I recently remembered an old post of mine, and thought I’d repost it, since I feel like making and extending a theme from my last two posts: One word titles about features in religion that are inherently wrong. So, without further ado, post below the fold:

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It seems Pat Robertson recently brought up the silly “D&D is Satanic” meme, again. It’s accompanied with the usual fainting over players allegedly learning black magic.

For the people who are actually worried about witches going around hexing people, I have one point to make: People like you probably carry the bulk of the blame for witchcraft gaining any sort of popularity. I think it’s ironic. Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, and all the fantasy franchises out there treat magic as fictional. It’s just entertaining escapism. Just like any other hobby, there are people who turn it into an unhealthy obsession, but they’re not the norm. I don’t play fantasy games out of some delusion that it’s a road to magical powers, I play because they’re fun.

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I’ve been slowly making my way through Married to the Sea‘s archives. It’s a silly comic most of the time, but sometimes it gets political. This one reminded me of a point I like to make. It’s the 10 Commandments as a graven image that gets pushed into schools and courthouses. On top of violating freedom from government imposition of a religion, showing undue favoritism, and all that, it makes the point that the 10 Commandments is essentially an idol.

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It’s a Bird/Dinosaur!

Well, I got the recent news about that feathered dinosaur. Apparently Ken Ham and other Creationists have declared it to be 100% bird despite lacking a bony breast muscle anchor birds have and possessing dinosaur features like clawed fingers and teeth. This brings me back to a point I was thinking about including in Creationism is in a State of Chaos, though I rewrote it partway through to cover bigger issues, rather than list miscellaneous details. I’ve seen some Creationists claim that the more famous archeopteryx was all bird. I’ve seen others claim it was all reptile/dinosaur. It will not surprise me if this latest fossil triggers more flip-floppery from Creationists trying to shoehorn it into the categories they’re comfortable with.

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Skepticism and Money

Since there’s something of a call for skeptics to discuss politics and economics, I thought I’d bring up one relatively abstract issue: Money itself. I’ve got a textbook list of properties buried in my memory from way back in my high school economics class, with my recall aided by Wikipedia.

  • Medium of exchange: Money is good for anything, negating the need for a chain of deals.
  • Unit of account: You have to be able to know you’re making it or losing it.
  • Store of value: It has to remain valuable when you dig it out from under your mattress.
  • Rarity: It has to be rare enough to be practical to transport, but common enough for everyone to use it.

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Creationism is in a State of Chaos

That’s the blunt truth about how I see it. I’m not talking about the political situation of various attempts to slip it into schools or its public relations, though it’s still applicable: The promoters try to gloss over the fact that it’s religious and try to make it look vaguely secular, meanwhile they can’t keep the fundie hordes from revealing the sectarian motives.

My major point is that Creationism as a hypothesis is in a state of chaos. If a person identifies himself as a Creationist, that doesn’t tell us what he believes or gives us insight into what he’s likely to believe, beyond the vaguest of details. Evolution and inflationary cosmology are better defined. I believe in those theories because of the evidence, and knowing that, you can reliably predict that I believe:

  • The universe is 13.7 billion years old. The Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
  • All life is related in a large nested hierarchy, like a branching tree. You won’t find any examples of large multicelluar organisms (like animals) that would fit in more than one branch. No cat-dog hybrids without deliberate genetic modification, for example. The closest you’d get naturally is a cat, with the genetic features that define it as a cat, that superficially resembles a dog or the reverse. The descendents of cats are still cats, though as deep time passes and modifications pile up, they may become very strange compared to our current idea of a cat. Even so, they’d still bear the molecular and morphological legacy of cathood.
  • Fossils are arranged with the oldest species on the bottommost layers of rock and the most recent on top. By comparing similar fossils up and down the rock layers around the world, we can infer relationships based on the shapes of their fossilized bones and compare these relationships with other lines of evidence, such as molecular biology, and find a consistent picture. This is what we find.
  • Most mutations are neutral, but some are deleterious, others are beneficial, and some are mixed because they affect linked traits in different ways. The beneficial mutations will generally have better chances of proliferating, while the negative mutations will more likely die out.
  • There is no “great chain of being” with humans at the top. We’re just one more successful species and there will be others, possibly including a future species descended from us. Evolution wasn’t “done” when we showed up.

These are a lot of “big picture” consensus beliefs. These are the kinds of things that experts will put into textbooks and popular science media. If someone claims to believe in evolution but asserts something contrary to these sorts of ideas, the experts would seek to correct the misunderstanding and/or challenge the dissenter to prove it with scientific evidence. And this is just the big picture stuff. There’s a massive wealth of details that have a strong consensus that remain consistent with the theories.

In other words, science has converged on these beliefs. This is what we would expect if a reliable testing method (science) was used by many different people from different backgrounds (scientists from around the world), to reach conclusions about objective reality. The history of science is one of increasing consistency and accuracy as more evidence comes to light. The consensus changes in a predictable, logically necessary manner.

Of course, there isn’t absolutely perfect agreement on all issues, but the arguments that do occur between scientists are about increasingly finer and more nuanced details. You can still find large areas of general agreement between scientists who are on opposite sides of one of those conflicts. In evolution, there are many different forces in play: Natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, and so on. Biologists of different specialties may have heated arguments about the relative importance of those factors in the evolution of a species or trait, but you can reasonably count on them to acknowledge all those forces exist.

And now, back to Creationism. If I stumble on some Creationists while web surfing, I have much less confidence in my ability to predict their answers to important questions about cosmology and the history of biology. There are a lot of mutually exclusive claims, and skimming the well known Talk Origins’ Index to Creationist Claims brings up a lot of them. I’ll point out that the page was last updated in 2006, and I can’t think of anything about Creationism that would necessitate further updates. Let’s go over a few examples:

Age of the Earth: Answers range from about 6,000 years to 4.6 billion. This is one of the bigger divides in Creationism: Young Earth Creationists (YEC) and Old Earth Creationists (OEC).

The age of the universe and distant objects: This is one of the classic things Young Earth Creationists have to come up with an explanation for. Their problem is that they’ve come up with multiple explanations and there’s no clear favorite. How did the light from those distant stars get here? Some say their god created light that was already en route to Earth. Others say the speed of light used to be much faster. In the ancient days, stars were holes in the sky, rather than distant fusion reactors. Of course, another popular answer is that the evidence for the distance of those objects is all a hoax perpetuated by a satanic worldwide conspiracy.

Radiometric dating: One of the core premises (which is backed by all the evidence thus far) behind radiometric dating is that isotopes have a consistent half-life and thus a predictable rate of decay that can be used to measure the age of something. Creationists sometimes try to get around this by asserting that the rate of decay used to be much faster. (Which would mean a lot more radiation in those days.) Others say the universe was just created with the isotopes and decay products in just the right proportions to give the appearance of age. And, of course, there’s the conspiracy assertion.

Fossils: Some say they’re distributed by the animals’ abilities to flee from the rising flood waters at the time of Noah, and altitude of habitat. (They’re not.) Others say they were somehow filtered by complexity by the flood waters. (They’re not.) Some say their god created the fossils to test faith and to troll scientists with the deception. Others say the devil made the fossils. Others say scientists planted the fossils.

Noah’s Ark and genetic diversity: Some claim that Noah brought aboard a few vaguely defined “baramin” animals that then evolved and speciated at super speed, somehow acquiring diversity that would be absent from such a genetic bottleneck. Some say some animals survived by living on floating islands of plant matter, lowering the demands of the Ark. Some say the dinosaurs were on the Ark. Some say the dinosaurs were left to drown. Some say there were no dinosaurs in the first place.

Noah’s flood and the source of the water: Vapor canopy. Comets. Hydroplate. Runaway Subduction.

I could go on and on if I really wanted to go over all the crazy Creationist ideas I’ve read about over my years as a skeptic. It’s even common to see a Creationist change their beliefs repeatedly over the course of a conversation as they’re criticized. This tells me that Creationists either don’t think about the implications of believing contradictory ideas and/or that they’re just trying every alleged “zinger” in their playbook to justify their dissent from the scientific consensus, as dictated by rhetorical convenience, rather than logic and evidence. There is no Creationist consensus beyond a few bare bones. Creationism is still at the mercy of the chaotic whims of fashion.

Why Fallacies are Stupid

Recently, Mariah at Post-Abe wrote a post challenging Hicksians to defend Hicks. She explicitly discouraged them from using logical fallacies, going so far as to include a link to a chart displaying a lot of the popular ones. That’s when things get silly. Someone named Flipside decides to comment on the matter:

Mariah–how fair, let alone rational, is it to invite a “defense of Esther Hicks”, which you say you will be “…glad to hear”, and then, before anyone has even offered anything at all, you limit said defense with “no logical fallacies”? Wow! And I don’t see any responses. What a shock!!

It’s hard to find words to describe how amazingly oblivious that comment is. Being rational pretty much means minimizing the use of logical fallacies, as does being fair in an argument. If this were a saner world, discouragements like Mariah’s wouldn’t even need to be typed, but apparently some people are so out of touch with reality and/or so shameless in their deceit, they’d object to such reminders. They generally aren’t so explicit about it, though.

In logic, a valid argument is one where if the premises are true, the conclusion will be true. A fallacy is an invalid argument because the premises can be true but the conclusion can be false.┬áThere’s some fuzziness with the real world, since there’s uncertainty, but on that level, there are “cogent” arguments, where correct premises will lead to the conclusion most likely being true. Fallacies undermine the cogency of an argument for the same reasons. In many cases, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises at all. There’s no connection between P and Q. It’s a non-sequitur. Hence, rational people will favor valid or cogent (non-fallacious) arguments to reach conclusions and reject fallacious arguments.

Using logical fallacies is inherently unfair. It’s also like in math class when you don’t get any points on a question because you didn’t show your work. If you skip the process, the teacher is justified in suspecting you just stole the answer instead of actually working the problem. If you rely on logical fallacies, we’re justified in suspecting that your assertions are baseless and that your conclusions are likely to be wrong. People with a sense of fair play (and the requisite critical thinking skills) will call out fallacies because they’re a way to cheat your way to the illusion of a correct answer and a way to cheat your way past some people’s critical thinking abilities to convince them of the accuracy of an unsupported conclusion. Humans have cognitive biases that distort our thinking towards irrationality. Fallacies are often employed by propagandists and other deceivers precisely because they unfairly exploit our irrational tendencies.

The non-sequitur type fallacies are probably the best reason why Mariah moderates her comments. As much as I like to roast trolls at times, it’s often pointless because they simply won’t learn what they’re doing wrong, and many readers will just roll their eyes as they try to dominate the topic while everyone else tries to convince the troll that he’s wrong on a seemingly obvious and fundamental level. The trolls will just spin their wheels and double down on their insanity without actually contributing anything meaningful to the discussion, forcing the others to either dwell on a PRATT (Point Refuted A Thousand Times) or let the troll get the last word in and have the illusion of victory and unearned self-esteem. It can be quite draining and distract from thoughtful comments that might get skipped over as a result of the troll’s inability to learn basic logic.

It really sickens me that society has been lax in combating fallacious modes of thought. Many so-called “journalists” will happily let people say pretty much any absurd thing unchallenged and unquestioned in the name of “balance” against rational positions, rather than do the critical thinking, research, and investigation involved in their job. Politicians happily employ fallacies in the form of propaganda. Religions demand special exemptions from rational scrutiny. I often wonder if the problem’s getting worse, and/or if I’m becoming more aware of it.

Now, to some popular fallacies, why they’re stupid, and why you should naturally feel ashamed of yourself if you rely on them.

Ad hominem: Attacking the arguer instead of his arguments. It’s one of the big favorites, and it’s worth pointing out that insults are not necessarily ad hominems. “Your argument is wrong because X, Y, and Z, and you’re an idiot because you didn’t realize that” is not a fallacious ad hominem. The ‘idiot’ part is a largely pointless (though sometimes stress-relieving) side conclusion. It does not affect the refutation it’s packaged with. “Your argument is wrong because you live in your mom’s basement” is fallacious. Before you try to badly mimic a critical thinker and sling the phrase around as if it were a magical totem, think. Oh, and welcome to the internet. If you can’t take a few side insults along with the meat of the argument, you’re probably not mature enough to be arguing with adults. This goes double if you’re going to waste the other commentator’s time by whining about the tone and nothing else, trying to halt serious discussion while you go on about your overly delicate feelings. Grow up. If you want to change our minds, do the mature thing and address the meat of the argument before doing any pointless stuff. Or how about doing one better and not doing the pointless part at all? If you’re civil, that will more likely encourage civil tone.

Straw Man: A favorite of politicians as well as woos. The popular metaphor is the image of two combatants; one combatant hastily constructs a straw effigy of his opponent, commences to pummel the straw man into oblivion without touching his real opponent, and then declares victory. Simply put, this is about attacking an argument your opponent never made or attacking a position he never asserted. It makes you look closed-minded because you don’t want to deal with reality. It tells people you’d rather play softball with figments of your imagination than challenge yourself. Oh, and asking a question about someone’s position isn’t a straw man, it’s a question. So many trolls seem to assume that we just know what they believe and that every request for clarification is actually intentional, malicious disinformation. If you don’t know what a person’s position is, ask and listen. Then you can start constructing criticisms based on what they actually say, not merely rehearse a script.

Argumentum ad Populum / Appeal to popularity: Just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t make it true. Epistemology isn’t American Idol. Truth isn’t determined by popular vote or by fashion. The world wasn’t flat until scientists convinced enough people it was round. What’s sick is that I’ve seen trolls use this fallacy and then call skeptics sheep when they start pointing out their fallacies as a result of thinking about it. Of course, there’s something of a hipster reversal of this fallacy, where a troll assumes that popular or consensus ideas must be wrong because they’re popular or consensus and that we must bow down to how superior and independent-thinking he is for subscribing to the most obscure belief we’ve never heard of, even if it is completely baseless.

Appeal to Authority: Here’s a tricky one that trolls never learn the nuance about. If you’re under a time crunch, it’s okay to accept the word of a recognized expert. If I’m severely injured and rapidly losing blood, I’ll trust the paramedics and doctors to do their job. If there’s no time crunch, however, the appeal can become fallacious because it becomes unnecessary. In your typical blog conversation, there’s no pressing deadline, so we don’t have to bow down before an alleged expert’s assertions. That’s when we get into the nitty-gritty details. The real authority is in the diligence of the experiments and observations and the logic behind interpreting the results, not the guy with the most letters after his name. We don’t treat anyone as an absolute authority or divine, infallible prophet. Ironically, I find a lot of trolls who try to assert that skeptics use this fallacy are more often projecting their own authoritarian tendencies, since they’ll often offer up an alternative expert, complain when we dare to question his magnificence, and go on to pretend the whole thing is a clash of two titans of light and darkness, not about logic or the steady accumulation of quality evidence by an entire world full of scientists.

It’s frustrating knowing that so many people out there don’t understand the basics of how to argue, and prefer to rely on cheats and volume to get their way. So many are raised in segments of society that coddle ideas and shelter people instead of striving for something better.

The Truth

There’s a villain named Doc Scratch in Homestuck who got me thinking about what it means to be a skeptic or a scientist, as well as what it means to be human in an uncertain world. He is a nearly omniscient being who manipulates the cast into furthering his master’s goals. One of his big things is that he never flat out lies. He’ll tell “temporary lies” for the sake of jokes, which necessitates revealing the lie in the punchline. When he’s called out for “lies of omission,” he has a very good response:

Lies of omission do not exist.
The concept is a very human one. It is the product of your story writing again. You have written a story about the truth, making emotional demands of it, and in particular, of those in possession of it.
Your demands are based on a feeling of entitlement to the facts, which is very childish. You can never know all of the facts. Only I can.
And since it’s impossible for me to reveal all facts to you, it is my discretion alone that decides which facts will be revealed in the finite time we have.
If I do not volunteer information you deem critical to your fate, it possibly means that I am a scoundrel, but it does not mean that I am a liar. And it certainly means you did not ask the right questions.
One can make either true statements or false statements about reality. All of the statements I make are true.

(I’m amusing myself by duplicating MSPA’s antics. If you can’t read it, highlight it.)

We’re story tellers, not just to other humans, but to ourselves. We don’t record all the details of an event the way a camera would, we simplify it into a story where we mostly keep the details that we consider relevant while dumping minutiae. We put this story in our memory and when we call back that memory, we reconstruct it from those elements. Our biases color the interpretation, and we can easily drop details that contradict the story we want to tell each other or tell ourselves. We can also embellish by making up details to convince ourselves of the story’s trustworthiness. Recalling the memory can also change it.

Knowing that our memories are unreliable is one reason we need documentation. An experimenter’s memory may be distorted over time, but if his experiment’s results are recorded as they come in, self-deception from biased memory becomes less likely. Cameras are generally more trustworthy than eyewitnesses, and journals are generally more reliable than your personal recall.

Another aspect I want to bring attention to is the point about asking the right questions. Like Doc Scratch, the universe doesn’t “lie” by capriciously violating its laws to produce deceptive results. If we don’t control for a confounding factor in an experiment’s design, it’s equivalent to being sloppy in asking a question.

We aim to ask questions like “Does A cause X?” If, however, we know that B can cause X and don’t design the experiment with a to exclude B or hold B constant between experimental and control groups, we’re being sloppy and asking “Does A or B cause X?” without realizing it. When the affirmative answer comes in, we fall victim to the sloppy question because it remains possible the positive outcome was actually the result of B’s known influence, while A did nothing.

The universe isn’t malicious like Doc Scratch, but a lot of pseudoscientists are, and in effect, they use his tactics to allow us to deceive ourselves if we aren’t careful and self-aware. There are also plenty of people who don’t acknowledge the complexities of human experience and don’t realize they’ve been deceiving themselves while leading others down the same road. Science is hard work because we acknowledge the difficulty and complexity in asking questions of an uncertain universe. It’s the only way we can trust our results. Self-deception, on the other hand, is quite easy.

UFOologists, Give Me Your Best Shot

It’s been a long time since I’ve talked with anyone who believes in alien visitations. I just don’t quite get the same spread of absurdity I did in my old days of being an active member of the JREF forums. I got reminded of the topic by a new post on Neurologica. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the topic’s been declining in popularity thanks to the internet. It’s much easier to look up hoaxes, explanations, and descriptions of common illusions. Hint: A lot of UFOs are bugs.

I feel like throwing out some troll bait, so UFOlogists, give this humble skeptical blogger your best evidence.