Category Archives: creationism

Determining scientific knowledge by petition

Some readers may be familiar with the “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” petition organised by the Discovery Institute. It’s a classic example of trying to decide science by petition. The petition still gets trundled out by creationists attempting to “prove’ that the acceptance of evolutionary science is weak in the scientific community – or that many “brilliant” scientists oppose Darwin’s ideas.

Six years ago I did my own brief analysis of signatories to the petition specifically to check their scientific credentials (see Who are the “dissenters from Darwinism”?). I really only looked at a sample (those with the first name Steve, and the three from New Zealand).

The other day in my surfing I came across another analysis of these signatories at Rational Wiki (see A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism). This appears to have attempted to check the credentials of everyone on the list. It is worth having a browse to get an idea of what motivates these people..

By the way, I came across a new term I have not heard before - Wingnut welfare.

It is worth doing this sort of analysis when you come across similar petitions – the are common with those wanting to deny the current scientific consensus on an issue. Petitions like this have been produced by climate change deniers and opponents of fluoridation.

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Losing trust in religious leaders

I recently reported the data from our last census showing the decline of the numbers of Christians in New Zealand, and the associated increase in people declaring they have no religion (see Census 2013 – religious diversity). It’s interesting to consider the consequences if the trend continues. As the graph below shows, the”crossover point” (when the number of Christians = the number of No religion) will occur in 2016 – only 2 years away. Christianity itself will decline even further so that in about 20 years it will likely have only  20% of the census responses.

census-trend

I think most people now accept that secularisation in the modern pluralist, democratic societies is a fact. (Although Christian apologist WL Craig still clutches at straws to deny this – see Philosopher reveals his predictions for the future of Christianity in America). Only the reasons for this are debated.

Of course, there is not going to be just one factor – life is never that simple. But one that interests me is changes in the way we perceive the representatives of religion. In my younger years I was quite happy to respect religious leaders – and give to religious charities. Despite my rejection of their beliefs I still held a certain amount of trust in those leaders. But not any more – and I think I am not alone in this.

Gallup recently released results of their latest poll of American’s attitudes towards professions (see Honesty and Ethics Rating of Clergy Slides to New Low). The poll asks people to rate the honesty and ethics of people in different fields. Gallup reported:

“Americans’ rating of the honesty and ethics of the clergy has fallen to 47%, the first time this rating has dropped below 50% since Gallup first asked about the clergy in 1977. Clergy have historically ranked near the top among professions on this measure, hitting a high rating of 67% in 1985.”

The graph below demonstrates this decline of trust in clergy.

honesty

Again, the decline in rating of the honest and ethics of religious clergy will probably have multiple causes. Sex abuse in the church will be a significant cause. As will attempts to promote outdated and inhumane attitudes on moral issues.

For me another strong cause of declining trust is the way that prominent Christian leaders and their news media will flagrantly misrepresent science –  particularly evolutionary science .  I agree, those specific leaders  might not be representative of all Christians (who is), but these other Chrsitians seem unwilling  to criticise them.

How can one maintain trust in people who knowingly misrepresent well established scientific facts and ideas? And how can one maintain trust in their associates who remain silent about that misrepresentation?

Credit: The honesty of clergy, car salesmen, and politicians.

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All things bright and beautiful

Jon Stewart interviews Richard Dawkins

I always enjoy the Daily show and this is another classic. Jon Stewart interviews Richard Dawkins (who is on a tour for his latest book An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist).

Can’t embed the daily Show videos, but go to September 24, 2013 – Richard Dawkins | The Daily Show With Jon Stewart – Full Episode Video | Comedy Central.

The whole show is 36 min long – but if you just want to the interview it starts at 13.33 and goes to the end.

Stewart is an amazing interviewer.

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Dentists you can trust?

billboard2

Credit: Making Sense of Fluoride Facebook page.

Looks like the Fluoride Free Hamilton activists have managed to find 3 dentists who they agree with. None of them work in Hamilton – one is from Northland, one from Wellington and the other is from Dunedin. So they literally searched far and wide to locate them.

Never mind, Fluoride Free Hamilton and its network is trusted by the Hamilton City Council when it comes to health matters. So they can continue to ignore the advice from local and national health experts. However, it might be harder for the incoming council to ignore the advice coming from voters during the upcoming local body elections and fluoridation referendum in the city.

The activist’s claim that their 3 dentists are the informed ones carries the implication that all other New Zealand dentists are uninformed! In fact Grant et al (2013) survey New Zealand dentists on the opinions of fluoridation (see New Zealand dentists’ views on community water fluoridation). Their finding were that:

“Most practitioners (93.5%) reported supporting community water fluoridation; the other 6.5% either were unsure or did not support it. Higher proportions of more recent graduates supported CWF. Some 85.6% of practitioners thought that drinking fluoridated water was a harmless way to prevent dental caries, but 6.2% felt that fluoridated water may cause other health problems.”

And they concluded:

“Most New Zealand dental practitioners support community water fluoridation, although a very small proportion believe that it is harmful and/or does not prevent caries.”

The fluoridation issue is turning out like the controversy around scientific issues like climate change and biological evolution. Just as scientists supporting creationism or climate change denial turn out to be a very small fraction of the numbers on those fields, dentists opposing community water fluoridation are also a very small fraction of all dentists.

Mind you – Fluoride Free Hamilton seems to be making a virtue out of that embarrassingly small support for their views. I am expecting to hear them come out with the Galileo Gambit some time soon.

Thanks to Dan from Making Sense of Fluoride for bringing my attention to the paper.

See also:

Similar articles on fluoridation
Making sense of fluoride Facebook page
New Zealanders for fluoridation Facebook page

The Galileo fallacy and denigration of scientific consensus

Statue of Galileo outside the Uffizi, Florence

It’s one mark of the significance of Galileo to scientific progress that many myths about him exist even today. He seems to still be a focal point in  present day debates between science and religion, pseudoscience and magical thinking.

But one of the most cynical myths is the opportunist interpretation of his promotion of the Copernican heliocentric solar system as being simply a David vs Goliath struggle. And that Galileo was correct because he was standing up to the “orthodoxy,” or consensus, of the then “establishment.”

A recent example is that promoted by British playwright Richard Bean “who reckons  climate change science is junk, the findings alarmist, data frequently tortured into submission and the mainstream media not in a position to confront the complexity of the issue and question whether it’s really happening” (see Herald article Beyond belief). He said in his interview:

“Orthodoxy closes off thinking and if you can’t express an opinion or question an idea, well, Galileo is the perfect example of what happens.

“He declared that not everything revolves around the Earth and paid the price for his beliefs [he was tried by the Inquisition as a heretic, threatened with torture, was forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest] while human thinking and endeavour were held back.”

But this is wrong on 2 counts:

  1. It relies on the fact of being in the minority, of opposing the consensus, as being “proof” of correctness.
  2. It implies that because the user of the fallacy is in the minority and opposing the consensus then the user is correct. In  other words – “bugger the evidence, I must be right because I am coming out against the consensus.”

As Rational Wiki puts it:

“The Galileo gambit, or Galileo fallacy, is the notion that if you are vilified for your ideas, you must be right.”

It’s a favourite argument used by creationists, by climate change contrarians/deniers/ pseudosceptics (see the egregiously named Galileo Movement in Australia) and, as I have found lately, anti-fluoridationists. A way of claiming superiority while at the same time discounting, even denigrating, the wealth of scientific knowledge with which the user disagrees.

Being vilified doesn’t make you right

And, it didn’t make Galileo right in everything he advanced. Classically he made a big mistake with his theory of tides where he tried to use tides to “prove” the movement of the earth. He was wrong there, and probably wrong in many other places, like all great scientists . Those people comparing themselves to Galileo are opening themselves up to the charge that they are “proving” themselves wrong, and not right.

It’s about evidence, silly

The real lesson from Galileo is not to oppose the “establishment” or current scientific consensus – but to rely on evidence. It was this argument of his, which today most of us accept and see as almost self-evident, that describes Galileo’s real contribution to the progress of science.

His argument for the heliocentric solar system, and against a geocentric solar system, was really an argument of evidence against dogma, prevailing philosophy and the Church’s use of scripture. he expressed it very well in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615. He said:

“I think that in disputes about natural phenomena one must begin not with the authority of scriptural passages, but with sense experiences and necessary demonstrations.  . . . and so it seems that a natural phenomenon which is placed before our eyes by sense experience or proved by necessary demonstrations should not be called into question, let alone condemned, on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning.”

He was arguing against the idea that science should be a handmaiden to, or slave of, religion. That for matters of the natural world, in astronomy for example, science trumped scripture (or its specific interpretation). And it did so because it was derived from experience, from interrogating reality, rather than relying on dogma and preconceived “revelations.”

So what about the “scientific consensus?”

Scientific authority no longer rests with the Church and religious philosophers, as it did in Galileo’s time. When we talk about scientific consensus today we usually refer to the widespread acceptance of a scientific idea, theory or facts based on evidence. The consensus on climate change represented by the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, are not dogma typical of Galileo’s time. It can in no way be compared with the consensus of theologians who rejected the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system (see Consultant’s Report on Copernicanism (24 February 1616). It is in fact a consensus on the facts and conclusions based on an extremely thorough review of the scientific literature.

It is actually those people who use the Galileo gambit to support their own dogmatic, contrarian or pseudoscientific views who are not using evidence. They are relying on personal beliefs, religious ideas or magical thinking and not evidence. Their use of the Galileo gambit is a substitute for interrogating reality.

Of course, none of what I have said means that new ideas in science are never in the minority. obviously they often are – and must be fought for. But new ideas don’t win credibility by using the Galileo gambit, by arguing that just because they oppose the scientific consensus they must be right. They win credibility because their proponents gather the evidence that supports them, and evidence which conflicts with the prevailing ideas.

A minority viewpoint can and does win credibility because its proponents provide evidential support. The Galileo gambit is for losers.

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Poisoning the well with a caricature of science

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen this video before have a look at it before reading on.

Continue reading

A war between religion and science?

Alex Hern, writing in the New Statesman, has ticked off the Church of England (CofE) for their blatant misrepresentation of the statistics resulting from a survey they sponsored (see Church of England commits sins against statistics).

He subtitled his piece:

“Four out of five British adults believe in the power of prayer.” Really? Really?

and concluded it with:

It’s almost as though the CofE relishes the idea of a war between religion and science almost as much as Dawkins does.

Here is the CofE’s “sin.”

The survey “Prepared on behalf of Church of England by ICM Research” included the question:

“Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, What would it be for?”

Well, OK – even an atheist could say they would lump for peace in the world (31%of the respondents did) or an end to poverty in the world (27% did). After all, they had been asked to withhold their attitude to the efficacy of prayer.

But perhaps that was a purposeful trap? Because the CofE reported the results as “Four out of five believe in the power of prayer.” Even though no-one was asked if they believed in prayer. In fact they had, by implication, been asked to assume belief!

The Telegraph went even further claiming in their article Britons still believe in prayer – and young lead the way, poll suggests:

“Research commissioned by the Church of England found that only one in seven people insist they would “never” resort to prayer in the face of problems in their lives, those of their friends or the wider world.”

If you are really interested you can download a pdf with the survey results and see just how the CoE and the Telegraph got such amazing results – which  the Telegraph even acknowledged “contrast sharply with the findings of the most recent census which suggested a significant drop in religious affiliation in Britain over the past decade.”

OK – perhaps we should expect people to lie when it comes to statistics. Perhaps its only natural to cherry pick facts to produce the result your would dearly want, than the one which is more accurate. Perhaps Alex Hern was a bit harsh to write this suggests the CofE relishes “a war between religion and science.”

I wouldn’t worry about this specific distortion – but I can certainly sympathise with Hern’s response. I too react when I see or hear scientific ideas and data being distorted and presented as proof of supernatural ideas or an ideological agenda. But rather than distortion of polls and surveys (which we expect) my list of scientific knowledge and ideas which are commonly misrepresented and distorted by religious apologists, including prominent figures in the CofE, include things like:

  • “Fine-Tuning” of cosmological and physical constants – (Sure we don’t yet understand why some of these constants have the values they do, or even if they could have different values than they do, but that is not “proof” of a god);
  • The “big bang” theory of the beginning of the universe – (again science cannot completely resolve what went on at the beginning but that’s no excuse for introducing gods, goblins or angels – and it’s certainly not proof of them);
  • Human morality – (Yes, it’s a mystery to some even though cognitive science and evolutionary psychology is making progress in its understanding. But, again, mystery or ignorance is not proof).
  • Evolutionary science – (Sure  outright creationists are a minority among believers but in my experience scratch almost any believer and you find someone who willing to distort the science to give their god a guiding role).

It’s these unfortunately common arguments, and ones similar to them, used by the theologically inclined to “prove” their god exists which makes me feel that maybe there is “a war between religion and science.”

I just wish these people would think before they use such silly arguments.

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Dishonesty of intelligent design “research”

In my recent post Creationists prefer numerology to real scientific research I discussed the “research” approach used by those few scientists who are proponents of intelligent design. And I concluded:

“they ignore the normal honest research approach. They never advance a structured hypothesis, one that is consistent with intelligent design. They therefore never submit such hypothesis to any testing or validation.”

Behe

Michael Behe is Professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He works as a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

Recently I noticed another blatant example of this lack of scientific honesty – the refusal to propose and test their own hypotheses of intelligent design. It’s a quote that seems to be going around the religious apologist bogs at the moment. For example, have a look at True Paradigm: Monday quote, The Big Bad Wolf, Theism and the Foundations of Intelligent Design – Page 13, or Still Speculating After All These Years at Contra Celsum.

It’s a quote from Michael J. Behe‘s book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution – this is the short form.

“The overwhelming appearance of design strongly affects the burden of proof: in the presence of manifest design, the onus of proof is on the one who denies the plain evidence of his eyes.”

Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution p 265.

Notice the problem?

Behe is asserting that he has no need to produce any evidence, outline a structured hypothesis, or do anything to test or validate his claim.

He simply has to make an assertion – based on nothing more than his claim of an “overwhelming appearance” (to him). Then it is up to those with different hypothesis to do all the work. To test his assertion (please note – a vague assertion – not a structured hypothesis) and prove him wrong.

Or else he declares his assertion correct by default!

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Dawkins’ new book

Richard Dawkins’ latest book is due out next September. The title – Childhood, Boyhood, Truth: From an African Youth to The Selfish Gene

It’s yet a new genre for Dawkins – autobiography. Mind you he has reached the age where people do tend to write memoirs and autobiographies.

Richard says  this book covers his life up to the  writing of The Selfish Gene.  There will be a second volume, published in 2015, covering the second half of his life.

I have enjoyed his other books and am looking forward to this one – especially as I have a special interest in scientific biography.

These two volumes will be a good read – he is an excellent writer and has had an interesting life, scientifically.

I wonder if it will get the same sort of emotional attacks his earlier books received?

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