Monthly Archives: September 2008

Lying to children

I recently criticised some creationists for misrepresenting scientific knowledge and lying about evolutionary science to children (see “Biblically correct” child abuse?). This upset a few commenters. I know people have all sorts of issues over the term “child abuse” but found one of the commenters justifications disconcerting.

Referring to teaching 6 day creationism to children he says: “Let’s say that I taught my children a lie. But that lie gave them hope and joy and purpose to their dying day. What have I done wrong?”

Now, I think there are several issues here:

  • The assumption that “6 day creationism” will somehow give “hope and joy and purpose to their dying day.”
  • The assumption that a real understanding of our world, and humanity’s endeavours to understand it somehow doesn’t give hope joy and purpose. My observation and experience is exactly the opposite.
  • Alongside these lies about science go lies about fellow humans. Scientists are presented as delusioned, if not outright evil atheists. Great thinkers like Charles Darwin are presented as responsible for the evils of Nazism. Scientists are presented as suppressing the truth – as in videos like Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. This creates a dangerous “Them and Us” situation for children (unfortunately not uncommon with religious traditions).
  • How will children judge such parents? It’s one thing to recognise that a parent was honestly prejudiced, misinformed or blind on scientific issues. It’s another to realise that one’s parents were dishonest and actively set out to deny you access to science, to an understanding of reality, as a child.
  • The belief that children remain children, and therefore gullible to believing fairy stories, for the rest of their lives is silly. Our children do, in fact, grow up to become completely autonomous human beings. They think for themselves. Parental beliefs and prejudices are only one amongst many inputs to the opinion-forming processes of individuals.

You know, one’s children may even grow up to accept scientific knowledge, while at the same time preserving the better parts of the religious tradition. They may even value the creation mythology of that tradition.

But I can’t help feeling that they will resent parents who attempted to use that tradition and its myths to deny them access to the great wealth of humanity’s scientific knowledge. They might even feel that they have been a little but abused.

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Is New Zealand ripe for science blogging?

Yes. I say this because of the science funding reforms of the 1990s – particularly as they effected the Crown Research Institutes. For better or worse (and it was both better and worse) the change in science funding forced scientists closer to industry.  Stakeholders (a new word for many of us at the time) got input into science funding decisions and scientists became more motivated to form contacts and collaborations with these stakeholders.

Now scientists attend non-specialist industry conferences and workshops, speak about their work to industry groups and attempt to get coverage in relevant newspapers and magazines. This means scientists have had to improve their skills in communicating their findings and ideas to non-specialists.

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Dawkins’ prayer for his daughter

There has been a fair amount of discussion here about beliefs. Specifically about the nature of scientific knowledge, how that is justified and whether ‘inferences’ such as intelligent design and creationism can be considered scientific.

Richard Dawkins wrote about the nature of our knowledge and compared scientific and religious beliefs in a letter to his daughter, Juliet. She was 10 years old at the time. The article is very relevant to our discussions.

As expected from Dawkins the explanation in this article is very clear and enthusiastic. You can find the full text here (A prayer for my daughter) or download it as a pdf file.

It’s taken from his book  A Devil’s Chaplain – Chapter 7. Here are a few relevant extracts.

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The atheist label

Ever notice how participants in a debate will often attempt to direct the discussion by labeling the participants? Sometimes this is helpful and relevant – as when a person’s background or position can give an indication of their knowledge and authority of their comments. On the other hand it is sometime an obvious pandering to the “them vs us” mentality – a guide to how “we” should reject the arguments of a participant because she is one of “them.” The old red smear ploy. (I wonder if this was the motive for the label kiwi atheist” applied to me in a recent discussion).

I think this smearing is commonly used by religious fundamentalists. Just check how often scientists are discredited by labelling them “atheists” in the intelligent design/creationism vs evolutionary science debate. Very often the issue of atheism is exposed as the main concern. And it seems that this label is the most effective way of discrediting any opponent amongst this conservative Christian constituency. And yet, the ‘atheist’ label says hardly anything about a person or the reliability of their knowledge – and, of course, may be completely wrong.

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Trusting science

I came across an interesting post on the Saganist bog. Entitled Why I trust science it is a response to a discussion between a ‘philosophical naturalist’ and Christian radio hosts. The discussion was mainly around how we acquire knowledge so is relevant to some of the recent discussion on this site.

I prefer not to use categories like ‘natural’, ‘supernatural’ and ‘naturalism’ because they are usually not defined, can mean different things to different people and can impose unwarranted assumptions. (There is, after all, just one reality so why divide it into meaningless ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ parts). These problems also occurred with the concepts of ‘matter’ and ‘materialism’ during the podcast referred to in the post. (Cartoon from xkcd).

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Let’s count teeth

A little homily from The Chris Trotter Blog post – Counting the Horses Teeth. It is about political polls but of course underlines the role of evidence in science. Very relevant to current discussions on this site.

“According to legend, the radical medieval theologian and poet, Peter Abelard, once confounded his teachers by subjecting their received wisdom to a simple empirical test.

His scholastic masters had been arguing about exactly how many teeth there should be in a horse’s mouth. If they applied the principles of the classical philosopher Aristotle, they arrived at one number, but, if they relied upon the observations of another ancient sage, a different total suggested itself.

Backwards and forwards the argument raged until the young Abelard, frustrated beyond endurance, rose to his feet, and, calling upon his fellow students to follow him, marched down to the marketplace, where he simply forced open the mouth of the one horse after another – and counted its teeth.”

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Our secular heritage presentations

Podcasts of the Secular Heritage of New Zealand and Australia Conference are now available. (Thanks to Open Society Website of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists).

Click on the links below for each presenter to download the mp3 files of their talk.


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New Zealand Skeptics conference

London Skeptics have relaxed and friendly meetings

The NZ Skeptics conference 2008 is in Hamilton this month. It will be held over the weekend Friday 26-Sunday 28 September at the  Waikato Diocesan College, 660 River Rd, Hamilton. You can register here NZ Skeptics  web site.

Here are the details of the Draft Programme:

Matthew Dentith: Saving the Paranormal from the Laws of Science

Nikos Petousis: Critical thinking Greek style

Felicity Goodyear-Smith:
History denied means history revisited

Alison Campbell:
Telling stories: science as a human endeavour (Yes – the same Alison who often comments here. Meet and hear her in person)

Nathan Grange:
Magic and Scepticism

Kamya Kameshwar:
Fact and fallacy – the portrayal of immunisation in the NZ print media

Zachary Gravatt: Complementary medicines: what are New Zealand general practitioners’ perceptions, practices and training?

Martin Wallace:
Physiology of the placebo effect and the evidence for changes in brain metabolic function

Glynn Owens:
The end of moral philosophy?

Vincent Gray:
Darwin Today

Lisa Matisso-Smith:
Ethnic origins through the Pacific

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Attacks on freedom of expression go international

This from Pakistan’s Daily Times

OIC to move UNGA against caricatures

ISLAMABAD: A resolution against the publication of blasphemous caricatures of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) in various countries will be presented in the upcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), an Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) representative said on Tuesday.

“The resolution will demand legislation against the publication of blasphemous caricatures of revered personalities and derogatory remarks against religions. It will also demand [sacrilegious] actions be declared a crime,” OIC Secretary General’s Special Representative on Kashmir Ezzat Kamel Mufti told a news conference.

Mufti said a particular group in America and the European Union had been launching attacks against Islam. “However, we should not get emotional and resort to any kind of violence, including suicide bombings,” he said.

So we face the prospect of the UN moving to destroy freedom of expression because some enemies of human rights choose to see it as an attack on their religion.

And some of the most active spokespeople for “interfaith” activity ignore this attacks.

See also:

New Report Critiques Movement at United Nations that would Prohibit “Defamation of Religions”

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Secularism is good for religion

I mean “good” in two ways:

  • It helps reduce the tendency of religions to become cults with teachings and ideology more and more divorced from reality;
  • It helps reduce the tendency to define “outsiders” as dangerous, maybe even deserving of death for their “sins.”

Sam Fleischaker makes these points in an article Religion v. Secularism? Let’s Skip This Fight recently posted on the South Jerusalem blog. As a religious Jew, Sam is in favour of religious people of different “faiths” uniting on common issues. However, he deplores the current calls for unity emanating from the Madrid Interfaith Conference and Saudi King Abdullah. “Religious people should unite with one another, but will only continue to wreak havoc if they take secular people as their enemy. They will also harm themselves: the secular world is good for religion.”

[I question the very basis of “interfaith” activity as it is exclusive, limited to only religious people, and therefore has the danger of ignoring basic human rights. But clearly “interfaith” unity aimed at opposing or eliminating atheism (as in King Abdullah’s appeal) is downright dangerous. But that’s an aside].

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