Should all scientists really be militant atheists?

As my title implies this post discusses the New Yorker article by Lawrence Krauss – All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists. I basically agree with his analysis but feel he has left himself open to an unwarranted criticism often made of the scientific approach.

The headline is very provocative – and was clearly meant to be. The term “militant atheist” is just silly. But it did smoke out the expected criticism from the faithful (for example Should Scientists Be Atheists? More Nonsense From Lawrence Krauss by Kelly James Clark from the Brooks College and Kaufman Interfaith Institute). These critics attempt to avoid Krauss’s central complaint about the unwarranted privilege religion gets in our society (to the extent that when a law-breaker like Kim Davis is punished there are loud complaints of Christians being persecuted or Christian beliefs being made illegal). And they also attempt to denigrate his point that the scientific process should not be perverted in its exploration of the evidence and application of reason by demands of unjustified respect for belief or faith when it conflicts with evidence.

The people who wish to protect this religious privilege – even in scientific investigation – are the ones who describe any criticism of their stance as “militant.”

Rejecting the “sacred” justification

Krauss dismissed the demand for respect with:

“The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.”

Applying this to the scientific process he wrote:

“In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Unfortunately his use of Haldane’s quote – together with his provocative title “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheistsconveyed the impression that scientists should approach their investigation with a bias that already rejects some possible outcomes.

No relationship between science and religion

However, that was not Krauss’s claim. He used the term “atheist” in its negative sense (not theist) – not implying an imposition of any preconceived beliefs or ideas.

His real point was expressed in his point that basically there is no relationship between science and religion:

“In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Clark, more or less agrees with Krauss’s central claim  when he retaliated with:

“Scientists can be religious, liberal, communist, or even gay. But when they’re doing science, those beliefs are irrelevant and should not affect the practice of science. So be it. Scientists are under no obligation to affirm the opposite of any of those beliefs; and they needn’t deny them–but they should not bring those beliefs into their scientific practices.”

And in effect, he also agrees with Haldane – when we take into account the flippant words Haldane used. Of course scientists “assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere” with their experimental investigations. In the same way they assume that goblins, fairies, and all sorts of mythical creatures will not interfere.

Mind you, I really wonder at his assertion that a scientist need not deny her beliefs when the evidence shows them wrong. Surely that is unhealthy?

Scientists must be completely open to all and every outcome of their investigation – and perhaps they should even be “militant” about this rejection of blinkers. It is one thing to start with a strong, empirically supported, acceptance of the laws of thermodynamics – but quite another to be restricted by a strong belief in a myth without any evidential support.


The “god idea” is just such a myth. It is never expressed even as a concrete hypothesis (which implies testability) let alone a rational theory with an evidential base.

Unfortunately, for much of history humanity’s attempts to investigate and understand the world have been hampered by an a priori insistence that investigation be based on such myths. Modern science has broken away from such bonds – and that is why it is so overwhelmingly successful.

Yet, there are people who work hard to reapply those bonds. Who wish to introduce  a”theistically-correct” approach to science which denies the need for evidence and (what amounts to the same thing) insists that “supernatural explanation’ are accepted.

People like Krauss are standing up to this pressure – and good on them. We need people who are prepared to be “militant” in this way.

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The Alternative Medicine Racket

We are so used to the bad press that pharmaceutical companies and the health service get that it is worth standing back and having a critical look at what the “natural”/alternative health industry gets up to.

And that is not jut the pseudoscience and magical claim. It also the political manipulation and manoeuvring.

This video is quite timely.

Source: The Alternative Medicine Racket « Science-Based Medicine

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The chemical party

Just imagine teaching chemistry this way.

I guess you would have to lay off the juice, though. Otherwise, there could be some impossible bonding – and student recall would be low.

Thanks to: Sciencegasm shared Universitetet i Oslo (UiO)’s video.

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A job with a view – but not for the clumsy

Here is a breathtaking GoPro video of a spacewalk by two Russian cosmonauts, Mikhail Korniyenko and the record-breaking Gennady Padalka, outside the International Space Station (ISS). (Padalka recently set a new record of 879 cumulative days spent in space.)

It is certainly an exciting job – and what a view!

But I’m amazed at all the fiddly stuff on the outside of the ISS.  I wouldn’t have the confidence – too scared of being caught up in all the wires and gadgets.

Although, there would not be a problem with dropping tools and gadgets.

See how Gennady Padalka, or is it Mikhail Korniyenko, disposes of the replaced item at the end!

Thanks to: GoPro captures Russian cosmonaut duo performing spectacular spacewalk

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Fluoridation: Freedom of choice – and responsibility

PN Tap

Alia Grant, 7, collecting “fluoride-free” water from the Papaoeia Park tap in Palmerston North. Credit: Warwick Smith/ Fairfax NZ

Apparently a source of “fluoride-free” water provided by the Palmerston North City Council since last May has seen little use. Despite the council providing the “fluoride-free” public tap at the request of campaigners, the data on its use shows an average of only about 4 people a day drawing water from it (see comments by Palmerston North City Councillor Aleisha Rutherford and email to her from council officials).

This data will interest other councils, like the Hamilton City Council, who are considering installation of similar “fluoride-free” taps. They might question whether such low use warrants the costs involve (more that $90,000  for Palmerston North and a budgeted $60,000 for Hamilton). But I am more interested in what this low usage implies for they way anti-fluoride campaigners have exerted their own freedom of choice.

Freedom of choice involves responsibility

I have always argued for freedom of choice on issues like community water fluoridation (CWF) where opinions are divided. I believe that freedom of choice is actually guaranteed by democratic processes.

Yes, I know, the minority sometimes complain that such democratic decisions remove their freedom of choice – and certainly anti-fluoride propagandists make much of this. Often claiming that the minority’s freedom of choice, in this case, is more important than the health of the community as a whole.

But that argument is disingenuous. Such choices are about the availability of a service or social health measure – not about having such services or health measures imposed on people. There is always a choice – and that is the great thing about democratic decisions. The community supports socially provided health care and secular education. But that in no way prevents the minority, who oppose such measures, the freedom to organise their own healthcare or education. Free secular education and healthcare is not imposed on anyone.

So, it seems obvious to me that someone who genuinely believes fluoridation is not OK should be responsible enough to take their own steps to either filter the water supply or arrange for a different source if they find themselves in the minority. I am not for a minute suggesting they give up their belief, or even their attempts to convince others. Just that they be responsible, accept the majority have spoken and that the majority decision should prevail – at least until there is a democratic change of mind.

Given the ready availability of alternative water sources or filtration devices, it would be silly not to take advantage of them. That is exactly what I would do if in that situation. But very few of my anti-fluoride discussion partners on this issue, when asked, acknowledge they take such steps. Instead, they will often complain about costs, even claiming these costs are prohibitive, and moan about having fluoridation “forced” on them.

Water filters a common

So the low usage of this “fluoride-free” tap indicates to me that people who seriously object to fluoridation of their water supply are already taking their own steps to remove it – most probably using a relatively cheap filter. And, I believe their use of such filters probably predates any public action they have taken on the issue. Similar filters are, after all, quite common and many people use them for aesthetic reasons to remove the taste of chlorine or organic matter.

So why do anti-fluoride activists make such a fuss – attempting to deny a democratically accepted social health measure to people who support it? After all, any personal claims of their own sensitivity to fluoride are surely invalid if they have exercised their freedom of choice and taken steps to filter their water or find another source.

The water consumption data for the “fluoride-free” tap in Palmerston North suggests that all but a very few (perhaps 4 people?) are responsibility taking their own steps to filter the water. This fuss, then, surely has nothing to do with their own situation. I can’t help thinking it derives from their own ideological and political beliefs about what society as a whole should do.

Perhaps these ideological and political beliefs, rather than any scientific fact, are the real source of their claim about the danger of community water fluoridation?

See also


My talk to the Reason & Science Society – an invite

RSSAuckland readers are welcome to come along to a talk I am giving at Auckland University next Thursday.

The Reason and Science Society (RSS) hosting the talk. It’s called “The Case for Community Water Fluoridation with Dr Ken Perrott”. Details are:

Day: Thursday 17th September
Time: 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM.
Location: Room 206-315, Arts 1 building, University of Auckland
Map of the talk location:

About this talk:
Community water fluoridation continues to be a controversial in New Zealand. Thames is the latest community to face this issue in an October referendum. Local bodies are frustrated by the lobbying the bombarded with on this issue and are asking central government to take responsibility for it.

Many of the claims made about fluoridation are misleading and scientific research is often distorted to support these claims. Dr Ken Perrott will describe what the science is really saying about community water fluoridation.

About the speaker:
Dr Ken Perrott is a retired research scientist. He is a scientific advisor for Making sense of Fluoride.

Event page (you need to join the RSS group to view it):

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Why the internet annoys chemists

Here are some of chemist’s pet peeves chemists about discussion on social media and the internet in general. The list is from the article  5 simple chemistry facts that everyone should understand before talking about science posted on the blog The Logic of Science.

Everyone who has attempted to discuss issues like vaccination or fluoridation with opponents will have come across these arguments which the author describes as “based on a lack of knowledge about high school level chemistry.” This ignorance doesn’t seem to prevent the perpetrators of these arguments presenting with extreme confidence and fervour. When challenged they often question the scientific credibility of their critics and urge them to “do some research!”

1: Everything is made of chemicals

chemical free

The article points out:

“This seems like a simple concept, but many people seem to struggle greatly with it, so let’s get this straight: all matter is made of chemicals. You consist entirely of chemicals. All food (even organic food) consists entirely of chemicals. Herbal remedies consist entirely of chemicals, etc. So, when someone says something like, “I don’t vaccinate because I don’t want my child to be injected with chemicals,” they have just demonstrated how truly uninformed they are, and you can be absolutely certain that they don’t know what they are talking about because all matter is made of chemicals.”

Yet these arguments and terms like “chemical-free” seem to have gripped public consciousness. The only thing “chemical-free” is empty space!

A particular peeve of mine is the attitude advertisers seem to have that by declaring their product “chemical-free” they can get away with not identifying the real chemicals in their product. Recently at the supermarket I searched in vain for an indication of the chemicals in a package of sea salt. Genuinely intrigued to find what other salts were present, together with the majority sodium chloride, all I could find was the description that the product was “chemical-free!”

2: The dose makes the poison


“There is no such thing as a toxic chemical, there are only toxic doses. Let me say that again: all chemicals are safe at a low enough dose, and all chemicals are toxic at a high enough dose. This is a fundamental fact that people in the anti-science movement routinely ignore.”

Yet look at how the anti-science movement ignores this simple fact. Anti-fluoridationists who seem to think that have a foolproof argument by waving Material Safety Data Sheets for water treatment chemicals like fluorosilicic acid and sodium fluorosilicate. Such sheets supply information for people manufacturing, handling and transporting the concentrated chemical. They have absolutely no relevance for the person drinking the water coming out of their tap.

A little more sophisticated (although only a little) are the arguments based on scientific studies of rats administered chemicals at concentrations far higher than confronted by the ordinary consumer. Anti-fluoridationists spout so  much hot air citing studies of rats administered 100 ppm F or more in their drinking water to claim that drinking fluoridated water which has an F concentration of 0.7 ppm is harmful!

“The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. No chemical is inherently safe or inherently dangerous. So, the next time that someone tries to scare you about the “toxic chemicals” in your food, medicine, vaccines, detergents, etc. ask them for two pieces of information:

  1. What is the toxic dose in humans?
  2. What is the dose in the product in question?

Those two pieces of information are absolutely crucial to evaluating the safety of the product. You simply cannot know whether that chemical is dangerous without knowing the dose in the product and the dose at which it becomes toxic.”

3: There is no difference between “natural” and “synthetic” versions of a chemical

“I often hear people claim that “synthetic” chemicals (a.k.a. chemicals made in a lab) are not as good for you as their “natural” counterparts. The reality is that this represents a misunderstanding of literally the most fundamental concept of chemistry. The most basic unit of matter is the atom, and there are several different types of atoms known as elements. We combine these elements to make various molecules, and the combination of elements determines the molecule’s properties. The process by which those elements were combined is completely and totally irrelevant to how the final chemical behaves.

For example, water (a.k.a. dihydrogen monoxide) consists of three atoms: 2 hydrogens and 1 oxygen (hydrogen and oxygen are both elements). There are literally thousands of different chemical reactions that will produce water. In other words, we can make water thousands of different ways, but water always behaves in exactly the same way no matter how it was formed because it always consists of the same three atoms. Further, if given a vial of pure water, there isn’t a chemist anywhere in the world who could tell you how that water was produced because it would be completely identical to all of the other water everywhere on the planet. So, as long as the chemical structure is the same, it doesn’t matter if the chemical was extracted from a plant or synthesized in a lab.”

Yet, how often am I told that fluoridating chemicals are bad because they are “industrial,” “manufactured” or “synthetic.” The implication being that if we just dug these minerals out of the ground and dumped them in the water things would be quite OK. Of course, these people ignore the impurities present in “natural” ores and chemicals. Purification to a standard suitable for use in foods and drinking water requires chemical processing. Does treatment converting an “unsafe” ore or chemical to a safe (for consumption) chemical somehow make the chemical unsafe because it is now synthetic?

4: “Natural” chemicals are not automatically good and “artificial” chemicals are not automatically bad

“I often encounter people who will claim to agree with everything that I have said thus far, but they still insist that “artificial” chemicals (a.k.a. chemicals that simply are not found in nature) are bad for you and shouldn’t be consumed, injected, etc. There are several critical problems here. First, remember again that all chemicals are dangerous at a high enough doses and safe at a low enough dose. That is just as true for artificial chemicals as it is for natural chemicals. Second, this claim is nothing more than an appeal to nature fallacy. Nature is full of chemicals such as cyanide and arsenic that are dangerous at anything but a very low dose, so there is no reason to think that the “naturalness” of a chemical is an indicator of its healthiness.

Further, remember that chemicals are nothing more than arrangements of elements. There is absolutely no reason to think that nature has produced all of the best arrangements or that we are incapable of making an arrangement that is safe or even better than what nature produced. I constantly hear people say that we cannot improve on nature, but that is an utterly ludicrous and unsupportable claim, and I would challenge anyone to give me a logical syllogism that backs it up. Really think about this for a minute, if you are of the opinion that artificial chemicals should be avoided, try to defend that position. Ask yourself why you think that. Can you give me any reason to think that they are bad other than simply that they aren’t natural (which we have just established is a fallacy)?”

This nature = good, articifial=bad,  argument may appeal to the emotions of the chemo-phobic consumer, but it is just not rational.

5: A chemical’s properties are determined by the other chemicals that it is bound to

This is so obvious to anyone who has a rudimentary understanding of chemistry – but surprisingly it still gets challenged. How often have I come across anti-fluoride campaigners referring to fluorine containing chemicals like sarin gas (a chemical weapon), Prozac (a drug), hydrofluoric acid (a corrosive acid) – or even to fluorosilicates (used to treat water but decomposing on dilution) as if their properties were relevant to the fluoride in drinking water.

“Chemical compounds are made by combining different elements or even molecules, and the final product may not behave the same way as all of its individual parts. Sodium chloride is a classic example of this concept. Sodium is extremely reactive and will literally explode if it contacts water, and chlorine is very toxic at anything but an extremely low dose. Nevertheless, when we combine them we get sodium chloride, which is better known as table salt. Notice that table salt does not have the properties of either sodium or chlorine. It does not explode when it contacts water and you cannot get chlorine poisoning from it no matter how much of it you eat. The combination of those two elements changed their properties and it would be absurd to say that “salt is dangerous because it contains sodium.” The sodium in salt no longer behaves like sodium because it is bound to the chlorine. Therefore, when you hear a claim that something contains a dangerous chemical, make sure that the chemical isn’t bound to something that makes it safe.”

And therefore:

“So, claiming that “mercury is dangerous and vaccines contain mercury, therefore vaccines are dangerous” is no different from claiming that “sodium is dangerous and salt contains sodium, therefore salt is dangerous.””

Most dangerous and toxic  chemicals contain hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and/or nitrogen. That doesn’t make pure water toxic because it contains oxygen and hydrogen. Proteins, starches and sugars toxic because they contain hydrogen, oxygen carbon and nitrogen. Or the air we breath toxic because it contains oxygen and nitrogen.

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Freedom of religion and belief – not a license to interfere with others


This is so relevant.

I am all for freedom of religion and belief – but that does not give adherents of these religions or beliefs the right to interfere with my life.

And, seriously, if I demand my right of freedom from such interference this does not deny the rights of those adherents to their belief. To claim that it does it just childish.

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Humanitarian intervention – but when & how?


People are demanding politicians do something about the current refugee crisis. They are demanding humanitarian intervention, a change in the normal rules and so that refugees can be settled safely.

Politicians are dragging their feet – which is inhumane, considering the gravity of the situation. But I do have sympathy for the view, expressed by some politicians, that this sort of action does not solve the basic problem. I especially sympathise with those politicians who are starting to acknowledge that this crisis is a logical result of drastic mistakes they  made in the past.

Refugees are justifiably fleeing from horrible situations in their own countries – situations actually caused, or made worse, by the actions of the USA and NATO. The invasion of Iraq, the bombing of Libya and the support for anti-government forces in Syria, created chaotic regimes and devastating wars  – and hence the refugee crisis.

Military intervention justified as “humanitarian”

The problem is that these invasions and bombings were, themselves, justified as humanitarian interventions. The George W. Bush government launched the invasion of Iraq with the admitted aim of regime change – the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Similarly, the USA and NAQTO justified their bombing of Libya by the aim of removing Gaddafi. And even now the USA refuses to take part in an anti-Islamic State coalition including Syria – because they wish to get rid of the elected Syrian leader Assad.

The USA and NATO countries justify these aims by claiming they are humanitarian. They want to remove dictators who have repressed their people. They want to deliver democracy to the people in those countries.

Well, you can tell when a politician is lying – their mouths are moving. And that is the case here. NATO and the USA intervened in these countries for their own geopolitical interests – and for oil – not democracy. How hypocritical are people like UK Prime Minister Cameron who welcomed the victory of rebels in Libya (and the violent lynching of the Libyan leader) by declaring how wonderful it was that the Libyan people now have democracy – and then being absolutely silent about the suffering of the Libyan people as their country descending into the ruin of violent factionalism

David N. Gibbs reveals the hypocrisy of such US and NATO “humanitarian intervention” in his book First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. His book is a detailed description of the history of intervention in Yugoslavia and its consequent break-up. But the lessons are wider. “Humanitarian” military intervention became a way of justifying NATO. After the collapse of the USSR and dissolution of the Warsaw military alliance, NATO was searching for a justification for its own existence – instead of logically following the Warsaw Pact example. The USA wanted NATO as an instrument of their new-found power as the sole remaining superpower. NATO became a way of asserting US power in their competition with the European Union which was starting to exert independence, and of providing a legitimacy to is intervention in foreign countries. NATO provided an umbrella when the UN Security Council wouldn’t.

USA avoids chickens coming home to roost

Ironically, this US leadership has disappeared when the chickens are coming home to roost. Europe now has to deal with a refugee crisis largely caused by US intervention in Middle Eastern countries. Effectively Europe is now having to bear the fruits of their lack of opposition to US intervention, and, in the case of several European countries, involvement as active parties in that intervention.

People do have to intervene to demand that politicians deal humanely with the current refugee crisis. But let’s not forget its causes. We also have to demand that military intervention of the sort we have seen in recent years has to stop. The people of these targeted countries must be left to sort out their own political problems in their own culturally and historically appropriate and realistic ways.

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Discussing science on social media

Some relevant memes I picked up on Facebook recently.

How often do discussion partners adopt this approach?:

Comfirm bias

Or when pushed for their “evidence” we have to respond with:


Finally, a citation from their recommended “scientific” source – but:


Then – the “nuclear” or Mutually Assured Destruction  (MAD) approach  – scientists can’t be trusted anyway:


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