Thursday, 5 February 2009


I've just had another article published on CiF

More arguments for God

It deals with "origins" arguments, i.e. the Argument from First Causes and the Argument from Design.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Sceptics Anonymous

Sometimes I think I ought to found a branch of Sceptics Anonymous.

Me: “Hi, I’m Jonathan and” (deep breath) “I’m a sceptic.”
Everyone: “Hi Jonathan!”

I remember that my father many years ago had this notice in his study:
We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

(Petronius Arbiter. Roman centurion, 1st century A.D.)
It seemed like a good quote, it told a nice “things never change” story. In the relatively early days of the Internet, I repeated it on an online forum I had recently joined. I ought to have known better. Within an hour, several people had pointed out that the quote was fabricated, and probably dated from the 1970s. It was my first introduction to urban myth, and it taught me a lesson I never forgot. The mere fact that something sounds like it ought to be true isn’t evidence that it actually is true. In fact, if it sounds too much like it ought to be true, look extra carefully at the author’s motivations in writing it.

Until I fairly forcefully told them not to, I used to keep getting bombarded by friends with stories which they genuinely thought were true but which 10 minutes research would have shown were complete fiction. For instance, an American friend passed the following story to me a couple of years ago, citing it as justification for America’s (lack of) laws on gun control.
Two illegal aliens, Ralphel Resindez 23 and Enrico Garza 26, probably believed they would easily overpower a home alone 11 year old Patricia Harrington after her father had left their two story home.
As you can see if you follow the link to the full story, it is also a fabrication. However, with my urban myth detectors having been refined by many years of practice, I immediately suspected this one of being false even before it was confirmed as such. It just combined too many conservative pro-gun talking points into a single item. Nice white girl (Anglo-Saxon name), trained in using guns, shoots two murderers who are illegal immigrants (with nasty-sounding Hispanic names, nice touch of racism there), who had killed another person by the name of David Burien and were armed with his handgun they had stolen from his house. So I did a few web searches and found that:
  • The story wasn’t on the web pages of the local newspaper.
  • The story was only on the web pages of various right-wing blogs, in most cases repeated word for word from the original source (misspellings and all).
  • There was no mention of “David Burien” having been murdered in any news story on the web except in the context of this article.
  • The name “Ralphel Resindez” sounded awfully like it had been deliberately chosen to be similar to “Raphael Resendez-Ramirez”, an alias of somebody who really was quite a famous murderer.
I reported these findings back to my friend, suggesting that the story was almost certainly invented. His response was anger that I should doubt him and the story. He was clearly convinced of it despite the evidence I had compiled. After a few days the Snopes website (great for checking out urban myths of all kinds) listed the story as false, and my friend grudgingly admitted that there might be some cause for doubt, though he still thought it possible the story was true. For all I know, he may still think that to this day.

It’s a tough life being a sceptic.

Monday, 2 February 2009

It’s amazing. Three articles on CiF on the same day all making calls on our credulity. First we have Jane Williams in her latest article in the How to Believe series, where she says.

What comes out from some of the comments from readers is a kind of anger that Acts is not "history" as we know it. It does not meet our standards, and therefore cannot be trusted. We don't know exactly who the author is, we don't know how much, if any, of the events he narrates he actually witnessed, we don't know who he expected to read it, and we don't know how he did what research he did. … This is not meant to be special pleading for the historicity of all of the New Testament. Just general pleading for a willingness to judge it by more appropriate standards.
The problem is that she doesn’t give any reason why we should apply a different “more appropriate” standard in this particular case as compared to others. Jane Williams seems to think that the early Christians were extremely careful to ensure that “Material was received, believed and transmitted only if the authority for it seemed weighty” but offers no suggestion as to what criteria of weightiness were applied.

Then we have Mark Vernon peddling the unreliable assertions of Sheldrake. He is also trying to paint sceptics as being angry.
Such prejudice condemns itself. "In my opinion, many of the attacks on Sheldrake's work have been unfair and uninformed," says Professor Christopher French, of Goldsmiths College, London, a sceptic but a moderate. So why is the book not simply dismissed? Wherein lies its durability? And why the extreme, emotional reactions?
In the comments to that article, Adam Rutherford has already pointed out that a bit of quote mining has been going on. It would also appear that Mark Vernon wouldn’t recognise a scientific experiment if it hit him over the head, when he says “it should be said that Sheldrake is totally committed to the scientific method”. Sheldrake is nothing of the sort, otherwise he would publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals where both his results and his methods can be subject to scrutiny, and where there would have to be a sufficiently detailed description of the methods to enable others to repeat his experiments and see if they get the same results. But Sheldrake prefers instead to publish popular books which have not gone through that kind of review. He is no more scientific than those who set up the Durham fish-oil “trials”.

Then we have Nick Spencer and his Rescuing Darwinism article. He is following the time-honoured route to publicity of the pseudo-scientific survey, where figures are bandied about suggesting that evolution is not widely accepted among the public, with the subtext “that evolution has killed God and ideas of design, purpose, morality and humanity” and people should rightly be wary of it. But only his “initial findings” have been published today. According to Theos “The full data analysis will be available in a report written by ComRes, who conducted the research, and published by Theos in early March.” But that doesn’t prevent Nick Spencer from using the survey as a peg on which to hang a thesis that evolution has come to be regarded as “an outlook on life that has become inextricably linked, through the purple prose of its most eloquent modern proponents, with reductionism, nihilism, atheism, and amorality.”

There is a common thread to all of these articles. They are all written by people who to a lesser or greater extent appear to think that scientists think the way that they themselves do. They perceive scientists as engaging in religious warfare, with Darwin as their God and On The Origin of Species as their revealed text. They assume that scientists do what they themselves do, cherry-pick the bits of evidence that best support their ideas, and keep very quiet about the contrary evidence and hope that nobody notices. It simply doesn’t occur to them that scientists don’t think that way, that scientists try very hard to make their ideas fit the evidence rather than pick the evidence that fits their ideas.