“Value-added facts” (Morality and religion)

SECVALDES

Last fall, I addressed the assertion that one needs religion to be moral. In that post, I focused on the views of Dennis Prager and Frank Turek, but they have many teammates on their God Squad with similar positions.

TV host Steve Harvey veers sharply from his congenial nature when the topic of atheism is broached. While it’s not the nastiest thing he has said about them, Harvey insists atheists have no place from which to draw their morals.

Then earlier this month, the prolific conservative Catholic blogger Matt Walsh launched this strawman at nonbelievers: They feel life is “objectively meaningless,” they are without a moral code, and their “only logical position is moral relativism.”

A column for The Washington Post by sociology professor Phil Zuckerman challenged those notions. Zuckerman cited the studies of USC gerontology and sociology professor Vern Bengtson, who for four decades has conducted the Longitudinal Study of Generations, the most thorough study of religion and family life in U.S. history. He has said, “Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic, and rudderless, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children. The vast majority of nonreligious parents appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”

Bengtson has more secular families to choose from than when his study began. The number of persons raised in such households has tripled in that time. According to the Post, 23 percent of U.S. adults say they have no religion, a number that creeps up to 30 percent in the 18-to-29 demographic.

This underscores the principle that you have to get them while they’re young. A person raised in a religious home may try another denomination or may not place as much emphasis on rituals and worship attendance as their parents did, but they are unlikely to forsake the faith altogether. Likewise, adult converts from atheism to religion are rare. Similarly, a person raised Hindu is extremely unlikely to start practicing Shinto, while few lifelong Muslims will eschew Islam to embrace Wicca.

While Walsh and Harvey insist religion in necessary for morality, countries with the lowest religious rates also have the lowest crime rates, i.e. Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Belgium, and New Zealand. The lack of religion may not be the reason for the low crime, but it does throw a theological monkey wrench into Walsh’s and Harvey’s assertion that a lack of spiritual beliefs leads to calamity.

Bengtson also noted that many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate when outlining their ethical principles compared to their religious counterparts. I think that’s because they are required to justify their beliefs. For Harvey, it is wrong for a woman to speak in church because a First Century religious figure wrote as much in an epistle to parishioners. There is no need to further consider the issue or to entertain competing notions. By contrast, a secular person may think it over and look to the writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Nellie Bly, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Susan B. Anthony when deciding whether both sexes should be allowed to have their opinions known.

Of course, a secular individual could have a moral compass that is stellar, compromised, or deplorable. There would never be one set of secular values just like there would never be one set of guidelines for religion, a specific religion, a denomination, or one church within that denomination. There are so many ways to interpret the same text and so many texts to choose from that seven billion people will never come to the same conclusion about what the rules are.

But Bengtson and Zimmerman have found that nonreligious families generally emphasize rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independent thought, continual questioning, and the bypassing of corporal punishment. In my household, the focus is on honesty, responsibility, teamwork, equal rights, being well-rounded, and consideration of others.  

Such tenets might be consistent with religion – the 10th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita encourages honesty. Or they may reject religion – the 33rd chapter of the Koran endorses slavery. But whether an idea is promulgated in a religious text will have no bearing on whether I promote it. Religious dictates are not necessarily good or bad, but if the idea is sound, I teach it to my children. The Golden Rule appears in many religions but following it requires no belief in the supernatural, an afterlife, or the miraculous.

If one does ply their children with religious instruction, I recommend augmenting it with secular values. That’s because the offspring will be inclined to keep the latter no matter where their spiritual quest leads. But if their morality is connected to a god and they end up questioning that deity’s existence, does the morality go with it? Would it now be OK to steal since they have rejected the 10 Commandments? Not if a secular version has been taught as well. At the same time, if my children end up adopting religious beliefs, they can still keep the secular morals I’m imbuing in them.

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“The Young and the Feckless” (Neanderthal lineage)

HAMSU

About one in 500 persons of non-African descent have traces of Neanderthal DNA. Today we will look at how these persons’ deep ancestors are viewed by three groups: Young Earth Creationists, Old Earth Creationists, and Old Earth Anthropologists (perhaps a redundant phrase).

The first group maintains that Neanderthals were descended from Noah. For a YEC, everything has to be crammed into a self-imposed 5,000-year timeline. They “deal” with discomfiting evidence for the age of the universe, such as radioactive dating, lake varves, and seeing starlight from millions of light years away by saying that maybe physics and chemistry worked different before – that maybe radioactive isotopes decayed at a different rate than has ever been observed, that maybe lake varves were formed at several million layers per year instead of one annually that scientists have consistently noted, and that maybe God created starlight already in transit.

They back these notions with precisely zero evidence or hypothetical mechanisms for how any of this would be accomplished. Neanderthals went extinct about 50,000 years ago, which is about how old a bone could be and still be reliably tested through carbon-14 dating. Yet Answers in Genesis has yet to produce a bone from a 5,000-year-old Neanderthal sample that would add credence to its position. Similarly, they offer no evidence or reasonable avenue for how this large, widespread population disappeared just a few thousand years ago without leaving any trace of themselves, their fire pits, clothes, accoutrements, tools, weapons, artwork, migrations, or habitat.

AIG declares Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis, Nadeli, and Densiovans to be related species and descended from Noah. But this would require that these diverse populations emerged from the same couple and became markedly distinct from each other in a thousand years, which is much faster than how evolution works.

They try and tie this to the Tower of Babel, saying the confused languages may have resulted in disparate species of human. But people going their separate ways wouldn’t lead to their descendants being drastically different within 40 generations. AIG insists the Bible is the absolute truth, which is why they resort to shoehorning attempts like the wild speculation with Babel. If they feel insufficiently creative, they fall back on their mission statement that, “No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record.”

It is always science that comes up with the idea first. The Genesis author did not describe various types of humans, which anthropologists later confirmed. Science discovered the fossils and found the ways to date them and in none of these digs and research did they find evidence that the first humans were zapped into existence 5,000 years ago.

Modern humans and Neanderthals share a common ancestor, but the two populations splintered and became distinct as mutations increased, creating DNA differences between the two. AIG more or less accepts this, but insists it took place not over 500,000 years, but over 500, a period much too short. It would be like persons today being markedly different in appearance than what they were in Christopher Columbus’ time.  

Jim Foley at Panda’s Thumb explained, “There is enough genetic diversity among modern humans that it is almost impossible for it to have arisen in the last 10,000 years at measured mutation rates. For example, the common ancestor of all human mitochondrial DNA sequences is estimated to have lived about 200,000 years ago.”

And that’s just us. If you toss Neanderthals in the mix, that’s thrice as much genetic diversity to account for in less than half the time. Also, human-Neanderthal interbreeding was rare, which would be unlikely if the populations were expanding at the rate AIG asserts.

Since the YEC position holds that Neanderthals were human, they are OK with the concept of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens breeding, which science shows likely happened in limited instances.

While Old Earth Creationists likewise accept the evidence that this happened, they view the occurrence to be a sin, specifically bestiality since they consider Neanderthals to be a separate species from humans. One OEC organization, Reasons to Believe, maintains that human-Neanderthal sex represents mankind’s debauchery after the Tower of Babel and was among the reasons God slaughtered most of his creation, advanced apes included.

A century ago, OECs were the great majority of Christians, but they have been supplanted by AIG, the Institute for Creation Research, and most Southern Baptist flocks. These groups insist on a literal reading of Genesis 1 and permit no creative interpretations, such as there perhaps being a billion years between that chapter’s first and second verses, or deducing that a translation error took the Hebrew term for “long period” and made it “day.”

As such, OECs have far fewer conflicts with science than do YECs, though their central assertion that humans were supernaturally created in their present form 50,000 years ago has no basis in evidence, and they reject any evidence of man having evolved. Further, they are still subject to the god of the gaps fallacy and they consider any slight difference from modern humans in an unearthed fossil to be proof the fossil was a non-human. They trot that line out to deny the existence of any transitional hominin fossils.

Indeed, Reasons to Believe considers all non-Homo sapiens hominids, including Neanderthals, to be apes. If so, they are the most advanced simians ever, mastering the abilities to make tools, fashion loins, cook, hunt in packs, hold funerals, provide for the common defense, and achieving rudimentary language.  

OECs argue that the range of a few hundred thousand years when humans and Neanderthals split from a common ancestor is too wide to be reasonable. Foley responded, “Age estimates based on genetic differences are always fuzzy because of the probabilistic nature of mutations, not to mention that different genes might really have different divergence times, and that the Neanderthal genome is still imperfectly known.”

For those more interested in the scientific over the spiritual, differences between modern humans and Neanderthals include skull shape and size, Neanderthals being shorter and stockier with broader rib cages, wider pelvises, shorter spines, longer limbs, and a much more limited language. They are an extinct species or subspecies in the Homo genus.

Biologists Svante Paabo and Nicholas Matzke completed the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, which showed that breeding with humans occurred. One never sees Answers in Genesis or Reasons to Believe making these types of contributions to our understanding of the natural world. They merely react, embracing finds if they fit their predetermined conclusions and rejecting them if they don’t. Rejection is not due to their inability to replicate the findings or researching and reaching a different conclusion or having an issue over the collection methods. The evidence is rejected only because it is inconsistent with their interpretation of their favored Bible version. Even a Neanderthal would know that’s irrational.

“Life serial” (Near-death experiences)

LIGHT

Imagine heading toward a bright light, bathed in a warm peaceful glow, with past events floating through your wandering mind. Sounds like me heading out the front door for some fresh air during my drinking days.

But when experienced by those on the operating table or those being tended to by emergency medical technicians on the roadside, are these sensations caused by being near death or some other biological factor?

The former would suggest the possibility of an afterlife. Some persons have no doubt that such a cosmic destination awaits, but no amount of certainty in a conviction makes it so. A Muslim terrorist and hardcore atheist are equally certain what happens after death, but unshakeable belief has no bearing on the truth. So our goal today is to see if these experiences are explicable through what we know about anatomy & physiology and how the brain works.

Most attempts to study this issue have been tooth fairy science, where one tries to figure out specifics of a phenomenon before verifying that it exists. By necessity, these studies also favor anecdotes over data since there is no data to access. There is no scientific, testable, falsifiable evidence for post-mortem consciousness. There were even a few folks from those drinking days for whom evidence of pre-mortem brain activity seemed lacking.

While this is a difficult idea to research, an attempt was made by Dr. Penny Sartori. According to skeptic leader Brian Dunning, Satori put playing cards on top of operating room cabinets where they could be seen by a person from above but not by anyone who was laying back and being tended to by surgeons. There were 15 persons who had Near Death Experiences in the room, none of whom reported seeing the Queen of Hearts, Ace of Spades, or any lesser-known member of the deck.     

What they did report experiencing were NDE common features, such as becoming detached from the body, having one’s life flash before them, feeling a welcoming aurora, and, most ubiquitously, floating through a tunnel toward an embracing light. Some talked of seeing deceased loved ones or religious figures. Tellingly, the former looked how they did in old family photos, while the latter’s appearance matched how they are portrayed in artwork of the patient’s culture.

Conversely, there are also anecdotes about persons being overcome with terror or dread, and encountering monsters or demons. These tales are usually downplayed or completely ignored by most NDE proponents. They prefer these to be happy tales. Infrequently, there are religious fundamentalists who embrace these putative visions of hell since it bears out their holy book. But fundies in general do not seek confirmatory evidence outside the Bible. They dismiss the potential of alien life since it’s not mentioned in their scriptures, and the same reasoning causes them to dismiss the idea of a floating through a tunnel at life’s conclusion.  

While ecstasy, a life overview, beaming lights, and meeting with deceased persons have all been considered NDE hallmarks, Dunning writes that these also occur in persons whose brains experience high levels of carbon dioxide and/or decreased oxygen. He cited research in the journal Critical Care, which showed that more than 20 percent of heart attack patients who went into cardiac arrest and were resuscitated had high carbon dioxide levels, accompanied by these otherworldly experiences.

So were the visions and feelings caused by elevated CO2 levels or by their being nearly dead? Dunning wrote, “To find out which is the best correlation, we’d have to see whether an NDE can happen when one condition is present and the other is not.”

With that, he looked at research done on persons experiencing a loss of blood to the brain without risk of death. Such conditions were faced by fighter pilots placed in centrifuges in experiments to determine what happens under immense gravitational pressure. The pressure increased until the pilots lost consciousness, which happened once the brain began receiving insufficient blood. The pilots reported that while blacking out, they witnessed bright lights, floated through a tunnel, were detached from their body, and saw beautiful scenes, past events, and reconnected with departed loved ones, all while in a euphoric state. In short, it was an NDE’s carbon copy. That I can make such a dated reference shows that my own NDE may not be that far off.

The experiences of the cardiac arrest victims and fighter pilot trainees show that these phenomenon occur when the brain reaches a certain level of decreased oxygen and/or marked uptick in carbon dioxide. By contrast, NDEs are not experienced by persons barely clinging to life but whose brains have normal oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

This suggests the features occur because of temporary changes to the brain, not nearness to death. Additionally, Dunning wrote, “Some brain surgeries, most notably those for epilepsy, produce very high rates of NDE reports from patients whose lives were not in danger.”

Researchers have found other ways to produce NDE symptoms on those not moribund. Dr. Karl Jansen managed this by giving ketamine to volunteers. Also, Nature reported that when researchers gave subjects electrical stimulation to a certain part of the brain, the volunteers felt they could see themselves from above.

Finally, this week the BBC wrote of another possible explanation for some NDE occurrences. Specifically, the effects of the powerful psychedelic drug DMT causes patients to feel surrounded by a brilliant glow and to glimpse past experiences.

None of this proves there’s no life after death. It simply strong evidence that these experiences result from understood, temporary changes to brain chemistry and not from someone crossing over then being snatched back.

 

 

“Moon loon tune” (Lunar landing denial)


MOONLAND

The 50th anniversary of the moon landing will be in 2019, but don’t expect a golden year from those who insist it was a hoax. After 49+ years, this bunch still resorts to long-disproven scenarios, while summarily dismissing any discomfiting evidence.

As to why NASA would pretend to go to the moon, deniers have speculated it could have been seen as a Cold War victory, that it distracted from the Vietnam War, or that it would ensure the space administration would continue being funded. While those all might have been consequences of a successful moonshot, that’s separate from it being proof the whole thing was staged. Using this line of thinking is to commit the affirming the consequent fallacy.

Since a sizable majority think we went to the moon and most who feel otherwise are incapable of being persuaded, why blog about it? Primarily because there may be a 12-year-old who is hearing denier points and refutations to them for the first time. Scientific knowledge is always one generation from extinction. Plus, addressing these points is a rejoinder to those who claim skeptics and scientists are the truly closed-minded and are mindless sheep who instinctively swallow what we are fed.

After the Apollo and Gemini launches, early flat Earthers Samuel Shenton and Charles Johnson responded with launches of their own, in the form of charging they were fabrications. This included an evidence-free assertion that Arthur C. Clarke directed, wrote, and produced the moon-landing script. This was updated to become Stanley Kubrick in another narrative. The latter assertion was initially a parody of the Clarke claim, but has come to be interpreted as serious by some deniers. This is similar to how some flat Earth folks are coming to believe there is no Finland or Australia, ideas that were written as satirical criticisms of flat Earthers. However, fashioning a Poe against these types is nearly impossible because it will come to be taken as true by those without the mental acumen to realize they are being mocked.

The question deniers have most difficulty answering is why NASA would fake five  subsequent landings. The moving pieces that would have to be seamlessly assembled for one successful hoax would be astronomical, and each further attempt would run further risk of getting caught. The return trips were interpreted by deniers as attempts to continue the momentum, while the fact that we haven’t been back since 1972 or set up moon colonies are said to be proof it was staged. So return trips and a lack thereof are both considered evidence of a hoax by the conspiracy theorist.

According to Sketoid’s Brian Dunning, 400,000 persons worked on the moon mission. Yet, all were able to overcome the desire for wealth that an exposé might bring. None were overcome with guilt, none let something slip in an unguarded moment, none got drunk enough to say something, none made a deathbed confession. Dunning further noted that 3,500 journalists investigated, researched, reported, and observed every second of Apollo 11 and were unable to uncover anything suggesting it was a charade. To a conspiracy theorist, that means another 3,500 persons were in on it. To everyone else, it’s more solid evidence of the moon launch and landing being authentic.

Now let’s plow through some of the denier points. One of the more frequently-parroted is that persons attempting to leave Earth’s orbit would be fried by the Van Allen belts. This is an example of what Dr. Steven Novella means when he says pseudoscientists and alternative medics use science like a drunk uses a lamppost: For support, not illumination.

The radiation belts have been discovered, understood, and explained by science. Moon landing deniers, a subset of pseudoscientists, use this discovery to try and score a point for their side, whereas they generally have a jaded view of science. Religious flat Earther Philip Stallings insists the Van Allen belts are another name for the firmament God set in place in Genesis. However, never has a scientific explanation been replaced by a religious one. Scientists did not discover, define, and explain the Van Allen Belts, only to be supplanted by those penning Genesis. Those religious writers did not discover errors in the original Van Allen belt research, leading to our understanding of the firmament. Rather, Genesis authors came up with what their eyes and their very limited knowledge of the natural world permitted. A few millennium later, science learned the truth. Still, Stallings claims that we cannot penetrate the firmament, which he thinks is the Van Allen belt, or that if we could, it would not be survivable.

They key here is that astronauts traveled thorough the belts in a rocket, not in an extended stay hotel. They made it through this high-radiation zone in an hour, only one percent of the the time necessary to start experiencing radiation sickness.

Another argument deniers try to make is that a loud rocket motor would make it impossible to hear astronaut voices. However, viewers could hear the communication with NASA because where the astronauts were, there was no air and therefore no sound. Secondly, the microphones were inside insulating helmets.

A third point deniers raise is that photos of the Lunar Module on the surface are missing a blast crater that presumably should have resulted from its landing. Of this, Dunning wrote, “When the Lunar Module came in to land, it came in with horizontal velocity as the pilot searched for a place to land. Once he found one, he descended, throttled back, and a probe extending over a meter below the landing pads touched the ground and shut off the rocket motor. It was only a very brief moment that the rocket nozzle was actually directed at the landing site, and only at reduced power.”

A similar point is that the Lunar Module’s landing rocket would have blasted all the dust away from the area, so any footprints would have been obliterated. However, there is no air on the moon and no resulting shockwaves. The powerful flames and swirling smoke associated with rocket launches happen because exhaust is being pushed into the air. With no wind or air in the equation, there is no consequent explosion.

The one claim so hackneyed that almost everyone has heard is that the U.S. flag is flapping in a supposedly-nonexistent breeze. This was caused by two factors. First, the flag was folded for the moon trip and the seeming rustling is actually just the creasing that resulted. Second, the apparent movement only happens when an astronaut is adjusting the pole.

Still another denier objection centers on photos of an astronaut that feature another moonwalker’s reflection in his helmet visor. This is supposedly crucial because neither astronaut has a camera to his face. However, this is because astronaut cameras were affixed to their spacesuit. Keeping with camera points, deniers say film would have melted in the 250-degree weather. However, Apollo astronauts used cameras and film specifically made for and insulated against such temperature extremes.

There were other still objections raised by deniers that I handled during this blog’s nascent days if one wishes to read more.

For years, deniers challenged NASA to provide photos of landing sites with vehicles left behind. In 2009, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter provided just such proof. Two years later, the same craft produced clearer images. Like those who considered President Obama’s release of his long-term birth certificate to be MORE proof that he was Kenyan-born because of layers or the timing of the release or whatever, those who thought Armstrong and Aldrin never left orbit were even more convinced of this after the 2009 and 2011 images were made public. They were computer-generated or otherwise fabricated. They were not released in 1975 or 1985 because of technology limitations – not with satellites, but with PhotoShop. To a hardcore conspiracy theorist, any disproving evidence is part of the cover-up.

Besides these photos, a second key piece of evidence that the moon landing happened is the extensive monitoring of Apollo flights. Astronomers, academics, journalists, and excited amateurs all employed telescopes, radios, and radar to track the mission. This included enemies such as the Soviets. Observatories and hobbyists worldwide reported sightings of the Apollo spacecraft. Had the Apollo spacecraft remained in Earthly orbit, it would have been easy to spot even without a telescope.

Then there are the rocks brought back by astronauts. These rocks have been radiometrically dated as being nearly four and a half billion years old, more ancient than any naturally-occurring Earth rock. Dunning further noted, “The moon rocks have impact craters only a millimeter across, created by impacts from micrometeors traveling about 50,000 miles per hour. This is impossible on Earth because the atmosphere blocks them, and it can’t be faked because we don’t have anything that can accelerate small projectiles to that speed.”

What say you to all this, Philip Stallings? From his blog: “1969. That was the year you were told we went to the moon. Do you see anything suspicious about that number? Three 6’s.” I’m only seeing one six myself. Maybe the two nines got turned upside down when they hit the firmament.

 

 

 

“Hang a leftie” (Southpaw shaming)

trumpleft

In my early teens at church, some older youth were talking about a tabloid article which purported that all lefthanders were from outer space. This led the preacher’s southpaw son to say into the fountain pen he was holding, “They’ve discovered us, Master.”

Funny as that impromptu line was, it obscured the fact that being a lefthander in church just a few hundred years before that would have been no laughing matter. Just how long the church considers something evil will vary by sin. Gays and evolution have sat near the top of this Luciferian list for more than a century. Meanwhile, excoriations of Catholics and dancing have moved to the fringe of Christianity. And congregations who consider mixed fabrics and lefties to be Satanic spawn are virtually extinct.

While southpaws were traditionally reviled in most societies, there have been exceptions. Ancient Andeans thought lefthanders were bestowed with magical and healing properties. Also offering left-handed compliments were Greeks and Celts, the latter associating them with femininity and, therefore, the continuation of life. Jews and Christians likewise tied left-handedness to womanhood, but given the misogyny prevalent in those religions, adherents considered this a detrimental trait. Believers viewed lefties like they did their womenfolk: Inferior, weak, and destined for subservience.

In the book of Matthew, souls gather at check-in to see where their eternal reservations have been made and are told, “He shall say unto them on the left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” While the malefactors are tossed into a burning lake, Jesus sits at God’s right hand. With these images in mind, more than a few left hands were bruised by a nun’s ruler and it was common fairly deep into the 20th Century for schools to forcibly retrain lefthanders to use the correct side.

Christianity claimed no monopoly on this southpaw shaming. Even today, many Muslims and Hindus use their right hand for honorable tasks such as greeting friends, signing contracts, and accepting gifts. Meanwhile, the lowly left is reserved for actions considered unclean. These habits grew from sanitation issues. Since the right served as the dominant hand for 90 percent of the population, persons used it when eating, handling food, and interacting with others. The left hand, meanwhile, was used for hygienic activities. These customs were uniform with no consideration of an individual’s dominant hand so the left came to be considered unclean.

And these were minor annoyances compared to how other cultures dealt with left-handedness. Some 19th Century Zulu tribes scalded youngsters’ left hands so they would no longer be of use. Perpetrators of the Spanish Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials went one worse, sometimes executing persons for using the wrong hand.

Tired of religion having all the fun out in left field, pseudoscientists got in on the act. Downplaying the morally degenerate angle, they instead considered lefties to be a biological mistake. In the early 1900s, criminologist pioneer Cesare Lombroso offered precisely that take with writings that would make a Klansman proud. Switching the blame from Beelzebub to the brain, Lombroso insisted that “as man advances in civilization and culture, he shows an always greater right-sidedness as compared to…women and savage races.” Lombroso further associated left-handedness with the primitive and the barbaric, while considering right-handers to be civilized and peaceful.

Around the same time, a McClure’s article informed readers than southpaws were “more common among the lower strata, negroes, and savages.” If desiring a viewpoint even more, um, right wing, consider what Austrian physician and psychologist Wilhelm Stekel wrote in 1911: “The right-hand path always signifies the way to righteousness, the left-hand the path to crime. Thus the left may signify homosexuality, incest, and perversion, while the right signifies marriage.”

This bigotry faded over the next few decades, though it lingered in some quarters. In the 1970s, psychologist Theodore Blau was still calling left-handed children sinister, academically suspect, and prone to mental illness. And just three years ago, an Oklahoma preschool teacher forced a 4-year old southpaw to use his right hand. When pressed for an explanation, the teacher referenced a publication that branded lefthanders evil, unlucky, and sinister. She also made note of Satan’s supposed southpaw status.

One of the few nuggets of accuracy in all this is that nine out of 10 humans are left-handed. And this biological determination runs very deep. In a Discover article, retired University of Kansas anthropologist David Frayer discussed how he deduced that 1.8 million years ago, Neanderthals had the same 9-to-1 preference.

He observed a series of ridges on the outer surfaces of Neanderthals’ upper front teeth. As to how this indicated hand preference, the article explained: “One direction of diagonal marks, either from upper right to lower left or upper left to lower right, would dominate. Individuals working with tough, fibrous material could have held it between their teeth and one hand, then used an edged stone tool to saw off a small piece with the other hand.” These observations showed the 9-to-1 ratio.  

As to why it was happening even way back then, one theory holds that the brain’s hemispheres split tasks for purposes of efficiency and this division of labor included favoring the right hand for most manual activities. That would explain why most persons are right-handed, but what answer is there for the relative few who become lefties?

Neuropsychologist Chris McManus theorizes that lefties result from a mutation that began occurring around 60,000 years ago. This mutation does not precisely mandate left-handedness, but it cancels the bias for the right and gives those who inherit it a 50-50 chance of being left-handed. That clears up how a set of identical twins can include a righty and a lefty. And what McManus and Frayer have discovered likely explains why lefties are among us without needing to resort to demons, defects, or alien preacher children.

 

“Wishing for the end of the end times” (April 23 apocalypse)

THISNIB

It’s just about time for this year’s end of the world. On April 23, Earth will meet its demise, courtesy the rouge planet Nibiru. Sometimes going by the more sinister-sounding Planet X, Nibiru brings together two normally disparate groups: End-time Christians and those who prefer a more alien or deep space flavor to their ultimate mass extinction events.

These groups normally don’t get along, though the antagonism is mostly from the former camp, whose members consider the other bunch to be messing with demonic gateways akin to astrology, fortune telling, and Ouija Boards. The star searchers, meanwhile, are normally indifferent to the religious pronouncements of doom, although some occasionally use Biblical interpretations to bolster their case. Such persons are notionally religious and have undertaken a conversion of convenience because they can use one small aspect of a faith to support their cause.

For example, self-described Christian numerologist David Meade has interpreted upcoming celestial arrangements as a “sign exactly as depicted in the 12th chapter of Revelation. This is our time marker.” However, most Christians reject such definitive statements as, “The world will end on April 23,” because of Matthew 24:36. This verse declares of Earth’s final moments, “About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  Still, a  minority of Christians see it otherwise and will point to verses which suggest that discernment and signs in the skies make it possible to know when God is about to call them home.

The latest Nibiru cataclysm – there have been many – embraces the biblical apocalypse angle. An alleged alignment of planets on April 23 is said to be referenced by Revelation, which tells of a “great sign in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant, and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.”

With their being no reference there to Earth, April 23, or the destruction of every man, woman, child, dog, ladybug, and fern, how does one manage such an interpretation? Elizabeth Howell at space.com wrote that Nibiru believers think the verse references the second coming of Christ and the advent of the rapture.  

Hence, believers conclude that on that day, the sun and moon will be in the constellation Virgo, as will Jupiter. The latter is said to be a euphemism for Jesus, though this conclusion seems to be reached only because Jupiter will be in Virgo, not because there is any logical reason for our solar system’s largest planet to represent a Galilean Jewish religious leader.

In any event, Howell notes that celestial bodies will not be arranged the way doomsayers are expecting. “Jupiter is actually in Libra all day and night on April 23, while the moon is between Leo and Cancer,” she wrote. “The sun, out of view when Jupiter and the moon are in the sky, is by Pisces.”

While not occurring on April 23, the arrangement cited by believers does occur every 12 years, which would be a huge strike against the notion of it portending gloom and doom. This has led to an ad hoc rationalization that Nibiru represents the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and that its addition to the alignment will push us over the cataclysmic brim.

This planet, for which there is no evidence of existence, is touted by enthusiasts as a rocky giant in a massive, haphazard orbit, which will eventually bring about our destruction, though the dates and methods keep changing. In fact, if we all wake up on April 24, the Nibiru doomsayers already have a backup apocalypse in place, as they say it is on target to pass near Earth in October and unleash volcanic fury. I’m not much on guessing the future, but somehow I think I’ll be writing about that prediction again in early November.

 

“Think tanked” (New Thought)

GIANTBRAIN

The New Thought positon can be summed up as, “Believing something makes it so.” By that logic, since I believe that the New Thought movement is bonkers, it is. But let’s delve a little deeper.

Proponents do not believe that if I think that I am a cow, I am. Rather, they think that consistent and correct thinking regimens will lead a person to get what they want out of life, be it money, love, peace, or that extra-cushy recliner.

The movement’s central point is that our thoughts or beliefs determine our existence, especially in the  health realm. New Thought began in the 19th Century and, rare for the time, was primarily led by women. It had been founded, however, by a man, Phineas Quimby, in days when people were named Phineas Quimby.

He felt that that tapping into the power of the mind was how Jesus performed healing miracles attributed to him in the Gospels. While Quimby was unable to manage the instant fix that his savior did, he saw about 500 patients annually and explained to them that their condition or disease was something their minds could control. By combining low overhead with religious trappings, Quimby developed an ideal business model. Customers came in, emptied their pockets without getting a product or service in return, and left to recruit others.

One of Quimby’s disciples, Mary Beth Eddy, formed the Christian Scientists, who maintain a form of New Thought with their extreme faith in the power of prayer. Contrary to popular belief, Christian Scientists are free to seek medical care in limited circumstances, but the church holds that prayer is most effective when there’s no accompanying treatment. Using medicine is seen a demonstrable lack of faith and if the patient would only show more trust in God, he would heal them.

One of Eddy’s students, Emma Hopkins, took the New Thought movement national. Her contemporary, William Atkinson, attributed his recovery from mental, physical, and fiscal setbacks to the power of belief.

They and others in the movement downplayed creeds and rituals, and most departed from traditional Christianity by rejecting, or at least redefining, the notion of sin. They projected an optimistic view of human nature and felt that the divine could be found within all of us. This gave rise to the idea of a power being inside everyone, and this power could be harnessed to change one’s lot in life, including the vanquishing of mental and physical ailments.

Despite their iconoclastic views, they embraced the Bible when it fit their agenda, such as favoring Mark 11:24 (“Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”) These days, the Home of Truth follows the teachings of Hindu advisor Swami Vivekananda and the New Thought movement has some Buddhists in its ranks. Most adherents, however, are quasi-religious in nature and a few are even secular.

One secular example is Tony Robbins, who while not completely onboard with the movement, ascribes an unrealistic amount of potency to mental exercises, affirmations, and self-confidence. Another secular example was Norman Cousins, who treated his collagen disease with intravenous Vitamin C, comedy movies, and a peppy attitude. While he recovered, exactly how much his unorthodox treatment had to do with was never ascertained.

Among the quasi-religious, Deepak Chopra argues that quantum physics enables persons to seize control of all aspects of their lives through the right thinking process. Another quasi-religious version is touted by Esther Hicks, who highlights the Law of Attraction. This holds that humans can bring into their lives whatever they focus on, be it good or bad. Yet all NFL players concentrate on winning the Super Bowl, yet only one team does so. And lovelorn persons obsessively think about the object of their affection without that object ever coming around.

While there are various New Thought schools, most emphasize that something ubiquitous is in control of our lives and is ready to benefit us, if only our thoughts can access this mighty force. It may be described as a god, spirit, energy, or life force, but in any case, health, wealth, and other desirable outcomes are inevitable if we think about them the right way. Adherents believe they can determine their situation by willing a deity or mystical energy to do it for them. This can be attractive because it is free, painless, easy, and gives the practitioner a feeling of being in charge.

But while the power of positive thinking can help with attitude and performance, scientific tests of the power of belief to cure serious illnesses have been uniformly negative. Carol Tavris of Skeptic Magazine wrote that a research team catalogued 179 patients with lung cancer over eight years and found that optimism, pessimism, and neutrality all had no bearing on cures or long-term survival rates. Thinking that the techniques work results from post hoc reasoning, selective memory, and the Forer Effect. And since less-serious illnesses usually fluctuate, their eventual end is credited to finally getting the thought process right.

As far as thoughts helping one succeed in life, we hear stories about Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, or Mark Cuban, and the massive dreams they stayed with until fame and fortune resulted. In these tales, the figure’s positive outlook is referenced. But highlighting only these stories is to commit survivor bias. We never hear about the much more voluminous instances of dreamers who never wavered but also never achieved. The only benefit to their positive outlook was to feel more positive; it did not lead to the desired results.

Indeed, one of the philosophy’s problems is that it equates feeling empowered with being empowered. Another issue is that New Thought holds uncompromisingly negative views of doubt, fear, and worry, even though these are sometime necessary and, in the long-term, often beneficial. A seasoned employee, put on a 90-day probationary period, can use the consequent fear to work harder and become more efficient. A person with a potentially fatal diagnosis can use this fear to get their affairs in order, reconcile with those they’ve hurt or been hurt by, and reevaluate what matters in life. By contrast, a person convinced they can whip leukemia with good vibes and happy thoughts will do none of those things while also succumbing to the disease.

Other detriments of being overly optimistic can include unreasonable amounts of gambling and being unable to realistically analyze one’s financial picture, romantic relationships, or job prospects.

Most distressing is New Thought’s rejection of Germ Theory and our knowledge of how diseases and cures work. Members of Idaho’s Followers of Christ church consider pharmaceuticals to be satanic, while others think mental states are what cause disease. Believing that health and illness are determined by the amount of one’s faith and the fervency of one’s thoughts will lead that person to feel it’s their fault if the conditions stagnate.

And in the end, the strongest evidence against persons being able to control their health and lives by wishing for it is that adherents of such notions keep dying.