Tuesday, January 24, 2006


I've been posting my comments to the internet, off and on, for years. You can check out my original commentary page here: http://www.io.com/unigames/commentary.html.

Today, I figured it was finally time to take advantage of the technology that's evolved to help folks do what I've been doing all along. The first thing I did was migrate all of my old postings over here. That's why every post preceding this one has its own separate date - because that's when I originally wrote it.

I don't know when I'll post something new. As you can see from my previous writings, sometimes I shut up for long periods of time. But hey, maybe this whole blog thing will inspire me. Or else, maybe some new hideous religious or right-wing political nonsense will get me started. One never knows, does one?


September 7, 2005

When the religious right accuses liberals of being "anti-Christian", the unspoken accusation is that "most liberals are atheists". This is, of course, false. But most atheists *are* liberals - so when atheists speak up on social or political issues, they tend to say the same kinds of things that other liberals say. The *point* of the religious right's accusation is to get Christians to wonder if atheists talk like liberals because liberalism is inherently atheistic.

According to polls, atheists make up 7 to 15% of the population. If most atheists are Democrats, and about half of the voting public are Democrats, then atheists may represent 14 to 30% of all Democrats. Again, *most* Democrats aren't atheists... but atheists make up a very significant chunk of the Democratic vote. Considering how close recent elections have been, the right wing has a very big incentive to see the Democratic party drive atheists away.

The Right Wing's spinmeisters are not stupid. I'm certain they realized that the Democratic party would resspond to such an accusation by playing the, "we're Christians too" card. And I've listened to the Christian Democrats who've stepped forward to make that case. Unfortunately, the way they say it displays no sensitivity whatsoever to atheist Democrats.

Jim Wallis is the main poster-child for Christianizing the Democratic Party. Browsing his name on Alta Vista for 30 seconds, I came up with an interview with him (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/106/54.0.html), which yielded these quotes:

"[I hope] the Democrats can really find a new moral vocabulary and change not just language but the content of some of their positions to speak, to frame, and to envision their agenda in a way that is shaped by faith and values."

Values are fine. Everyone has values. But when Wallis suggests that the Democratic Party's agenda should be "shaped by faith", he is saying that atheists (people who do not operate on "faith") do not have what it takes to contribute to the Party's agenda. What place, then, do atheists have in Jim Wallis' Democratic Party? Here's another quote:

"You don't win by saying, "I'm religious, so my position should prevail." Or, "God spoke to me and gave me the fix for Social Security." No, you say, "I'm motivated by my faith; here's why." You don't have to be apologetic about that. Then you have to persuade your fellow citizens that this is the best thing for the common good, for all of us—not just for religious people, but for all of us."

It is "the best thing for the common good" when a politician is "motivated by faith"? In other words, it's *against* the common good when atheists hold public office. Gee, thanks.

It should be no surprise to hear Christian Democrats say things like that, and I don't think it was a surprise to the religious right. Christianity *by its very nature* is insensitive toward atheists. The Democratic Party risks driving away 14 to 30% of its own members when *this* is its response to the religious right's ridiculous accusation.

Instead, the Democratic party should put atheist Democrats on the air to say, "look, we're only a small part of the Democratic Party, and we support the freedom of all Americans to practice whatever religion they prefer, or none if they prefer not." That response would be direct and to the point, and would not insult a single Christian Democrat.


November 8, 2004

A Christian recently asked me:

"If you were in a situation to discuss/debate the question of 'Why would one need to consider Christ?' - how would you approach/answer if you were to take the side of the one presenting the view of a Christian?"

I thought this was an excellent question. So here is my response.


The basic argument of Christianity is this:

1) Human beings have souls, which (after death) go on to an afterlife.

2) Human beings deserve an afterlife ranging from oblivion to eternal torture (depending on the particular denomination).

3) To get a better afterlife, one must accept Jesus as one's lord and savior.

As a Christian, my first job would be to prove that there is such a thing as a soul. Due to the complete lack of credible evidence of souls, this would appear to be a difficult task. However, it turns out that most people are terrified by the thought of death. As a result, they're desperate to believe that death is not the end. That makes it suprisingly easy (though a dishonest abuse of their fears) to convince them of the existence of souls.

In fact, most Christians feel comfortable simply assuming that 'everyone' already believes in souls, so they skip this step entirely. Unfortunately, they're often right.

My second job would be to prove that humans deserve a less than optimal afterlife experience. Again, there is no credible evidence that this is the case. But again, human nature comes to the rescue. Most people possess a set of instincts called "conscience", but few possess absolute self control. As a result, almost everyone does things they feel guilty about.

To magnify this guilt, I would present them with a mock standard of perfection (Jesus), and harp upon how they fail to meet that standard. It will be necessary to concoct bogus arguments in support of Jesus' actual existence, along with a defense of the Bible as a reliable source of information about him, in order to convince them to take this standard of perfection seriously.

These arguments only need to work well enough to convince the average person on the street. Intellectually armed unbelievers won't be convinced, but as long as most people can, minority rational objections can be rudely dismissed.

All of this is simplified when dealing with extremely gullible perople who take the story of the fall of man in Genesis at face value. In their case, personal guilt isn't even an issue.

Once all this is accomplished, the subject's own inability to attain perfection will force them to accept that they deserve some sort of penalty.

Finally, I would have to prove that accepting Jesus is sufficient to free them from this (actually undeserved) punishment. There is nothing to support this other than the Bible, but since I've already gotten past the task of convincing the subject to believe what the Bible says, no further support is necessary. And viola! Another believer, ripe for the plucking.

So if I "had to" argue pro-Jesus, I would do it exactly the same way Christians do. The only difference is that I would understand what a cynical and manipulative argument it is, and why it works.



November 11, 2002

Christians often attempt to defend their belief in the unproven claims of the Bible by arguing that since atheists haven't proved their god doesn't exist, atheists take just as big a leap of faith as they have. Here's a simple thought experiment you can to which demonstrates why it takes LESS of a leap to reject an unproven claim than to accept it.

Imagine that I have a cardboard box, 1' x 1' x 1' in size. And you guess that it contains a live baby chipmunk. How could we determine the ODDS that your guess is correct?

To start, we'd need to compile a list of all the things that can fit inside 1' cube cardboard boxes.

We could leave out anything that you KNOW isn't in there (for example, the shirt that you are wearing). We could also leave out anything that we know to be non-existent, like the real Luke Skywalker's actual lightsabre.

Even cutting as many corners as possible, it's going to be an extremely long list. And we're not even counting all the things in the universe that might fit, but we've never even heard of.

For sake of argument, let's say it has 1 million entries on it (though if you think about it, there are very likely MORE than a million different things that can fit in a 1' space). But let's say a million.

Now how many of those million things are live baby chipmunks? The answer is: one in a million. And so that is the odds that your guess is correct: one in a million. So it's clear that in this thought experiment it takes much more of a leap to believe your guess than it does to reject it.

Is the question of God's existence similar enough to the question "what's in the box" to make this thought experiment apt? The answer is yes.

Christian theologians try to improve their odds by dishonestly trimming down the list of alternatives, or by dishonestly re-defining the Christian god so that he won't get trimmed from anybody else's list.

Generally speaking, conservative theologians brush off the god claims of all other religions as if they were irrelevant (despite the fact that nobody ever proved that Osiris, Thor, Kuan-Yin, Allah, etc. don't exist, either), while liberal theologians claim that "all gods are the same god". The goal shared is to trim the choices down to TWO: "he either exists or he doesn't", so that they can claim at least a 50/50 change of being right.

The other thing they BOTH do is incrementally deprive their god of characteristics which earlier Christians attributed to him, but which now no longer fit. Christians used to believe that God lived in a Heaven that was in the sky within our own universe, but now (due to the evidence gathered by telescopes) they've moved him off into another plane of existence. This would be like a person who claimed that the box contained a bowling ball - and then when the box is weighed and found to be too light, they claim they meant it was a styrofoam bowling ball all along. Changing your guess while claiming it's still the same guess (the way that Christians claim they're still talking about the same god, even though they've changed so many of the details of his description) is CHEATING.

In fact, the Christian god is only one entry on a long list of creator gods of all the religions that ever existed (hundreds, if not thousands), not to mention alternatives such as "the universe was created by intelligent aliens", "the universe is an illusion", several competing formulations of Big Bang cosmology, and an indeterminate number of other possibilities that nobody ever thought of yet.

The only fair and honest way to figure out these mysteries is to give each possibility a fair hearing, and then if it turns out to violate the evidence - or to have no evidence in its favor in the first place - you strike it from the list. What's left is worthy of serious consideration. This process is called science, and this is why the Big Bang theory trumps Creationism. It's not that it's impossible that the Big Bang might be wrong. It's that the Big Bang still deserves its place on the list of possibilities worth considering.


October 26, 2002

The Republicans are one Senatorial seat away from controlling all three branches of our government. That has not happened since 1929, and it would have a devastating effect on all aspects of our society - much more so this time around, since the Republicans are currently under the control of extreme right wing Christian fundamentalist conservatives. They have especially focused on Minnesota, where their candidate Norm Coleman has been in a tight race with incumbent liberal Democrat Senator Paul Wellstone. Coleman is a right wing conservative Christian, hand picked by the White House to oppose Wellstone - who Bush obliquely referred to as, "one of these polarizer-type people, pitting one group of people against another". There's irony for you. When Coleman introduced Bush at a campaign stop last week (Bush's 4th appearance on Coleman's campain trail), he said: "George Bush is a leader for our times. When we sing 'God Bless America,' it is a prayer, and I believe this person is part of God's answer."

Yesterday, Senator Wellstone, his family, top campaign officials and everyone else on board their plane died in a plane crash minutes after takeoff from a Minnesota airport. The Democratic party is scrambling to come up with a replacement candidate, with only 10 days left until the election. And you know the religious right is viewing this as another "part of God's answer" to their governmentally sanctioned prayers.

This is the future of our nation we're talking about, folks. I won't tell you who you should vote for, but I will tell you that if you don't go out and vote against the right wing conservative fundamentalist takeover of America, then you are helping to hand them the reins of power. And you know what they will do with that power, because they make no secret of their intentions. They'll use public school to indoctrinate the next generation of religious robots, and to marginalize any child who doesn't goose-step in line. They'll remove real science from public school and replace it with Biblical fairy tales. They'll open the floodgates of public funds to "faith based" everything - from social services to mental health care to who knows what else. Faith based lawn care, maybe. They'll take away the reproductive freedom of women. They'll put up Christian insignia on every aspect of our governemnt - promoting their claim to America's, authority, legal system, even America's very existence. They will cement their control of the Supreme Court by installing right wing fundamentalist Christian judges. They'll bring about the conflagration they're hoping for in the Middle East, which they believe will lead to the END OF THE WORLD and the return of their beloved Jesus.

I'm not a prophet. I am not predicting the future. This is not a slippery slope argument that I'm concocting in order to scare you. I am telling you about the power that the right wing fundamentalists are ONE SENATE SEAT AWAY from attaining, and what they have already said they want to do with that power.

I can't predict what they'll do after that. But maybe YOU can. When they've had their conflagration and the world is still here and still no Jesus, where do you think they will turn their attention next? We know they don't like anyone who isn't a Christian Fundamentalist - particularly atheists. Bush's daddy is on record saying that atheism is incompatible with citizenship. And they've already made it clear that they consider the Constitution nothing but a minor annoyance (at least when they're not twisting it to pretend it says what they want it to say). Do you think once they have the unchecked power to re-interpret or re-write it that your own Constitutional freedoms will be safe? This isn't crystal ball stuff. Look to Afghanistan if you want to see what lies in the future of an America ruled by religious fundamentalism. The Taliban publicly executed infidels. I can't say it'll go that far here. But I can ask: once the Christian fundamentalists control every branch of our government… what's to stop from happening here?

If you are not yet registered to vote, get registered now. If you can vote early and haven't voted yet, go out and vote now. And if you can't vote until Nov. 5, find out where you'll need to go and when you'll have to be there now. If you have friends or relatives who oppose the religious right, and you don't know for sure that they're going to vote, go and remind them now. I do not want to wake up on Nov. 6 to an America run exclusively by right wing conservative Christian fundamentalists. Do you?

Nov. 14, 2002

Well, what do you know. The Republicans now control Congress and the presidency. And the news media are already reporting that the religious right is claiming the credit, and clamoring to have their agenda implemented pronto. PAY ATTENTION. And don't say nobody warned you.


February 26, 2002

Someone recently said to me, "With both science and religion it is, quite frankly, easy to find the good and bad in both. Let's look for the good."

It is possible to "look for the good" in just about anything, and find it too if you set your standards low enough. The weight of the bad compared with the good MATTERS. So let's look at both the good AND the bad in religion and in science, and see how they compare.

The good in religion is that it provides comfort and a set of moral rules for its adherents. The bad in religion is that its price is belief in unjustified supernatural claims. This is bad because the responsibility for justifying a claim falls on whoever issues it. Religion reacts to this responsibility irresponsibly, by demanding "faith".

The good in science is that it discovers things about the universe which we are justified in believing. The bad in science is that its discoveries can be used by bad people to do bad things. This is bad because when bad people get powerful tools, they can do worse things. The danger of abuse does not invalidate the justification for belief in science's discoveries, however.

These two sets of characteristics are often seen as complimentary. Science provides a justification for believing certain things while religion does not, and religion tells people how to be good while science does not...

But that is a false symmetry. The things which science has provided a justification for believing do not include the claims of religion. In fact, science has provided a justification for believing that many of the claims made by religion are false. And since religion's claims are the reason for its moral rules, it follows that if religion's claims aren't true then its moral rules carry no weight.

But religious faith doesn't merely result in a false sense of comfort and an invalid justification for rules of behavior. It is an active obstacle to science. Every time the advancement of human knowledge uncovers clear evidence that one or more of religion's claims are not merely unjustified but WRONG, the adherents of religion (who fear the loss of their comfort and moral rules) become motivated to attack that new understanding.

We certainly do need a way to decide whether a particular use of science's discoveries is desirable or not. But until religion can provide an actual justification for belief in its own core assumptions, it cannot show that its moral rules are valid. We will have to look elsewhere. A number of ethical systems have been proposed which do not require faith in unproven supernatural claims. That is where we need to be looking.


September 18, 2001

I read this essay aloud on Sept. 16 when the Atheist Community of Austin held a public secular remembrance ceremony for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.


The word I've been hearing over and over again to describe Tuesday's terrible attack is "senseless". And that pretty much sums it up. These terrorist attacks made no sense. They were deeply irrational, and display no grasp of reality whatsoever. We can imagine what the perpetrators hoped to accomplish, plotting in darkened rooms half a world away. They may have hoped for the collapse of our economy, our demoralization, and our retreat from involvement in the Middle East. But here in America and around the world, in the clear light of day, we cannot imagine how anyone with a lick of sense could have thought that these attacks would accomplish those goals.

It hasn't worked, of course. Senseless acts seldom do. It has served only to rouse the world's anger, and to instill civilized nations with a great resolve to root out those responsible, and bring them to justice. Right now they're trying to figure out who that is. Some people think it's taking too long - that when the evidence *began* to point at Osama Bin Laden in his Afghanistan hideout, we should have instantly stormed in there and slaughtered the lot of them. But that early evidence could have been wrong. Bin Laden could have fled elsewhere. An attack before we know what's going on would be ALSO be senseless, because it would not accomplish OUR goal. Some say that "attacking" won't work even after we've located the perpetrators. I'm just glad to see that kind of discussion taking place, because whatever the response is, we don't want it to be senseless.

*Senselessness* is the one enemy behind Tuesday's attacks that we have positively identified. We don't have to wait for any investigations to be concluded before we declare war on it. And we don't have to join the military to fight it. I can tell you for a fact that senselessness is not only hiding out in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Senselessness is the human propensity to believe things that are simply not worthy of belief. It is a tool that unscrupulous manipulators use to take advantage of our hopes and fears. Somebody used it to convince those terrorist pilots to sacrifice their lives, and there are those who use it right here in America. You can see it at work in the words of Jerry Falwell - who just told his flock that these attacks are America's fault for not being fundamentalist enough to satisfy his god. MOST Christians don't say that. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say that. You can see it in other suicide cults like Heaven's Gate - whose leader convinced his followers that a simple comet was really an alien spacecraft come to liberate the few who were brave enough to drink cyanide. You can hear it in the voices of those calling for intolerance against ALL people of Arab descent living in America. You can see it at work in ads for TV psychics, who suck the financial veins of anyone foolish enough to believe they're able to see the future in tarot cards, or speak to your dead relatives. And you can hear it in the words of Osama Bin Laden, when he tells his followers that to murder for Allah is to become a hero. Most Muslims don't say that. Osama Bin Laden and a handful of other extremists say that.

We are in a war against senselessness. We can all fight this war by refusing to be tricked by hucksters and charlatans. We can fight it by speaking out whenever we hear them weaving their webs of deceit. We can fight it by questioning the ideas we're offered, and actually caring enough about the truth to make sure a claim is true BEFORE we consent to believe it. Ask Jerry Falwell to prove not only that his god exists, but that he is God's legitimate spokesman. Osama Bin Laden claims the exact same thing. Get a second opinion from qualified scientists before you agree that a comet is really a spaceship. Stop and ask yourself if the terrorists' *race* was really responsible for their attack before you throw a brick through an Arab-owned shop window. Demand to know why nobody who claims to have psychic powers warned us before Tuesday's attack became a reality. And if anybody comes to you and says, "Shoot that abortion doctor. Beat up that homosexual. Fly that plane into a building full of civilians. God is love, but for this he's making you an exception"... laugh right in that person's face, and then warn your children, friends, and neighbors about them.

Of course I'm picking obvious examples because I don't want to lose any of you by questioning something you already believe. But senselessness is a tool used by manipulators to bend you to their will - and they will keep trying until they come up with a senseless claim so desirable or so beautiful or so frightening to you that you'll feel you just HAVE TO believe it. And you'd better re-examine your own cherished beliefs, because it's possible that they've already got you.

This won't be over when we capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, because terrorism existed without him and can continue to exist without him. It won't be over when every nation on Earth agrees not to harbor terrorists, because terrorists like the Unibomber can operate right here in America where we don't tolerate terrorism for a second. But we DO turn a deaf ear to the most outrageous lies and nonsense. I once sat in a public restaurant and overheard a man in the next booth carefully explaining to his companion why Jesus wanted everyone in America to own a gun. I cringed, but I said nothing. I will never again allow something like that to pass unchallenged. THAT is how senselessness, hate, and terrorism survive in our very midst.

Terrorism won't stop, won't hardly slow down until *senselessness* is made so shameful and embarrassing that nobody will be able to say such things without challenge. It won't be over until we drive irrationality and senselessness itself into hiding. Not by DENYING the right of free speech to people like Falwell or the Unibomber or even Osama Bin Laden - but by using our OWN right of free speech to expose and ridicule the senselessness of their claims.


September 11, 2001

I just got a phone call from a friend of mine, telling me to turn on the news. Terrorists have hijacked a couple of passenger planes and flown them into the World Trade Center, killing all of the passengers and untold hundreds of people in at least one of the towers, which has collapsed. The news is still very fragmentary and confused. By the time you read this, you'll know more than I know now.

How could anybody do something like this? One word: theism. Belief in gods. These terrorists, almost certainly Muslim, believe in a divine lawgiver who makes the rules. Atrocities become okay in their minds because they believe their divine lawgiver can make them okay by simply saying they're okay. Those terrorists believed they were buying themselves a place in the Muslim heaven.

This is what happens when people believe in things without evidence. Sometimes they wind up believing harmless things, and sometimes they wind up believing dangerous things. Without a basis in solid evidence, it's possible to believe anything.

And it doesn't matter that the religion in this case was Islam. The Bible is equally full of stories about a divine lawgiver whose command justifies atrocities. Try this for example:

Exodus 32, verse 27: And he said to them, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, 'Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.'"

Any god that would call for such a thing is evil and should not be worshipped.

The self-proclaimed spokemen for this "divine lawgiver" are now coming out of the woodwork, taking advantage of everyone's shock and dismay in order to dig their claws even deeper into our culture. Don't fall for it! Belief in gods is the cause of atrocities like this, not the solution. The solution is for each and every one of us to reject any voice, human or divine, who tells us it's okay to do something that we know is wrong.

It is time for humanity to abandon the single biggest excuse we've ever given ourselves to be horrible to each other: gods.


-Jeff Dee

Others Who Agree:

"Religion's Misguided Missiles"
Richard Dawkins, 9/15/2001


June 10, 2001

If you’re an atheist who travels a lot, like I do, here’s a fun game you can play in your hotel room. It’s called “Hide The Bible”.

As soon as you get settled in, check all the drawers until you find the ubiquitous Gideon’s Bible. Then the fun begins.

Explore your room, looking for a good place to hide that Bible. Often there’s a space underneath the dresser, enclosed on three sides but open at the back. I’m pretty sure they don’t move those dressers very often, so it’ll take ‘em a long time to find it there! If you can’t get the Bible under the dresser that way, try pulling out one of the bottom drawers. Sometimes you can get it like that, and even if you can’t, there may still be room to fit the bible underneath the drawer itself. In hotels that have big TVs, the TV stand offers another excellent hiding place. One time my wife found a way to wedge a hardcover bible’s cover in a thin gap in the wall underneath the sink. You never know what cool places you’ll find to hide it in!

Don’t hide it under the sheets, or even between the mattresses, because it’ll be found right away. And don’t break anything in order to create a hiding place, because it’s not your property. It’s not even stealing! The Bible is still in the room, they just don’t know where you put it.

The great thing about Hide the Bible is that when a hotel finds a Bible missing, they replace it with a new one donated by the Gideons, paid for by their Christian followers. This is a great way to make Christians waste money, because the Bible isn’t really gone! It’s still there. And some day, the hotel is gonna find it. And when they do, they’re gonna go… "HEY! We’ve got TOO MANY BIBLES!"

Which is what we atheists have been saying all along.

-Jeff Dee

Update: August 23, 2001

I just received the following email:

"I played "Hide the Bible" over the weekend, but someone beat me to my hiding place. I lifted the nightstand, only to find another bible! I ended up placing it under the dresser with a note saying..."No, please try another location." I love that game." - Steve G.

That's great to hear, Steve! Apparently "Hide the Bible" is beginning to catch on. Send your own "Hide the Bible" stories to: antix@io.com


June 30, 2000

Much of the negative gut reaction people have toward the prospect of genetic engineering stems from a mistaken deification of the process of evolution. "We mustn't mess with our genes", they say, "Because evolution made things the way they are and it is wiser than us."

But if evolution is wise, then so is a coffee filter. All evolution does is take lines of creatures who change over time and filter out the less well adapted ones by virtue of natural selection. It has no foresight, and its reactions to changes in the environment, impressive as they may be, move at a snail's pace compared to our intelligent, forward-thinking technological developments.

These Neo-Luddites are always going on about the risk of mistakes. And in a certain sense, they have a point - human beings can and do make mistakes, and we ought to make a serious effort not to screw up.

But this is an unfair basis on which to compare human ingenuity to evolution. Evolution is never accused of making "mistakes" simply because evolution has no intent to begin with. It just does what it does, and whatever it does "just is". Then the Neo-Luddites proclaim that since we make mistakes and evolution doesn't, evolution is wiser than us and we shouldn't tinker with our genes. This amounts to an irrational deification of evolution itself.

What they forget is that tinkering, making mistakes, and learning from them so that we can tinker more effectively in the future is OUR nature. The process of evolution, which they elevate to godhood, made us the way we are.

They think that what we need to do is learn not to tinker at all - or at least not until we can show that we're wiser than evolution. But not to tinker denies our own nature, and the idea of nature's wisdom is an illusion that we can only overcome by dispelling it completely.


November 19, 1999

Someone on a "New Age" newsgroup recently said to me, "please, close your mind and open your heart"

This pretty much sums up what's so completely and utterly wrong with New Age mysticism.

Our minds are how we figure stuff out. Our *hearts* (by which I assume he meant emotions - hearts are organs for pumping blood) are only instinctual impulses we've inherited from our ancestors.

Food tastes good because the creatures in our ancestry that enjoyed eating made more of an effort to keep themselves fed, so they were more likely to survive and pass that impulse down to us. Having a strong bond with a mate feels good because our ancestors who formed strong mating bonds were more likely to raise offspring who survived, passing *that* impulse down to us.

But these impulses are not universally good (people whose impulse to eat is too strong have weight problems, for example), and their existence does not imply that things like "love" are externally real.

Our emotions can only tell us what we want. They cannot tell us whether what we want actually exists, or whether it would be in our best interest to have them. Those questions require us to use our minds.

Yes, it can make us unhappy not to get what we want. But turning off our minds, and simply believing that any old nonsense we find appealing must be *true*, makes us stupid.

I'll take unhappiness over stupidity any day. At least if your mind is still working, you have some chance of figuring out a way to be happy *without* becoming stupid!


December 15, 1998

It seems to me that religious faith amounts to the glorification of ignorance.

The sort of faith I'm talking about is summed up in the Bible (Hebrews, chapter 11, verse 1). In the New International Version, it reads: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see".

Religious faith is the Christian explanation for their claim to know certain things about the universe which reason and evidence alone don't justify. They generally admit that these things can't be established through reason alone, and so they invoke faith to carry them over the gap between what they can honestly claim to know through reason and evidence, and what they wish to believe is true nonetheless.

Of course, some Christians may argue that some of the beliefs they've arrived at through religious faith can nevertheless be justified using reason and examining the evidence. But I'm not here to talk about reason-based defenses of these claims; I'm here to discuss the nature of faith-based belief. To the extent that a belief arrived at through faith can be justified through reason, faith in that belief was unnecessary in the first place.

Let's look at that quote again: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see".

It's important to notice that evidence and reasoning aren't mentioned anywhere in this Biblical definition of faith. In fact, evidence is excluded by the reference to "what we do not see". Evidence is, by definition, what we *do* see. Reasoning isn't specifically prohibited, but by excluding the possibility of evidence on which to *apply* the power of reason, reasoning is certainly crippled.

This is what I mean by equating religious faith with ignorance. It deals with drawing conclusions about things when there's really little or no way of knowing.

So religious faith is used to justify belief in things that lack sufficient evidence to be justified by reason. Reasoning can't justify these things because reasoning involves the examination of arguments based on evidence. If the evidence is insufficient, reason dictates that belief is unwarranted - no matter how much people may want to believe. Religious faith, on the other hand, can be used to justify belief in anything. Thus we encounter attacks on the very idea of reason, by those who have found religious faith to be the only support for their cherished beliefs.

A fine example of this religious faith-based view of the value of reasoning comes from Martin Luther. He said, "Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God."

When we listen to stories of conversion to Christianity, we don't hear about people using reasoning to arrive at religious faith - or if they make that claim, we find that their reasoning doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

Much more common are stories such as one I found in the July 20, 1998 issue of Newsweek, in the cover story "Science Finds God." They told of astronomer Alan Sandage, who "was nagged by mysteries whose answers were not to be found in the glittering panoply of supernovas. Among them, why is there something rather than nothing? Sandage began to despair of answering such questions through reason alone, and so, at the age of 50, he willed himself to accept God."

Now think about that. When rational thought and honest scientific inquiry hadn't yielded the answers he wanted, he took his ignorance (the gap between what he could honestly claim to know and what he personally *wanted* to believe), and labelled it "God".

It's quite understandable that at the age of 50 the man might have been feeling a little pressured by his impending mortality, and desperate to overcome his fear of the unknown. But I'm not here to talk about whether such a move is "understandable" or not - I'm here to talk about what is actually going on when somebody takes that step. Do they really *learn* anything about the nature of the universe, as Christians would have it? Or are they merely comforting themselves with a psychological band-aid?

Of course, there are all kinds of situations in which one might find oneself forced to act on little or no information. If you're lost in a cave without a light, you may as well get moving and take your chances if the only alternative is sitting there and starving to death. But to conclude that whatever way you choose to go *is* the way out, merely because you chose to go that way, is unjustified. A guess is still just a guess, even if you have no choice but to make one. Guessing is not the same as knowing.

The best argument I've heard from Christians about why it's okay to have faith in things that aren't justified by reason goes something like this: "No knowledge is 100% conclusive, but we still need to be able to make decisions about things. The act of reaching a decision on less than 100% conclusive evidence is an act of faith, and we all have to do this all the time, so what's the big deal?"

The big deal is this. Every time we decide to make a decision on less than 100% conclusive evidence, we risk being wrong. It may be unavoidable, but it's still risky. The less conclusive the evidence is, the bigger the risk. So this argument only supports "faith" when it's based on *very* strong (if not 100% conclusive) evidence. It does not justify belief in things which lack sufficient evidence to be justified through reason.

Furthermore, because of the inherent risk of error, even the weak sort of "faith" this argument justifies ought to be viewed as a distasteful necessity - not something glorious and wonderful that we should embrace joyfully. We should use it with caution, and always seek to minimize the need for it.

But Christians exercise an extreme sort of faith, far beyond anything practical or necessary - and they think this is a wonderful thing. Again, from the Bible (Matthew chapter 17, verse 20 this time):

"And Jesus said unto them, ... If he have faith as agrain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you."

Even if Jesus was only being metaphorical, this is an extraordinarily strong statement. Jesus is saying that if you are sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see, you gain (at least metaphorically) the equivalent of omnipotence: NOTHING will be impossible for you. Wow.

That's is what I mean when I say that religious faith is the *glorification* of ignorance.

Now, there are undoubtedly things that are true despite our lack of sufficient evidence to establish their truth through reason. The question is whether or not religious faith is a reliable means of acquiring accurate information about those things. And the answer is no.

We can only determine the accuracy of a claim through evidence and reason. So, when evidence in support of a claim is lacking, the claim cannot be said to be reliable.

Christains seem to realize this, and continually attempt to support their religious faith by invoking reason. The problem with this is that having started out by adopting religious faith, and then applying reason afterward, their reasoning is tainted by the bias of their religious faith. Remember that biblical definition of faith? How can someone be objective about things they're already *certain* of?

It's honest to admit that one does not know what one does not know. In their deeply emotional conviction that many things which they cannot prove to be true are true nonetheless, Christians fail this test of honesty and treat their ignorance as if it were a virtue.


September 11, 1998

Okay, the Starr report is finally out. You can read it here (http://www.cnn.com/starr.report/).

Please keep in mind that I’m not a lawyer, and this is a short article so I’m not going to go into all of this in complete detail. This is just my opinion. Also, I’m a Democrat, so of course there is a danger that partisan bias may be influencing my opinion. Just do me the favor of thinking over what I have to say before you assume that. Thanks!

President Clinton’s defense team’s rebuttal has two sides: an emotional one and a legal one.

The emotional side of the President’s defense consists of the charges that 1) this is all a big right-wing conspiracy, and 2) the Republicans are just trying to embarrass the President.

Is it a conspiracy? The Starr investigation certainly went on way too long, moving on to investigate rumors about the President’s personal life after it failed to turn up anything incriminating about Whitewater. I find it pretty easy to imagine rooms full of conservatives jumping up and down with glee because they finally "got" that damn liberal Bill Clinton. In fact, I’ve actually met some of these people. But while I’m deeply disgusted with their attitude, I don’t know of anything their attitude has prompted them to do that’s particularly illegal. So… conspiracy? Not in the legal sense, but this is not a legal defense. It’s an emotional one. And emotionally, I can understand how the President feels.

Are the Republicans trying to embarrass him? Of course they are. I’m imagining those rooms full of celebrating conservatives again. But frankly, President Clinton deserves to be embarassed. While knowingly under the scrutiny of an investigative team motivated by right-wing fundamentalist conservatives, he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. And then he lied about it. Starr and his backers may be creeps, but they haven’t embarassed the President. He embarassed himself. I can’t really sympathize with him on this one.

It strikes me as particularly ironic that President Clinton is now making a big show of religiosity as part of his effort to appear contrite. Yet the Christian religion he’s now snuggling up to is the source of the moral rules he ran afoul of in the first place. People in Europe, much less in the grip of religious conservatism than we are, can’t figure out why Americans think this is such a big scandal.

Here’s my opinion about that. I’m not a big fan of Christianity, but I *do* take commitments very seriously. As a married man, I feel that promises I made to my wife are promises I’m obliged to honor. Anybody who expects to have my respect needs to live up to their comittments, too.

However, it’s also true that my wife and I don’t feel bound by the marital traditions of Christianity. I won’t tell you how or even if we’ve violated those traditions, because that’s none of your damn business. My point is this: I don’t care if Bill Clinton has sex out of wedlock, as long as in the process he isn’t breaking any solemn promises he’s made to anyone. I have no idea what sort of arrangement he has with his wife. As far as we know, she may have no problem with him engaging in extramarital sex. But whatever their arrangement is, it’s nobody’s business but their own. The public assumption that they must’ve bought into the standard Christian monogamous arrangement is just another example of how firmly Christianity has America in its death grip.

Now let’s consider President Clinton’s legal defense. It also has two main points.

Firstly, Ken Starr only has Monica’s word for it that the President lied. If Bill Clinton’s description of his encounters with Ms. Lewinsky are accurate, and hers aren’t, then his attempt to exploit a loophole in the Paula Jones trial’s definition of "sex" was legal, in spite of it being evasive. His lawyers charge that it’s pretty irresponsible to impeach a president on the basis on one person’s opposing testimony. This is a good point, but ultimately not very compelling. We may not have anything to corroborate Lewinsky’s side of the story, but we also don’t have any evidence that she tried to weasel out of the truth.

The second legal objection is much more persuasive. The President’s lawyers point out that impeachment proceedings are intended to address serious abuses of power - subversion of the Constitution, and injury to the society itself. Aledged perjury for the sake of hiding an embarassing sexual liason just doesn’t qualify.

That, I think, is what this all really comes down to. And on that basis, I’m persuaded that this impeachment business is a load of nonsense. Unfortunately, we’re now fated to several more months of public speculation about this, thanks to Congress spewing Ken Starr’s report all over the Internet. What ever happened to the solemn dignity with which justice used to be dispensed? Must every major trial now be turned into an episode of Jerry Springer?

I also find it ironic that Congress, which so recently made a big show of "cleaning up" the Internet of all sexually explicit material, has now put itself into the business of posting a summary of Monica Lewinsky’s sexually explicit testimony on the internet without the slightest effort to prevent minors from viewing it. I suppose by some subjective standard this material is considered "educational" rather than "pornographic". Still, I can’t help but wonder how many teenaged net surfers are going to be making printouts of the "good parts" of Ken Starr’s report tonite.


July 24, 1998

"Science Finds God"

This was the title of the cover story of the July 20, 1998 issue of Newsweek. But as it turns out, it's a lie. Not a single scientific proof of God is presented. Here is what we got instead:

"(Astronomer Alan) Sandage, who says he was ‘almost a practicing atheist as a boy’, was nagged by mysteries whose answers were not to be found in the glittering panoply of supernovas. Among them: why is there something rather than nothing? Sandage began to despair of answering such questions through reason alone, and so, at 50, he willed himself to accept God."

This is not science finding God: quite the opposite. It is a scientist ‘willing’ himself to believe in spite of *not* finding God through science.

"Rather than undercutting faith and a sense of the spiritual, scientific discoveries are offering support for them, at least in the minds of people of faith."

This is not science finding God. This is people who *already* believe in God reading religious significance into scientific discoveries.

"But now the very science that ‘killed’ God is, in the eyes of believers, restoring faith."


"Physicists have stumbled on signs that the cosmos is custom-made for life and consciousness. It turns out that if the constants of nature - unchanging numbers like the strength of gravity, the charge of an electron and the mass of a proton - were the tiniest bit different, then atoms would not hold together, starts would not burn and life would never have made an appearance."

This is called the Anthropic Principle. Basically, it says that it’s possible to concieve of a great many universes with constants that do not allow for life. Okay, sure. But in the absence of any knowledge about how these constants came about, assuming that "God did it" is the same as assuming that God is responsible for anything else that we don’t have an explanation for yet. This is the "god of the gaps" in action. God is assumed to be responsible for that which we don’t understand. When we understand it, the gap available to house God will be pushed back that much further. Until we understand it, and find that it *is* the result of divine intervention, it is premature to claim to have evidence of God.

"…the world follows rules, rules that are fundamentally mathematical, rules that humans can figure out… This points, says Polkinghorne, ‘to a very deep fact about the nature of the universe,’ namely, that our minds, which invent mathematics, are somehow tuned in to its truths. Since pure thought can penetrate the universe's mysteries, 'this seems to be telling us that something about human consciousness is harmonious with the mind of God.'"

Hold on now. They just got through explaining the Anthropic Principle to us, which points at something we don’t yet understand about the universe and concludes that this means God must have been responsible. Now they’re saying that our ability to understand things about the universe *also* leads to the conclusion that God must have designed it. So when we don’t understand the universe, that means there’s a God - and when we *do* undertsand it, that *also* means there’s a God? What sort of reasoning is this? They can’t have it both ways!

In a naturally ocurring universe, intelligent beings would reasonably expect to find some things that they *can* understand, and other things that they cannot (at least, not yet). Since that is what we find, there is no evidence of God in the understandability of the universe.

"To most worshippers, a sense of the divine as an unseen presence behind the visible world is all well and good, but what they really yearn for is a God who acts in the world. Some scientists see an opening for this sort of God at the level of quantum or subatomic events… ‘Quantum mechanics allows us to think of special divine action,’ says Russel."

As a matter of fact, everyone is already "allowed" to think whatever they want. You don’t need to get permission by invoking quantum indeterminacy. The *real* question is whether or not quantum events are truly random, or whether they display any sign of intelligent control. So far, they never have. Until such time as direct intelligent control is deduced from the random decay of atoms, it cannot be construed as evidence of the existence of God.

"Most scientists still park their faith, if they have it, at the laboratory door."

So much for science having "found" God.

"It turns out, says Primack, that the largest size imaginable, the entire universe, is 10 with 29 zeroes after it (in centimeters). The smallest size describes the subatomic world, and is 10 with 24 zeroes (and a decimal) in front of it. Humans are right in the middle. Does this return us to a priviledged place? Primack doesn’t know, but he describes this as a "soul-satisfying cosmology."

"Soul-satisfying" or not, there are all kinds of problems with this sort of reasoning. Imagine a 100 pound weight and a one pound weight. Would it be correct to say that a 10 pound weight was "right in the middle" between 100 and 1? Only if you’re speaking about a exponential scale in base 10.

"Religion ‘is incapable of making its moral claims persuasive or its spiritual comfort effective [unless] its cognitive claims’ are credible, argues physicist-theologian Russell. Otherwise, says astronomer and Jesuit priest William Stoeger, religion is in danger of being seen, by people even minimally acquainted with science, ‘as an anachronism.’

Ah. In other words, religion has an agenda here: to appear scientifically credible at all costs.

"Science cannot prove the existence of God, let alone spy him at the end of a telescope."

Then why was this article entitled ‘Science Finds God’?

Thankfully, the remainder of the story continues this retreat away from the promise of the title. What the article is ultimately telling us is that believers can no longer reject science without looking like complete idiots, and so they’re turning around and claiming that science now supports what they’ve believed all along. Instead of clinging to nonsensical interpretations of ancient fables, they’re now turning to nonsensical interpretations of the findings of science. What a surprise.


July 2, 1998

Movie Review: Armageddon

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that's so awesomely bad that you can only sit there slack-jawed, wondering what on Earth they were thinking. And then the credits roll, and to your amazement there are people in the audience *applauding* this monstrous pile of excrement. That's when you know... you've got Space Dementia!

Now listen up Hollywood. I know you mean well, but here's some friendly advice on what NOT to do when you set out to make a summer blockbuster about a ragtag band of oil drillers enlisted by NASA to drill a hole in a giant asteroid so a bomb can be planted to blow it up before it wipes out all life on the planet.

(1) When there are only 18 days left to save the planet, don't waste 18 hours of that time flying a guy to Houston from the South China Sea just to ask him if he'll help or not.

(2) It is not possible for someone to be fired on one day, and within two days buy their own drilling business, put up a billboard identifying it as theirs, AND accumulate many YEARS worth of grime on that billboard.

(3) Meteors are NOT spiky. Many photographs have been taken of them. In every case, they look like misshapen grey potatoes.

(4) If you absolutely insist on spinning the Mir space station to generate centrifugal force, fine. Artistic license and all that (or did you simply not have the budget to do decent zero-g effects?). But if you're going to spin the Mir, here are a couple of clues. One, pay attention to which direction the "artificial gravity" ought to be pointing. It's going to be different in different parts of the station. Two, dock the two space shuttles FIRST. It's hard enough to dock in space without having to fly in a circle chasing the damn docking ports.

(5) Icicles do not form in zero-gravity. Think about it.

(6) A group of meteors that are moving together in a group MUST all be going at almost precisely the same speed and trajectory. Otherwise, they would have wandered far away from each other long ago. So when you approach a great big asteroid in the middle of a swarm of smaller ones, the smaller ones can ONLY move toward your spaceship at EXACTLY the speed YOU choose to approach the big one. If you don't want to slam into the smaller asteroids at high speed, SLOW DOWN!

(7) When you tell us that the killer asteroid is as big as Texas, DON'T expect us to believe that planting ONE nuclear bomb 800 feet deep is exactly what you need to do to shatter the whole thing. Have any of you ever BEEN to Texas? It's pretty big. More than 1600 feet across, that's for sure.

(8) If you insist on mounting huge gattling guns on the asteroid rovers, at LEAST have somebody at NASA come up with a plausible reason to expect the astronauts to encounter hostile asteroid creatures. If you absolutely have to to give them giant gattling guns, DON'T wait for the shuttle pilot to draw a pistol before somebody says, "What are you doing with a gun in space?"

(9) If the government sends a radio signal to start the countdown of a nuclear weapon, *cutting off their radio communications will not freeze the countdown once it has begun*. It would only prevent them from sending *another* signal to make the countdown STOP.

(10) Also, if they have to trigger the bomb manually, what exactly is the purpose of having a little pistol-grip attachment with about 20 feet of telephone cord attaching it to the bomb? Is that so the guy who sets it off can duck behind a desk?

(11) I can only think of one way you could've made the line "He's got SPACE DEMENTIA!" any sillier. And I'm not going to tell you what it is.

(12) When the hole is 795 out of the required 800 feet deep, and the drilling is going slow, and they have only a few minutes to set the bomb and get out, THAT'S GOOD ENOUGH. What, those extra 5 feet are going to make a difference???

(13) When you spend the entire film showing us what a screwup the young romantic lead is, DON'T make his boss put the fate of the Earth in that screwup's hands. Screwups do not miraculously become competent just because their boss suddenly decides to start appreciating them. Sure, everybody deserves a second (or in this case, third or fourth) chance - but not when 6 BILLION LIVES are at stake.

In case you're wondering, this list only barely scratches the surface of what's wrong with Armageddon.

On The Plus Side

(1) They blowed up a lot of stuff real good.

(2) Steve Buscemi was excellent. If it was up to me, I'd give him an Oscar and throw everyone else involved in making this moronic piece of trash into prison. Okay not really, but I'd be mighty tempted.


June 29, 1998

You've probably heard this phrase before, from some stodgy scientist or skeptic who was trying to explain why the testimony of farmer Smith wasn't sufficient evidence to establish that UFO aliens are truly among us. But there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what this phrase really means. Specifically, the term "extraordinary" causes a lot of confusion.

I've heard it suggested that an "extraordinary" event is anything outside of normal everyday experience. Gravity happens to everyone, so gravity is "ordinary" - but only a minority claim to have been abducted by UFOs, so UFO abduction stories are "extraordinary", they say. One problem with this interpretation is that it unnecessarily inflates the standard of evidence required for uncommon but real events (such as moon landings and atomic bomb explosions). Likewise, there are experiences which are quite common but are not what they seem. Mirages in a desert are an optical illusion. Everyone who experiences a mirage may think they see water, but it doesn't necessarily follow that it is okay to believe there is water there without demanding some better evidence.

Others say that whether a claim in "extraordinary" or not is entirely a matter of subjective opinion. To the UFO believer, they say, UFO sightings are not unusual at all - and so any evidence will do. On the other hand, they say that a comitted skeptic's subjective rejection of UFO claims places the necessary standard of evidence beyond reach. The problem with this interpretation is that if all claims are only as good as each individual's pre-existing bias about the subject, then it is meaningless to demand any standards of evidence whatsoever. Each ignorant savage is left with the impression that whatever he wants to believe is true, is true - quality of evidence notwithstanding.

A proper understanding of the concept that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" requires an understanding of its origins. It is a *scientific* concept. Therefor, the issue of "extraordinariness" is meant to be resolved scientifically - not on the basis of everyday experience, and not on the basis of subjective opinion. Scientifically speaking, a claim which (if true) would overturn an idea which has been the subject of numerous scientific tests and appears to be highly reliable is "extraordinary", and one which (if true) fits well within the bounds of established scientific understanding is "ordinary".

For example, walking on the moon and exploding atomic weapons, while not within the bounds of everyday experience, do not violate any established scientific laws and are therefor "ordinary". Angels from heaven, on the other hand, would require an entire new class of heretofor unidentified spiritual phenomena, and would therefor have to be classified "extraordinary".

However, I do agree that this concept does not apply well to all claims of UFO sightings. It is not beyond the bounds of known physical laws to travel between stars, it's just very very very difficult. On the other hand, some of the specific phenomenon cited by UFO claimants *do* violate known physical laws, and must therefor be considered "extraordinary" (for example, aliens who can pass through solid walls).


June 19, 1998

Let me explain why I don't like the "X-Files" TV show, and thus its new big-screen incarnation. I dislike it because in spite of its lip-service to scientific skepticism, it twists the dialogue of its token skeptic (Dana Scully) to promote its own anti-rational agenda.

Here is a quote from the show:

Mulder: "It's a global conspiracy - bigger than anything I ever imagined."

Scully: "Well you can believe what you like, Mulder, but this time they may have won."

The first part of Scully's response ("you can believe what you like, but...") is not a problem. Scientific skepticism doesn't deny anyone else's right to believe what they want. Skepticism merely comments on the quality of the evidence behind those beliefs. So after that "but...", we ought to be able to expect some sort of criticism of the evidence behind what Mulder believes.

That's not what we get. "But..." is followed by "...this time they may have won". They? They who? The "global conspiracy" which Scully, as the token skeptic, supposedly doesn't believe in? Far from being an argument *against* believing as Mulder believes, she is demonstrating a tacit *agreement* with his conclusions. "They" can't have won unless "they" exist in the first place.

Rather than being the voice of reason and skepticism that Chris Carter says she represents, Scully's dialog is carefully scripted to support Mulder's claims even as she goes through the motions of skepticism.

If you think that I'm over-reacting to one isolated incident, think again. Before I decided to speak out about this, I forced myself to watch several dozen episodes. The production values, script, and acting are all excellent, and I can understand why the show is so popular. But every single episode contained at least one instance of the sort of inside-out logic I've shown you here.

Let me be clear. The problem here is not that the X-Files depicts paranormal events. The problem is that it teaches its audience to think irrationally. By contrast, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a lot more paranormal stuff going on, and *none* of the X-Files' anti-rational agenda. There's nothing wrong with portraying fantastic events for the sake of entertainment, unless you preach irrationality to your audience at the same time.

In a world awash with irrationalism and superstition, the X-Files' callous disregard for the proper role of science and rationality is, at the very least, counter-productive. At worst, it confuses people about the nature and role of science and promotes even more credulous nonsense.

Fight it.


June 8, 1998

Sanity clings to life in the U.S. House of Representatives, where on June 4 the so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment" was finally voted down.

The proposed amendment ran as follows:

To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any State shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.

As far as its stated purpose (to restore the right of children to pray in school) is concerned, it is completely unnecessary. The only thing that students are not free to do under the current law is to make a public display of their religious beliefs in a controlled classroom setting during any part of the "official" school day. The wording of the amendment appears, on its surface, to uphold the current interpretation. However, its reference to "not denying equal access to a benefit on account of religion" goes much further, opening up the possibility of tax dollars being made available to religious institutions.

It is also interesting to note that, had this amendment passed, it would have introduced the first instance of the word "God" into the U.S. Constitution.Of course, that reference also excludes atheists, Buddhists, and everyone else who lacks a belief in the Judeo-Christian God - making it an amendment geared to protect the rights of only *some* religious views.

Read the full story on the ABC News site (http://www.abcnews.aol.com/sections/us/DailyNews/amendment980603.html).


May 29, 1998

Dear Editor:

Jack Vincent made several comments about science in his recent letter praising Michael Ventura's column, and I'd like to respond to them.

First he said that his 7th grade science textbook told him that "science is knowledge". I'm not suprised to hear that, because science education in this country is legendarily poor. Science is not knowledge, it is an approach to acquiring knowledge. So when Mr. Vincent goes on to complain that his science book didn't tell him that science is "incomplete and dangerous knowledge", he is missing the point: science is an approach to knowledge, and it is important to discern between the process of science and its findings.

He then goes on to list two "problems with scientific knowledge". Setting aside for a moment his confusion between scientific inquiry and scientific discoveries (the fault, no doubt, of the poor science education he received), there is further confusion about science in his descriptions of these "problems".

The first problem he mentions concerns objectivity in scientific inquiry. He states that "there is no such thing as objective observation", makes a vague reference to scientists "changing phenomena by focusing their attention on them". I must assume that he is attempting to describe Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. This principle states that one cannot know both the position and momentum of a particle to an arbitrary degree of accuracy. The reason for this, though, is purely physical. In order to measure a particle, it is necessary to bump into it with something. But because particles are the tiniest things there are, there is nothing small enough to bump into them with that isn't big enough to change their position or their momentum. So if we measure them to discover one of those details, we have no way to avoid changing the other one. This has nothing at all to do with "attention". Furthermore, this problem shrinks to insignificance as we deal with larger and larger objects - so that it is pretty reasonable to ignore the influence of the impact of a single photon on the position or trajectory of a macroscopic object.

He goes on to conclude that "there is no such thing as objective observation, therefor scientific knowledge will always be fluid and changing and reflect more the state of mind of the scientist than outer reality". Despite his misunderstanding of science and of the Uncertainty Principle, there is a grain of truth in this. The conclusions derived from scientific inquiry do change somewhat over time. However, the reason for this is a purely practical one which has little if anything to do with "states of mind". It has to do with the universe being a big place, both in terms of its size and its age. That being the case, a lot of what scientists try to study is remote in space or time or both - or it only happens once in a long period of time, or once in a huge volume of space, and so on. Scientists try to make the best of this situation, piecing together a view of the big picture from the bits they can observe. But it is inevitable that as they continue to observe, new discoveries will be made which require a revision of the old views. This process of continually refining our understanding of phenomena which are rare or remote is the greatest contribution of science. For it to be otherwise, scientists would have to be omniscient. Who knows, perhaps that's what they taught Mr. Vincent in 7th grade.

I might add that the Uncertainty Principle is itself the product of observation, and of drawing conclusions based on those observations.

The second problem he addresses is "divisiveness". He charges that isolating phenomena for study causes the study to be devoid of context. While it's true that studying the behavior of a chemical in its pure form will not shed light on its behavior when mixed with other things, it certainly will shed light on its behavior when pure. To study its behavior when mixed with chemical B, you isolate must it along with some of chemical B. You cannot discover how pure chemical A behaves by mixing it with other things. Each context is separate, and needs to be examined separately. These studies are not devoid of context, as Mr. Vincent charges - rather, they are each a specific context. It's difficult to see how it could be otherwise.

Finally, he states that "the big lie of science at this time" is that "The products of science and technology are enhancing the quality of life". I am curious to know what standards he uses to measure the quality of life. The most obvious one would be life span, which has risen from about 30 years in ancient times to more than 80 nowadays.

Most of Mr. Vincent's objections to science seem to come from a misunderstanding of what science is. The rest seem to come from a misunderstanding of certain scientific principles. The answer to both, it seems to me, is better science education - not a backlash against imaginary flaws in science.


April 15, 1998

Phillip E. Johnson (http://www.arn.org/johnson/johome.htm), a law professor, is stalking the land on a crusade to legitimize "creation science". Last year I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to this man when he appeared at the University of Texas. Last night, I saw a tape of that very lecture - with my best question (and his clumsy response to it) edited out. Typical.

His case boils down to this: materialism is an unproven philosophical position, but modern science accepts it as an apriori assumption. Therefor, "theistic realism" (as he calls it), another unproven philosophical position, deserves to be taken just as seriously by the scientific community. He points to open questions in evolutionary theory, and argues that if scientists were willing to give theistic realism its fair due, it would be obvious to them that the answer to those questions is "God did it".

Let's do a little science, and try out Johnson's idea.

Suppose we mix two chemicals together, and the mixture turns green. We repeat the experiment 100 times, and the mixture turns green 99 out of those 100 times. If we assume that chemicals behave solely according to materialistic principles, we can pretty safely predict that the next time we mix those two chemicals, the mixture is going to turn green. There is a small degree of uncertainty, since in one instance the mixture didn't turn green, but we recognize that human beings perfoming tests can make mistakes. The chemicals could have been contaminated, or the proportions could have been off, or something else might have gone wrong that we can't even guess. This leaves us room for improvement, but we still have a nice statistical probability to justify a prediction that the next time the test is performed, the mixture will turn green.

Now let's do the same experiment again, but this time we presume that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and invisible being hanging around - who "works in mysterious ways". We mix our chemicals 100 times, and 99 times out of 100 the mixture turns green. What can we conclude? The answer is: Nothing. We have no way of knowing whether this omni-entity has tampered with the results. All we can do is sit and wonder whether the results of the experiment reflect the natural behavior of the chemicals involved (possibly influenced by human error), or an unfathomable expression of God's will. If we want to draw a conclusion, we will have no option but to ask for an interpretation of God's will - from the church.

The materialistic assumption made in the first experiment, which Johnson finds so unfair, does not *deny* the existence of God - it simply refrains from attempting to account for Divine influence, and thereby avoids the trap which the second experiment falls into. Now, it may be that God *does* exist, and that He may have a hand in experimental outcomes. But since it is already understood by "materialistic" scientists that their conclusions contain some degree of uncertainty, wouldn't we rather assume that an experimental result which seems likely really *is* likely? By asking for Divine influence to be seriously considered by scientists, Johnson is in effect asking scientists to rely on their church leaders to tell them what to conclude from their experiments. Like they did in the good ol' days of Galileo, I suppose.

The acknowledged (if small) degree of uncertainty in scientific results leads to another major flaw in Johnson's proposal. Let's take his favorite topic, evolutionary theory, as an example. Nobody is arguing that evolutionary theory is 100% complete and 100% certain. But Johnson siezes upon the open questions in evolution and says, "here, have theistic realism, that way you can close those questions by saying "God did it", and your work will be done. Done? So, then we can stop worrying why that one mixture in 100 didn't turn green? We can *stop* admitting that there is any uncertainty in out scientific conclusions, because "God did it" answers all the open questions? That's awfully appealing, but suppose the reason why the one mixture that didn't turn green was because I accidentally put in too much Chemical A?

Hopefully, scientists have too much integrity to start claiming certainty when it isn't justified.


April 8, 1998

Non-suprise #1: The images sent back by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor make it abundantly clear that the "face" on Mars is a natural formation. The appearance of a face resulted from the low resolution of the original Viking image, combined with the particular angle of the sun at the time it was taken.

Non-suprise #2: True believers are groping like mad for excuses not to abandon their beloved misconceptions.

One argument I've heard is that NASA is lying about the two images they've released (the new image as transmitted by MGS, and an enhanced image which brings out the shape of the mountain better). Some believers are claiming that the enhanced image is the original, and that the other image has been doctored to *remove* its facelike qualities. But since the image they're claiming to be the original already makes it clear that the formation is natural, this is nothing more than a cheap attempt to keep the issue alive by injecting needless controversy.

Viking image

Original MGS image

Enhanced MGS image

The other argument I've heard is that NASA's new image can be interpreted as an honest to goodness giant stone face, only it's been weathered by harsh Martian dust storms for a few millenia. But if you're willing to argue that any old hunk of stone that looks kind of vaguely like something really *is* something, and invoke aeons of erosion to explain why it doesn't really look a whole lot like anything, then pretty much every hunk of rock in the universe acquires the potential to have been carved by ancient aliens. Is this idea really worthy of serious consideration? No. Not unless we abandon all reasonable standards of evidence.

Folks, the point to pursuing knowledge is that knowledge can be used to help us get things done. If we want to have air travel, we have to know how aerodynamics work. If we want to cure viral diseases, we have to understand how viruses work. When you've got hold of an idea that turns out to be false, the thing to do is abandon it - as we did with the idea that the Earth was flat, that it was at the center of the universe, and that space was filled with a luminiferous ether. Ideas that are false are not "knowledge". If anything, they are "anti-knowledge". They take up time and energy and lead us nowhere.

There is no face on Mars. Let's put that behind us and get on with the business of actually trying to learn stuff. The advancement of knowledge is more important than worrying about having egg on your imaginary face.


April 2, 1998

From the AP wire: "A study conducted by a 9 year old girl for a science project and published in a distingished medical journal concludes that 'therapeutic touch,' in which a healer supposedly manipulates a patient's energy field, is bunk."

The "distinguished medical journal" is, in fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association. You can read a summary of the article here.

For additional background, check out CNN's coverage at http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/

It's about time somebody spoke out about these moronic "NewAge" (rhymes with "sewage"?) beliefs. That a 9 year old can debunk the claims of therapeutic touch practitioners is both delightful and embarrasing. How has this nonsense managed to go on for as long as it already has? If a 9 year old can see through these claims by erecting a simple cardboard screen, what's been keeping us *adults* from saying that the emperor is naked?