Weird Earth; Donald R. Prothero; 2020; Red Lightning Books; 248 pgs; notes, further reading, index;
his book is in fine company. It is a book primarily about skepticism. The author and I have a little in common, in that we were or are members of a Skeptics Group. Prothero, a PhD geologist, is with the Pasadena Skeptics. I note that he is a PhD because he warns of books written by people who flaunt their PhDs.
The book covers geology related subjects that are a decent sub-set of all the crazy ideas that are out there. Young Earthers are trashed, as are flat Earthers, hawkers of crystals, Atlantis, dowsers, and moon-landing deniers.
Aside: Andy Kaufman died because he rejected modern medicine and relied instead on crystal healing.
It was a quick read and a good addition to my library on subjects (like Ley lines) that I would otherwise have to research.
One thing that comes across very clearly is that scientific illiteracy in the US is driven largely by the cesspool of the internet. In fact, by my count, he called the internet a "cesspool" four times. Ironically, the internet was created to serve scientists and promote data exchange. He speaks highly of, and quotes often, Carl Sagan. As a long time skeptic myself, I am familiar with the arguments about wrt scientific literacy, basic logical arguments, human biases, and such.
I only know one person personally that is foolish enough to posit a 10,000 year old (or less) Earth. I have had several exchanges with him over the years. One argument that gets repeated a lot is that his belief in god is no different than my belief in Newton's gravity and other scientific ideas like evolution. I often reply to this attack by explaining that I use the word "believe" in a different way (based on probability) than he does. The book suggests a different language, the gist of which is below:
Science has only one "belief"… namely, that the world is understandable. I do not "believe" in Newton's law, but rather I accept it, based on, in this particular case, an overwhelming preponderance of the evidence (Newton's laws got us to the moon and back). I like this language better, as it is easier to justify.
I also enjoyed the obvious fact that the author likes movies. He mentions several, including the worst SF film ever made (as voted by geoscientists), The Core.
The Abruzzo, Italy earthquake resulted in many deaths, and six seismologists were convicted of manslaughter for not predicting the quake! After 5,000 seismologists wrote letters, the conviction was overturned. Its hard to be a scientist sometimes.
The book has a well researched chapter on The Flood. The details of how Gilgamesh and the various versions of the old testament are weaved together into a mish-mash of "god's word" is very interesting. No one who understands how the Bible came to be can believe that it is the actual word of god, because it comes from several different sources, and it contradicts itself and reality… a lot. The absolute most charitable one can be is to say that the bible might reflect god's wishes, as filtered and understood by man. But that is thin gruel at best.
This book has a lot of fine photos and illustrations. It discusses basic skeptical issues like reserving judgment and human bias. And many of its topics are historical in nature, so there is lot here for a newcomer to the skeptical world to absorb.
If you have any interest in geology and the basics of skepticism, this is a good book for you.
I continue my research into religion. News flash: it is still stupid! If you want to find out more about Islam, this book is a good place to start.
In my youth, I read a lot of science fiction. Many plots would feature a radical religious sect not unlike Islam as the main "bad guy". I have always been conscious of religion trying to tell me what to do. Now I see this SF plot unfolding on a global scale. What really bugs me is the hypocrisy of the piously religious who brush off the terrors of Islam with moral relativism.
You have probably seen Ali on TV. She is hard to miss. She was born a typical rabid kill-the-infidel Muslim. She escaped an arranged marriage and made it to the Netherlands. There she as elected to the Dutch parliament. Now she is an atheist, a lecturer at Harvard, and advocate for Islam reform. I say she is hard to miss because she is thin, pretty and about 6 feet tall. She has written the other books which I have note read: Infidel; Nomad; and The Caged Virgin.
If you thought Islam was barbaric, rest assured you are correct. Where she grew up, every Friday was marred by stonings, beheadings and limb removal by sword. At that is the tip of the iceberg,
She is an excellent writer, despite English not being her native tongue.
Basically, she argues that Islam is still a barbaric religion. Christianity was born inside the Roman Empire. They had to go along to get along. Their book was written by men, and therefore subject to debate, but it is still holy. Christianity and politics do not mix. Islam also has two other thorny problems. Unlike Christianity, it lacks any kind of hierarchy. That is, the is no pope to sanction or condemn an imam. The second is that the Koran is literally the last word of god. Mohammed wrote the Koran as a direct instrument of god. The Bible was written by men. The Koran, as the literal last word from god, is absolute, The Bible is haggled over all the time. Believers in the literal last word of god are, for obvious reasons, hard to reason with. Once a Muslim accepts this one point, everything else follows from it and that Muslim becomes the equivalent of a blood thirsty fundamentalist Christian. For these people, their goal is simply to take over the world.
In a sense, you can argue that Islam is religion as it would have itself: An absolute belief system with answers for everything, that is enmeshed in politics, has laws for everything, and any deviance is crushed, usually to death. In their world, you can die for asking a single innocent question, such as "Why pray five times and day, and not four?"
In the US, an irrational battle of labels is waging. Remember Ben Affleck blowing a gasket when someone even mentioned Radical Islam, shouting "racist" and "Islamaphobe"? Obama wont utter the phrase. And yet it is accurate and neutral in tone.
Ali argues that moderate Muslims (she calls them Mecca Muslims) must take a stand, reform Islam, ban jihad, and bend to "western" values. Period.
Moral relativism be damned, this is an evil religion. If someone who shouts "Allahu Akbar" while killing an innocent, that person is a Muslim, regardless of protestations to the contrary. And it is other Muslims who must recognize this and stop them. Actions speak loudly, and in this case, we must define our groups by their actions. We cannot tell what they think.
Ali goes over her history quickly as it is covered in her other books. She is risking her life and is a remarkable woman. My list admirable women includes Vashti McCollum, Elizabeth Warren, and others, and now Ali.
Evolution vs. Creationism; Eugenie C. Scott; 2009; UC Press; 330 pgs; references, index
I finally got around to reading this book. It has been on my to-read list for quite some time. Part of the reason I put it off is that I felt I knew the science and the scientific philosophy fairly well (I did) but the book looks at many other aspects of the battle, including: religious perspectives, the media, politics, education and so on. The font is small, the leading tight, and the pages large, so this is a longer read than you might expect.
Part of the reason for its length is that major portions consist of chunks of pro-creationism texts, followed by contrary science positions. Ironically, one of the concerns about creationism is that it survives on the "balance" argument. That is, you are not "balanced" if you do not present "scientific creationism" along side the science of evolution with equal weight in the classroom or the media. And yet, this book goes to some lengths to show the other side. Of course, doing so is necessary in an analysis such as this. However, I often found myself reading something I thought was wrong, only to realize it was the opinion of a creationist, not the author, and is rebutted in the following section.
I read this book to hone my understanding of the arguments, especially the stupid arguments that one can expect from the "other side". I was especially interested in ID (Intelligent Design) arguments.
The last BC skeptic's meeting was a debate between a creationist (Richard Peachy, a part-time science teacher) and an actual science teacher (Scott Goodman). The actual science teacher won. However the audience was absolutely stacked and packed with religion believers hocking tapes, books, and such, about how the Earth is only 6,000 years old. They probably saw the argument in a different light. And they got to flog their propaganda. We were used.
The opening chapters of the book get into the basics of scientific philosophy and provide a primer on evolution. While not mentioned in the book, it is worth noting that the oft used tag line for evolution, "Survival of the Fittest", is a meaningless tautology. Add the word "offspring" and it works.
Consider these four terms and rank them in importance:
Facts, Laws, Theories, and Hypotheses.
In fact, this order is the usual one assigned by lay people, with Facts most important, and Hypotheses least important. Scientists rank them from most to least important like this:
Theories, Laws, Hypotheses and Facts.
The next chapter is a primer on the history of religion and religion's perspectives on evolution. There are actually quite a lot of them, running from "God did it all in a trice" to " The science is true (e.g .: the Earth is 4.5ish billion years old) but god is always invisibly tinkering and setting things in motion". There are at least a half dozen different flavors of creationism and religious evolutionism. Trying to address them all is a cosmic game of Whack-A-Mole. And like the mythical Hydra, if you kill a mole, two slightly different moles pop up in its place.
The US is unique in that it is one country with 50 different policies on science and evolution education. If you are educated in Kentucky, you might not get exposed to evolution at all until you reach college and decide to take an applicable course. And Kentucky is not unique. The BC skeptics once had an ex-cult-member and lawyer address the group. I chatted with him after the fact and was surprised to learn he heard of evolution for the very first time when he was 30!
Chapter five digs into the fight to eliminate evolutionary teaching from science classrooms. Unbelievably, this battle continues to this day.
The Scopes trial is well known from movies and plays. It was the trial of the century at the time. Scopes himself was actually a sacrificial volunteer, chosen because he had few ties to the community, and could thus bear excommunication from it. He was chosen by the ACLU to challenge anti-evolution laws. The Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately reversed the Scopes conviction, which also killed the ACLU's attempts to kill the law (no conviction means no avenue to appeal). The Monkey Trial only made things worse. States doubled down on the issue. New and more subtle attacks on evolution were devised. The language was twisted too. Think about the phrase "scientific creationism", an oxymoron if ever there was one. It was followed by "Intelligent Design (ID)". Most of these approaches failed, so creationists fell back on "equal time". That is, teach creationism along side evolution as an alternative. That failed (it violates the Constitution) and so they fell back on warning labels in text books, wrongly claiming the evolution is only a "theory".
A word on a word: Theory. When Perry Mason has a theory, it means he thinks he might be able to convince a court that his view should prevail. Here, "theory" and "opinion/guess" mean the same thing. In science, a "theory" is a broad perspective that ties together many aspects of data, observation, branches of science, and, usually, mathematics. General Relativity, Newtonian Mechanics, and Evolution are such theories. And they are all true (with some caveats).
Intelligent Design (ID) is the best that creationists have to offer at the moment, and the book goes into detail on it over a few chapters. Intelligent Design, and its hand-maiden Irreducible Complexity, are subtle arguments. In Darwin's day, the argument was: What use is half an eye? Even Darwin knew the answer to that: Any eye is better than none at all. The common example today of ID is the flagellum. This is the twirly thing at that back of some bacteria, making them mobile. But clever scientists have though of step-wise ways of getting to that too.
Intelligent Design was tested in Kitzmiller versus Dover. Dover is a town in Pennsylvania. Dover lost and ID was deemed thinly veiled creationism. Creationism is still fighting and still losing.
When all else fails, creationists fall back on "balance", or "equal time". This is fine in a political argument, but it is the kiss if intellectual death in a scientific one. Scientists, and people in general, must be able to discard discredited ideas, or we will be debating them forever.
The book goes on with chapters on the legal, educational, public opinion, and scientific issues associated with creationism, using a collection of writings from various authors. They present creationist arguments followed by science's rebuttals.
This is a very detailed book. It focuses to a degree on education since the author is the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. If you want to understand creationism issues, you should have this book in your library.
Most of the counter arguments to evolution come from the Discovery Institute. It claims that it is scientific in its criticisms, but they do no research, publish no papers, gather no evidence, and spend all their time trying to shoehorn biblical rubbish into the curriculum of US schools.
One last word about Creationism and the Law. Judges are not well equipped to make decisions on issues of science. A group of judges asked Robert Park, a well respected physicist, to tell them the difference between BS science (pseudoscience) and real science. I have just acquired a copy of his book on the subject: Voodoo Science. I shall comment on it soon. Mr. Park wrote an article for Chronicle of Higher Education (2002) that listed seven signs, or "tells", of bogus science and gave it to them. This list was used, and still is, as an aid judges.
I published a list of sixteen such warning signs in the BC Skeptics newsletter in 1989. My list has now worked its way into courseware curricula around the world. My list included all of those expressed in Mr. Parks list. NB: I am not suggesting he stole my list, only that I got there first by 13 years. More on "The List" to come. Regardless, I was chuffed to see that parts of "my list" have made it into US jurisprudence.
The final chapter deals with what people believe around the world. I am happy to report that Scandinavia (Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway) are four of the top seven countries that believe in evolution. Canada was not surveyed. Turkey beat out the USA for dead last.
As I mentioned, this is a long a detailed read. Some of it is hard to read. I refer mostly to the cut-and-paste discussions from creationists. Their convoluted logic makes my brain hurt. It is also a must-have reference book if you want to take the subject seriously.
2,000 Years of Disbelief; James A. Haught; 1996; Prometheus Books; 324 pgs, bibliography, index
I have always enjoyed a good pithy observation about religion. For thousands of years, very brave men and women have stood up to the BS and said "I do not believe." This can get you killed, even today. Here is a sampling of the books contents: quotes from great thinkers and skeptics through the ages. A Prometheus book, of course!
Euripides (400 BCE):
He was a wise man who originated the idea of God.
Plato (300 BCE):
He was a wise man who invented God.
Tacitus (100 CE):
Christianity is a pestilent superstition.
Lucretius (99-55 BCE):
We, peopling the void air, make gods to whom we impute the ills we ought to bear.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592):
Men of simple understanding, little inquisitiveness and little instructed, make good Christians.
Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626):
The more contrary to reason the divine mystery, so much more it must be believed for the glory of God.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679):
Religions are like pills, that must be swallowed whole without chewing.
Theology is the kingdom of darkness.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677):
[Believers] are but triflers who, when they cannot explain a thing, run back to the will of God; this is, truly, a ridiculous way of expressing ignorance.
John Locke (1632-1704):
Every sect , as far as reason will help them, makes use of it (religion) gladly; and where it fails them, they cry out, "It is a matter of faith, and above reason."
People who are born to orthodoxy imbibe the opinions of their country or party and never question their truth.
Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755):
If triangles made a god, they would give him three sides.
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.
Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense.
Sect and error are synonymous.
Most of the great men of this world live as if they were atheists.
Every sensible man, every honest man, must hold the Christian sect in horror. But what shall we substitute in its place? you say. What? A ferocious animal has sucked the blood of my relatives. I tell you to rid yourselves of this beast, and you ask me what you shall put in its place?
If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated.
David Hume (1711-1776):
The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.
If there is a soul, it is as mortal as the body.
By priests I understand only the pretenders to power and dominion, and to a superior sanctity of character, distinct from virtue and good morals.
Denis Diderot (1713-1784):
Men will never be free until the last king is strangled in the entrails of the last priest.
Skepticism is the first step toward truth.
Edward Gibbon (1737-1974):
The various forms of worship that prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.
Hitherto the weight of supernatural belief inclines against the Protestants; and many a sober Christian would rather admit that a wafer is God, than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant.
William Blake (1757-1827):
Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion.
Claude Helvetius (1715-1771):
A man who believes he eats his God we do not call mad; a man who says he is Jesus Christ we call mad.
Baron d'Holbach (1723-1771):
Ignorance of natural causes created the gods, and priestly imposters made them terrible.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):
Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809):
All national institutions of churches, whether Christian, Jewish or Turkish, appear to me, no other than human inventions, setup to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
Priests and conjurors are of the same trade.
The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing, it rests on no principles, it proceeds by no authorities, it has no data, it can demonstrate nothing.
One good school master is of more use than a hundred priests.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826):
In every country, in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the depot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.
James Madison (1751-1836):
Religious shackles and debilitates the mind and it unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded purpose.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821):
I am surrounded by priests that repeat incessantly that their kingdom is not of this world, and yet they lay hands on everything they can get.
Percy Bysshe Shelly (1792-1822):
If God has spoken, why is the universe not convinced.
The educated man ceases to be religious.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873):
God is a word to express, not our ideas, but the want of them.
The ne plus ultra of wickedness is embodied in what is commonly present to mankind as the creed of Christianity.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865):
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882):
For my part, I would as soon be descended from [a] baboon … as from a savage who delights in torturing his enemies … treats his wives like slaves … and is haunted by the grossest of superstitions.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902):
I found nothing grand in the history of the Jews nor in the morals inculcated in the Pentateuch. I know of no other books that so fully teach the subjection and degradation of women.
I have been to many of the ancient cathedrals -- grand, wonderful, mysterious. But I always leave them with a feeling of indignation because of the generations of human beings who have struggled in poverty to build these alters to an unknown god.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862):
I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895):
I have no faith, very little hope, and as much charity I can afford.
The Bible account of the creation is a preposterous fable.
The foundation of morality is to … give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge.
Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910):
On may say with one's lips: "I believe that God is one, and also three" -- but no one can believe it, because the words have no sense.
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899):
Who at the present day can imagine the courage, the devotion to principle, the intellectual and moral grandeur it once required to be an infidel, to brave the Church, her racks, her fagots, her dungeons, her tongues of fire--to defy and scorn her heaven and hell--her devil and he God.
The church hates a thinker precisely for the same reason a robber dislikes a sheriff, or a thief despises the prosecuting witness.
Give me the storm and tempest of thought and action, rather than the dead calm of ignorance and faith!
The church has always been willing to swap off treasures in heaven for cash down.
Surely there is grandeur in knowing that in the realm of thought, at least, you are without a chain …. Surely it is worth something to feel that there are no priests, no popes, no parties, no governments, no kings, no gods, to whom your intellect can be compelled to pay a reluctant homage.
Mark Twain (1835-1910):
Faith is believing what you know ain't so. (Pudd'nhead Wilson)
Man is the religious animal. He is the only religious animal, He is the only animal that has the True Religion--several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat, if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven.
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914):
Christian: One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with his life of sin.
Clairvoyant: A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to the patron -- namely that he is a blockhead.
Religion: A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900):
Jesus died too soon. He would have repudiated his doctrine if he had lived to my age.
Pierre Laplace (1749-1827):
Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis. (He was asked why his book Celestial Mechanics did not mention god.)
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870):
Catholics and Protestants, while engaged in burning and murdering each other, could cooperate in enslaving their black brethren.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885):
There is in every village a torch: the schoolmaster-- and an extinguisher: the priest.
Emile Zola (1840-1902):
Civilization will not attain its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.
Elbert Hubbard (1815-1915):
… All religions were made and formulated by men … What we call God's justice is only man's idea of what he would do if he were God.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950):
Martyrdom is the only way in which a man can become famous without ability.
Clarence Darrow (1857-1938):
Every man knows when his life began… If I did not exist in the past, why should I, or could I, exist in the future.
H. L. Mencken (1880-1956):
The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is its massive proof that God is a bore.
God is the immediate refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in his arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos.
Metaphysics is almost always an attempt to prove the incredible by an appeal to the unintelligible.
Theology: An effort to explain the unknowable by putting it into terms of the not worth knowing.
The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to effect that religious opinions should be respected.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980):
Respectable society believed in God in order to avoid having to speak about him.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992):
I have never in all my life, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural.
Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991):
If people need religion, ignore them and maybe they will ignore you; and you an go on with your life. It wasn't until I was beginning to do 'Star Trek' that the subject of religion arose again. What brought it up was that people were saying that I would have to have a chaplain on board the Enterprise . I replied "No. I don't".
The errors referred to are design flaws in ourselves. I have always found this topic interesting. We think of ourselves as the peak of creation on Earth, but this is far from the truth when the details are examined. We are not the best at anything except thinking. All of our other traits speak more to a humanity being a jack of all trades, rather than being especially good at anything in particular.
Some of the issues discussed were familiar to me. The most common example of a design flaw is the human eye. It has two problems: myopia and wiring. Many of us are near sighted because our eyes are not the right shape. But more interesting is the wiring of the eye. We have our photo receptors at the back of the retina. In other words, the light we see must punch its way through a cell to get the receptors on the other side, a process that introduces distortions and dimming of the light. In addition, the wiring is also on the wrong (front) side, again blocking the light. All the wiring comes together at one place and then plunges through the retina to get to the optic nerve. This results in our famous blind spot. At some point in our history, nature flipped a coin on eye design when the design chosen did not matter. Then we evolved and discovered our mistake. Mollusk eyes do not have this flaw. Evolution can develop very complex structures. It is very good at that. But when it makes a mistake, it has no capacity to undo the error. Rather, it introduces workarounds or just tolerates the inconvenience, as long as it does not hamper reproduction.
Our hands and feet are full of useless bones that now just cause trouble. Our knees are very susceptible to injury, as any athlete who has blown his ACL will tell you. Our spine is designed for a creature with four walking legs. It started to change when we became knuckle walkers, but back aches are common, and for some, debilitating. The shape of our spine is a kludge stacked on two more kludges. Our air hole and our food hole are side by side, making choking to death possible. We breath in and out through the same hole. This is very inefficient in that stale and fresh air mix all the time. This is called tidal breathing. Think of breathing exclusively through a hose. If the hose is more than a few feet long, you will suffocate. Birds do not have this problem, which allows them to maintain a much faster metabolism. Beating wings is hard work that requires gobs of oxygen. Our brains and hearts are well protected, but one good punch to the throat and you will die. Our sinuses too have not caught up with upright walking. They now drain up, which causes blockages, running noses, and infections.
But my favorite example is the RLN (Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve). When we were fish, our hearts, lungs (gills) and brain were all up front in the head. The RLN, which now controls the voice box in us, had a short trip to make from the brain and it did so by running past the heart. As tetrapods evolved (we are all tetrapods), the heart and lungs moved away from the head and we developed necks. In humans, as in all tetrapods, the RLN branches off the vagus nerve, loops around the aorta, and goes back up to the voice box. This makes the nerve many times longer than it needs to be, and this is the kind of design flaw evolution cannot fix. Think about the sauropods… those giant long necked dinosaurs like Diplodocus. The RLN in them is on the order of 20 *meters* long… to cover a straight line distance of a foot!
Chapter two dives into our diets. Did you know a dog can live a long and healthy life eating rice and meat alone? They can because dogs manufacture the trace chemicals like vitamin C that they need to stay alive. But not us. A lot of our dietary foibles, like scurvy, are probably a result of growing up in a fruit rich environment. One day, the vitamin C gene broke, but since the environment already had a lot of vitamin C (e.g.: fruit), evolution failed to notice. We are also hard wired for a feast and famine lifestyle. Except we are now in a world of constant feast, which results in runaway obesity.
Chapter three discusses some of the fun that takes place at the genetic level. As most people know, sickle cell disease is a genetic adaptation to malaria. But when a person inherits two sickle cell genes, the result is not good.
One of the most interesting discussions was about how the immune system trains itself. In loose terms, long before you were recognizable as a human, the body set up a bunch of cells as a test bed, then breaks up various endogenous proteins and feeds them to those cells. If the cell reacts, it is killed. The upshot is all the remaining cells know how to get along with each other. Tuning of the immune system carries on for some time after birth. Allergies and auto-immune disorders are the result when this does not work. BTW: Do not buy "immune system boosters". Your immune system is in a state of balance. If you jack it up, you get sick; if you suppress it, you get sick. Peanut and related allergies are on the rise. The "hygiene hypothesis" suggests that this is the result of anti-bacterials and over protective parents. This seems likely to be true. So let your kids get dirty… it is good for them.
The next chapter focuses on reproduction. Why don't the fallopian tubes and the ovaries connect up directly? They should. It would avoid a lot of problems. Human child birth is extremely dangerous for both the mother and the child. Human babies are utterly helpless at birth. Our heads are enormous compared to the small hole we have to squeeze through to get born. These issues are unique to humans. A gnu calf pops out effortlessly for the mother, and is on the run within minutes. It may be that girls mature wore quickly than boys because there are many more things that can go wrong with their bodies. Nature responded by making women mature faster so they are more likely to pop out a puppy before dying.
Cancer is fascinating. If we live long enough, we will die of cancer. We think of the big C as death incarnate. But cancer is necessary for life. Cancer is runaway growth. Growth is what keeps us alive. As we age, our ability to control growth shrinks due to mutation and such, and we get cancer. Without mutation, life would not be possible. With mutation, life is a bitch.
The final chapters went off the rail for me and I only skimmed them. It discusses at length our cognitive errors, such as confirmation bias. I am already familiar with these "errors" and I largely skipped this chapter, and the next, which focuses on the large "why are we here" kind of issues.
This book has its moments, but I thought it strayed from its topic when it came to psychology. It is a good book to draw evolution examples from. In this case, the foot print of evolution is errors and compromises, not design. If all this sounds compelling to you, I recommend the book.
Talking to Strangers; Malcolm Gladwell; 2019; Little Brown and Company; 356 pgs, notes, index
As it happens, most of the events upon which this book was based either happened in my recent lifetime, or are matters of well known historical events, such as Chamberlin meeting Hitler. Thus, I do have a perspective on these issues. All in all, this is a hard book to summarize. In part because it is basically clinical psychology, which is a soft science at the best of times.
The book wraps its arguments around several well known cases and/or events. It opens and closes with Sandra Bland, the young black woman who was pulled over in Texas (she drove down from Chicago) for "failing to signal", ended up being manhandled out of the car, cuffed and arrested, and then hung herself in the jail.
The first case described in detail was about a high ranking CIA official who turned out to be a Cuban spy. The second was about Chamberlin meeting Hitler. The basic message is that we suck at spotting liars. Ample evidence is provided that shows that a computer evaluating parole issues from raw data scores much better results than a judge who can look the perp in eye and judge their demeanor. This does not surprise me one bit. As a life long poker player, I have determined that I suck at it too, and I would be better off simply following the odds.
We rely way to much on our ability to tell when we are being lied to. And once we make the decision to trust, we are easier marks because we will defend the indefensible far too long. We are too trusting, and we "default to the truth". I think a philosopher would call this the Principle of Charity. It is, as the book acknowledges, both a very risky thing to do; and very necessary as it is the grease that keeps society alive.
In this vein, we tend to think of others as simple and ourselves as nuanced. E.g.: A cop might see a nuanced response to stimulus from you as proof you prevaricating. This is exactly what happened to the Amanda Knox (another case study in the book). She reacted in a way the prosecutors saw as irrational, and therefore she was guilty despite the fact the physical evidence pointed elsewhere. This went all the way to the Italian Supreme Court before it finally got tossed for the rubbish it was. What reaction set the cops off? Basically, she was cool, clam, collected and quite. If she had cried like a girl, or some such, she would have walked.
The book calls these encounters as two "mismatched" people. We might say "talking or acting at cross purposes".
Another case with which I was very familiar was Harry Markopolus and his take down of Bernie Madoff. The SEC "defaulted to truth" and believed Madoff. Markopolis is unusual in that he does not "default to truth", but he has paid price: paranoia.
"Transparency is a myth." This line is repeated and emphasized and I agree with it. Transparency is the idea that if we can see what is going on on the outside, we can tell what is going on on the inside. On TV, we see people say and do things, and their faces and their words match exactly. This is called emoting. In real life it is rare. We do not wear ourselves on our sleeves. We are not transparent. But we tend to think others are.
Another interesting point is that the facial expressions and other tells that we think we universal, are not. A smile is not just a smile. It depends on the culture you are in.
The book examines the Sandusky pedophile case; a well know fraternity sexual assault involving loads of alcohol; the KSM Guantanamo Bay torture story and several others. It also delves into policing a fair bit. The bottom line of the policing analysis is that cops are incredibly reluctant to give up their supposed god-like ability to see into men's souls and pick the good guys and the bad guys. When science gets involved, and it shows them incapable of doing what they think they can do, then and only then, do they-ever-so-slowly recognize the truth.
Which leads into the study of the opening story about Sandra Bland.
I read this book to the end because it did keep my interest. My overall feeling is that it is far to broad, and overly simplistic in its analysis. I am always skeptical when people are broken down into groups that too broad to useful. The book does not really give advice on what to do about it.
Chamberlain was played by Hitler, who was really good at it. For some people, lying is their first option, and they do so with remarkable ease. Hitler, Bernie Madoff and my ex wife have these traits in common. I "defaulted to truth" with her as I do with most people. But I am skeptic and would love to know how I can tell if me and my listener are "mismatched".
Other cases are also explainable without appealing the "mismatched" perspective of the book. Bernie's success turned on greed and he was an expert con man. And Sandra Bland can be explained by bad policing policy (pull over everyone you can, give out as many tickets as you can, dig for a reason to doubt "them", abuse your authority), and bigoted, poorly trained cops. IMHO, Bland was pulled over for being black. When she got uppity, the cop lost his sense of perspective, she died, and, thankfully, the asshole cop was fired.
The ideas in this book are useful, but I see very little in the way of practical advice other than the skeptics mantra: Doubt is the handmaiden of truth, and above all else, doubt yourself and your ability to detect lies.
Chamberlain had the facts… he was just a pussy who did not doubt his ability to read people.
George HW Bush made the same mistake with Putin (remember "I looked in his eyes?") and Donald Trump, the stupidest person to ever occupy the White House, is doing it again.
The pages of this book are small and the leading loose, so this book is fast read and I read it. Perhaps this is my disdain for clinical psychology (which has done a lot of damage over the years), but I cannot recommend this book unless you are a student of the subject.
When pondering on disaster relief, it is helpful to know what natural disasters we should prepare for.
War is hardly natural, and we seem to always be on the brink of it somewhere in the world, so I ignore it.
There are two major issues to deal with: How big might it be, and what are the chances of it happening. A crude break down of “how big” is Local vs Global.
Here is the list off the top of my head (Disaster; Size, Probability):
Only “Pandemic” stands out. It has the potential to go global; AND since it has happened in the past (Spanish Flu, Swine Flu, SARS), and, due largely to air travel, is more likely to happen in the future… the probability is high.
Covid 19 was not unlucky, it was inevitable. A moments thought, which is about as much as I put into this piece, will convince anyone that the smart money should go to prevention of pandemics.
Therefore, ergo, ipso facto, and thus, Donald Trump disbanded the pandemic teams, cut the budget for the CDC and tried to build a wall to keep out Mexicans. He has turned recklessness into an art form. Of course, he did not create C19, but he has, and is, making it much worse.
I always want to end on a happy thought. This can be fixed.
1) Reduce the number of people on the planet by 3 billion at least;
2) Reduce the number of Donald Trumps by one (ideally, remove the whole family tree); and
3) Stop treating every square inch of the planet as a tourist destination.
The following paper was written by my friend Dale Beyerstein for the journal Humanist Perspectives ( https://www.humanistperspectives.org/issue211/index.html ) .
People who debunk false or nonsensical claims sometimes tend to specialise – e.g., concentrating on pseudohistorical claims such as the 9/11 conspiracy, paranormal claims such as those involving extraterrestrial UFOs, alternative health claims such as the canard that MMR vaccine causes autism, or the claims of particular religions. This is understandable, because the one thing that unites modern day critics of these intellectual travesties is their commitment to thoroughness in researching and analysing claims before accepting them or debunking them. Of course, this is not to say that skeptics have always is lived up this ideal. But when one skeptic does not, fellow skeptics are generally just as critical of that lapse as they are towards any paranormalist.
But despite this tendency towards depth of knowledge, many skeptics also show a wide breadth. Many are quite well versed in what’s wrong with many different pseudosciences – from different versions of alternative or complementary medicine to astrology to UFOs. In addition, some are well versed in other areas as well, such as religion, politics, or anything you may wish to discuss around the watercooler. As well as being able to discuss these topics, they also can give a coherent account of scientific reasoning and critical thinking. Is this because these people are polymaths? Well, some are, but I think that the main reason has to with their curiosity.
This is not the way many people view skeptics. Many people see skeptics as, in the words of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew, “nattering nabobs of negativism.” This is because skeptics reject quite a few popularly held beliefs. But skeptics hold a number of beliefs, albeit provisionally. Sit down with a group of people that includes at least one skeptic, and you will find a genuine interest in ideas. But more important, you will hear a lot of “Why is that?”, “What’s the evidence for that?”, or “But what about…”. And they are curious, but they practise a special type of curiosity, which I shall call what I shall call guided curiosity.
What am I on about here? Well, everyone holds that curiosity is a good thing; but if you think about it, unbridled curiosity can actually inhibit understanding. Take conspiracy theorists, for example. Being curious about how every girder split from its mountings in the World Trade Center on 9/11 wouldn’t seem to be a bad thing. However, when you think about it, it’s obvious that such detailed knowledge about an event such as this just isn’t going to be available. Who would be wandering around the buildings as they were collapsing to gather it? And if anyone did, would they have survived long enough to tell us? And it begs the question about a conspiracy to assume that anyone was figuring these things out in advance in order to plan the attack. It’s obvious that flying a plane into an iconic building will cause chaos; the perpetrators didn’t need to know exactly how much or exactly how it would happen. So why should we be worried that we lack that information? But this lack of information is what starts some conspiracy theorists down the rabbit hole. Why don’t we have it? Who is hiding it? Why? Religious believers fall into the same trap. What happened before the Big Bang? Obviously, since we have no answer at present, we must conclude that there must have been a God to cause it. Asking questions that admit of no answers, or improperly formulating them in a way that prevents a sensible answer to be given, is a surefire method for generating false, and sometimes ridiculous beliefs. So there needs to be limits on our curiosity.
I’m not suggesting limiting the range of one’s curiosity to what is ‘practical’, or of immediate interest, or to easily answerable questions. Rather, the point of limiting curiosity is this: The wider one draws the curiosity net, the more information one receives, everything else being equal. But on the other hand, one will pick up more flotsam and jetsam as well. So the point is to maximise knowledge, or at least justified beliefs while minimising the amount of nonsense or outright falsehood.
The method which does the most to achieve this is best stated by the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume: “A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence” (Hume 1955). Let’s refer to this as Hume’s Rule. Sexism aside, the rule is stating that the stronger the evidence, the more confidence one should have in one’s belief, and the opposite holds as well. Less evidence should result in a weaker belief. And a corollary of this principle is that one should not have a belief at all until one has examined the evidence. Following Hume’s Rule is the basis of guided curiosity. In what follows I shall give some examples from religion and paranormal belief to show how guided curiosity keeps us from falling for nonsense.
The consequences for religious belief of Hume’s Rule are readily apparent. Very few religious believers, when pressed, will hold that the evidence for religious belief is very strong. This is where the argument typically takes a turn: to hold that there is, after all, an exception to Hume’s Rule, which applies only to religion. Religious belief is grounded on faith, not reason or evidence; and Hume’s Rule applies only to beliefs based on evidence. Faith is, of course, precisely belief in the absence of evidence, and is, according to the religionist, a virtue which not only elevates the religionist who possesses it, but shows the simple-mindedness and shallowness of thought and character of the atheist or agnostic who lacks it, and instead asks for evidence.
By the time the atheist has defended her character from the above charge, there probably won’t be much time left to return to the question why faith is only appropriate for religious claims. After all, faith has a companion in mundane affairs, gullibility – which is also belief in the absence of evidence – which is decidedly not considered a virtue in those who invested in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. But if you do find the time to pursue this point with the religionist, it’s very unlikely that you will receive an informed answer. Instead you will probably be told that this comparison is insulting, and the debate will end there. Perhaps it is; but the fact that a person may be insulted by being told that he has a long nose doesn’t by itself prove that the claim is wrong.
Hume’s Rule has another important implication for religion, atheism and agnosticism. To see it, let’s introduce just a bit of probability theory. Since evidence is what makes a belief probable, it follows that evidence which establishes the probability of a claim to be less than .5 (or 50%) should be disbelieved. This is because the probability of belief p and the belief in the denial of p (Not-p) must add up to 1. The sentence “It will either rain or not rain on my house today” has a probability of 1, or, in other words, expresses a certainty (the Law of the Excluded Middle in logic). According to the app on my phone, the probability that it will rain here today is 40%, or .4. When a belief p has a probability of .4, its denial, Not-p has a probability of .6 (1 minus .4). So I should believe that it won’t rain today – but, applying Hume’s Rule, my belief shouldn’t be very strong, and I should be prepared to change it. Ditto my belief in a god, except that I assign the probability of there being a god to be much lower.
A claim with a probability of exactly .5 should be neither believed nor disbelieved. Thus, agnostics must be holding that the evidence for belief in a god is just as compelling as that for disbelief, or, in other words, a probability of .5 for each. A probability of less than .5 is grounds for atheism, for the reason just given. But most people who call themselves agnostics do not really believe that the probabilities are equal. They concede that the probability that there is a god is less than that of the belief that there isn’t one, but they stick to the claim that we cannot be sure that a god doesn’t exist. But this is just to miss the point of one of the basic axioms of probability theory given above. It is important to remember that the denial of the existence of something does not require evidence that the probability of its existence is 0. Most agnostics have no difficulty in dismissing the existence of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, despite not having checked every claim of where Christmas presents or quarters under the pillow came from, and therefore not being in the position to say that the probability of their existence is 0.
It might be thought that the agnostic has an answer to this. Given that God is supposed to be transcendent, completely outside the realm of human experience, no evidence is possible for belief or disbelief, because there is no evidence at all. With no evidence leading us in either direction, suspension of belief (agnosticism) seems to be the only reasonable position. But this rebuttal isn’t conclusive.
The best reason for suspending belief is that we are awaiting further evidence that might require us to change our minds. Now let’s return to the agnostic’s strong point that we are considering the transcendent; for which no empirical evidence can be found. If this is so, then there would be no reason to suspend belief pending further evidence – the supposition is just that this won’t be any. Now, add this to another corollary of Hume’s Law: The onus of proof is always on the person who puts the idea forward. When the claim is presented without any evidence to support it, Hume’s wise person would disbelieve it. This is because there are always more ways of getting something wrong than of getting it right. Take for example, guessing the day of the week on which a total stranger was born. If you guess Thursday, you have one chance in seven of getting it right, and the smart money will be on you getting it wrong. So in the debate between the atheist and agnostic where both agree that there is no evidence available about the transcendent (literally the world for which no empirical evidence possible), the onus of proof is on the believer, and the believer has none. Therefore, the claim should be disbelieved, and the atheist wins by default. In addition, remember that the theist claims to believe in some god or another; one with certain properties (even if she admits that there is no empirical evidence for those properties. But now go to a second theist, who believes in another god, with somewhat different properties). Both of these theists will be implicitly recognising the onus of proof, since they apply it to each other: the first will deny the second’s god on the grounds that the evidence is insufficient, and vice versa. Repeat this a few thousands of times, and we have the point made so well by Richard Dawkins (2006): “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Pseudoscientific claims fudge the onus of proof too. In fact, they do so with such regularity that we might consider this error as one of the defining characteristics of pseudoscience. Take conspiracy theories for example. Why is all the evidence about how “they” killed Kennedy, or placed the explosives in the World Trade Center towers to supplement the work of the airplanes, completely hidden? That it is missing is just the evidence that skeptics are supposedly too dense to see; its absence shows how clever and powerful “they” are that “they” can hide it so well. You can diagnose the informal fallacy involved here as failing to respect the onus of proof; or you can equally well call it begging the question (appealing to the very fact you are attempting to prove as evidence for the very fact that you are attempting to prove). Or you can call it the argument from ignorance, which involves saying that because you cannot disprove my claim, I must be right – whether or not I have presented any evidence. But the main point is that they have managed the impossible feat of creating something out of nothing. This, by the way, is the thing about informal fallacies: They are like cockroaches, in that if you spot one you can be assured that there are a bunch more lurking where you can’t see them.
A corollary of Hume’s Rule is the requirement that we search for not only the evidence that supports our belief, but for that which goes against it. Looking only for the supporting evidence is confirmation bias. The religious, conspiracy theory and the paranormal believer on the other hand are notorious for this cherry picking. The Christian apologist, searching for miracles, concentrates on the one little baby that survives the plane crash, but ignores the 200 others who perish. The believer in her own telepathic powers zeroes in on the few times she ‘knows’ what her friend will say next, while remaining blindly oblivious to the many more times she guesses wrong. The 9/11 conspiracy theorist pays attention to any problem, no matter how insignificant, in the received account of how the towers collapsed, while not being troubled at all by the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever of anyone planting any explosives in the buildings beforehand. The believer in any sort of complementary or alternative medicine will keep track of every cold that cures itself after taking echinacea while ignoring the ones that cure themselves without taking it. The graphologist (handwriting analyst) keeps track of every case where a handwriting sample shows large loops on the descenders of fs, gs, js, ps, qs and zs and its writer has a better than average libido, and ignores those with large libidos but wih handwriting characteristics that cannot be described this way, as well as those whose handwriting has thin or small descenders but who are nevertheless quite libidinous. (If you think I’m making this up, check Paterson, (1980:11), and don’t ask how she measured libidinousness.)
Let us look at one more rule of guided curiosity. It’s not only important to pick up new information; it’s also essential to compare that new information with what you already have. Is the new information consistent with what you already believe? If not, you have work to do to reconcile these beliefs. Perhaps you will have to reject the new information; perhaps you will have to modify it to a certain degree. Or maybe you will have to do one or both of these things to your present beliefs to achieve a fit. This shuffling process will always be with us, as long as we are gaining new information. (For a better account of this process, see Quine and Ullian (1978).) If the new observation is consistent with our old beliefs, then you can ask how it enhances your understanding of what you already know. What implications are there from the new belief to other hitherto unsuspected claims? Do these implications suggest further claims which can be tested? An example will show what I mean. Therapeutic Touch (TT) is a healing modality which involves practitioners manipulating the “energy field” which surrounds our body without actually touching the body itself. (This has led me to describe TT as “neither therapy nor touch.”} One shape of the field is healthy, others are making us sick. The crucial thing to note about TT theory is that practitioners work on just this energy field, not on the body underneath it. So, let’s take these claims at face value. If the healers can manipulate the field, they must be able to discern its presence somehow without simply inferring it from the presence of a body. But if we can perceive its presence through sight, smell, touch or hearing (probably taste isn’t an option here), then everyone should be aware of it. But we are not. Only TT practitioners are. Well, that must be because there’s another sensory mechanism which not all of us have – only those who would be good therapeutic touch practitioners have it. The inference from the claim that the energy field can be worked with to the claim that practitioners must be able to recognise its presence is not one that is often made by TT believers. But it was made by a nine-year-old from Loveland, Colorado, Emily Rosa. And though no TT practitioner had thought of doing this, the young Ms Rosa thought about how to test this claim. For her science project she set up a solid barrier dividing a table in half. The barrier left enough room for a TT practitioner to pass her hand underneath, just high enough for the experimenter to have her hand underneath it, or not. Whether it was or was not was determined by a randomizer. So, if the TT practitioner could do better than chance, on a test designed to rule out the other sensory modalities, this would be evidence of the energy field that some gifted people could detect. Needless to say, Ms Rosa’s experiment did not confirm this hypothesis, but it did lead to her being the youngest person ever to be published in a top rank medical journal (Rosa , et al, 1998).
There is another important implication of Hume’s Rule. He tells us that belief should be based on the preponderance of evidence, or on the probability that evidence confers on the belief. But the evidence for or against the belief is continually shifting as more of it becomes available. Along with this, the probabilities will fluctuate. Remembering this is how the skeptic following guided curiosity avoids dogmatism even when she has a fairly strongly held belief. She is always ready to modify her beliefs, and in some cases switch from belief to disbelief or vice versa as the new evidence comes in. And it is also why a skeptic should not only state her beliefs, but state them along with the degree of confidence – her estimate of the likelihood that more evidence will require her to revise or abandon those beliefs. Or better yet, always be prepared to state the belief along with the evidence for it. With these qualifications, there is no harm in provisionally stating a belief with a probability not much higher than .5, or disbelief even when the probability is a bit less than .5. Taking a belief seriously confers the benefit that, once a belief is stated along with the evidence for it, it can be examined, and implications drawn from it, which in turn can lead to new understanding. However, dismissing it because the probability is not much above .5 forgoes this possibility. The important thing to remember about dogmatism is that what is wrong with it is not the forceful stating of the belief, but concentrating on the belief rather than the evidence for it, or the unwillingness to budge from it when new evidence comes to light.
Some skeptics will be disappointed that I have gone all this way without mentioning one of the cardinal principles of skepticism, that there are times – quite a lot of them, actually – when you shouldn’t express a belief at all; you should straightforwardly admit that you do not know. There are two advantages to this admission. The first is that it serves as a stimulus to curiosity: having admitted that you don’t already know gives you a good reason to try to find out. Second, it prevents you from misleading others (and yourself). When they think you know and you don’t, they might follow you when they shouldn’t.
There are two situations where one should say that one doesn’t know. The first is when this expression is simply a substitute for “I don’t care.” This expression is tantamount to admitting that you have very little evidence and you are not prepared to gather any more. For example, just by reading the headlines and deciding that I have no interest in the articles they head, I couldn’t help finding out that Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and his wife, Kate Middleton, recently had a son, whom they named “Archie”. But his birthweight? I don’t know; meaning …. After all, one cannot expect to have time to look into everything; one must prioritise.
The second situation is where the evidence you have at present is about equally compelling for belief and disbelief, and it is possible to get more. In this situation it makes sense to suspend belief and wait for further evidence. But there’s an important exception here: sometimes waiting isn’t a viable option; circumstances require an immediate response. Fortunately, these special cases are quite rare; so withholding judgement while awaiting more evidence is an available option, and a good one.
Otto von Neurath (1921) compared our belief system to a leaky ship at sea. We are continually replacing rotten planks with fresh ones, but never are we able to replace the whole bottom at once, given that we wish to remain afloat. Thus we will never have a perfect set of beliefs; there will always be some false ones in there that we haven’t found yet. The best we can hope for is a gradual improvement. To continue with his metaphor, when we find a particularly strong plank on the boat which doesn’t fit very well with the old ones already in place, going to the all the work to make it fit may result in a much less leaky boat overall. Similarly, encountering a new belief that is inconsistent with some old ones, but with a lot of evidence backing it up may require the modification of several of the old beliefs at once. But the result may be a more coherent belief system overall. But not a perfect one. Non-skeptics may find this disconcerting. They are like the sailors who aren’t in it for the pleasure, but just want to get somewhere – anywhere -- and who just want to go along for the ride. But the true skeptic enjoys the sailing for its own sake.
Dawkins, Richard 2006: The God Delusion.Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Hume, David: “Of Miracles”, in Hume 1955, Indianapolis, The Bobbs-Merill Company Inc., An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Paterson, Jane 1980: Know Yourself Through Your Handwriting. Montreal, Readers Digest Assn.
Quine, W.v.O. Quine and J.S. Ullian, 1978: The Web of Belief. New York, Random House.
Rosa, L., E. Rosa, L. Sarner, S. Barrett 1998: "A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch". Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol 279(13):1005–1010.
Von Neurath, Otto 1921: Anti-Spengler. Munich, G.D.W. Callwey
Words From my Aunt Else
A few things you should know before reading this email from my aunt:
This is the story of me becoming an atheist.
In the evening our mother told us stories written by H.C. Andersen.
Among them was the story (The Tinderbox) about the soldier, a tinderbox and three big dogs. And on Sundays, I went to the Sunday school and heard stories about Jesus and his disciples.
And then, in school one day, the teacher rolled down a big map of Palestine and he said: This is where Jesus was walking with his disciples.
I was shocked.
Like I would be, if the teacher had taken us to a tree with a big hole in it and declared that:
Here was the tree, where soldier killed the witch, and got the tinderbox.
But I was living in the 1930’s, and opposite to now, people went to church, so I kept my opinion to myself, until one day I openly declared myself as a nonbeliever, no longer a member of the church (I saved taxes), and none of my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are members.
Churches in Denmark are empty mostly – only a few old people mostly women are sitting there, and some churches are used for other kinds of social events.
And I need no medicine
And remember: No herring on white bread! (no white food at all).
Genesis One Code, The; Daniel Friedmann; 2011; Inspired Books; index, glossary
recently met my old friend Daniel Friedmann at a high school reunion. We were not close during high school, but certainly friendly. At the reunion, I discovered that Dan is Jewish, has written a book, and is, well… really Jewish in that he seems to buy every word of the first chapter of the bible. (Aside: I will refer to him as Dan because I know him. I mean do disrespect when I do so.) I did not finish the book, but I saw no acknowledgement of the fact that there are lots of origin stories -- indeed, there are thousands -- nor of the fact that they all make the same claim and cannot all be right. For Dan, the Jewish world view is correct.
It is interesting to me that Dan and I have both written books that are nearly exact opposites of each others. The guts of my book states that the guts of his describe reflect a world view that I, and all atheists, find illogical and repugnant.
In the preface, he says that the bible (or rather the Torah et al) "effectively" describes the world. I would disagree. The meaning of word "effectively" as he used it is a bit unclear. I would take it to mean that it "works", which is nonsense.
He then immediately asks the reader to put aside their personal beliefs and notice the alignment of biblical events and events in the development of the world from sciences point of view. But every argument he makes, including the alignment, depends on you believing him, the bible, and Kabbalism. Kabbalism (sometimes spelled with a "C") is where the "code" in the title comes from. Per the book, Hebrew letters are numbers too (who knew?) , and when properly understood, the numbers add up to something (I have no idea what).
Dan has a masters in Engineering Physics and rose to the top of Canada's premier space technology company MDA. He is very smart. In the opening passages of the book, he describes his inner conflict, during his fourth year at university, when he realized that science and the Jewish religion are not very compatible (this seems like a late revelation to me). So he set out to reconcile them.
This is a book is a quick, light read. I did not read it all. There is only so much of this stuff I can stand. Dan does some math and comes up with this: A Creation Day is 2.54 billion years; or 7,000 Divine Years. Obvious really. Using these and other figures, he creates a religious interpretation of the major development events of the universe. I did find one review of the book on line, and in it the author mentions that by Dan's numbers, Adam would have spent millions of years "naming things", a chore god gave him early on. I am not sure how he manages to name things that have yet to evolve or develop. Dan spends a little time explaining how Adam was not a man, but became one later?
Dan does quote one paleontologist, Stephen J Gould. Gould is a good source. Gould wrote a book about the overlap of science and religion (overlapping magisteria) that, as I recall, was not well received by his contemporaries. Gould is Jewish.
The stand-out debate of religion vs. science is the origin of mankind (Scopes etc). Dan describes both viewpoints, and then ignores the discord entirely. He sort of claims victory by saying that his biblical version of reality and the scientific version align after 6,000 years ago. This avoidance practice coupled with expectation bias and over-zealous pattern matching (see my book) seem pervasive in his book.
Dan generally gets his basic science right but often oversimplifies. For example, his calculations contain the time unit of days. But the day has not always been twenty four hours, a fact he overlooks. He leaves out completely why science is right. The whole history of intellectual and scientific philosophy, and the arduous centuries-long abandonment of religious "absolute truth", is absent. I think it is not relevant from his perspective… that of a fundamentalist.
I have never understood people who, like Dan, will bend themselves into logical pretzels rather than admit that what they were force-fed as a child might not be true. When numbers get involved, my skeptical hackles go up. Numerology is hokum. I am reminded of the BS that was spread about the pyramids. Take the height, divide by the base circumference, but take back two cubits for Mary, and you get pi! So aliens built the pyramids, and god wrote "codes" into literally every word he claims he wrote. It is amazing the things you can deduce when you start with the conclusion, and then reverse engineer the premises needed to make it so.
Dan even spends a little time talking about the "power" in the names of god… real power from what I can gather, but not enough to do work. Work is a concept that I know Dan understands.
I admire people who stick by their beliefs.
I admire even more those people who are brave enough to drop or modify a long-held or cherished belief when the evidence turns against it.
Dan seems also to miss one of the absolute corner stones of science: prediction. It seems to me that if any of what Dan believes is true, then hard predictions should flow from them. There have been innumerable times in history when the latest messiah claims that the rapture will be on such and such a date, and the believers sell all they have in anticipation. All those predictions failed.
Dan might argue that the alignments he has discovered with his math is a prediction or sorts. No… it is not.
The basic problems with Dan's conclusions are summed up neatly in a computing maxim: GIGO.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.