Sunday, April 20, 2008

That old gut feeling

I often hear people say stuff like "I just know. I feel it in my gut."

I have come to the conclusion that this is code for something like "I have no idea, but I really want this to be true."

Sometimes the feeling is in another organ not traditionally associated with thought, like the heart, or the liver. Or sometimes, it's the mysterious "I feel it in my waters," wherever the hell they are.

Hearing this is an indication that the speaker is not in the possession of any facts.

I find myself unimpressed by how strongly someone can believe something with no evidence. Stronger belief ("I really feel it to be true") in the absence of evidence is, if anything, an indication of stronger willingness to fool yourself. That's hardly compelling. I am not sure we should be convinced by how deeply gullible someone is willing to admit to being.

I recommend thinking with the organ that is best fitted to the task. Use your brain. Give it some data. Examine the evidence and think about it. With your brain. You might even find out something about a little thing I like to call "reality".

The "gut feeling"/"I just know" shtick tends to come at the end of an argument (generally an argument the "I just know"-person started, what's more), right about the point they realize that everything that they initially stated as if it were unquestionably true has been shown to be wrong, or at best irrelevant to whatever they were trying to argue for.

It comes at this point because it's the ultimate safe argument, since you can hardly argue with "feelings", but it's also the ultimate contentless argument - it's an admission that they have no actual grounds for their position at all. How do we know? Because if they did, then we'd be discussing the grounds, not their mysterious "feelings".

On Certainty: People that claim to be certain are nonetheless frequently wrong - it happens all the time. Indeed, I've argued before that other things being equal (like strength of evidence in favour), you're more likely to be wrong when you're certain you can't be mistaken, because it means you're no longer considering disconfirmatory evidence.

Consequently, "I know, I feel it in my gut" is a double whammy - not only is there no supporting evidence for the feeling, you're also not allowing for the possibility that disconfirming evidence even exists (otherwise, you couldn't claim to know). This is the ultimate in self delusion. It's open, in your face, deliberate self-delusion.

I find it ludicrous that anyone could say this kind of thing without expecting to be called a moron. Yet I hear it a lot. They seem to think it's somehow a clincher. In a way it is, but all it clinches is that they're willing fools.

Sure as crap rolls downhill,
it will come to pass -
if you think with your gut,
you'll talk out your ass.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Teaching the controversy

Teach this controversy, cryptotheists:

Percentage of biologists who don't reject evolution: 99.99926%

(assuming I correctly understood the intent of the triple negative(!)... )

Monday, April 14, 2008

Book Review: Unintelligent Design

Unintelligent Design (amazon link), by esteemed Australian science broadcaster Robyn Williams is a slim book (around 160 pages) devoted to discussing and debunking the Intelligent Design (ID) movement.

This book broadly succeeds in describing the ID movement, some of its characters and some of the major events, such as the Dover trial. Many of these people and events will be familiar to followers of the ID shenannigans, and Williams doesn't always add terribly much to available online discussions, but I found it useful to have much of it together in one place. If you don't know much about ID, this book is a good place to start. It also describes some of the arguments against ID - and here I think it could have presented some of the arguments in more detail, because not all of the conclusions are as well backed by argument as they should have been.

The book also describes the impact (both current and potential) in Australia, and here I think its contribution is clearest; much of this discussion would generalize to other contexts, and it may have been better to attempt do so.

On radio, and in public appearances, Williams conversational style is warm, humorous and intelligent - he is a good interviewer and presenter. He comes over quite well in the book, but a good editor could have let Williams shine through better. The book is written in a chatty conversational style that is quite readable, and works well, apart from a few places where it clunks about a bit and could have used a more careful going over with a stricter eye. The author seems overly attached to a couple of similes; for example the Dodgy brothers (transparently shady denizens of the 1980s Australian television comedy show Australia, You're Standing In It and later, Fast Forward) might have been suited to at most a single mention in a book whose readership is unlikely to be familiar with the reference (unless you're simultaneously middle aged or getting toward it, Australian, and given to watching character-based sketch comedy) - but it gets multiple cameos. If Williams is writing for me, he hits his mark here, but I could not help wondering if the allusion would be lost on many readers.

A knowledgable editor's pencil could also have been used when J. Craig Venter's surname is repeatedly rendered "Ventor"; though I suspect this is not Williams' fault - search-and-replace mistakes by a clueless or inattentive person at the publisher after the text has left the author's hands have dogged many works before this one.

Part II of the book (the final two chapters) reads particularly well - the author gets more personal, even autobiographical (but still relates back to the ID discussion) and makes fewer attempts at levity, and as a result, speaks to the reader better.

ID needs to be skewered at every opportunity, and this book certainly does so, but in places I found it a little frustrating - it needed to "show" more - the effort to maintain the light tone sometimes interfered with the aims of the book, which were not always clear. That said, I definitely liked it - I found the book both entertaining and useful; if you want a light, easy-to-read introduction to ID, the arguments against it, and some of the potential effects of it, you will probably find this a worthwhile book.

Friday, April 11, 2008

How many commandments are sacred, again?

The cryptotheist ID-brigade seem to find no tactic beneath them in their quest to bring down science and replace it with creationist nonsense. No lie is too egregious. Lie upon lie upon lie; it's all grist for the mill.

The makers of Expelled have taken lying to the form of art, or at least artifice. They lied to obtain their interviews - lied about the film's title and purpose, lied in the film, lied in marketing it. The whole "not bearing false witness" thing is apparently only a suggestion. Certainly it doesn't carry the force of the cryptotheist's only commandment - "Promoting creationism's lies shalt be the whole of the law."

But it doesn't end there. Apparently a few other biblical commandments are also mere suggestions, not, well, commandments.

Like the one about not stealing. Like the XVIVO video, which Dembski stole (and lied and lied about), and which has now been oh-so-slightly altered in Expelled. So that's two.

But wait, maybe there's more.

"Neither shall you desire your neighbour’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour."

(Yipe. Owning slaves is right there in the commandments. God really likes slavery. You think God could have said "Hey, that slavery thing is not on. Cut it out already." somewhere in amongst all the stuff about honoring parents and six days shall you labor and coveting asses... nope. Apparently slavery is just dandy by God.)

Okay, now, science class belongs to, well science -- hence the name. That's what it's for. Putting cryptotheist preaching about demonstrably non-science creationism in there by dressing it in pseudo-scientific clothing doesn't make Jacob into Esau. That's coveting what belongs to science.

Go argue about whether creationism is literally true in bible class - many churches have one. A few of them even read bits of it. Pity none of the good bits seem to sink into the cryptotheist creatard ID-crowd.

So I reckon that's three. Seven left*. Come on, IDists, you're not trying hard enough! Murdering good taste or Darwin's reputation, or just basic logic... that's not what Yahweh was on about (probably) - it's just incredibly shitty behaviour.

*(well, 11 or 12 or so, actually - it depends on whether you're looking at Exodus or Deuteronomy, and how many separate things you really force together ... anyway, within the limits of the very confused structure, I can count that there's about 14 or 15, not ten, which makes me an evil non-believer, because a true believer would agree that 14 or 15 is exactly the same as 10 and pi is three and I wouldn't notice that Mary's husband Joseph has two different fathers and I would overlook the fact that Jehoachin is both 8 and 18 and there's way, way too many types of creatures in the world to stick them all on a modest wooden boat with all their food and with just a single extended family to look after them all for more than ten months... or was it seven? With that as an example, maybe it's no wonder the IDists can never keep their stories straight for five minutes at a time.)

Now the thing is, even if it's just three commandments, they're forgetting something sorta important about Yahweh's little carved-in-stone suggestions... he's kind of pissy about people not keeping them. Right there in the text of the commandments. Okay, not quite evil ol' New Testament-style "eternal torture in hell" passive-aggressive pissy. Good ol' OT blood and thunder: "I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments". That's plenty pissy, harming innocent children. He's sure nifty, ain't he?

So creatards, you really want to risk your grandchildren (and theirs, it seems, if god is counting okay this week, and feeling kinda smitey) in your evil little games? Are you sure? Or maybe you don't actually believe it? In which case, what's all the lying and stealing and shit for, anyway? Either you're motivated by belief, in which case, you're fucking with God's laws, or you're not, in which case, what, you're just lying and stealing and so on because you want to put creationism in science class for the hell of it?


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Science, FTW

Evolution on the tabletop

Students will soon be able to watch evolution occuring. Except the deluded cryptotheists, who will, as usual, be poking their fingers in their ears and shouting "la-la-la-la".

Update: lungless frog, 92 mya snake with legs.

Oh noez! now there are four more gaps!!!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fear the truth

This post is based on a comment I made at Pharyngula, which relates to the "all religions are fairy tales" billboard story I first saw described at Friendly Atheist.

The apparent objection to even the existence of the sentiment that religion is false strike me as particularly damning for the fundies.

- If their particular god really existed and really was a powerful being, what reaction would we expect such a sentiment as the one on the billboard to create?

Surely it would not be particularly troublesome. Mere background noise.

- If, on the other hand, the emperor has no clothes, but the religious billboard reader has a strong vested interest in maintaining their illusion that the emperor is clothed in gowns of the finest silk, what reaction would we expect to see?

Why, exactly the reaction we do see. Theists who can't stand the sight of a billboard like that give out the distinct impression that they don't actually, truly think God is real. They just want him to be true.

Look at it this way. If Santa is real, it doesn't matter if the rotten kid on the corner tells you he doesn't exist. It doesn't impact Santa at all, nor you - any more than him telling you he doesn't believe you live in a house can change your address (you can just shake your head and go about your business, secure in the knowledge that he's wrong). Maybe the kid on the corner's getting coal next Santamas, but there's no harm to you at all. The claim of his nonexistence would be mostly amusing, not offensive. Not a particularly emotive issue.

However, if Santa doesn't exist, then being told that he doesn't exist breaks the precious but fragile illusion that he does. That can be upsetting, because hearing the message means you're at least peripherally aware that the illusion is just that. If you're determined not to deal with the fact that Santa doesn't exist, then you can cover your ears and go "La-la-la" while running away... but it's clear to all around you that you in fact aren't at all sure he does exist. You just want him to exist, which is a whole other thing - the desirability of the existence of Santa Claus has no impact on the fact of his existence.

By now, you have probably read Ricky Gervais' deconversion story. (If you haven't had the pleasure, go take a look. I'll wait.)

What was it that convinced him God was made up? Was it his brother's simple, mildly skeptical question "Why do you believe in God?"


It was his mother's reaction to the question that proved to him that she didn't really believe in God - that his brother's very mild expression of disbelief had to be silenced because it was right.

Why seek to silence a merely mistaken opinion? People make mistaken claims all the time, and I don't see the fundies getting all in a tizzy over other simple mistakes. Where's the tizzy over the "mistakes" (which is far too generous a term, but anyway) that led to the War in Iraq? That cost many tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars (how much has it cost the people of Iraq? Who knows, but it's a lot). Where's the tizzy over mistakes that are actually real, and with demonstrably real consequences?

Mistaken opinions are not inherently offensive.

If the billboard was simply a garish mistake, they would not care so much.

The theistic panic-reaction to the billboard is in the same vein as Gervais' mother's reaction - they want discussion of the nonexistence of their magical sky-pixie silenced - not because the possibility of "non-existence" is obviously false, but because they worry, deep down somewhere they don't want to examine too closely ... maybe it's actually true.