world like the logic puzzles of Raymond Smullyan.  Everyone in the world is either a knight, who always tells the truth, or a knave, who always lies.  In Smullyan’s puzzles, proving that a person has made one true statement is enough to conclusively prove that everything that person has ever said or will say is also true.

In the real world… not so much.

Second: People who are bad at arguing commonly use a tactic known as “Quick!  Change the subject!”  NEVER allow the argument to continue if they’re dodging the point.

Charles says:

U discredit the bible you say you don’t care what the bible says. Then u validate it saying there are facts in the bible but then say there’s also false things in the bible (which is an unsupported assertion). That sir is a contradiction.

Matt:

No, it’s not a contradiction. It’s true.

There are true things in the Bible (like Herod and Jerusalem). There are false things in the Bible (like the cure for leprosy, the global flood, the genesis story, the exodus).

Imagine that I wrote you a letter and the letter read:

“Dear Charles, The sky is blue. The Earth is a rough spheroid that orbits the sun, which is a star. Mars is the biggest planet in our solar system. You should eat more vegetables. I am the supreme ruler of the universe.”

Some of that is true and some of it is false. So, referencing that letter is useless – because whatever is true, is true whether it’s in the letter or not. The same is true for whatever is false. So telling someone “Hey, it’s in the letter from Matt” doesn’t give them ANY information about whether or not the claim is true or false.

The same is true about referencing the Bible.

At this point I jumped in, not wanting to miss out on the fun.

Charles,

I’m going to walk over to my bookcase right now, pick up the first work of fiction I see, and find a true statement written in it. Ready?

The book is The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett. This is actually an especially easy one, because Follett writes historical thrillers, and this one takes place in Egypt during World War II.

End of the book, chapter 29: “Rommel glanced up and saw the British bombers approach low from behind the nearest line of hills: the troops called them ‘Party rally’ bombers because they flew in the perfect formation of display aircraft at the prewar Nuremberg parades. ‘Take cover!’ Rommel yelled. He ran to a slit trench and dived in. …Today was September 1, and something had gone terribly wrong.”

Rommel was real. Egypt was real. The British bombers were real. Does that mean, then, that the whole book is to be taken as literal truth? It concerns a fictional agent capturing a fictional spy and falling in love with a fictional girl. The fact is, I can accurately say that the book contains both true facts and made up events and characters, and finding true stuff in this book is no proof that it’s reliable as a whole.

Suddenly, a wild change of subject appears!

Mr Dillahunty, I remember you hanging up on me for saying evolution is a theory (which it is) just a little hint I thought u should know. Evolution is the only one of millions of theories that was taught in every American public school. That should make everyone pause to think about who is making the decisions of what does and does not get taught in schools, and what their agenda is. I have more proof of God’s existence than every text book has of evolution. The type of evolution that people believe would disprove God has not been disproved either. God decided that to this point, we didn’t need to know how he created us. If evolution is proved to be true then I guess we will know how he created us. According to Darwin’s own words, evolution is false.

I’m not having it.

Charles,

I noticed that you’ve changed the subject very abruptly. Does that mean that you now recognize that books like the Bible can contain some true statements and still not be reliable? I’m happy to discuss evolution with you, myself, but first I’d like some acknowledgment that you were paying attention to the things we already talked about.

Charles says:

The unsupported assertion that the bible is “unreliable” totally baffles me. And yes I was paying attention to what was said and I’m going to discredit evolution simply because its a theory not a fact.

Me:

Charles,

Here’s the problem with this conversation. You’re claiming the broad ability to overturn a major pillar of modern science, and yet you seem to be psychologically incapable of comprehending even the most basic questions about critical thought. Apparently you find it “baffling,” and it’s hard to have a conversation with somebody who can’t even share that most basic foundation.

We’re not even talking right now about whether everything in the Bible is true. You started this conversation by claiming Matt contradicted himself by saying that
(1) There are true statements in the Bible, and
(2) The Bible as a whole can’t be used to determine truth.

Several of us have now explained to you why that’s not a contradiction. Matt pointed out that people and books in the real world often make both true and false assertions at different times. I even gave you a live example by finding a fictional book that has true statements in it.

The question isn’t “Is the Bible a reliable book?” at that point — the question is “Do you understand that it is possible for the Bible, or any other book, to say some things that are true, and still not be a true book overall?” Your response was to not acknowledge this question, but to hastily change the subject to something else that you thought would go better for you. But I’m not cool with that.

It’s a really simple question, Charles. Do you understand and agree with what I’m saying about true and false statements, or don’t you? If you’re going to just run away from a subject every single time you don’t like the way the conversation is going, then I don’t really see what the point is of talking to you.

Awaiting an answer that may or may not come.