Appearing in Charleston, South Carolina!

Logo for the Secular Humanists of the Low Country, showing the humanist human symbol in blue, straddled by the blue letters S and L, over a peach colored shape of the state, against a yellow background.I will be in South Carolina this February 21st (Sunday) speaking on the subject of applying Bayesian reasoning to the question whether someone existed…you know, someone like, say, Jesus. I’ll be speaking at 4pm in Gage Hall (4 Archdale Street, Charleston, SC). Open to the public. I will be selling and signing copies of my books (including for the first time a new printing of Proving History that is physically smaller and lighter, but still a hardback). We will all be having dinner after at Tasty Tai and Sushi.

My talk this time is “Applying Bayes’ Theorem to the Historicity of Jesus and Its Lessons for Critical Thought.” For the first time I will discuss both Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus and what I have “learned from interacting with critics over adapting Bayes’ Theorem to the task of analyzing the evidence for Jesus, and how such lessons become a window to understanding Bayesian reasoning and its application to all areas of critical thinking.”

More details here.

Tucker’s Review of Proving History in the Journal History & Theory

Cropped view of the cover of a recent issue of the journal History and Theory. Subtitled: Studies in the Philosophy of History.As I recently mentioned, a Harvard University philosopher, Aviezer Tucker, just published a review of my book Proving History for the academic journal History and Theory (Vol. 55, February 2016, pp. 129-140), titled, The Reverend Bayes vs. Jesus Christ. Tucker is an expert in the methods and philosophy of history, so his review carries some weight. It’s significant, therefore, that he endorses the program of my book—that historians need to start using Bayes’ Theorem, as effectively as they can, to resolve questions in their field—and that in fact even when he criticizes my book, he does so by suggesting improvements that are either already in that book (and he merely overlooked them) or in my subsequent application of its program in its sequel, On the Historicity of Jesus. This is almost the best assessment one could expect. It lacks merely noticing that much of what he suggests, I already did. What I provide below is an analysis of his review that helps understand his points, and relates them to what I’ve already written. [Read more…]

Barnes Still Not Listening on the Bayesian Analysis of Fine Tuning Arguments

Cover of Christian physicist reference guide to multiverse arguments, entitled Who's Afraid of the Multiverse, by Jeffrey Zweerink, showing a bunch of bubbles full of stars lined and stacked in black space.Last month I caught up on an old thread with On the Bayesian Reversal of the Fine Tuning Argument by Sober, Ikeda, & Jefferys (against Barnes & Lowder). Luke Barnes has now thrown up a bunch of responses that are even more bizarre. One of the things I observed is how he never addresses any of my actual arguments. And now he keeps doing this yet again. And I think he sincerely doesn’t even know this is what he is doing. It looks like he delusionally believes I argued things that I didn’t, and delusionally doesn’t see the things I did argue, even when I explain them to him. I don’t know how to interact with someone like that. And on top of that, now he seems to be contradicting himself and isn’t aware he is. This is genuinely strange.

Because continuing this looks impossible—Barnes has so consistently ignored what I actually say, that I do not see the likelihood of his ever actually responding to me, making any further engagement a waste of my time—this might be the last time I bother addressing him. I’m giving him one more shot only because he’s supposed to be an actual cosmologist and not some rando. But be aware, yet again, he is already refuted by everything I already actually wrote in the original TEC article and in my latest reply to him (with one exception I’ll get to below). So honestly, you could just go back and read those. That’s all you need to see how irrelevant or wrong everything he keeps saying is. But I’ll survey it anyway.

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We Are All Bayesians Now: Some Bayes for Beginners

Cartoon with the title (Yet another) history of life as we know it... It then shows stages of ape evolving into hominid evolving into humans etc., walking increasingly upright, then suddenly hunched over a computer, and the five stages are humorously named Homo Apriorius, for the ape, Homo pragmaticus, for the hominid, Homo frequentistus for the cave man, Homo sapiens for the human, and then Homo Bayesianus for the equally naked computer user. Thought bubbles are shown emanating from each, showing a mathematical representation of how they think, which roughly translates to, for the ape, they just assume hypotheses are true, then for the hominid they just think about evidence and not hypotheses, and the cave man makes predictions of the evidence from hypotheses, then the human just asserts evidence with hypotheses, while the Bayesian correctly asks what hypothesis is likely given the evidence.Two things happened recently. I was thinking about better ways to teach Bayesian thinking with minimal math in my upcoming class on historical reasoning (which starts in two days; if you want in, you can register now!). And I just finished reading an advance copy of the first proper academic review of my book Proving History, which is the main textbook I use for my course. That review is by fellow Bayesian philosopher of history Aviezer Tucker, which will appear in the February 2016 issue of the academic journal History and Theory.

The review is an interesting mix of observations. I’ll comment on it in more detail when it is officially released. The abstract of his review is available, but it’s not a wholly accurate description of its content. In fact the review is mostly positive, and when critical, Tucker proposes what he thinks would be improvements. He’s uncertain whether a Bayesian approach will solve disagreements in Jesus studies, and he mentions some possible barriers to that that weren’t directly addressed in Proving History, but he is certain Bayesian methods do need to be employed there. The question becomes how best to do that. He makes some suggestions, which actually anticipate some aspects of how I did indeed end up arguing in Proving History‘s sequel, On the Historicity of Jesus (which Tucker hasn’t yet read, so he was unaware of that, but it’s nice to see he comes to similar conclusions about how to examine the evidence). He takes no side in the debate over the conclusion.

Both events converged. Tucker’s review reminded me of some ways to better discuss and teach Bayesian thinking. In truth, Everyone Is a Bayesian. They might think they’re not. Or they don’t know they are. But they are. Any time you make a correct argument to a conclusion in empirical matters, you’re argument is Bayesian, whether you realize it or not. It’s better to realize it. So you can model it correctly. And thus check that all its premises are sound; and be aware of where you might still be going wrong; and grasp all the ways someone could validly change your mind.

Bayesian Reasoning in a Nutshell

Here is just a basic guide for simple Bayesian reasoning about history… [Read more…]

There’s No Time to Explain

Photograph of an American M1 Abrams battle tank rolling down a street.My brother in law, Brian Parra, has launched a groovy new podcast, There’s No Time to Explain. And I was his first interview subject (episode 1). It’s an example of my favorite kind of podcast, where we both chat about all kinds of things that mostly aren’t the usual things I’m talking about over and over.

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February Course: How to Critically Assess Claims about History!

Logo for Partners for Secular Activism. The letters PSA in blue, in an art decco font, over a light grey watermark of a compass pointing near to north, all on a white backround.I shall again be teaching my online course on historical methods in the coming month (February 2015): Thinking Like a Historian: Historical Methods, Practice and Theory. Why not join in! Or recommend it to anyone you know who might be interested.

Learn how to question and investigate claims about history. Learn not only the logic of historical reasoning and argument, but also a lot of the practical tips and tricks real historians employ to test and check claims. And hone your skills of skeptical and critical thinking about history.

Primary topics: Best practices among historians; historical methods as modes of reasoning (both criteria-based and Bayesian); examples of flawed reasoning and bad arguments in peer reviewed history journals and monographs (and how to spot them as a layperson); and what to do to critically examine a claim using both immediate criteria and procedures for more labor-intensive inquiry…

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Why the Smart Money Is on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Being a Forgery

Photo of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife papyrus fragment, a rectangle with seven or eight lines of sloppy writing in Coptic, courtesy of Harvard University.I was going to do a news roundup of several new developments in ancient manuscript studies, until one of them turned out to be a roller-coaster ride down a rabbit hole filled with all manner of twists and turns. The subject? The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. The other news I’ll post on separately. Because this one. Boy. It needs an article all unto itself.

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On the Bayesian Reversal of the Fine Tuning Argument by Sober, Ikeda, & Jefferys (against Barnes & Lowder)

Computer map of the known universe in oval form with spectral and other key items indicated, on a black background, with the text beneath saying Christianity, the belief that a god created a universe 13.75 billion lightyears across containing 200 billion galaxies, each of which contains an average of more than 200 billion stars, just so he could have a personal relationship with you. Someone has crossed out the 13.75 and relaced it with 93, writing a note at the bottom that 13.75 billion is the age of the universe, not the size. In fact the size is determined by the distance the farthest known stars have traveled in the 13.75 billion years since the light we now see reached us. Which is between 91 and 93 billion lightyears. And that's not the size either, just the size of the visible part.Clearing the dusty shelves of old unanswered things. One such is the Lowder-Barnes critique of my application of Bayesian reasoning to reverse the fine tuning argument into a case against God, rather than an argument for God. Actually this is not my argument. It is the argument of three prominent mathematicians in two independent studies. My popularization of it (in conjunction with more data from other physical scientists I cited) appeared in my chapter “Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed” in The End of Christianity (ed. John Loftus 2011).

The original versions of the argument appeared as cited therein: Michael Ikeda and Bill Jefferys, “The Anthropic Principle Does Not Support Supernaturalism” (an earlier version of which appeared in Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier, eds., The Improbability of God in 2006) and Elliott Sober, “The Design Argument” (an earlier version of which appeared in W. Mann, ed., The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion in 2004; which corrects my footnote in TEC).

Cosmologist Luke Barnes critiqued this in a series of posts, and Jeff Lowder concurred somewhat in The Carrier-Barnes Exchange on Fine-Tuning (which also rounds up all the links in the debate, including my contributions). My principal point then was that Barnes wasn’t even responding to my actual argument (and thus neither to any of the mathematicians, one of whom also an astrophysicist, who originated it). He still hasn’t. Barnes had also tried the same tactics against Victor Stenger on much the same point. In my comments debate with Barnes it became increasingly clear he was a kook who simply never understood or addressed what I actually said in my chapter, and continued to refuse to after repeated requests that he do so. A debate with such a person is impossible. One would make more progress arguing with a wall. So I have nothing further to say to him. My chapter as actually written already refutes him. Since he has never responded to its actual content.

But Jeff Lowder is not a kook. He is a responsible philosopher who listens, takes considerable caution, and will strive to get an opponent’s arguments correct. So I am writing this entry today in response to his take on our debate (a take which wisely avoided even discussing most of Barnes’s weird and irrelevant arguments). [Read more…]

Correction: Yesterday’s Thunderf00t Post Revised

I made an error in the use of data yesterday. Sincere apologies to Thunderf00t. And kudos to his fans who finally sussed it out. My post has been revised, with all substantive corrections and additions made clear within the text. The background section is unaffected and unaltered. The sinking ship section revised in key places with a new graph added. The conclusion slightly reworded to reflect that.

Thunderf00t still did 70% of everything I caught him doing. And the remaining 30% he was still manipulating, just not in the way I originally noticed. My conclusions are not greatly affected. But somewhat.

The principal change-of-state is that what I actually showed is that my blog is not a sinking ship. And what Thunderf00t actually showed was our network just returning to level, due to offboarded bloggers last year. When we add new bloggers this year, we may see another swell.

The narrative changes slightly in result. In particular, Thunderf00t saw the highpoints of three years (2012 through 2014) cut in half in 2015. His “falling ship” narrative thus stemmed from that. It’s just that that’s actually just a return to where things were in 2011. We shall see whether we stay level here on out, or catch another swell.

But still no sinking ship.

The Never Sinking Ship: How Thunderf00t Sucks at Science (or Else He’s a Liar; Probably He’s Just a Liar)

Revised. Something really funny happened yesterday. And then something funny happened today. Thunderf00t tried to lie, and got caught. And embarrassed, he threw out a bunch of insults and blather, and ran away. The event was amusing. It was so easy to catch him out. And his response to having been caught was so pathetic and bizarre. And then after publishing this post today his fans caught me in a mistake! Which is amusing for a completely different reason. And I’ll be correcting that mistake below. But it all reminded me, not only would Thunderf00t make a lousy sailor (for reasons I’ll explain), but so much has happened since I last exposed him (not even just this), that it’s high time I aggregated the new material exposing him. So here is your complete update on the horror show that is Thunderf00t. [Read more…]