“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.

Advertisements

“Doctor and the clerics” (Alphabiotics)

BANGHEAD

Alternative medicine and religion are both areas I have addressed on this blog, the former being a much more frequent topic than the latter. The subjects would seem to have little in common, with a smattering of exceptions. For instance, there is Reiki, which could reasonably be considered a form of Japanese faith healing. And I have sporadically happened upon Christian fundamentalists who feel God has provided grasses, barks, and herbs to heal us, if only we can find the right one for our condition through a mix of experiment and prayer. This is separate from pure faith healers, who are content to let their children die horrible, preventable deaths without trying plants, pills, potions, or anything beyond petitions to a deity.

Today, though, we address an alternative medicine-religious hybrid known as alphabiotics. Just how much it is a purported medicine or a religion, however, is debatable. For instance, websites promoting the field lack quantifiable specifics as to what alphabiotics is, how it works, or what it does. A terse description of the alleged process would be that it is neck manipulation meant to relieve stress and thereby usher in multitudinous, though mostly undefined, benefits for the body, mind, and soul. According to adherents, the procedure is meant to enhance energy flow and remove blockages that cause illnesses. This makes it one of dozens of mostly indistinguishable practices that make similar claims. The only difference here is that an attempt is made to douse the field in religious vernacular and to cloak it with a spiritual veneer. While the two parties don’t get along, alphabiotics is an outgrowth of chiropractic, with the former solely manipulating the neck.

Alphabioticbalance.com ostensibly tries to explain how the field works, informing the reader that “unrelieved stress causes your brain to lateralize, meaning that the dominant hemisphere of your brain begins seizing control, trying to work harder, not smarter, and attempting to operate entirely from its perceived area of singular strength.” It further warns that ignoring this will lead to an unbalanced skeletal system that will be deleterious to one’s muscles, nerves, and organs. An additional claim is that most persons have one leg shorter than the other and that this will put pressure on the hips and spine and even impact persons at the cellular level, as “blood is sent to the extremities of your limbs in a futile effort to correct and operate inefficiently aligned limbs.”

To fix it, a practitioner will employ a “gentle, safe, non-invasive hands-on technique” to make a patient’s legs the same length, to cause its blood to flow to the right places, and to make everything balanced. A similarly glowing report at alphabioticinfo.com describes “a process that deals directly with the negative impact of unrelieved, off-balancing stress on the brain and body.” It makes the unsubstantiated, outrageous claim that up to 90 percent of illness is stress-related and that alphabiotics techniques will result in “lower stress levels and improved health, happiness, disease prevention, and longevity.”  Another website promises reduced muscle tension and an enabling of “the wisdom of the body to better do its job of regulating, controlling, and coordinating physiological function, as well as normal mental activity. Strength is restored, brain-fog is lifted, and people’s lives began to work better.”

This pseudoscientific babble is based on no cited research or clinical studies. The impossibly vague, unquantifiable notions are accompanied by no explanation of what mechanism would cause or how the physiology works. Adherents fail to bolster their claims with even one double blind study, instead favoring testimonials by patients identified only by their initials. And it is all supposedly accomplished in just half a minute by “sending sensory input to the brain that a defensive stress response is no longer necessary.”

The field is awash in empty words instead of solid evidence. It bandies about baffling terms like  “brain hemisphere balance,” “joy of whole person congruence,” “hidden causes of denigrating one’s self,” the “true meaning of inner peace,” and the alt-med mainstay, “maintaining balance.”

One attempt to explain it goes thusly: “The Alphabiotics Alignment involves a process of unification of brain hemispheres and integration of higher levels of life force. It instantly unifies the brain hemispheres, balances the energies within the nerve system and muscles, and releases stress held within the mind and body, manifests our dreams and keep us in a constant state of physical, emotional, and spiritual balance and harmony, achieves inner peace, connects to their inner source of power, and takes advantage of the body’s natural capacity for wellness.” Man, for supposedly lifting brain fog, alphabiotics is leaving my noggin right muddled.

So we have pseudoscientific language, over the top claims, and anecdotes in lieu of double blind studies. There is no empirical evidence, but they do have a positive review in the book, “Natural Cures They Don’t Want You to Know About.” So all this takes care of the alt-med portion, but where does religion fit in?” That’s hard to say because on alphabiotics websites, the spiritual aspect is even more vague than the health claims.

But for starters, this practice is only available to members of the International Alphabiotic Association. This isn’t a religious stance per se, but to the best of my knowledge, this requirement is unique among supposed medical ventures. It is more akin to church membership than a medicinal field, even the pretend kind. Next is verbiage that hints of an esoteric or supernatural nature, such as “being in tune with your inner source of power,” and “mind-spirit connectivity.” Practitioners call themselves priests and insist their neck manipulations are sacraments in the Church of Alphabiotics. Founder Virgil Chrane bestows the title “Doctor of Divinity” to those who complete enough training under him.

Beyond this, adherents don’t seem to say much about the religious aspect publicly. The movement seems threadbare with regard to philosophy, tenets, rites, or instruction on morality, afterlife, and miracles.

It is probable that the adherents adopted the religious veneer in order to avoid taxes and medical licensing. Indeed, Seattle Weekly ran a profile of Karen Labdon, who suffered a stroke while enduring a decidedly invasive, non-gentle alphabitoic treatment at the bruising hands of practitioner John Brown.

Rather than questioning the claims Labdon made against him, Brown merely said that the accompanying investigation by Washington state officials violated his religious freedom. He further described himself as a minister in what’s called the Alphabiotic Church and he tated he was performing a sacrament on a parishioner. He compared his technique not to a chiropractor but to a Pentecostal performing a laying on of hands.

Whatever Brown was doing, Labdon ended suffering extreme vertigo and violent vomiting as a result, and Brown was prohibited from practicing for 10 years and fined $30,000. In the end, while alphabiotics purports to be both a medicine and a religion, most available evidence points to it being neither.

“Another bad creationist” (Evolution denial)

MONKEYMAN

Perhaps the most common misperception about evolution from those who deny it is encapsulated by the question, “If man came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” While memes asking this are a Facebook semi-regular, the dozen or so fulltime professional creationists actually know that evolution does not teach this. On the Answers in Genesis website, Tommy Mitchell wrote, “The evolutionary concept of the origin of humans is not based on humans descending from modern apes but argues that humans and modern apes share a common ancestor.” Similarly, John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research noted that, “Evolutionists insist that both man and the apes came from an ape-like ancestor. Also, evolution does not propose that all members of a type evolved into another type, but that only a small group of individuals, genetically isolated from the others, evolved.”

While Mitchell and Morris disagree with these conclusions, they do acknowledge that these positions accurately reflect what evolution teaches and they stress that the field does not hold that monkeys turned into men. However, they and other Young Earth Creationists ask an equally misinformed question, which could be paraphrased as, “If evolution has been proven, why are there still evolutionary biologists?” They consider the expanding and refining of evolutionary knowledge to be a weakness. As Ken Ham Tweeted, “I’m glad the Bible’s not a textbook like those used in public schools, as it would change all the time.”

That’s because, while Darwin nailed the basics that random mutation and nonrandom natural selection cause species to adapt to their environment and evolve over succeeding generations, his theory has received periodic upgrades. That is consistent with how science works. The finding of transitional fossils, the discovery of DNA, and Mendel’s experiments with heredity helped further our knowledge of evolution. Yet YECs insist the theory’s adaptability and refinement show it to be flawed, and they sometimes dub these changes “Revisionist Darwinism.”

However, the Wright Brothers are not invalidated because today’s jets fly 100 times faster and 5,000 times farther than their original creation. Alexander Graham Bell is not a fraud because we carry a small phone that can perform multitudinous functions, while his bulky stationary contraption served just one purpose. Antibiotics, vaccines, and open-heart surgery should not be avoided as “revisionist medicine” just because physicians once treated patients with trepanation, bloodletting, and homeopathy.

Science is not static, an unbending set or rules, but is the continual search to refine, expand, and yes, revise knowledge. It is an unending cyclical process that is self-correcting and self-criticizing, which invites scrutiny, and which changes when warranted by the evidence.

And this owning up to previous errors is laudable. I wrote a post about the hunt for Bigfoot and included a tidbit that no North American primate fossil has ever been found. A reader pointed out this was in error and she included a link to reputable source, Popular Science. The article quoted a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History as saying a 43 million-year-old primate fossil was discovered in Texas. I thanked the reader for bringing this to my attention. I want all nonsense exposed, even if that nonsense appears on this blog. I have adjusted my thinking with regard to North American primate fossils and will never make this claim again. I will not deny what the paleontologist said, nor declare him corrupt, inept, or a Sasquatch hunter’s shill. I will not posit that he was wrong, then seek out evidence to support this preconceived conclusion.

By contrast, Young Earth Creationism relies on faith and the rejection of facts its proponents find unpleasant. Not only can they not accept evidence that contradicts their religion, they are incapable of incorporating newfound knowledge into their belief system.

Brian Dunning at Skeptoid compared the reactions from biologists and creationists when scientists learned DNA was the genetic material by which inheritance passes from one generation to the next.  The response of the former, Dunning wrote, was to welcome and celebrate the news: “The discovery of DNA and the understanding of genetics, unknown in Darwin’s time, was a huge windfall. Whole chapters of proposed mechanisms were thrown out of the evolution textbook, volumes of new chapters were added, and unanswered questions were explained by the thousands. The theory of evolution improved immeasurably. Genetics was the single most important discovery in the history of biology.”

Meanwhile, the creationists fittingly refused to evolve their thinking. Dunning wrote, “Did anyone go back and improve Genesis? Did they add a footnote or a verse to explain how the thing with Adam’s rib worked, given the new understanding of genetics? No. The most important and significant discovery in the history of biology was completely ignored.”

Even though religion is the central feature of their lives, YECs criticize the concept of faith by declaring evolution to be just another belief system. Yet if that were true, things like the DNA discovery that expanded knowledge would be rejected.

YECs confuse faith with trust. Trust is accepting what reputably-sourced, continually proven evidence shows. Faith is believing something regardless of the truth, facts, or proof. Something that one believes on faith could be true, but this truth is not necessary for the belief to continue.

As an example of the difference between trust and faith, Dunning explained why he believes what calculators tell him. These instruments have been so reliable and consistent that he can reasonably trust their conclusions. By contrast, if the calculators’ long-term performance was spotty, Dunning’s uncompromising acceptance of the revealed equation would be faith.

He added that humans used to think Earth was flat and supported on the back of a giant turtle. Scientific breakthroughs have since shown our planet to be round and orbiting a star. Most people accept this, though a few deny it. But some who accept these truths still use the previous delusions regarding’s Earth’s shape and motion as reasons to reject what biologists teach today. Now, what science has previously taught should be rejected if the reason for the revision was arrived at through the Scientific Method of observation-hypothesis-prediction-experiment-analysis-interpretation-publication-replication. But it should not be rejected if the reason for doing so is to hold onto an unbending position in order to protect a pet cause.

“The story of the moral” (Self-righteousness)

BETTER

People of different religious viewpoints can get along, depending on the person.  I have had nothing but positive interaction with the friendly imam at our neighborhood mosque, while others who read the same book that inspires him would interpret it as a fatwa to slit my throat.

There are Christian extremists like John Hagee, who has called for all atheists to leave the United States. He is apparently OK with a trade that would see his country lose 67 percent of its scientists and .02 percent of its prisoners. Even more extreme is Bryan Fischer, who has declared that no atheists should be allowed in the military, that belief in evolution makes one unpatriotic,  and that Native American genocide was beneficial because Christians were given the land and resources. Fischer also has supremely creative reading comprehension skills. He was written that the Constitution’s Article VI, which reads, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” is a mandate that only Christians be allowed to serve in public office.

At the other end of the spectrum from Hagee and Fischer are the dozen military chaplains I have worked with, who have been among the most cordial, compassionate, and hardworking men I have known.  

The nonbelief side has its extremists as well. Although stopping short of calling for expulsion or death, the late Jon Murray of American Atheists once wrote that only atheists could accurately teach the history of religion and he chastised anyone who labeled themselves an agnostic, humanist, free-thinker, apatheist, or similar moniker. He considered this a wussy way to avoid the dreaded atheist label. Similarly, I have seen many a Facebook thread where agnostics are viciously attacked by atheists for not taking the doubt far enough, even going so far sometimes to say that there is no such thing as an agnostic. The argument generally goes like this: If you’re not sure there’s a god, it means you lack a belief in deity, so this makes you an atheist. This is almost invariably followed with personal attacks and character assassination directed at the agnostic for failing to realize what they  are. A similar argument is used against atheists by some Christian extremists who insist atheists believe in God, but are in a state of denial, hate, or rebellion, or are wanting to continue in their sin.  

There also exists a subset of Christians who feel that their belief in an invisible sky creature entitles them to the moral high ground. There are many examples, but I will focus on Dennis Prager and Frank Turek since they have been the most vocal and persistent about this stance over the last few years.

On his online site, Prager makes this astounding claim: “If there is no God, murder isn’t wrong.” Given that in the Bible, Koran, and Book of Mormon, the Abrahamic god is responsible for the slaughter of 2,476,633 persons (tiny.cc/mr7yoy), in addition to an unknown number flood, plague, and famine victims, a more logical conclusion would be, “If there is a God, murder isn’t wrong.” But let’s keep our focus on what Prager and Turek have written. 

In a takedown of Prager’s assertion, skeptic leader Michael Shermer noted the cosmic chicken-and-egg conundrum that arises when one cites a god as source of morality.  

Plato asked, “Is what is morally right or wrong commanded by God because it is inherently right or wrong, or is it morally right or wrong only because it is commanded by God?” Shermer picks up on the Greek philosopher’s point by asking, “If murder is wrong because God said it is wrong, what if he said it was okay? Would that make murder right?”

This is not a hypothetical question, as there are instances of God acting more like a Godfather and ordering hits on victims for trying to keep the Ark of the Covenant from hitting the ground (2 Samuel 6:7), for picking up sticks (Numbers 15:36), or for looking over their shoulder (Genesis 19:26). Prager and Turek would have to be OK with these divine executions. There is no room for considering other angles, mitigating circumstances, appeals, reasoning, talking it through, societal values, norms, traditions, or human input.  

Also, Prager and Turek present a false dilemma between either a deity-dictated absolute morality or a secular relative morality where there are only opinions with no actual right and wrong. This often leads to an insistence that without a god-based morality, persons have license to commit all manner of mayhem and mischief without being immoral.

But the false dilemma is a logical fallacy where the interlocutor posits that if the opponent’s position is wrong, the speaker’s position is right. This is mistaken because an debater must actually prove one’s point, not just try and tear down the opponent’s. Prager and Turek also commit the begging the question fallacy, assuming without supporting evidence that the correct position is that their god established right and wrong and that his dictates were all uncompromisingly correct.

Prager and Turek say that if I insist arson is wrong, this is merely an opinion. They might be right on this point. But that’s all Prager and Turek have too, an opinion. In their case, they accept the opinions written by Bronze Age Middle East nomads. There’s nothing wrong with any of those traits, but those opinions belong to just another man.  Even if we graciously allow that a god wrote it, it’s still just another opinion. Might does not make right and Prager and Turek never establish why Yahweh saying something makes it correct. Supernatural abilities such as creating or destroying a planet are separate from having keen insight into right and wrong.

Besides, Shermer wrote, there is a third option between absolute morality and relative morality, which he calls provisional morality. He defines this as “Moral values that are true for most people in most circumstances most of the time.” He continues, “All societies throughout history and around the world today have sanctions against murder. Why? Because if there were no proscription against murder no social group could survive, much less flourish. All social order would break down. We can’t have people running around killing each other willy nilly.”

At the same time, Shermer explained, there are exceptions such as self defense, war, and executions. These exceptions do not wipe out the provisional morality that murder is wrong. Likewise, most societies have considered human cannibalism wrong, yet most persons would understand the reasoning and actions of the 16 Andean plane wreck survivors who resorted to eating deceased passengers as a last-ditch way to stay alive.

Consider one more example. Stealing is wrong, but this can be mitigated or involve extenuating circumstances. A man with literally no money or food who swipes a bucket of friend chicken to feed his children their first meal in two days would be looked at differently than an online hacker who helps himself to millions in ill-gotten gain for the thrill of it and to prove that he can. Our legal system would almost certainly treat these offenders differently, yet Biblical justice calls for no distinction to be made and for the punishment to be as harsh for the destitute family man as the affluent cyber criminal.

Sources of provincial morality can include parents, peers, mentors, society, teachers, solitary reflection, life experiences, books, culture, and one’s conscience. Shermer noted that since the Enlightenment, “religious-based theocracies have been replaced with Constitution-based democracies, and the result was the abolition of slavery and torture, the democratic rule of law, the decline of violence,” and the granting of rights to minorities, women, gays, and animals.

Prager and Turek insist our rights come from God, but the Bible endorses execution for blasphemy and for practicing wicca instead of embracing freedom of speech and religion; it favors slavery over emancipation; it requires stoning to death for a woman having premarital sex instead of forbidding cruel and unusual punishment; and the Torah includes no prohibition on warrantless searches or self-incrimination. To see just how in how in error Prager’s and Turek’s assertion is, contrast the First Commandment with the First Amendment. The former mandates worship of the Abrahamic god under penalty of death. The latter guarantees the right to worship any god or goddess or none at all.

Taking morality from a book requires no thought, whereas morality arrived at through introspection, debate, and experience requires the person to justify their conclusion. Were Turek to take his morality from the Bible, he would have to believe that his daughter’s rapist, instead of becoming a prisoner, should become his son-in-law, regardless of the daughter’s wishes (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

Citing a god as the source for morality runs into another problem. Different scriptures have different rules and they can’t all be right. Here, Prager and Turek have little trouble here with a retort, simply making a begging the question assumption that the god they were taught to believe in since preschool is the correct one. But belief in absolute morality can lead to the conclusion that anyone who believes differently has departed from the true path and can be dealt with accordingly, in line with punishments in the believer’s holy book. Such thinking has led to the Inquisition, witch trials, and holy wars.

But looking at it from an objective standpoint and having been impacted by the influencers mentioned two paragraphs ago, I can see that the 10 Commandments gets right the prohibitions against murder, stealing, and adultery. But in consciously allows child abuse, rape, and slavery while forbidding innocuous actions such as talking back to one’s parents, uttering profanity, and building a bronze and iron sculpture.  

On another topic, it is a disingenuous debate to ask whether torturing an innocent man to death is morally correct. I truly believe Prager and Turek are capable of figuring out murder is wrong on their own. Further, no atheist is going to read Prager’s or Turek’s pieces and decide, “Whoa, if I don’t convert to their religion, I’m going to go out today and commence with raping, pillaging, and burning.” Their assertions are meant to establish their moral superiority, which ironically can be used to commit immoral acts such as the Crusades, Jonestown, and flying airplanes into tall buildings.

Prager tries to tie Stalin and Mao into this and asserts godlessness leads to genocide. But this is the composition fallacy and this decade there have been atheist heads of state in Australia, Greece, Croatia, Belgium, and New Zealand without corresponding bloodbaths.

And a minor point, but Mao and Stalin killed in the name of communism, not atheism. These two built personality cults and the same has been done in North Korea. These communist cults mimic religious extremism by basing a system on the supremacy of an all-wise leader, from whom any departure is worthy of scorn, ostracism, exile, imprisonment, or death.

Shermer makes the argument that murder could be worse if there is no god than if there is. In Prager’s universe, the murder merely creates a painful but temporary separation. If a hundred years from now, the victim and his family are together in paradise and will be there a million millennia after that, murder ends up seeming not so bad. This also brings up a point raised by Richard Dawkins: If one is following the instruction manual because of a belief of being incessantly watched and thinking they are subject to calamity if they stray, is the person really being moral, or just pragmatic?

Going back to Turek, one of his essays contained this strawman headscratcher: “To be a consistent atheist you can’t believe that anyone has ever changed the world for the better. You have to believe that rescuing Jews from the ovens was not objectively better than murdering them. You have to believe that loving people is no better than raping them.” Earlier in the essay, Turek wrote that atheists could be good people, but he then abruptly switches to a position that atheists by nature feel that rape is proper and that the holocaust was fine and dandy. He also wrote, “In an atheistic universe there is nothing objectively wrong with anything at any time. There are no limits. Anything goes.”

Yet Turek’s assertion that belief in the Christian god equals morality is inconsistent with what we see when looking at religions in different cultures. The most secular countries are in Scandinavia, which are perpetually among the most affluent and educated and which enjoy high quality of life, excellent health care, and low crime rates. By contrast, the overwhelmingly religious countries Guatemala and El Salvador are riddled with crime and poverty. Further, since Turek stipulates that his god is the true one, Japan, which is just two percent Christian, should experience unending epidemics of decapitations and machete attacks instead of having the planet’s fourth-lowest crime rate. Travelers to the country report seeing no bicycle locks because so few people there would ever think to help themselves to another person’s form of conveyance.

For all anyone knows, Prager or Turek may someday be saved by an atheist surgeon, a person they would would insist has no moral concern with whether someone lives or dies. Prager and Turek would also have considered Ted Bundy to necessarily be a good, moral person if  he had practiced their religion.

They’re wrong on these counts, of course. A few years ago, there were Muslims who slaughtered Yazidis for their beliefs and other Muslims who risked their lives to save those Yazidis. Beliefs don’t make a person good or bad; actions do.

“Interpretive dunce” (Creationism)

RECORDS

A claim one occasionally hears from creationist camps is that they and scientists have the same evidence, it’s just being interpreted differently. This is meant to establish that one should be open-minded and consider various viewpoints. But just because multiple interpretations exist doesn’t make them all reasonable, nor does it follow that each has strong support.

Further, if creationist leaders really believed we should consider competing ideas about the origin of Earth and mankind, they would hold that the Zoroastrian and Lakota creation tales should also be espoused and given equal time in debates and public school science classrooms.

As to reasonable dialogue and analysis, some creationists are up for it, but the most well-known one, Ken Ham, is not. He tries to dismiss evidence by saying that scientists and Young Earth creationists have different worldviews.  While this might be a rare Ham accuracy, it is a genetic fallacy and irrelevant to the legitimacy of the conclusions that each camp draws.

Consider how those conclusions are reached. Scientists go where the evidence leads.  Creationists start with the conclusion that Genesis is a literal account, then try and finagle around discomfiting evidence, either shoehorning it in or rejecting it. Ham has said that evidence doesn’t count if it contradicts his interpretation of the Bible. Similarly, the Institute for Creation Research website lists these among its principles:

“Space, time, matter, and energy were supernaturally created by a transcendent personal creator.”

“Each of the major kinds of plants and animals was created functionally complete from the beginning and did not evolve from some other kind of organism.”

“The record of Earth’s history as preserved in the crust, especially in the rocks and fossil deposits, is primarily a record of catastrophic intensities of natural processes.”

Only after signing a statement agreeing to these planks and promising to promote them is one allowed to work for this institute, which makes the “research” in its title fraudulent.

Contrast this with how a geologist, biologist, or astronomer operates. A blogger at Logic of Science wrote about how research on lake bed layers helped prove Earth’s age. Called varves, these layers alternate between patterns of light and dark, and between fine and course, and are the result of seasonal change.

The blogger further explained, “We can verify that these correlate with seasons because we see varves form today, and at some lakes, we find algae in the dark layers, but not the light layers since algae only blooms in summer. Varves in the center of the lakes only accumulate one layer each year. In the center of some lakes, we have millions of sets of alternating layers.”

Therefore, geologists deduce that the lakes are millions of years old. This logical deduction flows from observed and verified results. No interpretation is needed, nor is it necessary for the scientist to have had a “naturalist” or “humanist” worldview at the outset to reach this deduction.

Now let’s see examine a creationist’s take. John Morris of ICR writes that while there is no explanation for these millions of layers, “Research is continuing and we can be certain it won’t be solved by the sterile uniformitarian thinking of the past. However, reasoning from the standpoint of the great Flood of Noah’s day and its aftermath holds promise.”

So, through some undiscovered mechanism, the flood managed to create and sort these deposits at a rate of 20 per minute instead of the one per annum that has repeatedly been observed.

The Logic of Science blogger writes that such conclusions “are in no way an interpretation of data. It is a complete and total rejection of the data. The creationists’ ‘interpretation’ completely ignores the facts and proposes an unknown and completely absurd mechanism.”

He added that if we issue creationists a license to explain away proof with evidence-free ad hoc reasoning, then almost unlimited interpretations are possible. Zoroastrians could point out that their creation story holds that Ahura Mazda created light and darkness, and that this is consistent with the light and dark nature of varves. Or the Lakota could relate how  the only survivor in the tribe’s flood tale, Kangi the Crow, asked the Great Spirit to give him a new world. Granting this request, the spirit sent animals to retrieve a lump of mud from beneath the flood waters. This could be considered the origin of varves, and since each animal got a turn, that would explain why there are millions of layers.

But it would only be possible to arrive at these positions if one went in determined to get there. If the varve evidence was shown to someone with no knowledge or preconceived ideas about Earth’s age and origin, the examiner would never conclude varves to be the result of an invisible creature in the sky sending forth torrents of rain that set in place a magic mechanism that caused the layers to form at a rate 10 million times faster than what scientists have ever observed.

To see how science really works, let’s consider evolution. In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin predicted the existence of intermediate fossils before they were known to exist.  Since then, scientists have unearthed many transitional fossils, which show evolution from fish to amphibians, from amphibians to reptiles, from reptiles to birds, from reptiles to mammals, and from early apelike creatures to hominids.

Creationists look at those fossils and consider them part of a divine creation plan. This intelligent design, by the way, has seen 99.9 percent of its creatures go extinct. Ham and the rest craft an ad hoc rationale that the intermediate fossils are of separately created animals that no longer exist. The seemingly gradual transition of the fossils, located in the precise place in the geologic column one would expect to find them if evolution were true, is coincidental.

Again, no neutral party would come to such a conclusion. It is only possible if one goes in with an unbending mindset, such as this one displayed by the Discovery Institute: “The universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”

If geologic digs repeatedly revealed the sudden appearance of, say, ostriches, zebras, and rhinos, with no intermediary fossils before or after; if there was no similarity in DNA between different creatures; if there were no vestigial traits; if there were no strikingly similar anatomies between some species;  if no creatures unique to isolated locales like Tasmania, Iceland, and Mauritius were ever found, then Darwin would be the scientific equivalent of Freud – a giant in his time, still recalled somewhat fondly, but one whose major ideas have been rejected. The lack of evidence would ensure that.

Now let’s look at how Ham’s Answers in Genesis deals with the complete lack of evidence for its position that man and dinosaurs lived together. In an essay, AIG’s Bodie Hodge proffered two reasons. One, everybody went as high as possible to escape the flood, leaving the terrible lizards way down below. Second, humans would have been avoiding dinosaurs anyway because they are scary.

You interpret that however you want, but I would have considered The Flintstones to be better evidence.

“The means to justify the end” (Doomsdays)

ENDNEAR

The third week of September will be a busy one in cataclysmic circles. End of the world pronouncements happen at least every other year anymore, but as summer rolls into fall, we will be treated to two doomsdays in 72 hours. There is a day in between, but it’s doubtful it would be a constructive one, being sandwiched between two iterations of the planet being ripped asunder. No rest for the wicked, indeed.

Two doomsayers are going with a Sept. 23 date, with last month’s eclipse being the impetus for our finale. Unlike the Mayan Calendar or Harold Camping predictions earlier this decade, this prognostication is more vague on what will happen that day, with adherents insinuating it might only be the beginning (or middle) of the end. The lack of certainty is why this portent of doom is not receiving near the publicity of Camping and Mayan prognostications. Always remember, if wanting to get significant attention to you coming calamity, be specific on what will happen and when.

Because he didn’t do so, most of you have never heard of journalist Gary Ray. In the publication Unsealed, he wrote that the eclipse was one of several astronomical signs that the rapture is approaching: “The Bible says a number of times that there’s going to be signs in the heavens before Jesus Christ returns to Earth. We see this as possibly one of those.”

Of course, eclipses happened before the First Coming of Christ and have continued unabated in predictable patterns ever since, so there’s no need to assign special significance to last month’s, or think it means the Second Coming is in the offing.  

Ray is even more interested in an astronomical event that will follow the eclipse. He draws attention to a passage in Revelation which describes a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head,” who will give birth to a boy whose fate is to “rule all the nations with an iron scepter.

Ray interprets this Tolkienesque imagery to be a prediction of the night sky on Sept. 23. Then, the constellation Virgo, postulated by doomsayers to represent the woman in Revelation, will be clothed in sunlight in a position over the moon and under nine stars and three planets. The planet Jupiter, which will appear from our vantage point to be inside Virgo, represents an in utero child. As Jupiter moves out of Virgo, this symbolizes birth.

Even if we concede his analogies to be on point, there is the issue of this stellar alignment being not terribly uncommon. For one thing, the sun being in Virgo happens every year for about a month. Second, on the moon’s orbit of Earth, it ends up at Virgo’s feet once a month. These two arrangements come together once or twice a year.

Now onto the crown comprised of three planets and nine stars of Leo. The issue here is that there are several dozen stars in the constellation. The nine Ray references burn brighter than the rest, but it still requires special pleading to substantially reduce the number of stars in Leo to make the scenario work.

While much less frequent that the alignment mentioned two paragraphs back, multiple planets being at Virgo’s head while Jupiter is at her center and the moon at her feet is a circumstance that happens at roughly 300-year intervals, and all such occurrences have been Apocalypse-free.    

If Ray’s prediction flops like the 8,240 doomsdays that have preceded it, he will recover quickly. He has already postulated that this year’s eclipse may be the start of a seven-year tribulation that will end when another eclipse comes in 2024. Carbondale, Ill., which sits in the center of the “X” formed by the two eclipse paths, will presumably be transformed into Armageddon.  

Ray wrote, “It makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of things that really point us to that.” In truth, it makes no sense and nothing points to a period of horrors. He has merely taken astronomically observable and predictable data and turned it into a baseless assertion that a cataclysm is coming.

If preferring a more secular mass extinction event, we have the latest Nibiru hypothesis. The idea that a rouge planet will end life on Earth got a very late start compared to the Armageddon Industry. But in just 40 years, Nibiru proponents have moved into second place behind the Christian doomsayers in the End Times sweepstakes, and their panicky prognostication pronouncements make frequent Internet splashes.

There have been three prominent failures of Nibiru to annihilate the Earth since 2004. Undaunted, a fresh promise of destruction comes in a 2017 book by David Meade. Like Ray, he cites Sept. 23 as probably just a beginning of the end date, and this mistake is why you likely haven’t heard of his book either.

While not overtly religious (though it does cite Revelation when needing to have a point bolstered), the work does demonstrate a faithful fervor. For example, Meade declares, “The existence of Planet X is beyond any reasonable doubt, to a moral certainty.” Meade is equally convinced that the planet’s existence means we are doomed.

Earlier this year, he claimed that such disparate elements as the position of celestial bodies, Biblical verses, and Pyramid inscriptions have combined to reveal that Planet X and its accompanying apocalypse are imminent. His interpretation is that Nibiru will first be seen in the sky on Sept. 23, then will slam into our planet  the following month.

His tortured analysis fixates on the number 33. “When the eclipse begins on Aug. 21, the sunrise will be dark, just as Isaiah predicts. The moon involved is called a black moon. These occur about every 33 months. In the Bible, the divine name of Elohim appears 33 times in Genesis. The eclipse will start in Oregon, the 33rd state, and end on the 33rd degree of Charleston, S.C. Then 33 days after the eclipse, the stars will align exactly as the book of Revelation says they will before the end of the world: 9/23/17. Such a solar eclipse has not occurred since 1918, which is 99 years.”

Since that deviates from the “33” pattern, he finagles that to read “33 x 3.” Besides this special pleading, Meade also demonstrates how simple it is to cherry-pick numbers when trying to prove a point. It took me about 33 seconds to come up with ideas that the run counter to what Meade is peddling. Lucifer, given the astronomy-friendly nickname Morning Star in the Bible, is mentioned in scripture more than 33 times; the number of states the eclipse passed through was less than 33; the biggest astronomical event to occur in the States before the eclipse, Haley’s Comet, took place 31 years prior, not 33. Any number can be arrived at, cited, and said to mean something if the adherent is allowed to choose from every historical event, date, and person.   

But at least Meade sticks with 33. By contrast, the numeral-happy website heavenlysign2017.com  considers dozens of numbers to have sacred, prophetic meaning. Worse, it presents its conclusions in an annoying centered-text format. Author Steven Sewell combines dates for Rosh Hashanah, Christ’s crucifixion, Kepler discoveries, Israel’s founding, Saddam Hussein threats, the Dead Sea Scrolls being made public, Trump attacking Syria, the United States entering World War I, and much more. Out of this gobbledygook emerges an end of the world date of Sept. 21, 2017.

He incredulously asks, “Could all this be a coincidence?” I’m not calling it a coincidence. I’m calling it leaching onto whatever historical events, dates, or persons one feels like manipulating, then twisting and tossing them into a gumbo that results in an idiosyncratic version of evidence.

 

 

“Remember the data” (Anecdotes vs. evidence)

ONE MAN

While “Don’t knock it until you try it” is the cliché, skeptic leader Brian Dunning thinks a better suggestion is, “Don’t try it until you knock it.” He was being somewhat sarcastic, as no opinion should be formed until all available evidence is considered. But his point was that personal experiences are inferior to data.

When it comes to favoring personal experience, this mistake is most frequently committed with regard to alternative medicine therapies and products. People often trust their perceptions more than any other source. But clinical test results provide a much better assessment of efficiency than someone’s word that it worked.

Our senses are prone to error and not everyone’s are as pronounced as the next person’s. Further, we all carry preconceived notions, biases, and expectations. Then there are mood swings, good days, bad days, and medium days. Hence, the assessment of a person grabbed off the street will be filtered through his or her prejudices, biases, preconceptions, preferences, and forgetfulness. It is impractical that their anecdote will be proof that the product or procedure will work (or fail) for everyone.

That’s why scientists use controlled, randomized trials. These will overcome the biases and other weaknesses addressed in the previous paragraph. As Dunning explained, “If you want to know whether listening to a binaural beat will make you fall asleep, a science fan knows not to try it to find out. She knows her sleepiness varies throughout every day and she knows that the expectation that it’s supposed to make her sleepy skews her perception. Instead, she looks at properly controlled testing that’s been done. Those subjects didn’t know what they were listening to, they didn’t know what it was supposed to do to them, and some of them unknowingly listened to a placebo recording. She knows the difference between real, statistically-sound data and one person’s anecdotal experience.”

Trying an untested product compromises a person’s ability to objectively analyze testing data about that product. This is also true in areas beyond alternative medicine. It can come into play while reading a horoscope, seeing an alleged ghost, or attending a psychic seminar. A cousin of mine did the latter and afterward, she excitedly posted there was “NO WAY” the psychic have known what she did, save an esoteric ability.

This is known as subjective validation, where an experience being personally impactful is considered evidence that the phenomenon is authentic. But with psychics, there are issues regarding cold reading, selective memory by audience members, and the lack of confirmatory testing. In my cousin’s case, the experience resonated with her because she had an intense experience, but that is not controlled data. A test could be designed, and in fact have been carried out, and no medium has ever consistently performed better than chance.

Still, persons will insist they know something works because it did for them. But this is not necessarily what happened. During the 2016 Olympics, athletes tried cupping and elastic kinesio tape, two alternative therapies completely lacking in evidence and with no plausible working mechanism behind them. Desperate for the extra edge against fellow world-class athletes, Olympians tried them and their personal experiences convinced them it worked. Yet these swimmers, runners, and gymnasts also had access to personal trainers, excellent nutrition, regimented rest periods, massage, icing, and other attentiveness that guaranteed they would perform at their peak. Giving the credit for victory to cupping wins the post hoc reasoning Gold Medal. Michael Phelps, after all, had collected plenty of first place finishes before he started overheating, misshaping, and discoloring his back. There’s also the issue of those who tried these techniques and came in 17th.  

Now we will examine another instance in which personal experience is treated as preferable to tested evidence. An Answers in Genesis chestnut is “Were you there,” which they genuinely consider a solid retort to proof about the age of the universe, Earth’s earliest days, and the development of homo sapiens. This is a vacuous, absurd reply. No one questions if Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by asking historians if they were there when he dipped his quill into ink.

This supposed “gotcha” question reveals Young Earth Creationist’s substantial ignorance about how science works. As Dunning explained, “Scientific conclusions are never based simply on personal reports, but upon direct measurements of testable evidence. Nobody’s been to the Sun, either, but we know a great deal about it because we can directly measure and analyze the various types of radiation it puts out.”

Likewise, chemists can’t see quarks and astronomers can’t see dark matter, but these entities can be measured and their attributes analyzed. The answer to a time-honored riddle is that a tree falling in forest does indeed emit soundwaves whether anyone is there to perceive them. Likewise, Earth formed, heated, and cooled regardless of whether this was being witnessed. Researchers understand the science behind the various dating methods that are used to determine this. In the same way that DNA is preferable to a witness at trial, radiometric dating, carbon 14 dating, and the speed of light are more important than the fact that no one from Earth’s earliest days is alive to recall it.

From those that deny something has happened, we move to those who assert that something has happened despite lacking concrete evidence for this claim. Specifically, some persons will wonder what’s the harm in using a product or technique if it makes a person feel better.

The harm can come in such forms as using Therapeutic Touch instead of antibiotics. Such methods not only waste time and money, but the patient may bypass legitimate medicine that would work. And in certain cases, such as with colloidal silver, black salve, and some essential oils, active ingredients are being ingested and overuse can be dangerous.

Another way in which personal experiences are trusted over clinical evidence is to claim, “I know what I saw.” Yet senses are prone errors, deficiencies, and bias. A popular video asks viewers to count the number of times a basketball is passed between a group of persons. When most respondents are asked to give that number, they usually give the correct response. But they also fumble when asked the follow up question, “What walked through the group while the ball was being passed?” It was a man in a gorilla suit ambling by, yet most viewers missed it because they were so consumed with keeping track of the number of tosses.

“Our memories change dramatically over time and were incomplete to begin with,” Dunning wrote. “And who knows how good was the data that your brain had to work with was to begin with? Lighting conditions can come into play, as can movement, distractions, backgrounds, and expectations of what should be seen. Possible misidentifications and perceptual errors all had a part in building your brain’s experience.”

That’s why Bigfoot sightings are not considered to be “case closed” proof of the beast’s existence. Anthropologists would need to look at testable evidence, which in the case of Sasquatch, is utterly lacking.

Out of frustration, aficionados of alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoological critters, and a Young Earth, and will sometimes label scientists and skeptics “closed-minded.” But closed-mindedness includes refusing to change ideas no matter how much contrary evidence one is presented with. Since phone calls from 9/11 hijack victims described Islamic terrorists, Truthers concocted an evidence-free ad hoc assertion that those victims and the family members they telephoned were in on the government’s plot.

Meanwhile, being open-minded means changing your position when you discover you’ve been mistaken. I balked when I first heard that race was a social construct instead of a biological one. Using some of the reasoning addressed earlier, “I knew what I saw,” and clearly race had to be biological since I could see the difference between someone from Canada and someone from Nigeria. But as I learned about alleles, gene frequency, migratory routes, blood types, and the Human Genome Project, I changed my mind.

There are mounds of evidence that disprove such notions as chemtrails, chiropractic, a Flat Earth, vaccine shedding being the cause of disease, and the first man being spoken into sudden existence 5,000 years ago. Yet hardcore adherents to these ideas consider the skeptic or scientist to be the closed-minded one.

People who assert this think of science as an unbending set of dictates from dour men in crisp lab coats or arrogant academics perched in ivory towers. However, science is a process that continually adapts, refines, improves, adds to, subtracts from, and alters data, according to where the evidence leads. And that refinement is subject to still further peer review, examination, and testing. That is why scientifically controlled data on the ability of a eucalyptus rub to cure rheumatism will always be preferable to what Aunt Tillie says.