This was a very disappointing book. As a skeptic, all I could do was wonder at the tenacity of the journalists who were trying to find "Maria Duval", a legendary psychic who's name was used all over a large number of direct mail campaigns to suckers (old people and such) to elicit funds from them for "blessings" and stuff. Apparently, their research resulted in a CNN expose in 2016.
This is a serious issue, of course. My mother got taken for a few dollars simply because her memory was dodgy. We were lucky and stopped it early. One anecdote in the book speaks of an elderly woman who mailed her "application" in with her credit card paper-clipped to it. She attached a note to the effect of "Please: you fill it out and send me back the card".
They found Maria Duval, a little old lady who had sold her name off years ago and was now, for the most part, a typical victim of the scams she started, rather than the perp.
News flash: Scammers are adept at hiding their tracks, and there is a world-wide market place for "sucker lists" that they use to bleed the vulnerable dry. Knock me over with a feather!
The only good thing I can say about this book is that it is a fast read. No index. Few notes.
If you are curious about creationism and ID from a science perspective, this is a light quick read that will bring you up to date. Hafer reminds me of me. The odd bad joke; a serious load of contempt for IDers and their ilk; copious diagrams and white space use; several fun anecdotes; all make for a fast easy read.
This is a book about ID (Intelligent Design), the stupid idea that we, and everything else, was designed by a designer. Generally a god, and generally a Christian god (that is the stupid part). The basic premise of the book is this: If there is a designer, he or she should not quite their day jobs. If creationism is a pig, ID is a pig with lipstick. The "evidence" for design is called "irreducible complexity". The idea is that certain structures (like the eye) are irreducibly complex… if you take any part out, the whole structure fails. This, in turn creates probability arguments against evolution. This is not true… see below.
Creationism is religion. ID is creationism on the down low. In one famous legal case (Dover Area School District), IDers took a creationist text book and edited it, replacing "god" with "intelligent designer" everywhere. But they screwed up (in one case, "creator" became "cintelligent designer"); the judge saw through it; and they lost, bigly.
Figuring prominently in the book is The Discovery Institute, a Washington State group that does no research, has no labs, does no experiments, makes no predictions, states nothing in numbers, has never published a paper (OK… one, but the editor was bribed, and the paper withdrawn), and yet spews pseudoscience like a fire hose. The Discovery Institute wishes to discover nothing. It wishes to inject religion into your life and our society... by stealth. They demand equal time in text books simply because they think they deserve it. They shout about academic freedom where none exists (public schools instructors do not have any "academic freedom" whatsoever). They fight dirty by getting stealth pro-ID people on school boards, and when they get a majority, they pounce, changing curricula. The "institute" created the famous "Wedge" document that ultimately leaked, exposing them for the conniving frauds they are. The "institute" is following in the footsteps of Stalin, the last guy who tried to quash evolution. That resulted in mass starvation.
When the institute and guys like Behe (a big Kahoona in the ID game) invoke science, they get the science wrong… every single time. Flagella in bacteria is an example of ID that Behe likes to promote. He made statements about flagella in bacteria (specifically, he said that IFT or InterFlagella Transport is required, which is false). Ironically, Behe points to malaria as an creation example (where he again gets the science wrong), but malaria is particularly bad today precisely because it has become resistant over time. In other words, malaria has evolved!
The human body is a mess. Back aches, fallen arches, rotten teeth, bad eyes, useless/dangerous organs like the appendix; our gonads are in the middle of a sewer; lost faculties (like the ability to create Vitamin C, something my cat can do); and the list goes on. The map of our nerves and arteries looks like a Jackson Pollack painting. And let us not forget giving birth.
Women have had the shit end of the stick since the dawn of humanity. Child birth and motherhood has huge rewards, but the risks prior to modern medicine were enormous. Assuming she did not die, a mother might get a fistula after a long, hard birth. A fistula is an abnormal "tube" growth connecting the uterus to the bladder or bowel. They can be created by difficult deliveries. A thus stricken mother will leak feces or urine from her vagina forever. This is every bit as unhealthy and awful as it sounds. And a lousy design. One thing about evolution is this: it largely doesn't give a shit about you once you have reproduced.
This is just the beginning of the major flaws in the design of our bodies. And a designer was not involved. It was evolution what done it.
Nothing about our bodies, or anything else in biology makes sense without evolution. But this does not deter the anti-intellectuals at the Discovery Institute.
It is often said by the aforementioned idiots, "What use is half an eye?"
"Nothing" is the answer if you intend to cut a working eye in half. But the actual answer is: "A half-working eye is better than no eye at all". The eye argument has been well addressed. Even a single photo-sensitive "eye" spot on a bacteria is better than no eye at all. What is most amusing about it is that the alternative (a designer) would have us believe that god that designed several different eye types over the millennia, perfected them, and then designed the terrible human eye from scratch, forgetting all he had learned from the past.
The basic issue with the human eye is this: In cuttlefish, the blood vessels and nerves that service the eye lie under the retina; in people, the opposite is true. Those vessels and nerves obstruct light and vision by sitting on top of the retina and, because the still have to get out of the eye, they exit trough a hole we know as our "blind spot". Other kinds of similar issues arise over and over, such as repurposing a spine and hips for upright walking (this is not part of the book, but still applicable).
ID and creationism have been around a long time. The Scopes Monkey Trial was in 1925 (as I recall). Almost 100 years ago... and we are still having the same stupid argument with fanatics without reason. That last sentence can be parsed any way you like.
This is an odd book. It was published, but is now vanity published. The only date on the book reflects the day I ordered it. My attention was drawn to this book by Dale Beyerstein, my philosopher on call. We were discussing religious belief and he mentioned that this book might be of interest.
The subject of the book is Armageddon, and why people buy into it. More specifically, why do they keep on believing, and in many cases, believe even more when the predicted date for the end of days is just followed by, well... more days.
The feeling you get when this happens is called cognitive dissonance, a term Dale Beyerstein thinks may have been coined by the authors. Cognitive dissonance happens when you "know" two contradictory things are true. The contradiction must be resolved. If you know the world will end on Tuesday, then you will experience CD on Wednesday.
The book asks why belief seems to grow after an utter failure of prophecy. For this to happen, the book argues that there are 5 necessary conditions to be met:
The book focuses almost exclusively on a bunch of nuts who see the end of days coming pretty much all the time. The head nut was a woman name Kelly who received "spirit writing" about the end of the world. The group was known as the Seekers. The whole movement was wrapped up paranormal powers, Scientology, UFOs (which were in vogue at the time), and the nuts who believe in them, etc. A real mish mash of ideas. I could not handle the narrative about all this. Endless detail, too many crazies and too many crazy ideas.
The books conclusions are interesting and controversial. The controversy comes from embedding people in the group to help better understand them. But to get in, you had to prove you to were a nut… and if you got in fast it was probably because you had a story so compelling that they wanted you in. And the next thing you know, you are the poster boy for the movement, and not a dispassionate reported. And you are corrupting the group (a psychological Schrödinger's cat). The authors were well aware of this problem.
Left and right are perfectly common words, with obvious meanings, right? Wrong.
Look up “left” in the dictionary, and it will say something like: Face north; your left arm is the one to the West. This just displaces the definition from “left” to “north”. Not very helpful. If you are standing next to someone when they ask “Which side is ‘left?”, it is easy. All you need do is point. Or point out that their heart is on the left side of their body. Easy to understand, but flawed because it is referring to shared objects that are familiar to both speaker and listener.
Describing left versus right to someone on the phone is pretty easy. You might say “Look at a clock. Nine o’clock is on the left. But again, you cheated. Effectively, you have just "pointed" again by referring to an object you both understand.
What if there are no shared objects?
Now suppose you are talking to an alien on the other side of the universe. You gave agreed on and defined hundreds of words until you get to “left”. Is it possible to tell that alien which side is “left”? You might say “Sure! I will send a bitmap picture of something and point out that this or that bit of the image is on the left. But how did they get the bit-map? They had to print it out in some sense, and when they do, they have to decide whether to print from the left to right or right to left. If they pick wrong, their “left” and yours will not be the same, and the image they look at will be a mirror image.
It turns out that it cannot be done… at least not by mere mortals like you or I.
Physics and biology are full of left and right hand rules. If you point your right thumb up (north) and curl your fingers, you have just used the right hand rule to determine, for example, the direction of the Earth’s rotation (counter-clockwise), or the direction of a magnet field around a conductor (where thumb points in the direction of the current), or the direction of the spiral in DNA.
Left and right are important. If you only have one hand, and you want a glove, for example. (Fun fact: If you invert a left hand glove, you get a right hand glove.) Simple sugar comes in two versions: a left-handed isomer and right-handed isomer. In our bodies, and all other critter’s bodies, we all use just the one isomer and ignore the other. Once biology made its choice, it was stuck with it.
The labels of left and right are (almost) completely arbitrary. If we were to redefine right as left and vise versa, some interesting things must happen, including relabeling the poles of a magnet (north becomes south), and redefining “clock-wise” too.
If you were to look down on a game of pool, there would be no way to tell if you were looking at the real image, or a mirror image. The balls would ricochet about as usual regardless. A mirror image universe would be almost indistinguishable from our own. Almost…
Physicists often speak of CPT conservation. The C is for charge. Charge is always conserved. The T is for time, and says that the laws of physics are the same regardless of whether you run time forward or backward. The P is for Parity, and it essentially says that laws of physics are the same for a mirror interaction. However, a few decades ago, it was discovered that P is not conserved and that some physical interactions differ from their mirror images!
That is weird.
The universe cares about the difference between left and right. It turns out that Parity is not always conserved ( see the Wu Experiment for more). So, as I said, for us mere mortals, telling an alien race on the other side of the universe what direction left is is not possible.
But if you are a physicist, you could tell the aliens to “go like this, then do that, and you will see such and such, you will find that certain things tend to go one way rather than the other, and that direction is ‘left’ and the opposite ‘right’.” To do the experiments involved, you will need a particle accelerator. When the results were announced that Parity was not always conserved, physicists reviewed older experiment data and discovered that the pattern was there all along, but the result was so unexpected, no one thought to look at it.
Expectation bias strikes again!
Shortly after I got married, my wife and I were walking Granville Street’s “mall”… an area that is largely traffic free and attracts all sorts: drug dealers, buskers and god-squaders.
On one corner, a street preacher had set himself up. He had a car battery, bull horn, and about a dozen shills handing out pamphlets. It was a real challenge for the two of us to wend our way through the crowd to get to the theatre we were aiming for. A woman, about sixty, blocked us, handed us a brochure and said “Have you been born again?” (or some such rubbish… it was a long time ago). Proselytizers annoy me. So I replied and a loud booming voice “Fuck off!”. We were not asked again.
I caught a lot of flak from my wife. She thought I was rude. I though quite the reverse. I also thought it was funny as hell. The look on the woman’s face alone was worth the price of admission. And upon reflection, my position only solidified.
A few days ago, I was watching the always funny, always brilliant, Christopher Hitchens on Youtube. In it, a woman, also about sixty, asked what he would recommend she say when people ask her a similar question. Hitch though for a second and said “I would tell them to Fuck Off!” and then gave a very concise reason as to why.
“Language can bewitch us. If a word exists, we tend to assume that there must be something in reality to which it refers. Labels are meant to be slapped onto things, right?”
This quote comes from a recent article in the Skeptical Inquirer (September 2017) by Maarten Boudry about logical fallacies:
I discuss both logical fallacies and language in my book The God Con.
Organized religion uses this human predilection with respect to labels all the time. Priests, flocks, saints, sinners, redemption, heaven, hell, judgment day, communion, etc all refer to stuff the churches simply made up. But the labels they receive beguile their concocted-for-a-reason purpose. That reason is to deceive.
Boudry makes some excellent observations about logical fallacies and the skeptic’s knee jerk reaction upon detecting them. He suggests, correctly, that many “real” logical fallacies are either very rare in the real world, or they tell us very little. There are literally hundreds of such fallacies, but I only discuss the ones I see popping up regularly cocktail party discussions, such as the argument from ignorance (this is the “you don’t know it isn’t true” argument).
Mondeville recommended that doctors should use magical cures, not because they worked, but because if they do work, the surgeon will be credited with a marvelous piece of work, while if they do not work, he will not be accused of missing some vital step. He advised surgeons to always charge for medicine because the more expensive the cure the more confidence the patient will have in it. He also suggested that surgeons use big words, and if necessary, make up words, to impress their patients.
This modified text is taken from Juliet Barker's book on Agincourt. Mondeville was an agent of the dauphin of France in 1417.
I wrote this list in the early 90's. It has since been refined and incorporated into classroom lectures. It has been added to physics and dentistry programs, among others.
Free free to use this list as you see fit, with proper citation.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.