Category Archives: Supernatural

Tech-Savvy Satan Puts Frighteners On Priest

By our religious affairs correspondent, Joe King.

 

Priest believes the Devil is a twat.

A priest claims he has been receiving death threats from Satan shortly after he completed several gruelling exorcise sessions. “I exorcise regularly,” said Father Raving, who has been practising, but is not yet perfect at, the art of casting out demons.

After failing in his attempt to destroy the demonic spirit inhabiting the soul of a teenage girl, the priest declared that he had upset Satan even to the extent that the Dark Lord Of The Underworld Himself was now resorting to modern technology to get back at him. Beelzebub now uses a mobile phone, but not his own.

“It’s not like the old days,” said the elderly priest, “when a demonic possessor would just attack you with flying objects – knives, pots and pans, or even just set up cuddly toys in unlikely scenarios, or maybe get the young lass to vomit all over you. It’s different now and much more frightening.”

Asked what was different nowadays, and why his job was much more difficult, Father Raving said, “Look at it this way – if you get trouble from someone on Twitter, you can just block the fucker. Text messages are different. OK, the sender’s phone number appears, but it doesn’t mean that the teenager I was exorcising actually sent those messages. It’s obvious to me that Satan has possessed her phone and it’s not her or someone else taking the piss out of me.”

In one shocking incident, after the priest prayed for the girl’s salvation, he received a sinister text message from Lucifer saying, “Up yours, mate.”

“The owners of mobile phones often don’t know that they are being used like this,” the priest said. “At least not until they get their phone bill. That’s when they go mad.”

The priest added: “This girl is in need of further help, so I’ll probably pop round later to administer extreme unction.”

“In the meantime, there’s not a lot I can do about Satan, except unfriend the twat on my Facebook page. That’ll send him a message he can understand.”

 

[By coincidence, a completely different priest has been having similar problems. You can read about it here.]

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Not Evidence For Design

I’ve just had my regular visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And of course they left the latest copies of their propaganda magazines, The Watchtower and Awake!

I always read them before they go into the recycling bin, just to see if there is anything that makes sense to a thinking person, although their main value is to give an insight into the irrationality of the believing brain. These magazines are just apologetics, mostly, and seem to be aimed at believers rather than anyone else. For those who already believe, and who like to have reinforcement of those beliefs, they serve a purpose. They might also be aimed at impressing potential converts, of course.

Something jumped out at me in this month’s Awake!, however. It’s an interview with an actual physicist who converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2005. He says he used to believe in evolution, but later concluded that life was created. I’ll not embarrass the fellow by naming names, but if you come across the July 2014 edition, you can read the interview on pages 12 and 13.

Incredibly, an actual physicist – who says that his job is to understand nature – shows the most profound misunderstanding of nature itself and the most basic laws of physics. He says:

As a physicist, my job is to understand nature. So I decided to give the facts some careful thought.

So what facts did he consider?

First, I knew that a closed system cannot become more organized unless acted upon by an external agent. That is the second law of thermodynamics. Since the universe and life on earth are highly ordered, I concluded that they must be products of an external agent, a Creator.

The second fact was that the universe and the earth seem to be specifically designed to support life. [Emphasis added]

In fact, the second law of thermodynamics says nothing about an external “agent” as such, and certainly not in the form of a creator, (or god). There are different ways that the second law can be stated but essentially it means that the total energy in a closed system will equalise over time until it is no longer able to do any useful work. It’s the same reason why perpetual motion machines are nothing more than wishful thinking: even the most efficient machines must eventually lose their energy into the rest of the system until they come to a halt.

It almost beggars belief that an actual Experimental Physicist can mangle one of the most basic physical laws. I checked around on the internet and found out that he is not just a physicist but a Senior Research Fellow in a British university, so it looks like the article isn’t a hoax – although I was wondering.

The second law is regularly trotted out by creationists as some sort of proof (they think) that evolution can’t be true. But it’s sad that their physicist has missed one extremely important point: the Earth is not a closed system. There is a constant input of energy from the Sun, so life on this planet is not falling foul of any physical laws, least of all the second law. As long as the Sun keeps shining, there is no danger at all of the orderliness of our system decaying.

The second point he makes is just another fallacy that creationists promote, the idea that “the universe and the earth seem specifically designed to support life.”

It’s another example of bad thinking. Look at it this way: if there is life elsewhere in the galaxy, it is unlikely to be anything like life on this planet. The environment that supports us could well be lethal to alien beings. And the environment on their planet might be lethal to us. There might be thousands of planets out there that are home to intelligent civilisations, none of which could survive for a minute on any of the other inhabited planets.

The point is this: the laws of physics apply all over the observable universe, so the emergence of life is probably inevitable. But those same laws don’t mean that there is only one type of environment that can support life. In the same way that life on Earth is extremely diverse, life across the universe is going to come in different forms too. If life can emerge and develop, it will evolve to fit into the environment it is in – not the other way round. The tendency is for believers to assume that the environment is there for the needs of the life within it, but the reality is that life adapts (evolves) to a changing environment, or it dies out. Nature has no feelings on the matter.

Our physicist then goes on to contradict himself, although it’s subtle and it will go unnoticed by the scientifically illiterate faithful, of course. He was “intrigued” by the Bible’s creation account and its reference to light:

“God said: ‘Let there be light.’ Then there was light.”

He then goes on to state the obvious: plants need light to produce food and we need light to see. And he goes on to say that ultraviolet light is good in small amounts, but dangerous if we get too much.

Yes, that’s true enough, but he acknowledges here that there is a constant stream of energy reaching the Earth from the Sun – the very thing that ensures that the second law is not going to spell our doom (for a few billion years anyway, at least until the Sun runs out of fuel and dies).

Sometimes I despair, especially when a qualified scientist (a physicist, of all people) who knows better, is willing to overlook the science he is trained in, in favour of faith (a belief that is held without evidence).

One thing I think I can be sure about is that this physicist will not be teaching his students the Jehovah’s Witnesses version of physics in an actual university lecture theatre. He will be obliged to teach physics, not religion.

Then again, it would be interesting to see what his peers would think of his research in this kind of scenario:creationism-cartoon-a-miracle-occurs

(Credit: Sidney Harris Science Cartoons)

The advantage of an article featuring a scientist for any religious organisation is that it gives a false impression that science itself somehow confirms the religious beliefs of that organisation. Unfortunately, this scientist is not using science in this instance; he has allowed his beliefs to override his logic, and he just gives a superficial and false sense of authority to his church’s doctrine.

Religion and science just do not mix.

Nye Eats Ham

Picture source - Answers In Genesis

Like many other people, I was wary of the idea of Bill Nye (The Science Guy) engaging in a public debate about evolution with Ken Ham (Creationist, and founder of Answers In Genesis).

Public debates like this certainly don’t resolve important issues, and usually each side claims “victory” anyway. No doubt the creationists who viewed it will think that Ham came out on top, but it doesn’t really matter what they – or   Nye’s supporters – think. The big question is whether either participant was able to sway those viewers who watched the debate without any firmly held beliefs either way.

Overall, I think that Nye won this one hands down. His strategy was to explain science – what it is, and how scientists find out and verify the knowledge they accumulate, using examples and illustrations. And he also underlined the point that America’s prominence economically depends on its ability to stay at the forefront of scientific discovery.

Ham’s strategy, on the other hand, can be summarised as : “God did it.” The Bible says it, he believes it, that settles it. He offered no science himself, but let’s face it – “creation science” is a self-contradictory term anyway. For Ham, there are no mysteries – all you need to know is, God did it – which is not actually an illustration of one’s knowledge, but an illustration of one’s ignorance. It explains exactly nothing.

For me, though, there was one key point that brought the whole debate into sharp focus. This was at the end of the debate when Nye and Ham were taking questions from the audience. The question – for both men – was breathtakingly simple: “What would change your mind?”

Believers in religion and the paranormal always accuse scientists and sceptics of being closed-minded – so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that they are just not going to admit that they might be wrong. But now Ham was put to that test and failed miserably.

Ham answered first and was visibly flustered. Asked what would change his mind, he put his faith first, and confirmed what everyone knew anyway: there is absolutely nothing that will change his mind. Ham’s own closed-mindedness was put on display for all to see.

Nye, however, was in no doubt: (confirmable) evidence will change his mind. It’s what scientists do every day. They do not hold on rigidly to cherished beliefs when contradictory evidence arises – they embrace it and investigate it. And when you think about it, how could science have made such huge advances if it was not willing to change in the light of new discoveries?

America is a leader in science, but that is despite religion, not because of it. The Constitution requires separation of church and state, and for that reason religion in the form of creationism is not allowed to be taught in American state-funded classrooms. If creationism ever were allowed into science classes, then Americans can kiss their scientific lead goodbye.

Bill Nye did a first class job and deserves to be lauded for it.

The South Shields Poltergeist – TV Documentary Even More Dire Than The Book

20140118_113858-1When The South Shields Poltergeist was published in 20o8 it came in for heavy criticism from the outset. The book was written by Mike Hallowell and Darren Ritson, described  on Mike Hallowell’s website by veteran paranormal writer Guy Lyon Playfair as two “dedicated amateurs.” But dedicated or not, the result was a totally unconvincing account of an alleged poltergeist haunting in an otherwise normal household. [The link or its contents might change later, but I have a copy of the page to resolve any disputes about its contents that might arise later.]

Most of the criticism the authors faced when the book was published (apart from the fact that it was utter tosh) was the fact that they have not publicly released any of the evidence they say they have that would support what they believe to  be a genuine case of paranormal activity. Among the many excuses they made for not publicising their evidence was the claim that to do so might compromise the possibility of having a TV documentary made if a producer could not have access to evidence that had not been used elsewhere. (The authors also lambasted their critics for criticising them without examining their evidence, oblivious to the fact that they would not let anyone else see it anyway, except fellow believers who also would not – or were not allowed to – release it into the public domain.)

Well, things might change now because a Canadian company has produced a “documentary” that features the eponymous spirit, and you can see it online at this link. (Until recently it could not be viewed from the UK unless one went through a proxy server, but the link appears to be working now – at least as I write this.) So now that their long hoped for documentary has been made, perhaps Mike and Darren will be releasing their long awaited confirmation of a genuine poltergeist event?

Personally, I think there’s a better chance of Myleene Klass turning up at Mike’s front door wearing nothing but baby oil and a smile, asking, “How about it, big boy?” (At least there is no doubt that Myleene exists, so the possibility is there, however remote that possibility might be.)

The documentary itself deals with three alleged poltergeist hauntings, including the South Shields case. It’s embarrassing to watch, however, because the standard techniques of the woo documentary makers are clear to see. For example, dramatic reconstructions that bear no resemblance to reality are the norm in this sort of show, and anyone who has read the actual book will realise that there is no similarity between the photographs of the house portrayed in the book, and the overly dramatic and sinister portrayal of the house in the documentary.

It appears that none of the authors’ original “evidence” has been used anyway, and especially not the absurd “bottle footage” that Mike had removed from the internet after it came in for so much laughter and derision, even from people who believe in the paranormal.

There is, however, some sceptical input from Chris French, who says that the most likely explanation for events like this can be hoaxes, misperceptions of events and so on. But later, the host of the show, Darryll Walsh asks what the scientific evidence says about it all – but does he return to Chris French or go to any other scientist? No, of course not; his first “scientific analyst” is Guy Lyon Playfair, non-scientist, who reckons it must be real (he’s been writing about the paranormal for decades, after all, so you just have to take his word for it.).

The other “scientific” answer from a non-scientist comes from Alan Murdie, a British barrister who is also chairman of The Ghost Club Of Great Britain. Unfortunately, like his commentary here, he presents his case in the manner of a lawyer defending a client he knows to be guilty. No doubt the believers will lap it all up. [I have a copy of that page, too, just in case.]

Obviously, neither the book nor this pathetic excuse for a documentary has a believability level that has drawn the serious (like, it’s real) attention of any reputable news organisations – the BBC, for instance – or any genuinely scientific organisation. It’s one for the seriously dedicated believer who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to be weighed down with the burden of thinking for him or herself.

But I like to be optimistic about things, so the fact that the long-awaited documentary has now materialised, as it were, means that perhaps now is the time that Mike and Darren will release all that evidence they say they have, and prepare to be invited to present their findings at the Royal Institution, followed by the presentation of their joint Nobel Prize for discovering a hitherto unknown force of nature that  goes beyond – or even explains – the quantum physics that the most brilliant minds on Earth have been struggling with for over a hundred years.

(No, I don’t think so, either.)

(The woo brigade are always claiming “quantum” this, “quantum” that, after all, despite the fact that no quantum physicist would entertain such nonsense for a moment. Even if there are any scientists familiar with quantum physics who believe in the paranormal and think it can be explained by subatomic phenomena, not one of them has provided evidence, proof or even a mathematical foundation for such claims.)

But the documentary is now out, and with the help of my sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good), I predict that the authors of this bedtime story will still find excuses for not showing us the evidence.

The book’s hype says that this is one of the most disturbing books you will ever read. That might be true for the uncritical believers, but for the rest of us, it’s just a bit disturbing that there are that many credulous people around to spend the money that keeps this sort of nonsense in vogue. As for the “documentary,” I can see the authors’ fans wetting themselves in fear, while everyone else is wetting themselves with laughter.

In the UK, like many other countries, it is a legal requirement that all children receive at least a basic education, but it’s not a legal requirement that anyone has to learn anything. The ones that don’t are the people that keep this nonsense alive because of bad thinking.

They Called Me A Pseudoskeptic!

No, I don’t believe there is anything paranormal going on. I’m sceptical of extraordinary claims that the psi folk make but which they cannot confirm. It would be different, perhaps, if psychics really did solve crimes, or predict lottery numbers, or if minefields were being routinely cleared by dowsers, or if anything – anything paranormal at all – could be proven clearly and unambiguously.

It seems, however, that anyone like me who doubts the existence of any of the myriad claims made about the paranormal is not merely a sceptic, but a pseudosceptic. Gosh! I need testable, confirmable evidence before I will believe that a claim that contradicts the known physical laws might be true! I just don’t have faith, and that won’t do.

I’ve been called a pseudoskeptic often by the believers, who seem to think that a “true sceptic” is someone who goes through the motions of examining the evidence offered by the psi proponents, and thereafter accepts it uncritically. In fact, it is claimed that the reason people like me do not accept the paranormal is because I just haven’t examined the evidence. But the opposite is true: I spend as much – or more – time looking at paranormal claims and the supposed evidence supporting it as I do reading about actual science. And I find the evidence in favour of the paranormal woefully inadequate. But I do have a knowledge of science and its methodology, although I make no claims to be a practising scientist.

The believers put great emphasis on the research offered by parapsychologists – often people who do actually have scientific credentials. It sounds good to say that scientists have proven the existence of psi; they have Ph.D. qualifications (usually), so what more do I want? Am I just rejecting science that does not conform to my personal prejudices – as the believers claim?

Actually no – I am rejecting research that no mainstream scientist can replicate. That’s a key point, because nothing is accepted in science unless it can be replicated, and even then it can take a long time to overcome the scepticism of other scientists. Plenty of parapsychologists have claimed to have found proof of psi, but if it only happens in their own laboratories, and no-one else can reproduce the same results and there turns out to be absolutely no practical benefits from it, then why believe? If the psi believers and researchers cannot provide evidence that stands up to independent scrutiny then it is reasonable to doubt the claim – to be sceptical, even. After more than a hundred and fifty years of scientists dabbling in paranormal research there is not one single practical application that has come out of any of it. Of course I’m sceptical – any rational person should be.

In the real world, paranormal claims fall flat. Psychics simply do not do the things they – and others – claim for them.

Consider this scenario:

You meet someone who claims to be a concert pianist. He is with a group of his friends who all confirm his story and even offer anecdotes about the concerts he has performed in the past. They tell you that he has been tested by qualified music examiners and passed every test and exam they have put to him. They regale you with accounts of this pianist performing musical feats that seem impossible to you, a non-musician. You protest that there is no evidence that this person has any musical ability, so why should you accept such a claim?

The matter can be resolved, however: there is a piano in the room, so you invite this pianist to play something. You propose that even though you are not a musician, you will accept the claim that this person is at least a pianist if he can play a recognised piece of classical piano music. You will even leave the choice of music to him, just so long as it is a known classical piece. You are not going to accept “Chopsticks” – you want some kind of Waltzy Sonata or something; nothing less will do.

If this person sits down and plays, say, Mozart’s Alla Turka, note-perfect, I think I would be be convinced. And so should any other reasonable person.

But what if your request for the alleged pianist to perform as he claims he can is met with the reply, “It doesn’t work like that”? That’s the standard reply from psychics and their supporters, after all.

And what if you are told that because you are sceptical of his abilities, his musical abilities will not manifest themselves – that’s the way it is in the presence of sceptics and unbelievers?

Suppose he said that he will not do it because the piano that is there is an upright, and the performance of music on anything less than a Steinberg  grand piano is “not conducive” to musical performance?

What if he said to you, “The production of music is a rare and elusive phenomenon that cannot be called up at will”?

Maybe he might say, “Musical phenomena are spontaneous and cannot be predicted, so I can’t be expected to perform on demand.”

OK, then, suppose he finally agrees to do the test and sits down at the piano, only to produce nothing more than a jumble of notes with no melody whatsoever. He might acknowledge that he got it wrong then, but he assures you that he gets it right about eighty or ninety percent of the time, i.e., every time you are unable to see or hear him perform.

By now I think I would conclude that this fellow can’t play a piano. I might even tell him to his face that I don’t believe he has any musical ability.

But then his followers would probably call “foul.” They just know that he can do what he claims, because they have heard him with their own ears, not realising that they are themselves tone deaf and have no knowledge of music theory.

In a similar way, psychics and their supporters are like that. They have lots of faith, but no knowledge of how science works, or even what constitutes valid evidence (and no, anecdotes are not evidence).

If you have watched some of the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent auditions by people who are truly awful singers but who – together with their supporters – believe they are great performers, you might start to understand my analogy. The show’s judges – who do know something about music – can usually be relied on to weed out the hopefuls who cannot do what they think they can.

The reality is not that I have not studied what the paranormalists believe is evidence for the paranormal; in fact,  they themselves have little or no understanding of science. Even many of the parapsychologists who do have scientific credentials are themselves practising pseudoscience. In fact the believers often dismiss empirical findings with the casual refrain, “Science doesn’t know everything.” Some self-styled “experts” also claim to have evidence but they just won’t let you examine it. And science itself is usually referred to by the derogatory term “scientism.”  Oooooh!

If there is such a person as a pseudosceptic, then its definition boils down to this: a pseudosceptic is another name for a denialist. A denialist, like a believer, has a fixed point of view that is impervious to reason. I can be convinced of the existence of the paranormal if anyone can ever prove it. A belief backed up only by excuses for constant failure will not do it for me; nor will anecdotes, personal testimony, heartfelt declarations and so on.

Show me a psychic that can actually do anything psychic and I will accept it. But make a claim for the existence of psi without backing it up with testable evidence and I will doubt it. That’s what scepticism is about.

For your entertainment:

Here is someone who claims to be a pianist, and actually proves it. This is brilliant.

Someone who does what he claims.

 

Here are some people who genuinely believe they have talent, but are making complete fools of themselves. Tragic and sad.

Ambition goes beyond ability

 

Here are some psychics who do what psychics do, (fail when tested) but just happen to be exposed as charlatans. (And they didn’t see it coming, for some inexplicable reason.)

Psychics: the reality

 

Naturally, it might just be that the three mediums featured above were just having an off day. I mean, psi doesn’t work like that, does it? It’s a rare and elusive phenomenon that can’t be called up at will. They are also in the presence of a sceptic and the conditions are therefore not conducive to psychic effects Etc., etc., etc.

No doubt there will be believers who will make excuses – as they always do – for these psychics and other psychics who can’t do anything psychic. But the main point still remains: paranormal proponents have yet to prove beyond any doubt that the paranormal is real. They have not done that, nor have they produced a testable hypothesis that would make any headway into psi, and they certainly do not have anything approaching what could be described as a theory (in the scientific sense) that can explain psi or be predictive in any way that science would accept.

No one can prove a negative, so no one can actually disprove the existence of the paranormal. The burden of proof is on those who claim that the paranormal is real; until they do so, I remain sceptical.

There is nothing pseudo about reasonable doubt.

Wrapping Up 2013 And Looking Forward To 2014

Well, it’s the end of another year and the beginning of the next, so I thought I’d do a roundup of the successes of psychics and other proponents of the paranormal, and the breakthroughs made by parapsychlogists. The list of notable positive achievements by the exponents of psi, UFOs, remote viewing, astrology, spiritualism, remote viewing, spoon bending, psychokinesis, exorcism, telepathy, ghost hunting, poltergeists, etc., is as follows (in no particular order):

1) Erm…

2) Yeah, right.

3) Umm…

4) That’s about it, actually.

seance

And the list of achievements for the practitioners of the various and assorted forms of medical quackery out there is:

1) Oh, give me a break…

2) What about a list of dangerous quacks who should be jailed…?

3) Really – don’t get me started.

vacuum_cap_thumb

Actually, when I thought of doing a year-end round up, I thought of doing a comprehensive list of links to the failures of various psychics, deaths by exorcisms, people being duped out of their life savings by “money cleansers,” false or wrong predictions by clairvoyants, the failure of any pseudoscientific paranormal research to be published in any accredited scientific journals, the astoundingly stupid publications of self-professed but qualification-free “experts” in the paranormal, stage and TV psychics who aren’t really psychic otherwise they wouldn’t advertise their shows as being “for entertainment only” if they really were psychic (and if they were they would be able to prove it), dead people who eschewed medical science in favour of any form of quackery you can think of, and the list goes on and on and on. But a list of links like that could go on indefinitely, and I would guess that no one would have the inclination – or the stamina – to go through it all.

The bottom line is straightforward: there is still no confirmable evidence that the paranormal is real or that anyone is being cured of anything by supposed complementary and alternative medicine. The believers go on deluding themselves, and the promoters of woo are never short of eager suckers willing to part with their cash and even put their lives in danger to pursue a chimera.

I think the only uncontroversial thing to be stated is that the controversy will go on.

But what will 2014 bring? Like everyone else, I’m not psychic, so I will have to rely on my sceptical powers (which I have vowed to use only for good) to make some predictions:

  • Millions of people around the word will waste billions of pounds making thousands of psychics a little bit richer.
  • Millions of people will waste their money on unnecessary health supplements, unnecessary and often dangerous colonic irrigations, various quack remedies that are useful only to hypochondriacs; quacks will get a little bit richer and some of their patients will die because they should have seen a doctor before they went for “healing” rather than evidence-based treatment.
  • Exorcisms will continue to cause injuries and claim lives around the world because pre-Enlightenment religious superstition still pervades the lives of billions of people, reinforced by a lifetime’s indoctrination, and of course it will be promoted by people who can make money peddling it in their writings.
  • No one will be abducted by aliens from outer space or be anally probed by them, but the reports will continue to come in. Writers of this kind of nonsense will continue to believe that anecdotes trump testable evidence, and will wonder why they are being criticised for it.
  • Books and articles promoting the paranormal will be written by people with Ph.Ds who have moved away from science into pseudoscience; and books and articles promoting the paranormal will be written by people who have neither accredited qualifications  nor any knowledge of science but claim themselves to be “experts,” while the rest of us are not. In both cases, the existence of the alleged paranormal will not be proven to the exacting standards required by science.
  • Anything you can think of relating to any branch of woo will, in short, carry on pretty much as usual, and not a single thing within the paranormal or supernatural arena will gain support from science or become in any way a regular part of  life in the same way as we accept electricity, smartphones, (real) medicine and so on.
  • There will be no Nobel Prizes awarded to any promoter of woo who claims that the paranormal is explainable in terms of quantum physics – and let’s be honest, quantum physicists tend to think the idea of the paranormal is a load of old tosh anyway, without self-promotional oafs bastardising a scientific concept that real scientists have spent decades investigating – without discovering any links between unproven psi claims and hard science.

It looks like the battle for rationality will have to continue in the face of relentless pressure from those who believe in, but cannot prove, the paranormal claims they make.

It still all comes down to a simple concept: the burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim. It’s not up to me or any other sceptic to disprove anything that a psychic or woo promoter says, it is up to them to demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that what they claim is true. They’re going to be challenged. Someone asked me once, “Are you still trying to prove that psychics aren’t real?” My answer now is the same as it was then: “No, I don’t try to prove that psychics aren’t real; I try to get them to prove that they are real.”

And the same applies to those who claim that UFOs are alien spaceships from another galaxy (ASFAGs), but who can do no better than rely on unconfirmed anecdotes from alleged witnesses. Produce a piece of alien hardware or something; that might do it.

The fact is that there are many people out there who are determined to undo the Enlightenment. The tragedy is that so many of them truly believe they have “knowledge” that is unavailable to the rest of us and that methodological research, i.e., science, should be way down the list of priorities when it comes to finding out what is going on in the real world.

The biggest problem being faced by rational people – and the very foundation of science – is not so much the ignorance of those who promote woo in all its forms, but their illusion of knowledge. The fight has to go on.

So, although I’m not usually one to make New Year resolutions, I think I’ll try to make an effort to post more often than I have done recently. There’s no shortage of nonsense out there to blog about, after all.

Creationism Is Not Science

 Creationism vs ScienceMy previous post was a parody of religion and its malign influence on humanity. In particular, I was pointing out the way that superstition in the form of religion stops progress, and also the fact that it is only science that has enabled humanity to leave the caves and have the potential, at least, to live long and healthy lives in comfort and safety.

It can hardly be denied that religion has caused untold misery through the ages, and even now, thousands are being killed and maimed in the name of religion. But not only are people being murdered by the thousands, vaccination workers in Pakistan are being targeted and killed. Millions of lives have been saved through one of science’s greatest triumphs, and yet the ignorance and anti science of religion is managing to kill even more people by killing the very people who could have saved their lives.

All of that is bad enough, of course, but even in the western democracies there is a pernicious wave of anti science trying to worm its way into educational institutions – creationism. This is dangerous and has to be stopped. No one is trying to to prevent the religious from pursuing their beliefs in their places of worship or in the privacy of their homes, but there is no place in a science class for something that is not only not science, but is overtly the enemy of science.

I wrote the previous post after looking through some of the comments left on earlier threads. One of my creationist commenters said:

1) You believe that Creationism is unscientific.
2) Creationists believe that Creationism is scientific.
3) Both of these opinions are based upon different interpretations of the evidence and data. Both sides believe the other side is wrong.

Currently, Evolutionists hold the reins steering the direction of scientific teaching in our places of learning, It was not always so, and there may come a time when it will not be again.

There are few things I claim with certainty, but one thing is certain beyond any shadow of doubt: creationism is unscientific. Let me deal with the above points:

Point 1: The problem with creationism is that it works in completely the opposite way that science works. The thing that marks creationism as unscientific – even outright anti science – is the fact that it starts with the conclusion it wants to prove. Consider the fact that there are thousands of religions, each with its own creation story: each one has a different conclusion for which evidence has to be found. It’s easy to find evidence that supports a belief, but is the evidence falsifiable? If not, it is not science.

Point 2: Yes, creationists believe that creationism is scientific; in this post I will show why they are wrong.

Point 3: “Both of these opinions are based upon different interpretations of the evidence and data.” Except for one simple fact: creationists do not discover any evidence or data; real evidence and data are found by real scientists, and creationists can only attack the scientific evidence. They produce nothing original themselves. In any case, if evidence is open to wildly different interpretations, then you need better evidence.

The last point (not numbered) is either an expression of ignorance or an aspiration to overthrow science. It also sounds vaguely threatening.

One thing that can be said about creationism is that its proponents are profoundly ignorant about science. It is not what they think it is. In the simplest way I can think of stating it, science is a three stage process: observation; formulation of a hypothesis; testing the hypothesis. (It’s more involved than that, of course, but as an outline it covers the basics.)

Science begins when a phenomenon is observed. Whether it is something mundane or something totally unexpected, a curious person wants to know what is going on. Next, a possible explanation (the hypothesis) for the phenomenon is formulated – an explanation that is at least plausible. Then the hypothesis is tested to see if it does, in fact, explain the observation.

But here is the unexpected thing (which creationists cannot seem to grasp): the hypothesis is not tested to try to confirm the hypothesis, it is tested to try to disprove the hypothesis. In other words, a scientist tries to prove that the hypothesis he (or she) thinks is true is actually false (that’s called the null hypothesis). If it is false, then the scientist goes back to the original observation and formulates a new hypothesis to be tested. But even if the hypothesis is confirmed, it is held only tentatively – more testing needs to be done.

 

The principle of falsifiability in science is crucial. If a hypothesis is false, then there must be a way to prove it. This is not the same as trying to prove a universal negative. It is not possible, for example, to prove that psychics aren’t real. Even if a psychic fails a properly conducted test, all it tells you is that that person failed that test on that day at that time, but hey, they might get it right another time. No, falsifiability means that the parameters of any hypothesis should include a way to tell if the hypothesis is wrong. Although some people claim that evolutionary theory is unfalsifiable, for example, all it would take to falsify it would be (as someone famously said) to find a rabbit fossil in the precambrian. And there are many other possible ways to falsify evolutionary theory if it happened to be wrong.

Here’s the crunch – creationism does not provide much in the way of testable hypotheses. Ask a creationist how to test the hypothesis that his or her particular deity created the world and what do you get? Apologetics – in other words, a list of excuses to try to say why any particular creationist belief is not testable (but they still claim that creationism is scientific).

Here’s an example: Young Earth Creationists (YECs) insist that the Earth is no more than six thousand years old. Now that’s a hypothesis that can be tested.
Carbon 14 is a radioactive isotope that is abundant in nature and absorbed by all living things. When a plant or creature dies, it no longer replenishes that C14, which then decays at a known rate. By measuring the amount of C14 in an organic sample, the age of that sample can be calculated. The technique can measure age up to about fifty five thousand years, after which there is not enough C14 left to be measured. The technique has been tried and tested and is reliable.

If any material is dated that is older that six thousand years, then the hypothesis that the Earth is no more than that age is falsified. And that is what happens routinely (not even counting other types of radiometric dating that can go back billions of years).

Can the creationists accept these scientific findings? No, of course they can’t. God must have created the world with the “appearance” of age. Or perhaps Satan planted those fossils in the ground to beguile godless scientists. Even the speed of light must have changed in the last few thousand years just to make it look as though the young universe itself is old. All said with a straight face and no evidence whatsoever. If creationism really were scientific, then those YECs would accept that the Young Earth hypothesis had been falsified. But it isn’t, and they don’t.

It gets no better with any other aspect of religion. Hindus, for example, believe that there are an infinite number of universes – past, present and future, each lasting for trillions of years until they are all reborn. The latest measurements from science reveal that our universe is about 13.82 billion years old, but there is no way to test (falsify) the Hindu hypothesis (more accurately, faith), so the claim is not scientific (whether it is true or not).

Should creationism be given equal time in science classes? It’s easy to see one major problem: add together the number of creation stories from the thousands of religions that exist, then divide the number of hours dedicated to science in schools by the number of creation stories there are, and you would be lucky to have more than just a few seconds per week when science can be taught. And it goes without saying that each religion will have strong objections to anyone else’s religion being taught.

And that is what would happen – science classes would be replaced by religion, and the in-fighting in schools between those religions would just mirror the upheavals that have dogged mankind for thousands of years. No more scientific progress, just religious warfare but on a classroom level.

Creationism is not scientific, nor is it compatible with science. If religions ever did apply science and, more to the point, accepted scientific findings, then religion would just die out. Planets follow their orbits according to well established laws of physics, and there is no need to suppose they are being pushed by angels. Earthquakes happen because of tectonic movement, not because of some god’s wrath to visit punishment on wicked people. In short, the laws of nature follow regular and predictable patterns; gods are an unnecessary hypothesis.

I’ll mention one more thing: creationists point to the fact that many scientists, past and present, were/are religious, as if that proves that science and religion are compatible. The simple fact is this: scientists do not get their scientific results from prayer, even if they do have religious beliefs. Even if Isaac Newton was a devout believer in a divine creator, he saw himself as merely describing what he believed his god had put in place. (He did, apparently, believe that his god inspired him, but the bottom line is that he still had to do his own working out.)

That, in fact, is very important to keep in mind. Science is an endeavour that describes nature rather than trying to explain it. Newton described the laws of nature from his observations and calculations. But the supernatural as an explanation is something that cannot be tested scientifically. Newton and many other scientists may well have believed (and many still do)  that a god or gods are the ultimate explanation for everything that exists, but however religious a scientist might be, he or she can only describe the facts of what is going on out there, they cannot prove or disprove the existence of a deity that might or might not be behind it all.

My correspondent said:

Currently, Evolutionists hold the reins steering the direction of scientific teaching in our places of learning, It was not always so, and there may come a time when it will not be again.

But it’s not going to be much of a science exam where the answer to every question is, “God did it.”

That would be the end of science and a return to the dark ages.

Creationism – A New Theory

A few tens of thousands of years ago, there might have been a prehistoric man standing at the opening of his cave, idly scratching his arse as he gloomily surveyed the scene around him: a barren landscape with dry and withered crops. He and his fellow humans were almost on the point of starvation because of drought.

Then, a single raindrop fell on his face. Then another, and another. Within a few minutes there was the beginnings of a shower. And then there came the full rainstorm. He ran to get his friends and brought them to the cave entrance, where they began to leap around with joy – because even in those early days of humanity, long before the invention of science, they had worked out the connection between rainfall and the growth and blossoming of plants. This was the miracle that would save their lives.

And so that small tribe of early humans, having realised that there are certain connections in nature, certain causes and effects, started to work out and practise ever more elaborate ways of scratching their arses. Each year, they would go through the prescribed rituals that they determined would bring rain. After all, the leader of that particular tribe had noticed the fact that after he scratched his arse, the rains came. And others who witnessed it had no choice but to agree. What else could explain it?

Elaborate religious ceremonies evolved ever more complicated methods of arse-scratching. There were high priests of arse-scratching, and a carefully organised hierarchy of arse-scratching clerics.

The people who could bring the rains each year were revered. This was so important that the people willingly gave those clerics absolute power: their very lives – their crops – were at stake. Soon, the whole of that society was organised around the arse-scratching cult; huge shrines were built and adorned with arse sculptures and paintings. Those lucky people who happened to have a big arse were deemed to be blessed by the arse god, and the most pious of the arse priests developed the divine power to even talk out of their arses.

There was some dissent, however. Some people questioned the arse cult, not believing that scratching one’s arse did anything more than get rid of an itch. For their trouble, they were accused of heresy or blasphemy and faced torture and death for daring to defy the arse god.

These heretics were seen as a danger to the stability of the arse church, and the arse bishops of the church found that they had to explain why the arse-scratching ceremonies did not always bring the life-giving rain. They reasoned that sometimes, the arse-god was angry. Yes, that must be it. Other times, they realised that their arse-scratching ceremonies had not been done in the correct manner, so if the arse god was not properly appeased, he would not send the rain.

No one who wanted to stay alive questioned the existence of the arse god; whenever the ceremonies failed to bring rain, the arse priests could always think of a reason why the arse god did not respond to their arse-scratching. Sometimes, they would point at one of the villagers and accuse her (it was always a woman) of some kind of sorcery, and drag the wretched woman out to be questioned. She would be given a fair trial and then burned at the stake. And if the rains came the next season, that was proof that the witch had been the cause of their misery.

As time went on, however, a small number of people started to make their own observations. They noticed that the weather could be capricious. Even when they wanted sunshine and avoided scratching their nether regions for just that reason, it might still rain – sometimes causing huge floods that killed thousands of their citizenry. When they started to keep records of the weather, they found that it followed regular patterns – it could even be predicted for several days ahead, and annual weather patterns were worked out. Different crops could be planted at different times and cultivated in certain ways to get the maximum yield; not only that, but irrigation ditches could be dug in order to bring water from rivers when the rains did not appear.

These people, however, were reviled. The arse priests would have none of their so-called “science,” and had them rounded up and put on trial for their blasphemy. Their holy scriptures, handed down for hundreds – even thousands – of years from the earliest arse prophets could not be wrong. It was an article of faith that the arse god created and controlled the world, and it was the job of the arse priests to make sure that the arse god was worshipped as he required. For centuries following, the streets of the towns and villages were pervaded by the aroma of roasting meteorologists.

Eventually, however, the church of the holy arse saw a decline in its influence as rationality started to emerge in the human psyche. The godless scientists had developed an understanding of the world that enabled them to produce great wonders: electricity, computers, medical breakthroughs that saved thousands (even millions) of lives each year. And yet, despite the enlightenment of rational thought, there were still millions of people who clung desperately to their superstitious beliefs, unwilling to accept that the arse god was just a fantasy. For them science was still the evil anti-arse and they continued to believe in their imaginary deity; it still didn’t matter that their arse-scratching went unanswered, so long as they could rationalise their beliefs in their own minds and rally the faithful to continue to protect their religion against rationality and anyone who could think for themselves.

It was true, though, that in the most modern age, people wanted the best of all worlds. Those religious folks would accept and use any aspect of science that did not threaten their religious beliefs – things like computers and the internet, just so long as they could use the fruits of science to denounce, erm… the fruits of science.

Even though science had by now unravelled many of the mysteries of the world, and indeed the universe, the church of the sacred arse would not accept any of it. No one in the now secular society was denying them their freedom to follow their religion, but the arse worshippers wanted their religion to have the control that they had lost to the dark forces of reason. They would not accept evolution as a valid theory, and demanded equal time in science classes to promote their religious creation stories. When that got nowhere, they repackaged creationism with a new name: Intelligent Scratching – and called it “scientific.” But verily, it was cobblers.

And so a stalemate was reached. The science that had freed mankind from the dark ages because of the Enlightenment was still under threat from religion that was hell bent on taking humanity backwards to a new Endarkenment.

Will creationism win?

Only if the rest of us fart about with nothing better to do than scratching our arses.

The Appeal To Authority – Not So Authoritative

Einstein quote The worst reason there is for believing anything is that someone says so. Einstein said that E=MC^2. Does that make it true? Funnily enough, no.

As it happens, that bit of fundamental physics is true – it has been tested so many times under every condition imaginable that it would be perverse to deny it. It is not true because Einstein said so; it is not true because a teacher says so; it is not true because a university professor says so: it is true on its own merits independent of who makes the claim. And it can be tested, and so far all of the evidence supports it.

Claiming that something is true  because a scientist, doctor, parapsychologist or anyone else with “authority” says so is a fallacy called the appeal to authority. It is usually resorted to by people who cannot prove (or supply any testable evidence to support) the claims they make. 

The appeal to authority is always a fallacy in formal (deductive) logic for the simple reason that even an expert in a given field is not immune to error. Although a qualified person is probably almost always right in what he has to say about his subject, it does not follow logically that he is perfect; there has to be independent, verifiable evidence that can be checked.

Although all appeals to authority are false appeals, there is a distinction between an appeal to authority when someone is qualified in a particular field, and someone whose qualification is in another area altogether. There are, for example, paranormal researchers who are, indeed, scientists, but who are now pursuing what can only be described as fringe science at best. When someone appeals to the alleged authority of someone whose legitimate qualifications have nothing to do with the claims being made in an unrelated area, then that is very definitely the false appeal to authority.

This post came about because of a comment from one of my correspondents in my previous post about some Christian mental health professionals (including a significant number of doctors) who believe that mental illness can often be traced to possession by demons. My correspondent taunted me by saying:

“Terrifying when qualified people acknowledge the existence of something you don’t want to believe in, isn’t it?”

The qualified people he refers to are doctors – people who have been trained over many years in a science-based discipline. They have had to pass rigorous exams to become doctors. They should be capable of diagnosing an ailment and then treating it with the appropriate science and evidence-based treatments that have been developed over many years by empirical research. They have not been trained in exorcism – for which there is no empirical evidence at all.

So, it seems, for my correspondent, the opinion of a qualified person like a doctor (who has no recognised, accredited qualifications in the supernatural) gives weight to the idea that possession is real and that an exorcism is the cure.

OK, let’s test my correspondent’s argument and see if it still holds. A very qualified friend of mine holds some of the highest qualifications it is possible to get in electrical engineering. He is as qualified (or better) in his own area of expertise as the doctors referred to above. In his opinion, the supernatural is bunk.

Here’s the situation:

  1. My correspondent implies that the opinion of some doctors supports the possession/exorcism hypothesis. (More specifically, he says that they “acknowledge” its existence, therefore implying that it really, really is true because they say so.)
  2. My electrically qualified friend says that supernatural possession is not real. (But he says that that is just his opinion.)

In both instances, qualified people have made a statement about something they are not qualified in. And in both instances, quoting them as an authority in possession or any other aspect of the so-called supernatural is fallacious.

The problem can be more subtle, however. In psi research especially, the appeal to authority is widespread. From over a hundred years ago, people like William Crookes – a great scientist – are quoted again and again in support of arguments for an afterlife and supposed communication with the dead. Crookes was a scientist; he also dabbled in séances: he believed it, promoted it, and his say so is good enough for the believers.

Even some modern scientists – from various scientific disciplines – are quoted extensively in favour of the paranormal. But again, the fact that someone has an academic qualification does not mean that their opinion about something that has not been empirically demonstrated should automatically be accepted as true. But it sounds impressive when someone with a PhD makes a pronouncement in favour of the paranormal.

Everyone, whether qualified or not, is entitled to an opinion about anything they are interested in, of course. But it still comes down to one simple fact: the evidence – available, testable and repeatable is what counts, regardless of who makes a claim. There are some astronauts who claim that the US government has captured alien spacecraft and aliens – now hidden away in secret facilities. Their claims might or might not be true, but they supply no tangible evidence, and some believers quote them as “authorities” on the matter.

If you believe in UFOs and you quote the say so of an astronaut, have you proven your case? No, of course not. Have you strengthened your case? Not in the slightest. Are you exposing your ignorance? Obviously.

The bottom line:

Quoting an “authority” is irrelevant with regard to whether a claim is true or not. Someone qualified in a subject might be right most of the time, but he is not immune from error. The fact that an “authority” says something does not automatically make it true.

Quoting someone who is not an authority – even though qualified in another area – is naive at best, or just an example of hopeless incredulity.

In short, the appeal to authority is bad thinking.

As I said at the beginning of this post – and it is worth keeping in mind when someone makes an extraordinary claim – the worst reason for believing something is that someone tells you so.

Trust me – I’m a skeptic.

You’re Not Mad–They Are

thCA150FN4I was hoping that possession and exorcism would be a subject that I would not be returning to for a while, but I find that things are worse than I thought. It’s one thing for well-meaning but ignorant religious zealots to propound their personal superstitions, but it turns out that there are religious zealots in the UK who are actually in a position of real authority and who are ready and willing to impose their beliefs on certain vulnerable people.

There is a serious warning in this excellent blog post at Leaving Fundamentalism. Believe it or not, there is an organisation of medically qualified people that includes doctors who believe that mental illness can be, and often is, according to them, possession by demons!

Medical science is based on empirical research – testable, repeatable research that is not allowed into medical practice until its safety and effectiveness has passed the most rigorous tests. A candidate who wants to become a doctor has to undergo strict training over many years, and when he or she passes their final exams even that is not the end of it; there is still ongoing supervision and training and a requirement to keep up to date with the latest medical science.

For some medics , however, it seems that the science they learned can now be ditched in favour of their (Christian) religion. For a possible mental illness, forget the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), go to the Bible instead:

“However, we also need to recognise that not all human problems will be explicable by medical science. The New Testament tells us that Jesus has commissioned us to ‘ drive out demons’ (Mk 16:17), and we must be ready to respond to this commission if and when we are called to do so.”

And this:

“It would seem, therefore, that the exercise of a spiritual gift (1 Cor 12: 10) would be likely to be more useful than the application of medical knowledge when a person is demon possessed, although a knowledge of psychiatric illness is undoubtedly of value in continuing the diagnosis of a psychiatric illness when one is present.”

I wonder what people would think if their gas engineer disregarded his training and did their annual safety check using prayer and incantations instead of well established methodology? If their house blows up later, would it be sufficient to say that it must have been God’s will? (That’s usually the excuse when exorcists kill their  victims clients, after all.)

That’s pretty much what is going on here with people we are supposed to be able to trust to work within the  scientific parameters they have been taught.

It seems to me that if mental health workers – in particular doctors – come across something that is not (currently) “explicable by medical science” then that should open up a new area of empirical research to get to the bottom of it. Knowledge does not advance by calling on superstitious beliefs; it advances by objective research.

In the second quote above, these people are clearly relegating medical science to a second-class status when they say, “…a knowledge of psychiatric illness is undoubtedly of value in continuing the diagnosis of a psychiatric illness when one is present.” Science is “of value”? Well, thanks for that. But they also think that exorcism – “…the exercise of a spiritual gift…” – is better than medical knowledge when a person is “demon possessed”?

And by what objective criteria do they decide that someone is possessed by demons? They don’t say, and I would bet that none of this crap has been published in any accredited peer reviewed scientific journal.

It just beggars belief.

Religion is a delusion, which by definition is a fixed, false belief held in the face of opposing evidence (even proof). It seems that in this instance, the “qualified” people are the very ones who should be having the psychiatric treatment they would deny to others in favour of exorcism.

There is a big problem when bad thinking takes over. If religious superstition really worked, there would be no need for doctors or hospitals. In cases like this, if your doctor suggests a religious solution for whatever ails you, it’s time to find another doctor. And after you do so, make a formal complaint about your former witch doctor to the British Medical Association. (Assuming you are in the UK, of course; for everyone else, complain to your nearest medical governing body.)