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Science

Almost Unbearable Irony

Craig and I just returned from a trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. The museum is an attempt to show that the bible is scientifically accurate when you read the book of Genesis in a completely literal way. Though the museum is physically amazing (clean, well built, very high quality, etc), it pretty much fails from the science aspect.

So it was to my great amusement that I found this t-shirt available… though I heard it was discontinued and this was on clearance for $9.00…

Creation Museum T-shirt - Science is Awesome!!!

Detailed write-ups (with pics!) will be forthcoming.

Heading to the Creation Museum

Tomorrow morning, Craig and I will be taking off to head to Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. We’ve had our trip planned since before the Secular Student Alliance made their huge visit, but their visit just made us more enthusiastic about experiencing the exhibits in person.

We’ll be loaded with video cameras, still cameras, and plenty of note-taking apparatus so we hope to have some decent reports when we return.

I feel pretty! Oh, so pretty!

Narcissus I’ve read a number of accounts where atheists are accused of being narcissistic, because we supposedly set ourselves up higher than God… more important… smarter… too independent. We think we’re better than God, so the claim goes. I’ve always found that very odd since, by its very nature, atheism generally indicates the opposite view.

We’re not special. We’re animals, very much like all the other animals on this planet. We’re not the "pinnacle of creation" but are merely evolutionary products who continue to evolve as time slowly marches inexorably past. We are born. We live. We die. There’s no grand plan. There’s no heavenly purpose. In the grand scheme of universal timelines, we’re so monumentally insignificant that it’s hard to see how we could feel very self-important… though the accusation still remains.

Perhaps it’s because theists think of us as rejecting God or rebelling against Him… as actually believing in God, but simply finding ourselves "disinclined to acquiesce to his request," somehow thinking ourselves superior or far too dignified to pay homage to His greatness. If that’s the case, it’s quite odd. It’s not that atheists reject God. It’s that we don’t believe he exists. Rebellion is not something that can be staged against a nonexistent entity. Superiority is not something you claim against… nothing.

Maybe it has to do with a truth claim. Perhaps theists feel that we’re smug and self-satisfied in our self-proclaimed ultimate knowledge of God’s non-existence… what with all our "science" and "facts" and "evidence" and that sort of thing. But that, too, seems odd, since atheists with a sense of rationality don’t make such an absolute claim to the truth. Certainly scientists don’t! We leave the claims of absolute truth to the theists… to the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews, the Mormons, the Catholics, the… you get the picture.

We know that the non-existence of God can’t be proven, but we also know that there’s no evidence at all on the theist’s side of the fence. We also know that there is quite a bit of evidence that points toward God’s non-existence, but that there is no (nor can there be) unequivocal proof of that negative hypothesis. What we can do is base our thinking on naturally observable, testable data and go from there. Supernatural beliefs (and yes, that includes a belief in a god) don’t advance our understanding of the universe. They don’t help our survival. The don’t benefit the human race. They show us nothing about how our world works.

On the other hand, theists (fundamentalist ones, in particular) tend to believe that humans are God’s special creation, unique and cosmically important… much more important than mere animals. So important, in fact, that the universal laws were created just for man’s existence, all of them so finely tuned that just a tweak of the stellar dial in either direction and we’d be snuffed out. So important that God made a planet just for us… a virtual Garden of Eden (though we evidently borked that up long ago) created to house His epitome of perfect creation. He listens to each of our prayers and loves every one of us as individuals. He helps guide our lives, helps us through tough times, bestows his grace and attention to us, and chastises our misdeeds with a loving, caring hand.

Now I’m sure not all theists think that way, just as all atheists don’t think the same way I do. There are arrogant atheists just as there are arrogant theists. Humans are, by nature, narcissistic to some degree. It’s in our DNA. However, theist and atheistic beliefs are fundamentally different.

Theists tend to believe they are God’s special creation. Atheists tend to believe they are cosmically insignificant.

It’s easy to see where the label of "narcissist" should be applied.

Truer words are rarely spoken

Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy blog just recently posted this article about Simon Singh and his current tussle with the British Chiropractic Association. I’ve been following the situation, but what really caught me about this update was Plait’s words in the first two paragraphs about science.

Science thrives on criticism. Reality, being what it is — real — can withstand the slings and arrows of critics. It’s our methods, models, and interpretation of reality that are subject to withering critique, and through such honing moves us ever-closer to understanding the true nature of the world.

Any claim that is said to be scientific should be held up to such scrutiny. If it is correct, it will survive. If it is not correct, it can be abandoned or improved. That is in the best interest of everyone.

That, in my opinion, is beautifully stated.

Too often, as in the case with the BCA, purveyors of bad "science" will try to quash those who disagree with their statements rather than offer evidence to support their statements. Or, if pressed further (again as in the case of the BCA and as noted in Plait’s post), they will offer up shoddy research, conjecture, invalid evidence, or outright lies.

There are plenty of other groups that take the same tactics as the BCA (as noted previously here), using every trick they can conjure up instead of simply providing well-researched, corroborated evidence to back up their claims. If they refuse or cannot offer such evidence, they should be brushed aside and ignored until such time as they can step up and take some responsibility for their claims.

…but I won’t hold my breath.

Conspiracy Theories and Other Muddled Thinking

Illuminati and Conspiracy Theories Almost everyone laughs at Flat-Earthers, people who actually believe that the Earth is flat despite all evidence to the contrary. Most people also laugh at the Moon-Hoaxers, the folks who think that we never landed on the moon and that it’s all just a conspiracy with elaborately faked footage, photos, and reports. Conspiracy theorists in general provide a good laugh for most rational people, whether it’s talk of alien abductions, secret government programs with captured spaceships, crop circles, the Illuminati taking control of the world, or government mind control drugs in public water.

There’s a long history of conspiracy theory and one would think that that history would be just that… history… a thing of the past. Barring a few fringe groups, we don’t expect to see people outright denying scientifically proven facts or making accusations of secret, intricate, tangled webs of clockwork precision government cover-ups.

Yet we have just that… and not just among small "fringe" groups. Here’s a short list (in addition to the ones already mentioned).

  • 9/11 Conspiracy Theorists  – claim that the US government caused the twin towers to collapse.
  • Lizard-People Conspiracy Theorists – claim that lizard-people are running the world (seriously).
  • AIDS Conspiracy Theorists – claim that AIDS is a man-made disease cooked up in a lab.
  • Obama Birthers – deny that Obama is a US citizen (or that it hasn’t been documented).
  • Global Warming Deniers – deny that global warming is occurring or is affected by human activity.
  • Creationism Proponents – deny that evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of life on Earth.
  • Holocaust Deniers – claim the Holocaust never happened.
  • Anti-Vaxxers – claim that vaccines cause autism.
  • 2012 Alarmists – claim that, since the Mayan calendar ends in December of 2012, the world will end.

I’m sure there are many more. Some of the ideas are absurd because of historical evidence, some because of scientific evidence, and some because of their sheer implausibility (backed up by no evidence). Some are combinations.

A common thread, however, is that each of them ignores or denies actual evidence contradictory to its premise. In some cases, their proponents will fabricate evidence, making scientific or historical claims that are patently false in an attempt to bolster their case. Using outdated, no-longer-relevant data is also a common tactic, whether through ignorance or malicious intent.

What is the motivation for people to believe and perpetuate these absurd claims? Sometimes it’s politics. Sometimes it’s religion. Sometimes it’s an overactive imagination. There are plenty of other psychological reasons proposed.

sleestack01 Is this a big deal? Are conspiracy theories just good fun or are they harmful or dangerous? In some cases, like the lizard-people idea, they’re harmlessly silly and don’t gain enough traction in popular culture to cause anything other than snickering and pretend horror. In other cases, such as Holocaust deniers and 9/11 conspiracy theorists, they can cause emotional pain for those who are close to the event in question. In the worse cases, the conspiracy theories can gain enough traction to cause political turmoil, educational degradation, and even health risks. Global warming deniers, creationists, and anti-vaxxers are perfect examples of these.

Potentially dangerous effects aside, these conspiracy theories show a lack of critical thinking skills and/or a lack of understanding of science. Perhaps they demonstrate an innate distrust for any authority figure… to the point of automatically assuming that anything said by an authority figure is innately false or misleading (regardless of whether or not the figure in question has anything to gain by misleading the public). Perhaps they simply indicate a complete lack of curiosity, their proponents believing everything they hear without any skepticism at all. Politics and religion can also entrench someone firmly in a position that is rationally indefensible.

It’s the groups whose ideas have a tangible, negative effect on society that concern me the most. Folks who believe that lizard-people are controlling the Earth are relatively harmless and somewhat amusing. It’s the people who think that our activities don’t have an affect on our planet’s warming and who want to block any action we could take to limit that affect… or it’s those who feel that it’s okay to teach our children that our world was created by magic, corrupting science education, instead of teaching them the real science behind the wondrous way in which life evolved on our planet… or it’s the people who publicly mislead doting parents with bogus claims that childhood vaccines cause autism, leading those parents to forgo protecting their children which, in turn, leads to everyone else’s health being put in danger.

Those are the conspiracy theorists that I have a problem with. Those are the people who have a detrimental effect on society. Those are the people whose blindness to rationality, evidence, and critical thinking cause harm to the rest of the world. They cheapen our existence, mislead our children, endanger our health, corrupt our national discourse, and create hostile divisions where there should be none… and they will defend their absurd positions with a ferocious certainty that is completely unwarranted by evidence.

What’s the solution? In my opinion… education. Starting in grade school, children need to be taught how to think, not what to think. Critical thinking skills are… well… critical. The scientific method needs to be understood… not just science facts, but the why and how of the facts. And these skills need to be taught, not just to school children, but to adults.

As for those adults who refuse to accept evidence and continue to scream their absurdities from the rooftops, they need to be countered… loudly, frequently, and eloquently. We cannot silence them by removing their right to free speech, but we can do everything in our power to point out their muddled thinking, debunk their bogus conclusions, and reveal them for the charlatans they are. They should be embarrassed by their own silliness and we need to hold up a mirror to them, giving them a perfect view of their intellectual ugliness. They will complain, accuse, deny, quite possibly lie… and they will be loud.

We need to be louder.

Creationist misinformation by The Good News website

Creation or Evolution: Does It Really Matter What You Believe? The site The Good News – A Magazine of Understanding advertises a free book titled Creation or Evolution: Does It Really Matter What You Believe? along with a free subscription to their magazine. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers recommended that his readers order a copy, read it, and thoroughly debunk it… because it surely will need debunking.

I placed my order and perused the website for a bit and found a gem of an article about Charles Darwin, evolution, and “collateral damage.” The article by David Treybig is titled Collateral Damage: The Darwin Bomb and it’s filled with antiquated information, misinformation, and woo. The overarching idea proposed is that the theory of evolution has had unintended consequences and continues to “relentlessly pummel society”… oh, and that the theory of evolution is unsupported by the evidence. In an attempt to create doubt about evolution, they don’t consistently call it a “theory” but also refer to it as “Darwin’s supposition” or “his hypothesis.”

The lead-in to the (rancid) meat of the article is priceless.

How the theory of evolution evolved and how it has been defended is a story filled with irony, deceit and even religious-like faith held by nonreligious people.

The claim is made that Darwin offered his “completely unproven theory that was in opposition to the Bible” because he wasn’t “well-grounded in the Scriptures.” The implication seems to be that being well-grounded in biblical scriptures will protect you from facts… shield you from evidence. Actually, in many cases, that seems to be true (as with any creationist).

One reason given for why the theory appealed to people was the following:

In holding to Darwin’s theory, some mistakenly think they are free from the rules and laws of a Creator and are free to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.

That tired argument has been heard countless times by evolutionary biologists, atheists, and anyone who doesn’t kowtow to the creationist worldview. It’s absurd. The reason that the theory of evolution is accepted is because it’s based on overwhelming scientific evidence which leaves virtually no doubt as to its credibility. The idea of “I can get away with stuff” isn’t a factor.

The introduction of Darwin’s theory opened up an all-out debate over truth. Ironically, Darwin’s supporters claimed that religion was just a humanly devised invention to help people during times of trouble. Ah yes. Humanly devised—as if the theory of evolution wasn’t . . .

The difference between humanly devised religion and humanly devised theories are that the theories are based on observable, testable, natural evidence, while the religion is based on… nothing? Faith? Imagination? It may not seem to be a big difference to creationists, but it’s a huge, huge difference for anyone with a penchant toward rationality.

At this point, the article starts to present its antiquated information to show how evolution is a weak theory which scientists no longer accept. The claim that Darwin had doubts about his theory (sorry, his “hypothesis”), had some problems explaining some things like the human eye, and acknowledged that the fossil record didn’t show what he was proposing show that Treybig isn’t interested in the evidence discovered in the past 150 years that backs up almost every point Darwin made in his theory of evolution (by natural selection). It’s no surprise that Darwin had more doubts about his theory than today’s scientists have. We have a mind-boggling amount of evidence for evolution that Darwin never did.

But Treybig goes further and enters the realm of misinformation.

Yet under the microscope of inspection, scientists and competent thinkers have jointly discovered serious flaws with Darwin’s theory. A number of the theory’s supposed proofs have been found inadequate (see “Myths of Evolution Part 2“).

The claim that scientists and “competent thinkers” have decided that evolution is flawed and the evidence is inadequate is preposterous, disingenuous, and dishonest. Following the link in the previous quote leads to an article with blatantly incorrect information. Whether the misinformation is accidental or by design, I can’t say, but to write about a topic and get the facts so monstrously wrong smells of either deceit or willful ignorance… perhaps both.

Treybig continues his shenanigans with claims that Darwinian evolution has no valid evidence and… well, here’s what he says.

With no valid evidence to prove Darwinian evolution and mounting scientific evidence against it, supporters of evolution find themselves increasingly challenged to maintain their faith. It’s an awkward position demanding unquestioning adherence.

More nonsense about the lack of evidence is stated along with the absurd proposition that there must be “unquestioning adherence” to keep the theory alive.

As if Treybig weren’t far enough off the deep end at this point, he starts to talk about intelligent design as if it were an actual science with actual evidence and an actual scientific theory.

When evolutionary theory is challenged by scientific evidence such as that offered by the intelligent design movement…

I’m not even going to continue the quote (it goes on to say that ID isn’t based on religion, but is based on scientific evidence) because it’s drivel of the worse degree. Intelligent design is creationism, pure and simple. Not only is it creationism, but it has no evidence. It claims no testable hypothesis. It offers nothing in the way of understanding how the natural world works. It contributes nothing to the world of science. It hinders science by muddling the public understanding of both evolution and the scientific method.

Treybig makes repeated references to scientific information undermining the theory of evolution, but mentions none of it. The reason, of course, is that there isn’t any. There is no “mounting evidence” that the world has “fingerprints of the Creator” or that intelligent design is any more valid than flat-Earth theory. He finishes this section of his article with the Ray Comfort’esque statement…

Ironically again, these days it seems to take more faith to believe in Darwinism than it does to believe in the Creator God of the Bible.

No. No it doesn’t. When given a choice between accepting something for which there is a huge, growing body of evidence versus accepting something for which there is no evidence… I’ll take the choice supported by evidence without having to use much faith at all… if any.

Next, Treybig starts talking about Stalin and Hitler and “materialistic worldviews” as consequences of “the Darwin bomb’s blast wave” as if the theory of evolution was responsible for the atrocities committed by these men. It’s been debunked many, many times before, and again Treybig is showing his use of both antiquated and misleading information.

He back peddles a bit, saying…

Is the killing of millions of people the outcome Charles Darwin desired in writing The Origin of Species? Of course not. But the collateral damage associated with Darwinism doesn’t end with Stalin and Hitler. It has continued its relentless march through numerous fields with perhaps none more striking than that of moral conduct.

So he’s saying that it’s not the theory directly, but it’s collateral damage of the theory… the theory of evolution by natural selection didn’t cause Stalin and Hitler to commit atrocities, but they committed them because of the theory of evolution by natural selection. I’m not sure if I understand the difference in Treybig’s assertion.

But he mentions moral conduct, which set me up to expect that he was going to say something entirely absurd, ideological, and unsupported by evidence. He delivers.

If people are simply animals, as Darwin suggested, there is nothing wrong with them mating with whomever they wish whenever they wish. Disregarding biblical instructions governing our sexual conduct has led to the destruction of numerous families and untold heartache. Chalk it up to collateral damage.

Furthermore, if people are simply animals, then it really doesn’t matter if a woman chooses to have an abortion or not. With this mind-set, millions of babies have been aborted before they ever drew their first breaths. More collateral damage.

Disregarding biblical instructions… I wonder to which instructions Treybig is referring. He doesn’t specify, but the bible is filled with “instructions” for all kinds of things and it’s fairly easy for someone familiar with the bible to come up with “instructions” supporting many different positions.

As for abortion, Treybig chooses the phrase “babies have been aborted” instead of “fetuses” or “zygotes” or “pregnancies” because it adds to the inflammatory nature of the statement, conjuring up images of gurgling, cooing infants with sparkling blue eyes wrapped up in cozy baby blankets.

Regardless of his rhetoric, to make the claim that Darwin’s theory of evolution is responsible for the destruction of families or for abortions is a paltry attempt to discredit the theory through an emotional appeal. The claim has got no basis in fact, but is (as expected on a religious website) purely and undeniably based on a fundamentalist religious mindset which gets its “evidence” from a 2,000-year-old book of woo.

The last sentence offers the free booklet I mentioned at the start of this post “for more information.”

I can’t wait to read it.

Dembski gets things wrong… as usual

I hate to link and run, but I just read this post by Ian Musgrave at the Panda’s Thumb blog and found it eminently worthwhile to pass along. It’s about what he calls “Science Envy” by the pretend scientists at the Discovery Institute, referring to an article by William Dembski who is noteworthy for spreading misinformation (and indeed, disinformation) about science-related issues… which is pretty much the modus operandi for the Discovery Institute in general.

Dembski seems to think that scientists are all-powerful and demand that society does what they say in order to avoid catastrophes… and that these scientists need a lesson in humility blah, blah, blah. Along the way, Dembski brings up all kinds of nonsense that Ian refutes with panache.

Give it a read.

What kind of person?

Ummm... huh? With the 40th anniversary of the moon landing last week, the images of the Apollo landing sites taken recently by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter were of particular interest. They show all three landing sites along with some equipment left behind and disturbances by the astronauts’ boot prints. That’s very cool, and the LRO isn’t even as close to the moon as it will be once its orbit is finalized, so we’ll be seeing even better, higher-resolution shots of the landing sites.

Of course, none of these images will hold sway with any of the moon-landing-hoax conspiracy theorists. If you can’t trust NASA about the original landing, why would you trust them to show you more "evidence" of the landing, right?

I was talking about this exact thing with a co-worker this morning and we were laughing about the moon-hoax people. He said, "What kind of person really believes that the landing was a hoax?" Then, after a chuckle, he added, "The kind of people who think the Earth is flat?"

Knowing that he is a young-Earth creationist (we’ve had great discussions and he’s a delight to debate/talk with), I said, "Or the kind of people who think the Earth is only 6,000 years old?"

He replied (without a hint of sarcasm), "I don’t know about that."

*facepalm*

Religion, Criticism, and Education… Oh my!

Science education Atheists tend to deliver a lot of criticism of theology, be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or some other flavor. We find fault with the resurrection of Jesus, the winged horse of Muhammad, Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Holy Trinity, and a myriad of other theistic claims made by these religions. We debunk their holy books, criticize their faith-based messages, argue against their primitive views of morality, and generally demand evidence for their extraordinary claims.

All of these issues, however, rest on one basic foundational principle of theistic beliefs… that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god exists and has always existed without a creator of its own.

Many atheists spend time refuting the existence of a god while at the same time acknowledging that it’s not possible to prove the nonexistence of said entity. The refutations generally come in two main forms: pointing out the complete lack of any credible evidence and dismantling apologetic arguments (such as the cosmological argument). Many of the apologetic arguments consist of so much circus-like, semantic, hoop-jumping that they really should be dismissed out of hand for their absurdity, but we still go through the mental exercise of pointing out the fallacies or refuting the (attempted) logic or issuing counterpoints to invalidate the conclusions.

If the existence of a god cannot be proven (or even demonstrated), then why do we need to continually debunk the other theistic claims of specific religions? Why do we have to repeatedly explain how the biblical flood didn’t happen? Why do we need to point out flaws in the bible? Why do we need to show how the Qur’an is riddled with statements demanding violence? Why do we need to present evidence for evolution… again? Why do we need to do any of this since its validity all rides on the existence of a supernatural, all-powerful deity whose existence cannot be proven, demonstrated, or sometimes even coherently defined?

If there is no god, theistic religions are bunk.

Whatever the biological or psychological need is that nudges humans toward superstitious beliefs, it works fairly well. Most people believe in a god of some sort. Most people are brought up believing in a god, indoctrinated from birth to believe in, not just a deity, but in an entire system based upon stories of miracles and supernatural wonders that defy all rational understanding. It’s a system that can rarely be dismantled simply by attempting to remove the foundational block of god-belief. In most cases, the only way for it to be taken apart is from the top down, starting with the doctrinal beliefs.

The goal, for me anyway, isn’t to rid the world of religion. The goal is to keep religions from being forced upon unwilling recipients, be it via government intrusion, corruption of education, or imposition of archaic moral philosophies. I don’t care if John Q. Public believes in a deity. I care if he lets that belief affect decisions that effect me. I care if he wants to base public policies on unsupported religious doctrine instead of rational thinking. I care if he wants to impose his 1st-century view of morality on me and my family. I care if his religion dictates to me what I can and cannot do.

Most religious folks can handle this just fine. Their day to day living and decisions are based on societal norms and they don’t go around preaching to everyone they meet about how Jesus is the only way to be saved from eternal damnation. They’re generally friendly, fun, trustworthy, and enjoyable to be around. Many don’t even discuss religion except when they go to church on Sunday. It’s just not that important them in a social sense.

Sadly, the religious loud-mouths ruin it for them. From self-righteous abortion protestors to fire-and-brimstone evangelists to morally dubious right-wing politicians who attempt to push biblical policy into our political system, religious fundamentalists are a significant cause of atheists’ vociferous criticisms. And since asking them nicely to keep their religious ideology out of the political system tends not to work, the only way to combat their insidiousness is to speak out, often and loudly, against their theology… and since saying "there is no evidence for your god" tends not to work, the only way to block their religious tentacles from insinuating themselves into our government is to debunk their dogma… debunk their holy books… debunk their claims of biblical truth… debunk their muddled, 2000-year-old ideas of morality.

That’s what we have to do now to maintain our religious freedoms, but how do we keep the situation from continuing ad nauseum? How do we make sure that our children, and our children’s children, don’t fall prey to the same ideological black hole into which we are threatened to be pulled?

Polls show there is an inverse correlation between education levels and religious belief. It would seem that the best approach to stemming the tide of religious fundamentalism and its attempts to creep further and further into our governments, our schools, and our private lives is better education. Real education… education that includes not just memorization of numbers and historical facts, but tools for critical thinking and problem solving.

We need to teach our children to have a sense of wonder and curiosity about the universe instead of settling for the unenlightening answer of "God did it." We need to show them how science is the best way we have for understanding how things work and how language and communication skills are key to spreading knowledge. We need to help them learn the tried and true methods for evaluating evidence and reaching conclusions. We need to teach them that it’s okay if the facts leads somewhere new. We need them to understand that claims of truth require evidence. We need them to learn… learn… learn.

Until then, we’re destined to continue in the fight against superstitious ideology that fundamentalists want to impose on us. We’ll keep debunking, keep criticizing, keep educating, and keep learning… until we have dismantled the ivory tower of theistic dogma.

…from the top down.

The Grand Canyon and The Flood

(((Billy))) nails it.

My favorite bit of commentary…

When I first encountered this view of geology, my thought was, “How limited.  How depressing.  How boring.”  Two billion years of history reduced to a couple of weeks of flood drainage.  A kindergartner’s version of earth history.