October 21, 2009

Dawkinalia

Posted in Atheism, Creationism tagged , , , , at 10:23 am by Andrew

Here’s an interview in Salon with Richard Dawkins about his latest book, “The Greatest Show on Earth.

Whoa, look at that — it’s half off today. I just ordered my copy. You should order yours! Here, let’s let Dawkins himself give the pitch:

No, I’m not really aiming [the book] at creationists. I don’t think they read books anyway, except for one book. It’s aimed at the intelligent layperson who does read books and who vaguely knows a little bit about evolution and who vaguely knows that there are creationists and maybe even vaguely thinks that he’s a creationist himself, but who is curious and wants to know the evidence.

It’s just that the evidence is so enthralling, it’s so exciting. It is so wonderful that here we are on this planet and we understand why we’re here. And it’s just a sort of ecstatic feeling to understand why you exist, and I want to share that feeling with other people.

October 16, 2009

Falsifiability and the Argument Regarding Design

Posted in Answering Apologists, Science, The Universe tagged , , , at 10:26 am by Andrew

Conceptually, I think the Argument Regarding Design — the notion that something must have created this wondrous universe that displays such complexity is bogus on basically every level, from the incorrect factual premise to the unsubstantiated conclusion. I set forth a lot of those arguments in my article “The Heavens Do Not Declare The Glory of God.”

One of the arguments I’ve made only by implication in that article is the falsifiability argument; namely, that the Argument Regarding Design is empty as a hypothesis, because any state of the universe could be offered as “evidence” for the hypothesis. So, for example, many apologists argue that the narrow band for various cosmological constants is evidence that the universe is “finely tuned” so as to permit human life.
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October 7, 2009

Fundamental Errors and the Cosmological Argument

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Creationism, The Universe tagged , , , at 1:03 pm by Andrew

In the comments section of this post, I get in to a bit of an exchange with Makarios over the common Christian apologetic, the Cosmological Argument.
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May 20, 2009

“How to Spot a Hidden Religious Agenda” is Back!

Posted in Creationism tagged , , , at 9:44 am by Andrew

Amanda Geftner’s article, “How to Spot A Hidden Religious Agenda,” is back online at New Scientist, with a brief response by creationist James Le Fanu (suggested, of course, by overly conservative lawyer types like yours truly).

May 14, 2009

Scientists Synthesize Ribonucleotides in Laboratory

Posted in Atheism, Creationism tagged , , at 5:07 pm by Andrew

How’s this for cool? Scientists have managed to synthesize ribonucleotides — the basic components of RNA — in the laboratory.

Answering danielg on Creationism

Posted in Atheism, Creationism tagged at 10:38 am by Andrew

In the comment section, danielg offers several criticisms of my posts on creationism. Here’s my response:
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May 12, 2009

More on “Creationist Liars”: Ben’s Plea for Civility

Posted in Atheism, Creationism tagged , , at 11:31 am by Andrew

I suggested the following guidelines for whether atheists should call a particular creationist a liar:

I think it’s reasonable to hold someone who is representing himself to the world as an expert to the standards one would expect from such experts.

Such standards include, at minimum, that if one reads someone else’s research and draws conclusions not present in the original article, you should (1) contact the original author to get his views; (2) represent that author’s views of your conclusions fairly in making your own argument; and (3) submit your argument to a scientific journal for review by other professional academic peers within the respective scientific community.

When you bypass all of that … I think it’s fair to call that “misuse” at best and yes, even “lying.”

Commenter Ben responds:

I was actually thinking of that same distinction in the car yesterday and trying to decide whether it’s justified or not. I definitely agree the “expert” is much more responsible for the intellectual integrity of their claims, and I definitely agree that your three criteria are reasonable expectations for them that they should be held to. But it still seems to me that this forces you into a perspective rut where virtually every single “expert” creationist is now an official liar. Round them all up and in all likelihood every single last one of them supports some position paper on their side that you and I might agree misrepresents the source material. Surely they’ve even read some response from our camp that points that out. Are they really ALL liars? Even most of them? That’s just implausible like the whole mainstream creationist movement is composed of charlatans.

As it is, this gets instantly complicated because one of your criteria opens up the “Expelled”-esque can of worms and rather than focusing on the issue (whatever it happens to be), we now have to deal with defending against auxiliary politics and conspiracy. That’s a lot of work and a lot of yuck to sort through. Decision theory, in my opinion, would favor, A: Not calling even creationist “experts” liars even if they might be lying since laity typically rally around mainstream position pieces that get lots of attention. B: Politely encouraging and giving partial credit for honoring criteria 1 and 2 since that in and of itself would be progress. C: Allowing our criticism of their papers even in their own journals to partially count as criteria 3 since that’s basically what it is. In other words set aside the “this sucks because it wasn’t published in a mainstream journal” talk and just show qualitatively why it wasn’t published in a mainstream journal.

I could be wrong and granted I’m not always that polite myself, but I am working towards that goal in the long term and it seems to me that we would be better served that way. We could surely test it. The next big quote-mining fiasco or the next big news splash on PZ Myers blog that has “creationist” and “liar” in the same title…try out a different approach and see if you like those results better. Can’t really hurt can it?

I think it’s worth a shot. Thoughts?

Why I Blog About Creationism

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Creationism tagged , , , at 10:50 am by Andrew

In response to recent posts about the ICR, their lawsuit, and creationism generally, commenter Phil takes me to task:

“Evaluating” Christianity by picking on the Institute for Creation Research is like “evaluating” atheism by picking on the Rational Response Squad.

It’s true that the thrust of this blog is directed at scholarly and popular apologetics, starting with my Summary Case for Atheism and the pages linked from there, and continuing with posts I’ve made on the Argument from Morality (see also here), presuppositionalist apologetics, the so-called “Minimal Facts” argument for the historicity of the Resurrection, and so on.

It’s comforting to see Christians like Phil concede that the ICR is a group of morons; I wish more of his co-religionists would see the light on this issue, and perhaps Phil and others like him who decry the ICR as undermining the intellectual rigor of their religious beliefs can actually speak out against them.

But the prevalence — I would say the ubiquity — of creationist arguments even among scholarly Christians is disturbing, and it contributes to my general case against Christianity. For example: if 99% of atheists believed that paying your taxes was voluntary, or that Sarah Palin faked a pregnancy while Governor of Alaska, or that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax, or that George W. Bush was the mastermind behind a 9/11 conspiracy, or whatever, then, yes, that would increase my skepticism about atheism. Generally speaking, I’ve found that conspiracy theorists tend to be unreliable sources of information.

So the fact that — as far as I can tell — 100% of all Christian apologists subscribe to absolute crackpottery is indeed relevant to me. This is not just the ICR; it’s leading lights such as William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel publicly proclaiming nonsense while other educated Christians refuse to call them on it.

That’s a problem. Now, let me be clear: the fact that Craig and Strobel parrot outright scientific falsehoods without the slightest criticism from their colleagues is not evidence against Christianity per se. It is not even evidence against their apologetic arguments in other fields (except insofar as a general misuse of science indicts one as a source for other arguments from science; e.g., cosmological and teleological arguments). But it does suggest that (1) these people are not reliable, and (2) their followers either don’t know or don’t care, and from there, we should go looking for explanations for those two facts and see if that explanation affects our view of Christianity.

And what do you know? It does! Unsurprisingly, both Craig and Strobel are Biblical inerrantists, which is to say that their view of Christianity — the God in which they believe and for which they are arguing in their books and debates — is one who literally revealed every word of every book selected by Christian elders to be compiled into the Bible, and that said Bible:

…is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

That’s the endpoint of Craig’s argument; of Strobel’s argument; of Geisler’s argument; of all of these guys’ arguments. And if you can’t swallow creationism (or million-man battles in ancient Mesopotamia, or any of the other stories passed off as “world history” in the Bible), then you don’t believe in Craig’s God.

I don’t believe in Craig’s God. And that’s why I blog about creationism.

May 11, 2009

Disparaging Religion in Public Schools (or: Dr. James Corbett Speaks Out)

Posted in Atheism, Creationism, Law tagged , at 1:11 pm by Andrew

Most of you are probably aware that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (which is a federal trial court) recently ruled that comments made by Capistrano Valley High School history teacher Dr. James Corbett to his students violated the establishment clause by constituting undue hostility to religion in public school.

I hadn’t previously commented on the case previously because Ed Brayton beat me to the punch. Essentially, I think it is as troubling (on Constitutional and practical grounds) if a teacher routinely disparages religious beliefs in front of his students as if he routinely proselytizes them. As Ed put it, “It is one thing to tell a student that they are teaching something because it is the position best supported by the evidence; it is quite another to tell them that their religion makes them incapable of seeing the truth and that their religion is a fraud believed in by fools.”

But now that Dr. Corbett has spoken out about the verdict, I think the case is more borderline than the public record shows. As it turns out, all of the comments at issue in the lawsuit made by Dr. Corbett were explicitly made as part of a “Socratic Dialogue” moment at the start of class that was specifically identified by letter sent to all of Dr. Corbett’s students. That letter said:

“Most days we will spend a few minutes (sometimes more) at the beginning of class discussing current events from either The Orange County Register or the L.A. Times. I may also use material from a variety of news Web sites. Discussion will be quite provocative, and focus on the ‘lessons’ of history. My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents. Students may offer any perspective without concern that anything they say will impact either my attitude toward them or their grades. I encourage a full range of views.”

I included my home phone number and e-mail address in that letter and encouraged parents to contact me if they had any concerns.

In my mind, that letter sets out the legitimate secular purpose required by the first prong of the Lemon test — provoking discussion on controversial issues. Had that been accorded proper weight by the District Court, it would have shifted the burden to the plaintiffs to demonstrate that the asserted purpose was a mere “sham”; i.e., that Corbett used the fig leaf of “Socratic Dialogue” as cover to diatribe about religion.

In other words: the plaintiffs could still have prevailed in their lawsuit under this application of the Lemon test; they would have just had to introduce evidence that Corbett was haranguing his students and calling them idiots for believing in religion as opposed to expressing his opinion on a controversial (and non-graded) topic. That, it seems to me, strikes the proper balance between freedom of speech and the free exercise clause in public schools.

More on the ICR’s Blatant Misuse of Saturn Ring Research

Posted in Atheism, Creationism tagged , , , , at 12:03 pm by Andrew

In the comment section of my previous post on the ICR’s laughable new article, “Planetary Quandaries Solved: Saturn is Young,” astrophysicist and grad student Stuart Robbins noted that the ICR had actually “relied” upon Robbins’ own research into Saturn’s ring system.

Robbins has a complete post up dismantling the ICR’s “argument” and taking them to task for misusing his (and others’) research. You should go read that now. Robbins’ conclusion won’t surprise you:

That’s really the point of this article. So, no, the planetary quandary has not been “solved” to say that Saturn is young. Rather, the ring system can still easily be old based on the latest (and if I do say so myself, the greatest) simulations, and even though some features of Enceladus appear young and active, there are other parts of the moon that tell the tale of being ancient.

Commenter Ben then argues that folks like the ICR aren’t really lying, and so people like me shouldn’t call them liars:

It’s an extreme form of religiously motivated confirmation bias and probably nothing like a willful intent to deceive. I imagine that’s exactly what I’d get out of that Henry Morris book you linked to. You call people like that liars and obviously you’ve just contributed *further* to their delusion-scape because they know full well they weren’t lying and now they think they know one more thing about you. You call honest people liars when disagreed with. … Even if they are lying, you’ve played right into their hands, because they can just lie again. My message is: Stop calling them liars and just stick with showing why they are mistaken. I wish all the sciences blogs would figure that out.

On the one hand, I think this is good advice for dealing with non-scientists who happen to be creationists — and I try to approach individuals like this without second-guessing their motives. You can see my exchanges with individual people like this all over this site.

However, I think the rules are different when someone holds themselves out as a professional, and in this case, the ICR’s Brian Thomas identifies himself (in his byline!) as an “M.S.” with the notation that he is the Science Writer for the ICR. I think it’s reasonable to hold someone who is representing himself to the world as an expert to the standards one would expect from such experts.

Such standards include, at minimum, that if one reads someone else’s research and draws conclusions not present in the original article, you should (1) contact the original author to get his views; (2) represent that author’s views of your conclusions fairly in making your own argument; and (3) submit your argument to a scientific journal for review by other professional academic peers within the respective scientific community. When you bypass all of that — particularly in support of a conclusion that would be Nobel Prize-worthy, if you truly had conclusive evidence that the Universe was 6,000 years old! — you’re quotemining plain and simple.

The ICR’s Head Science Guy didn’t follow those basic rules of professional competency and courtesy with respect to Mr. Robbins’ research. I think it’s fair to call that “misuse” at best and yes, even “lying.”

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