Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Bush's "Intelligence"

It seems the president has decided to use the State of the Union yet again to completely BULLSHIT the American public and our elected leaders. Read this from Keith Olbermann about the follow-up to 96 words in Bush's SOTU claiming responsibility for foiling terrorist plots against the United States. At this point, it would be laughably pathetic if lives did not rest on this man's word.

The Lemon Test and Separation of Church and State

An interesting piece on The Lemon Test established by the Supreme Court to maintain the separation of church and state for which we should all be so very grateful.

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Sperm

MSNBC has a very interesting article about rodent balls and sperm.

Moment of Terror! has the scariest ideas in science!

Be warned: this material may not be suitable for small children or Republicans.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Religion and Reason

This piece from the March 2004 issue of Skeptical Inquirer is perhaps one of the most interesting things I've read about religion in a long time.

There are, as there always are when dealing with religion, a few limitations.

1. The assumption of naturalism necessary to science and thus to scientific explanations of religion cannot be logically or empirically justified in their entirety. Science, like any system, is incapable of validating its necessary assumptions.

2. This means that the consideration of the existence of supernatural or paranormal entities is not possible within science in any adequate way. A system which assumes the nonexistence of the supernatural cannot then demonstrate the nonexistence of the supernatural.

3. As I've mentioned in my review of The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal, we have yet to adequately examine the possibility that the oft-repeated anecdotal evidence of "ghost" sightings may represent an external natural phenomena. The assumption that these experiences MUST naturally flow from a dysfunction in the brain (hallucination) has limited examination of this possibility. Please note that some supernatural "experiences" have been adequately explained by neurological examinations (i.e. hypnogogic and hypnopompic states) BUT this does not necessarily imply that ALL such experiences can or will be.

4. The explanations within the article (by the author's admission) apply as much to non-supernatural, nonreligious beliefs as they do to supernatural and religious beliefs. The truth value of these beliefs seems therefore to be irrelevant to the explanation.

5. The author takes a bit of liberty in overstating the strength of scientific evidence and consensus on the nature of the mind/consciousness, however, this seems an extraordinarily minor matter in the grand scheme of things.

Nonetheless, I highly recommend the article. I believe that the dissemination of the ideas within (accepted provisionally as all scientific theories must be) can contribute greatly to our discussions of religion. I also hope that it could contribute to ameliorating the anti-religious sentiment that seems to be growing in our society. By this, I mean not atheism or skepticism about religious ideas but instead prejudice against religious people that presents them as inherently irrational, incapable of reason, willfully ignorant, gullible or stupid.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Death of Skepticism?

Is it official? Is skepticism dead, replaced by pseudoskepticism in the service of a secular worldview?

Michael Shermer has issued an impassioned denunciation of PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) for issuing a press release falsely claiming that Bush administration appointees had forbidden employees at Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) to provide the scientific explanation of the formation of the grand canyon and its age. This denunciation, eloquently written, would be a remarkable tribute to Skeptic Magazine's integrity were it not for the fact that it was issued AFTER eSkeptic ran with the story without bothering to contact the National Park Service or GCNP for confirmation.

Unfortunately, in our eagerness to find additional examples of the inappropriate intrusion of religion in American public life (as if we actually needed more), we accepted this claim by PEER without calling the National Park Service (NPS) or the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) to check it.

Accepting without question received information bolstering one's world view out of "eagerness" to support one's worldview is NOT skepticism. Running with a story based solely on a press release from an activist organization without even attempting to verify its claims is the ultimate mortal sin of journalism.

In my review of The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal, I asked whether the word "skeptic" had become a selling point rather than a mark of intellectual rigor. Is this the answer? Is skepticism dead?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Science, Morality and Playing G-d?

The unfortunate thing about science is that it can only tell us what it is possible to do. It can't tell us what we should do or not do. Science can help us build a bigger bomb but not tell us when or if we should use it. Science can make it possible to collect sperm from a dead man but not tell us whether it's morally acceptable to use it to impregnate a woman who was a stranger to him in life so that she may bear his child. So, the decision becomes a moral one.

Personally, the dead guy's sperm does hold a bit of an ick factor in and of itself. And we can never know if the guy's wishes included fatherhood after death. There's always questions as to whether the story would be different and our decision easier if his wife had collected his sperm rather than his mother. In the end, however, I don't think it's much of our business. This seems one of those grueling personal decisions that should be, well, personal.

Who are we to decide when, how, or if people reproduce? So many of the commenters ranted against bringing a fatherless child into this world, but do we then expect pregnant widows to abort or terminally single women to forego motherhood? What about lesbians who want to have children? Do those who argued against playing G-d in this instance condemn in vitro fertilization, sperm donorship, surrogacy, or many other technologies that make it possible for infertile couples to reproduce or fertile ones to refrain from doing so? Do they have a problem with the life-saving wonders of science that allow us to play G-d by reviving or keeping people alive who otherwise would have died?

I wonder how many of the commenters are pro-choice and how many pro-life. Is there a difference between how those two groups would react or are we in such new territory that the "all-important" distinction between pro-life and pro-choice becomes irrelevant?

I wonder also how it was so easy for many commenters to condemn a situation they obviously didn't understand. Many of them, within their comments, relied on "facts" that were just plain wrong. They got the dead soldier's nationality wrong as well as the prospective mother's. Some thought this was happening in the United States or that the Israeli court's decision would somehow be binding or accepted as legal precedent here. Many thought the grandmother would be raising the child as her own although that doesn't seem to be in evidence here. And let's not forget the many who managed to psychoanalyze this woman based on a single article or those who ripped her supposed motives out of thin air. (The "it must be about religion" comments are especially questionable. Although Judaism once required levirate marriages, that was a LONG time ago and never bound a mother to provide a child for her son through harvesting his sperm, freezing it, and interviewing prospective mothers.)

Too bad science can't tell us 1.)to actually READ something carefully before we run off at the mouth (keyboard?) 2.) when a moral decision is something we all must decide and when it's really a matter for the people involved and 3.) when to shut up and mind our own business.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot, Look Like ASS

Stupidity has reared its ugly head again here in Virginia. What should have gone through the House very easily as a symbolic act to improve race relations has ended as one more lesson in the enduring nature of racial insensitivity. Not only did Delegate Frank D. Hargrove(R) insist that black people should just "get over it," ("it" being slavery) he also asked whether we were now going to ask the Jews to apologize for "killing Christ." Both African-American and Jewish leaders are asking that the House officially censure Hargrove for his remarks. Hargrove continues to publicly stand by his remarks and to refuse to apologize for them.

I agree that Hargrove should be censured. However, having just watched a brilliant documentary called "The Protocols of Zion" and having studied the historical, archaeological and theological perspectives on first century Judea (as first a Christian then as a Jew), I've got a bit of an irreverent question myself. Despite the well-known historical and theological inaccuracy of the "Jews killed Christ" claim, it continues (to this day) to breed contempt and hatred for Jews. Why is it that, in keeping with the historically and theologically accurate interpretation of events, there no "The Italians killed Christ." phenomena? After all, the Italians are the direct descendants of the progenitors and rulers of the Roman Empire. Now, honestly, I don't believe any people should be held responsible for an execution that occurred 2,000 years ago. But, it does raise questions...

Back to Hargrove. Hargrove's only point is that no one living today is responsible for slavery and no African-American alive today was a slave. Given. But the apology isn't about an actual admission of guilt for crimes committed. It's an acknowledgment that we are willing to face the darkness of our past, learn its lessons, and struggle together for a better future. It's SYMBOLIC! I'm all for it.

Of course, we can't end with slavery. There are a lot of crimes in our past that will need resolving if we're going to heal the many wounds that scar our nation even today. Of course, we might also want to actually do something about current situations created by past crimes. (Reservations jump to mind for some reason.) The last thing we need is for some doddering old fool of a state legislator to go off half-cocked telling people to get over it and bringing up libelous "blood guilt" nonsense.

Hargrove: Get your head out of your ass. Face the 21st century. And apologize for all of our sakes.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Evidence: What are we looking for again?

This article about the possibility that a NASA probe that landed on Mars in the 70's may have killed the life it found there illustrates precisely my next question: What "evidence" do we look for anyway?

Let's start with the article. A NASA probe to Mars may have killed Martian microbes. Why? Because the search methods used were meant for water-based life forms. Martian microbes may not be water-based.

In the 70's, we had a firm stance on what would constitute life and the environments in which it could exist. Scientists accepted as fact that life required water, sunlight, and a certain temperature range. In the last 30 years, organisms on earth known as "weird life" have expanded our understanding of life substantially, completely obliterating the "scientific facts" of the past. So, as we search for life in the universe, we're not quite sure what we're looking for or how we'll find it.

This problem (the "What the heck are we looking for again?" conundrum)plagues science in a variety of fields. We're not quite sure what evidence there would be for a variety of phenomena or how we would even begin to look for it.

Let's begin with an easy example to demonstrate how evidence might work in the real world. Let's say I want to know if there's an adult African elephant in my cubicle. How would I find out? Well, I know what characterists an adult African elephant must have in order to be an adult African elephant. It can be perceived directly with the senses. It's visible and has certain physical characteristics: four legs, trunk, tail, tusks, greyish skin, etc. It makes a particular noise and probably smells rather bad. So, all I have to do is look, listen, smell, and feel around for the elephant. Nope, no elephant.

If I were to discover some organism in my cubile that ISN'T an elephant, I can match its characteristics to a known species or to basic descriptions of similar species by answering basic questions. Animal or plant? Size? Color? Smell? Mobility? Taste? (I think I'll skip the tasting part.) I think you get the point.

Now, what about these:

Multiple dimensions? Multiple universes? What evidence would there be for dimensions or universes we can't observe directly? Both of these theories are currently (in my opinion) a kind of "science of the gaps" that allow us to answer difficult questions. (How do we reconcile what we've learning about the behavior of the supermassive with our knowledge of the supersmall? How is it that our universe happens to be so finely tuned to life?) But we don't have the foggiest idea of how we'd find the evidence or what evidence there would be. (String theorists have thus far focused on mathematical models, none of which has worked.)

Ghosts? What evidence would there be if a ghost were in my cubicle? If I happened upon a ghost, how would I be able to determine that it is, in fact, a ghost and not a hallucination? What characteristics would a ghost have anyway?

ESP? Many have set up experiments that would detect ESP that is under the control of the subject with no success yet. However, what if ESP isn't under the control of the subject. What if it's a strange sense that's only available to us while we're in a very particular unconscious state? (I think this is more likely, since we don't really have control of the senses we know we have.) What if it's an external phenomena (like quantum potentialities) that we can only perceive when we're dreaming? What if....? Well, how would we figure it out? How do we test for an uncontrollable sixth sense that is present only when we're in a very specific unconscious state? Could there ever be any more than anecdotal evidence from strange dreams that came true?

All of us believe in things that we can't quite point to evidence for and, to be honest, wouldn't know what evidence to look for in the first place. It's easy to say that we can't accept an idea under those conditions, but how much would we give up?

Most of us could live without belief in ESP and ghosts and maybe the world wouldn't be harmed by our ignorance on the matter. But what of the scientific questions? Is it better that we accept some ideas despite this problem for the benefit of science? Do we just hope that we stumble on the answers some day? At what point in our search do we surrender?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The F*cking for Chastity Award Goes to....

It really is unbecoming to present oneself (even implicitly) as the defender of reason and science while spewing irrational and unscientific nonsense. It's also really pathetic. Rather than demonstrating intelligence and capacity for rational thought, such behavior proves beyond doubt that the subject's "defender" status is simply a pretense for engaging in immature, narcissistic, masturbatory rants that (readers willing) can become one big pseudointellectual circle jerk.

Yes, I've said this before. Unfortunately, having said it doesn't free me from encountering such behavior on a regular basis. So, I'm instituting the "F*cking for Chastity Awards." The FCA's will be granted to columnists, authors, journalists, bloggers, et al who insist on blowing their rather unsubstantial wads in public. My first award goes to Cenk Uygur for his recent "dishonorable discharge" on the Huffington Post.

Now, what's the problem with the latest by the almighty Cenk, defender of reason, protector of science, master baiter extraordinaire?

You people are seriously disturbed. You think a magic man is going to appear out of the sky and grant you eternal bliss. If the man's name was anything other than Jesus, that belief would get you locked up as a psychotic. And the fact that you have given him this magic name and decided to call him your Lord doesn't make it any more sane.

Imagine for a second if instead of Jesus, some psycho was waiting for a magical creature named Fred to come save him this year and suck him up into the sky. Now, who doesn't think that man needs serious counseling and perhaps medical supervision? Now, you change Fred into Jesus, and you have 25% of the country.

Sometimes the world scares me. It is full of psychotics who go around pretending to be rational human beings. You think that's offensive, then prove me wrong. I dare you. Show me Jesus in 2007 and I'll do whatever you demand of me.

Fortunately, I don't have to produce the Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef to prove Uygur wrong. The forces of science and reason have already done it for me.

Lists of logical fallacies and the rules for rational discourse were prepared long before I was born, so I take no credit for being able to point out that appeal to mockery, ad hominem attacks, false analogies, etc. do not a rational argument make. (Yes, I realize I've just engaged in some rather rude behavior myself, but that's not the rational argument part, just the fun for Melinda part of the show.)

The illogic of Uygur's arguments is self-evident, but what about the extraordinarily limited understanding of science underpinning his claims? Are Christians who believe in divine salvation and the return of their messiah "seriously disturbed"? Does hearing voices make you certifiably insane? Would you be locked up as a psychotic if you believed in Fred? No.

First, and forgive the cheap shot, true psychosis is a far cry from simply believing that a "magical creature named Fred" is going to "suck you into the sky" and prevents functioning normally in day to day life. Untreated psychotics can't hold jobs, maintain personal hygiene, interact in normal social environments, etc., all things that even the most fervent evangelist can accomplish rather easily.

(I must interject here that I love the oft-repeated claim that religious beliefs are "crazy" because people would think you were insane if you screamed them on the street. Personally, I think screaming on the street alone would make people think you're a bit crazy, drunk, or drugged. However, I'd like to point out that if you were to scream the theories of quantum physics on that same hypothetical street, most people would think you were a refugee from the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, especially once you got to Schroedinger's cat and its half-dead/half-alive state. The "screaming on a street corner" experiment would hardly be an adequate test for the validity of ideas.)

So, I digress. Back to the science:

The study of the relationship between religion and human biology is relatively new, but preliminary studies demonstrate that religious belief and mystical experiences are hardwired into the human brain and make up part of the mind's NORMAL functioning and may be either an evolutionary adaptation in and of itself or a byproduct of other cognitive adaptations.

Normal functioning brain/mind equals not certifiably insane. While some biological and psychological abnormalities as well as some hallucinogens can produce mystical experiences and can cause a person to bring religious belief to extremes, the average everyday religious believer is perfectly normal and perfectly sane (even those who believe that Jesus is going to return soon, a belief that has more to do with the current state of world affairs and the tremendous anxiety it naturally provokes than with the sanity of the believer).

Now, for hearing voices. Uygur doesn't specifically mention hearing voices, but as it's part of the whole religious people are crazy mythos, I'll throw it in for lagniappe. This passage, taken from the latest issue of Scientific American Mind is particularly enlightening:

Perhaps no other symptom is as instantly ­associated with insanity--some 70 percent of schizophrenics hear voices that regularly interrupt their thoughts, as do 15 percent of those who have mood disorders--but auditory hallu­cinations are not necessarily a sign of mental ­illness. They can arise as symptoms in any number of conditions, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and temporal lobe epilepsy. In addition, episodes can occur in the absence of any physical or psychological problem. (Emphasis mine.)

Although such experiences are heavily stigmatized today, many famous thinkers, poets, artists and scholars of earlier times described hearing voices: a wise demon spoke to Socrates, the saints emboldened Joan of Arc, and an angel addressed Rainer Maria Rilke, inspiring his Duino Elegies. The list goes on: Carl Gustav Jung, Andy Warhol, Galileo, Pythagoras, William Blake, Winston Churchill, Robert Schumann and Gandhi, among others, have all reportedly heard voices.

Interesting, no? As much as Uygur would like to believe that he and other atheists are the sole possessors of sanity in the world, it's just not true. Believing it proves that, while he may be perfectly sane, Ugyur has fallen far behind in the fields of reason and science.

I think the tone of the post and Uygur's particular style of "communication" demonstrate his immaturity, narcissicm, and tendency for pseudointellectual masturbation without any further comment from me.