You don’t have evidence for most of your beliefs. Get used to it.

Spotted on Facebook. Hated it.

I am a very critical thinker, which is why I am an Atheist — I don’t believe in things for the most part, unless there is evidence.

That’ bullshit. I’m an atheist, too, and I’m trained in science, and shocker…most of the things I know I don’t have evidence for. I can’t possibly. There are too many things. I haven’t tested whether brushing my teeth every morning actually prevents tooth decay. I haven’t even read any papers on the subject! It makes sense, and I suspect it’s probably true, and it’s a reasonable practice, so I’ll keep doing it. If I have to, like if there were some surprising statement that countered my subjective belief, I might look it up, and I trust that there have been scientific experiments to verify it, but right now I believe it in the absence of known evidence.

Likewise for every other mundane experience. There is electrical current coming out of my wall sockets when I plug things in, and I accept that as evidence that the wiring in my house is actually functional, and that it’s hooked up somewhere to a power supply, but I haven’t actually traced that wiring back to the (probably) coal plant that is generating electricity for me. The fact that my computer is working right now is evidence for something, sure, but the majority of the “things” that make it work are mostly assumptions on my part.

What I actually have is a consistent worldview built on a model I’ve tested on a few key points, and that seems to hold up well under most circumstances. That’s all any of us have. You can be a devout Catholic who believes in transubstantiation and the trinity and dead saviors rolling back stones, and you can say exactly the same thing — your model of the universe simply includes some fundamental assumptions mine doesn’t, and vice versa. You can even carry out the same logical process that I do with my wiring. You can say you’ve done spot checks of the pieces of your theology that matter to you now, and they hold up, but just as I haven’t visited the coal plant, you haven’t yet visited Heaven. You get satisfaction out of your weekly Mass, just as I’m happy with my house wiring and tooth-brushing, and that’s enough for now.

One difference, though, is that I’m a fan of testing my assumptions, mostly. We have this scientific method we use that allows us — even encourages us! — to examine and verify the stuff we don’t know, even if, to be perfectly honest, we can’t possibly examine everything. A scientist or a philosopher is going to inspect key assumptions now and then, and try to build better models of the world as they go, sometimes throwing out perfectly serviceable models, like religion, for others that get some, but never all, of the details better. Never lose sight of the fact that we’re all dealing in approximations, however, and most of what we think is true is actually simply consonant with our current model.

That’s one of the dangers of the kind of atheism held by the guy I took that quote from. It was taken from a conversation in which he actually refuses to consider evidence against his deeply held belief that women who accuse men of harassment are not trustworthy, and he offered up that statement as a testimony that his beliefs are all true, because as an atheist, he doesn’t believe in false things lacking in evidence. It’s a dangerously cocky dogmatism that far too many naive atheists support, where the fact that he has examined a few key points in his worldview (although, more likely, he’s had them handed to him when he read a book by Dawkins), means he has therefore verified all of his opinions with evidence. If he believes it, it must be a fact, because otherwise he wouldn’t believe it.

You’re supposed to practice this idea called epistemic humility. An awful lot of atheists seem to lack it.

The parasitic load just keeps getting bigger

Yesterday, Secular Woman posted an article about these harassing lawsuits by harassers, specifically mentioning the pending litigation by Richard Carrier and David Silverman. These are just the facts.

Richard Carrier was accused of persistent sexual advances and responded by suing two of his accusers, a nonprofit organization that reported banning him from their events, one blogger who collected reports of his behavior from him and others into one place (full disclosure: Stephanie Zvan is vice president of Secular Woman), one blogger who reported receiving reports for further investigation, and both blog networks on which these posts appeared.

Three years after his original suit was filed, Carrier is reduced to two remaining lawsuits. He continues to sue a former student group leader and the atheist blogger who said the claims against Carrier would be investigated. The other suits were dismissed with prejudice for jurisdiction or because the statute of limitations ran out while Carrier fought to keep his suit in a state without anti-SLAPP statutes. None of his claims or those against him have been heard in court, despite him recently telling a judge that was all he wanted. The defendants have spent well over $100,000 on their defense.

In April 2018, David Silverman was suspended from American Atheists after unspecified allegations were made against him. Shortly thereafter, he was fired after a review of “internal documents and communications related to the initial complaint as well as evidence relating to the additional allegations brought to the Board’s attention”. A Buzzfeed News article states that the original allegations involved “financial and personal conflicts of interest” and the additional allegations involve sexual assault.

In September of this year, Silverman filed suit against Buzzfeed, American Atheists, its president, and its chair. He also filed suit against another board member and both his accusers, claiming they had conspired against him. He did this despite both claiming he’d only been damaged by the financial allegations and being on record elsewhere as knowing one of these accusations dated back to at least 2013.

The purpose of these lawsuits is to disrupt and dissipate our efforts. The people who do these things are not our allies — they are opportunists and parasites. As atheism has grown, it’s become a fertile field to exploit, and there have been a lot of bad people taking advantage of us.

The only things lawsuits like these can do is use up the time, money, and energy of our movement and further discourage our activists from speaking up about how they have been treated. As a movement, we’ve spent years fighting past legal threats to warn people about those among us who abuse their power, like Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer. This work is critical to keeping our activists and building a stronger movement. If we want them to work for and support us, we must look out for them.

Secular Woman has a simple suggestion.

We at Secular Woman know that many secular organizations and activists already privately denounce lawsuits like these. Some do so publicly. We thank you for that. But we also urge that, as a movement, we work to get better at not rewarding disruptive, punitive, costly lawsuits like these.

Like, for instance, giving the litigious leeches prominent leadership positions in your organization.

Reminder: Marcus is auctioning off knives for our legal defense fund. I’m beginning to think that big, sharp, wicked-flashy knives are the most appropriate item for atheists to acquire nowadays. Also, as always, you can donate directly to our legal defense fund.

AAI did what? They hired who?

Atheist Alliance International has hired David Silverman to be their executive director.

I can’t even.

Silverman is the controversial former head of American Atheists. He was fired after allegations of financial conflicts and sexual assault. He used his position of power to manipulate women and abuse them, and was swiftly drop-kicked out of the movement when these allegations came to light.

“He physically pressed me to the wall and began to kiss me forcefully, grabbed my breasts, and put his hand into my leggings where there was actual penetration of my vagina,” she wrote.

R. believed Silverman knew she was interested in BDSM and wrote that he began using insulting language, calling her a “dirty little whore.” He then pushed her to her knees, “where his penis briefly made contact with my mouth,” she wrote.

R. got her feet and said “no,” she wrote. Silverman then lightly slapped her face and said, “You don’t get to say no to me.”

At that point, R. said the widely used BDSM safe word, “red,” which stopped him, and then she left. The next day, R. took photographs of bruises where she said Silverman had grasped her, and these pictures were included in her complaint to American Atheists.

Silverman has admitted to taking advantage of his position to indulge in infidelity and have sex with women in the movement. And this is who AAI thinks would be a great person to have on board?

Wishing David a very warm welcome, Gail Miller, AAI’s President said, “David is a well-known public atheist, a powerful leader and a compelling public speaker. He has proven management and organizational skills including leadership of national & local organizations in the U.S. He is a personality who makes things happen.

He will grow public awareness of AAI and our campaigns, he will help the board develop strategy and he will help manage campaigns to ensure they deliver for atheists everywhere.

I’m thrilled to have him on the team.”

Is she even aware that he is currently suing his former employer, and various other people, for his dismissal? This litigious person with a sordid personal history is who they’ve chosen to represent their organization? I agree with one thing, that he will grow public awareness of AAI. It just won’t grow the kind of reputation they want.

This is simply the weirdest, most controversial PR decision they could make, and I don’t understand any of the reasoning behind it. I’m going to assume that some rich, #metoo hating guy somewhere — there’s no shortage of misogynistic jerks in atheism — is applying pressure to the organization to hire the alleged sexual abuser, because that’s what they do. I’ll be curious to discover who’s making big donations to AAI, because this is not an act to make the rank and file happy, but is more likely to be catering to some privileged asshole. Or, I suppose, Gail Miller could be outrageously ignorant about what’s been going on in atheist communities.

What an interesting message this sends: if you’re caught out slapping women and trying to force them into sexual behavior, you might get fired from one atheist organization, but there’ll be another waiting to rescue you and put you in another position of power and influence. Like the Catholic Church, they’ll just shuttle you off to another parish.

Good people are jumping ship from AAI over this hiring decision.

It’s looking a bit like the Atheist Community of Austin debacle, with heavy handed regressive individuals wrecking a solid community.

The Discovery Institute is getting better at shooting themselves in the foot

Abby Hafer has pissed off the Discovery Institute. Good.

Hafer is a professor at Curry College who has done two horrible things: she helped draft a bill for the Massachusetts legislature that would require some rigor in what can be taught in public schools — specifically excluding the use of non-scientific materials for instruction in the classroom — and she has written about the lack of rigor in the Discovery Institute’s propaganda. Uh-oh. That’s a one-two punch that hits the DI right in the gut, so they’ve tried to counter it, ineffectively.

First, they tried to defend their strengths and weaknesses tactic, and claim that the Massachusetts bill weakened academic freedom.

As I’ve noted previously, academic freedom laws are very limited in their scope. They do not authorize bringing in material on intelligent design, nor make teachers teach anything differently. They simply provide freedom for teachers and students to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of controversial scientific issues in the curriculum in an objective fashion. They protect teachers and students who want to engage in scientific inquiry, which means examining evidence critically. If science is defined as investigating nature objectively, then they represent the opposite of “science denial.”

Note the bit I highlighted. There is nothing in the bill against the use of evidence, or critical thinking. To the contrary, it requires that ideas be supported by good fact-based, scientific evidence. The DI claims to support that. The problem is that no one considers the religion-based speculations of Intelligent Design creationism to be either fact-based or scientific.

So what does the Discovery Institute do? They decided to attack the author. They explicitly claimed that Hafer is not a biologist, nor a biology teacher in an article initially titled When non-biologists speak to biology teachers, which is easily discredited by simply looking up her credentials. How lazy are the hacks at the DI? They apparently just assumed that only a non-biologist would ever cooperate with their state legislators, and barreled in, guns blazing. It’s revealing that they’d do so little investigating, a quick googling would have revealed the facts, and further, they’re complaining about an article she published in — get ready for it — The American Biology Teacher, which right there on the front page lists her affiliations: “Dr. Abby Hafer is a Professor at Curry College”. Remarkable. That’s how bad the DI’s “research” is.

Furthermore, all the DI does is fund-raising, lobbying, and the production of propaganda, and they want to complain about an imaginary “non-biologist” trying to dictate to biology teachers? They keep killing irony.

When it was pointed out that their leading claims were trivially false, they hastily changed the title and edited the text to obliterate their stupidities. It is now titled When Biologists Speak to Biology Teachers, Cont.. It’s written by Sarah Chaffee, who is the Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute, not a biologist. It’s revised to follow an article titled When Biologists Speak to Biology Teachers, no Cont., written by David Klinghoffer, who is also not a biologist. It’s kind of obvious that their preference is to have only non-biologists tell teachers what to do, except when the imaginary non-biologist disagrees with them.

What they’re doing in this edited article is complaining about an article Hafer wrote, titled “No Data Required: Why Intelligent Design Is Not Science”. It’s a straight-forward bit of analysis. She asks a simple question, do the papers promoted by the DI include data and reference evidence, or do they cobble together arguments without presenting supporting data? Here’s the abstract.

Intelligent Design (ID) proposes that biological species were created by an intelligent Designer, and not by evolution. ID’s proponents insist that it is as valid a theory of how biological organisms and species came into existence as evolution by natural selection. They insist, therefore, that ID be taught as science in public schools. These claims were defeated in the Kitzmiller case. However, ID’s proponents are still influential and cannot be considered a spent force. The question addressed here is whether ID’s claim of scientific legitimacy is reinforced by quantified results. That is, do they have any data, or do they just argue? The ID articles that I analyzed claimed to present real science, but they rarely referred to data and never tested a hypothesis. Argumentation, however, was frequent. By contrast, peer-reviewed articles by evolutionary biologists rarely argued but referred frequently to data. The results were statistically significant. These findings negate claims by ID proponents that their articles report rigorous scientific research. Teachers will find this article helpful in defending evolution, distinguishing science from non-science, and discussing the weaknesses of ID.

She contrasted the DI’s “work” with peer-reviewed papers published by real scientists. The DI fails on this simple criterion — they don’t talk about the evidence. They’d rather just say there is doubt and debate, instead of backing up their claims.

Now for the hilarious part: that awkwardly revised DI article simply asserts that Hafer’s claims are wrong, and then to show that she’s got it all wrong, it doesn’t show contrary data — it just says that some scientists question neo-Darwinism! We don’t need no data, all we have to say is that there is a debate.

We know that a significant number of scientists worldwide, such as those who attended the 2016 Royal Society meeting on evolution, question the sufficiency of neo-Darwinism in accounting for biology complexity. Yet don’t tell the biology teachers that! Because they might tell their students, and then, Katie, bar the door!

They also clumsily try to apply Hafer’s methods to a classic peer-reviewed paper in science.

Hafer’s method sounds scientific, maybe. But to see how absurd it is, perform the same analysis on the 1953 article by Watson and Crick describing the structure of DNA. Is the seriousness of this work somehow to be gauged by observing that they use the “argu” root once and “data” three times? No, what matters is what the article actually says.

Except the entirety of the Watson-Crick paper is about presenting their evidence for the structure of DNA, and the DI’s analysis actually supports Hafer’s point, that the words used focus attention on the data, not the arguments, and that their result is entirely congruent with Hafer’s analysis. Just to hammer it home, I had to look up the paper to see how they’re using the word “argument”.

The previously published X-ray data on deoxyribose nucleic acid are insufficient for a rigorous test of our structure. So far as we can tell, it is roughly compatible with the experimental data, but it must be regarded as unproved until it has been checked against more exact results. Some of these are given in the following communications. We were not aware of the details of the results presented there when we devised our structure, which rests mainly though not entirely on published experimental data and stereochemical arguments.

Data, results, results, data, stereochemical arguments. Does the Discovery Institute even realize that in this usage “arguments” is being used to refer to stereochemical structures as evidence for their model of DNA?

Everyone at the Discovery Institute is either a fool or a fraud or both.

There clearly is big money in self-help books and pick-up artistry, though

I think I first heard about Peter Boghossian years ago when that “street epistemology” fad swept over atheism, and I thought that sounded like a good idea — being able to communicate about key concepts in atheism and skepticism in a casual, informal way? Sign me up. Then I witnessed some of it at meetings and on YouTube and was quickly de-impressed. It mainly seemed to be a game of leading questions calculated to trap uninformed people into contradictions, not into thinking, and to leverage their discomfort into considering alternatives. Proponents hate me when I say it, but Ray Comfort figured this out before they did, and he’s not exactly a brilliant philosopher.

My disenchantment only grew as I learned more about this Boghossian fellow. He’s an obnoxious ass! Are you telling me he’s a master of the gentle art of persuasion? If so, he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Now he’s come out with this book, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, which is just nuts. What next? Trump writing a book on modern physics, Deepak Chopra writing about mathematical rigor, PZ Myers becoming an Instagram model, Uwe Boll producing a movie classic? Boghossian and his coauthor, James Lindsay, are temperamentally and intellectually incapable of writing a guide to handling challenging conversations. They’ve always relied on simply pandering to the biases of their right-wing friends.

I’m never going to buy their book and have no interest in reading it. Oliver Traldi has written a review…a charitable review, even, although it does reject their approach, and notes that a lot of it is rehashed pablum from the self-help genre.

All in all, How to Have Impossible Conversations was better than I expected. If you do as Boghossian and Lindsay say and not as they do, you’ll probably be more successful in persuading people during contentious conversations — as long as you have enough common sense to exclude the weird shit as well.

That “not as they do” is important. Boghossian and Lindsay are just the worst.

Traldi also brings up another criticism that I’d felt worming around in my guts in all my encounters with this “street epistemology” stuff, but he expresses it well for me.

If, as Boghossian and Lindsay seem to indicate, the readers’ own beliefs are as brittle as anyone else’s and rest on as shaky a foundation, why should they be in the business of trying to persuade anyone of anything? If we are really masters of doubting everything we believe, why would persuasion techniques be a rational thing to try to engage in? What would we be trying to persuade people of… stuff we ourselves don’t think is true? Who in the world would that help?

That’s a fundamental question. What, exactly, are we atheists trying to do? Answer that first, before you try to tell others how they’re supposed to be like you.

A tangled web of lies about dinosaurs

Never ever get entangled in the lies of creationists, is the lesson from this story. It involves a Trumpster member of the house of representatives, Mark Meadows; a creationist schoolteacher named Dana Forbes; an unscrupulous documentarian, Doug Phillips, who we later learn was screwing his underage nanny; a homeschooler named Pete DeRosa who leads phony ‘dinosaur hunting expeditions’ with the goal of proving they’re only 4,000 years old; Joe Taylor, proprietor of the Mt Blanco Fossil Museum, another creationist propagandist; and of course, Ken Ham, whose slimy rich fingers slither into everything.

To make a complex story short, Forbes finds a fossil allosaur on his property in Colorado, and makes a deal with Taylor to excavate it. Then DeRosa organizes an expedition of school kids, including children of Meadows, to “find” the fossil, while Phillips is making a movie of the event called “Raising the Allosaur”, which was sold by Phillips’ Christian front, Vision Forum. Vision Forum has since suspended sales of the video, citing “ethics-based issues”, and is now defunct. Meadows bought the site from the original owner and later sold it to Answers in Genesis in a set of transactions that are curiously omitted from the financial disclosure forms required of a member of congress. The allosaur skeleton was also eventually donated to AiG, and it now stands in the Creation “Museum”, where they claim it is evidence that the Earth is 6000 years old.

Five years ago, the Peroutka Foundation donated the skeleton to the Creation Museum, which is operated by Answers in Genesis. The museum had the skeleton reappraised, and declared its value at a million dollars. It is now one of the museum’s main attractions. On the front of the display is a note thanking the DeRosas; no credit is given to Forbes or Taylor. “The intact skeleton of this allosaur is a testimony to a catastrophic, rapid burial, which is confirmation of the global Flood a few thousand years ago as recorded in the Bible,” the Creation Museum insists, on its Web site. “There is no correlation between the age and intactness of a fossil skeleton,” Kirk Johnson explained, in an e-mail. He added, “It is important to note that their claim is demonstrably and profoundly incorrect.”

Every step in the process is crooked and tainted by unsavory characters with no qualifications to back up their claims, and the fossil ends up as misrepresented evidence in a phony creationist tourist trap. The testimony on display here is about the sleaziness of creationists.

The only character I feel pity for in the story is the poor abused Allosaurus.

Master Grifter

All I need to see is this one Facebook post to know that Joshua Feuerstein is trolling as part of his grift.

The clues are all right there.

  • He’s invoking the name of Greta Thunberg. She probably hasn’t the slightest idea who this guy is, but his right wing followers hate her. This’ll get their attention, but not hers.
  • He’s “offering” $100,000 to her preferred charity. I’d be surprised if he had it, since he’s nothing but an ex-preacher running a pretend ministry out of his house, probably as a tax dodge. It’s part of the con artist’s illusion of being rich already.
  • He’s asking for a debate. He doesn’t say what the debate is about, nor does he have any competencies that would qualify him to argue about much of anything. In fact, he’s a bit of a cipher — there’s no information about his educational background anywhere that I could find. He’s a guy who rants, nothing more.
  • I repeat, he wants a debate. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve come to realize that a demand for a debate is the first sign of an ignorant wanker looking for attention.
  • He wants an hour long televised debate. He has no clout with or appeal to any network. What’s he going to do, sit in his car and yell on YouTube to convince CBS or Netflix to give him an hour of their time?
  • He’s at the stage of begging his followers to share his demands. The kinds of pathetic angry evangelical Christians who pay attention to Joshua Feuerstein aren’t going to have any clout either.
  • He links to a whole string of media outlets as if they’re going to pay any attention to him. It’s all for show.
  • He includes a photo of Thunberg looking angry in contrast to what he apparently thinks is a good photo of him, where he’s looking incisive or something. Nope. The whole effect is ruined by the weirdly affected way he has his stubble trimmed, and that greasy hair shaped into a point. That’s what a yokel thinks a yuppie looks like.
  • He knows he can post an attention-grabbing offer of $100,000 because he will never have to pay it out — he’s a nobody making wild demands that he is certain can’t be met, but it sure looks great to the rubes. There’s a long history of creationists offering large sums of money for ‘proof’ of evolution that they rig so they never have to pay out, and this is the same thing.

Feuerstein has nothing to offer except that he’s willing to accept the publicity of a debate with a famous person. Excuse me, I meant “debate” — a thing he has reduced to a mindless shouting match with a teen-ager.