Thursday, October 6, 2016

Pseudoscientist-in-Chief?





President Donald Trump possesses many characteristics that will make him a unique figure in American history. He, for example, is the first reality tv star and the only person without either political or military experience to get elected. He is also the first president in decades not to release his tax returns. My skeptical side, however, is far more interested in the next president's strange stances towards the sciences and critical thinking. This is because Mr. Trump, as others have put it, seems to bullshit on a level bordering confabulation (especially in regards to pseudoscience and conspiracy theories). 

To demonstrate why I think this, I decided to list five things that he has done that seem to put him in line with the David Ickes and the Jenny McCarthys of the world. Before I get started however, I want to note that I am only pointing out the five that I find to be the most concerning. There also many other examples of him seemingly embracing total bullshit. Some honorable mentions include his apparent rehashing of conspiracies about Hillary Clinton's health, Ted Cruz's citizenship, and Rafael Cruz (Sen. Cruz's father) assassinating JFK (which Trump later denied) and using Dr. Oz (lol) to calm concerns about his own health. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Satires of Intelligent Design

Teach the controversy. 


Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) seeks to (1) discover intelligently designed features of life and the cosmos and (2) attribute its features to an intelligent designer. This is done with the intent of overthrowing the "materialist" sciences like evolutionary biology and replacing them with a teleological view of the world. IDC advocates, however, have to face a dilemma when it comes to identifying this designer. If they say that it is a theistic God (like they would like to), then IDC appears to be nothing more than Old (or, in some rare instances, Young) Earth creationism. This would mean teaching it in public schools in the USA would be unconstitutional. If, however, they don't identify the designer, then their ideas have absolutely no explanatory content. 

One thing that many skeptics have done is to make satirical designers or other untestable entities to point out the absurdity and vapidity of both horns of this dilemma. Some of these predate modern IDC and others are a direct consequent of their cowardly unwillingness to disclose that the designer they have in mind is the god of the Bible. "If the designer could be many things," the skeptic argues, "then why not x?" Or, the skeptic argues, why should we prefer your intelligent designer to designer y?" 

To have some fun with this, I thought I would put together a list a few of the better satires of IDC's design hypothesis. If I missed one that you think is very good, then feel free to add it in the comment section and I will add it to the list. 

  • Flying Spaghetti Monster. Pastafarians argue that the FSM is the intelligent designer of the cosmos that IDC points to. They also argue that their ideas are on par with traditional religions that that they should be protected under the law in the same way.
  • Intelligent Falling is a design based alternative to gravity. Advocates of this new theory believe that the controversy about IF and gravity should be taught in the science classrooms and that the latter is a theory in crisis.  
  • Jibbers Crabst was proposed by The Oatmeal as the identity of the intelligent designer. Matt Igman, the creator of this comic, argues that it is a better account of nature than naturalistic theories like Darwinian evolution.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Ken Ham and low hanging fruit



Yesterday, the Ark Encounter theme park opened. This park, which consists of a 510 foot long "replica" of Noah's Ark, cost millions of dollars and took years construct. It was also (quite controversially) supported by the state government of Kentucky. Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis, the group which oversees the park, is notorious in scientific circles for promoting the teaching of the Bible in the science classroom and for operating the creationist "museum." Ken Ham and his organization teach that modern biology, astronomy, geology, and chemistry ought to be rejected in favor of the pseudoscience they display at their park and museum.

They also teach that the Bible is literally true, provides the foundation for all knowledge, and anything that disagrees with it can and ought to be rejected. As you can imagine, many skeptics and science advocates have been very critical of this theme park and the other activities of AiG. These people, which include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill NyeMichael Shermer, and Phil Plait, have pointed out how strange and potentially harmful Ken Ham and his organization has been. I couldn't agree more with their criticisms.

When skeptics like myself publicly voice our criticisms of AiG, however, we are often told that we are picking "low hanging fruit." If we had any intellectual depth, our critics argue, we would instead contend with the philosophy of sophisticated theologians rather than worrying about fools like Ken Ham. Criticisms like these make is seem as though AiG and similar groups like Creation Ministries International are inconsequential, representative of only a few people, and diminishing in power. This, however, is profoundly wrong.

Creationists groups like Ken Ham's are incredibly well-funded and have succeeded in making creationism a growing, global phenomenon. Historian of science, Ronald L Numbers has painstakingly chronicled how creationism is now rapidly expanding in Australia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. This is on top of the fact that, according to Gallup, somewhere between 40-50% of American are creationists. These organizations also have a lot of money to throw around. This is especially apparent when they are compared to skeptical and science groups like the Center for Skeptical Inquiry and the National Center for Science Education.

There is also the fact that what sophisticated clergy and theologians say is of little or no consequence to what the average American (or Earthling, for that matter) thinks about science or religion. Given that our goal is to promote science and critical thinking in the most effective way possible, it is a colossal waste of time discussing process theology and reformed epistemology. If a theologian like John Haught, however, wants to help defend science, then their help on this topic is appreciated and we can save the metaphysical conversations for when the wine is flowing.

The main reason, however, why skeptics should absolutely go after this strain of pseudoscience is that it is one of the most aggressive and expansionist kinds of baloney. The goal of the creationist movement is to remove modern science from the classroom and our culture and replace it with their own brand of nuttiness (or, when they cannot do that, to "teach the controversy"). The point about creationism being intellectually low hanging fruit (which it is) is irrelevant when they are actively trying to undermine the main goal of the skeptical and science communities and occasionally winning.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dear History Channel


"Those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat history class"


Dear History Channel,

For a very long time, you have been detrimental to the historical literacy of the United States. At a time when many of my fellow citizens are shockingly ignorant of geography (link), religion (link), and our constitution and government (link), you use your network and the clout that comes with its name to show pawn shops and conspiracy theories.

With the exception of holocaust denial, I have seen you air programs on virtually every kind of pseudo-history. This includes everything from claims about aliens building the pyramids to shows that seemingly treat the Bible in a literal manner. While it may be good for your ratings, this drivel has contributed to a deep confusion about the methods of historians and archaeologists. If this wasn't bad enough, the shows that you put on your networks which are supposed to be "historically accurate" sometimes contain egregious errors of their own.

An unfortunate example of this is The World Wars. This program, which contains some very cool reenactments, an awesome motion score, and many good historical explanations, contained a very historically inaccurate segment about Lenin's takeover of Russia. Rather than taking the 10 minutes needed to explain the actual history of these events, this program totally omitted the February Revolution and stated that Stalin and Lenin directly overthrew the Tsarist government of Nicholas II. This is a mistake that an A student in a World History class in high school would have caught.

As a citizen of the USA, I believe that you owe the American public an apology. Rather than focusing on swamp people and Bigfoot, you could focus on many other topics that are both interesting and historically accurate. In just about 2 minutes, I came up with the following list:

  1. A history of aviation from the Wright Brothers to the Apollo missions
  2. the role languages have played in the development of man
  3. the dropping and making of the atomic bomb
  4. Galileo's role in the Scientific Revolution
  5. the philosophical underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution
  6. a comparison and explanation of the major world religions
  7. a legitimate explanation of how the pyramids were actually built 
  8. an examination of the controversial Frontier Thesis
  9. a deep, long look at natural history 
  10. an explanation of the roots and interconnections of american music forms like Jazz and Rock and Roll.
While I understand that drivel may be a slightly easier sell, there are many historical topics like these that inform and entertain. Cosmos and Ken Burns' documentaries show that this can be done. If you were to focus instead on endeavors like these, you would be worthy of your name and would be providing a great service.

Thanks for your time,

a concerned historian