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28 November 2008

James Randi Educational Foundation Forums

So, I finally decided to register for the JREF Forums and get more involved in that community. For a forum that is supposedly a beacon for skeptics and intelligent people, there sure are a lot of "wooists" there. Enough to almost depress me at how many there are on that forum alone!

Is "wooism" a form of mental illness? In reading some of the posts by the wooists there, I can't but help to thing that these people are deluded worse than the most foaming at the mouth lunatic. I know a lot of people like to believe in strange thing, but seriously? Some of the topics are just short of full blown paranoia and hallucinations! What the fuck is with some of those people? And the worst part is that you can't reason with them. Not in the slightest! If they said that sky was green, and you took them outside to show them a blue sky; they would find a way to deny it. So basically, all I can really conclude is that they are mentally ill.

As an aside, I must say that I really like the word "Woo" to describe the fringe lunatics. It's perfectly dismissive of their level of actual intelligence (versus the crafty intelligence they display with their woo). Although that lunatic fringe seems to be way too big for my liking... It's probably a result of the lack of critical thinking and the easy access to woo on the internet.

I guess that is why I ended up actually registering at the JREF Forums. We all need to take an active role in fighting the woo. So, what can we do?

Well, for one, take an interest in the public displays of woo. In most cases, people just don't know better, and just go with the thing they see the most. What we need to do is give people more access to critical thinking skills and real information. I suppose one thing to do is to get folks to watch Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. Okay, that's my help to the skeptic community for today. Please do your part.

22 November 2008

More of my Daughter's Homework

In a continuation of my daughter's Lexus Eco-Challenge, they made a web page:
http://www.freewebs.com/wildstream/
Please stop in, take a look around and see what they are doing. Take the quiz even. There really isn't a lot of stuff there yet, so I hope they will get their act together though and chronicle all the things they are doing.

As for Global Climate Change (Global Warming, whatever you want to call it), I am still confused by those who deny it. Okay, I know that there are some aspects of the studies that didn't have the best data, and there are numerous unknown factors. But what do they hope to gain by denying it? Do they want to keep doing things like they always have? Do they think that pollution is harmless, like smoking was considered harmless? Do they just want to shirk their responsibilities as compassionate human beings, and leave that to their children and grand-children? Do they think it's fun to live inside a toilet?

Also, I have noticed that a lot of the deniers use poor science to back up their beliefs (which would perhaps indicate they are ill-informed and wrong). Those who talk about Mars and Pluto warming should look up the inverse square law, and realize that if the sun were wholly responsible, the amount of energy required would not only have heated the Earth, but fried it to a crisp! Those phenomenon are local phenomenon to those planets.

Even if we don't know the full extent of the causes of Global Climate Change, there is no way you can deny that the pollution we are pouring out isn't HELPING the situation! Wouldn't it just be more responsible from every conceivable angle for us to clean up our act? Is there any real harm in reducing our dependence on petroleum? Are we hurting things by doing our best to preserve the food chain? Does having a wide variety of species living on this planet cause harm?

I suppose those who deny Global Climate Change and wish to keep polluting are of the same ilk as "Flat Earthers" and other delusional conspiracy theorists... I just wish they weren't so prevalent and so destructive!

17 November 2008

We ARE Responsible

Just a short video that my daughter put together for a class of hers. She'd really appreciate traffic and feedback.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVuJXKXCG4c

What do you think?

16 November 2008

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

So said Carl Sagan. But why? And what is an extraordinary claim?

The origins of the saying can perhaps be found in Hume’s Maxim:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish…

Replace “miracle” with “extraordinary claim”, and you have the basis of the quote that Carl Sagan popularized. And intuitively, most people would agree with it in principle. For example, if I told you I had cereal for breakfast, you would probably believe me. You know cereal exists and that people eat it for breakfast. Of course, I could be lying, but even if I were, I have not asked you to accept some new and extraordinary idea. (The fact that I lied wouldn’t mean that cereal somehow doesn’t exist any more.) However, if I told you that the cereal I eat every day will guarantee that I will never get sick and will live to be 100, you would probably want some evidence of that, and some pretty good evidence too.

Strictly speaking, all claims require exactly the same amount of evidence, it’s just that most "ordinary" claims are already backed by extraordinary evidence that you don’t think about. When we say “extraordinary claims”, what we actually mean are claims that do not already have evidence supporting them, or sometimes claims that have extraordinary evidence against them. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence because they usually contradict claims that are backed by extraordinary evidence. The evidence for the extraordinary claim must support the new claim as well as explain why the old claims that are now being abandoned, previously appeared to be correct. The extraordinary evidence must account for the abandoned claim, while also explaining the new one.

Most people are probably unaware of the amount of extraordinary evidence required for most scientific claims. Not only must the experiments be written up in such a way that others can challenge the assumptions and be able to spot errors, but they must also be independently replicated. In addition, most scientific discoveries have provenance – that is, we know how and why we decided to test this claim in the first place. For example, a new drug may have a theoretical rationally as well as positive in vitro and animal testing before it is even tested on humans. Consequently, we already have reasons to suppose it might work. Compare that with much of alternative medicine, where we have no basis to suppose it works, and whose tenets we are pretty sure were just made up. In this case by “extraordinary evidence,” all we really mean is the same level of evidence that supports real medicine.

You can see than my claim I had cereal for breakfast is not extraordinary. We know cereal exists and people eat it. There are no other accepted or “proven” claims that you have to abandon to accept that I ate cereal for breakfast. The claim that my cereal will guarantee I will live to be 100 is an extraordinary claim. It is counter to all the other evidence we have that there is no one simple thing you can eat that will guarantee no illness and such a long life.

Examples of Extraordinary Claims

Part of the difficulty in defining what makes an extraordinary claim is this: claims that skeptics consider extraordinary, woos consider quite normal. Woos often consider that (for example) it is already a given that psychics exist, therefore anecdotal evidence is good enough for them. But psychics are scientifically implausible and have not been shown to be real. That doesn’t mean they aren’t real; it does mean we need extraordinary evidence to suppose they are. Woos start from the place that these things are already supported by evidence, and that’s where they go wrong. I’ve tried below to explain what is extraordinary about the following claims – what other claims, and what other implicit evidence, they contradict.

Homeopathy

Homeopathy is the definition of an extraordinary claim, It is initially extraordinary because it does not have provenance – that is, we know that Hahnemann didn’t derive the laws of homeopathy by experiment, he just made them up ad-hoc. Hahnemann made up the Law of Similars based on an observation of one thing (quinine / malaria symptoms), and this “Law” has not been replicated or confirmed. In fact, we now know the Law of Similars is false. We also know from every other piece of evidence we have, that when you dilute something it gets weaker, not stronger. Because of these two basic flaws, homeopathy requires stronger evidence than we would ask from other therapies. And yet with homeopathy we are expected to accept weaker evidence – anecdotes and non-blinded studies written by homeopaths. All well run double-blind tests show homeopathy is no more than placebo.

Incidentally, most alternative medical therapies suffer the same lack of provenance flaw – ie they were mostly just made up by ancient peoples with no knowledge of how the body actually works or of what makes us sick. Similarly, we are mostly offered anecdotes in place of evidence.

Astrology

Astrology is similar to homeopathy in that we know it was not derived by experiment, but was most likely just made up by people who saw pictures in the sky. (At least, no one has ever been able to show this explanation is wrong.) In addition, there is no plausible explanation for how astrology might work – ie what forces could alter a newborn’s personality in the precise ways claimed. Despite this lack of provenance and plausibility, we are still offered only anecdotes and appeals to science doesn’t know everything.

Jesus’ resurrection after 2 days

This goes against all the evidence that people do not come back to life, spontaneously, after two days. Modern medicine can bring people back from what would have been considered in earlier years to be “dead”, but not after 2 days of being dead with no modern life support to keep the vital organs working. In fact, it is probably reasonably safe to say it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that people cannot come back to life after being dead for two days. The evidence we are offered are accounts written decades after the event, by people who were not there when the events described were purported to have occurred. We are offered nothing but hearsay anecdotes from superstitious people with a clear reason for wanting others to think the story true. This is hardly acceptable evidence to counteract the fact that this never happens. Christians might ask, what evidence would a skeptic accept for such an extraordinary claim. The fact that even in principle you are unlikely to find extraordinary evidence 2000 years later, is hardly the non-believer’s fault.

Psychics

Psychic powers are extraordinary initially because of lack of scientific plausibility: that is, we have no known way for psychic signals to be sent and received. Lack of plausibility doesn’t mean something isn’t true, but it does make it extraordinary. The continued lack of good evidence for psychic powers, despite 125 years of looking, means that even more extraordinary evidence is now required to explain why the previous 125 years of looking were unsuccessful. For example, attempts to prove psychic powers with Zener cards were abandoned when the few positive results that were obtained were shown to have been achieved by cheating. Subsequent tests of psychics have resorted to tests that are easier to fudge – tests requiring judging to determine if the psychic got it right or not. The wiggle room this introduced results in less extraordinary evidence for this extraordinary claim that has been strangely shy to appear when properly tested (in a way that would truly be extraordinary evidence, if it worked). Instead we are left with lame guesses by the likes of Sylvia Browne and Allison Dubois, that are anything but extraordinary except in the sense that they are extraordinary bad.

Alien Visitation

Strictly speaking, alien visitation does not contradict other claims that are known to be true. It is theoretically possible that aliens exist and may hold advanced technology that enables them to travel across the galaxy. But the claim is extraordinary in that there is zero evidence alien visitation has actually occurred, despite at least sixty years of looking. In addition, there are rational explanations for many claims of alien visitation. There is no hard evidence of alien visitation, such as a crashed spacecraft with technology far advanced of our own.

Autism Spectrum and Human Evolution


This blog entry is all about personal experience and speculation. Just some idle cogitating and wondering about the prevalence of what most see as an ailment. So, are the varieties of autism "disorders" a sort of next step in human brain development?

First of all, you have to understand a couple things. In particular, how evolution works; as well as the varieties of the autism spectrum. I will not try to explain the entirety of evolution, it's been done before, ad nauseum. I just want to highlight that evolution isn't always a full step forward. Sometimes there are drawbacks in the next step that needs to be refined. The evolutionary process can even have lots of dead ends and false starts. That's how we get some strange things that apparently don't make sense. However, over the course of millions of generations, you can get a vastly improved model to deal with what the current environment needs to solve further challenges. Also, this is not meant to say that there is a goal of evolution, but a selective breeding pressure of humanity.

Also, describing the full spectrum of autism is beyond the scope of this post as well. My intent is to just focus on a couple things that got me to thinking along this line of thought. Basically though, autism can allow the brain to focus very deeply on a particular problem, or develop a skill to phenomenal levels (the so called "Rain Man" phenomenon).

Okay, if you know anything about the autism spectrum, there are numerous "disorders" that really don't carry a huge impact, while imparting the incredible mental focus of some autism characteristics. However, there are those who suffer a great deal under other autism spectrum disorders. Now, you take those individuals throughout the spectrum, and you contemplate the possibility of them passing on their genes. Those with the greatest disabilities obviously are at a disadvantage, while those who do not display these disabilities are at least not hindered by their condition. Cases like "Brainman" could even, through their notoriety and special skills, have their chances improved (although in his particular case we have another obstacle, but that's neither here nor there).

Take the left end of the spectrum as the "undesirable" end, and the right end of the spectrum as the "Brainman" end, and keep favouring the right with chances to contribute to the gene pool, and where does that take you in numerous generations? Possibly people that have a vast mental array at their disposal to be able to handle the incredibly complex world we have built for ourselves. Of course, that begs the question of exactly what environmental pressure is this particular mutation trying to fill? Considering that for millions of years, we've been a species that generally only handl;es things at walking speed, at a hieght of at most trees we climb, and in an area that we can cover during a long walk in a day... Let's just say that we're quite far removed from that. Even many thousands of generations back we started expanding out of that comfortable environment we had evolved into with our technology and already prodigeous brainpower.

In today's world, there are so many fields that require an all consuming dedication to study them just to understand the basics, let alone make contributions to the field. Evolution itself (as a field) requires not only understanding genetics, biology, chemistry, geology, astro-physics, etc. but surely many more fields. Then get into essoteric fields like quantum physics, and even the most brainy amongst us is seriously challenged to explain it. The type of dedication to delve into these matters though is displayed by certian autism spectrum behaviours. So perhaps at this point it's not the environment so much driving the next step of evolution, but our own understanding of the universe, and the need to delve deeper.

Anyway, just a random musing for today. Do you have any thoughts on the subject? And no, vaccines don't "cause" autism...

10 November 2008

THE MYTH OF SAINT PETER—the man who never was.


Barbara Walker, in her opus The woman’s encyclopedia of myths and secrets. (1993. Harper and Row) wrote about the fancy and fiction of St. Peter who we may call “the man who never was”.

“The myth of Saint Peter was the slender thread from which hung the whole weighty structure of the Roman papacy. One solitary passage in the Gospel of Matthew said Jesus made a pun by giving Simon son of Jonah the new name of Peter, “Rock” (Latin petra), saying he would found his church on this rock (Matthew 16: 18-19).

Unfortunately for Papal credibility, the so-called Petrine passage was a forgery. It was deliberately inserted into the scripture about the third century AD as a political ploy, to uphold the primacy of the Roman see against rival churches in the east. [Reinach, S. Orpheus. New York, Horace Liveright Inc. 1930, 240].

Various Christian bishoprics were engaged in a power struggle in which the chief weapons were bribery, forgery, and intrigue, with elaborate fictions and hoaxes written into sacred books, and ruthless competition between rival parties for the lucrative position of god’s elite. [H. Smith (1952). Man and his gods. Little, Brown and Co. Boston, USA.]

Most early churches put forth spurious claims to foundation by apostles, even though the apostles themselves were no more than the mandatory “zodiacal twelve” attached to the figure of the sacred king. Early popes were often mere names, drawn from titles of Roman gods, such as Eleutherios or Soter, falsely inserted into an artificial chronology to simulate succession from Peter.

The real roots of Peter’s legend lay in pagan Roman myths of the city-god called Petra, or Pater Liber, assimilated to the Mithraic pater partum (Father of Fathers), whose title was corrupted into papa, then “Pope”. This personage had been both a Rock and a Father—that is a phallic pillar—in the Vatican mundus since Etruscan times, when oracular priests called vatis gave their title to the site.

Other variations of the pagan deity’s name were Patriarch (Chief Father), Pompeius, and Patricius (Patrick). Like Indian Brahmans, Roman “patricians” claimed a patrilineal descent from the god. Since his name also meant a rock, he was what the Old Testament called “the Rock that begat thee” (Deuteronomy 32:18).

THE VATICAN PHALLUS: The god’s stone phallus remained planted in the Vatican mount through the later stages of the Roman empire and well into the Middle Ages—perhaps even into the 19th century, when a visitor said Vatican authorities “kept in secret a large stone emblem of the creative power, of a very peculiar shape” [G. R. Scott. Phallic Worship. Associated Booksellers. Westport, Conneticut].

Medieval names for such an object—perron, pyr, Pierre—show that it was both a “rock” and a “peter”. Such was the ancient Pater’s phallic sceptre or pillar topped with a pine cone, the thyrsus of Pater Liber. Church authorities often converted a carved perron into a Christian symbol simply by placing a cross on its tip.


It is now certain that there was no St. Peter in Rome to “found the papacy.”[Reinach 240]. Stories about Peter were invented after the Roman see was well established. During the first five centuries of the Christian era, no one thought the bishop of Rome had a right to govern other bishops; there was no such doctrine as the primacy of the Roman see. “Christ neither founded nor desired the Church.”

Indeed, the Jesus of the Gospels would have had no reason to found a church, since his principal message was that the world was going to end almost at once."

Let's Get Something Clear


I may come across as particularly anti-religious and condescending. I will not deny that. But I do want to clear something up. I will not dismiss you as a human being because you buy into the delusion that is called religion. As a matter of fact, dedicate your life to it. Believe it with all your heart. Just don't ask me to participate!

I think that's the biggest failing of humans, and religious humans in particular. For some reason, they cannot comprehend that someone else does not follow their system, and they just MUST convince others to follow their understanding. Now, I will try to impart understanding of my point of view, however it is in response to the overbearing religious segment of the population. The surest way of getting me to STFU is to just stop making a public spectacle of yourself and trying to dictate this country, or even force your beliefs on others who don't want it. If you won't display the common courtesy of keeping your private beliefs private, I will not respect those beliefs to your face. I know it sounds rather tit-for-tat, and maybe it is. Rather childish, I know, but I am trying to point out hypocrisy.

I may speak out against your religion, but keep in mind that I am also speaking up for those minorities that so many conveniently choose to deny. What about the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Zoroastrians, etc.? Is their humanity not worth anything either?

I've had my property vandalized by religious nut cases, but I haven't had the sort of persecution the Jews endured in Nazi Germany. I'm just seeing a pattern of rhetoric and thought that the religious right is displaying that is eerily similar to those patterns. That alone frightens me into action. Just a quick random thought for today.

08 November 2008

How Our Founding Fathers Were Actually Not Christians


It is a common argument from Christians that this country was founded on Christian beliefs, and that our Founding Fathers were Christians.

It is unfortunate that those who make this argument haven't researched their argument. History is clear and many quotes have been documented that clearly state the opposite.

A Deist is a person who believes in Deism, defined by dictionary.com as: n. The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.

It has been clearly documented that many of our founding fathers were deists, which was a common belief system during the time in which they lived. (Especially as it was nearly immediately following the Age of Reason in England.) The Constitution of the United States contains no mention of God whatsoever. In fact, Alexander Hamilton was questioned by some about the omission of God. In an article published in The Nation in February of 2005 titled "Our Godless Constitution," the author, Brooke Allen cites that on one account, Hamilton responded that "the new nation was not in need of "foreign aid."

In the same article it is pointed out in the essay series (eighty-five in number) "The Federalist" mentions God just twice, both times by James Madison, and only in the sense of "only Heaven knows," per Gore Vidal. In the Declaration of Independence, the only mentions of God are: "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God," and the more frequently recited line about men "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." In both instances, the context agrees with the idea of Deism, not the ideas of Christianity.

Too many people forget about Thomas Paine. Known as "the father of the American Revolution," it as arguable among some as to whether Paine was a Deist or an Atheist. Regardless, Paine wrote such works as "Common Sense," that pamphlet that strongly urged an American independence from England; also the author of "The Crisis," about the American Revolution, "The Rights of Man," and "Age of Reason." Thomas Paine was among the most important of the Founding Fathers, and his "Age of Reason" was very anti-religion and highly controversial.

Ferrell Till, an author who wrote "The Christian Nation Myth," published on infidels.org, points out that other Founding Fathers who subscribed to a deistic thought were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison and James Monroe. As Till mentions in this piece, Thomas Jefferson was highly anti-cleric. In an 1814 letter to Horatio Spafford Jefferson wrote: "In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes" (George Seldes, The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey Citadel Press, 1983, p. 371).He wrote in another letter to John Adams: "To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial is to say they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise" (August 15, 1820). And in another letter to Adams: "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter" (April 11, 1823).

In 1797, there was an instance in which a recorded vote was required from the Senate, and it was the 339th time that this was so. At that time, the United States Government had finished a "Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, or Barbary," now known simply as the Treaty of Tripoli. Article 11 of that treaty contains this passage: "As the Government of the United States...is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion--as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity of Musselmen--and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries." This document was signed by both Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams, and then it was sent to the Senate for ratification. In all of the 339 instances for Senate vote, this was only the third time a vote was unanimous.

Thomas Jefferson was the man who said that we must have "a wall of separation between church and state." It was John Adams that commented that if not for legal restraints placed against them, that the Puritans would "whip and crop, and pillory and roast." (Note: the Puritans were the fundamentalists of those days.)

James Madison said, "religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise," and he noted "almost fifteen centuries" during which Christianity had been on trial: "What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution."

Following are a few other quotes (found on About.com) from Founding Fathers regarding the issue:

"The appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, [is] contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment'" (James Madison, Veto, 1811)

"The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses...." (John Adams, 1787)

"If Religion consist in voluntary acts of individuals, singly, or voluntarily associated, and it be proper that public functionaries, as well as their Constituents shd discharge their religious duties, let them like their Constituents, do so at their own expense." (Madison, detached memoranda, 1820)

"Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience, or that one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform" (Madison, Annals of Congress, 1789).

I could continue; and entire article could be comprised of quotes from Thomas Jefferson alone. And in fact, Thomas Paine wrote lengthy articles about it! But let the truth be known, the Founding Fathers were NOT CHRISTIANS, nor did they create this country from Christian doctrine. Let is also be known that "In God We Trust" was not added to the United States currency until an act of Congress on January 18, 1867 during the time of the Civil War. It was not until 1954 that "under God" was incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance. Don't blame that business on the men who built this country.