More skeptical artillary

This just discovered:


It’s from an amazing website which I’ve added to the links on my sidebar. Access The Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense here for an interactive explanation of each element.

The Reason Stick

A blunt, shit-stained instrument wielded indiscriminately to bludgeon pseudoscience, superstition, blind faith and common or garden irrational bollocks.


Back to basics

English: Science icon from Nuvola icon theme f...I originally created this blog to rant about strange beliefs, political douche-baggery and things that are not so vile. And to promote science in the process off course. Off late I seem to have posted more about stuff of little or no consequence

Back to basics then…

It’s disconcerting, no infuriating when people bash science and level all sorts of wild accusations at it whether to protect their own narrow reasoning, or to promote it, or even benefit materially from it. Even more infuriating are people who wax lyrical about faith, and worse still are those who debase science to promote ideological thinking and false beliefs.

Recently Steven Pinker wrote a brilliant article in the New Republic, where he reveals why science is not the enemy. [Science is not the enemy of the Humanities].

To whet your appetite, here are some choice passages:

  • One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.”

  • Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

  • The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and super- stitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement).

  • To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

  • Just as common, and as historically illiterate, is the blaming of science for political movements with a pseudoscientific patina, particularly Social Darwinism and eugenics. Social Darwinism was the misnamed laissez-faire philosophy of Herbert Spencer. It was inspired not by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but by Spencer’s Victorian-era conception of a mysterious natural force for progress, which was best left unimpeded. Today the term is often used to smear any application of evolution to the understanding of human beings. Eugenics was the campaign, popular among leftists and progressives in the early decades of the twentieth century, for the ultimate form of social progress, improving the genetic stock of humanity. Today the term is commonly used to assail behavioral genetics, the study of the genetic contributions to individual differences.

  • And the critics should be careful with the adjectives. If anything is naïve and simplistic, it is the conviction that the legacy silos of academia should be fortified and that we should be forever content with current ways of making sense of the world. Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.

Now please do yourself a massive service and read the article in its entirety at the link provided above.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…

I belong to that group of individuals who believe that banning something only serves to push it underground and make it more desirable.

So it is with this in mind that I’m a little disturbed by an article in the Mail & Guardian about the banning of witchcraft and exploitation emanating from superstitious beliefs, by a political lobby group in the Indian state of Maharashtra.

Chanting to cure snakebites, claiming to be a reincarnated spouse to obtain sex, and charging for miracles could soon be banned by an Indian state seeking to stop charlatans preying on the vulnerable.

Many superstitions are widely held in India but a campaign group is lobbying hard for a new law in the western state of Maharashtra to outlaw several exploitative activities, with penalties of fines or up to seven years in jail. [more here]

According to the article, religious groups are already arguing that the banning is an attack on their religious freedoms. They will undoubtedly find support in the large Hindu population who thrive on superstition and archaic religious belief. The banning will ultimately only give their primitive needs added impetus when it becomes taboo.

While the proponents of the legislation known as Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill, mean well, they could in fact be causing more harm.

It’s not a pleasant situation to be in, and is a damning indictment on mankind which is still prone to being deceived by religious charlatans, mostly through their own ignorance.

The rest of us are damned if we do something about it and damned if we don’t.

Happy Eôstre, Happy Earth Day, Happy Everyday…

Earth Day
Image by AlicePopkorn via Flickr

Commencing today millions of Jews and Christians around the world will inadvertently commemorate the pagan festival of Eôstre.

Hopefully many, many more will be purposefully celebrating Earth Day – an event of much greater significance to humanity as a whole. How sad that man was once in awe of the power and majesty of the natural world in his pagan state, but now reveres invisible beings supposedly conceived of a fertile and enlightened imagination.

How arrogant are we to consider ourselves more advanced than other living things when we continue to destroy the world, sometimes in the very act of pursuing the ignorant and superstitious beliefs of antiquity.

While it may not be practical to revert back to our pagan roots, how can we once again inculcate those wholesome but primitive values that endeared the natural world to us, while discarding our superstitions and irrational beliefs? Ultimately we may not have a choice; it may be imperative for the future survival of all species.

So while you’re partaking in the festivities of this Easter weekend, spare a thought for Earth and its REAL wonders.

The Power of Prayer Part 2: Revenge of the Dendrites and Axons

Recently a work colleague sent me an e-mail explaining the reason she had not responded to an earlier request, was because her husband had taken ill and was in the ICU. Most people upon receiving such news, respond by saying “I’ll pray for him,” or “I’ll keep him in my prayers,” or something similar. Hell, many of my critics on this blog, are hell-bent on praying for me, and I’m in good health.

I could have said the same; it would have been totally harmless and my colleague would have been none the wiser as to my atheist status. However, I chose to merely say “I’m holding thumbs for his speedy return to good health,” which is probably worse than praying. Holding thumbs is the South African equivalent of “keeping my fingers crossed” and refers to a superstitious belief that crossing your fingers can miraculously cause a positive event to happen. So upon reflection, I chose to give solace to someone by invoking a lame superstition, which is as ineffectual as praying, but probably the safest thing for me to have done under the circumstances.

Since then I’ve been thinking about why I cannot or won’t casually say “I’ll pray for you,” to make some someone feel better; or even in jest. The thing is prayer is utterly futile; it has never been demonstrated to actually achieve anything, and I’m quite confident it never will.

People tend to ascribe natural positive results to unnatural causes. Clergymen spend their whole career selling this gross untruth. But it’s all about statistics.

More sick people regain their health, than die. The probability that some family member somewhere had prayed for a sick person to get better, is great. So, when the sick person does recover, it is natural for that family member to feel that his or her prayers had worked; and the religious spare no effort in retelling anyone who would listen, how their prayers had worked, when in fact the doctors are the ones who should be doing the boasting.

More people than not, pray every day to win the mega-million dollar lottery. I actually suspect that there are people who pray for this one reason alone. Therefore the chances of someone who had prayed to win the lottery, actually winning it, is quite high. So it would not be surprising if that winner remarked that his “prayers had come true.” There is therefore the likelihood of unlucky people tending to think that prayer works, and their turn will come; they just need to stick to it. The pray-to-win-the-lottery meme tends to grow and spread.

These are just two examples of a sort of confirmation bias – the fallacy of being willing to believe results which seems to confirm your belief, while rejecting other results which do not.

How strange that people are so eager to believe, without proper analysis and thought? And how sad?

I had a vision that bullshit would sell very well….and other stories from this Diwali weekend

Local news from this weekend is that between 50 and 100 people continue to visit the Zachey home in Benoni, South Africa, two years after then 18-year-old, Francesca Zachey claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary.

And despite advice that allegedly caused one of her mesmerized followers to be blinded after she obediently gazed into the sun, in an attempt to glimpse the Virgin Mary, Francesca maintains that she is god’s vessel who is changing people’s lives for the better. Not surprisingly, these days, the Zachey home spots a gift shop selling rosaries, prayer books and 120-Rand T-shirts. Perhaps she would have us believe that a rosary and a T-shirt make-over can work wonders for your life.

Maybe Francesca really thinks she had a supernatural vision, but the cynic in me concludes that ultimately, that vision became the realization that bullshit sells, and very well too.

In a non-related incident, Hindus celebrated (or not) Diwali, on Saturday, October 17th  this weekend. Better known as the Festival of Lights, this religious observance happened to fall on the same day as the religious month of Purtassi was ending. Purtassi is apparently observed in obeisance to the planet Saturn (which supposedly represents a trinity of Hindu gods and goddesses), and is marked by abstinence and strict fasting, while Diwali is more joyous and associated with feasting. Cynical Hindus would be inclined to believe that either the gods were playing a cruel joke on them to curb their merry-making, by causing the two religious festivals to clash, or that the Hindu priests who interpret the solar and lunar movements in the heavens, and set dates thereby, had got it a tad wrong. I’m inclined to go with the latter interpretation.

And on this particular Saturday morning which was overcast with intermittent rain, I happened to overhear my friend’s wife who is incidentally a staunch Hindu [rather forced to overhear, as she is inclined to speak rather loudly], mention that it was an unlucky day and Hindus were not permitted to do anything until midday, but all feasting must be postponed until the next day entirely. She backed up her assertion by saying that even the sun was not shining as usual. Evidently, the overcast and rainy nature of the day was merely coincidental. She then went on to proclaim that since  rain was symptomatic of the Diwali festival [not in those exact words], she was thus assured in her conviction that the timing of Diwali was right. Yet again, the seasonal rain at this time of year was merely coincidental. Apparently, she had also forgotten the many years, I can clearly remember when there was not a spot of rain about, during Diwali.

Francesca is representative of many others who apparently have supernatural visions, and the people who flock to them are symptomatic of the intense desire to believe, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. My friend’s wife is also representative of many people from various different religious persuasions who still believe that the stars and the planets somehow influence their lives and destinies.

It’s rather sad that in spite of all the information available so widely and freely, superstition and irrational thinking still plays such a dominant role in the lives of ordinary people. Perhaps that’s the problem; people are quite satisfied to remain ordinary.