Saturday, January 26, 2013

The top ten myths about evolution

For those of you who are not familiar Cameron Smith's The Top Ten Myths About Evolution, it is an excellent book. Like the best works of popular science, it guides the reader without expecting them to already know anything about the subject. While its main purpose is to rebut the most popular misconceptions about the theory of evolution, it also teaches the science needed to fill the void that abandoning creationism leaves. 

In this post, I am going to provide my own rebuttals to Cameron's "top ten myths." The reason why I am doing this is because I want a succinct and easy to read list available for linking. I believe that lots of people are on the fence about evolution not because they embrace creationism, but because they simply are unaware of the facts behind the science (the only exception to this is that I changed number 2). If you read this list and desire to know more, I recommend that you purchase Dr. Smith's book.    

1: Survival of the fittest.

A common misunderstanding about evolution is that "survival of the fittest" means only the strong and ruthless survive. This is wrong. What Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin meant by "survival" is merely an organism's success rate at passing on copies of its genes into the future through reproduction. They also meant something entirely different by "fittest" than most people think. Instead of meaning an individual's ability to dominate others, they meant organisms who are better adapted for their immediate, local environment.  Taken together "survival of the fittest" means: the organisms which are the most likely to pass on copies of their genes to future generations are those who are better adapted to their immediate, local environment (a definition I borrowed from philosopher of biology, Alexander Rosenberg).

It should also be noted that many of the best strategies for passing on ones genes often have nothing to do with strength or ruthlessness. Many animals, such as various kinds of  octopuses, bugs, and birds, use evasion techniques like camouflage and mimicry to successfully ward off predators and gather food undetected. Other animals, like certain large mammals and bats, use group cooperation and food sharing to ensure their survival. These strategies have been very successful at ensuring the propagation of species and are the reason why humans are still around. They are also probably the reason why humans feel empathy and compassion towards others. 

2: There is no proof/just a theory

A common trope which is just as popular is that there is no evidence for evolution. This misconception, however, has little to do with science and a lot to do with how bad schools are in the USA. Evolution is actually one of the most studied, successful, and supported theories in all of the sciences. The evidence which supports it flows in from all branches of biology including genetics, homology, paleontology, embryology, and study of the geographical distribution of animals. If you are curious about this evidence, then you can read through Talk Origin's guide to the subject or watch Neil Shubin's documentary Your Inner Fish. The thing I recommend doing the most is reading through Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True and Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth. They are both excellent popular level books which explain this evidence.

To see why the "its only a theory" objection is flawed, you need to understand what scientists mean by "theory." Rather than meaning "a hunch or guess" (like in everyday speech), scientists mean something like "a testable and well-confirmed explanation which organizes data and yields fruitful predictions." This is why the existence of atoms is explained in atomic theory and the fact that some diseases are caused by microorganisms like bacteria and viruses is explained in germ theory. If you take introductory science classes in college, such as biology, geology, or astronomy, your professor will almost certainly cover this distinction in the introductory unit on the nature of science.

3: The ladder of progress

Many people believe that evolution means that all living things are improving towards a perfect state. This is usually envisioned as a ladder with man at the top striving towards godhood with all other living things occupying lower spots on the ladder and striving to be like man. These lower living things are ranked and given their spot on the ladder based on how similar to man they are. The more like man they are in appearance, the higher their ranking is on the ladder. This idea, however, is dead wrong. Living things are not striving towards being more like man and, as we discussed in misconception #1, fitness is only about passing genes on, not becoming more like man.

In many instances, being less like man is a better survival strategy. For example, many mammals like dolphins evolved from land animals. They, however, lost their limbs and returned to the water. This "regression" has worked out well for them and they are one of the most vicious predators in the ocean. If the ladder theory was true, then dolphins should have become more like man through evolution, not less. Other organisms, like the great white shark, are also good counterexamples because they have barely changed since the time of the dinosaurs.

4: The missing link

It is a popular belief that there is a missing link between man and apes and this absence is a reason for doubting the cogency of evolution.  This criticism, however, misunderstands man's relationship to the other apes (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, gibbons, and orangutans). Evolutionists do not think we "came from" any one of these animals. Instead they think we share common ancestors with them. These ancestors, such as the one we share with chimps, would be just as genetically different from chimps as it would be from us. This idea can be understood by the family analogy. Just like we share a common ancestor with our cousin (our grandparents), we share a common ancestor with chimps. For our more distant, second cousins (such as gorillas), you have to go back a further generation to great grandparents.

While the fossil record will always be incomplete because only a fraction of one percent of dead organisms fossilize, there is an absolute ton of amazing fossils left over from this branching process and I highly recommend reading up on them (message me and I will recommend some books). The evidence for common ancestry, however, comes from much more than paleontology. The fields of genetics, embryology, bio-geography, and comparative anatomy converge to attest to human beings sharing a common ancestor with apes (read about this evidence here and here). 

5: Evolution is random

It is certainly true that one of the two pillars of evolution is random mutation. If you are unfamiliar with random mutation, it simply refers to the fact that when genes are passed on to the next generation, they are not copied perfectly. These tiny differences usually do nothing, but sometimes they make the offspring slightly faster or slightly better a camouflaging themselves. These modifications accumulate overtime as genes are inherited from generation to generation (they do not "start over," which is every important).

Natural selection, which is the second pillar of evolution, favors those organisms which have those slight advantages. As generations pass and the fastest and best camouflaged organisms survive longer and have more offspring, the species as a whole will change. For example, suppose we have a population of mice living in an environment where being brown is a massive advantage. The browner mice will live longer than their less brown relatives. Their even browner offspring also will tend to survive longer and have more babies than their less brown siblings. As this pattern of survival by being brown proliferates over time, the mice population will become increasingly brown. This is how natural (non random) selection interacts with accumulated random mutations to drive evolution.

6: People come from monkeys

As I talked about in #4 and in my criticism of Katt Williams,  people did not come from modern day monkeys. Instead, we share a common ancestor with them. This misconception is one of the major reasons why people expect there to be a "missing link." It should also be said that the reason that monkeys are not turning into people (as discussed in #3) is that evolution is not a directed process of being more manlike. The "goal" of monkeys is not to become man, but to simply pass on their genes. 

7: Nature's perfect balance

Nature is usually believed to be a harmonious whole which is in perfect balance. On the environmental level, however, this is false. The environment is in constant flux from external factors (meteors, etc...) and internal factors (the gradual moving of tectonic plates, the accumulation of certain gases in the atmosphere). These changes move the survival goalposts and force organisms to come up with new adaptations or perish.

As #5 points out, random mutation also means organisms slowly change. As small modifications accumulate in a lineage, organisms gain new abilities which are then selected for or against by their environment. This is quite different from how creationists think about animals. Unlike biologists, they believe that "dogs stay dogs (this is ironic because humans selectively bred dogs from wolves)" and "cats stay cats (again, ironic)."

8: Creationism disproves evolution

No it doesn't. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming (see no, 4) and the evidence for creationism is non-existent. If anything, evolution disproves the versions of creationism that are incompatible with it. If you would like to see point by point rebuttals of creationist arguments that are not included in this post, please visit Talk Origins.    

9: Intelligent Design is science

Intelligent Design is not a coherent theory, just creationism in a lab coat. To quote Paul Nelson:
Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’-but, as yet, no general theory of biological design. 
Unlike IDC, evolution is a full fledged theory. We can say this because it unifies all areas of modern biology into a coherent framework, makes novel predictions, is ontologically parsimonious  (it appeals to no entities outside of the natural world), and has great explanatory scope. IDC has none of these virtues.

As it has been shown conclusively, IDC is merely a strategy designed by creationists following the disastrous Edwards vs. Aguillard ruling. Since it was clear following this court case that creationism was not going to be able to get past the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, creationists got rid of the explicit appeals to Biblical literalism and recruited several very bright scholars like Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Stephen Meyers. The end result was Intelligent Design.
10: Evolution is immoral

This idea could be taken two different ways. The first is that natural selection favors those organisms which are selfish and backstabbing. This means that it literally breeds for traits that are immoral. As I said in #1, however, many organisms have survived due to strategies like sharing food and protecting one another. Bats, for example, share with their brethren who did not successfully acquire food. Likewise, bats who do not share become pariahs and their brethren will not help them if they are unsuccessful a following night. Human beings have evolved a very strong moral sense. Despite popular conceptions, the overwhelming number of human interactions are cooperative (see Jessica Piece's Wild Justice for lots of well developed information about this subject). .

The second interpretation of this claim is that if evolution is true, there can be no ultimate grounds for morality. While some very respected philosophers like Richard Joyce, Alexander Rosenberg, and (the late) JL Mackie believe this, many ethicist think that biology has no adverse effect on morality. Since Ancient Greece, philosophers have been doing morality without any appeal to the supernatural. These scholars charge that biology effects their ethical ideas in a positive way by illuminating how the world works. This, they argue, allows them to more effectively bring about what they think ought to be the case. If you want to explore morality more, I recommend Peter Singer, (the late) Philipa Foot, Simon Blackburn, and Philip Kitcher. They all have very different, but very interesting, things to say.


I hope that this post helps you explain and elucidate the wonders of science. If you would like more tools in this fight, please click on my content section. There I have posts about how to talk to non-skeptics and other responses to creationism. You can also do, as I mentioned earlier, purchase Dr, Smith's excellent book.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Animated Pale Blue Dot

How skeptics should not confront pseudoscience

I sincerely believe that it is necessary for both science educators and skeptics to engage the public in a rational dialog. I do not, however, think that they should be open to every available time, method, and format. This is because, as I will argue below, approaching the public in the wrong way may do more harm than good.

A format that should be avoided all together is formal debates. Debates have several features that make them a poor format for science communication. As it has been pointed out again and again, virtually the whole audience goes to debates with their minds already made up. Unless someone gets absolutely tooled, then no one is likely to change their mind (this can also backfire and embolden someone's beliefs). It is also very difficult to correctly explain scientific theories in such a small amount of time. Even the quickest explanation of evolution takes college professors a couple of full length class periods. There is no reason to think that it can be done in a twenty minute opening statement.

Debates can also help the cause of pseudoscience. Unlike the defenders of science, the charlatan have the ability to make things up on the spot because they are not committed to the truth. This gives them a massive advantage in persuading the audience who cannot tell the difference. Many pseudoscientists are also master rhetoricians and they pay their rent by debating. These factors mean that there is a good chance they are going to win, even if they are full of it. A great example of this is the debate between Kent Hovind and Massimo Pigliucci (link). Despite Massimo having doctorates in botany, genetics, and philosophy and Kent having one from an uncredited Christian diploma mill, the latter (at least in my opinion) easily won the exchange.

Perhaps even worse, you are granting the proponent of pseudoscience a major propaganda victory by merely stepping on stage with them. This victory is the ability to claim that there is a legitimate debate between their viewpoint and mainstream science. Since achieving this status is a major goal of Intelligent Design proponents, you have already given them a tremendous victory before you even open your mouth. You may respond to this by saying something like "But isn't that a change to crush them? What if the defender of science smashes them?" The problem with this is that it still gives the audience the impression that there is no settled science.

Instead of doing debates, scientists and science educators should make documentaries, host podcasts, appear on television shows, and write popular level books. This allows them to explain the complexities of theories like evolution without having to immediately deal with asinine objections like missing links and apes turning into people. Once these theories are properly explained, many of the criticisms that captivate the public imagination will dissolve away.  An excellent example of this is Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. This documentary debunks objections like "an eye could not be made by chance" or "what good is only half of an eye" by explaining how natural selection actually works.

If you are a skeptic and wish to discuss critical thinking at the grass roots level, then friendly discussions are to be preferred. There are many resources that can help develop techniques for diffusing ideas about science and critical thinking. If you desire to communicate ideas, like the theory of evolution, I highly recommend that you also read popular level books by people like Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, and (of course) Richard Dawkins. Their books contain lucid explanations, captivating evidence, and excellent analogies that you can use to explain science. I also recommend that you preempt the concerns that creationists may have by reading Ruse, Numbers, and Kitcher. Since all creationists have virtually the same objections, this should not be hard to do.

While this advice may not sound as daring as taking to he debate stage, it allows science to dispel misunderstandings on its own terms without creating the illusion that it is on par with pseudoscience. This is the standard that we should strive for because it creates a much better environment to change the minds of the masses.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Spock vs. Critical thinking

He may be bad at reasoning, but Evil Spock has an amazing goatee.
Some of the most egregious misrepresentations of what it means to be rational come from my favorite fictional character, Star Trek's Mr. Spock. If you are not familiar with the literature on rationality, this is probably surprising to you. After all, Spock is portrayed to show close to no passion (except when he can no longer repress it) and he makes decisions based on cold, calculating logic. This is not, however, what it means to be a critical thinker.

As it has been pointed out by Eliezer Yudkowsky, Julia Galef (who is the first to use the following two examples), and Luke Muehlhauser, there is nothing rational about Spock's decision making process. For whatever reason, Gene Roddenberry wrote our Vulcan hero as someone who does not take other sentient being's emotion into account when he is deciding what to do. To see what I am talking about, examine this dialog between Spock and McCoy on the the episode Galileo Seven:
McCoy: "Well, Mr. Spock, [the aliens] didn’t stay frightened very long, did they?"
Spock: "A most illogical reaction. When we demonstrated our superior weapons, they should have fled."
McCoy: "You mean they should have respected us?"
Spock: "Of course!"
McCoy: "Mr. Spock, respect is a rational process. Did it ever occur to you that they might react emotionally, with anger?"
Spock: "Doctor, I’m not responsible for their unpredictability."
McCoy: "They were perfectly predictable, to anyone with feeling! You might as well admit it, Mr. Spock: your precious logic brought them down on us!"
The type of rationality that Spock is betraying here is known as epistemic rationality. This kind, also known as type 1 rationality, is our commitment to having as accurate a view of the world as we possibly can. If Spock were abiding by a commitment to know the world as it really is, then he would have been obligated to take into account all of the evidence about behavior even if it went against his preconceived notions of logic. By not doing so, he is being the very definition of delusional (having a sustained disregard of reality).

The other type of rationality that Spock has a hard time grasping is instrumental rationality (or type 2 rationality).  Unlike epistemic rationality, instrumental rationality is about applying your knowledge to a task and finding the most reliable and efficient way of completing it. For example, on the episode Charlie X, Spock loses in chess to Kirk and declares "Your illogical approach to chess does have its advantages on occasion, Captain." But Kirk's playing style is a textbook case of instrumental rationality. This is because, if Kirk's goal is to win at chess, his methods allow him to consistently accomplish what he desires.

Spock also goes against instrumental rationality when he downplays the importance of passion. While it is certainly true that passion can cloud one's judgement and lead to an overestimation of one's own prowess, it also motivates us to dream up and embrace many of our goals. For example, being passionate about the stars motivated Vincent van Gogh to paint and Galileo Galilei to turn his looking glass to the sky. This is what David Hume meant when he said "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions."

In closing, Spock has the wrong idea about rationality. Clear thinking is about abiding by two types of rationality. The first is having the most accurate map of the world possible, while the second is about reliably and effectively achieving your goals. This is very different than reasoning devoid of emotions or saying esoteric dictums about decision making.  If you want to learn the actual methods of critical thinking, stay tuned to this series. In the meantime, live long and prosper.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Biologist debunks intelligent design

For those of you who have  not seen Ken Miller's classic lecture on intelligent design, here it is:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Crazy creationist quotes

The following quotes are 100% real and are taken from creationist tirades. They were archived from all over the internet by people who find them to be as funny as they are terrifying. If you desire to look them up or to browse through other crazy quotes, you can do so at

Quote# 65191
im christian
if we came from apes
how come were not hairy and have a big mouth
and did we end up looking like we do know
and besides
there isnt any serious proof of apes
they showd a video saying an ape was wondering around in the forest
that thing looked exactly like a costume that i had saw at a store
know one ever cought an ape

Quote# 67928
<<In reply to if evolution isn't true, how do you explain things like the blind spot in the human eye?>>

I don’t have a blind spot in my eye. Both of them see very well and I am thankful for the 137million light sensitive cells that make sight possible. Do you have a blind spot in your eye? If you do, I suggest that you see an optician and see if he can either fix it, or get you another eye.

Ray Comfort

Quote# 77004
Q-If God created the world 6,000 years ago or so, why are stars millions of light years away?

A-Brendon, what a question! Yes, we know from the dates God gives us in the Bible that He did create the whole universe about 6,000 years ago. When we hear the term light-year, we need to realize it is not a measure of time but a measure of distance, telling us how far away something is. Distant stars and galaxies might be millions of light-years away, but that doesn’t mean that it took millions of years for the light to get here, it just means it is really far away!

Ken Ham

Quote# 70373
Why is it still fuckin legal for those cock-licking homo pigs to maintain this nazi fucking LIE called evolution. Let tens of thousands of evil DEVILS of ETERNAL flames burns their grandchildren in concentration camps all over the planet. And if that doesn't shut down these cunt morons, I shall personally rip their intenstines through their GOD DAMN nosdrils!...I just get so fucking upset when I hear people talk about this gay shit piece of pussy EVOLUTION. I am NO son of a buttfucking God damn ape, and that's scientific enough for me! Hell yeah! We should decapitate all those bitch slapping freak loving idiots, who think God is dead and who uses the name of Jesus to wipe their infidel pedofile asses.

Sara Ahlmark

Quote# 60638
Students, give this test to your teachers. When they fail it, ask them why they are teaching this nonsense!

Teachers, give this test to your students if you really want them to know the truth about evolution!

1. Which evolved first, male or female?
2. How many millions of years elapsed between the first male and first female?
3. List at least 9 of the false assumptions made with radioactive dating methods.
4. Why hasn't any extinct creature re-evolved after millions of years?
5. Which came first:
...the eye,
...the eyelid,
...the eyebrow,
...the eye sockets,
...the eye muscles,
...the eye lashes,
...the tear ducts,
...the brain's interpretation of light?
6. How many millions of years between each in question 5?
7. If we all evolved from a common ancestor, why can't all the different species mate with one another and produce fertile offspring?
8. List any of the millions of creatures in just five stages of its evolution showing the progression of a new organ of any kind. When you have done this, you can collect the millions of dollars in rewards offered for proof of evolution!
9. Why is it that the very things that would prove Evolution (transitional forms) are still missing?
10. Explain why something as complex as human life could happen by chance, but something as simple as a coin must have a creator. (Show your math solution.)
11. Why aren't any fossils or coal or oil being formed today?
12. List 50 vestigial or useless organs or appendages in the human body.
13. Why hasn't anyone collected the millions of dollars in rewards for proof of evolution?
14. If life began hundreds of millions of years ago, why is the earth still under populated?
15. Why hasn't evolution duplicated all species on all continents?

Missing Universe Museum

Quote# 77519
Gravity is a theory, not a proven fact.

The effects of gravity can be explained by other theories. An example would be the acceleration theory which asserts the earth is actually moving 'upward' at a constant rate of 1g (9.8m/sec^2). This produces the same effect as "gravity".

See there are different theories for the same phenomena - and none are facts, they are just theories.


Quote# 71130
"Are... are you now disputing the existance of DNA???"

Yes. DNA can never be proven. Evolutionists are obsessed with it because they always say ''chimps share 97% DNA with modern man'' etc. That's great, however you would then need to prove DNA is real.


Quote# 83483
There are numerous evidences of and for creation. Take the Bible for instance. Take creation itself for instance.
If evolution were true, vampires, werewolves would exist. They don't. How do you account for that?


Quote# 74719
When I decided to homeschool my six year old son, I told him we were going to do "Dinosaur Week". Which turned into "Dinosaur Month". . . at the least! We watched "Walking With Dinosaurs" and a lot of other documentaries. He's a pretty smart kid, too, so even he ended up saying "Ok. Scientists say that God isn't real. They say earth is a kajillion years old. They say that people and dinosaurs weren't alive at the same time and that a lot of dinosaurs could have died from a big flood, but that The Flood didn't happen. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE?!". He gets really upset about people not believing in God - as in he doesn't want them going to hell and he can't believe people can ignore God all around us. Every time we watch one of those dinosaur things, he gives a big, overly-dramatic sigh whenever they start talking about "millions of years" or evolution.

One that really cracked him up was where they theorize about reptiles evolving into humanoid creatures. Good grief! And they teach most of this stuff as FACT in schools!!!! I can't believe it. Neither can a six year old. So WHY is it so accepted?!!?

I teach him what makes SENSE. NOT what science textbooks say. I also teach my kids to question what they are taught - especially what they learn in school. It's really not fun at all having a bunch of junior scientists in the house when 99% of science seems to be atheistic.


 Quote# 86046
I have plainly said that I do believe ‘geocentrism’ as God states plainly in the Bible that ‘the Earth is the center of it all’ all meaning the universe. There is plenty of scientific evidence for anyone to see this is becoming much more apparent. You on the other hand want to constantly go back to a centuries old definition to imply ‘all’ as merely our solar system.


Arguing with non-skeptics (resources)

To help you discuss science and critical thinking with the both the true believers and the fence sitters, I have created this list of resources for you. These links will take you to podcasts, free pdf's, and videos discussing how to discuss and debate with non-skeptics. I hope you enjoy. 
  • John Cook's Debunking Handbook is an excellent resource for engaging believers. This is because it shows the science behind debunking and exposes some of the most egregious myths about trying to change someone's mind (link).
  • Sadie Crabtree's discussion at The Amazing Meeting about how to win hearts and minds for skepticism. Like Cook's booklet, this talk focuses on common misconceptions and debunking and offers lots of useful advice that actually works (link). 
  • My post about how to argue with non-skeptics without going crazy. These are just a few pointers to turn such discussions into a positive and fun learning experience for both the skeptic and the believer (link). 
  • The Science Talk podcast recorded a two part conference on how to discuss and debate with non-skeptics. The panel discussion was hosted by Julia Galef and featured George Hrab, DJ Grothe, James Randi, and Steve Mirsky (part 1, part 2).
  • Brian Dunning recorded an episode of Skeptoid about reasons why scientists should not publicly debate (on stage as opposed to one one one discussions) believers in creationism, intelligent design, and other forms of science denial (link).
  • Phil Plait's very famous talk (at least relative to skepticism) about why skeptics should avoid being dicks to people who believe weird things. This video needs to be watched carefully because it can easily be misunderstood (link). 
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson discusses some of the lessons he has learned about communicating science. One of the key points he makes is to stress how wonderful science is. This is key because new-skeptics  need to fill the void that nonsense leaves with something else (link).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

How to argue with a non-skeptic without going crazy

One of the attributes that most skeptics share is a burning desire to discuss critical thinking and science with non-skeptics. While such passion is admirable, many skeptics have a warped idea of what is actually going to happen in these discussions. Without warrant, they assume that they are going to go in and say something like "you believe in magic and faeries" and the other person is going to roll over and become a science lover.

Guess again. Discussing and debating with non-skeptics in one of the most irritating and non-progressive things you can possibly do in your spare time. This is because many believers in pseudoscience and the paranormal have a tremendous amount of time, money, and energy invested into their beliefs. Like anyone else, these people find it uncomfortable and distressing to have their cherished beliefs challenged and they will likely put on their cognitive blinders or get really angry with you if you push too hard.

Despite these odds, however, you should not not despair. Almost all skeptics started off as believers who believed in at least some nutty ideology. This means that even people from the most rigid backgrounds are occasionally talked into leaving dogmatism behind for rationality (If you do not believe me, Google "Nate Phelps" and "Marjoe Gortner"). You should also be optimistic about how many people there are out there who are are simply ignorant of science and critical thinking.

These people, due to their pursuits in other areas, have thought little about the big bang, evolution, cognitive biases, or decision making. Its not that they are dogmatically opposed to these things, they simply do not know any better and reject these ideas due to anti-scientific arguments that float around in the popular imagination (for example, "if evolution is real, then why aren't apes turning into people?"). I, like many other skeptics, believe that changing this group's mind is much easier because they do not have the same level of commitments as a true believer.

Thankfully, I am at a part in my life that I enjoy discussing these topics with both the fence sitter and the most stubborn believers in bunk (trust me, I know some nutty ones too). This is because I have a set of rules of thumb that I follow during discussions that keep me level headed. To help you do the same, I decided to post some of these rules in the form of advice.
  1. Be kind and respectful. Remember that the person you are talking to also has hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Like you, they care about living a fulfilling life and probably want to spend it with their loved ones. By keeping this in mind, I find it much more difficult to get mad with someone for not agreeing with me. Being civil will also allow you to accomplish the major goal of shattering stereotypes about skeptics. For whatever reason, we are believed to be a bunch of inhumane bullies who are just out to offend people. If you imprint on a believer your own kindness, they can no longer think these things without remembering how they once met a kind and polite skeptic.
  2. Lower your expectations. As I said earlier, you are going to get very frustrated if you think that you are going to go in like John Rambo and make someone change their entire worldview. I never expect to make such progress in a single sitting and you shouldn't either. Instead of converting someone outright, you should aim to sow the seeds of doubt and explain skepticism by applying critical thinking skills to ideas that will likely not offend the person. These same reasons for doubting the effectiveness of magnetic wristbands or the existence of planet Nibiru may later pop back up later when they consider whether or not homeopathy and astrology actually work. 
  3. Enjoy the conversation. Even though you may not learn something about biology or physics from your conversation, engaging believers can still teach many fascinating lessons in sociology and psychology. Like an anthropologist studying apes in the woods, I am often blown away by the actual motivations and reactions of believers. Since many people use the exact same arguments, conversing with one believer can help you cut your skeptical teeth and refine your arguments and counter-arguments for your next encounter with proponents of the same variety of woo. Whenever I look at an exchange as a chance to learn something, it is very hard for me to get frustrated.
  4. Channel Socrates. The philosopher Socrates had an excellent debate methodology. Rather than viewing an exchange as a competition where there is only one winner, he thought of them as a cooperative effort between two teammates. Socrates thought the goal of this dialogue was for both participants to sharpen their reasoning skills and come to more nuanced views about reality. Rather than accusing his partner of being an idiot, he would ask them questions like "why do you believe x?" or "have you considered how fact y would effect your belief in x?" By making the exchange out to be mutually beneficial, you will strip it of most of the frustration you usually feel.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Know your scholars: E.A. Burtt

Edwin Arthur Burtt (1892-1989) was an American professor of philosophy who wrote extensively on the history and philosophy of science, religion, and science's relationship to religion. During his long career, Dr. Burtt (who was known to his friends as Ned) held the prestigious Susan Linn Sage chair of philosophy at Cornell University and was president of the American Philosophical Association from 1964-5.

Much of his interests in topics involving metaphysical and religious questions about reality was probably cultivated in his childhood. Even when he was an old man, Burtt recalled how his parents attitudes towards religion (his father was a devout evangelical and missionary) had a profound influence on his life.

Despite his later rejection and criticism of Jesus as a man who had "no appreciation of the value of intelligence as the most dependable human faculty for analyzing the perplexities into which men fall and for providing wise guidance in dealing with them" and who "took entirely for granted and without criticism the economic structure prevalent in his day, with its assumption of an absolute right on the part of employers to make such profits as they are able and to treat their workmen according to whatever whim may seize them (link)", Burtt remained sympathetic to religious experience and awe and published books like Religion in the Age of Science, Types of Religious Philosophy, and The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha throughout his life.

While completing his dissertation in philosophy at Columbia University, Burtt chose to focus his research on the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution. Burtt argued that ideas like human consciousness, purpose, and religious aspirations do not fit into the mechanical worldview created by men like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, and especially Newton. Burtt showed that these thinkers' work cannot be clearly separated out from the work of Hobbes, Locke and Descartes.

While his dissertation argued that this scientific philosophy has a positivist streak, Burtt also demonstrated and explored the rich philosophical contributions made by these men. He showed that philosophical concepts like epistemology, the philosophy of mathematics, and the philosophy of physics (in particularly, space and time) were richly explored and elucidated by almost all of these noted intellectuals.

After he received his doctorate in 1915, Burtt revised this work and published it as the book The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. Despite being largely unknown now, this book was a landmark in the history and philosophy of science. Burtt's idea that certain pre-scientific ideas were carried over into the seventeenth century mechanical worldview is said to have influenced both Alexandre Koyre and most importantly,Thomas Kuhn. 

Despite the large contributions Burtt made to the study of history and philosophy of science, Burtt is most remembered for being a key contributor to the early days of the Humanist movement. Although is ideas that "spiritual experience is the identification with categories of space, time, causality, and other fundamental physical principles (link)" was left out of humanist writings, he was a contributor and signer of the first Humanist Manifesto and a signer of the second.

While Burtt was less vocal about humanism after the first manifesto, he occasionally reviewed books for The Humanist magazine during the 1950's. While I cannot locate any of these articles, I did find this one letter and response to him (I did not desire to post it in this article because it is a big picture. Click here if you desire to read it).

While his ideas are largely forgotten, Burtt is an imminent figure in the history and philosophy of science. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science for yourself and see why his ideas were held in such high regard by his contemporaries and his intellectual heirs.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Red flags to beware of

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt begins his treatise, On Bullshit, with an observation about the amount of baloney out there and how we take for granted our ability to detect it.
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.
I agree with this sentiment. While most people think that they can easily spot a con artist, few (at least in the United States) have highly calibrated baloney detectors. Like it or not, your neighbors and your loved ones have probably been snowed by at least a few charlatans. If you think I am exaggerating, please look at the alarmingly large number of people who are taken in by baseless occult and paranormal beliefs.

I, however, do not think the battle against nonsense is lost. Critical thinking can be learned and we can make our baloney detectors more highly calibrated. A great first step towards for anyone who is trying to become a better critical thinker is to learn the warning signs that usually accompany baloney. While spotting these red flags does not guarantee that a claim is false, they should make you skeptical of whatever is being sold or proposed.

  1. Appeal to illegitimate authority. You can hardly turn on the tv without seeing an add with men in lab coats endorsing a male enhancement product. Likewise, almost every strange claim on the internet is seemingly backed by the late electrical engineer, Nikola Tesla. These appeals, however, are worthless. A product's soundness can only be judged by the supporting evidence, not by appealing to a man in a commercial in a lab coat or a figure in the history of science. If we do not know enough about the claim to say something intelligent, then the proper authority to consider is the consensus held by the contemporary, relevant experts.  
  2. Appeal to political correctness. Many claims argue that you should accept them because it is the moral or or politically correct thing to do. For example, many have charged that it is immoral to accept the theory of evolution because it means that we are apes. It is irrelevant, however, how warm and fuzzy these ideas are. All that matters is if the preponderance of evidence supports them. If it does, then you are simply denying reality by dismissing them. It should be noted that it is equally wrong to accept a claim because it is politically incorrect or considered shocking.
  3. Appeal to ancient wisdom. Whenever anyone appeals to the wisdom of ancient people in an effort to seal their claim off from scrutiny, be skeptical. Despite their deep desire to learn, the most advanced ancient people only knew a fraction of one percent of what we know today. Their knowledge about medicine, engineering, and astronomy was limited at best and they were completely oblivious to fields like virology. Even worse, they practiced things that we know to be a waste of time like astrology and feng shui. While an idea they proposed may be correct, they cannot be excused from a critical examination. 
  4. Appeal to nature. Many proponents of alternative medicine try to promote their ideas by appealing to the fact that they are natural. They say things like "holistic medicine is better for you because it consists of all natural ingredients." The problem with this is that while there are many natural things that are good for you, there are just many that are harmful. Jellyfish neuro-toxins and botulism are both natural. So are poison ivy and e. coli. The only way to know if a natural remedy is good or bad for you is to examine the evidence and look at what the relevant medical experts have said about the issue.
  5. Appeal to energy. One of the favored ideas of New Age proponents is using the word energy to describe some sort of supernatural force or entity. The problem with this is that, scientifically speaking, energy can be defined as "the ability of something to do work." If you substitute this definition into sentences about how energy somehow has something to do auras, ghosts, and telepathy, these claims become nonsensical or meaningless. Whenever someone uses energy in a way that bucks against this traditional usage, be skeptical. 
  6. Forgetting the misses.  Many psychics want you to believe that they can talk to the dead because they can accurately predict many details about your life (an accurate prediction is called a hit). When they are trying to convince you, however, you need to also keep track of how many inaccurate predictions they made (misses). Since mankind is predisposed to want to believe, we tend to forget to do this and end up being stunned that a psychic could get twelve hits out of seventy probing guesses. When these are factored together, we need to ask ourselves "is this any better than if someone was just making educated guesses based on previous information and my physical appearance?" 
  7. Shotgun method. This is a popular debate tactic employed by hucksters (the most notable being creationist Duane Gish). The shotgun method is used when one makes more claims than you could possibly ever refute in a given time period. When you fail to sufficiently address 30 claims in 30 minutes, the huckster states that their claim must be right because you have not word-for-word refuted them. Stacking baloney, however, does not make a claim true. Only solid evidence that is skeptically examined, not parlor debating tricks, can  support to a claim. If the huckster really wants their claims to be taken seriously, then they have to submit them for sustained scrutiny by experts.
  8. Appeal to the absence of evidence. It is a favored tactic of hucksters to argue that the lack of evidence for their claim makes it more plausible. This is seen when UFO proponents hold up documents with big black lines through it or charge that the government is "covering it up." The problem with this is two-folds: First, it eliminates the ability for a claim to be tested because "the evidence is being covered up" can be used to get out of almost any objection. (testability is also a key property of science and lacking it makes a claim less plausible). Second, not having evidence gives you no positive reason to accept something. After all, if we had to accept claims with no evidence, we would have to believe in Santa Claus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the invisible, undetectable dragon in Carl Sagan's garage, and Bertrand Russell's Teapot. Since this is absurd, the burden is on the believer to provide positive evidence.    
  9. Appeal to the middle road. A typical line used by people who hold centrist positions is that they must be right because they are in the middle of two extremes. "Evangelical Christians and atheists are both fundamentalists. I, on the other hand, hold the moderate position of being spiritual." Being in "the center", however, does not automatically make something correct. (Keeping with our example,) if Christianity or atheism were shown to be very plausible, then the spiritualist would be wrong to hold their position because the evidence would go against it.
  10. World salad. Whenever you hear words like quantum consciousness, poststructuralism, quantum entanglement, and hermeneutics used to defend some sort of anti-scientific or spiritual belief, your baloney detector should immediately go off. This is because postmodernist philosophers and proponents of Quantum Mysticism tend to use words like these to make their ideas sound more sophisticated. While this may sound impressive to the lay person, their use of these words is almost always nonsensical or semantically meaningless. They are doing nothing more than randomly inserting words into sentences to make them sound complicated. This is attested to by the Deepak Chopra generator and the postmodern generator. Both of these websites run on engines that randomly assemble words into sentences that are impressively sounding, but meaningless.  
This list is certainly incomplete, but it is an excellent starting point for those learning how to think critically. When you memorize these and other red flags, you will notice that your baloney detector will start to go off all the time.  If you are having a conversation with someone who is trying to convince you of a natural remedy or that one of Oprah's guests have psychic powers, pointing them out will help you explain to your family and friends why they should not waste their money and time on supporting hucksters.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ron Paul's terrible argument against evolution

In his book, Liberty Defined, congressman Ron Paul says the following about evolution. 
There is one argument against evolution that deserves consideration. If man is evolving and progressing, why is man’s involvement in mass killings getting worse and the struggle for peace more difficult? Government wars and exterminations in the twentieth century reached 262 million people killed by their own governments and 44 million killed in wars. I fear that doesn’t say much for the evolutionary process
When I first read this statement, I did not know how to interpret it. Since Ron Paul has a medical doctorate, I immediately thought this had to be some sort of pun or play on words. Someone who completed multiple college level biology classes certainly could not think that natural selection entails some sort of upwards progression towards a godlike state. Upon hearing other statements made by Paul, however, I have come to the conclusion that he is indeed a creationist and this objection to evolution is dead serious.

Before I explain what is wrong with this criticism of evolution, however, I need to take a second and speak to Ron Paul supporters. If you are someone who admires Ron Paul, please know that this post is not written with the intent of grinding some sort of political axe. I am not out to discredit Paul, nor do I hate civil liberties. I am merely correcting a man with a misconception about science and I would do the same if he was progressive.

My first criticism of Paul's idea is that it totally misunderstands what evolution does. Despite popular belief to the contrary, natural selection (the engine of evolution) is a blind mechanism that is not directed towards any goal. Its only requirement is that you live long enough to pass on your genes to the next generation. It does not care if this is carried out by cruelty or kindness. It is simply irrelevant to the process. With that said, however, it should be noted that there is plenty of evidence which suggests human beings have flourished as long as they have by using the strategy of cooperation.

This may sound counter-intuitive but when you compare human interactions to those of other apes and pack animals, we are (at least comparatively) the most harmonious large species on the planet. As thinkers like Richard Dawkins have pointed out, our cooperation is a very effective tool for survival and it helps to ensure the survival of our own genes. These ideas are not in the least bit controversial and are built on the prisoner's dilemma thought experiment from Game Theory to model strategic interactions between organisms. To see what I am talking about, watch this video. 

My second criticism is that it is not at all obvious that the world is deteriorating into a more violent and horrifying place. Even including the two great wars of the twentieth century, there has been many breakthroughs in the advancement of human well-being over the last few centuries. Vaccinations for polio and smallpox, as well as advancement in crop yields by people like Norman Borlaug, have saved billions of lives. People are also living much longer and (for the first time in history) even middle class people have free time to educated themselves and take up a hobby. Through the institution of science and technology, the world has become better in many measurable ways.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has recently argued (much to the chagrin of theologians, luddites, and pessimists) that violence has plummeted worldwide since the Enlightenment. Since I do not feel like posting a lot of his stats, I will do you the favor of posting Pinker's TED presentation on the topic.

I would like to make a note, however, that the truth of evolution is supported by multiple independent lines of evidence. Regardless of what strategies humans have employed to survive, fields like biogeography, embryology, genetics, paleontology, and homology provide overwhelming evidence for the theory that man shares a common ancestor with the other apes. This fact is separate and not contingent on how violent or virtuous current human affairs are (even though Mr. Paul's perceptions seem to be way off either way)..