Tag Archives: Science

What Will 2017 Be Like For Paranormal Claims?

esp-cards

Although I haven’t blogged very much in the last year, I have been keeping up to date with what is going on in the world of woo. The paranormal folks continue to claim that the only reason sceptics don’t accept the reality of the paranormal is that they have not read or studied the evidence, or that they are just trying to maintain some mythical scientific status quo, but that is simply not the case. Nowadays, for me, anyway, I spend much more of my time looking at woo websites than I do studying sceptical sites and blogs. The reason for that is pretty simple: I am looking for any evidence they have that will support – or even prove – the existence of any paranormal, supernatural, UFO or any other weird claim that is out there.

What I have found so far is that there is absolutely nothing new in terms of evidence supporting any afterlife, precognition, dowsing, telekinetic, poltergeist [etc. …] claims. What there is an abundance of, however, is a lot of moaning about, and attacks upon, sceptics and scepticism. There are websites and blogs that seem to be dedicated to criticising scepticism in general, and some of the more well-known sceptics in particular, but offering absolutely nothing (or at best, very little) by way of evidence to support the assertion that there is anything real about any paranormal or supernatural claims.

One theme I seem to come across often is the idea that those awful sceptics, if they were truly sceptics, should be good enough to be sceptical about their own position before they have the temerity to criticise others. Nice try, woo folk, but scepticism is not a belief system. Anyone who doubts a claim made by someone else (and it doesn’t have to be a paranormal claim, it can be anything) is simply doubting that assertion, whatever it might be. He or she is merely sceptical about something that perhaps contradicts their own experience, knowledge or training. You say you have fairies at the bottom of your garden? I doubt it, but I don’t see any reason why I should think my scepticism itself needs to be doubted. Show me the evidence for these alleged fairies, but don’t suggest to me that I should doubt the need to doubt a claim that requires evidence rather than a deeply held belief or unquestioning faith before it can be accepted as true.

I’ve seen some trends over the last year (and longer), namely the tendency of the woo promoters to mangle the words of some very prominent scientists and sceptics and try to use them for their own purposes. For example, Carl Sagan’s famous phrase, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” is often used by the woo people to support their own claims and silence the sceptics (who actually understand what he was really getting at). Here’s how the argument usually goes:

 Woomeister: Aliens from another galaxy are visiting our planet. They regularly abduct humans and perform unspeakable experiments on them (usually involving anal probes, sexual intimacy, genetic manipulation of our DNA and so on), not to mention the fact that Area 51 houses captured aliens and their spaceships, UFOs are all over the place, we are being observed and monitored, accounts of alien interference in world governments are true, “Ancient Aliens” is a series of factual documentaries [and so on and on].

 Skepic: Oh, right. I would like to see the evidence for that.

 Woomeister: There is plenty of evidence.

 Skeptic: So, can I see it, then?

 Woomeister: No.

 Skeptic: Then your claim has no basis and I can dismiss it. Show me the evidence and then I might change my mind.

 Woomeister: The fact that you haven’t seen the evidence does not mean that there is no evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all, so you should be open minded about my claim.

 Skeptic: You want me to accept a claim which, if true, would mean that the well-established and well-tested laws of physics are wrong – which I think is extremely unlikely; that is why claims such as yours have to be rejected. Maybe you really have uncovered some hitherto unknown force of nature, but only a fool would accept your – or anyone else’s – word for it. In the meantime, your claim is still rejected. What you call “open minded” is what I call “gullibility.”

And this is how many of my conversations with believers go; no doubt it will be pretty much the same in the coming year. The point is (or should be) easily understandable: absence of evidence is simply that – an absence of any reason to believe the absurd and ridiculous assertions made by those who promote what are extraordinary claims, but don’t feel the need to provide the equally extraordinary evidence that might support it. And those people think that I am the one who is being unreasonable.

No; alien visitation, for instance, is not impossible, perhaps, but it’s not good enough to simply assert that aliens from outer space must have developed faster than light travel, or the means to distort space-time by way of a warp drive, or that they can somehow do some kind of interdimensional space-hopping or even time travel. Any of those would do it, of course, and it’s easy to make up any fantastical method of travel, but without anything to back it up. No one has presented any alien artefacts, and no one has presented a testable theory of any of the methods of travel so far claimed. A Nobel prize and worldwide acclaim awaits anyone who can do that.

In fact, whatever the woo claim made – anything from aliens to spoon bending – the promoters have to think up something allegedly paranormal as an explanation for strange events for which they cannot find an ordinary explanation. But that’s one of the peculiarities of human psychology – we all want an explanation for things that happen, but in many cases a wrong explanation will do just so long as those explanations fill the gap, so to speak. And any tenuous evidence will also suffice – however wrong it might be – if it gives support to the relevant proposition.

I have to admit I find it tedious to see the same old justifications for the myriad woo claims out there being recycled endlessly without anyone who does so doubting (being sceptical of) their own position – the very thing they whine about when it comes to sceptical scrutiny of their claims. The point is: the promoters of all matters paranormal appear to have no doubts whatsoever about their beliefs, even though they cannot support them with confirmable evidence; their only other option is to try to rubbish the criticisms they come in for, for that very reason.

Something I find annoying also, is the mangling of logic that the woo promoters indulge in constantly. There are, in fact, some websites and blogs that actually try to debunk logic itself! The paradox here, though, is that to prove that logic is wrong, they have to try to use logic to do so, and in that case they are using arguments that are self-defeating because they are trying to use reason to prove that reason itself is wrong.

In fact, the woo people are not using logic, but rhetoric – a linguistic device that can sway the unwary into believing that the weak woo argument defeats what is actually a stronger logical argument. Rhetoric usually involves an appeal to the emotions of the listener, and unfortunately it is true that if a person’s emotions are put in conflict with their logic, then emotion wins every time. Ask any salesman. People don’t buy things because they need them, they buy because they want them. The woo people – in particular those who have a book to sell, maybe – don’t offer evidence for their claims, they sell you an idea; if you want to believe, you are more likely to buy it.

Here’s something to think about: next time you want to buy something, why not buy second hand rather than brand new? I occasionally do so. There is no way I would pay a hundred pounds or more for a shirt or any other item of clothing, although I do have some (second hand) designer clothes in my wardrobe. This is something I discovered when my wife worked in a local charity shop. There are people who buy clothes brand new but don’t even wear them. They are well off enough that they can simply buy expensive clothing, decide they don’t like it after all and just give it away. A similar thing applies to furniture, cars and all manner of things. A brand new hundred-pound shirt can be bought for just a few pounds, but it depends on whether you are willing to look at things in a way you normally don’t.

The same applies if you want to get the best deal on your utility bills. You don’t need to just accept your electricity supplier’s new rate, nor do you need to go to one of the many “comparison” websites. Do as I do, if you want to try it: phone another supplier and just ask them if they can beat the new rate you have been offered by your present supplier. They will probably offer you a better rate, but then you go to a third supplier and quote both of the offers you now have. That supplier might well offer an even better rate. Eventually you will find that after a few tries, you have found the cheapest rate you can reasonably get. Then phone your present supplier and ask them if they can beat – or match – the cheapest quote you have found. Remember that every supplier knows all of the rates offered by every other supplier, so they know you aren’t just bluffing. You don’t even need to suggest (threaten) that you might change supplier if they don’t give you a better deal, you are just asking if your present supplier can match a better quote that you have. Often, they will beat or just match one of the lower quotes you have, and that saves you from bothering to even change suppliers. But even if they can’t match your lowest quote, they might offer something better than they are offering you now, so you now have the opportunity to switch or stay, and save money anyway. OK, it might take ten or fifteen minutes to actually trouble yourself to make those phone calls, but for a potential annual saving of tens or even hundreds of pounds, it’s worth a try. It has worked for me. (I also suspect that some consumers might even spend unnecessary hours just surfing all of the comparison websites out there, without even eventually committing themselves to any change anyway.)

So, what has any of this got to do with scepticism? Well, it has to do with looking at things from a critical (or sceptical) point of view. Is my electricity supplier’s price offer the best they can do? I doubt it, and I might well delve into it to find out. Can a psychic contact the dead? I doubt that, too, and I will try to find out about that also. One thing I don’t need to do is to doubt the need to doubt extraordinary and sometimes completely absurd claims. Utility bills are real, everyday things; psychics are not – at least until someone proves that spiritualism, aliens, telepathy and all the rest of the psi claims out there are as real as that actual piece of paper that comes through the letterbox saying you owe money to someone.

Although I haven’t blogged much recently, I have been taking note of some of the bad thinking going on all over the internet, in particular the sites and blogs that promote woo in its many forms, but then attack anyone sceptical of their claims instead of providing the evidence that would change the scepticism of others into acceptance. Has science been wrong before (a common moan from the believers)? Yes, of course, but how often has any form of psi been confirmed? (Never, as it happens.) And how often has psychic research been wrong? All the time. The believers will not accept that, of course, but I invite any of them to give a single example of any scientific theory that has been replaced by a better, paranormal or supernatural, explanation of the workings of nature.

I confess that I get particularly irked at those writers that think they have some scientific insight into science itself, even though they are completely ignorant of what science is or how it really works. When you get down to it, science is, admittedly, imperfect, but it is, without doubt, light years ahead of any religious, parapsychological or any other woo way of explaining nature, and it also works when it comes to exploiting the laws of physics to our advantage. I know some very religious people, for example, who still rely on modern medicine to keep them alive rather than prayer to their preferred deity; also, there are heart-breaking examples of religious people killing themselves (and worse, their children) by ignoring science in favour of faith.

The reality of the situation is this: the paranormal has not been proven to exist at all; there are numerous examples of anomalous experiences that people have had, of course, but nothing that has been shown to be truly paranormal or supernatural. Failing to find a normal explanation for an unusual occurrence does not mean that a paranormal explanation is the default alternative. And that is why the paranormalists do not have their research published in reputable scientific journals; it’s nothing to do with scientists defending some status quo, it is to do with the fact that paranormal assertions that are claimed to be scientific have to be supported with actual science. And that just doesn’t happen.

Anyway, let’s see what 2017 is going to bring. My sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good) tell me that there will be no proof forthcoming of any paranormal claim that might be made in the next twelve months or so. There will, however, be numerous scientific advances that will be derided by the woomeisters as unproven hypotheses or whatever. But the thing is, whether science has been wrong in the past is neither here nor there: science is the best method we have to find out what is going on out there. The alleged paranormal always leads absolutely nowhere. Think about that as you drive to your destination using satnav, also knowing that you have not succumbed to smallpox, polio or any other formerly death-sentence diseases as you were growing up. And if you want to disagree with me about my views, feel free to use modern science-based technology like computers and the internet to let me know. (Note: telepathy might not work, but by all means try it, and then leave a comment electronically on this blog to let me know it’s my fault that your psi powers let you down on this occasion.)

I might spend some time in 2017 examining the faulty reasoning (bad thinking) of some of the woo promoters who specifically attack science and scepticism, and just expose precisely where some of their specific claims are wrong, misleading and, sometimes, just outright dishonest and, very often, outright dangerous.

But: I hope my readers have had a merry Christmas, and that you have all enjoyed your new year celebrations. Now we have to prepare ourselves for the sceptical year ahead.

Some People Don’t Like Science

Promoters of the paranormal, the supernatural, quack medicine and every other off-the-wall claim all seem to dislike science, and as far as I have discovered, there are two main reasons they offer:

  • Reason 1: Science is dogmatic and unchanging. (That’s why it won’t accept “new” ideas like the existence of the paranormal.)
  • Reason 2: Science is always changing. (Science doesn’t really know very much; if it knew about the world, then it wouldn’t need to accept new ideas.)

You might see a contradiction there, but the woomeisters don’t seem to notice it.

Science doesn’t accept the paranormal as real, of course, because it is mostly untestable, and many of its claims have been soundly refuted anyway. The burden of proof is on those who make claims for the paranormal, but even those parapsychologists who think they have proven its existence have only demonstrated that they have, at best, observed something anomalistic. It doesn’t follow that there is some kind of psychic energy at work.

On the whole, parapsychology has no theory that can be tested or exploited, and that is why science rejects it. Speculation about some alleged mysterious force that cannot be be detected or measured objectively is simply not scientific. And because it isn’t scientific, it cannot become part of science.

Answering the two points above, I would say this to the paranormalists:

Make your mind up. If science were as dogmatic as the believers in the paranormal, then no scientific progress would be made. Science changes in response to new discoveries; it formulates new theories to account for the new facts it discovers; it modifies old theories to accommodate new findings; sometimes it discards old theories altogether when they are discovered to be wrong (even though the old ideas “worked” quite well within the old framework). You can hardly accuse science of being dogmatic at the same time you accuse it of always changing.

The paranormalists are the people who are dogmatic. They hang on to the idea of “psychic energy,” for example. They can’t demonstrate this force that they believe exists within (or even outside of) the universe, and they just make excuses for their failures. That’s why it can’t become part of science.

Try this thought experiment:

I claim that electricity is real. So I invite you to my home where I claim that I can merely flick a switch and the whole of my living room will be bathed in light. So you come around one evening at about dusk, just as the daylight is receding and the moment of truth comes: I confidently flick the switch, and… nothing happens!

What do I do? If I tell you that it failed because the vibrations aren’t right, or that, as an unbeliever, you have disrupted the “power” (as it were), or if I told you that electricity is a rare and elusive occurrence that can’t be called up at will, or if I gave you any number of excuses equivalent to the excuses given by the woomeisters when their claims fail objective tests, you might be rather sceptical, dare I say, about the claims I have made.

Then again, I might ask you to wait while I replace the light bulb, because it could have burnt out. If that didn’t work, I might check the consumer unit and replace the fuse or reset the circuit breaker. If that didn’t work, then I might check the switch itself for a loose connection. And so on. In other words, I could go through a logical process to identify and then correct the problem, after which I would throw the switch and prove to you conclusively that my claim about electric light is true. Not only would I have proven my claim, but I would also have demonstrated that there is an underlying (testable) theory of electricity. I would not be making a claim I could not prove, and I would also not just be making excuses for failure.

The believers, and their heroes (those high profile parapsychologists who cannot get their research published in reputable scientific journals), complain that science somehow just “shuts them out” because of its intransigence and dogma. They laud their most prominent researchers (that they like to describe as mavericks), and complain bitterly that it is scientific dogma that will not allow them onto the scientific stage.

On the other hand, scientists (and sceptics) regard some of those paranormal researchers not as mavericks, but as cranks. Can it really be true that the whole of science is wrong, as opposed to woomeisters who cannot demonstrate the simplest claim they make, about a force they cannot present, and which when it fails (as it always does when properly tested), can only be accounted for by excuses they cannot prove, either?

Over many years, I have met people who claim to have various psychic abilities. Some of those people are even members of the Spiritualist religion and claim to be able to contact the dead. But their claims always fail. Unlike my example from the reality-based world of a claim I might make about electricity, their own claims never hold up. Those claims always fail objective tests, and excuses just won’t do.

Ask a clairvoyant to tell you what next week’s lottery numbers will be (I know that’s a cliche nowadays, but cliches gain that status because they tend to be based on truth). The answer is always along the lines of: “It doesn’t work like that.” So you won’t get the lottery numbers, but your clairvoyant will not be winning the lottery next week either, as he or she did not last week, this week or anytime in the near future. (I’m not discounting the possibility that your average psychic couldn’t win the lottery just by pure chance, but to be credible in a claim that it was their psychic powers that did it, it would have to be repeatable, and that’s another reason why you can’t accept a single, dumb-luck outcome as evidence of anything paranormal).

The bottom line is really straightforward: Science is not dogmatic; science changes in response to new discoveries. And that’s the way it should be. It’s why science advances, and parapsychology doesn’t. 

All the paranormal people have to do is to prove their claims. Right now, science does not accept the paranormal is real, but that will change if the paranormalists prove what they claim, without making excuses for constant failures. If any paranormal researcher makes a true breakthrough and demonstrates conclusively that any aspect of the paranormal is real, will they complain if science “changes” its “dogmatic” viewpoint and accepts it? We’re into Nobel Prize territory here, after all, so any scientist will be interested in proving the existence of some hitherto undiscovered law of nature.

The claim that science is dogmatic but always changing is a logical contradiction; it is also bad thinking, as well as simply a case of sour grapes.

Personally, as a supporter and defender of science over superstition, I find it rather satisfying and reassuring to know that there are many examples of science being forced to re-evaluate itself when something has come along to upset the apple cart, so to speak. Yes, some of science’s hypotheses and theories have had to be amended; sometimes they have had to be discarded altogether. Over time, however, science is not kidding itself that it “knows everything.” Science leaves that claim to the woomeisters and the religious.

For the benefit of those who believe that science is dogmatic, at the same time as they believe science is always changing, I offer this advice to keep in mind as they pursue their research:

Arse elbow illustration 3

Learn that distinction and you’re on your way to understanding what science is all about.

Creationism Is Not Science

IMG_20150110_175325My last post was a very brief answer to an article in the Shields Gazette on Thursday, 26th March 2015, in which Mike Hallowell complained that I have criticised his anti-scientific beliefs. I said I would give a fuller answer to his article on the Bad Thinking blog because his original article has not been published on the Gazette’s website. I obviously don’t have a right to reply there, but at least I can reply here.

Mike reckons he doesn’t have a problem with science itself, it’s the “culture that often surrounds it” that bothers him.

Mike says:

I don’t mind scientists telling me what they’ve discovered, but what I don’t take kindly to is being told what I should believe.

Give me the facts, but don’t get heavy-handed with me and tell me how I should interpret them.

In all probability I’ll bow to the expertise of scientists, but I reserve the right not to on occasion. And that’s what some individuals don’t like.

All creationists are happy to accept what science has to say, but only up to a certain point: if science comes up with something that happens to contradict a religious believer’s faith, then that is where their acceptance of scientific discovery stops.

Mike is under no obligation to believe what science has to say about anything, but what “some individuals don’t like” is the campaigning by many creationists to have religion taught in science classes. Religion and science are totally separate issues that are simply not compatible with each other.

Similarly, the so-called “debate” between evolutionists and creationists is a non-issue, except for the creationists. If they want to believe that a god or gods created the universe and the life within it, no one is stopping them from following their religious beliefs. Science would quite happily ignore religion if only religion would keep itself to itself. Unfortunately, religions do not produce new knowledge; what the religious believe is already written down and it would be considered blasphemous to question holy scriptures, so nothing in religion is going to be tested, questioned or changed in the light of new scientific research. Creationism is simply not scientific, and “creation science” is just an oxymoron.

I find it ironic, however, that the religious – like Mike in his article – refer to what they call “scientific dogma.” At the same time, they also claim – like Mike does in his article – that science changes, even to the point of discarding ideas that were eventually found to be wrong. He says science is dogmatic, in an article where he also says it is always changing. He appears to see no contradiction there.

But what about those scientists he mentions who had religious beliefs? After moaning that I have said in the past that if creationists could be reasoned with, there would be no creationists, he says;

I don’t know about you, but I find that sort of attitude appallingly arrogant, for it forces us to presume that great minds like Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Newton, Herschel, Joule, Pasteur and Kelvin were so beyond the pail (sic) of rational thinking that they could not be reasoned with.

As far as I have been able to determine, all of these geniuses believed in a creator.

What Mike says there is simply a red herring – a rhetorical device intended to divert his readers’ attention. Perhaps all the scientists he lists were believers in a creator; Isaac Newton in particular was a devout Christian, but he saw himself as merely discovering and describing what he believed was his god’s creation. Nowhere in his scientific writings does he invoke any supernatural explanation for any of his observations. Other scientists don’t appeal to the supernatural either.

The same applies when a similar argument is utilised with regard to the USA, for instance. Yes, it is a world leader in science; it is also a very religious (primarily Christian) country. But its scientific accomplishments are despite, not because of, the religiosity of its citizens. The science is done by (mostly godless) scientists, not by those who are motivated by, and seek, supernatural explanations for what we see in the world and the universe around us. The US constitution keeps religion out of state schools and universities. Keep in mind the fact that scientific breakthroughs come from purely secular institutions, not Bible colleges or any other religious organisation.

Natural events can be explained by natural causes, and you will not find any legitimate scientific research report appealing to the supernatural as a cause for anything. Whether the religious like it or not, science progresses while religion stagnates.

Mike then comments:

Swiftsure also admits that science “is not a perfect system” but if it isn’t perfect, why should people be ridiculed for rejecting some of the things science currently teaches?

It’s true that science isn’t perfect, but it’s the best system we have to find out about the objective reality that is out there. Those who reject science are ridiculed when they make claims that are, well, ridiculous.

Using the same oxymoron as above, Mike continues:

Many creation scientists have been bullied, harassed and threatened because they reject the theory of Darwinian evolution.

The point here, though, is that the people he refers to are not doing any actual science anyway. It’s a classic example of people who think their beliefs have – or should have – equal standing with empirical research, whining that science ignores them. If they could come up with solid evidence to support their beliefs rather than just trying to nit pick perceived faults with evolutionary theory then they would be taken seriously. But trying to replace established and well tested biological science with “God did it” isn’t good enough. Strong faith is regarded as an admirable characteristic in religion, but in science faith is a weakness (even a liability) not a strength.

Mike’s next comment merely illustrates that he is talking about things he does not understand:

I don’t get angry in the least when I hear people deny creationism, but I openly confess I do not like the high-handed, arrogant and often venomous way in which some evolutionists belittle those who do not agree with their views on the origin of life.

This is the standard trope of the typical uninformed creationist, who thinks that science is trying to compete with their particular god or gods. For Mike Hallowell’s benefit, let me make this point clear: no one knows how life originated. Science makes no claims about how life began (although there are people working on it). The theory of evolution has nothing to say about how life started. Evolution is a science that investigates how life evolved after it began, not how it came about.

The next thing Mike says is possibly the most eye-rolling of his diatribe:

We’re told science is “self-correcting”, [Mike is referring to me, again, informing him of that], but that’s a process which only works if one allows for dissent and open debate.

And you can’t have open debate if you believe those who disagree with you are too stupid to be reasoned with.

Creationists who disagree with science with regard to evolution are in the same situation as someone who disagrees with the accepted “dogma” that an internal combustion engine has to be operated with petrol or diesel fuel. Dissent and open debate are regular features of science – but that happens between scientists, who do change and adapt their theories in response to new evidence. But should a non-engineer who has no training in, and knows nothing about, engines be “debated” with? Such a person obviously can’t be reasoned with. That doesn’t mean they are stupid, but their ignorance can hardly be denied.

Mike is still on his high-horse, however. He says:

Many creation scientists have been bullied, harassed and threatened because they reject the theory of Darwinian evolution.

I don’t know about any literal bullying, harassment or threats that Mike mentions, although those people might interpret the rejection of their anti-scientific views as being that. In reality, creationists cannot get a foothold in academia for the simple reason that the very concept of “creation science” is a non-starter as a method of discovery. The only thing creationists do is to try to pick faults with existing evolutionary theory – particularly in areas where there is genuine disagreement between real scientists. Where there are areas in which scientists don’t know yet what is happening, creationists fill those gaps in knowledge with the all-encompassing and untestable “God did it.” The true purpose of creationism is to get rid of any aspect of science that contradicts the actual dogma of religion.

But Mike isn’t finished yet:

No matter how convinced you are about the wonders of science, just remember: behind every currently accepted scientific doctrine lies a long trail of discarded ones which seemed just as sensible in their day.

Unlike religion, of course, where the battle against disease and every other adversity we come across is fought the same as it always was: with faith, prayer and an assortment of rituals and incantations.

Science itself didn’t actually start on any particular date; it began when thinking people started to question religion. A drought was never overcome by prayer, for instance, but some people reasoned that bypassing gods and digging irrigation ditches would work – and it did. While some people were offering worship to their god during an outbreak of cholera, others were actually doing something useful – finding a source of clean water that was not contaminated with whatever was actually causing the disease. Those people were wrong when they thought cholera was caused by a miasma – a bad smell – and they discarded that idea when they found out about germ theory. Yes, that’s pretty much how science works – by keeping what works, and discarding what doesn’t. But Mike sees that as a bad thing.

Before science as we know it now, people were lucky if they lived to their mid twenties. It is the advancement of science that has brought us out of the dark ages, but it is the unchanging dogma of religion that would take us straight back there. And it might yet succeed. Mike, according to his article, is clearly also a global warming “sceptic,” (read, denialist) and he has the same complaints about science and what it has to say on the matter.

Unfortunately, the anti-science lobby is very influential, supported by religion and vested interests. However, when the rising water levels on this planet start lapping around the denialists’ ankles, they might start to pray, but by then it might also be too late. We have a realistic chance of avoiding disaster if we act now by listening to, and acting upon, what science has to say about it.

When the Earth becomes a water-planet with most of what is left of the land a parched wilderness, science will be able to do no more than say, “I told you so.” And the religious will replace their failed prayers with, “It was God’s will; we can’t do anything about it. Praise the Lord.”

If religion would stop trying to interfere with reality, we would all – including the religious – be much better off.

Meanwhile, here is a snapshot of our evolutionary history. No one is being told they have to believe it, it just happens to be true whether you believe it or not.

IMG_20150111_200601

Addendum: This is strange; the above article is now on the Gazette website here:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/opinion/columnists/kicking-up-a-stink-over-origins-of-life-1-7178249#comments-area

It doesn’t appear on any of my feeds on any of several computers I use in different locations on different networks, and I came across it only by chance when I was looking for something else. Nevertheless, you can now click over there and read it; there are some interesting criticisms (at least there are at the moment; it’s not unknown for the Gazette to remove criticisms, so read now while you have the chance).

Who Saw That Coming?

A long time ago, a solar eclipse was seen as a portent of doom, you know. Oh, yes. The religious, who claim they have revealed knowledge through divine revelation and prophecy were always taken unawares when some astronomical event happened. Within the last 24 hours it was a solar eclipse that happened, but it was predicted by science, not revelation.

Maybe we are making some progress, in a way. We don’t experience a mass panic nowadays when the sky darkens and the Sun is blotted out temporarily for reasons that science can explain, but historically, the religious could not explain, except by invoking a non-existent angry deity. Solar and Lunar eclipses are predicted with precision to the exact second for centuries to come, not by religious insight, but by physics.

It’s as simple as this – as Carl Sagan pointed out many years ago – no religion has the predictive power of science. And I suppose I could add that no religion has the insight into “creation” that science has.

Here is my own (barely significant) contribution to scientific observation of the universe: one of the photographs I took of the eclipse:

SAM_0440

 

I had expected that if the sky had been clear then I would have used my home-made pinhole projector to watch it happen (as I did in 1999 when the last eclipse around here happened), but cloudy skies prevented that. Maybe it was better for me that observing conditions weren’t “perfect,” otherwise I wouldn’t have a permanent record of the eclipse. So there you have it.

What’s the difference between a donkey and a UFO?

I recently came across another piece of inane blather from a self-styled paranormal “expert.” And it’s just too good to pass up.

This blog, Bad Thinking, is dedicated to exposing the logical fallacies and poor arguments used by the promoters of, and believers in, woo generally. I’ll not name the “expert” in question, but some people might take an educated guess – it’s more guff about UFOs, after all.

Like a lot of fallacies, this falls into an area of overlap, so to speak. And a lot of fallacies do. This could be called a category error, or it might be called a false analogy. It also comes under the heading of the appeal to popularity and, in the context of the original article, the appeal to authority. It’s one of those errors of reasoning that doesn’t fit neatly into one specific slot, but it’s an error of reasoning, nonetheless. But it’s also an exemplary example of how to fit so many fallacies into so few words.

First of all, I will give the relevant quote from the newspaper column I found it in. Here we go:

If 1,000 independent witnesses tell me they’ve seen a donkey running down the middle of King Street, odd though that may be, I’d be pretty tempted to believe them.

Why? Because the idea so many people would independently decide to tell such a fib without any apparent motivation is far more difficult to swallow than the idea of a donkey running down the street.

DonkeyThat’s from an article promoting the idea that UFOs and their alien pilots are here, but that it’s all being covered up by governments around the world, and we should all believe it because, well, you know, why demand evidence when other people say they’ve seen it – just believe what you’re told: lots and lots of people say so; what more do you need? And this author makes a living from writing about what other people say. Yeah, right…

Here’s a brief analysis of this published piece of certifiable bad thinking:

The fact is that

  • 1: There is no doubt that donkeys are real.
  • 2: There is plenty of justifiable doubt about the existence of aliens and their space ships visiting this planet.
  • 3: Unproven claims of UFOs are entirely different from claims about established facts (they are in different categories).

It wouldn’t take a thousand witnesses to convince me that they had seen a donkey running down the middle of my local High Street. Even if it seems unlikely, I would probably reserve judgement until I got some further confirmation (a report in the local newspaper, say) but I wouldn’t be too worried about it. After all, there are news reports from time to time about escaped animals causing havoc, so the idea of a donkey causing inconvenience to some local shoppers would be unusual, but not totally implausible, and certainly not impossible.

It wouldn’t even matter if just one person told me he had seen it himself, even if he just happened to be a pathological liar who had fabricated the whole story just to wind me up. That would not alter the fact that donkeys are real, and that no one disputes their existence.

UnicornWould the author of the article believe what he was told if a thousand people informed him that they had seen not a donkey, but a unicorn running down his local high street? Like UFOs, no one has presented compelling evidence – and especially not proof – of the existence of these mythical creatures, so believing an uncorroborated report of what is certainly an extraordinary claim would be irrational.

The same goes for UFOs. These alleged alien spacecraft are not proven to exist, however many former astronauts and military personnel claim to have had access to aliens and their technology. Many of these people are making a handsome living from their books, articles, public speaking engagements, television appearances and so on. But not one of them has provided testable and confirmable evidence of any of their claims.

Has NASA been exploiting alien technology since the so-called alien flying saucer crash in Roswell in 1947, as many conspiracy “theorists” assert? You might want to believe it, but I would point out that rockets are still using chemical propulsion to get into orbit, not anti-gravity devices. Has transportation been revolutionised by teleportation technology, or are we still using cars, trains and planes? Can anyone prove that the truly massive structures being designed and built nowadays are being put together using the same alien technology that some would have you believe was the only way that the ancient Egyptian pyramids could have been built? Is humanity so stupid that we can’t do anything ourselves on a big scale unless someone else from light years away just provides it for us?

To put it plainly:

  • The number of people who make a claim is irrelevant to the claim’s veracity (that’s the appeal to popularity).
  • The status of those people is also irrelevant, even if they are former military personnel or astronauts (that is the appeal to authority).
  • Claiming a link between things that have no connection is a category error, and also quite often an argument by false analogy.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; hearsay just won’t do if you want to be taken seriously.

The author of the article obviously thinks that claims about donkeys (which exist) are equivalent to claims about aliens (for which there is no evidence to show). He is wrong. Maybe he believes in flying horses and talking ants. Who knows?

Pegasus 

So the difference between a donkey and a UFO is simple: one of them really does exist; the other has as much evidence available for its existence as there is for unicorns, i.e., none at all.

Belief without evidence is called faith, and it is also bad thinking.

Science Doesn’t Know Everything

MP900341489It’s true – science doesn’t know everything. It’s also true that science has been wrong about things in the past. There have also been cases of scientists committing fraud by falsifying their research results, and some of the big research companies have not exactly been untouched by charges of outright corruption. I’ve even highlighted some of that on this blog myself. So is it time to give science the heave-ho?

Actually, although science has to face up to the same problems that confront every other institution or business, it is in fact the most valuable and successful enterprise humanity has ever created.

It goes without saying, of course, that the religious and the woo people don’t like it because it usually contradicts their cherished beliefs. Religious and paranormal claims have nothing to support them by way of testable hypotheses: science cannot even confirm that anything supernatural or paranormal is happening anyway, never mind what these mysterious forces might be. What is “psychic energy,” for example? Science happens to be very good at detecting and measuring energy, so why can’t it detect so-called psychic energy? Is it just because science doesn’t know everything?

When you get down to it, though, the religious and the woomeisters accept and rely on science in every aspect of their lives except one specific area – their own particular, closely-held cherished beliefs. I detect some hypocrisy here.

Take religion, for example. Ask a believer to do something extraordinary by prayer (that they believe works), and you get a refusal because “it doesn’t work like that.” God will not be put to the test, or some such excuse. A religious person whose life is saved by medical science prays to and thanks their particular god for their cure; the physician or surgeon who did it gets a polite thank you as an afterthought.

Take woo in general. If you meet someone who claims to be psychic, ask for next Saturday’s lottery numbers, but you will be told “It doesn’t work like that.” (Psychic powers are rare and elusive and can’t be called up at will – or any of a list of similar excuses.)

For these people, science is regarded as useless – only because science doesn’t support their beliefs. But science is not about belief, it is about things that can be tested. When yet another psychic fails an objective test of his or her powers, there is always an (untestable) excuse for their failure. Does the presence of an unbeliever (a sceptic) really “upset the vibrations”? What vibrations? Psychic vibrations? What are they and how can they be tested?

The remarkable aspect of all investigations into the alleged paranormal is that parapsychologists assume the existence of the paranormal only because they are unable to find a natural explanation for what they can’t explain. It’s a bit silly, if you consider it for a moment: “I have observed something; I can’t think of how it could have been done by normal means; therefore it is paranormal activity.”

Personally, I have watched magicians do things that I can’t explain. Then again, after some consideration, I have been able to work out for myself how some of those tricks were done. There are many other tricks that I cannot work out. But one of my correspondents told me some time ago that he had interviewed Uri Geller who, he believes, bent one of his keys, and he “knows” that Geller (magician) just could not have fooled him.

Similarly, some years ago, when I was arguing a point on another blog, I asked my correspondent if he would be confident enough to sit with me in a theatre, watching a stage magician, and explain to me as the act went on, just how those tricks were being done. I got no reply of any significance to that, but I think he might have realised that maybe he, like me, cannot just see through the trickery and deception that stage magicians use to entertain us all. But some alleged psychics do the same thing – is there a good reason to think that just because you can’t immediately explain something unusual that it must be paranormal, supernatural or just actual magic?

Science tries to find out what is going on out there. It’s true that science doesn’t know everything, and there are lots of gaps, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to fill in those gaps with guesswork that just happens to align with their personal beliefs. In fact, historically, every time science takes a step forward, religion and woo have to take a step back. Those gaps are closing.

It’s an easy claim, of course: “Science doesn’t know everything, therefore this or that paranormal or supernatural claim must be true by default. What else could it be?” But look at it this way: does science know more than it did last year? What about the state of scientific knowledge a hundred years ago? Until the late 19th century, science as we understand it now was called “natural philosophy,” but in those days science – a systematic search for knowledge – was still going on.

Think back to the ancient Greeks (or should that be the ancient Geeks?). Although they believed in gods, the work they produced was nothing short of astonishing. Eratosthenes worked out that the Earth is a sphere (approximately), and its size to within a few miles, for example, although in the same society Socrates was regarded as something of a heretic and was sentenced to death. Rather like today, any scientific research is OK just so long as it doesn’t contradict religious dogma.

Clever as they were, though, the Greeks didn’t develop radio telescopes, space flight, antibiotics, electricity, computers, the internet, a theory of nuclear fusion (they thought the Sun was a burning hot stone), a theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, a global positioning system, television, radio, etc., in other words, all of the things we just accept as normal nowadays. Philosophy preceded natural philosophy, which in turn preceded science as we know it now. Back in those days, there was plenty of scope to say philosophy (science, in other words) “doesn’t know everything.”

Things weren’t much different from now, two and a half thousand years ago, when it comes to wanting to know what makes the Earth and the universe “tick.” As clever as the Greeks were, they still had the same psychology that humans have today – an inbuilt need for answers. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to accept any answer, however wrong it might be, just to feel that they know what is out there. Thunder and lightning? If you don’t know about electrical charge and how it builds up in a cloud, leading to a lightning strike, then a made-up angry god will be a good enough explanation. And once you and your tribe have that belief built into your culture, woe betide any upstart philosopher, natural philosopher or scientist who tells you that you don’t need to sacrifice animals – or humans – to appease this non-existent god. The philosopher or scientist who shows that disaster can be avoided with a lightning rod could end up on a pyre for disagreeing with accepted religious doctrine.

SAM_0423I notice, however, that every church I pass when I drive around just happens to have a lightning conductor that reaches even above the steeple of that church. Why should that be? And why should that piece of copper cable reach higher towards God than the top of the steeple itself? Maybe it’s a better protector of God’s house than God himself.

The empirical knowledge we have now is way beyond anything the ancient Greeks had, and since then, that knowledge has increased and is still increasing. And over the last two and a half thousand years, there has been opposition to scientific knowledge from ignorant people – often as a mob – who think they have some insight unavailable to those who actually test and measure the universe around us. From the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by (probably) a Christian mob, to the famous book burnings by the Nazis in the middle of the 20th century, to the burning of priceless books and the destruction of ancient relics right now at the Mosul Library in Iraq by Islamic militants, the fight against knowledge by the ignorant continues.

Although it’s true that science doesn’t know everything, it knows more and more as time goes by, steadily closing the gaps that were formerly filled by claims of a god or gods. But science knows better than the ignorant that as questions about the universe are answered, more questions are thrown up in their wake. That’s what spurs science on.

The religious can claim, “God did it,” as if that answers anything at all, but religion does not lead to new knowledge, it leads to stagnation.

The paranormalists also stop further inquiry by not only failing to demonstrate anything paranormal, but by excusing their failure to do so by criticising science – those closed-minded researchers who are hell-bent on “preserving scientific dogma at all costs.” But while they accuse science of preserving some imagined, unchanging dogma, they also claim that science is always “changing its mind” about things.

The reality is that science tests the testable. It makes no attempt to actually explain nature, science merely describes nature. Why nature and the laws of physics are the way they are will likely never be explained. But the facts of nature and the laws of physics can be described and utilised for our benefit, even if no one will ever know “why” they are the way they are.

I don’t why E=MC^2, but it does. So we have GPS satellite navigation, nuclear reactors providing our electricity needs and so on. When you get down to it, piety and prayer provide nothing of practical value in the world, paranormal claims provide nothing of practical value in the world, no amount of belief in anything gives us anything of any use whatsoever.

If you have an electricity supply in your home; a connection to a safe water supply available, literally on tap; if you can access the internet or health care or even a library, then you are reaping the benefits brought about by science. If you really want to claim that because science challenges your deeply held beliefs that it doesn’t support, then just stop using science and its benefits. You don’t have to go far to prove you are right and science is wrong; just contact your energy supplier and have your electricity supply cut off. If you have a gas supply for your heating, that’s even better – have that disconnected too. Have your water supply stopped. Pray to your god to sustain you, or use your psychic powers to survive. If you can do it, science can measure it and confirm that there is something going on here.

That’s not going to happen, is it? In the meantime, science might not know everything, but it works. Religion and woo don’t.

Then again, I’m a sceptic. I can change my mind in the same way that science changes in the light of new evidence. Show me the evidence. Or show me next week’s lottery numbers. Or create world peace with a prayer.

Darwin Day And Other Musings

I’m a bit late posting this, but better late than never, perhaps. Work and family commitments have kept me away from blogging for the last few weeks.

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin was born on 12th February, 1809, and yesterday we celebrated that event. Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection unifies all of the biological sciences, and has led to some of the greatest medical breakthroughs in history. It is arguably the most important theory in all of science, and is also perhaps the most tested and confirmed.

Unfortunately, religions in general do not accept it because to do so means that there is little room left for a creator god. Although evolutionary theory does not disprove the existence of any gods, it certainly disposes of the idea of the supernatural creation of all life in its present form within the last few thousand years. Consequently, some religions have been forced to modify their interpretation of their holy scriptures, and reluctantly reinterpret their creation myths as being allegorical rather than factual accounts of how life arose on this planet. Even the fact that we live on a planet orbiting the Sun was a discovery that some early astronomers paid for with their lives after contradicting church dogma.

That’s the problem with religion. Dogmatic beliefs will not be swayed by evidence or logic.

Although evolution has been accepted – at least in part – by many religions, there are the fundamentalists who deny it unconditionally. It’s particularly worrying in America, where some elected politicians make repeated attempts to either have evolution dropped from school lessons, or have bills introduced to “teach the controversy” (although there is no controversy within science about the fact of evolution).

I find it incredible that, even though the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, not to mention easily available and well promoted, there are those who claim, quite seriously, that “there is no evidence at all for evolution.” This is denialism on a breathtaking scale. Anyone interested in the subject can buy an introductory book in almost any bookstore; there are libraries full of information; there are many high quality TV documentaries that explain evolution (anything by David Attenborough is worth watching); there are websites and blogs that cover the subject in exquisite detail and there are even museums displaying physical artefacts that can be seen and sometimes even physically handled. Yet despite all that, there are plenty of people who simply say the evidence is not there, despite it being offered to them. Denying evidence when it is offered is just seriously bad thinking.

Maybe it’s just the other side of the woo coin. As a sceptic, I doubt that the Earth is being visited by alien beings, for example, but I would love the chance to examine the evidence that UFO promoters say is out there. There’s a snag, however. No one will offer any testable evidence whatsoever. There’s no shortage of people claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrials (up to four million claimants in the USA alone), or former military people claiming they have seen or personally examined aliens and their alleged craft, but that is not evidence of anything. If you happen to believe extraordinary claims on nothing more than someone else’s say so, then you will believe anything.

That’s where religious and paranormal claims seem to meet – in a disjointed sort of way. Believing in gods on faith without evidence is similar to believing that ET is here, also without evidence. The difference, however, is that the religious will deny the existence of evidence for evolution despite it being there; the believers in aliens expect others to believe their claims but cannot provide believable evidence even though sceptics like me keep asking to see it. It would be particularly fascinating to have physical contact with an alien civilisation, to be able to study their own biological evolution in comparison with our own.

The laws of physics operate all over the universe, so it’s likely – perhaps inevitable – that the cosmos is teeming with evolving life. Even so, the same laws of physics put limits on what can happen within the universe. Can alien spaceships travel faster than light? Maybe not, but what about warping space for fast travel? Theoretically possible, maybe, but maybe just not practical, given the astronomical amounts of energy it would take. Wormholes? Another theoretical possibility that apparently disappears up its own mathematics.

The hurdles that would have to be overcome to make interstellar travel possible – at least in any practical timescale – are huge, and the idea itself might be nothing more than a forlorn hope. Then again, if there are technological civilisations out there, then they are most likely to be discovered by detection of their radio signals – even if face to face meetings aren’t possible.

In the meantime, evolution deniers will continue to ignore the evidence that is there in abundance, and the alien visitation advocates will continue to fail to provide the evidence they say is there, but can’t provide. The evidence for evolution is there for everyone to examine; the evidence for alien visitation is not. Such is the power of faith (a belief held without evidence): at the end of the day, it is no wonder that the major advances made by modern civilisation have come about by scientific exploration, not religion or woo.

As far as ET is concerned, there is still an absence of evidence for extraterrestrial visitation, but for anyone who wants to claim some kind of victory over sceptics by quoting Carl Sagan’s famous dictum, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” it does not follow from the fact that the evidence is absent that the evidence is there, or even might be. The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, but after decades of claims of alien encounters there is absolutely nothing – nothing at all – that the ET buffs have proven, nor is there even any physical evidence that can be tested. And they wonder why some of us are sceptical.

At least with evolution, Charles Darwin presented his evidence (coinciding with another naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, coming to the same conclusion independently). And since then, the foundations laid by Darwin have been built upon and gone far beyond anything Darwin himself could possibly have imagined. Evolution – descent with modification by the process of natural selection – is a fact. Only an uneducated fool could deny the evidence for evolution. But there are plenty of those around.

Charles Darwin deserves to be – and should be – remembered. Many of us would not be here without him.

A Guide For Paranormal Investigators

Let us be clear about one thing: the existence of anything supernatural or paranormal (including alien visitation and abduction, not to mention magic medicine like homeopathy) has not been proven. For such claims to be true, there would have to be something fundamentally wrong with everything that science has discovered about the world around us and across the whole universe. The laws of nature are pretty well understood, and for the usual claims of the paranormalists to be valid, they would have to demonstrate how their claims do not contravene those laws, or at the very least they would have to show that they have discovered some hitherto unknown law or laws of physics.

It is claimed that telepathy, for instance, is real, but there is no testable hypothesis suggested, and there is certainly no theory (in the scientific sense) that explains how information can be transmitted directly from one person’s brain (or consciousness) to another. The proponents of such claims sometimes talk in terms of a mysterious energy that is undetectable to science (which just happens to be very good at detecting and measuring energy), but which is somehow just transmitted and received by certain rare people who also cannot explain it in any sensible way that could lead to objective confirmation.

Parapsychologists, of course, claim they have the proof, but when their claims are tested by others they just don’t work. At least they usually seem to be following scientific protocols, but replication is the acid test for any scientific claim; so far, however, no one else can get the same results, so the paranormal is not taken seriously by science. That’s the way it is.

Quite honestly, however, I would not be bothered by science rejecting, say, dowsing, if those dowsers could actually do what they claim they do in the real world. If a dowser could clear minefield after minefield, I would be convinced, never mind what those “closed-minded” scientists say. My own hypothesis, however, is that the number of dowsers it would take to clear a minefield is exactly equal to the number of mines in any minefield. (That hypothesis is testable, so it is a scientific hypothesis. As a proposed experiment it would not pass any ethics committee, of course, but my other hypothesis is that no dowser would volunteer anyway, so it’s a moot point – unless any dowsers want to travel to any of the many war zones in the world to prove me and science wrong.)

Things get murky, however, because there are a lot of enthusiastic but scientifically illiterate paranormal “experts” who go on various “ghost hunts” and “vigils” and so on, promoting absolute nonsense in lieu of rationality. To put it bluntly, they have no idea what they are talking about. They go on about “energy” but flounder about when asked what, exactly, they mean. Over a year ago, I listened to a local radio station broadcast where a group of ghost hunters were interviewed by an equally credulous presenter. One of the interviewees, a local beauty therapist by trade, “explained” that when someone dies, their energy can’t dissipate. It’s electricity, she said, although she didn’t mention Ohm’s Law, or the relationship between voltage, current and resistance in a circuit, nor did she give any of the basic mathematical relationships between those concepts that would explain why the well-established laws of thermodynamics are invalid within her interpretation of reality. Michael Faraday, et al, did not rate even a mention. I can only assume that she is qualified in her chosen career, and that when her clients leave her beauty salon they are (at least in a statistically significant way) less ugly than when they entered. But I think she should stick with make-up rather than making it up.

In short, parapsychologists are doing it wrong, ghost hunters are doing it wrong; psychics, dowsers and all the rest of them are doing it wrong. If they could get it right, there would be no dispute. So, as an aid for those self-styled experts in the paranormal, and as a public service, I present the Bad Thinking Guide For Paranormal Investigators:

Arse elbow illustration 4

Feel free to use the above illustration for educational purposes.

Can Skeptics Handle The Truth About The Unexplained?

I got a sudden upsurge of traffic on the blog a couple of weeks ago after my last post. Mike Hallowell’s article claimed that a Neanderthal had been shot dead by time-travelling hunters using modern firearms. The article was picked up for criticism elsewhere, here, for example, so it obviously made an impression.

Since then, Mike has published a follow up article in the Shields Gazette, but rather than accepting that he made several factual errors and had fallen into various logical fallacies he has, in fact, dug himself deeper into a factual and logical hole. Let’s have a look.

The title of his article doesn’t start things off very well. It says,

Some can’t handle the truth about the unexplained

If something is unexplained, then it is unexplained. The only truth about the unexplained is that it is just that. What is the alternative? Maybe the usual, “We don’t know what this is, therefore aliens.” (Occam’s razor would come in useful there, and as it happens I am already busy drafting a post on that very subject.)

Mike starts his article with the statement (I have added bold for emphasis, and my comments are in square brackets):

MY recent article about an ancient animal skull and a human one which appeared to have a bullet holes in them created quite a bit of interest; more than any other column of mine this year, in fact.

That’s not just misleading but flat out wrong, because he stated specifically that it was a Neanderthal; there was no mention of a human being as the subject of the story. (I know from experience that Mike Hallowell will probably now accuse me of accusing him of being a liar, so I will make this as clear as I can for him: I am not claiming that Mike Hallowell is lying, I am claiming that he is contradicting himself; I have provided the links, and even if those Gazette articles mysteriously disappear for any reason, I also have copies of them that I can produce later.) He said in his previous article:

It was, in fact, a Neanderthal skull, and Neanderthal bones did not exactly come ten-a-penny. [Not in Africa anyway, at all.]

And:

As there were no radial fractures on the Neanderthal skull, it was unanimously concluded that the projectile must have had a far, far greater velocity than an arrow or spear. [Concluded by whom? Mike doesn’t say, so it’s not going to be easy for any (qualified) researcher or anyone else to follow up.]

As I pointed out in my previous post, the skull in question is neither human nor Neanderthal, although it is probably an ancestor of both. Although Mike said in his original article that the skull was Neanderthal, he now says he was writing about a human skull. (Pick the bones out of that. (as it were))

Mike’s response to those who pointed out to him that Neanderthals did not live in Africa is:

Really? And they know this how, I wonder? Absence of evidence is not absence of evidence. It is likely that Neanderthals did inhabit parts of Africa. [I think Mike means “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Carl Sagan’s famous quote.]

No, the absence of evidence of any Neanderthals in Africa indicates it is unlikely they lived there, and almost certainly did not. In any case, this is a red herring – the skull referred to in the original story is definitely not a Neanderthal, despite Mike’s original claim, and the main question (perhaps) is whether it was shot at all, never mind whether time-travellers did it with a modern firearm.

Mike says that “even if” the existence of Neanderthals in Africa is unlikely, he says that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean they didn’t live there, just that “…they may not have.” He doesn’t see the need for a positive claim to have positive supporting evidence before it can be taken seriously. That is basically the appeal to ignorance – the idea (whether stated explicitly or implicitly) that if a claim cannot be proven false, then by default it should be accepted or at least be given serious consideration. Then again, no one has found kangaroo fossils in Africa, so should we accept the possibility they evolved there with no evidence for that either? They haven’t found polar bear fossils in Antarctica; what should we make of that? It doesn’t prove they weren’t there, after all.

Mike reckons that sceptics are most upset at the idea that ancient people might have developed technology even more advanced than our own. He asks:

On what logical basis can we say that?

The logical basis is called induction. Archaeology and palaeontology have discovered tools and other artefacts that are associated with mankind’s evolutionary development, from stone axes to more advanced technology through the ages. Nothing equivalent to modern power tools, computers or other technology has ever been found at ancient sites.

Mike says it is extreme arrogance to suggest that no ancient peoples were our equals when it comes to “…their understanding of the sciences”. There are a number of links in the article, but good luck trying to get through to them. For me, all but one went to a “page not found” link, and the one I did get through to is nothing but the usual sensationalist and highly speculative rubbish that has been repeatedly debunked. And no, even if you can find the video of some astronauts claiming UFOs are real (and there is no shortage of them on Youtube), the number of people making an unsubstantiated claim does not make such a claim true. That’s the appeal to popularity – also a logical fallacy. It doesn’t matter how many people make a claim, it is of little use without corroboration.

(I’ll add a note here about that. A constant refrain from the woo people is that eyewitness testimony is allowed in a court of law, so it should also be “admissible” as evidence of paranormal claims. What they seem to be unaware of is that such testimony in court is subject to cross examination, and is still considered weak at best if there is no corroboration; if sufficient doubt is raised in the minds of a jury, then a defendant must be found to be not guilty, and a Crown Court Judge will tell a jury that that is the law. Sceptics also have their doubts when a paranormal claim is made without testable evidence to back it up.)

Mike then bemoans the fact that sceptics hold science in such high regard. He wants to know why “supposedly intelligent people” deny his claims. He says:

The answer lies in the obsession that some sceptics have with insisting that scientific testing, experimentation and observation are the only reliable means of establishing the veracity of something.

Well, when you can pick and choose your own criteria for establishing truth, and ignore completely such things as multiple eyewitness testimony, you’re on a pretty safe bet, of course.

Whether Mike likes it or not, science is the best method we have for finding out about the universe we live in. A subjective assessment of claims is worthless if you are asserting that a claim is an objective fact. It is the paranormal fraternity who pick and choose their own criteria for “establishing truth,” but they have to be anti-science because science requires testable evidence of any claim made – eye witness testimony is not scientific.

And:

So what do you do with those pesky eyewitnesses who insist they’ve seen things you don’t want to believe in?

Maybe accept that they have just been “seeing things”? Mike believes that sceptics respond with character assassination and various ad hominem attacks, but he does not accept that in fact the various claims made by  paranormal proponents are rejected because of a lack of credible evidence to support them.

He doesn’t help his argument by stating that there are various astronauts who make public claims that aliens are here. As he puts it:

They’re either outrageous liars, or they’re telling the truth, I’d venture.

That fallacy is called a false dichotomy – offering only two alternatives when there are others. Perhaps those witnesses are delusional, or maybe they have been given false information and they truly believe it. I can think of other possibilities, but Mike thinks they should be believed because he sees “…no reason for them to fib.”

Paranormal buffs like Mike criticise science, commonly saying things like, “science is always changing its mind about things.” But look at it this way: someone claims that a Neanderthal skull has a bullet hole and the force of the shot destroyed the opposite side of the skull. That’s a testable claim because the skull exists and can be examined.

Scientific examination of the skull reveals that it is not that of a Neanderthal anyway. It turns out that the “bullet hole” shows signs of healing, so the individual did not die from the wound. Evidence also suggests that it may have been caused by an infection in the overlying tissue. And, despite what he said, the opposite side of the skull is intact, and definitely not showing signs of a bullet’s exit wound.

All of that has been pointed out to Mike Hallowell, but not only will he not admit that he got it wrong, he defends his original article with self-contradictory statements and logical fallacies, and criticises science – the very discipline that could have upheld his claim if only it were true.

So it turns out that the skull in question is not a Neanderthal and it wasn’t shot dead by time travellers using a modern firearm. That’s the truth and yes, sceptics can handle it. There was nothing paranormal to explain n the first place.

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.