TAM 5: Friday morning speakers Shermer & Scott

Well, remember what I said last night about being wiped out and going to bed? Wrong! I realized that if I go to Vegas for an awesome conference and crash early, then damn it all, I haven’t been to Vegas for an awesome conference. And so I mustered up my second wind, went downstairs, and saw an impressive performance by the mentalist Banachek. Maybe I’ll discuss that in more detail later, but for now…

This morning’s speaker session began with Hal Bidlack introducing Randi once again. This time Randi said some things that will be music to any skeptic’s ears: the JREF is going on the offensive against paranormalism and bullshit. Randi is revising the terms of the famous Million Dollar Challenge in the interests of rededicating himself to his debunking efforts following his physical recovery.

The problem over the years has been too many Mickey Mouse losers applying for the Challenge, few of whom can even state their claims coherently, and none of whom really has any kind of reputation in the media or elsewhere. Now, Randi’s detractors in the woo brigade often dismiss the Challenge as a publicity stunt, and in truth, publicity is part of the point. The JREF wants to educate and inform the public and promote critical thinking, and reaching the public through the media is the best way to do it. But why should the media care about some kooky dowser from Bumfuck, Iowa?

So the new terms of the Million Dollar Challenge, going into effect on April 1 (heh), will be that applicants must have some kind of media presence, like Sylvia and John Edwards, and that there must be someone in a position of authority and influence — academically or otherwise — who feels that the claimant is worth taking seriously. This will weed out the nonsense, and pique the kinds of media interest that will help bring the message of thinking critically about extraordinary claims to a public who are given far too many reasons to be credulous. I like it. I especially liked the idea that the JREF is considering a major New York Times ad on April 1 announcing the new terms of the Challenge and expressly inviting Sylvia, Edwards, Uri Geller, and James von Praagh to partake. Bring the fight right out in the open!

Finally, Randi announced intentions to forcefully pursue (sorry, split infinitive) legal actions for fraud and other crimes perpetrated by woos shown to be false and who yet continue to take money from the gullible. All good plans!

Skeptic magazine’s Michael Shermer then came up to give an interesting if not earth-shattering talk on the topic of his next book, the evolution of economic systems. He described both evolution and economics as complex adaptive systems; in small bands like hunter-gatherers, trading was adequate as there are no specific individuals accumulating mass wealth and hogging resources. In bigger civilizations, one gets more disparity, and you end up with the super-rich like Bill Gates, who cause as much discomfort as the super-poor panhandling on the streets (though in Gates’ case, I think envy is playing a role). So more complex economic systems evolve to meet the needs of a larger populace. And this can be tied into our biological evolutionary heritage, which likes the idea of “reciprocal altruism”, i.e., fairness. It isn’t really my field, so the topic didn’t grab me by the nads. But Shermer seems to have thought it out skillfully, so I’m thinking the book with be worth checking out.

Next, the NCSE’s awesome Eugenie Scott took the podium to give the first brilliant talk of the show, tracing the evolution of the creationist movement from “creation science” to ID. In addition to covering the basics, Scott made a number of astute points, some of which I hadn’t considered. One of these I had considered is that the IDers have been more skilled at using the media than pro-evolution scientists. Ironically, they have even been better about getting out the message that they are the ones interested in skepticism and critical thinking, with their “teach the controversy” mantra and their knack for portraying science as a dogmatic practice.

Scott pointed out how the media’s focus on the generally laudable practice of fairness taints the real issues. Proper balance is achieved by presenting both sides of an issue accurately. That is not the same thing as giving both sides equal credibility. IDers have done a remarkable job of working the media and covering up the fact that they don’t really do any science.

Scott suggested that scientists need to counter ID creationism in a positive way that promotes the practice of science and critical thinking and how to apply it well. She pointed to the Kitzmiller trial as a landmark effort in this, in that, for the first time, people who haven’t been at the forefront of fighting ID nonsense for years — like Judge Jones and the army of reporters covering the trial — finally really got it. Michael Behe made a fool of himself on the stand in Dover, and what’s important is that the press understood that, and coverage of Behe was commensurately humiliating. This isn’t and has never been about “dogmatic Darwinists” “censoring” ID’s “controversial” views in order to “protect evolutionary dogma,” to regurgitate a lot of ID buzzwords. It’s just about making it perfectly understood that ID just plain ain’t science. And in science class, it’s about teaching science. Evolution, like heliocentrism or any other settled scientific issue, is not a matter of opinion. Being “fair and balanced” is all well and good when you’re letting people air opinions. But science isn’t about opinions or belief. It’s about empirically demonstrable facts.

Scott accompanied her talk with a host of fantastic PowerPoint slides showing the depth of the swill one has to wade through when combating ID/creationist nonsense. It’s both funny and sad all at once.

Well, I’m taking time out of the lunch break to bring you this. So I’m going back downstairs. (For ten bucks a day, the wifi here sucks ass. What’s the deal with getting no signal at all in the convention center? I mean, duh! Hello?) I may not post the next update for a bit, as I need to renew the service for another day. So I may wait till late tonight in order to stretch my money out better. Of course, anyone who’d like to help defray these little costs can Paypal me at mw_director at yahoo dot com, but, like Banachek was saying all last night in his act, “Now, I’m manipulating you! Don’t let me do that!” Ha!

TAM 5: Shots from the reception

James Randi spoke briefly, thanked everyone for coming and remarked drolly on how amazing it was that he could pull together such a community just by being a guy with a reputation for saying things like “I doubt that.”

Randi gave us some good news about bad news for Uri Geller, who’s the target of condemnation by the Israeli parliament after a video hit YouTube of Geller thoroughly faking a stunt with a compass. He also mentioned he was going on The O’Reilly Factor to confront the notorious Sylvia Browne yet again; much as O’Reilly is an asshole, Randi says the guy hates Sylvia and is on the side of Good (for once) in this battle. We’l see. I’m — ahem — skeptical.

After he spoke, he was surrounded by a gaggle of fans, and I eventually managed to slip in there, introduce myself, and do the usual fanboy gush thing about how much I admired all his work over the years, and all that. He was a really cordial, approachable man, and that’s cool. I know he gets to hear this kind of fawning from his fans almost as much as he hears the slanders of the woo brigade, and he’s used to it. But at least I’ve had the experience of meeting him and shaking his hand. He appears hale and fully recovered from his recent heart troubles, so I predict more years of pissing off the paranormal charlatans are in the offing.

A little more mingling and I crossed paths with Reginald Finley, aka The Infidel Guy, who surprised me by recognizing me. I had no idea he had any idea who I was. I knew he was aware of the very active Austin crowd, but I guess he’s seen some episodes of the old AE show when I was hosting. We talked quite a bit, and he mentioned some of his expanding podcasting efforts with The Debate Hour, a less aggressive show designed to draw in a wider audience of believers and introduce them to critical thinking. Really nice guy, Reggie is.

I’m wiped out. My body clock tells me it’s just after 10 PM, while the clock radio by my bed here says it’s only just after eight. Stupid time zones. Some of the guys are planning a pub crawl starting at eleven, which sounds like a great way to hang with some new folks. But having been up now almost an entire day, I don’t think I’m quite up to it. So I’m gonna lame out and crawl into bed.

The speakers begin tomorrow, and I’ll be updating regularly. See you then.

TAM 5 liveblogging: Well, here I am!

Been here a few hours, in fact, but much of the afternoon was spent getting my bearings (including figuring out the wifi situation here — it isn’t free, and in fact the $10/day service is the least rapacious) and registering. But a quick recap of the afternoon so far.

Landing in Vegas to balmy 52 degree weather was like entering paradise after a solid weekend of ice and sleet in Austin. Checked into the Riviera, which I was pleased to find did not live down to the brutal reviews I was reading on various travel sites last night. My room was clean and nice, with a full battery of amenities like any decent hotel, and with no smoky smell, trash, or bedbugs to be found. Now, granted, the Riv isn’t exactly in the “nice” part of Vegas, the new spiffy trendy part where Britney likes to skank around. This is old-school, Rat Pack Vegas, and the Riv caters solidly to the penny-slot crowd. Damn near everyone in the casinos downstairs is retirement age, including the one security guard I saw, walking along with a visible effort. I imagine if Danny Ocean were to pull a heist here and take off at a practiced run, the poor fellow wouldn’t last thirty yards in a foot chase.

Anyway, got checked in, unpacked, and wandered the labyrinthine corridors looking for the TAM 5 registration booth. When I passed James Randi walking the opposite direction, I figured I was getting warm.

He’s a small guy. But a giant in his realm, of course.

So now I am, right this second, blogging to you from the Top of the Riv Ballroom on the 24th floor of Whatever-the-Hell-It’s-Called Tower, at the opening reception, typing away while enjoying horse doovers and a fizzy beer. I’ve been taking some pictures, too, but I went and left the goddamn USB cable to my camera back in the room. So I’ll update later and post those.

I am now going to quit geeking, get another beer, and mingle. Randi is getting ready to speak.

Until later…

TAM 5: On my way

I’m tired and groggy, but I’m on my way out the door to Vegas. Only trouble is, I made the mistake of getting online last night and looking up reviews of the Riviera. Apparently it’s a seriously run-down shithole staffed by Neanderthals. Great. Well, now that I have low expectations maybe things won’t be so bad. Yeah, optimism! That’s the ticket.

More later…

[Cartman voice] Kickass! [/Cartman voice]

Bright and early Thursday morning I am flying out of the ice-caked ruins of Austin for the not-all-that-less-cold-but-at-least-not-icy glitter of Lost Wages, Nevada. The occasion? James Randi’s The Amazing Meeting 5, damn it! The great skeptic’s conference hits its fifth year, with appearances by such luminaries as Michael Shermer, Penn & Teller, Richard Wiseman, Phil Plait, Eugenie Scott, and — wait for it — Trey Parker and Matt Stone!

Been waiting for this for a long time, and when it turned out to be in the budget I leapt on it. Now, I am hoping — I say hoping — to be able to liveblog all this for you. But that will be contingent upon finding someone in Austin within the next 24 hours with a laptop they’re willing to loan me. (Hint! Hint! Hint! Hint!) My plan to have a shiny new Macbook by now didn’t run on schedule; ironically, part of that budget went toward the trip. But if I don’t get to liveblog it, be prepared for a bombardment of posts upon my return Monday, accompanied by an outright visual assault of photos.

Now, just because I’m going to Vegas, all you jealous Austinites needn’t think I’m escaping to some tropical clime. The forecast out there is for highs in the low 50’s and lows around freezing at night. But at least I will be escaping this:

Them bastards are huge! Those of you reading this in northern and midwestern states probably think us Texans are a bunch of big babies. But really, this kind of display is rare down here. Sure, we get ice around January fairly regularly — but this is the severest ice storm we’ve had in some time. And as for the snow that fell this afternoon, well, shit. I’ve lived in Austin 20 years and I think it’s snowed twice in that time.

Still, it’s interesting to see icicles looking exactly like they do in comic strips, all pointy and dangerously vertical, as if they’re just waiting to snap off as you walk innocently past and impale your brain. And then there’s always one like that big sucker in the middle, looking like some alien triffid that’s about to hatch ghastly spores to turn us all into zombies.

Okay, so I have a rich inner life.

Update: Wed. 1/17, 6:12 PM: Laptop situation solved, so liveblogging will occur! Come back here all through the weekend for a major flurry of new posts from the Meeting! w00t!

DaveScot really is as foolish and dishonest as people say he is!

I’ve noticed Bill Dembski’s sycophant-in-chief DaveScot has dropped by the AE blog to troll in our comments, as he has done in several others run by pro-evolution scientists. He has a reputation for wild distortions and pure risibility in his arguments (Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars is a fine compendium of DaveScottish follies, for those of you who can’t bear to subject yourself to Uncommon Descent; just search for this name there and see what comes up), and I see he’s fully on form here.

An example of how DaveScot behaves/argues: On Larry Moran’s Sandwalk a few days ago, a commenter named Shalini opined that the new banner at Uncommon Descent was “ugly.” DaveScot retorted with this charming remark:

What kind of name is Shalini? I keep looking for a red dot on your forehead.

That’s a pretty clear bit of racist nastiness, if you ask me, and I called him on it. So how does DaveScot react to that? As follows:

A little checking up on Martin found him in my hometown and then the picture of the cable TV crew with all white people in it made his comment seem a tad hypocritical. I couldn’t resist making the dig.

Making a public fool of himself is indeed something DaveScot rarely resists. Really, it takes a specially cultivated kind of stupid to think this way! I begin to understand just why Dave is so widely and enthusiastically ridiculed by everyone who isn’t a pro-Dembski Uncommon Descent regular. Remember, people, if you’re white, and you are not in the company of at least one racial minority at all times and in all circumstances, you are just as racist as someone who openly mocks the appearance of a non-white person.

DaveScot’s further comments are a fusillade of disingenuousness and outright dishonesty. He claims to be agnostic, but then how to explain this post in which he exhorts his readers to pray for the people partaking in the Blasphemy Challenge, who are “giving up their immortal souls on a dare… I’m not rationally convinced we have immortal souls to give up but certainly the possibility exists… Please join me in a simple prayer for the young victims of this stunt.”

Um, pray to whom about what, exactly, Dave, if you’re an agnostic who isn’t “rationally” convinced there are even such things as souls? Either you think these people are placing themselves at risk of divine wrath or you don’t. As your post indicates you do, then your claims of nonbelief are as truth-challenged as most everything else you’ve said.

Dave then makes the usual persecution claims about ID.

If ID wasn’t made into a strawman by anti-religionists more people might realize it fits fine with an atheist view like mine and even yours… Acknowledging the possibility that life and the universe doesn’t just have the appearance of design but is actually designed is not anti-atheist.

The whine that ID is constantly misrepresented by the Evil Atheist Conspiracy has been dead and buried for so long it’s nearly a fossil itself. Exactly how is ID made a strawman? As DaveScot goes on to say, ID has nothing whatsoever to do with religion, nosiree bob, no way, not at all. This is all just lies, lies, lies. ID doesn’t specify a creator, you see. It merely points out that the universe and life on earth appear to be designed, and leaves the question of who/what the designing agent is open.

Never mind, of course, the very words of DaveScot’s good friend Dembski himself (via Wikiquote):

“If we take seriously the word-flesh Christology of Chalcedon (i.e. the doctrine that Christ is fully human and fully divine) and view Christ as the telos toward which God is drawing the whole of creation, then any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient.”

“Christ is indispensable to any scientific theory, even if its practitioners do not have a clue about him.” —both taken from Dembski’s 1999 book Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology

Oh yes, let’s also overlook the fact that the Kitzmiller trial demonstrated conclusively that ID is nothing more than warmed-over traditional Christian creationism, by contrasting earlier editions of the creationist “textbook” Of Pandas and People with later editions, and showing that the word “creationism” and its variants had simply been replaced with “intelligent design”. (From The Panda’s Thumb)

Creation means that various forms of life began abruptly through the agency of an intelligent Creator with their distinctive features already intact–fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc. (Pandas 1987, creationist version, FTE 4996-4997, pp. 2-14, 2-15)

Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact – fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc. (Pandas 1993, 2nd edition, published, pp. 99-100)

Finally, let’s get back to that old fave rave, The Wedge Strategy, a document whose authenticity the Discovery Institute has fully fessed up to, and which lays the religious agenda of the intelligent design movement as bare as Jenna Jameson’s ass.

But still you have guys like DaveScot, out trying to sell the idea that ID has no relationship to religion at all, either unaware or indifferent to the fact that the jig has long been up, and no one’s buying what he’s selling. So we’re meant to swallow the idea that the intelligent designer of the universe isn’t really God, just — to paraphrase the hilarious snark from Jon Stewart — some being with the skillset to design and create a universe. And anyone who says different is just an anti-religionist making up strawmen. Got it.

But you might want to fill Bill in before he writes another book. Talk it over with him next time you get together at his Nebraska beach house.

Atheist Experience video now on web

I’ve been informed that recent episodes of the TV show are now online via Google Video, with more on the way. You can search for them there, or use the links here. (Episodes 475, 479, and 482 now available; scroll down to the table and select “video”.) Hat tip to Don Baker for this.

You think fundamentalism is bad in the US, try Nigeria!

Nigeria seems to be the country taking pole position for Most Egregious Offenses in the Name of Religion these days.

Exhibit A: “Reverend King,” self-styled leader of the Christian Praying Asembly, is one of these scumbags who founds a cult just so he can get loads of trim. King, real name Emeka Ezeugo, subjected female members of his “congregation” to wild orgies, and even had some of them doing the personal maid thing in the nude. Then, in a true irony-meter-exploding moment, he rounded up a bunch of them, denounced them for fornication, and set them on fire, killing one. He has now been sentenced to hang, for which I risk losing my membership in the Cool Liberals Club by saying “good riddance.” Hammurabi was a man who knew how to take care of business.

Exhibit B: The Nigerian government is all set to give the definition of homophobia a quantum leap. They are considering legislation that would make it a crime for gay people, essentially, to even exist (as if it weren’t enough that they already stone them to death there). Any public meeting in which one or more attendee is gay would be illegal; so that would include having lunch, as well as, oh, a gay person buying groceries, if the checker at the supermarket is straight. This is fear taken to lunacy. It’s the kind of thing only Fred Phelps could love. I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Christian Right in the US looks upon Nigeria as some sort of role model to follow.

This is what you get in fanatically religious societies. Fear, hate, hypocrisy, and bizarre attitudes towards human sexuality that lead to violence. Say so, though, and you’re a “militant atheist” who just doesn’t recognize the “good things” religion does for people. Whatever.

A few nuggets from yesterday’s show

The Atheist Experience is back after a few weeks of involuntary hiatus! Yesterday we had an unusually contentious show with a lot of people calling in to argue vigorously. Near the end, Matt declared someone to be “The best caller EVER!!!” thanks to his uncanny ability to answer his own questions, as in these two bits of dialogue:

Scene 1:
Russell: “So let me get your story straight. Your mother was on the brink of death, and then she was fine. And that’s proof that God exists.”
Caller: “Yes.”
Russell: “Okay, what do you call it when a person is perfectly healthy and then drops dead? Is that proof that God does not exist?”
Caller: “No, that’s just proof that whatever happens to that person happens.”
Matt: “Congratulations! You get the caller of the day award for being honest and answering your own question!”

Scene 2 (one minute and one change of subject later):
Caller: “Why is God not real?”
Russell: “Do you believe in unicorns?”
Caller: “No.”
Russell and Matt: “Why?”
Caller: “Because… unicorns are fairy tales, and it hasn’t been proven that there is one.”
Matt: “You ARE the best caller EVER! You can answer your own questions every time!”

After the show, I answered some email exploring topics that we’d touched on that day, and I thought I should share it.

Your beliefs, or lack thereof, are based on what you perceive to be empirical evidence. Have you been shown empirical evidence that god (or gods or higher beings) do not exist? All you’ve got is proof that you are alive (to the best of your knowledge) and that life is going to cease as you know it, and have had to and must continue to pay taxes until the end of this heretofore called life.

Instinctually, fine. But give the devil its due…

BTW, I’m playing devil’s advocate, insofar as I can.

In the absence of evidence, not believing that something exists is the default position. Near the end of the show, I asked a caller if he believes in unicorns. He replied “No, because unicorns are fairy tales and it has not been proven that there is one.” Even though that caller did believe in God “on faith” (i.e., without any evidence), he did not feel the need to justify his lack of belief in unicorns any further. He didn’t need to provide additional evidence that there are no unicorns. He just said, as we would, that there isn’t evidence FOR them.

There is a philosophical principle known as Occam’s Razor. It states that once you take all the available information into account, the simplest explanation is generally the preferred one. That doesn’t mean that another explanation can’t replace it if new facts become available. However, if somebody insisted on me believing that unicorns exist, but said I had to take it on faith that they do, non-belief is still the default. The position “Yes there are unicorns” and “No there are not unicorns” are not equally good.

Do you agree with that, or are you going to start believing in unicorns now?

This is the second letter:

Towards the end of the show, you said something to the effect of “God is uncaused, therefore it’s not illogical to think the universe is uncaused.” Forgive me if I’m misrepresenting, but I can see why some ID-proponents use this reasoning to assert both are an equal matter of faith. Hoping you can elaborate more.

The situation LOOKS symmetrical, until you take into account the fact that what is really in question is not the origin of God, but the existence of God in the first place.

The existence of the universe is not in question. It’s right here. We’re in it. Neither theists nor atheists dispute the fact that there is a universe. But the existence of God is not established.

Now theists say “There has to be a God, because God is a necessary condition for the universe to exist.” Why? Because “Nothing can exist unless something caused it, and nothing causes itself.” But then they go on to say, as the caller did, that “God is the alpha and the omega, he was uncaused and doesn’t need a beginning.”

The problem is that it flatly contradicts the premise of the argument. If NOTHING can be uncaused, then God (being something) can’t be uncaused either. If something (such as God) CAN be uncaused, then that invalidates the reason why God supposedly “must” exist.

Was the universe uncaused? We have no idea, of course. But the universe definitely exists. So which is harder to swallow? That a universe (which definitely exists) is uncaused? Or that there is a previously undetected, unevidenced being who is greater and more powerful than the entire universe, with super-intelligence, who answers prayer and meddles in six billion lives, and THAT thing is uncaused?

There are other possibilities, of course. For example, the universe may be caused by something else uncaused, but it is in no way god-like, and has no intelligence. Or it’s caused by something in a previous universe, which is caused by a previous universe, and so on, and there is no first cause. I’m not proposing that any of these possibilities is “right”, but only that lacking an explanation does not force us to invent a super-intelligent hyperbeing unless we have any other good reasons to think that there is one.