My Actual Homepage - Go here for more info.

I plan to put a graphical banner here eventually...

31 October 2009

Theitard Nuts waging war on Halloween!

Dr. Plait has another fun blog entry today in celebration of the candy festival that we all refer to as Halloween. I will say that generally I too tend to be tolerant of people clinging to childish superstitions, UNLESS they insist I somehow need to adhere to their beliefs, or even respect them. I am under no obligation to respect them in the slightest; and I can't, since I think they are just silly. Sorry. Anyway, Dr. Plait seems a bit kinder in his assessment for the majority of people.

Okay, back to the topic at hand though. One of the reasons that theitards make me laugh is that so many of them pull off stunts like this:

A Halloween bag full of Dum Dums

I actually am fairly tolerant of religious differences between people. Religious beliefs run very, very deep, and touch a part of us that is incredibly difficult to analyze rationally or with any sort of real self-skepticism. In general, a person’s religious belief is wrapped up in their own sense of self, so attacking that religion is akin to a personal attack on them.

But sometimes, just sometimes, a belief can be goofy enough — and damaging enough — that maybe a little bit of mockery is deserved. Certainly Pat Robertson has done so much damage in his lifetime that he gets no pass at all from me. My thoughts on him are clear and public (for example, he is "bigoted, small-minded zealot who will say anything to appeal to his base").

So it comes as no surprise that his website CBN is a haven for nonsensery at all levels. But a new post there about Halloween has even me scratching my head. Kimberly Daniels wrote a piece there about Halloween that is about as far from reality as it can be:

Halloween is a counterfeit holy day that is dedicated to celebrating the demonic trinity of : the Luciferian Spirit (the false father); the Antichrist Spirit (the false holy spirit); and the Spirit of Belial (the false son).

Really? I thought it was a time to have fun, let a little loose, eat candy, and just be silly. But I guess that’s just me.

… and about 300 million other Americans.

So we’ve established she’s a goofball. Fine. But then she goes too far:

During this period demons are assigned against those who participate in the rituals and festivities. These demons are automatically drawn to the fetishes that open doors for them to come into the lives of human beings. For example, most of the candy sold during this season has been dedicated and prayed over by witches.

Attacking Halloween is one thing, but attacking the candy?

Wow, it must be fun to live in an evidence-free world where you can simply assert whatever you want without proof or references or anything! Here, let me try: CBN is run by a TI 99-4a computer with buggy code that sometimes strings words together in patterns that almost make sense, if you squint and stand some distance away from them.

Hey, that was easy!

I think that it’s not only OK, but appropriate to shake your head and be somewhat dismissive of opinions stated as fact that aren’t within a glancing blow of reality. That anyone can take Robertson* or his organization seriously is weird. The fact that they make money hand over fist is, well, not a crime since it’s legal, but a real shame.

And I wonder if anyone has told Ms. Daniels about the pagan origins of Christmas celebrations?

Anyway, as for me, I’ll happily be giving out my accursed Kit Kats and demonic Baby Ruths to all the satan-worshipping entrail-reading pagan evildoers in the neighborhood. And probably snitching the occasional hellspawned Tootsie Roll, too.

* In case you think I am being unfair to Robertson — if such a thing is even possible — because someone else wrote that article, then check out this article at Americans United. Robertson deserves far more mockery than even I feel I can do on this blog.

30 October 2009

Guess what?! Your god hates the US!

So, I am always amused by people saying this is a xtian nation, or ending speeches with "god bless the USA" and the like. Why? Well, basically the entire notion of a democracy or republic is actually against the basic tenets of the bible! Therefore I can only conclude that big ole skydaddy is really pissed at us all for going against his explicit directions. Let's just take a look shall we? First let's look at what distinguishes this nation as a republican democracy:

Republican democracy. Through a public ballot open to all adult citizens, Americans elect candidates who will represent them at the local, state and federal levels. All officials of the American government are either directly elected by the people or are appointed by others who are elected.

Separation of powers. The American government is divided into legislative, executive and judicial branches. Through various mechanisms, these three branches can check each other's power - the president can issue pardons and veto legislation, Congress can override vetoes and pass constitutional amendments, and the courts can rule laws and executive actions unconstitutional - which prevents too much power from accumulating in the hands of any one individual or group.

Federalism. The U.S. is set up as a series of states with a limited degree of autonomy, united together and overseen by a central, federal government. Power is shared between the two, with some areas being the province of the states and others set by the federal authority.

The process of amendment. The U.S. Constitution can be changed in any way, either to pass new clauses or to repeal existing ones, if the proposed amendment is approved by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states.

Religious freedom. The Constitution explicitly provides that no religious test shall ever be required for any public office in the United States, nor shall the government officially establish any religion. No law which infringes on the free exercise of religion is permitted.

Freedom of speech, assembly, press and petition. The First Amendment to the Constitution provides that no law shall be passed which abridges the citizens' freedom of speech, nor their right to protest and petition the government, nor the right of the press to report information on the events of the day.

Protection from search and seizure. The police force in America may not enter a person's home or search their possessions without proving reasonable suspicion and obtaining the consent of an independent magistrate, in the form of a search warrant.

Trial by jury. Americans accused of crimes can only be convicted by a jury made up of people living in the area where the crime has taken place. In addition, people on trial have the right to confront witnesses against them and may not be compelled to testify against themselves.

Protection from cruel or unusual punishment. Cruel, degrading, or torturous punishments are constitutionally forbidden.

Equality of all people under the law. Most fundamental to the American experiment is the idea that all people have equal protection under the law, that no one group has any more or fewer legal rights than any other. This more than anything else is the idea that defines us, and though we have not always lived up to it, throughout our history we have steadily been making strides toward expanding the boundaries of liberty to include all Americans.

Now, let's see what Biblical equivalents, if any, these principles have:

Republican democracy: Explicitly denied by the Bible. Rather than democracy, the Bible's preferred model of government is a divine-right kingship, where one individual is hereditarily chosen and wields supreme power. This is what America's founders were rebelling against when they brought forth this nation.

Separation of powers: Explicitly denied by the Bible. As above, in the Bible's divine-right monarchy, a single individual wields supreme power over all functions of government. Some apologists seek to find an equivalent in a verse from Isaiah 33 - "For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king" - but what they overlook is that this verse explicitly envisions all three of these powers as being held by the same person.

Federalism: Partial equivalent in the Bible. The Old Testament's society, where each of the twelve tribes of Israel has partial autonomy over its own region, is similar to the American model of states. However, there is a notable dissimilarity as well: the Bible envisions membership in a tribe as hereditary, whereas states are made up of free collections of individuals who can move around at will. In any case, some sort of hierarchy is unavoidable in any organization too large for a single person to directly oversee.

The process of amendment: Explicitly denied by the Bible. Rather than creating a living, dynamic system of laws that can be improved and mended as society sees fit, the Bible claims that its laws are eternal and immutable, literally set in stone, and can neither be added to nor changed. The Old Testament says that each of its laws "shall be a statute forever" (Leviticus 23:41), and the New Testament says that anyone who suggests a different gospel should be accursed (Galatians 1:8-9).

Religious freedom: Explicitly denied by the Bible. Far from granting people the right to worship as they see fit, the Bible says that anyone who encourages believers to serve other gods, or anyone who speaks "blasphemy", should be killed (Deuteronomy 13:6-9, Leviticus 24:16). God himself joins in on many occasions by slaughtering people who worship different gods (Exodus 22:20). Although Jesus does say that people should "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Mark 12:17), there is no indication that any non-Christian should enjoy the same freedom of worship as believers.

Freedom of speech, assembly, press and petition: Explicitly denied by the Bible. As above, the Bible does not grant freedom of speech, but rather threatens death for those who speak in unapproved ways. Ancient Israel had no concept of the press, but there are also many cases in which people were killed for unapproved assemblies or for questioning their leaders (Numbers 16:35).

Protection from search and seizure: No equivalent in the Bible. Lacking a judicial system or separation of powers, ancient Israel had no notion of search warrants or of protection from arbitrary seizure.

Trial by jury: No equivalent in the Bible. Again, the Bible has nothing like our custom of the legal or judicial system. It does say that a man who suspects his wife of committing adultery can bring her before the priests and force her to drink "bitter water" which will cause her belly to swell and her thighs to rot if she is guilty (Numbers 5). If anything, this is most similar to the barbaric concept of trial by ordeal. It also says that anyone who accidentally kills someone may be killed without consequence by a relative of the deceased (whom it calls the "avenger of blood") (Joshua 20). Again, no mention is made of convening a jury to determine the guilt of the accused. Finally, it says that any person may be convicted of a crime on the testimony of just two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15), which is a far cry from the American legal system.

Protection from cruel or unusual punishment: Explicitly denied by the Bible. One of the most common punishments prescribed by the Bible is stoning - bludgeoning a person to death by smashing in his head and face with rocks. This penalty is prescribed for crimes such as disobeying one's parents (Deuteronomy 21:21), picking up sticks on Sunday (Numbers 15:36), or being gay (Leviticus 20:13). This is "cruel and unusual" punishment by any rational definition of that term.

Equality of all people under the law: Explicitly denied by the Bible. The Bible makes it clear that the Israelites enjoyed special favor as compared to everybody else, and were treated differently by the Mosaic law code. For example, foreigners taken as slaves could be kept indefinitely, while Israelite slaves were freed every seven years during Jubilee (Leviticus 25:39-46). Even among Israelites, there were stark divisions: women are worth considerably less than men (Leviticus 27:1-7), and the handicapped are discriminated against (Leviticus 21:17-23). Even Jesus joins in by making statements comparing non-Jews to dogs (Mark 7:27).

In sum, the basic principles of American democracy cannot be found in either testament of the Bible. This is hardly surprising: America's founders drew their ideas from the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment, as well as from the English common law; they said so themselves.

And to this evidence, we must add the fact that many of America's most influential founders held notably unorthodox religious views. Far from being the monolithic group of pious, church-going, by-the-book fundamentalists that today's religious right imagines them as, the founders were a diverse, freethinking group, few of them strictly obedient to any creed. It is almost certainly no coincidence that, while divine-right monarchies across the world have ended in degeneration or destruction, the American system of government whose origins were based in reason and not hobbled by rigid dogma has survived and flourished.

Oops! Not to mention that there is that pesky Treaty of Tripoli to deal with, the total lack of mentioning any jebus or god in the Constitution, etc...

20 October 2009

An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All

I found this article on Wired. I highly encourage you to read it!

An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All

By Amy Wallace

To hear his enemies talk, you might think Paul Offit is the most hated man in America
. A pediatrician in Philadelphia, he is the coinventor of a rotavirus vaccine that could save tens of thousands of lives every year. Yet environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. slams Offit as a “biostitute” who whores for the pharmaceutical industry. Actor Jim Carrey calls him a profiteer and distills the doctor’s attitude toward childhood vaccination down to this chilling mantra: “Grab ‘em and stab ‘em.” Recently, Carrey and his girlfriend, Jenny McCarthy, went on CNN’s Larry King Live and singled out Offit’s vaccine, RotaTeq, as one of many unnecessary vaccines, all administered, they said, for just one reason: “Greed.”

Thousands of people revile Offit publicly at rallies, on Web sites, and in books. Type into your browser and you’ll find not Offit’s official site but an anti-Offit screed “dedicated to exposing the truth about the vaccine industry’s most well-paid spokesperson.” Go to Wikipedia to read his bio and, as often as not, someone will have tampered with the page. The section on Offit’s education was once altered to say that he’d studied on a pig farm in Toad Suck, Arkansas. (He’s a graduate of Tufts University and the University of Maryland School of Medicine).

Then there are the threats. Offit once got an email from a Seattle man that read, “I will hang you by your neck until you are dead!” Other bracing messages include “You have blood on your hands” and “Your day of reckoning will come.” A few years ago, a man on the phone ominously told Offit he knew where the doctor’s two children went to school. At a meeting of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an anti-vaccine protester emerged from a crowd of people holding signs that featured Offit’s face emblazoned with the word terrorist and grabbed the unsuspecting, 6-foot-tall physician by the jacket.

“I don’t think he wanted to hurt me,” Offit recalls. “He was just excited to be close to the personification of such evil.” Still, whenever Offit gets a letter with an unfamiliar return address, he holds the envelope at arm’s length before gingerly tearing it open. “I think about it,” he admits. “Anthrax.”

So what has this award-winning 58-year-old scientist done to elicit such venom? He boldly states — in speeches, in journal articles, and in his 2008 book Autism’s False Prophets — that vaccines do not cause autism or autoimmune disease or any of the other chronic conditions that have been blamed on them. He supports this assertion with meticulous evidence. And he calls to account those who promote bogus treatments for autism — treatments that he says not only don’t work but often cause harm.

As a result, Offit has become the main target of a grassroots movement that opposes the systematic vaccination of children and the laws that require it. McCarthy, an actress and a former Playboy centerfold whose son has been diagnosed with autism, is the best-known leader of the movement, but she is joined by legions of well-organized supporters and sympathizers.

This isn’t a religious dispute, like the debate over creationism and intelligent design. It’s a challenge to traditional science that crosses party, class, and religious lines. It is partly a reaction to Big Pharma’s blunders and PR missteps, from Vioxx to illegal marketing ploys, which have encouraged a distrust of experts. It is also, ironically, a product of the era of instant communication and easy access to information. The doubters and deniers are empowered by the Internet (online, nobody knows you’re not a doctor) and helped by the mainstream media, which has an interest in pumping up bad science to create a “debate” where there should be none.


19 October 2009

An Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations

I found this "letter" and wanted to post it. But not before calling Bill Maher out on some world class hypocrisy (from his own show):

New Rule: If you don't think your daughter getting cancer is worse than your daughter having sex, then you're doing it wrong. Last year, science came up with a way to greatly reduce cervical cancer in young women. It's a vaccine that prevents women from getting HPV, which is a sexually transmitted disease that acts as a gateway to the cancer. And the vaccine is so good, it could wipe out HPV. I keep a stockpile near my hot tub, and I can tell you, that tingling sensation means it's really working. And I'd say that even without the endorsement deal.

Now for the bad news: Not everyone is pleased with this vaccine. That prevents cancer. Christian parent groups and churches nationwide are fighting it. Bridget Maher -- no relation, and none planned -- of the Family Research Council says giving girls the vaccine is bad, because the girls "may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex."

How convenient your hypocrisy is when you see "the enemy" lined up. While I am a wholehearted supporter of some of your views (particularly on religion), I must call into question your views on vaccines. It seems you are applying an inconsistent methodology of skepticism as Dr Shermer points out in the following letter:

An Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations

From a Fellow Skeptic

By Michael Shermer
Editor of Skeptic magazine and “Skeptic” columnist for Scientific American

Dear Bill,

Years ago you invited me to appear as a fellow skeptic several times on your ABC show Politically Incorrect, and I have ever since shared your skepticism on so many matters important to both of us: creationism and intelligent design, religious supernaturalism and New Age paranormal piffle, 9/11 “truthers”, Obama “birthers”, and all manner of conspiratorial codswallop. On these matters, and many others, you rightly deserved the Richard Dawkins Award from Atheist Alliance International.

However, I believe that when it comes to alternative medicine in general and vaccinations in particular you have fallen prey to the same cognitive biases and conspiratorial thinking that you have so astutely identified in others. In fact, the very principle of how vaccinations work is additional proof (as if we needed more) against the creationists that evolution happened and that natural selection is real: vaccinations work by tricking the body’s immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given. Our immune system “adapts” to the invading pathogens and “evolves” to fight them, such that when it encounters a biologically similar pathogen (which itself may have evolved) it has in its armory the weapons needed to fight it. This is why many of us born in the 1950s and before may already have some immunity against the H1N1 flu because of its genetic similarity to earlier influenza viruses, and why many of those born after really should get vaccinated.

Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us. (See for numerous articles answering every one of the objections to vaccinations.)

Vaccination is one of science’s greatest discoveries. It is with considerable irony, then, that as a full-throated opponent of the nonsense that calls itself Intelligent Design, your anti-vaccination stance makes you something of an anti-evolutionist. Since you have been so vocal in your defense of the theory of evolution, I implore you to be consistent in your support of the theory across all domains and to please reconsider your position on vaccinations. It was not unreasonable to be a vaccination skeptic in the 1880s, which the co-discovered of natural selection—Alfred Russel Wallace—was, but we’ve learned a lot over the past century. Evolution explains why vaccinations work. Please stop denying evolution in this special case.

As well, Bill, your comments about not wanting to “trust the government” to inject us with a potentially deadly virus, along with many comments you have made about “big pharma” being in cahoots with the AMA and the CDC to keep us sick in the name of corporate profits is, in every way that matters, indistinguishable from 9/11 conspiracy mongering. Your brilliant line about how we know that the Bush administration did not orchestrate 9/11 (“because it worked”), applies here: the idea that dozens or hundreds pharmaceutical executives, AMA directors, CDC doctors, and corporate CEOs could pull off a conspiracy to keep us all sick in the name of money and power makes about as much sense as believing that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their bureaucratic apparatchiks planted explosive devices in the World Trade Center and flew remote controlled planes into the buildings.

Finally, Bill, please consider the odd juxtaposition of your enthusiastic support for health care reform and government intervention into this aspect of our medical lives, with your skepticism that these same people—when it comes to vaccinations and disease prevention—suddenly lose their sense of morality along with their medical training. You excoriate the political right for not trusting the government with our health, and then in the next breath you inadvertently join their chorus when you denounce vaccinations, thereby adding fodder for their ideological cannons. Please remember that it’s the same people administrating both health care and vaccination programs.

One of the most remarkable features of science is that it often leads its practitioners to change their minds and to say “I was wrong.” Perhaps we don’t do it enough, as our own blinders and egos can get in the way, but it does happen, and it certainly happens a lot more in science than it does in religion or politics. I’ve done it. I used to be a global warming skeptic, but I reconsidered the evidence and announced in Scientific American that I was wrong. Please reconsider both the evidence for vaccinations, as well as the inconsistencies in your position, and think about doing one of the bravest and most honorable things any critical thinker can do, and that is to publicly state, “I changed my mind. I was wrong.”

With respect,

Michael Shermer

18 October 2009

UK Libel laws Suck!

Straight from Dr Plait's blog. In case you aren't aware, this is a case where the chiropractors of the UK are claiming that chiropractic adjustments can solve all sorts of problems that are in no way musculo-skeletal. A particular Dr. Simon Singh called them on the nonsense, and now he's getting sued for libel... WTF? Okay, this is the backwards "guilty until proven innocent" (Popular with US conservatives as of late by the way) way that some UK laws traditionally work on.
Hero journalist Simon Singh has written a fantastic article for The Times Online about his libel case in the UK and libel in general: how it gags journalists and keeps people from learning important information.

If this article makes you angry, good. Do something about it.

So please take a moment and sign the petition. I think this is an opportunity to bring not only pressure but reality into the situation. Even though the UK is one of our closest allies in many things, they do need to catch up to the 21st century.

16 October 2009

Why Do Atheists Promote Atheism?

I found this article by Austin Cline, and I wanted to share it. I think it's important that people understand that atheism isn't another evangelical crusade or about converting people. As a matter of fact, I would be perfectly happy NEVER to discuss atheism, or how I view the world. That said, I find that I am forced to discuss it. Priamrially because I am constantly being forced to adhere to dogmas that I do not accept. Not only do I feel the need to fight for an ability to live my life without needles dogmas imposed on me, but there are all the grave misconceptions about atheism and atheists.

I enjoy Austin's website, because he hits a lot of the myths head on (even starting the entire article with the Myth in bold. He'd be the atheist Mythbuster if that title wasn't taken by someone's Close Personal Friend(TM).) So, here is his take on why us uppity atheists have websites and such.

Sometimes theists find it odd that atheists would have web sites explaining, discussing, and defending atheism. If atheism is not a philosophy or religion, what's the point? If atheists don't believe in God, why spend so much time discussing God? These theists are, I believe, misunderstanding the purpose and nature of atheist sites. The reason for this misunderstanding may lie in the fact that atheism and religion are completely separate categories, and as such cannot be directly contrasted.

Evangelistic religions like Christianity and Islam are always engaged in an effort to recruit new members — that's simply what they do. This effort typically involves explaining what the religion teaches and why these teachings are so good. When a person comes from such a background, it may seem natural to perceive analogous actions as stemming from the same motivations.

Atheism may not be any sort of independent belief system with teachings that need to be explained, but atheists do find themselves explaining what atheism is and is not. This, then, may be perceived by some religious theists as something which atheists do because, like Christians or Muslims, they are necessarily trying to recruit new members to their group. In some cases, that may have a grain of truth — some atheists do "evangelize" in a way by promoting atheism.

Doing so, however, isn't part of an effort to recruit new members to a belief system. Instead, it's an effort to get people to give up beliefs or a belief system which an atheist considers false at the very least and likely harmful or even dangerous. It's thus not analogous to a Republican trying to convince a Democrat to switch parties, but more analogous to an anarchist trying to convince a Democrat to stop supporting oppressive political parties and systems altogether.

Even that level of "evangelization" doesn't apply very well to me and this site, however. Unlike religious web sites that spread the word of someone’s religious faith, I don’t spread the word of atheism — there is no “word of atheism” to spread, at least not in any sense that is analogous to spreading the message of Christianity. I explain what atheism is. I explain what atheism is not, refuting many common myths and misconceptions. I explore the nature of religion, theism, and other types of beliefs.

If I can be said to be trying to spread anything, it would be skepticism and critical thinking from an atheistic perspective. Atheism has no real intellectual or moral value unless it is based upon a methodology of naturalism, science, skepticism, and critical thinking. A person who is an atheist on the basis of uncritical reasons — like for example being an atheist in order to be popular — is no different from someone who is a religious theist for the same reason.

For some, a naturalistic methodology of skepticism and critical thinking leads them to atheism. For others, it only leads them to a less dogmatic theism. The point, however, is to get people thinking more skeptically and critically in general. If I am on a soapbox, it is to call out to people to stop being gullible and to use their own minds to think about things more.

Religion and theism are obvious subjects for more skeptical thinking, but they are certainly not the only ones. Even if a person bases their atheism on a skeptical methodology, this doesn't guarantee that they will apply that methodology broadly and consistently. Just as a religious theist might do a good job at applying skepticism to politics but not to their own religion, an atheist might be very skeptical with religious and theistic claims yet fail to apply those lessons to political issues. In each case the error is basically the same and neither person can claim any intellectual or moral superiority over the other.

Thus I encourage skepticism and critical thinking broadly. Religion and theism may be the principle topics here, but where it's appropriate I try to bring up other subjects as well because I don't want anyone, and especially any atheists, to imagine that simply being critical of religion and theism is sufficient. One of the most serious problems for human society today is people's inability and/or unwillingness to apply skepticism and critical thinking to the various ideologies competing for our time and attention.

The Stolen Concept

The Stolen

Nathaniel Branden, PhD

This essay was originally published in The Objectivist Newsletter in January 1963.

The distinguishing characteristic of twentieth-century philosophy is a resurgence or irrationalism—a revolt against reason.

Students in colleges today are assailed with pronouncements to the effect that factual certainty is impossible, that the contents of man’s mind need bear no necessary relationship to the facts of reality, that the concept of “facts of reality” is an old-fashioned superstition, that reality is “mere appearance,” that man can know nothing. It is with such intellectual equipment that their teachers arm them to deal with the problems of life.

In the prevalence of these claims, primordial mysticism is winning its ultimate triumph and (for the moment) is enjoying the last laugh—because men are now taught to accept as the voice of science, the conclusion that man’s reason is impotent to know the “real” world, and that the world knowable to reason is not “real.”

In this article, I shall confine myself to the analysis of a single principle—a single fallacy—which is rampant in the writings of the neo-mystics and without which their doctrines could not be propagated.

We call it “the fallacy of the stolen concept.”

To understand this fallacy, consider an example of it in the realm of politics: Proudhon’s famous declaration that “All property is theft.”

“Theft” is a concept that logically and genetically depends on the antecedent concept of “rightfully owned property”—and refers to the act of taking that property without the owner’s consent. If no property is rightfully owned, that is, if nothing is property, there can be no such concept as “theft.” Thus, the statement “All property is theft” has an internal contradiction: to use the concept “theft” while denying the validity of the concept of “property,” is to use “theft” as a concept to which one has no logical right—that is, as a stolen concept.

All of man’s knowledge and all of his concepts have a hierarchical structure. The foundation or ultimate base of this structure is man’s sensory perceptions; these are the starting points of his thinking. From these, man forms his first concepts and (ostensive) definitions—then goes on building the edifice of his knowledge by identifying and integrating new concepts on a wider and wider scale. It is a process of building one identification upon another—of deriving wider abstractions from previously known abstractions, or of breaking down wider abstractions into narrower classifications. Man’s concepts are derived from and depend on earlier, more basic concepts, which serve as their genetic roots. For example, the concept “parent” is presupposed by the concept “orphan”; if one had not grasped the former, one could not arrive at the latter, nor could the latter be meaningful.

The hierarchical nature of man’s knowledge implies an important principle that must guide man’s reasoning: When one uses concepts, one must recognize their genetic roots, one must recognize that which they logically depend on and presuppose.

Failure to observe this principle—as in “All property is theft”—constitutes the fallacy of the stolen concept.

Now let us examine a few of the more prevalent anti-reason tenets and observe how they rest on this fallacy.

Consider the laws of logic. In the Aristotelian school of thought, these laws are recognized as being abstract formulations of self-evident truths, truths implicit in man’s first perceptions of reality, implicit in the very concept of existence, of being qua being; these laws acknowledge the fact that to be, is to be something, that a thing is itself. Among many contemporary philosophers, it is fashionable to contest this view—and to assert that the axioms of logic are “arbitrary” or “hypothetical.”

To declare that the axioms of logic are “arbitrary” is to ignore the context which gives rise to such a concept as the “arbitrary.” An arbitrary idea is one accepted by chance, caprice or whim; it stands in contradistinction to an idea accepted for logical reasons, from which it is intended to be distinguished. The existence of such a concept as an “arbitrary” idea is made possible only by the existence of logically necessary ideas; the former is not a primary; it is genetically dependent on the latter. To maintain that logic is “arbitrary” is to divest the concept “arbitrary” of meaning.

To declare that the axioms of logic are “hypothetical” (or merely “probable”) is to be guilty of the same contradiction. The concept of the “hypothetical (or the “probable”) is not a primary; it acquires meaning only in contradistinction to the known, the certain, the logically established. Only when one knows something which is certain, can one arrive at the idea of that which is not; and only logic can separate the latter from the former.

“An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it. Let the caveman who does not choose to accept the axiom of identity, try to present his theory without using the concept of identity or any concept derived from it … ” (Atlas Shrugged).

When neo-mystics challenge the concept of “entity” and announce that “naive” reason notwithstanding, all that exists is change and motion—(“There is no logical impossibility in walking occurring as an isolated phenomenon, not forming part of any such series as we call a ‘person,’” writes Bertrand Russell)—they are sweeping aside the fact that only the existence of entities makes the concepts “change” and “motion” possible; that “change” and “motion” presuppose entities which change and move; and that the man who proposes to dispense with the concept of “entity” loses his logical right to the concepts of “change” and “motion”: having dropped their genetic root, he no longer has any way to make them meaningful and intelligible.

When neo-mystics assert that man perceives, not objective reality, but only an illusion or mere appearance—they evade the question of how one acquires such a concept as “illusion” or “appearance” without the existence of that which is not an illusion or mere appearance. If there were no objective perceptions of reality, from which “illusions” and “appearances” are intended to be distinguished, the latter concepts would be unintelligible.

When neo-mystics declare that man can never know the facts of reality, they are declaring that man is not conscious. If man cannot know the facts of reality, he cannot know anything—because there is nothing else to know. If he cannot perceive existence, he cannot perceive anything—because there is nothing else to perceive. To know nothing and to perceive nothing is to be unconscious. But to arrive—by a complex chain of “reasoning” and a long string of such concepts as “knowledge,” “perceive, “evidence,” “infer,” “proof”—at the conclusion that one is not conscious, is scarcely epistemologically admissible.

"'We know that we know nothing,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge—‘There are no absolutes,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute—‘You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved
and the unproved.” (Atlas Shrugged)

Existence exists (that which is, is) and consciousness is conscious (man is able to perceive reality)—these are axioms at the base of all of man’s knowledge and concepts. When neo-mystics contest or deny them, all of the concepts they use thereafter are stolen. They are entitled only to such concepts as they can derive from non-existence by means of unconsciousness.

It is rational to ask: “How does man achieve knowledge?” It is not rational to ask: “Can man achieve knowledge?”—because the ability to ask the question presupposes a knowledge of man and of the nature of knowledge. It is rational to ask: “What exists?” It is not rational to ask: “Does anything exist?”—because the first thing one would have to evade is the existence of the question and of being who is there to ask it. It is rational to ask: “How do the senses enable man to perceive reality?” It is not rational to ask: “Do the senses enable man to perceive reality?”—because if they do not, by what means did the speaker acquire his knowledge of the senses, of perception, of man and of reality?

One of the most grotesque instances of the stolen concept fallacy may be observed in the prevalent claim—made by neo-mystics and old-fashioned mystics alike—that the acceptance of reason rests ultimately on “an act of faith.”

Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses. Faith is the acceptance of ideas or allegations without sensory evidence or rational demonstration. “Faith in reason” is a contradiction in terms. “Faith” is a concept that possesses meaning only in contradistinction to reason. The concept of “faith” cannot antecede reason, it cannot provide the grounds for the acceptance of reason—it is the revolt against reason.

One will search in vain for a single instance of an attack on reason, on the senses, on the ontological status of the laws of logic, on the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind, that does not rest on the fallacy of the stolen concept.

The fallacy consists of the act of using a concept while ignoring, contradicting or denying the validity of the concepts on which it logically and genetically depends.

This fallacy must be recognized and repudiated by all thinkers, if truth and reality are their goal.

In the absence of such recognition and repudiation, the gates are left open to the most lethal form of mysticism—the mysticism that postures as “science.”

Who are the neo-mystics’ victims?

Any college student who enrolls in philosophy courses, eagerly seeking a rational, comprehensive view of man and existence—and who is led to surrender the conviction that his mind can have any efficacy whatever; or who, at best, gives up philosophy in disgust and contempt, concludes that it is a con game for pretentious intellectual role-players, and thus accepts the tragically mistaken belief that philosophy is of no practical importance to man’s life on earth.

It's heart-wrenching that (presumably) thinking, discerning, perceptive members of the Homo Sapiens species can still fall prey to such gargantuan mistakes. But it is to be expected from people who tend to see everythig revolving around themselves and their petty, infantile, ridiculous mythological fantasies. Although I am not fond of Atlas Shrugged, some of the concepts are stated well...

11 October 2009

Pole Dancing - The Next Olympic Sport

Today, I just had a good time on Facebook (despite all the errors it kept generating) looking at awesome videos of scantily clad women performing acts of incredibly athleticism, artistry, and good ol' sex appeal. So, today, I give you some different Pole Dancing videos.

Now, never let it be said that this isn't a dangerous competition!

Or even hilariously dangerous!

Sit back, grab a pile of dollar bills, and be prepared to laugh and be amazed.

06 October 2009

God loves abortions!

So I just came accross this article where the "right to lifers" want to define a person at conception. Now, I'm not going to get into the debate about medical abortion itself, mostly because I am a man, and probably am not the most qualified person in the world to talk about it. Also, it's a subject that has been beaten to death.

Instead, I want to point out the incredibly flawed logic that these people are using. By trying to define a person at conception, they are (by their own defenition) condemning up to 70% of all souls that ever come into existence to purgatory (or hell depending on what flavour of the 38,000 different sects of christianity they adhere to). Up to 70% you say? Yep:
It is estimated that up to half of all fertilized eggs die and are lost (aborted) spontaneously, usually before the woman knows she is pregnant. Among those women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is about 15-20%. Most miscarriages occur during the first 7 weeks of pregnancy.
Now, to a rational person, this is how evolution deals with the whole tricky process of assembling a human being. Evolutionarially it's really a way to prevent gross malformations, and an endless parade of suffering. The first up to 50% of miscarriages are caused by chromosome problems that make it impossible for the baby to develop. Usually, these problems are unrelated to the mother or father's genes. The remaining 15-20% are caused by things such as hormone problems, infection, physical problems with the mother's reproductive organs, problems with the body's immune response, or serious body-wide diseases in the mother (such as uncontrolled diabetes) . Like I quipped, assembling another human being is tricky business, and evolution has developed these neat little tricks to keep the ones that are alive and functioning from prematurely expiring too often (and then we help with our medical technology).

Of course, to the vast majority of these people, evolution doesn't exist, everything is boiled down to "goddidit". In their worldview, since evolution doesn't exist, what causes up to 70% of all souls that are created to spontaniously abort? Well? I mean, smart people know about biology, genes, chromosones, hormones, and all that sciency stuff, but these people view the world through the lens of the supernatural. Since they can't really attribute something that is naturally spontaneous, it must be supernaturally spontaneous, i.e. god(s). They may argue that another supernatural entity is responsible (satan, santa, evil spirits, whatever), but then wouldn't the supposed good entity not imbue the soul until the other ones are through with their mischief? The good one is supposely omnipotent, omnicient, and omnibenevolent. Should be an easy solution there. But then, these fundamentalists who want to take away women's reproductive rights and domain over their own bodies are going to define a person at conception, thus pre-emting their god. Or, endorsing the wholesale condemnation of souls... I wonder what the Dope (I mean Pope, transposing a p and d is so easy) would say on the subject?

I would like to point out that the rights of women is an entirelly different discussion, and Austin Cline handles that one admirably.

Imagine that, still a fake

The "Shroud of Turin" has now been reproduced using medieval techniques. I guess this was required because the 1988 carbon dating tests produced an age that put the shroud as coming from the late 1200s to early 1300s, not over 2000 years ago (Honestly, would there have been any arguments if the pre-determined conclusion had actually been arrived at?). Lots of lame excuses were brought up in regards to that test, one being that no one could possibly have made this miraculous piece of dirty cloth. Well, it looks like it wasn't that hard after all, we just hadn't set anyone to the task really that had the requisite knowledge and skills. Much like a master mason can build a beautiful structure that would be impossible for someone without the skills to make.

The believers won't be disuaded though... That's the thing about kooks and rubes, all that pesky verifiable evidence means nothing to them. They'd rather live with their delusions than subscribe to reality. The funny thing is that from the start, even the church thought it was a fake (and the current church still doesn't call it a relic, although a proclamation by the pope a dope could make it so, much like the virgin ascending to heaven wasn't official doctrine until 1950). And the fact that the carbon dating lines up well with when the shroud first turned up isn't at all damning to these folks.
The Shroud first showed up around 1355 to 1357 under suspicious circumstances and was being used as part of a faith-healing scam. We know this from a later Bishop's report dated 1389 to Pope Clement. The Bishop says that people were being hired to pretend they were sick, and when the Shroud was revealed to them, they would pretend they were cured. So as he put it "they cunningly robbed the pockets of the unsuspecting," and eventually the matter was hushed up, and eventually the Shroud surfaced again. The Bishop tried to put an end to it; people wouldn't listen to him. He appeals to Pope Clement; Pope Clement hears the matter and adjudicates it; he determines the Shroud is just a representation and not the True Shroud. The fact of the matter is that the Bishop's predecessor had actually found the artist and he had confessed. Now, they don't give his name, and of course the pro-Shroud people like to just dismiss this as hearsay, but the fact of its artistry is supported, as we will see, on many fronts. Not only by the lack of history up to that time [the mid-13th century].
Heck, there is even a whole book on it.

I only post this, because it amuses me to think of how many people really are deluded in this and have yet one more item chipped away by reality. Eventually, they may come to realize that pretty much the entire idea of gods, religions, worship, etc. are silly fakes meant to rob them of their money, intellect, and self-determination. Although I think that may be hoping for too much. If it's not religion, it's some other equally ludirous idea that will plant itself into their heads. I guess humans still have quite a ways to go before we can be considered truly intelligent beings.

When skeptics fight back

I found this on the internet (through the stalking of Dr Phil Plait, not that it matters). This is a BBC write up about the TAM (The Amazing Meeting) in London. Those lucky droogs are getting to have a lot of fun over there. I'm sure Dr. Plait will have them highly entertained, and hopefully the UK government will stop funding homeopathy and other such nonsense.
Conspiracy theorists have used the internet to co-ordinate increasingly slick attacks on the accepted versions of events, but now a group of scientists and sceptics has decided it's time to organise and fight back.

Conspiracy theories are pervasive and popular.

A poll for the Scripps Howard media organisation in 2006 suggested 36% of Americans suspected government involvement or deliberate inaction in the 9/11 attacks, and belief in a Kennedy conspiracy ran at 40% in the same poll.

A decade after Princess Diana's death, one survey found a fifth of Britons believed she was murdered. And to millions across the world, 2009's Apollo Moon landing 40th anniversary was a hollow sham because we have never been there.

Conspiracy theories predate the internet but the web has provided a fast, accessible platform for groups to unite, gather research and disseminate information without even meeting or leaving their houses.

While many people find harmless fun, others believe there is a darker truth - that conspiracy theories are rewriting history, warping the present and altering the future. Enough is enough they say - it's time to fight back.

Isolated sceptics

Enter the sceptics with the gathering of The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in London, the first of the conferences outside the US. A fundraising offshoot of the non-profit James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), TAM London saw scientists, writers and comedians target conspiracy theories - and their close cousins pseudoscience and medical quackery - in front of an audience loosely allied by their desire for more rational, critical thinking.

"A lot of sceptics feel very isolated," says psychologist and magician Prof Richard Wiseman. "It's not a popular position to be saying 'Father Christmas does not exist' so it motivates people and acts as a springboard for people to see what we're up to."

This brand of scepticism is not new. The movement was first galvanised in the early 80s when spoon-benders like Uri Geller claimed not to be magicians, but to really have paranormal powers. It was an age that saw a test of Geller's abilities make its way into the prestigious journal Nature.

The internet era has changed everything. The web-only film Loose Change, which questions the findings of the 9/11 commission, had already been viewed 10 million times by May 2006. It has had a massive impact. But the sceptics are also using the internet to organise loose networks of informal meetings.

However, using the same medium to fight back is not easy, as British investigative journalist Jon Ronson found when he posted on the British 9/11 Truth Campaign website. Abused and ridiculed, his integrity was questioned because he is Jewish. "When I found myself being attacked by 9/11 conspiracy theorists I found the sceptical community very supportive," says Ronson. "When believers turn on you it is horrible. I've stopped engaging with them because it's like prodding a snake."

Ronson has spent a lifetime lifting the lid on the unusual. He is about to come to greater prominence after being portrayed by Ewan McGregor in the upcoming film, The Men who Stare at Goats, also starring George Clooney. Ronson's book of the same name revealed that the US operated a secret army of psychic spies in the 1970s and 80s.

But the sceptics movement is not just about tackling conspiracy theorists who spread their message by independent means on the internet, there is also a drive to tackle bad reporting of science in the mainstream media.

Direct access

Dr Ben Goldacre's Bad Science website has served as a conduit for those who want to help counter the ceaseless torrent of articles pushed out by snake oil sellers, lazy journalists and badly behaved editors. He has been the leading critic of the media's treatment of the MMR scare.

His solution is to bypass conventional routes to the public. "Mainstream media has repeatedly shown itself to be worse than useless in reporting science and health in many, many fields," says Goldacre. "Scientists should communicate directly with the public via blogs."

These sceptics can garner a good deal of public support. David Aaronovitch has given popular talks to accompany his anti-conspiracy theory book, Voodoo Histories. Goldacre speaks at contemporary music festivals.

And TAM London's 600 seats - at £175 a pop - were snapped up in 52 minutes - despite sceptics' high priest James Randi not attending due to ill health. Instead, Randi addressed an enraptured audience via video link like a general before battle, telling delegates that "it wasn't easy to get people out of beliefs in the woo-woo world".

Randi's foundation was established in 1996 to help debunk paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, but his Paranormal Challenge prize dates back to 1964 when the sceptic offered $1,000 to anyone who could prove the paranormal was real. Donations swelled the booty to more than a million dollars, but no applicants have passed the preliminary test.

The energy at events like TAM London is tangible, but are sceptics just preaching to the choir and can their success be measured?

JREF president Dr Phil Plait cites the myth that an egg laid on the first day of spring will stand on one end. Plait says that 10 years ago half of his audience had heard of the story - now that figure is less than 10%, which he says is down to using the web to disseminate articles that prove the claim is nonsense. "Legends do die," he says.

Then there is the image or branding problem. Not all delegates like the term "sceptic" because it has negative, "anti" connotations, similar to the way atheists are defined by something they don't believe in.

As a result, some delegates prefer to call themselves rationalists, free-thinkers or Brights. "Out there in the audience is the next generation of bloggers and media professionals," Plait says.

But even if the word is spread, will conspiracy theory believers ever listen?

Adam Savage, presenter of the television programme Mythbusters, which uses science to challenge urban legends, is not overly optimistic. He says he doesn't know of any conversions following his Emmy-nominated programme that tested Moon hoax theories.

"They want to believe desperately that someone is in charge," he says. "Even if it is someone who is working against us."
Sadly, I am convinced that the total lack of critical thinking will only have people actually believing in the truth (as opposed to these wacko conspiracy theories) because the skeptics actually got organized. The lack of any synaptic activity from the majority of the population just makes me wonder as to the future of this species.

05 October 2009

Good And Bad Reasons For Believing

I wanted to put up a letter that Richard Dawkins wrote to his daughter when she was ten. I had a similar discussion wth my daughter a couple years ago. I hadn't seen this letter up until now, and I thought it was worthwhile to share it, just because it's valuable to plant the seed of critical thinking. (Emphasis mine.)
Dear Juliet,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are very far away? And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun?

The answer to these questions is "evidence." Sometimes evidence means actually seeing ( or hearing, feeling, smelling..... ) that something is true. Astronauts have travelled far enough from earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The "evening star" looks like a bright twinkle in the sky, but with a telescope, you can see that it is a beautiful ball - the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing ( or hearing or feeling..... ) is called an observation.

Often, evidence isn't just an observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there's been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the victim!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots or other observations which may all point toward a particular suspect. If a person's fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn't prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it's joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realise that they fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

Scientists - the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe - often work like detectives. They make a guess ( called a hypothesis ) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: If that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveller, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started.When a doctor says that you have the measles, he doesn't take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: If she has measles I ought to see...... Then he runs through the list of predictions and tests them with his eyes ( have you got spots? ); hands ( is your forehead hot? ); and ears ( does your chest wheeze in a measly way? ). Only then does he make his decision and say, " I diagnose that the child has measles. " Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-Rays, which help their eyes, hands, and ears to make observations.

The way scientists use evidence to learn about the world is much cleverer and more complicated than I can say in a short letter. But now I want to move on from evidence, which is a good reason for believing something , and warn you against three bad reasons for believing anything. They are called "tradition," "authority," and "revelation."

First, tradition. A few months ago, I went on television to have a discussion with about fifty children. These children were invited because they had been brought up in lots of different religions. Some had been brought up as Christians, others as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs. The man with the microphone went from child to child, asking them what they believed. What they said shows up exactly what I mean by "tradition." Their beliefs turned out to have no connection with evidence. They just trotted out the beliefs of their parents and grandparents which, in turn, were not based upon evidence either. They said things like: "We Hindus believe so and so"; "We Muslims believe such and such"; "We Christians believe something else."

Of course, since they all believed different things, they couldn't all be right. The man with the microphone seemed to think this quite right and proper, and he didn't even try to get them to argue out their differences with each other. But that isn't the point I want to make for the moment. I simply want to ask where their beliefs come from. They came from tradition. Tradition means beliefs handed down from grandparent to parent to child, and so on. Or from books handed down through the centuries. Traditional beliefs often start from almost nothing; perhaps somebody just makes them up originally, like the stories about Thor and Zeus. But after they've been handed down over some centuries, the mere fact that they are so old makes them seem special. People believe things simply because people have believed the same thing over the centuries. That's tradition.

The trouble with tradition is that, no matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was. If you make up a story that isn't true, handing it down over a number of centuries doesn't make it any truer!

Most people in England have been baptised into the Church of England, but this is only one of the branches of the Christian religion. There are other branches such as Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Methodist churches. They all believe different things. The Jewish religion and the Muslim religion are a bit more different still; and there are different kinds of Jews and of Muslims. People who believe even slightly different things from each other go to war over their disagreements. So you might think that they must have some pretty good reasons - evidence - for believing what they believe. But actually, their different beliefs are entirely due to different traditions.

Let's talk about one particular tradition. Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was so special that she didn't die but was lifted bodily in to Heaven. Other Christian traditions disagree, saying that Mary did die like anybody else. These other religions don't talk about much and, unlike Roman Catholics, they don't call her the "Queen of Heaven." The tradition that Mary's body was lifted into Heaven is not an old one. The bible says nothing on how she died; in fact, the poor woman is scarcely mentioned in the Bible at all. The belief that her body was lifted into Heaven wasn't invented until about six centuries after Jesus' time. At first, it was just made up, in the same way as any story like "Snow White" was made up. But, over the centuries, it grew into a tradition and people started to take it seriously simply because the story had been handed down over so many generations. The older the tradition became, the more people took it seriously. It finally was written down as and official Roman Catholic belief only very recently, in 1950, when I was the age you are now. But the story was no more true in 1950 than it was when it was first invented six hundred years after Mary's death.

I'll come back to tradition at the end of my letter, and look at it in another way. But first, I must deal with the two other bad reasons for believing in anything: authority and revelation.

Authority, as a reason for believing something, means believing in it because you are told to believe it by somebody important. In the Roman Catholic Church, the pope is the most important person, and people believe he must be right just because he is the pope. In one branch of the Muslim religion, the important people are the old men with beards called ayatollahs. Lots of Muslims in this country are prepared to commit murder, purely because the ayatollahs in a faraway country tell them to.

When I say that it was only in 1950 that Roman Catholics were finally told that they had to believe that Mary's body shot off to Heaven, what I mean is that in 1950, the pope told people that they had to believe it. That was it. The pope said it was true, so it had to be true! Now, probably some of the things that that pope said in his life were true and some were not true. There is no good reason why, just because he was the pope, you should believe everything he said any more than you believe everything that other people say. The present pope ( 1995 ) has ordered his followers not to limit the number of babies they have. If people follow this authority as slavishly as he would wish, the results could be terrible famines, diseases, and wars, caused by overcrowding.

Of course, even in science, sometimes we haven't seen the evidence ourselves and we have to take somebody else's word for it. I haven't, with my own eyes, seen the evidence that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Instead, I believe books that tell me the speed of light. This looks like "authority." But actually, it is much better than authority, because the people who wrote the books have seen the evidence and anyone is free to look carefully at the evidence whenever they want. That is very comforting. But not even the priests claim that there is any evidence for their story about Mary's body zooming off to Heaven.

The third kind of bad reason for believing anything is called "revelation." If you had asked the pope in 1950 how he knew that Mary's body disappeared into Heaven, he would probably have said that it had been "revealed" to him. He shut himself in his room and prayed for guidance. He thought and thought, all by himself, and he became more and more sure inside himself. When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling "revelation." It isn't only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their main reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?

Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You'd be very upset, and you'd probably say, "Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?" Now suppose I answered: "I don't actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have a funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead." You'd be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you'd know that an inside "feeling" on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don't. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped; or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise, you' d never be confident of things like "My wife loves me." But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little titbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn't a purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong. There are people with a strong inside feeling that a famous film star loves them, when really the film star hasn't even met them. People like that are ill in their minds. Inside feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can't trust them.

Inside feelings are valuable in science, too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a "hunch'" about an idea that just "feels" right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

I promised that I'd come back to tradition, and look at it in another way. I want to try to explain why tradition is so important to us. All animals are built (by the process called evolution) to survive in the normal place in which their kind live. Lions are built to be good at surviving on the plains of Africa. Crayfish to be good at surviving in fresh, water, while lobsters are built to be good at surviving in the salt sea. People are animals, too, and we are built to be good at surviving in a world full of ..... other people. Most of us don't hunt for our own food like lions or lobsters; we buy it from other people who have bought it from yet other people. We ''swim'' through a "sea of people." Just as a fish needs gills to survive in water, people need brains that make them able to deal with other people. Just as the sea is full of salt water, the sea of people is full of difficult things to learn. Like language.

You speak English, but your friend Ann-Kathrin speaks German. You each speak the language that fits you to '`swim about" in your own separate "people sea." Language is passed down by tradition. There is no other way . In England, Pepe is a dog. In Germany he is ein Hund. Neither of these words is more correct, or more true than the other. Both are simply handed down. In order to be good at "swimming about in their people sea," children have to learn the language of their own country, and lots of other things about their own people; and this means that they have to absorb, like blotting paper, an enormous amount of traditional information. (Remember that traditional information just means things that are handed down from grandparents to parents to children.) The child's brain has to be a sucker for traditional information. And the child can't be expected to sort out good and useful traditional information, like the words of a language, from bad or silly traditional information, like believing in witches and devils and ever-living virgins.

It's a pity, but it can't help being the case, that because children have to be suckers for traditional information, they are likely to believe anything the grown-ups tell them, whether true or false, right or wrong. Lots of what the grown-ups tell them is true and based on evidence, or at least sensible. But if some of it is false, silly, or even wicked, there is nothing to stop the children believing that, too. Now, when the children grow up, what do they do? Well, of course, they tell it to the next generation of children. So, once something gets itself strongly believed - even if it is completely untrue and there never was any reason to believe it in the first place - it can go on forever.

Could this be what has happened with religions ? Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood - not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence. Yet millions of people believe them. Perhaps this because they were told to believe them when they were told to believe them when they were young enough to believe anything.

Millions of other people believe quite different things, because they were told different things when they were children. Muslim children are told different things from Christian children, and both grow up utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. Even within Christians, Roman Catholics believe different things from Church of England people or Episcopalians, Shakers or Quakers , Mormons or Holy Rollers, and are all utterly covinced that they are right and the others are wrong. They believe different things for exactly the same kind of reason as you speak English and Ann-Kathrin speaks German. Both languages are, in their own country, the right language to speak. But it can't be true that different religions are right in their own countries, because different religions claim that opposite things are true. Mary can't be alive in Catholic Southern Ireland but dead in Protestant Northern Ireland.

What can we do about all this ? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: "Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority, or revelation?" And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: "What kind of evidence is there for that?" And if they can't give you a good answer, I hope you'll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving

RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist; reader in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University; fellow of New College. He began his research career in the 1960s as a research student with Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nico Tinbergen, and ever since then, his work has largely been concerned with the evolution of behavior. Since 1976, when his first book, The Selfish Gene, encapsulated both the substance and the spirit of what is now called the sociobiological revolution, he has become widely known, both for the originality of his ideas and for the clarity and elegance with which he expounds them. A subsequent book, The Extended Phenotype, and a number of television programs, have extended the notion of the gene as the unit of selection, and have applied it to biological examples as various as the relationship between hosts and parasites and the evolution of cooperation. His following book, The Blind Watchmaker, is widely read, widely quoted, and one of the truly influential intellectual works of our time. He is also author of the recently published River Out of Eden.

The last paragraph is really what's important I think. How often do people ever ask that? I would bet not very often at all. Pretty much everyone goes through life on tradition, authority, and revelation. While on some ideas (such as language) it may not be detrimental, but sadly too many peole only use those ways of understanding the world around them.

Press 1 for English

A lot of people have ranted about the whole "Press 1 for English" thing, so I'm actually going to skip that. Suffice it to say that it doesn't really bother me that much, although I wish it would be just the default setting, and you didn't have to press anything.

Today I think I found the most stupid customer service do loop ever. I was attempting to update my address and phone number with American Express. I went to their website to do all that online. Sadly, the password I had made there wasn't the one that I thought it was. At first I thought I had just fat fingered it, so I retried immediately. When it was wrong the second time, I went with the other one that I thought it was (all strong passwords, with Upper Case, lower case, numbers, AND special characters). At this point the site told me that I had locked myself out. Oops! Oh well, I'll call. So I call the Toll Free numer, enter my card number, and it then proceeds to tell me that I am not calling from a number on my profile... Hello!? That's what I am calling to change! I hit 0 repeatedly trying to get to a human being, and the fucking machine hangs up on me!

Grr... Okay, I go back to the website. I start looking for a phone number to call that will get me to a human being. Ah, found one! So I call that. I manage to get a human being after a few minutes of button mashing and saying "representative" to the computer a few times. Ugh, why can't you just punch 0 or * just once and get direct to the hold line for a human being? Hell, I'd even accept a three or four digit secret code to get direct to a human. But I digress.

The representative is kind and helpful and gets my contact information updated. I am still locked out though, and I would like to administer my account online, so I ask him to reset the password. He says that he can't do that, but I can use the online tool for getting my password. This is where it gets BRILLIANT! So I put in my online ID, click the "Forgot Password" link. I enter the card number again, and click "Forgot Password" again. At this point it is going to try to verify my identity. Here is where you'd get one of those security questions, right? No, it is asking me for (get this) MY FUCKING PASSWORD! Why would it ask for my password if I clicked a link for "Forgot Password"? That has got to be right up there with "Please email us if you are unable to connect to the internet" type of moronic stupidity!

After about a dozen bouts of "Please hold sir" and the poor customer service representative checking with his IT or supervisor, I finally get it reset so I can go in and change it. Now get this... American Express doesn't allow passwords to be anything outside 6 to 8 characters, and doesn't allow for special characters! Only Upper Case, Lower Case, and numbers. All my 12+ character STRONG asswords that I have at my disposal were no good on this site! I guess they are just begging to be hacked if they have such simple passwords.

Sorry, just had to rant! How about you, any stories to tell about such rampant fucktardery?