“Bong hits 4 Jesus”

The US Supreme Court heard arguments last week in the case where a high school student was suspended by the principal for unfurling a 15 ft banner that said “Bong hits 4 Jesus.” (The transcripts of the oral arguments can be seen here.)

In 2002, the student (Joseph Frederick) had revealed his banner on a public street in Juneau, Alaska during a parade where the torch for the winter Olympics was being carried, and the school had allowed students out to watch the parade. The student involved had wanted to get on the TV news programs covering the parade and had decided that this phrase would do the trick in drawing attention to him.

I must congratulate the student on showing remarkably accurate judgment on what local TV news finds newsworthy. The phrase he used is inane and meaningless but had the right combination of concepts (drugs and Jesus) put into a snappy sound bite that is fun to say and very memorable, making it perfect for TV news. Say “Bong hits 4 Jesus” and you will see what I mean.

(There are some words that are funny just because of the way they sound and “bong” is one of them. It reminds me of a Monty Python joke where one person asks another “What is yellow and sounds like a bell?” The respondent says “I don’t know. What?” And the first person says “Dung.” The whole joke depends upon the person drawing out the ‘ng’ sound of “Dung” like it was a church bell.)

The case is being tried as a free speech issue. The school principal (Deborah Morse) defends her action as being an appropriate response to a student who was advocating an action (drug use ) that is against the law and school policy. The student (who has now got publicity that must have exceeded his wildest dreams) is defending his action on free speech grounds.

I don’t want to get into that argument but instead focus on a different issue and that is the need for teachers to have a sense of humor when it comes to dealing with students. One of the enjoyable things about teaching students is that many have a sense of fun. Sometimes it is silly, sometimes clever, and sometimes irreverent. Almost always it is harmless and not meant to humiliate the teacher or bring the institution into disrepute. Very often the students may not have completely thought through the consequences of their humor or considered how it might look from a different perspective. Teachers need to be aware of this and be able to see the silliness for what it is, laugh it off, not take offense so easily, and even use such incidents as teaching moments.

But apart from the apparent lack of humor on the part of the principal, there is also another aspect of this case that has intrigued me. Why had the principal taken such strong offense and gone to the (to me) extreme step of ordering the banner be taken down and suspending the student? I suspect that the real trigger was not the stated one that the phrase was advocating illegal drug use (which strikes me as a bit of a stretch) but that the principal was offended at the suggestion that Jesus was being called a pothead, and thus Frederick was making fun of Christianity. If the sign had said “Bong hits 4 Joe” I do not think it would have caused anywhere near the ruckus. It probably would also not have got the student on TV because the meaninglessness of the phrase would have been apparent.

Inserting the name Jesus was the real cleverness on the student’s part, showing that he has a shrewd instinct for how to push people’s buttons.

POST SCRIPT: Kucinich on Iraq occupation and Iran clouds

US congressman and Case alumnus Dennis Kucinich will be speaking “Iraq and Iran: The Way Forward”, followed by Professor Pete Moore of the Political Science department. Professor and chair of History Jonathan Sadowsky will moderate as well as give some introductory remarks.

The talks are promised to be brief leaving a lot of time (50 minutes) for questions and discussion.

When: Tuesday, April 3 at 4:00pm
Where: Strosacker Auditorium

The event is sponsored by Case for Peace, and co-sponsored by the Center for Policy Studies of the Department of Political Science.

The event is free and open to the public.

God in the supermarket

Long time readers of this blog will recall the famous banana argument for the existence of god put forward by an evangelist named Ray Comfort, accompanied actor by Kirk Cameron. The design of the banana is so exquisite, he said, that it could not have evolved according to Darwinian natural selection. He asserted that the existence of the banana was the ‘atheist’s nightmare.’ (This clip has to be seen to be believed. Move the cursor to the 3:25 minute mark to get to the good stuff.)

Well, another ‘atheist’s nightmare’ has surfaced, this time to show why life could not have originated naturally by the action of energy on inorganic matter. The evidence? To appreciate it, you have to move from the fresh fruit section a few aisles over to where the peanut butter is.

(Thanks to MachinesLikeUs.)

Oddly enough, the argument used in this video is the very same ‘absence of evidence is evidence of absence’ argument that I wrote about before, but used incorrectly. There is so much wrong in how this reasoning is used here that one scarcely knows where to begin.

But what I would like to warn the person in the video who is making the case based on peanut is that this kind of argument can be fatal, not for atheists (unless they get a heart attack and die from laughing), but for religious beliefs, because it falls into the trap of ad hoc thinking which can be so easily demolished.

From back when religious believers realized that they could not assume that the idea of god was obviously true and needed some supporting evidence, they have cast around for things that they thought ‘proved’ some religious idea. Initially they have sought to provide evidence of things that could not have occurred except for the action of god.

First it was “Look, the human being! It is so perfect that it has to have been created in the image of god.” Then later it was “Look, the eye! It’s so perfect it cannot have evolved!” And when that fell apart, it was intelligent design creationism with its more sophisticated “Look, the bacterial flagellum!” Now it is degenerating to “Look, the banana!” and even “Look, its Skippy extra smooth peanut butter!”

The flaw is that the proposers of these ideas never seem to explore the implications of their ideas and this is where they differ fundamentally from the scientific approach. All scientists realize that any idea to explain anything has consequences that extend well beyond the thing being immediately explained, and that these consequences must be investigated.

Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection is quite simple and the main argument can be stated in a few hundred words. But his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species consists of nearly 500 pages where he carefully explores a huge number of the possible consequences of that idea, looking both for corroborating evidence and for weaknesses in his theory. He examines animals, birds, insects, fish, and plants from all over the world, looking for patterns. It is an exhaustive and encyclopedic effort, of which I will write more later.

The person making the peanut butter argument has obviously not thought things through. If he thinks that finding an organism in a peanut butter jar or in any other processed food item is evidence of how life originated without god, then he has lost the case because I think almost everyone has at some time bought some item of food that seemed to be ‘spoilt’, i.e., contaminated by some bacteria. We put this down to a fault in the manufacturing process. It is not unknown for foreign matter to creep into food products, and court cases resulting from such events are legion. But for this person, such an event would be a sign of life being created by the action of energy on matter, without the need for god.

I wish it were that easy to show how life originally came into being. Then all scientists would have to do is fan out into the world’s supermarkets and systematically examine each jar of processed food to see if any living organism is found. But instead scientists continue to do it the hard way, in the laboratories, under controlled conditions.

POST SCRIPT: Evolution in cartoons

Here’s a quick summary of Darwin’s ideas from The Simpsons.

And while we’re at it, here’s a compilation of religion related clips from The Family Guy.

And here’s another clip from The Simpsons.

The US attorney purge reveals demonstrates the power of blogs

As a blogger, I have been curious about the evolving role of blogs in public discourse, especially with regard to politics. Its role in broadening the range of perspectives and analysis that is available is quite obvious. Readers are no longer limited to the stale and vapid choices of the editorial page editors of their newspapers for commentary. But what about the role of blogs in actual reporting? Do they add anything there?

The flap over the firing of US attorneys has revealed the special role that blogs can play in creating actual news. Although the mainstream media have only brought the story into public consciousness the last two weeks, those of us who read blogs, especially Talking Points Memo (TPM), have known that this was brewing for a long time.

Josh Marshall, founder of TPM, back in December first flagged the fact that the US attorney in Arkansas had been fired and replaced by a Karl Rove crony, and he suspected that political patronage was at play. Then on January 13, 2007 he noted the firing of Carol Lam, the US attorney in California who had successfully prosecuted and sent to jail Republican congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham for bribery, and was in the middle of prosecuting another lobbyist/briber Brent Wilkes and was investigating the role of the former number two person at the CIA Kyle “Dusty” Foggo.

It turned out that other attorneys around the country were being similarly fired around the same time but since each event was considered local news it did not garner attention outside each region. But Marshall’s readers, alerted by his posts in these two cases, sent in information about local firings from all over, making it clear that there was a pattern. TPM thus became a kind of clearing house for information on this story.

Although these firings looked suspicious, the story was not picked up by the major news outlets. In fact the mainstream media actually dismissed this as conspiracy theorizing. Jay Carney who is the Washington bureau chief of Time magazine initially dismissed the charges coming from TPM that there was a coordinated plan to fire US attorneys and replace them with appointees who did not have to undergo Senate confirmation. It was only on March 13, 2007 that he acknowledged that there was a major story that had been unfolding right under their noses.

But what is interesting about the story is that it shows the strength of the blogs, which can unleash the power of thousands of passionate individuals to go out and do some research. While each person has a day job and can do little, the collective result can be quite significant. We saw this happen before in somewhat less significant stories like the Kaloogian photo episode and the Ben Domenech plagiarism expose. In both those cases, swarms of amateur investigators built on one another’s information to rapidly expose the truth.

These volunteers are not trained journalists and thus may miss some things or get things wrong, but they have other advantages. For one, there exist a large number of them. Since they are around the world in different time zones, you have effectively a 24/7 news analysis operation going on. They also have a passion for the issues (often aided by a partisan mindset) and are willing to expend the time to dig up information and not care about getting any recognition or credit. They constitute a new breed of citizen-journalists.

I have written before that the notion of an unbiased, non-partisan reporter is a myth. The best journalism is done by passionate but reality-based people and as long as you have a multiplicity of people pursuing stories from a variety of perspectives, we are more likely to get at the truth, or at least useful information. For each TPM reader anxious to find some nugget of information that is harmful to Alberto Gonzalez, there are others who are equally anxious to find exculpatory evidence. That leaves things as it should be, with the evidence out in the open for us to judge and the professional investigators to pore over.

Legendary muckraking reporter I. F. Stone pointed out that much of the news is in open view (if you know where and how to look for it) or in publicly available documents (if you have the time and energy to rummage through them). But that information is often buried in voluminous documents. There are only a few ways to cut through that dense brush and get at the few real pieces of news buried. You either need readers who are expert in that area and know where to look, or you need a tip, or you need lots of time. But modern newspapers are cutting back on reporters and thus do not have the ability or the desire to pore over such document dumps. Instead they practice ‘access journalism’ where they are dependent on sources feeding them information, or they need high-level politicians to be out in front of the story.

Josh Marshall at TPM has tried to find a way to meld the two models. He has a background in traditional journalism and has three full-time reporters who do traditional investigative work like cultivating sources and making calls. But his readers are the ones who give him tips and provide a lot of analyses and insights.

Right now, Josh Marshall has asked his readers to look at the over 3,000 pages of emails that have been released by the Justice Department in several document dumps, and has provided links to them and guidance on what to look for and how to report it. Since his readers have been following the story from back in December, they are much better informed about what is relevant and important than the reporters in the mainstream media who are scrambling to catch up. Given the large number of readers TPM has, this may be the most efficient investigation underway, better than the reporters and the congressional investigative staff. One TPM reader already was the first to note an 18-day gap in the emails in the crucial period November 15-December 4, just before the firings.

Of course, blogs and their readers can never match the full resources that major news outlets can bring to bear to advance the story once it makes it into the spotlight. But blogs and their readers are increasingly able to make sure that important stories do not go unnoticed. And more importantly, they are much more willing to take a publicly skeptical attitude towards what politicians say, because bloggers tend to have stronger relationships with their readers than with politicians, while the opposite is true for the journalists in the mainstream media.

The role of TPM in breaking this story is now receiving greater attention with an article written in the Los Angeles Times and featured on NPR.

In the new evolving world of internet news, TPM may be providing a model for how to use the distributed power of readers to create actual news.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins interview on BBC

Another good interview of Dawkins. It is interesting how these interviews grapple with serious questions, with the interviewers asking probing and challenging questions with little of the shouting or the ‘gotcha’ style. As a result, one can really learn something from them.

Scientific proof of god’s non-existence

There were a couple of interesting (anonymous) comments in response to my post on what constitute rational and irrational beliefs. The writer said that I was overstepping the line that divided science from philosophy when I argued that religious beliefs were irrational. The arguments took a familiar form and went something like this:

1. We cannot prove that god does not exist.
2. Hence it is rational to believe that god exists.
3. Scientists should stick to the world of data and not venture to question god’s existence since that enters the realm of philosophy, not science. The author states that if a scientist is asked: ‘In your scientific opinion, does God exist?’ the proper answer should always be, ‘I don’t know. I don’t have any data on the subject.’

I will readily concede the first point, and in fact have done so previously (See here, here, and here.)

But the other two statements do not follow from the first. Just because we cannot prove, using data, the negation of some entity does not mean that it is reasonable to believe in that entity. Scientists constantly make judgments in the absence of data and act on those judgments. In fact, it is essential that they do so, as science could not proceed otherwise.

The only time that you can prove a negative is if you have the ability to do an exhaustive examination of every possible situation. As an example, I can prove to everyone’s satisfaction that no unicorns exist in my office because I can search every nook and cranny and show that none are there. But I cannot similarly prove that no unicorns exist anywhere on the Earth or elsewhere in the universe.

I also cannot prove the non-existence of magic unicorns in my office, that only materialize when I am not present and are capable of hiding all evidence of their visits before they disappear again. It seems to me that arguments for the existence of god are of this nature.

But there is another point about the word ‘proof’ that needs to be emphasized. When scientists use the word ‘proof’ they use it in a slightly differently way from the way mathematicians use it. In mathematics, a proof is a construct based on an agreed set of axioms and rules of logic. If someone challenges the validity of any of the axioms or one of the rules, then the proof is also called into question. But since the axioms are usually few in number and do not necessarily have to be based on data, mathematicians can agree on the validity of more things as working hypotheses than scientists can.

Scientific ‘proofs’ do not have the same level of rigor as a mathematical proofs because the axioms themselves are not simply assumptions but are also expected to justified based on evidence. Also there are far more explicit assumptions that go into scientific conclusions than go into mathematical proofs, thus opening them up to far more challenges. This greater degree of challenge that scientific assumptions receive makes scientific ‘proofs’ different from mathematical proofs. So although I and other scientists use the word proof frequently, we do understand that it is being used in a slightly different sense than a mathematical proof. The word proof is used to signify a reasoned judgment based on the merits of the evidence.

But just because scientific proofs do not have the same status as mathematical proofs does not mean that scientific conclusions cannot be extremely robust. Let me give an example. Most people readily accept that there are just two kinds of electric charge, positive and negative. This is about as well-established a ‘fact’ as one is likely to find in science. This is one of the most firmly held beliefs in all of science and the entire modern world is constructed on the basis of this two-charge model. No one even thinks of questioning this fact. (Note that ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are just labels and the charges could just as well have been called things like ‘green’ and ‘blue’.)

The interesting question is how it is that we are so certain that there are just two kinds of charges that we base our entire society on it. Do we have certain proof that there are only two kinds of charges? Do we have direct data that no more charges exist? Have we looked everywhere and convinced ourselves of this? The answer to all three questions is no. So how is it that we are so sure that only two kinds of charges exist? It is because of the absence of certain kinds of data.

Here’s how that argument works. Suppose you have three charged objects A, B, and C. What scientists find is that if the charges are such that A and B attract each other and A and C attract each other, then it is always found that B and C repel each other. This set of three observations can be explained by (1) postulating that there exist just two kinds of charges, and (2) adopting a rule that says that like charges repel and unlike charges attract. No data has ever been seen that contradicts the consequences of these two assumptions.

Because of the absence of any data that contradicts any predictions based on those two statements , scientists will say that they are extremely confident that there are only two kinds of charges and this is all the ‘proof’ they need. But note that haven’t actually proved it in a mathematical sense. It is just a powerful inference based on the absence of certain kinds of data, but it is sufficient proof to convince scientists.

Notice though that even this ‘proof’ can be challenged. After all, we have done such experiments with just a few sets of charges. We have not exhaustively repeated them with every single charge that exists in the universe because it would be impossible to do so. As a result, someone can come along and say that scientists are wrong, that there does exist a third kind of charge but that either it has not been found yet or that it does not interfere with the experiments that scientists do. There is no way that scientists can prove this person wrong. How could they? But what they will do is ignore this argument as not worth responding to because that kind of argument has the same standing as magical unicorns in my office or a god who is determined to avoid leaving evidence of his/her existence.

A belief that has no observable consequences is of no use to scientists and they will work on the assumption that this third charge does not exist and that would be perfectly rational behavior. A person who clings to the belief in a mysterious third charge that has no observable consequences will be treated as somewhat eccentric.

Historians and philosophers of science have long pointed out that there is no proposition in science, however idiotic, that cannot be made immune from refutation by the addition of a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses to shield its weaknesses. But if you want to convince scientists that something like a third kind of charge exists, you will have to provide positive evidence, some actual data that cannot be explained by a two-charge theory. For scientists, the absence of such evidence or data is taken as evidence of absence.

It seems to me that the arguments put forward by believers for the existence of god are of the same kind as those that might be put forward for a third charge: It exists but its effects cannot be observed. But just as scientists are perfectly justified in rejecting as irrational that kind of hypothesis when applied to a third charge and confidently proceeding on the basis that it is false, so it is that we can confidently reject the arguments currently given for the existence of god.

So although you may not be able to prove exhaustively that god does not exist, you cannot obtain a stronger scientific proof than what we currently have.

So if someone should ask me ‘In your scientific opinion, does God exist?’, I would answer ‘No’ with the same degree of confidence that I would say ‘No’ to the question as to whether a third type of electric charge exists.

POST SCRIPT: More lists of famous atheists

Some more lists of well-known atheists and agnostics, along with quotations from them justifying their inclusion in these lists, can be found here and here.

Although it should be obvious, I should add that the mere fact that someone famous is an atheist is not being offered as an argument in favor of atheism. Lists of this kind are simply to identify the members of an affinity group. One could do the same thing with lists of vegetarians or Bassett hound owners.

Murder at the World Cup

March madness in the cricket-loving world is the World Cup currently being played in the West Indies. But the big story has not been the game itself but the murder of the coach of the Pakistan national team who was found dead in his hotel room the day after the shocking elimination of his team, which failed to qualify for the second round of the tournament.

Initial reports said that 58-year old Bob Woolmer, a diabetic who had once played for England, had died from a heart attack. But authorities started backing way from this and rumors began to swirl of suspicious circumstances, first of suicide, before the authorities said that he had been strangled. There was no sign of forcible entry into his room and nothing was stolen.

This news has stunned everyone and cast a serious pall over the event with some calling for the canceling of the tournament altogether. The authorities have decreed that it will continue but there is no doubt that this terrible event has destroyed the exuberant atmosphere that characterizes these quadrennial events.

The charge of murder naturally raises the question of the identity of the culprit. There are several motives possible. One is that Woolmer was killed by an enraged and disappointed fan of the Pakistani team. Another is that he was killed by angry gamblers who had lost a lot of money because of Pakistan’s surprising early elimination from the tournament. And now there are allegations that he was killed because he was about to level serious charges of match fixing, where individual players are bribed to deliberately throw a game in order to benefit gambling interests.

In recent years five players (three from Pakistan, one from India, and one from South Africa) have received lifetime bans for throwing matches at the behest of gamblers, while other players have received lesser punishments for other infractions. Suspicions of players putting in sub-par performances in return for bribes are so pervasive that almost any string of surprisingly poor performances, or a poor performance in a crucial game, has come under suspicion.

To understand these charges, one has to realize that like most major sports competitions, international cricket now is a big business with lots of sponsorship money involved and players (at least from the major teams) earning huge amounts. Gone are the days when even international cricket was either a part-time or at most a seasonal occupation for players. Now they play year around all over the world and huge amounts of money are bet on the games. The games also arouse tremendous passions among the fans, sometimes leading to riots when home teams do badly. The South Asian subcontinent countries of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are particularly prone to having such over-enthusiastic fans, with people even committing suicide because of disappointment over their team’s loss.

In the current tournament, 16 teams are taking part. They are split into four groups of four each in which each team plays every other team in their group with only the top two teams going to the second round. Of the 16 teams, only eight (England, West Indies, Australia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and South Africa) are considered serious contenders for winning the championship. These eight teams were split equally into the four groups and thus were expected to be the teams to advance to the second round while the other eight (Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ireland, Scotland, Bermuda, Netherlands, and Canada) were expected to head for the exits.

But Pakistan, a perennial powerhouse in international cricket (winning the World Cup in 1992) and one of the favorites to win the tournament, suffered an unbelievably shocking defeat to Ireland in their group, which was key to them failing to qualify for the second round. It was on the day following their elimination that their coach Woolmer was killed.

This loss is not the only surprise in the tournament. India, another cricket powerhouse and 1983 winner, suffered a surprising defeat to Bangladesh in their group match and now will also not make it to the second round either. But Bangladesh is the best team of the eight lower-ranked teams and so while this was a major upset, the result was not as sensational as the loss by Pakistan to the complete outsiders Ireland.

Sri Lanka (who won in 1996) has put in strong showings in its group matches, winning all of them, thus advancing to the second round of eight teams. Starting on March 27, these eight teams play six games each, after which the top four advance to the next round beginning April 24, which has a sudden-death format. The championship game is on April 28.

But hanging over the whole tournament will be the question: Why was Bob Woolmer killed and by whom?

POST SCRIPT: Physics demonstrations

No, not the kind a physics teacher does in class. These demonstrations are by students in Nepal who chanted “We want physics!” and clashed with riot police because they want to be allowed to enroll in physics classes, which is apparently severely restricted.

The thought that there are students in the world willing to go to the mat for the chance to study physics has to warm the heart of any physics teacher.

Why belief in god is irrational

In yesterday’s post I argued that there are conditions under which it is not irrational to believe in things for which there is no evidence at all. The example was given of extra-terrestrial life or space aliens. Since the universe is very large and very old and we know contains a vast number of galaxies, there exists a plausible argument that life, even intelligent life, could exist elsewhere in the universe that we are unaware of.

But believing in other things, such as that space aliens are buzzing around us mysteriously all the time or that dragons and unicorns and the like are roaming in some secret regions of the Earth, is irrational because to retain such beliefs requires one to create very complicated and implausible scenarios to explain the absence of any evidence in favor of them.

Similarly, the idea that that there exists an afterlife is also irrational because having that belief requires one to construct a whole superstructure of auxiliary beliefs in order to sustain that belief, and these auxiliary beliefs are themselves implausible and not supported by evidence and also depend on some kind of willful attempt at concealment of evidence, so one ends up building a whole house of cards of implausible theories just in order to sustain that one belief.

What about belief in god? Is that rational or irrational? Some have argued that it is no harder to believe in a god than that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, since both have no convincing evidence in support of the belief.

But with god, the kinds of explanations for the absence of evidence that can rescue intelligent extra-terrestrial life and place it in the realm of rationality no longer apply. The problem is caused by the very qualities that religious people ascribe to god. With intelligent extra-terrestrial life, we assume that they, like us, are limited by space and time and the laws of nature. In particular, they cannot travel faster than the speed of light, which puts a real crimp on being able to get around this vast universe. After all, even if their technology was so advanced that they could travel at speeds approaching the speed of light, it would still generally take years for them to reach even the nearest neighboring star, so exploring beyond their our own galaxy becomes an enormously time consuming activity. So believing that there exists intelligent life in some remote part of the universe that is so far inaccessible to us is not an outlandish belief because the auxiliary beliefs that are necessary to sustain it (such as a very large universe and limits to travel) are supported by evidence. So the Raelians actually have a more plausible belief structure than mainstream religions.

If (hypothetically) the universe was quite small and could be traversed in a brief time, and people started invoking ideas like that extraterrestrial life existed but they were deliberately and cleverly hiding from us, then that belief starts becoming irrational.

But in the case of god, he/she is not supposed to be not limited by space and time. He/she can be everywhere all the time and has infinite powers to boot. So there is no reason at all why god should not be able to provide us with the kind of convincing evidence that I outlined earlier that would remove all doubts once and for all.

In order to overcome this problem, religious believers have to construct auxiliary hypotheses, similar to the ones that become necessary to sustain a belief in the afterlife. It is postulated that god does not want to be seen by us and has the ability to stay hidden, choosing to be seen in highly selective situations, although those situations seem to be becoming increasingly trivialized and bizarre, such as appearing in grilled cheese sandwiches, damp spots in highway overpasses, and the like.

In such situations, the absence of convincing evidence casts serious doubts on god’s existence and lifts the belief in god into the realm of irrationality. However, the faithful continue to remain devout. It does not seem that they wonder why god goes to all that trouble to provide just tantalizing glimpses. Those who do wonder about this have to, at this point and as a last resort, invoke the inscrutability argument: We cannot presume to understand why god does these things, we just have to believe that there is a good reason that is being hidden for us.

I think that this could be used as a test as to whether a belief that is sustained in the absence of evidence is rational or irrational:

• For a belief to be irrational, in order to sustain it one must argue for the existence of something that is in principle unknowable and also requires a deliberate scheme to conceal evidence of existence.
• For a belief to be rational it needs to be something that is unknown only in practice due to limitations of time or technology, but may become known in the future, and the absence of evidence is not due to willful deception by the very entity whose existence we seek.

This is not how most people seem to view rationality. People tend to view a belief is rational simply because a large number of people believe in it and if it has been around for a long time. But those two arguments really have no merit since it is quite possible for large numbers of people to believe false things for a long time.

But numbers and time seem to be the only thing that belief in god has going for it.

POST SCRIPT: Famous atheists

The online magazine MachinesLikeUs has compiled a long list of famous atheists that makes for interesting reading. There were some names on the list that were a surprise to me.

It contains scientists (Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin), writers (Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy), popular culture celebrities (Angelina Jolie, Woody Allen), political figures (Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony), and even people who are not famous (me).

Rational and irrational beliefs

Some time ago, I wrote a post wondering if the Pope was an atheist. Of course, I do not know the Pope personally and he has never made a public statement to that effect. It would not really be a good career move on his part.

My point was that the more one thought seriously about god and studied religious texts, the more likely that it was that the whole idea of there being a god and heaven would be seen to be preposterous. All the logical fallacies and lack of evidence would become transparent. Hence I argued that it was amongst clergy and theologians that one was most likely to find atheists because those people are not stupid and they do study religion in depth. The higher one went in the hierarchy, the more intellectual were the clergy and theologians and so, given that logic, I argued that the Pope was a prime candidate for atheism.

Some commenters to that post did not find my reasoning compelling, arguing that such religious people either truly believed what they did or had devised various forms of subconscious rationalizations to protect their beliefs from challenges. The comments were very stimulating and well worth reading.

But I thought about this topic again when discussing the question of what would constitute definite proof of an afterlife. Just as for that case, the only proof that I can think of that one can have for the non-existence of god is the absence of evidence for god. Unlike the famous assertion made by Donald Rumsfeld when he was flailing around trying to explain away the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, absence of evidence for god or the afterlife or the paranormal is evidence for their absence. (If anyone, especially religious believers, can suggest an alternative that they would consider compelling proof for the non-existence of god, I would be very interested in hearing it.)

As far as I can see, convincing proof for the existence of god would have to be something along the lines of the convincing proof I outlined earlier concerning the afterlife: god would have to appear in public to a random group of people, provide tangible proof of existence, and re-appear at a designated time and place that would allow for skeptics to be present. In short, it would have to be similar to the encounter that King Arthur and his knights have with god in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), right after the song in Camelot in the following clip.

It is clear that we have never had anything close to this level of proof. All we have are the claims of ancient texts of highly questionable authenticity, and the personal, uncorroborated testimony of individuals that they have ‘felt’ some presence in their lives that they think is god. Of course, just as in the case of the afterlife, such testimonies have many natural explanations, from dreams to hallucinations to misunderstandings to lying.

The willingness of people to believe in things for which there is no evidence is not always irrational. For example, take the case of extraterrestrial life or space aliens. A fairly plausible reason can be postulated why they might exist even in the absence of any convincing proof that they do. The universe is a big place that has been around for a long time. The Earth is a tiny speck and reliably recorded human history has only been around for a few thousand years. So it is possible that aliens can live in distant parts of the universe unknown to us or that they have even visited Earth before the evolution of humans. So belief in extra-terrestrial life is not completely irrational.

There are still some difficulties to be overcome. If aliens came a long time ago, surely they would have left some tangible markers of their presence, like we have left stuff recording the visit to the Moon? It is possible to answer that objection by saying that if they came a long time ago, then any clues they left behind could have easily been swallowed up by vast geological changes that have occurred over time. It may be that the movement of continental plates due to drift or the advance of glaciers has resulted in the evidence being taken deep underground and lost to us or that earthquakes and floods and tidal waves have removed their alien artifacts from the surface of the Earth

So a plausible reasons exist as to why space aliens could exist somewhere in the cosmos, and even visited us at some time even though we have not seen them. Although no evidence exists for that ever having happened, it is not irrational to not exclude that possibility.

What is irrational, however, is the belief that aliens are still around and mysteriously come and go in UFOs with flashing lights. The idea that an advanced civilization that is capable of interstellar travel has nothing better to do with its expertise than tease us by playing hide and seek is preposterous.

Most people, because of the similar lack of evidence, do not believe in things like dragons and unicorns, and do not even think of demanding more proof of their non-existence. Why is this? One obvious reason is that with large land animals like dragons, there are not many places where they can be unobserved for long and we assume that these animals are not smart enough to hide their existence from us even if they wanted to do so. After all, for a species to survive over a long period it has to have a large enough number to avoid going extinct. For so many of them to exist and remain unobserved would imply the existence of a fairly large unknown habitat. So the long-term absence of sightings of such animals implies non-existence and it would be irrational to believe in them and most people would accept that. It would not be irrational to postulate the existence of some forms of deep sea life that we are not aware of, because that region of the Earth is still relatively unexplored.

Next: What about belief in god?

POST SCRIPT: Evolution of creationism

British comedian Robin Ince captures the essential difference between intelligent design creationism and science.

Charlatans of the paranormal

The magician James Randi (whose stage name is ‘The Amazing Randi’) is quite a remarkable person. In addition to his day job as a professional magician, he has a secondary career debunking those whom he sees as charlatans and who use ordinary magic trickery to enrich themselves by fooling gullible people into thinking that they have supernatural powers.

I saw Randi in person when I was in graduate school where he gave a performance of his magic to the student body, and then gave a colloquium in the physics department. In each case, he first did various impressive tricks such as bending spoons and changing the time on people’s watches without seemingly touching them, and escaping after being chained and put into a sack. He ended with a talk warning everyone that what he did was due to pure sleight of hand and deception, and that anyone who claimed to be using powers such as telekinesis, spiritual energy, and the like to do such things was simply lying.

At that time, one of Randi’s targets was Uri Geller who claimed that he had paranormal powers that enabled him to bend spoons without touching them, to see what was inside sealed envelopes, identify which of several closed identical containers had water inside, and so on. Geller had made quite a name for himself and was invited in 1973 to show his prowess on NBC’s The Tonight Show, then hosted by Johnny Carson. But Carson was no fool. He had started his own entertainer career at age 14 as a magician called “The Great Carsoni” and was well aware of the possibility of trickery. So Carson hired Randi as a consultant for the show and Randi advised him what he should do to make sure that if Geller did what he claimed he could do using paranormal powers, they were not due to simple trickery. You can see the clip of Geller’s appearance here. Thanks to Randi’s advice and Carson’s vigilance, Geller’s performance was a total bust. He could not do anything and ended up pleading that he was ‘feeling weak’ that day. He disappeared in disgrace for awhile but seems to be coming back again, hoping that people have forgotten that fiasco.

Another Randi/Carson expose in 1987 was that of preacher Peter Popoff who bilked gullible and poor religious believers out of millions of dollars by claiming that god spoke to him and told him things about them that enabled him to heal them. It turned out that the voice he heard was not that of god but that of his wife speaking through a receiver hidden in his ear who was telling him things that she had learned about the people Popoff was supposedly healing. After being exposed on Carson’s show, Popoff too lay low for awhile but recently he is also back with the same swindle, preying on the gullible.

In his long-term quest to show that people’s claims of having paranormal powers are a fraud, Randi has set up an educational foundation, and an anonymous donor has offered a $1 million reward to anyone who passed a test to identify the genders of the authors of 20 diaries by touching the covers, and getting at least 16 right. In 10 years, no one has succeeded with the best result being 12 right. Some prominent psychics have stayed away and one can understand why. Their fame and fortune depends on gullible people believing in them and they are unlikely to risk being exposed as frauds.

But suppose someone did come along who got 16 right? Would that prove that they had paranormal powers? No. Since there is a 50-50 chance of guessing right for each diary, the probability of getting at least 16 out of 20 right is 0.006 or 6 in 1,000 or about one chance in 167. This is unlikely but not that rare. To convince a skeptic like me to believe in the paranormal would require evidence that approaches certainty. To provide convincing proof of the paranormal, a person claiming to have such powers should be able to get everything right and be able to do it at any time.

This question of repeatability of such proofs is important. It is quite possible to have even an extremely unlikely event occur by chance and that would prove nothing. It is possible to get hit by lightning even if Zeus is not deliberately aiming thunderbolts at you.

What is interesting is that psychics around the world keep claiming to have supernatural powers but can never produce them under scrutiny. In Sri Lanka, we had our own rationalist champion named Abraham Kovoor who in his day also offered a monetary reward to the many ‘god-men’ in the region (people who claimed that they had supernatural powers because they were an incarnation of god) if they could read the serial number of a currency note in a sealed envelope. Kovoor went to his death at a ripe old age with his money safe.

Because of the lack of any confirmed positive evidence, I think that the logical and rational thing to do is to assume that every kind of paranormal phenomenon that has been postulated simply does not exist, just as an afterlife does not exist.

Of course, true believers in the existence of the supernatural will find all kinds of excuses for the absence of any evidence for it. For example, a common demonstration used by the ‘god-men’ in India and Sri Lanka to convince their devotees that they had supernatural powers was to wave their hands and produce, seemingly out of thin air, ‘holy ash’, the kind which devotees rub across their foreheads, similar to what some Christians do on Ash Wednesday. I have friends who believe in one of these ‘god men’ (famous in South Asia) called Sai Baba and they tell me stories like this to persuade me that their belief is rational. (See this site for exposes of Sai Baba.)

I recall a time when Kovoor staged a public demonstration where he did the very same thing that the ‘god men’ claimed they could do using divine powers. But true believers were unfazed. One person wrote to the newspaper that Kovoor’s display did not prove anything at all because while the ‘god-men’ produce holy ash, Kovoor had only succeeded in producing ordinary ash!

As the old saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

POST SCRIPT: How the ten commandments came about

Sometime ago, I wrote that the ten commandments looked like something cobbled together by a frustrated committee struggling to come up with a round number of items. It turns out that this is exactly how they came about, with the committee consisting of god, his personal assistant Larry, and Jesus.

For all the Mr. Deity clips, see here.

The war propaganda machine grinds on . . .

And so year five begins . . .

Today marks the beginning of the fifth year of the endless war of death and destruction that is destroying Iraq and its people. It is an appropriate time to focus attention on all those responsible for this atrocity, starting with the entire Bush administration, the neoconservative clique that surrounds the administration, the war cheerleaders in the so-called ‘think tanks’ like the American Enterprise Institute, and the pundits in the media who provided the intellectual cover for them. Robert Parry looks at how “the four-year-old conflict resulted from a systemic failure in Washington – from the White House, to congressional Republicans and Democrats, to an insular national news media, to Inside-the-Beltway think tanks.”

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has to be one of the worst culprits of the pundits in the media and Matt Taibbi of the Village Voice has repeatedly skewered both his ideas and his writing style. The latest salvo lobbed by Taibbi is well worth reading as he points to how the apologists for wars are always alert to the need to fix blame for past war failures on everyone but themselves, and to lay the foundations to justify future wars. He points out that Tom Friedman is always ahead of the curve when it comes to the workings of this particular propaganda machine.

What we have to remember about America’s half-baked propaganda machine is that, dumb as it is, it always keeps its eye on the ball. The war in Iraq is lost, everyone knows that, but there are future wars to think about. When a war goes wrong, the reason can never that the invasion was simply a bad, immoral decision, a hopelessly f——up idea that even a child could have seen through. No, we always have to make sure that the excuse for the next war is woven into the autopsy of the current military failure. That’s why to this day we’re still hearing about how Vietnam was lost because a) the media abandoned the war effort b) the peace movement undermined the national will and c) the public, and the Pentagon, misread the results of the Tet offensive, seeing defeat where there actually was a victory.

After a few decades of that, we were ready to go to war again — all we had to do, we figured, was keep the cameras away from the bloody bits, ignore the peace movement, and blow off any and all bad news from the battlefield. And we did all of these things for quite a long time in Iraq, but, maddeningly, Iraq still turned out to be a failure.

That left the war apologists in a bind. If after fixing all of the long-held Vietnam excuses Iraq could still blow up in our faces, that must mean that we not only misjudged Iraq, but we were wrong about why Vietnam failed, too. Now, if we’re ever going to pull one of these stunts again, we’re going to need to come up with a grander, even more outlandish excuse for why both wars were horrible, bloody failures.
. . .
[B]oth Vietnam and Iraq failed not because they were stupid, vicious occupations of culturally alien populations that despised our very presence and were willing to sacrifice scads of their own lives to send us home. No, the problem was that we didn’t make an effort to “re-evaluate tax and spending policies” and “shift resources” into an “all-out” war effort.

The notion that our problem in Iraq is a resource deficit is pure, unadulterated madness. Our enemies don’t have airplanes or armor. They are fighting us with garage-door openers and fifty year-old artillery shells, sneaking around barefoot in the middle of the night around to plant roadside bombs. Anytime anyone dares oppose us in the daylight, we vaporize them practically from space using weapons that cost more than the annual budgets of most Arab countries to design. We outnumber the active combatants on the other side by at least five to one. This year, we will spend more on the military than the rest of the world combined — more than six hundred billion dollars. And yet Tom Friedman thinks the problem in Iraq is that we ordinary Americans didn’t tighten our belts enough to support the war effort.
. . .
This being tax season, I want you all to think about this Friedman column as you prepare your returns, because I’ll bet anything he’s surfing ahead of a trend here. If the next president is John McCain, or even if it isn’t, you can be damn sure that we’re going to hear a lot about how we blew Iraq because there weren’t enough troops or resources shifted into Iraq.

You’re going to hear that we didn’t have money to pay for body armor, when the reality is that the reason troops didn’t have body armor in recent years is that congressmen robbed the operations and maintenance accounts of the defense budget to pay for earmarks/pork projects (they took $9 billion in pork and earmarks out of the O&M allotment in 2005, for instance). They robbed the part of the budget that paid for ordinary soldiers‚ gear so they wouldn’t have to touch the F-22 Raptor, the CVN(X) aircraft carrier, or any of the other mega-expensive and mostly useless weapons programs. I mean, think about it — how else can you spend $600 billion dollars on the military every year and not have body armor for the soldiers deployed at war? Somewhere, someone who doesn’t need it has to be sucking up that money.

But trust me, the myth is going to be that you didn’t cough up enough for the war. It’s your fault we failed, not Tom Friedman’s.

I think Taibbi is right, but only partially, that the American people are being set up to be blamed for the Iraq failure. Another blame target is the Iraqi people themselves who are increasingly being portrayed as being ungrateful for the ‘sacrifices’ the US has made on their behalf and as lazy and incompetent and corrupt and not worthy of the great gift of democracy that god (through his chosen agent George Bush) generously decided to bestow on them.

POST SCRIPT: Harrison and Simon

This anniversary is too depressing, so I thought I would try and provide an uplifting note by linking to George Harrison and Paul Simon together singing two songs that each had made famous. Here comes the sun is of hopeful new beginnings and the other Homeward bound is about the yearning for home and the little things in life that signify normalcy. (Thanks to Crooks and Liars.)

Proof of the afterlife

Recently a friend of mine posed an interesting question. She said that none of us really know for sure if there is life after death or not, although all of us have our own beliefs. She wondered how differently we would live our lives if we could have conclusive proof either way. This led to an interesting discussion about what would constitute proof in such situations.

This brings us back to the whole problem of what constitutes proof in such cases. The negative is particularly tricky. As far as I can see, to prove that life after death does not exist, the only thing we can have is the absence of proof that life after death does exist. I cannot see how there could be any other kind of proof for such a thing and would be genuinely interested in hearing from anyone (especially from those who do believe in the afterlife) what kind of evidence would convince them beyond a shadow of a doubt that no afterlife existed.

As far as I can tell, the very fact that there has been no convincing proof for thousands of years that life exists after death is all the proof we are ever going to have that it does not exist. So in my opinion, having convincing proof that there is no life after death would not change people’s behavior much, since that is pretty much the state of affairs that currently exists. People may say that they believe in it but they really have no basis for believing it and I suspect that its absence would not, deep down, really surprise them. It is only having convincing proof that the afterlife does exist that would change anything dramatically.

Notice that I say ‘convincing’ proof. There are people who claim to have had near-death experiences where they saw something of the after life. Others claim to talk to or even see dead people. But none of these things really constitute proof because they are all individual reports in the absence of corroborating witnesses. There is a whole range of completely natural explanations that can explain the testimonies of such people, from dreams to hallucinations to misunderstandings to lying.

A real proof of the existence of the afterlife would have to consist of something incontrovertible, that simply could not be denied. If asked to be more specific, I would say that it would have to consist (say) of an event in which someone who was well known and whom we know was definitely dead (say Albert Einstein) appeared in public and spoke to a large number of people who had no vested interest in collectively lying. There would also have to be tangible evidence of the event occurring. Furthermore, to rule out any chance of fraud or misunderstanding, this dead person should promise to reappear at a designated time and place under conditions that rule out trickery so that any and all skeptics could be on hand to check the phenomenon out. Albert should also be able to bring along other well known people from the world beyond, like say Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. If something like that happened, I think everyone would be convinced.

We have never had anything even close to such a level of proof. So basically, the current state of affairs is such that there has been no convincing proof of the existence of an afterlife. That means that we have all the proof we can possibly get that there is no afterlife.

The only way that people can sustain a belief in the afterlife given the current absence of any evidence in its favor is to argue that there must be an impenetrable barrier that prevents any kind of communication at all between the afterlife world and this one, with no exceptions. In other words, there is a one-time opening between the two worlds that allows the souls or spirits of dead people to cross over but the door closes immediately afterwards preventing any return or communication. But this implies that everyone who claims to speak with the dead is either a fraud or delusional and that all the supposed encounters that people claim to have had with the dead are false. So we are back to having zero evidence for the existence of an afterlife.

If we want to believe at least some of the reports of dead people having communicated with the living, then we have to allow just some people to be able to speak to just a few of the dead. That means the barrier separating the two worlds can be crossed and this raises a whole host of problems. Why is it that the dead don’t contact us more often? Why doesn’t Thomas Jefferson drop by for regular chats and maybe give the current occupant of the White House some desperately needed advice on what the US Constitution says? Why don’t all murdered people whose deaths were unsolved come back and tell us who their killers were?

In fact, believing in an afterlife is much harder than believing in a god. After all, with god, one is presumably dealing with a single entity. People always have the option of assigning inscrutability to god’s actions and say that for reasons beyond our ken, god has chosen to keep his/her existence unproven except for highly oblique hints.

But with the afterlife, if it exists, there must be billions of dead souls out there. It is hard to argue that all of them are determined to prevent us from finding out for sure that they exist. Why would they care? Is it a crime in that world for someone to show themselves openly in our world? Is this other world like a prison in which just a few dead people are given permission to occasionally speak to a few living people under extremely controlled circumstances?

Given the overwhelming logical difficulties with postulating the existence of such a spirit world, one wonders why people continue to believe in it. One reason that I can think of is that people have a deep sense of existential loneliness that makes it comforting to think that they are surrounded by the spirits of dead friends and family and that they will join them in the future. It is such a deep psychological need that it overcomes all reason and logic.

POST SCRIPT: Citizen Kane

The classic film Citizen Kane will be screened on Tuesday, March 20 at 7:15pm in Strosacker Auditorium at Case Western Reserve University. It is free and open to the public. (Thanks to Heidi for the info.)