Sunday, May 26, 2013

President Obama is coming to town...

... it just isn't the town that I am in.

President Obama is coming to Oklahoma. He could be touching down at any minute. Unfortunately I won't be able to make it anywhere near enough to see him. I, like the rest of America, will have to settle for seeing him on the television.

President Obama is doing on of the things that any leader needs to do, and incidentally, something that many of the representatives of Oklahoma are refusing to do. President Obama is trying to help the people get back on their feet after the horrible tornado that hit Moore, OK on May 20th. He is here to survey the damage, speak with the Governor, and see what can be done. Now if only we could get Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe to provide as much support for Oklahoma as the President does.

Nothing to sneeze at

The Digital Cuttlefish does it again. Today he wrote a poem about whooping cough and the need for vaccinations. I had whooping cough when I was a child –– not because I wasn't vaccinated, but because vaccines aren't 100% effective. That is the reason that everyone needs to get vaccinated, we need herd immunity so that no one has to die from these horrible, yet preventable, diseases.

Cough » The Digital Cuttlefish

As a side note, I wanted to leave a comment on his site, but when I tried to log in it said that only administrator accounts can use the mobile login? Sorry Cuttlefish.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Atheists vs Religious Believers

Every time a writer has something nice he wants to say about religion, they seem required to find the nearest atheist bogeyman to scapegoat. Brent Budowsky also seems to fall into this trap as he seeks to heap praise on Pope Francis.

Budowsky writes in this article from The Hill:

This is extraordinary, powerful and profound. There are profound differences between the policies of President Obama and Democrats versus the policies proposed by the atheist Ayn Rand and conservative voices such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rep. Paul (sic) Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Republican leaders in Congress.

This is the kind of thing that seeps into the Democratic party, rots, and tries to destroy the party from the inside out. Ostensibly, Brent Budowsky and I are on the same side. Neither one of us seem to like the politics of Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen Rand Paul, Rep Paul Ryan, or the Republican leaders in Congress. But we're not on the same side because I want a Democratic party that is inclusive of everyone instead of trying to keep certain religions, or people of no religion, on the outside of the party.

Let me see if this slight change will help illustrate the point:

This is extraordinary, powerful and profound. There are profound differences between the policies of religious President Obama and religious Democrats versus the policies proposed by the atheist Ayn Rand and conservative voices such as religious Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), religious Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), religious Rep. Paul (sic) Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and religious Republican leaders in [a] religious Congress.

Ayn Rand was an atheist, but since atheism isn't dogmatic there is no more reason for any atheist to believe the writings of Ayn Rand than there are to believe any other piece of fiction written in an old book. Her ideas were her own and are almost universally rejected by the atheist community.

Contrary to what some people believe, simply because something is written down doesn't make it representative of an entire group.

I would, however, like to take this opportunity to say that the Pope has made positive changes. Financial inequality is one of the larger problems facing the world today. The rich are getting richer on the labor of the poor. People are working and trying to live on less than a living wage. Businessmen and corporations are using people like a commodity that can be used up and discarded instead of treating them with the humanity that they deserve.

The pope specifically calls on world leaders to address the great economic and financial injustices, and I agree with him completely. The pope uses words like "cult" and "dictatorship" to describe the champions of financial justice and the conditions their policies create, and I fully agree with him about this, as well.

But financial inequality isn't the only problem facing the world today. Women are constantly treated as being worth less than men. People of color are still looked upon as if they are somehow inferior versions of humanity in the United States as well as Rome, Canada, England, and the rest of the world. Husbands and wives are actively denied access to information and birth control that they need to manage reproduction responsibly. Women are denied access to abortions even at the cost of their life and the life of their baby. Gay men as well as lesbians are denied the right to even have a family that includes the communal support all families deserve. Bisexual people are forced to stay in the closet just to try to escape being associated with the worst kind of promiscuity. Transgender people are denied access to medical care that they require to lead a healthy, well adjusted life. Children are being kicked out of countries because they were brought there when they were one year old instead of being born there.

I'm glad that the Pope Francis is trying to bring the Catholic church one step closer to the modern world. In my opinion he is a great improvement over Pope Benedict XVI. But make no mistake, neither Pope Francis nor the Catholic church is a supporter of social justice. They still have a lot to learn to even come close to the superior morality that many atheists have. Social justice should be for everyone. It shouldn't be limited to a particular Pope's favored group.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Where "Scientific" Skepticism Fails

Despite their claims, they can't divide science up into science they like science that doesn't count.

One of my pet peeves regarding the skeptical community is the belief that some of them foster regarding science and empiricism. They try to present themselves as a community that tests every claim in the universe that can be empirically tested. And if they test every claim that can be empirically tested, then anything that they don't test must, somehow, be outside the realm of empirical science. That belief, of course, is bullpucky. Contrary to claims made by various skeptics, they seem to only be interested in a small portion of all the things that can be scientifically tested.

Daniel Loxton wrote a piece at Skepticblog regarding the lack of overlap between the skeptical movement and atheism:

Skeptics like Steven Novella insist that sticking to the realm of science is “about clarity of philosophy, logic, and definition” rather than strategic advantage or intellectual cowardice, but some critics find this position unsatisfying—or even suspicious. (...)

I have divided this paragraph into two pieces so that I could separate out the supposed claim from the actual claim without making it look like I was trying to take his words out of context. As for the above quote, I can see that the supposed claim is that strictly adhering to science is a matter of clarity while others (atheists I presume) claim it is cowardice. I, personally, don't know anyone that thinks this. I could be wrong since atheists think for themselves, I doubt that this is the predominant view that atheists hold of skeptics.

(...) What are we to make of accusations that skepticism’s “testable claims” scope is a cynical political dodge, a way to present skeptics as brave investigators while conveniently arranging to leave religious feathers unruffled? Like the other clich├ęs of my field (“skeptics are in the pocket of Big Pharma!”) this complaint is probably immortal. No matter how often this claim is debunked, it will never go away.

Here is the part that I really have a problem with. Skepticism doesn't include all testable claims. Skepticism only includes a minor subset of testable claims while at the same time actively denigrating people that work in the broader context of science.

Before I upset too many skeptics, I need to point out that this isn't intended as a broad brush claim. There are plenty of skeptics that don't limit themselves to a narrow subset of science. There are also plenty of skeptics that welcome atheists into their ranks. But there are enough skeptics that want to limit skepticism to their narrow definition of science that a reasonable portion of atheists no longer feel comfortable claiming common cause with skeptics. And it is this divide between skeptics and atheists that is frustrating since the overlap between the two communities is so vast.

In his post Mr. Loxton talks about the charges he believes are leveled against the skeptical community. I have never heard these charges myself, but that doesn't mean that some atheist has made them at some point in time. He believes skeptics giving any sort of special pass to religion is inaccurate. He goes on to say that skeptics investigate any claim that can be investigated regardless of whether religion is involved.

Now, here’s what actually is true: scientific skeptics investigate claims that can be investigated (religious or otherwise) and we set aside claims that cannot be investigated (again, religious or otherwise). The “religious” part is irrelevant. It comes up on both sides of the testability equation, so just cross it out and forget about it. The only relevant distinction is simply whether empirical evidence is possible. If we can’t collect evidence, then tough—we can’t. If we can collect evidence, then we do, regardless of whom that evidence may offend.

But is that true? I would submit that it is not. I am not arguing that the skeptics intentionally provide cover for religion, but I do believe that they don't test religious claims unless they are blatantly, obviously, and unquestionably fraudulent. What if a religious claim falls within the bounds of science to the same degree that a non-religious claim would? Are they actually treated the same way?

Imagine a hypothetical person walking up to a skeptic and saying that they believe in complimentary and alternative medicine. What do you suppose the skeptic would say? Since many of the skeptics I know take an active interest in debunking CAM (complimentary and alternative medicine), I would assume that they would follow up with a few questions or assumptions and begin to debunk the crazy claims that many of people in the CAM community have put forward.

Notice that our hypothetical person didn't claim a belief in any specifics that could be debunked. They didn't claim to believe in homeopathy, magneto therapy, or acupuncture. Yet CAM itself falls outside of the skeptics specifically defined bounds. It, in and of itself, can not be empirically tested because it isn't clearly defined. While there might be several things that fall under the CAM umbrella that can be tested, CAM itself can not. Regardless of this fact, I have never seen a skeptic step away from CAM scratching their head and saying that they must remain agnostic about CAM since it falls outside of empiricism.

Now let's take a look at religion. People often say that they believe in a god. There are no shortage of them in the United States or the world for that matter. God, at least at this point in the conversation, is just as much of an umbrella concept as CAM. Since it isn't defined, their god could be an alien hidden under a rock on the far side of the universe that has no interaction with us at all and no ability to pull itself up out of the mud.

Raise your hand if you think this is the kind of thing that religious people are talking about with respect to their god. Yet despite not even scratching the surface of the god hypothesis, many skeptics gladly shrug and assume an attitude along the lines of 'I can't test it, so happy proselytizing'.

Those of us that don't want to ignore a specific claim that something exists have to clarify the claim. We ask a question. Do you, as a religious person, believe that a child was born to a virgin that was the son of your god? Since the most common response in the United States would be "Yes!", we'll assume that answer from the theist. Despite their answer, everything we know about science says that this is impossible. Every test that we have ever observed has demonstrated that women don't become pregnant spontaneously.

So we ask another question. Do you believe that Jesus was crucified and came back to life at a later date (usually considered three days)? Everything we know about science says that humans don't come back from the dead. While there might be some leeway about where exactly the line is that makes a human dead, once they cross that line, they don't come back. And even when they do come back after tens of minutes submerged in frigid water, it is always with heroic measures.

Another question: do you believe that your god interacts with humanity by answering prayers? We have actually tested this repeatedly under controlled circumstances. We haven't ever observed a prayer being answered.

Another: does your god interact with the world in any way? Assuming the answer is yes, then the interactions can be tested empirically. Theoretically, if a fly farts on Mt. Fuji then we can demonstrate that interaction with the world. The more grandiose the interactions, the easier they are to test; yet no evidence for a god has ever been found.

I will, of course, grant that absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. Regardless, absence of evidence when we have tested for it repeatedly is at least on par with the absence of evidence for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

Atheists often see skeptics trying to define empiricism and science specifically to suit their purpose. When skeptics talk to someone that believes in Bigfoot, they say that they have reviewed the evidence and found no proof that the creature exists. Skeptics then tell the world that there is no reason to believe in Bigfoot unless new evidence is presented to support the case. Yet when atheists tell someone that believes in God that we have reviewed the evidence and found no proof that the creature exists, and we tell people that there is no reason to believe in God unless new evidence is presented, we are accused of operating outside the of the confines of empiricism.

If, as skeptics, you want to avoid religious questions, that is your choice; however, when atheists use science to empirically test religious claims, you don't get to claim that we are doing skepticism wrong without looking like you are, indeed, giving religion a free pass for some reason.

The Possibility That Religion Is True Is Vanishingly Small

It is so unlikely that religion is true that the possibility should be ignored by everyone until such time that any real evidence is presented.

Gary Marcus posted an article in the Newyorker concerning science, religion, and faith.
(...) Any agnostic is free to believe that his favorite religion has not yet been completely disproven. But anyone who wishes to bring science into the argument must acknowledge that the evidence thus far is weak, especially when it is combined statistically, in the fashion of a meta-analysis. To emphasize the qualitative conclusion (X has not been absolutely proven to be false) while ignoring the collective weight of the quantitative data (i.e., that most evidence points away from X) is a fallacy, akin to holding out a belief in flying reindeer on the grounds that there could yet be sleighs that we have not yet seen.
 This is one of several prongs that is useful in understanding religion. Religions have been looked at an enormous amount over the course of human history. Every time we have looked at them, they have failed. The accumulation of all those failures add a statistical weight to just how unlikely it is that any given religion is true. And all that is before we even weigh any claim from a specific religion.

The idea that any religion is true is so miniscule that it would take an enormous amount of verifiable evidence to swing the scales back the the idea that believing in religion was scientifically reasonable.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Link - reasons to keep government out of the birth control business

"Teenagers were delaying treatment,” Insko said. “They were getting sicker, they were spreading venereal disease, in some cases committing suicide because they could not talk to their parents.”

N.C. House approves bill requiring teens to get parents’ OK for birth control | CharlotteObserver.com

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

If Only We Could Outlaw Penises

If only we could outlaw possession and purchase of the penis then we could compare the laws governing smoking to the laws governing contraception.

Heather Mac Donald wrote a column for the New York Post comparing smoking to birth control -- specifically the recent ruling on the age requirements for obtaining the Plan B contraception. She tries to hit one out of the ballpark, but ended up with a swing and a miss. Her failure is trying to compare apples to oranges, or more specifically, comparing penises to cigarettes.

Heather Mac Donald writes:

The Times editorialists fall back on the usual “they’ll have sex anyway” rationale for demanding Plan B for 11- and 12-year-olds: “Lack of access to safe contraception will not stop adolescents from having sex,” they write. The same can be said for smoking, of course.

And right there, if you think about it for more than a second, her argument goes off the rails. We are trying to prevent children from having sex until they are mature enough and properly prepared, just as we are trying to prevent children from taking up the habit of smoking. But you can't compare what happens after having unprotected sex (or a condom fail) with efforts to prevent smoking. Her argument falls closer to saying that smoking causes medical problems so we are going to outlaw medical care for children. But even that isn't all that good of a comparison.

Sex is a normal and natural part of virtually every humans life at some point. Smoking is not. Trying to compare sex with smoking can't ever be anything but a fail. Heather Mac Donald doesn't do any favors to herself or the conservative movement by putting forward such ridiculous comparisons.