“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.

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“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.

“It was a dark and stormy day” (Eclipse fears)

LOCK

Eclipses initially inspired fear, but today we understand the mechanics behind them, so they inspire, um, well, I guess it’s still fear. At least among some groups. And I’m not referring to the science enthusiasts who are fretting that an all-day road trip may turn into nothing more than a cloud viewing.

First, the basics for any second graders or Flat Earthers who have stumbled onto the blog: A total solar eclipse happens when the moon is close enough to Earth and it simultaneously crosses the path of the sun. This results in the moon blotting out the sun for a few minutes and a shadow being cast on part of Earth’s surface.

For a competing hypothesis, we leave the astronomy book and head to a Flat Earth group active in Colorado, headed by Bob Knodel. This bunch was profiled last month by the Denver Post, and the article related this exchange between Knodel and his underling:

“How are we Flat Earthers supposed to explain to our friends the solar eclipse in August,” asked one attendee. The room fell silent. “We’ll have to do more research and get back to you on that,” Knodel replied.

While awaiting his further investigation, let’s look at a few other ways the approaching eclipse may have been handled by other Flat Earthers. I say ‘may’ because, while I consider my Poe-meter finely tuned, it does get tough with these guys.

Now, being a Flat Earther normally requires more than thinking our planet is a plane instead of a sphere. The belief sets up a series of ad hoc rationalizations. For example, the planet being dark and light simultaneously would be impossible on a flat Earth, so an idea was invented that the sun and moon do a continuous loop over Earth and remain a fixed distance away from each other.

This, in turn, requires embracing geocentrism and a stationary planet. This supposed static loop of Earth’s star and satellite, however, would make an eclipse impossible. Rather than admit this, Knodel and his ilk are engaged in unspecified further research. And while this research has yielded no explanation of what is blocking the sun if not the moon, Flat Earth proponents are still using the celestial event to try and bolster their cause.

For example, they argue that an object’s shadow can never be smaller than the object itself.  They will use a ball and flashlight and point out the resulting shadow on the wall is larger than the ball.

This demonstrates why the Scientific Method embraces peer review and not self-produced videos. Mic.com quoted physics professor Will Kinney, who noted that treating the sun and a small flashlight as similar is the mistake here. While a flashlight sends out a narrow, concentrated beam, the massive sun sends broad light to all parts of the solar system.

Per the article, “Because of the sun and moon’s size and distance, they look like they’re the same size, but they’re not. You could re-create the solar eclipse at home, but not like it’s being done on YouTube videos. What you need is an extended light source that is at such a distance that it’s almost exactly the same apparent size as the thing you’re blocking it with.”

Beyond that, the only points I could find ascribed to Flat Earthers were probably Poes. A Reddit user described the upcoming eclipse as “maintenance downtime of the sun/moon hologram, which will get a firmware upgrade.”

Another argued that the moon is 400 times larger than the sun, so that’s why the latter’s light is being eclipsed. This was dismissed by Flat Earthers as trolling, not because of the complete lack of evidence for it – Flat Earthers are fine with such distinctions – but because it contradicts the Flat Earth model where the sun and moon are about the same size and always the same distance apart.

From here, we will move onto those who think the eclipse is real, but feel it entails more than an explicable celestial event.

We will begin with educateinspirechange.org, which embraces the most ubiquitous of the pseudoscientific approaches, the misuse of the word ‘energy.’ It managed to get that word in a dozen times during its essay on the eclipse. Here’s a sample: “As the Total Solar Eclipse gets closer, energies are rising more rapidly than ever. In the last few weeks, have you noticed people acting abnormal, like a person who is normally chilled out becoming anxious? This is because of the energy making its way to us.”

This is, of course, selective memory. In reality, some people act out of character during times of unremarkable celestial body positioning and others act normal during an eclipse. Still others bind together unrelated items and top them with a bow of post hoc reasoning.

Continuing, our anonymous author writes, “During this total solar eclipse, you will be engulfed much more intensely by the glittering streams of magical light beaming around the moon. I cannot explain with words how intense and magical this energy to come is.”

His stated inability to explain it with words doesn’t stop him from trying. Here are the results of those efforts: “The sun represents focus, self-expression, and is aggressive while the moon is something we use as a means of really putting our goals within reach. The total solar eclipse is a way for us to provoke external changes. It forces us into taking the route we have to in order to reach where we need to be.” That part could be seen as true, as some astronomy geeks are planning a route so they can see the eclipse in its totality.

Next, our writer “strongly suggests focusing on the moon’s energy and using your Labrodite crystals to get things going and provide you with a protective vibration.” He has no specific advice for those whose Labrodite crystal supplies are low, or who lack any vibrating protections. But he closes a mostly foreboding discourse by encouraging us to “not be afraid of what is to come.” Now there’s some advice of his that I can take.

Not all worry is about what will be overhead. In South Carolina, there have been concerns about what creatures the eclipse may unleash.  The state’s Emergency Management Division tweeted a map of where eyewitnesses over the years have said they have spotted lizard people. The agency warned, “We do not know if lizard men become more active during a solar eclipse, but we advise residents to remain ever vigilant.” This increased awareness seems to be working, as no reptilians have been spotted this week in Myrtle Beach.

Meanwhile, sciencealert.com reports there is angst about the eclipse being the  precursor of a collision with Nibiru. The gist of Nibiru beliefs is that this rouge planet will eventually either collide with Earth or throw it off its axis. Either way, Earthlings are hosed. This makes for a supple belief, as its ominous nature fits in nicely with awe-inspiring phenomenon, but its inevitability enables it to work when nothing special is going on.

Most often, though, it is when something noteworthy is happening skyward that Nibiru believers get excited – about our impending doom. The Hale-Bopp Comet’s initial appearance, in fact, was the genesis of the notion that a runway giant planet is coming to get us. Nancy Lieder predicted that Nibiru would annihilate Earth in 2003, which then became 2012, which then became she won’t say because it would cause panic, a justification whose lameness is only topped by its arrogance.

It is understandable why the ancients ascribed natural disasters and phenomenon to gods and goddesses. Lightning bolts being Zeus hurling a spear, wind being a bellowing giant’s breath, a tempest being an upset Neptune, got it. Similarly, it’s easy to see why an unexplained blotting of the sun would freak people out. But unexplained does not mean it was inexplicable, and astronomers eventually figured it out. Which is what makes Ann Graham Lotz’s take on the eclipse so pitiful.

Despite our complete understanding of what is happening and why, Lotz is determined to put a Bronze Age spin on it, punctuated by self-congratulation and self-righteousness. She quotes Joel 2:31, which reads, “The sun will be turned to darkness before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” She cites this scripture without explaining why the eclipses that have come along since the verse was written have been free of Earth-changing calamity.

Lotz wrote that when reading this passage, “I knew with hair-raising certainty that God’s severe judgment was coming on America! The warning is triggered by the total solar eclipse of August 21.” This is nothing more than subjective validation and a belief that the strength of a conviction matters more than its accuracy.

As to the amateur astronomers and school children enthused about the event, Lotz has strong condemnation. “The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.” Ah, got it. This is all just a distraction that will enable to Iranians to conquer our heathen selves.

Where most of see the alignment of the astronomical bodies and the laws of astrophysics, Lotz sees a holy harbinger. “God is signaling us about something. Time will tell what that something is.” These impossibly vague descriptors will allow Lotz to claim any tragedy at any time as fulfillment of her prophecy.

The aforementioned ancients had little knowledge of what was going on in their world, so they constructed supernatural explanations. Initially, their gaps in knowledge were extremely broad and were filled in with concocted deities. As knowledge expanded, those gaps shrank and today there aren’t many left. There are a few, such as not knowing how life originated, and some folks find comfort in these gaps, thinking the lack of full scientific understanding means that their god did it. But Lotz takes it even further. Even though we understand what an eclipse is and why it occurs, she still insists in foisting her fears and fantasies onto it.

In summary, Monday will bring one of the following: Divine judgement, mass extinction via a careening planet, reptilian generation, a mysterious object overhead, magical moon rays, or a standard solar eclipse. In any case, I’m there.

“Doctored evidence” (Exorcism)

possessed

Dr. Steven Novella is a leader of the skeptics movement and in this capacity regularly has to fend off damage done to the name of his employer, the Yale Medical School, by his coworker, Dr. David Katz. The latter uses the university’s reputation and resources to endorse all manner of unproven techniques and procedures and then calls them medicine.

On top of this, Novella has now another prominent man with Yale ties to do battle against. Dr. Richard Gallagher, a Yale alum psychologist, has expressed belief in demon possession and has found sympathetic forums in CNN and The Washington Post. The issue is not so much Gallagher’s belief as it is his dangling of his education and scientific background to try and bolster this contention. As we will see, this Appeal to Authority is only one of a half dozen logical fallacies Gallagher commits in making his case for diabolical disturbances.

CNN’s piece this month featured extensive quotes Gallagher fed to credulous interviewer John Blake. It also contained a token appearance by Novella, who is only mentioned beginning in the 63rd paragraph. Up until then, Blake had unquestioningly allowed Gallagher to talk of persons levitating, objects flying off shelves, victims speaking perfect Latin, and a 90-pound woman throwing a 250-pound man across the room.

The CNN pieces is less evidence for demonic possession than it is for Gallagher being in possession of fallacious thinking skills and faulty reasoning.

For example, he claims that allegedly possessed persons display hidden knowledge, such as how the exorcist’s mother died or what pets he owned. But this could be explained through cold reading. As to demonstrating unexpected strength, Novella noted this would not be unusual for someone hyped on emotions and fueled by adrenaline. As to the Latin, there is no telling if the person had ever studied the language, nor is there reason to suspect this would be a favored method of communication among Satan’s soldiers.

There is also the sizable issue of all this being hearsay. Gallagher provides no video evidence nor any other means of documenting his extraordinary claims. It is reasonable to expect more proof for claims of flying people and objects than a person saying it happened. There is no way to try and corroborate his tales or examine them for signs of trickery, hidden accomplices, or fabrication.

Further, even if these phenomenon had occurred, they are unexplained and it is the appeal to ignorance to fill in that gap with invisible visitors from the underworld.

Other than the anecdotes about defying the laws of gravity and physics, the cases cited by Gallagher are explicable through cold reading, educated guesswork, selective memory, and subjective validation.

What Gallagher lacks in evidence and substantiation, he makes up for in ad hoc reasoning. Specifically, he says demons won’t submit to lab studies or video analysis because they want to sow doubt, not confirm their existence.

To this, Novella retorted, “Skeptics will recognize this a special pleading, otherwise known as making up lame excuses to explain why you don’t have any actual evidence.”

Similarly, Gallagher credits demons with being tricky and able to avoid persons when they choose. Novella notes this is nearly identical to the rationale offered by aficionados of other unverified phenomenon. They claim aliens are too advanced to allow themselves to be observed, that Bigfoot has mastered stealth, that psychic powers are dulled by a skeptic’s negative vibes, or that western medicine is incapable of testing its eastern counterpart.

Novella reports that he has seen scores of videos of alleged exorcisms and they all lack any spectacular footage. No unimagined strength, no spinning heads, no sudden recitation of a dead tongue, nobody taking flight, no little girl slamming a man into the wall with a flick of her wrist.

Again, Blake tossed a bare bone to skeptics near the end of his story by giving Novella a brief say. But even this is followed by Gallagher being allowed to respond to his opponent’s criticism, while the token doubter is afforded no such luxury. Then the story ends on a sympathetic note for the exorcist.

I have noticed a decline in CNN’s standards. They still put out lots of good products, but allow themselves to be taken in by the occasional tripe, so this story was none too surprising. By contrast, I was saddened to see that the publication responsible for the Pentagon Papers and exposing Watergate had allowed itself to become a venue for such topics.

In his Post column, Gallagher gives passing praise to skepticism and science before veering sharply into the Appeals to Personal Incredulity and Ignorance. He wrote,  “The subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. I could only explain it as paranormal ability.”

A basic distinction of the skepticism and science Gallagher had earlier alluded to is that an event being unexplained does not make it inexplicable. Nor is the observer granted carte blanche to fill in the blanks with the answer he favors. For evidence to be of any value, it must be attained through the Scientific Method.  

Toward the end of his column, Gallagher fires off two more logical fallacies. He commits the Appeal to Consequences by bemoaning, “Those who dismiss these cases unwittingly prevent patients from receiving the help they desperately require.” And those psychologists who encourage mentally ill patients to engage in guerilla warfare against furtive monsters are committing malpractice.

Gallagher completes his traipse through the fallacy landscape with an ad hominem, calling skeptics “closedminded, “vitriolic,” “unpersuadable,” and “materialist.” Even if all that is true, it provides zero evidence that demons are being conjured on  Gallagher’s couch.

“Work through the Kinks” (Cults)

KC

Frank Zappa once quipped that the difference between a religion and a cult was the amount of real estate that they owned.

Certainly when it comes to the believeability of claims, the dividing line between the two can be blurred. In the 1980s, Kinks guitarist Dave Davies was the best-known member of a spiritual movement that encouraged telepathic communication with Venusians. Then in 2008, P.Z. Myers enraged Catholic League President Bill Donahue by desecrating a cracker. Donahue insisted that communion wafers transform into the flesh of a long-dead messiah when placed into a believer’s mouth.

Both Davies and Donahue were espousing bizarre beliefs backed by no evidence or testing, nor bolstered by an explanation of the mechanism behind these phenomena. Only a few thousand people would think Davies was experiencing what he claimed, whereas a billion people would agree with Donahue’s description of what goes on atop a worshipper’s tongue. Yet the first belief is considered part of a strange cult and the latter considered a ritual in a major religion.

While the popularity of a belief is irrelevant to its soundness, it is one of the factors most persons take into account when differentiating between a cult and a religion. Looking to expand Zappa’s definition, I found that what is traditionally referred to as a cult will usually have at least some of these distinctions:

  1. Being small in number. Small here is relative. Nearly 1,000 persons died in the Jonestown tragedy, so there were many followers, but compared to 800 million Hindus, the size of the congregation was minuscule.
  1. Intensely loyal. A person might go from Presbyterian to Methodist, or even from Buddhist to Shinto. But when David Koresh was plotting to induce Armageddon, none of his followers decide they’d rather be part of the doomsayers in Aum Shinrikyo.
  1. A near-mythical leader. Most religions have a key figure – a Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, or Moses. There are also living embodiments of faiths, such as the Pope, Dalai Lama, or Ayatollah Khomeini. But cult leaders are even more central to their movement because cults seldom survive the death of the anointed one. In some cases, such as with a Judaism offshoot in the mid-1990s, the cult ends because the leader’s death undercuts his claims of being immortal. Other times, such as with Koresh, Jim Jones, and Marshall Applewhite, the ruler leads a mass suicide/murder. Even if he (or, infrequently, she) was not considered immortal, the cult flitters after his/her death, because most followers held the leader in impossibly high regard. When serving the leader and the cause is no longer possible, the meaning in life is gone. If the movement does continue after the leader’s death, it usually splinters as surviving members fight for control. Even those subgroups can further break into smaller movements. There have been well over 100 Latter-Day Saint splinter groups, as well as spinoffs of those spinoffs, a la Good Times. I suspect the most interesting was the Homosexual Church of Jesus Christ.
  1. Claims of exclusive knowledge. This is probably the key component. Most cult leaders will claim to have one of the following: A) a direct line to a god or other enlightened creature, B) secret knowledge of an astronomical event that will usher in calamity or paradise, or C) an unwritten guidebook that will guarantee happiness and fulfillment.
  1. Demands for subservience and cash. Where it positively crosses the line into a cult is when the leader insists that followers too can share in this knowledge in exchange for unquestioned devotion. The secrets are available in exchange for your money, cars, spouse, children, freedom, and independent thought.
  1. Communal living. Keeping persons isolated ensures they hear only the leader’s words, that they rely on him for their needs, and that they have it constantly reinforced that he is the sole provider. Also, the cultists are conditioned to keep each other in line. Those disinclined to do so are selected for reeducation. Still further rebellion will result in temporary or permanent banishment, which might seem to an outsider like a relief, but can be frightening for someone who has lost their only friends and access to most cherished beliefs. In extreme cases, dissidents are murdered.

Based partly on the communal living, Conservapedia tried to argue that Jonestown was more a socialist dystopia than religion gone awry. While there were elements of the former, it is hardly reasonable to deny the religious nature of something called the Peoples TEMPLE, led by the REVEREND Jim Jones.

However, in other instances, secular social movements can assume cultic overtones. In an article for the vowel-happy online publication Aeon, Alexandra Stein related her experience with just such a group. She joined the O, a communist movement that determined what she would wear, who she could marry, and whether she could have children. Despite staying for six years, she never saw the leader, as she was too low on the totalitarian totem pole, a result of the strict hierarchy that distinguishes most cults. After leaving, she wrote Inside Out, a cathartic piece she described as “an effort to understand how I, an independent, curious, and intelligent 26-year-old, could have been captured and held by such a group for so long.”

One way cults succeed in doing this is by controlling the surroundings. One Christian cult highlighted Jesus’ statement about needing to hate your parents in order to convince members they should eliminate contact with their families. Some cults even forbid all consumption of outside sources and this makes it much easier to mold and bend someone. Ten years after Warren Jeffs’ conviction, members of the Fundamental Church of Latter Day Saints remain unaware of why their leader is no longer around. They can’t question if serial child rape is unbecoming of a high holy man if they are unaware the crimes occurred.  

Cults also rely on reward and punishment. Beatings, isolation, and blindfolding are all associated with cults, but rewards have their place, too. This can lead to instances of the Stockholm Syndrome, as small concessions can lead to an appreciation of the captor. The guy who yesterday had you chained to a wall while calling you useless ends the captivity and permits you toilet usage and a meal, complete with your favorite dessert, chocolate pudding. These manipulations create a rhythm of powerlessness, fear, and dependency, all in a closed system. The group causing the fear is also the one vanquishing it. On and on the cycle goes.

Cult leaders are a contradictory mix of charismatic and cruel. Without charm, the leader would be unable to incentivize persons to join the movement. But lacking authoritarian traits, the leader would be unable to control the followers.

There is usually an inner council, whose main job is to ensure the leader is imbued with an aura of invincibility, impenetrability, and mystery. Meanwhile, the leader keeps the inner circle off-balance by sowing distrust, spreading rumors, and promoting and demoting for whimsical reasons. Another way of keeping followers off center is to change previously irreversible rules following the leader’s further enlightenment.

For many, the cycle and isolation makes it impossible to realize they’ve been lied to. In her Aeon piece, Stein quoted Yeonmi Park, who escaped from North Korea. Park recalled how she passed starving orphans daily, yet still believed the regime’s propaganda that, in her country, children were treated as royalty.

People seldom see the horrors first. Instead, they are exposed to a vibrant believer, a website’s home page, or a slick publication, all of whom make the movement seem appealing and grounded in common sense. Scientology highlights reasonable philosophical positions and observations of the world in a pamphlet that that, for many, is their first exposure to the group. Only later does one learn that the organization teaches that aliens were ejected from a volcano and into our bodies. In the 1960s, Jim Jones portrayed himself, not entirely inaccurately, as a man dedicated to racial equality and the eradication of poverty. It was later that followers would learn about the tenet of genocide-by-sugary-drink.

At the same time, my first several exposures to the Catholic Church said nothing about crackers coming to life or the covering up of serial child molestation. Maybe Zappa was onto something.