Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Merseyside Skeptics Society Lecture on Paranormal Experiences – 17/09/2009

23/09/2009

chris_french

manicstreetpreacher learns about how the truth is not out there…  it’s up here.

On 17 September 2009 I attended a one of the best talks I’ve ever been to.  Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychological Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London gave a talk at the Crown Hotel pub, Lime Street, Liverpool entitled, “Weird Science: An Introduction to Anomalistic Psychology”.

The event was hosted by the recently formed Merseyside Skeptics Society and drew an impressive crowd which squeezed into the upstairs room of the Crown.  French is the editor of The Skeptic magazine and I hope won’t be offended if I called him Britain’s answer to Michael Shermer.

Most importantly, he was funny.  Very, very funny.

If you believe in psycho-kinesis please raise my hand.

The other day Uri Geller scratched his neck and his head fell off.  That’s the polite version of the joke, anyway.

The core of the lecture contained some fascinating revelations debunking psychic powers, extra sensory perception (ESP), psycho-kinesis (PK), life after death and alien abductions.

skepticmag

Population stereotypes

French began by putting paid to the claims of all psychic when opening a show that “we all have psychic powers within us”.  We were asked to think of a number between 1 and 10.  “Not three because that’s too obvious!”  I thought of seven.  It turned out that the majority of the audience did likewise!

Then we chose a number between 1 and 50 with two different odd numbers.  Thirty seven, thinks I.  And so did most of the rest of the room!

French explained that population stereotypes have shown that about one third of people will choose seven in the first example, thirty seven in the second and about a quarter will choose thirty five.

In a similar vein, arch-television “psychic”, Uri Geller, “transmits” a picture to his viewers, many of them guess correctly simply because they are apt to do so.  Similarly, out of a random selection of playing cards, most people tend to choose the seven of diamonds.  No supernatural powers needed there.

Anomalistic psychology

Opinion poll data shows that Americans have very high levels of supernatural belief:

25% believe in ghosts;

25% claim to have had a supernatural experience;

50% believe in the devil;

25% believe in astrology.

We might be tempted to seek solace in the idea of “those crazy Yanks”.  Alas, this is not the case.  A 1998 MORI poll showed similar levels of supernatural belief among Britons:

45% believe in life after death;

38% believe in astrology;

40% believe in ghosts;

28% believe in psychics and mediums;

64% believe in premonitions and ESP.

Heaven help us!  Nevertheless, there is some use in the universality of paranormal beliefs are useful in two respects.  Firstly, we should determine whether paranormal forces do actually exists and secondly, we can learn a great deal about human psychology by studying humans’ belief in such forces.  French and his colleagues start on the assumption that supernatural forces do not exist and they work on providing evidence for natural explanations.

Cognitive bias

French then went on to explain how humans process information about the world which cannot be replicated by computer software.  Our analysis of statistical probabilities and anecdotal evidence can lead us to draw faulty conclusions.

A paper published by Ellen Langer (“The Illusion of Control”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32 (1975) 311 – 328) argued that people perceive random processes as being under their control.  How many of us have lent over the casino screaming in our heads “Double six!”?  If you ever have to sell raffle tickets, apparently you will sell a lot more if you let people choose their own tickets as opposed to just tearing them off the book yourself; the punters believe that they have a better chance of winning if they have control over which ticket they get!

A good demonstration of this cognitive bias is to ask yourself which method of throwing dice will be more successful:

  1. Throwing 1 dice 10 times and getting 10 sixes one after the other; or
  2. Throw 10 dice all at once and having them all land on six.

Most people will choose option 1, because they have feel that they have more control over the dice.

Humans also have a very poor estimate of probabilities.  How many of us have been amazed when a very vivid dream we have had comes true a few days later?  Or we think of an old friend for the first time in a long time and they call in the next five minutes?

The truth is that we are swimming in probabilities.  How many dreams have we all had that haven’t come true?  Or how many times we have thought of an old friend and they haven’t called?  It would take some explaining if these funny coincidences didn’t happen!

Probabilities are often much lower than we anticipate.  Consider how many people you would need in a room for a 50/50 chance that one of them would have the same day and month (but not year) for their birthday.  When French posed this question, I had “three zillion” running through my head.  In fact, it is only 23!  And if you have 35 people, the odds go up to an 85% chance.

Transliminality is the hypersensitivity to psychological material (imagery, ideation, affect, and perception) originating in (a) the unconscious, and/or (b) the external environment.  French and his colleagues published a paper (Crawley, S E, French, C C, and Yesson, S A, “Evidence for transliminality from a subliminal card guessing task”, Perception, 31 (2002), 887-892 – Download PDF) which had the experimental subjects taking part in a computer simulation what they believed to involve ESP.

The computer flashed up the answer in screen to the subjects, but so briefly that they couldn’t actually see it.  High transliminals scored well, but they couldn’t explain why.  There was no ESP involved of course.

Cold reading and the Barnum Effect

Ill-informed and gullible members of the public often return from an encounter with a psychic saying that they psychic must be genuine because he or she “knew things about me that they could not possibly have known!”

However, they are merely living examples of the Barnum Effect: the tenancy that people have to accept vague and ambiguous statements as being unique to their personalities.  For example:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself.

While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them.

You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage.

At times you have serious doubts whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

If these statements sound like they came from a news stand astrology book, that may be because they did.  Such statements are sometimes called “Barnum statements” and they are an effective element in the repertoire of anyone doing readings: astrologers, palm readers, psychics, rumpologists and so on.  Just considering their opposite of the above statements for a moment shows them to be ridiculously demagogic.  I mean, who doesn’t have serious doubts sometimes over whether they have done the right thing?!

The Barnum Effect is an expression that seems to have originated with psychologist Paul Meehl, in deference to circus man P T Barnum’s reputation as a master psychological manipulator who is said to have claimed “we have something for everybody”.

I remember a few years ago while I was doing my post-graduate study and before I became a firm sceptic, one of my fellow-students directed me to an astrology website with personality descriptions for each sign of the Zodiac.  “I don’t believe in astrology at all, but the description for my star sign was scarily close to my personality,” she exclaimed.

Since my birthday is 18 April, I checked out what the website  said about Aries.  And was student colleague was right!  I remember it was scarily close to how I like to think of myself, particularly in how it said that I loved “spontaneity”.  It was extraordinary.  I mean this was spontaneity were taking about.  How many people get a warm fuzzy feeling when good things just happen?  Can’t be all that many, surely?

A couple of years later having read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and watching his TV series The Enemies of Reason, I returned to the same website with my sceptic cap firmly placed on my head and read the descriptions for all the signs of the Zodiac.  And guess what?  They pretty much all accurately described how I like to view my own personality.

Cold reading simply involves asking questions and confirming the answers back to the subject.  “Have recently suffered a setback in your life that has thrown you off balance…?   Of course not, you are actually riding high at the moment…”  If the subject is credulous, they will go along with it.

French recounted a very amusing experience he had when he appeared on The Richard and Judy Show posing as a medium.  He had never done this before and had no idea how to put cold reading into practice.  However, after a skim through a “How 2” book on cold reading, it all boiled down to was asking a lot of questions to his subject and then simply regurgitating the answers back to her and the result was that she was blown away by it.

For further exposition of psychics and cold reading, I recommend Richard Dawkins’ full uncut interview with Derren Brown filmed for The Enemies of Reason.

The unreliability of eye witness testimony

French demonstrated this with recourse to the clock on the wall of the pub.  It had Roman numerals on its face and he had covered it with kitchen towel before he began his talk.  We were asked to write down what the number four looked like: whether it was the more conventional “IV” or less conventionally, “IIII”.

I only guessed this correctly because a grandfather clock in my parents’ house has “IIII” on its face.  However, this is unique among clocks and virtually everywhere else four is represented as “IV”, which is what most of the audience decided.  The preconception is so ingrained in us, that most people only get it if they copy or trace the outline of the clock, and if they are asked later, they usually forget!

Our memories are often based on preconceptions and biases.  I once heard a barrister in court tell the judge that “memory is a creative process”.  Accordingly, reports of spiritualist séances vary drastically among participants.  Believers in the supernatural are far more open to suggestion and their memories are distorted far more readily.

In his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins recounts an experiment about how bad eyewitness evidence truly is:

Psychological experiments have given us some stunning demonstrations, which should worry any jurist inclined to give superior weight to “eye-witness” evidence.  A famous example was prepared by Professor Daniel J Simons at the University of Illinois.  Half a dozen young people standing in a circle were filmed for 25 seconds tossing a pair of basketballs to each other, and we, the experiment subjects, watch the film.  The players weave in and out of the circle and change places as they pass and bounce the balls, so the scene is actively quite complicated.  Before being shown the film, we are told that we have a task to perform, to test our powers of observation.  We have to count the number of times balls are passed from person to person.  At the end of the test, the counts are duly written down, but – little does the audience know – this is not the real test!

After showing the film and collecting the counts, the experimenter drops his bombshell.  “And how many of you saw the gorilla?”  The majority of the audience looks baffled: blank.  The experimenter then replays the film, but this time tells the audience to watch in a relaxed fashion without trying to count anything.  Amazingly, nine seconds into the film, a man in a gorilla suit strolls nonchalantly to the centre of the circle of players, thumps his chest as if in belligerent contempt for eye-witness evidence, and then strolls off with the same insouciance as before.  He is there in full view for nine whole seconds – more than one third of the film – and yet the majority of the witnesses never see him.  They would swear an oath in a court of law that no man in a gorilla suit was present, and they would swear that they had been watching with more than usually acute concentration for the whole 25 seconds precisely because they were counting ball-passes.  Many experiments along these lines have been performed, with similar results, and with similar reactions of stupefied disbelief when the audience is finally shown the truth.  Eye-witnesses testimony, “actual observation”, “a datum of experience” – all are, or at least can be, hopelessly unreliable.  It is, of course, exactly this unreliability among observers that stage conjurers exploit with their techniques of deliberate distraction.  (London: Bantam Press, 2009, pp. 14 – 15)

GorillaExp

It would be difficult to imagine more conclusive evidence that eyewitness evidence of ordinary human beings is notoriously fallible.

False memories

Nevertheless, this has a tragic element to it.  It is disturbingly easy to inject “false memories” into subjects to the extent that they honestly believe that they have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their parents.  Earlier this year, French reported on families being torn apart in the past twenty years.   Parents have ended up in prison because their children have gone into therapy and have emerged convinced that they have been the victims of massive sexual abuse:

I sat in a lecture theatre mostly filled with middle-aged or elderly parents living through this exact nightmare. Typically, their adult children had started therapy with no pre-existing memories of being sexually abused, but had become convinced during the therapeutic process that they had indeed been victimised in this way. So convinced were they that the “recovered” memories were true, they more often than not accused their parents directly of this vile act and then cut off any further contact, leaving their parents devastated and confused, their lives shattered…

One intriguing aspect of this awful situation is why the media generally appeared to lose interest. The press and broadcasters are often guilty of focusing on the human interest angle of stories at the expense of good solid scientific evidence, the MMR controversy being a case in point. As most scientists know, there never really was a “controversy” over MMR, with the consensus among medical experts being that there is no link between MMR vaccination and autism. But the human interest value of tearful interviews with sobbing mothers supported by the views of a few maverick scientists was always going to be enough to bias the media coverage of this issue, with tragic consequences.

There is even a British False Memory Society and False Memory Syndrome Foundation in the US dedicated to this phenomenon.

Needless to say, French has found that believers in the supernatural are more prone to experience false memories than others.  His experiments involved 100 participants being asked about a “flash bulb memory” in relation to a well-known news item; for example what they were doing when the aeroplanes hit the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001.  However, one item they were presented with, the bombing of a tourist destination in Bali hadn’t actually happened (before Bali was bombed for real in 2002 that is!).  Subjects even mentally constructed news footage, including minute details such as whether the footage was in colour or in black and white and what language the commenter was speaking.

It is also well-established that the account of one person can affect the memories of others in the group.  This is known as “memory conformity”.  A very entertaining paper Richard Wiseman and Emma Greening (“‘It’s still bending’: Verbal suggestion and alleged psychokinetic ability”, British Journal of Psychology, 96, (2005), 115 – 127 – Download PDF) showed that subjects witnessing a conjurer’s “spoon-bending” could be convinced by suggestive comments from a “stooge” in the group that the piece of metal was still bending after it had been put down on the table!  (Checkout Wiseman’s blog as well, which has some fascinating optical illusions.)

Another way of implanting false memories is through “hypnotic regression”.  Unlike how it is often portrayed in films, hypnotic regression is very far from a psychological method of releasing repressed memories, but a bogus method of planting false ones.

Abducted by aliens

Die hard-believer in the paranormal, turned die hard-sceptic, Susan Blackmore published a paper in New Scientist magazine in 1994 on Alien Abduction Experiences (AAEs).  A typical report may go something like this.

I woke up in the middle of the night and everything looked odd, and strangely lit.  At the end of my bed was a four-foot high grey alien. Its spindly, thin body supported a huge head with two enormous, slanted, liquid black eyes.  It compelled me, telepathically, to follow and led me into a spaceship, along curved corridors to an examination room full of tables, on which other people lay.  I was forced to lie down while they painfully examined me, extracted ova (or sperm) and implanted something in my nose.  I could see jars containing half-human, half-alien foetuses and a nursery full of silent, sickly children.  When I eventually found myself back in bed, several hours had gone by.

French is convinced that AAEs are extreme cases of sleep paralysis.  About 40% of us have experienced this at some in our lives and I am certainly in that category.  It is the sensation of feeling trapped, suffocated and immobile (paralysed, you might say!) when halfway between sleep and consciousness.   For most people it passes after a few seconds, but for an unlucky 5%, it is far more traumatic.  These people often hallucinate, have difficulty breathing and feel another presence in the room.  This “presence” varies between societies.  People in Newfoundland see the Old Hag, whereas people in Japan see a samurai spirit.

Top Down Processing

When an interpretation emerges from the data, this is called data-driven or bottom-up processing.  Perception must be largely data-driven because it must accurately reflect events in the outside world.  You want the interpretation of a scene to be determined mostly by information from the senses, not by your expectations.

In many situations, however, your knowledge or expectations will influence perception. This is called schema-driven or top-down processing.  A schema is a pattern formed earlier in your experience.  This very often takes the form of pareidol: a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct, such as seeing the face of Jesus Christ in a burnt piece of toast:

HolyToast

Something like this went for $20K on eBay.  Sad.

Satanic rock lyrics!  Erm, sort of.  If you play the original track backwards and use your (vivid) imagination…

The lecture finished with what has to be the nadir of Top Down Processing: spending hours on end playing rock ‘n’ roll tracks backwards to distil dark and satanic messages to pollute the minds of the young and innocent.  Apparently Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin played in reverse contains such messages.  Listen to this backwards track first with your eyes closed and then play it again and read the lyrics on screen and below and make up your own minds:

So here’s to my Sweet Satan.
The other’s little path,
Would make me sad,
Whose power is Satan?
He’ll give those with him 666.
And all the evil fools,
There was a little tool shed,
Were he made us suffer Sad Satan.

Spooky or what?  Not the song played backwards.  The fact that some people obviously don’t have enough to do with their lives to indulge in such childishness.  However, certain fundamentalist Christians must have been very, very bored as this is precisely what they did.  The result was that several groups faced having their music banned as well as court action.  This happened to Judas Priest in 1990 after Raymond Belknap (18) and James Vance (20) went on a long alcohol and drug binge and made a suicide pact to kill themselves with a shot gun.  Where Belknap succeeded, Vance failed to take his own life and blew away the bottom part of his face leaving him grossly disfigured.

When it later transpired that the pair had been listening to Judas Priest that afternoon, the parents saw someone they could blame for the tragedy.  Judas Priest were taken to court in 1990 and the parents claimed that there were “subliminal messages” in the music that encouraged the boys to commit suicide; such as “Try suicide”, “Let’s be dead”, “do it, do it, do it.”  The band made a point of testifying in person at the proceedings, where they merely pointed that if they wanted to use subliminal messages in their music it would be tell the kids to buy more records.  The whole nonsensical episode can be seen in the 1992 documentary film, Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs Judas Priest:

Conclusio

French finished the audience question and answer session saying that that one of his opposition numbers in the debate is Rupert Sheldrake, who is satisfied that there is a case for paranormal forces.  Sheldrake debated the sceptical scientist, Lewis Wolpert at the Royal College of Arts in January 2004 on whether there were reasonable grounds to believe in telepathy.  However, French has never been able to reproduce Sheldrakes’ positive results for himself.   That will do for me.  If this stuff was genuine science, it would be possible for a sceptic to replicate the results under controlled laboratory conditions.

And as Wolpert said in his debate with Sheldrake, it would be lovely to believe in things like telepathy and fairies at the bottom of the garden, but there just isn’t any evidence for them.  If there were, mainstream scientists would surely have pounced on it by now and have won the Nobel Prize for Physics!

After a brilliant 90 minutes or so I my scepticism was thoroughly reinforced.  Such paranormal phenomena are best explained, not by recourse to the supernatural, but by the distorted perception of fallible human beings who desperately want to believe that there is something more out there.

But as Professor Chris French ended the lecture, perhaps the truth is not out there, it’s up here.

This was a brilliant event.  Three cheers to Mike, Andy, Marsh and all the others running the MMS.  I am very jealous that such a young society could put together such a fantastic event!

Homeopathy DOA

10/09/2009

homeopathy

manicstreetpreacher gives his assessment of a form of snake oil that is still amazingly popular in the 21st century.

Homeopathy is an “alternative remedy” devised in the late 18th century by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann.

It is based on the premise that “like cures like”.  However, unlike a vaccine that introduces a diminished form of a virus into a person’s body, thereby stimulating the immune system to becoming resistant to a potentially deadly dose of the virus, homeopathy on the other hand “works” by introducing an agent that induces similar symptoms into that person’s body and so fighting the symptoms of whatever it is that ails them.

For example, red onion is used to cure watery eyes, snake venom for stiffness, poison ivy for skin rash etc.  This is a completely unfounded premise that has no basis in science.

samuel-hahnemann

There is a further twist.  Homeopathic practitioners dilute the external agents with water to the extent that there are no active molecules present in the solution or tablets.  It’s basically just water that you’re taking.  Nevertheless, homeopathists claim that water has “memory” and the more diluted the solution, the more effective it is. Right.  And what about all the other impurities that water meets on its journey?  Do all the salt, urine and chemicals have a healing effect as well?

I remember my mother giving me homeopathic tablets when I was child suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea caused by an upset stomach, and do you know what?  They did the trick beautifully!  Whenever I started feeling queasy and I would have to rush to the loo within the next few minutes, I used to take a tablet and the sick feeling subsided.  Magic!

Knowing what I know now about homeopathic remedies, this was obviously just the placebo effect at work: my mind was tricked into believing that these sugar pills were an effective remedy and this had a positive effect on my body in combating the relatively mild condition from which I was suffering.  I certainly wouldn’t go to a homeopathic doctor if I found a suspicious lump.

It would be too easy to throw homeopathy into the same “harmless nonsense” drawer as other alternative remedies such as acupuncture and crystal therapy.  However, I’m not sure that homeopathy is so benign.  It is costing every single one of us in the UK a portion of our hard-earned (and begrudgingly parted with) money in taxation that would be better spent on more doctors and nurses in the NHS, not to mention reliable, conventional treatments that are supported by scientific research and statistical data review.

Richard Dawkins quite rightly tore homeopathy a new one in his 2007 Channel 4 television series, The Enemies of Reason, and exposed the vast quantities of tax-payers’ money that the British government is spending in using this puff alongside proven medical treatments.

It is clear from this clip that the longer periods of time that homeopathic practitioners spend with their patients in comparison to conventional general practitioners is a very important part of the treatment.  However, Hahnemann originally stated that a homeopathic remedy could only be prescribed after an examination of at least three hours!  In addition, Hahnemann also said that mint could diminish or eliminate the curative effects, so patients ought not to be using chewing gum or toothpaste.  So much for walk-in-and-buy-it-off-the-shelf-marketing; it seems that the central principles of the original founding-father have been sacrificed to the new god of $$$.

More seriously, however, a recent report from BBC News states that the “treatment” is being used in Third World countries to combat more serious conditions such as malaria and AIDS.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) responded to a letter from a group of young researchers, Voice of Young Science Network, and has condemned the use of homeopathic remedies to treat such diseases.

In a letter to the WHO in June, the medics from the UK and Africa said:

We are calling on the WHO to condemn the promotion of homeopathy for treating TB, infant diarrhoea, influenza, malaria and HIV.

Homeopathy does not protect people from, or treat, these diseases.

Those of us working with the most rural and impoverished people of the world already struggle to deliver the medical help that is needed.

When homeopathy stands in place of effective treatment, lives are lost.

Dr Nick Beeching, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, said:

Infections such as malaria, HIV and tuberculosis all have a high mortality rate but can usually be controlled or cured by a variety of proven treatments, for which there is ample experience and scientific trial data.

There is no objective evidence that homeopathy has any effect on these infections, and I think it is irresponsible for a healthcare worker to promote the use of homeopathy in place of proven treatment for any life-threatening illness.

British comedians, Mitchell and Webb, conclusively debunk this piece of pseudo-scientific nonsense by demonstrating just what would happen if a car crash victim was treated with those little white pills:

Alternative remedies or proper A & E care? If I found myself with a life threatening disease or injury, I know which one I would go for.

Snake-oil

Homeopathy is a bogus treatment that should be treated the same as snake oil.  I’m not saying that modern science is perfect.  Certainly pharmaceutical companies have much to atone for with their absolutist control of the market, particularly in the Third World, along with the manufacture of bogus drugs.

However, “alternative remedies” and/or “ancient remedies” are so-called because they are pre-scientific.  A patient treated with such “remedies” may well get better, but it will be despite the best efforts of the witch-doctor.  The health and well-being of the world’s population would be better served by abandoning them altogether and focusing on rational, testable and evolving methods.  It’s another example of how badly the human race needs to abandon its childish fantasies of magical cures.

The Strange Case of Dr Collins and Mr Harris

08/09/2009

collins

http://www.genome.gov/10000779

sam_harris

http://www.samharris.org/

http://www.reasonproject.org/

manicstreetpreacher gives a narrative of the repeated verbal assaults on one of the world’s foremost religious scientists by one of the Four Horsemen.

A brief history of Francis Collins

Francis Collins is a Godsend to religious apologists.  He is a devout Christian who also happens to be a highly respected physical chemist with a highly impressive litany of achievements and contributions to science on his CV.  Not least of these was his heading-up of the Human Genome Project which was an international scientific research project with a primary goal to determine the sequence of chemical base pairs which make up DNA and to identify and map the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes of the human genome from both a physical and functional standpoint.

language_god

Collins is clearly a highly intelligent, sane, rational man who has had a brilliant career as a scientist.  What’s more, he has not let his faith give credence to creationism or “Intelligent Design”.  In his 2006 book, The Language of God, Collins – as per the book’s subtitle – attempted to present scientific evidence for religious faith:

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted. (p. 178)

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him.  He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.  (pp. 200 – 201)

However, one has to suspect whether this conversion was less a scientific discovery and more an emotional response:

On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance.  As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over.  The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.  (p. 225)

In an interview with Time magazine Collins clarified that the waterfall was frozen into three separate strands, putting him in mind of the Holy Trinity.

Unsurprisingly, religious apologists the world over have held out Collins as a shining example of the supposed marriage between science and religion.

Apparently people like Collins prove that there is no conflict between believing that the Universe is 13.5 billion years old and that Homo sapiens share the same DNA as a fruit fly on the one hand, and on the other believing that the public torture and execution of a carpenter’s son over 2,000 years ago on the other side of the World is the only remedy that can cure the ailments of the human condition and that biscuits and sherry transform into said carpenter’s son’s flesh and blood in designated buildings on a Sunday morning.

Practically all the “flea” responses to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion have cited Collins as the exemplar of a scientist who has managed to square his science with his religious faith in direct contrast to the shrill and intolerant arguments of Dawkins that the two discourses are irreconcilable.

However, Dawkins is not the only one of the Four Horsemen who has delivered a series of tongue-lashings to scientists of this type who display a bizarre partition in their brains between faith and reason.

Ready, aim… FIRE!!!!!

Right from the word “go”, Sam Harris, American atheist author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation has been highly critical of Collins and has used him as an example of how this supposed harmony of science and religion – that the two areas occupy “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) – is completely bogus.

letter_christian

In a 2005 article, Harris stated:

It is time that scientists and other public intellectuals observed that the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum.  There is no question but that nominally religious scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth R Miller are doing lasting harm to our discourse by the accommodations they have made to religious irrationality.  Likewise, Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” served only the religious dogmatists who realize, quite rightly, that there is only one magisterium.  Whether a person is religious or secular, there is nothing more sacred than the facts.  Either Jesus was born of a virgin, or he wasn’t; either there is a God who despises homosexuals, or there isn’t.  It is time that sane human beings agreed on the standards of evidence necessary to substantiate truth-claims of this sort…  There simply is no good reason to believe such things, and scientists should stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone.

When it was first published in 2006, most reviewers heaped praise on The Language of God. Harris’ treatment of the book could scarcely have been more a polar opposite.  In a damning review tellingly entitled “The Language of Ignorance”, Harris unleashed his first real volley against Collins.

On Collins’ pleas to NOMA:

[Collins] attempts to demonstrate that there is “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity.  To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts.  He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes.  His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile.  The Language of God reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States…

His book reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind…

According to Collins, belief in the God of Abraham is the most rational response to the data of physics and biology, while of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational.  Taken at face value, these claims suggest that The Language of God will mark an unprecedented breakthrough in the history of ideas.  Once Collins gets going, however, we realize that the book represents a breakthrough of another kind…

On Collins’ rather suspect understanding of the source of human morality:

Collins’ case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism.  Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality.  In Collins’ view, therefore, the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God.  (Here, Collins performs a risible sprint past ideas in biology like “kin selection” that plausibly explain altruism and self-sacrifice in evolutionary terms.)…

Collins can’t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be derivative of more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves products of evolution.  It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training.  If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning…

On whether atheists or believers are the more strident:

Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists.  Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point.  Believers like Collins do not…

The book’s post-mortem was thus:

If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century, The Language of God provides the answer.  The only thing that mitigates the harm this book will do to the stature of science in the United States is that it will be mostly read by people for whom science has little stature already.  Viewed from abroad, The Language of God will be seen as another reason to wonder about the fate of American society.  Indeed, it is rare that one sees the thumbprint of historical contingency so visible on the lens of intellectual discourse.  This is an American book, attesting to American ignorance, written for Americans who believe that ignorance is stronger than death.  Reading it should provoke feelings of collective guilt in any sensitive secularist.  We should be ashamed that this book was written in our own time.

Strike two

Since then, Harris has taken every available opportunity to deride Collins as representing the nadir of NOMA and that his conversion to Christianity had little to do with his scientific career and everything to with a warm fuzzy feeling inside him that there just had to be something more.

The most recent episode of Harris’ crusade against Collins happened in a piece written in response to Collins’ nomination by US President Barack Obama as head of the National Institution of Health (NIH).  Harris had clearly not warmed to Collins one iota as he again unleashed his unique brand of cutting sarcasm and unanswerable logic:

Dr Collins is regularly praised by secular scientists for what he is not: he is not a “young earth creationist,” nor is he a proponent of “intelligent design.” Given the state of the evidence for evolution, these are both very good things for a scientist not to be…

Dr Collins gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:

Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”

Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”

Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”

Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”

Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil.  It’s all an illusion.  We’ve been hoodwinked.  Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

Why should Dr Collins’s beliefs be of concern?

There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States.  This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are counterintuitive.  It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana.  It can be difficult to think like a scientist.  But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion…

Dr Collins insists that our moral intuitions attest to God’s existence, to his perfectly moral character and to his desire to have fellowship with every member of our species. But when our moral intuitions recoil at the casual destruction of innocents by, say, a tidal wave or earthquake, Dr Collins assures us that our time-bound notions of good and evil can’t be trusted and that God’s will is a mystery.

Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution.  Dr Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components – including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy?  Are these disorders best addressed by theology?…

Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs.  And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?

Naturally, Harris’ article provoked a furious response from goddycoddlers like Andrew Brown of The Guardian, who fumed on his blog:

Anyone tempted to believe that the abolition of religion would make the world a wiser and better place should study the works of Sam Harris.  Shallow, narrow, and self-righteous, he defends and embodies all of the traits that have made organised religion repulsive; and he does so in the name of atheism and rationality.  He has, for example, defended torture, (“restraint in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place”) attacked religious toleration in ways that would make Pio Nono blush: “We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene”; he has claimed that there are some ideas so terrible that we may be justified in killing people just for believing them.  Naturally, he also believes that the Nazis were really mere catspaws of the Christians…

To the extent that Harris has any argument at all – apart from that religious people are very wicked, responsible for the inquisition, the holocaust, George W Bush, Muslims, and other Bad Things – it is that as a religious man Collins must “sincerely believe that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible.”

So what?  Everything we know about believing scientists of Collins’ type suggests two things.  First that they love science: nobody could accomplish scientifically what Collins has (and, incidentally, Harris hasn’t) without an overwhelming passion for their work.  Secondly, that no scientific discovery could shake their faith, any more than science made Darwin an atheist.  All of the best arguments against God are theological.  It’s the second point that’s really important. What drives the tribal atheists like Harris mad is knowing that Collins won’t convert whatever science may discover.

So why object to Collins getting the job?  Since Harris does not, quite, dare to claim that Collins would, at the head of the NIH, somehow stop science from being done, he is reduced to suggesting that Collins would not approve of the results that Harris expects from scientific research. Quite apart from the question of whether this is actually true or whether the question will actually arise – Harris, too, might be wrong about what science will discover – it isn’t any argument at all against his holding the job…

[M]ilitant atheism, of the sort that would deny people jobs for their religions beliefs, doesn’t actually believe in real science at all, any more than it believes in reason.  Rather, it uses “science” and “reason” as tribal labels, and “religion” as a term for witchcraft. Any serious defence of the real, hard-won and easily lost enlightenment must start by rejecting that style of atheism entirely.  What use is it to be right about God and wrong about everything else?

Brown stoops to the common quote-mine/distortion employed by Harris’ opponents, that he endorses torture, when anyone who has read the relevant passage in The End of Faith will know that Harris does no such thing.  (See Harris’ “Response to Controversy” written in reply to these dirty tactics.)

American evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution is True, Jerry A Coyne, wrote a suitably pithy rebuttal of Brown on his blog:

[Harris] did not say that Collins should be excluded from consideration.  Harris, like me, is simply worried about Collins using his status as NIH director to spread wacko religious ideas.  Harris has the additional concern (one that I don’t really share) that Collins might deflect research away from understanding the human brain and the behavior it engenders…

Brown goes on to make some bad arguments about the relationship between science and faith.  He gloats that no scientific discovery could ever shake Collins’s faith, “any more than science made Darwin an atheist.” (I’m not so sure about that one, actually.  Certain empirical observations might well have eroded Darwin’s faith: the death of his daughter Annie, for example, as well as his famous observations about the horrors of nature, like the ichneumon wasp, which to Darwin argued against the existence of a benevolent god.)  Thus, when Brown says that Collins need never abandon his faith because “all the best arguments against God are theological,” he’s just wrong.  The best arguments against God are empirical, most prominent among them the argument from evil.  As far as I can see — and yes, I’ve read theology — there has never been a better refutation of the idea of a loving and omnipotent god than the existence of horrible, god-preventable things happening to innocent people.  That’s an empirical observation, and the world didn’t have to be that way. Another, of course, is that prayer doesn’t work.  Yet another is the observation that God seems to heal some people, but sorely neglects those amputees.  Finally, the theistic God obstinately refuses to show himself to people, although he supposedly interacts with the world.

None of us “militant atheists” want to deny Collins his job because of his faith.  And it’s just dumb to say that we don’t believe in real science.  I do real science every day.  As for labeling religion as “witchcraft,” well, are the two forms of superstition really so different?

Brown’s overall complaint seems to be that Harris’s writings are so popular — that “hundreds of thousands of people bought the books, and perhaps the ideas in them.”  I suspect Brown’s books haven’t sold nearly as well, though (no surprise!) he won a Templeton Prize for religious journalism.  I do feel sorry for Brown, though:  it can’t be pleasant to write a Guardian column where most of your commenters rip your arguments to shreds.

Harris: 3 – Collins: Nil

Harris hit back at his critics with this superb piece witheringly entitled “The Strange Case of Francis Collins”.  I can only recommend that it is read in full, particularly as Harris puts into print arguments that he has previously made in debates and lectures.  I quote the following to whet your appetites:

Debunking the “argument from admired religious scientists”:

This prayer of reconciliation goes by many names and now has many advocates.  But it is based on a fallacy. The fact that some scientists do not detect any problem with religious faith merely proves that a juxtaposition of good ideas/methods and bad ones is possible.  Is there a conflict between marriage and infidelity?  The two regularly coincide.  The fact that intellectual honesty can be confined to a ghetto – in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture, etc – does not mean that there isn’t a perfect contradiction between reason and faith, or between the worldview of science taken as a whole and those advanced by the world’s “great”, and greatly discrepant, religions.

What can be shown by example is how poorly religious scientists manage to reconcile reason and faith when they actually attempt to do so.  Few such efforts have received more public attention than the work of Francis Collins.  At the time of this writing, Collins seems destined to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health.  One must admit that his credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist, and the former head of the Human Genome Project.  He is also, by his own account, living proof that there is no conflict between science and religion.  In 2006, Collins published a bestselling book, The Language of God, in which he claims to demonstrate “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and Evangelical Christianity.  Let it be known that “consistency” and “harmony” can be in the eye of the beholder.

[A]s director of the institutes, Collins will have more responsibility for biomedical and health-related research than any person on earth, controlling an annual budget of more than $30 billion. He will also be one of the foremost representatives of science in the United States. For this reason, it is important to understand Collins’ religious beliefs as they relate to scientific inquiry.

On whether deism can really can support theism:

Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion?  Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in a way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration.

On the rationality of Collins’ theistic world view:

[Collins] says that of “all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational”.  I suspect that this will not be the last time a member of our species will be obliged to make the following point (but one can always hope): disbelief in the God of Abraham does not require that one search the entire cosmos and find Him absent; it only requires that one consider the evidence put forward by believers to be insufficient. Presumably Francis Collins does not believe in Zeus.  I trust he considers this skeptical attitude to be fully justified.  Might this be because there are no good reasons to believe in Zeus?  And what would he say to a person who claimed that disbelief is Zeus is a form of “blind faith” or that of all possible worldviews it is the “least rational”?…

Collins has since started an organization called the BioLogos Foundation, whose purpose (in the words of its mission statement) is to demonstrate “the compatibility of the Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life.”  BioLogos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, a religious organization that, because of its astonishing wealth, has managed to purchase the complicity of otherwise secular scientists as it seeks to re-brand religious faith as a legitimate arm of science.

Would Collins have received the same treatment in Nature if he had argued for the compatibility between science and witchcraft, astrology, or Tarot cards?   Not a chance.  In fact, we can be confident that his scientific career would have terminated in an inferno of criticism…

On the insurmountably high standard of evidence for miracle accounts:

Even for a scientist of Collins’ stature, who has struggled to reconcile his belief in the divinity of Jesus with modern science, it all boils down to the “empty tomb.” Indeed, Collins freely admits that if all his scientific arguments for the plausibility of God were proven to be in error, his faith would be undiminished, as it is founded upon the belief, shared by all serious Christians, that the Gospel account of the miracles of Jesus is true.  For a scientist, Collins speaks with remarkable naïveté about the Gospel account being the “record of eyewitnesses.”  Biblical scholars generally agree that the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was written several decades after the events it purports to describe.  Of course, no one has access to the original manuscript of Mark, or of any of the other Gospels: rather, there are thousands of fragmentary copies of copies of copies, many of which show obvious errors or signs of later interpolation.  The earliest of these fragments dates to second century, but for many other sections of the text we must rely on copies that were produced centuries later.  One would hope that a scientist might see that these disordered and frequently discordant texts constitute a rather precarious basis for believing in the divinity of Jesus.

But the problem is actually much worse than this: for even if we had multiple, contemporaneous, first-hand accounts of the miracles of Jesus, this would still not constitute sufficient support for the central tenets of Christianity.  Indeed, first-hand accounts of miracles are extremely common, even in the 21st century.  I’ve met scores of educated men and women who are convinced that their favorite Hindu or Buddhist guru has magic powers, and many of the miracles that they describe are every bit as outlandish as those attributed to Jesus.  Stories about yogis and mystics walking on water, raising the dead, flying without the aid of technology, materializing objects, reading minds, foretelling the future are circulating right now, in communities where the average levels of education, access to information, and skeptical doubt are far higher than we would expect of first century fishermen and goatherds.

In fact, all of Jesus’ powers have been attributed to the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba by vast numbers of eyewitnesses who believe that he is a living god.  The man even claims to have been born of a virgin.  Collins’ faith is predicated on the claim that miracle stories of the sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba – and do not even merit an hour on the Discovery Channel – somehow become especially credible when set in the pre-scientific religious context of the 1st century Roman Empire, decades after their supposed occurrence, as evidenced by discrepant and fragmentary copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts.  It is on this basis that the future head of the NIH recommends that we believe the following propositions:

  1. Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

  2. He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven” – where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

  3. Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

  4. Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

  5. In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme?  One is tempted to say “all of them.”  And yet, judging from the way that journals like Nature have treated Collins, one can only conclude that there is nothing in the scientific worldview, or in the intellectual rigor and self-criticism that gave rise to it, that casts these convictions in an unfavorable light.

Harris answers his critics who label him as intolerant:

Some readers will consider any criticism of Collins’ views to be an overt expression of “intolerance.”  Indeed, when I published an abbreviated version of this essay in the New York Times, this is precisely the kind of negative response I received.  For instance, the biologist Kenneth Miller claimed in a letter to the Times that my view was purely the product of my own “deeply held prejudices against religion” and that I opposed Collins merely because “he is a Christian.”   Writing in the Guardian, Andrew Brown called my criticism of Collins a “fantastically illiberal and embryonically totalitarian position that goes against every possible notion of human rights and even the American constitution.”  Miller and Brown seem to think that bad ideas and disordered thinking should not be challenged as long as they are associated with a mainstream religion and that to do so is synonymous with bigotry.   They are not alone…

Harris tears NOMA a new one:

The world’s religions are predicated on the truth of specific doctrines that have been growing less plausible by the day.  While the ultimate relationship between consciousness and matter has not been entirely settled, any naïve conception of a soul can now be jettisoned on account of the mind’s obvious dependency upon the brain.  The idea that there might be an immortal soul capable of reasoning, feeling love, remembering life events, etc, all the while being metaphysically independent of the brain becomes untenable the moment we realize that damage to the relevant neural circuits obliterates these specific capacities in a living person.  Does the soul of a completely aphasic patient still speak and think fluently?  This is like asking whether the soul of a diabetic produces abundant insulin. What is more, the specific character of the mind’s dependency on the brain suggests that there cannot be a unified subject lurking behind all of the brain’s functionally distinct channels of processing.  There are simply too many separable components to perception and cognition – each susceptible to independent disruption – for there to be a single entity to stand as rider to the horse…

On how Collins still can’t get his mind around the evolutionary explanation for altruism:

Collins’ case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism.  Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality.  In Collins’ view the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God.  But a moment’s thought reveals that if we were to accept this neutered biology, almost everything about us would be bathed in the warm glow of religious mystery.  Does our interest in astronomy owe its existence to the successful reproduction of ancient astronomers?  (What about the practices of celibacy and birth control?  Are they all about reproduction too?)  Collins can’t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be elaborations of more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves products of evolution.  It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training.  If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning.

On how the marriage between religion and science is preventing potentially life-saving stem cell research:

There are, of course, ethical implications to believing that human beings are the only species made in God’s image and vouchsafed with “immortal souls.”  History shows us that concern about souls is a very poor guide to ethical behaviour – that is, to actually mitigating the suffering of conscious creatures like ourselves.   Concern about souls leads to concerns about undifferentiated cells in Petri dishes and to ethical qualms over embryonic stem cell research.  Rather often, it leads to indifference to the suffering of animals believed not to possess souls but which can clearly suffer in ways that three-day old human embryos cannot.  The use of apes in medical research, the exposure of whales and dolphins to military sonar – these are real ethical dilemmas, with real suffering at issue.  Concern over human embryos smaller than the period at the end of this sentence – when, for years they have been the most promising door to medical breakthrough – is one of the many delusional products of religion, which has led to one of its many predictable failures of compassion.  While Collins appears to support embryonic stem cell research, he does so after much (literal) soul-searching and under considerable theological duress.  Everything he has said and written about the subject needlessly complicates an ethical question that is – if one is actually concerned about human and animal wellbeing – genuinely straightforward.

Obama really should think this one through again:

The Obama administration still has not removed the most important impediments to embryonic stem cell research – allowing funding only for work on stem cells derived from surplus embryos at fertility clinics.  Such delicacy is a clear concession to the religious convictions of the American electorate.  While Collins seems willing to go further and support research on embryos created through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), he is very far from being a voice of ethical clarity in this debate.  For instance, he considers embryos created through SCNT to be distinct from those formed through the union of sperm and egg because the former are “not part of God’s plan to create a human individual” while “the latter is very much part of God’s plan, carried out through the millennia by our own species and many others” (Collins, 2006, p. 256).   There is little to be gained in a serious discussion of bioethics by talking about “God’s plan.”  (If such embryos were brought to term and became sentient and suffering human beings, would it be ethical to kill them and harvest their organs because they had been conceived apart from “God’s plan”?)  While his stewardship of the NIH seems unlikely to impede our mincing progress on embryonic stem cell research, his appointment seems like another one of President Obama’s efforts to split difference between real science and real ethics on the one hand and religious superstition and taboo on the other.

Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”  One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the NIH.  Understanding human wellbeing at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” – questions like, Why do we suffer?  How can we achieve the deepest forms of happiness? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, constitute “atheistic materialism”?  Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?

As if Collins was not punch-drunk enough, Harris was also less than complimentary about Collins on his recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher:

The sound of silence

Ouch.  So what has Collins said in response to this repeated and sustained assault on his intellectual credibility?   As far as I have been able to discover, nothing.

Supporters of Collins will surely argue that he has better things to do that dignify the rantings of a militant atheist with a response.  This interpretation of Collins’ silence may have some mileage.  However, the other side of the argument is far more persuasive.  Under British civil law at least, an opponent’s silence in the face of your allegations constitutes implicit agreement to them.

So, compare Collins’ non-response to that of Richard Dawkins after this:

In A Devil’s Chaplain, Dawkins explained that the question “Name a genetic mutation that has lead to an increase in information in the genome?” is exactly the question that only a creationist would ask.  Dawkins refuses to debate creationists because it would supply them with the oxygen of publicity since sharing a platform with a prominent evolutionary biologist would give the impression to the general public that there was a serious issue worth debating, when of course there is not.  For the creationists, winning or losing the debate itself is irrelevant; the fact that a debate has gone ahead at all is victory enough for them.

During the above interview, recorded at his Oxford home in 1997, Dawkins tumbled to the fact that they were creationists, paused while thinking how to deal with the situation (not to mention containing his anger), before asking them to stop the tape.  After asking them off-camera to leave his house, reluctantly, Dawkins continued with the interview.  He was then shown the finished tape by a colleague about 12 months later and the producers had spliced the tape together to make it appear that Dawkins was stumped by the “information” question and then gave an evasive answer.

Dawkins’ response – in total contrast to Collins – was to clear his reputation and get his side of the story out into public domain.  He contacted the Australian magazine The Skeptic to help him locate the production company who had conducted the interview and the result was this excellent article by Barry Williams.  As Dawkins explained:

As it happens, my forthcoming book, Unweaving the Rainbow, has an entire chapter (“The Genetic Book of the Dead”) devoted to a much more interesting version of the idea that natural selection gathers up information from the environment, and builds it into the genome.  At the time of the interview, the book was almost finished.  That chapter would have been in the forefront of my mind, and it is therefore especially ludicrous to suggest that I would have evaded the question by talking about fish and amphibians.

If I’d wanted to turn the question into more congenial channels, all I had to do was talk about “The Genetic Book of the Dead”.  It is a chapter I am particularly pleased with.  I’d have welcomed the opportunity to expound it.  Why on earth, when faced with such an opportunity, would I have kept totally silent?  Unless, once again, I was actually thinking about something quite different while struggling to keep my temper?

As Williams concludes:

Most scientifically literate people, and even many of those whose understanding of it is slight, have long recognised creation ‘science’ for the infantile religious dogma that it is, so this crude propaganda is unlikely to have a great deal of lasting effect on them.  But those who have little understanding of science, and particularly those who have trusted the creationists’ claim that they are engaged in science, have had their trust betrayed.  The nature of the calls we have received from people who have seemingly swallowed this line leave us in no doubt that that is precisely what has happened.

This is not the way of science – it is the way of political propaganda – yet another blatant example of “telling lies for God”.

(For further reading, see the creationist production company’s response to Williams and Williams’ counter-response.)

Similarly, Dawkins and other prominent atheist scientists were duped into recording interviews for the documentary-film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a loathsome piece of creationist propaganda released in 2008 and headed-up by American game show host and Intelligent Design proponent, Ben Stein.

Dawkins, Michael Shermer and P Z Myers thought that they were taking part in a film that addressed the intersection between science and religion, to be called Crossroads.  However, Expelled turned out to be a ham-fisted attempt to discredit the scientific establishment by making out that it was deliberately silencing advocates of “Intelligent Design Theory” by removing them from their positions at their institutions, while making the truly shocking claim that Darwinian evolution had a direct influence on Hitler’s eugenics programme and the Holocaust.

Once again, the response by the atheist scientists was in total contract to Collins’ silence.  Dawkins explained:

Toward the end of his interview with me, Stein asked whether I could think of any circumstances whatsoever under which intelligent design might have occurred.  It’s the kind of challenge I relish, and I set myself the task of imagining the most plausible scenario I could.  I wanted to give ID its best shot, however poor that best shot might be.  I must have been feeling magnanimous that day, because I was aware that the leading advocates of Intelligent Design are very fond of protesting that they are not talking about God as the designer, but about some unnamed and unspecified intelligence, which might even be an alien from another planet.  Indeed, this is the only way they differentiate themselves from fundamentalist creationists, and they do it only when they need to, in order to weasel their way around church/state separation laws.  So, bending over backwards to accommodate the IDiots (“oh NOOOOO, of course we aren’t talking about God, this is SCIENCE”) and bending over backwards to make the best case I could for intelligent design, I constructed a science fiction scenario. Like Michael Ruse (as I surmise) I still hadn’t rumbled Stein, and I was charitable enough to think he was an honestly stupid man, sincerely seeking enlightenment from a scientist.  I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar – semi tongue-in-cheek).  The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such ‘Directed Panspermia’ was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent ‘crane’ (to quote Dan Dennett).  My point here was that design can never be an ULTIMATE explanation for organized complexity. Even if life on Earth was seeded by intelligent designers on another planet, and even if the alien life form was itself seeded four billion years earlier, the regress must ultimately be terminated (and we have only some 13 billion years to play with because of the finite age of the universe).  Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen.  That, for goodness sake, is the creationists’ whole point, when they bang on about eyes and bacterial flagella!  Evolution by natural selection is the only known process whereby organized complexity can ultimately come into being. Organized complexity – and that includes everything capable of designing anything intelligently – comes LATE into the universe. It cannot exist at the beginning, as I have explained again and again in my writings.

P Z Myers’ explanation:

I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled!  It was kind of weird – I was standing in line, hadn’t even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in.  I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend.  The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested. I assured him that I wasn’t going to cause any trouble.

Dawkins and Myers taped this conversation immediately after the premier of Expelled:

And the team at RichardDawkins.net put together this highly amusing parody of Expelled:

Michael Shermer’s side of the story:

Ben Stein came to my office to interview me about what I was told was a film about “the intersection of science and religion” called “Crossroads (yet another deception).  I knew something was afoot when his first question to me was on whether or not I think someone should be fired for expressing dissenting views.  I pressed Stein for specifics: Who is being fired for what, when and where?  In my experience, people are usually fired for reasons having to do with budgetary constraints, incompetence or not fulfilling the terms of a contract.  Stein finally asked my opinion on people being fired for endorsing intelligent design.  I replied that I know of no instance where such a firing has happened.

In the same vein, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education set up the website, Expelled Exposed dedicated to exposing all of the lies, half-truths and deceptions in and surrounding Expelled.  This included the real explanations as to why the ID proponents featured in Expelled really lost their academic tenures.

For example, Caroline Crocker claims she was fired from George Mason University because she mentioned Intelligent Design in a class she was teaching.  However, the evidence says otherwise.  While there may have been grounds to fire her with cause, Crocker was not fired and continued to teach her course after student complaints; in addition, she did not just “mention” intelligent design, but rather was teaching demonstrably false creationist material.

Harris himself responded to an Alternet article published in 2007 that portrayed him as an evil maniac by selectively quoting his written work and comments made in a 90 minute telephone interview as well as New York Times journalist Chris Hedges’ allegations with the previously mentioned  “Response to Controversy” and this addendum following his Truthdig debate with Hedges.

Why then – when reputable scientists and Harris himself have gone to inordinate lengths to preserve their reputations when they feel that have been misrepresented – has Collins not said a word in reply to Harris’ charges?

The only reasonable conclusion can be that Collins must think that Harris has at least represented his views fairly – notwithstanding his drastic disagreements – and has nothing to say in response.

In conclusion – a false dichotomy that is only harming human progress

I am in total agreement with Sam Harris.  Collins’ religious faith is a personal matter that has no place in public life and certainly no place if he is appointed as head of the NIH.  His fundamental misunderstanding of the evolutionary explanation for altruistic behaviour in humans is a veil over his scientific vision that has been imposed as a direct result of his religious faith.  I can only hope that he will not suffer the same faith-induced myopia when it comes to the progress of potentially life-saving stem cell research.

Apologists will of course continue trotting out Collins in support of their assertion that there is no conflict between science and faith.  Collins is simply the latest in a long list of examples from the “Argument from Admired Religious Scientists”.

Isaac Newton was a devoutly religious man, as most people were in his day.  He actually wrote more on theology than physics, but can anyone name one of his theological achievements?  Newton also expended a great deal of time and energy on the defunct pseudo-science, alchemy.  Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, was also an avid supporter of the phlogiston theory.  Charles Darwin’s scientific partner, Alfred Russel Wallace, enjoyed nothing better than a spiritualist séance once he was done examining biological specimens in the laboratory.  James Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helix of DNA has recently had his reputation as a scientist destroyed for expressing pseudo-scientific, racist views in an interview with The Sunday Times.

A brilliant career as a scientist is clearly no guarantee against believing in nonsense.   I hope that the same standards of common sense and reason that have been applied to the above examples will one day be applied to scientists like Collins.

Allan Porchetta attacks Peter Hearty’s defence of Evolution

30/08/2009

EvolutionChrist

manicstreetpreacher schools a creationist after his nonsensical attack on evolution.

The following piece was posted on the Premier Christian Community forum in response to a repeat of a debate between atheist evolutionist, Peter Hearty, of the UK National Secular Society and Christian apologist and Intelligent Design proponent Peter S Williams, which was broadcast on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?, Saturday, 18 July 2009.

Below is blogger Allan Porchetta’s piece verbatim, including spelling and grammatical errors:

Pete Hearty’s woeful defence of evolution

Pete Hearty says that science and God are not compatible – why ever not – Newton , Faraday and a host of scientists were bible believers – there are plenty of contempary scientists who are creationists – why does he make a statement like this.

He says he knows the name of a fossil which is 1.2 billion years old.  How does he manage to get a date like this.  We cant carbon date a fossil since the timescale is too large.  He must be using the unscientific circular reasoning that sedimentary layers are dated by the fossils found in them and the fossils are dated by the layers they are found in.

How does he know the small collection of bits and pieces of ape and monkey bones and voluminous amounts of plaster and artists drawings are ancestors of humans up to 3 million years old – what dating system is he using.

He uses the same old trick of implying that likeness means descent – eg because dolphins have similar bones to the human then we must have a common ancestor. Does this mean if I see a old Morris Miinor and a Volkswagon that they are related – both descending from a say a Ford Popular and not manufactured.  That God created DNA and RNA and tweaked it to form different creatures is a more likely explanation.  Likeness implyng descent is not a valid argument – it does not explain the original design of say the dolphins sonar.

He then says that the lungfish is transitional – so if we see an amphibious car we then know it has evolved from a boat and is on its way to becoming a car . Boats and cars must be designed and made.  The lungfish is clear evidence of God’s design – the mechanisms would have to work first time or the fish dies. There should be thousands of clear fossil transitionals or still running about since they would have to be succesful in their own right – there are none and please dont mention the archaeopteryx.

How on earth would a pig design itself into a whale – the Talk Origen site he mentions is an evolutionary front organisation which puts forward ridiculous sequences of impossible chance events.  Eg it will say that whales evolved sonar without explaining how . How would a half pig whale survive – when you even spend a minute or two thinking about it – it is nonsense.

The Talk Origin evolution of the Bombardier Beetle is a laugh – a list of miracles called scientific evidence.

I challenge Peter Hearty to explain the evolution of land pig or cow into a whale in simple stages.  How would the incredible biological mechanisms in the whale design themselves through blind chance and work in harmony.

He says mathematics does not enter the argument since flowers can replicate extra genes ?????  I can assure Peter that the mathematics of probability does come into the argument and if bacteria and viruses can exchange genes then this ability could only have come about by being designed into the creatures. Mathematicians have proved using statistics that evolution by random chance is impossible.

I cant think why he says looking for evidence of Intelligent Design cannot be science.

Where is the evidence that the earth is 4.5 billion years old – this date has been conjured up
to suit the long ages required.  A newly created Adam could not be dated although he would look about 30.  All the rocks and planets that God created must have apparent age. New lava has been dated at around a billion years – radiometric dating is supposition and guesswork.
The salt in the sea would be like the Dead Sea if the world was even a few million years old.

There are lots of para conformities like this such as the amount of carbon 14 in the air which suggest young age.

Peter says that species coming and going is evolution – why ??? An extinct species does not mean evolution any more than scrapped model of car – the species had to be designed just like the car.

Darwins theory only took off because of lack of knowledge about RNA DNA and cellular biology.  He keeps talking about huge evidence – where is the evidence – billions of fossils in sedimetary layers mean that there was a great fllood which killed them and cemented them before they rotted – there is no other way to explain the fossil layers . Plus there are finds of bone and sinew and blood ( now covered up by evolutionary zealots) that could not have lasted millions of years.

The one science where reason is suspended and the mathematics of probabilty is ignored is in the false science of evolution.

The evidence for the Creator is overwhelming – therefore there will be no excuse as the new testament letters say – and it will be sad when unbelievers who are first on the list in Revelation are cast into the Lake of you know what.

manicstreetpreacher replies as follows:

Dear Allan

I apologise for responding so late in the day to your essay against Peter Hearty of the NSS defending evolution against ID proponent, Peter S Williams on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?, Saturday, 18 July 2009.

I’ll come straight out with it and say that your piece is an unbridled piece of foolishness that churns out all the well-worn, bogus canards that creationists and ID theorists have been using since Day 1 and have refuted by proper scientists a zillion times.

I’ll deal with your points in order.

Religious scientists

A 1998 poll of the National Academy of Scientists in America showed that 93% do not believe in a personal God who answers prayers and is offended if we copulate with people of our own gender.  Newton and Faraday lived over a hundred years ago or more, when most people were religious.  Newton actually wrote more extensively about theology than physics, but can you name any of his theological works?  And just what the great theological achievements of history?  What would you prefer?  That all scientific works disappeared tomorrow or all theological writings were dispensed?  I think I’ll go for option A!

Read Richard Dawkins’ and Edmund Standing’s opinions if you want definite proof of what a vacuous discipline theology really is.  The latter is a qualified theologian with a first class honours in the subject.

Dawkins states:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?  When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious?  I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false.  If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming.  If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?  Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work!  The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything.  What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

From Standing’s article:

The essence of theology is neatly summed up in a well known definition given by St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).  In fact, as a theological student, this was the first definition of theology that I was taught.  The notion of “faith seeking understanding” demonstrates clearly how intellectually vacuous theology is, and how low its credibility should be as an academic pursuit (in the sense of actively engaging in its production, as opposed to its purely academic study as part of the history of ideas).  Theology turns the scientific method which we have followed since the Enlightenment upon its head.  Where scientific research may start with a reasonable proposition based on prior evidence (a hypothesis) and then examine further data to see if this proposition is factually accurate, or may simply lead to the discovery of data which no-one had previously predicted, theology starts with the acceptance of ideas that have no factual basis or for which the evidence is appallingly weak and proudly proclaims acceptance of these ideas on the basis of “faith” as a virtue, and then goes on to attempt to make these a priori beliefs appear intelligible and rational.  In other words, the “results” of theology have been arrived at before study to confirm them has taken place.  The theologian does not approach the basic tenets of Christian faith as possible truths to be tested for logical consistency; he or she instead begins with the conclusion that a series of internally incoherent, pre-scientific, and fantastic “beliefs” derived from ‘faith’ are true, and then attempts to dress these beliefs up in the clothes of intellectual credibility.  Theology is not in this sense a proper academic pursuit, but is instead the attempt to mask superstition in a fog of pseudo-intellectual verbiage.

I also suggest you read Sam Harris’ recent tongue-lashings against Francis Collins if you want proof that the marriage between science and religion is bogus:

Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion?  Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed [us] that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in a way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration.

Radiocarbon dating and the true age of the earth

Radiocarbon dating does not rest on one method of dating, but many different methods based on mutually exclusive principles.

The oldest rocks which have been found so far on Earth date to about 3.8 to 3.9 billion years ago by several radiometric dating methods.   Some of these rocks are sedimentary, and include minerals which are themselves as old as 4.1 to 4.2 billion years.   Rocks of this age are relatively rare, however rocks that are at least 3.5 billion years in age have been found on North America, Greenland, Australia, Africa, and Asia.

The figure of 4.5 billion for the age of the Earth comes from dating of the Earth’s meteorites and the distribution of matter in our solar system.

Can you please provide evidence to your slanderous accusation that the Talk Origins website is “an evolutionary front organisation”?  A working definition of that term would be useful as well.

Design inference

Did you know that there is a 600 billion to one chance of being dealt any hand in a game of Bridge? We have determined beforehand the combination of cards that comprise a “perfect hand” therefore it’s only after the event do we look back and say, “Gosh, wasn’t that so improbable?”

Consider how improbable your own existence is.  Watch and listen to Christian apologist William Lane Craig’s debate with atheist cosmologist, Victor Stenger, author of the superb Has Science Found God? and God, The Failed Hypothesis.  In particular, take note of this classic from Stenger’s first rebuttal:

Low probability events happen every day.  What’s the probability that my distinguished opponent exists?  You have to calculate the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg, then multiply it by the probability that his parents met, and then repeat that calculation for his grandparents and all his ancestors going back to the beginning of life on Earth.  Even if you stop the calculation at Adam and Eve, you will get a fantastically small number.

To use Dr Craig’s own words, “improbability is multiplied by improbability by improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers.”

Dr Craig has a mind-reeling, incomprehensibly small probability for existing, yet here he is before us today.

What is the probability that the laws of nature will be violated?  I’ve never heard an apologist answer this.

Just because something looks designed, doesn’t necessary mean that it is designed.  Snowflakes under a microscope may look intricately designed, but this cannot possibly be the case, since they are formed by colliding into other particles of snow en route to the Earth.

As is so often the case, I find David Hume’s logic very satisfying in this regard.  We have direct personal experience of how buildings and cars and watches are made; we do not have equivalent experience for eyes, lungs and universes.

Your analogies about why pigs would have designed themselves to be whales do not apply.  Evolution is a blind and purposeless – but certainly not random – process with no set endpoint.

Transitional forms and gradual change

Your assertion that transitional forms in the fossil records do not exist is utterly false.  There are many transitional fossils.  The only way that the claim of their absence may be remotely justified, aside from ignoring the evidence completely, is to redefine “transitional” as referring to a fossil that is a direct ancestor of one organism and a direct descendant of another.   Direct lineages are not required; they could not be verified even if found.  What a transitional fossil is, in keeping with what the theory of evolution predicts, is a fossil that shows a mosaic of features from an older and more recent organism.

For example, there are many fossils of human ancestors, and the differences between species are so gradual that it is not always clear where to draw the lines between them.

Your objections as to why there are no fossils or live species that are crosses between pigs and whales are completely ridiculous and betrayal your fundamental misunderstanding of Darwinism.  Evolution is about slow, gradual changes over many thousands of years, and not instantaneous, giant leaps.

Watch Richard Dawkins’ lecture in reply to an Old Earth creationist and laugh heartily at how ridiculous an idea that we should have “crosses” between different species in the fossil records and in the living world:

Creationism is about scaling a mountain in one enormous leap.   Evolution is about scaling the same mountain via a smooth, steady, ever-climbing path round the back of the mountain.

Like all creationist literature, your argument simply amounts to a “God of the gaps” arguments.  You have not proven a single thing in your essay and I will bet a sizeable amount of money that you and your ilk never will.

Intelligent Design is another form of creationism: a political front attempting to get religion in the science classroom.  ID-founder, Michael Behe, was publicly humiliated in the 2005 “Intelligence Design Trial”, Kitzmiller –v- Dover P A, when he admitted on the stand that he had not read any of the scientific literature regarding the evolution of the human immune system that he had declared (among others) “irreducibly complex” in Darwin’s Black Box.  Behe even admitted that ID could only be considered a theory in the loosest possible sense of the term, placing it on the same shelf as astrology and the phlogiston theory!

I suggest you watch this superb documentary of the Kitzmiller trial for a useful executive summary of the case against ID:

The Second Coming, the Rapture and the Lake of Fire

Take a close look at Matthew 16 and 24, along with numerous others, that clearly state that Jesus promised to come flying out of the clouds, wield his magic powers to bring peace on earth, cast those who don’t convert into a lake of fire and take the lucky few away to his kingdom to live happily every after…  within the lifetime of those listening.

This is a scientifically testable hypothesis that would prove Christianity to the satisfaction of all scientists, theist and atheist, the world over.

Now, I suppose that I could still be proved wrong, but after 2,000 years and the utter lack of extra-scriptural evidence for any of the other Bible’s prophesies, I think that there’s about as much chance of seeing Jesus again as there is David Koresh.

In conclusion – the joke is very much on you

You claim that the evidence for a creator is overwhelming.  I disagree.  Simply examining your own body will show that if we were designed, then the designer would have to be stupefying inept or incredibly callous, capricious and cruel.  Just who is this designer?  Do you have his business card?  For one thing, I’d really love to have a stern word with him over the fantastic “design” job he did on my hairline!

More seriously, the reason why humans often suffer terrible back pain is because our spines support 70% of our body weight on its own; our spines are better suited to a species that should be still walking around on all fours.  The fact that the human oesophagus shares the roles of swallowing and breathing means that humans are very susceptible to choking to death every time they eat.  We have a blind spot in our eye.  We have retained the appendix in our digestive systems from our days eating vegetation on the savannah, and we all know what happens when that goes awry.  The examples are endless.  Some design, I would say.

We share the same DNA as a fruit fly.  We are a half a chromosome shy of being chimpanzees.  Evolution is a fact.  Denying it puts you in the same category as a member of the Flat Earth Society.  I therefore respectfully suggest that you delete your thread immediately and spare yourself any further embarrassment.

Atb

manicstreetpreacher

P.S. Why would an infinitely loving God create me so I was unable to believe in him simply to cast me into a pit of fire when he decides to bring the world to an end?